She finally agreed to go out, so we decided to have lunch at my aunt’s house.
A gust of wind started early morning while I was still in bed. I could hear it through the trees outside, accompanied by the sound of dried leaves falling to the ground. It brought back memories of early winter scenes from many years ago.
It was clear that she was eager to step out. Her bright red sweater and the touch of powder on her face made her look radiant, like the sudden arrival of good weather. It had been several weeks since she last left the house, and she had been cooped up since then, playing with old belongings and lost in thought, with no desire to even go downstairs. I would often return home to find her still in her pajamas, just as she was in the morning. When I asked her what was on her mind, she looked surprised and said, ‘There are so many things to contemplate... some happened before you were born. My mind is too cluttered. I dwell on things I cannot comprehend. It gives me a headache.’
The sky was a stunning shade of blue, and the haze and boredom that had been lingering for days instantly dissipated. I sat behind the wheel of my late father’s white Mazda sedan, a car he had driven for almost eight years. In the past, he used it to pick me up from the train station. After his passing, I hoped our grief would soon fade and life would return to normal. But as time went by, my mother became more withdrawn, and I often felt helpless.
She acted like a small, gray-haired girl in the passenger seat, excited as she gazed out the window. Life had changed our roles in a profound way: she had been taking care of me for nearly three decades, but now I had taken on the responsibility of caring for her.
It all seemed absurd. Ever since elementary school, my sole ambition had been to leave this small place and pursue a better life elsewhere. I achieved that goal and settled in Guangzhou for nearly a decade, and even my father’s passing never altered my trajectory. However, a year later, a sudden call from my aunt demanded that I quit my job and return home immediately. Life had come full circle, and I found myself back where I started, urban life now feeling distant and surreal, like a dream. I had no idea what had happened, as my mother sounded normal over the phone. Then one night, on a whim, she climbed to the top of our building, pacing back and forth along the precipice of life and death. A crowd gathered below, but she reassured them that she had no intention of ending her life, she only sensed some danger and was seeking refuge on the rooftop.
She suffered from a mysterious illness that required ongoing psychiatric treatment, or she might lose control at any moment. She seemed normal when the sickness wasn’t tormenting her, but she needed someone to stay around her. As her only son, I was uncomfortable with her living in a mental hospital. Upon my return from Guangzhou, she told me that she had recovered. Previously, she had trouble sleeping due to people making noise outside and even trying to break in. But now, those disturbances had stopped.
‘Who were they?’ I asked.
‘I don’t know,’ she replied with an irritated look. ‘Maybe your father sent them. Gosh! Your grandpa also barged into my dream yesterday. He was scaring me, just like the day he passed away. He kept haunting my dreams in those days, and I was too scared to sleep at night.’
‘How old were you then?’
‘About ten. Oh my, he kept changing his face in my dream...’
I moved our beds closer to each other, with only a shared wall between us at night. I told her to leave the door open, keep the light on, and call me if she needed help. She often whimpered, murmured, and paced back and forth in her room, and I would rouse myself from sleep, knock on the wall, and ask if everything was okay.
‘I'm perfectly fine,’ she’d reply. ‘Just having trouble sleeping.’
My door stayed unlocked, and she could walk in any moment. I became accustomed to sleeping with the light on and gave up the habit of sleeping naked so I could rush to her help at any moment. She didn’t sleep well and looked tired, showing no interest in anything outside her dreams, strange thoughts, and old memories. When I had to leave the house, she would lock herself inside and wait for my return. To say the truth, I didn’t like going out either. In such a small city, acquaintances were everywhere, and there was no secrecy or privacy. I found their fake courtesies and cheap sympathy annoying, and I could see the words on their faces: ‘Your mother is insane!’
Everything came to a standstill here, but life felt more comforting and secure. Maintaining the status quo seemed to be the best solution, as even the slightest change could upset the delicate balance of our world.
My uncle was a towering and rotund man with an imposing stature and a deep voice, and the thick folds on his neck made him look fierce. Despite his formidable appearance, he was kind and sensitive at heart.
He cooked for us and specifically made my mother’s favorite dish—duck and radish soup. She only drank half a bowl. It took her a few moments to realize we were talking to her, and she often lost the thread of our conversation. Something in her eyes told us that her mind had wandered into another world despite our efforts to bring her back.
After lunch, my aunt went to the kitchenette on the balcony to wash the dishes while my mother retired to the bedroom for some rest. My uncle and I were alone on the living room sofa. He wore an old sweater, and the snags made him look like a fuzzy bear. As he lit a cigarette, furrows appeared on his forehead, and rings of smoke gathered and rose to the ceiling, resembling blue-grey ripples in a pond.
‘The weather is so nice today!’ I broke the silence.
‘Yeah,’ he replied, but his mind was elsewhere. Then I asked him if he knew anyone who might be interested in buying a used car.
‘You want to sell your car?’ he cried. ‘It's almost worthless!’
‘I'm not looking for a big payout. I hardly use it, but I have all the fees to pay,’ I explained.
‘Are you tight on money?’ he asked, surprised.
‘N-no, not at the moment,’ I stammered.
After a brief silence, he left the room and returned with an envelope.
‘Here's 5,000 bucks. You use it first,’ he said, pressing it into my hand. I refused, saying that I didn't need the money.
‘Just take it,’ he insisted, leaving no room for argument.
In fact, the expensive medicines for my mother’s illness had nearly depleted all our savings, and we were on the verge of a difficult situation. But my mother needed these medicines to prevent her condition from worsening, and she needed me to stay with her. Therefore, I had to find ways to earn money without leaving her alone.
After careful consideration, I opened an online store selling local produce, including spicy soup condiments, sesame oil, vacuum-packed beef, and roast chicken. While some days brought in multiple orders, including support from friends, there were also days when not a single order came in. I soon realized that one negative comment from a picky customer could easily damage the reputation I had worked so hard to establish. In short, I could not rely on that business for my livelihood.
Later on, I partnered with my friend on a franchise milk tea shop and was able to make a small profit without having to manage it in person. One day, I dropped by and found the salesgirl dozing off at the counter while the male staff stood behind her, leaning on the table and lost in his phone. I walked away without saying anything, feeling envious instead of being annoyed.
I took the envelope and promised to repay him as soon as I had the money. A few minutes later, my aunt joined us. Pity was evident in her moist eyes, and her roughened hands seemed out of place against her apron. I suspected that they had planned it this way to spare my self-esteem. I could almost hear her silently sighing, ‘Poor child... what a terrible fate you have!’ However, she didn't mention the money, afraid that it would upset me, and her husband would scold her.
About forty minutes later, my mother emerged from the bedroom and said with a confused look, ‘Gosh! I-I drifted off to sleep just now. It was so confusing waking up in a strange place!’
The afternoon sun shone through the gap in the curtains, its light fading on the floor not far from her feet. A black fly was half-frozen outside the windowpane, breathing its last. She looked like an infant waking up from a nightmare, frail and pitiful.
It reminded me of when I was a baby. I would cry and search for her when I was in a bad mood. Suddenly, a wave of emotions seized me, and I rushed to the bathroom in tears. My mother never shared her dreams or thoughts with me. But I knew it wasn’t her fault. She didn’t even know what was happening to her. Demons were haunting her mind, like sinister bats in the dark of night. I kept telling myself that it was just a disease and that she could recover someday. All I had to do was take her to that stern-faced doctor who refused to give me a clear answer and buy the medications he prescribed. I clung to any glimmer of hope, no matter how small.
‘The sky is amazing!’ she exclaimed as we headed back. ‘Look at that cloud. Doesn't it look like a massive flying bird?’
Following her gaze, I was taken aback by her vivid description. The cloud did resemble a giant bird. She rolled down the window to eye level and pressed her face against the glass. Her slight build and childlike features made her look like a white-headed bird with red feathers. At that moment, I wished she were one of the feathered friends I had cared for, so the thought of her flying away wouldn’t torment me as much.
The prospect of selling my father’s car brought me mixed emotions. It had the magical power to evoke old memories and make life seem unchanged, as if we were still living in a carefree world and I was still a teenager with nothing to worry about. But now, it would soon be out of reach, and the memories associated with it were in danger of fading away. I never asked for my mother’s opinion on selling it. I wasn’t sure if she would be firmly against it or wouldn’t care at all. Everything, from money to food, was beyond her concern these days. Her preoccupation with other things was evident in her distant gaze.
After her illness, she kept a secret journal—not exactly a diary, but a notebook for her reflections. She tried to keep it from me but frequently misplaced it and forgot where she had put it. In the end, I had to help her locate it.
I secretly flipped through the pages and discovered eerie depictions of bats flitting across her mind. These were voices beyond my hearing, unknown visitors, and accounts of secret visits from my deceased father. She also described faces peering at her through the windows and a drenched, translucent man standing in the rain. She often confused my name with my father’s and called him ‘Little Liang.’ I was terrified that she might mistake me for her deceased husband someday. Fortunately, she had not yet made this mistake in real life. I couldn’t read for long. The descriptions possessed a poisonous beauty that might ensnare me at any moment.
I informed the doctor of her work, and he reassured me that it was a positive development and a source of relief for her. He asked me to jot down what I could remember and report it to him during her next treatment.
I was tasked with something pointless and had to carry it out with a hardened heart. Her descriptions of a dark and unfathomable world were difficult to bear, but I knew she believed in what she wrote. She rarely spoke of it in my presence, knowing I wouldn’t believe her and didn’t want to hear it. Despite her love for her ‘Little Liang,’ she never fully trusted me. However, her efforts to maintain control and judge her audience were good signs.
‘Shall we go to the park?’ she suggested.
I quickly agreed, surprised but excited. The ‘park’ she had mentioned was just a tiny square with a few scattered patches of greenery. In the center was a small pond with a stone designed to look like a rockery, with the words ‘Joy of Fish’ inscribed in a ridiculous manner. A few unfortunate fish, doomed to perish within days, were swimming in the murky water. Once they were gone, the pond would remain empty until a new batch arrived to take their place.
She loved reminiscing about the place, calling it the union’s quarters from her youth. During that time, line dancing had been all the rage, and she often went there to dance. There she met my father, who had just returned from military service. He was the tallest and most handsome on the dance floor, and every girl wanted to dance with him.
I drove her there, wishing I could keep the car to take her to the suburb or countryside for fresh air in the future. I needed to persuade her to come out more often and make plans to improve our lives.
The park was almost empty as it was neither weekend nor off-work hours. I was surprised to see her confidently striding past her listless peers holding her head high. It was a striking contrast to her usual frail appearance at home. Perhaps she was searching for something from her past, pausing occasionally to take in her surroundings.
In the pond, the fish either sank to the bottom as if dead or swam languidly in the water dotted with cigarette butts and plastic bags. Several elderly individuals sat on the pond’s edge, and one tossed his cigarette butt into the water after he finished smoking.
‘Don’t do that!’ I shouted. ‘There's a trash can over there!’ He glanced at me, and I returned his gaze with a glare. He cringed, crept up, and slunk off. I was sorry to see him wheel his tricycle to the road and clumsily climb onto the seat. He wasn't the one I should take out my feelings on. I turned to the half-dead fish. They could have lived in rivers but were caught and thrown into this filthy pool of water. Soon their freedom and lives would be all forfeited.
My mother walked towards me with the gait and posture of someone ready to dance at any moment. The scene reminded me of Scent of a Woman, the movie in which the blind colonel tangoed with a girl in the hotel lobby. I wished I could dance with her to make her happy and revive some joyful memories from the past. But it would be a poignant sight—a grey-haired lady dancing with a man in his late twenties, who moves awkwardly like a crab. The thought made me chuckle. Her blithe steps and brightly colored dress transformed her into an enchanting old lady and attracted the attention of her peers around. They refused to tear their eyes away from her until I caught their gaze.
‘Look! Fish! There are fish inside!’ she said, clapping her hands like a child. Her voice was thin and high, filled with the excitement of a young girl. Something had stirred deep within her, and her cheeks turned rosy red. The sight of the fish was a pleasant surprise for her, but I wished the pond had been empty forever.
Throughout my childhood, evenings were the best part of the day, a moment of quiet and solemnity. Colorful light rays adorned the sky, painting the windows, roads, and tree boughs with the same hues. But now they had become the noisiest, dirtiest, and most chaotic hours. Exhaust gases hung low, noises were amplified in the foul air, and people and cars got stuck in countless deadlocks on the road.
We found ourselves trapped in a massive traffic jam on the North-South Highway. Bicycles, motor tricycles, and electric scooters weaved in and out between the cars while horns blared and riders shouted in the chaos. The once-blue sky had turned a shade of grey, and the bird-shaped cloud had vanished from sight, replaced by a thick blanket of smog.
She remained silent, sinking further down in her seat amidst the din and confusion outside. I tried to start a conversation but soon gave up as her responses were perfunctory and lacked any real engagement. We sat there in resigned silence. She was no longer the person she had been at my uncle’s house. Instead, she had reverted to her former self: weak, nervous, and terrified. The once-vibrant red sweater now became an ill-matched costume for a disheveled, defeated figure.
In this moment, I felt the absence of my father more acutely than ever before. His departure had cleaved my life in two, like the street at dusk, with sunlight illuminating one side and shadows cast over the other. But now the light had become illusory, and the pressing darkness was ready to consume me in one gulp.
Arriving home, I headed straight to the kitchen to prepare dinner. She offered to help, but I declined, promising to call her when it was ready. After she left, I retrieved the key and took out the utensils from the drawer. Feeling tired, I decided to cook some ready-made dumplings and a spring onion coriander soup. Once the food was ready, I locked the knife and called her in for dinner. She eagerly devoured a dozen dumplings and added an extra splash of vinegar to her soup.
‘Sour dumpling soup,’ she said with a smile. ‘Whenever you had a fever in childhood, I always cooked you sour noodle soup with lots of tomatoes and vinegar. You loved my hand-made noodles.’
‘I remember. I threw up everything else except that,’ I replied.
After a while, she asked if she could go to the balcony after dinner, but I flatly refused.
Before going to bed, I made sure that all the doors were locked. There used to be an open space between the kitchen and the balcony, but I had a door installed after returning from Guangzhou and kept the key hidden in the wardrobe at night.
I lay in bed reading until her room grew quiet. Then, I set down the book and turned off the ceiling light, leaving only the lamp on the opposite cabinet. Its dim light cast a soft, round halo on the ceiling, and I settled in, ready to drift off to sleep.
Suddenly, a clear and vivid image swam into my mind—the note my mother had left for me before her business trip, written in blue ink and with torn corners. It said:
Dear Little Liang,
I will be leaving on a business trip tomorrow and away for a few days. While I’m not around, please take care of yourself. Remember that you are always in my heart, and I love you more than anything.
When I return, I have a surprise for you—your favorite model train! I can’t wait to see the smile on your face when I give it to you.
I was about six years old at that time and always looked at it first thing after school. She wanted to throw it away after she returned, but I stopped her, claiming that I would keep it for future reading. Surprised, she promised that she would keep it for me.
The last time I saw it was before I left for college. It had been tucked away in a transparent photo album sleeve, just another forgotten item that didn’t seem to hold much significance at that time. But now, I could see it clearly in my mind’s eye – the note had been pinned to the wall by two thumbtacks at its upper corners, fluttering gently in the breeze.
The functioning of our memory is intriguing—it can effortlessly retain even the paltriest details while struggling to recollect significant events. I could vividly recall the note my mother had left for me, but her appearance from her younger days proved elusive. I rummaged through our photo albums, hoping to find some clue to save my patience, but the pictures were of no help. Her appearance remained unchanged, just as it was now.
I dozed off, but as usual, woke up in the middle of the night for no reason. Her room was silent, not even the slightest sound was heard. I assumed she was asleep, but soon a feeling of unease crept up my spine, sending chills down my back. I leaped out of bed and rushed into her room, only to find her quilt crumpled on the bed, but she was nowhere to be found—not even in the living room, kitchen, or bathroom. Trying to stay calm, I rushed back to her room and checked the windows, which were all locked, with the curtains drawn tightly. I parted the curtains and looked outside. The opposite building was dark, and only a few lonely streetlights shone below. A car passed silently, and its lights swept across the street and walls in a dreamy haze. Panic set in—had she flown away? I stood rooted in my place, numbed by fear.
A sudden gust of wind swept in, causing the yellowed lace curtain to ripple and emit a musty smell. Its frayed edges rustled against the floor as I touched the quilt, feeling a chill with a slight warmth in the middle. Fully awake now, I dashed to the kitchen and found the door closed. My heart pounded when I noticed the key still in the lock. I wrenched the door open, bracing myself for the worst—an empty balcony and my world collapsing.
I was taken aback to see her standing on the balcony, her hands resting on the railing. Despite her mature appearance, she looked childlike in her loose-print cotton pajamas. A hint of happiness still lingered on her face, but I sensed a rush of anger at my sudden intrusion.
‘Why aren’t you sleeping?’ she asked as if scolding a naughty child who stayed up past bedtime.
‘Why aren’t you?’ I responded, walking over and standing beside her. She met my gaze and grew timid.
‘I-I couldn’t sleep, so I came out to get some fresh air,’ she stammered. ‘I just wanted to stand here and take a look, so I took the key...’
‘It's okay,’ I reassured her, holding her hand tightly. It was dry and wrinkled but warm to the touch. My heart was beating steadily again. With her hand in mine, I felt connected to her body and fate. It was better than anything.