“Can we stay and play in the leaves, daddy?” asked Seen-Hung, hands clasped behind his back, balancing on one foot. He peered brightly into the eyes of the man standing before him, a man who was not his father. Peng opened his mouth, but was beaten to the punch.
“Only for a little while,” Seen-Hung continued. Not wanting to give an opportunity for dissent, he rounded on a figure he knew from previous bartering sessions was likely to be effective. He got specific, “Fifteen more minutes, right?”
Peng nodded with a sincere smile, the gesture wrinkling his forehead, which no longer had a hairline to distinguish it from the rest of his exposed scalp. He remarked at the boy’s ability to extract from him just about whatever he wanted. How long had it been this way, he wondered. Just about the entire time, he thought.
Before he bounded off into the leaves, Seen-Hung’s hands unclasped and shot out to each side. The gesture of glee over receiving his exact request, though not his exact wish – that would have been to stay and play until after dark – caused him to want to hug the man that he thought was his father. This was one of the few impulses, however, that Peng had tamped down in him. So instead Seen-Hung sprung into a leap, hands shooting into the sky, before bounding away towards the piles of fall leaves. Subconsciously, he knew Peng was as likely to accept a hug as he was to roll around in leaves with him, so he had gotten used to the contents of his imagination being his most frequent playdate.
Peng loved the boy. In fact, he wasn’t sure he loved anything else, certainly not by comparison. But the truth was, Peng was not his father, no matter what the high-spirited six year old thought. Peng was more of a guardian. Originally he had been an attendant to Peng’s real father, but that was many thousands of kilometers away and seemed just as many years ago. Seen-Hung had been too young to remember anything of that place. Peng didn’t remember so well because he chose not to.
In the Spring, the pair would be alone together for five years. Seen-Hung had always called Peng his father and thought of him as such since before he was old enough to call him anything. Peng, of course, never instructed him to do so, but he also never corrected him. He thought it was easier not to go into the whole matter until the issue came to a head on its own. As some turn of fate had provided for, even at six, Seen-Hung had never asked him a question he had to lie about. No mention of his vacant mother or where he grew up. Peng hoped he would not lie when the time came, but was so glad the boy had never asked that he was not sure he could let it all come out.
For his part, he had resolved never to call the boy son, though he was certainly more of a son to Peng than he had ever been to anyone else. Initially, Peng had imagined that when the truth did eventually reveal itself he would have enough deniability that he could say he was never dishonest. This of course wasn’t true. There is a chasm between not lying and not being dishonest, and Peng was aware he had fallen into it.
When Peng was sure the fifteen minutes had elapsed, he called for the boy, “Seen-Hung, come along.” The boy started a disapproving moan, but Peng cut in, “Now don’t make a mark against your own name. You have only your word.” Seen-Hung understood this as well as any six-year-old could. He climbed to his feet, his demeanor shifting rapidly, as children are prone to do, and he bounded brightly to Peng’s side.
While Peng could not help but think of himself as a servant to the Mah family, of which Seen-Hung was the last, he was determined not to let the child grow up feeling unloved. In lieu of hugs, calling him son, or anything else he thought improper, he found other ways to love the boy that he hoped would be apparent to him. Beginning the short walk home from the park, Peng slipped his hand behind Seen-Hung’s head and dotingly ruffled his hair, letting his hand linger for a moment on the boy’s neck. No matter how much of a servant he felt he was in his heart, he determined to cast himself as an adoring uncle or some other such archetype to ensure he showed necessary affection.
When they arrived home, Peng watched to see that Seen-Hung sufficiently scrubbed his hands after rolling in all manner of filth in the park. Peng finished preparing supper; char-siu, a sweet, pomegranate-red pork dish that his wife had taught him to make many decades ago, laid on top of ginger rice and boiled string beans. He placed it on their table for two as Seen-Hung got the place settings without being asked. The boy lifted two napkins along with a single set of chopsticks and a fork. A playful smile showed almost all the teeth in his mouth and squeezed his eyes shut. When he opened them, he found what he knew he would, Peng shaking his head.
“It’s too hard to eat with chopsticks,” he protested.
“I will slice it for you,” said Peng, no longer looking at the boy so as to close the matter.
Seen-Hung was now old enough to bathe himself and get dressed without Peng paying any attention. When that was finished and he had dutifully brushed his teeth, he called for Peng, “Daddy!”
Peng came up the stairs and sat on the edge of his bed. He put his arm around the boy and began to sing in Mandarin the same song they sang every night. When they were finished, Peng reached to the bedside table and lifted a children’s folktale book with a moon and a jade rabbit on the cover. Seen-Hung had prepared for this moment, however, before he had called for Peng. He pulled out from beside him a book of his own. Batman was written in yellow above a picture of the black-clad figure and a grotesque clown, laughing with his mouth open.
Simultaneously, Seen-Hung lifted his eyebrows to suggest the change in reading material and Peng furrowed his own brow to show his disapproval. Peng felt the constant tension of raising a young Chinese boy so far from his home and all the customs and traditions he was sure the boy was meant to be raised on. He considered the lack of the boy’s grumbling over the ginger in the rice and the chopstick battle already won. Peng nodded and opened Batman.
After the book, Peng looked down at the boy sweetly and said, “And what will we dream of tonight?” His tone was entreating rather than inquiring.
“Nice things,” responded Seen-Hung knowingly.
“What sort of nice things?” Now Peng was actually asking.
“I don’t know. Candy? Or going to the movies and playing in the arcade with all my friends.” He paused in his genuine excitement and remembered what Peng was getting at. He looked up into his waiting face, “Just not monsters.”
Peng ran his hand over the boy’s inch-long, manicured black hair. “Just not monsters,” he agreed.
In the morning, the boy woke and sprang from his bed. He rushed into Peng’s room without a knock and jumped, knees first onto his bed. Peng whipped his head around, eyes wide, in his startle.
“What, what is it?” Peng was concerned at such an abrupt greeting, but as the minute pre-dawn light reached his eyes, he found a smile spread across the boy’s face, so his mood quickly turned to annoyance.
“Daddy, my home! We have to go to my home!” Seen-Hung bounced on his knees and pulled excitedly at Peng’s pajamas.
The time of morning and lack of any real emergency caused Peng to slip out of his usual decorum. “Get off of me,” he said, pulling his cotton shirt sleeve away from the tugs. He sat up in bed and leaned against the oaken headboard, careful to make sure he was appropriately covered by the blankets. “What are you…?” He caught himself and exhaled, “Huhhh. Good morning. What do you mean? What time is it?”
Seen-Hung ignored the second question. He had no idea and more precisely, he did not care. What mattered was that it was time to go home. “Daddy, we have to go home. We both have to go to my home. We can go…”
“We are home,” Peng cut in. “Now…”
“No, no, no.” The boy’s interjection was firmer than Peng’s and the man thought it may be easier to let the boy get it all out. “My home, not your home. Not this home. We have to go to my home. It’s a big house and there’s all grass everywhere and there’s a train and the monster said we…”
“A monster again? Now…” Peng tried his best to head the boy off to avoid going back down this trail, which he had fervently tried to dissuade him from dozens of times before.
“No, listen. This is a nice monster. Not a scary one. He told me to come back to my home and he would help me and I could ride on his back, but not you, you have to walk, but my home is really close to the train tracks and you can walk in the – it’s not far.”
Seen-Hung took a deep breath before he kept speaking, but Peng could see in his wandering eyes that he did not have his next words chosen out yet. “Now listen… Seen-Hung, thank you for sharing your dream with me.” It was true that Peng was grateful. This was the first dream of a monster that had not resulted in tears and a reluctance to even enter his room at bedtime. He continued, “But are monsters real?”
Seen-Hung responded automatically according to his training, “No,” he cast his eyes down. “Yes! No, yes. This one is real, daddy. This one isn’t a scary one. This is a real one that helps me.”
“Okay, okay.” Slowly, Peng coaxed the boy down to the breakfast table. He served him egg and macaroni in soup, but the boy never even cast his eyes on it. He sat with his legs over the side of his chair and held one of Peng’s hands in his two. “Daddy, when can we go?”
“Now Seen-Hung, what you had was a dream. Dreams are not real. You do not have any other house. This is your home.” And of course dreams weren’t real. He had heard the boy recount many dreams to him, most of them frightening. But never had he insisted that a dream was real before. What was more nagging to him, though the boy could not possibly know it, was that he had once had another far away home. It had laid in a large open meadow – grass everywhere. There was nothing else on the property – nothing other than a train track and its remote station. And then the monster…
“Pack your things please, it’s time for school,” Peng said.
“No!” came a cry of shocked protest. Clearly his father had not understood the urgency of the matter. He had to go now.
Peng pointed at the stairs decidedly and turned back to his tea.
Twenty minutes later, through tantrum, plea, and even a kick of their metal front door, Seen-Hung found himself outside and on the way to school. Peng tried to engage him about what he might do at recess, but Seen-Hung pouted and sulked and pulled away from Peng’s touch when he placed a hand on his shoulder. He went into the school with his arms crossed, not turning to say goodbye or even look at Peng.
When Peng picked Seen-Hung up from school, his disposition had once again reverted to its cheery state as it always did. Peng was glad that this saga was over and hoped the boy would have better dreams tonight. What he did not see under the boy’s usual smile was a steely determination. Seen-Hung thought about it long and hard and decided that the problem was that his father simply did not understand.
Seen-Hung opted to skip the park and the enticingly crisp leaves left by a cool, dry October day. He told Peng that he’d like to go straight home and when they took off their coats and boots, Seen-Hung took the man by the hand and led him to the family’s sitting room.
“Daddy,” Seen-Hung started as rehearsed. Peng exhaled and sagged his shoulders imperceptibly enough that the boy did not notice. “This is not like a bad monster, like before. This is like a real monster and like a good monster.” His stagecraft left something to be desired, starting as if they had not ever left their conversation at the breakfast table. “He said that he’s living in a home and it’s where he is living, but it’s my home. And that we should come back and live there because it’s my home. And he doesn’t like daddies, but if you are nice to me he won’t hurt you too. And I can ride on him and he will help me, but you can’t ride on him, but maybe he’ll let you pet him.” Seen-Hung paused and looked Peng, out of breath like a sprinter who just put up a personal best in the 100-meter dash, and searched for a response in his face.
Peng paused. He knew he was at a critical juncture. Seen-Hung was not one to easily let things go and resisted absolute denials at all cost. He wanted to avoid a prolonged conflict, but also did not want to encourage the boy’s fantasy and so dig the hole deeper. He wondered if being the boy’s real father would have somehow helped; if there was some innate imbuing of fatherly wisdom for those who created children from their own body. Then he remembered Seen-Hung’s real father and knew that there must be nothing to this theory.
He decided, without a plan, to try to pacify the child. “What was this monster like?”
Seen-Hung pursed his lips together as he thought. “I don’t know. Long… and big furry eyebrows and whiskers.”
“Like a cat?”
“No, like big, big and red and shiny,” Seen-Hung gesticulated with his hands, nothing Peng could understand other than the grandness in scale that the boy was trying to communicate.
“And this home, where is that?” Peng asked the question innocently, but realized that this was his way out. He only needed to have the boy admit that he had no idea where the place was and they could lament together that they unfortunately had no chance of finding it.
“China,” the boy replied immediately without a thought.
Peng’s breath caught in his throat. He couldn’t know. How could he know? Of course Seen-Hung knew he was Chinese, but not once did Peng ever speak a single word about their homeland, knowing it would lead to all sorts of questions he was not ready to answer.
This time Peng reached for the boy’s hand and took it in his own. “I’m very glad you met a nice monster and that you made a new friend. But you have no home other than this one and you are not going to China.”
Seen-Hung looked betrayed. “Hmmp,” he pipped, pulling his hand away. He stomped a few steps away and turned back. “I am going to China.”
At dinner, Peng served pancakes, a rare treat both in being a Western meal and a breakfast food at night, which Peng otherwise derided. Seen-Hung obeyed his summons to the table, but neither ate, nor looked at Peng. The man knew the boy’s resolve was formidable when he totally ignored the syrup placed directly into his view.
When Peng began to clear the dishes, Seen-Hung stood and left the table, going directly to his room. At the appropriate time, Peng heard the bath begin to run and fifteen minutes later, running water for the brushing of teeth. At 8:30, when Peng came up for their usual routine, he found Seen-Hung on his bed, back turned and curled into a ball that looked harsh on his spine. He did not bother to ask about a song or book.
“Goodnight,” he said, to no response. When Peng turned in early an hour later, he saw the boy’s body had relaxed into sleep. Sitting on his bed, Peng wondered if he remembered any prayers. He did not. He thought if he had any incense in the house he could burn to ward off any further unwanted dreams. He had none, and so he drifted off uneasily into sleep.
In the middle of the night, Peng sprang bolt upright in bed. This time there was no grogginess or contempt at being awoken. He was not sure whether he had been stirred by hearing a noise or on account of some other preternatural sense, but he was sure he needed to be awake. He skittered from beneath his covers and straight into Seen-Hung’s room. Horror filled his heart to find the bed empty. He reached for the wall to brace himself as he felt his legs falter. No time for that. He gripped the railing as he took the stairs down two at a time.
At the landing, he found the front door open. He bound through it with no thought of his bare feet. To his amazement, not one hundred feet down the street from the house was Seen-Hung, fully dressed with a rough brown shoulder bag slung across his back. Peng came through the door so impetuously that in the still of the night, Seen-Hung heard the noise and turned his body.
He paused, and then the boy righted his direction and began to run. Peng was too astonished to be angry. He took off in very short pursuit of the boy. In seconds he had grabbed Seen-Hung by the back of his coat, bringing him to a complete halt.
Seen-Hung struggled against his grip. “Get off of me.”
“What are you doing?” Peng was even surprised how loud his voice came out. Without thinking he looked around at the windows of the quiet street to see if any lights had come on. Petrified of being spotted wrestling with the child in the street in the middle of the night, he yanked the boy back towards the house.
The boy resisted with all his might and let out the most formidable roar a six-year-old could produce, “AHHHH!”
Peng grabbed hold of his coat with two clenched fists on the boy’s lapel, “Be quiet. Get inside,” he hissed through gritted teeth.
The boy collapsed to his knees and began to cry bitterly. His arms were limp at his side and his closed eyes were turned up to heaven. “Annnnngg, annnnngg.” Tears streamed down his face.
Peng’s embarrassment at being seen was overwhelmed by his compassion for the boy. “Stop, stop.” He relented from pulling on the boy, but did not let go. He knelt, “Please, come inside. Come inside. I will listen to you. Come. I will listen.” The boy cried all the same. Peng pulled him into his embrace and wrapped his arms around him tightly. Seen-Hung spread his arms over Peng’s shoulders and continued to weep, now into Peng’s collar. Peng lifted the boy from the ground and began the walk back towards the house.
Inside, he placed him on the second step of the stairs. Peng locked the door behind them. He pulled off the boy’s boots and unzipped his coat as his tears began to slow. Peng lifted the bag he had with him and searched it’s contents. One pair of clothes, a toothbrush, soap, and some ready-to-eat items from their pantry.
“What are you doing, Seen-Hung? Where are you going?”
Seen-Hung sucked in hard at the contents of his running nose. “To my home.”
Peng was only relieved to have him back in the house, but his words came out exasperated, “Do you know that China is another country? Were you going to walk to China?”
Seen-Hung just nodded. Peng was not sure which of the questions he was agreeing with. “You have to fly in a plane. Do you have a plane?”
Seen-Hung was silent. “I have to go to my home,” he finally said. “He’s waiting for me.”
“Who is?” But Peng already knew.
“The nice monster.”
Peng tried to think, but only one thought was available to him. Reason aside, he knew that the only thing that mattered was to stay with the boy. To protect his son. That where others had failed, he would make sure he never let any harm come to this child.
He sat beside the sniffling boy on the stairs. “Do you want to go to China?” Seen-Hung’s face lifted to meet his, bright as the sun. He grabbed Peng’s leg with both hands and nodded his head so vigorously that Peng thought it would come off. He took a hold of the boy’s shoulder and with the other hand pointed a finger at him. “There is no house, and there is no monster, but if you want to go to China, I will take you, if you swear never to run away from me again.”
Seen-Hung began nodding enthusiastically again. “No,” Peng said. “Swear.”
“And not tonight. Go and get back into bed,” Peng said sternly.
“Will you sing me our song?” Seen-Hung asked. And they walked up the stairs hand in hand.
In the morning, Seen-Hung began to drill Peng with questions about when they would leave and airplanes and China and anything else that sprang to mind. Peng explained to him that he had never been on a plane before and he was not sure how it all worked. When they had left China, it was more of an escape than an opportunity to pick their means of travel. Peng had taken Seen-Hung on the days-long getaway when he was less than two years old. They fled to the closest port they could find on the Pacific and booked passage to the first country he thought might have them. He knew the Chinese had gone to Canada, though often under nefarious circumstances, for a hundred years, so that was the boat they boarded.
Now with more options, Peng wanted Seen-Hung to think of this as more of a vacation than a permanent move, never mind all the school he would miss, so he was determined to fly and cut weeks off their trip. Though the idea of flying was very uncomfortable for Peng, the 1960’s was the golden age of intercontinental air travel. He contacted a travel agent from a flyer in the local plaza and inquired about the trip. To his amazement, there was a flight that left that night from Victoria, the westernmost city in Canada, and went to Shanghai, the easternmost city in China. He asked for other options, hoping for more than wondering about the possibility of a later flight. Anything else would be another week, the woman at the agency told him, and take them further from their intended destination. Peng felt the universe was conspiring against him, or perhaps conspiring with Seen-Hung, he could not tell.
He agreed to book the flight before asking how much. The truth was Peng had money. Not of his own of course, and you could not tell from how he and Seen-Hung lived, other than the moderately-sized house. On the day they left the Mah family home, Peng took time to gather every valuable he could find and as the house’s chief servant, he knew where everything was. He felt no pang of guilt as he pillaged the house since no one else would ever have need of any of the riches. After all, they belonged to Seen-Hung anyway as the family’s only heir and Peng had no intention of spending a single coin on anything other than the child’s care.
Despite not being any burden, Peng gumbled when he was told each ticket was $450. He handed the money over and waited for his tickets to be issued before hurrying home with the news. If Peng felt put out by the rush, this was made up for by Seen-Hung’s elation. Peng told him to pack a bag quickly and to bring more clothes than the single set he had tried to run away with. Peng called for a car to take them to the airport and then began to pack for himself. In less than an hour, they were on their way to catch their flight, two small bags in tow. Just enough for a short vacation, Peng thought.
Just as the sun began to dip towards the horizon they boarded the plane. The air stewardess remarked at how well mannered Seen-Hung was as he handed her his own ticket. They walked into the single cabin which seated a few dozen passengers and Peng’s eyes were peeled open just as widely as Seen-Hung’s at the new wonder. They were shown to their row and the boy took the window seat without hesitation. After a reminder to put on his seatbelt, Seen-Hung stayed plastered to the window through taxing the runway, takeoff, and their ascent, only leaning back once they had been above the clouds for half an hour and the dark enveloped the sky.
Sleep began to beckon him. “Have you ever been to China?” With all the rush to the airport, Seen-Hung had forgotten to ask this all important question.
Peng smiled gently, “Yes.” And so have you, he thought. They flew all through the night and all of the next day. When it began to grow dark again and they were still in the air, Peng asked for clarity from the only man he saw working on the plane. The man explained very briefly about the timezones and that when they landed it would be morning. Peng was not exactly sure which morning, but he did not ask any further questions.
When the plane began its descent, sure enough, the sun came up to greet them. Seen-Hung was again glued to the window as they broke through the clouds towards the earth. Peng permitted himself to look as well, but only as casually as he could. Seen-Hung gripped Peng’s arm tightly as they landed. When the plane stopped, they took their two bags and made their way to the stairs. On the ground, Seen-Hung gawked all around and took in a deep breath through his nose. The landscape and buildings were all very different, but Peng remarked how much was totally familiar to where the plane had taken off from. The rays of the sun touched his face in just the same way, the wind blowing across the open tarmac moved through his sparse hair the same, and taking a breath himself, he found his old homeland smelled just the same as where they had left. He wondered if it had ever smelled any different or if that memory too had been hidden away in some yet unlocked recess of his mind.
Seen-Hung had slept twice on the flight, but Peng had very little. “Do you want to look around?” Peng asked.
“No, I want to go to my home. He’s waiting for me,” Seen-Hung insisted, to Peng’s great surprise.
“China is your home in its own way. Are you sure you don’t want to go to the city or see the Great Wall?” Peng tried. Seen-Hung only shook his head. Peng took the boy by the hand and led him to the train station. Despite his hurry to get to his prophetic destination, Seen-Hung paid no attention to where he was going, taking in all the new sights and allowing himself to be pulled along by Peng.
They got to the purchase window of the station and Peng stopped to question himself. Where am I taking him? He has only some fantasy in mind. Why take him to the real house at all? I could take him to any estate in any countryside and he would not know. Then Peng thought of the chilling accuracy with which the boy pictured his own childhood home. What if I take him somewhere else and he knows? What if he runs from me again, dragged by some imaginary monster and I lose him here? Then finally his real fear broke through the barriers he had erected in his mind to protect both his sanity and what he believed to be true about the world. What if none of it was a fantasy? What if the boy was being called to return to his ancestral home? What if that “thing” that he had once explained away as anything but real was indeed waiting for them? Peng stood staring at the ticket window and again felt forlorn at being dragged along, as if by destiny itself, and he knew he would not try to push off some other fraudulent place to the boy who he was sure would somehow know.
He walked to the window and spoke in his native tongue, “Two tickets for Hubei province, please.”
“Where are you traveling to, sir?” the attendant asked.
“Towards Wuhan.” Peng paid the fare with some notes he still had not exchanged from when he left almost five years ago. They sat and ate noodles as they waited for the train to board at one o’clock. With nothing to do but wait, Seen-Hung agreed to walk around the station while Peng fought off the queasiness of little sleep.
When the time came, they made their way into the cabin and found seats. “Is it far?” Seen-Hung asked.
“Yes. Another eight hours still.” This seemed remarkably fast to Peng who remembered the travails of their escape, but to Seen-Hung that meant another day away from his destination, which seemed like an eternity. All the same, he was pleasant on the train. Even at six, he was aware that Peng had dropped everything and brought him all the way across the world because of his love and devotion to him.
Seen-Hung again took to the window. Now in the countryside, moving towards the interior of the country, Peng could finally recognize the uniqueness of the country again. The trees had not turned the burnt orange and red that Canada’s did. He could see now that the foliage hung from the branches differently. The hills rolled over one another in slopes different from Victoria’s. He even thought that the clouds hung in the sky in a unique way; a way unique to him and his people, and he finally remembered this was in fact his home despite what he had said to Seen-Hung.
Peng nodded off to sleep in his seat. Hours later he woke abruptly in a startle. Seen-Hung jumped at the sudden jolt. “What’s wrong, daddy?”
Peng blinked himself back to his surroundings. A reassuring calm spread across his face. “Nothing is wrong. Just a bad dream.”
“What was in your bad dream?”
Peng chuckled, “Monsters.”
“A nice one?”
“No, I do not think so. I do not know any nice monsters.”
“My monster is nice,” Seen-Hung stated plainly.
“How do you know a big, shiny red monster is nice? Aren’t monsters like that usually dangerous?” Peng asked, no longer sure if he was only kidding the boy on or if this fantasy had started to take root in his own mind.
“He’s nice to me. He said he wanted to help me.”
Peng saw the sun begin to move towards the earth and felt the weight of their impending arrival. He could no longer push away thoughts of when they had last left the home they were now racing towards.
Seen-Hung’s father had been a regional ruler over a small town of only a few thousand people called Xiaojiatian. He had inherited the right to rule from his father and had the right to hand the land over to his son when he came of age. The governor of Hubei province mostly stayed out of the affairs of the regional powers unless they caused him to take note. Usually to be taken notice of was gravely perilous, but another young local regional ruler from Lijiagang instead came to prominence in his mind. At first, this young ambitious ruler would approach other leaders to barter. Then he began to ask those friends to swear fealty in the name of united strength. Those who he could not easily hold sway over were then approached by his thugs, who demanded tribute. Finally, those who would not pay were driven from their homes or burned inside of them. He incited the other rulers of each small place saying, “why let the governor hear that there is one quarrelsome person causing trouble in our province and so send men to depose us all? Is it not better to remove the one ourselves?” When the governor finally did hear of what was happening in the eastern outskirts of his province, and among only tens of thousands of men rather than the millions he ruled, he thought, why not let one man consolidate power if he can do it? All the easier to govern one rather than the hundreds.
Ruler Mah was one of the last men in the whole region to resist this young usurper. Finally one night, the young ruler himself came on the train to the remote station just outside the Mah property. He stepped off the train and a thousand men poured out from every door to join him. Ruler Mah had done his best to arm almost every man who could carry a weapon in the region, but there was no time to call for them and he had scarcely two dozen men in his home who could fight.
The young ambitious ruler called, “Uncle Mah, come out.” Ruler Mah came through the door with two armed guards. “This needn’t get ugly, Uncle Mah,” he said. “Let us only work together for peace.”
“This is no peace, you devil,” ruler Mah called back.
“You are a proud and wise man with a long history in this area, Uncle. I would not harm you and your honour, so I ask only two things of you. First, allow me to speak on your behalf to the governor in all regional matters. It is only right that we are united.”
Ruler Mah surveyed the situation and knew he would have to relent, but he called to the young man, “And what is the second thing you would ask?”
“I will not harm you or drive you from your home and so disgrace you. Only swear that your rule over this land will end with you. When you die, now or in many years, my family will rule over Xiaojiatian.”
Ruler Mah stood tall and defiantly. “You are right that my family has long had claim to this land and I will not sell my son’s birthright to a villain and a robber.”
“Please Uncle, consider the alternative.” The ruler gestured to his men to raise their weapons.
Ruler Mah’s eyes blazed with contempt, but he thought to himself, if he was allowed to live along with all of his family, and even to remain on the land, that he would have many years for the fortunes of the region to shift and to plan his resistance. “Very well. You have my word,” he called.
“Excellent choice, Uncle. I know you are an aged man, but I wish many long and happy years on the land for you and your daughters.” The young ruler bowed tritely. “Uncle Mah, one more thing. Am I right in understanding that you have only one son?”
“I do,” ruler Mah called across the distance. “And I have sworn to you his right over this land.”
“I am touched by your sincerity and the value of your good name,” the young ruler waxed, “But all the same, to ensure he never misunderstands what is his and what is mine, in order to seal our agreement you must send him out to me.”
Ruler Mah was filled with rage and returned inside, slamming the door behind him. Those inside the home heard what the haughty young man had said and broke into a panic. They frantically ran about the house, grabbing the children and trying to cover the windows in vain. Ruler Mah ordered every man in the home to be armed and sent out onto the lawn, except Peng who, with the exception of himself, was the oldest man in the house. Peng tried to insist, but the ruler told him to find Seen-Hung and get him somewhere safe.
As the two dozen men streamed out of the house, the young ruler’s soldiers opened fire. Within seconds each of them lay at the bottom of the steps in a heap. Bullets continued to fire and tore through the house shattering windows and eating away at the brick. Anyone standing near the front of the house was hit.
Peng was unscathed as he searched the second floor. He called out to the boy, but as he searched wildly he was grabbed by his wife. “The guardian!” she yelled to him over the sound of the flying bullets. “We must pray to the guardian.”
He shook her hands from him. “You go, I must find Seen-Hung.”
Somehow, even though each member of the family prayed before the altar of the land’s guardian each day, it was only a servant, Peng’s pious wife, who thought of him in this dire moment. As the roar of gunfire finally extinguished, the spouses both completed their tasks. Peng found Seen-Hung screaming and clutching the side of his crib. Peng’s wife knelt before the family altar in the upper living room.
“Oh great guardian of this land,” she prayed. “Come and protect your dwelling. Safeguard your inhabitants whom you have never failed. Do justice and drive this wicked man from the earth. And above all else, spare the life of Seen-Hung and preserve his inheritance.
The gunfire stopped and Ruler Mah looked over his household and beheld the carnage. “Peng!” he hollered. Peng came down the stairs with the boy in his arms. Ruler Mah took his son and without looking at him, began to stride towards the door, his blood in a trail after him.
All the house was agape, but too terrified to move. Only his wife ran and clung onto her husband, “No!” she screamed. He flung her to the ground where she stayed in a heap. He walked through the front door, stepped over the pile of bodies and stared at the young man. He placed his son on the ground and yelled, “Take him and go!” before turning and walking back into the house.
Everyone in the house wept as the young ruler approached the child. Only Peng did not weep because of the anger that burned in his heart. It burned not against the evil young man, but at ruler Mah. In all his life Peng had never even entertained disobeying a word his master said, but in this moment there was only one thing that was right and it stood out starkly against everything else that was not only wrong, but what seemed to Peng to be savagely inhuman. He ran for the door, not giving ruler Mah a second to react. He leapt over the dead men and took the boy in his arms while the ruler was still some hundred feet away.
“They’ll kill us all!” he heard ruler Mah shout after him, but he took no note. He got to his feet and ran east away from the house and the tracks towards the high grass at the edge of the Mah property where the tall hills began.
“Go!” the young ruler hollered to some men who broke out in pursuit. As the grass came into sight through the near pitch black, Peng began to hear a rumble. He didn’t stop running, but soon he could feel the rumble, pulsing and penetrating through him. He felt it boom through his chest and in his ears and throat. Peng wondered if he had been shot. The rumble was so loud he felt as if he was standing right on the tracks of a train speeding towards him filled with exploding fireworks.
Finally, he saw a dark shadow, darker than the blackness of night, speeding right in front of him. As it passed narrowly to the right of him and the boy, he fell to the ground as the earth felt like it was giving way underneath him. Keeping both hands tightly around the boy, he had nothing to break his fall. Trying to focus his eyes, he saw the shadow of the figure weaving in a serpentine motion as a snake in the dirt, but it hovered a few feet above the ground.
Before he could climb to his feet, the figure had passed him in a bolt towards the train station. He heard screams and then sudden gunfire. Just above the horizon, Peng saw in the relief of the moon, bodies strewn like rag dolls that fell limply back to earth. The screaming persisted longer than the gunfire. He heard the train begin to move and in a moment it was gone and the countryside fell silent.
Peng fought back his terror and rose from the ground to start again towards the long grass that he was now almost close enough to reach out and touch. But then he thought. Was the crisis now averted? Was it not more prudent to return to the house? What would his master do? Would he punish Peng for his actions? Would he kill him? Or perhaps he would be so overjoyed at him saving his son that all would be forgiven.
Peng decided to lie in wait for a few minutes before returning to the house with the boy. Afterall, Peng did not know if the men were all gone or if the saving shadow had itself been dispatched by all the gunfire. More importantly, he realized that he still did not know what the shadow was and had no reason to believe it would not attack the boy as it had the young ruler’s men. Just then, Peng had his answer. The entire house shot up in an eruption of flame. Fire shot out of all of the windows and doors and quickly dissipated into smoke. Peng could not help but yelp in his dismay.
Immediately, the whole world was dark again. None of the house seemed to be alight whatsoever, despite the explosion of fire. Suddenly, the dull rumble grew louder and closer once again. Peng pinned himself and the child to the ground and waited silently for it to pass. In total indecision, unable to think of a single place that might be safe, he stayed there on the ground for hours soothing the child who, to his shock, quickly fell asleep in his arms.
Peng began to feel the dampness of morning and as soon as he saw the first sign of light, he rose from the ground with Seen-Hung and decided to make his way back to the house, if for no other reason than to see the fate of his wife. As he walked towards the front door, Peng saw not only the men from the Mah house that he had leapt over early that night, but many more bodies lying in the distance between the house and the train station. Unable to avert his eyes quickly enough, he even saw what looked to be half a man laying with his entails spread across the grass.
Entering the house, he saw that nearly every inch of it was black on the inside. Surprisingly, nothing smoldered or even appeared to be severely damaged. He saw tables and chairs burnt, but still standing. It was as if a sudden flash scorched every inch of the house, but did not remain long enough to set any of it alight. The same was true of all the people. He saw ruler Mah first by the door, then the ruler’s wife, just where he had thrown her, then finally his own wife by the foot of the stairs, charred and still. He fell down beside her. Seen-Hung tried to squirm away from him, but he held him firmly in his arms, not wanting to put him down in the soot. He put his free hand on his wife and permitted himself a moment to weep.
Seen-Hung looked at his mournful face inquisitively for only a moment before he began to try to break free of his grasp again. Peng knew it was time to go. He carried the boy with him as he moved about the house and took every valuable thing he could fit into a large bag that had been stored deep and unburned at the bottom of a closet. Then before lunch, he took Seen-Hung and began his escape to the coast.
When Peng finally came back to himself and took notice again of the train, he saw that Seen-Hung was staring up at him. He wondered how long he had indulged himself in the memory and what the boy must have seen in his face. He showed Seen-Hung his familiar face of quiet reassurance. “Having fun on the train?” he asked the boy. Seen-Hung nodded.
Peng asked a passing attendant, “How long until we arrive in Wuhan?”
The man looked at his watch. “Just under an hour, sir.”
Peng’s eyes widened. “And to Xiaojiatian?”
The man looked out the window. “We’ll be stopping any moment.”
Peng felt a warm, sickening flush sweep through his body. He took a moment to compose himself, looking out the window for anything he recognized. There were blocks of homes he had never seen before, but just behind them he spotted the tall hills that he was sure the dark figure had descended from on that fateful night.
The announcement came for Xiaojiatian and the train began to slow. “This is our stop,” said Peng, and he handed the boy his bag. They walked off the train hand-in-hand; one full of trepidation, the other excitement. As the train pulled away, the last car was as a curtain unveiling their prize. Peng was shocked to see in the distance that the house stood just where it had been. It was too far to tell if any changes had been made, but it was there.
Peng looked to Seen-Hung to give him the news. “There it is!” the boy burst out before Peng could say a word. “There’s my home!” He began to jump and pull at Peng’s hand. They made their way across the track crossing and down into the cool grass. Dusk was now giving way to night and it got darker with every step they took towards the considerable manor.
When they arrived at the front door, Seen-Hung yanked Peng towards the stairs. Peng pulled the boy back behind him and placed a hand on his chest. Nothing was different at all. The door stood open, the windows were all broken, and the house had obviously fallen into disrepair. It was as if no one had been to the house at all except to collect all the bodies that were conspicuously missing from the lawn. Peng was sure it must be filled with vagrants and called out into the house. “Hello? Is anyone there?” He waited for a response that never came. He thought how to dissuade the eager boy from going into the house while it was so dark.
Just then, Peng heard it. The rumble that shook the ground and penetrated his chest was moving towards them. It was slow and low, but seemed to be much closer to them already – like it had been waiting for them. Suddenly, it was there. It started as a shadow, but as it moved towards them, Peng saw it clearly. He fell to the ground and slid backwards, dragging himself with his hands and knocking Seen-Hung over underneath him. He immediately turned and covered the boy with his entire body. He shut his eyes tight and waited for his doom.
The thing was right over top of them now and he could feel its hot, wet breath on his back. Seen-Hung squirmed underneath him. “Peng, Peng!” The boy’s voice was jovial and with a free hand, Seen-Hung was rapping on the man’s cheek with as much care as he could to make him open his eyes. “It’s my friend! It’s the nice monster!”
Peng relented and turned to meet it. Scowling down at him was a dragon. It was both impossible and inescapably right in front of him. Just as Seen-Hung had described, it was enormous, its gently oscillating length disappearing around the side of the house. It was bright red like a fire engine and its whole body was dotted with yellow scales. It had protruding yellow eyebrows and whiskers and green rings for nostrils, which dilated open and shut threateningly.
Frozen in the terror of its contemptuous gaze, Peng failed to realize that Seen-Hung had wiggled out from under him. Peng stopped breathing when he saw that the boy was now standing only inches from him. Seen-Hung beamed up at the monster as only an ignorant child could, in the face of his certain demise. Without warning, the dragon broke its gaze with Peng and swung it’s head towards Seen-Hung. All haughtiness in the monster was gone and it narrowed its eyes and lifted it’s tight cheeks into what could only be considered a smile.
Finding his breath, Peng sputtered, “Huh uh, get away from him!” The dragon turned back to Peng with a snarl that plastered the man to the ground.
“No, daddy,” Seen-Hung said with a smile, “He’s nice.” The boy reached out and began to pet the jutting soft scales between the monster’s face and neck. It swung back around to Seen-Hung and the dragon nuzzled into the child like a kitten. “Hi nice monster. What’s your name?” The creature gave no answer, but continued to playfully nudge him. “Can I ride you now?” The dragon’s entire body was floating off the ground, but it quickly lowered its head into the dirt at the boy’s request. He climbed on and off they flew into the night.
“Seen-Hung!” Peng screamed into the darkness, but they were gone. The dragon flew the boy over the house and then the length of the entire property that had once belonged to his father. The dragon flew him low over the tall hills where he made his home as guardian of the land and around the train station at the boy’s request. Finally, they glided back towards the house where the dragon rested his considerable mass on the roof, large lengths of his body spilling off onto the ground. When his head peered out over the edge of the house, hanging between his horns was Seen-Hung who looked down to see Peng, white as a ghost, sitting vacantly in the grass.
Peng looked up and finally came to some realization that this was in fact happening and that his boy was hanging from a dragon, who was hanging from a roof, 20 feet off the ground. “Seen-Hung,” now his voice was raspy and weak. “Please, come down.”
“Could I go down now?” Seen-Hung said to the dragon. It slid it’s head forward and onto the ground where the boy got off. Peng, now fully comprehending his helplessness, only hugged the boy gratefully when he returned to him.
The dragon’s entire body now began to lift from the house and stretch out into the grass. It brought his head to a gaping bay window beside the door and blew a great gust of air into the house. All the years of debris were pushed up against the back wall. At the flick of his nostril, a burst of flame shot from the dragon into the house and was totally contained in the fireplace.
“Thanks,” said Seen-Hung. “Do you want to come inside with us?” The dragon came in close to the pair and Peng no longer had the will to resist, but he pulled back from its touch. The dragon touched its considerable head to the boy’s, then with a thunder, peeled off into the night towards the hills.
Now Seen-Hung was leading Peng by the hand, who could no longer make sense of anything around him. Inside, years of rain had washed the soot from most of the floor, and the dragon’s breath had washed away all of the water. Seen-Hung found a spot at just the perfect distance away from the fireplace and they both laid down there without another word.
The sun was already warm and a quarter way up the sky when the two awoke to voices.
“Hey, anyone here?” the voice called. Both Peng and Seen-Hung sat up. Two men took a single step into the house and spotted them. “What are you two doing here? Don’t you know anything? This house is prohibited for any person to enter by rule of the regional magistrate.” The pair on the floor only gawked. “Outside, now,” the same man ordered.
Peng once again took the boy’s hand and led them outside. When the men saw that they were coming quietly, the man who had been speaking to them eased into a friendlier tone. “Listen, this place is cursed anyway. You don’t want to be here. And besides, you can’t be. The magistrate is real touchy about this place and officially, it belongs to him.”
“No it doesn’t,” Seen-Hung retorted.
“What?” the man said, surprised at the impertinence of the six-year-old.
“This is my home,” Seen-Hung said innocently.
“Now don’t get smart with us kid,” the second man, who had not spoken yet, suddenly burst out. He reached forward and grabbed Seen-Hung’s shirt.
Peng, who was obviously no match for the man, grabbed onto his wrist tightly. “Please, let him go,” he asked softly. With a swing of the arm, the man threw both Peng and the boy to the ground and loomed over them. Just then, they felt it. The rumble. The two men began to look around in every direction to see where the galloping sound was rushing towards them from. Peng and Seen-Hung already knew what rushed and from where it came, so they looked to the hills. Just as they laid eyes on the dragon, it knocked both men up into the air and they fell down into the dragon’s mouth. He crunched twice, pulling their arms and legs into his open maw.
There was a long silence as the dragon slowly swallowed them. Seen-Hung got to his feet, unperturbed at the appalling sight. “Wanna come play?” The dragon seemed to nod his head. Seen-Hung headed towards the door of the house, while the dragon floated towards the smashed-in bay window. He slithered through the tight fit and coiled himself into a great mound in the middle of the room. Seen-hung climbed up onto the top of the dragon’s head and leaned out towards the door, holding onto one of his horns.
“Daddy, come inside. Come in my home.”
This is the beginning of a series on dreams that I have had recounted to me that I then turn into short stories. This dream was given to me by my almost four-year-old son. He was excited to hear it would become a story about him. His Chinese name is Seen-Hung. You will see from his verbatim account below that I didn’t work in the button and changed the train ride to the other side of the journey. This was in an effort to have it ready to release with the Lunar New Year with which is shares themes. It is also plenty long enough already.
This is what my son told me his dream was:
“We have to go to my house. It’s in China. First you take the train, then you go on the plane and it goes off the ground in the sky, then it goes on the ground again. Then my house is very close to the airport. It’s a big house. There’s a monster outside, but it’s a nice monster and he carries me everywhere. But he doesn’t like daddies so you have to stay inside. And there’s a button you can push, but if you touch it, it shocks you and you can’t feel your tongue.”