Traveler’s Rest

by Miller Wey

Shaoxing Road? Was that the one? He couldn’t be sure. The names weren’t entirely alien, but nor were they familiar. Maoming was one he thought was easy to remember. It was like Mao Zedong’s mom. Maommy, maoming. No one else thought it was funny. But that’s how he remembered. The others he would forget or confuse. He often said he would take the time to write out directions, but he always hoped never writing things down would force him to commit things to memory. While it hadn’t worked yet, he held out hope that one day it would.

Turning a corner, he found himself somewhere new. For him, anyway. How could there be this much tall grass in the middle of the city? Under the dull orange light, the tall grass swayed along the sidewalk. It was darker ahead. Darker and unfamiliar. This was Shanghai, though, not Atlanta. A dark, unknown road didn’t hide thieves or gangs or crackheads or anything else he was raised to believe was waiting for him outside the suburbs. He only had maybe two hundred kuai in his pocket, anyway. Safe enough to keep walking.

The rustle of leaves on the trees and the tall grass was a welcome relief from the visual clamor of neon lights, pipes, clotheslines, and air conditioners covering an alternating line of restaurant, hair salon, clothing store, tea shop, convenience store that met him on every other street near his apartment and it reminded him more of home. He hadn’t felt the cool illumination of moonlight in a long time it seemed. His eyes had adjusted to the change in light before it dawned on him that there were no streetlamps. He looked back. How long had it been since he left the last one behind? As far as he could see there was only blue grass swaying below blue trees below a white moon in a dark sky.

He had been drinking earlier. A little tired, too. He was dreaming while awake again and watching where he was going just enough not to run into something. But clearly not enough not to get himself lost. Not that it mattered. There would be other parties. He would tell them he got too tired and passed out in the cab. When the cab driver woke him up, he decided it was best to go home, he would say. No need to mention getting lost again.

He stepped through the dirt where the sidewalk had been torn up. It looked like a park, the dark line of trees just past the fields of high grass. But why would no one have cut the grass? Every park he had seen in China had been immaculately groomed. Maybe this was an abandoned park waiting for demolishing. That would explain the dirt road he had walked down.

Ahead, a bit of light showed just past a clump of trees. Besides the starlight it was the only light around him. Strange that he couldn’t see any of the glimmering lights of Shanghai’s taller buildings. Even stranger that he could actually see the stars. More than he had ever noticed even away from the city and suburban shopping centers back home. It seemed brighter than any night he had remembered, lit by the stars and the moon that seemed to loom larger in the sky than any night he remembered.

He glanced back to see only more of the same, except no light ahead. Where were the sidewalk and streetlamps that he passed? Had he slipped into a daze and lost track of time?

It was late and the light ahead suggested people who could in turn suggest directions or at least draw a map if they didn’t speak English or understand his poor Chinese. The building looked ancient, yet looked as immaculate as the day it was built. Odd thing to find in the middle of some abandoned old park down at the end of a thin dirt path that snaked through the grass that at some distant point was the wide dirt road he didn’t remember leaving behind that before that was the well-lit street and the crowded vertical city under dull burning orange lights he didn’t remember leaving behind either.

The walls of the building were light-grey stone that seemed to actually shine a bit under the moon. The same-colored tile roof swooped up in grand waves at the end, topped at each corner by a greenish-white rabbit rather than the dragons or clusters of different creatures he was used to seeing on old Chinese temples and buildings. A dull yellow light shone from windows on the first two floors. The windows on the third floor sat dark, lit only from the outside by the moon and stars.

Somewhere nearby, the sound of something hitting a tree—no, chopping— made him distinctly aware of the otherworldly silence. The city could be silent, of course, especially at night in a big park. But usually there would be something, even far away. Cats screaming, cars honking, engines buzzing, people yelling or chatting. Something.

He carefully walked to the side of the building, craning his head to search for movement. The soft sound of chopping wood continued. Following the wall back to the rear of the large building, he saw a tree shuddering at each chop.

“Excuse me?” Daniel asked. The man stopped for a moment and looked up at him. It took a moment to adjust to the darkness to see that the man was Chinese, maybe in his forties. He wore a dusty, dark robe. The man quickly went back to chopping.

“Do you speak English?”

“English?” the old man said, seeming to think about the word. “You hear what you need to,” he said in what sounded like perfect English.

Daniel didn’t understand. “What street is this?”

“I don’t believe it has a name,” he said, continuing to chop at the tree.
“Is this your house?”

“No,” he said, resting on his ax for a moment. “I am just here until I can chop down this tree.”

The tree was thick and it would take some time. Daniel looked, but it wasn’t clear where the man had been chopping. Wanting to get out of the dark and the cold, he thanked the man and went back to the front of the house and walked up the stairs to the tall red doors guarded on either side by two large, greenish-white statues of rabbits, like the statues of lions in front of banks. The rabbit on his left lay prostrate over a nest of sticks. The rabbit on his right held a staff in a bowl.

He knocked, softly at first, then louder, on one of the doors. “Hello?”

The door opened slowly to reveal a darkened entryway, lit only by the yellow light leaking in from another room. No one appeared to greet him from behind the door, but he was lost and it was late and he couldn’t see any building shining beyond the dark moonlit fields and forests. He stepped in and a man he hadn’t noticed before closed the door behind him. The man was dressed in colorful robes, different than the robe the man behind the house wore, but still something old and possibly Middle Eastern, though he couldn’t place their origins

“Welcome,” the man said in a voice that gave away no accent he could recognize. “To the Lady Chang’e’s manor.”

This was by far the strangest bar he had been to in Shanghai. Or the home of someone who was very eccentric.

“I’m a bit lost, not quite sure how I got here.”

“That’s how most of us found this place,” said the man. “The lady has heard you come, so you should come in for a drink.” He put his hand on Daniel’s back and walked him towards the lit room.

“Can I see a menu, first?” said Daniel, stopping. An old mansion with workers in strange themed costumes and actors pretending to cut down trees didn’t sound like a place for a cheap drink.

“Come see, we have wine and beer as well as whatever food has been cooked.”

“How much is a beer?”

“It won’t cost you any money.”


Inside, old glass lamps lit the room and lanterns hung around the walls. Men that looked like extras from different historical films sat around dark wooden tables drinking mugs of beer, glasses of wine, and one man, dressed in something like an old navy blue army uniform, drank from a metal flask. They all stopped their drinking for a moment when Daniel entered. They returned to their conversations, still sometimes looking at the newcomer. Unless he listened specifically to a conversation, it he thought he heard bits off different languages, many he couldn’t recognize.

Moving through the crowd, a young Chinese woman in a dark robe approached him holding a large mug of beer.

“Hello,” she said. She wore a black evening dress, not the robe he thought he saw. “It’s been a long time since we had a new visitor.”

“This place isn’t new?” he asked. “I’ve never heard of it.”

“Oh, it’s been open for a long time. Ever since I first tried one of our special peaches and left my home. Here, this one’s on me, for your first time.”

She handed him the beer.

“It’s made from the same peaches.”

“Peaches?” He brought the beer up to his lips. The strong sweetness seemed peculiar in a beer. Handing the mug back to the girl without drinking, he said, “Do you have any other beers?”

She looked disappointed. “Of course, let me get you one.”
The conversations around him suddenly picked up again, as did the drinking. He sat down at the end of a table by himself.

The girl returned with another beer and the man in the navy blue uniform stepped in front of her. “Allow me,” he said and took the beer from her and sat beside Daniel. “This one’s safe,” he said very quietly, “no strange flavors,” he said a bit louder.

The man sat the beer before Daniel and stuck out his hand. “Name’s Alain.”

Daniel took his hand. “Daniel. Where are you from?”

“France. I’ve been here a very long time, though.”

“You don’t have an accent.”

“Why should I speak my own tongue with an accent?” he asked, a little offended.

Daniel, confused, didn’t answer. The conversations around them continued.

“Where are you from, Daniel?”

“Just outside Atlanta, in the States,” he said. “So what do you do?”

Alain sipped a bit from his flask. “I was in army. But I’ve since left.”

Daniel didn’t press on. He was tired and a little drunk and had exhausted his usual questions for other foreigners.

“My mother loved stories from England,” Alain said, ”though she couldn’t speak English, and there was a story she used to tell me when I was a boy. When I was in the army, me and the boys used to retell it. We’d change a detail here and a detail there to keep it interesting. The war was tough and the Chinese food wasn’t too agreeable for many of us, so a little familiarity was nice.

“Well, there’s this old fox living in the woods out late one night chasing a rabbit and he comes across an old white castle. He’s lost track of the rabbit and he’s curious, so he goes inside. A warm voice invites him to come in and have a drink. Inside, there are three chairs, each one smaller than the first. The first is too tall. The second, too hard. The third one seems just right, so the fox sits down.

“On the table, there are three bowls of milk. He starts to drink from the largest one, but it tastes strange. So he starts to drink from the second, but it’s too hot. So he drinks up the last one. But the voice tells him, ‘The first one I’ve made just for you.’ The fox feels bad, but he ignores it. When he jumps off the chair, it breaks behind him. ‘Don’t worry about the chair,’ says the voice. ‘Have some bread, it’s in the cupboard.’

“So the fox, a little hungry, goes to the cupboard. Inside are three pieces of bread. The first one, like the milk, smells strange, so he checks the second one. The second one is hard as a rock. But the third one, ah, it is delicious. So he eats it. ‘The first one I’ve made just for you,’ but he ignores the voice. ‘If you would like some meat, there is some over the fire.’ The fox trots into the other room and sees three pieces of meat over the fire. The first smells strange, so he skips it. The second is rotten. The third he eats quickly in one bite. Again, the voice. ‘I made the first one for you.’ Now this time, you see, the fox is still hungry. So he listens and eats it up. But after this meal, he’s tired. ‘Go upstairs, have some rest.’ So he goes to the bedroom to see three beds. The first is far too tall, so he looks to the second. The second bed is just a wooden platform. The third bed is short and soft so he jumps up into it and falls asleep. Now, three bears return to the castle, because they live there, you see. They look at the milk—“

“’Someone drank my milk.’ ‘Someone drank my milk, too,’” Daniel interrupted.

“You’ve heard this story before?”

“One like it.”

“Should I continue?” Alain asked. Daniel shrugged and he continued, “So, as I suppose you know, they all see the milk and the chairs, and the littlest bear is angry that his milk is gone and his chair broken. So the bears look around the house and discover that their bread and meat, too, have been disturbed. Again, the littlest bear is angry. This time the biggest bear is angry as well, of course. You know all this right?”

“Well the meat, the milk, and the bread are new, but it’s the same more or less. ‘Who ate my porridge?’ ‘Who ate my porridge?’ ‘Who ate my porridge? They’ve eaten it all up.’”

“There wasn’t any porridge in mine. Anyway, the three bears come up the stairs. ‘Someone’s been in my bed.’ ‘Someone’s been in my bed, too.’ ‘Someone’s still in my bed!’ Now this time the fox wakes up and sees the three bears. He starts to run, but they grab him and take him down to the kitchen. They hold him over the stove, but they keep burning their paws so they stop. So they put him in a bucket of water, but he keeps slipping his head above water. So finally the bears take him to the top of the castle. As they start to throw him out, he says, ‘Wait, I was invited.’ The bears ignore him and start swinging him. One, two, three. The fox hears the same warm voice again, this time, laughing. Looking down the hall, he sees the rabbit, just before they throw him out.” Alain laughed and took a swig from his flask.

“I don’t think I’ve heard that version before.”

“No?” said Alain, “I just made this one up.”

“That explains it,” said Daniel, standing up. “I’m going to get another beer. Nice talking with you, Alain.” They shook hands.

“Don’t get too hungry,” Alain whispered. It was a strange thing to say. Daniel smiled back and waved.

At the bar, a woman who looked as if she could be the mother of the girl who had given him the beer cleaned out a wine glass. “Do you like wine?” she asked.

“Sure,” he said. “How much?”

“Try it first,” she said, “see if you like it. It’s a special wine.”

The light wine was pink; he didn’t care for blush wines. It smelled strongly of peaches.

“The peach that this wine comes from was so good that I left my husband.”

Daniel wasn’t quite sure how to respond, but he set down the glass.

“Do you have any red wine?”

She seemed disappointed. “Of course,” she said and poured a glass of red wine.

“How much.”

“This one will cost you nothing.”

He sipped a bit of the wine and asked, “How do I get a cab from this place?”

“This place is very far away, it may be difficult.”

“So how do I get back?”

“Enjoy your drink. You can always worry about that later.”

The woman went into another room and the conversations resumed around him. This place was strange, but so far it seemed as if his drinks would all be free.

“It’s wise to watch what you drink,” said a man who stepped up to the bar next to him. His suit was decades out of style. “I drank too much of the wrong stuff myself.” He didn’t seem drunk.

“I’ll have to watch out for that,” Daniel said. “Is there a costume party here tonight?”

“I don’t believe so. We’re all travelers, some far from home, some not so far from home, that’s how we ended up here. No one new has shown up here for a long time.”

“It’s not so easy to find.”

“I found it by accident myself, had a few too many drinks, haven’t been able to leave since. I do love their peaches, though.”

“They do seem to be popular here. Do you know where the bathroom is here?”

The man pointed to a doorway at the corner of the room. Daniel downed the last of his wine, stood up, and walked to the doorway. The doorway went to a long hallway that became darker as it went on until it reached a door. One more drink, maybe, and he would leave. There weren’t even any women in the bar, besides the two he met that appeared to work there, just a bunch of guys who may or may not have left some kind of costume party.

“Can you help me here?” a voice asked from another room along the hallway. Daniel turned to see an old woman reaching for a plate on a high shelf.

“Sure,” he said and took the plate off the top shelf and gave it to the woman. She looked like the girl, too, but much older.

“Thank you for your help,” she said.

“No problem,” he said and left to find the bathroom. Turning the corner, he found only a door out. Maybe the man had told him incorrectly, so he turned back only to face the old lady holding a plate.

“I’d like to thank you for your help, young man.”

He looked down at the peach. She had drizzled a little chocolate on the plate around it and placed a mint leaf on the plate. It seemed like a lot of presentation for a peach.

“I don’t really like peaches,” he said.

“Just a bite. I promise if you try it, you’ll like it. I would hate for you to leave without trying it.”

It looked like she might have gone to some trouble, so he relented and she led him to another room with a single table and two large, comfortable chairs. They sat down and she placed the plate on the table before him. He smiled and took a bite. The peach was sweet and juicy. Somehow it differed from peaches he had eaten before.

“Do you like it?” she asked. He nodded in response. “I thought you would,” she said. “In China, we have a legend of peaches that grant immortality.”

Daniel took another bite from the peach.

“When the Jade Emperor ten sons decided to go out and play as ten suns, water left the earth and life almost did as well. So the Jade Emperor asked a great archer, to help. So, he shot down all but one of the suns. Slowly the waters returned and the earth began to heal. He had succeeded, but at the cost of the Emperor’s sons.”

Daniel felt himself getting tired again listening to the story; maybe he would leave soon. He took another bite of the peach and put it back down on the plate. It would be rude to leave this woman in the middle of a story, so he stayed and listened, growing more and more tired.

“As punishment, the archer and wife were cast out of the heavens and sent to live out normal lives. Taking pity on them, the Queen of the West gave the husband a peach and told him by eating it he could become immortal again. He returned home and placed the peach in a cabinet. When he was out hunting, his wife, looking for a snack, stumbled upon the peach. She recognized the peach as one from the Queen of the West’s garden. Seeing only one, she feared her husband would take the chance to be immortal and leave her, so she began to eat a few bites. She was hungry, and, before she realized, had eaten the whole fruit. Her husband returned from the hunt to see her floating away, raised his bow toward her for a moment, hesitated, and put it down.

“She was accused of betraying her husband, so was not welcome into the court of heaven, left instead to the cold moon.”

Daniel felt his eyes getting heavy with sleep.

“Her only companions were a rabbit sent by the Lord Buddha and a woodcutter stuck cutting a tree that continually heals itself. You can imagine it’s a lonely existence without company.”

“Sure,” he said, yawning.

“Go upstairs,” she said, “have some rest.”

Back in the other room, the conversations suddenly started again. “It has been a while since we had a newcomer here,” the man in the suit said.

“I thought this one might not have to stay,” Alain said. He drank the peach liquor from his metal flask.