Erhu Guy

By Katelynne Davis

“It hurts my feet less to be here. I think it may be because this was all marsh, once. Used to be part of the ocean, and it’s still there a little bit. I can hear it, feel it singing to me through the streets. I’m lucky in that respect, I guess.”

She was sitting on the bench provided for tired commuters to wait for their appropriate Green Line train. Her shoes stood together, a faithful pair, just underneath. A drum half shrugged its bag and leaned moodly against the sign depicting a strange cepholopidic creature with red, green, orange and blue appendages.

He was sitting next to her, straight-backed, on a stool of his own. The erhu continued to rest on his knee though it had been silent for nearly an hour. She rubbed her feet as she talked, which he could see were flecked with little cuts, yet bloodless and tenderly wrinkled as a newborn’s.

Between the hours of approximately 12:15 and 5:00am, the T did not run, much to the chagrin of late partiers and nighttime lovers, and to the profit of taxi drivers. The bus system still operated until 1am. But by then the inbound-outbound Park Street Station was deserted. MBTA workers completed their nightly check-up, noticing nothing out of place. Erhu Guy was still in his post, and the girl next to him seemed to melt into the walls behind her, so it was easy for an overworked, tired mother-of-three to gloss over her before she settled in to her seat for the night.

All the same, the girl remained quiet and motionless during the inspection. She didn’t trust Erhu’s reassurances that if he could remain there, night after night, it was certain she could get away without being seen. She let go of her breath in relief when the door to the officer’s room was shut.  She continued her story.

“It’s a rite of passage. Around the same age that humans go through puberty. I’ve even read of this community which does something similar, called rumspringa. It’s like that.”

“And you all walk on land?”

“Most of us. Some are too cowardly, just want to see the surface. I have friends like that. But I knew from all the stories I’d heard for ages that I wanted to climb up here. The pain didn’t daunt me. Still doesn’t, though it’s inconvenient.” He waited. She sighed. “You’re right, though, I cheated a little coming into a city afloat.” He smiled at her admission and adjusted his grip on the instrument. “I don’t see many people like you.”

“Me neither.”

“You haven’t told me where you come from.”

“It is rude to interrupt another’s story before they’ve finished.”

“Ah…well,” she fell quiet for a minute. He who was made of patience, waited. She came in reluctantly, from the side. “I’ve read the famous story. Inaccurate, but with a thread of truth. For one thing, there is no sea-witch. I guess that was easier for Anderson to think of, than of the curse. His lover broke the rules by coming twice – you go, and you choose. You come back, or you stay. Most of us come back, you know; there’s hardly anything here for us. We start off with a lot of promise, everyone who knows someone who stayed or who’s gone before tell us there’s loads of opportunity, and we’ll find something to love quickly, but…it’s hard, now. It’s hard enough for those who have no choice, who can only dwell on land, and it’s easiest just to go back home again. And anyway, cool as it is when you start, such permanent exile is too much to bear, even just to think of, you know?” She bit her lip. “I’m sorry, I have no idea if you…”

His smile was less of mirth than of calmness, as he waited for her to remember what he’d said just before.

” Well…It’s true what they say about the pain. The sword cutting through the legs, the daggers in the feet. I feel it everywhere I go. And we don’t cry, mermaids don’t have tears. And it’s true that we often fall in love. Who doesn’t, wherever they go? It’s just rare that it’s mutual, or that it ever works. I…it’s mutual, but it doesn’t work.” She adjusted herself, stretching her feet out before her, careful not to touch the ground. She studied her legs – those muscular calves, the double-jointed ankles, the disturbingly veiny and flexible feet, prone to sudden cramps if she pointed too hard.

“How does it work?” She asked him.

“You give me something – a hand, a knee, your voice,” he allowed himself the joke and watched her face flicker first with fear, and then with irritation and embarassment when she caught it. “And I play. And, importantly, you must talk to me – the story is a part of you.”

“Does it hurt?”

“Yes, all tattoos hurt.”

“Perhaps I should have it on my foot then,” she said jokingly, but he nodded seriously.

“Yes. I think that would be appropriate.”

Surprise has a way of un-masking us, and he studied her true face for a moment. Her skin was smooth as sea-glass, and the color of her eyes was indeterminably changing. She had been the palest of the cacophanous drum circle which had taken up temporary residence on the bench where she still sat. They had all come down at once, some with drumbs big as bodies, and they plopped down together on the short bench, laughing as they squeezed their rumps all together. Each one was waiting for a different train, so they played at a strange, inverted musical chairs. Their rhythms beat together to the bustle that flowed through the station. And every few minutes, a drum left, taking a few decibels with them.

“Isn’t it strange,” asked the last man sitting, “considering this space is a place no one goes to, no one ends up here, they’re all here to go somewhere else? But it’s still a stationary place?”

“It’s like a waterfall,” answered the girl, and Erhu could hear a bubbling buyancy in her speech, which others always assumed a South African accent, but which he recognized instantly. She caught his eye at that moment – the refutation to their argument- but she only winked and waited as the man kissed her cheek, slung his drum over his broad shoulder, and took off to his train.

Hesitantly, and awkwardly, she lifted her right foot. With grave professionalism, he took it in hand and gently held it aloft as he pushed himself closer. Because he was right-handed, the erhu always sat on his left knee, and he had to turn his body and the stool towards her more to accomodate her foot. She flushed and emitted an almost out-of-place, girlish giggle. She tried to cross her knee, then ankles, then awkwardly bent the unused leg underneath her, with the nervous modesty of one who was not used to carrying a separation in her legs.

“If you sit like that, will you cut off circulation and feel pins and needles? Or-” he cut her off before she could reply, “is that how it always feels?” Her face folded into a smile and she nodded.

An erhu has a shape resembling a mallet held upside down, with a string – actually two strings, but so close together  – tied from the staff to the bottom. The side of the mallet head – a resonating chamber – was covered with python skin, and the backside was carved. She caught a glimpse as he took off his coat and rolled up his sleeves. It looked like a nondescript pattern, except it wasn’t exactly symmetrical, and a closer look revealed a system of letters. They looked like Chinese characters to her, yet they seemed to be more pictographic. There, something like a spider, or a woman; there, an unwholesome beckoning; there, a fish, but it was flying, because there beside it was a tree, and a music note…

The last part made her laugh, and she responded to his gentle inquiry by explaining, “My aunt used to call birds ‘fish’, singing fish, because she didn’t know any better.” She winced as he began his song, and then continued slowly, “She used to tell me, whenever I talked about finding love on shore, ‘You think you’ll find the one, you’ll fall in love, and his soul will just glide into your body? Ha! It is very stupid of you.’ But she knew me. ‘Oh, I know what you want, and you shall your way, whatever pain it causes you. Even if your heart should break and you become foam on the crest of waves, my pretty princess.’ Oh,” her face suddenly fell into sad surprise, even as she sucked in her breath from the pain. “Maybe she didn’t…maybe that’s just what the sea-witch said in the story…I can’t remember now…ow, jeez! Can we stop?” she gasped.

He shook his head. “You see this bow? how it is on the inside of the strings? I could never take it out unless I cut it, and if I did it would lose all its power. The bow and the strings are always together, so that even when I am not moving them, they are playing, making silence.”

“Is that relevant?” she snapped, and he let the tone fade into silence. It was normal, and not the worst he’d heard, standing there calmly guiding others through pain.

He could tell the pain was getting hard for her to handle. She still endured, but her eyes were storming over, and she began to tell deeper secrets.

“You know what I told him my name was? Maneli. He used to joke, calling me Manny for short when he wanted to annoy me, or Elli, but I always liked it better when he used my full name. You know what it means? It’s a Persian word I found while I was reading about the way we’re looked at by people up here. It means ‘mermaid’, and it also means ‘stay with me’. Is that pretty? Pretty pathetic? I made him say ‘Stay with me’ every time he said my name; I wanted to hear it, I wanted to believe he loved me.” She was starting to shiver a little, so he played more softly, more gently, though still did not stop. “I gave up so much for him, and he never knew anything about it.”

“What is your real name?” he asked her gently, making her think slightly about something else, just for a moment.

“Karoo. It’s a pretty name under water. But the first few people I met here called me Kangaroo at the time. I didn’t mind until I saw him, and I knew I wanted a new name.”

She was shivering. She closed her tearless eyes. She began to speak in a way that sounded like she was reciting.

“The little mermaid walked on sore feet up JFK/Memorial Drive, from Harvard to the bridge over the Charles,
down to a bench by the water that isn’t the sea.
Her prince sits down beside her in his leather jacket,
for once it is he who doesn’t speak
She looks at the lamps waving footpaths on the water, as treacherous as cobblestones; she’ll use this geography to find the place again

He tells her, “I can’t do this anymore.”

The words are worse than the daggers in her feet, than the cleaving of her legs when she arose out of the foam

…gahh, I don’t remember this…” she opened her eyes, which had turned red with irritation. “Are you tattoed?”

He smiled, and slowly he revealed himself, images buring from beneath his clothes. Across his bared body he felt the rolling movement of an impassably wide river, a mountain of flame and flowers, the island of women, the scuttling steps of a seductive spider spirit, a dragging gorge crawling with demons and spirits that garbled their alien languages and tried to feast on his flesh. She stared, eyes wide, still red as the rays at sunset.  Across his face she could see fruits ripening on the trees, and dropping from his eyes like tears. She could see impossible peaks melting away into his collar.

“What is it?”

“It’s a scene from a mythical story. My story.”

“Will you tell me?” she asked him. He shook his head.

“You can talk to me, but I cannot speak much. I must concentrate. If I do not, the ink will not take to the skin, and you will reject it, and it will infect you. You must continue your story.”

She tilted her head backwards, and continued. “I do remember it. I just don’t want to.

She saw him first in that mythical place, ‘across the bar’
She was swimming, and he was afloat
There was no spark – everything was too damp.
And she was already dating a merman.
But he positioned his ship in order to look at her through the meniscus when the professor got too boring
More than a year of sharkish circling passed…”

and then, she looked so sad, so out of place, that his heart moved a little in his chest, and the landscape shifted across his chest, up to his neck.

“Her sisters, to save her, gave her the sword they used when he said goodbye
She could return to them, if she just killed him in his sleep.
But as many times as she struck, he would not die, would not even look in her eyes and say, ‘And you…’

So she threw the sword back into the sea, thinking maybe the lady of the lake would catch it and brandish it three times.
It splashed and sunk, obviously

Her skin was beginning to soak from the sweat. The pain was no longer coming from the tattoo process. He thought of how a wave feels, crashing against a stone.

It was done. He never set out with an idea in mind, so the end result always had an element of surprise to it. And yet, it always made sense, like the answer to a riddle. This one also had stones, which were rare, but he knew would not move about her skin, and waves as blue as the cornflowers and crystal-clear. She looked at it, and half-laughed, half-choked, “A mermaid??! Oh come on. What the hell am I going to do underwater, as a mermaid with a fucking mermaid tattoo?”

“Maybe it will become something else when you are,” he suggested helpfully, shruggling. She was silent.

“I’m sorry,” she said quietly. “That was ungrateful.” He shrugged again. No harm. “Let me give you something.” She turned to unzip the drum bag.

He shook his hand as he shook his head, prohibiting her. “You should know I do not take money. I do not take payment.”

“It’s not,” she said, still rummaging. “I want to give you something in gratitude. You know the difference.” Finding what she desired, she pulled it out and placed it carefully in her palm. Cupping it deeply, so that it would not roll out, she extended her hand to him. In the middle was a small ball, or a large marble, made of hundreds of little hexagonal sides, so that it looked round. It was flickering slightly with lambent light.

He took it from her hand – her palms were smooth, but each line was a deep crevasse – and turned it around his string fingers. It was unbearably light, so much that he thought perhaps he could let it go and it would float there. He knew what it was.

“This is not yours,” he rebuked her mildly.

“It did not belong where I took it from, either,” she argued. He handed it back to her, and she took it back, seemingly resigned. Then she dropped it into the open erhu case.

“Keep it. To go wherever that goes,” she stood up and laughed, to hide her wince. A creature of lines and ink swam up her leg, swirling around the knee and disappearing up one of the pant legs. “Let’s see what she’ll be,” she said aloud to herself, and began to walk back to the exit, towards the blue line, towards the sea.

Illustration by Sofia Nikitaki

Find more of her artwork on her Facebook page:


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