Fushan mountain lies to the south of Qingdao, like the spine of a sooty dragon guarding the city from the sea. My woman and I have only been up there once, a few moons ago, at the end of a long and brutal winter. It wasn’t easy. The pandemic roadshow was still in full swing at the time, so the entire area was closed to the public. I guess this was meant to encourage folks to rather congregate in the vast array of bustling shopping malls (which kept their doors valiantly open throughout) than risk their precious lives in the open air of some hostile wilderness. We eventually ended up having to slip through a poorly guarded gate to get in, but troopers that we are, we made it to the top.
Last night marked the one year anniversary of my arrival in China. Tossing and turning in the feverish heat, I had a dream.
We were standing on the scaly cliffs of Fushan once again, high above the buzz of the concrete hive below. Everything around us was covered in a fine, cotton candy frost. The whole scene had a surreal and eerily peaceful feel about it, like waking up in a hospital bed after a drunken night gone bad. We did not speak. Taut as a pair of wing-clipped sparrows, our gaze was instinctively drawn to the West. Far, far away, on the other side of all that smog and heartbreak and yearning and ash, we knew lay the place we once called home.
Looking down upon the vast toy kingdom spread out before us – that grimy netherworld where barking dogs bite and serpents smile, where nothing is as it seems and “What’s that smell?” becomes a rhetorical question – I suddenly realised that the rigours of our last trip around the sun have seen us grow into giants, wise and forgotten and free. Gazing at the breeze playing through my woman’s colt black hair, I knew she was thinking the exact same thing. As the earth stirred beneath us I saw that our huge, bare feet were stained red with the martyr’s blood of Africa. There was nothing else for it. It was time to leave the nonsense of closed borders and grounded flights behind us and simply be on our merry way, once and for all.
I took a moment to size up our options. Once we’ve made it through the sprawling Gomorrah below, treading carefully between all those infinite bar charts of Profit and Loss so as not to wake the swarms of fire ants sleepwalking in the muck, we’d be scot free, turning oceans and citadels to dust under our stride.
I peered over the edge of the cliff. “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step,” I said, loosely quoting Confucius. This just cracked her up, as no robed seers have graced these tattered slopes for centuries. She gazed at the shards of used toilet paper caught like fluttering prayer flags on the pale thicket all around us. Then she threw her head back and laughed, a river so wild and fierce that it shook the very ground, and a million drones fell from the sky.
I took her hand. “I love you,” I said.
“I know,” she smiled. “Let’s go.”
As we stepped out together into the void, I screamed myself awake. My throat was aching. Shrinking back to nothing in an infinite desert of burning sheets, I just lay there with my heart slinging hammers into the fire, staring blindly at the dark. All I could hear was the muffled sound of midnight traffic hissing from some distant depth below. After a while, the taste of tears helped me to remember where I was.
Still shaking, I got up and stumbled to my woman’s room. Her fragrant form was easy to find. Making myself smaller than I’ve ever been, I crawled deep inside her until I reached that immense and secret forest where I knew I could sleep forever. I found this photograph there on the mossy ground, among the piano wire and the stars, sober as a feather.