by Mike Yunxuan Li
Movement I: Pre-Industrialization
After coming to Higher’s Private High School for just a few days, I noticed people here were essentially the same. Although they looked different, dressed different, came from different backgrounds, they all became indistinguishable from one another under the directional selection of job security. They were all “chill” and “easygoing”, they all laughed at the same memes, they all pretended to care about stuff, they all had this self-centered image of themselves, and most importantly, they all desired similar futures. Sadly, the things I thought were important for individuality, especially in this country: ability, self-actualization, and the courage to execute risks, were simply not visible in them. And yes, personality was not on my list. To me, personality was like DNA. Every cell in the body has the same DNA, but not all cells necessarily express all of their genetic information.
Then there is Epigenetics.
However, I couldn’t really judge these young adults too harshly because I was just like them, in a fundamental manner—well at least, until one day, something reminded me of that morning in the Pacific.
Kien was perhaps never as developed, and probably would never be as developed, but there was an inherent herby essence to it, a taste unique to Kien and me. The night was always filled with the brightest and loneliest stars, and from the top of our Kraser hills, we could see them twinkling above our heads, as if telling us they would always be there and our time together would forever lag. The walk from school to the mall and from mall to the subway station always felt sweaty in the breezy summers when lightning was imminent amidst the humid air molecules. The streets in the village were always lit with something. The areas that were dark felt just as creative because someone was with me, and together, the night transformed into a stage that simply served to highlight lights. Someone was always with me, and together we would look up to the blue ceiling, peek through street lights, explain road directions to foreigners, converse about anything, and through moments like these, memories were created, and now it hurt. It didn’t hurt because they were memorable. It hurt because they were only memorable.
That morning, 5 rows of Pexler tanks vacuumed our plantation. Pexler was like Ford. You knew where it came from just by looking at it. Our neighboring island, Kurston, wasn’t simply declaring a war on the state of Kien. They were sending a message—a message of completed industrialization and initiated New Yorkrization (westernization on steroids). I knew it would happen one day. The strong would be foolish to not swallow the weak.
Before the sun fully resuscitated from the seals of morning frosts, father jetted into my room. He had to be worried. Father rarely ran. He took my hand, and together, we scuttled out the back door into a nearby Kan forest. When we looked back, our mansion was gone. Bricks of black and white subordinated under the wheels of Pexlers. 20 acres of cash crops microwaved on the spinning plate of Kurston advances.
He put his hands on my shoulders and confronted my pupils with that once in a lifetime father to son seriousness, “We didn’t lose everything. Half of my wealth is in your mother’s house. Remember I’m the wealthiest farm owner in Kien? They only want me.”
The scent of his vinegary sweat, our kind of medicine boiling on stove, titrated by dirt in the smoke, was for a second the only vision of home and for a while, the only thing I could remember.
Bullets started raining down the forest. Long-tailed widowbirds woke up from their bowled nests and flopped into the air. Some got shot and fell to the forest floor. Others got injured and screamed like cats. Most escaped the forest only to be vaporized by the blue sears of Kurston flamethrowers, so horrifying yet hypnagogic, almost like a nightmare in a VR video game. Seconds later, the remaining strands of black tails realized their disconnections from bodies that no longer existed, and drizzled down one by one like kites whose strings had been cut—things that one would only see falling from the clouds in the obsolete tales of 2012 and the like. The volume was a long blackness that slowly encased Kan. Lines of professional K soldiers marched towards our direction.
He pushed me west.
My legs moved.
They paused behind a coconut tree.
He stepped out from the pile of banana leaves. The leader, dressed in grey cotton cloth, holding a fencing sword on his left hand, holstered his revolver and took out this photo from his front pocket. He placed it next to father’s face and smooshed his face with a magnifying glass over to the photo.
The first ordinary person that actually had an interesting story to tell was unfortunately not part of my first week at Higher’s. And that was a major problem. The seat across from me in chemistry class had been empty for days—the consequences of which was our group only had three members, a big reason for our snail-like progress on the project.
Just as I thought the seat would be empty forever, the unexpected happened. Ten minutes into class on Monday, the chemistry teacher spoke up for the first time since the initiation of our projects. “Guys, I want you to stop whatever you’re doing for a second.” His voice was extra smooth, like a mellow drumstick on timpani, which surprisingly produced pitch, which made me expect something. The classroom returned to its orthodox organization. I placed the periodic table in front of me in its default setting. I took off my steaming goggles and pushed the beaker aside with extra caution.
Inside the beaker was the essence of our project, the subject worthy of a Nobel Prize, the 7 inch Aplysia, a ditto looking sea slug, which I named Innocencie. Nobody really cared what it was called. It could be dabplysia and no one would give two dimes. Apparently, a professor from Columbia named Eric Kandel had done some extensive research on Aplysias half a century ago and used this little creature to show how memory and learning worked. In the past few days we’d been squirting water relentlessly on its siphon and repeatedly shocking its tail with voltages that were oftentimes uncomfortable even for us in order to examine the degree to which collateral axons had retracted or reframed. Long story short, the whole project was basically about torturing Innocencie on a daily basis to gauge out some numbers on a grid that had already been figured out by the Eric Kandel guy 50 years prior. I poured in a cup of sea water to keep Innocencie strong.
“I almost forgot, today is Remembrance Day. Let’s all close our eyes for a brief moment and remember all the loved ones in our lives,” he announced.
Someone raised a hand in the back. “When is the next legit holiday, like a day when we actually don’t have school?”
“The next staff development day, Justin,” he responded, which was basically a nicer way of rephrasing the legendary “furlough day.”
Tony shot me a glance from across the table.
Anna covered her face with her slender fingers.
Innocencie crawled a few inches upward like a slimy Virginia Creeper, his head breaking open the water surface, as if he wanted to participate in the remembering of someone too. Another cup of seawater went in and he retrieved to the bottom. Sensitization got him.
I closed my eyes. The taste of the ocean was at the tip of my tongue once again as Innocencie continued to exhale. Bubbles jazzed inside the beaker.
It was dusk when I reached mother’s place on the southern end of Kien. News of Kurston’s temporary occupation of the north had already spread like wildfire across the waterways of the commercial south. The government was actively setting layers of defense lines near the Kranel Strait that divided Kien into palpable halves with the capital, Kannonbalver, situated conveniently on the southernmost tip. As our boat lumbered through the floating bellies of random carps, scratching foams against mountains of dying Warty Venus clams—a perpetual noise that could be felt through the vacillation in my shoelaces, I remembered seeing bridges incinerating in rainbow, from lipstick red to pumpkin orange, aloe green to death charcoal, the smoke overlapping all natural scents of sea urchins and abalones in the thin ocean breeze, boiling a family of seafood raw like a damn steam pot. The water was completely drenched in oil as if it was never an ocean to begin with.
The officers escorted us, the northern refugees to their main camp in Krunen, where we would sign a few papers and stay until jeeps could be arranged for our departure. While waiting for our rides, they greeted each of us individually, assuring that Kien would fight until its last soldier to preserve the holy capital from Kurston contamination. The president even burned all of Kien’s 132 steamships to manifest his determination in defending his citizens, whom he called sons from a different mother. I felt secured. In fact, most of us did. The Kranel Strait had been an insuperable natural barrier that coated the heart of Kien for the past however many years that Kien had remained an independent state. There was every reason on earth to believe we still had a decent shot. I mean who would not be optimistic when lines of blue-coated soldiers aligned the strait, converging Russian machine guns on that one port the Kurstons could possibly board from, when imported cannons dotted the shore, determined to dissect the bastards that took father into their atomic components, when the waters had been trapped, stockpiling potential energy to repeat the glory of the Battle of Red Cliffs, when the president was dedicated, ready to sacrifice his own life for ours?
I could still recall that moment of astonishment when I opened the door to her apartment. A man in grey uniform shoved a booklet up my face. “Passport United States of America,” it read. Before I could grasp it, something thunderous went off in the distance.
I dived forward, landed flat on the cold concrete when a zoom of light skidded down the lane, blowing a neighboring bungalow into ashes of rusts. I braced myself as a second rocket zipped along the adjacent driveway, liquidating the already rotted ashes into protonic particles of invisibility, as if killing a house once was not enough. The cochlea were unwiring their snaily shells, pupils in my eyes bleeding from the lights, and every major lobe in my brain hallucinating, and yet I remembered the lady in that house, who was no more innocuous than a single mother working 4 shifts for the sakes of 4 children, half of whom probably would have graduated from middle school next year. A wind blew, dusts whirled, rearranging shape of the bungalow, and a moderate photo of purple and yellow managed to escape into the open air of brown snow. It must’ve been her graduation photo—her smile, wide and innocent, as if she’d already found the media naranja of her life.
And then, it deteriorated in the already microwaved air, the air doing nothing.
The sky had its belly cut open by then. Blood falling, in sheets, clotted the only layer of ozone visible from here. Missiles and meteors and objects beyond recognition showered down the village, a tad syncopated, captured through the retinas like lenses of a slow motion camera, as if meant for Kien to witness the bullet down its own throat, through the esophagus, across some tubes, into the capital, and death. It was tragically beautiful like those constellational portrayals of heavens in animes and tear-inducing like those technological depictions of air-strikes in Hollywood films with melancholic orchestral backgrounds, except minus the melancholic orchestra in Kien. In the horizons, rows of familiar dots treaded over the sun-set plastered cornstalk shadows. They were headed for the capital.
I felt a tuck on my shoulders. Tony gave me a quick wink and closed his eyes and the guy in uniforms was still standing there with the Passport United States in his hands with his hands still on my shoulders. A scent of feminine pheromone brushed my cilia as the footsteps of milk dabbled inside the dark hallway. Go, she said. I looked up.
Precisely a week ago we were having coffee by the Kinanel Beach with me complaining just about everything in life, and a week later she still appeared calm and contained when our nation was literally on the countdown to death, when father was literally—
I hopped forward and clenched her legs. Father, I breathed. She stopped me. She told me she knew. The president was still here, the capital was still free, the thousands of blue coated warriors were still willing to die for us, and the Kraner Strait was still intact. Yes, the president had boarded Helicopter Plasma 1 for Keren, yes the capital was captured, yes Kien soldiers could not fight for us, because yes the Kraner Strait no longer mattered. The Kurstons had boarded from the south sea.
The smell of Innocencie’s jizz returned. The past, not in complete scenes, flashed through cortex like car lights through freeways captured from space.
“Sorry guys I forgot my makeup this morning. I look like complete shit right now,” she said. A sweet scent of perfume blew in our faces. The smell of the sea faded.
Every syllable in her voice was the Earth—distinctively feminine at the core and gradually more Justin Bieber masculine as it echoed to the crust. Lights and periodic table stood nice and firm in front of my fovea. Something, either the direction of the voice or the unforeseeable activities beneath the table, told me that the seat next to me had been filled. Our fourth member was here.
My eyes focused on the periodic table, zoomed in on H and He like they were her eyes. They frowned with such sorrow, pronouncing curls of eyelid doubles, as if I’d just heard the most Hollywood memory-loss tragedy. “Well, if you look like shit without makeup, then maybe that means you DO look like sh—” words found their ways out of the memory.
There was a second of silence. Actually no. There was a sharp inhale (indicative of speech), but she didn’t let it out. I understood. It wasn’t that she wasn’t mad, for she had to be mad. It was just not considered “chill” to be argumentative in a place where 30 self-conscious young men and women aligned themselves for judgments.
Tony nudged me from the side, “Bro, I think you went a little too far. I don’t think that’s…”
Seriously, she’d let us down for two whole days, and yet the first words she blabbered out had no “sorry” in it? Nobody cared about your little looks; we just needed your beautiful mind to contribute its beautiful worth. Plus, I didn’t even say shit! And also, people here are more sensitive than rabbits. Any comment slightly out of the ordinary will raise eyebrows, implying the typical “Huh? That doesn’t make any sense” in such a sassy and judgmental manner, as if they’re the ones that founded the magical wonderland of common sense itself.
Then there are only 3 forms of young people English: American’s sassy tone, English’s classed sound, and just the bleak inferiority of everything else.
Tony wasn’t a bad person, so I let go of the periodic table and said, “OK.” This little feud wasn’t really between us anyway. However, I was wrong about one thing when I turned to face this girl for the first time.
NOTE: This self-contained excerpt is from his novel, Countercurrent Me.
Mike Yunxuan Li is a rising junior at Cornell University majoring in Neuroscience and minoring in Creative Writing and Spanish. he wrote his first YA novel, which is still in progress, right after graduating from high school. His poem, “Borrow,” recently appeared in Autumn Sky Poetry Daily and Better Than Starbucks. Through writing, Mike hopes to break down what we think of as “human nature” and “common sense” under the microscope to explore what’s actually logical from the habits we inadvertently exhibit as humans. Outside of writing, he loves playing Go, an ancient strategic board game, and classical music.