That year of Peony's visit there was a small group of older children who sat about talking and pretending to be adult; and there was another larger group of younger children who played and screeched through the garden and courtyards and were closely shadowed by their nurses. Wang and Peony were the only ones of their age and soon became inseparable. They must, Wang thought later, have looked quite comical together, she small, inclining to be plump, but very lithe and athletic, he much taller, gangling and clumsy.
The various families were lodged in separate thatched cabins round the courtyard dominated by the main, two-storey house with its tiled roof. Sometimes they would meet for communal meals in the house, sometimes they ate in their separate cabins, but the rest of the time, except for a few hours every day drawing and painting and occasional large expeditions into the hills, carefully planned and catered for in advance, was more or less free. Wang and Peony often walked and talked together in the garden, where he might be trying to draw one of the huge garden stones with epidendrum and young bamboo sprouting beside ita favourite subject of his grandmotherbut Peony would throw down her sketchbook and scramble up the rock, making faces at him to distract him.
One hot day she climbed the wall round the garden and beckoned him to join her. Clumsily, reluctantly, with a helping hand from her, he reached her side, when she immediately jumped down and ran into the fir-wood beyond.
"Try to catch me!" she called, leaning against a tree-trunk.
When he made the attempt, more for form's sake than imagining he could do so, she ran on, dodging round trees, laughing, leading him ever further and further until they emerged on a grassy knoll out of sight of the houses. Just below was the stream, deep and slow-moving at this point, with thick, dark fir-woods growing on either side. Still half playing the game, she started down towards the stream. Wang called out that he couldn't catch her, never would, and begged her to stop.
"We've already come too far and I'm too hot," he said.
"It will be cool in there."
"But even hotter coming back up."
"Who cares? If we stay near the bank we can dip our hands and feet in the water whenever we feel too hot."
"The banks look too steep for that."
She smiled contemptuously at this feeble excuse and went on, Wang following. Actually it was almost too cold in the forest. The trees were very tall and there were only occasional splashes of sunlight down below. The place was full of huge black rocks in strange, complicated shapes, often with holes right through them. Wang had the sense that, just like the trees, they were alive and had grown that way organically, but of course over an infinitely longer time-span, so that as humans were to insects (of which there were too many) and trees to humans, the rocks were to the trees. She waited for him now and when he caught up with her, he told her what he had been thinking.
"And what to the rocks, then?"
"The earth itself, I suppose," he said.
"And what to the earth?"
"The sun and stars."
"But growing at different speeds."
They came to a place where the stream fell suddenly down a long waterfall. Small birds darted away through the trees. She touched his hand.
"You left out the birds," she said, smiling, almost laughing, not at what she'd said, but at the sheer pleasure of the place.
Then they moved together, put their arms round one another and carefully, awkwardly, kissed for the first time; and after a while sat on a rock holding hands and staring at the waterfall below until the movement of the water seemed to make the banks move too. Wang pointed this out.
"Are we seeing them grow, then?"
Excerpted from The Ten Thousand Things by John Spurling. Copyright © 2014 by John Spurling. Excerpted by permission of Overlook. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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