It's not unusual to want to disappear, I've always known that. From embarrassment, from strangers, from the strangers who enter my nightly doorway and won't go away in spite of stern dream-speak. From myself. And I don't mean wanting a thinner version of myself, though I wouldn't mind. No, I mean a semi-disappearance. A quarter disappearance, even an eighth. A bit of me pared off, and replaced by something else. I had no idea this desire would engulf me so strongly in the fossilized mountains of Guilin in southern China, the mountains that send visitors into raptures and the Chinese into painting reveries that last for days.
Here in a Guilin cave, I peered over an iron balustrade that smelled of ferrous oxide and the hands of thousands of tourists, and looked into the seductive water. The word magical does not come close. The word mystical is a mere feather of a word to this water. Oh, the water. Transparent, silver-black, and glinting.
Above me loomed a vast mountain of stalactites, some rounded and breast-like, others pointy and spiteful as blades, all the color of pale grey marble. Below me lay the sweep of their reflections in still waters. Calm. Apparently earthly, but unreachable except by a little boat. I saw one tied to the iron balustrade. Others before me must have succumbed to the same temptation.
I ducked under the railing, stepped into the boat, and paddled across the water. This was a dilemma you see, because as I floated across the surface, entranced by its high metallic sheen, where I really wanted to go was deeper, deeper and deeper into myself in the still, silver glow of Guilin fossil water, into the heart of a mountain: behind the glassy surface. I trailed my hand over the water, and my fingers swirled across the mountains, and messed them up. Not so suitable now for painting. I tucked my fingers up my sleeves, and watched for the surface to glass over. I knew it was a matter of finding the key, or the key finding me, and I let the boat drift, and I watched for a chink. And the chink came sneaking up behind me as though it had been let loose from a fantasist's imagination, and there, between the fissure of a stalactite and a stalagmite was a needle-sized gap, and I threaded myself through it, thinning myself into a long stream of water like a silvery scarf from the streets of Shanghai, and I was through. Into the other side, behind the watery landscape and gazing up.
Now everything looked back to front: the dripped terraces of limestone and the shimmery grey mountain, which I saw to my surprise hid a mass of black heads and a row of hands waving, and I realized that this is where lost fugitives of China must go. I cried out because this is the thing about seduction, you funnel every cell of your silvery magical self into the object of your desire and forget the rest My daughter! I've left her behind with the guide at the entrance! And the figures waved and grinned at me, nodding their black, blue-black, jet-black, brown-black grey-black heads of hair. Me too, they said with tight, cheerful smiles, we forgot our children too.
Behind them, hauled up into the limestone terraces was a row of little boats, identical to mine. As I watched, some of these men and women came running down the hills go back, they said, shooing at me with their hands before it's too late, go back.
Still seated in the boat, I struggled to dip my oars and turn in the direction I'd come. But I saw no sign of the same reflections I'd just crossed. Nor could I see backwards through the water to my tour group, or the tour leader enthusiastically shaking her little yellow flag, or the bag of souvenirs I'd left lying beside the railing, and the deep chill of the mountain filled me with dread. I rowed on, hauling at the oars, faster and faster, my hands raw with blisters, but wherever I rowed was never in the right direction. No hidden pathway, no hidden rock formation, no hidden mysterious tide would carry me back. I let go of the oars, and the boat spun a while in its own little vortex. I stared into the ripples and I knew I would not catch even the faintest glimpse of my past again.