In my dreams I often focus on that vast space where the night sky meets the sea. It is an image that fosters a sense of silent dread in me. Starting in childhood, through my youth, and now in middle age, I have often found it hard to shake those feelings.
As someone for whom the mere mention of parental love prompts revulsion, my greatest source of anxiety is now nothing less than having a family of my own and being the father of two children.
When I was a child, my mother worried that I was too with-drawn, so before I went to bed she would have me carry our thermos across the dark street to buy some hot water at the flour porridge shop. She hoped I would learn to be more sociable in the process.
I would ask for the water, pass over the money, and then
return with a heavy thermos.
Mother would wait beside a pillar in the sidewalk arcade.
This was a compulsory course I took every night without
exception. Even if I had to brave the December rains, I never
missed a class.
As I received the water bottle from across the counter, I turned to see that the night had suddenly darkened.
The street had receded and emptied of cars and pedestrians. And the arcade had lengthened and narrowed, extending out into the pitch-black night.
Mother no longer stood beside the pillar.
Clutching the weighty thermos, I prepared to cross the dark street alone. And then my heart began to race.
“Ma,” I blurted out, frightened.
After I bought the boiled water, Mother would usually take the bottle from my hands.
As I prepared to cross the street in darkness, half of Mother’s face appeared from behind the pillar.
Then the face pulled back again and was nowhere to be seen.
I ran across the street as fast as I could. From behind another pillar, Mother once again stuck out half her face. It mocked me with no need for words.
I ran toward her.
And with every step I took, she took a step away.
Mother seemed to have decided to leave me, and, at the same time, she seemed to be playing hide and seek with me.
Concealed behind a pillar, she was quietly laughing.
After a long time, she once again revealed half of her mischievous face, which looked at me but said nothing.
“Ma,” I shouted.
My mother started running. She started running in the middle of the street.
She was running toward some place that was even darker. Running toward the sea.
Running as if her life depended upon it, running with great resolve and determination, running with her long hair flapping in the wind.
She left me behind in this end of the dark night.
“Ma . . .”
My voice carried down the straight avenue. By now I realized that my only hope of reaching my mother, who was about to disappear from sight, was to shout at the top of my lungs.
I could do nothing but stand in the street with my hands gripping the thermos, which had suddenly become an unnecessary burden.
The sound of Mother’s footsteps jumping on the asphalt receded. Step by step, they grew more muted, until finally they died out altogether as I screamed at the end of the dream.
“Why don’t you take a stab at analyzing what’s going on?”
I had recounted this frequent dream of mine to my old friend Liao, a psychiatrist at National Taiwan University Hospital. I was hoping that he would be able to explain it to me.
We were sitting in an old Dutch-style building, tasting the tea prepared in the gongfu style, about which he had recently grown rather passionate.
As the setting sun crossed the dense alsophila tree fern, it cast a beam of light into the east wing of the house, across the table and upon the delicate clay tea set.
Liao had once pursued his medical career in this building that had long been in his family.
The whistle of a shuanglian-bound train that had passed a few minutes earlier faded in the distance, accentuating the languor of the day’s late hour.
Plopped in an old rattan chair, I found that the sound of the receding train began transporting me to that sea in my dream.
As Liao sipped from a cup of freshly harvested tea, he spoke about the difficulty of analyzing any friend, let alone one he had known since childhood. . . .