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Mouths to Speak, Voices to Sing

by Kenneth Yu

[Art by Kevin Lapeña]

MR. HARRY LIU HUI CHIU WAS AT THE BANK when he experienced for the first time—as with a kiss, or a fresh dream—the splendorous wonder of hearing his first vase.

That morning, smiling smugly to himself and thinking of the ten million pesos in his account—not bad at all for a man barely past his thirty-fifth birthday—he had been sauntering to the bank’s exit when he heard an unfamiliar voice, one so soft as to be a whisper.

He paused and looked about but he could not ascertain the voice’s source. Everyone around him proceeded to move along with their business, unmindful as he stood stock still amid a blur of constant human motion that seemed to move in rhythm to the staccato ruckus of ringing phones and beeping computers.

The voice whispered again; he heard it over the din even if no one else seemed to: a caress along his outer ears, a tickle to his earlobes, a soft penetration of his eardrums. He could not understand the words, but the tone was clear: dulcet, with a hint of music behind it, and not at all unpleasant. His curiosity, now aroused, could not be suppressed, and he began to trace the voice to its source.

He followed the whisper, tracking it by its volume while weaving his way around the bank’s patrons, who walked about with serious eyes. “Work! Always work!” their demeanors seemed to say. He wondered if he’d carried that same expression himself all his life. He shook off this momentary bout of reflection and resumed his search, his steps leading him to a corner of the bank where, between two couches set for customers, a one-and-a-half-foot tall vase stood in ornamental splendor upon a darkly varnished table of glinting, reddish rosewood. The image that adorned it was a nature scene, a pond with lilies and other decorative water flora, with colorful fowl abounding, a picture straight out of a well-tended garden.

The vase before him was a phoenix’s tail jar—although Mr. Liu did not know it then. It was shaped with a flared mouth that was wider at the rim than a standard vase, bearing a design in the style of the Qing Dynasty during the reign of the Emperor Kangxi, and thus dating back to the l7th or l8th century. Mr. Liu would learn all this after years of reading and time-consuming research, but at the moment his knowledge of this branch of Asian antiquities—any branch of Asian antiquities—was still non-existent.

Mr. Liu brought his hand to the vase’s surface with a gentleness he didn’t know he had. Porcelain smooth to the skin, and cool despite the direct morning sunlight streaming upon it from a nearby window, he slid his fingertips across its neck and curves, caressing the spirals and wavy patterns that decorated its gentle shoulders. The incomprehensible voice increased in volume, filling his ears with earnest murmurs. In his mind, an image came unbidden: of a domed sky hovering in protection over the earth and the seas. He focused on this, and the voice’s murmurs grew in strength, and in its song he recognized the tone of a hymn, or a prayer.

Mr. Liu did not know how long he stood there touching the vase before the bank’s security guard nudged him out of his reverie; this gruff interruption made the voice cease, which brought Mr. Liu back, stammering an apology with his own.

Mr. Liu asked most politely to speak to the bank manager, who was, in turn, most accommodating. The manager was in all likelihood aware of the size and growth potential of Mr. Liu’s account as he approached. Mr. Liu got right to the point.

“May I have this vase, please?” he asked.

“Excuse me, sir?” The initial perplexity on the manager’s face was evident, and an unwanted awkwardness interposed itself between the two men; but the manager smoothed this over right away.

“I…I don’t see why not,” he said.

“How much?”

“Er…” The manager didn’t know what the vase was worth. In fact, he didn’t care. Only a man with an instinct for pleasing the best clients rose to his position, and all that mattered to him was keeping Mr. Liu happy. “Take it. Consider it a gift,” the manager said, then beamed at Mr. Liu, who smiled back and nodded his thanks.

The guard carried the vase to Mr. Liu’s months-old Camry. Mr. Liu instructed him to carefully place it in the backseat and to hem it in with bundles of crumpled newspaper to prevent the vase from rolling and falling. He slipped a crisp, fifty-peso bill into the guard’s hand before driving off.

That evening, the vase found its place in Mr. Liu’s apartment on the second floor of the two-storey building where he lived, right above his store and office. His househelp had placed the vase in the middle of a spare room, on top of a short wooden table bought just that afternoon from a nearby furniture shop. Mr. Liu stood beside the vase in the dark, his fingertips on its cool shoulders. His eyes were closed, and to anyone who might have caught him this way, it would have seemed that Mr. Liu was listening intently to something only he could hear.

EVEN OVER THE LONG DISTANCE PHONE CALL, Mr. Liu could sense the unspoken questions and the raised eyebrows from those he had been in business with for years.

Over a choppy connection, one contact from Hong Kong said, “Antique Chinese vases? You’ve brought a lot of things into your country, Harry, from here and all over the world: cellphones, TV’s, DVD players, car parts, textiles, cameras, computers. You’ve asked me to source shoes, perfume, watches, radios, cookware, even cheap rice and spices. But antique Chinese vases?”

Suddenly sheepish, Mr. Liu hesitated and tried to find words to explain. “I…,” he said, but he was spared the chore by the relentless nature of the Hong Kong native.

“Harry, you’re a commercial trader, not an antiquities dealer. And you’ve never shown an interest in anything remotely artistic before!”

“I…”

“Remember how when I first met you, I offered you some ceramic sculpture? ‘There’s no money in that kind of crap in the Philippines,’ you said. And you were right. Where’s the business in vases in a third world country, Harry?”

Having built his reputation as a practical-minded, no-nonsense trader, Mr. Liu found himself unable to explain that he wanted the vases for himself; it would not only have been uncharacteristic, it might even be damaging. This was business, after all, and there was no room for lapses in judgment. Mr. Liu already sensed veiled mockery behind the other man’s words.

And then Mr. Liu realized that no explanation was necessary. “Do you want my business, or not?”

Over the next two months, through contacts both longstanding and newly-made, Mr. Liu purchased two dozen more vases. He spoke to triple that number of people to acquire the antiques. He would have bought even more had his business guile and natural instinct toward prudence not manifested itself at the tail end of his spree, subduing his excitement to buy, buy, buy. Nevertheless, it cost him two million pesos for the vases, and nearly another million more to ship them into the country.

The vases arrived packed in carton boxes stored to the rear of a container van, behind Mr. Liu’s shipments of digital cameras, low-end DVD players, computer accessories, and the latest model cellphones. Normally, Mr. Liu would immediately snatch one of the cellphones for his own use, but this time he anxiously fidgeted in place as he waited for his people to unload all the cargo. When the first boxes of vases were carried out into the sunlight, he snapped into action.

The second-storey spare room had been emptied of everything except the first vase. Like a new homeowner with his first set of furniture, Mr. Liu directed the movers, specifying exactly where to place the boxes and insisting that they set them down with care, making it clear that he and only he would perform the unpacking. When a mover briefly lost his balance and stumbled, Mr. Liu’s heart skipped a beat; to him, it was as if the air and the light rushed out of the room with a whoosh. Only when the mover righted himself did Mr. Liu succeed at resuming his breathing.

When they were done he made them leave at once, tendering careless instructions to put the rest of the deliveries into the warehouse at the rear of the lot. “Sally will take care of it,” he told them, shifting the workload to his assistant, a short, bespectacled, prim and stern woman watching from the doorway. Sally cocked her head at the men, who followed her down the stairs. Mr. Liu waited for the clomp of their footsteps to disappear before he opened the first box.

He chose the smallest one to begin with, and after removing the wads of newspaper and Styrofoam, he pulled out a roundish vase with a small mouth. It was a wedding jar with the Chinese character for “double happiness”–囍–printed on its front amid swirling blue vines. The seller had assured him that it was an authentic antique from the latter 19th century, but Mr. Liu took only a cursory look at the vase’s accompanying papers. The moment his fingers touched the coolness of its surface he heard its voice, deeper than that the first’s, and more hollow, but richer, heavier. Despite the differences, he found its song just as lovely.

Before the hour was up he had all the vases out and on display, lined up against the wall. The sight of them overwhelmed him, became almost too much for his eyes to take in. The tallest one stood at five feet, while the shortest barely reached his knee. They were varied in shape, or size; some vases came in but a single color, blue, as with the wedding jar, or perhaps in a subtle green the shade of jade; but the others came in a variety of pastels and hues, bright reds, yellows, cyans, and pinks all mixed together, and two of them owned borders around their images embellished in the metallic sheen of gold and silver; five possessed elaborate carved handles that glistened in the light as if wet; six were globular vases, and Mr. Liu found himself charmed by the hidden balance of their bases, which belied their rounded bodies.

There were plain vases, with no images, perhaps only a running border near their throats; they were beautiful in their minimalist simplicity, but he also marveled at those with drawings: of flora and fauna—natural, like birds, fishes, or horses, and supernatural, like dragons or lions; of landscapes—mountains, forests, streams, cloud-filled skies; of people—farmers, fisherfolk, courtesans, artists.

But more than how they looked, Mr. Liu was held by their sounds. He trained himself to listen, and slowly the whispers turned into full voices. Each time he had pulled a vase from its box he heard and knew them for their individual inflections, and it became clear to him that each vase was known by its own song. He could now identify the music behind their initial murmurs, and it captivated him as nothing else ever had. In careful hurriedness, he lifted and changed the positions of the vases until he found an arrangement that provided the best harmony to his ear.

Awash in their music he stood before his new purchases, and drank in their songs.

“SIR,” SALLY SAID ONE AFTERNOON, the worry evident in the lines of her face. “We don’t have any more space. And frankly, everyone is afraid to move around in case we accidentally knock over and break a piece of your collection.”

Mr. Liu, with a wide Ming Dynasty soup bowl on his left, and a dipping dish—with spoon—to his right, looked up from his desk with alarm.

“What? Break what?” he said.

Sally pressed. “Sir, I’m afraid that it’s a matter of ‘when’ and not ‘if’ that happens. There’s also no more room for more items for your collection…unless you appropriate the warehouse too.”

“We’re doing well, right?” he asked, lifting aside a small vase to find, then fiddle with, his computer keyboard to bring up the sales spreadsheets.

“Yes. We’ve been lucky. Orders are steady.” In fact, they were better than ever, and Sally attributed this to her boss’s new calm. The retailers who ordered from him used to like Mr. Liu for his low prices and, well, nothing else. Now, they liked him for his low prices and his pleasant demeanor. Deep down she felt vindicated; she had always told others that all he needed was a hobby to transform him from a stern, rude, workaholic into a human being.

“Hmm… okay, good.”

“Sir?”

“I’ll figure something out.”

Later that day, Mr. Liu told Sally to expect someone from the bank and to let him in for a private meeting. When the bank manager arrived—the same one who had sold Mr. Liu his first vase, and quite endearing with his leather satchel, his smile, his hello’s—she hustled him quickly into Mr. Liu’s room. He left two hours later, smiling even more broadly. The following day, Sally handed Mr. Liu a fax detailing a loan for the purchase of the empty lot adjacent to their own. By the following week, Mr. Liu was meeting architects and building contractors. Once, before the door to Mr. Liu’s room closed behind them, she noted the words “Liu-six storey schematic” on the folder tucked under the arm of one of the architects.

Within eleven months, the six-storey schematic became an eight-storey building with two basement levels. With great effort Mr. Liu, Sally, and everyone working in the company made it through the construction without their daily operations being hampered, but it took a lot of patience and compromise. The day the building opened was a big relief for all, and for Mr. Liu most especially. Sally noticed the way her boss would surf the web for new vases, then visibly restrain himself from writing an email or picking up the phone by pulling his hands away and placing them to his side.

Sally wasn’t asked to call for photographers, or to set up ribbons to be cut, or to prepare for a party on opening day; Mr. Liu had never been the type for fanfare. All that seemed to matter to him was that the time of restraint was finally over.

FIFTEEN YEARS AFTER HE HEARD his first vase, Mr. Liu added the 500th to his collection. It came cheap, but also with no papers, so its authenticity could not be proven without buying it; but the image the seller had emailed him had caught his eye. When he pulled it out of its packing, it was even more alluring than its photo.

The vase had a picture of a pale woman in traditional Chinese garb: flowing robes of white lined with yellow, blue, and green pastel trimmings, and wide sleeves which hid the arms of the woman who wore it. She leaned on what was either an elaborately decorated staff, or a thin-bladed long sword sheathed in its ornamental scabbard. Her long, straight, ebony hair reached down to her hips; she was beautiful, but her beauty was not a soft or a kind one; there was strength held in check behind it. She stood on a trail of clouds, against the distant background of a wide earth and an expansive sky.

“Even more are needed.”

Mr. Liu, surprised, nearly dropped the vase. The words had flowed from the vase in a strong, female voice; not in song, but as a statement, the first time this had ever happened. He somehow brought himself to speak.

“More vases? Why?”

“The four pillars that hold up the heavens and protect the world cannot rely solely on the strength of turtle legs, no less the part of the pillar here. They are made stronger when fused with the voice and song of good people, whether they come of moulded clay or not.”

Mr. Liu did not understand. He tried to ask the vase more questions, but it did not reply, and stayed mute, the lone silent piece in his collection.

LONG YEARS PASSED and were kind to Mr. Liu and his investments. Where his original office and warehouse once stood, there now rose a sixteen-storey edifice, one which dwarfed the eight-storey structure he had first built. His import business had grown with the turn of each year until he had become one of the top importers and wholesalers of cheaper electronics, machine parts, and appliances in the country. He had expanded into importing Asian décor, furniture, and yes, even antiquities, and he had been pleasantly surprised to find a steady, if small, local market for them.

He had married as well, after which he had moved to a quieter part of the city, not too far from his offices. Mr. Liu’s wife had been a good woman who died too soon, but his son and daughter were devoted to him, and his five grandchildren were the image of their grandmother. He had lived a full life, a lucky life; there was little else an old man could ask for.

Mr. Liu knew he had purchased enough when he had bought vase number 1,356. That night, the woman on the vase came to him in his dreams. Goddess, Creator, Savior, Mother and Snake… He knew who she was by then, or at least suspected—it was not difficult to find references to the clues hidden in her words—but she did not acknowledge the name that escaped his lips; in fact, she did not speak at all, but pressed his forehead with a long-nailed finger, smiled, and faded away, leaving only the tingling sensation of her touch.

The vase collection was now stored on the twelfth floor of his new building. He had arranged them in ordered rows on specially-made lacquered shelves, protected by glass, displayed in placements that he himself had directed. Sometimes, he would rearrange them, but not as often and not as radically as when he had been younger, having settled on a harmony he had grown accustomed to. His old-age found him walking often between the shelves, ambling slowly down each aisle. To anyone else, the serene quiet was only disturbed by the soft shuffle of his footsteps, the tap-tap-tap of his cane.

THE TRIP TO TAIPEI WAS A GIFT from his son, Lawrence, who had gone on ahead and was already waiting for him there. When Lawrence had discovered that his father had never been to the National Palace Museum, he had taken it upon himself to bring Mr. Liu.

“Dad, you mean you’ve never seen their antiquities exhibit?” Both father and son, surprised at this, burst out laughing at the absurd discovery.

Mr. Liu’s son was waiting for him as he exited baggage claim. “It’s early enough. Would you like to go to the museum now?” Lawrence asked. Mr. Liu nodded.

The taxi driver drove them up the main driveway, and Lawrence helped his father from the taxi. They walked through the wondrous archways that led to the stairs and up to the entrance for visitors and tourists.

The museum contained many ceramics, enough to make Mr. Liu giddy, as well as regretful that he had not visited the museum as a younger man. On display were not only vases, but bowls, pitchers, planters, cups, and washers, each with their own signature voices, each one as captivating as the next. He knew he could spend hours there, days even, and not tire of the sights or sounds.

Then he spied a vase displayed on a table near a section corner, away from the thickest part of the crowd, almost as to be ignored. It took him some time to recognize it; but when he did, his breath was taken away: its identical twin was the very first vase he had bought from his bank so many years ago.

There was the garden which he had memorized over years of tireless scrutiny: there were the egrets and the lotus pond painted over the vase’s white glaze, standing out starkly in shades of reds, yellows, greens, blues, and embellished gold; the waterweed, duckweed, and round leaves seemed to ripple in the azure pool they were painted upon; the tender green stems of the plants looked so real as to be swaying in a gentle breeze that blew close to the earth. Mr. Liu marveled once more at the detail, the small butterflies that flitted about the light that struck the blooms in the artist’s presentation of a lazy summer’s morning, and the lotuses that stood forth all the more unsullied in contrast with the grey-brown soil from which they sprung.

It was an exact replica of his first vase, down to the minutest detail. Yet there was something strange about this one. Amid all the babble of the museum visitors, all the voices and songs of the other ceramics, this vase was silent. This vase did not sing. It was the first vase he had ever encountered without a voice; even the singular vase with the image of the Chinese lady had spoken to him that one time, many years ago. Mr. Liu stepped forward, marveling still at its beauty, though extremely puzzled at the silence, a silence which spoke all the more loudly through a rising clamor that included, strangely, the thump of his excited heartbeat in his ears.

When Mr. Liu stood close enough, he reached out and touched the vase—and the garden scene startled him by coming to life before his eyes. The pool rippled as if the water was real, and the plants trembled delicately as if a slight breeze blew. The wings of the birds and the butterflies moved in grace. He could feel the cool wind on his fingertips, and the hint of sunlight strengthened to an astounding, white brilliance that filled his view. The garden faded into this brightness, overwhelming his vision until the blinding whiteness was all he could see.

“MAYBE IT WAS THE FLIGHT,” Lawrence said later. “Maybe he was tired. I should have brought him to the hotel first.”

“Maybe it was his time.” his sister consoled him. “Maybe you brought him to the museum just in time, before he left us.” Lawrence’s lips accepted her consolation, but his mind relived his father’s last moments once more.

He saw his father walking toward an exhibit that had caught his eye–everything normal, everything fine–reaching out slowly to an old vase. Lawrence had known that this might happen, and made to remind his father that touching was prohibited…when his father stiffened, then crumpled to the floor like a bursting sack of rice.

“Help! Help!” Lawrence had shouted, and rushed as fast as he could to his father’s side, but by the time the museum staff arrived, he already knew that his father was gone.

Lawrence had not heard—no one could have, except for the man lying on the floor—but at that moment a new voice, that of one more good person, started to whisper, then sing, from the vase that just before had no song of its own, lending its support to that pillar of the world.

About the Author

Whether he admits it or not, Kyu (as he is fondly known) is one of the most prominent figures in Philippine Speculative Fiction. A graduate of Xavier School and the Ateneo de Manila, Kyu is a tennis aficionado and literacy advocate. He’s the publisher and editor of the Digest of Philippine Genre Stories, and his fiction has been published in The Town Drunk, the Philippine Graphic and AlienSkin magazine. The PGS blog is a daily staple for anyone interested in Philippine Spec Fic. You can read more about Kenneth at his author’s page here.

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Nüwa: Nüwa (Traditional Chinese: 女媧; Simplified Chinese: 女娲; Pinyin: nǚwā, also Nügua) is a goddess in ancient Chinese mythology best known for creating mankind and repairing the wall of heaven.

Since Nüwa is presented differently in so many myths, it is not accurate to tie her down as a creator, mother, or goddess. Depending on the myth, she is responsible for being a wife, sister, man, tribal leader (or even emperor), creator, maintainer, etc. It is not clear from the evidence which view came first. Regardless of the origins, most myths present Nüwa as female in a procreative role after a calamity. In one story, there was a quarrel between two of the more powerful gods, when one saw that he was losing, he smashed his head against Mount Buzhou (不周山), a pillar holding up the sky. The pillar collapsed and caused the sky to tilt towards the northwest and the earth to shift to the southeast. This caused great calamities, such as unending fires, vast floods, and the appearance of fierce man-eating beasts. Nüwa cut off the legs of a giant tortoise and used them to supplant the fallen pillar, alleviating the situation and sealing the broken sky using stones of seven different colours, but she was unable to fully correct the tilted sky. This explains the phenomenon that sun, moon, and stars move towards the northwest, and that rivers in China flow southeast into the Pacific Ocean.

In another tale, that Nüwa existed in the beginning of the world. She felt lonely as there were no animals so she began the creation of animals and humans. On the first day she created chickens. On the second day she created dogs. On the third day she created sheep. On the fourth day she created pigs. On the fifth day she created cows. On the sixth day she created horses. On the seventh day she began creating men from yellow clay, sculpting each one individually, yet after she had created hundreds of figures in this way she still had more to make but had grown tired of the laborious process. So instead of hand crafting each figure, she dipped a rope in clay and flicked it so blobs of clay landed everywhere; each of these blobs became a common person. Nüwa still laboriously crafted some people out of clay, who became nobles.

(Source: Wikipedia)

2 Responses to “Mouths to Speak, Voices to Sing”

  1. Wow. I was truly amazed and awed by this story. I’ve never read anything like it. I love the ending. It was sad but fitting at the same time. I hope my own writing can be half as good as this someday.

  2. Hi, Darlyn. Thank you for your kind words for “Mouths to Speak, Voices to Sing”. I’m glad you enjoyed it and found it worth your while. Good luck with your writing! I’ll keep an eye out for your byline, because I hope to read your stories soon. Keep reading, and thank you again!

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