I knew what I wanted when I left my hometown five years ago. I still knew, but the reason wasn’t the same. I have not been back to Beijing since.
It wasn’t that I couldn’t or wouldn’t go back, it was simply easier to stay away. I still thought about the city, but only on a starless night and under a fluorescent desk lamp. I called it “city of fog”, a suitable name. When I was younger, I thought the fog was magic. When I grew older and came to my senses, the name remained due to the air pollution that the city was so famous for.
Today I was reminded that everything was changing. The city was a thriving metropolis, shedding its skin every day, over and over again like clockwork. The memories of my childhood were fading, that much was certain. Time ate away all things. Yet, one glimpse of memory came up every now and then.
It was windy that day. I exited my school’s steel gates, walking back home. Maybe I would stop by the convenience store and grab a rice ball, maybe not. I craved the kind with teriyaki beef inside.
I walked past the neighboring school, which was technically another part of mine. My classmates were jealous of them because of their beautiful campus. But to me, it was just the difference of more flowering trees. But it was winter, and they were all equally leafless. We were never expecting snow.
Gray brick walls guarded the other campus, except where they were metal fences. A string of students was outside, chattering and pacing, perhaps on recess.
Shapes of gray moving across the soccer field. Because the school color was unofficially gray, everything was gray. The buildings were gray, painted like that. The sky was gray but that wasn’t the principal’s design.
I liked the color gray. It was soft, neutral, and yet warm like dove feather. Many thought it dull, but I didn’t feel any annoyance when I put my hands inside the pockets of my uniform jacket.
I slowed to watch the students. They were mostly girls. They all looked similar to me. They all looked like me. Dark hair and dark eyes, whatever body size wrapped inside gray school uniform. They all looked the same except one, who had blonde hair and certainly not dyed.
It was naturally blonde. Dyed hair was prohibited, just like piercings of any kind. Tattoos were unmentionable, and it’s not like we knew where the parlors were.
Her blonde hair, long and straight, fluffed out in the wind. With her blue eyes and high cheekbones, she was the different one. But she was among them, dressed like them, talked like them, like us.
It confused me briefly. There were foreigners in my city, but they were tourists or businessmen.
I wasn’t a sociable child. Years of learning English didn’t mean I would call out to a stranger. Curiosity lost the fight.
She looked at me, turned back to her friends, and nothing else happened.
I walked home like usual. We didn’t live far from the school. We used to, then my parents rented an apartment near the school so I didn’t have to take two hours to commute.
The floor was made of cold white tiles instead of the familiar rich wood, which my mother was always paranoid about any scratches or spillage.
The second day we moved into this apartment, I spilled milk on purpose. The white liquid slouched on top of the tiles and didn’t react. I wiped it off, disappointed.
I sat on the bed in the living room and thought about the subway, which was only significant because it led to my real home. The small apartment I grew up in, where all my childhood memories dwelled.
The subway was a new one. I didn’t dislike it. It was new but already filthy and bustling like the rest of the city.
I was missing the commute again, except the parts I didn’t.
The greasy seat or the handle, plastic feeling on my skin. The beeping of the card-reader and the green lights. The beggars who were slowly stumbling along the walkway performing a trick, then stick their hands under your nose. The constant danger of being a small animal among a large number of animals, of your species but much bigger.
I missed the creature living in the underground.
It was not a metaphor. Even if it was, a metaphor of what? The creature…what did it represent?
I saw it many times. Through the windows, the ghostly shapes as the darkness flashed past. It wasn’t merely the reflections of us passengers.
One day I went up to it and stared. The small lights guiding us, heading into the black hole.
The creature underground, it could be the desire of millions of people, wishing to make a life in the City of Fog. It could be the predator living in the shadow of those subway stations and waiting to strike. The creature could be the sleepless nights I spent on dreaming. It could be all.
It was not. The creature wasn’t any of the above.
The creature was real, and I was ashamed of not giving it a proper name. But who was I to name a creature that was as old as time? At least, that was what I assumed. I was a lost child in a lost city, heading toward a certain destination in life, no looking back.
I could jump off at this stop. When I saw the blond girl earlier, she broadcasted the connection. It made her one of us.
I thought she might even know of the creature.
I was sure that I wasn’t the only one who knew of the creature.
After all, it was there, underneath the city full of millions of people. Anyone could have stumbled upon it, or saught it and succeeded.
If I got to the underground, would the stranger also be there? I was convinced that it wasn’t my concern. Even if she did know of the creature, she might have other reasons for not being there when I was. Hell, her school might not even have let her out yet!
With a heart of pure intentions, I set out for the nearest subway stations. I went down, down, and down. The escalator hummed as it worked, crooning as the chains rolled. I was entering the underworld.
The smell in the air was different. It smelt of mod and urine, I guess.
I liked it better than the taste of fog. I saw the black hole of the tunnel. A train would come out of that any second. I walked alongside the yellow warning line, past the sentry’s office and the restrooms. I walked into the dark tunnel that had no end.
With a flashlight in hand, I was focused on the patch of light in front of me. I bought at the neighborhood store when I first started exploring. It was the most powerful one I could afford, yet the thick darkness still swallow up its light.
I walked, careful not to tip over. I was descending, but the slope was familiar.
I could never sense the flow of time with the world so still around me. I heard a rumbling. A low thunder, constant and never-ending. Every rock in the tunnel shook.
I felt its presence before seeing it. It was there, in the dark. I stopped right there, looking up.
Then the creature was looking at me, staring at me with its enormous eyes. They glowed bright white, so bright that they tore open the darkness and lit up its face. The creature was large, so large that I didn’t even know how large it was. Maybe the size of a train, maybe larger. It was designed to fit in the tunnel, but its body was thick and smooth like a giant python.
It wasn’t a snake though. I didn’t know what it was. It looked like a dragon, but dragons didn’t exist and this creature did. Myths about dragons came from people’s imagination when they found dinosaur fossils. They created great stories for themselves, all based on dead things.
This one was alive.
Awestruck once again, I stood stock still and watched as it approached me. Its claws razor sharp. Each step made the earth tremble. I was not afraid.
It bowed down to me, not because I was superior. It allowed me to touch its head, right between the eyes there was a soft patch. Its scales were cold and sharp except for one place, where it had black furs extending from its forehead and all the way down its spine, ending with a long and soft tail. It looked like any Chinese dragon would look like, like the mythical creature we all knew by heart. Except it was not that. I was never sure what it was. I continued to call it “the creature”.
It made a sound, a low hum. It might have been approval. I didn’t speak its language.
It turned its head. Torch-like eyes shone upon a dark corner, where I saw the blonde foreigner standing there, at its tail.
She was surprised to see me, but I wasn’t. I felt a slight joy and bitterness at the same time. She was stroking its tail.
She met my eyes. I wasn’t good at telling expressions from eyes. But one thing I knew.
It was my creature, and now I had to share.