Image © Chris Taylor

China on acid

By Chris Taylor

It was a chill December evening but the alfresco backpacker cafés were doing a busy trade in stir-fries and cheap Shuangshan beers, and the street had a festive, holiday-season atmosphere — red lanterns swinging in the breeze from the eaves of the restaurants, loose gaggles of Chinese tourists ambling around in search of dinner, touts in traditional Wu attire working the pedestrians with promises of cormorant fishing, boat trips and pony mountain treks. We strolled against the drift of the crowd in the direction of a taxi, and then, just before we reached the top of the hill, Fei-fei asked — as if it was of no consequence — whether we were going to do the acid.

“It’s down at the house,” I said.

“Oh,” she said.

“We can go and get it. I mean, it’s just as easy to take a taxi from the bottom of the hill as from the top. It just means we have to walk all the way down the hill again.”

“That’s okay,” she said. “Let’s go and get it.”

As we went, Fei-fei told me about what she planned to do with everybody’s faces — Chanel would be a Chinese princess, Tang Dynasty style, and she planned to somehow accentuate Sean’s mischievousness, make him a bad boy. Dean would be an American Indian witch doctor. What she planned to do with my face, she said, was a secret. We turned into the alley that led to my house, and Fei-fei waited while I unlocked the front gate. She followed me into the courtyard. It was the first time she’d visited, and it occurred to me that I’d never invited her because I was worried what would happen if I did. I tugged at the sliding doors, hesitated and then asked her to [A1] come inside and have a look around. There was little to see: scattered books I’d never got around to reading, a cheap sound system attached to an iPod. The twin sofas and antique coffee table I’d bought from a café owner who’d gone bankrupt and left town. The fridge was broken and the kitchen I’d planned to install when I moved in had never materialized. I took the decrepit flight of wooden stairs that led to my bedroom and study, and Fei-fei followed me. Inside the top drawer of my desk was a large plastic Ziploc bag with my stash — five or six different varieties of local hash, several strains of weed, a couple of pills I’d picked up from somebody months ago, and Sean’s tab of acid. Several condoms littered the interior of the drawer, and as I pulled the drawer open Fei-fei gave a shy gasp, and we both froze. She giggled nervously. I slipped a hand under her hair, and my fingers grazed the nape of her neck. Her eyes were expectant and our lips connected. I pulled her in close and my hand reached in under her sweater, and for a moment we teetered in each other’s arms as if we were about to tumble backwards onto the bed.

I froze. She turned away, and — her back to me — said, “What’s wrong?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I’m sorry.”

I put a hand on her shoulder. She shrugged it off, sat on edge of the bed, hugged her breasts with her arms and gazed into the middle distance.

I turned back to the desk. “It’s in here,” I said, riffling in the Ziploc bag for the acid. It was slightly smaller than a SIM card and wrapped in cellophane. I put it in the condom pocket of my Levi’s, and closed the drawer. In silence, we descended the stairs, locked up the house and, back on Renmin Jie, we took a nearby alley that cut through to Dongfeng Lu, where we hailed down a taxi on the opposite side of the road. Fei-fei was sullen.

“Do you want the acid?” I asked her.

“No, it’s okay,” she said. “Sean’s got some.”

“Look, just take a half and see how you go. I don’t want you flipping out.”

“I’ll be okay,” said Fei-fei. “Don’t worry about me.”

The entrance to the Cormorant Lodge was a pair of swinging metal gates festooned with fairy lights and the name smeared in dripping blue paint on an adjoining wall. Inside was a lawn garden, ringed at its mountain-view perimeter by a cluster of southern-Thai-style bamboo bungalows. In the center of the lawn was a tepee. The bar occupied most of the ground floor of the main building — a wooden structure — and above it were four verandas that I assumed led into rooms. I guessed there to be around fifty-to-sixty people in the compound — some sitting in groups on the grass, a few clustered around drums near the tepee, others milling around the bar. I clocked the druids sitting close to one of the bungalows.

We hovered at the entrance, as if neither of us was certain what to do next. Alex strolled over in our direction. He was shirtless despite the evening chill and had no shoes, and was dressed only in a pair of Thai-style, faded-orange drawstring pants. “Hey, Fei-fei,” he called out. “You made it. We’ve set up a table for you over there near the bar.” He nodded in my direction.

I congratulated him on the lodge, and added, “It’s pretty amazing, actually.”

“And, what, you thought it wouldn’t be?”

He delivered the question with a grin that made it not exactly a challenge, but I felt obligated to respond in kind, “Well, I was expecting the worst.”

“See you guys later,” said Fei-fei with an air of weariness. “I’m going to paint faces.”

My eyes followed her as she went. What almost happened in the bedroom replayed itself. Alex’s cheeky bravado had melted away, and his pale blue eyes scrutinized me, as if in search of some kind of clue. “Is there something going on between you guys?”

“Me and Fei-fei? No. Sorry, you were saying something.”

He continued to size me up with an expression that said he wasn’t buying it. “I was just saying,” he said, “that night we met at the Lizard was kind of crazy, but no harm done in the end, right?”

It wasn’t exactly an apology, but I decided I’d take it as one all the same.

“It’s okay,” I said. “Everyone was drunk. You know the way it gets here in China when it comes to local women with foreign guys. We’re all used to it.”

I sensed he wanted to get me on side by sharing something. “I don’t deal with that stuff so well sometimes,” he said. “When I was younger, I used to sort everything out with violence, and on the whisky sometimes I’m that person again. It’s not the way I want to do things, and I don’t want any problems here in Shuangshan. I want this thing to work, and I want everybody who’s living here to enjoy the place too. I mean, come up. Get out of town. Enjoy the mountains, the views of the lake. There’s food here, coffee, drinks. Smoke a spliff, whatever.”

Image © Chris Taylor

I told him I got the idea .

He rocked on the balls of his feet, and threw a sideways glance back at the party. “Well, it’s going to be a busy night. I’ve got a lot of shit to get ready. We’ve got some guys who’ve come down from Chengdu and are doing the music, and the sound system’s still not fucking doing what it’s supposed to. You’re around for the night, right?”

“Yeah, I’ll be around. I came up early because I’d promised Fei-fei. Well, and I also thought it’d be good to check the place out before I got too fucked up.”

“Cool. There’s drinks at the bar. Oh, and A-hong’s around somewhere. She was inside the bar last time I saw her. You remember her, right?”

“Of course I remember her. I’ll say, hello. She was a bit upset last time I saw her.”

“Man, she’s always upset about something.” He shrugged and left.

I ordered a Tsingtao at the bar and sat down on a stool outside. Fei-fei was transforming the face of a young Swede into a hallucinogenic cascade of colors that erupted from his forehead. I couldn’t hear what they were saying but I knew she was pestering him for words in Swedish. I also knew before too long she’d be asking him to teach her a song. I went inside and sat at the bar. A small pool table stood close to the entrance. Sofas lined the walls. Mason, a dreadlocked Australian, told me he’d heard about the Cormorant around six weeks ago on Koh Pha’ngan. He’d seen a flyer that said Alex was offering free rooms for anyone who would help get the lodge ready to launch before the opening party and help him run it after.

“Did many others come up?” I said.

“For the actual work?” said Mason. “No, not many, but they’re starting to turn up now. The place is pretty much full tonight. There’ll be people sleeping in the tepee and out on the lawn, I reckon.”

I scanned the bar, and saw A-hong sitting in the corner. I wasn’t sure if I’d missed her when I came in or whether or she’d arrived after I’d sat down. She had her hair pulled up in a bun, her dreads cascading onto her shoulders. She was working on a piece of jewelry on her lap, but she looked up as I approached as if she was waiting for me.

“I saw you over there,” she said in Chinese.

“Oh?” I said. “You remember me?”

“Of course. How could I forget that crazy night?”

“Yeah, well, it was a bit crazy, but nobody got hurt, and it was all okay the next day.”

“No it wasn’t,” she said. She returned her gaze to the jewelry in her lap with a faraway, slightly cold smile, as if she felt she’d scored some kind of point and she alone knew its meaning. She put it aside, and reached into her bag and produced a plastic bag of pollen, sprinkled some into her palm, and broke up a cigarette with her free hand.

“I know what you mean, but you know what I mean too, right?”

“Yes, I know what you mean, but I’m not sure you know what I mean.”

“We could do this all night,” I said. I sat down and lit a cigarette.

“I mean,” she continued, “I felt like I’d really had enough after that night.”

“With what?” I asked, and I thought, with Alex? An odd sensation nagged at me, as if the conversation we’d started more than three weeks earlier had somehow simply been deferred while other things took place in its absence.

She ran her tongue along the spliff she was rolling and her eyes drifted towards the ground, as if she’d been delivered blows she hadn’t recovered from and the ground was where she belonged. I didn’t buy it, but it touched me all the same. “It’s not so simple as that with relationships, is it?” she said.

Image © Chris Taylor

“No,” I said. “It’s not, and I’m sorry it isn’t, but that’s life.”

I took her in, her frailty, her fragility, and I understood that it was where her power reposed, and I had a vague sense that if I fell for it she would punish me for it. If she wanted to be loved at all, it was not for the ways she had learned to earn love. Perhaps it made her an impossible mission. But perhaps an impossible mission was the only thing I was ready for.

“But, you know, there are lines we have to draw for ourselves,” she said, and I wasn’t sure whether she was changing the subject or obscurely embellishing a theme she’d already started. “You know what I mean, right? And, it’s like, even if we can’t be so strict about it with ourselves, we know when someone’s crossed those lines too many times, and actually even if it’s hard to let go, somewhere inside you has let go. You’re only still there because it’s like … a habit.” She lowered her head in a helpless gesture. “Yes, it’s like the relationship has become a kind of habit, and maybe it’s an unhealthy habit, but it’s your habit.” Taking a long drag on her cigarette, she said, “I should give these up too. I’m talking too much, aren’t I?”

“No,” I said. “It makes a change from the usual conversations I have around here.”

The suggestion of a smile tugged at the corners of her lips, but I had the sense she didn’t want to yield to it. She sniffed, and looked away. “What kinds of conversations do you usually have around here, then?”

“Oh, God, I don’t know. Drug stories, how fucked up we got last night. Who’s fucking who on the street. Whose business is doing better than whoever else’s. Conspiracy theories, cool YouTube videos. We don’t talk about much really, but we’re always talking about something.”

“That girl Fei-fei who’s doing the face painting, she’s your girlfriend?”

“We hang out. We’re friends.”

“Does she want to be your girlfriend?”

“I don’t know,” I said, and the scene in the bedroom played out in my mind again. I wondered if my expression had betrayed anything. I didn’t want her to know. I wanted to come to her as a clean slate — at least as far as you could in Shuangshan.

She said, “She does. But she doesn’t know how to get you. You’re confusing her. You hang out with her, but you don’t do anything.”

“If I did something, I’d regret it,” I said. “It wouldn’t be fair to her.”

A-hong looked at me with shrewd, questioning eyes, as if she was assessing me for the first time. She seemed to shrug off whatever she was thinking and said, “Then she’s got her answer, and you won’t get a second chance. At least, that’s what I’m like.” She glanced away shyly. “Do you even want to meet anybody?”

I thought about the conversation I’d had with Dean in Longdong, and as the seconds passed it occurred to me that she’d asked a question I didn’t want to give her an answer to — at least not at this moment.

“So, all these lines you were talking about people crossing?” I said.

She looked me straight in the eyes. Her expression was serious, slightly pained. “I think you know. I don’t think you need me to explain. And, besides, I asked you a question. You didn’t answer it.” She picked her jewelry up again, and her fingers moved slowly. “I feel like I want something big to happen. Something completely different from what’s happening now.”

“Do you think it’s a good idea to wish for something like that?” I said. “I mean, it might happen, and it might not be a good at all. We have a saying in English that pretty much says that.”

“It’s just a feeling I have,” she said, as if it was something so personal it couldn’t possibly be within my powers of comprehension. I suddenly imagined she’d been the one in my room, not Fei-fei, and I stood up in sudden confusion.

“I’m going to get a beer. Do you want anything?” I said.

She shook her head, looking up and taking in my confusion with a smile of shy victory, and said — almost as an afterthought — “I probably won’t stay very late tonight. My shop is opening tomorrow. Come by for drinks in the evening. A few people will be there.”

I told her I’d be there, and went to the bar feeling like I’d wriggled out of a spider’s web. I bought another beer, and then, without thinking why, a rum and Coke for Fei-fei.

When I joined her, she accepted the drink with a cold nod, as she painted a young German woman’s face. I sat down with a sense of regret. I liked watching her — her poise, the way her eyes narrowed as she worked on delicate whorls of color, and the way she leaned back occasionally to take an appraising bigger-picture view of her subject, sometimes pursing her lips in vague annoyance, at other moments nodding contentedly. She chatted with her current canvas, who I put to be in her late twenties, asking her where she was from, how long she’d been traveling, and what her star sign was.

“Oooh, you’re a Libra? Me too. So, let me ask you a question,” Fei-fei said, in the slightly formal style she had with people she had recently met. “Do you find it difficult to make decisions?”

The German, whose name I’d missed, thought she might. An Israeli sitting opposite me, also waiting to have his face painted, said he was Libra too. He said he had problems making decisions. A middle-aged Frenchman with ratty dreadlocks, sitting to my right, and whom I’d barely even noticed, observed that, as a Libra, in his experience, the sign was good at giving advice to others, but inept at providing it for themselves.

“There,” said Fei-fei. “Everybody at this table is a Libra except for Matt, and none of them can make decisions.” She turned serious and nudged her head in the direction of the German girl’s ear and whispered theatrically, “Whatever you do, don’t go out with a Libra man. He will drive you crazy. We’ve got lots of them here in Shuangshan, and they’re all the same. A Libra girl needs a man who can make decisions.”

I wasn’t a Libra, but I’d let her down. I fought back an urge to apologize. I went and bought another beer.

When I returned, Fei-fei said with a determined smile, “Matt, it’s your turn.”

“Are you sure?”

She nodded. “I’m going to make you look very charming. Maybe you’ll find yourself a baby tonight.”

“Don’t, please …,” I started, but she cut me off with a flash of her eyes.

She worked on me with an expression of icy distance, dabbing at my face with a brush, and when she was done a cluster of blue spots dripped from the corners of my eyes and down my cheeks. When I went to the bathroom and took a look at myself in the mirror, I didn’t know whether they were stars or whether they were tears.

“Did you take the acid?” I asked her.

“What’s with the blue spots all over your face, Matt?” said Sean.

“Ask Fei-fei. They’re supposed to make me look more charming.”

“I think she might be fucking with you,” said Dean.

“She probably is,” I said.

It was close to midnight. I’d found Sean and Dean lounging close to the outside serving section of the bar. The night had passed slowly, mostly in conversations with recently arrived strangers who couldn’t believe parties like this happened in China.

“Where’s Fei-fei?” said Sean. “Let’s find her and drop this acid.”

I pointed her out in the bar, sitting in the corner with Chanel.

“If I start spinning out, I’m going to come and find you,” I said to Dean. “Oh, and help me keep an eye on Fei-fei. She’s never done it before, and she’s pissed off with me.”

Dean sucked on a Honghe. “Yeah?”

I fished in the condom pocket of my jeans, and produced the acid. “Let’s split this thing,” I said.

“Okay,” said Dean. “You alright?”

I ripped the tab into two pieces, passed one to him, and took the other half for myself. I said, “I kind of fucked up a bit.”

“What happened?”

“Let’s take a walk,” I said. We weaved our way through the huddles of drum circles in the direction of the tepee. The lawn was littered with metal cauldrons full of blazing wood fires, and we went to sit by one of them.

“I almost fucked Fei-fei,” I said to Dean. “It was kind of a stupid thing to do. We’re friends.”

“What do you mean, ‘almost’ fucked her? What kind of shit is that?”

“Well, okay, nothing much happened. We almost started making out, and then I cut it off.”

“Oh, man,” said Dean and his eyes narrowed as he thought it through. “That’s worse than either doing it or not doing it at all.”

The night had turned cold and I regretted not grabbing a jacket when Fei-fei and I went home to pick up the acid. A stage had been set up next to the tepee, and a DJ was warming up with a Tom Neville remix of Mylo’s “Destroy Rock & Roll”.

Dean seemed to drift away on the tide of his thoughts. I had no idea whether they had anything to do with what I’d said. “Oh, yeah,” he whispered with the song, “Destroy Michael Jackson, Destroy Prince, Destroy Bruce fucking Springsteen.” He roused himself and sat up from the slumped position he’d been in and said emphatically, “Yes, you fucked up, my friend. But, she’ll be pissed off for a while and then she’ll get over it.”

“Yeah, there’s nothing I can do about it, is there?”

“Nothing, unless you really want her, but she will probably say, ‘no’, next time just to get back at you.”

“Yeah,” I said.

Somebody cranked up the music, and Fei-fei floated into our midst with Sean in tow. She gave us a curt nod, and announced she was going to fire-dance. Sean drifted away with her. Dean and I stood up and faced the stage.

“What you going to do?” said Dean.

“What can you do?” I said. “I’m going to pretend like nothing happened.”

“And wait for the problem to go away?” said Dean. “It won’t. Not as long as you’re in Shuangshan.”

“I know,” I said. “But that’s the only way I can think to handle this. I’ll join her for a bit — her and Sean — just act like nothing happened.”

Only five or six people were dancing, but a crowd was gathering around the stage — some of them Shuangshan regulars, some I’d never seen before. The druids were juggling off to one side of the stage. Fei-fei was preparing her poi — white, furry balls on a chain. She dipped them into a bucket of kerosene. The sweet, biting taste of it pricked at my nose and mouth. A-hong stood close by.

Image © Chris Taylor

“You’re going to fire-dance?” I whispered. “I thought you were going home early.”

“It’s not that late, and I haven’t fire-danced since I was in Thailand with Alex.”

Fei-fei called my name.

“I’m feeling strange, Matt.” I wasn’t sure if I’d heard the words she’d said, or whether her lips had simply mouthed them.

“You’re going to be okay,” I said. When I turned back to A-hong, she was gone.

One by one, the girls — there were four of them, including two Europeans I’d never seen before — made their way to the dance area with deliberate steps, as if they were wading through knee-deep water, their poi painting lazy arcs at their sides. Fei-fei embarked on a shuffling dance, her face rigid with concentration as she inscribed flaming circles on the darkness. A-hong, slender, poised, embroidered shifting patterns of light on the night. The sound system was malfunctioning. It distracted me. The notes lingered longer than they should, as if they were refusing to make way for the notes that should take their place. I wondered whether somebody needed to know about this. Then I realized that it wasn’t just the music that was playing games with continuity. A-hong was dancing freeze-frame, as if she had the power to isolate and stretch any point in time, pausing[A4] before she chose the next and possessed it.

A tap on my shoulder interrupted my thoughts. It was Sean. I’d forgotten he even existed.

“I’ve got to tell you. For a moment there, while I was watching the fire-dancing, I was inside Fei-fei. Do you know what I mean?”

“Yes,” I said.

“I was inside Fei-fei. I mean, I’d entered her and I was fire-dancing.”

I nodded and tried to think of something appropriate to say. I couldn’t.

“It probably doesn’t make any sense to you, but it was incredible. For a moment, I was Fei-fei, and I wasn’t Sean anymore.”

“I think,” I said, “I’m going to go and sit by the fire again for a while.”

He wanted her and I didn’t, and it made me sad because I knew she deserved to be wanted by somebody and it wasn’t him and it wasn’t me.

Chanel and Dean were entwined in each other’s arms. Kev was sitting at a short distance from them. I joined him.

“Did you just arrive?” I said. I felt the question had nothing to do with me, as if someone else was asking it.

“No, I came down with Dean and Sean, but I went inside the bar for a while and played some pool with some German guy who’s just arrived from Thailand.”

“Did you do any of the acid?”

“Yeah, a half.”

“How you feeling?”

“I don’t know really. Something, but I’m not sure what.”

“Yeah, that’s pretty much where I’m at too. I just thought I’d come and sit by the fire for a while. Do you know what this stuff we’ve taken is?”

“The acid? Yeah, I was talking to that guy, Alex. He’s okay, actually, if you have a proper chat with him. Anyway, they’re Hoffman’s. They’ve come in from Switzerland. They come on a sheet with a picture of Albert Hoffman, the guy who invented acid. Something to do with the anniversary of his discovery of the drug or something. There was a big conference in Zurich.”

“So, we’re on pharmaceutical grade Swiss acid, in other words?”

“Yeah, probably. You only did a half, right?”

“Yeah, but I’m on my way, and I’ve got a feeling it’s going to be a long trip. The music’s not sounding right, and I’m getting these freeze-frame kind of images and pulsing lights and stuff in the peripheries of my vision and I’m not going to be able to think of words like ‘peripheries’ or say them much longer, I don’t think.”

“Yeah,” said Kev. “It’s cool, man. It’s good to trip sometimes, though I prefer mushrooms. Acid’s a bit chemical.”

“Kev, please don’t start dissing the acid. We’re on it, and we’re going to have to work with it and make sure that it’s good, not bad. I’m kind of worried I’m not going to have the greatest of nights on this shit.”

“Are you okay, man?” he said.

“Yeah, I’m okay. I’m going to be fine.”

I glanced over at Dean and Chanel. They were laying side-by-side next to the fire, connected by their lips, their arms and legs wrapped around each other, as if in determination to transform themselves into a single organism, and I wished I had somebody. Kev leaned gloomily into the crackling fire, and pulled his hoodie up over his head. I made an effort to look up in the direction of the dancers. The stage lights pulsed in a way that reminded me of squid in the sea on a nature documentary. Fei-fei seemed to stumble in her dance, and I got up to see if she was okay, and then I remembered she was no longer my responsibility.

She wandered over and joined us, and Kev acknowledged her with a nod, and murmured her name.

“Oh,” gasped Fei-fei, and she folded into herself with her arms wrapped around her torso and her head tapping the tops of her knees. “Matt, I don’t know who I am.

“You’re Fei-fei,” I said. “You remember my name, so you can remember yours. You’re just feeling confused because you’re coming up on the drug. Here comes Sean. That’s another name you remember.”

Sean had a spliff in one hand and a bottle of Jameson’s in the other. He handed me the bottle, and passed me the joint at the same time. “Take these,” he said. “They’re grounders.”

“I’ve got a feeling,” I said, “that nothing’s going to ground me for a long time. And Fei-fei’s a bit fucked up, I think. Somebody’s got to look after her.”

Sean squatted down next to Fei-fei and put an arm around her. I needed to get up and walk around. I needed to do something. The bar was expanding and contracting, as if the oscillating flux of the sub-atomic universe was asserting itself. I wandered in the direction of the tepee. A-hong interrupted my journey. She hovered before me.

“You’re leaving?” I said in Chinese, the words feeling alien in my mouth.

“I think soon,” she said. “I’m just saying goodbye to some people.”

“Well, goodbye, then,” I said with a helpless sense of loss. There would be nobody wherever I was going tonight.

“Are you okay?”

“Yeah, probably. I’m a bit fucked up. But I’ll be okay. I’m always okay.”

She tilted her head up at me quizzically and threw me a coy smile and tugged at my hand ever so softly. It was the briefest of gestures, and it began and ended so suddenly that I didn’t tug back, and then it was over and she’d withdrawn her hand and was walking away. I had a feeling it was a missed opportunity I’d remember for the rest of my life. I watched her go, unsure that what I thought had happened really had, and I knew I had to find somewhere quiet to be on my own.

I cut between two of the bungalows, and beyond them was a small grove of bamboo. The walls to the guesthouse were about one-hundred feet distant, and I had a clear view down over Shuangshan to the lake. A full moon hung halfway in the night sky to the right of me, and it cast a silvery pallor on the lake. On either side was an army of ghosts. They were dressed in chainmail. They seemed to carry lances and shields, but I wasn’t so sure about this, because every time I turned my head to take a closer look at them they melted away. A rainbow pulsed around the moon and the army was back at my side and they were good. They were on my side, but they didn’t make me feel any better. I felt thin and cold and alone, and even an army couldn’t help me. I stumbled back the way I’d come, to look for Dean and Sean and Fei-fei.

“I’m cold,” I said, when I found them by the fire.

“It’s the acid,” said Sean. “Warm up by the fire.”

I tried to light a cigarette. It felt huge between my fingers, fatter and heavier even than a cigar, and I couldn’t get the lighter to work and when it finally lit I couldn’t connect the flame with the end of the cigarette. Sean held out a light. I sucked on the cigarette and tossed it in the fire. It was the last cigarette I would ever smoke in my life.

“I just quit,” I said to Sean and Fei-fei, who were still huddled together.

“Quit what?” said Fei-fei as if she was coming back from a faraway place.

“Cigarettes. I’m done with them.”

“Good for you, man,” muttered Sean.

I still felt cold, and huddling in close to the fire didn’t help. I appreciated it was a good fire, but the heat wasn’t getting through to the place in me that was cold. What if, I wondered, I lay on the fire — for just a moment — would that work? I played with the idea, and it disappointed me to let it go, to dismiss it perhaps even as madness, and the thought that that’s what it might be filled me with fear.

Dean appeared at my side, and said, “You look really fucked up.”

“I am.”

Chanel marched over and said, “What have you guys done to Fei-fei? I’m taking her home.”

“What’s going on?” said Sean.

“Chanel wants to take Fei-fei home,” I said.

“No, she can’t do that,” said Sean. “Fei-fei needs to be with us.” He appealed to Chanel, “Don’t take her home and put her in a room on her own. She needs to be with other people who are high.”

“I’ll take care of her,” said Chanel.

“Matt,” said Sean. “Tell her. Fei-fei needs to be with us.”

I said to Chanel, “It’s true. She’s probably better off with us. She’s going to be awake for hours.”

“You can’t even look after yourself, Matt.” She got up and walked over to Fei-fei and took her by the hand.

“We’ve lost Fei-fei,” said Sean.

“Yeah,” I said. I got up. “I’m going for a walk.”

“I’ll come with you,” said Dean.

We left Sean hunched over the fire, and I knew that any illusion he and I had had of friendship in the past was about to evaporate.

We walked in the direction of the tepee. I stopped. A luminous presence floated over the dark triangle of its entrance. It took on the ghostly shape of a woman — virginal, compassionate, angelic — and I wondered whether she was there for a reason I didn’t understand. I stopped in my tracks and thought of A-hong. Dean walked on. I glanced back at the bar. It was still expanding and contracting. I had my finger on its pulse and at the same time I didn’t. It wasn’t a real place and whatever kind of place it was I didn’t want to go there. But the woman at the entrance to the tepee didn’t want me to enter either. She continued to hover there. Dean walked beneath her as if she didn’t exist and ducked inside. She didn’t want me to follow him. I stood and waited to see what she did next. Alex appeared in front of me, and I craned my neck around him to see what she whether she was still there.

“Inside the tepee now! Liquid acid, on your fucking skin!” he said. His eyes were rolling and his jaw grinding. His face appeared to be in the control of a drunken puppet master. He strode off in the direction of the tepee with a wave that suggested I follow. I looked for my angel, but she’d melted into the night and I followed Alex.

The interior of the tepee was ringed with far more people than I imagined it could accommodate. Dean lay sprawled on his back just inside the entrance. I sat down next to him. It took me some time to summon up the energy to ask him how he was doing.

“I don’t know,” he said and without shifting from his position on his back, almost as if he was talking in his sleep. “I’m not sure I want to be with these people, but I can’t move right now.”

“I’m kind of drifting,” I said pointlessly.

“Yeah.”

“Where’s Wang?” I asked.

“He stayed with the Hummingbird crew.”

I lay down and sat up again. The druids sat opposite us, sharing a spliff. A hippie with ratty dreadlocks and bare feet sat hugging a drum next to Dean. We caught each other’s eyes.

“I’m wanted,” Alex announced, as if we were an audience. He was sitting at the head of the circle, opposite the entrance to the tepee. “There’s warrants for me in fourteen countries, but they’ll never get me here in China, the fuckers. Everyone out there thinks we’re living in a fucking Communist state, but the truth is, we’re doing whatever the fuck we like and getting away with it.” He leveled his gaze at the hippie sitting next to Dean, and shouted, “Play the drums, you fucking hippie cunt!”

The tepee fell silent. The hippie frowned.

“Didn’t you hear what I said?” said Alex quietly. “Play the fucking drums.”

“No,” said the hippie. He sat hunched over the drum, holding Alex’s gaze.

“Why not?” said Alex.

“Not if you tell me to.”

He said, “Okay, fair enough.”

Dean rolled over in my direction. “Man, I can’t take much more of this shit.”

“It’s getting to me too.”

“I think we should get out of here,” he said. “Seriously.”

We got up and staggered out of the tepee, and I could feel Alex’s eyes following us as we left, as if the entire performance had been put on for our benefit.

“I think I’m having a bad trip,” I said to Dean.

Dean shook his head. “Man, this place just doesn’t have the right energy for tripping. It’s just fucked up, is what it is.”

“Yeah. I don’t know what happens next. I mean, I’m stuck in this, in this moment until it becomes something else.”

“We’re going up to the house is what happens next,” said Dean.

“My place or yours?”

“Mine and Sean’s place. It’ll be okay, don’t worry.”

As we wandered through the gates of the lodge into the night, I wondered why it was taking so long for the sun to chase away the darkness with light.


Excerpted from Harvest Season, a novel, © Chris Taylor, available in paperback and in Kindle.

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