The smoker

This entry is part 2 of 3 in the series Antiphony: Daodejing


In concentrating your qi and making it pliant,
Are you able to become the newborn babe?
In scrubbing and cleansing your profound mirror,
Are you able to rid it of all imperfections?
In loving the common people and breathing life into the state,
Are you able to do it without recourse to wisdom?
With nature’s gates swinging open and closed,
Are you able to remain the female?

– Daodejing Chapter 10 (Ames and Hall, tr.)


The mother crouches, bears down. Focuses all her energy on her abdomen, where her body’s snake lies coiled. The baby slips down the birth canal and out. It glistens; it glows. Buzzed on adrenaline, it is more fully awake now than it will ever be again, with a few possible exceptions.

The mother cleans this new creature, suddenly not-her but not yet a wholly distinct presence in the world. She eats the umbilicus and the neither/nor substance that follows the birth, returning them to her abdomen. The infant’s initial luster fades a bit, and the flame-like pattern of its pelt blends with the splashes of sunlight in this forest clearing. Choosing her steps cautiously – a leap here, a circling dance step there – the mother moves off.

Lying in a bed of ferns, the newborn knows nothing of fear or danger. The stimuli entering its ears, eyes and nostrils are all equally strange and wonderful. A few of the sounds seem familiar, though this side of the womb they are much more distinct. Weeks will pass before it begins to discriminate, to learn which things are the most desirable. But in just a few days, it will learn to flee from anything out of the ordinary. Excitement will become linked with fear; good things are bland and filling, like mother’s milk.

Flies don’t land on it yet. As the day warms up, hornets begin exiting their underground hive through a hole just inches away from its rear end, but there’s nothing to excite them about this new warm object. The mother stands a hundred feet away on high alert. Any predator that might happen to wander into the vicinity will smell only her, and with luck, can be coaxed into giving chase.

The human being who has been watching all this through binoculars from a nearby blind is astonished. She is on assignment from Conservation International and the Bronx Zoo to track down rumors of a deer-like animal unknown to Western science, deep in the forested headwaters of three great rivers. Now she debates whether she should report this discovery at all. The publicity might attract poachers, and who knows what else.

All around the birthing area, the air shimmers, like the air above a lake on a sunny day. I wonder if it’s true, what they say – that it can walk on grass without bending a blade, even walk on water? Because the Han Chinese villagers who farm upland rice in this region call the creature by its ancient name Qilin. They want so badly to believe that a new era of peace and prosperity is on its way!

But what could be more natural than to accept that it might be true? Here in these mountains, where nation-states are a far-off rumor and the global market a semi-legendary beast, anything seems possible.

She wouldn’t realize for several hours yet that her craving for nicotine has suddenly, finally evaporated – or, more likely, returned to whatever creative nothingness it had originated in, years before. How can one notice something no longer present? But as she watched the birth unfold, she had felt something loosening in her own abdomen and sat up straighter, breathing all the way from her heels. It smelled like spring.

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