Author: William Xu
All mourning, the sky had colors of a winter’s dusk—deep, depressing dark. A flood of mist crept amidst the forest and up towards me, like an amorphous water creature, across the great flanks of hills which were now consumed in ocean depths and shadows. Barely visible above the vapor was a solitary peak in the distance, whittled by dashing winds down a woodless pale surface.
I sat inside a pavilion halfway to the hilltop. A single bald lightbulb hung itself on a wire above me, and then dangled by the shoving wind. Its bleak glimmer merely lighted itself, only to make everything else seem darker. It was cold in the hills, but inside the pavilion still colder, despite a couple beside me, both around twenty, hugging and rubbing each other probably to make fire. Worsening my hike experience was A sudden rain, and I had forgotten to bring an umbrella. I had been forced to run the errand of tomb-sweeting on the hills (a traditional Chinese practice in May), never expecting it to cost me an entire morning. I still sat inside a pavilion halfway to the hilltop.
But the rain teased my patience by raising its impetus. The near trees turned into ghostly silhouettes, loomed forth suddenly, but soon submerged in the rain again. Spatters even fell inside the pavilion, which was shivering and crying, as if about to crumble down. It was time for pragmatic philosophical whims and contemplations about life’s fatalistic nature. It was time for battles between adventurist opportunism and ascetic pessimism. But after all, life simply muddled on, tumbling at everywhere it went—back to a predestined start—and there was no way of escaping really.
But life’s great revelation did not strike me this time—instead there was a daily miracle, a little illumination, a match struck unexpectedly in the dark. A middle-aged man came into the pavilion and lighted a fire for a cigarette, startling the brazen couple. He carried an umbrella, nevertheless drenched. He wore a weird sort of strap suit, inside which lay a baby who was quite dry. I caught a glimpse of the baby’s innocent eyes like a deep, dark ocean trench.
The man, apparently seeking a rest, came to share a seat with me.
But then what a surprise. I recognized him.
But did not answer.
I left hometown with my family five years ago to a city, where I finished my degree. I had mixed feelings towards my bygone childhood spent in my hometown—it was a distant dream, the one that made me smile at night, also cry sometimes, but most often it’s simply too blurred too far gone. Or was it rather a palette full of lively colors, yet so intermixed that they contaminated each other, making the eventual picture lifeless if not entirely unappreciable? Yet, before the wind of time blew the fractured pieces of that dream all away, there was one piece that I would grasp onto—I’ve always remembered Ivan.
An orphan usually came with tags on the basket that said his or her name, date of birth, or a letter, if the parents might want to have their child back in the future. It was said that Ivan came with nothing but in a piece of ragged cloth, when he was found outside the orphanage. The organizer of the town orphanage, who was childless, had the family name Ivan. Thus, he named all orphans Ivan.
Mr. Mayor accepted Ivan as his son when he turned ten years old.
Mr. Mayor’s life was like clear water in an old, broken bowl. Although few people had in fact visited him, the popular speculation was that his house had but gray walls, yet occupied by intermixing ivy vines and leaves and didn’t belong to the Mayors. Mr. Mayor replied that indoor plants bestowed their home with refreshing air and ornaments of nature. He seemed to be most at ease with impoverishment, from which he claimed to feel life’s greatest vigor and vibrancy. His affinity with nature might have inspired some talent of flower-raising in him, earning him some measly income yet to strive for a basic living. Some people said that he lived off the earth like his plants, or that he transferred nature into mind, and left matter like an outcast corpse. I, from a young age, simply thought that life was stronger in him.
But even to me his adopting of Ivan seemed unreasonable; while in others’ eyes, it was frantic (and it ruined Ivan’s life, according to some). Despite widespread unpopularity, Ivan, now adopted, appeared to be content with his new life.
He soon proved himself as a worthy, if not essential addition to Mr. Mayor’s house. He was naturally adept in running Mr. Mayor’s business—within only a year, the young apprentice almost superseded the skills of his master. He naturally had a strong build like a young stallion. Life was powerful and energetic in him. His spring of youth gushed and sprouted unceasingly. Ivan often started working before the sun did to care for his flowers. From his small garden the flowers blossomed fervently like flames of various colors, fascinating passers-bys.
He also helped Mr. Mayor out in delivery. He used Mr. Mayor’s rusted bicycle with baskets of flowers attached to its sides and its head. He also carried full baskets of flowers on his back. I often caught glimpse of him riding the bicycle down the street. When the white, yellow and pink colors dashed across my eyes, I knew it was him working. Most people didn’t understand what have instilled that inexhaustible life in him. Was he exploited by Mr. Mayor? Did Mr. Mayor pay him? For me, I simply thought it was his prospect of displaying his gratitude. But Ivan was indifferent to people’s speculations. One day, observing the colors flying pass me again, I suddenly thought of those flowers as his motivator. Flower never spoke, resembling his quiet disposition. They just grew, grew, grew—wildly, flagrantly, dauntlessly. I complimented his flowers one day when he delivered them to my house, which sent him immediately smiling and expressing his great gratitude for my words.
The conditions of the family eminently improved. Ivan helped grow more flowers of better quality, and he also extended the range of business to nearby towns. Nobody ever mocked Mr. Mayor’s decision again. Mr. Mayor also liked Ivan more as time went by. It became evident that Ivan would soon marry May.
I vaguely remembered May as Mr. Mayor’s only daughter after his wife’s death, and as a woman too thin and weak for laborious undertakings like flower-raising. But she helped running the finances, always coming up with discounts and festival bargains that increased business. She was obviously a good companion to Ivan, and their relationship moved more intimate as time went by as well. During weekends or important festivals, I could catch them going to the town’s dumpling restaurant for a treat. They held hands and smiled to each other.
I was around ten when Mr. Mayor held the wedding. Everyone came and sent blessings for the couple. For my own part, I enjoyed the food on the wedding day very much. Each wedding table was decorated with flowers that Ivan grew himself. Some dishes contained lily petals as well, a tradition way of cooking special to my hometown.
Ivan and May were often more like a pair of co-workers when they dealt with the flower business, but they visited that dumpling restaurant more often. People said that their marriage was like the flowers they raised. Quiet, humble and beautiful.
The only flaw of their marriage was that they didn’t have children. Two years went by with no news of pregnancy. The town’s adults began to suspect that there was some problem with May. In my hometown, it was a horrendous thing not to have a kid to continue your bloodline. Such suspicions were not raised publicly, although hints were sent to the couple that they seriously ought to anticipate a child.
One day I met Ivan on the hills outside of town. I was about twelve then, taking a walk on the hills after supper. During May, the mountain was crowded and covered by wild flowers. Small in figure, but with tough sterns and I found Ivan hunched and squatted in the blossom of white lilies. A gust of summer wind rushed through the hills, sending waves after waves on white sea of wild lilies. He had a few brown pots with him, and he was transferring the wild lilies to the pots. He was petrified when he saw me, like a child who just blundered and was instantly caught by his parents.
“You see, these wild flowers grew every year during the month of May every year. They were much more beautiful than mine. But after I transferred them into pots, they died within a week.”
What was he saying? He planted flowers in his backyard. They might be as humble as these wild ones, but definitely much taller, brighter and livelier. At least I liked them more. Why would he need these lilies on the hills? They could not sell at a good price.
Ivan told me that he had never loved his own flowers. “They were merely for commercial use,” he said, “but there was vibrancy in these. There was cycle. Continuity. The ever-prosperous springs of life.”
One year before I left my hometown, a piece of news shocked the town. Ivan developed a secret relationship with a bartender that came from another town called Chrissy.
“He raised his family and found himself a good wife. He should be satisfied with that,” one adult in the town said.
“What a rat!” another commented.
“Chrissy said that she could give birth to a child and let it be ours,” Ivan explained to May. “What the hell are you saying?” May refused to accept this explanation. In the two and a half year of their marriage—or the entire time that I’ve known May—I have never seen May in such outrage.
“Get out. With all your things. I want none of them in my house.”
“May, it’s my fault.”
“Get out. It’s the end between you and me.”
Mr. Mayor also intervened, but even he could not calm May down. Ivan escaped the house and lived in ours for two days. In the third day he returned to the flower shop. Then everything went back to its normal track. Ivan still raised and delivered flowers. May helped. But I have never seen them in the dumpling restaurant again ever since that accident.
I recalled Ivan’s words on the hills of white lilies, realizing how his life really resembled those wild flowers. He had no idea of his origins. Ivan was not his name. If he died, his bloodline would be lost forever. Just like the flowers that died in weeks after transferred into the pots from the hills.
The bartender Chrissy left the town afterwards. She did not have a kid for Ivan. By the end of that year, I also moved away for the city. High school and undergraduate work became all of my life. The memories of my hometown gradually faded away as time slipped through my fingers. But at this moment, as he stood facing me, pictures rolled back into my mind.
Ivan was stronger and taller than when I had last saw him. There were traces of youth that still lingered on his face, but the signs of time’s erosion were far more prominent to the eye, materialized in the form of wrinkles. The baby he carried was still quiet, observing my soul.
“Ivan, where are you going?” I decided to begin the conversation.
Ivan stood still. “Uphill,” he answered. Then he spotted the university bandage on my shirt: “You’re a university student now. I’m proud of you.” There was a tint of melancholy in his smile, which was nevertheless quite a sincere one.
“But where are you going?”
“Uphill, not downhill. I’ve said that.” His countenance was not that of human being. Talking to him would be like talking to walls. I knew that a think, unbreakable stone wall stood between us now. It had been there ever since the day I left, abandoning a set of identity that belonged to the rotted past, in which Ivan still tragically lived.
“I am also going uphill. I am visiting tombs of my family ancestors.”
“Flatter those rusted bones but discard the living ones,” he murmured in a low voice, “but they would die one day as well, so what’s the difference.”
I pretended that I didn’t hear this. “You’ve got an umbrella?”
I could tell that he wanted to say he haven’t, but in vain. The extra one attached to his waist strap already betrayed him. So, taking his umbrella, I left the pavilion with Ivan. The couple was still there, murmuring something to each other.
But the rain gradually waned to the degree that umbrellas were unnecessary. The turmoil of the hills and woods restored to order and calmness, and the rhapsodic sounds of rain turned to soft, gentle whispers. By a turn of the road, the woods suddenly cleared up. A vast grassland appeared before us, with a carpet of millions of wild flowers, yellow and white, blossoming under the azure sky.
There was a wooden temple by the road. The temple was built for folk worships of gods of agriculture, marriage and happiness. But the temple was also a convenience store, selling fake flowers for customers that came for tomb sweeping. Ivan wanted to go into the temple, and I followed him. We were greeted by an amicable old lady with white hair. She wore a simple white dress and spoke dialect. She asked us what we needed. Ivan said that he needed some boiled water to make milk for his kid. I said nothing.
Ivan appeared to be quite adept in parenting. He took out a bag of powdered milk and a small nursing bottle, filled in boiled water just about two thirds of the volume, and shook the bottle tenderly. He didn’t forget to tickle the baby’s face during the process, making the kid giggle and laugh. The baby drank the milk very quickly. It looked hungry still, so Ivan made him another bottle of milk.
But I studied the baby’s appearance in detail, and decided that it didn’t bear any similarity with May. The baby was even a bit strong and obese at its age, but May has always looked thin and a weak.
“You and May’s son?” I finally gathered enough courage to ask.
“No, it wasn’t. May died three years after you left.”
“Oh…” Then Ivan must have remarried, I guessed.
“She was always quite weak. And it was such a huge blow to her.” The child watched Ivan, still quietly. His eyes were talking with Ivan’s soul, learning his past stories too distant too heavy to be recounted all at once.
Ivan remained largely apathetic to me as we continued walking, but he got more willing to talk. Reorganizing and gluing his fragmented responses together in a chronological pattern, I learnt the part of his life that I’ve missed.
After Ivan moved back to Mr. Mayor’s house, May abruptly left the town without leaving a note. The owner of that dumpling restaurant, a thirty-year old man named Chris, disappeared with her. All the town’s adults, once again, were appalled by such news. Ivan told me that neither he nor Mr. Mayor knew where she had gone to, but both of them somehow saw it coming in advance. Moreover, they were certain that May would return. Three months later, just as they expected, May returned with pregnancy by herself. Only then did the town’s adults comment that they knew it had been Ivan’s problem all these years.
She never told anybody about whose child it was, including Ivan himself. Ivan never asked her either. Some people said that it was a gift for Ivan. Ivan simply addressed a forced smile at such remarks.
She became paler and weaker after she returned. People criticized Ivan for not being a caring husband, and Mr. Mayor for not being a responsible father. The fact was that May simply refused to eat much. Even as a pregnant woman, her appetite only decreased as time went by.
May was expected to have a girl. May wanted to call her Lily. Mr. Mayor didn’t quite agree because he wanted her name to start with “M”. Ivan approved her idea. He told me that May have always loved lilies of all the flowers they’ve raised. They both liked wild lilies over the ones they planted themselves as well. May said that she wanted her to be just like wild lilies on the hills. Free, happy, vigorous. Never to be contained in vases or pots.
May lost the child when she gave birth to her. She became almost bony, and all lights were lost from her eyes after that. Ivan and Mr. Mayor lost May a few months after that. She was buried in the hills. Ivan and Mr. Mayor moved away from the town about when I finished university. This time the townspeople spoke nothing of their departure. Another family that mastered in flower-selling soon moved in from the city.
Ivan and Mr. Mayor never raised flowers again. Mr. Mayor had caught rheumatic fever and he could hardly move beyond the scope of his house. Ivan took up the job of a delivery man, sustaining the broken family on his shoulders.
Ivan finally told me that he came to visit May’s tomb.
“She told me that she regretted having the girl when she was on the verge of passing away,” Ivan recalled, “she and I finally understood that raising a child and passing on life don’t have to fit in our own bloodline. Life is about life itself. Life is just too difficult, but also beautiful and meaningful all on its own.”
I learnt that the baby was adopted by Ivan from the orphanage, feeling strange that it didn’t surprise me. “Why didn’t I think of adopting a child before?” Ivan asked, “May would definitely have agreed with me.”
The rain ceased and the sun of May reclaimed the reign of the sky. Blue colors set the underlying picture, while white drifts of cloud scattered all around. We continued walking along the road up the hills. The early-summer wind of May rushed pass us, carrying out droplets of rain and sweat away from our skin. The rainwater washed away the dust on the wild flowers—daises, bitterweeds, jessamines, bluebonnets, all blossoming so bravely so naturally in the bright summer light of May. Among them most prominent were those wild lilies, pure, snowy white, lively as they had been when I last saw them. The flowery carpet rippled when the winds continued to blow by. Their leaves and petals rustled with each other, producing soft sounds as if they were laughing. Then the view of the hills became singularly dominated by wild lilies. The road was pressed inward by those lilies as well. Soon, I could only walk behind Ivan, not side by side.
“May loved lilies the most when still alive.” Ivan paused for a second. Something very heavy seemed to have silenced him.
I looked at the fake lilies in my hands, and then my eyes met those of the kid again. Ivan told me that he would name her Lily. Suddenly, a surge of regret suddenly overwhelmed me…
Ivan stopped walking and turned towards the fields. “Mr. Mayor wanted to buy some lilies for May when I went tomb-sweeping.” Ivan said. Indeed, he had just bought a bunch of lilies from the old woman of that shop.
“But I knew that May would like some wild lilies for her as well. She would appreciate both.”
He bowed down and selected some lilies from the ground, and grasped them in his hand. He minded to brush the mud off the root of one single flower, and put it besides the baby. He also gave me one, an act of reconciliation indeed, and I acceptingly attached it to the strap of my backpack. He had just handed life to everyone, bestowing us with its miracles and mysteries.
Reflecting upon this, I was somehow brought back to a scene when I was taking the final examination at my university. Having been instructed to “fill in the blanks” on the paper (what an aptly phrased command!), I felt the obligation to express and fill them all in dispatch and with great dedication. But then I wondered what aspect about my life impelled me to take that exam in the first place. Or life was just one big examination when it came to mine, in search for the ultimate big answer. Sitting in the intense test room, did I ever ponder, thinking if perhaps the truest answer is no answer at all? Because time was limited, I hunkered down and hastily completed in without second deliberation.
But this man called Ivan standing in front of me might never come to that test after all. It was essentially different lives we’re leading, yet just like two ever-extending, unparallel lines in a single world of dimension, our lives had also intersected at some point—maybe so were the lives of everybody. When I still lived in my hometown, I saw him using the act of transferring flowers to reflect his state of mind; when May left him, he thereby realized that life was not about a single flower that lived on the hills, or a pot at his backyard. It was not even about a single kind of flower, or even about where the flower grew. Life should be viewed from a bigger viewpoint, I thought. Life ought to be the flowers for those who have lived, and those who are still living. Life ought to be the flowers for everybody.
Ivan turned towards me and said that he was not returning to the road. “May’s tomb was farther into the hills. No scrutable road leads there,” he said, “And May didn’t want anybody else to visit her tomb except her father and me.”
He made it clear that he wanted to go alone. I hesitated there for a moment. Then I looked at Ivan and the world of wild lilies that surrounded he and his child, who was still looking at me with its innocent blue eyes. I stepped back.
“I really appreciate this,” Ivan said, nodding and smiling at me.
He turned back, and walked farther and farther away. His figure faded among those wild lilies. He, carrying his child, disappeared in that world of blooming flowers. There hasn’t been a fine day like this for a very long time, fit for a walk in the hills, in this world of inspiring, freshening wilderness. I grasped the flowers in my hand, pondering for a while about the mystery of life and its cycles. Unlike the test, this time I arrived at no clear answer. I simply continued walking.