Donkey Man's Dream
It snowed the whole morning. In the afternoon, the snow finally stopped.
I sit by the fire, and look out the window: The roofs, the trees, and the ground of the yard are all covered with the snow. I look at the sky; it is still grey, but brighter. I hesitate.
Since this morning when I saw the snow, I have wondered if I should go to visit you—It is the first snow of this winter, I feel I want to share with someone, someone who understands.
I ask a servant to take my donkey from the barn, and I start to put on my snow cape and hat. My wife sees me. She comes from the inside room and asks where I am going. I tell her that I am going to visit you. She is surprised. She suggests that I should go when the snow melts and the road is cleared. Now it’s getting late, why not just stay at home and sit by the fire?
She doesn’t understand. I tell her that I will be careful on the road, and I plan to stay at your place tonight. Nothing else to explain; I walk out of the yard. But I almost forget to bring one bottle of wine with me. I return to the house; my wife thinks I have changed my mind. I ask her to bring me one bottle of our home-made rice wine, then I leave.
The street is empty, only me and my donkey. The fallen leaves have been buried beneath the snow. Everywhere looks clean and similar. I take a long, deep breath.
I haven’t seen you for a long time. Since the end of this Summer, when you came to my house while I was out, I have planned to meet you sometime soon. I wrote you a letter a while ago, but you didn’t answer. I am not sure if you received it or not, or you just don’t know how to answer. That’s another reason why I want to see you.
I turn from the road to a small path. A lot of rocks are covered by the snow, so I have to be very careful. I tighten the reins of my donkey in my hands. It feels much colder in the mountains; I can see the white steam from my breath and my donkey’s. Nothing can be more suitable than riding a donkey to go to your place in such weather. You live in the mountains, not very far from my home. But the path is narrow and bumpy—Almost impossible to go there on foot or horse on snowy days. It is worthwhile to come in Spring and Autumn; the scenes in the mountains are lovely: Spring flowers and birds are everywhere; sometimes careless pheasants fly into your way from the bush, but immediately they scare themselves away—So who scares whom? A few times I even saw red foxes hide their little triangle faces behind the tree, but their large fluffy tails gave them away. If it is Autumn, the apples are ripe, and passers-by can pick as many as they want to eat along the way. They smell and taste wonderful, fragrant, juicy. The sweetness can linger in your mouth for a couple of hours! Mountain apples are the best a person can find. Thinking of this, I feel regret that I didn’t come this Autumn—I wasn’t busy, I was just a little bit lazy, and felt tired.
The sky is getting darker now, while the ground is still bright under the reflection of the snow. Even though there is not much wind, it chills you to your bones. I close my cape tighter and hide my hands inside it. Even so, my donkey starts to sweat. Poor donkey, I will definitely feed it something good when we arrive, maybe some apples.
There is a small wood plank bridge ahead of me across a stream. The bridge is very narrow; the planks are supported by a few strong wood poles. It will be very slippery with snow and ice on it. I slow down my speed and pat the ear of my donkey as an encouragement. Sometimes donkeys are also afraid, so they need more care and love to persuade them to proceed. The hooves step on the bridge; we are lucky, there is just snow, no ice yet. From this bridge, I can see your house, which is half hidden behind a small mountain top. I think I even can see someone in white sitting by the window. It must be you.
The stream under the bridge hasn’t frozen yet. It is surrounded by rocks and bamboo and lies motionlessly. In summertime, it is always noisy—Wild ducks are swimming in it; sometimes there are badgers. But the badgers are very sensitive: Before they sneak out from the bamboo, they always spend a lot of time to check around. If they feel any threats, they will withdraw their heads and vanish at once.
The bamboo leaves are still on their branches, covered with snow. From the other side of the stream, a pine tree stands awkwardly, looking quite lonesome. “It is like me.” I am thinking. “It can’t get along with the world around it, and it’s unhappy. It doesn’t know where to go and it hesitates to make a change.”
If you received my letter, you would understand. I was born here, raised here, married here, and now I am getting older here. I have never left this place my whole life. I love it, it is where I belong. But since the middle of this year, I have started to think about something else. As you know, my sons all have grown up and married; they live their own lives now. All of a sudden, my life has become empty and aimless. I devoted my whole life to my family: Be a good son, a good husband, and a good father. But is there anyone who really needs me? Who really understands and cares about what I want? Nobody even thanks me or gives me a hug. So, what have I done all my life? I try to make everyone happy but myself. Recently I always wonder, “If I die and people read my tombstone, what will they get from it? And what will they think about me? Have I ever left something that makes me proud, other than telling people that I have three sons?” They are not produced by me, they are produced by God and happened to be my kids. They are individuals and they are themselves.
I want something that belongs to me alone; I want something created by myself with my hands and thoughts; I want to choose what I want and stay where I love to stay. I am always led by others and live for others, so now, when finally, I have finished all of those missions and responsibilities, shouldn’t I be free and fearless to do something that I have desired for a long time?
As I have explained in the letter, since I was a kid I have dreamt of living in Jiangnan and being a painter there: I love the willow trees sweeping over the ponds; I love the little white houses near stone bridges; I love those people who are decent and talk intelligently. I will rent a little house with a moon gate and a magnolia tree. I will find a teacher to teach me water ink painting. I want to make more friends who come from different places and tell me different tales instead of about crops and taxes like here.
Don’t laugh at me. I trust you as my best friend by sharing this with you. Yes, I am not that young, but I am not too old either. I am only in my fifties and I am still strong enough to pursue something beautiful. I don’t want to dwell in this small corner of the world and regret it when I can’t walk. It’s never too late!
You come from a distant place, you have seen various people and places. You always have a bigger point of view. Maybe that’s why I like to be with you and listen to you. From you, I can find my own dreams. You have inspired me and let me see the possibilities of life. Therefore, after my travels and when I come back here, I can have something proud to tell and show my grandsons, something that only belongs to me, not anyone else. I want to give myself a chance, probably the last chance I can have.
I am determined to leave my hometown early next Spring. I plan to go to Chongqing first, then take a boat from there to Wuhan, Nanjing, Wuxi, and Suzhou. I will make a stop at each place, then turn to Yangzhou. I want to stay in Yangzhou for a while, spoil myself with the dim sums and the signature dishes of Yangzhou food until I get sick of them. Last, I will go to Hangzhou; I must see the West Lake and the tides of Qiangtang river in person before I die.
If you like my plan, and if you want to join me, I will be very delighted. My wife and servants can help A San to take care of your house and horses; or A San and your horses can live in my place until we come back. This trip will take me about three to five years; of course, it always can be extended or modified. If you like, you don’t need to accompany me to finish the whole journey. You can always come back whenever you want.
Now I can see the stone steps leading to your house, and I can hear you playing your Seven-string instrument called the Guqin. I get off of my donkey. A San sees me and cries to the window joyfully: “Master, Mr. Li is here!” The music stops. I see you wearing your white gown and showing up on the front porch. You speak in a lighthearted and firm tone: “Welcome to come on such a beautiful snowy day! You are in luck—We are preparing wild duck hot pot with some fresh bamboo shoots and mushrooms. What a gorgeous fat duck! We must eat well to prepare for next Spring’s journey. Let’s talk about it later tonight. A San, go help to pull the donkey up the steps!”