After he met Yu Yingwen, Rong Qian’s memories moved on fast-forward. He remembered boarding the bus at one moment, but the next moment, he appeared at an intersection. An enormous mess of memories poured into his head. He carefully processed the stream of information.
Yesterday, he had defended his thesis, and now he was going to go for a stroll with his girlfriend, who he met during senior year. Nothing felt real, like he was floating. He thought back on his memories, but it was like reading a book. He clearly didn’t do any of these things, but they had nevertheless left a deep impression on his mind.
He lifted his head and saw the boy that had helped him pay the toll on the bus. It was no wonder that he called him a boy when, although Yu Yingwen was tall, his appearance was neat and tidy, with a pair of particularly sincere brown, almond-shaped eyes.
He feigned a chance encounter, but in reality, he was already suspicious of him. What was really going on here? With returning the coins as an excuse, he strong-armed the little boy into having a meal together. After their conversation, not only was Rong Qianshan’s uncertainty not cleared up, but now there were even more questions.
People from two different worlds falling in love?
He isn’t a person from this world?
Resonating frequencies opening parallel worlds?
What was that hourglass?
Rong Qianshan looked at Yu Yingwen’s shadow as he left, chasing after him half-a-beat later: “Wait!” But when he turned the corner, Yu Yingwen had disappeared.
Rong Qianshan had a slight scar, like a feather, above his right eyebrow. I didn’t know where it came from, but I liked to kiss that spot.
Rong Qianshan liked seagulls, and I often used his name to tease him. A thousand hills, birds have ceased flying, ten thousand paths, human tracks have vanished.1 He would pinch my cheek, scolding me for being heartless.
When he had lived, he was mysterious, and he remained so after death. He left me an hourglass without even leaving a manual.
He made me constantly think of him, of the mysteries on his body, of the scar on his forehead, of his everything.
That old bastard.
For a period of time, I didn’t use the hourglass. Instead, I went to my old university for an art class.
I wanted to capture how he looked when he was younger, tall and lanky, with thin-framed glasses. The appearance of a refined, amicable youth, not the thirty-year-old strange uncle who was addicted to drinking vinegar.
As I immersed myself in my studies, looking to acquire the skills to properly render his proportions, I reached the sudden epiphany that some people in this world are just not born with the innate talent for art. For example, me. I could read “En Attendant Godot,” full of vim and vigor, yet my drawing of Rong Qianshan looked like a blackboard full of grotesquely scribbled formulas.
Discouraged, I threw away my pencil and lifted my head. Outside the balcony, the cold wind howled. From the spellbinding, sunlit scenery of spring to the early winter season, over half a year has passed since I last saw Rong Qianshan. The hourglass remained beside my headboard. The hourglass, small enough to fit in the palm of my hand, seemed to silently protest the cold treatment.
I sat on the side of my bed, a glass of milk in my hands. I glanced at my phone. Oh, it’s my birthday today.
Rong Qianshan was the type of person who liked ceremonies. He was a rare find in the scientific profession, a true romantic. I picked up the hourglass, pressed on the red button, and looked at the hourglass as the sand fluttered around weightlessly and my vision went dark⸺
It’s really nice to be able to see him again.
I opened my eyes. I was sitting in the back row on a moving car, and when I turned my head, Rong Qianshan was staring at me in astonishment: “Where did you come from?”
I was also curious about how I appeared here. Was it like the Tardis from Doctor Who, with me gradually phasing into existence, or was it a sudden thing?
“How old are you this year?”
“Twenty seven.” Rong Qianshan said, pushing up his glasses, “I have been preparing my dissertation. And you?”
“I’ve already gotten my doctorate.” I said. I graduated about forty years ago, I wager.
“I investigated at the university, but there is no one in the philosophy department with your name.” He said, “You lied to me.”
“I didn’t.” I said, “My circumstances are peculiar.”
“Peculiar?” He asked.
I looked at the spot above his right eyebrow. His skin was smooth and clear, without the feather-like scar.
“Hm?” He waved a hand at me, “Snap out of it.”
For a moment, I felt uncomfortable, like the empty space around me was undulating and pressing down on me. With an eerie sensation, like that of a thin skeletal hand lightly brushing against me, I lifted my head and saw a truck barreling toward the side of the car.
“Get down!” I pulled him over, and the two of us huddled together.
The enormous crash, the “huala” of the glass shattering, the car braking, the alarm whistles, and the shouts of alarm all melded together into a cacophonous sea. My heart raced, and I saw Rong Qianshan, his head resting on my shoulder with his eyes shut tightly.
“Rong Qianshan?” I lightly patted his forehead, “Rong Qianshan?” I held his face in my hands. A glass shard had removed some skin and flesh above his right eyebrow, leaving a mark like a bloody feather.
When I stretched out a hand to clean off some of the blood on his forehead, the tip of my finger was transparent, like a pane of translucent frosted glass. I should be leaving now.
Leaning forward, I tidied up his hair: “See you next time.”
“Sir, wake up.”
Rong Qianshan slowly blinked open his eyes. He was in a brightly lit, clean hospital room with a police officer. He asked: “Where am I?”
“Nanqiao First Hospital.” The officer said, “You were in a car accident.”
“An accident?’ The expression on his face changed slightly, “How’s the other person?”
“The driver is in the hospital room next door.” The policeman said.
“Not the driver, another person. His name is Yu Yingwen, he’s my xuedi2.” Rong Qianshan said. “How is he?”
The policeman was dumbfounded: “There was only you and the driver in the car. There wasn’t a third person.” He thought he had been struck senseless in the wreck, “You have a slight concussion. Don’t worry, the driver will pay your hospital bills in full.”
Three times. Rong Qianshan’s brows knitted together. He had met Yu Yingwen three times, but he was like the wind, coming and going without the slightest trace. Who on earth was he?
I laid prone on my bed until the sky brightened. The sand within the hourglass was a little less than before, and as I supported it in my hand, it was like I was supporting my own belief. Rong Qianshan had left me this as a reminder that he would forever remain at my side.
I could not walk out from his shadow. Even after death, he was all around me.
He used his own way to love me, I could feel it.
“Brother, why did you start taking your medication again?”
I scooped up a spoonful of yam congee and swallowed it: “I was unwell.”
“Have you had any hallucinations lately?” She asked.
“Mhm.” I mumbled vaguely, “I saw Rong Qianshan.”
“Where did you put your last health checkup form?” She asked.
“I threw it out.” I said.
“…” She stared at me, anxious for my condition to improve, “Could you save me some of that yam congee?”
“Nope.” I ate the last spoonful of the congee, then walked into the kitchen to clean the empty bowl.
I have heart disease, a side effect of consuming so much risperidone.
In actuality, the fact that I, as a schizophrenic, could live to see retirement is already a miracle.
The hourglass left to me by Rong Qianshan is testimony that he is a real person, and we just happen to be from two different worlds. Supposing that this is the case, why did I meet him the year I got sick?
Our parallel worlds have millions of people, yet I dreamt of him alone?
Questions piled up one after another. He was my enigma, an exploration without end.
I had thought to wait a little before using the hourglass again, but then I experienced a heart attack and took a trip to the gates of death. I realized that I may not be able to use the hourglass the final time before I said goodbye to this world.
The most tragic ending is when the money is not spent, yet the person is no more.
It’s the same kind of idea.
I reclined on my hospital bed and pressed the red button on the bottom of the hourglass.
When I opened my eyes again, I was standing in the doorway of a laboratory.
Rong Qianshan was wearing a white lab coat, earnestly jotting down some notes.
“Hi.” I walked into the laboratory.
Rong Qianshan lifted his head. Above his right eyebrow was the feather-like scar. He looked more and more like the Rong Qianshan I met for the first time in my dreams.
His expression went blank for a moment, and he hurriedly put down his pen: “Hi.”
I thought it was a little silly and adorable, “What are you up to?”
“Working on research, revising data.” He said, picking up a tuning fork attached to a wire, “Listen.”
The other end of the wire connected to an apple, and the tuning fork resonated at a stable pitch “weng⸺”
He beckoned me over with a hand: “Come over here.”
I walked over, and he passed me two thin wires: “Hold this.”
I tightened my grip on the wires and looked at him, not understanding the purpose, and the pitch of the tuning fork increased by an interval “weng⸺”.
“Listen.” He said, “Did you hear something change?”
I said: “The pitch is different.”
He nodded his head vigorously: “Yes!” He picked up the wires himself, and the tuning fork sounded with the same “weng⸺” of the apple. He waved his hand emphatically, “See, the apple and I share the same frequency, but yours is different.” (This references the American TV show “Fringe”)
“So?” I asked.
“Every world has its own particular frequency, and everything within each world resonates at the same frequency. I will find you.” He said, “Even in a different world.”
I looked at his steadfast appearance, and I suddenly understood.
He sent me the hourglass so I could meet his younger self and establish a connection.
We formed a perfect circle, Rong Qianshan and I. He found the younger me, and I found the younger him. For us to meet, our lives fit together like a jigsaw puzzle.
Then, during the final opportunity for us to see each other, what do you want to show me, Rong Qianshan?
A year passed smoothly, the hourglass tucked away in my pocket. I grew flowers, read the newspaper, and worked hard to improve my painting skills, to no avail.
It was like my art skills were cursed. When other people painted a vine, it looked like a vine, but when I painted a vine, it looked something like a potato, or possibly a balloon. Either way, it was certainly not a vine.
And at this damned slow rate of progress, for me to paint a likelife rendering of Rong Qianshan, I would probably need to live ten thousand more years.
I was sixty-seven years old. If Rong Qianshan were still alive, he would be approaching seventy years old, truly worthy of being called a stinky old man.
I stretched out on the bed and gazed at the pitch-black darkness outside of the window.
I have lived a wonderful life, I thought. I loved someone from a different world for my entire lifetime, and I traversed space and time to meet him. If everyone on Earth was just a crowd of ants, I must be the ant with the most amazing adventure.
Thinking as much, I picked up the hourglass. Inside the glass was a thin layer of sand, enough for one last chance to see Rong Qianshan.
I thought of an elephant graveyard, mystical and solemn, with arched ribs like large sea vessels scattered across the fallow sand, reflecting the blood red hue of the setting sun. The rays of light were like a knife pricking my eyes. I was Camus’s Meursault, I was the tramp waiting for Godot, I was metamorphosing into an insect, like Gregor Samsa. I thought of many things, but most of all, I thought of Rong Qianshan.
I fell in love with him on an ordinary morning. I was chattering to him nonstop about humanism, relating things so uninteresting that even I am not sure how I persisted in my lecture. I unceasingly spoke on subjects ranging from Western philosophy of the age of Cicero to the Renaissance, freedom and morality to human nature until my throat and tongue were completely parched, and I had no choice but to gulp down water.
One benefit of meeting in dreams is that whatever you wanted, you would have. I wanted to drink water, and a bottle of water appeared next to me.
Rong Qianshan smiled as he said: “I want to make love to you in a church.”
“Cough⸺” I choked on a mouthful of water, almost waking myself up, “Ah?”
“You just said, humanism was the confrontation with and transcendence over the shackles of medieval Christian theology.” Rong Qianshan said.
I felt an enormous sense of being valued; he had actually listened to every word, every sentence. Engaging in philosophy was a rather solitary path to take. Many professors had killed themselves, not out of insanity, but because there was no one they could pour their hearts out to, no one to listen to them talk. Eventually, they could only steep in boundless theory, soliloquizing to the cosmos.
I faced Rong Qianshan, filled with veneration. The next time he lectured me about physics, I would definitely listen without distraction.
I got distracted.
Rong Qianshan, I’m sorry.
1 Tang dynasty poem by Liu Zongyuan, Snow on the River 《江雪》. Translated by Ha Poong Kim, from “Oh, Let Me Return!” Nature’s Poets: Chinese Poetry of Two Millennia.
2 学弟, like xuezhang, but younger.