The whirlwind came out of nowhere. They were slowly walking across the median strip when the leaves from the trees suddenly started to swirl into the air along with newspaper pages and plastic bottles. The dust forced him to close his eyes and, almost immediately, to grab onto the thin trunk of a poplar tree. An embrace. Some time later, one of the pedestrians who saw the spectacle from the sidewalk would say in his testimony that the image of the man embracing the tree had seemed beautiful to him: he was carrying his briefcase in one hand and his tie, skinny and blue, was flying up toward the sky along with his hair. He would add: there was a kind of abandonment in it. A desire to stay. Something of a shipwreck.
The pedestrian, who spoke like a poet, wouldn’t say anything about the woman.
As soon as he opened his eyes, the Man from the Tree looked for her. He was smiling in anticipation of their reunion, wanting to share something someone had told him as a child, that whirlwinds of that kind—sudden, slender, violent—meant the devil was close by. He hoped she would open her mouth and then pull from her lungs, from the humid insides of her body, that funny, true laughter that so pleased him. He imagined she would take him by the hand and, still laughing, even shaking her head, lead him away from there. They would walk together, he thought. But he lost her.
He assumed the whirlwind had scared her and that, coming from so far away and unaccustomed to that particular climatic phenomenon, she might have sought refuge somewhere. He was tempted to believe that, disoriented by the violence of the wind, she’d found shelter in some nearby doorway. He hoped he might find her in the shop next door, squinting at records. In passing, he imagined that the whirlwind might have lifted her up by the waist and taken her to the devil’s house. He smiled again and headed home with untroubled steps.
When he called her the first time, he thought that even though she didn’t answer, she was there, her hands under running water washing a plate, two cups, a spoon. He’d always liked her carefulness, that way she moved among the objects of the world as if they were about to break or hurt her. How her voice fluctuated. The way she lowered her gaze before praise, flirtation, or shame. Her faint footsteps over the floorboards. When he dialed her number the second time, he imagined her waist and the devil’s arms around it. He looked up at the night sky: two creatures tangled like threads of smoke. Vanishing. He drank the green tea she had brought to his house in a little tin can. She had shown him the correct way to prepare and drink it. He pronounced her name. He said: Xian. Then he picked up the phone again. It was past midnight when he started to worry.
He would emphatically tell the Detective in charge of this case that he hadn’t noticed anything strange about the woman’s behavior the day of the whirlwind. He’d met her at their usual restaurant—a small, unpretentious establishment that served complex, delicately flavored dishes that had quickly won enthusiastic devotion. Between mouthfuls they’d talked, as usual, about stuff. The climate. The traffic. The flavor of pepper or cloves. The aftertaste of the garlic. Then after the coffee they had decided to walk back, something else they frequently did. He held his briefcase; she, her handbag. They crossed the avenue, and it was there, right in the median strip with the poplar trees, that the whirlwind formed, sudden and out of nowhere. He closed his eyes and, out of instinct, managed to get close to something that seconds later he realized was the trunk of a tree. He assumed the woman had done the same.
He emphatically said: there was no woman there. I am sure of that.
“Did you know,” the Detective would ask, hiding her eyes in a cup of coffee, “that on that same day, in the province of Hunan, someone related to your friend died?”
“Yan Huanyi?” he’d ask in turn, incredulous.
“That’s it,” she’d reply, handing over a thin, yellowing piece of paper that looked, and this also seemed incredible to him, like a telegram.
“I didn’t think anyone used these anymore,” he’d murmur with the paper still in his hands. “Telegraphs, I mean. This communication system,” he would stop short, ashamed, because he couldn’t believe that while thinking about Xian’s disappearance his mind could also be occupied by such a banal and distant matter.
The Detective would lower her gaze and the Man from the Tree wouldn’t be able to ignore the parallel: it was the same timid, secretive gesture that, in his version of the world, belonged to Xian. A gesture that could hardly go unnoticed, especially in a working woman. An ancient expression that, in his imagination, came from far away, from a world about to disappear. That was Xian for him, he would realize: a far-off world in the process of extinction. A species in danger. Except that now Xian had indeed disappeared. Now Xian had fulfilled her unspoken promise.
“Anything you remember could be very helpful for us,” the Detective would say, standing up and handing him her card. Then she’d shake his hand and quickly cross the avenue.
The only thing he’d remember while he watched her disappear among the other pedestrians in the sticky afternoon light was the sound of the whirlwind in his ears. A faint tremor. A sharp whistle. The sonorous crash of trivial things. A dance of discarded items. And further back, once the fear had found its place in his stomach, the beating of his heart, the grinding of his teeth. The confluence of enamel and dust and saliva. A form of abrasion. True torture. He’d remember himself, many years before, in another place. He’d remember the period of dust storms and the way he clung to lampposts imagining the worst: to be carried off by the wind. He’d remember the wide avenues across which dried grass, tricycles, all kinds of trash bounced. The fear would return with the gesture: the hand that latches onto something before the undefined possibility of separation. Before the possibility of being left alone. Before this.
“Xian,” he’d say out loud to no one, “Xian is a strange woman.”
Then he would slowly head home.
Days later, Xian’s neighbor said in his testimony that he saw the man in front of her door late one night through his peephole. He recognized him, of course. He’d seen him many times. The Man in Front of the Door pulled a set of keys from his jacket pocket, put one of them in the lock, and let himself in. He described him as a taciturn, tired man. Silent. He said that, judging by the absence of noise, the man hadn’t done anything, simply let himself fall into the living room armchair, an apricot-red chair that to the neighbor had always looked comfortable but was also beautiful. Perhaps he’d occupied himself staring at the ceiling, or perhaps he’d just fallen asleep. The neighbor quietly repeated: let himself fall. This is what he imagined he had done. And that, of course, had seemed suspicious.
He didn’t know why he made the decision to walk toward Xian’s house instead of heading home. Maybe the wind. Maybe a sudden nostalgia. He opened the door with his set of keys and entered. He didn’t know exactly how long he was there, but it was already dark, the darkest point of the night, when he left carrying one of her handkerchiefs in the right pocket of his shirt, close to his body, against his chest, where only someone looking for it would have found it.
The Man Who Was Afraid of Whirlwinds would have known that Nüshu is a secret language. Or was. That the women of Hunan province had created it in the third century, and since then had passed it on from generation to generation like a scandalous female secret. He would know everything Xian had told him about that women’s writing: that it was a form of expression in an oppressively masculine environment; that it was inscribed on paper or painted on fans or stitched onto handkerchiefs; that it was used to compose the so-called Third Day Missives with which friends and family members sent advice to a newlywed. To the woman who has gone away. He would know that Nüshu consisted of fine, slender lines—lines he found enchanting. He would know, finally, about the vast distance between the province of Hunan and the terracotta soldiers of Xian and, because of that, he wouldn’t have believed anything Xian told him. That’s why he would have let her talk.
The pedestrian who, some time later, gave his testimony, insisted that he never saw any woman there, next to the Man Embracing a Tree. He emphatically said: there was no woman there. I am sure of that.
The afternoon newspaper would express it this way: mysterious whirlwind. woman from china disappears.
The neighbor, who days later remembered something he thought might be useful, called to say that he forgot to mention the whispers. He said that he hadn’t immediately noticed them. That he only learned about the whispers when he stopped hearing them. Conspicuous in their absence. He said that, now that he remembered, he knew the whispers began punctually in the evenings and it wasn’t unusual for them to continue into the night. Sometimes they would even wake him up in the early morning. He corrected himself: he wasn’t woken up by the whispers, which, naturally, were very quiet. He was woken up by the cold or the sudden movement of his wife’s feet under the covers or the spasm of some nightmare. Once awake, he heard them. Once he had been awake for several minutes, when the night returned to its previous rhythm, when he had already spent time staring at the ceiling, then he heard them. Two voices intertwined. Two voices like two bodies of an indescribable softness. A lullaby. A prayer. Something that rocked him back to sleep and returned him, soundly, to his dream.
I would like for this story to take place in a far-off province, in a little village covered in gray and white storm clouds. A humid day. That was the beginning of the diary, which, hours later, would be included as evidence in the case called the Disappearance of the Woman in a Whirlwind. I would like for you to be a woman from China.
He always liked Chinese women. Their fragile wrists. Their smooth hair. Their light brown eyes. Their delicate frames. When he entered her, he liked to imagine he could pierce through her.
He liked to imagine that it was only a question of time before he thrust right through her. The images were these: a butterfly pinned to a corkboard. A perforated insect on a sparkling clean laboratory bench. A bead strung together with another: bursts of color. The Man Who Was Afraid of Whirlwinds didn’t tell the Detective about any of that. She would gather that information days later, as she read the diary with the reddish-orange satin cover she kept, against the rules, hidden away in her desk drawer. Not only was the Detective intrigued by the two different handwritings contained in the notebook, she also found the object itself beautiful. It was obvious that the diary, which told a story that one of the two lovers imagined happening somewhere else, a far-off humid place, was something more than just a receptacle for their longing. After her first reading, a hurried reading full of curiosity, a reading that was more like a process of digestion, the Detective would become obsessed by the idea that the diary in which their desires were inscribed was, in turn, a source of new desires. A sort of engine. A machine. Increasingly explicit desires. Desires of fusion. Increasingly exact desires. Pointed desires. Desires that would keep her reading the diary throughout the day and sometimes the night, entering the space of the pages with their cherry-colored tint whose density and aroma reminded her of the bouquet of a fine wine. Seated with the diary, greedily reading it on the messy surface of her desk, the Detective would look like she was eating. In place of food, this was how the Detective nourished herself.
A few days later, after the inhabitants of the city began gossiping about what had happened, the afternoon newspaper would express it this way: mysterious whirlwind. woman from china disappears.
Carve your back. Mark your back. Cut furrows in the skin of your back. Bite your back. Climb up on your back. Pierce your back. Watch the red drop slide down your back. Suck your back. Provoke your back. Lie on your back.
The signs carved marked open on my back. The signs that are holes on my back that is your back. Sucked provoked resting, the back. A dune. A valley. An undulation. The spine. Spi(k)e. S(h)ine.
Weeks later, the woman who cleaned Xian’s apartment said in an accented Spanish that she had personally hand-washed the bloodstained sheets in the stone basin behind the kitchen. It was an exhausting chore that frequently took her multiple hours. She used lavender soap. She said she liked to breathe in the smell of the sheets afterward, once they were hanging from the clothesline up on the rooftop. Their shadows like a slow dance among ghosts. She said it wasn’t until then that she wondered what had happened on them, on the sheets. What those stains, those bitter rancid smells meant. Those traces. She never found the answer. She never asked the question out loud.
Touch your thigh. Macerate your thigh. Grind your thigh. Mark it like you mark dead skin.
The heat of the iron. The strength of the iron. The inscription. The scream. The sudden inhalation. The exhalation that shudders.
Touch my thigh. Mark my thigh. Grind my thigh. Mark it like you mark dead skin. Revive it.
The thigh. The exile.
There are two kinds of handwriting, the Detective would later explain to the Young Policeman who was looking at her attentively from the doorway. Feet crossed. Black shoes. Tight pants over the thighs. These were two scripts, certainly, but it was impossible to know which belonged to the man, which belonged to the woman. It was impossible to know who did what to whom, who let what be done, who desired, who desired more.
“Explain that to me,” the Young Policeman would answer, intrigued and immobile. Statue on the threshold. Notions of Rome.
“It’s the subject,” she’d mutter in response, squinting her eyes. “It must be the subject,” she would repeat. Then, talking more to herself than to him, she would add:
“I never know who the subject of the sentence is.” “Ah, that,” he’d murmur. “A sentence.”
It was impossible to know who did what to whom, who let what be done, who desired, who desired more.
Many years later, the Man Who Swore He Had Lost a Woman from China wondered why he had chosen to get a tattoo right around that time. More than once, especially when it rained, as he watched the evening rain behind a window, he wondered why he had chosen those very days, when the Detective and the Young Policeman were investigating the case with what seemed, from the start, a frenzied passion, to place that seemingly arbitrary sign just below his left earlobe.
Seconds after spotting the four-leaf clover behind his ear, the Detective would furrow her brow and think that she didn’t really know anything about the Man Who Was in Front of Her. He seemed normal—the striped shirt made him seem so—but she was aware that appearances tend to be an entryway and not necessarily an exit. And there was a dark tunnel between the two.
“And that?” She couldn’t avoid asking, pointing to the left side of his neck with feigned carelessness.
Instinctively bringing his hand to the back of his neck, the man would smile and remain silent. Looking at her directly, suddenly still. The Detective, accustomed to deciphering unexpected behaviors, would know the man really didn’t know what to say. The Man Who Was in Front of Her was surely a Man Without Answers.
In the moment of selecting the design, he thought about the southern seas and heard, in that instant, the word incommensurable. An echo. Two. He heard the word ta-tau: mark on the skin. He thought about Polynesia. He thought about the Maori, for whom tattooing the face was a sign of social distinction. Somewhere in his mind he wrote the signs xviii, knowing they meant the eighteenth century. He pictured the ships that carried and returned James Cook, and he desired, with a desire as incommensurable as the one that had evoked the southern seas, to go there: to go on a ship. To let himself be taken away.
Mark yourself on me. Mark yourself in me. Mark me with you. Open the skin; cut the skin; penetrate the epidermis: introduce the ink.
Mark yourself with ink: masticate yourself, mince yourself, mash yourself. Swallow yourself.
Define yourself with ink. Bind yourself.
Facing another whirlwind, the Man Who Swore He Had Lost a Woman from China wondered, a year later, if any of it had really happened. He remembered it as if from a distance, as if looking through a car window. The devil, he’d say to himself. And then he’d press the gas and avoid looking at the dust cloud in his rearview mirror.
Once public attention waned in the case of the Woman Who Disappeared in a Whirlwind, the Detective would picture the two of them lying on a satin bed, their calves just peeking out from the edge of the eiderdown, dictating entire paragraphs to one another. One morning. Her image of the scene would be so intense that, even after climbing into her car, turning it on, and moving through the streets of the city, she would still smell their bodies: a mixture of semen and ink and sweat and wine. Pressing the brake before a stoplight, she would smell a combination of desire and sentence. Their sentence. And in that moment, she would have to admit it: the Detective desired them. She wanted to be one of them. She wanted to be there, in the bed. She wanted to be part of the event. To be marked in that violent and sagacious, ludic, infantile way. That’s why she kept reading: I would like for you to be from China. I want you to stick in my smooth-mouthed nakedness: a knife. I want the burning of the blow and the slow agony of the laceration. The pin. The nail. The clamp. I want the letter. Later she’d think this morning vision—seemingly incongruent, seemingly gratuitous—of their bodies on the satin bed was tied to the image of a hummingbird suspended over an open flower, whose wingbeat had anguished her earlier, at dawn. The incessant wingbeat. A man and a woman on a satin bed: the desperate wingbeat: a man and a woman who write words of mutual harm: the irremediable wingbeat: a man and a woman dictating to each other their sorrow, their plea, their hope. The wingbeat. Only thus could you explain, she would tell the Young Policeman a little later that same day, the ambiguous authorship of each diary entry. That not-knowing. That darkness surrounding the grammatical subject. Only thus could you explain how the diary, the writing of the diary, simultaneously revealed their most intimate selves and masked them perfectly. Only thus could you explain the whispers. Those evenings. Those nights. And the ear of the insomniac neighbor on the wall next door.
You in place of me: I in your place.
Y-ours-elves: in that place. If you were from China.
A humid place: y-ours.
“But that isn’t a clover!” she’d murmur, astonished, in the early morning, at the beginning or end of one of those fateful days, when she still believed she could solve the case, when she imagined that the case of the Woman Who Disappeared in a Whirlwind had a solution. Her long fingers: with uniformly cut nails: on the figure etched into the man’s skin. A sort of tremor. A long wait.
“Indeed,” he’d answer, half asleep but still alert. “This isn’t a clover,” and in that moment, just as he finished the phrase, he’d turn to look at her: his mouth open, his hair tangled, the terrible waiting. The Detective—he wouldn’t realize this until then—was a woman as tense as a mandolin string, with the barely concealed curvature of a tall palm tree, prisoner of a strange mental life. In front of her, in front of that bundle of nerves—the Tense Woman, the Woman About to Break Down—he’d have an immense desire to pronounce the words southern seas, Ta-tau, Maori, but he wouldn’t do it.
“It’s a Nüshu word,” he’d whisper close to her ear, “Guanyin,” he’d pull back and look her in the face again, enjoying the way the Detective suffered in the waiting. “The name of a Buddhist goddess.”
“The last character?” she’d then ask, winking her left eye. A blow when it’s returned. The silence and, within the silence, the blow that bursts onto the Tattooed Man’s cheekbone. The noise of the blow and, within the noise of the blow, the dry sound of the head that crashes against the tiles.
“And her name really was Xian?” she’d inquire still later: the body of the man on the satin sheets: the hummingbird suspended on the other side of the window: the Vengeful Woman who leaves.
The pedestrian who provided his testimony over and over would say again, each time with the same firmness, that he hadn’t seen any woman there, in the vicinity of the median strip. No woman, he repeated. There wasn’t any woman whatsoever.
The Young Policeman would tell her, the penultimate point of the day’s report, that according to his quick research on Nüshu, it had indeed existed, and it had indeed disappeared. It was a sort of secret code produced by women in the province of Hunan that, from the third century on, was passed from generation to generation. He’d then show her a sheet that compared Nüshu characters and Chinese characters, with which the Detective would be able to confirm that the first were square and the second cursive and slender. The Young Policeman would then tell her that not only could Nüshu be found on scrolls but also on handkerchiefs, fans, clothes. Domestic objects. Household things.
“Or on the skin,” the Tense Woman would mutter to herself as, ashamed by her earlier outburst, suddenly blushing, she would lower her gaze. That gesture.
He seemed normal—the striped shirt made him seem so—but she was aware that appearances tend to be an entryway and not necessarily an exit.
The Young Policeman would then add, with a compassion she could not fail to notice, that the Mandarin language, as a fundamental institution of Chinese culture, had an authoritarian, hierarchical, and solemn structure, while Nüshu was for women the language of daily life, of emotions, of spontaneity, of the natural world, of dreams, and of desires.
Then, before turning around, he would mention almost randomly that, for that reason, women tended to use Nüshu to write the Third Day Missives, pamphlets written on fabric in which women transmitted marriage advice to their daughters. These letters were sent to brides on the third day after their wedding. To the women who had gone away.
They talked about it, he remembered much later. After the selection of the design, after leaving the tattoo parlor, after the curious eye of the Detective noticed it behind his ear, even after she asked him if Xian really was her name. The name of the Woman Who Disappeared in a Whirlwind. He remembered it on an afternoon like any other, in his car. An afternoon of out-of-sync traffic lights. Thin clouds. Smoke everywhere. He remembered that they’d talked about it, the tattoo. About it being the last word. This mark that would come to signify, in the future, in an unimaginable future, the word end. The event.
“The end of writing,” he’d whispered then, his right hand on the woman’s pink nipple, the jasmine-scented lips on his neck.
“The end of this.” One of the two had said it. This.
One day, when he began to forget her, when he even started to wonder whether her name had really been Xian, the Man Who Was Afraid of Whirlwinds entered an unfamiliar café. Having walked without a fixed destination, at a normal speed—yet filled with anguish—under the afternoon glare. Having walked without stopping only to find himself, as night approached, empty, indifferent, thirsty. He would push open the swinging doors and approach the bar. He ordered the first thing the waiter, a man with a prominent belly and black vest, offered him: a glass of thick liquid, crowned with foam. He stayed silent, avoiding eye contact with the other diners, examining the tip of his right shoe, the stains on the big, beveled mirror, the reflection of the room, the corner farthest from the ceiling. He would have spent hours that way, motionless, alone. He would have sat that way until another man appeared, just as tired as he was. Just as hunched over. Just as evasive. The Man Who Swore to Have Lost a Woman from China recognized himself in this new arrival, the Parsimonious Man Who Blocked the View, and so in asking him, “Are you also terrified to go home?” he thought he was asking himself. Something strange, something dark, something perhaps trivial and perhaps unnamable would have compelled the Hunched Man, the Evasive Man, to come out of his silence, hissing, “What scares me is my head.”
Write yourself. Truly write yourself. Sign, wedge, sharpen. Write yourself here: in y-our place.
“Do you imagine terrible things?” the other man then asked, with the interest that can only be sparked by difference. The end of identification.
The Evasive Man lowered his gaze (that gesture) and hid himself for a while in the silence that answered the question. His arms crossed over his chest as if he were cold.
“I imagine,” he said after drinking three or four sips of his viscous drink, advancing and stopping short a couple times, opening and closing his mouth without managing to say anything. “I imagine I’m killing a woman, for example,” his voice almost inaudible at the end of the sentence.
“Do you imagine you cover her mouth, her eyes, her breasts? Do you imagine your hands squeezing, destroying, clawing, squeezing more? The blood draining, drop by drop, do you imagine it? Do you imagine yourself pushing through her, slitting her open, fragmenting her? Do you imagine the last breath?”
“I imagine that the woman disappears in a whirlwind, one afternoon,” he murmured with his eyes on his drink. “I imagine that.”
Another pedestrian swore in his statement that there had been a woman there, in the whirlwind. He said that the image was memorable for him because it was the face of someone who had come too far. He corrected himself immediately, adding: it was the face of a woman who had come too far and who was nevertheless ready to go even farther. She was preparing for that. A long journey.
He said he hadn’t said anything before because no one had asked him.
Sometime later, when she was trying to solve one of the most difficult cases of her career, the case of the Castrated Men, in moments when the Detective was about to move her hand, her fingertips, toward a mark on the body of another suspect, she would suddenly remember everything. She’d experience the yearning. That atrocious cloud. That stab. The sound that, like the gale of wind, makes the sounds of the body audible. That buried exclamation point. That bursting. And she’d then remember the puzzling tattoo on the neck of the Man Who Swore He Had Lost a Woman from China in a Whirlwind, that had forced her to lose herself. Inside. Inside herself. Outside. She’d remember the sensation of the split skin under her touch (the printed skin) (the stamped skin) and the dizziness, a subtle way of sliding nowhere, would envelope her again. The speed: a face that disappears and appears: a backlight: the skeins of air that, around her neck, her wrists, her waist, squeeze. And squeeze. She’d remember the satin bed, the frozen feet, the scarlet ink that slid over the thighs, the corners of the mouth, the shin. She’d remember the indentation of the tooth on the abdomen, the indent of the fingernails on the breasts, the hair knotted in the knuckles. She’d remember the staggered vision laid over Herself. An image behind another. Another image. A constant stabbing. How far can you go? She’d remember everything and then the hand turned into a fist would remain immobile in her pocket.
The furrows in your skin, open. Put me in there. Ink, hand, nail, yoke.
Write yourself. Truly write yourself. Sign, wedge, sharpen. Write yourself here: in y-our place.
Literally write yourself, ok?
Before, before everything, the Man Who Would Swear He Had Lost a Woman from China would stop in front of a whirlwind. He’d be afraid at first (a sort of dizziness) (a way of slipping nowhere) (that throb) and then, almost immediately, he’d remember that someone had told him, in his childhood, that that kind of whirlwind—slender, sudden, vertical—meant that the devil was close by. Then he’d see everything all at once: the devil, the body of the devil, the arms of the body of the devil, embracing the waist of a woman. A waltz. A strident melody of violins. Feet, levitating.