Alice Ting Liu
“Do you see that bird? It’s so cool. Right in the middle of the night, it stands alone at the tip of the tree all by itself.” Sean moved about the tree. “Is that a bird? You see, at the tip. Do you have a flashlight?”
Lili shook head, silent and enchanted.
At the welcoming party, people socialized in small groups, and enjoyed cookies, fruit and cokes. Two children threw colorful balloons and chased about. A tall boy pretended to be a car booming along the road, then a martial artist shot to death, falling down convulsively.
Lili was one of a few Chinese volunteers teaching English. With wavy hair and rosy lips, she was delicate like a doll. Her new American friend Sophie was having fun chatting with other volunteers. Lili walked about among the groups of Americans, Canadians and British, both interested and disoriented.
She glanced outside where the willows sheltered a sinuating river. At an opening, Sean squatted by the river in a white shirt, like a stalk of narcissus.
* * *
Two figures occupy the road, zigzagging with the mountains. Now and then, cars and motorcycles boom, dazzling headlights on. As one motorcycle passes, Sean yells, “What are you doing?”
“We’re running too.” The person at the back shouts before the motorcycle speeds away.
* * *
As Lili approached, Sean continued gazing at the river. “I want to climb that tree.” He muttered.
A willow leaned towards the river, its trunk thick and coarse, cascades of slender twigs hanging down.
She watched him curiously. His distinct profile with black eyes and a straight nose, as if cut out in marble, was pensive.
“I used to be good at climbing trees.” She said.
She looked around. The nearby bamboo woods rustled with jade colored leaves. A path meandered underneath.
“Do you want to go there?”
“Yes!” He jumped up and followed her over the mossy lane. Walking up a slope, they came to a road with several concrete houses. A hen sought food in the grass with a flock of chicks. One chick persisted in pecking at a plastic bag after the rest had gone away.
“This is my favorite.” He said, gazing at the stray chick.
“Maybe because I always favor the lonely and different, the one outside the group.”
“So, is that your favorite?” She pointed to a gourd hanging on a pole in a roadside garden.
“It’s so lonely.”
“Well, I guess so.” He laughed.
* * *
While running, Sean bursts out laughing.“When I’m running, I generally think a lot of things. You wouldn’t think it’s funny. I’m very vain. I care a lot about my appearance. I just thought someone would ask me ‘why don’t you go to the sports meeting’ tomorrow. I would answer, ‘I have to wear the school T-shirt, but I can’t afford being tanned.’ The farmer’s tan is very unattractive.”
* * *
On the way back, they tried with a path winding along a hill, treading on the carpet of pine needles. Clusters of Tephroseris and wild chrysanthemums thrust forth yellow and purple flowers. Twigs crackled softly. Lili picked up a pinecone and threw it against a tree. He followed suit, but missed.
“We are throwing the babies away,” he said.
The scent of pines was fresh and pungent. Huge bees buzzed about. Spiders’ webs hung like shimmering curtains.
“What’s this?” He scrutinized his arm.
“I’m also bitten several places. You have never been bitten by mosquitoes before?”
“I’m from Seattle. It’s cold there.”
“It’s very common here, in the south. I’m often bitten.”
“I’m scared of being poisoned.”
“I don’t think it’s poisonous! I think it will be all right after a while.”
He looked grave and frequently looked at his arm.
* * *
When showered in moonlight, they feel like gliding in the crisp air and cruising along the edges and nooks of the mountains, covered by pines like heavy furs. Insects chirp and buzz. However, with the sky hidden in gray clouds, a bleak darkness preys upon everything. Mountains loom, jagged along the road and hanging with a heavy stillness.
* * *
Between the second and third floors of the dormitory, a roof over the hall offered a view to the woods. Sean frequented the roof, and one night asked Lili, “Do you want to go mountain climbing now?”
“Why do you always want to climb mountains at night?”
“So I can kill my victims.” As she didn’t reply, he said, “I just want to be in the woods.”
She pointed to the small woods in front.
“I want to be in real woods. To be honest, I can climb alone. But in case I die and nobody knows…” His foot tapped against the parapet.
She pointed to the hill behind the roof. He nodded.
They went to the hill on a trail, but a fence blocked their way. He looked at a bare tree beside, and said, “I will try climbing the tree.”
He failed. She tried climbing and failed too.
“There’s a camera.”
“Anyway, I think the school doesn’t care what volunteers do.”
He looked over the landscape. “Maybe we should climb other mountains.”
They left the campus together.
* * *
She draws close to him. He moves a little to the edge. Side by side, their footsteps click a regular rhythm. After a while, she draws closer again. He moves more to the edge until there is no more space, so switches to the other side. Baffled, she tries to muster more courage.
* * *
Sean swayed as he walked, and started to sing.
“I like the Chinese national anthem so much.”
“It’s unpleasant to hear.”
“You don’t think my singing is like an angel’s voice? Do you know I sang in the choir in high school?”
In the fields, stacks of wheat stalks were piled in circular cones. Withered grass smudged the hedges here and there.
“I love my students so much. Last night, I dreamed I was going to leave China. I cried and asked to go back.” He said, focusing on the Big Dipper.
“You can also teach in America.”
“It’s not only the teaching. It’s everything, the mountains, the culture…”
“Today, one student said to me, ‘why do you always look so melancholy?’” She said, her face bowed and immobile.
“That’s so rude. What did you say?”
“I said nothing. I didn’t feel like speaking.”
“When I was a kid, people always asked me, ‘Hey, Sean, what’s wrong?’ Even on a perfect day, they would ask, ‘What’s wrong?’”
He threw up his bottle, caught it again and again, and said, “I like catching things so much. Thanks for going out with me. I think I’m going to do this every night. I also asked Laura if she wanted to go mountain climbing with me. She answered, ‘All right. I will go with you guys.’ She thought Sophie was going. So I said, ‘No, Sophie isn’t coming. Maybe Lili, she hasn’t responded yet.’ She said, ‘Oh, I guess I’m not going.’”
She pouted at the deliberate line drawn between them. When they separated on the dormitory stairs, she wore a sour face. But she saw deep concern in his eyes, and was perplexed.
* * *
As he runs steadily, she loses strength and lags behind. Sometimes, he waits, calling back, “Turtle!” Other times, he forgets himself in music and runs straight on. She follows, panting, and always a few steps behind.
* * *
Several days later, Sean had signed off his email about the class arrangement as “Dr. Sun”. Lili had to take over his class for the next day.
“If Andy doesn’t show up to class, choose one of the students and cut his finger off as a warning to everyone.” He joked.
She wrote him a thank-you letter, while pouring out her frustration. She went to the roof in great spirits. He was there, smoking and chatting with Sophie while she was doing stretching exercises. Lili stood beside them, watching his smoke fade into air.
“Lili just sent me an incredible letter. Poetic, your words are so poetic.” He said carelessly.
She turned away and looked at the hills.
As if stifled by the silence, she sighed and went back, the wind sharp at her back. Despite the dull pricking inside, she straightened up with a surge of courage.
The next morning, she received his reply.
First off, thank you for the nice things you said. I’m a very incredible human being, so it doesn’t surprise me I’ve helped you. Secondly, I would say no to the “cheerful armor”, and no to the “sleepwalking”. Find an alternative option.
She smiled wryly, but her previous annoyance seemed petty now.
The school life, like a gurgling mountain creek, carried her along. Despite some turbulent undercurrent, she made an effort to maintain a steady presence.
* * *
She tries to adjust to her own pace and enjoy the running.
He was out of sight for a moment. She speeds up, but there is only the desolate road fading into darkness. Her breathing grows quick in panic.
On one side, the mountains jut out, the thick woods tangled with vines. On the other side, some fields border the mountains, hidden with vague shadows.
She turns and strains her eyes to spot him.
* * *
In the spring, Sophie initiated a recording class for the blind students. Lili translated some lyrics made up by a student, while Sean was asked to compose a melody. She received an email from him.
Lyrics don’t make sense when directly translated from Chinese to English. “So many lyrics wander along my throat.” That just sounds gross, like the person has an infectious disease in the throat. It’s good though and we can of course use it.
I’m so goddamn mad right now because of Olivia’s email. We get a three-day break and make up the days we miss on the weekend? That’s not even a fucking break. That’s worse than NOT having it. In the US, the point of vacations is to give us time off to relax. What’s the point of vacations in China? To punish?
Lili stared at his letter as if having been slapped. In the cafeteria, when she saw him having lunch with several students, she sat rows away by herself. As he walked past, she focused on her food and refused to look up.
* * *
She tries to remember the last moment she saw him. He seemed to veer off the road slightly and disappear into the bushes.
She calls out his name, her trembling voice muffled in her chest. Seconds toll heavily. She feels blind and deaf, her voice blanketed by the darkness.
* * *
After several days of mutual indifference, Lili wondered if she had over-reacted. The letter was also sent to Sophie, who had tried to sympathize with him, and reconcile him and Lili.
One night, Lili wandered about the campus, then leaned against the bridge columns and gazed at the moon. A person approached and she turned away.
“Why do you turn away?” A voice demanded.
She turned around and faced the road. The person seemed tall and lean. He was in shorts with earplugs… It was Sean.
“I didn’t know who it was.” She explained quickly. “I always turn around whenever people come. It’s a natural reaction.” She turned around. The silhouettes of the mountains etched against the dark blue sky.
“Okay. I need to go back to take a shower.”
“Have you been running?”
“Yes.” He was off. She thought it was a good idea to run and sent a message asking if she could run with him the next day.
* * *
Maybe he is far ahead. She considers continuing on. After the section of pitch darkness, the road slopes down with some bare hills around. It’s open and lit with whatever light there is in the heavenly bodies.
* * *
In summer, tiny lanterns of glowworms drifted about. Once, a Christmas tree sparkled in the darkness as glowworms circled around a pine tree. Every sound traveled far, a lingering rhythm of their footsteps and voices carrying along the path.
“When I was small, when my cousin visited me, we always went to the backyard to catch fireflies. We put them in a bottle. We decided to catch a lot, but we could never catch more than two.” He murmured.
Lili, keeping close to him, felt squeezed between the unusual beauty and vague menace of the mountain night.
* * *
The darkness grows heavier second by second. She wants to grasp and hold onto something, but there is nothing except the inky stillness, eerie and choking.
She draws breath and runs back with all her might. It is a long road, ghostly and still, her shadow her only company.
* * *
Sean, immune to her fear, teased, ‘There are bears in the mountains.”
“I like bears. I like Winnie the Pooh.”
“That’s not a bear, only a stuffed toy.”
There were no bears, but two dogs guarding a roadside house and barking at the passers-by fiercely.
He always slowed down before the house and waited for her to come along. Then he marched towards the dogs and stomped at them until the barks faded.
Once, he decided they should run headlong as quickly as possible. But the dogs rushed at them. The runners dashed forward until the barking died out.
He was laughing between ragged breaths. “I’m sorry. Are you hurt?”
“No.” She squeezed out between short breaths.
“It’s like they were playing with us. I saw a dog almost touching you.”
“Really? But why were they so fierce tonight?”
“It’s my mistake. I think I was a little cowered by them.”
“You mean the dogs chased us because we appeared afraid?”
“Yes, that’s the saying, the only thing to fear is fear itself. How interesting.”
They continued running to a place with bare hills. Muted and open as the knolls under the vast sky, they walked for a while before running back.
* * *
Lili arrives at the entrance without incident. She waits until her breath is normal, then creeps to the guard room and asks casually, “You know the boy I always run with? Have you seen him return?”
“No, I didn’t. You aren’t together?”
She gasps, and paces up and down at the side.
* * *
Elusive like the mountain night, Sean would fume for every imaginable trifle, then return to sudden laughter.
“Today, I’m very angry with those little girls. They’re always packed together. They can’t bear being alone. One thing I have noticed, Chinese, well, they’re also that way in America, they always like to move in a group.” He had slowed down to a walk. She panted as she caught up.
“Oh, the fucking car. I hate it when the car headlight shines in my face. That’s the thing I hate the most in the world.”
Outside the school entrance, several people hung around and stared at Sean.
“What are you looking at!” He snapped and asked Lili, “What are they saying?”
“I didn’t hear.”
“I heard they were saying ‘lao wai’ (old outsider) .” He spat out, “lao nei (old insider).”
She burst out laughing.
“I hate it when people stare at me.” He walked straight on and said, “I get angry every five minutes.”
She pondered for a while before exclaiming, “Angry young man.”
He laughed a little.
Across the bridge, the school nestles in the valley. The lamplights are like full moons, alight upon the trees. Everyone is snug at home, busy in the rich texture of daily routines.
* * *
They ascended the stairs in the dormitory. He went to knock on Sophie’s door. She stood at the left side and waited.
After knocking, he motioned her to hide at the right side. She didn’t move. But he quickly sneaked upstairs and disappeared. She hesitated and hid at the left side.
Sophie came out and looked right and left.
“Not me.” Lili stammered and looked around for Sean.
Sophie looked confused.
“I’m sorry.” Lili added.
He came down, laughing heartily, “‘Not me. I am sorry.’ Haha. The trick is mainly on Lili. I just want to see how she would react. You reacted very well.”
“I reacted very stupidly.” She mumbled with a tiny smile.
* * *
Sean walks up to the entrance. She runs to him, but slows as she gets nearer, her legs heavy and face chilled.
He walks straight ahead like a stone statue.
“I thought you were kidnapped, and was thinking of calling the police.” His voice is expressionless.
“But where were you? I couldn’t find you! I called and there was no answer. ”
“I was just waiting for you at the end, the usual place. You didn’t come.”
Cloaked by the shadows of mountains and trees, the familiar campus seems hidden away. Lili feels like an abandoned doll, trailing behind him and stumbling into the lurking darkness.
Alice Ting Liu is a short story writer from China. She gets her writing guidance from enthusiastic friends and creative writing courses in Britain and online. She dives into the ordinary life and hopes to bring out the magic she feels in writing. Her short story has been published by Into the Void.