Saturday, June 28, 2008


The fisherman did not hear the rushing wind nor the rustles of the leaves. He did not hear the laughing children nor the hawkers’ cries. He did not see the woodcutter carrying long poles of bamboos swinging at the ends nor the wide expanse of padi greens waving to him. He did not hear or see anything on his way back to MingYu’s house. Yet his legs knew where to take him. They knew when to abruptly stop to avoid the bicycle smashing into him but he did not hear the curses of the irate cyclist. If he did, he did not care.

His mind was occupied with MingYu’s reactions to the new development. How would she feel? What would she decide? Or would her decision rest on his? Because of love? Or because of obligation, or guilt?

It was easy when she had no choice. She needed help, he would be his savior. It did not even really matter whether she really loves him or not. As long he did not feel he is taking advantage, such matter was not the most important issue at hand and can be settled later. But he can no longer push that away now. She is free. He never associates freedom with pain.

He can no longer wait. Not even for a single day, a single moment. He had to confront the truth, now. Who does she love more? (Boldly facing the truth, he has no doubt that she loves him too). Who does she want to spend the rest of her life with? (She will have difficulty answering that because she will not to able to remove the guilt and regret whichever ways she chose). Who will she be happier with? (This will determine his decision and he thinks he knows).

He heard a small voice asking him, “Shouldn’t you let her decide?” To himself he answered with an emphatic “No!” He will decide for her, right or wrong. For if left to her, he was convinced she will now decide one way. Let it be his regrets not hers for being the one making it. A thousand voices rose up in protests. For every decision he wanted to make, a horde of objections rose up threatening to drive him mad. But the fisherman had made up his mind, he beat these voices into submission with his resoluteness.

His legs brought him to the main doors of MingYu’s house and he woke up from his reflection. He hesitated and his eyes grew sad but only for a moment. He walked through and straight into the garden where he find MingYu sitting waiting for him to return. He tried to lighten his smile and sat down next to her.

The world around them froze. Though, the birds still sang, and the hustle and bustle of the kitchen continued with unabated fury; they melted into a separate, unreal world that has no relevance to the two figures facing each other. They spoke in slow heavy tone weighed down by heavy emotions and the gravity of the weighty issues. Flighty words have no place here. It was a funeral speech.

“You went to see EnXue?”


She wanted to ask what happened but changed at the last minute for this following question which may never be asked again if not now. “Why did you go and see her?”

“To find out how much I love you.”

Though not exactly an evasive answer, it was a convenient one and could mean any number of things. “And what did you find out?”

“That I love you.” This conversation was ridiculous, not in what was spoken but in the way they were spoken. It was so unnatural like two actors rehearsing a play. The fisherman moved to change that. “But I found that I can also feel strongly for others. But that is not important for I know I can control myself and be true to the one I love.”

MingYu was not happy to hear that. She was happy to hear the fisherman said he loves her and will be true to her. She was just not happy that he has to make effort to resists EnXue’s charms for her. He only met her yesterday, for heaven sake. Why can’t you lie to make me happy? While these thoughts were swarming her head, she suddenly felt that there was something amiss. She was missing something and it frightened her. So she searched his glum face, and then slowly forced those reluctant words from her mouth “She told you?”

His head was like a ton of concrete when he moved it to nod.

When WenCai sent his happy message and requested an urgent meeting, she forced herself not to feel anything. She will be true to the fisherman as she should. WenCai was her past. She was amazed and pleased with herself that she could so easily put aside troubling emotions and stayed orderly focused on doing the right thing with her life. But now, when she saw the fisherman’s reaction; she broke down. Her heart rended by conflicting emotions kept in check. Now freed, these feelings immediately proceed to tear her apart. She was sorry but she did not really know what she was sorry for. She intended to be true to him, didn’t she? Strangely, at the same time; she felt such an overflowing love for the fisherman that it can leave no room for doubts who she loves more. Why then is she crying so painfully? As if someone has torn out her heart.

The fisherman looked at her, and was pleased. He will want to remember her like this. Crying her heart out because of him. At the same time, he felt he had swallowed the bitterest gall. There was no need for the conversation they meant to have. Any words were superfluous now. He did not cry. She was doing the crying for both of them.


That night he slept alone. A pall has once again descended upon the Chen household, but for a different reason. Everyone in the household felt sorry to the fisherman and he found that unbearable. He made arrangement to leave on the next train but MingYu begged him to stay on for a few more days. She visited him and told him stories about herself. All her secrets she wanted to leave them with the fisherman for she knew that they will probably never meet again. Often in the telling of the tales, she will break down and cry; dabbed her eyes with her silk handkerchief and sobbingly continued. It happened randomly apparently for no reason, for she can cry even when the tale she was telling was a happy one. They did not speak about their situations or feelings, about WenCai or EnXue, about their past, present or future. They just recounted their tales to each other hoping to leave behind for the other as much memories as they could. They both wanted to be remembered.

Despite increasingly urgent messages from WenCai and EnXue, MingYu and the fisherman ignored them all without even reading. The time they have left was only for each other. They went for long walks and have long talks or just sat silent together for hours looking at the sun rays swimming on the lake. They climbed the hills again and surveyed the rapidly growing padi. He could not stay to watch it ripen and turned golden but he could see them already – a field of gently undulating gold. Because they knew all these will end soon and forever, they distilled and treasured every minute of it. And developed a bond that even time would no longer be able to erase. Sometimes, this closeness intruded and made them wonder if they could perhaps change fate. But these thoughts were fleeting and appeared like wishful thinking. The time has long passed to wonder if their decision was the right one.

Finally, there came a time when this has to stop. The fisherman told MingYu he will be leaving on the Sunday train. This time MingYu did not object. “That only leaves us two days” she said with tears in her voice.

“Tomorrow, I will go and see Grandma and XiaoYu. And I would like to go alone.”

MingYu was a little surprised but she said nothing, nodding her head in understanding. “It is just as well.”

He did not quite understand what she meant by that. But then there is no need to understand everything. Like there is no need to understand the reasons for their decision, just the feelings that this was the right thing to do.

Was it?

To be continued...

Saturday, June 14, 2008

The Journey Home.

The train was hurtling away, shaking and groaning as it pulled the carriage down the iron track. The unearthly noises it was making alternated. When it was gliding smoothly, it made a low whining sound that combined with the rushing wind into a drawn out moan. Then suddenly without warning, it would gave out loud mechanical coughs that rattled and shook so violently that it threatened to break apart and disgorge the passengers out on the track. It had been doing that for hours; maybe it will hold for another few more until they got home.

He could not sleep. But this did not appear to be a problem for the rest of the passengers. Occasionally, during a quieter stretch; he could even hear the snoring of the fat man sitting opposite him sleeping with his mouth open. In the crowded train, he was the only one still wrestling with his thoughts as nosily as the train is wrestling with the track. He looked at the window and saw his own reflection, sullen and troubled. Why is that face so serious whenever it is deep in thought? He had seen MingYu’s father reflecting and the face was so serene, contented. He felt a clutch at his heart. Just a casual thought of her would raise such a distinct image floating before his eyes. His expression lost its intensity, replaced by a tenderness reserved only for her.

He looked out the window but the rushing night revealed no secrets on this moonless night. The body stirred as it adjusted itself in its sleep and found a more comfortable position resting its’ head on his shoulder. His shoulder is now slightly numb from her weight. He moved it slightly to improve the circulation but taking care not to wake her. He ran his hand gently over her hair and it felt like the smoothest silk. She was dressed in a bright deep blue cheongsam with tiny yellow and pink flowers that only served to emphasize the blue. His favorite color, that of the sea. He knew she was wearing it for him. His simple cotton shirt was the best he had but it paled against her fine silk. He was going home and did not want to keep up the pretense anymore. There was another reason. He watched her carefully to see her reaction on his clothing in the station. But she rushed up to him gleefully (if she is aware, she did not show or care), and grabbed his arm happily. And proudly as if declaring to the world, I am happy he is mine. Because she felt that way, he was also proud to have her hanging on to him although it turned a few heads who are puzzled at the somewhat odd couple; he reflected with a smile.

But now in the rumbling train, with her silent in her sleep. No longer influenced by her contagious enthusiasm and affection; he has time for doubts to creep in. He was brought up in the sea. He can never be away from it for long. How he is missing it already, the smell of taste and salt in his lips. His hair flying in the wind that blasted against his face. It is a simple life but it is a life that fulfills his needs and makes him happy. Can she adjust to it? Will this mundane existence bore her? Can she take the hardship of being a fisherman’s wife? Will love be enough? Will she be jealous of his mistress – the sea? Only she can answer these questions. She was determined. But he has seen how determination has been worn down by time and boredom like rust corroding strong iron. He had spoken to her at length and warned her but she was confident she could make it and determined to try. And he could not deny her that. He hoped that both of them are not making a big mistake.

His left hand fell on the rolled up painting he put next to him on the seat; too precious to be put together with his luggage on the overhead compartment. It was “The Painting of Endless Sorrow”, a painting so rich with irony. The title and the poem within would be considered a bad omen, an inappropriate gift for a new relationship. But Old Man Chen knew the fisherman would not see it that way. They had that conversation, “It is not a grim reminder of my lost. It is a reminder of what I have become from my lost.” So in a nutshell, it reminded us that “we are now older but wiser” and that portends good no matter how much we suffered in the past. The fisherman did not want to accept it knowing how much the old man love that painting and told him that it would not last in the salty air of the coast. But the old man insisted. “It is important to me for you to have it. I wanted to give you something precious for all the trouble we brought you. It is not precious if I have no reluctance to give it away. Please take it.” Tears were in the old man’s eyes and his grips were strong. So he accepted it. The first thing he must do when he got back is to have it framed to protect it.

When they came back from the “Tears of Weeping Willows”, the fisherman and MingYu did not hold hands that night when they slept. Though both were aching to and knew that they would derive comfort from the touch, neither one of them could extend out the hand to touch the other. For they were suddenly have reasons to be unsure of their own feelings. They did not want to be insincere to the other, so they spent the sleepless night tormenting themselves.

As if that was not trouble enough, the next day the fisherman received a note from EnXue requesting for a private meeting. That threw him completely off-balanced. He had not expected it at all and was amazed at her audacity. This placed him in a dilemma and created great turbulence. Should he go or should he ignore the request? Should he discuss this with MingYu or should he inform MingYu if he decided to go? Why did she want to see him? He was afraid to meet her fearing the effect she may still have on him. How can she stir up such emotions in him? It is safer to stay away. Yet he knew he wanted to go, to find out if yesterday was because he was caught off-guard.

He paced up and down, growing more irritable as the moments of the meeting drew near. As he was doing so, MingYu came up to him. Suddenly, before he had time to think, he blurted out “EnXue asked me to meet her, should I go?” MingYu could not check her anger and exploded “What type of question is that?” and she marched out of the room. But she turned back and expelled a loud “Go!” and ran out. That is a no answer. But the fisherman went because of MingYu’s reaction. He had to do it right by her, to settle it once and for all. To find what EnXue wanted and to deny her if it involved MingYu’s happiness.

The meeting place was a villa owned by EnXue’s father. EnXue laughed at the fisherman’s solemn face as he was led into the garden where she was waiting. “You’re late,” she said gaily. He was surprised at how much she had changed in just one day. It was as if she was a completely different person. Where she was cool, restrained, withdrawn, sophisticated, even a little haughty before, now she was open, energized, looking mischievous and a little too happy. “Oh, come on. Relax. I’m not going to eat you” and she laughed, a mirthful laugh. Yes, she had changed – totally. At her merry pleading, he relaxed and said “You’ve changed.” Then added, “Completely”.

She gave him such a warm smile that he felt his knees melting. There she goes again, disrupting the functions of his body. “Thanks to you” spoken so coyly that he felt she is deliberately trying to affect him and succeeding. The meeting has not even started and he had his answer. Yes, for some reason; he has no resistance against her charms.

“I’ve got to go. I cannot stay.”


Without mincing his words, the fisherman said “You’re too dangerous.”

“Okay, I’ll stop teasing you. But I’m glad I could affect you” shocking the fisherman with her directness.

“What do you want from me?”

She looked at him with a face full of sincerity. Or was it just good acting? With her, he could not tell. She said gently but seriously “You saved me. You were sent from Heaven to save me. And I want to repay your kindness, with my dedication and my love.”

The fisherman face flushed with embarrassment but his heart was pounding. Why is he feeling this way? He cannot, should not be feeling this way. What about MingYu? He loves her. No, he is running ahead of himself. It cannot be true. He only met her yesterday. She could not love him. What is her motive? His emotions were in turmoil. He looked at her for answers. He saw the warm smile still hanging on her lips but he noticed the tears at the corner of her eyes. She believed in what she is saying. He must get away from her. Not knowing what to say, he said “I love MingYu” to deter her but was not prepared for her response.

“Until yesterday, I thought I love WenCai,” leaving the fisherman to ponder what she meant. “But who MingYu and WenCai really love are each other.”

The fisherman felt a chill preceded by a stab. He was glad for that. It reaffirmed to him that his feelings for MingYu was unchanged. “It did not matter anyway.” He replied defensively.

“Yes, it does now. They are free to love each other. I’ve broken off the engagement.”

“What did you say?” the fisherman exclaimed though he heard her clearly. He got to think this through. He got to think.

To be continued...

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Breaking Free.

Lou Kau Mansion Windows by Whitetip.

Ming Yu and the fisherman walked back from the lake of Weeping Willows in silence. An invisible barrier seemed to have descended in-between them. Neither of them felt like talking. Then, they both felt guilty about not communicating. But by now silence has taken on a determined hold. The wind whipped up dead leaves at their feet and even the sound of their footsteps seemed to be sucked in by the soft earth.

Ming Yu brooded and could not shake off the image of EnXue hugging the Fisherman. It did not matter that she thought he was blameless or that she was also holding another man, she was still angry. And how could EnXue did this to her (but she in the past had secretly enjoyed the fact that others envied her). She wanted to be angry. And this overwhelmed the tenderness she felt when she was with WenCai. She kicked at the small stone in her way impetuously.

It rolled with a protest into the Fisherman’s path and annoyed him. Why should she feel angry? Didn’t she know how much it hurt him to see him holding his (ex?) lover? But at the same time, a blush rose in his face as he remembered his passion as EnXue pressed against him. So he said “I’m sorry” and meant it. MingYu softened and replied “It is not your fault” in a way as if to say “it is not my fault either.” She stopped in her track. The Fisherman stopped and faced her. MingYu lifted her head and looked into the Fisherman’s eyes and said “Let us get married before we leave.”

He looked at her. He had told MingYu he will marry her when she asked in the train. Now she wanted to seal it with an official wedding. She was rushing it. “No.” he said. “Not until we are really sure.” He turned and walked on ahead leaving MingYu stunned.


EnXue was giddy with joy when she rushed home. She had never felt anything like this. She never thought she could. So, this is what freedom taste like? How stupid of her, to contain her feelings all these years. Once she let go, everything became crystal clear to her. It will not be easy but she knew what exactly it was she had to do. She became impatient and started running. As she raced down the tree lined path, she giggled and laughed at her own silliness. For the first time in her adult life, she was happy.

She burst through the front door startling the servants who immediately rushed to her with alarm. She laughed at their worried looks alarming them further. “I’m alright, I’m alright” she tried to reassure them. But it was only after she composed herself and ordered them off to their task in her distinct sharp manner, did they cowed away. They remained as confused and puzzled for they heard her giggling under her breath, something their mistress would never do. As she approached the study, she slowed down and lost her laughter. Her heart was now pounding madly. She hesitated at the doorstep. This was the moment of Truth. It was the most important moment of her life. She must act now, if she was ever to be free.

She knocked at the door and pushed it in without waiting for a reply. Her dad would be in at this time of the day seeking solace in his books of philosophy. She did not wait for her eyes to adjust to the light but headed straight to his father’s table afraid if she were to hesitate, something would rob her of her will.

Her father put down the book he was holding but not reading for he could not focus on the subject this afternoon. These days he is finding it harder and harder to debate wisdom when his life is a lie. He was happy for the distraction but his smile dropped when he saw the determination in her face. “What is wrong, my child?”

She knew she was going to start by saying “Papa, I got to talk to you” and then blurt out all those toxic secrets she had been suppressing all these years. But now face to face with the person she loved most in the world, she could not bring herself to hurt him. Her euphoria, her courage and her determination evaporated like mist under the hot sun. Before she said the first word, tears were already rolling down her cheek. This shocked her father who was about to speak when he was abruptly cut off by EnXue “Papa, don’t talk. Let me speak.” She forced that out because she knew if she let her father speak first, she may never summon the courage to speak her mind.

Then in a low voice, broken by emotions she told him about what she saw that many years ago. How she grieved that she was the cause of her father’s sufferings. How she caused her father to go against his principle; became a changed man, manipulative, vindictive and vengeful. How he became a tortured soul for that is not his nature and he tried to over-compensate by indulging her, by his charities, his kindness. He tried to make sure more benefited from his largeness than hurt by his manipulation. And he tried to justify it all. But that ate at his soul and spirit like cancer, staining and corrupting all his good deeds. In all outward appearance, he was a gentle, kind, and successful man. But inside, he despised himself for the man he had became. But he did not know how to stop. His face drained of color and turned pallid as he listened to the sobbing voice. That was all he could do because what he feared most has happened. The only pure thing he thought he had left was the love and respect of his daughter and even that was a lie. He looked at the hurt he had caused the one he tried hardest to shield. The sound of her heartbreak is very similar to his own.

She broke down completely when she asked his forgiveness. For she could have saved him but lacked courage to hurt him. She knelt down and bowed her head. He dropped to the floor and father and daughter cried together for the first time in their life.

That night the family had a special dinner where words flew without any weight attached. EnXue asked her father not to blame her mother and her mother to lose her guilt. When all secrets were dismantled, there was nothing left to hide. When EnXue found her freedom, she used it to set her family free.

Later that night, she sat on the round table where her father drank with the moon; she has one more request to make. She knew her father will find a way to undo as much of the harm he had done and to pay back those he had hurt. She knew he will give most of what he owned away and she will be glad to see it happen. But she also knew her father will find it difficult to do the right thing where her happiness is concerned.

She took a sip from the tiny wine cup and said it casually “Papa, I want you to release WenCai’s parent from their obligations.” He looked at her daughter sadly, no longer surprised by her - “you knew about that too.” He was about to say something when EnXue stopped him “no more apologizing between us – the next one who does must drink horse urine!” Her father will do anything to make her happy. So she had always suspected when her father happily announced one day that WenCai’s parents proposed uniting the two families in marriage. She was not sure exactly how her father did it but he had his ways. The business misfortune suffered by the Tan family was probably caused by his father. He would understand that the Tan family was too honorable to accept a trade-off. So he saved them from ‘ruin’ without any obligation. Then, subtly lamented how much his daughter loved WenCai and let their honor worked for him. Her father has become a very cunning man who always know how to get his way.

“But you love him.”

“No, I don’t. Because I locked up my heart, I mistook what I want to possess for love. I saw the genuine love WenCai and MingYu have for each other and decided I want that too. I thought I will have it if I too have WenCai.” She paused and continued, “You must apologize to them. Tell them how ashamed you are. That we disgrace ourselves and them because I found someone else. That is the only way we can do justice to them.”

Her father looked at EnXue sadly “You’re just as bad as I am.”

“I know. But from now, we will use our skill for good and to benefit others.”

“I’ll drink to that and the moon will be my witness.”her father said. And EnXue smiled.

There is one more issue she held back from her father. This is not the time yet to tell him. It will be too much for him to handle in one day.

To be continued...

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Drinking Alone Under The Moon.

It is said tears washed away the hurts,
Debris collected in aching hearts.

But have you seen the muddy water

Flooding the Yellow River, the Yellow Sea?

- Zhang XiCheng

She had wanted for a long time to cry but the tears just would not come. The deeper she was cut, the greater the turbulence, the more she shored up the dam. Even in the depth of the nights, under the safety of the blanket or the kindly gazes of the stars alone in the courtyard, she could not bring herself to cry. She swallowed them in and they rested in her heart. They came out in the sad corners of her sweet smiles and the mellowed curves of her melodic voice.

One starry night she found her father drunk in the round table of the wing courtyard spouting Li Bai’s “Drinking Alone Under The Moon”

I raised my cup to invite the moon
To join my shadow making us three

But the moon does not know how to drink

And my shadow just imitates me.

He let out a deep sigh before swiping down another drink. Seeing her, he said “EnXue, it is no fun drinking alone.” And as if answering his own comment, he added “But some drinks, you can only drink alone.” After helping him to his bed and watching him snoring in drunken stupor she whispered “It is also no fun crying alone, but who is there to understand your tears?”

But now, after so many years; she found her tears. Because of a little sympathy from a stranger who seemed to feel her depth when others around her were blind to it. And once started, her heart dislodged and pushed out the accumulated poison through her tears. She made no attempts to hold them back and they rushed out her beautiful eyes. All thoughts of poise and dignity were swept away by the violent sobs that racked her body. She was horrified at the sounds she was making and she drowned them with even more painful cries.

The fisherman was shell shocked at the transformation of the ice princess into this vulnerable young woman crying her heart out. What has happened to bring about this change? He had done nothing. What should he do? He could not hold her like he held MingYu to comfort her, could he? What brought about these tears? Why is her hurt so great? Is she crying for the boy who does not love her? Why do women outside his village cry so easily in front of him? She is even more beautiful when she cries. At this moment of time, he did not lose his appreciation of her now fragile beauty. What should he do? A hundred thoughts raced through his mind but he stood rooted like an idiot overcame with concern but clueless on what to do.

He had to do something so he took a step forward and placed a hesitant hand over one of her shoulder. She responded by stepping forward and literally grasped him, her arms tightly grabbing and enfolding his back. He was stunned, his body stiffened as hers crushed into his and he did not know how to push her away. He felt her breast pressed against his chest and to his horror he felt his body immediately responding. “This is not right” he managed to say and lifted his arm to gently pushed her away by the shoulders. But she cringed even tighter to him and the pressure took his breath away. He did not want to be violent but he had to separate her. At the same time, he was having difficulty controlling his passion, desire, lust. Why did she elicit such strong response from him? What if MingYu saw him like this?

He felt the warmth of her body and his own temperature rising. He fought his desire to hold back, the temptation to lift that chin and kissed that tiny mouth. He was disgusted with himself. He is not a person to take advantage of a vulnerable lady. Confusion assailed him. What he felt for MingYu is a gentle longing but this passion burned and scorched. What is happening to him? How can he feel this way if he loved MingYu? How can he feel such passion for this woman he just met? If this is lust, how can he has so little control over himself? This is not him, he denied but his body would not lie.

MingYu looked at the struggling WenCai and recalled how she used to protect him from the bullies. The other boys feared her because she would not hesitate to march to the principal’s office to complain or even to see their parents. She was one of the few who could appreciate his tenderness and sensitivities and how it sets him apart from the other boys who cared only for frogs and kites. She could play adult make believe games with him and discussed the characters found in books. They could take long walks and enjoy nature. A pleasure man only learned to enjoy when they are almost too old and weak to walk, she noted wryly. He was different. He cried at the death of a kitten and laughed at the flights of the swallows. And no matter how he was pressured by the other boys, would not tie a string on the body of the dragonfly to fly them like a kite. When the other boys had left the field, MingYu would help him gathered the broken dragonfly in their death throbs to give them a decent burial.

So what happened to those feelings now? As the memories came flooding back, her own tenderness swept in and seeped through the armor she built around her heart to protect it from the piercing arrows of hurt. In those unguarded moments, the barriers crumpled and her heart began beating again. She remembered the tears they shared as they bent over the puppy with the broken leg. And she looked at WenCai, just as broken. Her heart ached as it did before. She brushed her hands over his head and he leaned forward to rest it on her shoulder. She held his head as she had done countless times in the past and again felt the pain she held at bay. With its return, she learned she has neither destroyed nor expelled the love as she thought. She still loved him as a mother loved her child, as an older sister lover her brother and as a woman who stood by her man.

“You must be brave,” she said. “It is destined that we cannot be together. You know there is no solution. We cannot be selfish. You cannot disgrace the honor of your family. Be brave.”

“I know,” WenCai said. “I’m not as weak as you thought. I know what I have to do. All I ever hope for, was for you to forgive me. And to know you’ll be okay. We have to be apart but we do not have to stop loving…” he choked on those words.

“No. We do not have to.” MingYu affirmed.

And they held each other for one last time. MingYu has not forgotten about the Fisherman. She knew it will not be easy for him to witness this but hoped he will understand. Still, she has a lot of explaining to do. But there is something troubling her more. Things had becomes much more complicated. If she still loved WenCai, what were her feelings for the fisherman? She felt sorry to have dragged him into all this. She turned her head to look at him.

What she saw gave her a jolt and a stab in the heart. She saw the fisherman and EnXue in deep embrace. How could this be? She had always been aware of Snow’s affection and her envy of their relationship. Now she was jealous seeing EnXue holding onto the fisherman. She noted that the fisherman was not holding back and was appeased somewhat. She was besieged by fierce and rampaging emotions. Who does she love – the gentle WenCai or the kind fisherman? Who does she love more? Can she love two persons at the same time? Will she lose both? Why did he let her hold him? Doesn’t he know that will upset her?

She looked across and their eyes met with over the water. She suddenly realized with embarrassment that how could she blame the fisherman when she was also holding someone else.

To be continued...

Saturday, May 3, 2008

It Was No Sacrifice.

And it's no sacrifice
Just a simple word
It's two hearts living
In two separate worlds
But it's no sacrifice
No sacrifice
It's no sacrifice at all

- Elton John

Though her face was demure and expressionless, the fisherman got the unpleasant feeling that she was also amusing herself throwing him off his feet. There is a streak of cruelty in her nature but he did not feel that she is overall a cruel person. In trying to fathom her, he knitted his brow searching for an answer he knew he would not find in the porcelain face. She remained cool under his gaze and stared back.

MingYu looked at her boyfriend stammering, desperately trying to explain how sad he was, how he had not intended to hurt her, how he had no choice (without explaining why), but did not offer any way out of the mud. Words she had been expecting to hear, there was nothing new. She had heard them all before. As his desperation droned on, a new sorrow settled on her. Not for herself, she had been through that and had emerged from the mist. But this boy, this boy he once loved was still lost in the fog. She wanted to explain that some changes were irreversible. That she was no longer the same person who left town in tears. She could not return to who she was even if she wanted to.

She wanted to stop him. But thought it kinder to let him speak all he wanted. Let him spilled out his guts. So that he will not regret that he did not have a chance to say what he needed to say. But at the same time, she knew that is a lie. For when he is alone again, the words will play in his heads and he will find there are many more things he ought to have said. As if they will make any difference. She wanted to cut through this with “Yes, I know you’re sincere. Yes, I know you’ve no choice. Yes, I know it is not your fault. But is there anything we can we do to solve it?” And somehow, when he had exhausted himself, she managed to put something like that through. That brought about an immediate, confused, embarrassed silence.

Under the weeping willow, the fisherman gazed at that pair of crystal eyes that challenged him to react. Though he could not read anything that the owner did not want him to, he felt sorry for her. He did not know why. The lady with the velvet voice saw the fisherman’s eyes softened and waited curiously to see what he will do next. But when she heard the whisper “I’m sorry”, she turned immediately to face the lake. She felt the weight in her heart and the tide rising to her eyes. Her feelings raced from indignation that an uncouth fisherman should break her composure to anger with herself for losing it. From surprise at his reaction to surprise of her vulnerability. Then they settled on the balm that maybe, finally; there was someone whom she could tell her secrets. That there was someone she wanted to tell her secret to. She knew he had turned away to look the other way pretending to watch the leaves catching the breeze.

“Now I understand” she said without explaining what it was she understood. Then silence. The fisherman waited. He had heard such silence before. The moments before a gigantic storm break; when the very air and all sound seem to have freeze. Every sense heightened for that moment yet every sense dulled in the anticipation. In the rising tension, every movement, every sound faded into the background as all consciousness was diverted to focus on the breaking of the storm.

“I’ve the best father a child could hope for,” Her voice sang with a quiver, at a pitch threatening to break. “A father who tries to anticipate your every need and fulfill them without your asking it. A father who guides you yet knows when to step back and let you grow on your own. A father who loves you more than his own life. I should be the happiest child on earth.”

“My father was also a man to respect. A kind, caring person who loves his friends as much as he loves his family. He is always ready to lend a helping hand and help those less fortunate than him. His generosity and high moral character means that we had hardly enough to eat but that is not important for we were happy. He has a wife who adores him and a beautiful child he adores. And the respects and admirations of his workers. Despite his uncompromising attitude towards management, they tolerated him because his unit was the most productive due to his capable supervision and the support his workers gave him wholeheartedly. Not everyone loved him though. His immediate supervisor, an uncharitable man who felt he did not get enough respect from my father. Things came to a head when he wanted to dismiss a sick man in my father’s unit but my father with the backing of the other workers prevented him from doing so. They covered for the sick man and increased their production in spite of one man down thus saving him. But the supervisor took that as a challenge to his authority and a slap on his face.”

“One day, I was very sick and my family needed money for the doctor. There is a Chinese saying that the poor must not fall sick. With no money kept aside, my father went round begging for help. But the few who had a little to spare wanted to keep it precisely for such a need. Even those he had helped before could not or would not return the favor. They would have gladly marched with my father into danger but they could not give away what little security they had. My father returned that night a broken man. He had been out the whole day but it was not hunger that dragged his feet or hung his head. My mother was beside herself and demanded whether he got the money though she knew he had not. “Have you asked Lao Liu?” My father nodded. “And?” “You can save Lao Chen or you can save your precious child, he said.” “How could you?” my mother wailed and ranted “To sacrifice your child for your friend. What type of father are you?” My father said nothing but sat on the stool with head bowed, the tears dripping to the floor one drop following another. Then he stood up and left the house.”

“When he returned, my mother asked more hopefully “well?” “He wanted me to turn a blind eye to his ‘doing’. He will even give me a cut.” “And you refuse to sacrifice your principle?” my mother asked hysterically. My father lifted his head and stared at my mother coldly with a look she had never seen. “No. After the first one, that was no sacrifice.” Lao Chen was dismissed and his family lost the sole source of income. His friends and workers who would not help him save his child accused him of betrayal. His superiors were delighted for he was now one of them. And my poor father became a person he hated because of me.”

“I was too young to know all these. My father was still the loving father I’ve always known. But my mother sometime started to say things I don’t understand like “child, you must never hurt your father. You do not know how much he sacrificed for you.” My father was an intelligent man and now freed from the shackle of morality, he rose quickly up the rank to become a senior manager in the company. Several years later, the same supervisor was caught in a financial scandal and was sacked. That evening when he came to our house, I was behind the screen in the study room and mischievously decided to eavesdrop on the conversation. My father had grown rich in the intervening years and had rebuilt his reputation performing charities. I saw the supervisor made groveling appeals while my father listened kindly and offered some advices. At the end, he took out a bundle of cash and handed them to the supervisor who thanked him with tears in his eyes. Another kind act of my father to an undeserving man, I thought. When the supervisor left and my father settled down in his rosewood chair, I wanted to observe that benevolent look of satisfaction on his face. But what I saw horrified me. The face of the man sitting opposite me was not that of my father. The features were the same but I have never seen that face with the cruel smile. I covered my eyes with both hands but it was too late. The image was burned into my brain. Later that evening, my father was especially attentive and warm towards me but I shrank back until I remembered what my mother said.”

“No wonder you are so good in hiding your feelings”, the fisherman said.

“Comes with practice” she answered cynically.

“My father started his own business and became even more successful, and powerful. He was widely respected as a benevolent business man pouring money into helping the poor, building roads and sponsoring festive celebrations. “A poor man can do no charity” he said. He tried to help all he hurt especially his former group of workers. And they all forgive him except one. Lao Chen died and his wife said she would rather eat sand than took a single cent from him. But my father has his ways. He made sure the family is cared for without them knowing that it came from him. But I could not help but noticed that those few who opposed him sooner or later met with some form of misfortune. And he would then be especially generous to me. Another new toy, another new dress, another lavish dinner which I accepted gleefully. I’ll never hurt him by letting him know that I knew. This is my sacrifice.” Her voice dropped like a pebble into a bottomless well.

The breeze picked up. They lifted the flaccid arms of willow branches and the edge of her skirt. She stood there, a composed figure staring at the ripples of the water surface. You would never have guessed what she did not want you to know, the fisherman thought. She holds more secrets than the sea. She turned round and he was surprised she did not attempt to hide her tears.

“And you wonder what has all this got to do with WenCai, MingYu and me?” echoing his thoughts.

To be continued...

Saturday, April 19, 2008

The Lake of Tears of Weeping Willows.

Spring Reflections by JancyLi

The willow's thousand and one leave,

Shimmer and ripple, trembling in sorrow.
She is stripped bare, full of naked unease,
Drunken and swaying outside my window.

J. W. - The Woodlands School

They walked in silence. He tried hard to find something to say but could not find the words to break it. She looked ahead, afraid to look towards his direction. Afraid her face will reveal too much and afraid it will be misread. And with each passing moment, silence seized a stronger hold. Neither the cool morning breeze nor the birds’ chirpy songs could lift their gloom. Like soldiers marching to a certain doom, they dragged their heavy feet forward.

They threaded through the village and they walked through the town. It was a Sunday and there were not that many people around. Those that were, were so caught up in their daily survival quest that they did not pay these early birds any attention. The road led to a winding path at the edge the other side of town. It offered an opportunity for MingYu to cut through the veil of silence.

This piece of land once belonged to a rich man who built a beautiful villa at the edge of a small lake. He loved the weeping willows and had them planted evenly spaced along the bank of the lake and used to joke, “The water of the lake is filled by the tears of the trees I planted”. What he said is true for on a windy day, you can see the trees weeping and the tears rippling the surface. He is a romantic soul and said “I planted them for lovers”. And lovers flocked here, a pair under each tree. He was pleased. But he had tempted the jealous Gods to strike back for intruding into the domain where they reigned. His wife drowned in the lake. And every morning in the balcony, he saw the trees weeping for him reminding him of his sorrow. Now the tears were for real. Afraid he will drown in this lake of tears, he gave this piece of land and the villa to the state authorities as a park with a condition to leave this place without any development in perpetuity. Then he disappeared and no one ever heard of him again. The lake is now called “Tears of Weeping Willows” and it is even more popular with lovers for lovers love a tragic tale.

We walked through the front gate to reach the garden at the back. Though in a state of disrepair, he could see how grand it was in its heyday. Now, the ghost of the rich man’s wife wandered through the lonely corridors searching for her departed lover. The silent mansion echoed with the sounds of helpless sighs and despairing moans. He shivered at the chill. Little Rain stopped at the moon gate leading into the garden. He stopped behind her. Would she turned and leaved this place without meeting him? Or was she bracing herself for the encounter? He knew there would be no resolution, no closing of the chapter if she was to flee now. Yet that is what he hoped for, for he was now afraid that he would lose her. They would meet. They would reconcile. They would say heartfelt sorry to him. And he would return to the sea, alone.

She turned and saw the look on his face. But she did not say anything to assuage him. He could see that she was trembling. She waited for him to say something. But he had no words for her either. “Come, let me introduce you.” And with that she walked through the ominous moon gate.

They first came across a lotus pond, the broad leaves proudly opening out high above the water surface. It has been a long time since he had eaten lotus seeds. He hurried up to walk besides her, as close as he could without touching. They walked under the covered corridors till they came out into the open again. Huge white clouds billowed above and swallows were sweeping across the sky. They walked beyond the stone steps, out another moon gate into an earthen path that was lined with trembling willows and resonate with a thousand insect calls. There ahead was a small stone bridge that led to a pavilion built into the lake. Inside the pavilion was a round marble table and four round stone stools. He could see a figure standing in the center of the arched bridge pacing about.

She looked down as she walked – through familiar ground. It was not apparent she saw the figure at the bridge but he knew she did. Every tree they passed temporarily blocked the sight of the bridge but also brought her closer to him. The closest he had to this feeling was when he was racing against the wind to reach the shore before the storm hit. Except now he was racing into the storm. Her steps picked up the paces. Was it anxiousness to meet him? If he had said, “Please don’t go”, would that have stopped her? But his thoughts had no time to wander further for she was standing in front of the figure now and him a couple of steps behind.

He was a handsome young man, tall with delicate fair skin like a woman, His thick but soft hair parted in the middle just above eyes that dreamed too much. He carried himself with the poise of the confident mellowed by the gentleness of a scholar. The fisherman hated him already. He called “MingYu” with a voice strangled with emotions and stepped forward to hold both her hands before he could react. She pulled them away abruptly and turned quickly to look at the fisherman with concern. He will never forget that look. He knew then even if she did not love him yet, she cared enough to be deeply concerned about his feelings and hurting him. He will always cherish that look. And whenever he wanted to remember her, it is that look of genuine concern that he will recall.

She turned back and said to the boyfriend in a steady and slightly harsh tone “This is my husband.”

The boyfriend gave such a miserable expression that he felt like drowning him and put him out of his misery. Instead, without addressing him; he spoke to MingYu “I’ll wait for you.”

MingYu gave him a look of gratitude and added “Don’t wander far.”

He walked back to the end of the stone bridge giving them space and privacy. When he looked back, he saw deep in hushed conversation. He noted that there was no more attempt to try to hold her hands again. They stood apart engaging in agitated conversation. Then he decided that it was awkward for him to be standing there and that his still nearby presence may make it uncomfortable for them. So he walked down the path and under a weeping willow which branches did not obscure his view of the bridge. He stood there and looked across the water at the two figures facing each other on the bridge. For anyone chancing on them, they would think that this was a couple of lovers having a romantic conversation on the stone bridge. And indeed in ways they were.

He was so engrossed in the scene and lost in his own thoughts that he did not sense her presence until he was shocked by a mellifluous voice asking “Don’t they make a lovely couple?’’

It was spoken by a slender lady with a round face and a tiny mouth given life by thin but sensuous red lips. Two pencil thin lines formed a gentle arch over small slanted captivating eyes that seemed to observe without looking. And a small round nose provided contrast without taking center stage. By itself, none of the features were singularly outstanding but put together with her lily white skin; what he saw was a classical Chinese beauty. Put her in a cheongsam and she would look like an old time Chinese painted model. But this girl was dressed in conservative Western clothing. It was a face masked in neutrality; he could not read any emotion in it.

“Yes, they do” he replied without thinking wondering who she was.

“They were made for each other, you know.” Did he detect an edge in the velvety voice? “Everyone said so. The rest of us could only watch with envy. How is it they could have found each other so early in life? To be so completely happy. Their happiness made us all unhappy. For it showed how inadequate our lives were. It set us on our own fruitless quests to seek our perfect companion. And we held them up as example of who our partner and how our relationship should be. But they were an anomaly. It made our quests impossible. They broke a lot of hearts and were totally ignorant about it.” This time, there was no mistaking the bitterness in her voice. “So we were secretly happy at their misfortune.” And she smiled. But it was not a smile that took pleasure in another’s misfortune. It was a beautiful sad smile that mock at life’s irony. That smile told the fisherman that her bitterness was directed at fate and not at the couple.

“And we suffer from the guilt for feeling so. For they have meant us no harm. All they did was to love each other. And they are genuinely nice people. How can we hate people like that? But we do.” The fisherman suddenly felt very sorry for her. She did not hate them; life would be simpler fro her if she could. “At the same time, many of us would love one of them if they will love back.” She continued as if speaking her own thoughts.

“And would you love him?” The fisherman asked.

He was shocked by her reply “I love him even though he does not love back. I am his fiancĂ©e.”

To be continued...

Sunday, March 30, 2008

And Then I Spoil It All By Saying Something Stupid…

The time is right
Your perfume fills my head

The stars get red

And oh the night's so blue

And then I go and spoil it all

By saying something stupid

Like I love you

I love you...

- Robbie Williams (Something Stupid).

The atmosphere at the dinner table was giddy if not tipsy from too many drinks. And drinks did flow liberally. Everyone drank. Even MingYu and mother Chen. A pall has been lifted from the Chen household. MingYu is back. Disaster has been averted.

The fisherman was dumbfounded how he could be the catalyst for such a change when he was just one of those swept away by the tide. Events have moved so fast that he was not sure he liked it even when the outcome was favorable. He did not like having so little control and felt like a pawn of the Gods. He wished for quiet moments to digest it all.

It was hardly 6 p.m. when dinner was done. They ate early in this part of the country. Mother Chen spoke to MingYu “You best be going.” Though old man Chen would have liked to retain the fisherman for a chat, he also waved them on “Go, go.” Everyone one seemed to know except him.

But he dutifully followed MingYu though a little reluctantly. He ought to speak to her about letting him know what is going on. But that thought melted they walked along the path separating the sprouting padi plants, “I’m sorry for not letting you on before hand what is going on. I hope you’ll continue to be patient with me a little longer. It is unfair to you, I know. But it is still difficult for me to explain things. So I just dump it on you without warning.” How could he be angry when she begged for compassion and understanding with those sorry eyes? “Soon, everything will be clear to you. I will answer every question before we leave this place.”

He pondered over that last sentence. Does it mean he has to ask? Will she not volunteer to tell? Once again, the fisherman wondered if he is being led by the nose like that huge black water buffalo being led by that barefooted boy through the muddy field. Doubts and a little resentment built up but at the same time, he knew he could not walk away so was upset when she said softly “You can walk away any time.” How can he walk away now without guilt? Was she saying it to make herself feel better or has she taken him for granted. But he chose not to be angry. He chose to ignore what was said and instead focus the faltering insecurity and appealing note in her voice. He reminded to keep his ego in check. Where did he get this instinct to handle woman?

After half an hour, they came to a lone house at the edge of the village. The roof was sagging and in need of repair and the perimeter fence would not have kept out any intruder whether man or beast. In parts, the wall has crumpled and exposed the interior of the kitchen blackened with smoke through which they were emitting. He was wondering why she took him to this place when a young girl with pouncing pigtails rushed out the main door. She saw MingYu and gave a squeal. She was about to turn and shout when MingYu silenced her by lifting her finger to her mouth. She called “Ta jie” affectionately. MingYu grasped both her hand.

“Is Po po in?” MingYu asked.

The girl nodded her head and in a broken voice said “Grandma misses you. Her health is not good. She worries too much for you.”

That broke MingYu’s composure. She pulled the girl to her. Tears streamed down her face and the young girl was sobbed loudly. “I’m so sorry. It must have been difficult for you. So very sorry.” That only brought more violent sobbing.

“Ta jie, I miss you too. It hurts me so much to imagine your pain.”

When the crying stopped as all crying must, she introduced XiaoTing (little grace) to the fisherman. She eyed him suspiciously and her expression was critical. “Xiao Ting!” MingYu protested “He saved my life!” Little Grace looked down at the earth. Apparently that was not enough to earn him her favor. MingYu whispered into her ears “you will get to like him” but XiaoTing stubbornly shook her head.

Leaving her to sulk, MingYu led the fisherman into the bedroom at the back of the house. She lifted the door curtain to reveal a pitch dark room without a window. It took them a while for their eyes to get accustomed to see a small room with a bed that occupied half the space. She took the stool and sat near the head of the bed. On it was an old woman with untidy silver hairs running down the side of her face. She was all bone and skin and her cheekbone protruded prominently due to her sunken cheeks. She was asleep with an open mouth and there was a faint trail of saliva on one side. MingYu took out her handkerchief that still wrapped the hairpin and gently wiped her mouth with it. The old woman woke up with a start and stared blankly at her. As her consciousness adjusted to the reality, she smiled broadly and said “I thought I was still dreaming.” All of a sudden and quick for a sickly old woman, she slapped MingYu’s hand where she could reach.

“Ouch! That hurts” MingYu complained. “You deserve that and more, for making an old woman worry!”

MingYu said softly “You know I’ll be back.”

“Yes, I know. I only worry I’ll not live to see it. And I worry how you are coping even as I know you are a strong one and will find a way.”

This encounter was very different from the previous ones. There were no tears. Though even more poignant, they were like old friends paying a visit after a brief separation. MingYu was stroking the old woman’s hand after helping her to sit up against the headboard.

“And who have we here?” asked the old woman. When told, she smiled “You worked fast, coming home with such a big fish.” MingYu laughed, “And who taught me to fish?” He saw the old woman searching MingYu’s expression and once again, he saw relief. The fisherman thought – had he really done so well or had the expectations of everyone being lowered so much? No, not everyone. Little Grace thought her elder sister deserved better. Being young and idealistic, she did not waver in her expectation.

“Come here so I can see you better.” The fisherman stepped forward and brought her face close to her. She ran her gnarly hand over his face and suddenly pinched his cheek hard. “Ouch!” MingYu protested, “Grandma!” She chuckled “Good! Good thin skin. Good catch, good catch. You are one lucky fish; you know that, don’t you?”

“No, she is luckier.” The fisherman replied in the same vein which earned a “Hey!” from MingYu and a slap on his back. The grandma now caught hold of the fisherman’s hand “I think I’ll keep this pretty boy myself.” Now, I know where MingYu got her mischievous nature.

MingYu said “Po po. Pretty boy got a gift for you.” And she handed her the hairpin and the bundle of cash. “How thoughtful of you to think of an old woman. MingYu, he is right. You’re the lucky one” she said with a twinkle in her grey cloudy eyes. “But I can’t take your money. The hairpin I’ll treasure.”

The fisherman took the initiative and said “Po po, the money I can earn back. But if you won’t accept it, MingYu will always worry about you. And you won’t want her to worry, would you?” (The fisherman was glad that he now knew why MingYu needed the money). The old woman did not reply, just looked at MingYu with tear stained eyes “I worry so much. But now I’m so happy for you.”

Then she coughed. Not the clear cough of the young but the guggling cough of a flooded lung. MingYu reached forward but the fisherman was nearer so he patted her back till the cough subsided. The old woman then dismissed him and he left the two of them in the room while he went outside to wait for them.

The green fields were separated in untidy blocks by the earthen banks. They stretched out far into a sea of green. He felt a figure came and squatted beside him. He knew without looking that it was XiaoTing. He did not turn to look or say anything. After a few moments of silence, XiaoTing hesitantly asked “Do you love Ta Jie?” He heard the accusation in her voice.

“Do you know what I see?” His fingers swept across the field. “I saw the sea. Where I came from, the sea was everything. It can be as calm as a field of padi swaying in the wind, but empty. For a lonely person, the sea best represent his feelings. That is why he loves the sea so much because he thinks it understands him. So he consoles himself that if he has the sea, it will be enough. But deep down, he also wishes for someone to share his love of the sea. Sometimes when I returned from the sea, I looked at the rocks. Do you know what I hope to see? I hope to see a pretty mermaid. If one day, I should be so lucky and actually see that mermaid, do you think I will love her?”

Under the shade of the outstretched branch of the solitary tree in front of the house, the two figures looked into the distance in silence. XiaoTing appealed naively in a voice full of emotions “I beg you. Please take good care of Ta Jie.” The fisherman unbuttoned the top of his shirt and pulled his necklace over his head. It was a black string through which was strung several small smooth shells. He untied and slipped one shell out and placed it in XiaoTing’s hand. “My promise.”

On the way back, MingYu told the fisherman that the old woman was her wet nurse and nanny. When she was too old to work, she refused to stay in the Chen household though they treated her as one of the family. She wanted to die in her own home, she said and that is one request they could not denied her. But they all knew that the real reason is that she not wants to be a burden to anyone. XiaoTing was hired by the Chen to look after her. MingYu visited her often until she had to run away.

“Come. Let me take you to a special place.” It was a small hill with rather steep side that stood out in the plain. She was agile and climbed like a mountain goat. He was more cautious but followed her footing till they came to a clearing near the top. Spread out before them was a field of matted green. He told her about his own little hill and she expressed a desire to see it. He liked the image of the two of them sitting there watching the sun descending into the sea.

After a while, they fell into silence; each lost in their own thoughts. They must have come here many times and sit in this very spot, he thought. They have history and he has none. This thought depressed him and he was jealous. “Are you thinking of him?” he could not resist asking. She did not reply him. And his suspicion was confirmed. This hill, this beautiful scenery did not belong to him. He will need to give her a new hill, a new scene, a new experience, a new memory. He stood and wanted to suggest leaving this place which will be forever haunted with their past.

“Please stay with me a little longer” she said in a small voice that was hardly audible. “I’m sorry to bring you here. But I need to see this place for one last time.” He told himself not to be too harsh. She was just trying to wrestle with her feelings. So he sat down besides her again. She leaned against him. Then she buried her face in his chest. He was afraid she will hear the pounding of his heart.

Through muffled voice, she said “I was so confident when I led you here. I thought I had conquered my feelings. I did not expect the hurt to resurface. Now I know it will take more time to heal. Please give me more time. Please be patient with me. I know it is unfair. Too much to ask…” And he felt the warm spreading wetness in his chest. They burned like acid, burned through his skin and into his heart. But he placed his hand over her head and gently stroked it. At that moment of shared feelings and raw emotions, he wanted to tell her he loved her. But he chocked back those words. This should be the happiest moment in his life. But the woman he loved and was holding was crying for another man. When they climbed down that hill, the fisherman was a little bitter but in his unhappiness he did not realize that he had seeded the hill with his memory.

That night was the first time they shared the same bed. They slept stiffly apart. She reached out for his hand and said “Thank you.” And then after several moments of silence, added “Tomorrow please accompany me to see him.” When he was sure she had fallen asleep, he whispered those words he was afraid to say.

“I love you.”

To be continued...

Saturday, March 15, 2008

The Painting of Endless Sorrow.

They sat shoulder to shoulder as the rickshaw made its way nosily down the cobbled street. While her face was composed and she occasionally let out a nervous smile, he could feel the stiffness in her shoulder. She had fallen silent as if she needed to focus all her attention to curb an erupting heart. Or is she afraid to betray her vulnerable emotional state by talking? He understood. Some feelings are just too private to share even when you wanted and feel you ought to.

It must be difficult for her to come back, he thought. And he admired her guts to go back and tied all loose ends. To close this chapter in her life so she can begin a new one. At least, this is what he thought.

Her whole body suddenly stiffened and she braced herself. He looked at her and saw her eyes misting over staring straight ahead. He followed the direction of her gaze and saw two figures standing in front of the main door in one of the houses in the distance. A tall old man in his grey Chinese suit and a shorter, more rounded woman were waiting anxiously. She clenched her fist crushing the life out of her silk handkerchief. He found his own heart accelerating its beat, beating as if in tandem with hers.

Before the rickshaw even came to a complete stop, she jumped out and rushed forward. There was a heartbreaking cry of excitement, joy and anguish all combined into a shattering note of broken string from the older woman. They rushed into each others arms and the cries of many subdued nights all bursts forth in copious volumes. Their bodies shook even as they grasped each other tightly. The tall thin man remained rooted where he stood, his face screwed up tightly forcing back the tide. He looked stern, disapproving, but the tenderness in his eyes betrayed him.

The old man lifted his eyes and saw the fisherman. He could not bring a smile to his frozen face so he gave a slight nod of acknowledgement. The fisherman had by now arranged his face into one of neutrality and he lowered his head in a polite gesture. They both stood behind and a respectable distance apart from the two women still convulsing in deep embrace. Gradually, on what seemed liked a very long time to the two uncomfortable gentlemen; the cries subsided to be followed by a long line of questionings and protestations in-between. MinYu (yes, that is her real name he learned that day), through her quiet sobs just replied to every questions with “I’m alright, I’m alright”. At this juncture, the man broke in by saying “we are making ourselves a spectacle, let us go inside before we continue”. Everyone suddenly realized that is a wise thing to do and they all went in depriving the neighbors of further dramas.

(Min means nimble, sharp, quick, and sensitive. Yu means rain. So should he consider her nimble rain, the image of a gentle rain running with the wind pleases him or should he thought of her as sharp and sensitive rain. In the end, he thought both are appropriate and the name suited her well).

Inside the courtyard before they stepped into the guest hall, MinYu introduced them. “These are my parents” she said to the fisherman. And to her parents she said “This is Chong, my husband.”

Even though he knew they would have suspected such a possibility, they still could not hide their shock and dismay. After a few stunned seconds, it was elder Chen who recovered first. “What manners! Welcome In, come on into our humble abode.” He admired the way he recovered from the shock thus saving all of them from further embarrassment.

The hall was not lavishly decorated but it had a large picture of high cliffs pushing through dense suspended clouds. A poem in classical calligraphy read:

I long to live among the clouds
Hidden from friendly eyes
But the source of my sorrow
Return me to its muddy water.

He had asked MingYu to read it to him when they were shown to their room. He thought it was beautiful and complemented the painting well but it was so sad. Why would anyone want to hang such a depressing piece in their hall? MingYu was surprised by his innocent remark and a thoughtful expression crossed her face. He thought he had offended her and started to apologize when she said “No, you did not”. It was then he realized that this is the first time she had connected her misfortune with the poem and cursed himself for being so stupid not to see it coming. He was about to make a second apology but knew the damage was already done. Instead she said “you continue to surprise me” and he knew she meant it as a compliment.

He asked who the poet is but she told him it was actually written by a relatively unknown poetess. Poetess is not held in high regards but his father is a man of rare taste and not governed by fashion. It made sense, he said, “women grieved more than man” which brought another smile to MingYu.

After a brief time together, MingYu went to have a private conversation with her mother in her room while old man Ng received the fisherman in the hall. “I heard that you’re a fish merchant”

He looked at the old man’s hopeful eyes and decided to come clean with him out of respect “No, I’m a fisherman.” Then as a second thought, he added more for the old man’s benefit than his own. “I have my own boat and a crew working for me.”

“I see.”

In spite of himself, he could not help thinking. What do you see, Chen XianSheng Did I disappoint you? I’m sorry I’m not more deserving of her. And for once, he wished he was rich so he could assure him that he could give a life of comfort to MingYu.

“A fisherman’s life must be tough.”

“It is okay once you get used to it.” Looking at the bookcase full of books, he said “To me, the life of a man of letter is tougher.” He immediately regretted saying it, worried that the old man may think him a country bumpkin.

Instead, the old man laughed. “I guess you are right. Every profession has its own difficulties but most of the time, it is only difficult because we are not familiar. I’m just worried whether MingYu can get used to such a life.”

The fisherman shared the same thought so he said “I’ve the same worry. I’ve asked her to reconsider. She is free to leave anytime she wishes.

This time the old man looked at him with genuine surprise. He stared at the fisherman for a prolonged time not sure what to think. He must have approved for he gently patted the fisherman’s hand and said “Thank you. Please take good care of MingYu for us. It is her luck to find you.”

“No, I’m the lucky one.”

After this they stopped talking about such personal matter which though is necessary is difficult and a little painful for the men. But with mutual respect, they found it easy to talk to each other about other things. They were both genuinely curious about the other’s way of life. The tension evaporated and they felt comfortable enough to give their personal observation and opinion on the topics they discussed.

The old man noticing the fisherman’s interest in his favorite painting was happy to take him for a closer look and explained its beauty. The fisherman asked, “The painting of the hills is so serene but the emotion of the poem is so troubled. I hope you don’t think it rude of me, but can I ask why you would hang a painting with such a sad poem in the hall?”

The old man smiled broadly at the question “It is sad but it is not depressing, or it is depressing only if one yields to it like one would to opium, allowing it to sap all your energy. Let me see how I can explain it better.” He thought about it a while and then thought the only way was to use a personal example. “When I bought this painting, I had the same feeling. I found it very beautiful but thought it would be more appropriate in my study room which was where it spent most of its time in this house. Then one day, while looking at it; I thought. The source of my sorrow is sad and a little painful, even today; but it did not destroy me and is not continuing to. Rather, it taught me valuable lessons, made me the man I am and taught me how to treasure, not only love but also life itself. So while I can hide myself away in the hills, I will never be free of the swirling, agitated waters of the river I swam in. So why deny it? From that day, I moved it from my study to my hall. It is not a grim reminder of my lost. It is a reminder of what I have become from my lost. I treasured both, not separately but as a single entity. For me and what I had lost has merged into one. And I don’t find myself depressing! Ha-ha.” The old man let out a loud laugh.

Listening to the old man, the fisherman seemed to have fallen into his own thoughts. Surveying the painting and as if speaking to himself he said, “How relevant to MingYu too.”

That remark shocked the old man into silence. His face turned somber and sad. The two men stared at the painting both wishing that MingYu’s outcome would be as positive as the owner of this painting.

MingYu and his mother came into the hall, sorrow were erased from their faces and replaced by a new gaiety. They can almost be described as happy. “You two seemed to be getting along fine, what is the laughter about?”

The old man said “Your husband. He is amazing.”

MingYu looked at the fisherman with pride, “He is, isn’t he?”

To be coninued...

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Story Of A Small Town.

A small town has many tales
Full of joy and sorrow,
If you come to a small town
You can reap a bountiful harvest.

- Teresa Teng’s “Story of a Small Town”

I think she was recognized in the station of that small town. Heads turned, hushed whispers followed our passage. She just walked through like one would through a mist, conscious of, but treating it no more than a mild annoyance on the road to her destination.

The minute she stepped down the train, she transformed back into that serious, intense, rebellious woman he first met. Holding her head high, she projected an air of invulnerability and even a tinge of haughtiness. He now knew this was not her true nature but even then, he had to recall her tenderness to convince himself that it was all an act. But it was more than acting. It was as if she had stepped into the skin of another woman. Everything about her changed, the way she carried herself, the way she walked, talked and her general facial expression. If it was acting, it was flawless. I observed the transformation with amazement and not a little admiration.

And she didn’t just cut through the crowd. She nodded to some and exchanged greetings with others in a steady confident voice. At her request, I’ve worn my best set of clothing. The only silk I owned that was passed down from my dear departed father. It was hardly worn (never saw my father in it) sew in the timeless fashion of a conservative gentlemen. All I need to do is to live up to the apparel. I took the cue from her and assumed a leisurely bored air. It was amusing to note the response and respect people paid to the clothing. I had initial misgivings but as I walked along I began to feel a sort of secret enjoyment that I did not know I possessed. Maybe I am also an actor at heart. She was opening doors in me that I did not even know was there. And as an actor, I found I could put guilt and embarrassment aside as I had become a different person. There was a strange sense of freedom that a poor fisherman from down South can never possessed. It changed me that day. And though I was and always will be a fisherman at heart, I was no longer the same fisherman. And though I will always be with the sea, my world has reached beyond that sea.

I picked up strange dialects with different intonation, heavy, guttural and to my unfamiliar ears spoken fiercely as if in a quarrel. The ladies’ speeches were flighty, lighter but faster like an excited sparrow skipping on freshly hoed earth. But when she spoke the dialect, it sounded different. It was like the flight a gliding sparrow over a field of grain, musical. She did only casual bargaining as if it was beneath her station to involve in deep haggling. But she was firm with her prices and walked away if they were not met only to have the hawker running after her to accept her offer. She bought several pounds of choice cuts reddish pork, two fat chickens all tussled up, several rolls of succulent Chinese sausages, a large bundle of fresh “Emperor’s Green”, a few flasks of aromatic rice wine – enough to prepare a feast for a king. She then beckoned a street urchin without shoe to send them to an address written on a piece of paper and a note announcing her return. The grinning boy with the unbuttoned shirts happily clutched the few coins she paid and hurried away with the load.

She bent over the table looking over the displays of hair pins. The stall owner was just about to fawn over her when she silenced him, just with the lifting and holding up of her hand. She looked over them until her eyes came to rest on one that had a phoenix craved on a turtle shell. I thought it was too old for her but she held it tenderly, brushing it like one would stroke a cat. The intuitive stall keeper volunteered “only 50 Yuan for a sharp lady who appreciates quality”. She immediately put it down and walked away. “20 Yuan!” but she continued walking. I took a 10 Yuan note and pressed it into the protesting keeper’s hand and hurried after her with the hairpin.

We took a corner table in the balcony of a restaurant overlooking the busy street. She ordered the food and we sipped Oolong tea waiting for it. A player somewhere was playing a sentimental canto-pop, “We met in the middle of an empty street…” Away from the crowd, she seemed relaxed, even happy. Though now and then, a shadow will fleet across those fathomless eyes, which raised her eyebrows without her realizing it. She quickly dismissed it like one intended on having a good time despite an approaching storm. And she told me stories. Stories about the town and the people in it. I waited anxiously to see it if the stories will lead her into it. Though as interesting as the stories were, what I was dying to know was her role in it. She told the stories with so much details and feelings that she must have lived them but there was no mention of her though I was sure the observations was made by her personally. The tales told me she was happy in it. Why did she leave?

She looked across the table at him listening intensely to her tales. A little smile escaped her lips to be followed by a frown. He too loved her tales and she told them to him by the lake under the weeping willows, on the branch of that large oak where they dangled their feet, in the empty classroom of the school on a weekend, even in that old cemetery at night when eerie winds blew and where the tales were shared by more than the two of them. She loved to pour out her heart. She did her thinking in her words. And she always came to have feelings for those who appreciated her tales. “What is a story-teller without listeners?” she once said. “You gave meanings to my tales, so you gave meanings to me, to my existence.”

Now a fisherman was listening to her tales. He wished he was him. But it could not be. It will never be. She felt that tug at her heart and tasted the bitterness in her tongue. Her eyes threatened to betray her. But she forced them all back. She will not cry again. She had cried enough. She swore she will never shed another tear for him and she will keep that promise. She will defeat her sorrow. That old sorrow that she refused to indulge in. If she has to take on new sorrow to replace it, that is okay. The new sorrow will not have him in it. Slowly, the new sorrow will drown the old and him along with it. Only then will she be free. So she will embrace new pain to drown old one. It made strange sense to her.

Even to herself, she did not want to admit that she also needed to drown her shame. She was convinced she can only love one man in her life. So she held her love until she was sure she found the right one to give her heart to. Her suitors were many but she bid her time until her soul-mate came along.

When she was ten, reading a book under a tree at the back of the school; she heard a quiet voice softly enquired “what is that you’re reading?” She looked up at his shy face with hair neatly combed and parted in the middle. His hands behind his back and he was gently swaying like a reed in the wind. His eyes were on her spotless shoe and there was a gathering glow on his cheek. That day, she told him his first story until it was interrupted by the recess bell. But the next day, he came back to hear the rest of the tale. When she ran out of tales from the books, she made up her own. She could spin a tale from anything, a blade of glass swaying in the wind, a bent old lady struggling down the street, a smile on a young girl’s lips, a flash of lighting, a striking of a bell or the twinkling of wind chimes. He would challenge her by calling up an object, a scene, a person, anything and she would effortlessly continue her tales from there. It became a sort of game between them.

Everyone in town knew they were destined for each other. People would smile and pointed them out as the town’s pair of Mandarin duck. Everyone assumed they would marry once they came of age including their parents who had no objections to their relationship. She never has another boyfriend, there were no need to. She found her soul-mate early and the other suitors just melted away into the background. She grew up pretty, vivacious and witty. Many boys were interested but all they could do were to envy him and they did not try to be more than friends. It would not have matter anyway. She would simply be not interested. She had found her “one-love” early and she had no need for any other.

The fisherman looked at her falling into her reflections. He frowned at her growing silence but did not say anything. Let her get it out of her system. I wished she would share it with me but he knew he was not and could be no part of it. And he could not help. The only good he could do was just to be there for her.

She suddenly realized she had slipped into silence. She looked up embarrassed and saw the frown on his face which he immediately tried to hide.

“I’m sorry.”

“Is there any way I could help?” he asked even though he knew what the answer will be.

She shook her head. I must break free of this malaise, she thought. That is my past. It has no relevance to my present and my future. I must break free. I will. I must.

“Sorry. It will not happen again” she said not too convincingly. She knew that she can keep it at bay guarded but when her guard was down, it can silently creep behind and overwhelm her. But I will beat it. It will take some time and much effort but I will beat it into submission. It is alright to suffer but it is not alright to be defeated. And I will not be defeated. My pride is all I had left. But that thought almost broke her and she had to gallantly struggle to regain control. I don’t know why I’m still so vulnerable, she thought. I hate it and I hate him for making me feel this way.

She regained her composure, smiled at him, held his hand and said “let us go. It is time to go home.”

“Wait,” he took out the hairpin and gave it to her. He liked the look in her eyes. She carefully wrapped it in her embroidered handkerchief. They sat in the same rickshaw as it went rattling down the dirt road.

To be continued...