The Absinthe of Dreams
JAKE RAN into a dream.
He’d pressed through the narrow side streets of Hong Kong’s Wan Chai District in Causeway Bay. The man with the gloved left hand was far ahead, but still just barely visible. Jake dodged taxis, ran past the signs flashing in English and Chinese, and elbowed his way through the end-of-the-day crowds. The noisy world clanged like his pounding heart while he ran as fast as he could, but he couldn’t catch the ghost.
Jake turned onto a climbing walkway of gray stone and gray walls, just as the man passed under a red and gold gate. When Jake passed through it, the world seemed to change. The city’s glaring lights and endless cacophony faded, replaced by the bright colors of legends and hells.
The Tiger Balm Gardens, he thought, looking for where the man with the gloved left hand had gone. Built by Aw Boon Ha, a man who’d made a killing creating and selling an herbal balm, the Gardens were an everyman’s vision of the afterlife. All around Jake, the ground sprouted painted concrete figures. Walls writhed with golden demons, souls and myths. A woman rode astride a water buffalo. A phoenix rose in flight.
A woman sipping absinthe in the pub had once explained to Jake how the world soon would look to her. “My dreams take the green stream out of my eyes,” she had said. “They leave my mind, liberated. They blossom to the world, and they show that beneath the dirty, cracked, dusty, greasy skin of what we call life, the world shines silver and gold underneath.”
The Gardens could have been her mind, Jake thought, contempt lending harshness to his thoughts. He didn’t like absinthe, and he didn’t like the Gardens. The painted concrete seemed to shimmer, and he could not tell real from dream. He looked down one long passage of bright red, textured like cave walls. Entwined in the rock, a blue dragon shone with all the fire and power of the stars. No audience attended the dragon in the empty stone plaza below it; only a small, round bushy tree humbled itself before the dragon’s might. But before he rushed toward the plaza, a neighboring passage caught his eye. Near a statue of a pig walking, a shadow faded. Jake ran toward it. He heard footsteps walking on a stone staircase. Walking, thought Jake as he dashed. Like the bastard’s just out for a leisurely stroll in the eighteen levels of Buddhist hell. At the bottom of the stone steps, he looked up.
Above him stretched the gray steps, which then entered the seven floors of the Tiger Pagoda, spear of heaven, the only white pagoda in the city. At the top of the stairs by a doorway, the man stood calm and serene. “See you at the top,” he called down. Then he disappeared into the pagoda.
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