The Sea Lion that Jumped across Terraced Fields
“What’s the most serious problem? Home lor! Drugs lor! Everyday besides sleeping and playing games you do what? Yes, kill people lor! So the government commercialized the plan lor, scientists spent ten years to research how to store up sleep, so these Juveniles can be useful lor.”
Leopold Adi Surya
In this dreamscape, accessible from a hidden railway track of a Mass Transit Railway (MTR) station in Hong Kong, a boy named Kenichi meets a host of characters, from a vagabond called Pestilence who solicits the boy’s dreams as a valuable commodity at a government-run Sleep Bank, to a salamander who convinces the boy to become water, and a witch who prompts him to recall a dream—all in the name of securing his safe passage. The setting is the town of the Ruins (feixu 廢墟), run by a trapped, older generation of feiqing 廢青, which I translate as “Juveniles” to convey the negative image of feiqing as jobless, wrongly aligned sleepwalking youths. A Leng’s short story turns this stereotype on its head, via a Menippean satire about the cruel monetization of the lack of prospects for Hong Kong’s youth. In this recent example of Hong Kong speculative fiction, the young’s desire to dream without pawning it or giving it up, and to find a way out without looking back, captures the heat and heart of Hong Kong’s current movement.
To reflect the differences in tone and syntax of the Cantonese dialogue from the story’s Mandarin Chinese narrative, I adopted colloquial English used in Malaysia and Singapore—or, Malaysian English and Singlish—to translate the Cantonese. This choice, I think, aptly highlights the influence of Cantonese grammar, not excluding other southern Chinese topolects, Malay, and etc., on contemporary English in ex-British colonies in Southeast Asia.
Illustrations by Leopold Adi Surya
“Hey brother, what time is it? Here so early?”
Kenichi gazed around and found himself inside a run-down industrial building, the apple-green paint on its walls peeling off like bark, revealing a mottled undersurface. The few ceiling fans above didn’t move. Yet the floorboards had been restored into a pure rice-white, with ten or so items like tents and mats scattered across them. The voice came from the dark-colored blanket, a rolled-up human form next to the window that revealed only its tousled hair.
Kenichi stood up, embarrassed. He wasn’t sure what this place was, wasn’t clear how he had ended up here, and obviously, what’s more, wasn’t able to answer the guy’s question. After a while, the guy hoisted himself up and adjusted the tousled hair that covered half his face. Greatly annoyed, he narrowed his eyes at Kenichi, beckoned, and snapped: Just simply find a spot to sleep first! Plan only when you wake up! After speaking he lay back down and burrowed into his blanket, and upon turning wrapped himself more tightly, which made a gentle rustle. Kenichi nodded “Oh, Oh,” turned around twice, and chose a space in the corner farthest from the guy. The sleeping bag and mat were a rare goose yellow color. Kenichi hesitated, then looked around and saw that other sleeping bags were a very bright peach red and fluorescent green. Figuring that the goose yellow didn’t look too bad, he sat down with his back to the guy, and took out a leather-bound notebook from his schoolbag, followed by a Ziploc from its front pocket. There was a dark blue cloth in the Ziploc. Kenichi opened it, removed the cloth, and spread it on the ground. He did this all delicately, afraid of waking the guy and seemingly of being watched. In the scarf-sized cloth was a piece of paper, all yellowed and torn in some places. Small, closely-written characters filled the left-hand side, with the headline: “Seek… return society— brave and strong ones commun…” On the right was a photo of the collective, its young men and women making a V hand sign, grinning and laughing. At the bottom right was a simple hand-drawn map, and the destination was a newly-developed small town on a fine spring day. Kenichi silently read the characters once over. He got closer and studied the photograph, looked at its location, and surveyed his surroundings, shook his head, and quietly sighed. He folded the cloth in half twice, placed it in the Ziploc and the leather pocket, and stuffed the notebook into the bottom of his schoolbag. He rested his head on the bag. Staring into space, he fell asleep without knowing.
Some time later, Kenichi smelled tobacco and opened his eyes. He was out of sorts, unsure if it was day or night. But gazing ahead he saw the same guy resting against the wall, smoking a cigarette. The guy, hearing something astir, only shot a glance at Kenichi, and said, “Get up! Let’s do something!” Kenichi was still stunned, but the guy was already standing; he extinguished his cigarette butt against the windowsill, and flicked it out of the window. He turned around, patted his backside and pockets, then walked ahead. Kenichi sat back up, twisted around and groped for his bag, and heaved a sigh of relief. He stood up and jerked his sleeping bag, and smoothed it out, before kneeling to drag the edges together. Upon seeing the guy disappear through the door, he hurriedly scooped up his schoolbag, rushed after him in small, quick steps, and panting, asked: “Erm, what’s your name?”
“I’m Pestilence!” The guy didn’t even look back. The heels of his canvas shoes made pattering sounds.
“Ah! Pest—pest, oh, Patterson, is it?” Kenichi relaxed his breath, “Err—I’m sorry ah, this place—where is it?”
“Ah!” Pestilence suddenly stopped walking and turned around. Kenichi had to take two steps back. “What are you asking? Where is this place? You’re joking right?” Pestilence sounded fierce, but looked slovenly, as if he hadn’t slept and was under the weather, so Kenichi felt slightly relieved.
“No—no, I really don’t know! Last night I took the West Rail Line and changed lines, and almost missed the last train. I got off at Choi Hung station, and then…” Kenichi hastily explained.
“Stop right there! You said you took the train here? Those stupid idiots didn’t bring you here?” Pestilence interrupted him. Kenichi nodded, and then shook his head repeatedly.
“The stupid idiots, er, that you mentioned—who are they?” Kenichi asked.
“Taking the train? What train? What for!” Ignoring Kenichi, Pestilence muttered to himself, “Is it true that … damn! Chat later!”
Kenichi blindly gave in and followed him. Pestilence took vigorous strides, and suddenly asked, “Young boy, how old are you?”
“I am fifth, fifteen.” Kenichi spoke uneasily and pulled at the hem of his shirt. Pestilence grinned and laughed loudly, and beat Kenichi’s shoulders lightly with his fist, “Don’t be scared, just go to sleep.”
“Ah! — Sleep — again?” Kenichi was startled, and his hands reached to jerk his bag.
“Yep, about storing up in the Sleep Bank, I’ll tell you later.” Pestilence stood in front of the glass door, and scanned his fingerprint against the screen on the right wall. The glass door slid open noiselessly. Kenichi followed him in, and muttered the words “sleep bank” again and again.
Leopold Adi Surya
The room had no windows, the light was dim but gentle, the air ice-cold and fresh, as in the piercingly cold, open highlands. The door led into an entrance hall, whose walls sloped like stairs that served as shoe racks. On a tea table was a porcelain vase with a flower reclining in it, probably a plum blossom, or a peach or an apricot blossom, but Kenichi wasn’t sure. After the entrance hall was a big hall, with the faint sound of music. On the left was a wood-burning fireplace that was lit. In front of the fireplace was a golden retriever, which was lying down on a furry rug. It lifted its chin a little, and snorted its nose twice, before returning to its lying pose and furrowing its brows. Surrounding the rug was an obese sofa, which looked burnt umber under the glow of the fire. On the other side were Japanese-style tatami mats, in the wall niche was a thicket of small white flowers that bristly extended out of a crudely made earthenware jar. A painting that was the color of old leather hung on the wall, and the scenery it depicted was difficult to make out. The off-white tatami still carried the scent of hay, the fire pit in the middle was alive with charcoal fire, and an iron kettle sat atop the fire, its lid ajar, giving out the thudding sound of water. Steam moistened the air. Feeling enveloped by this warm current, one would unexpectedly feel drowsy and wish to burrow into the tube-shaped rectangle of a bed on the tatami, and go into deep sleep.
“So? Want to sleep here?” Pestilence turned around at the corridor, and saw Kenichi staring blankly in the room. “Also can, wait a bit!” he said and continued walking ahead, opened a door and entered the room. Kenichi peered in and looked around, and saw that the corridor was quite long, and flanking both sides were a row of doors, some of which were lit with a green light, and others a red light. Not long after, Pestilence came out with something under his arms.
“Here, you pick a hole first, this side or that side?” Pestilence carried the thing in front of his chest, and pointed his chin in both directions. Seeing that Kenichi was hesitant, he said, “This side lah, this side lah, if not Dou Dou—that creature—would mess with you, but it probably won’t. That’s settled, you’re on this side!” While speaking, he hurled the thing on the ground, and picked a bed that was closer to the fire pit for Kenichi. Kenichi felt as if he was still in a dream, and didn’t say anything. He walked over to wait for Pestilence’s arrangement.
“Which do you like? White suits you more lah. This is a smart pillow, works for everyone. You go inside first.” Kenichi drew a blank, and Pestilence continued, “Don’t be afraid. The covers and mattress will disinfect by itself. Just throw your schoolbag inside.” Pestilence knelt on the tatami, tossed a pillow inside, and clapped it twice. “Yep, yep,” Kenichi repeatedly agreed and walked over, raised the quilt, and lay down straight.
“Wait, wait,” Pestilence said hurriedly, “Let me prep something first—“ while speaking, he let Kenichi get dressed: with a wristband, a nightcap with an antenna, and an eye mask. Then he placed a palm-sized box, which made a beeping noise with the two antennas respectively, as if testing for temperature, next to the pillow. Finally able to lie down, Kenichi pulled down the eye mask, and suspected that he was dreaming.
“Can already, let me fix the time first. Two hours lah!” Pestilence said, while moving, “Can anot? If you can’t sleep, breathe in the smell, or listen to the water boil, very fast you will fall asleep. When you wake up I will bring you to ‘go to the market.’ I sleep next door over there, OK lah, faster lah.” After speaking, he quickly got dressed, pulled open the other bedding and burrowed inside, pulled down the eye mask, and stopped moving, as if he immediately fell asleep.
Kenichi wasn’t tired earlier, but since he entered this room, he felt as if his body had been injected with something. It turned soft and was about to come apart quickly, hovering in real need of support. Once he lay in bed—ah! the right spot—like this, he gasped in admiration to himself, as when he wore too many clothes in winter, and sometimes really couldn’t tell if his back or legs were itching. A quick scratch seemed to alleviate it, but he found it hard to locate the itch. So he scratched his head and waist, until he accidentally touched the “itchy spot.” The fortuitous delight of “oh so it had been here! I found it!” was really hard to describe. When Kenichi lay in the bed, he felt appropriate and satisfied.
“Grrr…grrr…” Kenichi followed the sound and went forward, and reached a small marshland at low tide. In the pool of mud were finger-sized holes, which sprouted small rounded creatures on occasion. Neither tadpoles nor mudskippers, they resembled inflated pufferfish, or were a hybrid of the three. They poked out their heads and looked around, some pushed lightly to climb out, and burrowed into other holes, while some drew back inside. Suddenly one of them said to Kenichi: Kenichi, quickly come down! Kenichi was dumbstruck, and pointed to himself: Me? Who, who are you? The small creature said: Oh, I am Serena! Aiyah, quickly lah! After speaking it climbed out, and slid across the mud pool, turned around and hurried Kenichi: Quickly ah! Kenichi followed it by walking along the shore, but Serena changed directions, so Kenichi had no alternative but to step into the mud pool. Once he stepped in, he turned into one of those small creatures.
“Serena, how come you are here? What are we?” Kenichi struggled to catch up with Serena, but didn’t know how to begin with his many questions.
“We are the giant salamanders, protected animals lah! Don’t talk about this now, quickly hurry up, we are much later than the others!” Serena said.
“Go where?” Kenichi asked, while pondering if giant salamanders could survive in a mud pool.
“After crossing this mud pool and the street in the middle, there’s a pond over there, which is having a party today! Hurry up, we need to pass through a bridge to cross the road. The bridge is surely very crowded lah!”
“What party?” Kenichi asked.
“The Frog party ah, if you can be friends with them, you might even be able to take a tour around the world!” Serena said.
“How come when you make friends with frogs, you can take a tour around the world ah?”
“What’s wrong with you, now so many people in Japan and the whole of mainland China raising frogs you don’t know meh? Please don’t just sleep all the time lah you, free also must busybody a bit.”
Leopold Adi Surya
“Cheh, it’s only you who is thinking of touring around the world mah!” Kenichi rebutted.
“OK, OK, then don’t need to wake up your ideas lah! See if dreaming will get you a job, and help you find your father!” Serena was unwilling to be outdone.
“Hey! You! I—“
“Sorry, sorry,” Serena gave in immediately, “I’m not on purpose. Ah, we quickly reach the bridge already!”
“—What if we cannot cross?” Kenichi said in a huff.
“Don’t worry, I’ve got a way!” Serena stopped, furled open her palm-sized fin, expanded her gills and took in a vigorous breath. From who knows where she fished out something the size of a Smarties, “Almost there! Swallow this pill, after that don’t talk anymore. When you reach the bridge, we will become water. The bridge is made of hollow bamboo, so we don’t need to squeeze together lah! Remember after you swallow it cannot talk ah! If not you cannot change back!” Kenichi nodded, after which the “pill” was pushed in front of his face. Both of them counted to three, and swallowed a pill together.
Soon after, they were crammed in, among their thickly dotted companions, unable to move, and felt their bodies gradually melt. What to do if they didn’t flow into the thick bamboo tube! Kenichi thought. Unable to open his mouth, he had to do as he saw fit. Maybe Serena already thought of this problem? There was some fear in their eyes. Luckily their bodies were more pliable after melting. They seeped through the cracks, and upon reaching the mouth of the bamboo bridge, they became a river just in time, and were sucked in forcefully. Now liquid, Kenichi still felt many hands and legs pushing and stepping on his body, as if they were kneading dough or scratching an itch, which was really comfortable. About one or two minutes later, he discerned a light at the exit. Soft yellow or soft green, it was quite dazzling. How could a liquid self also sense light? As Kenichi wondered about this, he heard repeated sounds of splashing. Water sprayed everywhere, and he fell into the pond and became a giant salamander. Poking his head out, he heard continuous voices: “Wah! So many frogs!” “Wah, got giant salamander, who can help me take a photo first?” Serena was nowhere to be seen. A frog on a lotus leaf waved to Kenichi. When Kenichi was about to swim over, suddenly the scene before his eyes vanished completely, leaving a blank.
“Hey! Wake up lah! Amazing, you completed it and passed the target!” It was Pestilence. Kenichi raised his eye mask, and saw Pestilence kneeling on the tatami, holding the small box that was next to Kenichi’s pillow. He connected it to a handphone-sized machine, and pressed down a string of numbers, like he was transferring files.
“Awesome! Just now when you were sleeping you stored up 120 units of sleep ah! Five times as much as normal people. Youngsters so formidable ah ha, you got a future!” Pestilence was in a good mood, so he spoke a lot, “I know you don’t know lah, I say simply for you, these 120 units of sleep is enough for a manual worker to add one week of work. If you sell as tonic, can fetch 8,000 US dollars in the market, process a little bit, can become a facial product one, seriously lah, can also sell for 15,000 US dollars. If you dream those weird dreams some more, even better, when give people to auction, each minute can sell for ten or twenty thousand US dollars!” Pestilence’s face lit up a little, as if he had made that sleep, or the money was already in his hands.
“How, how come ah?” Kenichi asked.
“What how come? Oh, auction ah? Sleeping with dreams is very valuable, some say dreams are art. So-called artists here don’t have inspiration anymore. They only buy dreams. Don’t you think that’s funny?”
“Huh? Really can buy? Where ah?” Kenichi said excitedly.
“Aih, but not for us ah, we only work for others and get forgotten.” Pestilence became listless, “Didn’t I tell you before, dreams have to be stored in the Sleep Bank! Have you heard of Sleep Bank?” Kenichi shook his head. Pestilence continued speaking, “That’s normal, before I came here I was like that, besides sleeping and playing games, everything also don’t know. The Sleep Bank was a secret R&D government project, planned originally for social welfare, like financial aid for cars and boats, those with the lowest pay, and housing subsidies that kind lah! You know the sleep deficiency problem in society is getting more serious lah. It’ll get really bad if no one solves it! But in the end, hmph—only god knows which poor person has enjoyed such welfare benefits!”
“So, if we, no, you store your sleep in the bank, does that mean you are selling your sleep?” Kenichi asked.
“Depending on how you see it, it’s possible! But you’ll get the lowest pay in that case. After all, sleep cannot be directly taken out to be used. Saving, then processing it, before you take it out, only then you make it valuable!” Pestilence rubbed his tousled hair with his hands, and made a “bah” sound.
“How did you find this job?” Kenichi asked, his hand holding the belt of his schoolbag tightly, his joints suffused with white.
“Haha… finding a job! I haven’t found a job in my whole life! Jobs find me!” Pestilence slanted his eyes and looked askance at Kenichi, and upon seeing Kenichi’s eyes bulge and turn its attention away immediately in astonishment, he forced a few laughs, and continued, “Twenty to thirty years ago, there was a dumb ‘Spread your Wings’ project. You heard before? Supposedly it helps youngsters who didn’t finish school to develop their forte. The plan failed at the end, everyone also knows lah. Youth problems—hey, you’re also a youth, cannot be you don’t know? What’s the most serious problem? Home lor! Drugs lor! Everyday besides sleeping and playing games you do what? Yes, kill people lor! So the government commercialized the plan lor, scientists spent ten years to research how to store up sleep, so these Juveniles can be useful lor. If they like to sleep so much, then can use sleep to repay society lah! You thought they will give you so much money to sleep? Think first lah!” While he spoke, Pestilence got more agitated and bitter.
So the government commercialized the plan lor, scientists spent ten years to research how to store up sleep, so these Juveniles can be useful lor. If they like to sleep so much, then can use sleep to repay society lah!
Kenichi stayed silent. After a while, he spoke indistinctly, falteringly, “Er—but not many youngsters kill people, hey hey… … just now you said you liked to play games? So do you know if back then there was a batch of people who were so smart at playing games, the government sent them to training?”
The small box made a beeping sound. Pestilence pressed a button to stop it, logged out from the account, and packed his things. Upon hearing Kenichi’s words, he stopped, turned around and stared at him for a few seconds, before laughing loudly, “What are you saying. So smart at playing games can get training? Which country and what year did this happen? By the way, young one, don’t mind me so blunt, are you alright?” While he spoke, Pestilence twirled his index finger near his brain.
Kenichi didn’t say anything, bowed his head, his ears gradually turning red. Pestilence finished packing after a long while, and said, as if nothing happened, “You really haven’t heard of anything? About the Sleep Bank?”
“M-hm, there’s a very popular beauty parlor in recent years. People used to go to Korea to get a face-lift, now they come to Hong Kong. Supposedly after patching up and making their face beautiful, they can become ten to twenty years younger! But I heard it’s super expensive, all the while only stars and celebrities go there. I don’t know how it works, maybe also got operations and injections! After listening to you, maybe they also use some of the sleep!” Kenichi still wasn’t enthusiastic.
“Not maybe, surely!” Pestilence was resolute and decisive. “Not surprising you don’t know, this kind of thing even if it’s not illegal, got moral issues. Hey! Wake up a bit, let me bring you to the Ruins to walk around.” Pestilence patted Kenichi’s shoulder.
“Can we eat something first? I’m a bit hungry.” Kenichi stroked his stomach, and laughed.
“Of course lah, eat all you can! Then we go to the Ruins.” Pestilence said, and placed his things in a room along the corridor. As he waited, a few people came in and out, one after another. Some nodded as a greeting, some bowed their heads as they came in and out. Everyone ignored Kenichi.
The walking distance from the sleep center to the Ruins was about fifteen minutes. Along the way were abandoned commercial buildings, and no cars passed by on the road. Where was this place? Obviously he was in the same city, but Kenichi had not known of this area. How did Pestilence and other people come here? Kenichi was determined to find out.
“How did we come here?” Pestilence laughed scornfully, “Brought here by bastards. You know what we call Juveniles?” Once Kenichi nodded, he continued, “Ha, who knew this word lasted so long. We still use it now. We are the Juveniles from twenty years ago lah! Just ask some random person ‘what is it you like ah,’ if it’s not sleeping they will say playing games. That’s why when you asked me just now if people were sent to training because they were smart at playing games, I laughed at you. Really make me laugh till all my teeth fall off. Training! If you don’t get euthanasia considered good already, want training some more! We came here as a batch, got who doesn’t like to play games? Unless you think that we are now getting training? We’re just guinea pigs only, that time they said sleep can be stored and reused, but then some people were so busy they don’t have time to hang themselves, where got extra sleep for you to try? Only these bunch of parasites, only know how to play games, sleep, they might as well bring benefit to society lah! So they were sent here lor.”
“So do you know—er—if there’s someone called ‘Gamer God?’” Kenichi’s voice grew softer as he bowed his head. He stared at the tips of his shoes.
“‘Gamer God’? Ha, frankly, whoever who plays games will think that they are a gamer god!” Pestilence laughed out loud. Seeing that Kenichi was embarrassed, he asked seriously, “Speaking of which, how did you get here? Also the weird, weird questions that you ask, what the hell?”
Kenichi said nothing.
“Don’t worry, basically there are no secrets here, even if we do, no one cares. You said you got off at Choi Hung station. And then?” Pestilence asked.
“After that I exited the station, I walked and walked and don’t know why I walked onto the railway tracks, and then entered a subway. When I was in the subway, I think I fell asleep. When I opened my eyes, I’m already in your living place lor.” Kenichi raised his head and looked at Pestilence, afraid that he didn’t believe him.
Pestilence set his eyes on him for a while, turned his head and said hesitantly, “M-hm… … that makes sense. So some of the rumors were true! Don’t care about this part first, aren’t you in school? What are you looking for?”
Kenichi took a deep breath, stood tall and straight in a resolute manner, and said, “I’m looking for a person as well as a place. The ‘Gamer God’ I just asked you about is, I guess, my father.” Kenichi paused a little, and seeing that Pestilence didn’t look the least bit surprised or laughed, eased his breath and continued, “I’ve never seen him. I also have a brother who’s ten years older than me. He—he killed himself a while ago.” Kenichi’s voice quivered a little. He stopped, and waited for his tense muscles to relax, “Actually, I’m not that close to him. When I was born, my parents got divorced. He stayed with my grandpa and my grandma since young, and I was raised by my mother. I heard that he really liked playing games. I’ve never touched it from young until now. I always had to go to tuition, I wasn’t good at school. I wished I was smarter, if not next time I don’t know what to do. Don’t need to talk about buying a car or house lah, even finding a job is difficult. At home I always listened to my mother, everyday I went to school and tuition. She thinks I’m hardworking. I know myself, actually I sleep everyday, at school I sleep, at tuition I sleep, even if I don’t sleep, I open my eyes wide and daydream. Sometimes I would even think: why without a job, I am in charge of sleeping? So I’m sure I can do it well. Who knew there’s such a job—“ Kenichi stopped here, and looked at Pestilence quite excitedly. Pestilence nodded, then shook his head, and motioned Kenichi to finish his story.
“A week before my brother killed himself, he came to the tuition center to look for me, and handed me a newspaper clipping from twenty years ago. The newspaper said that the government sent a batch of youngsters who loved gaming for special training, but it didn’t say what they did inside specifically, but my brother said it’s very possible that they were trained to be something like hackers, which was highly classified. He said that even though our father was not a youngster, he was nominated because everyone knew about his gaming skills. But because my brother was still small then, my mother didn’t let him go, so he couldn’t go. But since then, my father blamed my mother everyday, and said that my mother stopped him from improving. They finally divorced the year I was born. My father also disappeared. My brother said, our father surely became part of a secret society, that’s why he didn’t contact his family. He said all this, and then told me to think about my future, and said that if I found dad, it’s possible that I could also receive another kind of education. Don’t need to work hard at tuition everyday, and still can’t catch up.”
“That’s why you came here lah!” Pestilence said.
“From the start I thought he played games till he’s crazy, and said all that nonsense, but after he died, I received his letter, which told me that I had to look for the training center, and do what I like, and not stupidly play-play through my whole life. There’s no harm in finding it, I think. Some more next year have to take the DSE, I surely cannot pass. If there’s a way out, then that’s not a bad thing, and so—“ Kenichi nodded, as a way of concluding his story that started from beginning to end.
“You think that the training center is here?” Pestilence furrowed his brows.
“The newspaper clipping has a very simple map, which says that it’s close to Choi Hung station. Not likely at first, because the drawing on the newspaper clipping looked like quite a booming place, but from here it looked more like ruins. But after going to the sleep center, I feel that it might be here, at least if I stay behind, I really can make a living from selling my sleep!” Kenichi said and looked at both sides. The abandoned factory buildings grew fewer while the number of trees increased, “Yep, if I stay behind, can you put in a word for me to work at the sleep center? More specifically how does it work?”
“Getting an account is harder. Nowadays new people have to be recommended by someone inside. The job is really simple, everyday you take a nap for two hours at the center —if the quality of your sleep sucks, you’ll need three to four hours, or if you sleep well, like you did just now, after that you can rest for a few days.” Pestilence said, “Everyone has an account and a card, once you give enough sleep everyday, you can do anything in your spare time. If you like to sleep you can keep sleeping, if you like to play games you can play games, or if you want to do a start-up, go to the Ruins and open a shop.”
“Wow! That’s great! Can still do a start-up! Where does the capital come from?”
“Sleep lor! Here, sleep is the currency for everything.”
“I love sleeping so much. For sure I will have so much capital lor.” Kenichi was radiant with joy.
“Sleep is equal to your life span. You must know that sleeping at the sleep center and at the hostel are different. The sleep you produce at the sleep center will be deducted from your life span, but the sleep at the hostel maintains your health.” Pestilence doused him with ice-cold water.
“You mean, the more I sleep at the sleep center, the faster I’ll die?”
“Ha, that’s right. You’re so direct. It’s exactly like that!” Pestilence laughed heartily, “But life is short, people must die eventually, never mind.”
Leopold Adi Surya
“Er, so, eating and live—“ Kenichi asked.
“All included, nothing to care about. Entertainment, spending, there’s everything in the Ruins, later you’ll see.”
“That’s good too, I don’t need to worry about anything. Unlike us, from the day we are born we are scared of losing at the starting line. Try so hard to catch up also cannot.” Kenichi said with admiration.
“That bloody starting line is kind of dumb, who gets to decide it ah. Got good things here also. Everything has two sides lah, if you think about it carefully, you will feel that you are a robot. Besides sleeping to extend your life, there’s nothing you leave behind lor.” Pestilence was chopping and changing. “Hey, I won’t talk about this now. Nah, the Ruins is up ahead lah, you go walk around first, use this card when you buy or eat anything. I’ll go back to the hostel to say hello to a new person. I’ll find you later.” Pestilence scooped out a smart card and gave it to Kenichi.
“I also wanted to ask you, how to stay behind here.” Kenichi said, taking the card.
“Go walk around the Ruins first. See more, understand more.” Pestilence turned to walk, and said, “Sometimes there is no going back if you have decided, so think about it carefully. If you can’t find me after your stroll around, wait for me at the ‘Water Cooler!’”
Kenichi took the card, and his eyes followed Pestilence’s gradually receding figure. He then turned around and continued on to the Ruins. Kenichi thought that “The Ruins” was a historic site, and didn’t get why it had assorted fun like eating and drinking. From far away he saw a big gate, and in the middle was a board inscribed with the name “Art and Literature Lane.” Only then did he get why Pestilence ridiculed it by calling it “The Ruins of Juveniles.” Kenichi actually much preferred this name; “Art and Literature Lane” felt too pretentious. In recent years, shops with the so-called “young artistic intellectual style” popped up everywhere. They combined Japanese brevity with Taiwanese romanticism, though in Hong Kong, possibly due to rent pressures or the shrewdness of Hong Kongers deep in their bones, what ought to be a leisurely rural style was mixed with a pushy aggression that signaled their feelings of being a cut above the rest, that going there one felt quite uneasy. Kenichi always hated those shops.
The original conception of the Ruins most likely followed that line of thinking, but it turned out “crooked.” In upsetting the “irregularity” of meticulous planning and fake simplicity, it produced a sincere rustic charm. Kenichi milled around, not knowing how big the Ruins was. Originally it was three rows side by side, where each small shop had an equal set-up area, but now some owners knocked down the wall between two shops and made them into one; some simply took apart the roof, and made it into a tent structure; some cleared out all decorations, and left behind nothing but a few chairs. Most shops sold only one product, such as strawberry-flavored shaved ice; the dry mixed noodles shop served baby corn as their only condiment, the fried dumpling shop served only dumplings with shiitake and corn filling, the pickled vegetables shop served only blanched Chinese cabbage, the popcorn shop served only caramel popcorn… … Each shop had only one shopkeeper, who carefully prepared the food. Customers came, tapped their cards, and sat down to wait. The shop owner would only start cooking when customers arrived, and after cooking would press the bell. Customers took the food themselves, and after eating placed their tableware into the dishwasher. The whole process and exchange only involved a bowl of food. When leaving, customers tapped their cards again, and the screen displayed a serial number and not a money amount. Kenichi ate some dry mixed noodles, dumplings, lobster soup, still not knowing how the process worked.
Besides food shops, other shops also sold a single product—some of which was in a single color, made using a single material, or had a single design. Some of the products were new to Kenichi, since they might have been self-designed and produced. So this was what Pestilence meant by “start-up.” What kind of shop did Pestilence open? Was the “Water Cooler” that he mentioned earlier not his shop? Kenichi thought, while looking at the shop signs. The two names “Ideal Pawnshop” and “Listening Shop” were really special. Kenichi decided to go find out more about them.
The shopfront to “Ideal Pawnshop” didn’t have the narrow doorway and tall counter that Kenichi was accustomed to seeing. Instead, the shop was mainly in lake-blue and white, bright, brand-new. So in the Ruins, it had a unique vitality. Weren’t the residents of the Ruins all set for life? Why do they still need to pawn things? Kenichi didn’t understand. Beside the two shop owners, one tall and one skinny, there were no customers. When Kenichi entered, they came out to greet him together. The tall guy asked: May I ask if you’re here to pawn something, or? Or what, Kenichi didn’t ask. The entire shop gave off the fragrance of smoked wood and milk. He looked around. Hanging on the left white wall was the character for “pawn.” The glass cabinet on both sides had rows of written captions like “service,” “skill,” “specialty,” and other classifications. Plastered on the squares of what looked like Chinese medicine drawers were the same things, in different sizes of big and small, mostly gray: bluish gray, purplish gray, ashy gray, including many types of gray that Kenichi couldn’t name, all placed in the glass cabinet. Though they were like square-shaped clay bricks, they looked really spectacular against the white wall.
“Processing station” was written on the other side, which had the same Chinese medicine drawers. The coarse texture of original wood neutralized the overly exquisite lake-blue wall. In the cabinets were moulds of different flora and fauna, all made in one color that was deeper than wood, but lighter than coffee. It was a leathery type of golden yellow. Kenichi looked here and there, and the two shop owners didn’t disturb him. Until Kenichi finished browsing, they invited him to sit down for a chat.
It was a dream to run a pawnshop, and those who came to the Town of Juveniles had dreams, though they were not clear. (The government called this town the Town of Art and Literature, but out of habit people called it the Town of Juveniles.) This situation really affected the quality of sleep, but since dreams can’t be abandoned anyhow, Duo Duo and Werewolf opened this pawnshop, and allowed people to store their dreams here temporarily. Its cost was measured in terms of sleep—“sleep” was the transaction currency for the town of the Ruins. The color of dreams hinged on the clarity with which the owners described their dreams, so the clearer the dreams the deeper the color. Even though their dreams were shallow at the start, they would change color as their owners changed their thoughts (the ingredients for making dreams? Er, that’s a trade secret, it’s a food that Duo Duo “developed,” and its main component, as disclosed, is cheese.) The owners of dreams can come regularly to update their dreams, and even process it, which is the function of the “processing station.” As their dreams changed, some made their old dreams into a specimen and stored them; some gave up their dreams, and allowed Werewolf to process them arbitrarily, before selling them to others. If they couldn’t be sold, they would be air-dried, and when they aged, they were used to pair with wine (this is a customer’s joke, but now isn’t everyone still young! No one knows if that will be real.) Sold to whom? The Town of Juveniles has visitors once a month. No, guests assume that we made up this story. They also assume that they bought specially made cheese. That’s right, customers don’t have “sleep” currency, since they use another type of currency, but that’s another story. Aren’t they tourists? Werewolf asked, isn’t today the date? Duo Duo shook his head, so how did you come here? Kenichi simply told them the course of events that still eluded him. When they heard that he walked through a tunnel, they exchanged a meaningful glance, and recommended that he go to the “Listening Shop” or the “Garden of the Interpretation of Dreams” by the corner to have a look.
Kenichi followed their instructions, and visited “Listening Shop” first. The front and the back of “Listening Shop” were divided in two by a screen in the middle. The screen was burlap, with a few ink strokes of wild grass on it. Inside there was a vague impression of a deck chair. Outside there was a study table, stacked with Xuan paper and leather. “Listening Shop” was managed by a gloomy person of indiscernible age. He had the sensitivity of early youth, and the steadiness of a middle-aged person. Kenichi entered and glanced around disinterestedly. He pointed to the wall calendar, which was “fully booked” today, and only had an open spot in two days. Kenichi read the caption, and learnt that “Listening Shop” mainly catered to listening to guests talk, and in that allocated time what visitors recounted would be transformed into a form of poetry, prose, fiction, drama, or biography that they could take with them. Kenichi thought about it, and felt that he didn’t have anything good to say, so he didn’t make an appointment. He walked aimlessly into the “Garden of the Interpretation of Dreams,” located diagonally opposite.
The “Garden of the Interpretation of Dreams” was fixed up like the forest house of the seven dwarfs, which looked strange and unexpected. The Interpreter of Dreams was obviously Snow White, just as everyone thought! Hence, when Kenichi saw a witch all dressed in black, he was really frightened. Yielding with a show of reluctance, he sat with half of his buttocks suspended mid-air, and received the apple offered to him by the witch, not knowing whether to eat it. The witch sat across from him, and surveyed him up and down, saying, “You came here through the third track at Choi Hung station!” It wasn’t a querying tone. Kenichi waited for a while and looked at her, and didn’t speak.
Leopold Adi Surya
“You blindly groped your way here, so you didn’t know. We were sent here over twenty years ago lor, none of us went back to our previous homes during this time. You know why? Because no one found a way back! The best way was to sneak into a tourist bus, but no one was successful. We tried every route lah, but it always broke off at some point. The road ah, breaking off, was like drawing on a piece of paper. If you reach the edge, that’s the end of the road. Like this you understand? Now you’re scared right, because you’re thinking you don’t know how to go back, haha…….” The witch laughed at Kenichi, “Don’t be scared yet! Should be able to find the door bolt lah, but you need to help me.”
“Cannot go back by the tunnel meh?” Kenichi’s voice tightened.
“Not that you cannot, problem is you must find the railway track first. If really got such a railway track in the past, it’s because when the MTR did a test run before they opened to traffic, a whole train disappeared for three minutes at Choi Hung station. Don’t know where it went. When it came back, a few engineers from overseas were scared out of their wits. They only could say that they went to a different dimension. Others couldn’t say anything. They finally went back home for treatment. And so another railway track was built at Choi Hung station, and the original track was destroyed. Later when some tried to look for it they couldn’t find it.” The witch stopped and drank a mouthful of hot coffee.
“You mean—the railway track doesn’t exist anymore?” Kenichi asked.
The witch closed her eyes and nodded, ripped off a piece of cake and put it in her mouth, “In theory, yes, but in practice, you must have come here by this way. So, if we can find this tunnel to reach that door bolt in the town of the Ruins, then you can find the tunnel entrance and that “disappeared track” lah!”
“But, but I—I also don’t know—“ Kenichi rushed to say.
“Relax, relax, I know a way.” The witch had a well-thought-out plan. “You didn’t come here by accident. Think harder, before you came here, did you have a really vivid dream? Slowly think about it.”
“How if I can’t go back?” Kenichi asked.
“If you can’t go back? Then you will be like everyone here. To survive, you will sell your sleep and dreams, and pass your days like a walking corpse.” The witch said, “But don’t worry, one look at you I know that you are someone who dreams a lot. Most important now is for you to relax. Your most disturbing or most frequent dream is what, just tell me lah! I will help you find the way home!”
Kenichi nodded slowly, took a deep breath and slowly let it out. He closed his eyes, and knew that it was this dream—after his brother died, he dreamt it almost daily: he was walking on and on along a mountain path filled with bits of sandstone, a mountain path that spiraled upward like terraced fields. Halfway he saw a bevy of sea lions, swarthy and packed together, flopping and jostling toward one direction in a rush. Suddenly one sea lion broke out of formation, and seemed to want to climb to the mountain top. Kenichi got hooked and followed that sea lion in a daze, seeing its slick body gradually covered in dirt, worried that it would die of thirst. Halfway up the mountain, the sea lion gulped down a bunch of stone bits, and shot into the sky. It tried to jump to the highest level of the terrace fields, but kept tumbling down each level. Crack! Crack! The noise landed like resounding slaps on Kenichi’s face. Crack! Crack! The sea lion persisted, but Kenichi was worried that the small stones it ate would tear open its belly. The sea lion kept tumbling at the same ridge, crack! Crack! A huge pit was smashed out of the ridge! It was heartrending for Kenichi to watch. Sea lion! What are you doing? The terraced fields aren’t a place for you! Go back to the ocean, quickly! Return to your ranks…… Only Kenichi was worried for the sea lion. Giddy up! Kenichi was burning with impatience, and shouted himself hoarse, but the sea lion, as before, leapt up and tumbled down! Kenichi cried and knelt by the roadside. Suddenly, he realized that he no longer heard the heavy thuds that rained on him. He raised his head. Ah, success! The sea lion was lying on the highest level of the terrace fields, seemingly at its last gasp, half of its body submerged in the muddy pit that it blasted out. Kenichi couldn’t help but enthusiastically clap for it……
Opening his eyes, he saw the witch raising her head and pouring in the last dregs of coffee. Kenichi could see the loose folds of her neck expand and contract. The witch caught his eyes, “So how? Remember yet?”
Kenichi shook his head, “I can’t remember anything!”
The witch: “Oh?”
Kenichi: “I’ll head out first. I have to meet someone. When I remember it, I’ll come back to look for you!”
The witch: “OK, I hope not too late!”
Kenichi put on his schoolbag, and walked out of the “Garden of the Interpretation of Dreams.” He walked toward the other end of the Ruins, to look for the “Water Cooler.”
Kenichi stepped forward, and the scenery behind him shimmered, collapsed, and disappeared right away. What a pity—or should we say, luckily, he didn’t look back, didn’t see anything.
This short story was first published in 《方圓》 O-square, volume 2 (2019) as 〈跳梯田的海獅〉.