Measure of Mountains by Jeremy Pak Nelson

Measure of Mountains

Grandma Suen traced her morning route with footsteps to a beat unchanged since she’d replaced her hip five years ago — good as new, the doctor had told her, a half-Caucasian man and Hong Kong University graduate with a face too young for medicine, she thought, until she noticed his thinning hair and felt better about her chances; wisdom came with age, and she believed it to be different than sheer intelligence, intelligence which she recognized in the architecture standing over her and which lacked the wisdom she prized: what good is it to have everything new? And new is what Grandma Suen notices as she measures her steps against the asphalt, against the yellow nubs laid into the ground for the visually impaired — not her fate, not just yet, macular degeneration or no —

She remembered how the pavement used to sparkle in the incandescent streetlights, glints off quartz chip facets catching golden streetlight for her eyes, so close to the ground when she was only a girl, only young, her hand in her grandmother’s hand who asked her: What games do you play? Before she grew too tall to be looking down at the ground and before her sight grew too weak for the embedded constellations at her feet to shine, if they shone at all in the cold blue cast by new bulbs that flickered in her sight; new, clever ways of saving the planet, and that was some comfort, some hope — not that she needed it, if you asked her, she didn’t mope and bemoan the state of the world like some of her younger friends at the tea restaurant, though maybe if she’d had children still living things would have felt different; Grandma Suen, everyone called her, but she would only ever be a mother (no resentment in her heart, fate has been kind and cruel but no more or less than it had for anyone else; to believe you are special is to condemn yourself to parsing the unknowable course of the world, that’s what she believed) and that was the path she had to walk, no matter how the pavement is lit, no matter how the old is refurbished and replaced — the HSBC building looming to her right the perfect example, once fresh and now the seasoned veteran of the Hong Kong skyline, pioneer of the age of glass and steel and a bridge — an actual bridge, her father had explained, the skyscraper’s bones three suspension bridges stacked atop one another so floors may be clear glass, hanging, so you can see through the heart of the building — a bridge between how the city was and what it will be, a keystone of the skyline, and who still remembered the old HSBC building that stood in the footprint of these three stacked bridges? Who remembered Hutchinson and Ritz rubbled and dozed? Had any of that rubble been used to fill the harbor, she wondered —

Without thinking she’d already passed a plaque marking where the harbor front had once been, now solid concrete underfoot as her walk measured the length of the old tramway, the clatter-whine of last century’s technology carrying folks in quilted jackets like hers or folks in gray woolen suits — fine fabric imported from Italy, perhaps, like what her brother set aside for special customers; he’d passed to another life, years ago, his shop once one of many storefronts and stalls in Jordan’s parquet of livelihoods, SUEN TAILORING next to CHUNGSHUN TILES where a woman still carved and painted mahjong figures the size of her thumbnail onto hundreds of plastic blocks so people may play the games their parents played — the shop one of three left from the past, and Grandma Suen knew it was a matter of time before Jordan became a neighborhood like every other polished and redeveloped district in the city; at least the stores had the chance to pass with their owners, history fading together, not like the Wan Chai streets razed before their time, proprietors sent off with a check but no direction, who knows where they’ve gone, the folks who would call out to her at this point in her walk as she passed Southorn Playground, which, thankfully, hasn’t much changed, still a Saturday morning haven for the young kicking footballs, tanned skin glistening in the sun — here a gap in the buildings offered the sky a clearing like you’d find in the mountainside woods, where sunlight brightens people’s joy and disappointment — she remembered how the entire tramline running from Kennedy Town to Shau Kei Wan shone the same way, a line tracing the north edge of Hong Kong Island from which you could see over the harbor waters that glinted in the sunlight to Kowloon —

As Grandma Suen measured the tramway with steps set to a rhythm of her own she lost count of the buildings between her and the water, buildings that stood on land that, a century ago, was only seawater; move mountaintops to fill the seas, as they said, and more space was made for more that was new, and the island crept closer to the great continent that stretched uninterrupted farther than she could imagine — once, she and her brother took out a globe to see how far they could go if they crossed the harbor and walked north, north into China, north as far as they could go: three thousand five hundred miles, they decided, once they stretched a tape measure on the bumpy surface and compared it to the scale printed over the Pacific Ocean: three thousand five hundred miles, and they would arrive at Anabar Bay, which emptied into the Laptev Sea, of the venerable Soviet Union, which they thought could never be remade into something new. 

Jeremy Pak Nelson is a recent transplant to Edinburgh whose afterimages linger in Hong Kong and Portland, Oregon. His preoccupations include accordions, folk fiddle, and outdated methods of putting words to paper. He holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts.

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Image (cropped): Daniel Peckham CC2.0

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