Umbrella Movement / September 2016 (Issue 33)

Petals on a Wet, Black Bough

by Stephanie Leung

Looking back, those days seem so remote, as if they are something lurking on the horizon.

I sail towards them (despite the illusion that I am still and they are approaching me) and see the coastline, then all the skyscrapers …

Heavy clouds are looming like it is going to rain at any moment. The buildings, however, glimmer with a gold that belongs to both the sunrise and the sunset. I do not have the least clue what time of day it is. I feel as if I have merely woken up for a minute—memory-less, my head suffering a hangover ache—and may fall asleep again any second.

I try to walk. And then I, seeming to have tripped over something, reach the ground on four limbs, in a crawling position. All of a sudden my body becomes feeble.

When I manage to pull myself together, I see that both my palms and knees are spotted with dirt, sweat and pearl-coloured bits of flesh fresh cut open. Scarlet drops of blood seep out and stream down from many small cuts. I must have fallen on a rough concrete road.

Looking around I immediately recognise where I am. But why am I here?

What is even more unsettling is that nobody is around. Just me and the empty landscape. All shops are closed; no vehicles appear, even on the main road; one cannot help but wonder if the city has been deserted and every living creature has evaporated. Roaming through the adjacent streets, I look for the signboards and signposts, attempting to recall some memories. My palms and knees have stopped bleeding, but whenever I move, they bite me. It is by no means overwhelmingly painful, yet it feels like my wounds are connected to electricity and give me a continuous, low-watt shock.

At last, I get back to the main road where I landed. This time I notice something is on the ground not far away. Driven by instinct—I have not been eating or drinking for a rather long period of time—I run to see what it is without thinking of the dangers. It might well have been a weapon.

A collapsible umbrella, which colour I cannot tell.

First disappointment, then surprise.

I pick it up, shake off the dust and try to open it, only to realise that some of its ribs are already broken.

Sounds of footsteps come from behind, quickly getting louder and louder. Damn umbrella! For a moment, I think that it is the police; I must have caught their attention by trying to open the umbrella. I should drop it and flee, but I am too frightened and remain in my current posture as if frozen in time.

When the footsteps come close enough that without turning my head I can glimpse the person making them, I see that she is but a girl, casually clad. She has a petite frame, looking rather skinny but healthy. Her hair dyed brown, she wears a student union t-shirt loosely tucked into a black skirt at the waist. She is even wearing sandals.

Still panting from the vigorous run, she asks, "Can you smell the foulness in the air—oh, wow, what happened to you!"

Noticing the cuts on my knees, she takes her first-aid kit out of her backpack, sanitises my wounds and skillfully covers them with bandages. Then we keep sitting on the curb and chat.

"Thank you. Are you a medical student?"

"No, but I often help people with this," she says, gesturing to my wounds. She has a confident smile when she says this, but then gets serious again, "Can you smell the foulness in the air …?"

"What foulness?"

"Tear gas."

"Not really."

"I mean that ... figuratively."

"I see what you mean. I'm sorry, but I wasn't able to be here on that day."

"That doesn't matter. What matters is that you haven't forgotten."

"Well, don't others remember? It has been quite momentous."

She shakes her head, "Do you see people around here?"

"Up to this moment, only you and me."

"I do have some friends here. They are planting tomatoes and chrysanthemum out there. In a while, I'll introduce you to them," her eyes staring into the distance as she speaks. "No one really understands how we've end up here. We all arrived more or less wounded. One even had his left leg broken. Some disappear after a few days; some remain for years, like me."


"Yeah, they evaporate, literally—return to the colourful world to which they belong. A many-coloured world, full of attractions and distractions—kaleidoscopic." She looks quite cute when she is thinking about the words.

"Will we stay in this desolate land forever?"

"Who knows," she laughs. "I'm likely to linger on for many, many years. I do not know about you. After these years, I can tell how long a person will stay here by observing them for a couple of days. But I never tell them."

I do not know when she took the umbrella and started toying with it. But now that she's had enough of it, she collapses it and meticulously folds its ribs and cloth, just like my mother had tried to teach me. I never bothered to do it the right way; I would just sloppily roll up the canopy, so it could be stuffed into a plastic umbrella bag.

She lay the umbrella back on the ground with a sigh.

"People are moving on so fast. Do they ever feel restless? Do they ever feel the need for shelter? Do they ever feel the need to be together?"

"Well, we are all born alone, albeit we are always in people …"

"Maybe they are right. Life goes on, after all. Like a train, it comes and goes. And look what am I doing." She buries her face in her hands, though not really weeping.

"Frankly, I feel like the living dead."

"No. We are the dead living."

I do not know how to answer. My head is still aching as if in a hangover.

"I still remember taking the underground here with four fellow students. I still remember their names, their faces, their voices."

"And I was just watching on TV. I might have caught a glimpse of you."

"I can remember every single detail of that day."

"Well, if you remember something often enough, you can."

"Just kidding. Of course I can't."

She suddenly leaps to her feet, picks up the umbrella from the ground, unfolds it and thrusts its runner through the top spring. The canopy does not grow into a beautiful dome. There is no way to fully stretch it again. At best, it half opens, the colour-faded canopy hanging exactly like petals on a wet, black bough.

Still holding the umbrella in her hand, she takes a deep breath and turns to look seaward.

I get to my feet to stand beside her.

We both see something lurking on the horizon.

 Stephanie Leung is an undergraduate student majoring in English at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Born and raised in Hong Kong, she has benefited from the bilingualism of the city and developed interest in both Chinese and English literature. While classical Chinese poetry is still her most confident way of expression, she also experiments with other forms such as free verse, prose and fiction, as well as writing in English. During her free time, she enjoys music, jogging and hiking.


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