By Darin Wahl
Sweat ran down my forehead and into my eyes mixing with the tears already forming. I tried wiping away the dust and wind blown grit. The sun was blindingly bright, reflecting off the grey concrete that covered this city like volcano ash, like dirty snow. I looked up into the glare of that unblinking eye through the haze that trapped heat like a blanket. I looked down and my own shadow was weak, wilting. And where was everyone? A city housing millions and I'm alone on the streets. Even the ubiquitous blaring of car horns and lines of traffic were absent. I pulled my map from my back pocket. There should be a park somewhere near here. Two more blocks. Perfect, I thought, I could use a sit-down.
I turned out from behind another anonymous concrete and glass rectangle, and saw the "park" across from me. I smiled ironically. I should have known. Funny how hope can obscure the path to deduction. I had traveled in enough of China’s cities to know that the parks were often like this. Wide open flats of concrete. Like parking lots without the arrow-feather stripes. I should come back in the morning, I thought, when hundreds of people would fill this square. The old practicing tai chi and kung fu with swords, fans, and spears; the middle-aged ballroom dancing dressed in suits and dresses. China’s “parks” come alive with activity at 6am. Under the noon sun, this park was nearly abandoned. I spotted a tree. I made for it, eager for shade. A solitary man sat near the trunk on a ledge. He was smoking, no surprise there. I leaned over my pack to extract my water bottle. I wanted to rinse the lightly bitter taste of smog out of my mouth. I looked up at the tree. What is this, some kind of oak? One lonely tree in a concrete square. Silent. No birds. No squirrels. There was something different about this tree. I’m no botanist. But, the leaves looked odd. For that matter so did the branches. And the trunk. It took a long minute for the truth of it to sink in. This was not a tree. This was painted concrete and metal with plastic fluttering in the paltry breeze. I nodded taking long gulps water, still grateful for the shade. I patted the unforgiving "bark", and looked out from under the "leaves" through the "park" to the city beyond and sadly, it somehow made sense.