By Agnes Lam
She had not been prepared for what happened that afternoon. The old man had not been doing well for at least a year and had gone in and out of the hospital for more times than she could count. She was not the only nurse taking care of him but she was the one he really listened to. When he refused to take his medicine or went into a reverie, the other nurses would look for her to bring him back to this world, this life. He had told her once that she had a kind face like that of his wife's. He had said it in such a matter-of-fact tone that she also accepted it as a fact. She was not particularly compassionate towards him. She treated all patients with kindness. But every time she took care of him, she would remember that she looked like his wife who had already passed away.
On the days when the sun was shining and the old man was in a good mood, he would tell anyone who would care to listen his story, a story about a placid life in a village in the Mountain of Chrysanthemums. A life which seemed so real from the smile exuding from his whole body, frail as it was, and the faraway look in his eyes that some of the older patients were definitely affected, so affected that one of them, also a widower, stole out of the hospital one night without proper discharge papers in search of the mountain. The runaway patient only went so far as the Western District and ended up at the No. 7 Police Station, only because a kind-hearted taxi driver decided that was the safest place to deposit him at and losing a fare at that.
So what had this old man from the Mountain of Chrysanthemums been telling everyone so much so that another patient would want to go in search of it? Perhaps we should start from the time he was young. He did not grow up in that mountain. He happened to stumble upon it because he fell off his raft one day fishing in one of the many rivers flowing through the southwestern part of China. An older woman found him bruised with leeches all over his body, took care of him and nursed him back to health. He did not even notice she was fifteen years older than he was until they were getting married and had to exchange birth dates. There was something in the air or the water in that mountain village that made it possible for people to age very slowly in appearance so that people at forty could look as young as people at twenty. This is unthinkable in our city but in that mountain village, if what the old man had been saying could be trusted, that was indeed the case, with no plastic surgery, no use of moisturizers, no oxygen spa. Perhaps the elixir was in the air and the water, always fragrant with chrysanthemums. Secluded from harsh winds, the village was never too cold. Shaded by mountain slopes all around, it was never too hot either. The whole village survived on a vegetarian diet. They did not believe in killing anything. So the birds of the air would fly in and out of homes and often received pet names and the fish would swim really close to children playing in the shallow parts of the river, close enough for the children to cup their favourites in their hands before letting them swim away again. The villagers only ate vegetables and flowers. Chrysanthemums, many species of them, featured in many recipes: red chrysanthemum soup, purple chrysanthemum buns, white chrysanthemum buds fried with deep orange sweet potato, bean curd pockets stuffed with yellow chrysanthemum petals. There seemed to be an endless range of dishes.
Everyone in the village had a strange quiet beauty, whatever their age, and always a smile. People never raised their voices except to sing. Now you can probably find that too in many secluded villages in the deep mountains of China but there was one thing that was different about this village. I had already told you that adults there did not try to look younger than they actually were because everyone looked fifteen to thirty odd most of the time anyway. But the youthfulness in appearance was not what was most special about this village. What was unique, and never heard of anywhere else in the world, was that couples who married in that village inevitably had an age difference of about fifteen to twenty years between them. It was not always older men marrying younger women; it was as common for older women to marry younger men. Neither circumstance was considered scandalous; nor was it done to fulfill sexual fantasies or in the hope of inheriting some worldly possessions when the older partner departed. In any case, no one in that village was particularly wealthy. Everyone shared everything like in a kibbutz and the land always yielded enough for everyone to feed on. No one in the village knew how this marital age difference started. For as long as they could remember, that was the proper thing to do. The rationale that was passed from one generation to another was that when one partner became older - and by that, they meant fifty - the other partner could then still be young and healthy enough to take care of the older partner. It was also considered entirely acceptable for the bereaved partner to take a younger spouse in turn. Most people in that village would marry two or three times in a lifetime and each marriage was as loving and harmonious. Adultery or other causes of marital discord were unheard of. There was no need to want something novel in a relationship because in the natural course of a lifetime, one would have more than one satisfying relationship with complete devotion and mutual appreciation anyway. You would have thought with such low stress in their lives and on such an apparently healthy diet the villagers would live longer but no, people in that village usually did not live that long. The average life-span was about sixty. Was it because of the air pressure at that altitude or inadequate nutrition because of the restricted diet? Who could tell? The old man had no answer. Neither could he remember how many people lived in that village. Nor had he an answer for questions about whether inbreeding would result in incestuous gene degeneration.
To come back to the old man's personal circumstances, he lived blissfully with his older wife and took care of her when she grew feeble. A few years after her death, he was ready to take a younger wife, as was the custom there, so that in turn, his younger wife could take care of him when he grew older but no - that did not happen. And the old man could not recall exactly why that did not happen. All he remembered was that he was thinking of his birthplace one evening and just felt the urge to walk eastwards. He did not really intend to leave the village. He did not prepare for his trip or carry anything with him. He just walked further and further away. He did remember that after walking for a few days, he stole onto a train transporting textbooks to another province, that there was a disastrous flood near the destination, that he was swimming for a long, long time .
When he was finally rescued by the Hong Kong marine police, he was shivering so badly that the young inspector in second command gave him his own lunch of rice and two small fish. Because he could not remember who he was or where he came from, he was passed from one government office to another and was finally granted residence in our city. That he was granted residence also had something to do with the times. That was in the late 1960s soon after the start of the Cultural Revolution when many mainlanders were swimming to Hong Kong and it was not uncommon for the marine police to come across floating corpses while on patrol; sometimes, these bloated corpses had their hands and feet tied up in ropes. When the old man was released from police custody, some kind social worker helped him fill in one form after another and he managed somehow to make a living doing dishes in a small Chinese restaurant in Mongkok. At night, he went home to a small bed space in a boxed attic above the kitchen of his landlord. He would lock everything he had including himself behind a mesh wire grill before he slept.
Of his past, he had no stories to tell, except of the scent of chrysanthemums and a village where everyone was young, beautiful and joyful. When people did not believe his story, after a while, he spoke less and less and began to wonder whether he had ever lived there himself. Was it only a dream? But there seemed to be little else in his memory. If there had been no such village, no such wife, what then had his life been like before this boxed existence above the hot kitchen air and the voices of other tenants mixed with television commercials? Who was he if he had never lived in such a village before, had never eaten chrysanthemums? If that life had not been his life, why would tears of joy and longing come whenever he smelt chrysanthemums in the air?
That afternoon in the hospital, without any forewarning, the familiar scent floated in from the balcony beckoning him to the top of a flight of steps overlooking the garden. He saw the chrysanthemums blooming in all their colours under the sun, forming geometric patterns; amidst the iridescent circles and triangles, he saw the shadows of smiles of villagers he used to know, people who cared about him. He moved forward, raised his hand in greeting, lost his balance and rolled down the steps. The nurse he liked to talk to heard the sound of something heavy falling behind her, turned her head and found him slumped into a pile at the bottom of the steps, with a trickle of blood across his forehead but his eyes smiling still from the scent of chrysanthemums.
QLRS Vol. 1 No. 2 Jan 2002