The Lost Deer


I should head home now.

Yeah, the time has come, and I really should go back. I find myself wandering down a cold and dreary street in the early morning, feeling cold and hungry. How can I describe it? It's like being a sheet of paper, floating on cold water in a tub. The sensation of hunger slowly seeps through me just as the cold water would creep over the paper. Gosh, my imagination becomes particularly acute when I'm hungry. A full stomach, on the other hand, always makes my head fuzzy and heavy, making me sleepy.

Snack vendors line both sides of the street, offering a variety of delicacies - fried dough sticks, wontons, and fried liver. Everything is freshly cooked, ready for the early morning crowds. However, the street is empty at this hour, except for a few students emerging from the Internet cafe.

I walk past a baozi shop, my legs resisting as I try to continue on, but I know how little I have on me. I have a few coins in my pocket, but they amount to no more than a few cents. Not even enough for a measly baozi. I eye the fragrant buns stuffed with meat longingly, as if my eyes alone would be able to gobble them down. The male food vendor notices me and says with a smile: "Hey kid! Want to buy some baozi??"

What I really want to do is steal one, even though I've never stolen anything before. However, it seems impossible at this moment. On the one hand, there are very few people around, which makes it difficult to flee the scene. On the other hand, I am too tired and hungry to run.

I tear my eyes away from the baozi and instead focus on his greasy apron. I shake my head and say, "No," not forgetting to add, "Thank you!" at the end. That sucks.

He doesn’t say anything, just continues kneading the dough into buns. His hands are covered with flour, so much so that they would elicit envy from any hungry person.

I have to keep walking. My feet are hidden in my shoes, but I can feel the hole in my sock with my left toe, which makes walking very uncomfortable. My mom loathes my socks. She finds them anywhere and everywhere, on the floor in the living room, under the bed in my bedroom, or in the cracks of the sofa. It’s my fault since I’m the one who just lets them fall wherever. She is constantly buried in a sock nightmare. When she scolds me, it is as if she is scolding a sock, because I am the source of the stinky socks cramming every inch of her life.

But now, this is the only pair of socks I have, and one of them has been torn apart by my toenail.

I have been walking a lot over the past few days, and my feet are sore and swollen. They can't wait to get back home and collapse on the comfy sofa. We got that sofa so many years ago that I still had to hold my parents' hands whenever we crossed the street. I have a very clear memory of the day we went to buy it. I used to love running up and down the steps of our new home. My dad looked up at me above him on the steps and said, "Someday, hopefully, you’ll grow to be this tall!” I looked back and caught my mom smiling at me. She is the most beautiful woman in the world when she smiles. On that day, the three of us walked down the road to buy our new sofa, the sun reflecting our bright smiles, our lives full of hope. But now the sofa is old and worn, like an old camel that has just died. My mom complains every time she cleans it, struggling and bemoaning that my dad’s salary is too meagre for them to afford a new one. My dad stands reticent in the kitchen, and he’ll turn on the fan, light up a cigarette. No one can read his thoughts.

But at this moment, the sofa is all that motivates me, and I am too tired to walk on. I have forgotten how I got here, but I feel like I can’t be too far from home. I know that I must have made many wrong turns, so when I see a beige house, I let out a breath I hadn’t realized I was holding. That means the bus stop is directly across the street. I'll be home in no time if I can get on the bus.

A few people are waiting at the bus stop. I stand there completely unnoticed by anybody, and quietly join the line waiting for the next bus. The sunlight shines on my face like needles poking, creating an itchy and burning sensation, but somehow quite pleasant nonetheless. I am suddenly filled with a strong feeling of happiness, imagining a cozy and familiar home, with kind smiles from both my mom and dad. Yes, in my mind, they will always be smiling at me.

I can’t help but smile too. Just then, I notice a man who has been reading a newspaper. He reaches into the pocket of his pants, takes something out, and resumes his reading. A one-yuan coin.

I feel the ground shudder as the bus approaches. How did I forget that I have no money? I can't even afford the one-yuan bus fare. Realizing I have no choice but to walk home, I have a sudden urge to bang my head on the wall.

An old man walks by just as I am reaching my wit’s end. His clothes are very shabby, and his face is even dirtier than mine. He drags his feet beneath the billboard and sits down with difficulty. From a distance, he looks like a pile of dried wood.

I saw him on my way here. He is a beggar I often see around the town. He takes out a water bottle that’s half full and pours it down his throat.

Steeling myself, I walk in front of him, blocking his sunlight. He looks up at me, confused.

"Uh..." I squat down, not knowing how to initiate the conversation. "Could you lend me a little money?"

He becomes even more confused, and his hands jump protectively to his pocket.

Afraid of being misconstrued, I add, "Not very much at all, just one yuan will do. I don't have the money for the bus - I'll pay you back five yuan next time I see you!"

He seems to understand the situation now, and grins shyly. Then he retrieves a one-yuan coin from his pocket. I accept it gratefully. It sparkles in my palm, reflecting my relieved smile.

I shout to him as I run onto the bus: "I’ll get you back – five yuan, I won’t forget!”

The people on the bus turn to look at me.

The coin clangs loudly as it hits the automated coin receptor. As I get closer to home, I notice that my parents’ smiles in my mind are starting to blur. I begin to worry about my fate once I get home. My palms holding the rail are beginning to sweat.

Once I get off the bus, I don’t know what to do. The red brick building that I've always called home has come faintly into view. If I keep walking in that direction, it won't be long before I’ll be back home. But what my home holds for me, I don't know. Where else can I go though? I’m penniless and hungry, and I can feel blisters forming on my feet.

I slowly drag my feet towards the red brick building, but before I know it, I have deviated from that path. Instead, I find that I am walking toward the abandoned construction site.

The construction site has been neglected since I was a little child. Apart from piles of sand, there are rows of very thick concrete pipes big enough to accommodate a child my size. Consequently, that place became our favorite spot. We would assemble there every afternoon, playing in the sand or chasing each other in games of hide-and-seek through the concrete pipes. We could never get enough, and we often had to be called several times by our parents before reluctantly going back home for dinner or bed.

But now I'm too preoccupied with my thoughts to play. I walk in, watching the sand getting plucked up by the breeze, floating in the air and making me sneeze. From amidst the blowing sand, a familiar figure emerges. The figure, short and stocky, wanders around the construction site like a ghost. The name of that figure is Ah-Jing.

Ah-Jing has been my loyal playmate for as long as I can remember. When we were very young, we would splash, play, and frolic in the muddy puddles together. When we grew a little older, we used to crawl in the concrete pipes, pretending they were our own military trenches. I remember a night after Ah-Jing had an argument with his parents, he ran away from home. I stayed with him in the pipe all night. The moon cast a stunning light that evening and I gazed at it for a long while before retiring into the pipe to sleep. Ah-Jing had fallen asleep early, his beloved picture of Che Guevara clutched tightly in his hand.

Later on, we simply called this place "the trench."

Ah-Jing and I crawl into the trench together. Over the past years, we have both grown rapidly, as if competing for height. The trench has become too small for me to stretch out completely - with just a slight movement, I risk bumping my head. But we can still easily cram ourselves inside, a skill honed over many years of practice. Sadly, in a few years this place will no longer be ours, becoming instead the world of younger children.

But at least for now, the trench is still ours - we maintain our stronghold. I look at Ah-Jing, who is stretching his lower back with difficulty. I notice a very fine fuzz growing around his mouth.

"What are you doing here?" I break the silence, wearing a playful smile. This winning smile always gives me an advantage in my conversation with others.

Sure enough, instead of meeting my gaze, he looks at a ball of discarded wastepaper on the ground to my left. He licks his lips and says, "I've been waiting for you all along. I knew you'd show up."

His words touch me. In this trench, I found a true friend. Little did I know then that this friendship would be one that I would remember for the rest of my life. Later, at Ah-Jing's memorial service, my mind was filled with the scene of us being in the concrete pipe that day.

I pat him on his sturdy shoulder and say, "You're a good friend, dude."

He becomes obviously relaxed.

He suddenly opens his mouth, "I want to tell you something.”

"What's up?"

He pauses a little, takes out the picture of Che Guevara from his pocket, rubs it for a second with his thumb, and puts it back. This is a habitual action of his. "I had a dream, a very weird dream." He stares at me after he finishes, waiting for my reaction.

"What was it about?" I ask, being unsure how to respond.

He seems a little uneasy and doesn’t know where to put his hands.

"Listen to me, this is a very lifelike dream, super vivid, otherwise I wouldn’t be so scared by it." He pauses for a second, "not scared exactly, only that it seems to have really taken root and I can’t forget it. This dream has been on my mind for the past few days. I think that maybe if I talk to someone else about it, I might be able to stop it from running around my mind. That’s why I've been waiting for you here."

"Why don't you talk to your mom about it?

"Dude. You want me to talk to my mom about it? For real? How could you even come up with such an idea? She walks away the moment I start talking to her and seems to prefer cleaning her precious hairtail fish to talking to her own son, and whenever I stand before my father's portrait, it feels like I have something to confess to him.

"Well, I’m honored that you feel like you can talk to me……"

"Honestly, it is truly a weird dream. I’ve always forgotten what happens in my dreams as soon as I wake up, but this time's different. I can remember every bit from beginning to end, as if it had really happened."

He stops and mutters "mm-hmm " to himself, as if affirming what he has said.

"Okay, so. I remember that I was walking in a forest at the beginning of a stream, you know, a forest just like every forest you have ever seen or imagined. It was very beautiful, with butterflies flying amoungst the flowers. I could even smell the scent from the flowers. I kept walking because I wanted to go home. Yeah… I know for sure that in the dream I had a home.

"Then I saw a small stream, in which water meandered slowly, carrying from time to time branches, leaves and other bits and bobs. I walked over to the stream and looked into the water. Dude. I saw my reflection and saw that I had turned into a deer! Only then did I realize I was walking on all fours. But I wasn't very scared at that point in the dream, I didn't even feel anything. I just kept on heading home, just, as a deer, in a deer’s body.

"My home was a small log cabin, a very beautiful cabin. It has always been my dream to live in a small log cabin in the forest, which unexpectedly had come true in that dream. I walked up to the door. Just as I was about to knock at it, it was suddenly flung open. Out came my dad, who in the dream was somehow alive again after all these years. I can’t tell you how amazing it was to see him again, dude.

"I called out to him 'Dad!', but he didn't answer. Instead, a look of excitement came over his face. He called to my mom to come out and and I could hear him saying, 'Look, there’s a deer in the back for our dinner, go get the guns!’ My mom turned around to walk inside, returning with two shotguns. My dad and my mom, each taking one, turned towards me. Only then did I realize that something had gone wrong, and I shouted to them, 'I’m Ah-Jing, I’m your son!' But they didn't respond at all, just slowly raised their shotguns, leaving me no choice but to flee.

"I had never run so fast before, as if I was flying. I could feel the pebbles under my feet galloping along with me.

"But I could hear my parents’ steps behind me, trying to catch up with me. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t shake them off. Then I heard shots. The bullets just grazed my face -" Ah-Jing touched his ear subconsciously. "I can still remember the burning sensation."

"And then what?" I peer outside as I speak. The last remnant rays of the sun cling to the top of the mountain like a dying hand, refusing to let go. I’m a little cold, but the story isn't over yet, so I shift my posture so I can continue listening.

"I just kept running and running. I thought, it can’t have been easy for my parents to raise me to be a grownup, why do they want to kill me?" Ah-Jing gives out a dry laugh. "I was finally able to shake them off. But then I found that the surrounding forest had disappeared and in its place were just stones that stretched as far as the eyes could see. I didn't know where I was - it was like a maze. I had become a lost deer."

It is dark when I emerge from the pipe. I feel like I have no strength left in my body. I head towards home. The moon in the sky is round and enormous, and I feel its crystalline light illuminating me. Ah-Jing’s dream, the lost deer in an expanse of stones, lingers in my mind.

I walk up to the door of my home and put my key in, only to find it unlocked. I step into the living room, which is shrouded in silence. Closing the door behind me, I make my way towards the old and worn sofa. I'm exhausted and in desperate need of rest.

But I notice that the kitchen door is half open and inside is the silhouette of someone. I look more closely and I see my dad. He has lit a cigarette and is smoking alone. No one can read his mind.

In the bedroom, I see my mom packing things up. She has placed a large suitcase on the bed and opened every cabinet door. She is moving the clothes from the wardrobes, piece by piece, into the suitcase.

The whole room is eerily quiet, except for my mother's occasional sobs and the sound of shutting doors as she empties the wardrobes. There’s also the ticking of the antique clock in the living room, persistent, relentless.

I suddenly can’t stand the ticking anymore. It seems so out of place. I walk over, lift up the clock, and smash it onto the floor.

I again think of the deer that couldn't find its way. I think it's time for me to hit the road too. But first, I should get the five yuan to the old beggar. You know I never break my promises.


# 1.   

Chinese version:

Yongyut, June 16, 2024, 1:32p.m.


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