After he said goodbye to that person, he felt a little entranced. He met him, as usual, beside a small forest with something wrapped in white cloth in his hand and spoke to him in a lowered voice about a certain path. Talking, talking, and never setting his mind at rest until he’d been asked: “Are you really Mei Bao? The Mei Bao who will carry charcoal up the mountain again in a few days?”
Mei Bao wasn’t sure. He said, “I should be him. But it’s not like I can go there just because I want to. I only know that once I’m underneath the reef, I think, oh, here I am again! That overhead is a mountain road, and the only road which leads to different places—all familiar places. I said familiar, but that doesn’t mean places for daytime activities. I wander casually around for a while and arrive at that road, then reach a familiar situation. Once I’m in familiar circumstances, I remember what happened there before. Those events aren’t too logical, unlike what happens in the daytime places. I think . . .”
“I need to go meet someone,” he abruptly interrupted Mei Bao, then left.
Mei Bao watched his receding back. He walked toward the reef mountain, reached the foothills, and disappeared from sight as if he were swallowed up by the reef rocks. It excited Mei Bao’s curiosity to go to the reefs. Mei Bao wondered who he would meet there today.
He thought to himself: How could people and birds coexist here?
The sun shone cold and would soon set behind the mountains. Mei Bao hadn’t thought of actually climbing the mountain until he was already on his way up the road. There were a few crevices in the cliff to his left, fissures that seemed to extend into the depths of the massif. A person could squeeze in sideways but wouldn’t get very far before getting stuck. Mei Bao had tried more than once to squeeze into the cracks but eventually had to stop short. In the yellow dusk the reefs wafted a damp, astringent smell, and he remembered a few shops in a small town that he had been to before, causing a kind of hope to spring to his heart. How could there be a town with shops in the mountains? He couldn’t remember how he’d stumbled into it in the first place. Ah, he saw the wooden bridge again! Wouldn’t those shops be there after crossing the wooden bridge? He didn’t know why, but today he seemed unable to walk to the end of this bridge, shrouded in black mist, nor hear the sound of water underneath it. He didn’t dare stop on the bridge because, if he did, he wouldn’t be able to begin again—he had to move forward. Now he was inside the mists and the vapor didn’t blur his vision, since he saw places that were far away. There were many high-voltage wires, and on the grass underneath the wires many birds’ nests, with some human figures among them. The high-voltage wires made a familiar passion arise in Mei Bao’s mind. Already he had forgotten he was on the reef mountain, and he felt that the appearance of the wires and the grass and even the birds’ nests was natural—a scene that was both familiar and not too familiar.
He quickened his pace. When he arrived beneath the high-voltage wires, they disappeared overhead. The birds’ nests were still there, but the sky had darkened so that he couldn’t make out what species of birds these were, although they were numerous and extremely peaceful. To his right side were a few crude huts with human figures lingering outside, some standing, some squatting. Mei Bao thought he should join them, that this was indeed a rare opportunity, when he had so seldom encountered so many people there. Ordinarily he would only encounter one person at most, and they would discuss the harvest and that sort of thing until they found an excuse to leave. But tonight, there were so many people amid the wooden huts—could they be the inhabitants of this place? Mei Bao approached for a long time without reaching them. The skies would soon be completely dark, and he was among these nests. Once he wasn’t careful and stumbled over a fairly small nest and heard the birds make panic-stricken cries as they scurried out beside his feet. His soul was unsettled, but then he heard someone next to him talking calmly.
“Turning around and going back might be somewhat faster.”
For no reason Mei Bao thought that what he’d said made sense, probably because the words touched his heart. He turned to go back, walked a few steps, and collided with a man squatting and smoking.
“Why are you in such a hurry? Have a seat,” the man said.
He turned out to be sitting on a low stool. He dragged another one over for Mei Bao. After Mei Bao sat, he saw the wooden hut, and inside of it there was a table, and on the table was a reading lamp. To his surprise this place was supplied with electricity.
“So many birds. Being neighbors with the birds must be pure and simple,” Mei Bao heard himself say.
“Ha ha, pure and simple! These are human-eating birds, the kind that never let go once they’ve found their target. But we’ve gotten used to them. If there’s a day when they don’t notice us, it’s awfully boring.”
Mei Bao remembered the birds’ nest he’d trampled over, and his spine ran cold. He thought to himself: How could people and birds coexist here?
The man was watching the sky, Mei Bao was watching the man. Watching, watching, until Mei Bao discovered that the man had changed into two people, one right in front of him and one a little further away, the two figures exactly alike. It could have been his born twin.
The sound of birds’ wings flapping came from inside the hut, and goosebumps rose on Mei Bao’s body. A while passed, then he couldn’t stand it, he got up and approached the entrance. This hut, the scene of these surroundings, were familiar to him, as though he’d been here before but couldn’t seem to recognize his surroundings. He guessed that what the man had said about carnivorous birds was a bluff. He’d lived for more than thirty years and never heard of birds that ate people. When he sat down at the table, this put his mind at rest. The room was empty, empty, there were no birds, and also no other furniture. The table was old, unfinished, the rays from the reading lamp dim. Mei Bao looked around inside without seeing those two men. He heard the sound of wings flapping again. It seemed to be up on the thatch roof, and more than one bird. A nervous feeling emerged when that person outside began talking in a voice like he was narrating a thrilling story, although no matter how Mei Bao listened, he couldn’t make out the words. He went to the doorway but didn’t see the man or know where he was speaking from. The sky was so dark even the birds’ nests were invisible. There was only that point of light shining inside the hut. His left hand unwittingly touched a wooden ladder that led to the roof. Mei Bao thought: Maybe that person is speaking from the roof of the building?
As Mei Bao climbed the ladder, though, he didn’t hear the voice any longer.
When he reached the roof, the sky was suddenly bright. The roof of the thatched hut had only a slight slope, more or less flat—quite strange. Oh, he saw the person, not with the birds but with a wolf. The wolf was biting his calf. He was struggling trying to shake it off, but the wolf bit tight and wouldn’t let go. They’d made a mess of the thatch. Mei Bao’s throat tightened, then after a while he finally shouted: “Flesh-eating birds, flesh-eating birds!”
He terrified himself and thought: Why would I shout these words?
Then he heard the man laughing, ha ha, and berating him, ordering him to go back down.
Bewildered, Mei Bao climbed down the ladder. He stood in the doorway and again heard the sound of flapping wings. In his mind he asked: Why is it a wolf, not a bird?
He experimentally walked a dozen steps outside, trying to slip away into the surroundings. Probably the ground was covered with birds’ nests, since he was knocked about and tripped. It was hard to leave the area. Something pushed at the bend of his leg, and he flopped down into a large birds’ nest. Instead of birds inside, there were three wolf pups. Mei Bao saw the pups clearly because a ray of light shot out from the bottom of the nest. They were watching with cruel expressions, nipping at his sleeves and clothing. The strange thing was that Mei Bao wasn’t scared. He stared at the light streaming from the crack in the ground. The birds’ nest was as big as a large bathtub with nothing spread on the bottom part—it was just the ground and that crack. The wolf pups kept crouching beside the opening, using their mouths to drag Mei Bao toward it. Did they want him to squeeze in here? What could be inside this cramped space blazing with light? Mei Bao looked inside, but his vision blurred so that he couldn’t see anything except stars.
“Mei, whoever, what are you doing pouncing around here? You aren’t a coward, are you? You can go on down or go away!”
He heard a familiar person speaking. He craned his neck and saw a tenuous human shadow, not like a real person.
“Of course I’m not a coward,” Mei Bao said softly, “but this crack is so narrow, how can I fit inside?”
“Huh, looking for an excuse. You should leave, this isn’t the place for you. A wolf is biting your neck!”
He didn’t know why, but today he seemed unable to walk to the end of this bridge, shrouded in black mist, nor hear the sound of water underneath it.
Then Mei Bao felt acute pain and that he was suffocating, so he made a headfirst, death-defying squeeze into the breach. Once he entered, the shining light extinguished. He heard the wolves yelp, and one was biting his ankle, so he had to speed his descent. The further inside he reached, the wider the crack became. It wasn’t spacious either, just enough to allow him to crawl through. After crawling for a time, he felt shocked at himself. How had he dared to squeeze into such a narrow opening? Now he could stretch forward and back freely, only he couldn’t turn around, and, even more, couldn’t turn his head. He’d already crawled for some distance, though he could hear the wolf pups yelping, summoning him toward the crack. The endless crawl was also strenuous, surely much more effort than insects boring into a tree trunk. His knees and elbows were worn raw. He should rest.
Mei Bao had just thought of resting when he went to sleep.
When Mei Bao woke up, he discovered himself sitting in a family kitchen eating breakfast. An elderly woman was urging him to eat while it was hot. Mei Bao thought the milk tasted strange, but it was drinkable.
“Who brought me here to you?” he asked.
“Who else, my husband. Wasn’t he holding a white cloth bundle when you met him?”
Mei Bao thought and thought and nodded his head. He saw a light shine from the woman’s eyes just like those of the wolf pups.
“Then I’m relieved. You probably want to know what was wrapped inside?”
“What was it?”
“A wolf pup, the kind abandoned by its mother. There are too many wolves there, they starve year-round.”
“I saw three of them. Why didn’t they eat me?”
“Shh, don’t say that. Forget about them.”
The old woman went silently into the house. Mei Bao sized up the spacious kitchen. He heard a few suspicious sounds, noises that made him anxious. He’d been to this kind of place before and also heard this kind of sound—it was the same scene. However, it hadn’t been an old woman who’d appeared but a rickshaw puller. The kitchen also hadn’t been so bright, it had been a dark, dark kitchen, where the rickshaw puller had stood by the stove cooking millet zhou. Why would Mei Bao think these two rooms had so many points in common? He stood up and went to the kitchen door to look around. He saw the living room, and on the wooden living room sofa lay a middle-aged woman with a pallid face. The woman would occasionally crane her neck to look out the window opposite her. Her soul was troubled.
After greeting the woman, Mei Bao asked courteously, “Are you watching for the wolves?”
She glared at him without answering. He felt embarrassed.
“I think you don’t want me here. I should go.”
Mei Bao looked inside, but his vision blurred so that he couldn’t see anything except stars.
He couldn’t find the door out. What a strange layout. He turned back and forth and, without knowing how, turned into an open-air corridor which made him rejoice. Flowerpots, one after another, were arranged along the corridor, a long, straight passageway, without an exit either because walking to the end he bumped into a wall. Without thinking Mei Bao just jumped outside the corridor—he’d always been good at jumping. He immediately felt himself falling onto the surface of the reefs. The old woman’s voice sounded by his ear: “The years here go as swift as flying arrows!”
It turned out she was behind him. Her back hunched, her head wrapped in an earth-colored scarf written over with ancient script.
“Where are you going? You can’t go very far from here.”
“Why can’t I go very far?”
“There’s no use asking, it’s the design. Look, my husband went down to the cellar to feed the wolves.”
Mei Bao turned back to look for the house, but where was there any building? There were only the layers of reef immersed in the cloud and mist. However, he saw the woman who’d just been sitting in the living room. She drifted lithely along the mountain slope and seemed to be flying. Now she looked invigorated.
“Who is she?” Mei Bao couldn’t help asking.
“A visiting relative. She’s also raising several wolves in the mountain cave over there,” the old woman said, smiling.
“Since you’ve been here, you must have noticed the advantages of this place?”
“Yes, it’s the only place fit to raise wolves. Before I thought they were birds.”
The old woman gave a hearty laugh, laughing until Mei Bao became uncomfortable. Because she laughed and kept laughing, he grew red-faced and enraged. He went at a quick pace in the direction where the middle-aged woman had disappeared. The old woman followed behind, calling to him, “Stop! Stop!”
Mei Bao broke into a run. He ran along the mountain path, leaving the old woman behind. He found himself running on an uphill slope.
On the hilltop he looked down and saw the house where he had just been. It turned out to be built on a precipice, half of it suspended in air, held in place by three iron cables pulling on the top, a long corridor extending along its side. Now there were wolves howling in the corridor. Mei Bao felt the entire building tremble at the howls. Maybe the suspicious noises he’d heard before in the kitchen had been made by the wolves? He’d been so anxious, probably infected by the wolves’ agitation. Now he heard the howling interspersed with a woman’s scream. Could it be the middle-aged woman? The scream was ear-piercing, even more frightening than the wolves’ howling. Mei Bao covered his ears. It was still quite bright where he was, although the surroundings of the house darkened all at once as it slowly became peaceful. A man with hunched shoulders holding up a lantern appeared at the side passageway. Mei Bao heard the wolves making inhibited whimpers. It seemed that the man had slipped out leading along two wolves. Mei Bao remembered what he himself had just said: “It’s the only place fit to raise wolves.” Eerie, how had he known? He drew in a breath of cold air, hastily left the slope where he was standing, and ducked into a shallow water channel to his side. But it was no use, he could still see that house and the man raising the gleaming lantern high like he was signaling to him.
Someone in the channel shoved him. When Mei Bao turned back, he saw that thin, shadow-like neighbor. The neighbor swung around.
“The sea!” he said.
“Where?” Mei Bao asked.
Mei Bao felt the little channel sinking downward, and soon he entered into darkness. The sound of sea surge beating the reefs came from all directions. He shouted in agitation, “Is this the sea? Is this the sea?”
No one answered him. He tried hard to see and identified a point of feeble light. Then, not caring about anything else, he leaned toward it. Both of his legs made gurgling sounds in the water. It seemed the water wasn’t deep at all.
As he walked closer, he recognized the neighbor, who was no longer a shadow. He sat on the roots of a large tree reading a book with a flashlight. It was a tattered book. The neighbor raised his eyes to look at Mei Bao and gently said to him, “We are at the center of the sea. Look, there’s a topographic map in this book.”
He lifted the book up, though Mei Bao couldn’t see anything clearly because the electric gleam of the swaying flashlight made him dizzy. The neighbor became impatient, closed the book, and extinguished the flashlight. Mei Bao sank back into darkness.
“I placed hope in you when I was at home. I thought that we would meet at a familiar place. Our routes detour back and forth, they have to intersect,” the neighbor said.
“Are you satisfied now?”
“I don’t know. This isn’t like any reunion, instead it’s a kind of faith.”
The neighbor handed the old atlas to Mei Bao, who felt the pages open and shut in his hands like a scallop, damp and slippery. How could the world contain this kind of book? His neighbor was laughing.
“I just told you, this is the middle of the sea,” he said.
“There are wolves. Can wolves live in the sea?”
“Why not? Even deer can. Look at this thing in your hands. How can you still doubt?”
The neighbor’s tone of voice was a little worried, as if saddened by Mei Bao’s ignorance.
“Please, move aside a little. I’m going to climb the tree, I do this exercise several times a day. Otherwise, my feet and legs atrophy. You should know this here is the sea.”
He made it up the tree in a short time, then he could be heard among the leaves.
“Can you leave here? You can work out anywhere,” Mei Bao said, facing upward.
“How could a person who reaches the middle of the sea still leave? Of course, you can leave. Now my eyes are filled with behemoths, a species of whale. The place where you sank down just now, did you think it was a little water channel? It wasn’t, it was really the back of a whale. An experience hard to come by once in centuries.”
He shone the flashlight downward, dazzling Mei Bao’s eyes so that he lowered his head. He thought to himself that he saw his neighbor daily at the door of his home, so why had he never thought before that he lived in the sea? Had he only arrived here recently, or had he always been amphibious? That book was still in Mei Bao’s hands, and the pages seemed to have changed into a mollusk, biting his palm, tickling it.
The neighbor came down, breathing deeply, then climbed back up. As he climbed, he said: “I can’t neglect my legs and feet, I take care of my body. So do whales and great white sharks.”
As for Mei Bao, this place was also familiar, of course. He did his best to try to recall what he’d encountered the last time he was here. Was it a triangular flower garden? No, it hadn’t been a triangular flower garden. Was it a small wooden building beside a railroad? No, it wasn’t a small wooden building beside a railroad, either. He couldn’t recall the corresponding impressions. At this moment he saw the lantern.
“Don’t pay attention to him,” the neighbor said from above in the tree, laughing. “That man is a rascal who’s capable of anything. Think about it, someone who can raise wolves. What moral character could he have? I don’t live on the same level as him, but he can come whenever he wants to. This is so frightening.”
Mei Bao didn’t understand why this would be frightening, so he thought that his neighbor was telling a joke. He opened his eyes and watched the lantern come closer and closer. The neighbor up the tree didn’t say a single word. The elderly man leading a wolf came to a stop in front of Mei Bao. The two resembled black shadows.
“It’s the only place fit to raise wolves,” he said to Mei Bao.
“But this is the sea,” Mei Bao answered calmly.
The wolf came over and sniffed back and forth around the atlas in Mei Bao’s hand. He thought: it’s the same species after all.
Mei Bao thought the milk tasted strange, but it was drinkable.
“Let’s go, there’s someone who doesn’t want us here. Why divide things so clearly anyway? Can’t wolves be raised in the sea? What do you think?”
The man went down the slope leading his wolf. At this moment the neighbor above started to laugh again.
“Mei Bao, Mei Bao, you’ve been taking tranquilizers your whole life!” he said.
“The terrain here will help you to clarify things!”
“I don’t want to . . .”
“I didn’t before, either. You see how familiar with these ways I have become.”
The neighbor jumped down to the ground, snatched the book from Mei Bao’s hands, and turned the pages in the dark.
“That wicked wolf just sniffed something on the pages. It’s all plotted in advance. Oh, I was so nervous, I was sweating. Why didn’t you give him the book?”
“So you wanted to let him take it away from you?” Mei Bao was astonished.
“Don’t say things like that. This kind of atlas can grow feet and sooner or later will walk to their side. You’ve been to his home, you should be familiar with that family’s behavior.”
“Do you really not know? No, I don’t want to say. Building a house in that kind of place, what behaviors won’t they have? So these paranoiacs started raising wolves. No matter what they think of me, I won’t yield. My place here is the middle of the sea.”
The neighbor stepped to one side to turn the pages of the book, reading aloud. A ray of hazy light appeared on the horizon. It could be almost daybreak. Mei Bao saw the contour of a familiar house.
“That isn’t the same house. Go,” the neighbor said.
Mei Bao walked toward the house. It really wasn’t the same house, but maybe he had been there before. It looked so familiar.
It wasn’t a real house, only a large wooden box-like object with a rectangular door in front. A middle-aged man stood at the doorway, the light of dawn shining on his face. Mei Bao saw that his face was familiar, except he couldn’t recall his name.
“Are you that Mei Bao who carries charcoal? I’ve heard people talking about you,” the man said amiably.
“And you are—”
“I’m not important, don’t ask. When you come outside, you don’t take care of family business, you see yourself as a person without a family. When you meet a wolf, you attack the wolf. When you see a dolphin, you ride the dolphin. And when you see a deep ravine on the mountain, you leap inside.”
“Old man, what you’ve said is really interesting, but why can’t I think of your name?”
Mei Bao was puzzled. He craned his neck to look inside the large wooden box and saw several pieces of simply constructed furniture.
“This is only a waystation, anyone can stay here,” the man said.
“Can I stay here too?”
“You can stay here too. I’ve been waiting for you to come here and stay. Someone said this is the sea. I think it’s a mountain.”
Mei Bao went in and lay down on the crude bed, truly exhausted. He thought: Why does everyone say I carry charcoal up the mountain? Could I be a manual laborer? He noticed that the man had followed him in and was speaking from above, his white face much too familiar. Mei Bao heard that there were also some suspicious sounds in this large wooden box, mingled together with this man’s voice. Soon his sight blurred and he went to sleep. But it wasn’t long before he woke.
The endless crawl was also strenuous, surely much more effort than insects boring into a tree trunk.
When Mei Bao woke up that man was no longer there. He went outside, where there were the reef mountains and to the front, on the right, that large tree where he had stayed, and his neighbor was under the tree reading a book. This place was so peaceful! Although Mei Bao was not actually at peace, he felt that there was an unseen power compelling him to attempt something. What could that something be? Mei Bao thought and thought without an answer. He bent over to tie his shoelaces. When he straightened up, he suddenly blurted out, “Mountain!”
His voice wasn’t very loud, but the neighbor immediately ran toward him.
“Congratulations, Mei Bao! I’m really excited, you’ve finally seen it!” As he talked his whole face reddened.
“But I didn’t see anything,” Mei Bao said indifferently.
“It’s not important, this is because you haven’t gotten used to it yet. How many years have we been neighbors? In total, more than twenty years? It’s not so easy for someone to be clear about the terrain of these surroundings, but you’ve had ambitions since you were little. I noticed when you were five years old, ha ha! And your father managed your education.”
The neighbor hurriedly finished saying this to him then ran back underneath the tree.
Mei Bao thought that nothing had changed in his surroundings. What kind of change did he really expect? This neighbor Old Jiang believed that the crucial thing was to be clear about the terrain in everybody’s own surroundings, and going by his appearance, he was like a fish in water. Yet Mei Bao didn’t have his kind of lung stamina—the neighbor said it was the sea, and it was the sea, and that atlas in his hands also had pictures of the sea. Remarkable! Mei Bao recalled that man saying he’d been waiting for him, probably waiting for him to come stay at this waystation. Mei Bao had encountered all sorts of scenes before: there were earthen houses, there were the dark brick and tile buildings, there were abandoned factories, there were eldercare welfare homes, there was also unexpectedly a network of railroads, and a network of high-voltage wires, etc. etc., and in those settings there were also people, but there had never been someone saying to him something like, “I’ve been waiting for you to come here and stay.” He was inclined to discard his impressions of this place and go away, but the atmosphere left him unable to go.
Mei Bao went back into the large box and sat beside the simple table. It was truly peaceful, and the suspicious noises had vanished. Had this place already accepted him? Just because he’d said this was a mountain? Though he hadn’t really gone to excess like the neighbor because this place had originally, of course, been a reef mountain. The status of topography in his brain was like a disorganized bank account, all sorts of scenes overlapping in unbearable chaos. His sense of direction was completely different than that of his neighbor Old Jiang.
Gazing out from the entrance, Mei Bao could see his neighbor. He was in the process of climbing the tree. He really was relentless. Mei Bao remembered that this year he’d also seen his neighbor at the entrance to his home, but now he seemed to be indigenous to this place. Someone was coming. Mei Bao heard the sound of footsteps. It was the old man who raised wolves carrying a basket of food in his hands.
“I’ve brought food for you!”
He placed the basket on the table as he spoke. Inside was a main dish and a soup.
“How did you know I would be staying here?” Mei Bao said, very surprised.
“Could you not have planned to stay here?” he asked Mei Bao back, jeering.
“I—I haven’t decided yet, I don’t know.”
“Then just think harder!” he said sternly.
Mei Bao sat down to eat while the old man stood at the entrance watching the sky. Looking out through the opening between the old man and the door, Mei Bao discovered that the man sitting under the tree wasn’t his neighbor any more, it was that middle-aged man who’d previously stood at the entrance to the wooden box. He was also holding a book in his hands and reading. Could it be that these two men took turns on duty under the sea? Mei Bao felt unsettled by this thought. He said to the old man, “I want to raise a wolf too.”
“Do you?” The old man turned his head around to stare at him. “No, this is no place to raise wolves. This wooden box, the wolf would go wild inside. Once wolves go wild, you’re finished.”
“I always wanted to give it a try, maybe I won’t fail.”
“Don’t brag. I’m going.”
He picked up the basket and left. Mei Bao followed him out, but the old man had already disappeared without a trace. “It’s frightening,” Mei Bao said to himself. He thought that he actually hadn’t felt out the topography of this place like his neighbor had said, and he was more bewildered than before. For example, other than that tree as a marker, all of the other surroundings of this large wooden box were distorted like objects underwater. He wanted to look for that house where the old man was, but he didn’t know from which direction to search. Maybe he should start by studying the atlas. He recalled the scallop-like damp sensation the book had given him and started to laugh uncontrollably.
“Who are you laughing at?” the man under the tree shouted, gesticulating toward him.
Mei Bao was surprised again. People here had miraculous hearing!
“I’m laughing at myself!” he shouted back.
The man looked dazed and seemed to have understood something. He slowly raised his arms like he was swimming. He swam a few strokes and then stopped. Mei Bao saw him slowly sitting down, putting his chin on one palm, and sinking into thought. Remembering what this man had said, he ought to stay here by the wooden box. So this place must be Mei Bao’s territory. But it was so boring here, completely unlike under the tree. When he’d been under the tree, he’d almost thought he would see a whale. There, even just an ordinary atlas could change into a scallop. He envied the neighbor and this man. Why did these two both think that he should stay in the wooden box? There was also the old man who raised wolves, who’d unexpectedly brought him a meal. What kind of caretaking was this?
As Mei Bao sat at the table, he felt like sleeping again. However, this time he couldn’t sleep, there seemed to be something on his mind. He thought back over the causes and effects of his coming here and indistinctly sensed that the surrounding atmosphere held a certain expectation. Regarding Mei Bao, a well-adjusted small-town resident who had no formal work, who depended on odd jobs to live—who would have expectations of him? He didn’t know when he had come to love the walk toward the reef mountains. Besides, once he went in, he would find some familiar scenery that fascinated him, impelling him to try to clarify the meaning inside of it. Every time it was like this. He made no progress in his explorations into these things. Because experience was short-lived, after the experience passed, he just forgot because he was drowned again in everyday life. Would the situation be different this time? He’d never had the experience of spending the night outside. Mei Bao had just thought of this when he saw the outside becoming as dark as a cave, as if reminding him that it was time to sleep.
The last time he went to the doorway to look, he saw the lantern underneath the tree and that old man who raised wolves and the middle-aged guy standing there discussing something, maybe about him. They were probably going to cause a certain change in him, Mei Bao felt. He shut the door and lay down on the simple bed.
Once asleep, he slept until broad daylight, when the sound of knocking on the door startled him awake. It was the old man bringing him breakfast.
Why had he never thought before that he lived in the sea? Had he only arrived here recently, or had he always been amphibious?
Mei Bao didn’t ask the old man why. He buried his head and only paid attention to the food. He thought that, even if he asked, the man still wouldn’t disclose any information to him. Also, better to wait for him to divulge it himself.
“Do you have a sense of homecoming now?” the old man asked Mei Bao as he gathered up the bowls.
“Homecoming? I don’t know. Could this waystation really be my territory? Are you able to tell me?”
The old man laughed coldly and said as he went toward the doorway, “This kind of problem—who dares tell other people? No one can tell you!”
Mei Bao felt a little anxious and charged over to hold him back, saying in a rush, “Don’t go in such a hurry! Can’t you just chat with me about other things? I’ll be bored to death staying here alone! Can you and I talk about the outside world?”
“What outside world? I’ve lived here for so many years, and I’ve never known about any situations outside. My wife doesn’t know either, or my niece. I want to hear you talk about this.”
Once he said this, Mei Bao lost the ability to think. The old man saw him there dazed, took to his heels, and left.
Outside the sky was a pleasant blue. Mei Bao went out and discovered that the outside had greatly changed already. It turned out that those seemingly real, seemingly illusory views had all become vivid. The place where he found himself had changed into a large piece of level ground at the summit of the reef mountain, that large tree was no longer visible, and that middle-aged guy had vanished without a trace. On the flat ground were several pieces of reef rock protruding from the surface, shaped a little like people, with a layer of white moss growing on top. Mei Bao felt unsettled, he kept thinking they were transformed humans. He walked and walked until he broke out in a sweat and still hadn’t reached the edge. He meant to go look at the old man’s house on the cliff, but he couldn’t remember which direction it was in. This mountain’s flat peak didn’t appear that large, but walking made it seem endless. Mei Bao looked back and saw that his large wooden box had already become a black dot right on the line of the horizon. He turned back and went toward the box. Something tripped him. Picking it up to look, he was surprised to discover the atlas that the neighbor had used, and at his side there was another piece of human-shaped reef. Could this stone be the neighbor?
In the sunlight the maps inside the atlas could be seen clearly. Yet those were regions and topography Mei Bao had never seen before. He turned a few more pages, then felt restless and stopped looking, continuing instead to hurry on his way. He went a dozen steps before he couldn’t help but turn back to size up that reef rock. Feeling that it was too lonely, he returned and placed the atlas beneath it. As he turned back to go, he saw wolves, three altogether, near the wooden box. He sped up, inspired. He wondered, were the topographic maps he had just seen based on this reef mountain?
When he was almost to the wooden box, the three wolves were no longer visible. The air overflowed with the salt taste of sea waves. Mei Bao’s mood became optimistic all at once. He went in, sat down at the table, and attentively stared at the stretch of blue sky outside the door. He would wait for a signal to appear there. Hadn’t he already waited for a good long time?
Someone in a faraway place shouted, “This is the sea! This is the sea!”