Illustration by Andres Garzon
I see how they look at each other when they think I am not watching. My son and his new wife are growing harder with wanting. They study shiny catalogues for this or that. Wasteful things. A thousand varieties of nonsense. She expects a child and my small room would be suitable for the newborn. We had an arrangement. They would care for me in old age, and when the time came the house would be theirs. It is not much. Not enough for them, I am sure. They long for one of those monster cities on the coast, an apartment with a dishwasher and other gadgets. I saw a story about it. Tiny rooms high above the street, all shiny surfaces, so clean and smooth it makes you sad and lazy.
This village by Shenmi forest is no longer for them. The chickens running about, pigs snorting among the scraps, the few barefoot children, growing fewer each year. Traditions growing weaker with every season. Soon we will all be ghosts that no one can be bothered to honour.
With only three teeth I cannot eat the food my husband’s wife, Lan, offers me. It gives me no pleasure, and I can easily choke. I ask her to mash it up for me. Small pieces. But she slams the bowl down, defiant, hands on her hips. I cannot eat meat in the same way. Rice and soft noodles I can manage. And soup, of course. She is not a good cook. Not like my wife was. This one adds spices with no care for how they clash. It all goes in.
I can still defend myself a little. I have my father’s cane. But I foresee a time when she or both of them might strike me, without fear or shame, for their own amusement. Such things occur. They did when I was young, but there was a community back then to censure it, root it out. Closed doors could be opened. I have heard them whispering when they imagine me asleep. They long for my death. But death comes in its own time. We were always taught that. We were taught to honour and respect our elders. Much of that is gone now.
I heard her talking about leaving me on the high road, where the trucks thunder by, trucks crammed with cheap plastic rubbish, and that if I am not run down, the authorities would take me in somewhere, to some facility, a warehouse for the unwanted. No. I would tell them where my home is. I still know where I live. Once you forget that, they can put you anywhere. I would make the authorities bring me back, and then my son and his wife would be shamed. There is still some law. Is there not?
The old ones are dying out. There’s still Liu, half-crazy with homebrew, and the widow Hua, and the Zhang couple—they never officially married, but she took his name. The village itself is dying. No one cares for their properties any more, and the paths are overgrown. A few of the unemployed young men might even be using drugs. I saw Ho looking ill. I asked him what the matter was, and he looked at me so fiercely. I still wanted to comfort him; he used to be a kind boy. In some ways I cannot blame them, the boys that this country prevents from becoming men. They too have found themselves unwanted and dishonoured. There are no local jobs to support this community. The young must go to the cities. Many do that and some never return or even write. They are swallowed up as by a great snake. My son was lucky to become a tax official for this and several other villages in the area. He had an aptitude. They even gave him a motorcycle. This does not make him popular with some, so his luck is tainted.
I must not wait until I lie in my own mess with no one to clean me or comfort me, until they let me suffer whole days without water or food. I do not wish to die insane or in a rage. The indignities possible are not to be taken lightly. My son is not my son. He is strange to me, rude. I always longed for a daughter, despite what most people think. My son, Chi, has shallow eyes. They flicker about, they will not hold my gaze. It was the same when he was a boy, he always seemed to be secretly plotting.
I worked my smallholding until age prevented me. The big operations swallowed me up. I can still cultivate a few vegetables. The cabbages were especially good this year, but she overcooks them. The soil, you see. It has been taken care of, at least our garden patch. It has not been leached. You cannot take and take and never give anything back. This is a deeper law. The land was sold for a pittance, the few animals slaughtered. My sister, Jiahui, lives over that mountain, beyond Shenmi forest. I have not heard from her in twelve years. Perhaps she has moved away or even passed on. Surely they would have let me know.
We used to play by the well near that tallow tree over there, the one hit by lightning near its base. The well is now dry. Once, my sister dropped a kitten into the well. I was shocked, but she made me promise to tell no one, she twisted my wrist. I think the kitten crawled out of the water and found a ledge, for I heard its cry from the darkness. My sister was two years older, you see, and our father’s favourite. I still hear the sound of a kitten crying some nights when I cannot sleep. That trick of hers has haunted me for over seventy years.
They say there is a great shortage of girls for our boys to marry, due to the Policy. Many men will never find a partner. So much for the Policy. You can say my son was a lucky one. You might say that. He advertised in some newspaper, and so she came here, from a mining town, East. A different sort, she is. No humility, harsh manners, little grace, except that which is done for show, like when the nurse came to look at my foot in the spring. I was never introduced to her family. I heard they were deeply disappointed with her choice. For my part, I say that like attracts like.
I never feared age. I was foolish enough to imagine wisdom would accrue, and thereby honour would be given, modest as my life was. The honour that only family can bestow. Honour: longer lasting than love and more reliable.
I have made a decision. Tomorrow morning I will walk out through the gate. I will enter the great Shenmi forest that bounds three sides of this village, and I will walk deep into the forest’s heart.
Fa woke very early the next morning, barely after dawn. His son and daughter-in-law could be heard lightly snoring as he shuffled quietly past their door. Bad weather had been predicted by the radio the night before, but when Fa stepped outside he found the day to be bright and crispwith no trace of wind. The sky was like pale blue milk. Above the line of trees the far-off mountains were adorned in mist. “Beautiful,” he said.
He had not prepared any food, nor had he taken any water. That would defeat the purpose. He would walk and walk and sit down to rest when the correct time came and the right place was found. By the gate he paused, thinking: ‘Am I really doing the right thing? Am I mistaken in their intentions?’ Then he remembered all the secret looks they gave each other when they thought he was not looking. His sight was not as good as it had been, but he was far from blind. His hand rubbed the smooth wood of the gate, a gate he made himself some forty years before. I was not a bad carpenter, he thought.
He passed by the silent houses. From the forest the birds were already calling. They blended into an odd music that obeyed its own laws of time and rhythm. There was woodsmoke in the air. Fa inhaled. Then he saw a thin line of smoke above the chimney of Hua’s house. She too was an early riser then. Fa had once considered asking Hua to move in with him. That was some years after both their respective partners had died. A decent enough period of time. They might have married, or simply acted as good companions. The boy, still at the village school then, would not hear of it. He played up, threatened to run away, told his father he was betraying the memory of his mother. He would slam doors off their hinges, would even break plates. Fa gave in. Now he bitterly regretted it.
Unsurprisingly, Hua had been very graceful over the matter. She was a person of character. They had discussed the preliminaries after all, over many a bowl of tea, usually in her warm kitchen. She was a good woman. She told Fa that she could not come between him and his son, a son of whom so much was once expected.
Why not knock gently at her door? Explain the situation. The correct words might be found. She might also appreciate the company, and he could still manage most things. He was not looking for a nurse. Was he? They had barely spoken since the idea had cooled. Nothing needed to be said; he felt she had understood. But now things had advanced, and not only their years. They had to stick together, did they not? He had something to offer still. Everyone always has something to offer. You must believe that.
Her face was round, pleasant. She kept the light of her girlhood in her eyes. Conversation can be likelove. And there is satisfaction in knowing someone will call your name in the morning. And when you call theirs there will be an answer. This is compensation.
Fa stood, trembling a little, at the foot of her path. He had not even left the village and his plan had been vanquished. Perhaps he really was a foolish old man, fit only for wherever foolish old men are sent by their well-meaning children. A hazy place of grey corridors, barked commands, indifference, a mad kind of loneliness, and the worst kind of food. Such did he imagine it.
Faint cooking smells came from Hua’s house. Why not invite yourself to breakfast? Perhaps she is yearning, too? Just then, the door opened violently, Fa felt it to be, and a man he had never seen before threw out a jug of dirty-looking water onto the ground. It steamed where it fell.
The man looked at Fa. “What?” he said in a rough voice. The man was perhaps in his fifties, hefty forearms, a blunt face.
“I was wondering how Hua is,” Fa began.
“She is in the hospital.”
“Which hospital? What is wrong?”
“Why do you need to know?” the man responded, narrowing his eyes.
“I am a neighbour. A friend, actually.”
“Never seen you before,” the man said, then turned and shut the door behind him. The steam from the water still rose from the ground where it had been thrown.
Fa took a few steps back. Looked at the house. Through one window, behind a thin curtain, he could see that furniture and boxes had been stacked against one wall.
It was time to go. A dalliance, that was all. An idea long past its freshness. Some once-living thing, dried and unrecognisable. A lost path. Fa hoped that whatever Hua was suffering from it would be swift to release her. Again, a bitterness swelled in him: his son, that complacent runt who did not know one end of a spade from the other. “How did his mother and I create him? Or was he created by something else, by history, or by some distant edict from the men in dark suits? Their version of progress. Always leaping forward they are, and never looking back to where they have leapt from. Deranged frogs. It might all be possible, and possible, too, that I am losing my faculties.”
Fa walked on. He came to the end of the row of small dwellings. The Shenmi forest beckoned. This particular path ended where the trees began. Pines, some oaks, a few varieties he had never learned the names of, or perhaps he had forgotten them—it all began here, giving no sense of its size, its grandeur, seeming almost parochial, a trickster, claiming nothing. The ground began to crunch beneath Fa’s feet. He had, of course, walked many times into the outskirts, looking for mushrooms, herbs, or just to gather his thoughts when times were difficult. As a boy, he searched out birds’ eggs, sometimes climbing high to rob their nests. He saw in his mind a thumb and fingers pressing against a bright blue egg, and the shell giving way, then the yolk and the albumen dripping down the fingers into the bowl of a palm.
This time it was different. This time there was only one direction. Going on was a controlled falling. With a somewhat blank look on his face, Fa slowly fell.
I had walked much of the day, deeper and deeper. The light was changing now. It had become as though I were walking through the same patch of forest, over and over. I noticed curious repetitions of shape and colour and spacing. The same grouping of fungi around a fallen bough. Perhaps they were not exact replicas, merely half-echoes. I began to wonder whether I was actually walking on the spot, upon some earthen treadmill. My hat had fallen from my hand some miles back. What use is a hat?
The thirst had come, had then lessened, only to return with a fierceness that frightened me. My limbs ached. Despite the lateness of the season, insects had enjoyed a feast on my exposed skin.
They say the fern is a prehistoric plant. One of the oldest and once one of the most common, it grew almost everywhere. It seems then that I am walking into prehistory.
Will my son and his wife contact the authorities? Or will they assume I have disappeared and hope for that disappearance to be permanent? Another statistic, another deranged old man losing himself among the trees, not even worthy of a photograph in the province newspapers. Perhaps they are giving it a little time to reach the point of no return. It is their lucky day.
I remember when I first saw him. It is difficult to admit, but I had a natural disgust. I wanted to retch. I pretended I was yawning through lack of sleep. It was a difficult labour, and I sat by her, even though this was most unusual. His mother doted on him, as it is expected. I suspected, especially as he grew and revealed his nature, that he would extract some revenge for being born in this place and time to such simple people. His spirit is greedy and complex.
At last, I recognised the spot, put there as though it were just for me. The impressively large ginkgo tree. I looked up and could not see its crown. It was lost in the weave of other trees. In a triangular patch of purple sky I believe I saw a bright star. Either that or a satellite. Then a wind altered the canopy and the star was hidden.
I could smell a decaying animal nearby. At first the smell is bad, but with time it turns to a sweetness, then to a type of musk, then, gradually, to the remembrance of a scent. Animals will scent me. I suppose I may be torn and scattered. I do not begrudge the forest the gift of my body.
I sat cross-legged beneath the ginkgo tree. One thing I have not lost is flexibility. Early morning exercises, as we learned in school. I never missed a day. Well, except the day she died. On that day I did not move or speak. Some thought me hard-hearted because I did not weep. It was beyond weeping.
The leaves beneath me were a soft cushion. The trunk supported me well, consoled me, in truth. I closed my eyes. I counted my breaths. I asked for release.
When I opened my eyes the forest was there. I heard its sounds and smelt it. I tasted it. It tasted green and a little bitter. I felt neither thirst nor hunger. Indeed, I felt astonishingly rested and calm in myself. If I had to sum it up, I would say a few years had been lifted from my shoulders. Perhaps more than a few.
I got to my feet with ease. My knees and hip had not caused me pain as they usually did. Before leaving, I reached out to touch the ancient ginkgo tree. I blessed it in my heart. The bark was warm with the afternoon sun.
A bird called high in the canopy. It was a message of sorts. It told me to walk again. To return. And so I did.
After what seemed a relatively short time, I came to the village. Still I felt no hunger or thirst. My tread was steady and even. Even my eyesight had grown sharper. Some children passed me. A dog scampered around them. The children ignored me, as they often do these days. After all, what do the old know of the modern world? But the dog sniffed the air when it drew close. I thought of touching it, scratching it behind the ears, as it was not a fearsome dog. It whined as I put my hand out. It backed away. Then the children called it, and it followed them.
Eventually, I found Hua’s house. Smoke still curled from the chimney. I could see someone moving inside. Then the sound of a stringed instrument, badly played.
“Are you there, Hua?” I called this from the gate, expecting no reply. But I did notice that my voice had regained some of its youthful timbre. My walk had done me good. The door opened and the man from before stood in the doorway in his vest. In one hand he held a mug of spirits. I knew this because I could smell it, even from the gate. The man looked about him, a puzzled expression on his sallow unshaven face.
“Has Hua returned from the hospital? Is she well? I have something to ask her. Is she well?”
The man slowly shook his head, but this did not seem in answer to my question. It was, I am sure, more a response to his own thoughts. He took a gulp from his mug, shuddered, and closed the door.
At last I came to my own house. I stepped over the low wall instead of passing through the gate. Do not ask me why. It simply felt a better thing to do. I strode, light-footed, to the door and entered. Inside it was dark. I backed out of the door and noticed that all the curtains were drawn. That had not seemed apparent at first, or else I had not cared to look.
I found them in the kitchen, at the table. My son and his wife. She no longer appeared pregnant. An unfinished meal lay before each of them. When I stood at the threshold they did not look up. When I stood by the still warm oven, they did not acknowledge me. My son’s face was bloated and tear-stained. Just then, he pushed away his plate and his head fell to the table with a thud. Sobs racked his body. I had never seen such a thing from him. His wife looked on, seemingly unsure of how to comfort him. She, too, was pale and drawn, as though she had not slept for several nights. I looked at them both and, still as they were, and they became a painting, like one of those rural interiors by Li from the 30s. They went out of fashion, but I always appreciated them.
My son raised his head and wiped his eyes with his sleeve. He breathed deeply, then said: “I failed him. I failed myself.”
She lay her hand on his arm. “It’s not true. Not true,” she cooed, as if she were comforting a young child.
By then I had swallowed enough of the joke. I clapped my hands together. “Cheer up,” I told them. “I am back and better than ever. Lots to do in that garden, a few roof tiles to replace, a new coat of paint for the gate and this dreary old kitchen. It is time we spruce the place up.”
They acted as though they had not heard me. Not so much as a glance. So the rudeness, the arrogance, had remained in them. No lessons learned. I clapped my hands again, twice. “Wake up,” I said. “Wake up now.”
My son’s head fell once more to the table, as if a string had been cut. His arms covered his face. He made a sound which could not be distinguished between crying and laughing.
Then, despite the dying light, I scrutinised her face, and although the eyes were moist and puffy, the mouth held the promise of a smile.
MARK MAYES currently lives in Wales, where he enjoys writing stories, poems, and songs. 2017 saw the publication of his novel, The Gift Maker. Some of his songs may be found here.
Copyright © 2018 by Mark Mayes. All rights reserved.