a crumbled building

On the fifth day of the Lunar Year of Rooster I was on the southward train to Saigon. There was only me in the carriage when the train pulled out. Dusk was falling and the sky was grey. I had a little rice liquor and was reading Soseki, whose prose, I find, has something that resembles that of Pessoa. Soseki is a Pessoa with the delicacy of a Japanese. The train was running bizarrely fast, without much stopping at passing loops while I was daydreaming, thinking myself as a writer in, say, nineteenth or early twentieth century who would be writing on a train like this. It was perfect as I was alone in the carriage, I had the idyll, time and space of my own, not to be annoyed by noisy kids. Woolf was so right to insist that one needs to have a room of one’s own. Then in a flash, I conjured up images of two guys making love on a train that was gathering speed and wondered if there were many people that have such a salacious mind.

A person who is waiting alone on a village road that cuts the railway when the train passes instills a picture in my head, blurring. On the homeward train a week earlier, I had not thought as much as previous times. I just stared out the window, and watched the passing landscape. The mind had gone back to train voyages just seconds before it came to my home on the afternoon of the second day of the new lunar year when the sun was retreating from the room where I was sitting and reading. The room used to be my neighbour’s, whose son was my close friend since I was a child, yet we have not said a word to each other for many years when I went away from home to study in high school. The neighbour left for Danang, where her relatives live and gave the house at my parents’ disposal. It has become my hermitage almost everytime I come back home for holidays, when I need nothing but a brief stay from others. The way the sunlight was fading in the room had something inexpressibly haunting. All of a sudden, dozens of past memories were jostling around in my mind: the vegetable garden before my house where I would, every summer, spare some room to grow peanuts and some climbing plants and flowers, just to harvest the former in autumn and see the latter die in winter; the kitchen utensils that are even older than me, still used by my parents; the remains of the open shallow ditch in the front yard where I would, when it poured down with rain in the summer, play in the running muddy water which I would call a river, and on which I would make and push out a paper boat, and in the ground beneath the river I would catch worms to feed ducks, whose gargantuan meals I often watched with an uncanny euphoria.

Why is the flow of thinking called “trains of thoughts,” I wondered. Is it that because it resembles a moving train? And while I was sharpening the pencil, my flooding memories were hiding away…

If it could be like this, I could even go around the world by train. But it lasted only two hours before a party of people joined me at Nam Dinh Station. After being seated, they talked incessantly, and their conversations gradually became trivial, repetitive, garrulous and cantankerous. And it was all the more unrelenting that no one would hear another, they were all raising their voice, in chaos, with the dying need, in unison, to be heard, all in vain. I was perplexed at how on earth people could talk like this, and whether it was the way people communicate.

When the night finally fell, everyone in the carriage had been sleeping, I was watching the shapeless images running fast over the window. The sweet rice liquor was a salvation, and I recalled the talk I had with a friend from schools ealier in the morning, only to find out that my memories of the past, dwarfed in comparision with hers in clarity and exactitude, were just shamefully patchy, yet beautiful and shining, mosaics of the past of which I was a part.

… Every, this included, passing moment is a black hole, I feel. And at the same moment, from nowhere, a picture of a crumbled building was summoned up in my head…

The train arrived in Hue when it was raining hard outside. I was lying and wondering what I would do if I (with twenty-six years of age) managed to come back to pass, once again, every single moment of all previous years in my life. The squalid schools on top of hills and cold winters; the long, tedious summer days and nights; me playing in the moonlight with peers in the neighbourhood when the electricity was out; and so forth, all these with their own smells came to mind…

It was passing Quang Ngai while I was staring, blankly, at the dim sunlight swiftly squirting against the backdrop that was the wood ceiling of the carriage. I imagined myself in a train making its way through Swiss mountains, deep covered in snow, my eyes wide open. The magic mountain came to mind.

The night fell again, my last night on the long-distance, crowded train. I also fell, asleep, fast and sound, and in my dream, I was a young boy gazing at the clear sky in Tibet.

 

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