The Recluse and The Fugitive

He does not know which year it is, so it would be farcical to assume he knows what day of the week it is, but what he does know is that it’s a nice day. The ideal day for a morning walk with this humid yet refreshing air after a long night of rain. Therefore he does not hesitate, there is no fixed schedule he’s forced to adhere to in his recluse life. And after a cursory inspection of his yard (it isn’t his yard, just a fenced area in front of his hut that requires absolutely no maintenance), he departs his hut and goes for a stroll in the woods. 

As he wandered into an unknown patch of the woods, he spotted a wooden hut at a distance. These forty years spent in the mountain have effaced all his fear and suspicion of the potential dangers in life, so he advanced towards the hut in steady steps, without feeling any anxiousness for what lies in that door, and knocked. The wood vibrated as he knocks, and produced a relatively high-pitched sound for a wooden door

A man, judging from his sparse patches of white hair, in his sixties opened the door. His thick brows rose slightly as a signal of shock

“Hello?” The man asked in a confused tone that he couldn’t suppress. He has a voice that is capable of resonating in an orchestra hall if it weren’t for its huskiness. 

 “Hello.” Replied the recluse.

An awkward silence followed. It seemed like both men needed a minute to fully absorb the moment. 

“What do you want from me? I’ve changed, please just leave me alone, you don’t want a remorseful old man suffering.” 

Another silence, full of confusion this time. The recluse couldn’t comprehend a single word of the younger man, nor could the man comprehend why the older man stood there in silence, for he was expecting harsh words and threats. 

It was the recluse who broke the silence. “Sorry, er, didn’t mean to confuse you, you can take a seat here, as for me, er, I’ll get my wooden log.” The man pulled the wooden chair, which screeched as its rickety legs tottered over the wooden floor. As the recluse placed his hand on the seatback for balance, he winced at the rough surface covered with splinters, but luckily the seat itself was refined and caused no trouble for the recluse. 

Upon settling down, immediately the recluse noticed the smell of earth that permeated the room. It felt refreshing to smell something different from his peppermint room, an undeniably pleasant scent but the old man has grown immune to this accustomed scent. 

“We must be men of similar fortune.”

“Impossible, sir, ” the man said disapprovingly, then tentatively he continued “I..was a fugitive. I still am a fugitive.” As he was saying this he shifted his position sitting on the log. 

“I thought I had everything, a rich family who lived in an affluent neighborhood, but though rich, my parents always threatened me with ‘if you continue this behavior you’ll be burdened with the inheritance of all our property and assets.’ I, of course, saw this as a wonderful thing, who wouldn’t be thrilled by the idea of dawdling all your life without fretting over money? So in my naive mind, money was the ultimate solution to everything.” The fugitive lowered his voice so that it was infinitely close to a whisper, but still audible enough. “On a chilly winter night when I was in my twenties, I believe, I came out from the bar. You see, alcohol always warmed me up on winter nights. Even at this moment I still remember the swaying motion I drove in on the highway, I had the sunroof open too, so chilly wind gushed in from different angles, striking my face in a way that was painful but cooled my face that burned from alcohol. At that point I was so engrossed with the coolness that I barely noticed hitting it; I hit the car on the right while I was swaying, and I hit it with such force, right at the middle of the car’s side, that it glided towards the protection fence. And no, the protection fence didn’t stop it, the insane amount of inertia made the car topple over the fence, and continue to topple down the hill that was beneath the road. At that moment my senses returned, but it was too late. I had committed murder. Panic and fear rushed inside of me, but it was pitch dark, with barely any cars on the road, and that soothed my criminal mind. So I drove home as fast as I could, but at the same time, as cautious as I could. That night I lay there, my feet and hands were numb, which contrasted with my burning head. I don’t know if it burned from my excessive drinking or my torn-up emotions. But it felt as if the guilt and dread were tearing up my insides, for I smelt a putrid scent that encircled me. As all this happened, I lay there in silence, and I simply allowed those physical reactions to continue. I hoped they’d rip me, I hoped the foulness of things disgusted me to death, but the night I spent in absolute misery. At the same time, in the night, the idea of escape sparked in my mind. What if I just disappeared? The plan wasn’t fully cultivated yet but I was desperate, the next day I left without leaving a trace of abnormality, without taking anything with me, and I was in ecstasy, knowing that I could just let go so easily.”

The fugitive smiled wryly, “But of course, it wasn’t so easy. Nobody found out and it was as if I had evaporated from existence. Eventually, time washed away my relief, and reality struck me hard. I realized my life was now to be spent in isolation, but from time to time I hallucinated. In my dreams, I hear sirens wailing outside of my hut, and my family in agony when they discovered that I was gone. Those dreams, too, were washed away by time, as you can see, now I tell this story with a calm and accepting mindset.”

A silence possessed the room for a few long seconds, and the old recluse spoke up.

“You are right, we will never be men of similar fortune. You have never fretted over money, but I toiled for money, day and night. My father’s cancer, which eventually killed him, put me and my mother in great debt that was impossible to be paid even if I lived for an extra hundred years. Things worsened when my mother aged. One night as I was returning from work, it wasn’t too difficult for me to notice that my mother wasn’t home because we lived in a tiny apartment that could barely fit a bed. My adrenaline rushed as I ran outside, and my legs took me at a speed I’d never imagined being capable of. All the busy bustling of the city was shut down voluntarily shut down by my ears, and my heavy steps were all that I heard. After searching, in absolute detail, the streets, and not finding my mother anywhere, I ran to the park. The rustling of the green leaves and the subtle rosy scent attracted me no more; my mind was preoccupied with my mother. And eventually, I did find her lying on the bench, her face contorted in such agony that she couldn’t speak. Eventually, she was sent to the hospital, and it was diagnosed that she had a broken thigh bone. I asked her and she dismissed my concern with a smile and said ‘at least it’s not the lumbar or spine that broke.’

The fugitive smiled at this. 

“I know, my mother’s always so positive isn’t she, but the difficult thing is yet to come. No, not that her leg and health worsened, but surgery, treatment, and convalescence; the costs of those were insufferable for me. Once again, debt fell on my back like never before, and on the next day when my mother was discharged from the hospital, I carefully told her my plan: I will send her to a nursing home, and flee the city to become a recluse. Immediately, tears trickled from her face, and in her watery eyes, I saw despair and defeat. We both knew that there were no other options, at a nursing home she can be thoroughly cared for, and as a recluse, I would be free from the pressures of society. We bore these pressures with resilience for so long, and in the end, it has finally beaten us.” 

When the recluse finished his story, the fugitive rose and walked to the little stool that stood next to the window and picked up two glasses. The fugitive poured water from a vase-like container into the cups and placed them on the table where the recluse was sitting. Slowly the fugitive took a seat and picked up the glass of water.

“Cheers, old man.”

“Cheers.”

Charlene Jiao

Charlene Jiao ’24 is a writer of the Oracle from Beijing who enjoys dancing, eating, and spending time with animal friends. She is excited to write about technology on the hilltop and fun pieces about student life.

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