I have been very sensitive to footsteps since little. Even
when I was half awake and half asleep, I could tell, merely from
listening to footsteps, who came, who went away, who got mad,
and who had put on new shoes. Yet had I never heard my own
There was once, though, when I did hear my own footsteps.
It was when I was eleven, in grade five. In the math final exam,
I gave the wrong answer to one of the questions, so the teacher
told me to do it again on the blackboard. It was a disgraceful
thing, so one ought to have walked with humiliation and walked
quietly. And yet I rose up from my seat and rushed to the podium
in big steps. There was not a sound in the classroom except
my footsteps, ta ta ta ta, rushing and hurrying.
Having solved the question correctly, I stood on the podium
waiting for the teacher to praise me. And yet all that the teacher
said was: “Just now I thought you were going to fly over. Walk
more softly from now on.”
How could he know that youth and health could not be concealed.
“Time travels like a flying arrow; days and months go by
like a flying shuttle.” Year following year, from youth to old
age, all in the twinkling of an eye. My partner had passed away,
and the children had left home. Ever since, all the footsteps I
heard were my own. Click click click they went to this empty
room; click click click they went to that empty room. Lonely
footsteps fell on the hair, the walls; they fell on the sun rays that
came in through the window and danced with them. Even if I
wore shoes with soft soles, or slippers, the clanging sound of my
feet was still often heard.
One day, the only clicking footsteps that remained in the
house were suddenly heard no more. What was heard instead
were dragging and shuffling sounds. I had thought that this poor
hollow clicking sound of what’s left would keep me company
throughout my remaining days. How could it abandon me just
overnight! I was utterly distressed, utterly frightened! What
heinous crime did I commit that led to the sudden arrival of
senility? My legs no longer obey my orders. When I went up or
down the stairs, it felt as if the bones in my knees were disjoined,
and lifting these feeble legs was like lifting weights. I
had to make such an effort going up and down, with my hands
holding on to the handrail, my body doubled over. If we
zoomed out the lens, wouldn’t I look like an old bear that, upon
waking up from hibernation, was weak and feeble with starvation?
Sleeping at night, whenever I wanted to roll over to my side, I had to use both hands to lift up a leg and move it gently,
or else the pain would be excruciating. In this kind of situation,
although I could still walk, the footsteps were all disordered, and
the empty clicking sounds were no longer to be heard.
Westerners say: “One can tell what bird it is by the way it flies.”
By the same token, “One can tell how old someone is by the
way he walks,” which is not far from the truth.
So it is that loneliness and old age cannot be concealed,
Not even in my dreams did it ever occur to me that in old
age, all that I asked for was such a humble thing as the empty
clicking sound of my own footsteps. But I was not disappointed.
Disappointment makes one frail. I could not but accept natural
aging, but I would not accept mental frailty. I went to the doctor,
regularly, conscientiously. But medication did not work.
I contemplated on it over and over again. What, besides
old age, was the cause that pushed me into this kind of situation?
The answer came very quickly—it was separation!
Countless separations from people close to me led to my
loneliness; and loneliness accelerated my aging.
In his immortal book One Hundred Years of Solitude, the
great Colombian author Marquez writes: “Old age is the forming
of alliance with loneliness.”1 I liked his book, but I did not buy
this idea. I would not form this alliance. I would fight against
loneliness to save myself from decrepitude; I made up my mind
to defeat loneliness with both soft and hard measures.
To begin with, I threw away the cluster amaryllis, pot and
soil, by the doorway, because, over the past twenty years, listening
to all the footsteps of the family members and witnessing their departing one by one, it lavishly nurtured separation.
I promised myself that, if the hollow clicking sound successfully
returned, I would definitely cherish it in the future, and
that in my book of “Days for Celebration” made from a diary
book, I would enter “Clicking Returning Day,” following the last
entry for the day of “Catching the Mouse Single-handedly.”
I had gone to the 7 p.m. movie by myself amongst pairs of
teenagers, wearing low-heel shoes, ....
1 This is translated from the author’s Chinese quotation.