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A temple in Fulong (福隆), Taiwan.

A temple in Fulong (福隆), Taiwan.

The canary

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.

The night of the typhoon

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 Qohozi 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.

Raohe night market

Raohe night market

How to make the moon disappear

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.

Road closed (道路封閉).

Road closed (道路封閉).

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.

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.

Mrs. Hsieh’s secret

It was mid-afternoon on Tiger Head Mountain and a gray sky was being swept blue by a strong northeasterly wind. Along a steep incline of an old hillside cemetery, Mrs. Hsieh, a happily graying Taiwanese woman, was clutching her sunhat for dear life while trying to sturdy the wind-blown tarpaulin that covered her mother’s mausoleum. She had hitched the canopy over the resting site earlier that day with the help of her happily grayed husband, so that they could work, rain or shine, on some put-off repairs brought on by typhoons and procrastination.

There was always a roaming peacefulness to that valley. And therein lies Mrs. Hsieh’s great secret: she never once felt sadness there among the hallowed shrines because she didn’t think her mother resided there: “Just a pile of bones,” she thought. Unmoved by the sweeping of tombs nor the inhaling of spiced incense, not even bowed-head prayer could stir her to fervor, but still she honored the traditions. Devoutly. For their own sake. Mourning was something else entirely, something that came to her on less pious occasions: in her kitchen at dusk while she fixed tea or washed dishes. It was a monstrous thing that snuck up from behind and gripped her throat like the hands of a skilled burglar. A muffled gasp for mercy; the tea spills, a dish shatters, her husband calls her name from the other room; but before he arrives to avenge her, she hears a whisper in her ear, a foul promise that has never been broken in all these years. Then it slips away into the night, disappearing in the opposite direction of the sun.

Weather-worn posters depicting a Daoist god and a dragon hang outside a pocket temple along a pedestrian lane near Fuxing Road in Taoyuan.

Weather-worn posters depicting a Daoist god and a dragon hang outside a pocket temple along a pedestrian lane near Fuxing Road in Taoyuan.

Earthquake proof

Living on the 17th floor of a tall apartment tower in Taiwan, I feel every seismic quiver, rumble and sway that might otherwise go undetected down below. I know what earthquakes are, owing to a public school education, but there isn’t a chapter in science textbooks about finding your footing in a foreign city where the earth is shaking underneath you.

When I first arrived here and lived in a low-rise building, I hardly even noticed earthquakes. I might feel a dizzy spell come on, and subside; later someone would inform of me of its magnitude.

"Oh," I’d reply.

My current building is 24 stories tall and — according to my friend, a former tenant — earthquake proof.

"It moves," he said.

"It moves?" I replied.

The last superquake to hit Taiwan, which floats over a nexus of fault lines near the Tolkien-sounding Ring of Fire, happened in 1999, killing 2,415 people and dredging up a 23-foot-tall waterfall in Dongshih where none previously existed.

I’m not an engineer, just a renter. The location was central, the rent cheap and the landlord was the friend of a friend of that friend, so, along with the assurance that it very likely wouldn’t fall over, I said yes. Ten miles away, meanwhile, one of the world’s tallest skyscrapers stands in Taipei, a testament to the island’s advancements in earthquake-proof design — which is the sort of thing you tell yourself on the first night you’re falling asleep in what you hope is not a human-scale Jenga tower.

But then a big one came. Shortly after moving in and dreaming that I was dangling from a bed sheet out of my window, I was awoken by violent thrashing. My impulse was to jump out of bed, but I couldn’t gain my footing. Amid the swaying light fixtures, and the cracks slithering in real time up the walls and on countertops, I could tell that the tower was moving and I thought, for a brief moment, that the absurd dream was coming true.

Shaken by the encounter, I thought about moving to a new place for a while, somewhere closer to ground level. While most seismic activity is mere twitters, I didn’t need daily reminders of the subterranean forces that cavalierly rip continents apart over millennia and occasionally level cities along the way. For days, my heart would leap at the slightest vibration — the rumbling of a truck, or K-pop blasting from a school kid’s earbud like tectonic techno.

But I stayed. Because to my surprise, there came a rash of events soon after that left me wanting to be shaken. A job that was wearing on me, a fizzled romance, a betrayal that blindsided me — a nexus of emotional fault lines tested how strongly I was built, and what forces I could withstand, which for a long stretch left a disquieting hollow.

In the stillness of those hours, I found myself, while sprawled on my bed, wishing to feel tremors. And the tremors, as if beckoned, came.

Just as election season begins to heat up, KMT County Councilman Lin Cheng-yin (林政賢) oversees the daring rescue of a sofa pulled from the Taoyuan sewers.

Just as election season begins to heat up, KMT County Councilman Lin Cheng-yin (林政賢) oversees the daring rescue of a sofa pulled from the Taoyuan sewers.

It was a crayon-drawn Sunday afternoon in Taipei, like a picture hung up in a kindergarten classroom, with streaks of sky blue filling every inch of the page to the edges of the crayon-green grass and bare brown trees. White propeller planes grazed the yellow sunflower sun. Orange rays zapped winter blues into pink summer reveries. 

It was my last weekend at the school. I was a little scared about what lay beneath — the big black pit of irrational fears — but there was something about the present, with its colors and metropolitan noises — buzzing, screeching, zooming — that rolled out before me a blank loose-leaf page and a box of pastels. (Photo: Letters I Wrote)

It was a crayon-drawn Sunday afternoon in Taipei, like a picture hung up in a kindergarten classroom, with streaks of sky blue filling every inch of the page to the edges of the crayon-green grass and bare brown trees. White propeller planes grazed the yellow sunflower sun. Orange rays zapped winter blues into pink summer reveries.

It was my last weekend at the school. I was a little scared about what lay beneath — the big black pit of irrational fears — but there was something about the present, with its colors and metropolitan noises — buzzing, screeching, zooming — that rolled out before me a blank loose-leaf page and a box of pastels.

(Photo: Letters I Wrote)
When my friend suggested going to a “mammoth exhibit” at Taipei’s National Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall last Sunday, I just thought the gallery she had in mind was really big.

When my friend suggested going to a “mammoth exhibit” at Taipei’s National Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall last Sunday, I just thought the gallery she had in mind was really big.