Jolley Prize 2016 (Shortlist): 'The Water Calligrapher's Women' by Jonathan Tel

She says it was a man, an old man (but all men are old to her), which man, what did he look like, what was he wearing, what did he do

a man with a stick, a long stick, what was it, a hard stick, yes, the man's stick was long and hard, yes, a man with a long stick and it was wet at the end

ai! it must be

Water Calligrapher, Water Calligrapher Wu, he has a stick, a broomstick, and he ties a red nylon sponge to the end, he carries a pail of water, he dips the sponge in the water, and he calligraphs characters on the ground

he has a cap too, a blue peaked cap like people used to wear in the old days, and he places it on the ground with the inside showing, and sometimes people drop money in it, if they like his calligraphy

he used to do his calligraphy in the waste ground next to the supermarket, but the supermarket expanded and took over the waste ground, so he moved to the marble terrace in front of the stock trading office, but they demolished the stock trading office, marble terrace and all, so he moved to opposite the post office, but the Urban Security officials shooed him away, so now he does his calligraphy on the dusty pavement behind the public toilet

and not many passersby come down there (it's a dead-end alley, nobody walks by on the way to somewhere else) and he can't make much money, but at least he's left alone

he's an expert calligrapher, nobody said he wasn't, he loads his sponge with just enough water but not too much, his sponge-strokes have style, he handles the long stick like an ink brush, like he might be a famous artist sketching a landscape with figures, he knows how to twist the sponge as he slides it along so as to 'hide the tip', if you stood a way off and squinted, you'd think the stick was a brush and his whole body was a hand

he calligraphs

phrases, important phrases, he likes phrases that have four characters apiece, because they fit onto his four rectangular paving slabs, but he can do more, oh yes, eight characters, sixteen, there's no limit to how many characters he can calligraph, one after the other, if he puts his back into it

tell us some of the things he's calligraphed

quotes from politicians and poets and philosophers, 'Suffering Makes Nation Noble' and 'Palest Ink, Best Memory', and enterprising Baker Hurong commissioned Calligrapher Wu to write a slogan: 'Eat Delicious French-style Pastries', somebody comes out of the toilet, and they're inspired to eat a foreign pastry (are the pastries good, has any- body eaten Baker Hurong's French-style pastries, yes they are very good, you should try one)

what else has he calligraphed

'Experience Comb Bald Man' and 'Paper Cannot Wrap Fire' and 'If Bow, Bow Low'

when is Calligrapher Wu at work

he's at work in spring and summer and autumn, he can't work in the rain, of course, when there's too much rain his own water is invisible, we've seen him in the mist, we've even seen him in drizzle, a drop here and a drop there he can cope with, but a proper downpour, ah, he has to wait for it to come to an end and the ground to dry up, and in winter, once the snow comes, of course he can't work at all (where does he go in winter, how does he survive)

is Calligrapher Wu an outsider, a migrant from the provinces, no he's not, because Urban Security came and checked his ID, he's got an ID and a residence permit, just like you and me, he's a Beijinger born and bred, well anybody can tell just to look at him, a failure, a loser, a bit funny in the head, we'll grant that, all the same he's one of our own, but we never would have suspected, with Little Jiaojiao of all people, such a sweet girl with a lovely smile, and smart too

what did he say to her, that's a trick question, why is it a trick question, because Calligrapher Wu never speaks, he can't speak, no, he can speak, he can speak as well as anybody, he simply never does, and it's not that his vocal cords don't work or his lungs, because they do, when the bad boys steal money from his begging cap, he curses them out, oh yes he does, but not in words, he howls, he howls like a dog when you kick it, like a cat when you tread on its tail, he shakes his stick at them and he splatters them with his water, but it seems he sees no reason to speak most of the time and maybe he has a point there, all the useless conversation the rest of us have, oh it's windy, my it's windy today, what a lot of wind, yes it is extremely windy, I'm coming, you're going, I'm going, you're coming, yes very windy, I'll say it's windy, extraordinarily windy, I've never known so much wind

but the fact of the matter, there's no denying, Calligrapher Wu and Little Jiaojiao

the police arrested him

and the police released him without charges, which is shocking, because if not him then who, somebody else in the neighborhood, an unknown person, and that's more scary, because with Calligrapher Wu, at least we can warn the children, stay away from him, he's got a long stick, a long hard stick that's wet at the end, he's crazy, he means trouble, but if not him could be anybody, kindly bus driver, school guard who's always ready with a quip, it might even be a woman, a nursery school teacher or one of those gossipy biddies on the Residents Committee so proud of her red armband, it might be any one of us, it might be me or you

but even if Calligrapher Wu is innocent, how come the police didn't get him to confess

it turns out that Calligrapher Wu's wife pleaded

he has a wife, we didn't know he had a wife, how can a man like him have a wife, where is she, what sort of person is she, what does she do with herself while he's putting water on the paving stones, leaving his mark like a dog

well not exactly his wife, it was his ex-wife rather, well that's just about conceivable, maybe he wasn't always like this, maybe once he was normal, a decent citizen, then a blow to his head, a brain tumour, a work accident, and he becomes the kind of fellow who calligraphs behind the public toilet, and he must have had an education because he's literate, and his calligraphy is excellent, nobody ever said it wasn't, he can make marks with his sponge in eight different ways, he has a fine hand, and a fine memory, in the spring he calligraphs a poem about spring, and in the summer about summer, and in the autumn about autumn, and in the winter, ah who knows what happens to him in the winter

don't ruin my life, the ex-wife pleaded with the police, don't ruin the life of our child

a child, the Water Calligrapher has a child, the very idea seems absurd, yet why not, when we think about it, a man with a long hard stick that's wet at the end, and he calligraphs classic poems, he can charm them, with poems like that a man can go a long way, like that poem about boating on the lake with courtesans during the Tang Dynasty, well if that doesn't charm the birds from the trees we don't know what does

something like this, we weren't there ourselves but we can imagine it, the ex-wife went to the mother of the girl, and woman to woman she made her plea, she pressed one hand against the palm of the other and pressed them both against her chest, she bowed, she bowed lower, we wouldn't be surprised if she went down on her knees and kowtowed like in those costume dramas on TV, she cried, yes surely she cried, tears streaming from her eyes, making little patterns on her cheeks and neck, and on the dusty ground

and the mother discussed it with the father, and they spoke to the girl, and the parents spoke to the police, and it was agreed it would be best for everybody if the charges were withdrawn

and there he was back again, brazen, writing his words on the stones, 'Older Ginger, Hotter Spice' and 'Steal Bell, Ears Covered' and 'Mouth Dagger, Heart Tofu'.

so we spoke to the street artists, we don't normally speak to them, why would we speak to them, except to say, here's some money, I enjoyed that song, I heard that song before, that song has a ring to it, can you play that song over again, can you play a different song, can you play the song with the crow in it, can you play a love song, can you play a folksong from Qinghai province, if I sing you a song can you sing it back to me only ten thousand times better, thank you, here's some money, my isn't it windy, oh it's so windy, it's extremely windy today, I've got to run or I'll miss my bus, but today we asked about the Water Calligrapher, what's his story, what's going on with him, what happened to him long ago, there's the blind man who plays the erhu, and there's the not-blind man who plays the erhu, there's the juggler, and there's the acrobat, and there's the man who passes solid steel rings through each other, we don't know how he does it, there's a secret to it, and the whole point of secrets is that they're secret, but today the street artists all told us if we want the truth of the matter we should squat on the dusty ground at the end of the alley near the public toilets and we should have a conversation with the Water Calligrapher himself (but how can we speak with a man who doesn't speak)

There once was a man and his wife and their baby daughter, he was a teacher in the high school and she was a teacher in the elementary school, and he and his wife took part in the rallies, they chanted the chants, they danced the Loyalty Dance, they led the others in the chanting and the dancing, they bowed low with their arms tied behind their back, they wore a dunce cap and a placard around their necks saying 'I am a Snake Monster and an Ox Demon', they were beaten with a stick, his wife had to denounce him, she had to divorce him and she had to marry his chief accuser, a factory worker, who became the stepfather of their little daughter, and the teacher had to clean toilets, and times changed and the teacher was rehabilitated, he could be a teacher again, but as a teacher he could be sent anywhere in Greater Beijing, he could be sent far from his home, whereas the toilet cleaner cleaned the public toilet right near the home of his wife and daughter, that is, the people who used to be his wife and daughter and who are still are his wife and daughter in his head, he saw them every day, and one day when the daughter was old enough, he tried to explain, he tried to tell her that he was her Daddy, that he was her real Daddy, that he used to be her real Daddy, but she loved her Daddy, that is the man she called Daddy, and she didn't listen to the strange man with the brush and the mop, and he never tried again, and the toilet cleaner reached retirement age and another toilet cleaner was hired, and the daughter herself married her childhood sweetheart and they all lived in the area where they'd grown up, the familiar scribble of alleys and houses and shops, and the daughter had a daughter, and the daughter's daughter looked like the daughter who looked like her mother, and when the daughter's daughter was old enough the retired toilet cleaner tried to communicate with her in turn, but this little girl didn't understand, she didn't understand the slogans and she didn't understand why we have to denounce the Four Olds and she didn't understand when he did the Loyalty Dance and she didn't understand how a man could be a snake or an ox and she didn't understand his hiss and his bellow, and she didn't understand his confession

I committed crimes against the people
So that the people take me as the object of the dictatorship
I have to lower my head and admit my guilt
I am not allowed to speak or act incorrectly
If I speak or act incorrectly
Beat me and smash me
Beat me and smash me

and she didn't understand when he hit himself across the head with his own stick, and she didn't understand when he hit himself again and again till he was bleeding, and she didn't understand when he cried out calling her by the name of her grandmother, and she ran away down the alley, and he came after her down the alley, there was a pussy cat and a butterfly and a rusty bicycle somebody had dumped there, and she needed to go wee-wee, she really really needed to go wee-wee, but it was late and the man was between her and the public toilet, and the man was coming closer, and the little girl was too scared even to scream as the ruined old man came after her with his long hard stick wet at the end

he assembles his pail of water and his stick and his sponge, he confesses in public, the old man can no longer speak but he can still confess, he calligraphs his confession for all of us on the dry paving stones, and some of us are trying to read over his shoulder, and some are trying to read from the sides, and some are trying to read upside-down, what's that stroke, what's that word, what's the vital part we might be missing, what's the beginning of the story and what's the middle of the story and will there ever be an end to it, and before the man's life is even over, the wind blows and the sun breaks through, and one after the other all the characters evaporate.

'The Water Calligrapgher's Women' by Jonathan Tel was shortlisted in the 2016 ABR Elizabeth Jolley Short Story Prize and published in the August 2016 issue of Australian Book Review.

Published in August 2016, no. 383
Jonathan Tel

Jonathan Tel

Jonathan Tel is writing a book of linked stories set in China. These stories have won the Sunday Times EFG Short Story Prize 2016, the Commonwealth Short Story Prize 2015, and the VS. Pritchett Prize from the Royal Society of Literature 2015. His story 'Year of the Panda' was commended in the 2015 ABR Elizabeth Jolley Prize. Apart from China, he has lived in Tokyo, Jerusalem, Berlin, London, New York and San Francisco.

Comments (2)

  • Leave a comment

    This seems wonderful, but I don't get what it means! I'm just a young reader who doesn't know anything...but I really hope I could read and comprehend deeper works. Can someone explain to me what this short story means and why it is so good?

    Thursday, 01 September 2016 21:03 posted by Lilly
  • Leave a comment

    Everything get extended , bigger and demolished to new one , except his place,that got smaller and smaller. The waste ground was his voice. Everything found the new form , shape,structure as his voice.Year after year, he had taught ,how his voice transmitted from fluidity to solidity. From air to the ground from voice to calligraphy. Calligrapher Wu writes , writes on the ground ,writes his voice down.
    Calligrapher Wu was a fable but was a symbol. Symbol of the people , that are resilience. You can made them bow , you can strangle them, you can smash their soul ,character ,but they will survived and find the way to get their voice back.
    He believes “Suffering makes nation noble”. And he was noble but he suffered , suffered from society , wife ,daughter ,…..from all people that has forgotten him or maybe ignored him.And they made him to bow but he bow low.

    Wednesday, 03 August 2016 19:37 posted by Rowshanak Homayoon

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