The steps seemed to go on forever, winding their way deeper and deeper into the forest below. Tao walked with his good arm outstretched, a flame dancing in his open palm for light. But no matter how large or how bright Tao made the flames grow, the light was never enough to pierce the thick mist around him. The gatekeeper had called it the Cloud Forest. Tao looked to Fu, who was trotting closely by his side. Fu matched his gaze and gave a bark full of timid courage.
“Is that supposed to be reassuring?” asked Tao. Fu barked once more, a clear yes. “Reassuring, right.”
There was an odd monotony in descending the mountain step by step, a lulling rhythm that Tao’s body slowly fell into. The forest was quiet, even for the dead of night, and the sky above was black, as if the mist had snuffed the thousand stars in the sky. In front of him, always dancing, was the light and shadows of the mist. The farther down the mountain Tao went, the more he stared into its swirling eddies. The more he began to see.
Fu barked nervously, but Tao seemed to hear it from a very far away place. He was absorbed in how the light of his flame rippled in the mist. How the shadows melted into one another, and how he could hear the shifting winds almost whisper to him in a voice he had long since forgotten. The mist twisted and turned, and for a second Tao thought he could see a face. A smiling, almost toothless grin.
Tao began walking faster, Fu struggling to keep at his side, barking louder and louder. But Tao heard nothing. His mind was racing backwards in time, his arm reaching farther and farther in front of him. He was running now, but he didn’t see the mountain or the mist. He was running through a street – through crowds of people and lines of cars. He was sprinting, Fu barking after him with all her might. But Tao was back in Beijing, back in his childhood. He was chasing a girl – her toothless grin and screaming laugh. He just needed to catch her. He was one step behind – always one step behind. But this time he needed to catch her. He needed to jump.
It was only once Tao had began to fall that he realized what had happened. An illusion. He had been chasing an illusion. As Tao plummeted through the air, the only thing he could think of was how the night sky looked: Empty. Free. Tao let the feeling of peaceful feeling of weightlessness settle in. The last thing he heard was Fu’s worried barking.
It was morning, and Tao wasn’t dead. The sun filtered down through the trees and mist bright enough to hurt Tao’s eyes. He was in a makeshift hut, cobbled together from branches and leaves. A little ways off, a fire burned with a pot over it. On his chest, Fu slept contently in tightly curled ball. Tao could feel her warmth like a small furnace. He reached out his hand to pet her. She awoke and gently licked his fingers.
Tao stopped and stared at his hand. It was healed. Tao marveled as he opened and closed his fist. It was as as if it was never broken.
“Surprised you’re not dead, huh?”
Tao looked over. A man, in a tee-shirt and shorts, removed the lid from the pot. He sniffed the contents before taking a ladle to sample what’s inside. He couldn’t be older than 35, his unruly hair down to his shoulders, and his face sporting several days stubble. He looked to Tao, an easy smile on his face.
“It’s not medicine, but I make a mean soup”.
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