By Lo Yi-chin, translated by Nicky Harman and first published in Chutzpah, 2013.
Read in Chinese here.
The day before, he had gone to the pet shop and bought a carry-case specially designed for taking dogs on long journeys. The shop assistant, a girl with huge eyes who looked like a member of the “Girls Generation” band, said: “You can check this onto a plane, and it’s the right size for carrying pets on the high-speed trains too.” It was the kind of case an air hostess might wheel through the airport departures hall, with a pull-handle. It also had two sturdy straps and converted into a rucksack. That evening, he lined the bottom of the case with nappies and tried it out on Zeus (who was growing into a big dog now). This made the other two puppies go crazy with excitement. A few days before, he had bought a Japanese-made, rigid plastic carry-case for Peony, a tan-coloured Taiwanese puppy with a black muzzle, and tried to coax her into it. She was terrified and backed out, but then the other three puppies, oblivious to the sad fact that this box would take her away from them forever, surrounded her yapping jealously. And Peony, deciding that this was now her special box, comically took refuge inside and refused to come out.
That evening, as arranged, Peony had been collected by the good-looking young man who was her new owner, and taken away.
Now, as the remaining two puppies watched, he pushed the long-haired, gangly young Zeus into the canvas wheelie case. He would take the empty case back the day after, he thought to himself. For the pups, it would be like the days of the White Terror: a jeep pulls up in the dead of night in an alley lined by old, Japanese-style houses, and shaven-headed men in black uniforms politely escort someone away with a “We’ll bring him right back”. But of course, the person never comes back. He or she just disappears. Vanishes in a puff of smoke.
The four puppies had grown up together in the tiny flat, sealed off from the outside world, eating, sleeping together, yapping and chasing one another around. And suddenly, within a couple of days, first one, then another, would be taken away (in that strange spacecraft), and would never come back.
Actually, the puppy being taken away was embarking on a solitary journey into the outside world, like in the Lelouch film Chance or Coincidence. He got out of the taxi with Zeus on his back, put the case down and, pulling up the handle, wheeled it into the high-speed rail station to get a ticket. No one paid any attention to the case or its occupant, whose black coat was no doubt camouflaged against the black mesh cover so that it just looked like an ordinary suitcase to the travellers hurrying on their way. For the puppy inside, however, it was his first-ever sight of so many legs, clad in trousers, jeans, tights under mini-skirts, and long skirts, and feet shod in leather shoes, trainers, high heels . . . flashing back and forth over the great marble concourse.
Once on the train, he sat down, put the case by his feet and unzipped it. Zeus’s sleek black head poked out. The puppy had a terrified expression on its face, at once soft and despairing, like a negro blues saxophonist. It kept licking his hand, then gently took his trouser leg in its mouth as if to remind him that he was its only protector against the chaos and confusion of this world.
(Hey, you’re not going to abandon me, are you?)
He poured a little water into the bottle top and put it down and Zeus lapped a couple of times, more from a desire to please him than from thirst. He had brought a leather chew and gave it to the puppy, but at that moment, the train jerked into motion, and Zeus retreated in panic into the case.
The case was the womb. No, it was the landing capsule breaking away from the mother ship, to leave its occupant alone and bereft on an alien planet. This landing pod was its only refuge, stilling bearing the scent of brothers and sisters left behind on Earth.
The train sped along, dreamlike, at top speed. He fell into an exhausted sleep. When he awoke, it was to see Zeus sitting in a graceful posture at the bottom of the case, his luminous eyes fixed on him.
(You wouldn’t do anything to hurt me, would you?)
Finally they arrived. P, Zeus’s future owner, lived in a typical, southern Taiwan-style, flat-roofed house. Something made Zeus anxious, perhaps a smell of times gone by, or the dimness of the dark-coloured furniture, and he anxiously pushed his wet nose against his former owner’s hand, then prowled around the cool, dark marble-chip floor, sniffing. He had treated Zeus as a companion, or a son, on their journey, petting him, murmuring, “Calm down, there’s nothing to be afraid of.” But now he backed off and left the dog to fend for itself. He and the owner of the house expressed themselves as human do. (They embraced. Apologized. He gave P the dog’s vaccination certificate. They debated whether it might take a couple of days to settle. P described where he could take Zeus to get some exercise.)
He put Zeus on the lead and took him for a walk down the side streets which, during the morning market, were full of chickens in coops and fruit and vegetable stalls but which were deserted by evening. An old brown mongrel, lying under a peanut seller’s cart, watched Zeus pass. Zeus had grown as leggy as a Masai warrior but had never been out in the street before, and every detail exploded across his vision until his heart nearly leapt from his little puppy chest. It was getting dark. They got to a patch of lawn, where spotlights illuminated a tall, rectangular neon sign with the words “Dagou Love”. So this little garden was the entrance to a motel which provided lovers with the chance of a quick fuck. It had been planted with shrubs (actually nothing more than a few sacred bamboo with small, dessicated leaves and fanned-out branches like the spokes of an umbrella, rising upward in layers), their trunks propped up by three stakes or bits of lead piping. He wanted to take Zeus’s photograph in front of the light box and post it on Facebook. But he thought the pun—Dagou, the old name for Kaohsiung, also meant Beat the Dog—might come across as unintentionally cruel. The ground was littered with dead leaves, in orange, yellow and brown, and there were deeply shadowed dips and slopes. Zeus sniffed around, anxious but curious. If this were Patrick Suskind’s novel Perfume, each smell would had its own drawer, labelled with its individual form and sense. What rich cocktail of smells was exploding up the nostrils of this puppy? There were the territorial markings of adult dogs, in the form of urine and dried-up turds; and the smells of the earth, the grass, cigarette butts and ants’ nests hidden in deep recesses, and the stink of sour milk in empty milk cartons . . .
But there was no way the puppy could squat down to pee on this feral wasteland. Man and dog stood confronting each other as the darkness gathered.
He kept trying to coax it: “Zeus, be a good dog, do a pee pee, hurry up now.”
He was like an incompetent parent, seeing off his child, scared it would make a bad impression in its new home by peeing in the sitting room.
That evening, P gave him and Zeus his own bedroom on the second floor. The mattress springs were worn out and there were books in chaotic piles on the shelves and the metal desk. It looked just like the sort of room belonging to a lonely young man who had indulged too much in drink, drugs and a messy gay love life, who did not need to go to work and lived in quiet solitude in an old-style house on the edge of the market, and who would eventually age into a lonely old man. During the night he tossed and turned, unable to sleep, because in his haste, he had forgotten his Stilnox. The puppy lay on an overcoat next to the mattress. In his small flat in Taibei, the four brothers and sisters had slept huddled up together in a dog-pen in the study. This was the first time Zeus had slept so close to his master. Perhaps because of the disturbances of the day-long journey to a strange place, the dog now fell into a deep, sound sleep.
He thought he could hear the faint sound of waves, but he had to be mistaken. After all, the nearest sea was where the shipbuilders had their dock. Even in winter, he could feel the difference between this southern air and the humidity of Taibei. It was as clear as if he had a piece of reagent paper showing him with its colour bars that it was several degrees drier. Finally he pulled a jacket over his shoulders, put the light on and sat down at P’s desk to smoke. Zeus eyed him, sleepy but alert. Wherever he went, the dog would follow. He wasn’t going to sleep at all tonight; it would be light in an hour or two.
He felt a prickle of discomfort, and then realised it was because he had not been able to get online all day. During the whole journey with this soon-to-be-abandoned dog, on the express train, then the local train, even taking it to that strangely unreal patch of grass in front of the motel, he kept wanting to take out his phone and take some pictures. What began a sort of hidden sorrow had grown suddenly acute, because he could not post the pictures on Facebook. (His phone was an old analogue type and had no wifi connection.) Yet they had spent the entire evening—he, P and P’s ex-boyfriend—making hotpot, drinking beer, smoking, and joking and laughing, with Zeus lying peacefully at their feet, and he had never once given Facebook a thought.
He couldn’t very well open up P’s old desktop computer and go online, could he? It must be password-protected, even in a basic way, mustn’t it? He puffed away, then stubbed out the cigarette butt. Then he picked up his camera and spoke to Zeus: “Keep still now.” But the dog prowled around the room the way dogs do, slipping past like a river at night. All that appeared in the frame was a blurred black shadow, or nothing at all. Then Zeus would come over and lower his head to give his master’s hand (or the flashing object in it) a placating lick.
I wouldn’t have been like this before, he thought.
In the world outside, far from this attic room he was sharing with a dog he was about to abandon, big events happened every day—or rather, every minute of every day. There were the Fukoshima Heroes who, it was believed, braved the radiation hell left by the nuclear melt-down because Japan East Electrics had recruited them to sell their souls for 200,000 yen a day, until the news was leaked that gangsters were involved and these “heroes” had actually been press-ganged from the ranks of society’s outcasts: debtors, tramps, the mentally ill . . . He clicked the Share button and it was instantly re-shared by hundreds of unknown fellow Facebook users. Then there was cat abuse. And the Kony 2012 Youtube video made by Invisible Children. Leader of the Lords Resistance Army and ranked by the International Court of Human Rights as the most world’s most brutal rebel, Kony kidnapped children, arming the boys and teaching them to kill their own parents and family, and making sex slaves of the girls. Yet most of the world’s population had no idea who he was. His violent guerrilla activities on the borders of Uganda had no effect on American diplomatic interests. And so the Invisible Children had raised money and shot this short film, sending it out through social media, to make Joseph Kony famous and put pressure on the American government. He had had several people post the video on his Facebook page, begging him to share it.
Share. Share. Share and share again.
But just now he was not immersed in the blue swimming pool of the screen, was not browsing and clicking “share” in the reflexive way a swimmer raises his arms, takes a breath, kicks out. He was not part of these re-enactments of Greek tragedies, yet still every day countless evil-doings, terrors, disasters, virtuous or marvellous tales, flashed past like rolling subtitles. And soon would be replaced by hideous, slimy trails of new news scoops.
“There, hours went past, hours in which they breathed as one, in which their hearts beat as one, hours in which K was haunted by the feeling that he was losing himself or wandering into strange country, farther than ever man had wandered before, a country so strange that not even the air had anything in common with his native air, where one might die of strangeness, and yet whose enchantment was such that one could only go on and lose oneself further.”
In the dim light of the single fluorescent tube, he read these sentences scribbled by P on Post-Its and stuck on the wall, his finger tracing the child-like pencilling. It was as if he was deciphering their meaning with the whorls on his fingertips instead of the pupils of his eyes. When he was halfway through, he realised the words were from Kafka’s The Castle.
Zeus was whimpering softly. The words describe the pair of us, he thought to himself. He silently addressed the black dog with its unutterably sad expression, This is your dream, Zeus, not mine.
Crayon drawings or watercolours on different sizes of paper, which must have been done by P at different times, were stuck on the wall. The sheets of paper overlapped unevenly, fanning back into the shadows, like the yellow sheets of paper stuck on prayer walls in temples, which implored the gods to fulfil the most minute wishes of countless thousands of men and women. But P’s drawings were all of the same, charming, small boy’s face: like a boy in a fairy-tale, but with two devilish horns coming out of his head and an unbalanced upper body with layers of muscles on his chest and arms, like a figure from a Japanese Manga comic strip. But in some multicoloured crayon drawings, this freakish child slept alone in a blue light, as if hugging his sorrow to himself. In others, there were classically-modelled angels bearing up the child in their wings. In some, this child, always with the same face, had the delightfully comical body of a monkey. And this same half-child, half-monkey sometimes danced hand-in-hand in a circle with a bunch of strange and frightful creatures with devils’ faces and children’s bodies, like the horrendous kings and glaring warriors painted on Tibetan Thangka banners. Looking at the pictures, it seemed that in the later ones, the child’s head had turned from monster to Buddha, but still kept the same sweet face and over-developed pectorals, biceps and abdominal muscles . . .
P’S HOUSE WAS squeezed into a row of other four-story flat-roofed houses. That evening, they sat at a dining table lit with a hanging lamp made of an iron speaker, in the central well. There was him, P and Ah Bao (P’s ex-boyfriend, though he was over 30, so scarcely a boy). A few years previously, as a dark-skinned southerner of just 20, he had come to visit P in this shipbuilding town. As a gay man, he’d had the absolute superiority of youth. And now he was here again, a year after they had split up. Ah Bao had put on weight. He said he was managing three Hi-Life stores and had to get up at three o’clock every morning to buy in the stock. The profits were not huge but multiplied by three, he earned 70,000 or 80,000 dollars a month. But he could not delegate the buying to the assistants. Prices changed according to what goods were available, it was all too complicated and those young rascals could make a mess of it. Or even steal stuff.
I often get stuff a day or two past their sell-by date from Ah Bao’s shops, said P. Milk. Bread.
The yellow light bulb hanging above them cast deep shadows, making the three men’s faces look like van Gogh’s Potato Eaters, their scarcely-visible expressions like those of sneering, low-life Mexican miners in a smudged crayon drawing. When had Ah Bao started to talk of “those young rascals”? he wondered. It was himself and P, in their mid-40s, who were over the hill, after all. The pan of pickled cabbage hotpot steamed in the centre of the table and, from time to time, Ah Bao helped him to meatballs and beancurd, picking them out with chopsticks. They drank beer. And smoked.
Zeus lay peacefully sprawled at their feet, in the long shadows cast by the furniture.
They talked and laughed comfortably, like family. The three of them were stockily built with large eyes and beetling eyebrows and could have been brothers. He would have been the eldest; P, the middle brother; and slender Ah Bao, the youngest. Halfway through the evening, he went up to the toilet, a filthy little closet which looked as if it had not been cleaned since P’s parents died. When he went to sit down, he discovered the seat and its washers were stored above the cistern like broken stage props, leaving only the bare white ceramic rim to sit on. The direct contact between his bare bottom and the bare white ceramic—gaping like a throat or a lily—seemed crude, even in this solitary, dirt-encrusted space.
When he went down, he found Zeus prowling anxiously around at the bottom, unable even to climb the steps.
A funny scene came back to him and he said to Ah Bao: Look at P. Before his mother’s funeral, he asked me if I’d keep him company at the coffin vigil. I really was not keen, but I knew it was something P could only ask the person he most trusted. So we kipped down overnight on our mats in front of the memorial tablet with the picture of the Bodhisattva, the banner, the candles, the paper lotus flowers and the portrait of the deceased (the coffin was behind all that, of course). We smoked, drank beer and chatted and, you know, P even told dirty jokes! I found it pretty strange but I just had to go along with it.
Dawn came and P told me to go up to bed. I went upstairs to the shower room but when I was halfway through my shower and covered in shower gel, the damned water cut off. I didn’t mean to offend you, P’s mum, I thought, please don’t play jokes on me!
It seemed disrespectful to yell downstairs to P, stark naked as I was except for the bubbles. Then I had a brain wave, and took the cistern cover off and put the scoop into the cistern with its rusty ball and arm floating in the dirty water. Scoop by scoop I ladled the water over me and washed off the lather. Then I towelled myself dry and, pongy and perfumed, went off to bed.
P and Ah Bao roared with laughter. What made him sad, although he did not say it, was that P appeared to have stopped the clock in this room, as a way of cherishing his parents’ memory, so that it remained fixed in the space-time they had occupied. He was like an abandoned child, now grown up, keeping this room just as it was. But its furniture and everything else (all of which had belonged to his parents) seemed to be fading away—like the imperceptible draining of sand in an hourglass.
Abandonment was like theft, he thought, or like sex-addicts who couldn’t stay away from prostitutes, or young girls molested by relatives in dark alleys. Abandonment happened in the greatest secrecy, on the dark side of the moon.
The problem was that our feelings are always obstructed. Like looking up and seeing great lead-grey circuit boxes or CCTV cameras hanging from the city’s telegraph poles, never realising how many ugly things are hanging above your head . . . and have been for a long, long time. Our unexpressed problems leach out of us like electricity, then get tangled up in myriads of electric cables, like the ones draping the iron windows in ugly blocks of flats, wrapped in insulating rubber, bifurcated into millions of smaller wires.
He wanted to tell Zeus: You know, it’s not the first time I’ve abandoned someone. Like when I did dissection classes at middle school. I remember the first time I picked up the tiny scalpel (it looked a bit like the butter knife you get on planes), and cut the frog’s thin pale belly skin and exposed the still-beating heart, my hand trembling slightly, dizziness overcoming me, blurring my vision. Then my scalpel-wielding schoolmates, as a prank, decapitated the frog, reducing it to a weird, bloody lump.
A second abandonment, and another and another and another. Abandonment was like a flying fish flipping out of night waves in a phosphorescent flash and immediately swallowed up again in darkness.
But this was the first time Zeus, the black puppy, had been abandoned.
He stroked its lovely, ignorant head. “You’ll get used to it.” But then he bit his tongue, feeling suddenly moved, reminded of an old man snapping at a long-dead soulmate: “I’ll never get used to being abandoned.”
He thought: Even though we’re with P, the orphaned son who is your future owner, I still want to embrace your beautiful furry body, unsullied by human abandonment, and tell you I love you.
Even though I’m going to disappear tomorrow.
He remembered that P had had another boyfriend before Ah Bao.
EVENTUALLY, HE TOO had become cynical. When the old friends met again after a couple of years, one or other always had a new “lady”. He would give a slight smile and not let any feelings about the preceding “lady” show and make him look stupid. He would banish the memories which orbited his head like trash in space: how one “lady”, on a surreal night years ago, had used all “her” efforts to get rid of her predecessor, and landed her man. And everything began again. They changed partners faster than they played computer games. And the man’s friend would look at him with hooded, iguana-like eyes as he introduced the new arrival. Once the “lady” understood that you were the man’s soul brother, “she” would soften, or stare resentfully (just letting you know how disappointing she really found her man) or sit to one side, listening as the others cracked loud jokes (there would be drinks, of course). Nothing came as a surprise in the “floating world”.
Even an old man like P had a constant stream of new young lovers. Pretty boys. They were a lot more affectionate than middle-aged heterosexual partners. Sometimes they all sat down to dinner together, the current lover, the one before and the one before that. Of course, they got younger and younger as time went by, like images of classical Greek youths on pottery of different eras. But once they were all sitting together eating hotpot, smoking and drinking, they were like a bunch of brothers, one big happy family. P was like the father, or an uncle who knew the father’s former history.
He remembered at P’s mother’s funeral (so it must have been seven or eight years ago) a boy called Long with a simian, sunny-boy face like Jeremy Lin, sitting with a group of young men around the dark table folding paper lotuses. By night, however, he was a merman from the deep—gills at the side of his face, a scaly back, wet feet and a long kendo skirt concealing his tail.
The boy said that when he was three, their neighbour’s young daughter had disappeared. He had told his mum and dad that he knew where she was, had seen her head-down, hair stuffed into a crack between two stones in the river, eyes eaten to two empty sockets by the fishes. His parents were terrified, shut him in the house and gave him a beating. But a few days later, her body was found just the way he had described. At six, he fell ill and nearly died. His stomach swelled with a huge tumour and his head blew up like a gargoyle. Chinese and Western medicine doctors alike could do nothing for him until, one day, a lama came to the house (he got himself into a bit of a muddle at this point in the story . . . “Lamas? In Taiwan?”) Yes, a lama, the one who afterwards became his teacher. The lama told his parents that his and the child’s destinies were linked, then he got out a long, silver needle, and plunged it into the child’s belly. A foul-smelling liquid trickled out all night. The fever abated, and his face returned to normal too. The lama said that now that he had saved the boy, the parents should let him go to Tibet and study Buddhism. So the boy followed his teacher to a Tibetan monastery and did not return to Taiwan until he was 13.
“What? You spent six or seven years as a boy in Tibet?” This story had an air of unreality about it. How had they got an exit permit? And what about a permit to live in Tibet? He could not imagine a tantric monk taking a boy from Taiwan and getting him through airport immigration in those days. In Lhasa or Shigatse, in the Potala Palace or the Labrang Monastery, he had seen boy lamas with their shaven heads and dark red belts and brown robes, their cheeks high-coloured with the “highlands sunburn”, yelling at each other what sounded like obscenities but were actually the Tibetan scriptures. He had seen young monks sitting in dark rooms carefully moulding thin layers of just-melted wax from the butter lamps into complicated “butter-flowers” with chilblained fingers. Remembering the pungent, soporific smoke haze, he suspected that this boy had not actually been to the dreamland he described.
The strange thing was that, face to face with young Long, one felt it was all complete hocus-pocus. It was as if he described a projected world, a wavering image on water, which one had to crane one’s neck to see from the tatty, front-row seats of some run-down old theatre. But when he and P talked about the things which had happened to the boy, it was vivid and real and true to life. According to P, for some freak, unexplainable reason, Long was also a low-level emissary from the god Shing Wong, who got things done “down below”. In other words, he was like some stooge working for local councillors in a small town. Don’t look down on someone like that, there’s nothing he doesn’t know—the price hike (from $2 to $7) when you buy black market spare parts off a barrow or this season’s Koryo vegetables from the farmer’s cooperative, how to muster builders to throw up a prefab house with water, electricity and sewerage in a day on an empty patch of land, how to get out of a debt to a loan shark, or get your land re-measured in the household Registration Office . . . any bits and bobs of knowledge about anything, connections with gangsters, backstreet gossip, getting things fixed informally, he can talk the talk and walk the walk in any circles. We act as if it’s beneath our dignity to notice these fixers but we shove money at people to get things done, and run from department to department in the Township Office to get something stamped, in just the same way.
P told me he had seen it hundreds of times (when he and the boy were together): business called, and the normally cocky Long would stiffen and assume a different expression, aware that he was going into a different body and receiving a task. Sometimes he would turn his empty fingers into a strange lotus petal gesture. His eyes would look empty, as if the eyeballs had dropped out, leaving only whitened sockets. Sometimes he would order P to fill a bowl or cup at his side with water and burn a talisman (you never knew what strange paper talisman he would have on him); he would make a mystical gesture while dozens of personalities warred inside him, shouting, crying and stammering out curses.. . .
He asked P: Was this young man Long simply trying to be unique, acting out a bizarre persona so he could be different from everyone else? Like girls who got tattoos on secret parts of their bodies: cathedral frescoes of blazing angels in lurid colours, which no one else could imitate. or yaksha demons like the ones in paintings of the Japanese “floating world”?
No, said P confidently, it happens too often that he goes into that far-off world while he’s with me. It’s the way he is. Take it from me, it’s real.
Once P and the boy were in MacDonalds. It was impossible imagine how a bustling, bright, clean place like that could transform into the gate to another world, thick with dark, layered shadows—yet the boy suddenly grew quiet and his pupils rolled out of sight so you could only see the whites of his eyes. He began to shake imperceptibly, made a demon-expelling gesture and balled his hands beneath his nose as if there were a stink. He knew he was going into his other body again, was being snatched away to run an errand to the underworld. But he must have had a fierce adversary this time. His head flailed from side to side and he growled menacingly like a dog, roaring Buddhist mantras while his face grew wet with tears and snot. Then some impossible happened: suddenly, with a snap, Long’s hand was covered with blood, as if someone had shot it with a staple gun and the staple, at least 15cm long, had disappeared through it into the dark wood of the MacDonalds table . . .
What kind of world is this? P said the problem was that we were gay. Compared with the “normal” world, ours was a bit skewed, organized according to different ideas and desires and rules, but overlapping with the normal world. But me and the boy, he went on, we were sitting there (no one else knew what was going on at our table) while all around us boys and girls fluttered like butterflies in the garden of their superficial world. I sat there as he poured sweat and pulled out that great staple that had come from heaven knows where. He used his own handkerchief to mop up the blood, then rushed to the toilet, where I knew he would be burning a talisman and mixing the ashes with water to pour over the wound. Then the real, fresh red blood which had bubbled forth would vanish. Inside myself, I shouted angrily: this really is enough.
It’s just because we’re gay, said P, and live in a small town near Kaohsiung which is so conservative and expects men to burn perpetually with masculine valour. (We’re talking pot-bellied, bald-headed tramps, child mediums who walk over cleaver blades, grizzled old fishermen, dock workers from the shipyard with sturdy muscles and tattoos like blue ink from an exploded ballpoint pen, soldier boys from dozens of different garrisons . . . it’s like all the men sit at gaming tables piled high with chips, giddy and dazzled and tasting rank blood in their throats, but still forced by the crush of onlookers to up the stakes constantly . . . it’s a bloody, masculine atmosphere.) Back then, before my mum and dad died, I lived with them in this old house, crammed in next to the market, where any young woman cheating on her husband would get gossiped about in the local beauty salon, where even though her world was in the same Thangka painting as theirs she would feel so alone, poor thing, and when she went down the street hostility and scorn and a miasma of accusations stuck to her like thick oil paints . . .
I was fifteen years older than him (an old fogey in gay terms) and, since that was how it was going to be, when my partner (what a sad word) had staunched the blood and come back to our brightly-lit table, surrounded by noisy MacDonalds customers, I said: “We should split up. I want to live a more normal life.” I felt like a comedy actor, waiting for the canned laughter.
The problem was not that the kid was one of those “gorgeous boys” who would do DMT, electro parties, group sex, male sauna hunting games, and internet sex, habitually exposing himself and others to AIDS. (I realized I lived in a time of “blood brothers” who exchanged bodily fluids, sweat and spirit, P said.) It was that, when Long wasn’t inhabiting the ordinary world with me, it was like he was dropping down vertiginous mountain gullies to the sea, experiencing unimaginable things—deserted wastes thick with smoke, littered with heaps of disfigured corpses of all shapes and sizes, communities whose countless misfortunes had wiped all traces of humanity from their faces, driven there by another race of humans and dying on the way from sickness and starvation, in a world which could not be recreated in film or fiction, from which human civilization had been completed wiped out.
When he came back, he would be like a warrior home from the field of battle, cold-eyed, his body instinctively wary, sometimes retching, full of silent loathing for the pretentious world in which he found himself, even though this was the only real one.
I DO NOT know how I’m going to abandon Zeus, he thought.
The first thing was, where did they wander off to, those abandoned tattoo-faced vagrants, those girls and boys and infants from the remote past, those poor people whose good natures had been snuffed out?
He knew that abandoned dogs were captured and held in a compound like a railway platform where the trains belched coal smoke, with a long funnel leading into a cage made of stainless steel railings, all those dogs dumped like so much trash by their owners, barking, howling, woofing, yapping with ear-splitting loudness. They were all such beautiful creatures. The result of humans in search of beauty playing the heredity game: sheepdogs, labradors, Shiba Inu dogs, huskies, a Taiwanese black breed . . . though most were, of course, mongrel puppies like Zeus and the rest of the litter. Their mothers had long since been put down because they had canine distemper, enteritis or mange, and their bodies had been cremated and turned to dust.
These dogs knew they were going to die and had completely lost the beauty invested in them by humans feelings: their living, moving bodies, their so-sweet, morbidly tasteful golden and cream-coloured coats and faces. All you saw in them was rows of bared teeth, and frenzy and despair. Why do you want to kill us? Why do you want to kill us? They shrieked as their bodies thudded against the railings. There was no middle ground for them anymore, because they had been abandoned, they were as good as dead and gone, emptied of the beautiful, divine feeling of being alive. That was how sad it had become. The air was thick with nose-prickling disinfectant.
He felt it must be like the sights which greeted Long (in P’s description), scaling down a rope into the depths of hell every night like a mountain-trained soldier, coming back with a face like silver foil, shivering from cold.
Before Patch, he had abandoned many dogs, many names. There was an old one called Jade he had adopted as a puppy. She was a shy, sensitive, wary bitch. Carelessly, he had lost her one day in a park, but a week later on a public holiday, when he was back there and it was jammed with people and hawkers, he had heard her sorrowful howl and crouched down and she was in his arms trembling like a girl whose heart has been broken from her first abandonment. “Oh master, say you’ll never do that again.” Then he married and had a child and left the bitch with his mother, who had a few others by then. On his visits every month or so, when all the other dogs gambolled around him in greeting, Jade would be skulking in some corner of the house like a concubine of old dressed in pink with flowing sleeves, and little feet clad in embroidered shoes and lustrously oiled hair, motionless and dry-eyed. Even his mother and aunt would say, with smiles, “Jade’s depressed again.” And like an old rogue who had seduced many women, he would finish making a fuss of the other dogs and go over and crouch down by Jade and carefully stroke her head and reassure her: “Yes, you know you’re the most loved and the most beautiful, you’re the only one I care about.” And that evening, Jade would perk up and yap along with all the other dogs, chasing them mischievously. His mother would sometimes sigh and say: “If Jade was human, she’d be born unlucky. She’s got death in her eyes. She’s been with me so many years and she still behaves as if she’s the bottom of the pack.”
Then Jade got old and developed a huge tumour in her belly. The vet did not have ultrasound equipment in those days and gave him the address of an old animal testing lab lost in the murk of half a century ago. By then the bitch had bloody diarrhoea and was wheezing weakly. But with the stern authority of the dog’s owner, he insisted she accept his arrangement (while actually the human medical system left him wandering in lonely irresolution). The white-coated and masked lab assistant made him open the dog’s jaws and roughly poured contrast medium down a tube and into its throat. Jade surprised him by making one final, feeble attempt to struggle free but he held her firm, murmuring, “Keep still, girl, it’s for your own good.” Her eyes gave a feeble gleam as if in reproach: “Master, is that what you really want?” and then she stopped struggling.
The terrible memory exploded in his face like lightning on the plain, giving him a searing headache. That damned quack never got around to using the ultrasound. Oh Zeus, the vet poured at least a litre of contrast medium down Jade’s throat and the bitch expired in my arms, her mouth still rigidly agape, her eyes staring like coloured marbles in terror.
There were so many dogs I gave names to, a kaleidoscope of them, and I abandoned them in so many ways, before you turned up and took a god’s name, Zeus. Like Patch, abandoned on a bare mountain where rotting, fermenting, multi-coloured leaves fell and covered the flowers.
He felt as if he were swimming in a lake on a moonless, starlit night, drowning in Zeus’s loyalty and docility, as if the dog’s wet, uncomplaining, black eyes absorbed the world’s refracted light and blazing phosphorescence, sucking it all down into the silent, obsidian realm of the abandoned. He was a fickle man, and on the eve (actually the last few hours) of abandoning him, he’d immersed himself self-pityingly in the boundless black waters of Zeus’s eyes, swimming with a regular motion, arms up and over, legs kicking, head up to take a breath, swimming back and forth, in a place where time had been annihilated.
This was not a ballet about abandonment, or an “abandonment museum”. He had no intention of putting on display those small, black abandoned shadows which prowled sorrowfully around the no man’s land of the abandoned, either in exploded view or as memories of times gone by.
That was a time when he and P had still been living on a hill near Mount Yangming in student lodgings. He had adopted a stray dog. Without being aware of it, he had immersed himself in “dog time” as the clever mutt fastened onto him. They were living in one of a score of units, thrown up by skinflint old women whose entitlement to the land on which they lived and built went back generations but on which the land register was vague, and who charged through the nose for the wood-partitioned shacks, whose doorways held smelly heaps of men’s trainers, empty liquor bottles, polystyrene instant noodle cartons, bags of washing powder turned into sticky wet lumps because someone had forgotten to put a rubber band around the opening to keep the rain out . . . At some point, someone had thrown this ugly mutt into a corner of the moss-covered lean-to crudely cobbled together of plastic, corrugated boards and wooden planks, which served the residents equally well as laundry, or as toilet, or shower.
Patch had the body of a mongrel puppy, but the dark brown head of an old dog, and a narrow white band from the nose to the eyebrows and patches of black, tan and brown like a mouldy cake on his white body. He would wag his tail at anyone going in and out of the shacks, the young men and the girls they brought back from time to time (the latter liked to wear their boyfriends’ sports T-shirts and shorts showing slender legs ending in flip-flops, and would use the rectangular sink to wash their bras and panties.) Everyone would scratch the dog’s head and say, “Hi, Motor!” though no one knew where or when it had acquired this name. Sometimes three or four of the young men would sit smoking on the sun porch at the front of the shack and the dog would shamble over and turn on its back to have its belly scratched.
But no one adopted it.
Of course no one ever remembered if it had been fed—it got scraps from the previous night’s drinking sessions, chicken claws, chicken necks or mouldy pigs’ ears. The dog developed the bad habit of stealing shoes from the doorway. The young men would laugh and swear and stagger around with one shoe on (and they may have been smelly but they were classic Nike Jordan trainers, or All Stars, or Adidas Kobe or O’Neil commemorative trainers). But they would never find the other. Just one solitary shoe was left.
Once, one of the young men gave it such a beating, it howled and took off for the mountainside. A country boy went after it, clambering through the trackless undergrowth, and finally came across scores of shoes under a camellia tree. The hoard included not just their lost shoes but old women’s embroidered shoes and some chicks’ high-heeled shoes too.)
Then Patch fastened onto him.
He did not know why the dog settled on him, of all people, perhaps from the instinct common to all small animals seeking shelter. Somehow it divined that he was the one with the softest heart and would keep his promises, and that, once it was his dog, he would surely not abandon it.
Just then he and his wife were living in one of the old women’s houses down a flight of steps below the shacks inhabited by the students. The dog slept all day outside their aluminium-framed French window, barking at passing students, even those who had once fed it scraps. Out of consideration for his feelings, they carried on by, talking and swearing, paying no attention. Sometimes he let the dog into the house. Almost without knowing what he was doing, he got an old bowl and started to feed it every day. It had now developed into a fine dog, even its old-dog face grown handsome, but one day he realised it stank and, holding it down, he soaped and hosed it clean with the old woman’s garden hose.
Eventually, he gave it a name: Patch.
Here he was, in this quiet alley, in the room which P’s parents had occupied, then abandoned, swallowing the past like the encroaching tide, turning it into the present. He addressed Zeus silently: once you give something a name, endow it with human feelings, you may feel pain if you lose it. You may feel guilty abandoning it. Humans may be seized with the arrogant urge to deny the insights of ancient sages into the impermanence of life, because such is their karma.
On the slope on which their illegal mountainside shack stood, there was an abandoned but still lush tea garden. Because it was in the shade, the whole slope was deep in rotted leaf litter and, when you waded through it in wellington boots, you could sink into ditches and get wet to the knees. It was full of mulberries, cherries and blackened, withered camellia flowers like decapitated scabby-mouthed heads. The smell of fermenting liquor filled the steamy air. Venomous snakes rustled through the leaves and were sometimes found coiled around the valves of the gas bottles in the students’ accommodation so the students had to call the fire brigade to come and remove them. Other times, they had to deal with whole nests of hornets, hanging from the eaves, and, shrouded in muslin, they would steep the whole lot, from the golden-winged adults to the white pupae inside the nest, in a jar of Zhuang Yang wine. It was said that this mountain had once housed a secret Japanese snake venom institute. After the Japanese defeat, thousands of laboratory snakes were left behind in the deserted, crumbling building.
After entering Patch’s “dog time”, he was often overwhelmed by strange feelings. The dog sometimes disappeared for a month or even two. He felt as if were floating like a satellite in a weak field of gravity, and did not know how he felt about this relationship. He kept telling himself that Patch was not his dog. Finally, Patch would turn up again one evening as the sun went, trotting gaily in, swinging his silver-coloured rump. But a time came when neither he nor his wife could find the dog. A few times, in spring, they had seen the dog-catchers’ cart with its iron cage come up the mountain to the park to catch the feral dogs, and heard the pack’s mournful howls over by the old people’s public baths and in the cherry grove. He knew what was happening—they netted the bamboos, then jerked the netting in, grabbed the dogs by the scruff of the neck and threw them onto the death cart. He thought that Patch might have joined the feral dog pack and been caught in the park. In those days there was no Internet, so he could not do a search on where you went to claim a pet mistakenly snared by the dog-catchers. And life and death are pre-ordained for dogs and humans, he thought; we all have to face our destinies, so it’s not surprising I can’t get upset about it. But a week later the dog was back, sopping wet, with its eyes glinting in a strange way as if it had been to hell and back, and an open wound, the blood only just beginning to scab, from behind its left ear all the way down its neck. He could not imagine what mysterious event the dog had escaped from. For years after, he would recount the adventures of his “mystery dog” to his friends. One dark night, he and his wife went down to the 7-11 store by the college. As they drove over a Japanese-built, stone-arched bridge, the car headlights caught black shadows filing by—in the lead was a German shepherd, and behind it came other large dogs abandoned by their owners, huskies, Taiwanese hunting dogs . . . all padding along the mountain single-file. He suddenly yelled:
“Hey! Wasn’t that our Patch at the back, the short-legged one? He’s gone and joined a pack!”
Another time, he had been driving at least half an hour along a road which snaked over the mountainside with a friend, to a little place which served local dishes like stir-fried wild herbs, chicken with pineapple and bitter melon, and fried fish. There were a few makeshift tables covered in pink plastic tablecloths and everything was cooked in the same way, in pots simmering over a collection of burners. The stews bubbled and steamed. Customers armed with disposable chopsticks chewed on their chicken, served in pink plastic bowls, while half a dozen feral dogs prowled around the tables or sat at your feet, waiting hopefully for food scraps. He was just about to throw down a piece of chicken meat to a plump animal sitting particularly attentively at his feet when his eyes focused.
“Hey! Isn’t that our Patch?” he exclaimed.
But the dog did not recognise him. He must have looked no different from all the other scavengers who sat daily around the stew pots waiting for a meaty bone to come their way. He bent down. “Patch! You’ve come all this way to join a pack of beggars!” And the dog gradually changed from a dusty-faced stray and turned back into a dog with a master, the eyes swimming with loyalty, or rather love, which seemed to say, “Ah, master,” and “I belong to someone.” It was like watching a draftsman revising a picture with fine rays of light, on screen.
That dog was a free spirit.
In the end, though, I abandoned him.
Perhaps he’s hiding out in that “shoe graveyard” on the mountain, in a secret hollow at the foot of the dead camellia tree, in the fermenting, rotting vegetation, where no one has ever been except me. single trainers and high-heeled shoes whose owners have long ago left their student hostels on the mountainside. Years later, I came across some blurred pictures on the Internet, of one or two of the students, and messages suggesting climbing further up the mountain where, it was rumoured, there was the secret laboratory. Someone had added that when he re-took his finals and graduated, he had been reluctant to move back down to the real world, and leave that enchanted mountain where, every evening a black-and-tan dog sat still as a statue on the topmost stone step as if waiting for the master who had abandoned it.
It happened because we moved down from the mountainside. The removal company sent two vans to empty our rented house of bookcases, wardrobes, pictures, TV, fridge, exercise machine, dining table and chairs . . . it took them all day and Patch was still roaming in the hills far from his home territory. A few days after we moved down, we drove up again on the pretext of collecting a few odds and ends which had been left behind, but there was no sign of Patch.
And thus the secret pact between master and dog, which says, “I will always wait for it to come back, exhausted, no matter how far it strays, or where in the world it goes,” was broken.
A month later, or maybe three months, it turned up again, smelling of vegetation from distant mountainsides. But the house was empty and no longer held the scent of its master.
As the southern sun’s rays slipped in through the window and he lay on P’s single mattress in an exhausted sleep, Zeus’s coated tongue affectionately licking his dangling hand, he imagined dynamited, deserted, reinforced concrete reservoir of algae-covered soupy water, where the waters swirled and gushed past carrying fragments of stone, a dead tree trunk once rooted and immersed in soupy green algae and mud, where abandoned corpses, washed as white as water arums (astonishingly, they had not rotted to skeletons, were naked and looked as if they had been steeped in formalin which had turned breasts, bellies, scrotums and limbs an ashen white), hung head down in the eddies, their arms dangling to their knees, looking as if they were crawling on all fours like apes. No doubt this was the most comfortable position for a corpse long immersed in an abandoned reservoir, until such time as the sloping sides of the reservoir were dynamited and they would be flipped other way up, their bellies and private parts on show, thrust all together (no doubt mouths agape from the disturbance as time moved them from silence to violent explosion) and, one by one, were humiliatingly expelled along with the silt, the trees and the rock fragments.
And there was Zeus. Half-asleep, he wanted to tell the dog, this abandonment is just in “dog time”. It’s the flip side of pure love or confidence. Just like death is a perpetual invitation when you’re alive. Those who abandon will say, forgive me, I have to abandon you, I need my time back. I’m melded with you, so I need that separator to extract the juice from the pulp. Forgiveness is a human invention too. This is what it is to be human, the abandoners will say, that mysterious moment in the long, slow river of evolution when humans first stood upright and settled their gaze on distant places, and their brains expanded into a more capacious skull, and they needed to exchange and to organize vast amounts of complex information. This led to a great longing to embark on unknown paths and to weave more memories of each self, each ego.
But this is a design with a flaw (let us suppose that a Creator exists): that body which the eyes see, which the brain remembers, that body which quietly supports life, allowing it sufficient time to develop—the skeleton, the heart muscle which pumps blood around the body, the network of lungs and the filtering kidneys and the entire digestive tract, beginning from the teeth and tongue in the mouth and continuing to the duodenum and large intestine—when all is said and done, it endures for seventy or eighty years, resisting “what is witnessed and remembered,” flickering like a candleflame in the illusion of time before eternal darkness.
So, Zeus, our body is a machine for transmitting time: the philosophical antithesis of fast-forwarding film or frame-by-frame negatives, time like an arrow, or sex or the slaughtering of an ox and the gradual darkening in the eyes or the rapid adjustment in the focal length of a swooping bird . . . and the panorama of the stars over the years, and Robinson Crusoe’s days passing, each one the same as the next, on his lonely island, and the life prisoner who imagines the world seen only through the iron grille in the ceiling which lets in a square of light, or a lifetime’s thoughts about a wife who died young . . . and the struggles between them.
ONCE, HE WAS sitting at a table with four people—it must have been three men and a woman—whom he did not know, yet they seemed so familiar, classic roles in an old film. And they acted as if he had offended them, rudely ignoring him as if he did not exist.
Even though the light was soft and hazy, he could see the woman was stunningly beautiful, with delicate features which looked like the front cover of a fashion magazine (plastic surgery plus face powder, eye shadow, lipstick and false eyelashes skilfully applied by the make-up artist; the whole image retouched by the photographer on her computer), her filmstar face so beautiful it made you gasp and have the sudden urge to pull money from your pocket and buy her (though the $300 gave you nothing more than advertising and the thick pile of expensive waste paper behind the beautiful face). From a big bag, she poured out small cards with pale blue markings on the back, which slithered and covered the entire table like mung beans. If you looked carefully, you saw that her slender fingers were dividing the hundreds of cards into two groups, a smaller number of larger cards nearer to her, and, face down at the edge of the table, hundreds of smaller cards, enough to make up four or five decks a professional poker player might keep in reserve.
“Come on,” the woman said to the men, “We’ll start with the smaller cards. Take one and think up a very precise question you want to ask.” A short, stocky man with a shaven head, beetling eyebrows and big eyes, like a Tibetan lama (actually he was wearing a flower-patterned sarong with a bright red T-shirt on top) took the first card and turned it over, to reveal a childish, crayoned drawing of something which might have been a nuclear power station or a deserted, overgrown mausoleum.
“Right,” said the woman, “now turn over a big one.” The lama took one and discovered it had no pattern on it, only the simple word Guilt, like the caption under pictures at an exhibition. The woman placed the small card on top of the big card, so that it formed a caption to the small drawing.
The three men were puzzled and impressed. “What does that mean?” He realised that one of the other men, the fat one, must be himself. Only a bit older, tired-looking, and balder too. (Maybe it was himself in years to come, or in the afterlife, chatting and playing cards with friends.) Another of the men had a face like a leopard cat, but dressed like death in The Seventh Veil, in a black cape and a pointed cap. There they were, sitting mouths stupidly agape, either overcome by the beauty of the woman (a goddess perhaps?) or preoccupied by the dazzling profusion of cards and the connections to their own destinies.
“What does that mean?”
“I’m asking about the clan history I’m writing,” said the squat lama.
“Your family history has probably stirred up all sorts of family sins, long hidden in deep shadow, and this stirring is going to take the lid off evil-doing the way a concealing concrete wall keeps things out until a crack becomes a nuclear fuel rod from hell,” the man who might have been him after death, said seriously.
“You do talk nonsense, Ah Mo,” said the woman sweetly. “Now you take a set.”
The fat, bald man, him-in-the-future, took a card from the pile of small, pale blue cards and laid it face-up on the table. It showed a sketch of a Monet garden as if sketched with pudgy kid’s fingers. Then he took a big card; on the white surface was written the word: Sorrow.
The four of them fell silent (he realized he was nonexistent or invisible to them). “What’s that about?” “It’s Last Year at Marienbad, isn’t it?”
The him-after-death looked puzzled. “Try another one.” This time the picture was like a Goya painting, bold and vivid and deeply shadowed, with a long table with three figures, smeared in reds, yellows and blues, seated in a row. “What’s this? Is it a PhD viva?” “Or a court hearing?” The man took a big card and tucked it under the smaller one. The caption visible on it was: Hatred.
“I can’t make head nor tail of it.” He knew that the man-who-was-him would have had the flicker of hope in his heart snuffed out by two pairs of inauspicious pictorial metaphors and captions in a row. “Never mind, just take another one.” This time, it was more mysterious. The small card showed the back view of a dreamlike figure, standing at the window looking out, still done in Goya-like brush strokes. Outside was a dark green night scene, and in the sky a black cloud half-covered a hazy, off-white moon. The clue on the large card read: Compulsion.
“Damn it, these cards are weird! How do I interpret that?”
I already know what these three cards mean for your (I should say “our”) destiny, he thought sadly to himself.
But very soon, the puzzlement on the face of the him-after-death was subtly and gradually effaced, as if by waves crashing on a sandbank, by the party atmosphere of the fortune-telling or curiosity about what cards the next one would get.
The lama took another pair of cards. The picture card showed three overlapping figures, the one in the middle, the smallest, a glazed red colour as if on an X-ray plate. Another, outlining this figure like a ripple, was in cobalt blue, and the outermost, almost like a halo, was in bright yellow. It seemed to him like Russian dolls in vertical section, or an improbable medical spectacle: a pregnant woman, the foetus still in her womb gradually growing in the amniotic fluid into a little girl, who was also pregnant, so forming a surreal image of a mother pregnant with a girl who was also pregnant with a foetus. The caption on the second card was: Habit.
He heard the future him say: “Quite right. That’s your grandfather, your father and you. It’s still talking about your clan history.”
Another pair of cards was a lot more ordinary and obvious. On the smaller one, there were two arms, one above the other, wringing out a towel, the towel twisted into a spiral of rolls. The arms had shadowy blue veins on them, and were locked in a spasm of effort. The caption read: Superior.
There were impressed gasps and mutters from the three men and one woman.
Of course, we can penetrate layers of different metaphors and enter the most secret, veiled recesses of other people’s souls. For instance, if you log into Yahoo! Mailbox and input any user name that isn’t yours, then pretend you have forgotten your password, the anti-phishing software asks you two security questions: “What was the make of your first car?” “What is your first nickname as a baby?” “What’s the name of your favourite novelist?” “Your father’s favourite whisky brand?” “Who was your teacher in the third year of middle school?” And so on and so forth. This assumes that the answers are secrets which only the account-holder knows. But he (or she) set up these preferences years ago, has long since forgotten the answer to the first security question, and would certainly input the standard answer. What the heavily-padlocked, sealed iron box down at the bottom of a deep well conceals are answers which never lie to you or your unconscious. You would never get questions which wavered in the river of time, such as, “Which film star do you have sexual fantasies about?”, “What make of sports car do you most want to own?” or “Which bit of your face would you most like remodelled?” where the answers might change year-on-year. The box is buried in the unchanging solidity of times gone by.
Those who live behind veiled screens and a tissue of lies can only envy those who live in the broad light of day, whose lives hold no secrets, lies or dark shadows. So they might feel the urge completely to excise their sexuality and relationships—those floating shacks built on lies and inverted images. For instance, a girl having an affair with a married man who, one day, without warning, finds that the phone number for the weekly phone call to her beloved has gone out of service and the secret emails fall like stones into the ocean and, because they have no mutual friends to act as islands in the lonely sea (from the need for concealment), he has disappeared completely from her orbit.
He wanted to return to a life which was as smooth as an egg and held no shadows.
But just imagine if there really were someone who blazed like the midday sun, picking out every element of the design on the wall of the church, someone who lived forever on a two-dimensional surface, nakedly revealing his own truth (without the need for lies or concealment like water grasses or holes in the coral reef); just ask yourself whether one could live like this, whether one could tolerate such exhausted, arid desolation?
He suddenly thought of the small fortune-telling cards (the ones the beautiful woman had spread out all over the whole coffee table.) They were like children’s stories, and yet so suggestive of the classic paintings of Monet, Van Gogh, Chagall, Goya, Renoir . . . those drawings might have been executed by someone brain-damaged; they were almost physically flawed—no joke—they were vague, crude and impossible to pin down. Using just one percent of the colours employed by the classic painters in their works, a few brushstrokes tracing out a crude embryo. Scrubbed-out flour mills and parade grounds, boats anchored in distant wild areas or ports, shadowy self-portraits, a crude hand clutching the handle of a bronze door . . .
They all came from the hand of one artist! Those lop-sided drawings, which those quiet, vaguely anxious people picked to get their fortunes told, were all the creation of this lonely master of the house in which time had collapsed, the lonely “old boy” to whom he was about to hand over Zeus.
This dog doesn’t know that tomorrow it’s going to be abandoned, he thought. What a sleek black coat and anxious-looking, though completely trusting, eyes. It was a handsome dog! He stroked its flat forehead and addressed it silently: Oh, Zeus, it’s not because I’m hard-hearted. It’s because I’ve been through it all, the whirlwind of promises of love, raining down like withered leaves, momentary loves, and unspoken trust, and anxiety and finally parting. The canvas of my heart is scarred with layers of dirty oil paint.
SOMETIMES WE FOCUSSED our attention on a narrow strip of beaten mud in the garden and slender dead leaves, or green ones like children’s thumbs or little boats. Here the dark colour of the soil, perhaps from a period of rain, made the profusion of dried-up leaves and higgledy-piggledy branches appear to suck into it the muddy saplings which did not even reach half-way up your calf, two of which bore a mass of fluffy green foliage, though the rest were completely bare. The slightly taller plants looked like arums, their leaves like plates spun on slender stems by acrobats, or whirling hand towels, but lined and creased like a human palm, or they were young ferns or Araceae or even the lower half of chopped-down rows of mottled bamboo. Then there was a pot of frangipani, bare and with fat branches like human arms amputated at the elbow or monstrous knees . . . you usually had to bend down to examine their large green leaves, but this one was small and desiccated, scars encircling its trunk, in a small pot. A nearby patch of earth adorned with a sheet of plastic roofing had not had any rain and so was sandy and dry, its margin made up of cobblestones the size of human skulls while at the perimeter of the cobblestones, the slope was built up with crushed rocks, either to prevent water loss or soil erosion.
It was a garden only in name, actually a narrow muddy strip in the back yard, with a perimeter fence of bound, vertical bamboo poles. The sun’s rays filtered through the gaps while, between the nodes, the bamboo was a mouldy black, dark brown, light yellow, or even, in one patch, an improbable silver. The owner (the original one, at least) had gone to the trouble of wiring some plant pots with maidenhair ferns or mint at random intervals along the fence.
Unusually, the larger trees were all squeezed into the gap between the bamboo fence and the stainless steel, anti-burglar railings outside (a real, ice-cold zone separating it from the next–door block). For instance there were two magnolias, as tall as a two-story house, (one of which looked like the daddy of all the plants in the garden) and a tall masculine-looking elm, and a plum tree with leafless branches leaning into the corner. There was another tree too, whose name he could not remember, its leaves arranged in whorls, tiny but of a tender green which was probably the lushest in the garden. Bursting with life.
The garden overall looked empty and desolate. There were just a few osmanthus bushes, some crotons, and even some sprawling rhododendrons here and there. It was a complete mess and the leaves were all covered in dust.
He remembered the girl, seated in a wheelchair as if in a convalescent home, or a mental hospital, her youth stranded in the silence, her round, shaven head covered with a mesh cap. She always asked him: “When can we get the hell out of here?”
We. What she really meant was herself. He only paid occasional visits, trying to act as emotionless as he could. He had a vague memory of having let a year, or nearly two, elapse between visits. She never complained (that he was gradually forgetting her) but she could not hide her elation when she did come.
They must have had servants or medics who kept an eye on what she did and her moods day by day, but in his memory, it was always just him and her in the garden.
He felt a huge weight of feeling, as if one day he was going to let out the secret of why she had been “sectioned” and shut up here. But she never seemed interested. She was never curious either about why she still had the frail, girlish pallor and figure of a thirteen or fourteen-year-old. Time simply had not happened to her body. And he carried on coming, time after time, and going, and coming back again. It went on until he was a balding, middle-aged man with droopy eyelids.
Sometimes he told her stories about what was happening in the outside world, news reports he had read, idle chat over glasses of wine with pals, sometimes he just talked nonsense, but she always listened wide-eyed and never betrayed either belief or disbelief.
Like when he told her a strange story about someone taking birds onto a plane.
The TV news that day had run a story about a boy who had smuggled 67 little songbirds, Japanese White-eyes, onto a plane from Vietnam back to Taiwan, and got caught at customs. That was not particularly surprising in itself, but the police film footage showed something astonishing when his jeans were cut off him: all down each leg of his jeans he had sewn 60 or 70 small copper rings like grenade safety pins. Row upon row of them, layers spiralling up his trouser legs like exquisite pagodas. And those poor little birds were each swaddled in a single piece of foam rubber, like clusters of wax apples or loquats suspended from the tree branches in a peasant’s orchard. When the reporter interviewed a petshop owner, she seemed baffled. She said: I had no idea Japanese White-eyes from Vietnam are so valuable. The ordinary kind are only worth between $30 and $50 apiece. Why would he bother smuggling them in like this? I don’t understand it at all.
The reporter said the birds would have to be killed because Vietnam was a bird flu quarantine area.
He told her he had heard two completely different reactions to the unbelievable behaviour of this boy:
“What an idiot!” and, “What a genius!”
Anyone thinking he was a genius, of course, had figured out this Mission Impossible: the boy would have to patiently unstitch his trouser legs, sew in rings in the form of a pagoda’s spiral stairs, then sew the jeans back together again. He would have to know all about the habits of Japanese White-eye chicks, bind them up with their wings folded back, and then hang each of them, concealed between his legs and the jeans legs. They couldn’t let out not a cheep all the way, as he went through customs and sat in the cramped plane seat, keeping them alive right till the end!
The advance planning (including sitting in some Vietnamese hotel room, sewing every copper ring on his jeans all by himself, smoothing back the wings and wrapping up each twittering bird, walking through the crowded departure hall of the airport, wearing jeans inside which hung 67 tiny creatures, giving his boarding pass, poker-faced, to the smiling flight attendant, feeling his own heart beat and those of the little creatures below his trousers’ crotch . . . he felt it all must be a lot more difficult than carrying on board a block of heroin stuffed up his arse in a plastic bag, and even more difficult than top international killers in Hollywood films taking their guns to bits and hiding them in their shoes, walking sticks and laptops . . . that can’t be too hard, he said.
And he told her another story, told to him by a friend, F, “just a few days ago”:
F went last year with a couple of climbing friends to climb Shei Pa Mountain. (Recently, they met infrequently, and he often told me he used to leave his climbing friends down below and go on his own with his own small ice-axe and crampons, scrambling up the near-vertical rock face, with scenes from Inoue Yasushi’s novel The Ice Wall flitting across his mind. In fact, now that I’m 46, I’ve crossed some mysterious dateline and am slipping irretrievably downhill to self-destructive old age. I can’t listen to my friend the way I did when we were young—to his descriptions of fabulous scenery which required him to have special physical qualities and which he had risked his life to get to. I can no longer impulsively think, “One day, I’ll go with you.” This solitary, secret happiness belongs to him alone.) F told me that soon after they had gone past the guard-post into the mountain area, a small brown dog came trotting along after these humans laden with heavy rucksacks and armed with equipment. No snow had fallen but at 3,500 metres above sea-level, the temperature was near freezing. We certainly all wore thick down-filled snow-jackets. To start with, everyone tried to kick the dog away: “If you come with us, doggie, it’ll be the death of you!” But maybe the stray reckoned that it would be able to beg a few scraps off this crowd and tagged along a dozen metres or so behind them, as they scrambled silently up the steep slope over rocks and tussocks.
At last they got to a sheer cliff face. Below was a deep chasm. Gripping bits of rock which jutted out here and there and with crampons on their feet, everyone made the perilous ascent. There was no other way.
F said he looked down at the small brown dog. “Time to say goodbye, doggie,” he told it. Everyone thought that this was the last they would see of it. (Actually, they all felt this silly animal which had followed them along the mountain path was a good fellow, after all, and some of them got some biscuits out of their back packs and fed it. The thin air at this altitude could make you feel very lonely, so that a touch of warm feeling amid that desolation was doubly precious.) Then each one focussed his attention on the chunk of rock just above their arms and, with much swishing and fiddling, they silently began to climb again. When they got to the top of that section, they could still hear the heart-rending yelps of the dog down below.
But they had only gone a short way onwards when the dog suddenly appeared and scurried up to them again.
There were exclamations of astonished disbelief. Apart from the ten-metre cliff they had climbed, there was no other way, was there? These solemn mountain climbers were completely won over by this little dog, with its belly scraping on the ground, its tail wagging and its lolling, panting tongue. They were suddenly suffused with a warm feeling—this dog was “one of us”. And so the dog went with them as they tackled and conquered the 3,700 metre summit.
However, when they got back to the sheer face again and, silent from exhaustion, lowered themselves one by one down it, the dog had to be left behind, howling, at the top. F said he was the last to descend and, hearing its despairing barks, reckoned it was better off dead than stranded up there. He could not bear the thought, and finally climbed back up and reached out for it. But, hey, this was a stray and was not going to let anyone touch it. He left it—a moment’s distraction and he might fall and break every bone in his body—and went back down to his companions. You would understand if you had ever been in the mountains, you would find any generous impulses towards your fellow climbers, never mind a dog, becoming tempered with caution in the rarefied air of these crystalline pinnacles where death was just a step away.
What happened to the dog? she asked.
He realized she cared about happened to the characters in this story. She was fretting over the little dog abandoned up on a mountain. That was good. In fact you could say that was the effect he’d been trying for. He observed her skinny fingers curl in anxiety and a faint flush mottle her pale skin.
F said it took them about another half-hour to get down the mountain, and by then it was pitch-dark. Suddenly they heard a rustling in the bushes behind them—it was the dog! Its tail was wagging like a propeller, its tongue was hanging out and its eyes were watering. What an incredible dog! There were gasps of admiration and they got out all the biscuits they had left to feed it. They had no idea how it had gotten down that precipitous cliff face.
What happened then? After they got down the mountain? asked the girl.
They hitch-hiked back to town, leaving the dog behind in the place where it had first appeared, of course. It was a mountain dog, you can’t imagine one of them bundling it into the car and taking it back to their cramped tower block with them, can you?
He told her another story too, about an escaped parrot he had found by the roadside.
One afternoon, he was walking along, somewhere near Heping Road and College Road, and there was a sudden change in the weather. A great black cloud descended almost onto the rooftops of the four- or five-story-high blocks of flats, a fine drifting rain fell and gusts of wind blew the dead yellow leaves in little eddying circles. Even the roaring traffic seemed to fade into the past. He could not help feeling sorrowful, for no apparent reason. He crossed the road to the police station on the corner, and, over his head, he heard a loud cawing. He thought at first it must be a raven or some kind of large magpie, but the decibels in his ear drums told him it was some large rarity not generally found in the city. The shrill cawing sounded as if it were amplified in an echo chamber, and the roar of traffic could not drown it out. It was a lament, as pure a sound as a bamboo flute.
He stood next to a paperbark tree, its branches almost bare apart from the occasional curled-up dead leaf, and looked up for any evidence of the bird (half a dozen passersby had also stopped to gape). He thought afterwards that he hadn’t seen it because he was looking for a black or dark blue bird and his eyes focussed on the web of black branches against the pale sky behind.
But the lament, like a note blown on a conch shell, kept coming, and was right over his head...
Then suddenly his eyes caught a shape in a contrasting colour—it was a huge white parrot. Its white feathers were as dirty as soapy bathwater. No wonder it had been almost invisible against the grey sky. It must have been a stray—like a stray dog, escaped or abandoned, rummaging in rubbish bins or pecking at fruit in the abandoned gardens of old Japanese-built houses, or maybe catching fat mice scuttling along the gutters in the alleys behind some small restaurant . . .
He told her that a big white parrot like this would easily fetch $100,000 in the bird market. They were very intelligent, as bright as a seven- or eight-year-old child. Being abandoned would cause it great distress because it was quite capable of understanding abstract concepts.
Maybe its owner had died, said the girl.
Maybe, he said. But anyway, the sight of such a large white parrot perched on the branch of a tree by the roadside rattled him. It looked like a small boy, naked apart from a grubby cloak, perched on the branch, sobbing.
Maybe it liked its freedom, the girl said.
No, he said, I saw no freedom in this scene, only abandonment.