Light and life and rain and white noise and we are thrumming with the city’s breath and soaring through its veins, its streets, alive, so alive with the intoxicating knowledge that we are this savage city and the city is us and we are on the hunt, raw and starved, watching, watching watching watching—
There. Outside the shutters of a decaying tong-lau apothecary still bitter with traces of medical herbs. One more spirit to be harnessed.
The graven-faced man bowed by the crush of scavenged cardboard boxes collapses at the gate. He is tired, so tired, and we too are weighed down by his burden but cannot do anything to ease the suffocation in his mind, and must instead wait and wait and wait and pluck him from the streets of the city at the right moment, the unseen moment.
We want to help. We want to comfort the old man we want to tell him that it will be okay, but we cannot, we are only light we are only residue we are only evanescence and we will surely break if we do this forever but we must do this forever, bind the spirits of the forgotten and the lost to us in the flickering candle-moment between memory and nothingness, make them a part of us, a part of the lights.
We see our chance. Seize it.
He passes beneath a streetlamp and we lace ourselves to him, dissolve his spirit, weave the remnants of all that he once was into pieces of all that we are, one more forgotten soul injected with worth and new life, given purpose.
It takes the too-vast, too-hollow space between one heartbeat and the next for his spirit to scatter into us.
I won’t ask Ahlok for money I won’t sink that low I’d rather earn my own keep than be packed off to a home should never have raised him to be such a spoilt brat shouldn’t have stayed in City H should never have left he chose to cut his own heart out and wear the police uniform where did we go wrong to raise such a child what if the cop who drove me out from the underpass was him I couldn’t see the fucker’s face but I’d recognize that frame anywhere how many people did he beat into the concrete yesterday night how many kids’ wrists did he tie behind their backs and how many of them did he shove into the van he is my fault he isn’t my fault good riddance to him I’ll fucking strangle him if he dares come back I want him to come ba—
And we tell him, tell us, whispering, Adapt. Be us. Don’t resist.
When he becomes we, all that remains of the he-that-once-was is heavy cardboard, sodden and limp with rainfall.
A red minibus hurtles by with the inexorable force of gas from a canister and vanishes into the night.
Deepwater Pier district, near dawn. A riot of colors and noise and used cellphones and cheap lingerie and plastic toys spread out on the streets, stalls like miniature islands peddling electronics and semiconductors and CDs, kitsch and memory, nostalgia and bolts of tapestry.
At the crossroads right outside the busy green-tiled subway exit, a woman looks up at the decaying neon sign above her that flickers with forgotten life.
Her hair is milk-tea glossy and trimmed to a precision at the nape of her neck, her linen shirt half-tucked into a long mustard-yellow skirt: the perfect portrait of one of the young culturati of City H.
You can always tell her kind by their bearing, their countenance: worldly and naive and weary and fox-canny all at once. They are paradoxes in the way we are a paradox, as much a part of this city’s tracery of veins as they are exiles in this city made for exiles. They are at home sweating amidst the roaring fumes of daipaitongs pungent with curry fish balls and siumai and cheung fun, or tucked away in upstairs bookeries and coffeehouses, record shops and haberdasheries, hungry, always hungry, searching for the lingering hallucination of some bygone era which will never be theirs in defiance of time.
And she is looking up at us, really looking, with the sharp-eyed awareness of a challenger, a combatant, a haggler inspecting some curio in their hand and weighing its worth.
(Something else you can always tell her kind by: the eyes. Fractured and jagged in the way of shattered window-glass. Every child here has the same eyes now. Feral eyes. Dead eyes.)
We cringe at the clarity of her gaze, uneasy at the prospect of being seen, of being judged and found wanting.
She takes her phone out from the pocket of her skirt and raises it to the shop sign, and we cannot hear the shutter-click of the device as she takes a photograph but we know that a fragment of us is forever immortalized, the hollow red-green-yellow hum of a dying neon sign captured as though an insect caught in amber.
Then the photographer is walking down the street now against the current, inspecting the contents of her phone, head bowed, seemingly oblivious to the sour sweat and heat and noise of the crowd drowning her like mountains, like the sea, and then the screech of wheels on concrete, someone shouting at her loud and shrill, Watch where you’re going, sei lang mui!
Reeled in by the snare of our curiosity, we flow through particles of light, look down on her from above as she weaves her way in between buildings and through narrow alleyways stinking of pepper-rot and toxins.
We flicker, lover-close and hesitant, lean over her to inspect her phone.
A photograph. No, not a photograph, she is flicking through the photos and we see ourselves a hundredfold in the neon-bright, in the sepia, in the blacks and whites, blurred and knife-sharp, dating back and back. Fragments and shards of déjà disparu stitched together into a cartography of us, a thousand us-as-we-once-weres and us-as-we-will-becomes, sand in hourglass, sediments in the sea.
The us buried beneath the weight of so many discordant memories and unwritten histories and scattered terrazzo-stones of seven million lives pressed together.
Us as we once were and us as we are now. Tangled up in one another, in a collision, a dance, a shifting of one scent-note to another, separate yet unextractable.
The past is not etched into our language. Nor in our mirrored skyscrapers nor the junk boat in the harbor, nor the well-worn quandary of a city caught between worlds. This is who we are: the light, the not-alive, the unforgotten, the disappeared. The lachrymator smoke, the shadow, the debris, the sirens, the anger, the fear, the fifty years.
The young man in a yellow raincoat on the roof’s ledge. (20,000+1.) The broken black-clad body pooling blood under the shadows of a car park. The child floating naked in briny waters. (An unsuspicious death.) The last innocent unbridled laughter beneath a mid-autumn moon. The kaleidoscope spin of every summer day and winter night collapsing into each other on torn-up streets, the death knell of an emergency alarm in a station deep underground, a bridge on fire, too-young foster parents and too-old children who do not know each other by name but are learning for the first time the meaning of blood, smudges of ghost-writing on every surface, Hasta la victoria siempre, Je me révolte donc je suis, man was born for love and revolution, ji yau, gaak ming, a cacophony of words upon words upon words papered onto every wall in jubilant colors.
And the photographer reaches another crossroad, another subway exit, and the sky is grey-white with the coming dawn and someone else is waiting for her there.
She closes into the other woman’s space, a sharp jump from behind the woman, startling her waiting companion.
Diu. You scared me.
Hah, screw you. After what happened last night at Little Cove, I thought…
I texted you, after. Once I got home. Said I was safe. You’re not still mad at me, are you?
All right. I’m sorry.
You’re all right, though.
Yeah. Yeah, I’m all right.
They cling to each other tight and fierce, in their own world as bright and fragile as a constellation of possibilities, alive, so alive, and who are the dead and the forgotten to deny them this fleeting rock-certain joy of existence?
The streetlights flicker off one by one with the finality of cut-string kites, and we fade away, drown ourselves in the deluge of a searing dawn, and the last thing we see is their interlinked hands as they turn a corner and step over the remnants of salvaged cardboard stirring in the breeze.
Ewen Ma was made in Hong Kong but now lives in London, where they write speculative fiction and poetry, devise theatre, and haunt cemetery parks. Their work can be found in Uncanny, The Deadlands, Fusion Fragment, Anathema, and Apparition Lit (among other places), and has been shortlisted for the inaugural Future Worlds Prize in 2020. Ewen is also a 2018 Clarion West graduate and a lapsed Film & Visual Culture research student. Catch Ewen online at http://ewenma.com or on Twitter at @awenigma.