ISSUE 4 · SPRING 2010
KAREN MARIE VAUGHN
The ball is an alabaster bird flying from my palm. The wings I have given it carry it across the table to my opponent, who effects a balletic flourish of the arm and delivers it back to me. It is an itinerant thing . . . always soaring, never nesting. Its existence is circumscribed by a sacred rectangle of blue, and as long as it remains within that province it is eternal. This is why you lose a point when it skitters sideways, or when you fail to keep it in motion, or when you drive it off the corner of the earth into the serpent pit below. You lose a point because you have killed it. No matter that it will be reborn into flight with the very next serve . . . for the moment, you have killed it as surely as if you had crushed it with your own hands. There is such a thing as karma in this game, you see. The bird carries its legacy from one life to the next, and if you disrespect it then it will inevitably fly free of your paddle.
(Li-Mei says I am too serious. She says I should try playing “Blind Man” or “Catch the Dragon’s Tail” once in a while, instead of spending all my time at the gymnasium. But how could I be so frivolous, understanding the stakes as I do? I am a falconer. A shepherd of the air. I don’t think of myself in childlike terms. When I look around at the other children my age, with their charm bracelets and their backpacks that are shaped like zoo animals, I feel like an anthropologist studying an alien species. Their lives are incomprehensible to me. It is the same with my opponents, who are older and ostensibly more mature of mind. Yet they are the ones who flit from one strategy to the next. They are the ones who allow themselves to become distracted by minutiae. They are the ones glancing at their watches and waving at their parents in the stands. And when they lose the game, as they nearly always do, they are the ones who lack even the self-respect to care.)
There goes the bird. . . it arcs beautifully over the net, its interior illuminated as if by some hidden filament. The boy slaps it back toward me with a slight spin. He is more skillful than most.
(I could tell you more about my external life, but it is not real. None of it is real. I could tell you how Mama leaves every morning at five to work in the mobile phone factory, or how Baba makes me a plate of dim sum and noodles before I go to school. I could tell you about my classroom with its crepe paper decorations, and the regimented instruction of math and calligraphy. I could tell you which students are incorrigible bullies, which girls I think are pretty [Li-Mei and a few others], which teacher uses a cane or speaks with a speech impediment. I could tell you about the strange pattern of freckles dappling my right arm, and how Mama says it looks just like a Siberian tiger. But these are tangential things, ethereal things, things that occur only within the confines of a tedious and protracted dream. They have nothing to do with who I am.)
I manage to place the celluloid bird at the very corner of the table, where it angles away before the boy can intercept it. He makes contact only with air. There is a fresh serve, followed by another lengthy volley. This is what I enjoy most . . . the hypnotic cadence of play, which is like a series of exhalations. I love the heightened sensitivity it brings, and the way my paddle sweeps forward again and again, as if trying to push back the tide.
(Since we moved to Beijing I have had the opportunity to play with far greater frequency than when we lived in the country. I am now enrolled in a training program with children twice my age. Every day after school we meet for five hours, honing our competitive techniques. We discuss the benefit of drop shots, lobs, blocks, smashes, chops, and loop drives in a variety of situations. We watch videos of Cai Zhenhua and Kong Linghui and, of course, the eccentric Ding Song, master of defensive counterattacks. And then we spar. I inevitably enter a sort of trance at this point. The world curls away from me like peeling wall paper, leaving only the stripped-down essentials of reality . . . the blue of the table, the white sphere, the brick-red paddle moving through space. The air in my lungs is a thread connecting me to these things. My muscles propel me between them. My heart becomes flattened and two-dimensional, its cells stretched out across the length and breadth of the playing surface, so that each time the clock strikes nine-thirty I am forced to reassemble myself into something approximating a human being. My coach calls me “the little monk” because of my intense concentration.)
The boy seems to be growing fatigued now. I can see the beads of perspiration forming lines of glistening Braille on his forehead. Soon, he makes a sloppy move. He executes a slice that is far too low, with the result that the luminous bird . . . weighing only 2.7 grams, after all . . . finds itself trapped in the net, its tiny wings beating hard against its captivity.
(In many ways I am closer to my grandmother than my parents. She once played professionally, so we have a unique vocational bond. She attends all of my matches, buys me a new pair of skid-proof Asics every five or six months, and practices with me on the weekends. Her gray hair is a strategic feint; she is still very fast. Her elderly body is capable of swaying like a Bodhi tree. Her wrinkled hands produce little cracks of electricity when they move. Sometimes I could swear her shrunken, callused feet aren’t even touching the ground. And then there is my coach, my father away from home. He is the one who provides a cogent shape for my efforts. Each day he limns the margins of a landscape and encourages me to take aim at it. He calls me a prodigy. But is it prodigious to understand something on a purely elemental level? Is it prodigious to see the hidden architecture of things and to use that perception to my advantage? It seems to me that what I do is not particularly difficult. It’s just that everyone else is lazy, or slow, or not paying adequate attention.)
Finally, the boy shows a bit of circumspection. Reacting quickly to my serve, he anticipates the orb’s precise trajectory and makes as if to smash it. At the last moment he changes his approach. He taps it so gently that it clears the net with a latitude of only a few centimeters. A clever gambit, but of course I was able to see it coming. The deceit was plainly etched onto his cherubic face. There was also a conspicuous loosening of the arm and chest muscles, a general uncoiling of sinews that was like knots slipping out of a rope. I have no difficulty returning the play.
(Who knows what the future will bring for me? Perhaps I will play for the national team and give my grandmother a good reason to boast. Perhaps I will garner a lucrative Butterfly sponsorship, so that my family will no longer have to struggle with money. Perhaps I will even marry Li-Mei. Or . . . if I am exceptionally lucky . . . perhaps I will slip at last through one of those ragged holes in the universe that I can see only during matches, into a dimension that is slightly off of our own, where I will be able to set aside all the quotidian demands of life . . . school, sleep, the physical need for food . . . and simply play forever among the low-hanging stars. Gautama Buddha found his nirvana, after all. Why should I not find mine?)
We have reached game point. The boy seems to have given up, considering this last volley to be a formality. He has adopted the expression of the defeated. He half-heartedly serves, then falls into a perfunctory rhythm of returns, culminating with a high loop drive. I execute a powerful counter drive, and he makes no effort to block it. He just watches as it makes contact, ever so briefly, before sailing off the table like a creature fleeing its cage. He looks me in the eye, and for a second I am able to see him clearly. I am able to see the unfolding tapestry of his existence, the enviable continuity of it. I can see that there is no disconnect between his game play and his other activities; it is all one journey to him, equally real and unreal. And then the vision comes to an abrupt end. They are leading me to a podium, tousling my hair, pinning another gleaming medal to my already sagging jacket. Rhapsodizing about discipline and the glories of sportsmanship . . .
(Already, you see, I am slipping away from them. I am becoming faint and diaphanous, a mere husk of a boy. Another period of hibernation has begun. And this is how I will remain, lying mercifully dormant until it is time for the next game, the next tournament. Only then will the manifest world curl open like a lotus flower. Only then will an alabaster bird rise once again from my palm . . . bright and pearly-winged . . . a secret soul bent toward infinity.)
Karen Vaughn is a freelance medical editor living in Lawrence, Kansas. Her work has appeared in Whiskey Island Magazine, Illya's Honey, and REAL: Regarding Arts and Letters. She shares a domicile with her baby girl, Zooey, and her husband Nick, who knits sweaters for her whenever she’s cold.