DOG by Jade Song
Taihu’s dense clouds roll along its shores like mini roiling hurricanes, their unfriendly eyes trained on Sengru, who hops nimbly from one flat stone to the next, his own eyes scrutinizing the ground, searching for gongshi. Visibility along the lake is poor today, but he is intimate with these paths, could even leap the rocky perimeter blindfolded if he didn’t need his full sight for gongshi—the thin, the pitted, the perforated, the wrinkled. Stones that the gods’ tears and breath have eroded into myths. Those that rain and water have transformed into birds, beasts, mountains, waterfalls. Those depicting strange tales on their surfaces, serving as muses for poets and scholar-officials.
Sengru’s left eye itches from the dampness. He comes to a standstill, scanning the bank with his right eye, his gaze using more ferocity than the fist rubbing his left. Taihu’s water is colored gray today, reflecting the weather. It will rain soon. He frowns. His hair sticks to the back of his neck while his toes ache from chilly moisture. Wildly uncomfortable, he wants to go home, and begins to turn back when he stops himself.
Not yet, he thinks. Can’t give up yet.
He hasn’t found good gongshi in months. Before, he could pile gongshi in the belly sac of his shirt like a kangaroo pouch, his abs revealed to the healthy Taihu air; lately, only small pebbles and smooth stones without even a dimple have presented themselves. He doesn’t allow himself to accept the possibility that Taihu has been picked clean, that he and hunters just like him had removed any worthwhile gongshi long ago. It doesn’t help that in recent years, Taihu’s gongshi reputation has skyrocketed, in no small part encouraged by Sengru himself. He knows reputation must precede worth. The marketing was helpful then, harmful now: newcomers arrive at Taihu dreaming of gongshi fortune.
Sengru hates these new hunters. They pluck stones with potential from the shore before nature can sculpt the flesh. They search for their quick fix, their easy jackpot, without understanding true value.
He scans the banks for the fourth time, but the rocks are as unbroken as the horizon. Sengru fights his rising panic, forcing himself to scrutinize again—perhaps he missed something, anything—but then he catches sight of neither myth nor money, but something animate, moving in the background. He blinks.
A trick of the eye?
Sometimes, when he stares too long at the ground, everything begins to wiggle and blur, his eyes overstrained. Juyi, one of the few authentic gongshi hunters he considers a friend, begs him to get glasses and a headlamp, but Sengru refuses, believing that gongshi will only reveal themselves if he hunts naturally, without manmade supplies. Only then would the hunt be fair.
No. It is not a trick. Something is moving. Sengru rubs his eyes, squints, furrows his brows. Through the fog, there’s something indistinct with four legs, pacing back and forth, a distance away from the lake banks and closer to the woods, where the trees stretch and thicken. Not a human, and not a gongshi.
A beast? A gongshi myth come to life?
His curiosity piqued, desperate to latch onto something other than his failure to find gongshi, he leaps toward the shadow. He swipes through the fog curtains as he nears, occasionally losing sight of his target when tendrils drift in front of him, his balance unsteady atop slick stones. He is less familiar with this path, rarely venturing down—the stones near the woods are never as beautifully battered as they are by the water.
He arrives where he thought the shape had been. Finds nothing. Only hard-packed dirt below his feet and an imposing line of menacing tree trunks. He scans the branched shadows for something animal-like, concentrating so hard that he doesn’t hear the approaching footsteps until their owner calls out.
“Hey! Sengru!” Juyi walks towards him.
While Sengru is gangly, bodily excess melted off from his energetic hunts, Juyi has a heavier build, loving to indulge in food with the money from his gongshi sales. During his hunts, he does not hop atop rocks burning calories like Sengru, but chooses to sit on them, moving stone seats every other hour, letting his eyes travel for him. While Sengru believes he must proactively search for gongshi, Juyi, like a mature lover, believes the gongshi will come to him when they are ready.
Juyi pants as he comes to a halt in front of Sengru. Juyi’s facial hair is uncombed, untamed, his stringy beard quivering with each heavy exhale. Juyi tires easily, for he is much older, sometimes treating Sengru as a son, sometimes as a peer.
They incline their heads together.
Juyi breaks his face into a grin. “How have your days gone by?” He asks.
“I’ve been okay. How about you?”
“Everything is fine. No problem.”
“Good.” Sengru turns back to the trees.
“I haven’t seen you out in quite some time. I thought you might have been trying some new location,” Juyi says.
“No. Though the fog has been dense lately. We may have passed by each other without noticing,” Sengru responds. His gaze darts around a suspicious-looking tree trunk—perhaps the beast had hidden behind it?
Juyi snorts. “Doubtful I could miss you and your hopping.”
“Where else would I go? Where else will reward us the way Taihu has?” Sengru gestures toward the lake.
“True. But it seems Taihu has given up on us. She does not yield her gongshi easily anymore.”
They fall quiet as they contemplate their past pickings and current failures.
Juyi leans in conspiratorially, his voice hushed. “Apparently, even glossy Lingbi and bubbly Yingde have been picked clean. Have you heard how the newer gongshi hunters have either given up or have begun to carve into the stones? The audacity! They must think of themselves as gods, as powerful as nature, to enhance stones with sculptor tools!”
Sengru has heard of these rumors. Of how the naive gongshi hunters he despises manipulate pockmarks onto otherwise smooth stones with chisels and mallets. He shakes his head in disgust. “If scholars are actually stupid enough to be tricked by these crude methods, then they deserve the fakes.”
Juyi chuckles. “Classic Sengru. Knew you would have some sense. Too bad there’s no more Auspicious Cloud Peaks laying around, huh?”
At age fifteen, Sengru had stumbled upon the gongshi that would change his life, fortune, and career. When he had found Auspicious Cloud Peak on a walk around the lake, it was not yet an Auspicious Cloud Peak nor a gongshi. To young Sengru, it was but a large stone in a unique shape, with indented lines and shallow holes that transported his imagination into mirages of clear broth with twisting noodles, flowy robes made of the softest silk, shimmery scales of darting fish, wagging tails of wild dogs who would follow him around his village because he fed them his dinner scraps. He loved the dog with the floppiest ears and wrinkled skin the most, the one he named Zhou. In this stone, Sengru saw the simple pleasures his youth had granted him so far. It was only after he had run back to his parents, hollering about this magic stone, that he had learned of gongshi and what they were supposed to evoke: mountainous landscapes, gods-struck lightning bolts, fabulous birds with wingspans longer than human bodies, myths about which the ancient poets waxed poetic. His mother had dutifully explained these supposed scholarly visions as he clung to her leg, sobbing because his magic stone had been taken away. His father had sold it to buy a new house in the city and to save the rest of the fortune for Sengru’s future.
Sengru followed his parents out of their village. He grew older and went to college, the ever-dutiful son of parents who died when that new house caught fire during his junior year. As a student, he had searched for his lost treasure online using the university digital library passwords. He learned from a museum article that his gongshi was wildly famous for its rare shou and lou qualities, and had been bestowed the name Auspicious Cloud Peak by the Chinese classical literature scholar who had purchased it. He returned to Taihu after graduation, unable to shake the visions prompted by the gongshi he had found as a child.
He had come to Taihu to find more Auspicious Cloud Peaks, but no gongshi bounty had ever given him the same sense of wonderment or level of profit as the first.
Juyi raises his eyebrows. “So, I’m correct in assuming you haven’t scammed any scholars, yes? Even though they do not know the difference.”
Sengru twists in his face in disgust. “Have you?” He asks.
But Juyi deflects. “My wife has been so hungry lately. She’s getting bigger than me!” He laughs and pats his belly. “We are planning to visit Shenzhen soon. The city is booming. My wife’s brother’s family just moved there with great prospects. We’d like to scope the landscape for ourselves.”
“Maybe your future wife is in Shenzhen,” offers Juyi. “I’m sure we can introduce you to some pretty ladies. My wife’s brother probably knows a few. It’ll cheer you up.”
“No thanks.” This is not the first time Juyi has tried to convince him of the delights of love, but Sengru has no interest. He’d rather spend his time finding gongshi than finding a wife. When he had first arrived at Taihu, he had been lonely, but Sengru doesn’t feel it any more. What is loneliness but an ache made aware? When ignored, aches dissolve into dull weights that a man’s muscles can strengthen to bear.
“Sengru.” Juyi says his name, watching him.
Sengru shifts uncomfortably, breaking some of the packed dirt under his feet into morsels.
“Sengru, consider leaving the trade. I am making preparations myself. I can help you. This futility is no way to live. Soon, there will be no stones left.”
“I’m staying right here. And fuck the people who fake gongshi.”
“You stupid child. Do not look down upon those who seek their fortune in ways you do not understand. Do not think yourself better. You’ve been merely lucky so far.”
Sengru shivers. The icy fog has settled onto his clothes.
“The old gods are dead. New gods mean new rules,” Juyi advises.
Sengru spits onto the ground in disgust. “That’s what I think of you and your new gods,” he hisses, wiping his mouth with his hand, a trail of drool leaking from his lips.
Juyi only laughs.
Fuming, Sengru trots away from Juyi without a goodbye.
Sengru! Come visit us before we leave for Shenzhen! We’d love to see you,” Juyi calls.
The next day is still foggy, but the temperature is warmer, as if promising an imminent future of summer. But Sengru does not like when the sun shines directly overhead, for the sparkles of sunlight against water distract his sight. Nevertheless, he appreciates the warmth, and though he is still angry over Juyi’s words, he bounces with a bit more pep, his stomach’s knot of dread slightly loosened.
His eyes catch something in motion again by the trees. His hopes jolt—there may be no gongshi today, but perhaps he could discover some other treasure.
Sengru approaches differently—he tiptoes instead of runs, careful to not displace any pebbles that could make sudden sounds. In a sign of respect, he bows his head as he nears, holding his arms closely to his sides to avoid windmilling and startling the four-legged creature.
Sengru finds a brown short-haired dog, with a black snout and abundant amounts of flesh folding over its legs and face, obscuring its eyes. The dog is heavily wrinkled, its body resembling a Chinese folding fan. It sits on the ground, waiting for him to approach.
He stretches a hand out to pet it, but it flinches, growls, then runs into the forest, barking maniacally. Sengru watches it disappear, wondering why everything he wants, from gongshi to dogs, flees from him like he’s poisonous. He has not touched anything he values, has not been touched by anything he values, in so very long.
Sengru opens his freezer and removes the raw meat he saves for dumpling filling, placing the marbled chunks into silver mixing bowls to defrost overnight. He resolves to use it as dog bait tomorrow—Sengru is not hungry for food, but for companionship. Seeing the dog flee from his touch has awakened his monster of loneliness. It rears its ugly head and claws at his sad tender heart, battering his rib cage.
After washing his hands, he leans against the kitchen counter and looks around his single-room house. His oversize refrigerator has space for more food even after grocery shopping, and the plates he keeps in the kitchen cabinet are dusty because he never uses them, instead endlessly reusing the same bowl, rewashing and redrying—Sengru never has dinner parties. He cooks for one. Eats for one. And his bed is made for one too, with one pillow atop a twin size frame, the long side pushed up against the far wall—Sengru is the only one who has ever needed to get out of his bed, so why waste space to keep the other side free? Inside his house, everything is as he left it, from the books to the houseplants to the lamp, because he’s the only one who’s ever picked up and put down his possessions. He wouldn’t mind disorder if caused by an acquaintance, a lover, or a pet—none of which he has. He is alone.
Sengru skips his daily routine of hopping around the lake perimeter and heads to the woods. He clutches the bag of bait, flinching whenever it brushes against his calf—the meat is slimy and stinky.
When he arrives, he dumps the meat into a makeshift doggie bowl, a cradle atop the dirt formed by protruding overlapping tree roots.
He tucks the damp bag into his pocket. He steps back. He waits.
The gloom of the woods slowly reveals a black nose, then a black snout, then brown folds hiding eyes. Then the dog fully emerges from the shadows, so heavily wrinkled it seems it had draped itself in fabric before arriving, resembling the most elusive of gongshi, eroded with lines carved from wind and water. It trots toward the meat, sniffs, then begins to slurp like a horse at a watering hole. Sengru grins, watching his new friend feast on his offerings, the meat juice glistening on its black snout.
When the meat is finished, the dog sits down and observes Sengru, who sighs with relief when its tail starts to wag. He steps forward and places a tentative palm upon the dog’s head. The short-bristled folds are warm, alive, thrumming.
The dog pounces, startling Sengru, but it does not attack, it simply butts his head against Sengru’s thigh, then rears upward onto its two back legs, placing its front paws on Sengru’s chest.
Their eyes meet. Sengru’s well up with tears.
The dog sticks his tongue out and laps Sengru’s cheeks, replacing the salt water with itchy dog saliva.
Sengru laughs. He pats the dog with both hands.
“I shall call you Zhou,” he whispers.
Every day, Sengru brings raw meat to Zhou, who meets him at the tree line eagerly, tail wagging behind its haunches.
Leisure with Zhou is more pleasurable than fruitless hunting, and so Sengru spends his time laying on the dirt, shaded from the sky by tree canopies, patting Zhou, who rests his head on Sengru’s stomach after he polishes off the meal. They idle quietly, Sengru’s shirt wet from Zhou’s saliva, Sengru occasionally vocalizing how lovely the air smells, how fluttery the snow falls. Their intimacy blossoms during pauses in between speech, like flowers that bloom when the gardener isn’t looking, until night falls and the moon unmasks itself, and Sengru navigates home with the stars.
Sometimes, when the fog is heavy and the sky is weepy, the suffocation of his stories becomes too much to bear. On these days of seasonal depression, Sengru has no choice but to allow his sagas to burst free. He whispers to Zhou of his childhood, of his family, of Juyi, of the gongshi he found but sold and can therefore no longer cherish. His tales spin wilder and wilder, yet truer and truer, a blanket of bravado woven out of Sengru’s lonely pride.
“Zhou, I know I’ve told you about Delicate Moon Crescent Stone and Plum Blossom Branch Stone, but have I told you about the Paradise Bird Stone I found the year I came back to Taihu? It wasn’t as big as Auspicious Cloud Peak, but it was pretty huge, probably three times the length of your body. You can’t even begin to imagine its immense power. I tried to lift it up and carry it home, but back then I had the spindliest arms ever, even spindlier than now. I couldn’t even wrap my arms around it all the way. I had to call a rig and pulley to even move it an inch! I sold it to an art museum in America, for their scholar garden, can you believe it? My reach is truly transcontinental! They offered to fly me over the ocean to see the installation and give a speech at the opening ceremony, but I declined. What was the point of all that revelry? I just wanted to find another gongshi, even bigger than Paradise Bird Stone. I didn’t dare leave the lake, in case somebody else found it first.”
Sengru hops to the forest line, ruminating over how many more wooden planks he’ll need to finish the doghouse he’s been building in secret. He plans to take Zhou out of the woods as soon as the surprise is complete. He’s impatient for his house of one to become a home for two.
He absentmindedly swings his bag of raw meat, no longer noticing when the slime brushes against his legs, when Juyi suddenly blocks the path. Startled, Sengru loses his balance, and Juyi quickly grabs him by the shirt collar, helping him upright.
“Woah there, Sengru, watch out! Why so distracted? Where are you headed?”
“None of your business,” Sengru says, brushing his shirt indignantly with one hand, hiding the bag behind his back with the other. He doesn’t want Juyi to find out about Zhou, in case Juyi became interested in adopting the dog for himself.
“Wha—” Juyi recoils when the rancid odor of raw meat hits his nostrils. “What is that smell?” Juyi wrinkles his nose, lunging around Sengru to investigate. “Why do you have raw meat with you? Is this some kind of new gongshi hunting method? What’s going on?”
“Again, it’s none of your business,” Sengru insists.
“Sengru, I—” Juyi seems unsure.
“How was Shenzhen?” Sengru asks, fumbling for a topic to avoid more nosy questions.
“That’s why I’ve been looking for you,” Juyi says, gently.
“Okay, well, tell me,” urges Sengru. The faster the conversation, the sooner he can meet Zhou.
“The city is lovely. So much opportunity there, as is my wife’s family, which will make it easier on us. So, we are officially leaving for Shenzhen. We’ve sold the house here and have already begun to move our belongings.”
Sengru’s mouth drops open. Agog, he stares at Juyi, and suddenly sees the differences: the beard replaced by a fine-twirled mustache; his roundness expansive rather than burdensome; his cheeks plumper, filling out wrinkles. This is a new Juyi, one rejuvenated and replenished by predictions of fortune in a new city.
“Happy for you,” Sengru says, scuffing his shoes in the dirt, wishing he could throw the raw meat in Juyi’s face and watch it mess up his perfectly tailored facial hair.
“I wanted to tell you that you are welcome to join us. I care about you, and I don’t want to leave you. The apartment we plan to rent has an extra room. You can stay there until you find your footing.”
“Don’t worry about me,” Sengru mutters.
“Sengru, you can’t stay. How will you survive? Your savings from past gongshi sales won’t last forever. Open your eyes, son! Taihu is completely depleted!”
“That’s what you think.”
“I’m not leaving Taihu.”
Sengru pushes past, making sure to brush the raw meat against Juyi in revenge. As he hurries away, he can feel Juyi’s gaze boring into his spine, but he doesn’t look back.
When he arrives at the tree line, Zhou does not head straight to the raw meat like he usually would. Instead, Zhou goes directly to Sengru, butting its head into Sengru’s dangling free hand, recognizing Sengru’s sadness and offering comfort in the way it could.
“Thank you,” Sengru whispers.
He throws the raw meat aside and plops onto the ground, his legs crossed at the ankles. Zhou climbs into Sengru’s lap and licks his ear. Sengru wraps his arms around Zhou’s body to bury his face into its fur coat, his tears running in rivulets bordered by each of Zhou’s wrinkles.
“Zhou, I could never trust Juyi. Now, there’s nobody left but you.” Sengru howls like a wolf, and Zhou joins in, their voices baying together into a melodic song of sorrow.
“What can we do? I haven’t been able to find new gongshi for a long time. Juyi’s right that my savings won’t last forever.” Sengru cries some more, then sniffles and wipes the tears from his cheeks. Speaking about practicalities like money revives his resolve. He wrings his hands, laughing in a pathetic chuckle. “What’s the point of being so upset?”
He stands without warning, Zhou yelping in surprise.
“We can’t keep feeling sorry for ourselves,” Sengru says to Zhou. “We have to keep trying.”
Zhou barks. Wags his tail.
Sengru nods. “Yes. You get it.”
In response, Zhou trots off.
“Hey! Where are you going?”
Zhou ignores him.
“Wait!” Sengru scrambles to race after Zhou.
Zhou looks back and barks, wagging his tail. Follow me.
They travel for hours. Sengru loses sight of Zhou, the fog and shaded gloom making vision difficult, but he can still hear the breaking of fallen branches underfoot by something four-legged. He follows the sounds as he ventures deeper into the woods. Sengru has never been aware of this trail, his feet stepping unsure. He swipes at his skin, inflamed from mosquito bites.
“Zhou!” He calls. “Zhou!”
Only the trees echo back.
The night descends. The air is chilly; he tucks his arms inside the torso section of his shirt to maintain body warmth, his empty sleeves rippling as he moves forward. He trips over roots and boulders; he concentrates on the ground to avoid falling, but he forgets to pay attention to what lies ahead, and he bangs his face against a tree trunk, bouncing backwards, his nose throbbing. Moaning, he massages his nose, trying to discern if it had broken or not, when he spies a shadow with a wagging tail, sitting between two far tree trunks—Zhou!
Sengru runs toward it, bursting between the trunks into a circular clearing, the debris of nature replaced by soft grass and delicate pink blossoms illuminated by a yellow moon, half obscured by swirling clouds of the ceaseless Taihu fog. The silhouette with the wagging tail has disappeared.
Sengru gazes around, confused. He’s not unfamiliar with this type of scenery. He’s seen similar in the grand backdrops of advertisements and television dramas, but those were obviously edited, and what lies before him is alive, vivid, and very real.
“Zhou? Zhou, where are you, come out, please?” Sengru whispers.
A gentle wind blows among the peach blossoms, bringing a faint honey scent. Sengru pulls his arms out of his shirt torso into its sleeves, for he isn’t cold anymore—somehow, though his exhalations are visible and clumping snowflakes drift downwards, Sengru feels as if he’s watching the scenery through a window, from inside a warm cozy home with a crackling fireplace.
Sengru walks closer to the clearing’s center, and at the same time, the moon breaks free from its cloud barrier to cast its full light onto Earth. Sengru gasps. Framed by peach blossom branches is the largest gongshi Sengru has ever seen, much larger than Auspicious Cloud Peak.
The gongshi is so thin it doesn’t appear solid, more like an iridescent sheet of sea glass, like the rippling of a river from a thrown stone, like the translucency of Sengru’s puffs of breath; its surface is marked with open pores, pocketed surfaces, and intense wrinkles, creating an illusion of four stems protruding from the upright section of its body, a fifth stem curled around it like a tail, two extra juts at the top resembling ears, and a deep perforation, blackened in shadow, in the center of what would be its face if it were an animal, not a gongshi, and Sengru nearly chokes with bittersweet anguish when he realizes this gongshi looks like Zhou, is Zhou, or perhaps it was Tian Gou all along, the wrinkly dog guard of the lunar gates.
Sengru throws himself to the ground, kowtowing, and with each smash of his forehead he murmurs thanks to the gods for this befallen prosperity. Yet beyond his spoken words, inside his thoughts, he declares he would give up this gongshi and all its promised wealth if Zhou would come back to him instead.