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from the July/August 2003 issue

An Empty Room

As the mountain crested its slope steepened. I was already sweating. A church appeared at the top of the crest. I thought I should rest there a bit before deciding when to descend.

The war had just ended. The church was deserted. The altar, tables, and chairs had long been removed. Only the holy statue remained—Christ’s face, covered with dust, revealed an extraordinary quality of steadfast perseverance. Half the keys of an old piano still made a kind of grating sound. If someone could’ve composed a piece to fi t its condition, that would’ve been very interesting indeed.

Was there anything else worth seeing? Why was I the only one hiking? Winter days in the mountains were dead with creeks dried and bamboo barely green.

Walking through a bamboo forest, I found another path to descend.

Then through the twists and turns of the path I glimpsed a temple. If there were monks we could have tea together, I thought to myself. I had decided to hike alone as I was weary of the crowded city, but as I had yet to come across anyone, an unexpected chat with a monk would be nice.

The gate was open. Fallen leaves in the yard and dust fl oating in the hall indicated that this was another place in ruins. The temple was more appealing than the church, though. The corridors crisscrossed and the tall ancient trees provided heavy shade so that even in decay there was a tranquil beauty. Behind the main hall stood a two-story building. I called out a few times but received no response. I walked upstairs to look around. Two of the three rooms didn’t have doors, their dilapidated wooden walls exposed within. Empty, empty. I came to the third room and found a screen door ajar. I pushed it open but withdrew my hand immediately—a sudden flood of pink washed over me. The walls inside were painted the color of flowering cherry blossoms. I felt a “human presence,” but after a quick inspection it was clear that this room, too, was empty. The walls, however, were freshly painted with a clean evenness. No furniture. The floor was covered with pieces of paper and piles of empty Kodak boxes. Stepping on the paper scraps, I felt as if a rich carpet covered the entire floor.

1. This couldn’t possibly be a room for monks since the walls were pink.

2. The previous tenants must have been a young couple, possibly newlyweds.

3. They were photographers or lovers of photography.

4. They had taken residence here recently and left not too long before I arrived.

These speculations seemed disconnected from the temporal and spatial dimensions of the war and of this remote mountainous region. The war had lasted eight long years. Did they come here for refuge? Was it possible that they really had the leisure time to paint the walls and take photos? Where could they have found food in the mountains?

If they had no money, they couldn’t have lived here long. If they did have money, they would have been robbed. Even Erich Remarque’s wartime lovebirds wouldn’t choose such an eerie, ancient temple.

I picked up some of the papers and could see they were letters. Scanning the papers on the ground I could see that all the pages were letters. Why so many letters? There was no order to the strewn pages and thus the letters were more difficult to understand than the most absurd novels. It was clear, however, that the missives were written between a man and a woman. The man’s name was Liang—“darling Liang,” “my Liang,” “your Liang.” The woman’s name was Mei—“dearest Mei,” “my Mei forever.” They wrote all about love, the twists and turns of their love together, in a style befitting college-educated liberal arts majors.

I was frustrated. Sitting amidst the stacks of papers, my legs began to itch from flea bites. That there were so many fleas suggested that someone had inhabited the room. My head pounded and my cheeks burned from reading the letters. The setting sun tinted the windowsills orange; the evening wind vigorously shook the bare branches. I would need to hike down the mountain quickly.

I inspected the walls and corners one last time and found no bloodstains or bullet holes. The door and windows weren’t damaged. Every Kodak box was empty. Every paper scrap was a sheet from a letter. Yet I could find no envelopes. Was it possible this was a film set? But that would hardly make sense as the letters contained real substance. I couldn’t take away all the pages, so I removed my scarf and wrapped up a large bundle. Then I stuffed my pockets with a few Kodak boxes and rushed downstairs. Circling the temple, I could find nothing else of note. There still wasn’t a single person in sight. The surrounding wilderness now frightened me. I descended with the letters like a woodcutter carrying his firewood.

For the next several days I read the letters and formulated this loose sketch from the chaos: Liang and Mei had been in love for a long time. Both their families strongly objected to the match. Liang, out of despair, repeatedly wrote that being dead was better than being alive. Mei asked him not to take his life so lightly and said that his first priority should be his own career and future. She confessed that her own days living in this world were numbered. The rest was more or less intensely passionate yet somewhat empty expressions of love. It was also strange that letters from both of them were dated with the month but not the year. Neither spoke of the war’s tragedies. It was as if love had nothing to do with time and war. As the letters weren’t literature after all, the words became tiresome.

I reasoned again with a list:

1. If they had lived together in the temple room, they wouldn’t have left without the letters.

2. If Liang had lived there alone, it was puzzling that his letters to Mei were mixed with Mei’s letters to him.

3. If Mei had died first and she had returned her letters to Liang before her death, then Liang would have cherished these letters and would not have scattered them around so carelessly.

4. If, after Mei’s death, Liang killed himself because he was heartbroken, then he would have destroyed the letters before he committed suicide rather than risking their discovery by gossiping strangers.

5. If they had chosen a ritual Japanese suicide—jumping off the mountain together or throwing themselves into a fire—then Liang still would’ve burned the letters before their death. This would be the only way to insure a clean break from the world.

6. Perhaps Liang was murdered and was robbed of everything save these useless letters. But then why would the criminals bother to leave the letters and not the envelopes?

7. If Liang had been arrested for political reasons, these letters would’ve been confiscated by the authorities as valuable evidence.

I was too young then to have sufficient reasoning capacities, but I did reach one definite conclusion: when I found the letters, Liang and Mei were no longer in this world. After my discovery, I moved several times and lost the letters. I’ve never had the chance to return to the room. None of the cases of murder and robbery reported in newspapers mentioned Liang or Mei or anything similar to what I saw in the temple. I’ve since met others with the same name but no one was the Liang or Mei I knew.

A few decades have passed since then. I still remember the surprise I felt when I first pushed open that screen door. The desolate winter scenery of the mountain, the abandoned church and temple as if the whole of humanity had disappeared, contrasted strikingly with the fl owering cherry blossoms that blazed before me—people, life . . . bluish-white letterhead, golden yellow Kodak boxes—it was like the welcome of spring, or an unexpected encounter with an old friend.

Those fleas that had bitten Liang may have also bitten Mei. A poet once compared the blood of a man and a woman mixed within the living walls of a flea to a marriage temple. What a refined sentiment of tragedy! By coincidence my own blood was mixed in as well, though I was innocent. I never witnessed the marriage of Liang and Mei.

I record this story in memory of my youth. And still cannot comprehend what it means—which only demonstrates that I haven’t made much progress these past few decades..

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