It’s evening time. The sun has gone down but the sky is not totally darkened yet, it’s this veiled purple-blue colour.
I am always a little scared of this moment of the day for no reason. Every time the evening comes, I feel a sense of fear and emptiness. I don’t want to know what time it is now because the human-created number restricts too much.
I am walking on a long lane with unknown tree species on both sides which intersect and almost cover the sky. There is thin fog around me which made things behind the tree unclear to see, nor the end of the lane. It’s said that trees are wisdom, each growth ring of them records the natural condition of the year and later the botanist will know what happened in that year in nature. I feel calm staying alongside them somehow. It’s humid in the air, the moisture wraps around my body and my head. The wet smell of plants fills my nose. I walk forward slowly. There are no lamps on the sides of the lane and the last bit of sunset that spreads in the fog is fading. When I was in high school, there was also a lane by the back door of the school. That lane, with neat white tiles on the pavements, divided my school and a university. It was much wider than the one that I’m walking on right now. I heard about a story at that time. A father and a son were walking on two parallel lanes at the same time departing from the same place. But when the two lanes crossed later and they met each other again, the son was already in his twilight years and the father remained the same age. I thought of this story every time I was walking on that lane, and it also reminds me of travelling in time. I started to walk faster unconsciously for fear of bursting into another world.
At this exact moment, I sense an existence. It’s a breath.
The breath is close to me as if it were right beside my cheeks, making me a little itchy. It’s not ragged breathing at all. On the contrary, it’s very slow, like in a deep sleep. I gradually feel relieved by listening to and feeling the calming breath, imagining the sleeping belly moving slightly up and down. I am not afraid of the breath that suddenly appeared somehow, I just see it as a company and keep walking.
It’s getting darker and darker, I can barely see the trees on the sides clearly and everything around me is melting into darkness. I feel like I am a blind man trying to see, opening my eyes wide and trying to catch the swaying shadows of the trees. But I can’t see anything except darkness. The smell of the fog is fading, and the cold smell of night is starting to blend in. How should I describe this kind of smell? The first related scene that comes to mind was going into the mountains at night when I was little. Although I was away from the city centre, the smell was still floating in the mountains.
This lonely smell also makes me feel melancholy.
A gentle breeze passes through as if it brought the distant smell of the city here because I can smell it in the air becoming stronger.
Suddenly I feel there is a pair of eyes by my side. I turn my head to the woods and see a piece of dark white shadow. Just when I am hesitating to go towards the blurry shadow, I feel that breath again. But this time, it is the back of my hand that feels the slight flow of air. ‘Are you still there?’ I ask. I don’t know who I’m asking and of course, there is no answer. I just feel the breath inhaling and exhaling, steadily, over and over. It’s hovering over gently around the back of my hand as if to give me the answer with its stretched presence and fragile temperature.
Little by little I begin to see it clearly, the white shadow is a sika deer. She occasionally bows her head, nibbles the grass on the ground and looks up at me. In this near-nothing darkness, there are sparkling starbursts in her rounded eyes. As though the two eyes were magical, there’s a flow of cold but clear light shining on me. I look at her eyes, whose gaze reminds me of the role of mother. The unconsciously permeating kindness makes me walk towards her, step by step, afraid of scaring her away. With each step I take, I feel the sand on the lane beneath rubbing the soles of my shoes. She notices me getting closer, but she doesn’t run away and continues staring at me. When the distance between us is just one or two metres, I stop. There’s an additional sense of gazing at everything in the world softly in her eyes. I recall those mythical stories about deer. It's said that we feel awed around them because they are divine. Maybe because they are too beautiful themselves for us to get close to, I stop naturally. I look into her shimmering eyes which are like two smooth black jewels. For one moment, I can’t tell whether she is a sika deer, a human or a divine.
Gradually, I realise she is somehow fading. She doesn’t run away, she is just vanishing and becoming transparent like fog. In the beginning, it’s her tail. Then the four legs, the spots on her back, the body, the neck, the antlers. In the end, it’s her ears, from the top to the bottom; her mouth, which seems to be still ruminating slowly when it’s disappearing; her eyes, first the dark pupils, the light in them remain for a while but dissipates bit by bit as well. When she disappears completely, there is no sound in the surrounding woods, as if it had never existed.
I stand there quietly watching her disappear. When my mind comes back, I find myself still in the darkness at a loss for words.
There is a little light at the end of the lane, it's almost like the light flew over and landed there from the eyes of the sika deer. I don’t know if I should continue walking forward. I look at the light ahead of me, the lane that I have come down and the starting point in the darkness. The breath comes back just right now and falls on my shoulder. It’s still inhaling and exhaling like a melodious song. But the breath becomes stronger than before, it’s faintly surging behind my shoulders as if trying to push me forward. So I walk slowly to the light in the distance. I find myself feeling comfortable and secure following the lead of the breath. With the light getting closer and brighter, the trees on the sides are fading away. Occasionally, a chimney appears in the gaps between branches, a part of the street lamp; then the entire roof of a house and yards…
I am at the end of the lane. Looking back, the overlapping tree shadows are already behind me and in front of me, a small town scene is shown.
I walk along the only street. The wet smell suffused in my nose is disappearing and being replaced by the hard smell of the bricks but mixed with a sense of tenderness on the sidewalk. Dark yellow light from the street lamps is spread over the street. There are very few people, I only come across sporadic people after walking for a long distance. There’s almost no light in the houses by the side, so I think it should be midnight.
There is a woman with a white dog standing under the lamp across the street. She is rolling up slowly a roll of poop bag for dogs as if she’s rolling up a scroll painting which she just finished viewing. Her movement is calm and with no rush. The bags are pink under the light in her hands and one end of the dog leash is wrapped around her wrist. Her dog looks a bit impatient, walking back and forth around her and pulling the rope constantly tied on her wrist. There is no hint of impatience on her face. She just wraps the bags carefully, aligning all the edges of each roller.
I stand on this side of the street watching her quietly. It begins to drizzle, but it’s kind of cosy with the rain falling on my body. Sometimes it falls on the surface of my eyeballs and my eyesight gets blurry for a moment, but it’s gone with a blink.
A piece of neon colour suddenly breaks into my view on this dark street with little light. It’s a karaoke bar. Shining through the glass covered by steam, red and blue light are projected on the wet street. The vague lights are almost magical in the steam as if delivering the heat and laughter inside the bar to me. I look at the light and can’t help but lift my feet towards the door, feeling clearly of being closer and closer to the splendid world inside. When the door is just in front of me, I pause, hesitating whether I should pull the door open.
‘Get inside.’ A quiet voice appears in my head. It’s it.
I pull the door, and at that moment lots of senses mingle and come out like a wave. The sudden increase of the music volume, the almost shouting voices of people singing, the light reflected by the spinning disco ball; the smell of alcohol, e-cigarette and the sweet smell of drinks splashed and dried on the floor… all of these are wrapped and carried by a wave of heat that howls towards me and almost swallows me. I look at this tiny world which is totally different from the dark and cold street outside, when I also almost see myself a few seconds ago standing in front of the steamed glass.
This small bar somehow exists independently on this street, and doesn't stand out at all. The counter is right opposite the entrance, with several small sofas by the side and a tiny television on the wall playing the music video. Everyone is gathered in groups: some huddled on sofas, others standing around the table. I carefully walk through people who are immersed in either their own world or in the music and order my drink at the counter. There is a man by my side, leaning on the counter making a phone call. He has a cup of sparkling with the colour of dark blue on the table, with a cigarette between his fingers. I smell the smoke, it’s not the usual sharp smell of cigarettes but with the aroma of pine trees. This reminds me of the smell that went into my nose by chance when I was walking on Lambeth Bridge that summer. With that familiar but also unfamiliar smell, the hazy silhouette of another person is dragged into my head. I was following the mysterious man secretly behind him, walking across the Lambeth bridge and watching him walk into MI5.
I look at this man by my side, he’s wearing a white T-shirt with a sentence printed in black: create your own reality. My mind goes blank for a moment when I am staring at his T-shirt. He suddenly starts to speak on the phone:
‘Standing on the bank of a river which is going into the sea,
I see killer whales and dolphins,
Leaping out of the water
One after another.
The river flows towards the far end of the setting sun.’
He keeps silent for a while. He exhales a puff of smoke, nodding from time to time and responding to the person on the phone.
One song ends, the bartender passes the microphone to the next person who is going to sing. Someone touches me so I turn around. The bartender gives me a cup of light red coloured wine. Drinking my wine and listening to the man mumbling over the phone, I feel the breath again flowing in my palm. I curl my fingers slowly, trying to hold it. But the moment my fingertips touch my palm, the breath is gone instantly as if it were crushed by me. Is it because I wanted to catch it so badly? Or because I couldn’t bear to let it go?
‘The fog rose and lifted,
The forest on the opposite side appeared
‘It’s not snowing,
But the grass has turned white.
I’m wearing a pair of blue corduroy pants
In my dream.’
The microphone is passed to me. I picked a song with electronic guitar and slow-paced drums as accompaniment, but I forgot the name of the song. I try to lower my voice so that it fits the music better. My voice is carried out by the air that goes out through my throat. The sound is like scratching the edge of a rough wooden table by using a wavy-edged ruler. I finish singing, feeling like my mind falls into the vortex of time too, like the song itself.
Create your own reality.
The surrounding light and people’s laughing faces are like repetitive beats flying by in front of my eyes over and over again, as if I were sitting on a spinning carousel.
What is my own reality?
In the spin, I vaguely see the man in the white T-shirt looking at me. I look back at him. He lights up another cigarette, his face is illuminated shortly by the fire. He then ordered the same light red coloured wine as mine.
‘Time to go.’
I slowly stand up. It seems more foggy inside the bar than the moment that I entered. There are also more people, the already small space is even more packed. Just before I cross the crowd again, I hear the last sentence that the man says over the phone:
‘I walk from the dark blue
and purple red coloured clouds
toward the golden sky
with the remaining setting sun,’
The moment that he hangs up the phone, I push the door open. When I walk out and close the door, all the mixed smells and the noises of people talking are cut off and sealed behind the door. I return to the extremely calm and dark street.
The street still looks the same compared with how it looked before I went into the bar, but somehow it also looks different. I keep walking forward. A smell that only belongs to the night comes to me which makes me even more lonely. I gradually reach the town centre, and shops are appearing on the sides. There are cafes, bars, and record shops that I’ve seen but never gone into. At night, they are sleeping too. The busy daytime scene has been removed on the entire empty street. However, for each shop, decoration, or bench on the street, it’s as if their own souls returned, silently shining under the streetlamp. In the daytime, their souls are taken by humans; but at night, it’s the time that they shine for themselves secretly.
At this moment, I feel that the breath is moving upwards along my arm from the back of my hand, and it stops at my shoulder. It’s becoming more concrete, as if with weights, passing by skimming the surface of my skin. It’s like —— touching. It’s like someone is touching my arm.
‘Is that you?’ Numerous images flash in my mind.
Here is not the town centre in the daytime anymore.
I walk to the plaza, by which there is a shopping mall. The plaza is round, almost in total darkness with weak light from the streetlamps. There are neither Christmas trees nor people selling balloons on the plaza that is usually here. There is only an old man playing the electronic piano. He’s playing the Moonlight Sonata. Once I hear the sonata, any linguistic words used for describing the moonlight become pale and weak. It seems the old man who is playing the sonata forgets his own existence, too. He is staring somewhere far away, with a pair of immersed and lost eyes, but his fingertips are dancing nimbly on the keyboard.
The tune washes over me and wraps with the bright moonlight, transforming into a silky scarf, like the ones that people wore in ancient times. I reach my hands to touch it, but I touch nothing. It’s like when I saw the clouds on a plane outside the window. They seemed so solid, but when the plane blasted through, I realised that they were just water vapour. My surroundings are becoming more and more blurry and I am slowly sinking to the centre of this vortex. Going down and down, as if there’s a force dragging me. I step on the floor with my foot, I find out I am just standing right on the ground not sinking. All of a sudden, I feel my waist is gently pushed. I am carried to lift my arms by this force, moving my steps in the centre of the vortex. I almost smell humid air, also faint sweet-scented osmanthus. It’s weird, I thought osmanthus can only be found in China. The ground beneath my foot is becoming softer. I look down and find out that I am standing on a patch of green grass. Gradually, I am able to see my surroundings clearly. I don’t know when the trees have grown with fireflies flying in the air. It’s like the scenery of a magical forest. I smell the trees in the forest, combined with the light smell of plants, flowers and the night. It reminds me of the scenarios with protagonists in the forests in those Thai films. At this moment, my senses are connected with theirs and I perceive what they perceived. I don’t know how to dance, but I move my steps fluently following the lead of that force. My body is lifted and lowered. When my hand is lifted, I spin; when my palm is pushed back, I step back. I try my best to see who this person is dancing with me, but there is fog around me. The face is blurry, hidden behind the fog all the time.
The scene shifts gradually, I cross the jungle and come to the open seaside. The huge moon is just rising over the sea, with its reflection broken by waves and floating on the surface. Today’s moon is not a warm colour, it’s not dark yellow like in the ancient paintings; it’s not cold white either, but a neutral colour as if the moon is just a spectator, not being involved in the warmth and the coldness of the world. I look at this beautiful but isolated moon, feeling like passing through an ancient Chinese painting or poem.
I have no idea how long I have been dancing for. The rhythm of the Moonlight Sonata is so slow that the time seems to have slowed down with it, too. The first movement is finished without noticing. The sea, trees, fireflies and fog around me fades away. I lower my arms and look around me, I am back at the plaza again. I look at the surroundings, confused, not knowing whether everything that I have just sensed was real. The old man starts to pack up his piano with tranquillity. I stand here staring at him blankly. He puts the piano into the bag, lifts it and grabs the music stand and walks towards the street opposite the plaza. I watch this mysterious man leave until he disappears when he takes a turn at the first crossing.
The moon is covered by a cloud which makes the plaza darker. But after a while the cloud moves away, the clear moonlight shines on me again.
From the corner where the old man disappeared, a red double-decker bus, which is everywhere on the streets in London, pulls out. I walk to the empty street when the bus makes a stop in front of me. The doors are opened, as if especially for welcoming me. I walk up the stairs at the door and a huge, cluttered theatre bursts into my view. The space inside is expanded infinitely, so much larger than how it appears from the outside. The ceiling is incredibly high, as high as those of the cathedrals. It doesn’t look like a normal theatre with a huge stage and neatly arranged seats. On the contrary, there are many little stages which were put up temporarily. The curtains are all randomly slung over the beams above the stage, hanging down halfway. There are several people around each stage: actors and actresses with costumes rehearsing on the stage, directors sitting beside watching the rehearsal, prop and lighting staff running around. I look up and see there is a row of windows on the top of the wall close to the ceiling. Beams of afternoon sunshine spill down and fall on everyone’s hair. It was late at night a few moments ago and now it’s afternoon all of a sudden. But that sunlight is like holy light, reminding me of the lights in the eyes of the deer that I met earlier in the woods.
I weave my way into the crowd, careful not to bump into the people running around. They are really in a hurry as if there was a huge show just around the corner. I watch the fragments of their performance stage by stage. I can’t see the whole story because sometimes the directors stop them in the middle. But occasionally a line or two drift in that struck me as familiar. I kind of have heard them somewhere, or perhaps——I have said them myself sometimes.
I stop and see what they are acting on the closet stage. There is a group of child actors and actresses, seemingly walking on their way back home after school with their school bags. They chat and laugh, walk into a supermarket and buy fried chicken fillet, and then cross a pedestrian overpass. The longer I watch them, the more familiar I feel: isn’t this the story of me going back home from school when I was in primary school? It was the first time that my mom didn’t pick me up from school and I walked back home by myself with my classmates.
I look again at other stages nearby. There are stories of my secondary school and high school, with memories flooding back to me. Although these stories are all ordinary daily trivia that is not special at all, they were put onto stage somehow. I keep walking forward, some stories just happened a few days ago. Then there’s the story of me meeting the deer on the lane in the woods, dancing in the plaza, and at last, walking onto this bus when the stage was turned into a bus miniature. I want to walk forward a bit more but somehow there is fog in front of me. In the fog, is there my future? I stop walking. I can only vaguely see shadows of people walking on the stage. After I have walked around, I think of when people are dying, they recall their whole life as if they were on a carousel. I feel like I have been reminded of my whole life, too.
Create my own reality? I say to myself.
I find it interesting watching them play my own stories. I put on a costume, jump onto the stage and act with them together. I am automatically turned into the main character when I go on stage and naturally know my lines and the plot. Of course, they are all stories that happened to me. The sentences just come out of my mouth naturally when I am on stage even though they are just random sentences that I said when I was little. I act fluently on the stage, driving the story forward as if the past had become the present. The facial expressions, ways of speaking and body movements of the other actors are all more exaggerated than in normal life for a more vivid effect on stage. I also interpret myself in a way that is me but is not exactly me to act along with them.
One scene is over, I walk down the stage with other actors and actresses laughing and talking, about to go to the other side of the stage waiting for the start of the next scene. We squeeze through numerous gaps in the crowd between people while listening to them commenting on the scene that we just played with huge excitement. I look back to see the actors and actresses behind me, responding to them excitedly as if we are already old friends for many years. At this moment, everything is almost turned into slow motion. I can feel that when I look back, my hair flutters up and down with my head slowly turning around; each muscle of my face is mobilised to respond to them with the brightest smile; almost like another stage light, golden sunlight streams down from the windows on the roof and hits my face. This single moment is stretched infinitely like a slow-motion movie.
Suddenly the bus comes to a stop. Although there’s no announcement of the stop, I know I need to get off. I look outside through the window, it’s all white and empty and I can’t see anything. I silently step out of my friends and walk to the back door of the bus. The people around me are still laughing and running, no one notices that I’m getting off the bus. I, the protagonist of all plays on the stages here, am getting off. I don’t know what will happen if I get off, but I’m not scared, pretty calm on the contrary.
The doors are already opened, waiting for me. Just as I am about to reach the doors, a sentence flows into my ears, ‘I heard your voice when I was in deep sleep.’ I look around, people are rushing with voices rumbling, I have no idea who said that.
I walk down the bus and find myself in a foggy woods. The faint sunlight diffuses through the thick fog. The bus closes the doors, and the redness of its body is so bright in the fog. Slowly, the bus starts to move again, I watch it go far away. At first, the redness is still vaguely visible through the fog; then, little by little, little by little, it disappears in the fog.