Author: William Xu
-In Memory of My Grandparents
Long before the highway reached our town, there was a railroad. Along the tracks everything that made the town came and went away. It hid itself within the rumbles of the hills, embracing all the nature’s gifts and forfeits, enduring its own pain and past. Without the railroad, no one would have ever known its existence.
Spring arrived along that railroad. Spring awakened a wistful world of weariness and woe for new wishes, whims and wonders. Winter, taking a midnight train, left us astonished by the morning. Spring restored sparkles of pink and green to twigs of black. Spring brought green and gold back to the ground of snow. With the first rain and break of thunder, it blatantly declared itself as the new host of the valley. The soft breezes of the cheerful spring then softly played on the strings of my heart, making ebullient melodies that rang the sweet chimes and chants of my childhood.
I was standing on the station platform, desperately longing for a bookseller which usually arrived on Sundays by train. The bookseller made his living by selling newspapers and hand-held cartoons or fictions on the train, and stopped temporarily at every station whichever the train visited. He sold them to passengers and local folks, which did not include me because I had no money. I really should be working at the fields with my grumpy grandpa at this moment, to earn more meals for tomorrow rather than daydream about indulging myself with such lavish expenses. Call me a selfish boy poisoned by extravagant manners then—for I stayed there, eyes fixed at the distant horizon by the turn of the hills.
There the gray wonder burst onto the landscape, intruding my long, hollow week with all the wishes and wonders of a wanderlust kid like me. This great cloud-compeller sent a train of cloud as extensive as itself, stretching far behind and rising ever higher and closer to Heaven. This gray iron horse, unharnessed and untamed, made the valley echo with his snorts like thunder, shook the earth with its revolutionary motion, and breathed fire and smoke from its black nostrils. It sprinkled all the restless people on its path, awakening them for a heroic cause. It urged them to travel like a bolt of lightning, to become electric, loud and fiery, to grow lively, restless and lasting. This station amidst the lonely valley was not its home but only a temporary stop. As the brisk sunlight of early spring touched this monstrous being with its temperate hands, endowing it with an angelic luster. From such a front of light, the bookseller emerged. He wore a strap over his shoulder to hold a box of books in front of him. Strings of sunlight leaked through the rusted wooden eaves and thick cover of steam at the station, fell jumping and dancing on the covers of the books on the board, and then rained into the curious eyes of a captivated child. When winds wished and wooshed pass the platform, the book pages flipped and flapping their brown-white wings like an abundance of butterflies flying away, their rustles jingling in the air like a flurry of laughter.
The books played its magical spell on me, yet unable to mesmerize me for I knew I had no money. I could but staring with green-eyed jealousy at adults who were calmly and casually buying newspapers from the vendor. How I wished I could buy a single book. How I wished this golden hour would stay, as I was never so close to knowledge, future and what’s beyond that horizon in my life. I thought, books would transport me into the familiar solidity of much brighter and hotter suns of the Capricorn and Cancer, the absolute normality of real Boys and Girls that wore wool shirts and leather shoes, played tennis, and bathed in ocean water. Truth had it that they ate more rice than oatmeal, lived in multi-floor, elevator-equipped mansions. For sure they woke up from a temperate ray of sun tickling their eyelids, which fell from stained-glass windows rather than crevices of red bricks. They had acres of land before them, but sailed for the lighthouse in the distance; and they were eternally searching for everything. From these books I thus fashioned my Double of my age, my height, my looks, having just spent the winter holiday at the exotic, ever-spring fields of the South with all his family members. He went swimming in sapphire lakes, and sunbathed on the green carpet of grass that rustles as wind blows past. He befriended with cowslips and honeysuckles on the grassy plains uncovered by any wood, where he roamed freely like a flying spirit…
A thrusting whistle broke the free associations of my mind. The vendor dissolved under the sunlight. The gray being roared and rushed its way out—out—out, until collapsing into a distant mark, a black stain on the azure sky. A flock of clouds rolled above us, shading the valley entirely. For this reality covered in limitless shadows, one that was less real, I knew there was a strong sense of unsettlement brooding under its settled appearances. In the slowness of the gray dust that rose from the humble chimneys hid a dark secret. In the heaviness of every brick wall lurked an amorphous creature that would wreak everything the very next moment. In silence and darkness violence brooded. When they all came upon me, I had neither sword nor armor. But I knew my Double would never tremble. He was a soldier, an explorer, a hero. He was the lighthouse amidst the ocean, a ray of sun falling onto my inward eyes during the darkest seasons. Marking his heroic status in my mind, I imitated his greatness, obtaining a little confidence at least in me so to face that looming horror—the winter that entrenched in the crevices and troughs of my heart.
Grandma noticed the brooding thunderclouds over me as soon as I returned home, despite my vain attempt to feign a rainbow instead. She consoled my grief with her soothing hands, which were wrinkled yet warm. But when I looked up into her eyes, I was frightened again by her eyes drained out of black, and instead there was a mingle of yellow, brown and white. They had not the vigor of spring. The residues of winter hid there, the two dried-up ponds that fell into stagnancy. If I said that I wanted books, wouldn’t it be a crime to stab her with such knives of trickery? Wouldn’t it be robbery, if I blatantly take her pension, which she had saved only to buy herself a much-needed pair of glasses?
“My little lark, why did you cry?”
“I…I wished to buy books.”
Condemn this most ungrateful murderer!
“From the man on the rails?”
She frowned, then thrusting her hands deep into her pockets, searching for everything inside it. Not unexpectedly, she found nothing. She addressed a small, awkward smile. But then she had it. Before I could stop her, she rushed to the kitchen to retrieve a bag of five eggs, just collected from our old, loyal Mrs. Hen. But they were half-worth her glasses already. And it took such a long time to collect five eggs… In the village, high-quality eggs were a distinguishing prestige, because only fodder of grained fine wheat and sufficient exercises, in addition to the most devoted care of the woman farmer, could yield eggs of greatest taste. My Grandma’s eggs were so respected that they were even sold outside the valley. Her eggs were some of the few travelers that actually left the valley by railway ahead of me. I could already imagine when neighbors heard the folly of selling eggs for useless words written on
She pushed the bag into my arms, leaving me no chance to return them to her. She demanded, with a lighthearted yet serious smile, “go buy books that you need. Your Grandpa should never know about this.” I nodded like a machine. I was speechless. I felt like a criminal who, waiting for a death sentence, heard his pardon and received liberty instead.
Grandma has decided to work at the textile factory to subsist the family, since we ate everything during winter. I loved her and I didn’t want her to go, but she had to. I held her hand and we crossed the labyrinthine alleys of the town together to the factory. Within three to five steps was a tree: mostly probably cedar, but sometimes a maple or an oak as well. New leaves burgeoned, like emeralds glowing within the older, darker ones that got through the harsh winter. Light struck from the trees. Wood shadows and sunspots floated silently over the vintage walls that were still dormant. The cinnabar on the wooden door had flaked and the bronze knobs rusted. The ebony Chinese characters written on the columns were worn by winter’s hands. The muddy, moldy eaves broke the azure sky into sects of blue, slightly wavering as I gazed while walking along the alleys. The sounds of our steps were reverberating like a remote folk song. The door, much moth-consumed and decrepit, was left half-open, and only the curious sun tentatively probed the interior with the utmost caution, yet failing to illuminate the winter that still lurked inside. Such an ominous idea which suddenly sprang up from my mind—winter still stared at me, hiding behind these doors and bars, behind the beautiful veil of the vibrant spring, behind the hearts of us—that I exiled it immediately. It was a deplorable guess, unacceptable and ill for my age.
At the end of the valley, a massive bouquet of pink suddenly intruded my sight. I have never seen such a tree of hot pink flowers, blossoming like bullet shots into the cold, dry early-spring air. At faraway it looked like a pink mist, tinted with the sun’s gold glitters. From the pink mist, wisps of sweet, invigorating aroma delivered themselves to me, cuddling my body and inviting me to come closer, closer, closer, the pink mist was pouring out like a cascade down upon my hair and then the rest of me. Not before it ebbed it rebounded from the earth again, tracing from my feet back up to my head. I stood still in this pink until I realized I had let go of my grandma’s hands. Shocked, I searched for her and everything, realizing that they had left me alone with the entire spring. She was slipping back into the winter, the impenetrable darkness.
Grandma had been hit by grandpa on a cold winter evening. I wept because I loved her. I wept because I couldn’t bear looking at the red, blue, orange, purple and black on her for a second time. Glasses raised up, then shattered into pieces, producing a sound like a ringing wind chime. Gass pieces, like tiny shinny stars, were everywhere, with some on the table and the floor, others in my knees, my hair, my eyes. Booms around me, plashes and dashes around me, clangs, bangs, pangs around me, piercing the air, just like that tree firing its pink buds. The folk song played in the radio in the background. Winds sent a flurry of laughter on the twigs covered with heavy snow. Fists punched as meteors flashed across the tender sky of the night. Hands moved as butterflies flapped their wings. Her shadow fell into the fireplace instead of herself. Snow crystals formed on the window pane, dirtied by the dust that had accumulated there. Suddenly, the pink mist of spring ghostly intruded my memory and halted it there. It deformed and dissolved everything into oblivion. Thus, I was utterly ignorant of what happened later. Or rather, the five-year old me could understand none of this, that and everything. Even when they screamed and screeched and shrieked, they only made me retreat deeper behind curtains where darkness shielded me, as I shivered in fear. My fear is not roused by what I had seen, but the fact that one day I might stop trying at all to search for the implications and everything behind that great pink mist.
“My little dove, why do you cry?”
Her voice emerged through the mist but her figure didn’t. In a veil of melancholy tears her figure was merely a dimmed shadow. She became a shadow already when her own had burnt in the fireplace.
I had some money at my working place. She said, almost in an apologizing tone. I felt speechless. I craved for books so much, yet I would become a bandit for robbing my grandma to squander on such luxuries.
My Double knew better. He could see through the mist of pink, understanding everything with ease and perfectly well. When it occurred to me that he should rather be the Proper Me, while I should be a thin shadow hovering about under him in incompleteness, sadness seized me again, but this time biting me like an adder deep into my veins. The daily existence that I led of course only mounted only to marking time and makeshift, for there was a much more Proper Way of living, not necessarily perfect, but at least the valid one, the course of which encompassed things like buying books and reading them with grandparents by a fireplace. Now the glass pieces in my eyes melt into water, which ran down my cheeks incessantly like two sad rivers.