chuan: to hand down, to pass on, to transmit.
To hand down speech is legend. To hand down administration is tradition. To hand down dye is infection. To hand down words is rumor. This has nothing to do with anything.
The dust storm was months ago. It turned us inward. It was the world for a time and then overlaid it. It comes back to visit me sometimes very late at night.
We knew the facts. We knew them even before they happened, because they had happened before—only the scale was different. Sinking water table, deforestation, drought, desertification, erosion. The north wind brings hundreds of thousands of tons of sand and dust from the Mongolian plains. The cloud covers half a million acres of China, reaches parts of Korea, often reaches parts of Japan, and once even reached Hawaii. Here in Beijing, windows would soon be shattered. The television faces said, Keep your children indoors. The dust contains traces of aluminum, zinc, and iron, said the faces, and hospitals in areas already affected have reported a vast increase in cases of et cetera.
The sky yellowing, darkening. We looked down through our windows as the storm began to arrive: a sort of whipping brown fog. Down in the streets there were kids with their shirts pulled up over their faces, women wearing masks, men covering their mouths and noses with jackets or scarves or only their hands. The sound of the wind strengthened and stretched and doubled back on itself. The men and women and children walked and then jogged and then ran.
Visibility dropped to 100 feet, to 50, to 10, to none. Grit sprayed in through thin gaps in the window frames. It somehow became hard to breathe even inside the house. The dust cloud thickened, and then the world was only this thickness, this gray-yellow density pressed against our windows, and we turned away.
And turned back. Because the thickness moved against the glass, scratched at it like claws. In the moments when the sound of the wind dropped we were able to make something like jokes: we turned to each other and said, “Demons with Spirographs?” But that is not what it was. We watched for as long as we could and then retreated and played at real life, at dinner and stories, as if nothing was moving outside and nothing howling and the earth itself had not risen up barren against us, and we lay on the floor of our children’s room until they pretended to sleep.
Through the long night, the dust cloud moved in whorls that warped and tunnels that collapsed, in great dry yellow rivers through the streetlights.
In the morning the wind was gone and the dust formed drifts in the streets. Men shoveled it into the gutters like sick snow. In places, it reached to the wheel wells of the cars that, like the storefronts and walls and trees and bushes and signs, were all of that same single color midway between yellow and gray.
Later that next day we sat and watched the television faces again. The faces promised that new forests would soon be planted in belts of green around the city, that for now artificial rain would take care of everything. They said that this rain would promptly be called down—by shamans or crystals of silver iodide; it was not entirely clear—and would wash the world clean.
Of course, all this is only rumor to you, the legend of an infection on this earth. And I propose a new tradition: each spring, let us all gather handfuls of dust, and smear the dust across our foreheads like war paint, and allow whatever dust is left in our hands to sift down between our fingers, and let us say, aloud: This is what happens, this is what we have brought on, this is the ticket we bought and now we must take the ride.