Though leaves are many, the root is one;
Through all the lying days of my youth
I swayed my leaves and flowers in the sun;
Now I may wither into the truth.
–Percy Bysshe Shelley, Coming of Wisdom with Time
It was a bit late by the time they returned to the cottage.
Auntie Lin had prepared dinner and left it on the table. She also had left a conventional note saying Ah-Qiang would come at noon tomorrow to drive them to the airport.
A tired and quiet Xu Ping ate dinner across his brother. His arms were so sore from rowing that he could barely hold his chopsticks, so he switched to the soup spoon and pushed a few mouthfuls into his mouth.
He stood up and smiled to his brother. “You take your time. I’m going to take a shower.”
When the warm water hit Xu Ping’s back, he felt a burning sensation.
He reached around and touched the skin there. He probably got burnt by the sun after the afternoon on the skerry.
He didn’t pay much attention to it and put on his clothes as usual after the shower.
On the table were empty bowls and plates, and his brother was on the couch watching television.
Xu Ping eased his way over slowly and sat down beside the man.
“What are you watching?”
Xu Zheng was too focused to answer.
Xu Ping didn’t mind.
He was wiped and every single muscle was crying out, but he didn’t want to sleep.
Every minute, every second, was precious because he could stay with his brother, even if it was watching television together or making small talk.
He diverted some of his attention to the television and the rest to his brother.
He watched as the light from the screen tinted his brother’s face.
Xu Zheng turned to him, he smiled back, and Xu Zheng turned back to the screen.
A decade old film, Scent of a Woman, was playing. Al Pacino played a blind lieutenant colonel who was dancing with a woman on the dance floor in a restaurant.
“Would you like to learn to tango, Donna?”
“I think I’d be a little afraid.”
“Afraid of making a mistake.”
“No mistakes in the tango, not like life. It’s simple. That’s what makes the tango so great. If you make a mistake, get all tangled up, just tango on.”
Xu Ping gently touched his brother’s face.
His brother turned to him.
Xu Ping leaned in and kissed his lips.
His brother lowered his head and deepened it.
In the graceful music, Xu Ping shifted away and rested his head on his shoulder.
He didn’t know what it was – maybe the gentle music was too sorrowful – his eyes reddened.
He didn’t want to let his brother see his tears.
He took a deep breath and composed himself.
The room was dim, and the television screen projected waves of light into it illuminating half of his brother’s handsome face.
Xu Ping lifted up his head and smiled at his brother.
He pulled him by the hand up from the couch. “Would you like to dance with me?”
His brother faltered. “I don’t know how.”
“That’s fine,” Xu Ping whispered.
He wrapped his brother’s arms around his own shoulder.
“Follow my lead.”
The white carpet beneath his feet was soft and fluffy like the weeds by the banks, as if it would ensnare whoever stepped foot onto it.
His brother’s strong arms were stiffly wrapped around him, and his feet were completely out of sync.
There was probably no worse dancer on the face of the earth.
Xu Ping pressed a finger on his lips.
They slowly twirled about the dark living room.
The music gradually faded away, but no one paid any attention to that.
With the warm, salty scent of an adult male, Xu Zheng enveloped Xu Ping in a caccoon.
They spun round and round like the rainy ripples on a lake.
And in that moment, Xu Ping realized that perhaps his fate in existing in this ever-expanding universe, in this infinite time and space, was solely to be with this person right then and there.
Xu Ping cried in silence into his brother’s shoulder. The dark hid all signs of it, just as rain fell unbeknownst on the boundless ocean – silently it fell, and silently it disappeared.
Xu Ping awoke from his slumber. The digital clock by the bed told him it was only ten past four in the morning.
He lay in bed. The sky was still black, and he could hear the waves hitting the beach and the ocean breeze whooshing between the coconut tree leaves.
His brother was lying beside him naked and fast asleep. Warm breaths brushed by his ear. Maybe he was having a good dream because his brows were relaxed and his lips were slightly curved.
Xu Ping turned his head and called softly, “Xiao-Zheng.”
His brother was fast asleep.
Xu Ping turned to his side to face his brother and touched his brother’s forehead.
Xu Zheng’s lashes fluttered, but the man did not awake.
The window was open, and the breeze sneaked into the room through the tiny crack and brought the white curtains to a delicate dance in the air.
Xu Ping gazed at his brother for a very long time before gently planting a kiss on the corner of his lips.
Carefully, he eased himself off of the bed, and as though he were performing a mime, he picked up the clothes on the floor and dressed himself.
He tucked his brother in and trod out of the room.
He began tidying the clothes in the bathroom, folding each and packing it into the luggage.
Holding onto the railing, he descended the stairs. The couch was practically flipped upside down, and the sink was full of the dirty dishes from last night.
Xu Ping rearranged the couch and then rolled up his sleeves to man the sink.
A white gush of water rushed out from the stainless steel tap creating a big splash.
A tiny, frightened bug fled from the leftover bits of food and circled about unsteadily before disappearing into the darkness.
The first floor was filled with the splashes from the tap and the clinking from the dishes.
Squeak. The tap was twisted shut. Head bent, Xu Ping scrubbed at the counter with a dishcloth, and after he finished he wrung it dry and hung it on the cupboard handle.
He plugged a white plug into the socket, and the kettle lit up.
Head down, Xu Ping waited patiently.
The sink directly faced the small kitchen window, and Xu Ping looked through it to find the sky still dark. But this darkness was a transparent one, as though a sodden calligraphy brush was dipped into water. The light and dark embraced and tore apart but finally merged into one.
Xu Ping knew dawn was coming.
The water in the kettle began bubbling, so Xu Ping turned the kettle off and poured the boiling liquid into a cup.
The white steam rose up like a screen in front of his face, but before anyone could notice it vanished without a trace.
Xu Ping opened the screen door that led to the sea. He took off his shoes and ambled along the old, wooden stairs down to the beach.
Some three seagulls were already flying above, circling near the water and cawing brightly.
Near the edge of the sea, the horizon was dyed a strange pink, and the night faded away as though diluted with water. Blues of different hues began to appear while thin clouds idled by, and before he knew it the sky was light.
Standing on the beach, Xu Ping waited for sunrise.
The air was thick with a bitter, salty scent. Tiny grains of sand crept underneath his toenails. His shirt flapped loudly in the wind.
Xu Ping couldn’t remember the last time he watched a sunrise. He had been busy all his life, waging a war against himself, against the world, everyday – busy going to work, busy getting off work, busy taking care of his brother, busy buying groceries and preparing meals, and busy struggling to stay alive.
He lived his life like a whirlwind but now realized he never had taken time to be a human being.
Slowly he lowered his head into his hands.
At one point in his life, he stopped remembering the past. He only locked it in a chest deep inside like spare tapes.
His life had died in its womb before it could actually begin, for he had dreams in the past and they, like blossoms that came forth from the soil of his heart, were crushed by the wheels of destiny before he could ever water them properly.
His eighteenth year was pitch black, and even locked away in a chest it was a fearsome beast that constantly morphed shapes with darkness as its medium.
Someone once told him it was just bad luck. He struggled to piece himself back together but in that process lost many things. He no longer believed fate and held no hope.
He lived after the catastrophe but only just. He lived for the sake of staying alive and supporting Xu Zheng and himself.
He thought his life would end in toilsome dreariness, but even this lowly thought was going to be taken from him.
The sun rose above the horizon. A golden light, one that nobody could face directly, shot out in all directions chasing away the darkness. And in that moment, the world seemed brand new.
Xu Ping reached out his hands and watched the dawn light shine on his palms and the grooves grow like branches across the surface. He slowly flipped his right hand over and watched the light dance off of his hand like little elves.
The waves washed over his ankles again and again leaving white foam on the fine sand. Small shells that had been pushed up onto the shore lay trapped in the wet sand like pale white footprints.
A tiny crab shuffled out from a hole in the sand, shook the sand off from its shell and raced for the water. In a few waves’ time, it was gone.
The last shrouds of darkness soon vanished, the sky now a pure baby blue with white flowing clouds.
The sky was completely light now. His brother would soon wake up, and they would eat the last breakfast and clean the dishes. And then Ah-Qiang would come pick them up with that white van of his, gladly carry their luggage for them and drive them to the airport.
Xu Ping knew that what he ought to do was walk back to the cottage and open the door to the only bedroom on the second floor where his brother was sleeping. He should sit on the bed and put his hand on his face so that he wouldn’t be upset from not seeing him upon waking.
But that was not what he did.
He stripped his shirt and pants and threw them far up on the beach.
He wanted to take one last swim by himself before his brother awoke.
He took a deep breath and dove into the ocean.
He felt the seawater gently lifting him up.
He tilted his head to the side and began to paddle.
Xu Ping did not know where he was going or how far he wanted to go, but he just kept swimming.
The waves surged around his body, as if the whole world was trying to stop his advance.
Xu Ping popped his head above the water and took a big breath.
He could smell the light sting of the seawater which burned his back.
His memories surged back as well, of his dad, of his brother, but they shattered into nothingness before he could focus his mind on them.
He recalled his brother learning to speak very late and all the times he called him “Gege” while pulling the edge of his shirt; he recalled his dad leaving the city for work and the five-year-old Xu Zheng sitting on a mazha waiting intently for the nine-year-old Xu Ping to start cooking; he recalled his brother getting acute enteritis in the middle of the night, his taking him to the hospital on the back of his bicycle, and Xu Zheng lying on the cot holding his hand whispering, “Gege, it hurts.”
He gave his all trying to protect Xu Zheng, to give him a simple but warm home, so that he would not get hurt by the elements. But all of this was going to collapse when he fell to his illness. Who would protect him from then on? Who would care for him, cook for him when he was hungry, or take him to the doctor when he got sick?
Xiao-Zheng, Gege is probably going to die soon.
A wave rushed towards Xu Ping, and he ducked into the water before popping back up. He wiped the water from his face and turned back to find himself several hundred metres from the shore.
The white cottage stood in silence against the morning light. The beach was deserted.
What am I doing, Xu Ping thought desperately, what should I do?
He wanted to scream. He wanted to cry. He felt as though his insides were broken down by the angst, but he couldn’t get a single syllable out of his mouth.
He snapped around and swam farther out to sea.
He had never begged any person or any entity for anything. He didn’t believe in God or Buddha; he didn’t revere the demons and spirits. Even during the days of physical turmoil in prison, he had grit his teeth and borne through it by himself. But here and now, Xu Ping truly wished that someone or some entity could listen to his plea, come to him, give unto him hope and courage and guide him through this treacherous milestone.
It was then that Xu Ping felt a tugging pain that ripped through his thigh as if someone had torn open his muscles and were pulling his tendons out.
To his surprise, he sank beneath the waves and drank mouthfuls of saltwater before he could make his way up again.
He kept rising above and falling below the surface. Just when he would call for help, the seawater would shove his words back into his mouth.
“I don’t want to die. I want to live! Xiao-Zheng needs me. I need to live!” he thought frantically while he struggled to stay afloat.
His right leg was stinging and weighed him down like a stone.
His arms flapped furiously as he bobbed up and down.
His arms felt like rocks that he increasingly had trouble lifting.
Water gushed in through his nostrils scorching his lungs, and his body temperature dropped.
There seemed to be something at the bottom of the sea beckoning to him.
He reached out in attempt to break the surface once more.
Eyes open, Xu Ping sank lower and lower.
I’m going to die, he thought.
He saw the bluish green surface, so bright and clear. Colourful fish skitted about the coral reefs not a far ways off, not at all fazed by this giant thing that was drowning. Looking up from the bottom, the surface of the sea looked like translucent turquoise refracting tiny sparkles. The sun had risen.
He thought of his brother fast asleep in the cottage and how much he wanted to give him one last kiss.
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _
ayszhang: dun dun dun...what will happen next?!
Brother - English Translation by ayszhang is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.