郭建:A Moment of Darkness

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My eyes were blurred from sleep as I watched the trees and houses pass by at an increasingly slower pace into the dark grey of the summer morning. The announcement came that the train was pulling into the station nearest Mount Tai. But from the window I could hardly see the mountain tops only a few miles away. They must be somewhere behind the layers of mist.

Many of my fellow passengers were pilgrims to the holy land of gods, saints, and ancestors. I could tell by the packages of incense they brought. But I had other things in mind than burning incense in a temple. I was told how small the world was, and how glorious the sunrise, seen from the peak of Mount Tai. I had seen pictures of its beautiful temples, pavilions, terraces, and of the mountain itself half hidden in clouds and mists that were said to gather and disperse within minutes. Now I wanted to see everything, and see the real thing. With a year of school work just behind me, the prospect of free wandering and sightseeing loomed larger and larger ahead. As I stepped out of the train, even the enshrined idols, like art pieces in a museum, began to line up in my mind as something that promised refreshment.

The sky was waking up from its grey slumber. By the time I reached the first temple at the foot of the mountain after an hour's walk, it had assumed a uniform pale white. Nobody was on the uphill path behind me. Some of the people who were on the same train with me had decided to wait for the dawn at the station. Others must be slow on their way up. I found myself alone in front of the closed gate, anticipating the thrill of having the whole temple for my own. I pushed the gate open and walked in.

It was quiet inside. In the middle of the temple yard was a small pool surrounded by rugged rocks. A little fountain rose from the pillar-like stone that stood at the center of the pool. The water, emitted in strings of tiny beads, went straight upwards until it turned gradually into a hazy mist disappearing in the air. There were trees here and there in the spacious yard. Among them were three huge old cypresses. Most of the boughs stretching out from the trunks were dry, dark, haggard and bare, like arms. There was something peculiar in one of the trees. I moved closer, walked around it, and noticed a crack so large that the whole trunk was about to split, but some sparsely scattered leaves above told me it was not dead.

I backed away and looked at tombstones along the walls and on both sides of the temple. They were either grey or black. Most of them had elegant inscriptions on both front and back. I approached a black tablet for its beautifully carved calligraphy. My eyes began to roam down from the top of the stone, tracing lines of characters without trying to understand what they meant until, quite unexpectedly, the inscribed lines disappeared into a patch of dubious colors where the hard, dull black gradually merged with the soft, damp green. A piece of moss crept from below and, as if to claim living space from the dead, covered up the area where the calligrapher's name must have been. Disappointed, I turned to another tablet. The date on it was still legible, from which I learned that the person buried underneath died hundreds of years before. Suddenly, I knew where I was: the first major attraction en route to Mount Tai was marked on the tourist map as the Han Cypress Yard. That was to say, the cypresses were there since the Han Dynasty; they were alive for more than two thousand years.

I opened my backpack and took out my tourist guide, hoping to find out more about this historical place. Yet, just as I was about to spread out the map on the flat top of a tombstone, a gust of wind came from behind, swirled around me, and snatched the map from my hand. I turned back suspiciously, only to find something even stranger: the water fountain was circling around over the stone, vaporized. A huge, black cloud was descending slowly from the sky, about to envelop the temple and mountains nearby. It was getting darker and darker in the yard. I turned around again and saw the windows of the temple. They were black eyes staring at me. I looked up through the boughs. It was black, too, up there. Skeleton fingers, hands, arms waved against the sky. They cracked, flashed, as if sending lightning down to the earth. I had to get out of here, I said to myself. I had nothing to do with a place like this. I must go. But my legs would not carry me. I was helpless. I closed my eyes and refused to take in anything. Still, I saw tombstones, grey and black; patches of moss, damp and green; cypress trees, aged, lean, bare . . .

Time seemed suspended. For how long, I did not know. Nor was I sure, even when I opened my eyes again, if I still stood at the same spot in the yard as before. I was only glad that all the black shadows were gone. The temple appeared friendly in the restored light of the morning. The door in the middle was ajar, probably caused by the disturbance of the wind. I walked slowly up the front steps and looked in. To my surprise, the hall was empty--without an idol and without a shrine. One of the windows was half open. The paint on the pillars, beams, and walls had faded. There was nothing inside except some dry twigs and leaves scattered on the floor. I stood in the middle of the hall, unable to move at the quiet approach of a strange yet deep sense of life, full and fresh, that made me part of the humble and serene emptiness. After a long while, I turned to the half-open window, closed it gently, and backed away, making sure the door was also properly shut behind me as I stepped out.

When I crossed the threshold of the yard, a group of people were on their way up the front steps, some with small bunches of incense in hand. They must have been on the same train with me. I suddenly felt that I had been alone. But my fellow passengers did not seem to take notice of me. Ascending with increasingly solemn steps, they looked up to the magnificent gate of the temple in admiration and awe. On their back to the right, the sun emerged from behind the thick foliage of trees, lifting the veil of the morning, embracing the earth and the sky with its radiant light.

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