I ran, sprinted really, but slowed to a jog as fingers began pointing in my direction. “I won’t be gone long,” I thought, “Just a few hours.” I focused on the silent distant hills. They seemed a sanctuary after months of sprawling cities, chaotic movement, and pointing fingers. I was the only American and the only female teacher at a summer English camp in Asia. Normally, I didn’t venture out without a translator, but today I needed solitude.
A few days before, I blacked out in my hotel bathroom. Presumably, this was from stress, but I’m sure the mixture of undercooked purple octopus legs and beer (that I drank out of necessity – there was no clean water) were partly to blame. The suction cups were especially chewy as I recall. The next thing I remember is coming to with my head perched precariously on the toilet rim. “Thank God I didn’t go in the bowl,” I thought. I still can’t stand the sight of octopus legs. Or beer, for that matter.
I reflected on this as the pavement turned to steps which led to a lone dirt trail into the hills. Such a trail promised privacy, a hallowed reprieve from the feeling of constant observation. But soon a red charactered sign stared at me from the bushes. I couldn’t read it, but its meaning was clear — NO TRESPASSING. Dire newspaper headlines scrolled through my mind. “Crazy American girl gets lost, dies of dehydration”; “Crazy American runner mauled by mountain lions on deserted hill” ; “Crazy American girl stumbles on mafia hideout after ignoring prominent NO TRESPASSING sign.” But my need for solitude overcame my bent for rule-keeping. I couldn’t turn back now.
So I ran up, up, up toward the colorless smog filled sky. Trees thick with leaves whipped past, birds sang, and in the distance, the sea. Here the earth was free from her concrete shell, here she didn’t seem so different from home. “Home,” I thought. “Will I ever see home again?” If all went according to plan, of course I would. But at that thought, memories long suppressed began to surface.
Memories of warm summer nights when young callused feet scaled an ancient pear tree to glimpse a shimmering sunset. Memories of my horse bolting through the trees, of pulling her head around to follow my father’s whistle home for supper. Of my mother’s homemade bread, fresh from the oven, waiting on the counter to be devoured. Of a porch and a fireplace full of laughter, discussion, and safety. Safety. How I missed it.
I stopped running. Through those brief memories on a deserted trail, I glimpsed a hard reality; life, home, safety were all gifts vulnerable to destruction. One national decision, one personal choice and I could be separated from them for the rest of my life. The home, the people I held dearest were undeniably vulnerable. I was vulnerable. And this was a vulnerability that no empowerment could shatter, no running could escape, and no intellectual thought could overcome. My life would end eventually. And I had no control over the loss I would experience between now and then.
I started running again, hounded by this realization. Soon the trail widened and then ended abruptly as I rounded a corner. Before me rose a massive ornate gate with golden characters on it. The courtyard looked deserted. “Shouldn’t there be a guard?” I thought. I walked through the gate past an enormous concrete fountain with concrete pools that were completely dry. I barely noticed them, though, as I stared at the scene in front of me. Rows on rows of square concrete blocks rose up the hillside, and to my right, I heard loud voices and clanging shovels. Then I saw it: fresh dirt. I had stumbled into a graveyard.
Vulnerability, it seems, is a universal condition.