It happens every night. Every night in my dreams. At first I dream normally, and then it goes dark and I see them. The eyes. They are sometimes red, sometimes yellow, and sometimes blue. It always starts with me at the end of a hallway. I turn back and see them in the dark. They are so far away. But then they start moving – up and down – and I know I must run.

The hallway in front of me is dark, and I don’t know where it goes. But I have no choice: I must run. When I enter the dark spaces, the floor feels strange, as if I’m running on hard jelly or something. But I must run, and after a while a small light appears. This makes me feel better, but still I know I can’t look back.

I eventually get to the light. I’m running so fast and look to the sky – the kind of sky you see at sunrise. I then realize I’m running too fast and can’t stop, and I know I’m going to fall. This makes me feel scared, but still it’s better than looking back.

While falling, I look to the sky. It’s beautiful – all gold and yellow and red. I don’t feel scared now. Actually I’m happy, because I know the eyes can’t follow me. As the clouds grow smaller, I close my eyes and smile.

I then realize I’m underwater. This confuses me because I don’t know how to swim, only to realize I can. This makes me feel strong, like a grown-up. But then I turn around and see the eyes. They are still behind me.

My whole body feels cold, but I must move. I swim as fast as I can – like a dolphin – yet the eyes remain close behind. There are beautiful fish everywhere, and the turtles and whales about make it seem like I’m in an underwater carnival. Before long, I notice what looks like a cave. I swim to it and notice the water gets shallower upon my approach.

I’m soon stood on solid ground. Everything is dark, but after rubbing my eyes a series of fire-lit torches spring to life. Before moving ahead, I look back. The eyes are still behind me. I swallow the lump in my throat and run. The path in the cave winds like the body of a snake. The light becomes brighter, and soon I pass a young boy and a dog sat next to a fire. I don’t stop, but do notice they’re covered in something – a ‘moving slime’ of sorts. I also notice the dog has different-colored eyes. With the enemy not far behind, I can’t waste time thinking about this.

I keep running, and the meandering route straightens before coming to a dead end. There’s a rope ladder there which I climb. I look back while doing so. The eyes are still behind me. The ladder leads into darkness, but still I keep climbing. It leads to a circular hole which I crawl through. I’m soon stood on grass. As my eyes adjust to the evening shade, I notice I’m on the grounds of my elementary school.

I’ve never been this far in my dream before. Upon realizing this, I run to the school’s main buildings. They’re far away, maybe five hundred meters. Once I get there, I look back, and surprisingly the eyes aren’t there. I’m breathing heavily and sweating a lot… and then they come. From the distance between us, they’re simply drops of light. They don’t move, as if they must first make sense of everything. Yet when they see me, there’s no turning back.

The only thing in my favor is I know where I am. I go to the third floor of the main school building and look out onto the red brick courtyard below. From my bottom right, the eyes appear. This is the first time I can see who or what they belong to, but it isn’t easy. The eyes are followed by a lingering darkness which clouds everything in black. I watch as this ‘force’ tries to sniff me out. It walks from one side of the courtyard to the other. And then it looks up and sees me.

I step away from the low wall and run as fast as I can. I’m at the opposite end of the passage by the time the eyes reach the third floor. They’re about eighty meters from where I stand, but I’m safely hidden behind a wall. I cannot make any large sounds, so I slowly creep down the stairwell beside me. This leads to the second floor, where I try open one of the classroom doors. To my surprise, it does so without effort. I’m soon surrounded by desks and chairs and maps of countries from around the world.

I go hide under a table in the corner of the classroom. Something funny then happens; each time I breath, the classroom turns a different a color, like I’m in the belly of a chameleon. While this happens, a whirling noise stirs outside. It must belong to the eyes.

As they approach, my chest grows tighter. In the window at the opposite side of the classroom, they appear. I notice they’re slanted, like a dragon’s eyes. And then they stop moving, and all sound dies to nothing.

I’m afraid – very afraid. I know they can sense my fear. It’s so strong it’s coming off me as a smell. Everything is black now – a black like nothing I’ve ever experienced. My terror grows as the eyes move toward the door. What must I do!? The door handle creaks as it’s pushed down, and the eyes enter the classroom.

They see me, crouched under a table in the corner of the classroom. I try to wake up but can’t, like this isn’t a nightmare after all. I think about my mom, my dad, and my puppy Rex: Will I ever see them again? And then something crazy happens.

A second set of eyes appear. And then another, and then another. They’re all white, like daylight shining in from the darkness. As more eyes appear, I start to think I’m stuck in a balloon, and someone is pricking holes in it to help me find a way out.

And then the light overtakes the darkness. It’s like one reality gets replaced by another. As more eyes appear, I realize they weren’t eyes after all: instead, they’re parcels of light. As the darkness gets peeled away, my own eyes see what was hidden behind everything I just experienced.

…..

I’m no longer hidden under a table in a classroom. I sit upright on my bed, and a drop of sweat trickles past my temple. I can see my whole room, the morning light illuminating everything around me. But, I think to myself, I never woke up!

In a quiet whisper, something replies, “Did you ever go to sleep?”

The only thing I’ve ever wanted to do is travel. From the moment I first saw an image of Machu Picchu, I’ve committed my life to it. There have obviously been challenges to my lifelong passion: funds, as well as the fact that I’m female. But I’ve always found a way, and I can say with full confidence that choosing a life of travel was definitely right for me.

Of all the places I’ve been, Asia remains my favorite. Don’t get me wrong – it’s not like I’ve been everywhere and seen everything. I’m just saying that it’s right up there, because no matter what you’re after, Asia can give it to you. In a nutshell, it’s imbued with an intoxicating element, one that has me return to it, again and again.

I’m not traveling at the moment. I’m working as an au pair here on Victoria Island, British Columbia. It’s so beautiful here, my day-to-day life like a calm, living Monet. It’s also refreshing being back in the West after nearly five years doing the English teaching triangle between Taiwan, Japan and Korea. The fact that I can speak my native tongue freely and don’t need to resort to hand gestures or worry that I’m being scammed are treats, too.

Looking back, I must say I’ve been lucky. I’m twenty-eight now, can speak multiple languages, have qualifications in various fields, and have always landed on my feet. I packed my bags right after school to go out and see the world, and I’ve been blessed to meet amazing people and experience things I never imagined possible. That’s why I love traveling so much: the unpredictability of it all. Ah, nostalgia’s a tease, right?

But back to Asia. It’s so different to where I come from, and where I am now. I don’t think any travel guide, blog or story can do it justice. I mean, how does one do justice to the heavenly-detailed boiler room of the world? I won’t do that today. Nope, I’ve got another reason for writing this down. You see, while this might read as a story, for me it’s a catharsis. This is because something unusual happened on one of my trips, and writing its details down might relieve some of the stress I still feel to this day.

……….

It was a sweltering Asian August and I arrived at Beijing airport at two in the afternoon. A driver from the hostel I’d stay at came to pick me up and shepherded me through the smoggy Han citadel to its center. After settling in my dorm room, I bought a beer and went to the roof to scan the view. There wasn’t one, unless you count grainy sepia-coated buildings to be a view. Anyway, it’d been my lifelong dream to travel to China, so when my beer was done I set out on the street, moving quickly through the hutong with an eye to catch a glimpse of the uncanny. Whatever it was – be it the flight, the excitement, the rush of people – I didn’t get far that afternoon, and an hour later I returned to the hostel to lie down.

I only woke up the next morning! The dorm room echoed with the sound of other travelers, most of which had signed up to see the Great Wall later. After rubbing my eyes, I noticed a nice-looking guy below my bunk bed putting on his socks and shoes. I watched him curiously before he caught me looking at him.

“You coming to the wall today?” his eyes were colored a beautiful deep-green.

“No,” I said through a yawn. “Just arrived.”

“The weather’s good,” Mr. Handsome looked out the window. “Hope it stays like this. I’m Chris, by the way.”

“Rebecca,” we shook hands.

Rebecca,” he said as if this triggered a distant memory. “How long will you be staying in China, Rebecca?”

“Three weeks. You?”

“I’m returning to Australia from England, so… maybe five months.”

Five months in China? That’s ambitious!”

“It’ll be a challenge! I mean, the language is just bonkers, right?”

I laughed.

“Hey, what’s so funny?”

“Ah, don’t worry about it.”

“But it is! My guidebook says that if you mess up your tones, you could be telling a waitress you want to sleep with her rather than ordering dumplings!”

Chris’s expression (like he’d been kicked in the privates) was hilarious. A local man then burst into the room and barked out instructions.

“I’m sorry,” an Italian lady gestured for him to slow down. “What are you saying?”

The man’s face grew redder upon repeating what he’d said.

“Please!” a Tobey Maguire look-alike interjected. “Please speak English!”

“He says the van’s here to take you to the Great Wall,” I spoke up. “He also wants to remind everyone to take your tour receipts and a hat. Oh, and he’s leaving in five minutes.”

Everyone turned to look at me.

“AH!” Chris grinned and shook a finger. “We have a spy in our camp!”

 

Eight days later, Chris and I caught a midnight flight from Beijing to Urumqi. I was actually in China to catch a train to Mongolia, but as my visa application had stalled due to Nadaam (Mongolian New Year), I threw in my lot and ventured out to the most far-flung place I could think of. In the interim, Chris and I had struck up an easygoing friendship, he full of fun and laughs which kept everything light and happy. As he had no set plans, he offered to accompany me, which I was grateful for. We arrived in Urumqi at god-knows-what hour, and after unraveling the taxi driver’s Turkic-spiced Mandarin, we were shuttled through its inky streets to a guesthouse that turned us away because we were foreigners. If you don’t already know, Xinjiang (China’s westernmost state) is in the midst of a civil war between its indigenous Uighur people and Han migrants. Due to this, the government strictly monitors everything, especially foreigners. Following this, we were taken to a more ‘suitable’ establishment, which meant a lurid ‘hotel’ complete with Addams Family-type reception staff. We made it through the night alive, but only after a drunk call girl spilled in through our ‘locked’ bedroom door at five a.m. to announce she was ‘ordered’ to give us a massage.

The world we woke to resembled a warzone. Chris and I left early as to negotiate the resident maze of alphabets, people and stares, and eventually found a bus that ran into downtown Urumqi. There, we asked locals what hostels existed in the vicinity. We arrived at the one consistently-mentioned three hours later. The young guy manning reception ignored us for nearly twenty minutes, his phone apparently more important than doing business. Exhausted and wondering why we’d done this to ourselves, Chris and I grabbed some local Wusu beers from the hostel fridge and downed them in our dorm room.

Following a short nap, we ventured into downtown Urumqi to investigate how we’d reach Xinjiang’s furthest-flung regions. Upon our return to the hostel with precious little information, we met Lao Jiang, a Hunanese chain smoker who planned to travel to Kanas Lake. Over numerous bottles of Wusu, he told us of the lake: how it bordered Mongolia, Russia and Kazakhstan. These names had our imaginations go into overdrive, and two days later we were on a bus from Urumqi to Buerjin, an oasis town located northwest of the Gobi Desert. Upon arriving there, we were again shuttled from our preferred residence to one where local authorities could watch over us. This (expected) irritation aside, Buerjin proved a pleasant place, and it was at its night market where Chris and I ate dogfish, a local delicacy whose deliciousness I still remember to this day.

The next morning, a bulky Kazakh named Burikhan drove Chris, Lao Jiang and I two hours north into Chinese Siberia. We got off at Jiadengyu, a last chance saloon home to plentiful birch trees, open spaces, and locals selling prodigious volumes of naan bread. We met three other travelers there. All Han Chinese yet hailing from different regions, Vito, Gao Jie and Princess were solo adventurers who’d been drawn together by a love of the unknown. After introductions and loading up on supplies, our new travel group set forth, hiking past a yurt settlement towards the foothills of the Altai Mountains. The space and freedom we experienced out there was mind-blowing, it as if we’d entered a dream realm. Two hours later, we arrived at a picturesque Russian-style settlement, its wooden houses set beside a raging river blessed with waters so blue they defied belief. We met Xiao Jiu there, a half-Han/half-Kazakh cowboy who’d guide us over the mountains to Kanas Lake. After enjoying bowls of goat milk and naan, our group transferred our supplies to Xiao Jiu’s pack horses and continued into the unknown.

It’s difficult to relay how breathtaking the land we moved through was. Its immensity was all-encompassing, like a fairy tale come alive. It being summertime, the sun beat down mercilessly, and an hour after losing sight of the river, our water supplies were dwindling. Lao Gou said not to worry, and not much later we filled up from a mountain stream. The terrain grew increasingly wild thereafter, and while negotiating it, we got to know each other. It was fascinating speaking to each travel party member, the vast geographical and ideological distances between us offering ample conversation topics. Vito was a twenty-three year old intern at a hospital in Shenzhen. Voraciously smart and witty (he could make a joke out of anything), the thing I remember most about him is that he had no want of leaving China, he of the belief  that you could get no better food than that of his native land’s. Gao Jie was a Physics teacher from Nanjing who walked with a regal posture. Taciturn in manner, it didn’t take much to ascertain she possessed a simmering intelligence. As for Princess – well, she was a walking Rubik’s cube, really. On one hand she appeared girly and spoiled, the colorful clothes she wore and loud disposition she displayed at odds with the serene environment. After a long chat with her though, I realized she possessed a steeliness that her appearance didn’t give away. For example, she’d not only solo traveled to some of China’s most far-flung places (think Qinghai, Tibet and Xinjiang), but had also visited incomprehensibles the likes of South Georgia and Papua New Guinea. All in all, our travel group was a good bunch, each of us having come to this pocket of Central Asia to take on the Altai.

Shortly after midday, we stopped for something to eat. Gobbling down two face-sized naan breads under the shade of a tree then, I fully understood why they’d been in such demand back in Jiadengyu. While most of us were content to relax and catch our breath, Lao Jiang, Vito and Princess wanted to venture ahead. Xiao Jiu warned them not to, saying they were his responsibility and he couldn’t in good conscience allow them to go on. But the trio was resolute, and even wrote down Xiao Jiu’s directions as a sign of good faith. Xiao Jiu was clearly disturbed when they departed, his easygoing manner and broad smile ceding to a dark sullenness. Gao Jie, Chris and I mentioned we’d be happy to leave as to accompany them, but with our destination still being five hours away, Xiao-Jiu advised we rest up and only go later.

It was nightfall when we reached the magical village of Hemu. Having descended the ridge we’d walked along, we marched through a forest of spooky birch trees which lead on to a creaky wooden bridge. While crossing it, the sky was a dream-come-alive, it possessing a gargantuan full moon backed by distant lightning. The moonlit village appeared little more than a ramshackle set of wooden structures, one of which would be our rest spot for the night. After putting our bags down and using local goats’ water to wash our hands, Xiao Jiu delivered some distressing news: our travel friends hadn’t arrived. He was equal parts worried and furious, he having warned them this might happen. Following a ten-minute discussion as to what he’d do, Xiao Jiu saddled up and rode out into the night, his mission to locate the trio fraught with dangers that included compromised visibility and the threat of wolves.

Speaking of wolves, I had a strange dream that night. The open plains I imagined we’d see later on our trip were filled with an inky darkness as I rode my horse towards a distant fire. When close to it, I caught sight of three transparent ghosts dancing around its flames. I got off my horse and watched them, and while doing this realized they were the essences of Lao Jiang, Vito and Princess. Shortly after, four wolves entered the frame. Set in a formation of two at the front and two at the back, they carried in their mouths two poles with something tied between them. They set these to the floor and untied their catch, which caused a sick revulsion to stream through me: it was Xiao Jiu, and he was going to be sacrificed to the flames.

Upon waking the next day, neither Xiao Jiu nor the trio was there. We approached the guesthouse owner to see if she had any information, but she didn’t. An invasive feeling started taking hold, so Chris, Gao Jie and I distracted ourselves by taking a wander around the village. It resembled a throwback to ancient times, its wooden houses, corrals and livestock quite disengaged from modernity. Upon our return to the guesthouse, we saw a man on a horse together with others descend down the ridge. With what appeared to be our guide and travel companions in sight, a great relief washed over us.

Alas, this proved to be short-lived: it wasn’t Xiao Jiu and friends. An even greater desperation set in, so Chris, Gao Jie and I decide to go look for them. The guesthouse owner tried to flag us down, but we were resolute. Our plan got dashed when we reached the top of the ridge. The local cowboy stationed there told us half a dozen men were already searching for the missing party, and he couldn’t allow their efforts to be compromised. We agreed, and disconsolately returned to the guesthouse to sit around in busy silence.

Around midday, the guesthouse owner offered us some rice and naan. We accepted, yet didn’t eat any. That afternoon was a melancholic one, and once the sun set, I could only realistically imagine the worst. After dinner, the guesthouse owner lit a large candle which we sat around in the hope that our collective energy could resolve things. When we woke the next day – the window panels lightly dusted with dew – I knew we’d never hear of Xiao Jiu or the missing trio again.

We were subsequently ‘adopted’ by another cowboy who took us over the mountains. Our journey started up a steep, rocky rise before leveling onto more gentle inclines that offered visions of endless birch trees, untouchable horizons, idyllic yurts, and smatterings of white Bactrian camels. Close on sunset, we reached a plateau where – at our guide’s instruction – our horses galloped until we reached the otherworldly Black Lake. We spent that night in a local family’s yurt and rose early the next day. I profess to not seeing many more beautiful landscapes than what I saw that morning, its composition of perfect blue sky, momentous plains, and colossal mountains simply breathtaking. We saddled up our horses and continued through more never-ending steppes lorded over by Golden Eagles, these magnificent specimens gliding above us like an invitation to the sublime. In spite of being granted the opportunity to take in this divine location, I couldn’t for a minute stop thinking about what’d happened to our travel companions.

We arrived at Kanas Lake come three in the afternoon. Chris, Gao Jie and I found a ramshackle spot to stay and took in the sights over the next few days. Our epic journey into Chinese Siberia then concluded with a dour bus ride back to Jiadengyu where Xiao Jiu’s connections had no idea what had happened to our travel party. Unable to assist, Chris and I returned to Urumqi and used what resources we had to aid the search mission. Following three days of fruitless endeavor, I was forced to accept that I’d leave Xinjiang without knowing what’d happened to them. Laden with a heavy heart, I bid Chris farewell and took a forty-four hour train ride back to Beijing. Once there, I wondered around in silence for a couple days before flying back to Japan where I was living at the time.

……….

You know, it feels good to get this out. I know our travel party had all just met, but even now, three years later, I cannot shake the shock of what happened that day. I replay the moment they left over and over, and still cannot figure out what must’ve happened. As for Chris, he did manage five months in China, and during that time met the girl he subsequently married. We still keep in touch, but it’s always just small talk. I doubt we’ll ever again breach the subject of what happened there in the Altai, that incident now lost to the haunting visions and scenes of that strangely powerful nowhere-land.

 

(The following is a written transcript of the interview held between author Ernest Proust and interviewer Michael Rice, which took place at the Hotel Du Royal, Paris, on August 14th, 2017)

Interviewer:
Mr. Proust, thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to grant us this interview today.

Proust:
It’s fine.

Interviewer:
Really, we’re delighted to be given this opportunity. It’s widely known that you are unfailingly protective of your privacy.

Proust:
I’m sorry… is that a question?

Interviewer:
No, Mr. Proust, it’s an observation. Anyway, let’s get going. Mr. Proust, you’re known as one of the foremost voices in modern fiction. Part of this is attributable to what some call the ‘nihilistic lens’ through which your characters encounter the world. Taking Jermaine Grasse – the protagonist of your new book ‘You Only Sleep with Death at Dawn’ – as an example, would you say that you, as a person as well as an author, see the world similarly?

Proust:
Maybe. All characters in all novels are, quite obviously, an extension of an author’s mind at any given time, and if they appear to relay a sentiment that society attributes to a set paradigm, then yes, I’d say I see the world in a similar way to the characters I create.

Interviewer:
So, you regard yourself as a nihilist?

Proust:
(Following a silence) I regard myself as a human being, which means I’m the living product of innumerable biological sequences forming the ever-changing skin of reality.

Interviewer:
So, you believe that we’re biologically determined?

Proust:
It’s not important what I believe. What matters is truth.

Interviewer:
Well, what is ‘truth’ then?

Proust:
If truth is anything, its existence minus the labels we use to dissect it so that our minds can digest it.

Interviewer:
Mr. Proust, moving away from matters of the mind and onto your new book –

Proust:
(Waving his hands) Mr. Rice, I apologize, but do we need to discuss my book now?

Interviewer:
I’m not sure what you mean.

Proust:
As in not discuss the book? Avoid talking about its content, narrative, characters, etc.?

Interviewer:
Mr. Proust, most authors would be delighted to have a platform to discuss and market their wares!

Proust:
I know that, Mr. Rice. However, in context of how the book is selling, and without alluding to any perceived arrogance on my behalf, I don’t believe the book needs to be ‘punted’ by me in any way. The reason I’m asking not to discuss it is simple: if a writer has to pore over his material in a short-hand way, what’s the point of reading what they produced? I wrote the book for a reason – to be read and digested by the reader – not for me to sit here and give my view on how everything panned out.

Interviewer:
Ok, Mr. Proust, point taken. Just don’t blame me when your publishing house comes round with a guillotine, alright?

Proust:
(Laughs)

Interviewer:
Moving on, who or what do you consider to be your greatest influences?

Proust:
Anything that makes a spark as it rubs against the grain. In terms of writers, this includes David Mitchell, Rabelais, and, for argument’s sake, Zola. Away from words, I was pronouncedly influenced by the use of psychedelics in my adolescence, both via the philosophies they imparted upon my parents who advocated their use, as well as my own experiences. A final nod has to be reserved for heartbreak, as I believe grief is the most influential of all catalysts in the creative process.

Interviewer:
In respect to grief, could you elaborate?

Proust:
Right now… no, as my own grief is only translatable through the novels I write. As per grief in general, it’s like a lump of vegetable matter buried in one’s innermost depths, which over time metamorphoses into a diamond whose value can only be described through metaphor.

Interviewer:
Mr. Proust, it’s been speculated in the media that you are married to a woman who can’t read the language your books are written in.

Proust:
Well, congratulations media! I trust they’re proud they got that one right.

Interviewer:
So, she cannot critique your work unless it’s translated?

Proust:
In a purely literary sense, yes, she can’t critique my work. She does, however, possess other skills that have a pronounced influence on the content and form of my novels.

Interviewer:
Mr. Proust, when did you realize you wanted to be a writer?

Proust:
The first time I walked into a bank.

Interviewer:
Walked into a bank!?

Proust:
From a young age, my parents instilled in me the quite correct notion that money is an illusion, a farce built upon the ignorance of the masses. To walk into a temple that worships such a powerful illusion made me sick to my stomach, and from that moment I knew all I wanted to do was write – not in an attempt to wreck the illusion, but to somehow validate my own existence with something tangible, something ‘real,’ as opposed to the propaganda money uses to swindle the average mind.

Interviewer:
But aren’t the value of words on a page relative to those on a note?

Proust:
(Laughs) That’s a good question, one – to my mind anyway – that can only be answered with a story, a metaphorical parable that no amount of notes or zeroes can come close to satisfying.

Interviewer:
(Laughs) Mr. Proust, what’s the most interesting place you’ve ever visited?

Proust:
I assume you’re asking about a place on a map?
(Interviewer nods)
The most interesting place… I don’t know… Cambodia, perhaps? All the places I’ve been to have their own charm – a unique essence – which is entirely incomparable. I’ll say Cambodia because of how ‘diluted’ its psyche is. Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge really did a number there, leaving it high and dry in terms of nearly everything. It’s rebuilding now, but whilst there you cannot help but feel that everything’s just a murky Band-Aid covering up a far greater malignant force at play.

Interviewer:
How long were you there for?

Proust:
Six days. But it only takes minutes in the swill of Phnom Penh to plug into what I’m describing. I fell in love with the place, actually. In terms of writing, I cannot think of a better place to live, at least in respect to the creativity that thrives amidst such conflict.

Interviewer:
Mr. Proust, could you give our readers some insight into how you work? When you work, how you work, and anything else relating to your creative process?

Proust:
I will say that it’s a lot easier now than when I started writing!

Interviewer:
Which means?

Proust:
When I first started writing seriously, I was so poor I could sharpen pencils on my shoulder blades! That’s an exaggeration, of course, but not all that far-fetched. Back then I worked as a taxi driver – one of the best possible ways to pick up story ideas. The problem was I kept getting fucked over, each employer I took up with swindling me any way they could. I wasn’t in it for the money, but still, a person’s got to eat. Anyway, I took everything in my stride, believing each bad experience would find its inversely proportional twin come the future. So I worked the midnight shift, doing cocaine I scored off an Albanian for helping him with his English assignments. Each time I met someone interesting, I’d scribble down what they said, and after getting home at eight in the morning, I’d take two hours – without fail – to craft my scrawl into something, whether it be a short-story, a screenplay, the seeds of a novel, whatever.

Interviewer:
Well Mr. Proust, with your last three works having gone to number one on the New York Times Bestsellers List, some would say your hard work has paid off.

Proust:
(Shrugs and shakes his head) Yes… and no. Like I said, I’m not after the money, and if I haven’t mentioned the fact that I have absolutely no interest in fame already, let me do so now. You know, I don’t think any ‘real author’ ever feels that they’ve done anything significant. I mean, does the fact that a segment of society regards one’s work as something of worth mean that he or she has achieved the ‘goal’ they set out for when they stared writing? I don’t know, to tell you the truth. The fact is that me, personally, I cannot do anything but write, and if my work somehow resonates with people, fine, but if not, that’s fine too.

Interviewer:
Mr. Proust, some would say you’re too humble. Your last three books have sold almost as many copies as Beckett Twin’s Compass and Mask trilogy.

Proust:
And?

Interviewer:
And!? Mr. Proust, that’s a modern literary achievement, dare I say on a scale the Information Age has scarcely witnessed!

Proust:
Mr. Rice, pardon my ignorance, but that means nothing to me. Sure, I now have the means to live where I want, eat what I want, sleep with whomever I want, but none of that interests me. Just the idea of that terrifies me, in fact, because if I ever got sucked into that illusion, it’d drain me of all the honest creative power I have.

Interviewer:
What does satisfy you then?

Proust:
Simple recognition of the things that make up everyday life. We experience them so freely and totally as children, but upon becoming adults it’s as if the light they once brought us recedes further and further away as our boats of consciousness sail off into uncertainty. Thinking about it now, maybe that’s all that writers are trying to achieve: create a reflexive childhood as adults to take on a world that, without mythology, would in most instances resemble hell.

Interviewer:
You regard life to be a kind of hell?

Proust:
Without mythology… absolutely! I mean, what do we actually have as citizens of the world in the twenty-first century? A consumer culture that’s raping our planet, stealing our intuitions, and nullifying our humanity; a worldwide system of governance rigged to suit the needs of those who kowtow to the status quo; an overriding feeling of helplessness, one that grows in daily accordance with how the state of the world is reported via the media… if that’s not hell, what is? All we have is mythology – stories to remove us from ‘that’ – to counterbalance and add a semblance of wonder to our essentially meaningless lives.

Interviewer:
You don’t consider mythology to be a form of… denial?

Proust:
(Smirks) I see where you’re coming from, but I wouldn’t regard mythology to be a form of denial. If it were, then everything would have to be considered denial, as no experience – nor the reportage of it – can be recreated without taking some artistic liberties. Denial… that’s a loaded term. If anything, I’d say mythology is needed to appease the pain that has taken over the world, well with the rich having turned a blind eye to the poor while the warmongers and Armageddon prophets profit off the misery of the rest.

Interviewer:
That sounds kind of… gloomy, don’t you think?

Proust:
Who ever said reality was easy to look in the eye? Some may see it as gloomy, but I see it as salvation. You see, when the true nature of our lives is revealed – once we understand our place in the whole – we finally know what we want, which in turn gives us the spark of life that makes it all worth it. All reality does is give us a context for this to happen, and if someone were to deny reality, they would be minus that context, which to my mind would be as hellish as anything I could consider.

Interviewer:
Mr. Proust, a final question. If there is one thing you could experience – be it possible or not – what would it be?

Proust:
(Laughs) Maybe go back in time and swap brains with my first love, just for a day. Just to see what she thought and meant by all she said to me then, the very words that still ring so clearly in my heart and mind today.

Interviewer
Mr. Proust, thank you for your time.

Proust
Don’t mention it.

(Pan Zhi Ming – English name Zachary – is a Hakkanese man who lived in the forested foothills of Miaoli County, Taiwan. What follows is a translated account of what happened to him and his wife the day Typhoon Soulik arrived.)

Pacific summers: sweltering, wet, and mystical. It’s the season of climatic alchemy, the time when the gods reign down in all guises and shapes to craft the world according to their will. I’ve been privy to this all my life, I a citizen of the natural, mountainous wonderland that is Taiwan. Yup, I’ve seen and felt my share of tectonic upheaval, bore enough witness to heartache caused by landslides, and been scared witless on at least three occasions as uprooted trees danced like the undead before my eyes.

But nothing compares to what happened the day Typhoon Soulik arrived. My eight-month pregnant wife and I were living out in a forest then, our home nestled in between swathes of Acacia and You Tong Hua trees as intimate a heaven as we could know. The days leading up to its arrival had brought with them a disconcerting unease, there a tangible sense of foreboding about its arrival. Nevertheless, we readied ourselves for it, I digging canals in the soil around the back and sides of the house so that the rains would stream off the hill behind us towards safe ground. We’d been living in the forest for two years by that stage.

We already knew how calamitous Soulik could be, I having spent a week the previous year shoveling the driveway clean after Typhoon Soala wreaked havoc. In spite of knowing this, neither my wife nor I mentioned the possibility of relocating for the weekend as to avoid any compromising situations.

I guess we neglected this as we’re both romantics at heart: people of the land who’ve always lived by its whims and ways. Anyway, it was in the early hours of Saturday morning when Soulik arrived. The way its initial streaks of rain hit the house’s clay roof tiles was like a call to arms, only to quickly transform into what sounded like a full-scale battle. While this got the heart racing, I believed everything would be OK: we had, after all, lived through this kind of thing many times before. I lay motionless in bed and tried to fall back asleep, but with the rain in no mood to relent, I got up and made some coffee.

Whilst fixing a brew, the rain started pounding down. If you’ve never been in a typhoon-situation before, it’s difficult to describe the sentient nature in which the elements meet the Earth. Gusts of wind rushed around outside like a demonic mob wanting to be let in. The ferocity with which they whipped and sliced through the air set my heart racing again, but after a couple minutes its rhythm fell in tune with the calamity happening outside. My wife woke up and entered the living room. Although appearing calm and collected, I noticed a look in her eye I’d never seen before.

“Everything ok?” I asked.

“Yeah,” her hands instinctively went to her belly. “I suppose I’m extra sensitive because of the little one. Could you make me some tea, please?”

Once the pot of high-mountain Oolong was ready, I sat down beside her. The living room was a small, engaging space, its walls seemingly always on the verge of spilling a secret. With the two of us forced into silence by the fierce natural barrage going on outside, my mind drifted to what had happened before we moved in. A foreigner had lived here previously only to disappear without a trace. The story goes he’d been house sitting for another foreigner, and following three weeks of non-contact with a friend, she’d come to investigate. What she saw then must have scared her witless, because it’s said she looked as if her soul had been sucked out of her body when she walked into the local village’s police station that afternoon.

Whilst caught up in the past’s mysteries, the rain continued pelting down, it simply unbelievable how violent the combination of water and gravity could be. Not much later, fireworks got going. At first, a whirring sound rose out of nothing to fill the house’s interior, and was followed by a sharp, sudden explosion. In the dark, smoky aftermath, it dawned upon us our electricity was gone, Soulik having jumbled the electric wires outside and fried the house’s circuit board. My wife’s tension became tangible, and while searching for a candle and matches, I started to think we’d bitten off more than we could chew with this one.

Once a sliver of light got going, I sat back down beside my pregnant wife. As our thoughts and nerves bristled and brewed, the rain died down a bit, long enough for me to see what damage Soulik had caused. I stood up and opened the entrance door, and what I saw blew me away. The courtyard had become a graveyard of debris, its watery, muddied skin a collage of leaves, branches, and bamboo poles scattered in all directions. To the house’s right a waterfall had formed, its powerful, murky waters gushing voluminously down the driveway. The sound of the wind was core-shattering, it as if the souls of a million dead cats were being whisked along its invisible currents. Everything felt unreal, yet I couldn’t linger, as the rains soon returned with a vengeance.

Talk about power and fear. The force of falling water quickly reached staggering proportions, and I knew that if we didn’t get out soon, we’d be in real trouble. I filled a large duffel bag with all our most valuable items, and moved our furniture into the safest possible spots. While doing this, a loud crashing ‘BOOM!’ cut everything in half. I instantly knew what had happened – a portion of the hill behind the house had collapsed. It’d happened so powerfully and suddenly that the bedroom windows at the back of the house had shattered, and copious amounts of saturated earth had rushed in to drown the bed and floor. Additionally, four large Acacia trees had come down, and these monsters had blocked up the recently-dug canals. This meant the biblical surge of rain no longer had a path to flow along, and the water level quickly rose so high it gushed through the broken windows into our home.

In spite of us being caught up in a real-life disaster, my wife simply turned to stone. I can’t say I blame her – the scene was nightmarish – but time was against us. I took her in my arms, exited through the front door, and trudged through Hell-on-Earth before planting her on the truck’s passenger seat. I then ran back into the house and grabbed the duffel bag which was bobbing up and down beside a small, upturned table. When back at the front door, I said a shocked goodbye to the compromised Eden my wife and I had called home.

Our troubles were far from over. It being a forest dwelling, we still had to get to the main road. It took minutes to get the truck going, and when it did the windows had misted up so badly I had to stick my head out to see the driveway. We inched forward slowly, the surface beneath us a morass of mud, branches, and stones. It’s a miracle we got out of there alive, I of the belief that if we didn’t get hemmed in by a landslide, I’d be decapitated by any of the countless objects flying about. By the time we reached the road, my wife was nauseatingly white, and I was so muddled with fear I got the brakes and accelerator mixed up twice, both occasions nearly seeing us end up in the trees. The two-mile track back to civilization was a hellish test of attrition, my wife’s persistent prayer to be spared the soundtrack to a movie I’ll never forget.

The length of time it took from the hill collapsing to us arriving at the nearest police station verged on an hour. For my wife and me, it was the longest, most sustained period of horror either of us had ever experienced. When we arrived, most of local community’s residents had assembled, and in the midst of everything my wife’s water broke. Her labor – by God’s grace – was quick and effortless, and together with the good fortune that were two doctors and an on-site ambulance, our son was born happy and healthy, he the phoenix that rose the day Typhoon Soulik turned our lives inside out.