By: Han Dong
Translated by: Nicky Harman
In 2009, Ou Ning approached a group of well-known writers, and asked each of them to write a short story inspired by a particular new building, for his 2009 Shenzhen & Hong Kong Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism/Architecture. The setting for Han Dong’s story is the Deer Garden (Luyeyuan) in Pixian, Chengdu. This Stone Carving Museum, designed by LIU Jiakun and completed in 2002, evokes the Deer Garden or Deer Park in Sarnath where Gautama Buddha first taught the Dharma.
In this wonderfully atmospheric and tender fantasy, time begins weirdly to go backwards. What will happen to the narrator, his wife — and the baby born with no hands?
Han Dong began writing in 1980, and has been a major player on the modern Chinese literary scene since the 1990s. He is one of China’s most important avant-garde poets, and is also an established essayist, short story writer and novelist. He is currently (2016) directing a film of his novella 《在码头》／On The Pier, with Jia Zhangke.
Han Dong and Nicky Harman have worked together as an author-translator team on many projects and publications – see more here.
Reprinted by kind permission of Ou Ning.
It was inexplicable. My wife had given birth to a deformed baby. He had no hands. Where they ought to have been, there were just two little fleshy lumps. My wife cried her eyes out, and I was really sad too. The instant I saw him, it was as if my ‘inner eye’ lit up and I foresaw a future of unrelieved hardship and misery.
The tests showed that neither the wife nor I had any problems, so it wasn’t an inherited defect. The doctors thought the foetus might have been damaged by radiation during pregnancy. The wife remembered that when she was three months’ pregnant, their offices had been redecorated. When she was six months, the company had sent the staff on a holiday and they’d travelled both ways by plane. This calamity may have been caused by airport security equipment.
We took our baby home. Our neighbour, old Mrs Zhang, told us something similar had happened in her family – a dozen or so years ago, her daughter-in-law had given birth to ‘a thing like that’ too. The day they left the hospital, Mrs Zhang had made her son and his wife walk in front of her. The bus came, and husband and wife got on. And right there, under the bus stop sign, Mrs Zhang pulled the wrap over the baby’s face and smothered it.
‘A pity I’m not your mother,’ she said, and then pointed to my wife. ‘…And she’s not my daughter-in-law.’
She was sitting in a wheelchair as she spoke to us. She had been paralysed for some years, obviously from after that event. Serves her right! I thought to myself.
Grandpa Du, who lived in our courtyard, had a niece who worked in an orphanage. ‘Don’t take it to an orphanage, whatever you do,’ the old boy told us. ‘They won’t take it in. Every year, babies are left to starve to death at the gates, it doesn’t matter how hard they cry. If you want to be rid of it, take it to the local police station. The orphanage always takes in every baby the police send them.’
The stupid old fart!
Being smothered or left in an orphanage – were those really the only choices our baby had?
Then my old friend Jin phoned and arranged to meet me in a bar.
Actually, there was some connection between Jin and this baby. He was an old college friend of mine. While he was at university, he had started to study the Yi Jing, the Book of Changes. After that, he’d apparently met an eminent practitioner and learnt how to make accurate predictions using the Trigrams and Watching the Ether techniques. He’d always been spot on, at least before our baby was born. He’d even predicted that the wife and I would fall in love and get married. He’d said: ‘It’s a match made in heaven’.
When the wife got pregnant, I naturally asked Jin to do a prediction for us. He quoted the old saying: ‘The road to happiness is strewn with setbacks’ So we didn’t bother with any foetal development tests. After all, Jin had said there would be ‘happiness’ so nothing could go wrong, could it?
Sitting in the dimly-lit bar, Jin still refused to take back what he’d said. ‘I said “The road to happiness is strewn with setbacks”, but you just remembered the happiness, and forgot the setbacks.’
‘Well, this is a pretty weird “setback”, isn’t it?’
‘Look, I didn’t ask you here to say sorry,’ Jin said. ‘I wanted to suggest a way out for you. You should go to the Deer Park.’
‘It’s where the Buddha first turned the Wheel of Dharma.’
‘You’re telling us to go to India?’
He laughed. ‘Even if you did, you’d only find the ruins of the Deer Park.’
‘Then what the hell do you mean?’ I was getting really annoyed.
Jin pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose. ‘I was just joking. Calm down and listen to what I’ve got to say…’ he said. Then he went on: ‘This is not the original Deer Park, but it bears the same name. It’s a stone sculpture museum and it’s in Chengdu, not in India. Next door, there’s the Deer Park Administrative Office, which provides guest house accommodation. You can stay there. Off you go quick as you can, all three of you, and don’t hurry back! And the problem should go away by itself.’
I asked him more questions but Jin refused to be drawn, and just concentrated on drinking his beer.
To be honest, I had no faith in this trip, though I certainly had a strong motive for going – to prove Jin wrong. His wise-guy attitude infuriated me. As things stood, I was almost paralysed by despair and only rage could get me moving. I didn’t harbour any wild hopes that the problem would ‘go away by itself’; what I wanted to do was just to prove him wrong. Of course, even if I succeeded, it wouldn’t mean anything.
I made my living as a free-lance writer, so I only needed to take a laptop with me to carry on working (though at the moment, I couldn’t write a word), and the wife was still on maternity leave. So we just upped and left. About four hours later, we landed at Shuangliu Airport in Chengdu. An hour’s taxi-ride and we were at the Deer Park.
There was nothing special about the place, except that it was rather quiet. The light reflected off some odd-looking buildings, visible amongst the clumps of trees, and the banks of the river were covered in heaps of stones which looked like dinosaur eggs.
We signed in at the Administrative Centre. We were almost the only people staying in the guest house, perhaps because it wasn’t high season, or else this wasn’t a holiday hot-spot.
Once in our room, we did the usual thing – I showered and changed my clothes, and the wife followed suit, and washed our baby and changed his nappy. After that, we were ready to make our first public appearance in the Deer Park.
Needless to say, I took a liking to the place straightaway. The brick paving was as clean as the brick surrounds of a well; a few little weeds poked out of the gaps between them, which created a pleasing effect. The guest house was not a high-rise, but a set of two-story buildings. The outer walls were of grey brick, and they had flat roofs. Something like watchtowers, but also a bit like villas. There was a reassuring sense of privacy, and also of understated luxury.
We settled into a routine. Every day we ate our meals in the dining room, every few hours the wife breast-fed our baby. He had never been a lively baby and now we were here, he grew even quieter, and hardly ever fussed or cried. I even felt ready to open my laptop and do a bit of writing.
I sat in the hotel lobby to write. It was furnished with bamboo chairs and antique-style side tables; I would order a cup of tea and, if I was hungry, get the waiter to bring me a bowl of noodles glistening with red oil, to keep me going. Apart from me, the lobby was almost deserted.
While I worked, the wife was in our hotel room with the baby, perhaps asleep, or gazing blankly out of the window at the same view as I had – bamboos, wingnut trees and the pale grey walls of the museum next door.
There was something odd about the scene. It was too peaceful. It was as if time itself had seeped into our bodies. I thought of a way of putting it, ‘a time bath’. We felt lethargic, as if we had been immersed in pure time.
I was still wondering why Jin had sent us here. The first answer to that question had to be: peace and quiet.
In actual fact, we did quieten down after a few days, and even found a degree of peace. We were no longer surrounded by opinionated old fogeys telling us we should smother our baby with his blanket or take him to an orphanage. No more worried or comforting phone calls from either set of grandparents. (What a good thing I had forgotten my mobile phone charger.) The wife had been absolutely dreading facing her colleagues when her maternity leave ended; but there was no prospect of that for the foreseeable future.
The two of us even stopped arguing about who was responsible for our baby’s deformity. In this quiet retreat, we found ourselves talking in the lightest of tones, yet we were also unusually warm and affectionate. Our exchanges were reduced to the simplest questions and answers:
‘Has baby gone to sleep?’
‘Yes, he’s just fed.’
‘Was his nappy wet?
‘I didn’t change him. He doesn’t pee much.’
Even more astonishing was the way the hotel staff reacted to our baby: they didn’t see him as unusual in any way at all.
‘Aah! He’s so sweet!’ they would say every time my wife appeared with him in her arms.
Some came up to her and stroked his little cheeks and tweaked his toes.
‘What a good baby. He never fusses or cries.’
And they would give the stumps at the end of his arms a tug, as if they were the perfectly formed little hands that every other baby had.
Every morning and evening, we would all go for a stroll around the museum next door. Its grounds were not extensive but the winding paths were quiet and secluded. A bit like public gardens or abandoned ruins… but not quite the same as either. You could see the place in so many different ways that it gave me plenty of opportunities to make instructive comments.
‘You see that low wall built of small round stones?’ I said to the wife. ‘It’s not a wall at all, because it doesn’t function as a wall. It’s purely for decoration, to look nice.’
‘What’s nice about it?’
‘It’s solid-looking and the stones are all even in size. Presumably the ground around here is full of them, and they’ve been dug up and collected together here for you to look at. That’s something you wouldn’t normally see, or think of going to see.’
‘You’re right about that.’
‘It’s just like the earth’s surface from above – all corrugated!’
Just then, we passed through a round hole in the middle of a hedge. ‘That’s a “tree door”’ I said. ‘Not a door in a tree trunk, or a door made out of a tree, but a door among trees. Actually there isn’t a door here at all, just a hole.
This time my wife understood straightaway: ‘It’s a door if lots of people go in and out of it.’
I couldn’t help remembering the famous adage of Mr Lu Xun, that there were no roads in the world to start with; they appeared because people walked a lot. It was pretty amazing that the wife was having thoughts as elevated as Mr Lu Xun’s, in a place like this.
There actually was a ‘road’ underfoot now. Massive concrete slabs stretched away through the bamboos. There was nothing joining one slab to the next, and the wife exclaimed: ‘The road’s broken! It’s unlucky!’ She suddenly sounded no different from the most superstitious, common ignoramus.
‘It may be broken,’ I said quickly, ‘But you can jump from one road to another, so it doesn’t stop you going forward.’
Her brows furrowed in thought.
‘Life’s exactly like this,’ I said. ‘We’re all walking on broken roads, but luckily we can keep going with skips and jumps.’
She roused herself then, and even quoted a couple of lines of classical verse at me: ‘Mountain fastness, watery wastes, no road in sight/ A village appears, willow-shaded, with flowers bright.’
‘That’s just what I mean,’ I said. ‘This road is expressing the same as those two lines of poetry but in a more direct and concentrated way. Let’s go on, there’s a way ahead for us, and if this road is broken, we’ll take another.’
The wife started going back and forth, up and down the concrete ‘road’, just so she could skip the gaps between the slabs, heedless of whether she jolted our baby awake. She was taking him with her over the broken roads of real life. She’d turned all superstitious again.
In front of the museum, there was a very large and attractive car park. Cars would set down visitors there – fancy cars, and handsome, smartly-dressed people. Visitors to the Deer Park were not just rich, they were clearly interested in culture. By definition, that meant they were very cultured – and they had an air of piety about them too.
Most of the exhibits in the Deer Park Stone Sculpture Museum were Buddhist carvings and figures. The exhibition halls took their names from Buddhist temples or from legends. Like the Ten Positions Hall, the Three Worlds Hall, the Hall of Samgha-arama and the Buddha’s Bamboo Garden. One day a famous star of film and TV turned up with a large entourage, apparently to perform her devotions.
The museum was closed to outsiders because she was there, but no one stopped us from going in. The staff knew us pretty well by that time, because we were there every day. The wife called out the star’s name the moment she caught sight of her, but quickly lost interest and turned her attention to our surroundings.
We strolled around the outside and then made our way up the ramp to the main exhibition hall. You could call it a bridge, because it was suspended in the air and under it there was a pool, the Lotus Pond. The ramp, or bridge, took you straight to the upper floor of the hall. The odd thing was that the walkway was very narrow, only wide enough for one person. I followed behind the wife, and continued to instruct her.
‘This bridge is like life. When it comes down to it, we’re each of us in control of our own fate.’
The wife said without looking round: ‘Like us and this child. We each have our own fate, and no one can take it over from anyone else.’
Since when had she been so smart?
We arrived at the door to the hall which, like the bridge, was extremely narrow, just single-width. It was hard to believe that the main entrance to the museum was actually the same size as the door of an ordinary house. Inspiration struck me again and I said to the wife: ‘The door to the truth is always narrow. Only the utterly humble and children can pass through it.’
This was a Christian interpretation though the hall had a Buddhist name, the Ten Directions Hall. The wife wasn’t worried about the distinction in any case. She was just delighted I’d said that children had special rights, and she exclaimed in delight: ‘That’s exactly right!’
We were just about to step inside when the film star and her entourage came out. They were preceded by a bald man in dark glasses who said: ‘Get back, get back!’ and flapped his hands at us.
As the wife hesitated, the film star appeared, in dark glasses so large they almost covered her small, oval face. She and the wife came face-to-face on the narrow walkway.
The film star stepped back and said: ‘Let them in first.’
We went in through the little door.
The film star had not moved away; instead, she took her handbag from an attendant, took out a cute little Hello Kitty purse and pressed a handful of change on the wife. She’d taken us for beggars. I thought the two of us were quite decently dressed though of course we looked shabby by comparison with them. Probably it was because the film star had seen our baby’s little stumps. Nowadays there were a lot of neatly-dressed beggars, carrying children with deformities. It was one of their tricks.
As soon as she realised she’d got it wrong, she flushed scarlet with embarrassment. She kept saying: ‘I only meant to…’
We went down the stairs to the ground floor, which was about as deep as a basement. The film star followed, together with her entourage.
‘What a sweet little fellow, so sweet’, she said, trying her best to make up for her previous faux-pas.
She extended a hand adorned with a pigeon’s egg ring and patted our baby’s wrappings. Then she took hold of a little arm stump and wouldn’t let go. She pushed her dark glasses up onto the clear, bright skin of her forehead and I realised her eyes were red. You could say this was from sympathy but at that moment, my feeling was that she was quite overcome by his little stumps.
For an instant, the gem in her ring flashed, and we were bathed in the combined radiance of star and Buddha.
This incident made me wonder again about my friend Jin’s motives for getting us here. Did he want us to abandon our baby here? Actually, you couldn’t find a more suitable place than the Deer Park, if that was what he meant. The visitors were not only rich, they were also cultured and artistic. Even more important, they were religious. These men and women really were pious, good people. Indeed, you might say their religious feeling came first, and their wealth and culture was secondary.
When Jin and I met in the bar that day, he’d told me there was someone of over 120 years old living in the Deer Park, and we should make friends. But he’d been squiffy-eyed with drink by that time, and I hadn’t paid any attention.
However, although I hadn’t enquired after this person when we arrived here, I’d been keeping half an eye open for someone of over 100. I found that within the Deer Park, there weren’t any old people at all, let alone one as old as that. The staff of the guesthouse and museum were all young, and that included the directors and managers. The oldest was under 40.
We did see a child of about eight years old, who did not seem to be a visitor or to have come with a visitor. Maybe he was the son of a local farmer. But he didn’t look like it. He went around with a big satchel slung across his shoulder; it almost covered his bottom and slapped against his calves as he walked.
He’d appeared on a few occasions at different times and places. Once he came up to me and asked if I was so-and-so. I said, actually, yes I was, though I couldn’t think how on earth he knew me.
‘I’ve seen your photo,’ he said, ‘in your great work.’ He had an adult way of talking.
‘My great work?’
‘Yes, in Lost and Found.’
My novel about ‘educated youth’ in the countryside during the Cultural Revolution had been a best-seller in the 1990s. It seemed inconceivable that this boy had read it.
‘I’m a fan of yours,’ he said. ‘Will you give me your autograph?’ And he took an exercise book and a ball-point pen out of his satchel.
‘A film-star came here last week. Didn’t you get her autograph?’ I asked.
‘I’m not interested in people like that,’ he said, sounding very grown-up.
As I signed, I asked the boy what he was called. ‘Tongtong,’ he answered. I was just about to ask Tongtong where he lived when he took the exercise book back and ran off. As he disappeared among the trees, he seemed like a small woodland creature.
Had he really been here? Did the boy exist? I wondered. But I still had his pen in my hand.
We saw Tongtong a few times after that. Once we saw him on the roof-top exhibition area behind the main museum building. There was a sheet of moving water and he was skipping across the yellow slabs which lay in it. Another time he was by a pool inside the hall, his shadow reflected down into the water while he stood at the edge. I thought he was a statue.
Twice we tried to call him over and give him his pen back. What we really wanted to do was to chat to him. But whenever he saw us, he ran off.
The wife and I went to bed early every day. The bed in our room was huge. We each slept on one side and our baby slept in the hollow between us. I could just stretch out my hand and stroke him. Sometimes, the wife reached out too and our hands would meet. But we were so tranquil by now that there was no sexual feeling. If our hands happened to meet, they bounced away again – and each found one of our baby’s little stumps. Holding on lightly, we would fall sound asleep again.
Often, after I’d been asleep for a while, I’d wake up with a start. The scene lit by the starlight which came in through the windows felt strangely moving. Our bed seemed filled to over-flowing with an unbelievably serene power. I wondered again why Jin had wanted us to come and live here.
It was nice that this place was cut off from the world, so that our baby did not have to be part of society. He could avoid stuff like rehabilitation training or learning tricks like using his feet as hands. He wouldn’t face discrimination here, or get nasty looks. He wouldn’t suffer from low self-esteem or spend his life in a relentless struggle to improve himself. Of course, we couldn’t stay in the guesthouse forever. The wife could get a cleaning job in the guest house or the museum, and we could build or rent some place to live nearby. And I would throw myself into my writing.
I could hear our hearts beating – mine, the wife’s and our baby’s. Three hearts beating away each in its own chest. I could hear them because the nights here were so very, very quiet.
My heart-beat was deep and low, the wife’s was gentle and our baby’s was rather high-pitched. The tone and frequency of each was different, as if we were three separate ensembles. In the absolute stillness, the harmonies were so beautiful they brought tears to my eyes. Every now and then, the scrabbling of a mouse or the cheep of a cricket in the corner would weave itself into the music. The sound of the wind and the rustle of the leaves outside the window sounded like distant applause for the performers’ efforts. It suddenly occurred to me that the reason I could hear our baby’s frail heart beat wasn’t only because it was so quiet. He’d been born with a heart defect and his liver wasn’t healthy either. A high-pitched heart-beat couldn’t be good. I suddenly felt tense, and the joyful music turned sad. Once again, I came back to what Jin had meant. The fourth answer was probably that the Deer Park was a long way from the city so it would be hard to get hold of a doctor. That was risky for an infant, especially one like our baby. So Jin meant that our baby’s life should slip quietly away while we were here, did he? As I thought of this, the music turned into a solemn death knell. Its beautiful harmonies tugged at the heart strings just like before but now the sounds came from beyond the grave.
When our baby was born, he weighed six pounds one ounce, and after the first two months, he had put on two pounds. Now we’d been at Deer Park for another two months and he’d not only not grown, he seemed to have got thinner. This was the only unusual thing; in every other way – eating, excreting – he was perfectly normal. He just seemed to be getting smaller every day, or perhaps it was that his arm stumps were getting larger. Who knows?
One night I woke and reached out to touch him, but there was nothing in the hollow between the wife and me. Surely one of us hadn’t rolled on top of him? That would be terrible. I sat bolt upright and gave the wife a shove. She grunted and woke up.
I pressed the switch on the bed-head and the room lights all came on. Our baby wasn’t in our big bed, and he wasn’t anywhere else in the room where the lamps threw their light either.
We each got out of our side of the bed and started to search. He wasn’t under the bed. Then I looked up and saw, looming over me, the vast bulk of the wife’s belly. It was like a terrifying dream.
‘You, you…’ I pointed at her belly.
The wife looked down and saw it too.
‘I, I….’ She sounded as if it was on someone else’s body, not on hers at all.
Then she bent double and cradled her belly in her arms. She looked like she was in severe pain.
Labour pains? I gave my face a slap to try and wake myself up.
The wife reeled towards the bathroom. I heard myself shout after her: ‘Don’t go looking for him there! He can’t be there.’
The sound of the bathroom door slamming behind her was all I got for an answer. Then I heard the toilet flush.
‘You can’t…’ I shouted, banging on the door.
Thankfully, when she came out, her great belly still stuck out in front of her and she didn’t seem to be in pain any more. ‘There’s blood down there,’ she said, looking mysterious. ‘Blood.’
Surely not…It was impossible to contemplate.
I glanced towards our big bed where, apart from the tangle of quilts under which we had been sleeping, there were just the wrappings which had swaddled our baby, looking like the sloughed skin of a snake. Then I turned my gaze back to the wife’s belly. Back and forth I looked. This really had happened, yet it was so unreal it was impossible to take in.
The wife burst into tears: ‘What are we going to do? I can’t take him out…’
We started another search. We checked the windows and checked the door. They were shut tight, and there was no sign they’d been opened. Our wardrobe and the drawers under the TV stand were all opened for inspection. I even pulled the writing desk drawers open and went into the toilet to lift the lid of the cistern. Of course I found nothing. The wife lumbered heavily around looking too.
This time was different from our first search. We weren’t looking to find him, we were hoping not to find him. So long as we didn’t find him anywhere, then obviously he must be in the wife’s belly. It must be better for him to be in there than to have been stolen by someone.
The more we thought about it, the more we felt that’s what must have happened, and the greater the intensity with which we searched. It became like a compulsion. We looked in every nook and cranny: we pulled out the bed, stood on chairs, pulled out the air conditioning vent on the wall. Then the wife said: ‘We ought to go and look outside.’ This was just what I was thinking too.
I jumped down from the chair and, still in my slippers, crept out pulling her by the hand.
The guest-house was completely deserted. We searched the corridors, the stairs and the lobby. We went outside and searched between the buildings and in the car-park. The night air was as cool as water, and you could smell the river: it was all delightful.
Then we went into the bamboo grove. The leaves swished loudly and we disturbed frogs, which leapt away at our approach. There seemed to be snakes around too, slithering away with a rustling sound. It was slippery underfoot; mud stuck to the soft soles of our slippers, making a sharp sucking sound as we walked.
Look and look and look and look/find a friend and pay respects/laugh out loud…I sang snatches of the song to myself, and hummed out loud too. The wife was supporting her back with both hands. She couldn’t bend over at all. But even standing here looking around us was enough to cheer us up.
By this time, we had completely run out of steam. We were not so much looking for our baby as finding an excuse for a night-time stroll around the Deer Park. Even though we had been here for two months, we had never done this. Strange that we’d never thought of it before. Guided only by the bright moonlight, we made our way along the ‘broken road’ of concrete slabs, thrust through the bushes and the clumps of bamboo and saw the massive main hall of the museum, shining white in the distance. We started up the ramp-bridge, passing over the Lotus Pond which reflected the moon too. I seemed to hear the sound of fish blowing air bubbles.
I thought it would be dark inside the main exhibition hall, but to my surprise it was brightly lit by the moon which, like pale mist, shone in through the cracks in the wall, the corners and the sky lights. It made the hall look like a walled courtyard, even though we were obviously indoors.
The wife was feeling along the high walls with her hands and I first thought she was trying to find a place to grip onto, to support the weight of her body. Then I realised she was looking for the light switch. ‘No! Don’t turn it on!’ I said quickly. ‘It’s really nice like this, isn’t it?’ She understood straightaway. ‘Yes, it’s fine. There’s no need to put the light on.’
Then she asked: ‘How come the inside wall looks just like the outside wall?’
Everything really had become utterly confused. The building inside looked the same as outside; the inside walls had been built as if they were outside. And the body of a woman who’d given birth two months before looked similar to that of a woman who was about to give birth.
The stone statues stood motionless, each in their own shadow. In the dead of night, these patiently-enduring effigies ought to have inspired fear. But we didn’t feel at all afraid. We almost felt like one of them, stone statues ourselves.
Suddenly the wife stood still, and was immediately transformed into a big-bellied figure of a Buddhist arhat. ‘Look at the light in those alcoves!’ the big-bellied arhat said.
There were rows of alcoves all around the walls, like shop windows, displaying Buddhist figures. They stood out in the moonlight, which fell on them from all sides, leaving no shadows. The light was fittingly serene, with a soft, even radiance. The very essence of light, it seemed to say that the Lord Buddha and the merciful Guan Yin ought to be here. As if the light was the Lord Buddha and the Guan Yin.
The wife knelt down. That was OK, she needed to. And if someone like me didn’t kneel and pray, that didn’t matter either. It wouldn’t offend the spirits. I didn’t even worry that she shouldn’t be kneeling, that kneeling right down and bending forward in the prayer posture might do her an injury. At this moment, in this place, you couldn’t be worried. There was simply no place for anxiety.
We arrived at the open air exhibition area. Here we really could see the sky as there was no roof, but the walls were so high, it felt like being in a room. By the time we got here, we were used to the unusual logic of our surroundings. Nothing could surprise us any more.
A number of stone effigies were on display in the moonlight, including one small, child-like figure sitting cross-legged. Suddenly it uncrossed its legs and stood up. We stared at it, though we weren’t scared. It just seemed quite natural, as if we had roused it from sleep.
He had just woken up. I recognised him. It was Tongtong, the eight-year-old boy we had seen in the Deer Park. ‘Do you sleep here every night?’ I asked in surprise.
‘Yes,’ said Tongtong, stretching lazily. ‘But it’s not what you’d call sleeping. I meditate all night.’
‘You meditate here every night?’
‘Yes.’ Then he asked: ‘What are you doing here?’
At this point I remembered we were searching for our baby. ‘We’ve lost the child. We can’t find him anywhere.’
Tongtong pointed at the wife’s stomach: ‘He’s gone back again.’
So that was it. I’d guessed as much but I didn’t dare believe it. Now that Tongtong had said the words, there was no shadow of a doubt any more. The Tongtong we saw before us seemed to wield enormous power, nothing like the boyish figure of the day-time. He still wore the same big satchel and spoke in a childish treble, but there was something different about him.
We stayed another eight months at the Deer Park and the wife’s big belly got smaller and smaller until you couldn’t see anything at all and she had her normal, slender figure back.
I ought to explain here that time didn’t go in reverse the way it does in a sci fi film – as soon as you get in the time machine, it transports you in a flash and a bang to some moment way back in history. Nothing so dramatic as that. Actually, reversing the flow of time has nothing to do with science, it’s a completely natural process, going backwards minute by minute, in just the same way as it goes forward, at an almost imperceptibly gentle, even tempo. The accumulated effects of this process, however, are appreciable. In other words, time moves at the same speed, just in a different direction.
After eight months, our baby was back at the egg stage again, an undamaged egg too. The wife’s office had been redecorated when she was three months’ pregnant, and just now she was the equivalent of two months’ pregnant. I wanted to stay longer at the Deer Park, until we had got rid of the egg completely. Then we could ‘re-light the cooker’ and have a brand-new baby, but the wife disagreed. ‘I want this child,’ she said, ‘Not any other child. I just want him to have hands.’ I felt very moved by her attitude.
We didn’t feel the slightest bit bored during those eight months. The way we saw things had changed, and everything we saw seemed rather magical. For instance, the guesthouse where we were staying had once, many, many years ago, been a travellers’ inn and had gradually been transformed into its present state. There was no trace of its former existence to be seen but that was what had happened. When time went into reverse, something new was created, in a different shape, and eventually its original shape disappeared…Otherwise, the child couldn’t have turned into an egg, and a fish couldn’t become a human. No matter whether time was going forward or backwards, it was perfectly normal for things to morph into a new form; there was nothing special about it.
Armed with this basic knowledge, we had no difficulty in accepting everything Tongtong said. He told us the Deer Park Museum had once been a flourishing centre of Buddhist devotion, set amid towering, ancient forests. Over a thousand years or so, it had become the way it was today, and the forests had turned into clumps of shrubs and bamboo. There were still traces of its former glory although, without Tongtong’s guidance, we ordinary mortals would never have seen them.
You could see if you looked closely, that the ‘broken road’ made of concrete slabs was raised off the ground. A thousand years ago, the road up the hill had been constructed of wood, raised in the air to mark its separation from the earth’s surface. Walkers could avoid treading on ants and other bugs; this was the way in which the monks displayed their compassion in their daily lives.
A thousand years passed and the walkway was still raised off the ground. It was very clean and insects hardly ever jumped onto it. If they did, they were easy to spot and could be avoided. Over time, the wood decayed and turned into concrete on which the grain of the wood was still visible.
Over the millennium, the underground culverts migrated to the walls, so that the outer walls of the museum bore a series of strange black lines. Have you ever heard of culverts running perpendicular up walls? And looking so attractive where they emerged into view? Well, that was the magic that happened when time went backwards.
Tongtong’s life was an even more extraordinary tale. He told us he had originally been an eminent Buddhist monk named Wu Tong, living in a temple on Jiuhua Mountain. Through unremitting practice he attained such an exalted state of virtue that his flesh became incorruptible. During the war years, his body had been brought to the area by a Buddhist devotee and hidden for safe-keeping. Time passed, and in some mysterious way he was turned into a stone statue, and was purchased for exhibition at the museum.
One day, on the spot where we had seen him meditating, he awoke. His whole body felt unbearably itchy, until bit by bit the gold leaf which had covered him peeled off. He began to move his arms and legs and finally was able to get up and move around. Another hundred years flashed by and Wu Tong the monk turned into the child, Tongtong, who hung around the museum and gardens and lived off scraps he picked up or was given by visitors. By night he still returned to the open-air exhibition area. By day, he had nothing to occupy him so he used to find himself a spot on the bank of the River Fu, and lie on his front reading a novel or something…
It was all so incredible, it sounded just like a fairy tale. If our baby hadn’t gone back inside the wife, if her belly hadn’t grown huge and then shrunk to nothing again, I certainly wouldn’t have believed it.
We’d now been at the Deer Park for a total of ten months, two months before and eight months afterwards. Nearly a year, in fact, during which we had seen something of all four seasons. It was all pretty much the same as in the outside world where time went forwards not backwards. The winters were mild and the summers cool, but that could have been because it was a natural environment whose ecosystem had not been damaged.
The only difference was that when the snow came, it only fell in one small area – the Deer Park. The snowflakes fluttering down attracted large numbers of visitors who came to frolic in the snow and scuff it under their feet. They wouldn’t have bothered to rush to the park if the snow had fallen all over the place, or if they had, they wouldn’t have found it so exciting. It never snowed anywhere else on the Chengdu plateau; so it was a wonder was that it only fell in this small area. The visitors may have seen it as an aesthetic phenomenon, but my view was that it was a sign that the Deer Park was isolated in time.
There was one strange thing which the wife and I were the only ones to discover and enjoy: there actually was a deer in the Deer Park. Several times we caught a glimpse of it at the water’s edge but only fleetingly. We watched it crane its neck and give a single cry, and then it would be gone, vanishing into bushes that seemed too small to hide its body. It was like an illusion. No one else ever mentioned it, not the staff at the guest house nor the people who worked at the museum. Even Tongtong didn’t say anything about the deer to us, so naturally we didn’t ask. Perhaps it simply didn’t exist, or no one else could see it… Who knows?
At any rate, weird phenomena were commonplace in the Deer Park, as you quickly realised if you lived there for any length of time.
Sometimes I went alone to the banks of the river and just stood there watching the turbid waters as they swirled past. The river marked the boundary between the Deer Park and the outside world. I wondered which sort of time it inhabited – ours or theirs? You couldn’t tell, you really couldn’t tell. The River Fu was going its own way as it flowed onward without a moment’s pause. How pretty the green leaves looked against the yellow of the waters. The river told me just one thing: once on course, either forward or in reverse, time passed very rapidly. Maybe this was the essential nature of time, no matter which direction it was going in.
In the distance at the water’s edge, Tongtong was reading a thick book, his chin cupped in his hands and deep in thought. In the open-air exhibition area on the museum roof, the wife was mumbling to herself before the statue of the child Buddha. I knew we would go back to the dusty clamourous world on the opposite bank to have our baby. And I also knew we would come back, because Tongtong had said we were his re-born parents. When he had grown so small that he couldn’t look after himself any more, we would look after him. Eventually, he would become an infant and go into the wife’s body.
Our life’s task would be to bring up these two children to adulthood: the escape from birth was very like the escape from death.