By SAM WHITE
The old man left the city because he was tired. He followed his doctor’s advice and went to the country to regain his energy. The exhaustion had come on slow, like a tide, or a spilled liquid stretching over the ground toward nothing. The doctor told him that Guangxi, six hours south by train, was known for the restorative properties of its water. He was surprised that a doctor of modern medicine would recommend such a traditional remedy, but he had heard of the region’s water, though he didn’t believe it. He had also heard that Guangxi was beautiful, and thought it would be welcome to relax, and see the place’s cascading hills at least once in his life. His sons didn’t answer when he called to tell them he was leaving. Their lives were well in motion, and he felt like an appendage—something vestigial, to be respected for a former purpose he now lacked.
He was also suspicious, as the train slowed to a slow rumble, that a place as sleepy as this could give energy. Farmers knelt in the paddies close-by, and beyond were a thousand mist-crowned lumps of hills that looked as old as anything on earth. It looked like the mountains themselves had walked through the plain and settled down to rest, like they found it so serene that they never thought to get up again until the grass had grown and it was far too late.
Maybe someone had done the same as the mountains: in the train station, there was a poster, faded and peeling, of a young woman last seen two years ago in town. She had round ears and a freckled, kind face, half-obscured by the newer posters announcing track maintenance and local performances.
The taxi drive from the train station was short. The driver was lively, talked with his hands, was proud of his region’s water, the scenery, his new, spotless vehicle. He hadn’t heard of the missing person, but knew the way to the inn without GPS. The whole time he drove he rolled a small wooden pear in his left hand and talked at the old man, who was exhausted from his journey, and everything.
These days, he found it harder to rise in the morning and was drawn to sleep earlier in the evening. He couldn’t bring himself out to his group’s exercises in the park, and wondered if it was the city air, which wasn’t so good these days. Vigorous activity had always brought him energy, opening a yawning hunger for more. But now ten minutes of walking, even on the small treadmill in his apartment, just opened up a desire to be horizontal again. Everything did. His sons told him to rest. The medical tests found nothing. It made sense, on some level, that the doctor would recommend an old man a pleasant escape to the country for an invented malady. Even if all the doctor thought was that the old man had too much time on his hands, why not fill some of it, anyway, with the hiking and bicycling he loved so much? Nature, at least, was always there, waiting to be contacted.
So it was hard not to feel disappointed when the rain began. It sloshed to the ground as the taxi pulled up, filled the uneven roads, made no accommodation for the old man to even look at the hill the inn sat underneath. The hill was famous for its curved, forested peak, with the house-sized hole in the shape of a crescent, which, one or two nights every month, perfectly framed the moon in the sky beyond.
The driver got out and opened the old man’s door, holding up an umbrella, taking his bag, and stepping with him over the puddles into the inn. The ladies there were kind. They apologized for the rain. They brought the old man a mug of tea, his first dose of the fabled waters, and suggested he sit and enjoy their library, maybe even the company of the other guests, until it was time for dinner.
He paid and looked around: the place was done in the old style but new. High ceilings, stone walls, and plaster painted red, with square mosaic patterns, fat-brushed paintings of flowers and the hills all over the walls. His room was spacious and the air conditioning worked. The old man was satisfied, but, like so many travellers, suddenly restless. Against the ladies’ pleading, he borrowed an umbrella and set out into the rain to explore the village and walk around the moon hill’s base before the sun went down.
The air smelled like wet leaves and incense. In the square outside, men sat under the gables, playing cards and smoking. The occasional cyclist wobbled past, dodging the divots in the mud. The old man turned around and saw the inn behind the pomelo trees in the courtyard, slick with rain. It was by far the newest building in the square. Three stories of red brick, with a roof of cascading curved grey tiles. Beside the door were three simple characters: Moon. Hill. Inn.
Everything about the place suggested rest, but he was urgent to move. He picked his way along the road, pausing to say hello to the old ladies preparing dinner in their open kitchens, passing houses where children sat and did homework while watching television. The rain began to slow and he enjoyed the pace of the walk, the fragrance of the encroaching jungle. He stopped now and then to view the crescent hole in the peak of the hill, which had now come into view. A soft arcing gap, by grace of nature, in the craggy limestone that made up the hills. He felt that he was in the right place. He stopped at a roadside kitchen for a dinner of twice-cooked pork and rice, then kept walking through the village’s rambling streets, past the sounds of flute playing, the smell of animals, the murmur of a different dialect.
Before long, the old man was lost. He hadn’t been paying attention to any particular landmark except the hill, but which side of it was he on? He was tired, as always. Reluctantly, he reached into his pocket and pulled out his phone. He wiped the screen with his cuff, tapped on his map, and then he saw it:
There were two Moon Hill Inns, two little identical dots. One was two streets away. The other was a thirty minute walk, on the other side of the hill itself. It must be another branch, or an error, competing hotels, who knew if the local regulations allowed them to share a name? He decided to head to the dot nearby, happy that his walk had taken him in a circle back to his fresh white bed.
The sun was almost down, taking with it the harsh sulk of the day’s humidity. A wild dog pranced down an alley, pausing to sniff a puddle, before continuing past him in the gathering darkness. Soon he was in an empty square. No card players, no red banners, or cyclists wobbling in the mud. He stepped forward. A courtyard of pomelo trees grew wild, and, as he ducked through the branches that hung and touched together, he saw the inn.
It wasn’t his inn, the one where he was staying, but it looked the same: it stood in a similar courtyard, three stories of red brick, with a roof of curved grey tiles. But this inn was abandoned, exposed to the weather, with no glass in the windows. Broken roof tiles lay strewn about the courtyard, sitting in the tall grass that had grown through the stones, among rotted husks of pomelos. The same three characters were on the entrance, Moon Hill Inn, rainwashed but just clear enough to still read. This inn was old—must have been a previous incarnation of the hotel where he was staying—and now it was neglected by the village council so much that it didn’t even have a door. Beyond, the inside was dark.
The old man was tired, but he had come to the country to escape that exhaustion. He stepped forward into the doorway, smelling the mold inside and something faintly animal. Using his phone as a flashlight, he shone it into the entrance. It was mostly empty except for the reception desk, the curled-up paintings on the walls, the loose paper, the broken glass. It gave him a chill, as if he’d made some horrible mistake, and had only imagined the other Moon Hill Inn, the one where he was staying. As if the driver had brought him to the wrong place in some kind of scam, and the ladies were back there rifling through his meager belongings. But one look around this place, smelling the deer excrement on the floor, hearing the water drip down the stairs, was enough to urge him back to the other side of the hill. Turning around, he looked out the door and up, and saw the moon hill from the other side, with its craggy crescent, but no sign of the moon itself. Then he went back.
The new hotel was a relief. One of the ladies, with broad hands and kind eyes, welcomed him with tea and a warm towel and asked if he was ready for dinner. A few other guests sat in the dining room, looking over maps, planning jungle tours, climbing sojourns. They were of varied ages. Most of them spoke the dialect of the city and paid little attention to him. He pulled up his phone while he waited for his food and looked at the two inns on the map. The lady carefully placed his soup on the table.
“Excuse me. I was wondering about something.”
“Of course! I will help you plan your days,” she said, with a shaky handle on the city dialect.
“Is there an old version of this inn, on the other side of the hill?”
“You want to visit the other side of the hill?”
“I did, this evening, and I saw a hotel that looked the same as this one. But it was abandoned.”
He pointed to his phone.
“It even had the same name. Moon Hill Inn.”
“This is the first hotel in Moon Hill Village,” she said, proudly. “I’m not sure about all that.” She waved her hands in front of his phone, content to ignore that world.
“Did they build the hotel in the previous place, and decide to reopen here?”
“We were built by a foreign investor, and opened last summer. There’s more tourism coming every year. He was a smart man.”
She refilled his tea. He dropped the topic, from conversation and his mind, and let her plan his days. A lifetime of company work had taught him not to question things too much. Questioning, worrying the gaps in your teeth with your tongue, was only a distraction from the pleasurable meal that was life itself. He had his fill. He hiked up the Moon Hill the next morning, politely declining the ladies selling bottled water on the way up, and admired the thousands of little hills stretching on in the green below. He didn’t even think to look down for the inn on the other side.
The day after that, he rode the bus to the river and watched the oarsman’s muscles plying their boats down the slow-moving waters, the birds stretching their wings up the sides of the hills, the farm workers bent to their tasks. He sat while an elderly fisherman loosed his cormorant, tied with a string, watched the black wings bend, the beak strike and miss a fish in the water below. He floated on his back in the hot spring, looked up at the blue sky, and thought about his children, resolving to visit them if they wouldn’t visit him at home. He even pried open his mind to allow that the mineral-rich waters were having some effect: every day he woke early, ate a full breakfast, walked into the courtyard and off to his day. The hills made him think far-off. He walked in the evenings, came back for a fresh-cooked dinner, and slept on the refreshed white sheets in his spacious, air-conditioned room.
One night his sleep was uneasy. He dreamt about the train station and the poster, the missing person, the young woman with the small ears and kind, faded face. In the dream, she was his daughter, someone he had somehow forgot. Forgotten, she had gone to the country. He went to find her after remembering, with shame, who she was. In the dream, she had wandered among the Guangxi hills in the mist and the rain, until falling in a mossy clearing at dusk. The roots of the nearby trees grew at tremendous speed, wrapping around her legs, her arms, and hair. She was a part of the land itself when he found her, her body turned to wood. He knelt by the plant, curled his fingers in the grass and prayed for forgiveness. He had forgotten her, but the land had not, and now the roots and leaves began to twist, unfolding toward him like an uneasy sleeper, and her face came into view…
The old man woke with no idea where he was. There had been a noise in the room. He felt around for whatever had fallen off his bed in the darkness and remembered he was in Guangxi. Turning on the light, he stood and went into the attached bathroom. He had a long drink of water and urinated. When he came back into his room, there was a tiny man standing beside the bureau. This man was old, even older than he was, with a bent back, a small bag, and a ruddy, round face. He was no more than a meter tall. In his hands were some things from the room: the cups and saucers, two candles, the soap from the bathroom.
“Hello,” the tiny man said, in a high voice.
The old man sat down on the bed. Surprisingly, he felt unafraid. It was a feeling of certainty, like he had felt in the dream.
“Who are you?”
The tiny man looked at the things in his hands, looked around the room, to the door, and back.
“A visitor, like you.”
“A visitor doesn’t steal.”
“I’m borrowing these things, for the other inn. You may go back to sleep. I am about to leave.”
The old man straightened his back in the moonlight.
“Why can’t you get these things on your own?”
The tiny man began to put the objects, gingerly, into his bag.
“They don’t belong to you, and the new inn will replace them. What concern is it to you?”
“This is my room.”
“For now it is.”
The old man leaned back, never removing his gaze from the intruder.
“The world has moved on,” the tiny man said, “but not for us.”
When the old man woke in the morning, he thought the small man’s visit had been a dream. He knew exactly where he was: in the fresh white sheets, with the smooth mechanical hum of the air conditioner. He went onto the balcony and lit one of his small cigars, the ones he hadn’t smoked in years, but brought for his relaxation. He drank a long glass of water, looked up at the hill, and the facts came back: the woman hadn’t turned into a plant—in fact, she hadn’t been seen in years. She wasn’t his daughter, which made sense because he had only sons.
But the other thing did happen. A small man, an employee or volunteer of the other hotel, had come into his room to steal the consumables. He checked his things: his wallet, phone and keys were all intact. But the things from the room, the soap and tissues and small sacks of tea, were gone. This was something the hotel staff needed to hear about.
The hotel manager was a young man, in his thirties, with a pressed shirt and fingernails cut too short. He stood, ramrod-straight, in front of the old man’s table at breakfast.
“Thank you for bringing this matter to our attention. The cleaning staff have just come back from your room. They replaced everything that you need.” He smiled.
“I don’t think you understand. There was someone else, from the other hotel, stealing things from my room. This is unacceptable.”
“Of course, the safety of all our guests is of paramount concern, but it’s impossible. Your door was locked. It’s only activated by a scan from the keycard on your phone.”
“I don’t know if I locked it,” the old man said. He tore off a strip of fried donut, dunked it in his bowl of soybean milk.
“If you were in the room, you locked it,” the manager said.
“I don’t want to cause trouble.”
“I assure you, uncle, it’s no trouble at all. Nothing our guests require is any trouble.”
“Would it be any trouble to show you the other inn? The one on the other side of the hill? This man said he came from there.”
“I don’t know what you mean. This is the first inn in Moon Hill Village.”
The old man felt tired. He wanted to restore his energy, to continue his rest, his activity, but the refusal to acknowledge the other inn wouldn’t leave his mind. When Liu Bei, a friend from the city, called him one morning, he neglected to mention the incidents. He listened to the city gossip and talked about his travels. The cormorants, the hills, his walks.
“You sound stronger,” Liu Bei said. “The water is doing you well.”
Something about the incidents felt of this place and not right to mention. A curio of travel, something to be remarked on later, playing cards, when he and his friends were deep into the spirits. Something to be disbelieved.
“I’ll come back to the city soon.”
“If you say that, you must be almost ready,” Liu Bei said.
Still, as the weeks went on, the curiosity remained. One night he gathered all his room’s consumables, the teabags and saucers and soaps, and placed them in the small basket for used towels by the door. In the morning, they were still there.
“Is there a problem with the things in your room?” the manager asked him at breakfast the next morning.
“Not at all. It just made me feel better.”
This inn had many excellent reviews. He searched online for evidence of the other inn, for anyone remarking on the confusion, and found no website, no comments. But there it was, on his map application, right where he knew it to be.
There was a cave, famous with the locals for its stalactites, near the other inn, so one day he booked a tour there and asked the kind ladies for directions though he knew exactly where he was going.
“Of course,” the lady at the desk told him, “I can have someone show you.”
He and the attendant walked along in silence, through the village roads made muddy by rain. She was younger than the other workers, with a stout build and an easy laugh. She pushed a bicycle with a basket, weaving it past the holes in the road. She walked lightly but slowly and was pausing to drink from a thermos of tea.
“Have you heard of the woman who went missing here?” the old man asked.
“It was a terrible thing,” she said.
“Did they ever find her?”
“They didn’t. She was from the city, I think, or possibly a foreigner.”
They walked on in silence. The road curved. Chickens pecked at corn in the dirt and puffed up their chests.
“I see the posters everywhere,” the old man said. “They’re still up, after two years.”
“Yes. These kinds of things are common in the city. But when they happen out here, in our village, it’s a big deal. They won’t take down the posters, even if she isn’t found.”
“It seems unlikely after two years.”
“Yes,” the woman said, frowning and unscrewing her thermos. “The town committee wants it to seem like something will be done, even if nothing is being done. Even if it’s too late. It’s a terrible thing.”
He had picked the cave because the old inn was on the way. He stopped. He hadn’t expected to actually see it again—thought maybe it was a dream, or an effect of the water. But here it was, on the other side of the hill. The plaster was peeling all over, the clay roof tiles lying broken on the ground. The attendant took a deep drink of her tea, looking up at the inn. The clouds had broken, and they were both beginning to sweat.
“Well,” she said. “Shall we?”
So she could see it as well. It wasn’t just for him. He took a step forward. “Shall we what?”
Something made him want to go inside.
“Continue to the cave,” she said brightly. “It’s just past the rise down that street. I should be back for lunch.” She rested a foot on her pedal and checked her phone.
“Do you see this inn?”
“Yes, it looks very old.”
“Look at those characters there, the faded ones. It says Moon Hill Inn. The same as ours.”
She looked up again.
“It’s identical,” he said. “It’s exactly the same, only old.”
“So it is.”
“Isn’t that strange?”
“It is strange,” she said, but seemed largely untroubled.
“Why is it here?” he said. “Did this used to be the inn, before they rebuilt it on the other side?”
“To be honest, I don’t know. It’s certainly worthy of some more investigation. I’ll ask the manager when I return.”
“It seems to me that if this inn was there first, and abandoned, and no one knows about it, your inn is the one that requires investigation.”
She slipped her phone back in her pocket, gripped the handlebars, and let out a brief, snorting laugh. “I happen to disagree. I know everything about our inn, and I’ve never seen this one before. It’s in terrible shape. Look at it.”
“I demand an answer.”
She could see his agitation. In the way that people sometimes do, he began to think that she was actually enjoying it.
“I’m afraid I don’t have an answer.”
“No one has an answer,” he said. “Isn’t that a problem?”
“There are a lot of things no one has an answer to. That doesn’t mean it’s worth thinking about. Look at this place. It’s just an old abandoned building. No one would even want to stay here. Would you?”
He looked more closely at the peeling red salutations beside the door, the dark and drafty entrance hall behind it, strewn with deer feces and broken glass.
“Of course not.”
He lay in bed in silent contemplation of the other inn. When he couldn’t sleep, he focused on his inability to sleep. When that woke him even more, he thought about his life. Thought about the changes he’d seen in the country, his children, his long-dead wife. He refused to leave until he was rested, so the next morning he busied himself. Walked up and down the moon hill, did exercises with the other hotel guests, anything to tire him out, but still he couldn’t sleep. He thought he had deposited enough rest to return to the city, but every night was now making withdrawals. The balance dwindled. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t force his thoughts to stop making sense for the instant required to temporarily relinquish consciousness. For five nights, six nights, he lost count, and became unable to do anything, least of all sleep.
The staff were concerned. They fed him pots of tea in the dining room, asked what was wrong, which was all they knew how to ask. The staff were fearful, he thought, of a poor review, but there was no particular deficiency in service. They knew about the other inn, but just didn’t care.
One night he lay in bed for hours and thought up things that made no sense. A cormorant with no beak. A hill that went down into the earth instead of up. A cup made of water, into which you pour ceramic. At the moment he fell asleep, there was a knock at the door. It was the little man, peering up at him from the dark hallway. He sighed.
“Why did you knock this time?” he said.
“I have realized that my last entry might have startled you, so I have chosen to be more polite.”
He thought to yell, to wake the other guests and force them to recognize the intrusion. But the tiny man’s expression was so placid. This time he held a small candle in his hands, patiently waiting.
“Do you want the things from my room?”
“Not this time,” the tiny man whispered. “This time, I’m here to get you.”
He dressed, and followed the man down the stone steps, careful not to wake any of the guests or staff. It must have been late at night, or early in the morning. In the entrance hall, the light from the moon shone through the windows as the tiny man carefully opened the heavy oak door.
“Should I bring my things?”
“There’s no need,” the tiny man replied as they walked outside. In the moonlight was a small rickshaw. He hoisted up the bar and gestured for the old man to climb onboard.
“I’m capable of walking,” the old man said, though he was exhausted, still in his pajamas.
So they trundled along the road, quite slowly, in the silence. The moonlight was even brighter here, a silvery-black species of day: he could see the road, the shuttered stalls, the shape of the dark hill above the village.
“What is in the water, here?”
“Do you really want to know?” the tiny man said, without turning back, breathing heavy from the effort.
“Maybe better not to.”
“That’s it,” he said. “You might have many questions, but you already know the answers.”
Before long they arrived at the old inn. The small man dropped the bar, stepped around, and raised an arm to help the old man down. Two torches burned on either side of the heavy oak door. The courtyard was swept, new panes of glass were in the windows, and the three characters had been freshly painted on the sign. The old man turned around, and the light from the moon was almost blinding. Looking up, he saw the hill, covered in jungle and rising into the silver night. And in the crescent gap in its peak, there was the moon. The hill held it there, perfectly framed by the limestone, as if they were made for each other.
The tiny man was holding open the door.
“Welcome to the Moon Hill Inn,” he said.
The door shut with a heavy thud behind him. The entrance hall was candle-lit, and the moonlight barely came through the windows. High ceilings, stone walls, red painted plaster. The floors were almost gleaming. It smelled of lamp oil and tea.
“We keep it well,” the tiny man said, “though you can’t see that from the other side. Should I show you to your room?”
The old man could barely hold open his eyes. He yawned and looked around. He should have known: the place wasn’t really decrepit. It just looked that way for outside eyes.
“For those who have moved on,” the tiny man said, as if aware of the old man’s thoughts. “Those who haven’t can see the hotel the way it actually is.”
Insects chirped in the darkness beyond the walls.
“Why couldn’t I see it before?”
“The bridge is only open when the hill frames the moon. That is what allows our guests to rest without being disturbed.”
The tiny man was busying himself in a stand of cupboards behind the desk. They were bursting with soap and shaving cream and tea and candles. Then he went to the base of the stairs. As the old man followed, he could see into the dining room: three or four groups of people in traditional clothes sat soundlessly, reading ancient books or dozing. Hung down on the stairs was a length of white cloth, which the tiny man gathered in his hands as they ascended.
At the top, in the candlelight, he saw her. She was coming out of a bathroom, and waved to them politely, silently, on her way back to bed. The woman from the posters, with her round ears and small, kind face, wearing a night slip. He considered calling out to say that the authorities were trying to find her, that her family missed her, but he wasn’t sure of that. He wasn’t sure he’d be missed himself. She smiled and opened her door and stepped into her room. As the tiny man made small steps ahead, he gathered the white cloth. The old man wasn’t sure she would be able to speak, anyway. Was this what his doctor had in mind, when he told him to go to the country? He remembered that clinical office. The antiseptic white walls, the brand new tablet computer, the doctor’s small round gold-rimmed glasses all seemed from another place entirely. Maybe he couldn’t understand the diagnosis until he saw all the symptoms. Or until he saw the treatment.
Finally, the tiny man stopped gathering the cloth. They stood in front of a room at the end of the hall. No light came in from the moon outside, just the two small candles beside the bed inside, which was laden with dark red sheets and pillows.
“Here is a place to rest,” the tiny man said proudly. “After a time, you won’t even think about moving on. You will be content with your memories, as most are. Those too will fade, and then, peace.”
The old man was exhausted, but sure he was awake. He felt the blood in his arteries, dug his fingernails into his hands. Liu Bei didn’t need him. His children didn’t need him. He was finished working, and all he desired was sleep. The bed in the room beyond was made just for him. It was the perfect length, the perfect shape and firmness. Now that he was on the other side, he understood.
But on the other side of the hill was the world. There was the soft morning light on the broad lawn where his exercise classes were held. There was Liu Bei, lifting a cup of baijiu and shaking his head as he heard the story. There were his sons, their wives, dutifully filing into his cramped apartment for the spring festival. The moment, tentative and oblique, when they would mention grandchildren before changing the subject. Rest was for all of it. It wasn’t all for rest.
“No,” the old man said. “It’s time I head back.”
Sam White is a Toronto-born writer and graduate of the University of Toronto’s M.A. in Creative Writing program. His work has recently appeared in Sequestrum, Broken Pencil and Carve.