I squinted at my camera screen. “Not bad.”
Senior year of college. I was studying photography on the outskirts of Hefei, and badly needed to enrich my portfolio for impending job applications. Naturally, as Labor Day rolled around, I seized it as the perfect opportunity for my creative getaway and hightailed it to Huangshan at the crack of dawn, snapping shots at every turn. Four hours later, I stood, winded, at a lookout point near the peak.
My camera was having a field day. I trained my lens upon an inverted world, one where the clouds clustered in shoals, where jagged mountains protruded like the undersides of glaciers, where the sky melted into an endless sea and sunlight glanced from its watery depths. It felt like I was on the ocean floor, somehow looking down at the heavens.
Satisfied, I tucked my camera away. My portfolio was almost complete. But, there was still one image left to capture, and so I continued along the stairs with eyes peeled.
In all honesty, building a portfolio wasn’t the only reason why I ventured, drenched in sweat and anticipation, across Huangshan that May morning. I was also hunting for something— a memory. And I was determined to find it.
Many, many years ago, when Ma and Ba were still together, we had hiked upon this very mountain. At midday, my little legs could take me no further, so we rested in a sunlit glade near the peak, filling our bellies with potato pancakes and lemon tea (or maybe it was ginseng, I can’t remember). In our post-meal drowse, we spotted the trees, tucked at the fringes of the clearing. The two pines grew side by side, so close they were practically one, and spread wide canopies against the sky, beneath which each tree curled their branches around the trunk of the other. They looked like they were hugging.
Memory is a funny thing. You can love a moment with your whole heart but remember scarcely more than the feel of it. Much of that day on Huangshan had already been erased from my mind, leaving only fragments behind, like shards of coloured glass. Curling up between my embracing parents, full, blowing fat bubbles through the leaves. Scaling the pines to nestle in the arms of the arboreal lovers. I remember a knot between the trunks, dark and deep as a wishing well. Honouring this resemblance, we dropped a gold coin with a lotus insignia inside the tree hollow, and made a wish: for this joy to never fade.
Ironically, for somebody who freezes time as a trade, the one moment I wished to preserve the most was also the only one I couldn’t.
As the seasons passed, my parents grew cold and bitter. It began innocently, with the odd terse remark and scathing clap-back. But before long, door slams shook the house like thunderclaps as their disputes morphed into full-blown fights, ones I couldn’t tune out no matter how loud I played music or how many blankets I dove beneath. The tension eventually left our family in tatters, cleaving a deep rift through their marriage, and through me, too.
So, was it wrong of me to hope that if I photographed the two trees, still embracing after all these years, and sent it to my parents, it would remind them of the love they once shared? I knew getting them back together was impossible, but I hoped the photo would at least restore some form of peace between them, the kind that filled their younger days. After all, it is said that the elixir of eternal life was first discovered in Huangshan, and the emperor who traversed its granite peaks returned a god. If this mountain made him forever young, why couldn’t it do the same for us?
Heavy footfalls rang against the mountain stairs. I turned, roused from my thoughts.
There was a man, a few steps below me, labouring up the steps. He looked to be in his fifties, features starkly hewn upon a face dark and coarse as earth. On his neck and shoulders sagged a bamboo pole, which bore a basket of bricks on either side, both straining with weight. His back was hunched with exertion, his face pallid and caked in sweat, but he wore a look of utter resolve and continued to haul one foot after the other, ever-so-slowly scaling the steep stairs.
It was crazy. One single brick already weighed an anvil and he looked to be carrying up to a hundred, not to mention he was climbing from the base of Huangshan to the peak, at seven in the morning. Maybe Huangshan was China’s Mount Olympus and he was a resident god.
I was debating whether or not to offer him help when I crested the knoll and spotted it: the glade from my memories.
“Oh my gosh,” I started sprinting, all else forgotten. “It’s here, it’s still h—”
I stopped. The fairytale clearing I remembered had been replaced by a labyrinthine riot of brambles and shrubbery. I craned my neck, but there were no tree-lovers in sight, only fallen trunks frothing with moss and overrun with clicking bugs. It was a wreck. I slumped onto a recumbent tree trunk.
After my parents split, the constant arguing had stopped, but a different tension took its place: total, tight-lipped silence. In many ways, it was worse than the fighting. And now, my shot at sparking another conversation between them was gone.
I shut my eyes. That golden afternoon at Huangshan was on the brink of fading completely. I could still see it, barely, in a tiny window at the recesses of my memory, like the wrong end of a telescope; inside, the dregs of day, a child with her eyes turned skyward, parents laughing, chasing each other through tiger-skinned grass, all three still full, warm, thinking they would never part, aglow in a square of reverie that now receded from me, inevitably, like a silent tide.
I don’t know how long I sat there for, sinking into the mossy carpet. All I know is that minutes or hours later, I found myself staring at the ground, and that’s when I caught a flash of gold in my periphery.
I scanned the brush, then leaned over. Wedged in a gap in the undergrowth was a battered coin.
“I remember you,” I picked it up and thumbed off its coating of grime. Sure enough, the coin bore a faint engraving of a lotus flower. “We left you here a long time ago.”
Then I flicked it to the floor. As if I needed another reminder of a wish that didn’t come true.
I must’ve looked upset, because moments later, a stranger’s level voice cut through the silence. “Is something wrong?”
I lifted my gaze. It was the mountain laborer from earlier, resting on a stump, a serene expression on his face. With his brown skin and utter stillness, I almost mistook him for a tree.
“What happened to this place?” I asked. “It was so beautiful before.”
“A storm destroyed it,” explained the man, words outlined in a foreign accent. “What a shame, too. There used to be two trees here that looked like they were—”
“Hugging. I saw them too. I came with my parents when I was little.” This I said with a feeble gesture at my surroundings.
“Then why have you come back?” He fixed me with an impassive look.
Maybe out of courtesy, maybe out of need, I gave him the gist of why I was here— the memory, the divorce, my pursuit of the past. From the floor, the coin glinted distractingly. “I actually thought that coin could keep my parents together. Pathetic, right?”
To my surprise, the man chuckled. “Listen. Every day, I carry hundreds of tons of bricks up and down this mountain.” He held up his hands. They were bright red and cracked. “This is from the dry sun.” He turned around. The back of his neck swelled like a plum. “This is from the weight of my cargo.” He extended a leg. A vein of white threaded through the length of his calf. “This is from the time I slipped when I had to climb in the rain.”
“Aiya,” I sucked in a breath. “That must hurt.”
“Mei cuo. Yet, by day’s end, I barely earn two hundred renminbi,” Carefully, he withdrew a thin sheaf of bills from his sleeve and shuffled them with tender, trembling fingers. His face was pensive. “Why do I go through this? To pay for my son’s education. He’s a beautiful boy. Calls me every week from our home in ZheJiang and tells me about the airplanes he sees in the sky. My dream is for him to attend college and live comfortably.” A sad smile appeared, like a small crescent moon. “Is this a pathetic pipe dream? Am I wasting time on something I can’t achieve? People say so.”
This was not making me feel better. “I guess we’re both fools, then.”
He held up a calloused hand. “But they don’t know that we fools have the thickest skins. I don’t believe we’re dumb for working towards a faraway goal. I think we’re strong for not giving up hope.”
“Uh—” I dropped my gaze to the ground. Insects sifted idly through wrinkled weeds, twitching their gossamer wings. A thin breeze stirred twigs slimy with algae. Then I shifted my focus from the rotted foliage to the gold coin. It did still gleam after all these years, even after its home had crumbled. That was something.
“I guess…” I began reluctantly, but the sage had vanished. I scrambled to my feet and onto the tree trunk, scanning the horizon. Where did he go?
I squinted. Above the thicket, a narrow staircase wound to Huangshan’s summit, suspended across an aqueous sky. The stone steps glittered, opaline scales on the back of an undulating dragon. And there was his silhouette, too, like a strange, pint-sized balance scale, moving ever upwards as he tiptoed, resolutely, into the sun. Gold filmed across his hair like a halo. Then he was gone.
With renewed resolve, I hopped to the ground and kneeled among the ruins. The coin was haloed in gold too. Somehow, half-buried in dirt, she still had the strength to wring light from a black home and wear it with pride.
I lifted my camera, aiming it at the coin. I couldn’t bring back the past, so I would send them a future.