Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Ma On Shan

The following post I wrote in the form of a short story. It was a fun exercise, trying to get into my own head as a character, but much of it reads as a journal entry, and that's basically what it is. These events took place after Yan and I had moved into our apartment, the details of which I'll reveal in the next post. So this story is coming a little out or order, but since I finished it today, I wanted to put it up while it's fresh! I hope you like it.

I could tell by the change in her face that something had escalated the level of tension between us. Something I had said, maybe, or the tone in my voice. My choice of silence at the wrong time. Or maybe this was one of those confrontations that just can’t be avoided – a test in the elasticity of our relationship. The color had drained from her face, the facial muscles expressionless and lifeless as if they had been disconnected from her features. Unsupported, her pallid skin sagged, dragging her eyelids down, making her look bored and livid at the same time. Her lower jaw hung loose, jutting out like a challenge and several untamed wisps of hair swayed threateningly above her thick, black mane. It was a truly terrifying sight. I retreated.

I had seen her like this before, of course, but this time I felt like there was no remedy, nothing I could say or do to salvage the situation. And I was upset as well – about what, I probably couldn’t exactly say. Whatever disagreement had initially baited our emotions had been trampled over by ego and self-preservation. What justified her getting so angry with me? Why did things have to get personal? Under the burn of her icy glare, I knew I would find no answers. Frustrated, I dashed to the ground whatever strands of patience I still held in my possession and turned toward the study room, telling her bluntly that rationality had been chucked out the window long ago and discussion would get us nowhere, or something like that. This seemed to make her even more incensed, however. As I sat down at the desk chair and turned toward the door, her scathing words flew at me in full fury, smattering against my face, and the air was sucked out of the room as the door slammed home. “You know, I really hate you!”

In the tomb-like cavity where I sat everything was motionless, all thoughts swallowed up by shock. Then the dust slowly began to fall back downwards, and I looked around for something to distract me. With the door shut the way it had been, I knew there was no possibility of leaving the room for a while. I took out some paints and began to plod some pigment on a piece of paper. After an hour or so of listening for signs of movement without and thoroughly decimating the page with my worrying brush, I heard the door to our apartment open and close unceremoniously. I waited for a few minutes and cautiously crept out of the room, feeling for all the world like the coward I was. I guessed she had gone to her parents’ place in Tai Wai and passed an idle hour or two, attempting to read. When my stomach began rumbling uncontrollably, I took it as an excuse to get out for a while. I thought it would be better for me to be out if she came back tonight instead her seeing me still at home pathetically alone. I felt disgusted with myself for such a selfish concern even occurring to me.

Nevertheless, a dark, empty apartment greeted me upon my return from a dinner I had over-prolonged for nothing. I didn’t want to feel disappointed that she wasn’t there, but, like the proverbial final straw, it sent me into the deep, disorienting depression I had been trying to fight off all evening. I flopped on the floor, melting into the glow of the television and hating every bright image that flashed in front of me.

She did come back, eventually, that night. As I lifted myself up and asked her if she had gone to Tai Wai and if she had eaten, I felt for a fleeting moment the heavy weight on my chest ease off slightly. Her averted eyes and murmurs, which I took to be a ‘yes’ and a ‘no’ as she moved away from me, however, quickly looped the lodestone around me neck once again, and I fell back into silence. I went to bed, saying nothing. I curled up as far to one side as I could, but she never joined me.

I awoke hoping to see her in bed next to me, but found the space empty. I peeked my head out of the bedroom, saw a rumpled blanket on our futon and surmised the rest. She was laying on the floor over her laptop. I mumbled a good morning, and she murmured something in response. I went into the bathroom. ‘Was this really going to continue today?’ I wondered to myself. I couldn’t stand the idea of tiptoeing around each other all day, so I decided to get out of the apartment. What I needed was some fresh air, some exercise and a purpose. And I needed a way to leave the door open for her; a change of scenery, not just an escape. I knew immediately what I should do.

Ma On Shan, the mountain looming behind our apartment and our town’s namesake, was calling. Today would be the day I would conquer it, alone if I must, but preferably with my girl beside me. I showered, made a couple of sandwiches and packed up hiking essentials. She must have been at least a little curious about what I was up to, but she seemed to ignore my preparations. Now was the time. She had relocated to the bedroom. I swallowed and carefully approached her. When I called her name, she turned, and I said, “I’m going to climb the mountain, and I made two sandwiches. You can have one of them if you like.” It was at that exact moment when the skies opened up and I saw inside her reality. All she said was the smallest, meekest ‘Okay’, but in her face I saw all at once the pain, loneliness and relief flowing from her. We knew then how each other was feeling, and we knew it was not anger, or sadness, or even pain so much as emptiness. Despite the epiphany, there was no catharsis. We said nothing else after that. She got ready to go, and in a few minutes, we left.

The silence continued for a while. Although we had never even attempted to climb the mountain before, we had explored much of its base, so the first leg required no discussion of which direction to take. I led the way, keeping sure to not get too far ahead. The weather was really perfect. A few clouds, intermittent sunshine, not too hot or humid, a pleasant breeze. I stopped by my favorite sitting spot under the highway to take a picture. Walking under that road is so surreal, and it felt today especially like crossing over into a new world, one where there was no memory or knowledge of hurt feelings and shouldered pain.

I chose as direct an approach up the mountain as I could find, excited to be in this new world. We plunged up the initial sloping foothill and then paused to take some water and a last look at the apartments and city below, which were quickly being swallowed up by the trees. Still, we spoke little, but now not so much out of trepidation but out of respect – respect for what this mountain and this beautiful day were doing to us and for us. I could feel things changing and healing, and I was excited to see what would happen next.

Finding our way proved to be somewhat of a challenge, however. The mountain had decided not to make it easy on us. Shortly after our brief stop, the path seemed to come to an abrupt end. We made a search of the surrounding area for clues, and after following a couple unpromising false trails, we chose to plunge straight into the thicket and just try to make our way upwards. The branches quickly closed in; roots and boulders made snatches at our feet. We found something that could have resembled a path though it seemed to twist around every tree and rock. Stumbling upon what appeared to be someone’s living space made us a little more uncomfortable, but turning back now would have meant sacrificing too much. This was more than a hike now, and we both knew it. We tiptoed over the garbage and plastic bags and pressed onward.

After a short while, our efforts paid off. The path that seemed to have been teasing us for the last half hour finally decided to get down to business and so did we. Trudging upward and passing the water bottle back and forth, we drove into the sunshine and tree branches and kept our determination up. Another half hour passed with much progress gained before we reached a large boulder sticking out of the trees like a boil on the side of the mountain.

There was a man on the boil, a little brown uncle in a headscarf - the first other human being we had seen since we started the hike. Although I wasn’t feeling particularly in the mood for company, he seemed kindly enough, and his presence at least gave my navigation some legitimacy. We climbed up on the boulder with him and sat down, looking out over the land below. After our puffing and wheezing had subsided, Uncle began chatting with us, asking if we were making for the ‘saddle’ – Ma On Shan’s characteristic two peaks connected by an upturned arc. We told him we were, and he asked where I was from and so on, offering me a cigarette. I don’t usually smoke while in the middle of exercise but obliged him all the same. He spoke mostly in Cantonese, and she translated for both of us. Uncle didn’t really say much about himself other than that he was also heading for the peak and offering to show us the best way up.

This wasn’t the direction I expected our hike to take. I felt that something special and unplanned was happening, that the mountain was taking us somewhere we couldn’t have found on our own. And yet, it didn't feel so much as if this little man was interfering with the way the mountain was directing us; rather, he too seemed unplanned and spontaneous, almost as if he were a part of the mountain, himself. Besides, we already had been having trouble finding the path on our own. Perhaps this was like the mountain saying, ‘trust me, come on.’

So without further delay we pulled on our sweaty bags again and continued our steady stumbling up the slope. Our progress was slower than before, partially due to our guide’s relaxed pace and partially due to the increasingly dense vegetation. Nearly all of the forestland in Hong Kong had been clear-cut within the last fifty years, leaving the mountains brown and barren. Although these forests were now protected, in most places the process of succession had not reached the final stage, in which one would expect to see taller, more mature trees and less ground cover. As it was, this forest, although thriving with both native and nonnative vegetation, was still recovering, and the brush was thick and overgrown. At times it seemed as if we were wading through foliage, our chests downwards hidden from view. Periodically, Uncle would lop off a branch here or there or scratch at a passing boulder. I don't think he was actually trying to make the path more passable for us, but to mark its direction so that other hikers could follow his signs and stay on track.

As we made our way higher and higher, the brush’s hegemony began to lose its control. It became easier to ascertain the shape of the ground beneath us, but our way became steeper and rockier making footing more treacherous. We paused as Uncle picked out some suitable walking sticks for us; he carried his own, a shapely, polished, beech-colored stave, and swore we would need one. We plucked leaves, snapped off twigs, adjusted our sticks’ heights and, thus properly armed, continued our trek.

Hiking was never more enjoyable. Scrabbling and heaving ourselves over the rock face, leaping across tree roots and hoisting ourselves up age-worn ropes, we followed our guide wide-eyed and high-spirited. Although we were totally lost in this paradise, Uncle effortlessly navigated us along a seemingly invisible trail. We kept climbing and climbing, and then suddenly the treetops parted and we could see the summit almost within reach. In no time at all, we were at the top, feasting our eyes on the incredible panorama surrounding us.

Directly southwards, ridgeline after ridgeline competed for prominence, nearly overwhelming the eyes. Southeast of us, Ma On Shan’s saddle dipped like a curtain hung between our peak and the next. To the east lay Wu Kai Sha harbor and other small harbor towns and beyond them, the ocean. To the north and west lay Ma On Shan town, the lake-like reservoir at its feet standing out like a vast, silver plain. Beyond the shining waters rose the faded shapes of more mountains, growing paler and paler as they stretched farther north, toward the horizon and mainland China.

The breeze that reached us on top of that peak was like the mountain’s reward for completing the journey. The hike was so enjoyable and the forest so mesmerizing, we barely noticed how long it had taken us. Now the sun had shot well past its noon apogee, and we began to feel the ache in our limbs. I pulled out our sandwiches and a couple pears, and Yan and I set to our provisions with enthusiastic vigor. Uncle produced some meager rations of his own, what looked like a small convenience store purchase. I offered him a pear, which he refused, but he seemed content with his own small portion. Finishing his meal in no time at all, Uncle wondered around the peak cheerfully puffing on a cigarette.

We didn’t delay long up there, despite there being no pressure from other hikers. It just seemed presumptuous to remain on top of the world like that, as if we deserved to be there. To me it felt like the mountain was a giant generously allowing us to stand on its head for novelty’s sake, and I didn’t want to presume too much on its munificence.

We took a different path down. This one sloped steadily downward, at times brushing along the edge of the north cliff, providing us with breathtaking views of the water and harbors that seemed to lie directly below us. Again the grasses and brush surrounded us where the trees failed to reach. This time we lurched through foliage that came up to our necks, trying not to think about what critters were hitching a ride below our shoulders.

Before long, the trees found us again, but here the forest was too young to overpower the undergrowth. We lost sight of any path and the way down became difficult. Footing became treacherous again as the slope steepened. Hidden tree roots and loose rocks seemed to find their way under our feet, and we took more than a couple spills. We slithered our way down, latching onto every slender tree trunk we could find as the ground seemed to roll right under our feet. The trip down the mountain felt much longer and more arduous than the less steep path upward, and I have to admit my faith in Uncle wavered slightly.

Nevertheless, civilization managed to find us once again. Almost before we realized it, the trees opened up onto a paved walking trail. We gratefully unshouldered our heavy, soaking packs and took a seat on the welcoming curb. A cigarette found itself into my hands again, which I graciously accepted. As I looked back on forest from which we had emerged, I couldn’t locate our exiting point. It really felt like the mountain had developed a distaste for us and spit us back out into the world of man. ‘Thanks, anyway,’ I thought.

We slipped our cold, slimy packs on again and walked along the paved road in a direction I assumed would lead us back near where we started. We followed Uncle down under the highway and toward an apartment complex, apparently where he lived. He stopped us under a small gazebo and told us to wait while he went inside one of the buildings. I exchanged a curious glance with her, but she said, “I think he’s bringing us a hiking brochure.” Uncle was soon back outside, handing us a pamphlet upon which were written numerous scheduled hikes, dates and phone numbers. Apparently he was a part of some kind of hiking club. He told us we could join up with any of the hiking groups if we wished. We thanked him and then parted ways.

It didn't take long to find our way back home. Although nothing had physically changed, it seemed a different apartment greeted us as we opened the door. As I turned on the hot water and prepared for a truly rapturous shower, her arms circled around my waist. We stood like that silently, the myriad of apartment lights twinkling in the twilight outside our window and the mountain looming shadowed and protecting in the distance.