It did not seem right to the detective Z. Zhuang that he should be dying in such a clean and sterile room on such a bright January day. He had lived his life in the malarial heat of the narrow Hong Kong streets among the human fauna. He yearned for the smell and the feel of it all again: the resinous, mossy head notes, that solid wave of damp air that crashed into you when you stepped outside; the ardent, polluted heart notes, black particles of exhaust spiraling into the atmosphere endlessly from engines; and the final, swarming, oppressive base notes, of congestion and people and industry.
The closest he had been to death before, that time when he had utterly been convinced that every blood-stained breath he was drawing would be his last, had been thirty-five years ago, when he had deciphered the designs of a triad lieutenant, unveiled treachery, and in the end, been shot in the heart as all the interminable mechanisms clicked into place, hammer drawn back then sprung forward, and a .38 revolver fired. That would have been a good death—this, not so much.
The long, arduous process of it all! He hated being anchored to the gurney, with its needles in his arm pumping poison into his body, like a junkie, like an invalid. The drugs made his mind heavy and drowsy, so it felt like his brain was sinking into his skull, his skull into his shoulders, and his shoulders into the springs of the hospital bed upon which he was bound. He was sleeping more, but dreaming less. He suspected the big sleep was coming, the one which he would never wake from and which was completely and finally void of dreams and thought and being.
Recently, he had started to see the charred and shadowy outline of a man in his room, when the blinds were drawn and the light streamed through in stripes. The form never made a sound or moved, merely flickering like a flame before vanishing, and the detective convinced himself that it was just a hallucination, evidence of his dotage. Time had begun to tatter and unravel at the edges, so that sometimes he could not remember one moment from the next, his memories fraying and his sense of self slipping, as if the thick brush strokes that had once made up his character had all but bled out.
As he felt himself fade away, the shadow became more and more pronounced, until one day Z. Zhuang awoke with a start, and found it peering over him, its face emaciated and hollowed but with the very real and very rough coarseness of human flesh, so close that he could feel the steady pulse of its hot breath. It was like staring into a carnival mirror, where the reflection was grotesque and strange but also intimate and familiar.
“I have finally found you,” said the specter.
“Who are you?” replied the detective, with a hint of steel in his voice. “Are you a phantom of my dying mind? Are you death come to claim me? Or are you just another dream?”
“You are a detective, are you not?” said the shadow. “I shall tell you my story from the beginning. Not from my birth as a baby, as it is with other men, but from my rebirth, as something greater, or perhaps more accurately, something lesser than a man. Conceivably by its end, you should be able to deduce my identity, and even my motives.
“Listen: I awoke on a bamboo canoe with bullet lead in my brain and no recollection of who I was or how I got there. A fisherman had caught me in the amnion of his nets, and dragged me from the deep, my body still covered with a membrane of seaweed. He brought me to one of those infinite and indistinguishable fishing villages that dot the mainland coast, and I was rushed to the native hospital. Not a modern hospital like this, but a primitive place with rusted forceps and expired anesthesia. Nonetheless, the essence was the same: it was a place of aging and illness and death.
“By some small miracle, the local surgeon was able to save me and I survived, intact, save for the complete loss of my memory and identity. But all I knew was pain. There was the physical agony, like a thunderstorm of knives in every cell. And then there was the metaphysical yearning and dissatisfaction. The same questions you asked me, I asked again and again of myself: who was I? What was my past? Every breath I drew had the taste of salt from the sea and reminded me of the abyss. With no past, there was nothing to construct the present or to project the future upon. I came to believe that I was no longer a man, but a drowned corpse with seawater dead in the veins.
“I became a beggar, living on the alms of those who pitied me. For thirty and five years I walked the mainland like a hungry ghost, from the slums of Peking to the crests of Lhasa, all the while trying to remember, believing that somewhere, there must exist some scene, some scent, some sound which I could recognize and use to reorient myself, and which would make me whole once more. But to no avail. The world became like a labyrinth, with everything offering me the same smooth and impenetrable walls.
“My only solace in all that time was to dream. When I dreamed, I inhabited another body and entered another world, one where it did not matter who the drowned man was. Oftentimes, my dreams seemed more lucid than any waking moment. I dreamed of being a soldier in the Ottoman Empire. I dreamed of being a cattle herder on the Swiss Alps. I even dreamed of being a detective in Hong Kong.
“Perhaps you think you know who I am now, or why I am here, but I think we will both be interested in seeing how it ends. In my thirty-fifth year of wandering, after I had travelled every last width and breadth of the mainland, I came to the conclusion that the truth was not external, to be found like a lost object, but internal, lodged deep inside some secret recess of my mind and soul. Weary and burdened beyond measure, I retreated within myself, vowing not to rise until I had remembered and reclaimed it all.
“I do not know how long I meditated upon myself, but I embraced the vacuum within me, and clarity appeared: these were not dreams, but memories. In that moment, my life and all my lives opened like petals of a lotus flower. And I remembered. I remembered all my lives, including the one where I had been a detective from Hong Kong and which ends with a bullet in my brain and being dumped in the sea. I remembered forsaking all bonds to uncover the identity of a mysterious crime prodigy, a man whose intelligence was as brilliant as it was diseased, and whose invisible fingerprints revealed a criminal conspiracy beyond measure. I remembered becoming a desperado, committing crimes until I reached my vile crescendo, finally being accepted into my adversary’s organization. I remembered being with my inseparable friend and sworn brother, a violent gangster whose life I would save as he in turn would save mine. And I remembered the final, irreversible revelation that it was my friend who was the villain I had been looking for all along. And I remembered our duel at the docks, where I was too slow, shooting second, while you fired first and fatally.
“And as I stood sinking, drowning, soaring, burning, your face and true name blazed in my mind’s eye, brighter than any planetary body. I finally divined the truth that you no doubt discovered long ago, and with which you used to assume my identity: we are blood brothers; twins, separated only when the umbilical cord was cut from our mother and reunited for the first time at my criminal induction.
“It would have been the easiest thing for our lives or chronologies to be switched. I wonder if there was any one choice or action that set me down one path, and you the other, or if the universe, in its zero-energy and self-correcting nature, split us to preserve the balance of all things. But the destination for all men is the same, and we have finally arrived.
“So, when we last left each other at the docks thirty-five years ago: you were facing forward to the future, to my future, while I would find myself facing back, trying to find the past, and now I have finally found it.”
The Z. Zhuang in the bed stared at the Z. Zhuang standing over him. “An interesting story,” he said at last, “whether true or not. But I cannot predict what you will do now that you have found me. You are certainly not the detective Z. Zhuang anymore, and perhaps you never were.”
“I am the first and the original, and that I always shall be. I am the older twin, and though I have no evidence for it, I know that I was also the original cell in our mother’s womb, and that you came from me, second and simulation, like Eve from Adam’s rib. You were created because of a cell dividing, and now you lie dying because of your cells dividing—there is a perfect symmetry in it all.”
“So you are here to watch me die then? To triumph in outliving me?”
“I am here to say goodbye,” said the double, producing a pistol and pointing it at the detective. “Never was there a time when you did not exist, and when I did not exist with you. We have faced each other before, again and again and again, of this I am sure. We have not always been brothers; we have been lovers, enemies, strangers, and more. But no longer, for this will be my last birth. You have extinguished and replaced me, and in doing so, liberated me: I no longer exist.”
“Then your motive is revenge. You are here to murder a dying man.”
“If I left now, you would certainly die within the week. But I am snuffing you out. I want to return the gift you gave me. I want to take what remains of your life from you, to set you free, just as you did to me. This isn’t death or slumber; it’s a rebirth, a reawakening. This isn’t murder; it’s salvation.”
“How do you know you are not asleep right now?” mused the man in the bed. “Perhaps you are merely the desperado dreaming of being the detective? Or perhaps you are in my dream, and when you pull the trigger and I awake, you would cease to be? How do you know that we are not both dreams or dreamers?”
“But that is precisely it: we are both dreams and dreamers and dreamed and dreamt. I am not killing you,” said the true detective. “This is not death.”
Aiming his gun very carefully, he fired a single burning bullet.
This story won RTHK-SCMP’s 2014 Short Story Competition.