by max berwald
Her apartment was barren except for a single, unripe mango on her counter. He took the mango home. Then, afraid that his roommate Alex would eat it, he stashed the mango in a drawer.
She slipped from his mind. He slept well, read on the subway and forgot about the mango. Danqing reappeared at the start of the term.
One Friday, he called her from a campus bench. The call was made ostensibly about an assignment but actually to hear Danqing speak her peculiar English, to which he had become addicted. On this occasion, her voice was obstructed by wet noises. “What are you doing?”
“Sorry.” Chewing sounds. “Eating a mango.”
Brian remembered his own adopted mango. His mind transposed Danqing’s mango and Erika’s mango, so that he saw them hovering in space before him. Shit.
But when he returned home and approached the drawer and sniffed about there was no smell. He opened the drawer. Turning it over in his hands, he saw that the mango looked the same as it had five weeks before.
Moderately sized, with a greenish arc on its back and a red blush across its face. A nub of stem was still attached, fat and umbilical. Now the skin of the mango was warm and it had softened beautifully, but now the mango had four tiny nodules, like tumors. Brian poked one nodule and the mango trembled against his palms. Unnerved, he replaced the mango and shut the drawer. He sensed that the mango was glad to return to darkness.
The next morning, he again checked the mango. The nodules had grown, hardened. They were now clearly defined. He bent close and saw tiny creases forming at the tops of the nodules, threatening to fan out.
The day after that, he arrived home late and drunk. Still he did not forget to check the mango. Indeed, in his stupor the mango seemed a kind of provocation– a second and uninvited presence in his room. So in the early hours of the morning, stripped naked before bed, he opened the drawer. The tiny creases in each nodule had fanned out, so that the mango now had discreet fingers and toes. Brian’s mind went blank. He climbed into bed, dropping immediately into stupid dreams.
The next morning the mango had the tiny, glassy eyes of a mackerel. Lips. A tongue, flopping restlessly. And on the morning of the fifth day, he found the mango sitting patiently in the corner of the drawer. It had drawn its legs up close to its round body and was tapping out an unsteady rhythm on its knees. “Hello.”
“You’re a mango,” said Brian.
“Not anymore.” The mango shook his head. “Now I’m a mango man.”
“I’ve never seen a mango man before.”
“Any mango will become a mango man, given the right time and conditions. But I guess most mangos never get the chance. You humans gobble us up before we can develop.”
“Develop,” repeated Brian. “What about all the mangos in the forest?”
“Forests?” The mango man frowned. “What forests?”
Brian swallowed and shook his head. Idiot, he thought. What a stupid thing to say.
“Anyway,” said the mango man. “A mango man can’t develop properly if he’s being watched all the time. He’s got to have privacy. Which, by the way, I appreciate. Here we are, sharing this tiny room…” The mango man stood on the tips of his toes, peering over drawer. “But I still feel like I have a place of my… what’s going on here?”
Brian looked around his room, as if for the first time. There were stacks of graded assignments on every available surface. Homework on the floor. In one corner, a broken cracker was ground into the brown rug. A pair of jeans was rolled up near the filthy pillow of his unmade bed. A greasy towel was drying over the closet door and a plant was dying in the window. The walls were barren and the lights were off and the room was dim.
“This is my room.”
“Amazing,” said the mango man. “It’s no surprise then.”
“What’s no surprise?”
“Nothing.” The mango man sat back down, back to the wall. “Nothing.” He frowned. “I need to do some thinking tonight. Would you mind…”
Brian brought the mango man a cigarette and the mango man asked Brian to light it. “You can go,” he said. Brian left him the pack and the lighter and all night little puffs of smoke rose from the drawer.
Nearly a week later, he brought Danqing home to the mango man. His room was transformed. There was still nothing on the walls, and the light was still bad, but the bed was neatly made and everything had been washed and the clutter had been sorted and tucked away so that the floor was visible and uniform.
After gazing into the drawer for a few minutes, Danqing cupped her hands and lifted the mango man from his home. She placed him on the hardwood floor. Then they all sat together and talked deep into the night, until their butts were sore. All through the previous week, Brian had taken to narrating his own thoughts aloud as he worked on his paper, and in this way the mango man had acquired a basic knowledge of Chinese literature– especially the problems that particularly troubled his roommate. He had no trouble speaking with Danqing about the “relative health” of official interpretations of Water Margin.
At one point, the mango man paused almost in midsentence. “Brian, I’m hungry,” he said. Brian went to the kitchen and got a carrot and sliced it into rounds. While he stared into the wood grain of the cutting board and concentrated on cutting the carrot rounds evenly, he could hear the mango man speaking to Danqing in the bedroom, but his voice sounded altered. It did not sound like a voice for discussing literature, but the mango man knew nothing of the outside world and it seemed inconceivable to Brian that he should have much to speak with Danqing about. Then the speech was altogether inaudible, or else authentic silence reigned. Brian gathered the carrot in his hands.
When he entered the bedroom, intentionally coming upon them suddenly and silently, they both started– eyes wide. “Is something wrong?”
The mango man clenched his jaw, looking uncomfortable. Then he laughed sharply. Danqing looked away. She asked Brian if he was still enjoying a seminar he’d mentioned two weeks prior. She stammered when she asked. Brian had never heard her stammer before, not even in English. The mango man munched noisily on round after round of carrot. Brian confirmed he was still enjoying the seminar, which covered special issues of the Eastern Han.
The next night, Danqing called. He was already in bed. “I just wanted to talk.” Nothing in particular. After that night with the mango man, Brian saw much more of Danqing. She called him often now, and when they hung out her girlfriends were no longer around. She laughed more hungrily at his jokes, although they were the same jokes. When they walked, she sometimes seemed intentionally to be running into him, shouldering him about the chest and ribs.
At the same time, Brian’s passion was draining precariously away. He tried to suppress this knowledge but could not. He cared about Danqing– felt great tenderness towards her as he had before– but it was as if they had skipped everything between flirtation and ancient, begrudging codependence. Soon they were as a long-married couple, settled in their ways.
One night, at Danqing’s apartment, he awoke in the early hours of the morning. He could see a shaft of moonlight breaking through the window and knew the air must be clear. As he was thinking about the clean air and the moon, he heard something moving around in the bed. He shifted, and the noise stopped. Brian froze, suddenly afraid. The noise returned, scratching. He wanted to know what was causing the sound, but he was filled with dread; if he looked, or even moved, something terrible would happen. Something he would never be able to take back.
The night went on and on, the scratching sounds sometimes resting but always returning, like fingers on leaves. When these sounds became unbearably frantic, Brian said, “Danqing?” and his voice cracked. He felt someone turn beside him in the bed. She’s still there after all, he thought. She’s right beside me. “Danqing?” he said, louder. Whoever was there didn’t answer, and he did not turn over. He thought of Erika in the weeks before she had left, and the way her apartment had been reduced to a blank. Was it possible that it was Erika and not Danqing now beside him, in Danqing’s bed? After some hours, he fell back into a restless sleep.
When he woke, the sun was already high. He was in a bright, tropical forest. He had shallow but expansive roots. His leaves had their own sort of flesh, scratching in the wind. Right away he could feel the buds, pregnant with potential, on his arms and legs and forehead. A dirt cliff and a patch of blue ocean, capping in all seasons, was visible to the northwest.
As the months ticked by, he expected to see people. But there were no people here, so that when the mangos fell from his branches they developed quickly. The hardening nodules and glassy eyes. Then the mango men running and smiling around his roots and climbing in his branches with their tiny hands. They would disappear in small, orange crowds into the forest, shouting boisterously in Hainanese, sometimes not returning for weeks at a time but always returning. As the years passed, he made less and less mangos. Occasionally, a mango man would fall ill and pass on. In time, he forgot about the special issues of the Eastern Han. He wondered what would happen when his branches were bare.
Max Berwald is a Beijing-based writer from San Diego, California. His work has appeared on the Anthill, Potluck, Blackbird and elsewhere. He currently edits the Read section of Loreli China.
Art: “Correlation” by issue 6 featured artist, Matthew Chapman
Working from relationships observed in his day-to-day, Matt finds his work in an interaction between two people, the space between the meeting of nature and architecture, or the spill of light on the ground. Using painting and drawing as a way to speak to the these relationships, a language of geometric abstraction and considered mark making is developed.
Chapman lives and works in Lancaster PA, studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia (MFA) as well as Lancaster’s Pennsylvania College of Art & Design (BFA). He has exhibited at: The Walter and Leonore Annenberg Gallery, Samuel M.V. Hamilton Building at PAFA, Philadelphia PA. Pentimenti Gallery, Philadelphia PA. Rothus Halle, Solothurn, Switzerland. The Ware Center for Visual and Performing Arts at Millersville University, Lancaster PA. Sunshine Art + Design, Lancaster PA. City Hall Permanent Collection, Lancaster PA.
Facebook: Matt Allyn Chapman