Dad Your Name is Field-Keeper, by Sun Yisheng
Sun Yisheng says about this story: "[It] is an assemblage of disconnected images, in a landscape that flows like an inkwash painting." Personally, I find I am often reminded of something rather different and less traditionally Chinese: his characters and their relationship to the landscape suggest the stick-like figures in an L.S. Lowry painting.
For more on Sun Yisheng's writing, see GLLI (9) - Writing (and translating) the surreal, part two: the stories of Sun Yisheng - by Nicky Harman
I was this old before I remembered my father. Before, I didn’t know his name and had no memory of him. My mother never told me. In any case, she’s dead now. As she lay dying, I sat at her bed–side, tugging on her withered hand. The moonlight fell on her face and I really wanted her to tell me about stuff that happened outside the window. But until her last breath, she just kept repeating, “I’m going to die.” And then she did, looking as if she had just fallen asleep. Anyway, it was then that I remembered my father.
“There was no warning your dad was going to leave us,” said my mother, “I don’t know what he was thinking of. The day he went, we ate dinner like normal, and he went out for a stroll, just like he always did. I sat in the cane chair sewing a pair of trousers. He was out for the usual time, then he came back in and squeezed my hand––he squeezed my hand––then he said he was going out for a knife, as if he was going out for another stroll. He didn’t come back. And he hasn’t been back since.”
“What’s my dad’s name?” I asked my mother.
“Everyone says your dad’s name was this.”
“Your dad’s name was Field-Keeper.”
“Dad, your name was Field-Keeper?” I said.
“That’s right, it was Field-Keeper. And your dad went off down the road that goes past the front door.” My mother raised her hands.
All the candlelight pooled in the centre of the room. My wife sat weeping in the corner where I could hardly see her. A draught blew the drooping candle out and she got up for some matches to re–light it. The room came back into view. My wife sat back down in her corner and carried on sobbing. Her shadow flickered on the wall. My mother’s swollen legs lay on the quilt. If she hadn’t left us so soon, she’d have got up and had a go at my wife, for sure. My wife stood up, quivering, her belly supported on slender legs. She came over and wrenched the quilt off: “What’ll I do when you’ve gone?” she cried, sounding just like my mother.
“Why are you pulling the quilt off?” I asked her.
She smoothed my mother’s raised hands flat, put the quilt back and repeated: “What’ll I do when you’ve gone?”
“I’ll be back soon,” I said.
But my wife was still crying. “What’ll our son do when you’ve gone?”
Me: “I haven’t got a son.”
Wife: “You might have.”
Me: “Our son hasn’t been born yet.”
Wife: “He might be. And when he is, and his dad’s not around, what am I supposed to tell him?”
Me: “OK, this is what I’m supposed to tell him.”
Son: “Where are you going?”
Me: “To look for my dad.”
Son: “What’s your dad’s name?”
Me: “His name’s Field-Keeper.”
Son: “Dad, your name’s Field-Keeper.”
Me: “Son, your dad’s name’s not Field-Keeper. My dad’s name’s Field-Keeper.”
I sat on a pile of stones by the roadside, pressed down by dense leaden clouds. A crowd of people climbed towards me, dipping and rising, disappearing and reappearing, like wheat bowed by the wind. The road snaked away ahead, I couldn’t see where it ended, there was only broiling hot air. I had walked all this way without coming across any towns, or even a village. There were a good number of trees to keep the sun off me though, so I could take short rests. Up the hillside ahead, the next section of road wavered and shimmered. There were no birds, no frogs, and no barking dogs, just lush green undergrowth on either side as I walked. I sat down for a rest while I waited for the scarecrow in the wheat field to point the way. The pile of stones scorched my bum but I sat there anyway. Then dark clouds gathered and the tree shadows were swallowed up. After a while, I saw them climbing towards me. I had passed them just before, on the last hilltop. They had fallen into a gully, and the sun shone down on their backs. Their feet scrunched in the stones and they panted hoarsely as they turned and looked around them. The sky hung low over their heads. When they saw me, their gaze seemed to settle on the hillside a few hundred meters away. There was not a breath of wind, and their shouts echoed behind me. I didn’t look back, just plodded on until I could no longer hear them. The road stretched away, clinging to the surface of the land. I crested one rise after another, disappeared down one dip after another, until finally I got to this tree. My feet hurt and I sat down for a bit. I could hear the shouts again now, and saw exhausted figures approaching. Their gaze shortened before finally coming to rest on me.
“Where are you all from?”
They passed me and carried on a bit, then another bit, without slackening their speed or even leaning to one side.
“Where are you all from?” I asked again.
“You’re in our way,” one of them said.
“How long will it take to get to the next village, do you know?” I asked.
“Get out of our way,” someone else said.
I couldn’t tell which two were talking. Their coloring was all the same and they all dripped with sweat the same way. Even their flat faces were identical, so they were hard to tell apart.
I crossed to the other side of the group. As I stepped around them, I said to the ones on this side: “How long will it take to get to the next village, do you know?”
“We’ve just come from the next village,” one said.
“Yes, I know,” I said. “So how long will it take me?”
“How long have you been walking?” asked one. I couldn’t decide if the speaker was the same as the one who had just answered me.
“I haven’t been to the next village. I don’t know how long it’s going to take,” I said.
“I’m asking how long you’ve been walking to get here.”
“About this long,” I said, spreading my arms wide.
“Walk as long again and, if you come to a river, follow it. If you come to a bridge, don’t turn off, carry on walking and you’ll find it.”
I couldn’t stop. We walked along the narrow road, its edges overgrown with weeds. The road drifted away ahead of us. We turned onto the wasteland, but we didn’t let the brambles get in our way or slow us down. The sun was as fierce as ever, and its rays seemed to sap their energy.
“Where are you all going?”
“We’re going to stop,” they said.
“What are you carrying?”
“What’s his name?”
“Nothing to do with you.”
They were off the road now, and onto open ground. I kept pace, and asked again: “Where are you all off to?”
“We’re stopping. Get out of our way.”
“I just want to know his name.”
They had left the road far behind and were on the wasteland. They gazed all around them; everywhere was engulfed in lush green undergrowth. They came to a halt. She walked out from the centre of the crowd. She was dressed in filthy clothes. “I’m begging you to stop talking,” she said, looking imploringly at me.
“We’re begging you to stop talking,” they said.
“I just want to know his name.”
“I’m begging you to keep your voice down,” she said.
I kept my voice down. Still she didn’t answer me. “Why aren’t you saying anything?” I asked.
“He’s asleep,” she said. “I’m begging you to stop talking. You might wake him.”
“You might wake him,” they said.
I lowered my voice even more: “Can you tell me his name?”
“His name is Keep Your Voice Down,” she said.
The tall grass rustled against our legs. In a little while I said, looking back at the twisting, winding road: “Why are you still carrying him? You must be tired.”
“Back off a bit,” said someone. “Your feet are in my space.”
I jumped back a bit. “Back a bit further…” they said.
They stood in a mown patch of weeds and lowered the coffin from their shoulders. They dug out a deep pit and left the soil piled up around the edges. Then they put the coffin in. They shoveled fresh soil over the person and heaped up the grave mound.
“What are your names?” I said.
She knelt at the graveside, her body so bloated her grief could not get out. The clouds parted, the sun burned fiercer than ever. More hot air amassed in the vast sky. Their jackets, and hers too, were soaked with sweat. Before she bowed to pay her respects, she looked up at me: “I’m begging you to stop talking. The sound of your voice might disturb him.” Actually, that’s not what she said, it’s my best guess. “You’re stepping on my shadow, please back off,” she said. “Take your shadow further away from me.”
They smirked, and someone said to her placatingly: “We’d better go.” She scattered some paper money into the air but the notes didn’t flutter upwards. She threw her arms up again but the bunches of notes just spattered on the ground. They took the money and left, and I followed them.
Me: “What are your names?”
Them: “What’s your name?”
Me: “Do you know someone called Field-Keeper? I’m looking for him.
Them: “We’re not called Field-Keeper.”
Me: “Have you seen him?”
Them: “We don’t have anyone called Field-Keeper.”
Me: “Do you know how I can find someone called Field-Keeper?”
They all talked at once. “I’m not called Field-Keeper.” “I don’t know anyone called Field-Keeper.” “I don’t even know how you can find someone called Field-Keeper.” “Maybe Ferry knows someone called Field-Keeper.”.
“Who’s Ferry?” I asked.
“Ferry’s no one. Walk as long again and, if you come to a river, follow it. If you come to a bridge, don’t turn off, carry on walking and you’ll find Ferry.”
The boat sliced through the water and, at the next bend in the rapids, turned into the lower reaches. The roar was getting louder, and the water slapped against the side of the boat. We couldn’t stop the boat creaking and groaning. The rain was chucking it down and the gale was driving rainwater into the boat. Our clothes were soaked. He rocked the oars to steer us through, trying hard to avoid running aground or capsizing. I was being shaken to bits. Eventually the water grew quiet and you see reflections again but still the rain did not stop. I couldn’t see anything through the dense, leaden fog, just the rain-drenched rain. Our progress had slowed, and the riverbank wasn’t flashing past as fast as before.
“Has it rained where you come from?” he asked.
“The sun’s scorching there, more than it’s raining here.”
“Have you come to pray for rain?”
“That’s right. I’m excessively pious,” I said ironically. “My belly’s bursting with the water I’ve drunk.”
Even the most pious can’t resist making up stories.
“Who’s Field-Keeper to you?”
“He’s nothing to me, just like I’m nothing to you.”
They clip–clopped on past me. We were a long way from our destination and still moving slowly on. They blew dandelion seed heads and crunched puncture vines thorns under their feet. Now there were vast expanses of golden wheat on either side. They had gone quiet, and no noise came from the wasteland either. I could hear the silence. But it didn’t last long, they seemed to wake up again, only now they were making an effort to curb their excitement. Down the next hillside, they scattered into the wheat fields. As I waited for them to come back to the road, I saw sparks that quickly started a field fire. The smoke billowed up into the sky.
I stopped them. “Aren’t you hungry?”
“Of course I am, what about you?”
“We are too.”
“So why are you burning the wheat?”
“Don’t you want to find Ferry?” they said. “It’s going to rain soon, and the girl’s getting married, understand?”
I got to the river but didn’t find Ferry and the river was in spate. A gust of wind had blown the boat here. The sound of sculling had lost the restraint it should have had.
“OK, can you tell me where Ferry is?” I asked.
“I’ve never heard of him so I can’t tell you,” he said.
“Someone told me that I should come and find Ferry.”
“Did you come alone?”
“No. There were a lot of people but they were walking too quickly and they left me behind. I wanted to keep up with them but when I got here, I realized there was only me left.”
“Who are they?”
“They’re the crowds I was talking about.”
“Was it raining where you came from?”
“The sun’s scorching there, more than it’s raining here.”
“What have you come for?”
“To find Field-Keeper.”
“Who’s Field-Keeper to you?
“He’s no one to me, just like I’m no one to you. Do you know someone called Field-Keeper? I’m looking for him.”
“Maybe he passed by here, or maybe not, I don’t remember. You can go on along the river and keep looking. But there’s a village up ahead, you should take a detour.”
“Why should I take a detour?”
“Because there’s a village up ahead.”
“Can’t I go through the village?”
“You can, if you want to.”
“Huh,” I said. “What’s your name?”
“Your name is Ferry?”
“No. Ferry’s not a person’s name.”
“Ferry must be the name of the pierhead,” I said.
“No,” he said. “Ferry’s the name of the river. You see this water? The place it’s just gone past is called Ferry. The place it’s coming to is called Ferry, and where we are now is called Ferry. Everywhere on this river’s called Ferry.”
If I leave the river bank, the rain must ease off. There’ll probably be less mud on the road. The sky’s still leaden but the clouds have scudded away and the sun’s out. At the fork in the road, I’ll follow the woods. The wind howls through the dense foliage and blows on my face. Murky air from far away echoes among the trees and morning raindrops spatter in the mud. I’ll make my way through the rustling sogon grass and smell horse manure. One step, then another. Each step leaves hardly any echo. The silence of the step ahead soon overlays the silence of the step before. If I can just complete this stage of the journey, I’ll be able to carry on with the adventure.
But if I pass the side turning by, I’ll leave the forest far behind. The tamped-earth path is desolate and stony. The path curves, then ends in a deep ditch that I have to cross to get to the village. What a wild place. No shade from the trees, not even the sound of sparrows cheeping. But now, or perhaps in a little while, I’ll knock on a door. I’m not here because it’s where I live, or to get warm, or even to rest. All this running around makes that impossible. I open the door. Light filters into the pitch-dark hovel, and I can just make out a shape in the bed. This is piled high with rice straw and as the woman shifts and turns over, there is a pervasive scrunching sound. The folds of her skin droop on the straw and she is so swarthy that her body merges into the darkness.
“I’m going to die,” she says. “I feel it in my bones. I’ve waited so long for this. I’m not completely ready but I’ve been preparing long enough.”
“How do you feel it?”
“I don’t feel it, I just know. You brought the wind in with you and now it’s shut the door again.”
“Could you tell me if anything’s the matter?” I ask politely.
“Well, it’s your turn to talk now.”
“Mine?” I said. “What am I supposed to say?”
“Anything will do. You can say you’ll find a good place for me, and a nice coffin, and then dig out a hole and bury me in it and burn incense over the grave. Let me have a good look at your hands, please.”
I raise my hands. The wind is getting up outside and the door groans. It sounds like a wolf howling.
“I need a pair of hands like that to bury me.”
I push her away and the dust whirls and floats around me.” Are you going to die or are you already dead?” I exclaim.
“I’m not dead, I’m still alive. Look at my hands. They’re as pale as yours.”
“My hands are not pale,” I say.
“Nor are mine,” she went on. “No one’s lived longer than I have.”
“Some people have died before you.”
“I’ve died before me.”
My legs tremble and I ask: “Have you seen someone called Field-Keeper?”
“He died a long time ago.”
The sound of the wind mixes with the shadows in the room.
When I go outside, I see the village is crammed with graves. The sun has managed to filter through the long grass onto the mounds. The trees press against the sky.
The sound of the wind has driven noon away and a foul, rotting smell permeates the village. Time has left the village along with the wind and I follow time up and down hills. I feel drained, and the road seems endless. Black clouds darken the sky, burying the sun behind swirling, dense vapor. One more hill and the murky sky has brought with it an autumnal chill. The leaves will soon wither and fall. I slither downhill onto a broad plain. Suddenly, large snowflakes begin to float earthwards, blanketing the ground. I am burning hot all over, and sweat drenches my clothing even though my face and hands are red and stiff with cold. I make an effort to stretch my muscles as I plow on, the wind stinging my cheeks painfully. I fall so many times that I draw blood on my cheeks and birds swoop down and peck them till they’re even more painful. My lips are cracked and dry and my throat is swollen. The fever makes me muddle-headed and I fall again. I can’t hear anything, and the snow dances before my eyes. Soon I’ll be buried in it. The wind is bone-chilling and I haul myself up and flail my arms and legs to keep going. I have lost my sense of direction and my breath is loud in my ears. I’m exhausted and my feet are numb. I cross a frozen river covered with snow. After I’ve crossed, I hear the ice crack behind me. I begin to feel distressed. I’m afraid of dying in a place where there is no warmth, where everything around me is colorless, withered and fallen.
When I wake up, I see him. He’s driving a mule cart, sitting on the shafts and I’m lying in the back. I open my eyes and look up at the clear sky, listening to the birds singing. I sit up. Then the sky darkens and the wilderness merges with the horizon.
“What happened to the snow?”
“It was the sun.”
“I didn’t see any sun.”
“That’s right, you didn’t. When it came out, you were asleep.”
“Who are you?”
“I’m the one who saved you.”
“What happened to me?”
“Nothing. You were just lying there. Have you forgotten?”
“I haven’t forgotten. I just don’t remember.”
“Memory is very unreliable.”
“How did I get onto your cart?”
“This isn’t my cart, it’s the mule’s cart. Even without it, the mule could have carried you.”
“You jolted me awake, you know.”
“Not us! I never jolted you. We might have jolted ourselves every now and then.”
“It wasn’t a good way to wake up,” I grumbled.
“What are you doing here anyway?” He asked.
“You brought me here,” I said. And I looked around me. The track was getting narrower and there were more trees. The horizon was so far away, the cart hardly seemed to be moving.
“So what are you doing here?”
“I’m looking for Field-Keeper. Have you seen a man called Field-Keeper?” I asked. But I had the feeling I’d never really been looking for Field-Keeper.
“Why did you fall in the road? Are you sick?”
“No,” I said. “I was ambushed.”
“I’ll tell you while I still remember, if you’ll listen. I went up and down all these hills and finally, this afternoon in the snowstorm, I got to a village. It was a steaming hot hive of activity. I knocked on every door and every time it opened up I asked: ‘Is Field-Keeper here?’”
“No, there’s no Field-Keeper here,” they said.
“No, he’s not here,” they said.
Once I knocked and no one answered, so I just walked in. The room was full of people drinking wine or tea. Steam rose from their cups.
“Excuse me, is Field-Keeper here?” I asked.
They all looked at me, then turned back to their tea. I stepped forward, grabbed a cup and gulped the contents to warm my belly. It was wine. They shut the door and shot the bolt, shut me out. I walked on down the street. There were a lot of people lined up on the other side. Some walked past me and I wanted to ask a question but I didn’t get a chance, they were going too fast. One of them looked back at me:
“What are you doing here?”
“What?” I asked.
“What are you really doing here?” He repeated.
“Better answer him,” said another.
“What did you say?” I asked.
“What do you want?” He said again.
“I’m looking for someone. I can’t find him. I’ve looked everywhere,” I said.
“Try and be a bit clearer,” he said.
“What do you mean?” said another.
“I’m looking for someone. I can’t find him.”
“Who are you looking for?” He asked.
“I’m looking for someone.”
“I know. I’m asking you who you’re looking for.”
“He’s called Field-Keeper.”
“Why are you looking for him?”
“No reason. I just want to find him. Haven’t you ever looked for someone?”
“Who are you looking for?”
“I’m looking for Field-Keeper, mister. I told you.”
“Yes, you said. But why are you looking for Li Field-Keeper?”
“Li Field-Keeper? I never said his surname was Li.”
“But it must be Li Field-Keeper….”
“No, you’re wrong. It’s not Li Field-Keeper, or Wang Field-Keeper, or Sun Field-Keeper or anyone else Field-Keeper. His name is just Field-Keeper, I said. Have you seen anyone by that name?”
“And where was he?”
“In lots of places. He was in a hurry. He was exhausted. I never asked him where he was going. But I can tell you for sure that he’s not in our village. He’s a long way from here.”
“Where did you see him?”
“Up ahead…or back there. I don’t remember,” he said. “What’s Field-Keeper to you?”
“Field-Keeper’s someone to me,” I said.
“Hey, I’m asking you,” he said.
“Field-Keeper’s my son,” I said. “Son, your name’s Field-Keeper.”
“What did you really come here for?”
And he took a swing at me. He slugged me hard and I fell back several steps before hitting the wall. Seeing me slumped over, someone else jumped on my back. I sprawled on the ground. They swarmed around me, landing kicks all over me. That was when it started to hurt. As they left, each one of them stamped over my back, making me yell out each time. They came in quick succession and it became one continuous yell. And it really did hurt.
On the other side of the street, the others were lined up against the wall. They were just dark shapes hidden in the shadows, though the rest of the street was bright. They looked at me, showing no signs of leaving. Just then I heard movement among the shadows. Two children ran past playing chase. I didn’t know it but I was bleeding and they trod bloodied footsteps into the snow, first bright red then gradually paler. My blood was still dripping onto the snow. I looked at the trail of footprints. Soon, the snow had buried the village, and me with it.
“I never saw the village,” the mule-driver said and flicked his whip at the beast. The cart shuddered but went no faster.
“I said, the snow buried the village,” I said.
“But I didn’t see any snow.”
“It’s like you said, it’s melted.”
“The snow melted but not the village.”
“Right, the village didn’t.”
“But I never saw the village,” he said.
“You saw me?” I asked.
“Yup, I must have done, otherwise I couldn’t have hoisted you onto the cart.”
“Right,” I said. “But it didn’t happen in the village.”
He shut up then and didn’t argue with me anymore, just sat there motionless facing forwards, his shoulders hunched over. I gave him a sideways glance. He looked tranquil. The road ahead began to widen and level out but the mule cart creaked louder than ever and slowed, and the afternoon creaked along and got slower too.
“Hey!” He shouted at the mule, and wacked it again. The cart shuddered more violently than ever. Then he said: “My name’s Field-Keeper.”
The road was pot-holed, the crows were flocking back and darkness began to steal over us.
The road turned, then leveled out again. The setting sun reddened the criss–crossing trails. We were passing over an unending plain, overhung by dark clouds. A full moon was high in the sky and the moonlight seeped over the land and swallowed it up. I was exhausted. I wanted to sleep.
“You’ll have to get down up ahead,” he said.
“It’s night time Ahead.”
“I don’t want to get down. I’m tired.”
“Even if you don’t get down Ahead, you’ll have to get down Ahead of Ahead.”
“OK, I’ll get down at the second Ahead.”
“There’s no difference between the first and the second Ahead,” he said.
The woods on either side were thinning out and the rays of the sun slanted in. The cart stopped then started again, then stopped again. I pressed myself against the side of the cart. My shadow stuck out from the uniform shadow thrown the cart, and both shadows moved along evenly over the surface of the road. I looked at my shadow. It carried on moving forward. When the roadside trees thickened again, I’d deceive my shadow. I’d leave it behind here and carry on alone. The road ahead seemed as endless as time, and with every step we took, we seemed to leave a bit of our past behind. We took a big detour to avoid the river, but finally crossed the bridge and headed along the opposite bank beside clear, tinkling waters whose surface fractured the rays of the moon. The mule raised a fine dust as it clip-clopped along and the wheel spokes juddered and jolted the cart. Leaves and branches kept swiping our faces. The road was getting a bit shorter. The road turned, then leveled out again. The setting sun reddened the criss–crossing trails as the sky darkened. We were crossing an endless plain, overhung by dark clouds.
“Do you know something?” I said.
“What?” He said.
“I asked them why they were beating me. You know what they said?”
“What did they say?”
“They just looked down.”
By the time we got to Ahead, it was completely dark. The moon was very bright, and a mantle of twinkling stars covered the sky. This was the only house on the great plain. Its lights blazed and filtered out of the gaps of the walls in all directions.
“Are you not getting down?” He asked.
“I’m dead tired,” I said.
“You could get down,” he said.
But then we were past the wooden house and driving on. The road snaked away before us.
“Ahead is No Road,” he said.
I could see. I said: “The road ahead is really bendy.”
“This road is No Road. They all have names.”
On we went, the mule braying at intervals. It was colder tonight than mid-winter and I wanted a fire to warm up. “There’s no point,” he said. “Any fires lit here are freezing cold.” The mule put on a bit of speed and galloped across the vast wilderness, the moon and the stars galloping along in our wake. Strange that the faster the cart went, the more I felt we were going backwards. The knee-high weeds billowed in the wind. Soon we slowed down. We had reached Ahead, the moonlight was still bright and the stars still twinkled. This was the only house I could see on the plain. Its lights blazed and filtered out of the gaps of the walls in all directions.
“Now you’ve got to get down,” he said.
“Is this the second Ahead?”
“This isn’t the first.”
“Are you going further Ahead?”
“You want to go to this Ahead.”
“But there’s no difference between this and the next Ahead,” I protested as I got down.
“I should go,” he said. The mule gave a bray that shook the door open.
Paint was flaking from the wooden boards of the house. I could see a bunch of young lads through the doorway. They were making a helluva racket, waltzing around the room, playing raucous drinking games, and cursing whether they won or lost. One poured out some wine and drank. Then he offered his cup to someone else, drank a sip from it himself, then offered it again to one of the men crowding around. Each one had a gulp. They got up and headed for the bar, with me following. They stopped for another bottle of liquor. I wandered around, still searching, and then went to the window. They smashed the bottle.
I asked the man opposite me: “Can I sit here?”
He looked out of the window, paused and said: “There’s someone already there.”
“Who?” I asked.
“An old guy,” he said. “Very old.”
“Let me sit down for a bit, until he comes back.”
“There’s someone in that space.”
“Let me sit down a bit, then I’ll go.”
“Why there and not somewhere else?”
“There are no other empty chairs. There are people sitting on them.”
“If you sit there, he said, then where’s your seat?”
He stared at the candle flame, at the moths sizzling as they hurled themselves into it. Then he put his head on the table and went to sleep. It was pitch-dark outside and the weeds rose and fell in the wind. Their scent wafted in through the window with each billow. A mist arose, engulfing the brightness.
The landlord opened a bottle of beer, handed it to me and brought me a bowl of peanuts. I was starving, but instead of gobbling them up, I picked individually at them. The taste of the beer was like snowflakes and I started to burp as soon as I’d drunk it. I was giving off heat from the soles of my feet upward. The man opposite put his feet on top of mine. He shifted position, joggling the table and making the candle flame gutter––and went on sleeping. The wind was getting up, but the candle didn’t go out. It shone on me as I sat there alone, exhausted but sleepless. They were blind drunk by now, slamming their fists onto the table, running around the room. The landlord could only watch as they wrecked the joint.
“What do you want to do?” They asked.
“What have you got in your hand?” They asked.
“Are you trying to challenge us?” They asked.
“Are you challenging us with that knife?” They asked.
I upended the bottle but it was empty and all I got was an intoxicating, beery smell. I swallowed a gulp. They crowded round and clapped me on the shoulder:
“Are you challenging us with that knife?”
I didn’t answer. The noise woke the man opposite me. He glared at them for a moment, then went back to sleep. His feet were on top of mine again. If I wanted to get up, I’d need to move both his heavy legs out of the way. I carried on sitting, clutching the knife in my right hand. I didn’t know why I was holding it or when I’d got hold of it, I just felt afraid. They were still making a racket, in fact the uproar in the rest of the room had quietened down because of them. They grabbed the knife off me and tossed it into the air. It fell, point down, and embedded itself in the tabletop, making a zinging sound and quivering so that the table moved with it.
“Bring your knife. We’re going outside,” they said.
They left the room and didn’t come back. The man opposite woke up again and went out into the night too, flashing me a smile as he went. I heard no shouting outside, or sounds of fighting either. The wind whistled in through the cracks in the woodwork. They’d gone, and weren’t coming back. I carried on sitting where I was, lighting a new candle when the old one guttered out. I could go on sitting in that chair through summer and through winter over the years, and maybe the night would never fade. I could sit there like a tree, putting down roots, putting out shoots, growing branches and leaves.
People came and went, one group after another. New ones came, old ones left. I kept thinking, when I’m old, I might be reconciled to myself. Then I won’t blame you people any more. I don’t know what’s going on in your heads, but I had a dream––and when I woke up, my father was younger than me. The candle flared brightly, on the point of going out. Just then, a young man burst in from outside. He hung around in the doorway a long time looking at the knife in the tabletop, before sitting down in the chair opposite me. He lit a new candle, and snuffed out the wick of the old one.
Then he said: “You’re sitting in my chair.”
“This isn’t your chair,” I said. “You’re young and this chair belongs to an old man.”
“I want to sit here,” he persisted.
“Why here and not somewhere else?” I asked
“The other seats are all empty.”
“You can only sit in an empty seat.”
“You’re wrong,” he said. “Empty seats are the ones you can’t sit in.”
“The one you’re sitting in is empty,” I said.
“The one you’re sitting in was empty before too.”
There was a rustling from the undergrowth outside, and the damp wind rustled too. The candle flame shone red on his face. The flame fled as the wind blew it. He pulled the knife out and it caught the light, flashing before my eyes. The knife had slashed a deep wound in the grain of the wood. “Lets go outside,” he said.
A full moon hung in the sky. I looked up at it.
I’m giving up on all these roads. I’m heading for the wilderness. A hazy moonlight plays over my body, a wind blows across the desolate landscape, and the dew wets my clothes. But I’ll keep going.
If you see him walking across this endless plain, he’ll be breathing deeply as he walks into the dense mist, into the boundless night.