Monday, September 27, 2010

The Herder

Tu-er looks at the fading sunlight and increases his pace. The sun is clinging on the silhouette of the mountains and slipping down unwillingly. The town behind him is swallowed up by the evening haze. As far as he could see there’s no smoke to indicate a village is near.

Curse that old man at the noodle stand, he thinks. The old man told him a village was within five miles and could be reached by dark. He was eager to get home after a month away from his family, so he took advantage of the sunlight and his strong legs.

Maybe he missed the turnoff. A fork taunted him a couple of miles ago. He followed the direction given to him to “keep going west” and now he’s not so sure. A sudden scream startles him and he jolts at the noise. A big bird dashes out of an elm tree, its dark wings flap a few times and disappears into the grey horizon. He exhales nervously.

A blister threatens him inside the hemp sole. Perhaps a night under a tree away from the element is the only way to sleep tonight. He surveys the landscape when he notices a vague shape in the dark. He focuses on it and a rush of joy washes all the anxiety away. It’s a small temple. He runs toward it with brave big steps.

He pushes the wooden door slowly. To his further delight it’s closed but not bolted. He calls out timidly, asking if he could spend the night, while crossing the foot-high thresh-hold carefully. A statue sitting behind an altar table greets him with wordless stern warning. The offering room appears endless in the dark air.

The cold incense burner and the empty tabletop tell him its abandoned state. He decides it’s a place safe enough to spend the night. He spreads out the cotton quilt he carries on his back and closes the door.

Few moments after he closes his eyes, it seems, a squeaky noise and a cold breeze on his face chase the slumber away. He sits up under the quilt with his heart pounding in his chest, his eyes searching wildly in the dark. The temple door is ajar. The pre-dawn moonlight casts a blurry streak on the floor. He must have slept through the night without bolting the door first. What a coward, he scolds himself, and stands up to close the door.

His hand freezes on the edge of the door. A group of people, their shapes can’t be made out with the moon hiding in the flowing clouds, are running toward him--toward the temple. The bobbing shadow alerts him he doesn’t have much time.

He had the misfortune of running into the bandits once, and he knows what will happen if they see him. With the fastest speed he wraps up his belongings and rolls under the altar table. The tables are covered with red table cover, a long table in the back and a short one in the front. To be safe he presses himself all the way to the back. The statue and the long altar table are set in an alcove and is the only safe place he could hide.

He stops breathing when they come inside.

Thud, thud, thud. Sounds like they jump in one by one. A man yells tiao, tiao...!

He doesn’t understand. As if the rest of them don’t know there is a thresh-hold and need instruction to jump over it. He listens on. The man chants for a while in words he couldn’t make sense of, with more of the thud, thud in the mix.

To his surprise, the noise quiets down shortly and the door is closed again. He could hear the man standing in front of the table praying to the god for a safe trip home, and the sound of the man putting his bedding down. Soon his snoring rattles the worship room. The rest of the group doesn’t make so much noise as breathing.

He slowly lifts a sliver of the table cover against his own warning. The man on the floor is sound asleep. He looks up slowly and could see a row of man-shaped objects lined up against the wall. They are wrapped in linen from head to toe, their eyes two black holes looking into the lifeless space in front of them.

It feels like a bomb exploded in his head and forced all the blood out. As he slowly slips to the floor and faints, he remembers the tale he once heard from the village elder.

The families of the traveling men died away from home sometimes didn’t have money to have their bodies shipped back home. They would pool their money together and hire a herder--a mysterious man with special and dark power to command the corps. They travel by night and sleep by day, and always by routes seldom traversed. The corps jump, not walk, while they travel. It was imperative, the elder said, not to disturb them if you bumped into them, or bad fortune would be upon you soon.

By the time Tu-er comes to, the herder and the corps are deep in their “sleep,” and the pearly grey outside is promising a good day ahead.

He doesn’t remember how he got out of the temple. Perhaps he crawled out, although his children and acquaintances will never hear that from him. He never risks traveling at night just to get more mileage in anymore.

(Corps Herder was a real profession and a lost art—according to the elders)

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Cicada Song

The sea of red petals of the phoenix trees paint every treetop to bright red, and set the heated July sky on fire. They seem to be particularly brazen in color this year. 

Millions of cicadas join the summer march by singing their mating songs with all the force they can squeeze from their tiny bodies. They scream “Look at me--I’m here!” with their bug eyes and bulky dark bodies as if the world is ending tomorrow.

Everywhere she goes she can’t escape the loud reminder: graduation in two weeks. 

Pearl puts her books and pens in the book bag one by one deliberately slow. She hopes she can catch a glance from Toni. In fact, she hopes for more than a glance, but she will be blissfully happy if it’s only a look or a smile from Toni.

Her face dims when she sees Toni’s back leaving the classroom. She does a quick scan just to make sure Leanne is not one of the girls leaving with her. 

She’s not. Pearl feels relieved.

Leanne’s face is pretty and delicate. She attracts attention from everyone--especially Toni’s. Pearl doesn’t want to, but her heart feels as if it's filled with acid each time she sees them walking together, often laughing in a world where Pearl does not exist.

Look at me. I’m not pretty like Leanne, but I don’t ask for much either--Pearl quietly pleads. The day shines much brighter if Toni looks her way once or twice. She can’t tell anybody this secret. She doesn’t know how to explain.

How can she like a girl in that way? They don’t understand Toni. Toni is not just a girl. Her hair is cut to extra short. Her pleated skirt looks like it doesn’t belong, and is such a bother to her. She cuts her nails short and walks in large and square strides. She is something else disguised in a girl’s body. Something so different and dangerous that lures Pearl with an unfamiliar excitement. 

The walk home is quiet and alone, as it is every day for Pearl. She says “baba” to the man sitting in the living room. He is watching TV and grunts an “um” to her, his eyes fixed on the TV. The three of them--her father, her step-mother, and her half brother--look like a happy family that needs no intruder. The woman and the young boy don’t pay any attention to her. They never do. She retreats to her room to finish her homework, her yearning for Toni continues in the small and muggy room.

The school held a sleepover in the gym once. She was assigned a spot next to Toni. She was so nervous and excited she could hardly talk or sleep. Her head was next to Toni’s, but she couldn’t look into Toni’s smiling eyes. To cover her shyness, she turned her back and pretended to be sleeping. What she would do to revise that day! She would talk all night with the one person she adores the most. She would find out all about her, and find a way to let her know how she thinks about her every day.

Her shyness must have looked like cold indifference to Toni. Pearl realizes it now with a permanent stab in her heart. She missed the only chance she had. She watches helplessly when Toni and Leanne get closer each day.

The final days and exams come and gone in the speed of a tropical storm. Everyone is exchanging address and phone number. The yearbooks are signed over and over. Toni writes “wishing you a bright and successful future” on Pearl’s. It’s painfully routine and polite.

The graduation ceremony flashes through before Pearl, or anyone else, is ready. Auld Lang Sine is still ringing in their ears when they find themselves out of the hall. The girls wave good-bye to their classmates with tearful eyes, promising against life’s onslaught to keep in touch, and junior high is over.

The cicadas still sing on every treetop. The moment they stop singing is the moment they die. The phoenix trees still burn up the sky every summer, proclaiming their passion to few who notice. Pearl knows she is the only person in the world who knows the cicadas are calling out to Toni, but she will never see Toni again.

(Phoenix tree is called flame tree here)

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