by Philip Holden
She had never thought, she told her parents later, that she could fall. Late summer, and the banks of the river were thick with blackberries. She tasted some greedily on the way down to the water, trying to remember what her Canadian aunt had said. Pull gently, and if they come away in your hand, they’re ripe. But she found herself pulling here and pulling there, until her hands were purple with juice, a second’s sweetness overwhelmed by bitterness in the mouth. She fumbled. When they pulled her out, they would find scratches on her bare forearms, made before the bruises from the river, traced over the skin. The flesh around them had swelled up, as though someone had gone over them again with a marker pen, drawing a long trail down towards the stains on her hands.
At the water’s edge, she could no longer hear her family, halted for lunch by the pile of tailings from the old mine. The water in the stream was low: too low even to try to skim stones, but low enough to tempt you to cross on the line of rocks that rose from the river. She started out; there was a slap of heat after she left the shade of the tree on the bank. She paused a minute to gather herself, and then walked forward easily, from rock to rock. Don’t stop. Only when she reached the safety of a flat midstream boulder did she rest, looking up at the V of the valley, the green-black layers of trees above her, an empty mountain face of bare stone, and then the barer blue of the sky. She looked down. In front of her was a pool of calm water, protected from the river by a worn cedar log. Easy enough.
The next stage was more difficult. Another boulder, and then another log, this one thinner, with stumpy branches and limp green foliage, wedged above a natural weir. She could cross it, she was sure, but she wondered if it might twist underfoot, slip away over the lip of stone into the pool beneath. She looked back at the line of rocks she had crossed. Nothing much there: more unripe berries, a fussing mother, and then the slow trudge home. No going back. The log gave slightly under her weight, then held. Its bark was grey, broken into long lozenge-shaped strips. Everything was new in this country: new textures and backgrounds, like going into a new level in a game. She tugged at a branch to pull it out of the way, but her foot slipped, and her knee jarred against a knot in the trunk. She reached out again, hanging on to the branch, her legs spreading out in the water. She shouted for help. When she let go, she was surprised that the water in the pool was not so very cold, but that it was heavy, pressing down on her as firmly as she had pressed the berries.
In the car, after her father’s scolding, she was obstinately silent. When she cleared the WhatsApp messages on her handphone, she opened the game with the alligators again. Here you could burrow through sand and rock, make a channel for water. If you wiped out, there was no fuss, no pain. You simply began again.
At the clinic, she rolled her eyes in the waiting room, but cooperated with the doctor when they were called in. She didn’t have a headache; she didn’t feel sick; of course she knew who and where she was. Michelle Tan Yi Ling, aged 17, from Singapore, on holiday in Vancouver with family, visiting her Uncle Wei Ming and his wife Auntie Justine. Yes, she knew those mountain streams were dangerous. Luckily, the hiker had been there on the far bank. Yes, yes, of course she was lucky to be alive.
I told you, she muttered to her mother as they hunted for Dettol at the pharmacy. No concussion. Just scratches. No need to waste an afternoon at the clinic like that. But in the evening, she felt sapped of energy. She curled on the couch in her aunt’s apartment, picking up and then discarding a magazine. The conversation at the dinner table was a buzz of noise: she did not listen, as she usually did, to see if they were talking about her.
Her aunt had brought out cut fruits for her. She took one.
She turned back to the magazine, but her aunt persisted.
“How do you feel?”
She shrugged, shook her head. Go away. And then a strange question.
“What was it like, in the water?”
She looked up at her aunt. Green eyes, and a cloud of red hair. White arms dappled with freckles.
“What did you see?”
“Books. In the river.” It was only now that she remembered.
“You mean garbage? Litter?”
She shook her head. Clear water. Her eyes open. A rock floor, with scratches of quartz leading downwards. And then a recess, a deeper pool, grey with sediment. For a moment she had been directly above it, floating, still waiting to kick out. The books were there. She could see the spines only. Jade-grey, peeling, like the dying salmon below the hatchery, slowly merging back into the riverbed. A shaft of golden light made the quartz in the rocks fizz and sparkle, then fingered the covers. One book was stamped, she thought, with letters in an indecipherable language. She thought she might dive down to it, pull it towards her just as you took a book down from a library shelf. And then her foot hit something hard; she gasped and took in water, not air. She had coughed, and realised where she was.
Wei Ming was glad when his sister’s family left. He found these visits a strain, he told Justine after their guests had been shepherded to the airport, after they’d lingered awkwardly until the last possible moment to enter passport control, not quite able to say goodbye. Particularly after the accident with the daughter. Silly girl. He had never felt particularly close to his sister, nor to the rest of his family. People in general bothered him: he much preferred libraries, the mustier the better. His sister, her quiet husband and surly daughter had grazed the tourist attractions and shopping malls like a small herd of ruminants, chewing on low-hanging fruit, and stubbornly refusing to be shepherded towards the cultural and historical riches that he could have so easily shown them. He tried to talk to them about what he was writing, but they found it difficult to grasp. Why are you interested in old mines? his sister had asked. Why not new ones? Because there might still be gold, of course, his brother-in- law had interjected. He’d stumbled in reply. It wasn’t the mines or the gold that drew him, only in those old stories of discovery, what they told us about modern society. Michelle had nodded sympathetically at this point, but he thought she was probably only agreeing with him to defy her parents.
With the visitors gone, their days soon fell back into a rhythm. He spent most of the day at the library, or in the office at the university where he was spending the rest of his sabbatical. Justine would cycle downtown, to the NGO where her part-time position in the resource centre threatened to grow into a full-time one. August evenings were still long and golden. They’d walk on the beach at Jericho, and then come back to the apartment for dinner. Food would be simple: after eating, they would drink wine and watch the sunset from the balcony. Sometimes he would return to his study for another two hours of reading or writing, to a messy desk enclosed by low walls of papers and books. She wanted him to linger, to take time out from work. Only a few weeks, she reminded him, and she would fly back to Singapore. He would be staying on for another four months: when the rains came, in October, he’d not feel like doing anything but work. Now they had time for something more than work: for themselves, and for each other. This was what they had planned. And yet they could not somehow quite reach out to each other. They could talk, of course, but their conversation followed the same old comfortable patterns. When they had first met, fifteen years ago, she had wanted to know everything about him, to read every single book on his shelves, to be able to name every single relative in the old photo albums that he brought over, ever more reluctantly, from his mother’s house. She had wanted to eat up all of his past, and so make it hers. At times, she still felt that hunger, but she did not know where to start. They fit together perfectly, seamlessly, but like two fists held together, so tightly that no light could seep through.
To keep him from work on those long evenings, she found that the best way to draw him out was to talk about his family. They unpicked the visit, slipping easily from remembrance to criticism.
“Ee Kiong,” he said, talking of his brother-in-law. “So cheap. Three of them with so much luggage and still don’t want to hire a car.”
She joined in. “It’s Michelle that worries me. Always fiddling with the handphone: probably get trigger finger. You think sometimes, that they never seem to get a childhood. They’ve forgotten how to play. Let her out into nature, and she falls into the river. And that story she told us about books in the river. Where did that come from?”
“Books?” He looked at her in surprise. And so she told him what she remembered Michelle had said to her. Grey books, like salmon at the bottom of the river. With writing in an unknown script. Not Chinese, of course—the girl’s Mandarin was better than either of theirs. Where? That day on the North Shore, where they’d rested for lunch, by the tailings pile from the old mine.
“Just a minute.” He vanished into his study, wine glass still in hand. A minute or so of scuffling, and he emerged triumphantly with a photocopy.
“Here. The same place where Michelle fell.”
She took the sheet, spread it on the table before her. Blurred type with battered serifs, blown up from microfilm.
“Scott Watanabe’s diary. Start from this column.”
His finger at the first subtitle. She read, straining her eyes against the smallness of the letters.
June 18, 1952
Last Saturday, a very strange incident, outside my understanding. I have hesitated to write it down until now. Indeed, I now wonder if it really happened, or whether this is a final descent into madness. I have been recording my symptoms for months, this struggle with what my doctor calls the early onset of senility. Even now, writing this, I fish for words. I pause every two or three lines, with my thesaurus open on the desk beside me. I know the shape of a word, and sometimes I can hear an echo of its sound. It is nearby. I can smell it. I approach it softly, but then find that it has gone, moved off further into the undergrowth. There is a word, for example, for that place outside the building where I waited for the bus, sheltering from the rain. Not awning, because that is soft, made of fabric. This thing, which projects from the building over my head, is hard, made out of steel and glass. The word has an architectural feel, like pilaster or architrave. Not foyer or vestibule: those are places inside the building. The thesaurus in my study gives me canopy, which is better, but not quite right.
I took the bus to the end of the line. The rain had stopped by then, and I re-laced my boots, shouldered my knapsack, and set off. A long June day ahead of me, the woods green with promise. I crossed the creek near the mine tailings, and followed what I took to be an old logging road. Hikers had been this way before, and beaten a smaller path among the hemlock saplings. I climbed higher, and the undergrowth grew sparser underneath the forest canopy. Above me, the branches of spruce, cedar, and Douglas fir. The area had been logged perhaps fifty years ago. Huge cedar stumps still persisted, with little slots cut in them to support the platform for the saw. I stopped to drink water next to one of them. Something glinted on the forest floor, a little further down from me. I went over and bent down. An iron nail, thick, curved over on itself, like a fern frond. Two pieces of decaying wood that had been split, and then cut to size, laid next to each other. I looked left, and then right. A straight line, a raised scar across the forest floor. A corduroy road, perhaps, or the bed of a railway, faint but still traceable. I followed it uphill. There were two creeks, I remember, which must have originally been bridged by trestles: the line of what I now knew to be a railway broke up here, falling away into thin air. I was lucky that the morning rain had been a rare event that spring. The water in the creeks was low, and I crossed each of them in turn, moving carefully from boulder to boulder. And so, after a good hour’s climb, I came to the entrance to the mine.
It wasn’t much to look at, I remember. A clearing. There was a flat space, covered in grass and stones, shaped like a baseball field. Where the infield should be, the clearing tapered to a wall of granite, stretching dizzyingly upwards. At its base was a concrete lintel, weathered, covered in green moss, but on which I could easily read the raised capital letters of a warning: “KEEP OUT. NO ADMITTANCE.” Below this, the dark mouth of a tunnel opened.
I checked the flashlight in my pack. The beam was yellow and weak, and gave me little confidence. But more rummaging at the bottom of the knapsack uncovered a new set of batteries that I could not for the life of me recall buying. The light was stronger after the battery change, and white, enough to guide me on my way. The mine was warmer than I expected, the tunnel burrowing directly into the rock. I thought there would be supports every few yards, but there were none, only the uneven arch of the roof above me, blasted directly out of the stone. The floor was dry. There was a small recess, I noticed, and every now and then a frame of rusted steel beams, like another doorway. When I came to the first fork, I switched off the flashlight. Absolute darkness. No light from the entrance. I could not even see my hand when I waved in front of my face.
I didn’t feel afraid, but I did wonder how far in I should go. Further into the hillside there would be more forks to take, making it more and more difficult to retrace my steps. There might be shafts, too, straight down into the depths of the mountain, their guardrails rotten or even removed. And truth to tell, it was much less interesting than I’d hoped, fumbling around in the dark, poking at the walls with the flashlight. The atmosphere grew humid, and I found myself sweating. A seam of quartz every now and then, sparkling copper or gold; blue-green stains on the walls; once, an abandoned drill, like an oversize piece of dental equipment, on which I bruised my shin. At the second junction, I turned right again, and the tunnel led off, straighter this time, further into the mountain.
The flashlight had just picked out a third fork ahead when I heard something behind me: a thud, like a single, distant footstep, without an echo, and then silence. I waited. Still nothing. I shone the light back down the tunnel. Just a cone of rock, bleached by the light, and then blackness. I wasn’t yet afraid. The sound was too singular, too inexplicable. It might, I reflected, have come from anywhere in the mine. Or indeed, from my imagination. Yet it served as a warning. I had found nothing of interest here. I should go back.
After a minute or two walking back up the tunnel, I found the cause of the sound. A flat, grey stone had fallen from the roof, and was now lying in my path. As I passed I kicked at it with my foot. It gave; it was soft. I bent down, flashlight in hand. A book, with a grey leather cover, or really the cover only, its pages long gone, open, smooth as a discarded mussel shell. Where had it come from? There was a side-turning, I noticed now, hidden behind a flange of rock. There was a step up, with the remnants of another book balanced on it. The same grey leather cover. The pages were gone again: I was sure, this time, that they must have been removed. I held it up to the light. There were indentations on the spine where letters should be, but they were blurred. The script was not Roman: not even Japanese or Chinese. The passage led upwards. It was narrow, but much more smoothly finished than the tunnel outside. I came to a metal door, in something like stainless steel, much newer than anything I’d seen in the mine. Above it, a painted sign, faintly streaked with rust, but its letters still easily decipherable: LIBRARY.
She was at the bottom of the page. Wei Ming was no longer next to her. More scuffles in the study.
“The next page?”
“Just looking.” He came out, thumbing through a sheet of papers. “You know, that’s funny.”
“The entry ends there. The next page begins on the 20th, with his next visit to the psychiatrist.”
He showed her.
“He didn’t go back?”
He shook his head. “He was pretty ill. He might have forgotten about it. He’d been exploring the North Shore since they let him come back from the interior in 1949.”
“You think there’s a connection with the books Michelle saw?”
“It doesn’t make sense, of course. Books wouldn’t last long in the river. They could never last fifty years.”
But they were already in his study, sifting through books and papers, spreading out stiff, unyielding maps on the worn carpet.
It took them longer than they had expected to go back to the river to look for the mine. Wei Ming had wanted to do some cross-checking about the site’s history. Then on the Sunday they had planned to go, it started raining and continued for a week. She used the time to pack, to get ready for the flight back to Singapore. She found herself checking blogs, news sites, Facebook posts, even the LTA expressway webcams near the workplace she would return to. It was night over there: quiet, and clear, jigsaws of light through the rain trees washed over by the headlights of an occasional car. Nobody around. A footbridge, thin and elegant, in the distance, marked by a smudge that might be a human being. Each morning, she found new messages in her work email inbox: Instructions on Reporting for Duty. Important Notice to All Staff. Ten Tips to Work Smarter. Collection of Encrypted Flash Drives.
When there was a break in the weather, they waited a day or two, and went back to the river. Not the path they had walked before, Wei Ming had shown her on the map, but a less well-used trail, on the other side of the water. They’d soon reach the bank Michelle was trying to get to when she fell. He thought the river would be too high for them to explore there, to search for those books, but they could follow a trail along the bank, into the woods and then, for the last few hundred metres or so, take the old railway bed, as Watanabe had done, to the entrance to the mine.
The river was even higher than they had thought, jade-grey, the silt-heavy water roiling noisily over stones. They turned away, into a narrow, gently curving gully. On either side of them were mounds of bleached stones where nothing grew. She prodded one with her walking pole. The regularity of the hillocks disturbed her: they were not natural, surely, but they had no purpose. They ran parallel to the water; when one finished, another would begin, each nestled inside the last like a plump segment of fruit. There were no straight lines. If you followed one of the little valleys between them, you would quickly lose your companions: you would be close, so very close, and yet out of sight. Then they left the mounds behind, crossing a creek clustered with thin aspen saplings whose leaves fluttered like tinsel, not yet quite ready to fall.
The trail climbed quickly. Once or twice there were gaps in the canopy, and they paused for water, and looked back. They had climbed up the flank of the hill, so that they could look back down over the river again. She could see a hut, tiny as a toy, and those long, lobe-like mounds again, like intestines. Or worm casts, she thought. Tailings, Wei Ming told her, left by the dredges of half a century ago, working over the river valley after the first wave of miners left empty-handed, wringing every last particle of gold out of the silt. There was still one old decaying dredge left, he said, a few miles off one of the provincial highways. Everything about it was monstrous. The buckets from its chain, a yard broad, cast from a single piece of iron, now served as bollards by the roadside.
There were still no tall trees here, early on the trail to the mine. Only the thin aspens and small, whippy hemlocks. Every now and then they would see a cedar stump, big enough to lie down on, with a hemlock sapling growing out of it, its branches jutting up at right angles like a piece of plumbing. He walked quickly, and she followed as best as she could, the backpack’s chest strap high and tight, almost choking her. Once or twice he looked back, asked her if the pace was fine, but she heard a challenge as much as concern in his voice. Then other voices, soft as water first, then growing louder. A bark. Two trail runners passed them, followed by a stumpy, panting dog: smiling, young, in gym gear only, the girl with her hair tied back in a pony tail, a bottle of water clutched in the hand.
He quickened his pace. She wanted him to slow down, to listen to her and to the forest. To touch her. When they paused to rest, he fiddled with the GPS on his handphone. Not far, he said. We turn off here. He pointed to the screen, but she put a finger to her lips. Quiet, she wanted to tell him. Listen to the beating of your heart. And then the other sounds. A rhythmic knocking, and the red, white and black of a woodpecker in flight. The boom of grouse, just on the edge of hearing.
When they started again, they moved more slowly. Mature second growth, the tall trees dark now, high branches and foliage shading out the plants on the forest floor. Yet the forest was not quite what it seemed. If you looked carefully, you could see traces of another life. A long, brown nail under your foot, wrapped around a tree root. In the undergrowth, pieces of what seemed to be wood or stone, perfectly formed and yet unnatural, with the symmetry of sea stars or of flowers. Cast iron machine parts, their surfaces smooth brown with rust, over which the new trees had grown. A pulley wheel was woven into the roots of a cedar, while a steel rope threaded its way through a tree trunk and emerged frayed but unblemished on the other side. Seamless, she thought, or scarification become adornment. And yet this landscape, they both knew, had not fully healed. Minerals leached from old workings; embankments, their supporting timbers rotted through, threatened to collapse with each year’s spring rains. Railway ties decayed, becoming part of the forest floors, but the metal spikes, loose from their baseplates, remained sharp forever, even if concealed in the trunks of trees.
They left the trail at the end of the railway line to the mine, barely visible, curving up the side of the hill. Sparse undergrowth under the darkness of the canopy, and a single creek to ford. After half an hour, the trees gave way suddenly to level ground, smothered in saplings and blackberry bushes, with a rock wall behind. She paused in the last few feet of shade, and reached for sunblock, spreading it on her face, ears, and the back of the neck where her gathered hair did not fall. She worked the last cream into the loose skin of the back of her hands. A memory, somewhere, of a teacher at primary school, telling her that you could know the age of a lady by pinching the skin on the back of her hands. See if the skin springs back quickly, or if it remains puckered up in a ridge. Then you’ll know. Just as you tell the age of a horse by its teeth. So I am like that now, she thought, a dutiful daughter-in-law a little past her prime, traded and apprised. And then that skin of hers, that easily burned and never browned. Care for it, and at best it would fill up with freckles, like crystals forming, or stones at the bottom of a river coming ever more sharply into view. She finished, and offered the sunblock to Wei Ming, but he waved her away, and pointed ahead.
“This is it.”
In single file, they followed the faintest hint of a trail. The thorns tugged at them. She wanted to pause, to reach out and gather the fat, glistening berries, but he moved too quickly, brushing the runners to the side, and holding them just long enough for her to follow closely behind. The rock face, when they reached it, was blank, but they shuffled along it until they found an opening. He fumbled in his backpack for a flashlight.
The edge of a concrete lintel, covered in moss. She reached up with a hiking pole and scratched at it, peeling the moss away like skin. Letters, weather-stained but legible.
KEEP OUT. NO ADMITTANCE.
“Watanabe was right about this, at least.”
She touched his shoulder. “And it looks as if someone else came later, to make sure.”
A few feet into the tunnel, easily visible from the entrance, was a padlocked gate of metal slats. He rattled it, but it would not give.
“It’s not just locked,” he said. “Rusted shut, or bolted, somehow, from behind.”
No entrance this time. She handed him a tissue.
Her fingers, she noticed, were already purple with blackberries. The back of one of his hands had been scratched, and blood was now beading, seeping through the skin.
“I’ll figure it out,” he said. “But you’ll be gone before I can come here again.”
They put down the packs. She held up her hand, and shivered, feeling a draught of cold air from the mine, a shallow, barely perceptible breath.
She found the return to Singapore easy at first. Two weeks, and the newness faded: she no longer noticed the heat, the sudden darkness in the evenings, the sweetness of evaporated milk in her morning coffee at the canteen. A frenetic series of lunches with friends, many of whom did not even know she had been away, gave way to a routine. She might never have been absent. With Wei Ming, too, there was a sense of immediate loss. In the morning, an undisturbed bed, which her body was not yet able to spread out into. Or those moments when, coming across something on the internet or television, she’d turn to share it with him, and realise he wasn’t there. After a week, this too dissipated.
She woke early. On some mornings, she would work from home, writing, or preparing teaching for the new semester. At noon, she would go out, lock the gate, and descend in the lift to the void deck. The estate had been upgraded a few years ago, and the lifts now had thin vertical slit windows in their doors, crisscrossed with embedded wires. She had not noticed them before, in her decade and a half in Singapore. Now they recalled to her the classroom doors in her school, in Quesnel, as a child. A recorded voice chanted the numbers of the floors—Floor Eleven: Going Down—in American English. English only. A woman’s voice that had always irritated her, and that she now realised for the first time reminded her of herself. If there were neighbours in the lift, she would talk to them: a mother with tiny twins clamouring to share a smartphone, or the retired couple with whom she spoke Mandarin, going marketing. The speed of the lift gave her comfort: conversations were always too short to go very far. The doors would open in the void deck, and she’d say goodbye in relief. Not from the effort of another language, she realised, but from the growing effort of intimacy.
There were other rhythms to the day. An hour at the gym, carefully calibrated weights followed by a routine on the cross-trainer. She showered, weighed herself, dried her hair. Meetings. Teaching at the University would start in three weeks. She had a large lecture class, with graduate students taking the tutorials. She liked that. She could perform, hide in full sight in the lecture hall.
On those late mornings at home, she would sometimes Skype Wei Ming. It would be evening for him, still light, and still warm enough to sit on the veranda looking out over the North Shore. He told her of the progress of his research. He’d applied for permission to enter the mine. In the fading yellow light, her husband’s face seemed suddenly distant: she was sure that in the course of their conversation it receded, as if he were falling away from her, imperceptibly slowly. Yet he seemed not to notice that anything was lacking: he chattered eagerly of his plans, and his conversation was peppered with new words, drawn from this suddenly practical turn in research: compaction, hoist, pillar and bord.
She would go regularly, once a week, to visit her parents- in-law, and stay for dinner at the round table in the kitchen, with its lazy Susan and unused stack of plastic stools. They’d catch up on news, and then retreat into a companionable silence. Her father-in-law would read the newspaper in the living room, while her mother-in-law would switch on the television, and watch a Channel 8 soap opera. At this point, her eyes would roam around the room. Below the flickering shadows of the ceiling fan was a cabinet of trophies Wei Ming and his sister had won at school, now corroded by age. On the wall, a brush painting of fishes, graduation photographs, and then a family portrait taken a year or so ago, in which they all posed, slightly awkwardly, at a photographer’s studio. Wei Ming’s parents sat in the centre, surrounded by grandchildren: Michelle, eyes downward, and Wei Ming’s elder brother’s two sons on either side, stiff as stone lions at a temple gate. Behind them were the middle generation: the elder brother and his stolid wife in the centre, sister-in-law and Ee Kiong to the right, smiling a little too brightly. On the left, Wei Ming and herself, her red hair dark, the pupils of her eyes underexposed, so that there was only blackness. She had always thought that she belonged. Culturally Singaporean, one of her students had said. Never easy, but possible. But if she looked at the photograph again, she didn’t fit in: she stood awkwardly at the periphery of the group, as though she had been photoshopped in as an afterthought.
On one occasion, her sister-in-law visited while she was there. They said grace before eating, and then conversation meandered. Michelle’s grades were not as good as they should be; Kiong’s work was drawing him further and further from the family. After a couple of hours, Justine took her leave, returned to the silence of her flat, the cool hiss of the aircon as its louvres opened.
At some point, the structures you have built for yourself in your life begin to fail. Lights flicker, and go out: in this new world, you know by touch alone, supports bulge, beams creak. Water enters, drop by drop. What was it Watanabe had written? There are feelings nearby. You know their shape: you can hear an echo of their sound. Yet you can no longer grasp them. Small things at first. She found that she could not answer the phone: if it rang while she was present, she would mark time until the tones stopped, and only then check for a message on the voicemail. She always switched her handphone to silent mode during class time: now she found she kept it on silent all the time. She would check the voicemail inbox religiously, whenever a message was left, but then spend hours summoning the courage to call back. Her greatest fear was that a friend or colleague would not recognise her voice. This would persist through the beats of the ringtone, the pickup, and the first, familiar words of greeting. She would fumble with her own words, conscious of the tension in her voice, reaching out for recognition; when it was given, the anxiety would finally subside. Before lectures, too, she found herself short of breath. She would review her notes in her office, but find it impossible to concentrate: five minutes would go by, and then half an hour, her thoughts sliding away before she could catch hold of them. And then the lecture. She would come to the podium, take a deep breath, cough nervously, and begin. As if, in a dream, you let yourself fall from a cliff face, knowing at some level that you would not die, but rather wake. And yet she could not wake: there was no way out of this world.
It was worse at nights. She found that, with some pampering of her body, she could easily fall asleep at ten o’clock or so, in that high marriage bed. In the middle of the night, she would find herself suddenly awake, and unable to sleep again, unable to still an avalanche of thoughts. She would listen, in those first moments of waking, for the sound of the MRT, in the hope that it might be six o’clock, close to dawn. Nothing. After a few minutes, she’d reach for the clock. Midnight, or just afterwards, with long hours of sleeplessness ahead. She tried getting up, reading, or listening to music, preparing hot milk with honey, in the hope a memory of childhood might jog her back into sleep. Once or twice she went into the bathroom, and switched on the light. The face she saw was familiar enough. A little older perhaps, than she still imagined: more streaks of white in the red of her hair, more lines in the corner of the eyes. The face was mottled, but serene. You age well, her colleagues told her: you have good bones. You are so happy, she had been told only last week: you always have such a positive attitude. She ate well; she exercised. On the scales at the gym, she was little heavier than she had been at twenty-five. And yet something deep in the body refused to obey, stubbornly resisted this optimism. This woman in the mirror was not her.
The quick hiss of the aircon, and then a slow sigh when the thermostat cut out again. Fingers of rain on her window, in the channel between the HDB blocks. Slick car tyres in the estate below, on the road by the playground. Silence, and then another sound, following each other in a slow procession. If silence returned for long, there was always the interruption of breath and, however much she tried to calm it, the too-fast beating of the heart. She might lose herself in a cycle of thought for ten minutes, perhaps, but then it would return her, exhausted, to the present, more wide awake than ever. At five or six o’clock, she would finally sleep, only for the alarm clock to sound after another hour, pulling her, worn out, into the routine of a new day.
She saw her doctor, and things moved quickly. She had noted down her symptoms, anticipating that she would be questioned and then dismissed with a wave of the hand, an earnest admonition to pull herself together. Instead, she found herself taken seriously: she emerged with a small plastic sachet of pale green pills—“take one at night, just before you sleep”—and the telephone number of a psychiatrist at the hospital. She called, without her usual fluster, and made an appointment in two weeks’ time. Even the notion that she had done something gave her a faint flush of relief; in those first few days after the visit to the clinic, her sleep improved. And then fell away again. Deeper in. Mornings were always dark, no matter the quality of the light outside. From her office, she looked out over the condominiums to Jurong, to the sea, and the towers of petrochemical complexes hooped in red and white. She would see squalls building from miles away, slate-grey, eating up factories, trees, the containers stacked on the wharves at Pasir Panjang, until falling water beat against her window. Yet even in the bright sunshine that followed, the darkness inside did not lift. She took to locking her office door from the inside.
If she was brave enough, she might Skype Wei Ming, hunched in his study, his face underlit by the screen. The trip to the mine was on hold now, he told her. Something about permits, and the deteriorating weather. She listened to him, answering any questions he had for her with monosyllables, and then a quick shift of subject. He did not seem to notice that she had changed. She could not think of any way to raise her illness with him. It was not part of the bargain between them, this snapping in her soul. He did not look directly at her, but away, to her left. She, too, looked into the camera, a tiny sesame-seed size rupture just above the screen, not into his eyes.
Around lunchtime, the darkness often lifted, as the doctor said it would. She would go out into the corridor, summon up the courage to ask a colleague out to lunch, and together they’d walk from the shade of the building into the sunshine of the car park, between the brilliant red stems of the sealing wax palms, up the crumbling brick stairs to the canteen. Returning, she was almost but not quite reassured. She wanted to be alone, and yet did not quite trust herself. As though the surface of the red brick path might open in front of her at any moment: there would be a tunnel, or a dark shaft, down which she would be tempted to let herself fall.
In the cool of her office, she sat looking at the spines of books on her shelves, all read, barely remembered. She could plot each one onto the story’s own life: when she had bought it and why, when she had first read it, when she had used it in her teaching. Yet she had mostly forgotten what was inside.
The hospital corridor she walked down was airy, with a wall on one side only and a railing on the other through which she could look down over rising escalators to the entrance two storeys below. The doors of the neuroscience clinic, when she found it, opened automatically, and then closed noise- lessly behind her. Her IC was scanned; she was registered, weighed, her blood pressure taken. She ticked boxes on a form, the pen scratchy and unfamiliar in her hand.
The clinic was full, mostly with the elderly, with maids or younger relatives in tow. She took a seat, one of four bolted together in a row. Its back rocked rhythmically: someone next to her, or in the row behind, was making a repetitive movement. She did not look up. In the corner of her vision, a limb twitched once, and then again. A child’s voice, in sloppy Mandarin, asking how long the wait would be, and then the parents’ voices, soothing, precise, silencing.
She found a new seat in an empty row, nearer to the restless television. She picked up a health magazine, one of the kind that seemed to have been written only for waiting rooms, skimmed it briefly, and then let it fall. Despite the bright lights, this too was a place of darkness. She held her hands out in front of her, almost as if groping for a way ahead. She had scraped the skin bare off a knuckle, and yet she couldn’t remember doing it. No pain. She turned her hands, so that the fingers curled up towards her. They seemed distant: opening without conscious thought, like a chrysalis emerging, or a fern frond unfurling. She looked more closely at a map of her life. That half-moon scar on a second finger, where a balsa knife had slipped at school, and another indentation, in the swell of muscle between thumb and forefinger, made by an unruly potato- peeler years ago. And yet in some way these hands were not hers: she was a parasite, perhaps, inhabiting the shell of an ageing body.
The psychiatrist’s door was open. When she sat down on the seat by his desk, she noticed a flicker of surprise on his face that was suppressed almost as soon as it had come. Those green eyes, red hair, freckled forearms. Not your everyday Mrs Koh. She told him the symptoms, and he listened patiently, kind but tired eyes moving from her face to the folder of notes before him, and then back. When he replied, to reassure her, his voice was plum-like, full, Received Pronunciation almost, but with those full, Malayan vowels. She looked at him again. When he reached out his hand to take her pulse, she noticed that the skin was loose, speckled with liver spots. He was older, then, than he seemed.
He paused, listened again to her worries, reassured her. There was nothing unusual here. He would give her something she could take when she felt panicked, or uneasy. And then an antidepressant, to correct imbalances of serotonin in her brain. This would act more slowly: it might be two or three weeks until she noticed any changes in the way she felt. And then, with the time the medication had bought her, she could work on other changes in her life. She could, in time, escape those cycles of thought. She only half listened. Her eyes rustled the books on his shelves, rifled the certificates on his wall. One from Singapore, from a university so much smaller than the one she worked in now. Then London. And then, finally, home.
He looked at her file again. She was from Canada? His daughter had studied in Vancouver: he and his wife had visited her a few times. In summer? Twice, but once in winter. They had taken a cable car up to the top of a mountain. Where would that be?
Grouse Mountain, she told him.
And a creek, he said, with rocks and a small suspension bridge? Not the commercial one.
They had gone there one day on that winter in December, in the snow. They had not expected the snowfall; the shoes he wore, he remembered, had no grip, and they walked gingerly, with short, firm steps, through the parking lot. They did not try the bridge, but rather descended a long flight of wooden stairs to the river, clinging to the railings at every turn. It was a weekday, and they were totally alone. The snow was still falling, noiselessly: even the sound of the water seemed very far away. The branches of the trees were layered in white: he had pulled on one in wonder, and there was a shower of powder over his hair and face. If she was worried, she should think of Canada.
In her meetings with him, it would always be like that. That desire he had for an outside, for her past. He thought that this would give her comfort, perhaps, but it was really all for him. If she burrowed back far enough in her past, she could find a trophy for him, a memory puffed up with light. So she told him stories, about Quesnel, about the smell of the pulp mill in the air that you could never get away from, seeing your breath on a winter’s day, the first snow falling through your fingers, falling on your back and making snow angels on the field that, in summer, was the lawn.
But she wanted something different from him. Not to be pushed out of history, but to be pulled in. I am here, she thought, now. It was his past she wanted: to read through those books, to pilfer the certificates. To be that unexceptional everyday Mrs Koh: to walk into a store, into a supermarket, without anyone giving her a second glance. To speak Mandarin badly without anyone saying, oh your Mandarin is so good, so correct, with that Beijing accent, not like ours. To talk in that effortless voice, with the ripe, overprecise vowels. To have a past here as long as his. Not to have privilege, not to have deference, not to be asked to speak for Canada, the West, not for anything but herself. For your partner to understand this.
And so, she had entered the mine. Easy enough when you try: the mind slips casually through all locks. Below the surface, it was always the same: dark, unchanging, in summer or winter, the temperature of the human body. You search there, scouring its arteries. You are searching for something. Someone is also trapped in here with you. Sometimes you find traces of him, flickering in your flashlight. A footprint. Litter, neatly bagged up, hanging from a jutting nail. A book, placed carefully on a stone, left just for you. But if you move closer, he will retreat, move further away.
When she left her psychiatrist’s office, she felt she had entered a new world. She followed his instructions to the letter. Three times a day, she would pop a chalky pill out of its blister pack, swallow, and then drink deeply from a glass of water. Once, after two weeks, she thought that the medication was having no effect. I can’t concentrate, she wrote in an email to her doctor. What can I do? His reply was curiously unsympathetic: she could clearly concentrate enough, he wrote, to write so coherent a letter. They met again, and then once more, sitting next to each other in his office, reaching forward, fabulating her past.
After a month or so, she thought that the medication was taking effect. She was calmer: some of the anxiety receded. She could think, could begin to search again with greater confidence. But the life she uncovered was abbreviated, reduced to a pattern, a shallow imprint of its former self.
Another night. She woke to darkness, cold in the vast ocean of the bed. The aircon sighed, sputtered, and then fell silent. She listened for the hiss of tyres, or the rumble of the MRT. Nothing. Early, then, with long hours of sleep- lessness stretching out before her. She lay still, struggling to quieten her mind, refusing to check the clock.
Something haunted her; a trace, a smell, or an echo. A thread that she held onto, and then followed back into the tunnel of a recent dream. She was in the mine, she remembered. With Wei Ming. She had led the way, her flashlight fingering the rough rock around them. They had decided to split up. It was only when they had entirely lost contact with each other that she found what they had been looking for. The side-turning with its sign, just as Watanabe had written. Steps upwards, and then a sudden doorway. The flashlight flickered out. She inched forward, fumbling with its switch. No walls to touch. She shook the flashlight and the light flared again. A marble floor, panelled walls, and above her the interior of a tower lined with books, so many books, shelves of grey spines climbing ever upwards into the darkness.
She was spellbound. She wanted to tell him, of this secret she had discovered, and that she would share only with him. And so she turned round, but could no longer find the door she had entered through. Only panels of marble. Touch it, and it is cold. Push, and it resists you, indifferently. Scratch at the surface, and it still reflects yourself back at you, unchanged save for your bleeding hands. Shout at the top of your voice, as loud as you can. There will still be no sound.
In your waking life, you know you will never escape the taste of this dream. On Skype to Wei Ming, the light from the screen creeping into the lines of his face. On the bare walls of the psychiatrist’s office, which you paper over with those landscapes of the past. In the seminar room, where your students learn, haltingly, to speak a language that you know you have to forget.
But there is a way out, you know, if you can find it. If you can sleep, if you can retrace your steps in the mine, enter once again that chamber with its marble walls. Don’t look up at the library above you. Put out your fingers again, softly. Press. Nothing. Press again, and the wall slowly thaws, warms, becomes soft as flesh. You dig. Somewhere in there, you know, is a body, his body, waiting to be pulled out. And then you are no longer in the mine. You are digging, with your bare hands, into the bottom of the river, with your eyes open. Just at that place where Michelle fell: at the bottom of that pool. The spines of the books crumble under your touch, leaving only grey silt. Quiet now.
You find him buried there. First his fingers. You uncover the wrist, trace the curve of the forearm. You hesitate to pull too hard: perhaps he will also come to pieces in your hands. But you are running out of air. You reach out again, take the shoulders and his body comes suddenly free, limp, floating upwards. You hold onto his hand. The water surface is still far above you, bright but frosted. As you rise towards it, you feel a pulse in his wrist; he twists like a fish, kicks out blindly. He turns to you, his free arm curling around your waist. You place your palm on his palm. And then, just before you surface, he looks into your eyes.
“Library” is copyright © 2016 by Philip Holden, originally published in Heaven Has Eyes (Singapore: Epigram Books, 2016).
Photo credit: NG Yun Sian
Philip Holden is Professor of English at the National University of Singapore. He researches in two major areas of literary studies. His work in auto/biography studies includes the book Autobiography and Decolonization: Modernity, Masculinity and the Nation-State, and a number of scholarly articles in major scholarly journals such as biography, Life Writing, a/b: Auto/biography Studies, and Postcolonial Studies. He has also published widely on Singapore and Southeast Asian literatures, is the co-author of The Routledge Concise History of Southeast Asian Writing in English, and one of the editors of Writing Singapore, the most comprehensive historical anthology of Singapore literature in English, as well as author of articles in, among others, the Journal of Commonwealth Literature, Interventions, Textual Practice, Journal of Postcolonial Writing, and Ariel. His short story collection Heaven Has Eyes was recently published by Epigram Books.