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Tasting the Stone Shell

A story of obsession set in Shanghai in the 1980's

I had decided to visit Shanghai with the flurry of movement that invaded the city at that point in time after the war. This decision I took for my interest in the city, but mainly because of my subconscious desire to escape mounting debts, and an unrequited love back home in Marseilles. I took up a low, unglamorous room in the French quarter of the city, hardly surrounded by friends- but at least people living on the same level of means, who were utterly engrossed by their own trivial lives and did not attempt to disturb me. It was a hot summer, with endless people in the streets which were dwarfed by the ugly, looming towered office blocks that were the dull, unimaginative grandchild of the industrial revolution. Many of the beautiful buildings of old were still there, elegant oasis' in this rushed, modern day city still infected with the bright, vulgar colour of red that was never out of sight. Piles of cabbages decorating the pavements stretched higher than an elephant could have climbed, and everyday at exactly 5 'o' clock the tourists were forced to attend the little bazaars and spend their custom on unnecessary trinkets and commodities. I spent my days wandering the city, absorbing the atmosphere, watching the people and distracting myself in this alien world. In the evenings I would dine upon jellied eels in tar and accustom myself to the raucous revelry that swept unbridled through the smoky, dimly lit streets.

During the day time the wealthier families would stroll through the city, the father either the dominant leader or utterly absent, the mother quiet, directive or also devoid. The main characters would be the children running amok, or the nurses looking after their little babies in assorted hats (chosen at the whim of distant, eccentric parents) whom were lounging in their wooden prams, and spent their days regarding the stone statues that were scattered around the city. Perhaps they would grow up to be warriors guarding their city too, (although maybe that is a desire that is fast disappearing into the past), or perhaps they just wanted to play hop scotch with the stone animals. One little boy however, caught my attention more than anyone else. Every morning his nurse would take him out for his days stroll, and upon reaching this particular road he would persuade her with beseeching looks and smiles to lift him out of his pram and place him down beside one of the stone lions. This particular one looked more looked after than the rest, the head armoured in spikes and the face decorated with a mocking grin. The child would direct the nurse to place him down beside the lion on a raised stone platform, beside a metal urn and a red, spiked fence. All day he would sit there, until his nurse finally lost patience and removed him, completely silent in thought, with his eyes fixed on the lion.

I first noticed this when I was out, slowly meandering down the street, enjoying the sunshine and the rest of the world and his wife out for a pleasurable day. My attention was drawn to this child by the intense concentration he was giving to this lion, and how even in the swollen heat of the midday sun, he hardly moved. (both properties you will agree rarely if ever found in a child of such a young age) I stood by a waiting rickshaw for a while, watching the watcher. There was a flurry of movement behind me as a thief attempted to run from a stall with a stolen onion, but was caught red-handed, but I barely noticed.

Finally I asked the boy standing beside me with his rickshaw, “That boy, has he done this before?”

The rickshaw boy followed the nod of my head towards the child and his lion, blinked in comprehension, “Ah yes, everyday, he sits there...”

Upon this exchange of words the small child was removed by the nurse and the object of my interest disappeared for the day. Spurred on by my companions words I vowed to return the next day to watch this boy, which I did, and every day for the rest of the week.

In reflection, I think what interested me the most was the intensiveness of the expression on his face, which forced me to wonder what could inspire such a high level of concentration- especially in one so young. As the days passed my interest heightened, and I resolved again and again to take courage and approach the boy (courage, why was I so afraid of someone so small and innocent?) but time and time again my courage failed and I resigned myself to keeping vigilant and dream a million explanations.

One day, not so bright and sunny as the others- the kind of day where you are constantly expecting rain from the grey heavy clouds but it never quite arrives. Within the heavy gradient around me I walked purposefully as usual to my post, but today there was a difference, the boy and his nurse were not there. I glanced up and down the street, which was quieter and more deserted than usual due to the weather. Nothing. Time seemed to slow, the wind re-wound around me and the enormity of this absence submerged and obliterated my suddenly distant body, and I could feel the particles that made up my being separate for a second, holding themselves suspended- stretched in complete tension... then as suddenly as it began, snapped back into place- breaking me out of my all-consuming meditation with a violent, almost painful lurch. Slowly, without a specific directional thought, my body still trembling, I began to move towards the stone lion. Step by step, my fingers shaking in trepidation and expectation- my entire being felt completely removed from the situation. I came close to the lion, it's eyes upon me, mine eyes in regard also. In that spot I slowly sat down, the same spot the boy had sat before and I watched, for what seemed an eternity.

My mind was trying to fathom what exactly had been so fascinating. Sure, the lion was beautiful, noble, ornately carved, and telling a story of a time in previous history- but there was nothing truly out of the ordinary, nothing that would have tempted me to watch for days and days on end. Suddenly I felt a change in the air behind me, a whisper in the atmosphere.

Before I could turn around I heard a tiny voice, just behind my ear. “Don't move, just stay where you are. Keep watch, but to hear the lion's story you must learn to watch with your ears. If he decides to tell you then you must be ready, this is not something to be taken lightly.” As the voice faded I turned around and glimpsed the nurse carrying the small boy back to his pram- bells jingling. I instinctively felt that his part in this story was over – and maybe my part was just beginning.

I stayed there for the rest of the day, watching, or trying to watch I thought. The light began to fade and a chill crawled over my body. Legs aching, I stood up- still, if not more, confused than I had been in the morning. I started to walk slowly home, when I noticed the same rickshaw boy from before, this time selling hot, spicy, soup dumplings. I approached him and paid 2 Yuan for a dumpling.

The hot grease ran down my chin, and whilst I wiped it off he remarked, “So, you are becoming a 观看狮子的人 as well?” What surprised me the most was not not his words, but the sad, dull tone of his voice.

“What does that mean?” I asked. “It means, man-who-watches-lion.”

“Ah, well then I suppose I am.”

The boy shook his head, “it is not something to be taken lightly.”

“What do you mean? I'm only looking,”

The boy paused. “There are many things more important than that lion, you don't need to know his secrets. Stop now, don't look back. Forget. Go and live your life. Only the innocent can listen and leave without consequences.”

'What I load of crap' I thought, 'I'm not doing anything wrong- what on earth is he talking about. He must be dehydrated or tired- or jealous that I have the freedom to wander and watch and enjoy myself while he must make his daily wage.'

Out loud I said, “Well, thanks for the advice, I'll bear it in mind.” and began to continue on. The boy's face expressed displeasure, as if he could hear my thoughts- but turned away as I left.

I returned day after day, at first with a renewed vigour- as after my interaction with the boy I thought I was one step closer to discovering the secret- but after more days of nothing but the gleam of the sun on the lion's face I began to hallucinate, following dancing patterns working their way over the smooth stone. Laughter and a throbbing pulse would ring in my ears, and spasms of bright light would snap in and out of my vision.

One day, I forgot to drink lots of water before I went out. The sun was high in the sky and it was predicted to be one of the hottest days of the summer. I sat as usual beside the lion. By this point I had begun to attract attention from the locals, me being much bigger than the small boy and more noticeable. However, I wasn't doing enough to warrant much interest so people generally left me alone. I also got the impression that I wasn't the first person to be doing this- I did get several fairly pitying looks as if they knew something that I didn't.

So as I sat my mind began to wander as usual, and due to the temperature I began to feel light-headed and dizzy. I knew I should move and find water, but I couldn't find the motivation. The intense heat had suddenly strengthened my attention. The air rippled around me, and with a consuming burst I fainted- eyes rolling to the back of my head, but when I came to I knew the lion had seen me.

When I returned to consciousness I was surrounded by a crowd of people staring at me and speaking far too quickly for me to understand. I slowly sat up and tried to move, and a babbling woman gestured frantically.

“Slower,” I said in very shaky Mandarin, “I can't understand.”

“You must stop...” and she looked at the lion. My eyes narrowed as I understood her meaning. In a flash my resolve strengthened, I could not forget those eyes.

Quickly I pulled myself to my feet and roughly said, “No, leave me alone.” - and pushing past the crowd of bemused onlookers I stumbled home, still turning everything over in my mind.

The next day I left my home earlier than usual. I didn't want to be disturbed and felt that it was what I was supposed to do. I sat by the lion and waited, trying to capture the absolute stillness and perfect tension of the day before. I grew tired, and started to stretch and relax. I looked in the lion's eyes and tried to stretch my aura- like when I had noticed the absence of the boy so long (or so it felt) previously. Suddenly, finally, I reached the pinnacle, everything slid into place- my consciousness expanded, I felt an irresistible release, and with complete ease (so much that I felt surprise at how difficult it had been before) my mind was encompassed by the lions.

Black. All black. White noise. No, far away music. Laughter. The clinking of glasses. And then I could see it all. I was in a room. A large, exquisite, beautiful room, covered in wallpaper with gold figures dancing cartwheels across it. There was a group of people, obviously extensively rich, eating their evening meal. Dark red wine, a massive chicken, paprika seasoned dumplings, all among the many many dishes covering the table. At the head of the table there was a fierce looking man with deep, dark hair. Next to him a pale woman- lovely but melancholy- next to her a small girl and a small boy, twins maybe? Both with the same dark hair as what I presumed was their father. At the end of the table sat an old, weather-beaten man wrapped in swirling violet robes, wearing a fez. All of the family had crooked noses and blue eyes, but the old man had puckered skin and eyes the colour of the New Forest. I could almost spy tiny ponies lost in their depths, and feel a cold, powerful wind, in control, but wild with a dark passion. It seemed a jovial scene, warm and friendly. I noticed the table cloth moving and a low growl emitted throughout the room. A large yellow, spiked paw crept out, followed by an enormous shaggy head complete with a long-flowing mane and a soft tenuous body- my lion?

“He is hungry, give him something to eat.” The fierce man looked pointedly at the old man, whom, not without distaste, threw the lion a leg of chicken.

“More! You fool! He is hardly a peckish dog!” With an ever sourer look the old man picked up the rest of his sizeable portion of chicken and threw it over.

“My pardons, Emperor, I was not thinking the first time.”

The man, whom I knew now as the emperor sighed, “You never think.”

The old man scowled and gave a dirty look back at the lion, but said nothing.

Abruptly, with the sound of complete silence, the room vibrated, particles swimming, merging and congregating, creating a different scene – although in the same room. This time the only occupants were the old man – this time wearing ruby coloured robes and a top hat – and my lion. (Why I felt such possession over that lion I can't tell, but in my mind I could not disconnect the idea of him from myself) The man was standing, glassy eyed, stroking the smooth walnut table in thought. Without warning he stopped, and sharply turned his gaze upon my lion, who was happily dreaming upon a navy carpet. I felt my heart in my mouth, the powerful hate of that look spelt danger for my lion. He began to speak, “I know what you are, and I know what you want. I know where you have come from, I know everything. Who do you think you are? How could you ever think you could take control? No-more enemy of mine, your life is at an end...” and with that the man began to scratch the table in the same direction as he had stroked it before, but with a dark, vindictive energy, muttering under his breath. From the scratches I could feel the violent friction overflowing and tumbling down to my darling, beautiful, precious lion. I cried out, the pain my lion was about to experience before it snuffed out his life was being replicated in me – a brutal dagger in my heart, which I can only compare to the physical pain of being betrayed by someone you are deeply in love with. Simultaneously, my lion writhed in pain just as I did, and as the sharp agony began to leave my body with only a dull ache, my lion began to leave life – or whatever life this bizarre alternate reality we were in was. I could only cling to myself as again the particles whirred and fizzed and the scene changed again.

This time I was in a large courtyard. I could see the Emperor and his wife, and the old man – all standing side by side. Surrounding them were dozens of what I could only suppose to be courtiers, all listening with a complete attention.

He had a muggy face with swollen eyes and spoke in a shaky, wilted voice. “My subjects, and my friends, a savage, cruel thing has befallen me and us all. My, (and here he paused) my, my lion is dead!” A frozen silence astounded all in the courtyard.

“If anyone knows anything about this please come forward. They will be held in high esteem and there will be many rewards.” Again, silence, as if everyone in the vicinity was holding their breath, waiting for something to break the spell. Footsteps, footsteps growing louder. I, with everyone else, turned around to greet the source of the sound. A door toward the west corner of the courtyard opened and through it walked the Emperor’s young daughter.

Long, black hair drifting behind her, and clad in a pale green dress, she marched directly to her Father. “Father, sir, I come to bring you grave news. I know the murderer of your lion. That man there!” And she pointed to the old man. “I was walking past the Room-of-the-Dragon, the door had been left slightly ajar, and from within a could hear strange noises. Curious, I looked in, and I saw that man inflicting death, in its total and complete form, with all his elusive powers. Father, I know for long you have held him in high regard, but I beseech you, give him the gift that he gave your lion, from sheer jealously!”

Confusion- people looked at each other as if their ears had deceived them and they needed affirmation that they were actually in reality. The Emperor looked completely at a loss, but then his eyes narrowed and he made his decision, “Guards, seize him!” In a matter of seconds the old man was surrounded, trapped and bound. The look on his face was ferocious and I felt as if I could feel him gnashing his teeth together. The air was still, everyone was waiting for the next move, still in shock by the last.

“Thank you Father, for listening to me.” said the dark-haired girl in a heightened voice. “There is also another thing.” The Emperor looked up, jolted out of his reverie.

“What?! What else could there be?” His daughter looked saddened by his tone but nevertheless continued.

“To cheer your disposition I had a gift made for you. May I have your permission to have it bought in?” Looking completely at a loss, but trying to regain control, the Emperor nodded.

“Yes, you may.” The main doors to the courtyard opened, from the south, and in was pushed my lion. Not the lion so far in this part of the story. But MY lion, the lion I had sat and watched every day and every minute and every hour. He was here. With me. Here to show me his story. I drew in a breath of air sharply, and didn't wait to exhale in case with that the lion would be lost.

“Here is my gift to you, Father, so that your lion may live on, throughout eternity.” And with a dignified nod and a small smile, she drew back.

“Thank you, this is a most welcome gift my child.” The emperor looked happy and more peaceful than ever before that day.

“No! No, no, no.” The old man was shouting, shrieking now. “No! This cannot happen. I put upon this lion a curse! And whosoever touches the lion, and pays it the amount of attention and obsession that you do so, shall be ruined and destroyed by his obsession.” The old man's words reverberated around the courtyard, echoing in all the smallest corners and crannies – so that none would have been able to escape it. There then followed a silence, a cold, stony silence, and the old man was restrained further. A rag was bound around his mouth and a cloth dipped in what smelt like chloroform pressed against his nose, causing him to pass out into the waiting guards arms. The tension became too much to bear, and started to expand and drift against the currents of the air, opening and closing against the drifting dust, stretching out further and further, into the sky, until with a jolt I realised I was no longer watching a story but back in reality, which now seemed so dreary and heavily monotone.

I stood up, so quick that I was infected with dizziness. I looked around me, expecting it to be growing dark, and another crowd of people surrounding me, but my surroundings seemed to be exactly the same as when I had begun to listen to the lion's story, as if no time had passed. I shook my head, trying to bring some sense of clarity, but only remembering again and again the scenes that I had just witnessed. I looked at the lion, but again could see nothing there beyond the obvious. I strained my eyes for several minutes, searching for something beyond, but after receiving nothing I gave up and tried again to focus to the situation at hand. I needed space, time and room to think, or at least to let my thoughts expend themselves. I gave the lion one final look, and then wrenched my eyes away and began a slow pace- hardly noticing the direction. All I was aware of was one foot being placed in front of the other, the warm wind on my skin and the taste of saliva as I licked my lips. My thoughts were entirely in another universe, one that seemed so might brighter and more tangible than the reality in front of me. I raised my eyes, glanced around me, trying to find something to inspire and instigate emotion, nothing. I felt numb, devoid of all hope, lost. In this state I managed to reach my room and collapse into my bed, and into grinding, deformed dreams. Several times I woke up, or thought I woke up, only to be unable to move or speak. In my room would be foul tempered monsters in cat form- only decorated to look like my lion, but in a way which anyone would have seen through. I tried to call out, to scream, to call for help to save me from this abomination, but after drifting through a painful montage of this same dream over and over, I finally woke, sweating, and I had barely moved let alone screamed.

The next few days passed in an insane whirl, I barely ate or drank, and day seemed to drift into night into day again. Months could have passed and I wouldn't have noticed. My mind was entirely in the other world, with the lion. I wanted, needed him so badly. I began scratching into the wooden floor of my room, deep scratches the colour of magenta- which looked as though blood was seeping through the wounds I had created. I whispered to myself, and to the bed, and the table, and my notebooks- everything. On the 4 th day I looked in the mirror, and saw my self, eyes dilated and hungry. I looked like a ghost but I did not care. However, at that point, I snapped. I decided to return. Pulling on a dark blue overcoat with a large hood to hide my ravaged face I shuffled into the street and towards the lion. Even before I was close I felt as though I could sense it, see his powerful eyes and taste the stone shell. I reached my destination, and sat, as I had before. This time I attracted far more odd stares due to my appearance. As I sat I felt some of my demons were subdued and satisfied, but this did not last. The longer I looked the more certain I was that never again would I be let into the strange mystical world I had seen shown before. With this knowledge it didn't take long before I was pulling at my hair and tears were rolling down my cheeks. I peeked around me, and everywhere I looked I saw half concerned, half disgusted faces watching me, as I had before been the watcher. I stood up, almost tripping up over my coat, and turned around. The pity was too obvious and too much to handle, and with a wild croak I ran off into the city. I ran and ran and ran, oblivious of the direction- only wanting to escape. To find myself, to find my lion. That was the only complete focus of my concentration. Nothing else mattered. With these thoughts in mind I didn't notice the auto-mobile that was speeding down the road, almost as out of control as I was. A few people turned, aghast at the impending disaster, but powerless to stop it. All I remember was the world speeding up around me, a high screech of brakes, the feeling of having completely let go, and the old man's words ringing in my ears in an unfathomable frequency,

“And whosoever touches the lion, and pays it the amount of attention and obsession that you do so, shall be ruined and destroyed by his obsession!”

Nothing.

Dark.

Peace.

Epilogue

It took me a while of being in a coma, until I woke up in hospital, next to the woman I had loved back in Marseilles. It felt like waking up from a horrible, disquieting nightmare, and I have never been, and probably never will be, so happy to see someone in my entire life. I was shaken, but not stirred. I have never been the same since, but for some reason I was saved, by the car, from being eaten up from the inside by my obsession. Sometimes I wonder if I would be different, better, if I had listened to all the warnings I received, from the rickshaw boy, from the older woman. But then I think, if I had maybe I wouldn't be the person I am now. I still can't forget my lion, and never will, but he is more of a sweet distant memory rather than an overwhelming intoxication. I ended up spending the rest of my life with the woman who returned to find me, but sometimes I catch her looking at me, wondering what happened in my mind, and if it's really me who's here. Sometimes, I wonder the same thing.

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