And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.
–William Butler Yeats, The Lake Isle of Innisfree
As Xu Ping stepped out of the hospital’s main entrance, the noontime sun was so strong he could barely keep his eyes open. A long string of taxis was parked by the curb outside. A middle-aged driver poked his head out while honking his horn, hollering, “You need a ride, sir?!”
Xu Ping seemed not to have heard. Neck tucked in, he climbed down the stairs and somehow missed a step.
His tumble was truly ridiculous, and a few people started laughing.
Paying no attention to that, Xu Ping slowly made his way back up onto his feet. He dusted himself off and picked up his briefcase lying alongside, but he found he was missing a shoe.
He found it in the bushes and stiffly bent down to put it back on.
There was a gaping hole in the front that split open with every step he took, showing the black, patched socks inside.
The cab driver pursed his lips and withdrew into the car, returning to his newspaper. Soon, a mother climbed in with her son in tow after a hospital visit, and they merged into the city’s traffic with a spluttering exhaust pipe.
Xu Ping watched the car disappear around the corner before slowly turning back.
He picked a random direction and started walking in his cracked shoe. With every step he took, the left shoe would open wide like an alligator’s mouth.
A girl wearing a white dress pointed at him. “Mom, Mom, look at his shoe!” The mother’s eyes flitted awkwardly around before she dragged her daughter away by the arm.
Xu Ping did not hear a sound.
He thought he might have gone deaf. He couldn’t hear the car horns. He couldn’t hear the noisy crowds. He couldn’t hear the street vendors hollering. He walked the busy street filled with bobbing heads, but it seemed like a silent film.
He shoved away a woman carrying a grocery basket in front of him. The woman glared back at him and cursed impatiently.
He could not hear a thing.
Xu Ping slapped his ears.
How strange, he thought. What is wrong with me?
He looked up at the sun and found it oh, so dazzling.
“I have to be honest with you, sir. We have been doing this huge promotion recently, and all tours are on sale. Domestic or international. See, this seven-day trip to Lhasa and Nyingchi, only forty-nine ninty-nine per person. You can go to any other agency and you won’t find a price lower than ours. If you don’t like Tibet, there’s Dali and Lijiang, round-trip airfare, six-day tour for thirty-nine ninty-nine. You stay in private mansions at Guanfang Garden Villa Lijiang. This is our biggest promotion…”
Xu Ping lifted the wet towel on his forehead and struggled to sit up on the couch.
In the bright storefront, there was a desk with an old desktop and a cute, dog-shaped stationery container. There were various travel brochures on a short shelf on the side, and numerous scenic posters were plastered on the wall. There was no air conditioning in the room, only an old electric fan rotating and circulating hot air. A young, round-faced girl with short hair was sitting on a low chair beside him looking quite lively. She continued her relentless advertisement while she fanned Xu Ping with a paper fan that was clearly a souvenir from Lijiang travels.
“Just take a look, sir. Our agency offers tons of different packages. There’s Jiuzhai Valley, Mount Emei, Sanya, Hong Kong. People are so stressed at work nowadays, they need to recharge. And what better way to recharge than to travel?”
Xu Ping raised a hand to stop her. He held his head and frowned. “Where…How did I get here?”
“Oh.” The girl explained less enthusiastically, “I was passing out flyers on the street, and you took one, but you’d only taken a few steps before passing out from heat stroke. I thought, I couldn’t just leave this guy on the ground. And thankfully our office was nearby, so I brought you here.”
Xu Ping read the printing stuck to the glass and repeated hesitantly, “Rose…Travel Agency?”
“Yeah!” The girl exclaimed. “I’m Liu. Liu Meigui. Nice name, eh?”
Xu Ping rubbed his lips together instead of expressing his opinion.
He laid the towel on the back of a chair and said, “Thank you. I need to go.”
Just as he stood up, he felt another dizzy spell. He clung to the back of the couch for stability.
Meigui helped him sit back down and fanned him even harder.
“Drink some cold water.”
Xu Ping took a sip from the glass to find his throat parched. He wolfed down the rest.
Meigui laughed heartily. “That’s not a problem. Oh, right, sir. Will you really not consider taking a trip? Our current prices are truly unbeatable. You’ll never get a deal like this again. Like this one for Jiuzhai Valley–”
Xu Ping interrupted her. “Ms. Liu…”
“Don’t be so cold. Call me Meigui.”
“…Meigui.” Xu Ping wiggled his big toe on his left foot. “Look at my shoe. Do you think someone like me has money to travel?” Meigui looked down for a while before replying, “So what? The thread’s just loose. If I had the tools, I’d be able to fix it. I’ve helped my dad fix his before. Plus, poor people can travel the poor way; rich people can travel the rich way. Every person has the right to enjoy beautiful scenery. Even if you had all the money in the world, the mountains will still be mountains. The water will still be water. The world won’t change.”
Xu Ping gazed at her and flashed a gentle smile.
“Are you married, sir?” She sprung up and took out a stack of posters from the shelf. “We have this new package that we put together especially for couples.”
She laid out the poster – an endless stretch of baby blue sky and sea.
“A ten-day and ten-night honeymoon trip on an island about three hours’ flight away from here. You get your own beachside cottage, a private dock and your own boat. The townspeople almost all live on the other side of the island, two kilometres away. Someone will come to deliver food and to clean during the day, but other than that you will not have any visitors. Think about it, you and your loved one holding hands and walking on the beach during sunset. How wonderful would that be! How many times in a lifetime do we get a chance to make that kind of memory?! I’ve been to quite a few places myself, but this island is something special. It hasn’t been developed very much, and you almost feel its spirit. The people are down-to-earth and pure. I often think when I’m old one day, before I’m about to die, I’d sell everything I own and go to this island, buy a small place by the water and watch the sun rise and set above the ocean, listen to the tides come and go. That way I think I’d be able to face everything and not have any regrets.”
Xu Ping pushed open the old, green-painted wooden door to the watch repair shop. He was met with the sight of Feng-shifu dressed in a tank top and shorts, wiping his sweat with a towel.
He greeted Xu Ping from faraway, “Look who’s here. You’re early today.”
Xu Ping nodded. “Yeah, I wanted to pick up Xu Zheng early and go out for dinner.”
He looked right and left but found no brother.
“Where is he?”
Feng-shifu fanned himself with a tattered cattail fan while grumbling, “Went around to the back to wash his face. This godforsaken weather. You could fry an egg on the pavement outside.”
Xu Ping laughed.
Feng-shifu pulled out a chair. “Come, sit down.”
Xu Ping did as he was told.
Feng-shifu eyed him for a while. “You don’t look too well today, Xu Ping.”
Xu Ping touched his face and scoffed wryly, “It’s too hot. I got heat stroke on the way here.”
“Why didn’t you say so!” Feng-shifu slapped his thigh. “I have Huoxiang Zhenglu Shui here. You should drink one right now.”
He went to a drawer nearby and rummaged through it.
“No, it’s okay. I’m fine now.” Xu Ping stood up to stop him.
“Oh no. You young’uns don’t know how to take care of yourselves. If you don’t pay attention to the small things, they will grow to become big things. The human body is the same as the clock. You need to care for it constantly, get it fixed if there’s even the smallest problem. Take one loose gear, for example, and you don’t think it’s a big deal. But every gear is linked to another, so all the other gears will get damaged.”
Xu Ping grew quiet.
He took the small bottle, drank it all in one go and said thanks.
Feng-shifu moved their seats closer together and started fanning both of them.
Xu Ping opened his briefcase on his lap and took out a paper bag.
“Feng-shifu, I don’t know how to thank you for taking care of my brother for so long. This is just a token of my gratitude. Don’t refuse.”
Feng-shifu shot him a glance before putting down the fan and opening the package. There were two cartons of soft pack Chung Hwa cigarettes.
Feng-shifu picked one carton up to the light to examine. First, delight flashed across his face, but quickly he turned to Xu Ping with a look of suspicion. He pushed the paper bag away and pulled a stiff expression. “Denied!”
Xu Ping froze.
“There’s no free lunch in this world! You think this old man is senile?! And here I thought you’re a dumb guy, but I can’t believe you’re the same as your dad, full of sneaky ideas. You must have dug my grave for me to jump in after giving me such an expensive gift! You’d better spit it out now, what’s your request?”
Xu Ping chuckled.
“I want to take my brother on a trip in a few days.”
“Half a month.”
“That’s it?” Feng-shifu questioned doubtfully.
Xu Ping nodded.
“That’s all. I just wanted to thank you.”
The bead curtains clicked and clattered. It was Xu Zheng returning to the shop. The top half of his t-shirt was wet, and water droplets were clinging to his short hair.
He looked up and caught sight of Xu Ping. He called out, “Gege!” and lunged to hug him.
Xu Ping quickly got up from his seat.
He grabbed his brother’s hands and constrained him before turning to Feng-shifu.
Somehow, the old man was already leaning back in his rocking chair fanning his fan pretending to nap. The paper bag had vanished, too.
Xu Ping smiled.
“We’ll be on our way, Feng-shifu.”
“Mhm,” Feng-shifu mumbled a reply with his eyes closed.
Xu Ping gathered his brother’s belongings and pushed open the shop door.
The sun was so brilliant that he had to raise his hand to his forehead to block it.
“Have fun, and take lots of photos for me,” came an utterance from the gloomy, stuffy shop.
Xu Ping paused in silence.
Then he lowered his head and walked out with his brother, hand in hand.
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _
Huoxiang Zhenglu Shui
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ayszhang: As Yeats says, we're departing for Innisfree~
Brother - English Translation by ayszhang is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.