Rumors once said that there was a place in the Kowloon Walled City, where you could write a message to the past. People whispered about it in hushed tones. It was a folklore between floors 7 and 12. A few families on floor 3 believed it feverishly, but would never speak of it. You could ask them where to find this place, but all who speak of it, won’t know. And those who know, won’t speak of it.
When I first heard of it, I had overheard an angry old Cantonese man rambling to himself as he walked down the damp, dark hallway to his apartment. Like any other hallway in the Walled City, it was grungy as hell. Sparks screeched out of loose wiring pinned to the wall. A dim yellow bulb hung bare like a hangman from a wire. It flickered, casting light to the blackened walls and floor, water dripping everywhere. I was walking back to my apartment too, and had to follow this old man through the narrow hallway. He was a neighbor in a sense. Everyone in this goddamn city was a neighbor in a way. When you have to rub your dirty grimy elbows with every other monkey in this fuckin cage, I guess it makes you all neighbors.
I had heard this old guy was crazy. I’m talking about a – staring at a wall, screaming curse words, and then curling into a ball in a pool of your own piss – kind of crazy. Word was, a year ago, he kicked his grandson out of the apartment, told him to find a job, and provide some income for the family. The kid goes out, tries to join a gang the next day. The kid tries to rob someone as initiation into the gang, but instead gets brutally murdered. Something like that. The kid was gone. I heard the old man’s wailing night after night, until he resolved to whimpers every night, and finally a desolate silence. He’s completely mad now.
But as I walked behind him that night, I heard a certain determination in his voice. I couldn’t understand the guy perfectly, I only knew a few words of cantonese myself, being a foreigner. But I started paying attention to his quiet rambling. It sounded like he was speaking to someone. Asking questions, chuckling, telling stories. Strange was typical for him, but I could tell something was very off. That’s when I heard him slip the words. “Cafe Minerva”. I’ve never heard this man speak a word of english before today, in the 4 years that I’ve lived next to him. I’ve heard him yelling at his pet cat, heard him buying things at the market, heard him muttering to himself. Even heard him through the walls when he hired that hooker from the first floor. But never have I heard him use a single word outside of Cantonese. He reached his apartment, and fumbled with his keys. He giggled when he finally found the key. Unlocking the door, he went in.
A few days later, I was having a drink with another white friend who resided in this shit cavern of a city. We sloshed down beers as we watched the football game on a tiny television screen near the top floor of the east side, the game barely recognizable on the screen through the static. The smoke from our cigarettes swirled in the sticky air, and glowed under the neon lights that lit the dim room. The neon light flickered on and off, like the stuttering soul of this dilapidated city.
“You ever heard of a place called ‘Cafe Minerva’? ” I asked my friend.
He frowned and ashed his cigarette in his empty bottle. “I’ve heard some stories about it. They say it’s the devil’s front door. I’ve no idea where it is though.” He was fluent in Chinese and Cantonese, unlike me, so he had a much better idea of what was spoken in these dark corridors. We were both ex-pats, globetrotting, and met a series of unfortunate circumstances that got us stuck in this city.
“I heard old man Chang muttering something yesterday as he went home, and he mentioned ‘Cafe Minerva’. It unnerved me for some reason.” I told him. “You would think I’d be used to his craziness by now.”
“Well, they don’t tell you much about it, they get especially hushed around white guys like us, but I heard about it when I was getting a haircut at Leung’s shop on the seventh floor. Some crazed lady next to me was telling her barber that there was a place where you could write a message on the wall, and whatever you wrote would be sent to your past self as a message. Sounded like some folklore bullshit to me, so I didn’t pay too much attention” he explained.
“Did you catch where they said it was?”
“Not exactly. She mentioned the North side of the city, near the middle floor.”
I nodded. We watched the rest of the football game in silence.
Several days later, I was headed to the North side of the city, trying to find the shoe smith who could repair my dress shoes. I was hoping to land a job interview soon outside of this city; to finally have a chance to get the hell out of here. But the only nice shoes I had were a pair of leather dress shoes that were pretty torn up, that I got for the price of a meal and a half. I had to get it fixed. I wandered the halls, hoping to see the Chinese symbols for “Shoes” that my friend had written on a piece of paper for me, so that I could find the shoe smith. The air was thick, and smelled like oil and moss, a damp scent that bothered my nose. No matter, I kept on searching, wandering the halls, until something caught my eyes. It was an old sign, something that looked like it had come from an European coffee shop a decade ago. It was made with wood and metal, and had a simple picture of a coffee cup engraved on it, with steam rising from the cup. My skin tingled when I read the words… ‘Cafe Minerva’.
The sign was mounted on the wall, a dark corner at the end of an empty corridor filled with garbage. Barely noticeable, I was surprised I saw it at all. Yet it looked so out of place, this sign, surrounded by boxes with chinese characters on it, and all the other garbage that this city could produce. My gaze fell on the wall under the sign. Handwriting covered the grimy wall, markers, pens, and a few people had even engraved their words with a knife or stick. The entire wall was covered, words over words, messages over messages. There was no way to read any individual message, as words were written over each other over the years. My eyes scanned them all, my mind still trying to comprehend what I had found. It was like an insane asylum’s message board. Near the bottom, I found a familiar handwriting. They were basic words in Cantonese, and I understood them. I pieced them together.
“The greatest gift is life” it read.
It was Old Man Chang’s handwriting. I could have recognized it anywhere. I saw it on his own apartment’s walls whenever I glimpsed into his room when I walked past every day. Shaken, I walked back to my own apartment.
When I arrived, I took out my keys, and went in.
My apartment had a terrible stench. A stale scent of death lingered heavily. I gagged, almost vomited before I ran out into the hallway. Looking back into my room, I noticed a dark stain on the wall near the floor. It was speckled with dead flies. It looked like an old blood stain, seeping through the wall from Old Man Chang’s room.
Shaking, I knocked on Old Man Chang’s door. Nothing. As the fear crept up my spine, and the world spun in slow motion, I leaned back and kicked in his front door. Immediately I turned and heaved, my vomit splattering on the hallway floor as my senses were overwhelmed with what I saw and smelled in that instant.
The withering remains of a man lay on the floor, dried and decomposed blood splattered on the floor around him. Dried blood was on the walls. There were no flies, no maggots. No life in the room, even those who feasted on death. I tried to piece together a hoarse scream, but could not. But how could this have happened? I left my apartment this morning, I would have smelt this terrible odor of death, I would have noticed. I saw Old Man Chang just the other day! I was confused as I ran, and called the police.
The detectives who finally showed up with the coroners, explained to me that my neighbor must have been killed by his grandson, approximately a year ago. They found a butcher knife on the ground with the grandson’s prints. The old man’s wallet was out, with cash splayed out over the table. Apparently, the boy had tried to rob his grandfather, and then murdered the old man as part of some gang initiation. This was a year ago. The kid must have fled the scene, and never came back. The detective looked unfazed as he explained it to me, as though he were reporting the weather, a daily occurrence. Then he suggested that I see a psychologist. He had a hard time believing that I had lived in the room next to Old Man Chang for a year with his dead body rotting next door all this time. I should really get myself checked out, and probably find another empty room to squat in until the smell airs out.
I thought about my neighbor’s scrawled message on the wall under the Cafe Minerva sign. Old Man Chang must have been the one who killed his grandson originally. But after a year of crushing guilt, he found a way to send himself a message in the past, and allowed his grandson to live, and kill him instead.
I left the Walled City in the weeks after that. I found a job that took me close to Shenzhen, and eventually to Beijing, and I found myself making my way back to the United States. I heard when they razed the Walled City in the 90’s. In that demolition, they destroyed the walls, the garbage, and the crime rates. But they also destroyed the darkness, a moment of magic, a place and time in this universe where something uncanny occurred. I saw in the depths of that dark city what it meant to be a human. I saw what it meant to feel remorse, and to atone for sins. I saw humans slide from being men into becoming beasts, but in the midst of the smoke and dripping pipes, in the shadowy corridors and flickering lights, I saw a soul, the shuddering soul of the city, and goddamn it was beautiful.