There’s never been a better time for stealing a capybara. The whole island is rattling sabers across the Taiwan Strait. Our president’s gone mad, vowing to “take back Mainland China.” It was from this moment that we decided to go steal a capybara from Wanpi World Safari Zoo.
We move under cover of darkness: Lao K, Ah Yung, Mao Mao and I driving out to Wanpi World in Tainan City’s Syuejia District. Since the zoo’s grand opening, a dozen of these so-called hundred-pound rats have floated, waddled, nibbled and multiplied in their enclosures. We plan to walk through the entrance gates, pass by the macaws, then turn right by the flamingos and gibbons to arrive at the capybara colony. I go over the itinerary in my mind as we go: set out from downtown for a 2 a.m. departure, take Hsimen and Bei’an roads onto Highway 1, then turnoff onto the No. 84 Expressway toward Beimen before taking the off-ramp and turning right onto Provincial Highway 19. By around 2:45 a.m. we’ll be pulling into the deserted parking lot of Wanpi World.
The gates are blanketed in an eerie darkness, the columns on each side seeming to loom larger at night. Three of us pull knit caps down over our heads, with only our eyes showing, like movie extras about to act out some trivial scene. Lao K waits in the getaway car. We hurl ourselves over the walls with ease, the toucan bearing beady witness through the fine mesh of its cage. We tread lightly on the bricks of the walkway, careful not to alarm the macaws in the aviary or the black swans lolling by the stream, hunching our backs past the boggy stink of the flamingo enclosure, their tender pink feathers glinting in the dark. The coati and falcon cages flank the walkway. Nothing stirs in the gibbon enclosure as we pass. And then, finally, we reach our target.
A dozen or so capybaras lie in their pen underneath small thatched canopies and by a small pond in groups of three to five. Two of them are housed separately in a straw hut to the side of the enclosure. They all seem to be asleep. If they were larger and wearing Judo outfits, they could pass for Splinter from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Some animals are like that: revolting when small, endearing when a bit larger, and a touch odd when scaled up even more. We select one of the capybaras in the straw hut and shoot it with a tranquilizer dart. It leaps up in fright, hops a few steps, and collapses. A few of the nearby capybaras stir and move about in a slow, zombie-like fashion. Mao Mao keeps watch as Ah Yung and I haul the capybara back out of the main gate as fast as we can. Lao K takes the capybara and sets it on the back seat. We get in the car and are off, screaming past the row of stone penguins adorning the entrance of Wanpi World.
“So we’ve accomplished our plan. How does it feel?” In the back seat, Ah Yung slaps the capybara’s belly, which rings out like a ripe watermelon.
How does it feel? I say. This was something we did just for the hell of it. The world still might end tomorrow.
In the car, we are drawn into the tranquilized silence of the capybara. The only sound is of wind fluttering through the window slits. Outside, everything stands still in the ink-black night as we pass scant traffic and the faint silhouettes of houses. For so many decades, our island had lived in a hallucination, until this morning we woke from our dream and everything before us seemed unreal, and everything that happened seemed as if it should be impossible.
Military analysts pretty much all agree that if China attacked, Taiwan would fall within thirty-six hours. First, a barrage of guided missiles would destroy our airports, government agencies and important landmarks. Then their army, navy and air force would blockade the Taiwan Strait, while diplomatic, financial and cyber offensives would cause even the U.S. and Japan to think twice before intervening. Our pragmatic countrymen would quickly assess the situation, organize negotiations, and so the Chinese Communist Party would at last be able to crush Taiwanese independence, achieve unification, and never again would anyone be absent from China’s family table. That’s the best-case scenario, at least — no one’s thought beyond that. Perhaps the CCP party-state would move in to Taiwan, fix up the war damage, and after a few years it would be like in Hong Kong and Macau, life would go on as if nothing had happened. It’s not like unification would erase the literal sea between us, and it’s not like China’s semantic harassments were anything new. Let them call us a ‘Special Administrative Region’ or whatever cute pet name they come up with. The mentality of many Taiwanese people is this: we’ll be swallowed up sooner or later anyway, but let’s delay it as long as we can. Or we can make like a sage and face up to it, accept it, let it all go; a living’s a living, sure.
Nobody knows what our nebbish president was thinking as the clock ran down on the last year of his term, but suddenly in an emergency address at 10 a.m. yesterday, he declared war on China. We assumed that as he was making the declaration, our missiles would already be taking out China’s coastal bases and the Three Gorges Dam, furiously unloading all our army, naval, and air forces like in a video game. To limited effect, of course, since the CCP has already strung up spy satellites all over our skies. But an asymmetric attack would mildly surprise them: they’d never think little Taiwan was up for that! Warmongers on both sides would cheer, not just China’s PLA, but the Republic of China Army as well, having practiced war games for three decades without ever sharing the fruits of their simulations. Is an army still an army after seven decades of peace? I never considered this in detail. I know from my own mandatory military service that the army is full of people bored out of their minds, the volunteer soldiers filching easy paychecks, the conscripts eager to piss away their days, an entire military of layabouts and understudies, none expecting to ever see combat. Our servicemen die from accidents, hazing and suicide. In these stiflingly minor times, all it takes is a missile strike to blow us into a major era. Didn’t we always want to live with meaning, to die with honor? Today, at the moment of battle, we wait for meaning and honor to scream across the sky.
Yet none of that came to pass. Some thought the President had been joking, mocking the bombast of dictators past. But right after declaring war on China, our President disbanded our conscript army, and declared that our national army would now function as a military contractor, its budget managed privately, with the hope that they would throw their muscle behind maintaining world peace. By this he means: Taiwan’s Department of Defense will be abolished, and reconstituted as a mercenary corps. Wherever war breaks out, its military services will be sold to the highest bidder.
“Isn’t this hobby a bit of a hassle?” Even after visiting the capybara sanctuary twice with me, Lao K’s still not fed or touched the creatures. He just watches me from behind his sunglasses as I tear leaves from a head of cabbage, feeding them into the capybaras’ mouths like paper into a shredder.
“In times like these, stealing a capybara is as good as anything else we might do,” Mao Mao answers for me. She’d taken six months of carpentry classes at a vocational school, but hadn’t gotten halfway through building a table before all her classmates and teachers fled from the city in a panic (city apartments lack air raid shelters, I guess.), so she’s come back to help out at Ah Yung’s coffee shop. Business is booming these last couple of days. Since schools and offices were closed, a bunch of people are at a loss for how to kill time, so they stream into department stores, cinemas, karaoke bars and cafes. If I sat in Ah Yung’s cafe all day, I’d think everybody’s on a long weekend: the referee’s called injury time across the whole island and nobody knows how long is left on the clock. The cafe’s TV plays the news silently, images of pundits frantically pronouncing on China-Japan-America trilateral talks, the First and Second Island Chains, hegemony in the Western Pacific, the Diaoyutai Island dispute, etc. It all flies over our heads just like the rantings of our mad President. One moment the pundits expound on analysis about each side’s arsenal and military preparedness, the next they are onto the international balance of forces, none of it rising above the average internet hot take. Anti-nuclear and anti-war protesters hit the streets, which also ring with rallies supporting unification, independence and unification with the USA. Every political skeleton since 1949 comes tumbling out of the closet in a parade of bad ideas. We turn our heads away, but the hubbub here in the coffee shop is also an illusion. Here we sit idly waiting for the bubble to burst on our democratic era. Before long our Republican Calendar will go the way of Qing emperors, forgotten and obsolete.
For the first time, I feel sentimental about my citizenship card, and get teary thinking about my passport. Soon, they’d be stamped void like my expired college ID cards, but we don’t know what will replace them. On the TV, a commentator says that the Chinese Communist Party are bound to ‘liberate’ Taiwan before the party’s 2021 centennial jubilee so that they can celebrate realizing the ‘Chinese Dream’ of national unification. Such theories arc across the sky like the trails of smoke bombs.
In the twelve hours since we declared war and disbanded our army, China hasn’t moved its troops. They’ve merely sent out a spokesperson to denounce our President. A financial analyst comes on to say that after the President’s declaration of war, the real battlefield will be in the global financial markets. Reports come in of a mysterious mass of offshore money buying up the US Dollar, siphoning all American cash out of China, which given China’s inflation problems and massive public spending programs, threatens to pop the giant economic bubble looming over their country, just like George Soros’ hedge funds did to Hong Kong in 1997. But none of the words spoken by the talking heads make any sense to me. In short, since Taiwan’s on indefinite vacation and nobody knows what’s going to happen next, we might as well take the opportunity to steal a capybara.
When I first mentioned it, Lao K and Ah Yung both shook their heads.
“Cut it out. No way,” I remember Ah Yung saying, “Just look at the cafe. It might as well be Chinese New Year in here. Wanpi World will be mobbed by tourists.”
I said: “There’s a national crisis hanging over all our heads. No one would notice if a private zoo is short one giant rat.” I’d done the research: the zoo closes at five and by seven or eight there’s no one’s around. It shouldn’t be hard to sneak in.
“Can’t you just raise a hamster and call it a day?” Ah Yung had asked. “Why must it be a capybara?”
I said that this was like asking: why go see Florentijn Hofman’s giant Rubber Duck sculpture when you can float a regular rubber duck in your own bathtub? Lao K didn’t say much, but signed up as the getaway driver. Only Mao Mao showed much enthusiasm, suggesting that we borrow a tranquilizer gun from her veterinarian friend. We decided to meet up that night at 1:50 a.m.
“It’s hard to tell that we’re supposed to be at war. It feels spooky,” Mao Mao says, hugging the paralyzed capybara against her and peeling back its upper lip to look at its incisors. The scenery beyond the windshield is no different from usual under the streetlights’ feeble glow. We roll down the windows and the night blows in its moist breath. The occasional car passes. As sure as your heart beating, there will be people still up at this hour. My head tells me that Taiwan is facing a life or death moment. Perhaps tomorrow we would wake under a different flag. My heart responds, saying — well, what do the common people care about a regime change anyway? We have no other country, no way to flee by air or sea, so we might as well stick around to bear witness to the end of a nation. With only two hundred or so nations on earth, how often do you get to see one being snuffed out? I’m determined to stay to watch it happen.
This isn’t really the first time Taiwan has faced a massive change in its sovereignty, I think. Whenever other countries poach our soccer players or porn stars, we tamp down our nationalistic sentiments and face the facts. Anything can be up for negotiation, I think, so long as we’re being taken seriously. When Taiwan was ceded to Japan in 1895, armed militias put up a fight for a while, but when Japan took over, we still hung up our swords and bowed to their colonial laws. Colonization, prejudice, exploitation — we gamely took it all. You get used to it after a while. And later, when the KMT offered a new case study in comparative governance, who among us didn’t secretly pine for our gentler Japanese dictators? Even way back in the late 17th Century when Koxinga’s rebel dynasty scrambled to find a successor and the navy of Qing general Shi Lang kicked their asses in the Penghu Islands, didn’t our little rebel dynasty surrender as they were told?
In the car, Lao K plays The Eagles’ “Hell Freezes Over” reunion album from 1994. I remember first hearing it while studying English for my second try at the college entrance exams. Our second-rate English tutor played it for us, explaining as it went how the album title was an idiom that meant “an event bound never to occur.” The Eagles had disbanded in 1980, some members drifting, some members dying, just like many legendary bands before them. They never expected to get back together. But not only did they reunite, in 2007 they even put out a new album, and in 2011 came to play a gig in Taiwan. I wonder if that English teacher ever hit a stride in his career, maybe even scoring tickets to see The Eagles play in Taipei. Hearing “I Can’t Tell You Why” niggles at my sense of past and present. If we’re extras in this blockbuster, this album’s a fitting soundtrack. But I’ll get depressed if I think any more about it and right now. I have tofocus on the capybara here in the car, make a plan for his future. The Eagles’ “New York minute” is happening right now.
I’ve seen YouTube videos on how to care for your capybara. Give it a full bathtub and a place to piss and shit. It didn’t look too hard. After descending the highway off-ramp and passing through the blinking red traffic lights of downtown, we reach my house. Lao K helps me haul the capybara inside. I’ve already tidied up inside, filled the bathtub, and prepared seven or eight heads of cabbage. Ah Yong and Mao Mao buy omelets, fried dumplings, soymilk and black tea from the breakfast shop down the street. We chat as we eat, waiting for the capybara to awake.
A capybara looks the same unconscious as asleep: its face set in an expression both leisurely and solemn, its belly rising and falling in a slow steady rhythm. I touch its bristly, dirt-yellow fur, feeling its warmth and tracking its breaths. It stirs, opening its moist eyes a little, wriggling its snout, attempting to move. I pat him and only now notice the lump on its snout; it’s a boy. He slumps on the floor like a pile of shit. We all reach out to pet him. He squints his eyes in pleasure or distress; it’s hard to tell which.
Lao K goes back to Anping while Ah-Yung and Mao Mao drive back to their place in Yong Kang, leaving me and the capybara to watch dawn break slowly over the streets. I decide to name him ‘Coffee Capy’: a stupid name, but it’s not as if he knows what it means, or understands that he’s just experienced a great twist of fate. As the tranquilizer fades, Coffee Capy stands up and walks around, timidly sniffing his new home, moving lethargically, his two ears flicking intermittently. I follow him around the house, laying out newspapers for him to piss and shit, filling the tub so he can hop in any time. When he opens his mouth he looks like a hippo, the pink flesh sagging from the sides of his jowls. His sharp incisors glint yellow, which reminds me to go find some branches for him to chew on. Coffee Capy staggers about before slumping down and facing the front door, as if bored by his surroundings. Whatever. I’m tired. I go upstairs to sleep.
A few hours later the district supervisor’s voice blares from the streets’ loudspeakers, soaked in reverb. I get up to take a shower, and find Coffee Capy squinting at me from the bathtub, submerged up to his nostrils, his fur sopped to a deep coffee brown. Put a towel on his head and he’d look no different than a Japanese salary man at a public bath. I slow down my movements, slip into the tub and turn the shower tap. He acts as if I wasn’t there. I lather myself with soap and rinse off, wondering if I should wash him too. Maybe later. It’s only our first day together.
Capy emerges from the bath a while after me, tenses his body and shakes off a sheet of beaded water before strolling over to a patch of sunlight by the front door, where the cool granite floor absorbs his remaining moisture. I sit down next to him cradling my laptop, scrolling through Facebook, Plurk, and the online message boards, an incessant stream of news and gossip spraying forth from each window. From the clamor of crowds and traffic outside I can tell the city is truly in vacation mode. Tainan’s traffic snarls atrociously on holidays, with people everywhere, double parked cars blocking lanes all over the place, all the city’s historical sights and foodie hotspots choked. I gaze at Coffee Capy’s plump haunches splayed out under the sun, suddenly wishing that life could always be so simple. I close my laptop and lean over to try to see the world from Capy’s perspective, but all I get is a close-up view of the room’s dust-engorged corners. He turns to look at me, maintaining his sunbather’s posture. I get a bit closer, reaching out both hands to rub the back of his neck, ruffling his prickly fur, inhaling his lively animal stink. It reminds me of a person waiting for someone, of The Eagles’ song that goes: If you find somebody to love in this world / you better hang on tooth and nail. Sure enough, Capy’s little teeth and nails are right there in front of me. In a New York minute.
After napping, I throw a leash on Coffee Capy and take him for a walk to Ah Yung’s coffee shop. The sight of me walking a hundred-pound rat turns tourists’ heads as we pass. Coffee Capy adopts my swaggering stride as we pass Ximen Road and turn into Guohua Street to reach the entrance of Puji Shrine, where a family of worshippers requests a photo with him. The two young sisters hug the capybara, giggling while their mother uploads the photo on to Facebook, and then crowd around their mother’s phone to inspect the results. We continue on our way through the alleyways, past the usual crowd of geriatric stoop-campers, to arrive at Ah Yung’s cafe. The clamor of customers can be heard from outside; it seems the shop is packed again today. Mao Mao plates up the desserts while Ah Yung pours out the café lattes. As I take up the remaining seat at the bar, the other patrons cry out in alarm at Coffee Capy. He plops down next to my seat to rest, his eyelids draw together to merge in a single line of black.
The news ticker rolls ceaselessly along the bottom of the muted television with more conjecture and speculation. Hsieh Ming-yo’s Taiwanese folk album “Tainan” rings out from the stereo, both fitting and incongruous – “today, oh, I’d rather not fly…” Taiwanese people are bizarre — even in the face of a major crisis we laze about in coffee shops, share small talk, check in on Facebook, calmly posting news articles and photos of our lunch. What else could we do? Don’t ask me. But aren’t we supposed to be preparing for war with China? Shouldn’t we be worried about a cyber-attack? Taiwan doesn’t regulate its internet — you can connect with whoever you please, browse whatever you like, just not Chinese sites, which have been shut off to the rest of the world. Rumor has it that our government needs to keep abreast of the international financial battlefield, so we can’t draw up our digital bridges. China’s Great Firewall can fend off intrusions from foreign hackers like the Great Wall of old. And so long as they’ve cut off all connections to the outside world, it’d be difficult for anyone to leak any intelligence from inside. Some TV pundit says that these digital conflicts are often decided within seconds, if not milliseconds. Other foreign media figures say this could be the Pearl Harbor of the digital era. This comparison doesn’t feel right to me. In the end, didn’t America make Japan eat shit for that sneak attack?
I hear a man converse in a Mainland accent the table over. I’m guessing he’s a Chinese exchange student discussing the events of the day with his local classmates. Poor guy, I think, to be appointed spokesperson for his country like this. If he applied to come here to study, he probably thinks highly of Taiwan. He probably doesn’t want to see conflict escalate out of control across the Taiwan Strait. I eavesdrop on their inane collegiate chatter, finding no insight within. Mostly, he worries about being unable to contact his family. I have a disjointed conversation with Mao Mao and Ah Yung as they rush about with their work. They’re both real troopers, running this shop on so little sleep. True lovers really are of one mind.
“What else can we do?” Ah Yung says. “Sitting at home and worrying about the news doesn’t help. We might as well give people somewhere to hang out.”
I point out the festive atmosphere in the cafe.
“Maybe we won’t get another chance to celebrate our own holidays, ha ha,” says Mao Mao.
Ah Yung says, “You know, I can’t pinpoint it, but even now this still doesn’t feel quite real.”
I say that I still don’t feel that the large rodent sitting on the floor beside me is quite real.
In a lull in their workflow, they stoop down to pet Capy. Mao Mao sighs: “What I wouldn’t give to be an animal right now, without a worry or a care. Look at him. What a cutie. He’s giving me so much life right now.”
The din in the cafe reaches a fever pitch as group after group sidles up to Capy for photos. I sip my coffee and let them do as they will. Some ask where I got him. I say he’s stolen. They laugh. None of them believe me. I bury my head in a novel, trying to slip momentarily away from this world and into another. As I glance across the cafe, I see everyone chatting and pawing at their phones, bright patches of screenlight reflecting on their hands and faces.
Lao K comes by soon after, greeting us and petting Coffee Capy’s belly. Capy lies on his back, enjoying the stomach rub. ”I thought you weren’t into him,” I say to Lao K, “why so handsy today?” One small change at a time, he says, considering that everything might go tomorrow. His mother’s Indonesian caregiver has just been evacuated by the Indonesian government, so everything has fallen to him now. He’s just sneaking out for a quick cafe break before his mother wakes from her midday nap. The Historical Street at Anping is packed to the gills, with lines out the door at the sweet tofu, fish skin soup and beef broth shops. Forget about driving down Mingsheng Road to downtown — it’s a good thing he rode his bike.
“Taiwanese people really know how to shrug their way through their lives,” Lao K concludes. He tucks into and swiftly demolishes his homemade sticky rice dumpling and citrus coffee before spreading out his newspaper like an old man reading the news over breakfast. He asks what I’m reading. I raise the novel’s cover towards him, and we both retreat into our own worlds of letters. It struck me that his reading material now reads much more like fiction than mine. This isn’t the kind of war we thought we’d be getting. No deaths, no blood, no missiles volleying back and forth, and thus no need to flee into bomb shelters. This lacked the immediacy of a video game, but the stink of momentousness still hung low and heavy in the air. Or maybe that was just Tainan’s horrible air quality. It turns my nostrils soot-black every day.
“Are your wife and daughter okay?” I ask Lao K.
“They’re alright. Things are better in New York than in Tainan, after all.”
“Flights are still grounded over there, right?”
“Nothing we can do about it. Who knows what might happen? At least they’re safe where they are.”
“Come to think of it, you’ve only been apart for a month.”
“Eh, who could’ve seen all this coming?”
I look at Coffee Capy sprawled out on the floor, oblivious to the ruckus all around him. This sort of creature is at home anywhere, supremely unbothered by the world. Even while besieged by oglers, he maintains his sunbather’s posture, merely twitching his ears every now and then.
Behind the bar, Mao Mao and Ah Yung wash cups and tidy up.
“By the way,” I ask them. “I’ve been wondering who’s behind the plan to build a shrine to Admiral Shi Lang? They’ve even put up their fundraising billboard on the building on the corner of Kaifeng and Fuqian Road, just across from the statue of Koxinga riding his horse. Seems like they’re really rubbing their old enemy’s nose in it.”
“I wouldn’t have noticed if you hadn’t brought it up,” Ah Yung steals a gulp of water.
“It’s easy to see conspiracies everywhere right now,” Mao Mao washes and wipes her soap-lathered hands.
“Ever notice that at the Koxinga Shrine, they list Pai Chongxi as the donor of the inscription on the front gate?”
“I vaguely remember. Isn’t he the father of that famous novelist?” Mao Mao asks.
“You mean Pai Hsien-yung?” Ah Yung asks. “What does the inscription say?”
“I don’t remember. Something in praise of Koxinga I guess. I wonder why the KMT Party would dote so much over Koxinga. Maybe they feel a sense of kinship and empathy towards another regime who used Taiwan as a base to fend off the Mainland?”
“No doubt about it. Didn’t they used to make us chant ‘Prepare in the first year, Counterattack in the second, Invade in the third — For a grand victory by year five’? I remember it from elementary school at Koxinga Military Academy and from doing military service. It sounded like a joke even then,” Ah Yung says.
“What an odd choice. Koxinga’s reign in Taiwan was really short. The Qing Dynasty took care of them in a few decades. Seems like the KMT still doesn’t really get Taiwan.”
Ah Yung answers: “America’s got the KMT’s backs. Otherwise they would’ve been finished ages ago.”
“Too bad the U.S. can’t back us up anymore,” I say.
Mao Mao sighs: “That’s how puny we are. We can’t even have a referendum like Scotland and just decide our own fate.”
“But like in Scotland, it might not pass,” I say. “We could do worse then the current situation. If our relationships are vague, we get up to more mischief.”
“What mischief is there to enjoy? We’re becoming more and more like China lately. When no one can tell us apart, what will it matter?” Lao K snaps.
A customer approaches to pay the bill while we carry on chatting. I can’t focus on reading my novel, so I walk around the café, thumb through the cafe’s magazine rack and the collection of travel guides collected by Ah Yung and Mao Mao, arranged by the region on the bookshelf. Seeing photos of exotic sights from around the world arouses my anxiety, so I go back to my seat and tug on Capy’s leash. He rises obediently, stretches and shakes himself awake. We head home together. I wonder if the people we pass on the street feel the same way I do, as though some momentous event has stalled just on the cusp of happening. Of course I’d rather not be suddenly bombed to smithereens. I just think that if the People’s Liberation Army are going to come, they should just get it over with. Anything but this suspense, please.
The news reports foreign nationals fleeing in droves, jamming onto planes and ships. But many more stay put in Taiwan, like us unable to imagine anywhere else to go, the sun continuing to rise and set, the storm clouds piling up but refusing to break. Since deploying his cache of retro slogans about retaking the mainland, our president has been plotting his next steps with his chiefs of staff, advisors, and think tanks. Our financial sneak attacks have succeeded in precipitating economic chaos in China and vexing the CCP, but no one knows how things will play out from here. After all, a massive line of missiles is aimed at us from China’s coast, and if they’re all launched, it’s game over for real. Funny to think of how long these missiles have been aimed at Taiwan. For so long, both sides have supported the Three Links and tripped over ourselves coming and going across the Taiwan Strait, yet nobody ever stopped to think “Hey, I’m heading towards a missile target!”, or, “I’m finally behind the line of missiles!” The missiles aren’t really great at asserting their presence. Only once, during the first direct presidential election in 1996, did they shoot a few blanks over our skies to spook us.
My phone rings as I’m feeding Coffee Capy some cabbage, my hands slick with mulch and saliva. He chews noisily, foam gathering at the corners of his mouth. I take the call, resisting the urge to boast that right this moment I’m feeding my new capybara. I calmly listen as she reports her bus’ ETA to Tainan. I ask how her folks are. They’re fine, she says, but she’s still keen to get back to Tainan. Her divorce papers have finally been signed after a half-year delay. She wonders aloud if not having children with him was a blessing or curse, because now her past five years seem to have been for nothing. I tell her she’s being silly. People come and go, despite our best efforts. Why long for romance in a time of national crisis? Hurry up and get back here, I say. I have a surprise waiting.
My fingers sting and register the feeling of liquid warmth. I look down to see my middle finger sliced open. Capy carries on chewing next to my hand, the foam of his saliva mixing with dark green pulp. I pat his head, get up to rinse my wound and root around for a bandage. I go out to find a pharmacy and ask the pharmacist if he has any ointment to treat a capybara bite. He says he’s unfamiliar with capybaras, but if it’s some sort of aquatic creature, maybe try a tetanus shot? He examines my wound and says it looks fine. A capybara isn’t just any aquatic creature, I tell him — it’s the largest rodent in the world, like a giant rat. A rat! he hollers. In that case you really need to see a doctor. I don’t pay him much mind. I buy a disinfectant ointment and leave.
Spinning by Ah Yung’s place again, I find him and Mao Mao pecking at their dinners. The crowd has thinned. I tell them that Guohua and Minzu Street are still packed to the gills, a whole bunch of people stuffing their faces with rice cakes, barbecued pork, ginseng duck stew and tofu desserts. Ah Yung says that Lao K has gone home to eat with his mother, but he can hang out after she goes to bed. I wave my middle finger at them, showing them my capybara bite-mark. They have a good laugh at my expense while they clear the tables, pour some more tea, and shoot the shit. None of us can work out why things seem so unlike end times in the movies: people acting like idiots on the eve of disaster, marauding and pillaging, raiding banks for withdrawals, clogging up outbound highways and runways. On the contrary, people have upheld social order of their own accord, the people still shopping, the stores still serving, the money still flowing. People still greet each other when they cross the street. A friendly atmosphere prevails. Striking up conversation with strangers seems somehow easier, and everyone has something to say.
I think of another time when something like this happened. “I hear that in the brief twenty-day window between Emperor Hirohito forfeiting Taiwan in 1945 and the KMT Government coming to take over, we didn’t see much crime on this island, either.”
Ah Yung: “Well, at least we knew which regime was taking over back then, it was just a matter of timing. Right now we don’t have the slightest idea what’s going to happen tomorrow.”
Mao Mao: “Good thing the shop’s been busy, so we’ve had no time to slack off. Otherwise, lord, it’s like our country’s really dying. Our dweeb president might just go to Beijing and sell us out at a meeting.”
Ah Yung: “If he’s such an obvious sellout, why declare war on China? He says it’s to attack China’s economy, but it’s not like that’s located somewhere in China. I don’t get it. Some of our customers were saying even their friends in finance don’t get it.”
“It’s too complicated. I don’t even bother reading the online explainer posts about it anymore. It’s gonna end one way or another. Let’s just wait and see.”
I once heard that a U.S. Department of Defense think tank was developing a “terrorism futures market,” letting investors bet on the likelihood of future terrorist attacks, displaying exact probability of key events. It would’ve outsourced intelligence costs and improved predictive accuracy on questions such as: Will Israel bomb the Gaza Strip again? How many foreign hostages will ISIS kill next? Will North Korea launch a nuclear strike? The proposal was blocked early on. But I’m sure some bored rich people somewhere are betting on similar futures, in our case, on whether China will invade and forcibly unify Taiwan. Some will surely strike it big on our death and demise. As we speak, China’s military stands at full attention, yet Taiwan is lost in a daze. It’s hard to guess what cards our President holds in his hands. I sip my tea, momentarily silent, as the other two turn toward the cash register, pull out a piece of paper, and ask me to sign as witness. What’s up with this? I say. Are we in an Eileen Chang novel?
“Let’s leave our mark on this moment. The Republic of China might well vanish in two days. Lao K can sign the other slip.” It’s rare to see Ah Yung get sentimental about the Republic of China. Mao Mao smiles aloofly. So this is how they hold on to a New York minute.
I sign my note, raise my head, and catch a glimpse of the TV on the wall. The ticker announces the breaking news: our president is about to give a major address. Ah Yung rises to find the remote. The live feed of the president’s speech pours from the screen. He speaks for less than ten minutes, then closes his remarks without taking questions from reporters. His few brief words run the gamut: we’re about to rewrite the entire definition of nationhood. We are to become a virtual territory, with no boundaries on citizenship. If citizens of the Republic of China wish to join the People’s Republic of China, they can reside in Taiwan as dual citizens. Additionally, Taiwan will permit itself to immigrants from anywhere in the world and Taiwanese citizenship will be open to all, no questions asked.
We stare blankly at the screen, sinking into stunned confusion. All is quiet in the café except the lazy churning of the ceiling fan, the music playing on the stereo, and the news station chattering softly. I suddenly feel like I’m in a mental ward, staring blankly at my fellow patients. Like Cheng Chong Pork Chops’ massive neon sign looming over city street corner, four giant words loom over every corner of my being: How. Could. This. Be?
I stretch out my limbs, confirm that this was all actually real, and yawl out in one long smeared syllable: fuck. Ah Yung and Mao Mao scream ‘fuck’ along after me as other customers join in. For a moment, loud calls of ‘fuck’ could be heard everywhere.
“What in hell?” Ah Yung and Mao Mao keep muttering to themselves.
With my mind spinning, I can’t be too sure, but this much seems to be true: the R.O.C. is the first democratic republic in Asia, and now we’ll be the first nation to transcend the bounds of geography and go virtual. It’ll be just like a massive online game: you just have to register an account to play, with a player base drawn from all over the world.
I pick up the phone as ask her if she’s heard the news. She answers drowsily, then screams as if abruptly shaken from sleep. She’s only just passed Taichung but says the traffic’s okay and she’ll be back here in two hours. I squeeze my phone and sprint back home through the traffic and crowds to check up on Coffee Capy. Opening the front door, I find him sprawled up against the wall. He raises his head to blink his wet, beady eyes at me. I approach him, wanting to hug him, fighting off an urge to hoist him up high like a trophy. I imagine her face when she sees Capy for the first time, and how our lives will play out from then on.
Capy bumps against me, escaping my grasp and scurrying towards the bathroom, plopping into the bathwater with the sound of an unfathomable exclamation mark. Outside, a car pulls up, a knock rings at the door, and a voice calls for my name.
Translated with generous editing help from Scott Writer. Originally published in Shorts: A Bimonthly (短篇小說)，Vol. 18, April 2015.