Alien Souls/The Perfect Way

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Included in Alien Souls 1922, pp. 215-230.


Here, where Pell Street jutted out from the Bowery, there was not even a trace of the patina of antiquity, that bitter and morose grace which clings about old houses like the ghosts of dead flowers. There was nothing here except the marks of the present—hard, gray, scabbed, already rotting before having lived overmuch.

The noises of the street seethed in frothy, brutal streaks: the snarling whine of Russian Jews bartering over infinitesimal values; the high, clipped tenor of metallic, Italian vernaculars; the gliding sing-song of Chinese coolies; and only occasionally an English word, sharp and lonely and nostalgic. There was the rumbling overtone of the Elevated around the corner on Chatham Square; the sardonic hooting of a four-ton motor dray; the ineffectual tinkle-tinkle of a peddler's bell. Rain came and joined in the symphony; spluttering in the leaky eaves-troughs, dripping through the huddled, greasy alleys, mumbling angrily in the brown, clogged gutters.

And Yu Ching sat there by the window and stared with cold, black eyes into the cold, wet evening, neither seeing nor hearing. Behind him shadows coiled, blotchy, inchoate, purplish-black, with just a fitful dancing of elfin high-lights on a teakwood screen, its tight, lemon silk embroidered with japonica, fluttering their silvered petals, and on a small crystal statue of Confucius that squatted amid the smoking incense sticks.

The corner lamp flared up, mean and yellow. The light stabbed in and mirrored on the finger-nails of his pudgy right hand. The hand was very still. Still was the man's face—large, hairless, butter-colored.

The rain spluttered and stammered. The street cries belched defiantly. The peace in Yu Ching's heart was perfect, exquisite.

Momentarily, there came to him fleeting memories of the days when his own life, too, had been an integral and not unimportant part of that cosmic Pell Street energy, when he had been a shrewd and respected merchant, who had contributed his share of wisdom and gossip to the evening gatherings of his countrymen in the liquor store of the Chin Sor Company—the "Place of Sweet Desire and Heavenly Entertainment."

Across the poetry of her youth had lain the stony drag and smother, the subtle violence, the perfumed dirt of the bastard Pell Street world. She had been like a rainbow bubble floating on the stinking puddles of Chinatown vice. But he had loved her dearly. His love for her had burned away the caked, black cinders, the dross and the dirt.

Her love for him—? There were classic, scholarly traditions in his clan; one of his ancestors had been a poet of no mean repute in the days of the Ta Tsing Kwoh, the "Great-Pure Kingdom"; and so Yu Ching had compared Marie Na Liu's love to a dewdrop on a willow spray, a flaunting of fairy pennons, and the sound of a silver bell in the green mists of twilight—smiling, with kindly intent, at the last simile; for he had been forty-seven years of age and she sixteen when he had married her, quite respectably, with a narrow gold ring, a bouquet of cabbagy, wired roses, a proper, monumental wedding cake, a slightly shocked Baptist clergyman mumbling the words of the blessed ritual, and at the organ a yellow, half-caste boy introducing wailing Cantonese dissonances into the "Voice that breathed o'er Eden."

Down at the "Place of Sweet Desire and Heavenly Entertainment," the comment had been brutally unflattering.

"You are old, and she is young!" had said Nag Hong Fah, the paunchy restaurant proprietor, fluttering his paper fan. "Hayah! On the egg combating with the stone, the yolk came out, O wise and older brother!"

"The ass went seeking for horns—and lost its ears!" Yung Lung, the wholesale grocer, had darkly suggested.

And Yu Ch'ang, the priest of the joss temple, had added with pontifical unction:

"When I see the sun and the moon delivered up by the eclipse to the hands of the demons; when I perceive the bonds that fasten an elephant; and when I behold a wise man surrendering—ah—to the fool ish abominations of the flesh, the thought forces itself upon me: 'How mighty is the power of evil!'"

Thus, at the time of their marriage, had run the gliding, malicious gossip of Chinatown. But when, quite casually, Yu Ching had repeated it to his wife, who was busying herself amongst the cook pots of their neat little Pell Street flat, she had given him a rapid kiss.

"You sh'd worry, yer fat old sweetness!" she had laughed. "Them Chinks is just plain jealous. You treat me on th' level—and I'll retoin the compliment, see? Besides, I'm stuck on yer snoozly old phiz! I ain't goin t' waste no time huntin' for thrills, as long as ye're true to me! I'm a good Christian—I am—"

"And I am a good Buddhist, Plum Blossom!"

"Hell's bells—wot's the difference, sweetness?"

They had been happy. And to-day he had forgotten her. He had completely forgotten her; and he knew—subconsciously, for he never reflected on the subject—that she had been faithful to him; that never, either by word or deed, had she caused him to lose faith; that she had lived up, straight and clean, to the words of the ritual: love, honor, obey.

He knew—subconsciously—that he had broken her heart when he walked out of her life, three years ago.

Very impersonally, he wondered what had become of her. Then he cut off the wondering thought. He smiled. He said to himself that she, too, had been an illusion, a mirroring of shadows in the dun dusk of his soul.

She did not matter.

Why—he put his fingers together, delicately, tip against tip—nothing mattered. …

Outside, more lights sprang up against the violet of the sky, spotting the gloom. The noises grew as, with night, grew and heaved the dark-smoldering passions of the city. A pint pocket flask dropped, smashed against a stone. A foul curse was answered by throaty, malign laughter. Came the tail-end of a gutter song; a shouted, obscene joke, old already when the world was young; more curses and laughter; a sailor's sodden, maudlin mouthings; a woman's gurgling contralto:

"Aw—chase yerself! Wottya mean, yer big stiff?"

The drama of the city. The comedy. The vital, writhing entrails. Life, clouting, breathing, fighting eternally.

But Yu Ching did not see, nor hear. His heart was as pure as the laughter of little children, as pure as a gong of white jade. There was hardly a trace of the outer world, dimly, on the rim of his consciousness.

His soul had reached the end of its pilgrimage. Calm, serene, passionless like the Buddha, it sat enthroned beyond the good and the evil.

"All forms are only temporary!"—there was the one great truth.

He smiled. Mechanically, his thin lips formed the words of the Buddha's Twenty-Third Admonition:

"Of all attachments unto objects of desire, the strongest is the attachment to form. He who cannot overcome this desire, for him to enter the Perfect Way of Salvation is impossible. …"

The rain had ceased. A great slow wind walked braggingly through the skies. The Elevated, a block away, rushed like the surge of the sea. The Bowery leered up with a mawkish, tawdry face.

The noises of the street blended and clashed, blended and clashed. A thousand people came and went, people of all races, all faiths—gulping down life in greedy mouthfuls.

And still the peace in Yu Ching's heart was perfect and exquisite. Still he smiled. Still, mechanically, his lips mumbled the words of the Buddha:

"By day shineth the sun. By night shineth the moon. Shineth also the warrior in harness of war. But the Buddha, at all times by day and by night, shineth ever the same, illuminating the world, calm, passionless, serene—"

The end of his soul's pilgrimage. …

And presently—to-day, to-morrow, next year, ten years from now—his body would die, and his spirit would leap the dragon gate, would blend its secret essence with the eternal essence of the Buddha's soul. … And what else mattered?

He bent his head.

"Fire and night and day art Thou," he whispered, "and the fortnight of waxing moon—and the months of the sun's northern circuit—"

The end of his pilgrimage!

And the beginning had been hard. For he had loved Marie Na Liu. He had not wanted to harm her.

But the Voice had spoken to him in the night, asking him to arise and throw off the shackles of desire, the fetters of the flesh; to forget the illusions; telling him that, whatever meritorious results might be attained by prayers and sacrifices, by austerities and gifts, there was no sacrifice to be compared with that of a man's own heart. Such a sacrifice was the excellent sanctifier—exhaustless in result.

"Sure," had said Bill Devoy, a detective of Second Branch and detailed to the Pell Street beat of opium and sewer gas and yellow man and white; he had caught on to the gossip in the course of a murder investigation that had nothing whatsoever to do with the pilgrimage of Yu Ching's soul—"that Chink's got religion—wot he calls religion. I don't know if a yaller Billy Sunday's come down to Pell and Mott, but I do know as that there Yu Ching's hittin' the trail to salvation—as them Chinks hit it—sittin' all day like a bump on a log, just smilin', and never sayin' a damn word. Meditatin' they calls it. Gee! He gives me the creeps, he does—"

At first, Marie Na Liu had laughed.

"Say—wottya mean, sweetness?" she had asked. "Leave me? Goin t' leave—me?" Then her voice had risen a hectic octave. "Is there another skoit? For if there is—say—"

"No, Plum Blossom. There is no other woman—never will be. Woman is an illusion—"

"Wottya handin me?"

"The flesh is an illusion. There is just my soul—the Buddha has spoken to me in the night—"

"You've been eatin' Welsh rabbit again—down to the Dutchman s! You know it never agrees with yer!"

"No, no!"

He had smiled, gently and patiently. Gently and patiently, he had tried to explain to her, had tried to make her understand.

"But—sweetness—listen t' me! Yer can't leave me—oh, yer can't. …"

She had argued, cajoled, threatened. But nothing she could say had made any impression on him. It had seemed to her, suddenly, as if she had never really known this man; this man with whom she had lived in the close physical and mental intimacy of married life in a little, box-like flat. She had felt—looking at him, serene, passionless, calm—as if an alien life, an alien existence, was enfolding him; enfolding him away from her, in an incomprehensible and inhuman quietude.

He had seemed to her far away—so far away—and her narrow, white hands had stretched out. helplessly, appealingly; had touched the crinkly, dark-blue silk of his blouse.

"Aw—come on, sweetness"

Again he had tried to explain; and, finally, while she had not seen the tremendous and elemental force, ancient and racial, that was driving him on to his decision, she had understood the result.

He was going to leave her! Yu Ching, her man, was going to leave her!


She had cursed. Then her gutter flow of words had floundered in the eddy of her hurt love and pride and vanity, her sheer amazement.

"Ye're goin to—? Ye're really, rtally goin to—?"

"I must. The Buddha has spoken to me. I must break the shackles of the flesh, the ropes of illusion—ahee!—the ropes of sand! It is a most meritorious act."

"Meritorious, is it?" Swiftly her passion had turned into an icy sneer. "Meritorious, is it—to break a goil's heart? To trample on her—and spit on her—to—?"

He had sighed, a little wearily.

"I shall leave you suitably provided for. I shall only take along a couple of thousand dollars. All the rest is yours—the money—the business—everything."

"Money? Business? Who cares?" She had come close to him, smiling up at him, piteously, with her broad, crimson, generous mouth, the black, somber orbit of her eyes dimmed with tears. "I don't want money! I want you, sweetness! You, you, you! Aw—Gee—don't yer see?"

But he had not moved; had patiently continued smiling. And then she had understood that she might as well plead with some immense and stony sending of fate, and her passion had leaped out in a splattering stream of abuse:

"Yer damned Chink! Ye'll pay fer this—say—ye'll pay fer this some day! Aw—yer damned, yaller hop-head of a Chink!"

She had laughed hysterically, her soft little oval of a face twisted into a terrible grimace.

"I hate yer! I despise yer! Clear outa here! I don't wanta ever see yer ugly mug again! Clear out! I hate yer yer—damned, fat Chink!"

And so he had left her.

So he had left Pell Street, its warm, tame conveniences, its pleasant, snug reek, its zest and tang of shrewd barter and shrewd gossip, his friends, his Tong, his life as he had known it and savored it these many years.

So he had gone on pilgrimage, seeking for release from illusion, from attachment to objects of desire, seeking the Buddha's Perfect Way, wandering here and there, even returning to China where he made the sengaji circuit of the thousand and three blessed shrines.

In lonely wayside temples he had sat, talking to gentle priests about the faith and the hope that were his, thinking ever of release from fleshly bondage, turning his eyes toward the mazed depths of his soul, and meditating on the mysterious way which is Life. And when at times the air had been heavy with the musk of remembrance and regret, of passion and longing, when his subconscious fancy had peopled his brain cells with pictures of his former existence—Pell Street, his friends sipping their tea and smoking their crimson-tasseled pipes in the "Place of Sweet Desire and Heavenly Entertainment," Marie Na Liu, her white smile flashing through the purple night—he had done penance, submitting to the supreme physical ordeals, gradually subduing his body and his mind.

Thus, finally, he had found peace, perfect, exquisite; and then somehow, he never knew why or how—"that, too, was Fate," he used to say afterwards, "I but followed the way of my Fate. Who can avoid what is written on the forehead in the hour of birth?"—he had returned to New York, and so he sat there by the window and looked out upon the shrill Babel of the Pell Street night—calm, serene, passionless.

Just below the window, an elderly Chinese was arguing with a countryman, quoting the polished and curiously insincere phrases of Mandarin sages, in a stammering falsetto:

"Pa nien jou chi—i tien jou ki—"

A policeman whistled shrilly. A barrel-organ creaked a nostalgic, Sicilian melody. …

Yu Ching neither saw nor heard.

These people—what did they matter? They were only cosmic atoms whirling aimlessly in the wind of desire, like formless swarming snatches of dreams. No! Nothing mattered, nothing was real, except the soul.

He smiled, and whispered praises to the Buddha, and then, suddenly, yet imperceptibly, like the shadow of a leaf through summer dusk, he felt that he was not alone in the room, that eyes were staring at him.

He turned, just a little startled.

The door was open.

From the fluttering gas jet in the outer hall, a wedge of light streamed in. Sharply outlined in its bluish-green rays, Marie Na Liu stood there, her face pale and drawn. She stood silent and motionless, but as though charged with some kind of elemental force that was inexhaustible.

Yu Ching twisted in his chair. For a moment, something reached out and touched his soul, leaving the chill of an indescribable uneasiness. For a moment, he thought of his former life; thought of it in terms of a new life, a future life; it opened before him, holding immense and measureless perspectives.

Then, with slow deliberation, he turned his back upon his wife.

"O Buddha!" he mumbled. "All forms are only temporary—illusions of the flesh! Thou knowest! I know!"

Outside, the wind shrieked. The Elevated cars blundered along their steely spider's web, like weary creatures seeking shelter.

"Say! Yu Ching! Listen t'me!"

He did not turn.

"Buddha!" he prayed. "Permit me to withdraw my senses wholly into meditation!"

"Looka here!" came Marie Na Liu's voice, strident and challenging.

She closed the door and stepped into the room. He could hear the rustle of her garments, could smell a faint perfume.

He bent his head on his chest; tried to conquer his senses.

"I wanta talk t'yer!"

He did not move; did not speak.

Peace, perfect, exquisite—there was the secret of life, the way of salvation. He had reached it once, had felt it once; like the stillness of dawn in a lonely place, like the quiet hush of unseen stars. He had reached it and felt it. He did not want to lose it again. The pilgrimage had been hard, hard.

Deliberately, he gathered his soul into an inner fold of his consciousness.

And then, as from very far off, across illimitable distances, he heard again his wife's voice—low, appealing; presently leaping out extraordinarily strong, with a sweep of utter abandon.

"Bill Devoy—'member the plain-clothes cop?—slips me woid that ye've retoined. And—well. …

"Say! When y' left me, three years ago, I sed to myself I'd never forgive yer—never wanted t' see yer mug again. Told yer I hated yer, didn't I? Gee—I was sure some sore! But," she gave a little throaty, embarrassed laugh, "well—here I am—see?"

Silence. He could hear her breath coming in sibilant, staccato sobs. Again her voice:

"Y'make it hard fer a feller, don't yer? Say! Sweetness! I got my pride—I'm a woman, ain't I?"

Her voice broke a little.

"Sweetness! Aw—Gawd! Why don't yer speak t'me?"

The words wavered, sank, rose again.

"Why don't yer say somethin'? Anything—oh—anything! Just toin and look at me, won't ye? Coise me! Swear at me! Tell me to clear outa here! But—please—speak! Aw—sweetness—won't yer talk t'me—please?"

Yu Ching felt words rising in his throat. He choked them back. All this—Pell Street, the noises of the night, his wife—was an illusion in a sea of illusions. It was not real. It was taking place in an alien world of dreams. There was only his own soul, safe in some inner and secret sanctuary of eternity, where the riot and tumult of external life dared not intrude.

He smiled, very gently.

Somewhere, quite close to him, there was the sweet passion and pain of long, exquisite suffering, some intense yearning. But, surely, it was not in his own body, his own heart. It was just the remote experience of a life which he had once known—which he would never know again.

"All forms are only temporary—only temporary—" he mumbled.

"So yer won't talk t'me—eh?"

The question came with a harsh, vindictive grating, and something beyond fear stole with a freezing touch upon Yu Ching's placid soul. He conquered the feeling, sent it reeling back to the undergrowth of his stilled, half-remembering consciousness.

Came silence.

It seemed eternities until once more Marie Na Liu's harsh words dropped into the great, open void.

"Well—don't talk, if yer don't feel like it! But—ye'll listen t' me, awright, awright, yer damned Chink! Sure Mike! Ye'll listen—"

The voice plunged on, piercing, high-pitched.

"'Member young Nag Gin Lee? Ol' Nag Hong Fah's nephew from Frisco, who came here t' learn the business? Young feller—'member?—more my own age. Swell lookin' guy, and some classy dresser, 'member him? Say, yer damned fat old Chink! D'yer remember him? Yer don't? Well—I do! Yes, sir, I do! And d'yer know why? D'yer wanta know?"

She spoke through her teeth. Her words clicked and broke like dropping icicles.

She rushed up to her husband. She gripped his shoulders with frantic hands. She forced him to turn and look up until she could stare straight into his black, oblique eyes, her own eyes blazing fire and hate.

"Not that ye'll care! Not that ye'll give a damn! But—yer might as well know. Me and young Nag—me and him. …"

She burst into gurgling, hysterical laughter that shook her whole body.

"Me and him—me and him. …"

He rose; trembled.

Marie Na Liu's last words had staggered him like a blow between the eyes.

He tried to control himself.

Peace, perfect, exquisite! The peace of the soul, calm, passionless, serene, in a world of illusions—ropes of illusions—ropes of sand. …

His thoughts groped, slipped.

Peace—the Buddha's peace—the end of his soul's pilgrimage. But—and an extraordinary revulsion caught him, flashed upon him like a sheet of black fire—what did it matter—his soul's pilgrimage? What did anything matter, except—

Marie Na Liu!

Golden-haired sloe-eyed. … Her little feet had crushed his heart. …

He felt a terrible weakness in his knees, and a catch in his throat. For a tenth part of a second his memory turned back. He thought of a day, a spring day. He had come home rather earlier than usual, had found young Nag sitting across from his wife, close to her. He had heard them laugh as he came up the stairs—had heard mumbled words.

He stood there, a deep sob shaking his massive frame, and Marie Na Liu was still laughing, loudly, hysterically.

"Sure! Me and him—me and him. …"

She rushed to the door, opened it, stood no the threshold.

"Me and him—yer poor fish! And yer never knew—yer never guessed!"

Her words came like the lash of a whip. Yu Ching sank back in his chair. He heard the door close.

His wife—and young Nag! His wife—and young Nag!

The words repeated themselves in his thoughts. They expanded and multiplied. They were in his veins, in his bones, in the roots of his hair. They seemed to fill every nook and cranny of his brain.

He looked out of the window. The night had thickened. Mist wreaths pointed with long, bloodless fingers. Above them a heavy cloud-bank lumbered clumsily in, the lilt of the wind.

Somebody laughed below the window. Somebody cursed.

Life was down there; passion and desire, love and hate and ambition—life, real life. His own soul, he thought, had dared sublime achievement; it had failed, had plunged him into an abyss.

He slumped in his chair; he cried, with cracked, high-pitched sobs, as strong men cry.

He did not hear the rattling of the door knob. He did not see the melting and dimming of the bluish-green gas jet in the outer hall, as the door opened and closed again.

But, suddenly, a faint scent of flowers was in his nostrils. Suddenly he felt, close to him, at his knees, a yielding form; heard soft, broken words:

"Aw—sweetness! Don't yer believe wot I sed! I lied! Honest t' Gawd, I lied! Yer know I lied—don't yer—don't yer, sweetness?"

And his arms folded about her, and she nestled like a tired bird.

Then he smiled, very gently, very patiently.

"Peace," he whispered. "Ah—peace—perfect, exquisite. …"