“Bear” by Elizabeth Hay

by Elizabeth Hay

Hong Kong is a late-night city. It always has been. I imagine my grandfather forty years ago, when his hair was black and shiny with Brylcreem. What did he get up to here? Before I was his favourite, his little girl. He had been handsome, and he got rich.

Today my grandmother, ravaged with dementia, threw her clothes on the floor and refused to wear them.

“They’re not mine. She must have left them here.”

Oma, calm down. No-one else has been here.”

“She has, one of his women! I can smell it!”

I folded her clothes carefully and put them in her dresser after she had fallen asleep.

I needed to go out. I was never into the nightlife and neon. I’m a loner. I walk in the dark. Because, despite the bright lights, there has always been darkness here. You just have to know where to find it.

Since the protests started, the darkness appeals to me more. The flow of news reports through the light of my phone is dizzying. I have an acid burn at the back of my throat. I don’t even know why I throw up anymore. Please don’t let it be vanity. I prefer guilt. I haven’t done enough. What use am I? That woman who watches in forensic detail those videos of a young man being shot? Why would anyone want to know what she thinks she saw, as the blood drained from his face? She wasn’t there. She was away, being a princess. She has even deleted the video from her phone.

I am unremarkable. That’s the best way to be invisible. I’m another white woman with a messy bun, wearing her leggings and hiking up The Peak, a faint ripple of ribs exposed below her sports bra. But I’m shifted a little. I do it late, while the others are walking down, and I’m looking for more than a view and to get 10,000 steps in. I’m looking for spirits. They come in animals.

Tonight, it’s the masked palm civet that I hope to see. They sometimes dance across the trail. I crouch down, give them space. If you’re still and far enough back, they’ll get on with their business. I like that their feet are always black. I remember after one night of protests, I walked all the way from Sai Wan, through the business district, along shopping streets until I was at the edge of my hazy city map. The soles of my shoes were black. Although I had been careful not to step on the messages of freedom and defiance daubed all over the street, some paint had come off onto my shoes. I scrubbed them down before going home.

The palm civet is always masked, but around the eyes. The reverse to the mask covering my mouth and nose. And being monochrome. they always seem like a print. Like newspaper, or the stamps so beloved of Hong Kong bureaucrats. I get lucky and spot a juvenile, I’m struck by the big shiny eyes of youth. Why does everything now make me feel so old? Wasn’t I a kid, just a while ago? The civet assures me I am not when he bares his teeth at me, baiting me with the knowledge that I might not still be agile enough to avoid a bite. His nose is pink and his ears still rounded. Too cute. His could be the species that brought us SARS. Little imp. Maybe tonight I’ll be able to sleep after seeing him.

But that encounter cannot save me. I go down the hill. Did you know there’s some variety of tear gas that smells like candy floss as it disperses, or rather lingers, trapped by The Peak? The same kind gives me a dry cough. I am so useless in my hiking gear: mouth open, particles seeping through the gaps between my mask and face, lungs full of spiked air and hacking them up. A spectator, as people who look no older than sixteen scatter, running from heavily geared-up police. I am left with bricks abandoned on the pavement and the scent of a rancid funfair. Then, a torch shining in my eyes and a recommendation to move on. And I do. I know those people have been chased into the maze of alleys and that many will be caught. Maybe they will have to kneel, and be beaten, and that’s before they are even arrested.

There’s one person who can save me from myself. He barely acknowledges me, but I see the slight inclination of his head at every rally and meeting, at the conferences and in the club. Then he’ll send an emoji to my phone. He has a jagged bit of loose gum by his top right canine tooth, and he’s tall and a little pudgy. I call him Bear, but he is definitely a man. I know he will be out each night, with proper gear to avoid the fumes, and he’ll stay until it is over. Or until there is no one left. He won’t be so easily moved as me. And when he comes to me, late at night, I will make him dinner, and I will carefully take off his clothes. I will wash his face and trace the lines from his tightly fitting mask. I will gently implore him to sleep.

The first time, I was not careful at all. I was afraid of the rash; itchy red lumps, blossoming on his wrists. I tore off his shirt and frantically tried to clean it. I scrubbed and cried over the sink, tears combining with my snot and dripping into the frothy bubbles of soap. By that time the rash had grown on me too. It covered all of my forearms. I don’t even think I made him shower before we had sex.

The next week, I scratched at my long sleeves as I made my grandmother tea. The rash lingered even longer than the gas. I took her down to the park in the afternoon and she dozed on the bench next to me. The yellow-crested cockatoos kept me company, the bright and raucous inverse of the nocturnal palm civet. If you think you haven’t seen a cockatoo, you’ve certainly heard one. Think of the ugly involuntary scream you’d make if you were surprised and horrified, maybe the one you made when you were dragged away by your backpack. That’s the cockatoo. They are mainly white, the yellow part splashed most vibrantly on the crest and more muted under the wings. If you look closely, you’d see the skin around their eyes is slightly blueish and thick, like a drag queen who caked her makeup on extra thick for the back rows. They were imported from Indonesia as pets and some escaped. Now they nest in tree cavities. “Cavities, like the city has rotting teeth.” I tell my grandmother as she wakes up. She laughs. “Of course, it is rotten inside.”

Bear came again that night. He with the faintly bad breath, the soft voice and a tenacity that belied his kindness to the people who needed it most. It is because of Bear that I was brave enough to say anything at all about my city, or to write this. It wasn’t as simple as just fucking me into the real world and away from my spirits. He knew how much I wanted to be invisible. And he let me. He quoted me as “a foreigner” and I became a palm civet, with a mask on the opposite side of my face.

How to cite: Hay, Elizabeth. “Bear.” Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, 19 Aug. 2020, hkprotesting.com/2020/08/19/bear/.

Photograph © Oliver Farry.

Elizabeth Hay (pen name) is a white woman who lives and works in Hong Kong.

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