He paddles the canals of Suzhou at night, carving silent parabolas through the reflected moon, steadily exploring the margins of his adopted city, searching for the dragon.
The nighttime canal explorations began soon after Melanie died. At first, he walked the streets in the heavy evening air, trying to find a way to take a breath, find a way to make sense of the scene that persisted in his mind: his wife’s drowned body being pulled from the water, the dripping rocks being emptied from her pockets, the frayed rope around her ankle, tied to a cinder block. Each night he walked faster, his shirt drenched in sweat, his shoes squelching. After five nights of this, he looked in the mirror, unable to recognize the lost eyes and roughly stubbled chin, the sweat beads mixed with the tears. The drawn face in the mirror told him that he couldn’t continue this way. He needed to find some answers to his guilt and pain, needed to get closer to some truth that could reconcile his wife’s lost and distant smile, once reserved only for him, with the image of her weighted body lying in the silt at the bottom of the canal.
The kayak, special-ordered from Shanghai, arrived three weeks later. He knew he would need to be careful, only paddling at night. Canals crisscrossed the garden city, grids of ancient drainage channels, but they rarely saw boats, except in the old town. Still, many fishermen lined the shores during the late afternoon and evening, and he did not want any curious stares. The first night, he paddled for an hour after midnight, following the square channel surrounding his neighborhood. He had kayaked back in Canada, before he came to China, but he had never encountered such calm water. That first night, the moon had been diluted by heavy haze and the water looked like syrup. The rhythm of the strokes, the gentle slurp of the paddle carving and releasing the water, helped calm his mind.
Now it has been seven months since Melanie drowned, and his routes are becoming more exploratory, more daring. Bored of the canals in the university town where he lives, he has started paddling further, toward the core of the industrial park. He always tries to be quiet and careful, but occasionally a fisherman or pair of lovers strolling by the placid, dark water spots him. He knows they see him, but they never say anything.
Still, he hears rumors. One morning at his university, he overhears an excited tale told by a cleaning lady to her friends. He understands enough Mandarin to get the key points of her husband’s adventure. On the previous evening while fishing, he heard strange splashing noises drifting across the inky surface of the canal. He put his rod down, as the sounds grew louder. The fish here were small, and the rhythm of the splashes was unusual. He squinted into the darkness. The night was thickly clouded and the moonlight weak. Suddenly, he heard a louder churning, and as he looked down, he thought he could see a long, dark form moving below the surface. The shape was vague in the deep night, but its size startled him. He jumped up, kicking the fishing rod into the canal and scrambled up the slope to find his e-bike. Later, under the covers, he babbled to his wife about the jiaolong – water dragon. The cleaning ladies laughed at this story, wondering how much baijiu the husband had drunk that night.
He wonders if the drunken man had simply mistaken his kayak for something ancient, reptilian. Possible, but he starts researching the jiaolong myths. Some of the ancient texts refer to animals like crocodiles, alligators, and even sharks – plausible substitutes for a dragon. Other stories are more fanciful, describing mermaids, water-goddesses and even “flood dragons” – creatures that inundated the surrounding plains when they hatched. Some tales are more graphic, describing fearsome animals that could trap humans with the stench of their saliva, dragging them into the water to suck their blood. The old myths are just stories, of course, but he starts thinking about why he never sees any boats on the canals, wondering what mysteries lie below the surface, wondering what answers Melanie found under the murky water.
Melanie had a difficult time as soon as they moved to Suzhou. They arrived in July, he looking forward to their new adventure, she feeling uneasy in the foreign environment. They were both unaware of the newly conceived fetus inside her. The oppressive heat and humidity instantly made her uncomfortable and edgy, and within a few weeks, the unborn baby was gone. In the hospital that night, Melanie cried in agony as she cramped an bled, while he desperately tried to find help in the chaos, barely able to understand the language, her frantic pleas for him to do something echoing and amplifying his helplessness, anguish, and guilt. Later, after she was discharged, she became quieter than usual, and he knew that although she didn’t say it directly, she believed that his insistence on moving half way across the world was somehow responsible for her miscarriage. He couldn’t disagree with this idea as he remembered his coercive tone when they first talked about taking the teaching job in China. He wanted an adventure, and insisted that this was the perfect opportunity, despite her quiet reluctance. They had been drifting like two ships in different currents, and he thought this change in environment could get them back on course, help pull her out of the malaise that had enwrapped her in recent years.
Now, he continues his explorations, paddling for at least three hours every night. He has found a hollow space under a low bridge where he can store the kayak, safe from detection. The initial therapy of the slow, rhythmic strokes has succeeded in distracting him, calming him as he has tried to drown his grief. Now, as he carves his way through the milky water each night, he begins looking down, instead of at the sky. Even in daylight, the water of the canal is pea-green and opaque. It never reveals any secrets. At night, as he stares down, he sees nothing. This pleases him, as he visualizes a bottomless canal, a complex series of troughs filled with an infinite volume of cloudy, biological soup. As he moves quietly across the placid surface, he thinks that there must be answers underneath, some trace of the truth that Melanie eventually discovered, some hint of the relief she finally found.
One morning in the university’s staff lounge, as he tries to wake up between classes with a toxic cup of coffee, he overhears an earnest conversation between two of the cleaning ladies. The one who previously told the story of her husband’s adventure is not there, but other the two cleaners are concerned by her absence. It seems that she is again worried about her husband, who went out fishing the previous night, and never came back. The two cleaners think he got drunk and fell into the canal. His wife did go to the police, but they weren’t interested.
That night, he paddles longer than usual, wondering about the husband, who thinks he sees a dragon, and then disappears a few weeks later. He finds a dark and isolated spot, one bridge away from the apartment complex. Here, the canal parallels an empty field awaiting development with a roadway on the other side. There is little traffic on the avenue, and only the sound of frogsong echoing across the field. He steadies the kayak and peers into the dark water below. He doesn’t really expect to see the drowned fisherman through the murk, but he thinks there must be some logic, some truth down there, some reason why these events have drawn him here. The night is calm, the water like opaque glass. Suddenly, a slight tremor rocks the kayak. He instinctively looks around, but sees nothing. He strains his eyes to look below. Is there movement, the faintest outline of a shape? He can’t tell. It seems like something, almost as wide as the canal itself, is moving below. The water trembles for a few more seconds, and then begins to relax against the side of the kayak. The vague outline below has disappeared.
He thrusts his paddle into the water, anxious to chase. Whatever is under the surface can give him some answers, provide a solution to his crippling guilt and grief. He slashes at the water, frantic in his pursuit. He follows the canal around a sharp right hand corner. He is now moving away from the road, deeper into the darkness of the empty field. He can no longer hear the throaty frogs.
The water begins churning. He stops paddling, and the kayak begins to spin. He lets it go, lets it bob and lurch on the increasingly turbulent water. He looks down. He tries to find what he is looking for – her face, the sound of her laugh, all the things that once made him happy, all the things that once mattered – but all he can see is a dim shape, moving in a spiral.
The kayak is spinning faster, and he waits for the roar, waits for the violence of the water. He waits for his answer.
Glenn Arnold was born in Edmonton, Alberta and has lived in Banff, Auckland, Vancouver and most recently, Suzhou. He can currently be found at 53°32’ 4” N, 113°29’ 25” W. He holds an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts, and his works have been published in North American Review, frankmatter, and Numero Cinq. His debut collection of short stories, Clouds and Shadows, was published in 2017. Other musings can be found at www.moosewanderer.com