My uncle lived in a neighborhood of Hong Kong called Stanley. Every day after school, I would skip down to his apartment and cling to him until my parents arrived. Their car would speed down the strip of leafy road that, within the same neighborhood, begins at Hong Kong’s colossal Versailles-inspired mansions and slinks down into the housing projects– my uncle’s corner of the world. As I waited by the window for my parents’ car to turn the corner, my uncle would pinch a thin cigarette between his fingers and roll down the grooved wheel of the lighter. I used to ask him, “How are you alive if you have no teeth, you can’t eat anything, and you only smoke and drink?”
“魔術. It’s magic,” he would croak out in Cantonese, grinning at me through a thin veil of smoke. As a kid, this was how I usually found out which room of the apartment he was in. I’d follow the ribbons of gray silk that slowly disintegrated into the air, the way a child’s eyes follow a magician’s trick they can’t quite understand.
It feels as if I’m walking on air. With each step I take, my bare feet sink a little more into the technicolor-yellow sand, leaving a winding trail of dark footprints behind me. In the near distance, a desert dune catches my eye, and another, and another, all strikingly identical– all climb up to the same summit, all slope downward with the same soft curve, all cast the same shadow on the desert floor. Looking up, I come face to face with a sky so ludicrously black and boundless it takes me a split second to realize that I am even looking at something.
A flurry of color bursts onto the sky’s dark canvas. It’s a hot air balloon, with its fabric loosely stitched in haphazard patches of blue and red. A brown wicker basket suspends from the balloon, but nobody is controlling this magnificent contraption. Nobody’s there.
I can see a unicycle suspending from the basket, tethered to it by two lines of wire.
I can see my uncle’s corpse splayed across the seat of the unicycle, his body bloody and bullet-riddled, his mouth stretched into a wide smile I am at once mesmerized and terrified by.
The first time I had this dream, my uncle was still alive. I was eight years old. Back then, I didn’t understand why this particular image rooted itself in my mind and refused to let go. My strong aversion to fantasy novels like Harry Potter confused my mother, and I would only stare into the bottom of my teacup as my friends pranced around and painted their faces pink with makeup.
Yet, my subconscious mind could conjure up images of balloons and baskets and bullet holes. Burying my face into my favorite stuffed elephant, I wanted nothing more than to step into a time machine and watch time flow in reverse. I wished I had never seen my uncle’s body or the hot air balloon floating above– I would be at peace, with only the vast sky and endless desert before me, the silence a steady static hum.
Although my uncle would later vanish suddenly from my life and leave me grasping at any traces of memory, I remember the elaborate Christmas cards he used to illustrate for me, adorned with sketches of towering pine trees and scenes of snowflakes adrift. Drawing was a talent of his that had dwindled away over the course of decades, lost to the haze of a sailor’s chronic arm injury and its resulting alcoholism, the consequences of which would haunt him until the end of his life. The graphite sketches would always be marked by his slight tremble, a flutter of the pencil at the corners. The red envelopes he tucked the cards into, however, were always marked with the same flourish: “To the most beautiful girl in the world.”
As I grew older, I found myself wandering to Stanley after school, forgetting more than once that my uncle lay confined to a hospital bed now and my parents didn’t need him to look after me anymore. But I marched on to his neighborhood anyway, never realizing that I was headed in the wrong direction until I came face to face with golden fences that towered over me and the white marble pillars guarding the tantalizing secrets of the rich. At that point, dusk would have already settled over the sky, and my dad would drive over and retrieve me from the entryway of my uncle’s apartment. I’m sure his neighbors must have been confused by the small girl on the floor, homework strewn across the dim hallway, but they never said anything.
After my uncle died, the dream began to recur every month. It later took on new meaning for me. While I used to focus on the grotesque image of my uncle’s corpse, I now thought about the heaviness weighing down my body seconds before I shook awake from the dream. This weight mirrored the heaviness I felt after he died– You never kept his Christmas cards. You search and search but don’t know where any of them went. You can’t even remember his favorite brand of cigarettes, or his favorite Billie Holiday album, or the way he did his hair.
Black was the color of his hair at his funeral. It was the first thing I noticed when my mother nudged me toward the window that separated us from the body in the next room.
Unlike my dream, there were no bullet holes, no blood. My uncle’s hair had been dyed black from his original gray, probably by some worker at the funeral home who didn’t give a second thought to how he had lived and who had known him and how they would recognize him now.
The man tasked with making my uncle’s corpse look presentable definitely didn’t know that my mom hadn’t told me about his death until a week after he died. How could he have known that I had been at an Outward Bound camp that week, celebrating the end of sixth grade? I could have been warming my hands around a campfire. I could have been hiking up a grassy trail. I could have been asleep as my uncle lay dying, but I’ll never know because my family denied me that right.
A layer of pink lip balm glistened on the body’s mouth, catching the harshly fluorescent light. It was the only thing about the body that seemed vaguely three-dimensional or real. My uncle’s spirit had already wrestled its way out of the cold body and shot towards the sky, until it was nothing but a twinkle in the distance.
As a kid, I despised my mind for harboring this dream, but I understand more now– every time I jolt awake from it, I still lay confined to my bed until I can untangle the limbs of nightmare from reality, but that image of his gunshot-riddled body is all I have left of him. When I stop having this dream, I will lose the last connection I have to my uncle that isn’t the blood coursing through my veins. I feel like the kid in the crowd who begs the magician for one more trick, just one more, after he’s already packed up his suitcase and heads for the door. I beg my family for the truth behind how my uncle died, for stories about him, but it never works. Nothing ever changes.
Whenever I dream of balloons and bullet holes now, I feel strangely tied to him, as though I am catching up to his spirit across the galaxies that exist between the living and the dead. Not like anything is ever really dead or past, even. The dream always reminds me of my uncle’s apartment, now abandoned, where I used to follow the ribbons of gray silk that led me to him. This time around, however, my uncle doesn’t appear after the smoky haze has vanished. Through gripping onto this nightmare, I am chasing yet another disintegrating smoke trail that separates my uncle from me– this is the magic trick I cannot tear my eyes away from; this is my dizzying pursuit of a deathless disappearing act.
Andrea So is currently a junior at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire. She loves Ernest Hemingway, Laura van den Berg and Natasha Trethewey.