A rat in the trench.

The way forward is down. Ming surveys the once-familiar neighborhood and finds it vastly enhanced. The three dimensional building blocks have their y-axis extended to the impossible negative. Who knew there was a world underneath the city where there’re pipes and power-lines and whatever else busy-bodies that there might be. This negative space was brought into the world by the trenches some workers have dug up right by the side-walks surrounding all the buildings, making a maze out of what was a rather plain and boring day-time landscape. They are pretty deep too, or at least as deep as Ming, who is of eleven years of age, so that if she just hunches a little bit, she can just disappear entirely into the newly turned-over unsuspecting earth.

You may think it’s a bit odd for a child to be wanting to play inside the dirty holes rather than anywhere else. But think about it: earth, tree, outta-sight, no adults can see nor hear, exploration, new! How can you not be tempted. Ming has no choice, the alternative for her would be to ignore this possibly once-a-lifetime experience (for quite a few things are once-a-lifetime events for Ming) and be a strict surface-dweller which she does not even think as an option. So she digs in.

It’s even better than she imagined. Once she’s down inside the narrow space, she finds there’s actually plenty of room once her world-view adjusts. Funny it looks a bit intimidating and dismal from above, but once you are inside, there’s a whole other world greeting her. There’s not just dirt, but roots being exposed for the first time and oh, since it’s spring time, the tree-trimming crew just been around the block and the aftermath, the discarded, still green-leaved branches are now conveniently covering the trench in intervals with their limbs and leaves piling up, resembling little fairy-houses. So there’re these pretty, spring-green, dangling bundles of baby-leaves occasionally delighting even further the already giggly newborn rat underneath.

All the neighborhood friends she has, where are they at? They must all be scattered around, so it will also be fun to randomly bumping into one of them. Some of them are hiding in the trimmed branches, giving Ming great ideas of what she can also do. Is it a rat or is it a monkey? Why not both. With the leaves as concealing canopy, branches form sitting rooms and the trench below gives plenty of leg room, Ming finds herself content for the moment, just looking at the leaves inches from her face, feeling her nimble limbs adjusting to the shapes of the branch and how the branch is taking her weight, not minding at all the dirt that has found its way upon her person. “But of course, what can be more natural than that.”

The maze though is what Ming discovers that she likes the best. It conceals the world from Ming and Ming from the world. Nobody needs to see how dirty she is, or how much fun she’s having not caring about anything nor thinking about anything. “What’s the next level above having fun?” Time moves differently when no one’s marching on a schedule, when they just move however they like. Time becomes more abstract yet more intimate like a thick coat warping around you making you more aware of and comfortable with yourself, to look into the world with more confidence and awareness. It’s heavenly is what Ming is thinking.

It’s been a couple of weeks like this. Ming makes no new friends that she can remember, except the little more than the surface of the earth, the wilting pruned tree branches still laying on top of the trenches and the dragonflies who enjoy a good shade as well as anybody. It is a quiet time for Ming, the best kind where she can hide in the sunlight and still hear the world around and above her, where she can go everywhere as she pleased, undetected. “Ah, this is the rat life.”

Bricks in the wall.

Ming is counting the bricks, up to three. She looks at their weathered red-orange color and their texture, they fascinate her. She traces several of them with her fingers, they seem real enough. Isolating, limiting, real. There’s nobody here during the high-school recess in the back of the building. The brick wall in front of her separates her school from another one-thing-or-another that she does not remember. The school ground, on the other hand, is all hers, and she knows it well. Right now she just wants to be alone, floating on the edge of something that is one of her confines.

She can hear the echoes of her school-mates running, shouting, playing somewhere not that far away. Just pass the building facing the wall is the soccer field. It is rather big and Ming likes it better when it’s vacant. She sees these images of people passing along going about their lives on that field before it’s covered with sand and gravel. Right now, there’re simply too many people taking advantage of that space. It loses its magical appeal.

The space sandwiched by the wall and the building is straight and narrow, it’s very sterile too, just dirt and bricks. And Ming considers this a safe place. She lets herself fill the empty space and feel the stillness reaches back to her. She needs it. More than her need to run about with her classmates. She becomes not social again. For a while, she had a little group, but now, now she needs to sort some stuff out, or rather not having any stuff to sort out with. She comes here to not think, just feel.

She’s not a bad student, in fact, she’s top ten of her year, but there’re just too many things that she can’t seem to grasp, herself most of all. She’s still cutting school sometimes, lying to the teachers that she will be studying on her own instead of in the classroom. And because she’s such a good student, the teachers let her. So she would take her bike out of the impossibly entangled bike-pile and go for a ride. Sometimes by the neighborhood (carefully avoiding the places where she might encounter the parents of course), but most of the times she would ride along the river and stop by the park alongside it. There’s a tree there with silvery leaves. She thinks it has all the magic in the world.

Sometimes she would seek adventure on the school ground. There’s this new science building that’s still not fully functional yet, but the doors are open even though no one’s supposed to be there. Ming likes to walk in the white corridors and on the winding staircases, all by herself. She feels like a ghost, she wants to see if she can scare somebody. But rather she’s the one that gets scared when on the rare occasions she does see someone there. She’s not sure if she’s more scared of people or ghost.

Sometimes she would venture on the narrow, bare-steel fire-escape up to the roof of one of the lower sprawling buildings just because it’s something to do. Ming had one companion once in this endeavor, but they don’t know each other very well, so it’s just this one time. She remembers feeling like there’s magic in that too. They looked out onto the soccer field and saw different things. It’s kinda scary for Ming to be in high places. She always has this urge to fall down.

To say Ming is lonely is not an accurate assessment, she simply doesn’t know how else to be. Even when she’s among her best friends, she has this insolation around her. She doesn’t talk loudly, or fast, or much. It just feels like there’s not much to say. Information holds no value nor meaning for her. She has been in school most of her life at this point and her worldview has not altered from the first time she glimpsed it. So there’s theirs and there’s hers, and there’s time for one or the other. But mostly, she needs her time. She’s like still in the womb, or rather she’d like to go back to the womb and be born again just in case she missed anything. So you see she has no time for the other stuff. It’s not like she’s hiding from it or anything.

She tries to climb the wall now, thinking that her tender fingers can latch themselves onto the tiny crevices between two bricks to hoist herself up, then use the tips of her shoes to gain purchases on the wall’s rough surface. She does not go far. But she keeps trying. There’s no real goal involved, only exertion for fun. She looks at her raw dirty fingers and smiles. Time to go back to the classroom. The wall knows she will be back.

Trees in the dark-part 5.

The white thing is standing before her. Behind her, the gate to the park lies silently, invitingly. But not yet. The white thing is worth absorbing. Is it glowing? The three-pronged building is illuminant white-gray. Even at night, specially at night, it gives out an eerie glow as if beckoning, with its tall thick walls and dark windows. It looks like a giant spaceship that’s been backlit by landing lights and energy waves of the universe. Even from some 100 meters away, it looks like it’s the engine that’s sailing earth through space. Ming admires giant things, they remind her of how small she herself is. And the fact that even though she is an ant for the anthill, she can contemplate the anthill, while the anthill can not. Ming imagines how this particular anthill was built and where are the builders now.

Taking the white building into her mind’s inventory, she turns away. Though inside her mind, she is inside the building, just for a moment longer, to enjoy the cold and the quiet inside. Nothing moves inside that building, and yet it moves within her, or her within it. It’s not complicated. Simple things are what come naturally, when fear does not visit.

Time to get into the place that holds that space in her heart. The park’s gate has swing doors with vertical metal bars, the doors are three meters tall, and embedded into their concrete frames. There are three such frames, the middle big one, and the two side small ones. The left side door is never locked, and always just a few inches ajar. Ming thinks that that door is being held open by some kind and gentle spirit who says “welcome, visitor, any time.” So Ming composes herself and pays her respect by feeling the swing door open with the tips of her fingers of her left hand, then quietly and respectfully slips inside.

Grassy areas sandwich the entrance way she’s now on. Dozens paces bring her to the little hill with the pergola at the top, along with a paved area for visitors to have a birds-eye-view of the whole park. But since it’s at night, Ming does not feel like navigating the winding stone steps leading to the top. She’s getting a bit anxious now, that thing is beckoning her: the target of tonight’s adventure is closer at hand. She walks around the little hill, peaceful and quiet, with darkness on either side. One side of the hill, the other of hedges and trees.

She’s not here for any tree though, she’s here for her tree. She does not know how she chose it, only that it’s in a good hidden open area, the tree itself has a lowered horizontally-extending branch that can support and hide a tree hugger. It’s irresistible the first time Ming circled around it. And the urge to climb became reality precisely because it’s no easy task. Especially at night, Ming can not see what position she’s in once she gets a hold and trys to hoist herself up, she has to feel the gravity in order to adjust herself, and gravity has a tendency to abruptly pull one down from tree branches if one’s not careful and proceed slowly. Ming has the chance to enjoy how clumsy herself is and the resulting suspense. She smiles to herself and the tree she’s bothering that’s bearing her weight as she struggles.

She likes the sweet taste of danger and physical exertion. It’s not something people talk about but she knows everyone craves adventure and the unknown. But better sense must be something that’s more valuable because she’s the only person that’s climbing a tree inside a vacant park in the dead of the night. (Is it really dead? Ming thinks. Mmmmm, dead…. and so alive). She’s grateful though, for she would not have ventured out if she knows there’s someone else here. She wants her adventure and her solitude. But most of all, she wants the tree all for herself.

Is there anything special of the tree? Perhaps. As mentioned, it’s in a good location, it’s of a good size with the main trunk that Ming can not wrap her arms around. The canopy is wide and healthy. The branch Ming now sits on is as thick as her waist. The branch ends with more branches spouting from it and perky leaves standing at the stems that spouting from them. They stopped bobbing up and down now that Ming has safely made it over the branch and now sits like a monkey-shaped tree knob that molds herself there. The tree may not even be aware that she’s a separate entity any longer now that she’s hanging still in the air and breathing like how the tree breaths.

The tree forgets her now that she can feel the tree. Its barks are wooly smooth but they do feel uneven under her butt. Not that she’s complaining, for oddly the feel of it gives her assurance that she’s really here. The leaves are hers, she is extending herself both upward and downward. The mighty creature supporting her has its roots deep beneath the earth. From above the earth though, it’s stirring the air all around, non-stop, and it’s generating a lively dance that if she closes her eyes she can feel it bouncing on her skin. They are whispering, and Ming is all too willing to listen.

Ming does not know what a trance feels like, for she’s always in one. But the moments with the tree are her favorite. She ceases to notice the passing of time, the still liveliness is peaceful and it passes through her, is being with her. She feels embraced and accepted by the tree in particular. Her hands by her sides tighten on the uneven tree bark she’s holding onto. There’s a current there and it’s getting stronger. She caresses the tree and feels its gentleness reflected right back at her. She feels like a priestess in a high-arched temple, and everyone is here, everywhere. She is not alone.

Trees in the dark-part 4.

Favorably now, always favorable, Ming is indulging herself. When the sun fades and the crowd has parted away, packed into their idyllic enclosures, the roads are open and the sky is high. Such a road, a crossroad in the present case, presents yet another exciting refreshment. Crossing it an event. Something unnatural in this otherwise primal night, like a house unfolded and all the occupants fled. It gives Ming a sense of openness and up-side-down-ness that she likes. Especially with the uncounted crystals in the asphalt doing their tricks under the sparse streetlight, mimicking the stars in the sky above. Ming likes to stare at the whole of the scene when she meditatively, very slowly crossing the now deserted crossroad, choosing the long diagonal, stopping now and then to look all around. Sure and not sure what she’s expecting to find in the reaches of the darkness. Something familiar, something reassuring. It does not matter, that something will always be with her anyway.

Lingering glances that bid the congealed form of the night sky behind. It’s a marker to her, something she looks forward coming back to. The little sentiments that she left behind just now will be glowing and beckoning when she comes back. It’s like Ming just left a frozen image of herself where she was, only there’s a fluidity to the presentation of that self in her mind. It grows itself, it gathers more of everything, even things that her mind does not know nor understand. She has those of her in several places, those places she can visit any time she pleases.

It pleases her that she’s in the last neighborhood before reaching the destination: the park with the trees. Her grand aunt lives in that building just over to her right. It’s a two-story building among a dozen of similar buildings, all fit together like a losing game of Tetris. These buildings has more space between and within apartments. Her grand aunt married well, and she has two kids instead of the mandatory one. Not that Ming minds the lacking of siblings in the least. She likes to be alone to be not alone. She likes the stillness. It has everything in it. But she does like their living space. It would be easier to sneak out at night, if there’s less neighbors and just two well-maintained flight of stairs instead of three cluttered ones.

She ponders their family lives as she walks pass. The grassy area before the building is partitioned by low garden fences with simple geometrical design. They look a bit stiff and lonely just then. Now that she thinks about it, she always thinks these fences have some special meaning to them. Every time she lets her gaze rest on these man-made extensions of the earth, without knowing why, she feels the edge of the blue in her. Is it because she’s aware of some boundary that it represents? Or that every time she crosses it (she likes to jump over them, or just swing one leg over, with the other following all the while enjoying the utter tom-boyishness in her clumsiness), it’s like moving from a magical world to a concrete one. The grassy area enclosed is the one being protected after all. It reminds her, unwittingly, of the fragileness of it all. Ming is dimly aware of something inside her that’s too precious to keep. If she only knows where the boundary is.

Trees in the dark-part 3.

Nothing that is really understood by her is taught at her school. She is a quiet and polite child. The kind that the teachers tend to forget and somehow now and again remember with fondness and familiarity. Ming thinks that she understands the teachers, and they understand her. If they are to be informed that Ming is actually this particular child that likes to wander on the street long after nightfall, if indeed they are to see her in her current exuberantly happy alertness, Ming is sure that their reaction to her would be a nod to her as a sign of recognition, not having much of an eye contact, coaching their face to a thoughtful and untroubled outlook like they always do and walk away after this series of rather one-sided exchange. Ming does not know whether she just imagines this, so in actual life (she is the furthest from it now), the adults would stop her progress to the park and escort her back to her parents (she’s the furthest from them also). But somehow she knows they would not stop her. They know her as she knows them. The danger may be real, but the dreamer is the most dangerous of all.

Time and time again, there is this drumming in her heart. She tries to find the source of it. It’s like the whole universe is silent and pulsing at the same time. At this point, or any other points in her current path, she is a moving center of the universe. She has the pleasure of keeping and sensing her own gravitational pull, the leisure to gaze up at the inky class of a heaven to account for her minions: the stars, and her queen: the moon. They are there for her, and she is there for them.

The wind comes and goes, one moment there, the next blends back to the sublime. Caresses with wisdom without source, kindness without bound. Ming thinks, not for the last time that she just might be floating with it. Indeed she is, the only things touching the ground one after the other are her own feet, and they are but a tiny surface compared to the whole of her body, which is dipped in the cool velvety night air along with the celestial hosts inside of it. If she just let go of her feet, why, she is in the air, between the joined embrace of earth and heaven. The drumming is the only thing that exists, she herself is everywhere.

Trees in the dark-part 2.

The building smells of cold cement. It’s a comforting smell, it keeps Ming grounded as she feels her way down the stone stairs that have the color that is indistinguishable from that of the wall. A couple more steps, and she’s on the 2nd floor and the window there let in the silver gray moonlight that does not enhance the coloring of the winding stairway. But it is a nice relief nevertheless. Not that Ming minds it either way, the darkness with its soft edge always envelopes her, while the otherworldly moonbeam elevates her and makes her solemn. She welcomes them as the old friends that they are.

Now she’s out of the building. The world seems more surreal even. When one finds home in the shadows, the opening of the space, even just the space between two rows of identical buildings gives the sense that somethings can be shifted in unexpected ways. It gives she the sense of awe and the joy of being able to feel that awe. The shinny gray resident walkway under the moon and the sparse tree covers looks like a static river, and on this river, Ming floats among the two three-story buildings, looking at nothing and everything. She does not feel like anything is surprising, and yet. There’s the window with light still shines through it, the curtains contain the secret of that particular block of space, so small looking from she’s walking, yet so deep it’s impossible to penetrate.

Rows of identical buildings are etched in her mind’s eye. They are like puzzle pieces of life, never-ending combinations and permutations and multitudes of variations under the stars, made of concrete and lives, bicycles and trash bags. And now it’s all so quiet. Like everything are in its proper place, for this moment, and then everything changes again, and yet not changed, it’s just a cycle that repeats. Ming does not understand why that is.

Getting out of the neighborhood of the maze made out of 3-story building is a revolution itself. Not wanting to looks back once, she steps outside of the pull of a mysterious gravity source that is called home, into the market place that would have buzzed with activity starting in the early morning with the breakfast crowd. Ming can smell the DouFu Nao (spicy tofu soup with bean paste) and JianBing Guo Zi (green-bean crepe with egg, the best morning starter ever), but that is 9 hours away, so she savors the mental taste in her mouth and hurries on.

Not that she does not want to be seen walking alone, a ten-year-old child, in the middle of the street, in the middle of the night. But she has a destination, and she has a purpose. This grand adventure has set in her mind an identity, she is living it, she is not afraid of anything, only worry is that she is not able to be that person. She is chasing herself. When the street lights alternates the color of the world with each of her steps, she imagines nothing, but this world within her. The colors are her own, the echoes of her steps are as firm as her steps, the darkness and the dim lights washes over her mind in time, the wind is as gentle as prayers that she dreamt. The world is hers.

Trees in the dark.

It’s getting late, she thinks, maybe a little too late, but something is pulling her towards the park, several streets from her apartment, a whole neighborhood or two away, but she knows that she will go nevertheless. She can feel it, a pleasant buzz is all that she can understand, her whole body hums with the desire to just be there. She knows that she will be, and she can not wait.

Nobody will stop her. Her parents are either home or not home, she does not care much, since they won’t be stopping her from going to a far-away park in the middle of night by herself, being just ten years old. They are not concerned with her, nothing ever happens to her, they seem to think she neither exists nor non-exists. As the only child, she is just there, one day happened upon their lives and no doubt it will just be that way always.

Not that Ming minds. She much prefers to keep to herself, for after all, there is so much of herself to be content with. One part of her now stands silently in this park that she is looking forward to venture into, to which she will be rejoining in utter bliss for maybe half an hour or an eternity, then bid that part of her goodbye with all the tenderness of a fresh young lover on her first taste of the eternal life. Then for the whole of the next day, she will know contentment as only a lucky few has ever felt before. She knows that to be true, for not only does that union give her the sense of purpose, it also gives her the ultimate gift: the appreciation of her very life.

She senses are sharpened in the darkness. There are no lights in the ancient, slightly tilting brick building in which her parents’ apartment is part of.

To be continued…