The sun sets on the mountains near Baling (巴陵), Taiwan along Highway 7.
(Credit: Letters I Wrote to Some Dude)
Quietly tucking away the wilted mugwort, knowing its worth, Su-yi asked Lisin, without saying a word, what was twitching in her handbag. Lisin opened it. From inside its infinite, spiraling depths, a bright-yellow bird fled through the sky from a black cloud of ravening crows.
Amused by the hunt, Lisin guffawed, mouthful of mushrooms, and offered to share her snack. Su-yi declined once. Twice. The third time was less polite and she’d never seen anything fly into such a rage before over such a small thing. Shadows seeped into the wrinkles and stitch marks of the old woman’s scowl; transformed her; skin scabbing into hideous bark, hair twisting into roots and creepers, arms into petrified branches; mouth wrenching open until it was the shrieking hollow of a rotten trunk. Glowering over Su-yi was a tall, lightening-struck tree in a clearing, a place she knew well. From the beak of a black crow, which alighted highest on the bare branches, fell the hunted yellow bird — dead.
A cringe returned Su-yi to the sobriety of her bedroom; Lisin’s restored human face was watching her through the vanity reflection. With a shutter, Su-yi stood up and swore off the moonshine.
"I just — want the night to be perfect," she stammered, rattled, turning to leave.
"But your hair," Lisin pleaded.
Su-yi reached for Lisin’s handbag and tore it open with an upsurge of entitlement: a knife with an unusual sheathing, engraved with unfamiliar motifs of gods and animals, not at all Atayal. Unsheathing it, she clutched the rattan handle with a dull thrill for knives acquired in the hinterlands — where aboriginal lore was still a weft in the loom commandeered by the Japanese and foreclosed on by the Hans — she offed the lock in one clean swipe.
"Like killing a pig," Lisin said.
Su-yi smirked and left.
A clearing near the Lianhua Pond (蓮花池), a former home of the Truko tribe (太魯閣 族獵) hidden 1,180 meters above sea level, overlooks the mountains of Taroko Gorge (太魯閣) in Taiwan.
(Credit: Letters I Wrote to Some Dude)
Su-yi was overjoyed to see Lisin plopped on the grass beside her in the blue-skied, picnicking meadow. She couldn’t imagine being left in such an enchanted place alone. How else would she know it had been real? At first sight, they rolled around laughing in their nice, fine clothes with cramped stomachs and sore cheeks. Why hadn’t she ever lolled around with Lisin like this? She couldn’t remember having loved her so unboundedly before. While sprawled, Lisin fished among the bulbs and shrubs and finally presented a sprig of pink-blossomed mugwort with jagged leaves and a snow-dipped stalk. Su-yi smelled the gift with deep, eyes-closed anticipation, but it had no aroma, only made her nose … twitch … atchoo!
Opening her eyes, she wasn’t surprised to see that night had fallen. A half-adze moon hung in the sky and stars perforated the darkness above like daylight raining through holes in a tin toolshed roof. The meadow had wintered and in its demise sprung patches of midnight mushrooms, which Lisin sat nibbling and giggling. Nothing in the world could spoil this moment — nothing — but the thought of it coming to an end. And how could anyone even conceive of such a thing?
A Paris Peacock butterfly (大琉璃紋鳳蝶) sits in a patch of Taiwanese daisies along the Lianhua Pond Trail (蓮花池步道) in Taroko Gorge, Taiwan. Hidden 1,180 meters above sea level, the pond had for centuries been home to the Truku tribe (太魯閣 族獵) until the Japanese ousted them from the mountains during its military occupation (1985-1945).
(Credit: Letters I Wrote to Some Dude)
Lisin had spotted the loose seam in the thread work. Why was Su-yi so nervous that night? The old widow, with her powers of domestic divination, was the only person Su-yi feared in the world other than her father — but in a different way. The way girls fear dolls with dead stares on top shelves. Sleepless spies, always watching.
A floorboard creaked as Lisin inched forward to refill the empty glass. Her round Atayal eyes — shadowed like grottoes — stirred within Su-yi an ancient fear, which neither coming of age nor the time she retreated to the city allowed her to cure.
Su-yi lifted the rose-colored liquid to her lips. Swallowing, she closed her eyes to seal the illusion of escape. The wine lingered on her tongue and she tasted each ingredient with a surreal and visual clarity — not hints, but open fields of laurel, chrysanthemum and — mugwort? What is mugwort? She searched among the cane, herbs, shrubs and asters in her mental garden. Nothing. When she opened her eyes to ask Lisin, she was pleased to find herself seated in her imaginary meadow.
Ribbons of smoke from an incense pyre entangle in a temple on Minzu Road in Yilan, Taiwan.
(Credit: Letters I Wrote)
Su-yi sat twirling the dissident strand of hair that held her captive in her bedroom.
"If I can just find a hairpin," Lisin chirped over the hum of houseguests downstairs.
A true lady, according to Lisin, keeps on hand anything a person ever needs, wants or casually mentions — be it a pin, comb, dried-plum candy or the chintamani stone. In pursuit of that feminine ideal, the older woman burrowed in the wormhole of her handbag through a Noah’s Ark of clutter. Su-yi saw something strange glinting in its depths.
“Ha!” Lisin said, retrieving a pin.
As she stood up in the triumph of womanhood, the hem of her dress had somehow clung to her waistline. A half-moon of her pink underwear was now the third guest in the room. Slave to an age-old grudge, Su-yi pretended not to notice and took an expert swig of the cold, sweet xiao-mi wine, which slid down like liquid glass.
"Careful," Lisin garbled with the hairpin between her teeth. "That wine sneaks up on you. An old recipe passed down for generations. Mugwort. Just a drop does the trick. Old folks laugh about how they swindled merchants long ago with a bottle, but for me, sweet dreams, even when I’m wide awake."
Su-yi took another swill, making eddies in the dregs.
"My daughter would never speak to me again if she knew I said what I’m about to say, but that wouldn’t change a whole lot, now would it?" Lisin said. "A lot has changed since you left. She’s changed — and it isn’t just that she’s getting older and becoming her own woman. People around here are whispering. About her. About omens. I listen as they weave and gossip. Dogs crying to the wind. Crows circling. Midnight mushrooms sprouting up in the loam, gone by day. Listen—"
A rooster in the yard was howling wolf-like at the moon. Su-yi’s arm tingled. Lisin made the sign of the cross.
"Yuma rolls her eyes when I mention it, calls me a superstitious yokel. She says, ‘Witch doctors can’t even cure a cold,’" she sighed. "Maybe not. But I see it in her eyes, ever since that day you two ran off into the woods. I don’t know what happened there that night but —"
Through the trees, the breeze piped a four-note tribal war song.
"Lisin," Su-yi whispered, "is she going to marry that boy from the mountain?"
"What do I know?" Lisin said. "I’m only her mother."
Lisin stared at Su-yi through the mirror. Su-yi looked away first and resumed fidgeting with her glass.
"What are you so nervous about tonight?" Lisin asked.
The mountainside cemetery was untroubled in daytime, a place where stray dogs snored as loud as old married men in warm patches of sunshine. Asian oak trees swayed their outstretched arms in rapture; cicadas zithered in the brambles; and milkweed butterflies, who decline invitations from the chestnut tigers to fly north to Japan on a mythic journey across the sea, tinkered leaf to leaf, loyal to the secrets of the glade.
Through an unsuspecting sky glided a bright-yellow bird, which struck Mrs. Hsieh as funny, because she knew it wasn’t native to the island.
Straining her eyes in disbelief, worried that the sight of an antipodal creature might be a herald of cataracts or dementia, she called over her husband who was cleaning off the mud and pollen that obscured the name plate of the deceased.
She watched with a mysterious gravity, a sense of foreboding, as it alighted on a branch and trilled.
The pan-flute melody — so familiar, but from where? — filled the valley with music and drifting echoes. Forgotten and unnamed feelings swirled within Mrs. Hsieh. Reacquainted, she stood oblivious to the strange formation of smoke issuing from the nearby pyre of incense. The lashes and sputters had conspired into a single ribbon, thick and sinuous. Rising tall, reared up in the striking pose of a charmed cobra, it idled, mesmerized as if awaiting a command. When the melody changed, the ophidian slid from the altar and wove through the brushwood toward the old woman’s sandaled foot, coiling round her legs, torso, arms, neck.
Then she knew.
"A canary," she gasped.
As she filled her a lungs with the sulfurous fumes that immured her, the snake constricted; her frail chest squeezed. She saw specks of light. Daylight was dimming.
A woman’s best accoutrement is a secret, the darker the better. Su-yi discovered this Faustian truth about beauty on the night of her engagement party as she sat before her vanity mirror.
An alluring stranger stared back. The transformation, she knew, had little to do with the froo-froo frills that came on such an occasion: the makeup, the jewelry, the embroidered dress she swished around in cloud-like in her bedroom. Any girl can play dress up. This was women’s work, the work of controlling the weather. A storm behind her every smile, lightning in every glance, thunder in every word, and her hidden purpose, dark and lovely, flooded every inch of the world around her — she was a typhoon incarnate.
And yet it couldn’t have happened on a clearer, quieter night. An open window overlooking the darkling forest and the star-beaded sky let in the chatter of guests downstairs. A breeze soughed. Dressed in lily white, she sat swirling the glass of xiao-mi wine that she would later let slip and shatter, and in the disarray, steal out. She jangled her globe earrings, cherishing them, as if knowing she would soon lose one as she loped through the moonlit forest. Other bespoke treacheries were hand-embroidered into the night, foreseen and not. Unlike the Atayal family that helped raise her, Su-yi, 23, was no seamstress in life or textiles, and her shoddy handiwork would haunt her for years to come — but the Taiwanese have a saying for that.
It slipped carelessly off her tongue.
"It’s just the way it has to be," she whispered.
"The way what has to be?" asked Lisin.
Days after the festival, Fulong had all the sleepy, boarded-up eeriness of a midwestern farm town when the traveling circus unicycles away. Alighting on the train platform at night, I whistled through the station’s ghostly corridors to fill the air with something other than brine that fogged over my glasses. Not even an agent stood around to punch tickets. The night was for stowaways. Outside, the sober streets had a Sunday night’s hush, the cicadas were mum and the half moon in the sky was — missing?
"But the moon was so big last night in Taipei," my friend perplexed later as we gathered bamboo and driftwood near the seawall.
It was the galumphing size of the last-seen moon that gave the disappearing act its flourish, on a scale so grand as making the pyramids vanish from behind a scrim.
Huddled around a crisp, orange campfire, whose smoke billowed northwestward out to sea and the shores of Aodi village (澳底), we lay on our backs determined to debunk the slight of hand and searched for the moon among the sky’s swirling clutter.
A picture book of myths, an old seafarer’s map, a farmer’s almanac, a fortuneteller’s crystal ball, loose pages from an unfinished absurdist play and a two-way mirror were all found hidden in the stars, but not the moon.
On such a clear night with the world at summer’s far aphelion, the tideless ocean became a reflecting pool. Rolling over the surface came a lone, dissident wave that unfurled a watery scroll onto shore.
"A speck in the sky," the ebbing wave whispered, "we are."
Then the water mirrored over, reticent as before. Only campfire sputters and wisps of the smokey wind sounded.
A parade of clouds puffed through a sunburned sky — a mouse, a fox, even a great white shark that darkened the sunset with an ominous eclipse.
It’s Sunday evening on a crowded Monday-bound platform at the Fulong train station. At that perfect summer hour just before the mosquitos swarm, when the world is all shadows with a blood-orange backlight and the cool air riffles through sundresses, we slump against pillars watching the west through sunglasses for the approach of the 6:40 train. The 6:40 comes and the faraway stress of time and tomorrows comes seeping back inside the chatty, florescent-lit car crammed with people, elbows, knees, stuff, freaked-out dogs in zippered carry-ons and battle-worn balloon animals that resemble nothing anymore. After clobbering an old woman in the face with my errant elbow and having my toes ground into paste by passengers barreling for nearly missed stops, we arrive back in the city at night.
"Sleep over?" I ask, as the thought of being alone on a Sunday night wades through my mind again like a great white shark in the shallows.
Still snickering to myself about a night that wasn’t long ago, I slip into taut sheets in the guest room. Sleep comes easily. Dreamlessness. Then dreams of nothingness. Then a parade of clouds sailing though a dark and moonless sky unseen.