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A statue of Chiang Kai-shek is displayed among others in a statue garden in Cihu, Taiwan, where the martial law-era dictator is buried.

(Credit: Letters I Wrote to Some Dude)

A statue of Chiang Kai-shek is displayed among others in a statue garden in Cihu, Taiwan, where the martial law-era dictator is buried.

(Credit: Letters I Wrote to Some Dude)

Indecision

A month had passed since the handwritten letter arrived inviting her daughter to visit Mrs. Jiang on the first Sunday she was in town. But her fear had grown as wild as the weeds in her garden. When Sunday came, Lisin lay tangled in a bed of indecision.

Her fears — that nothing good could come in dealing with such a powerful Hans family or that it was all some kind of hoax — were always needled by the hope that some day her daughter would find a way to leave the village forever.

"Are you coming to church?" Yuma asked, tapping on her closed door.

"Not today," her mother replied as she fiddled an old hairpin.

In her bedroom, Lisin kept likeminded company: a wilted flower sulking in a glass vase, cigarette smoke languishing in limbo, and vines of laundry growing in a jungle of indifference.

Hearing the front door shut, alone with her conscience, she began to hum a Japanese folksong her mother used to sing. Souvenirs of a bygone military occupation still survived in village life, but only as fragments: folksongs with forgotten words; sinicized Japanese names; passed-down stories of the tribes’s uprising in the numinous woods; an empty plinth near the longan tree by the river where an obelisk stood before the nationalists tore it down; and here in her hand, her mother’s hairpin that once belonged to Princess Kaneko during an autumn tour — well, so the story goes.

But unlike the heckles of her conscience, the whispers of neighbors were harder drown out with song.

"Don’t blame yourself," a woman’s low voice sounded outside on the street. "Everything will work out, trust me."

Through a slit in her bedroom curtain, she saw that her neighbor Magy, a middle-aged disheveled woman — who had tried to leave the village but returned like so many others with dark secrets of her time away — was comforting her daughter. With an arm slung over her neck, they walked sisterly uphill toward the church, whispering.

When the street was empty, Lisin let the curtain fall and went out to the overgrown yard to weed. In a garden of silvery ramie, she knelt down in a prayer-like pose on achy knees, asking for mercy: not the kind that rains down from the heavens onto church pews, but a mercy that is dug up from the earth with calloused hands.

A phoenix-flower tree (Delonix regia) perches over a dirt path near section three of Xinnan Road in Yilan, Taiwan.

(Credit: Letters I Wrote to Some Dude)

A phoenix-flower tree (Delonix regia) perches over a dirt path near section three of Xinnan Road in Yilan, Taiwan.

(Credit: Letters I Wrote to Some Dude)

Gossip

Buried in small talk about how quickly the village was changing since the highway cleft the mountain, every now and then when she was alone in the uplands, lazing in the daisies, an old man with a broad-brimmed hat pulled down over his yellow, jaundice eyes would appear out of nowhere, and ask Yuma, after looking over both shoulders, what the Jiang’s house was like on the inside.

This started happening just after she began visiting Mrs. Jiang, and in each case she felt the same chilly breeze overtake the haunt. And the wide-eyed daisies would look away dissociatively like fickle friends.

The problem was — she had no idea who he was.

"The house is very beautiful," she always hedged as her mother taught her to do, sitting up stiffly, hoping against hope that someone she knew might wander by. But that was why she climbed to that spot — no one else knew of it. No one else but him. She wondered from which way he ascended there as she never heard his approach — even through trails thick with nettles.

He always cooed at the pigeon scraps she tossed him, but he pressed her further and further for the worm he really craved, which was information. Strange, lurid details. “How many steps led to the upstairs hallway?” and “Did the staircase squeak in certain places or appear to harbor ghosts?”

"I don’t know," she lied, nervously twirling her tassel.

Other questions seemed designed only to unsettle her.

“About the porcelain vase in the hallway,” he asked, not letting on how he even knew about it, “if you accidentally knocked it over and it shattered into a million pieces, would you have to run away into the forest and never, ever come back?”

"I don’t know," Yuma repeated, eyes bloated with fear— because that scenario had never occurred to her before, and now that it had, it was all she ever thought of.

Pressing a pointer finger to his lips as he exhaled a “shhhhhhh,” he tipped the worn brim of his hat over his discolored eyes and disappear into the forest.

“What’s wrong?” her mother asked as she stormed into the riverside abode moments later.

But the words never came.

Gossip — a morbid flower that blooms in fearful climates— is often watered by a single, scheming hand. The only antidote to its poison is trust and fearless speech. But this wasn’t an age for that. And deep down, Yuma feared that this was all happening because of something she did on the first evening she was inside the home: in a momentary lapse, she failed to obey her mother’s simple orders not to indulge her telltale curiosity — she opened that dictionary. So, Yuma kept his visits secret. And as it goes with childhood secrets, her terror grew fangs: the forest she once loved now tormented her, she no longer went for walks there; her wide world shrunk; and after the old man’s third appearance at her hiding place, she avoided the quiet seclusion of the uplands altogether. Because whatever monster was feeding on her fears and on all the other recent troubles on the mountain, kept a lair, she was sure, wherever that old man came from.

The Matrona cyanoptera, a metallic-green damselfly (豆娘 meaning “the lady of the bean”) endemic to Taiwan, splays its black-fringed blue wings while resting on a rock along the Bat Cave Trail (蝙蝠洞步道) in Fuhsing, Taiwan. The species, despite its ubiquitousness, existed without a name until 2000. It had been clumped together with the Matrona basilaris found in mainland China before two zoologists from Taiwan Forestry Research Institute — Yeh and Hamalainen — argued for reclassification.

(Credit: Letters I Wrote to Some Dude)

The Matrona cyanoptera, a metallic-green damselfly (豆娘 meaning “the lady of the bean”) endemic to Taiwan, splays its black-fringed blue wings while resting on a rock along the Bat Cave Trail (蝙蝠洞步道) in Fuhsing, Taiwan. The species, despite its ubiquitousness, existed without a name until 2000. It had been clumped together with the Matrona basilaris found in mainland China before two zoologists from Taiwan Forestry Research Institute — Yeh and Hamalainen — argued for reclassification.

(Credit: Letters I Wrote to Some Dude)

The dictionary

Mrs. Jiang still remembered the old days, but like boats loosely tied to a mooring post, the memories had been set adrift by the storm of time, parenthood, the noises and fumes of city life — and now the abrupt desolation of the mountain. The memories still existed intact but were floating somewhere out there in the foggy, windless bay of her mind waiting for a gust of inspiration to steer them back into harbor.

Writing worked the same way, she realized. A long absence from the classroom had dulled her school-age mastery of traditional Mandarin characters. She could always recognize a word upon seeing it, even old literary ones, but asked to conjure them on her own — to draw them out of the fog and onto the white parchment — there was often a curtain of mist over them. For some reason, it happened with places most of all. The names of places and nicknacks she associated with those places, which she no longer saw and had little reason to ever write about.

Pen resting on the page, she whispered the forgotten word out loud as if memory worked liked an incantation. The character was right there in her mind, behind a door she couldn’t find a key for.

She sighed.

That was the thing about being bedridden — sitting. She was never a sedentary thinker. If only she could go for a stroll, feel the wind on her skin. The best ideas came to her in the open air, when she wasn’t trying to think: the right course of action to take; the way to phrase something that required sensitive wording; or the pithiest observations about the world and people, which she always meant to jot down but forgot what they were by the time she got back indoors.

A cruel joke — that her dictionary was sitting right there in the next room on the shelf. She could see it in her mind.

No use. Her new life was going to take some getting used to. The world had new dimensions; objects now fell into one of two categories: within arm’s reach or utterly useless to her. She was learning, frustration by frustration, the sort of things she needed to keep by her side. A pen, plenty of paper, a mirror in case an unexpected guest stopped by, which never happened, and for her nightly weaving lesson, the loom and creel. And now a dictionary. She would send Yuma to get it when she came in for the lesson, she decided.

A tentative hand knocked three times on the door.

"Mrs. Jiang?" a shaky voice asked.

"Yuma?" said Mrs. Jiang, gratefully. "Come in, come in."

An undated photograph of an Atayal girl is displayed on the Time Tunnel walkway in Fuhsing, Taiwan.

An undated photograph of an Atayal girl is displayed on the Time Tunnel walkway in Fuhsing, Taiwan.

The blue room

The upstairs hallway with its long, crimson runner that lashed out from her father’s bedroom like a dragon’s tongue used to drag on for miles in Su-yi’s memories. So many soft footsteps it took to reach the staircase from her bedroom trying not to wake the house.

Now almost everything here was as quaint as dollhouse furniture. On a stand, a small porcelain vase painted with branches of Xiwangmu’s peach tree — the one that promises immortality to whomever eats its fruit — greeted her with the uneasy kindness of an old acquaintance that couldn’t remember her name. Or the promise it broke. How sensitive children are to a broken promise. A secular stare, however, is the best defense against a sanctimonious antique.

How could a place that changed so little, change so much? An inner voice reminded her that experience warps the physical world in the same way the damp mountain air curls the achy floorboards. The hall no longer felt so never-ending, nor the vase so holy, yet the door to the blue room, as it came to be known, which stood before her now, looked so behemoth that only a giant’s hand could turn the knob.

Aunt Ruby had warned her father not to do it — not to make the blue room a shrine.

"Turn it into a library," she said, "a place with an everyday function."

Air out the ghouls, she meant to say, otherwise they settle into the walls like mold. Mr. Jiang agreed, but only in principle. The problem was that he saw plenty of everyday function in having a room no one wanted to go in. So it dawned on Su-yi about the fourth or fifth time she passed the room with averted eyes.

Footsteps thudded up the stairs. Now or never. She took another swig of wine and felt a cold, clean rush of confidence.

The door slid open and Su-yi walked in.

A glance in the rear-view

"How long were you two stranded out there?" Aunt Ruby asked once they were back in motion, traveling up the steep and winding road illuminated by headlights only.

"Forever," Mei-ling vented. "The sunset came hours ago and, trust me, it was not a romantic one."

Her husband sighed loudly. Clad in his tailored suit, Wen-hsiung, who had taken the unrequested liberty of claiming the front seat beside the driver — even brushed off the seat before sitting — fired back in a trigger-ready way as if anticipating the need to correct his wife and put forth the “official” story.

"Only an hour, we waited. My wife exaggerates," he said, eyes fixed on the road, conveniently. "I was going to look for help, but I couldn’t leave her alone, could I?"

"No, you couldn’t," Aunt Ruby said, reassuringly.

"No, he couldn’t," Mei-ling acquiesced as the path of least resistance.

A petite girl with black-velvet hair and unsunned skin, Mei-ling, on whom the post-trauma adrenaline high had just settled, stuck her head out of the window like a Bichon enjoying the breeze and imagined all the possible ways they could have been consumed.

"You can’t imagine the sounds we heard out there. Who knows what’s in this forest?" she said. "Wild bears—"

"You don’t have to call them ‘wild’ bears," said her husband. "Not like they’re walking around on leashes."

"Or cannibals," whispered Mei-ling. "It’s only been — what? — forty years since that attack in Wushe. How can you know what people are thinking underneath?"

"The Jiang family has an Atayal maid," said Aunt Ruby in a by-the-way tone.

"They DO?" said Mei-ling. "Oh, I’m so sorry" — her husband sighed — "What a shame. The whole mess with the dam, I mean. WHAT A SHAME. Wen-hsiung’s father was — is — Mr. Jiang’s childhood friend, helped appoint him to that position," said Mei-ling, shaking her head in tut-tut way. "What a shame. But what could anyone do?"

Aunt Ruby’s pearl-beaded bracelet jangled as she gave a “there, there” pat to Mei-ling’s leg. The only thing she loved more than expressing remorse was receiving it.

"By the time you notice the krait bite, it’s already too late — not that I know by experience, we’re obviously not very outdoorsy," she said. "Su-yi and I were friends growing up, lovely girl, but she was always moving, back and forth. What a shame. Frankly, I was confused — surprised — grateful’s what I’m trying to say, for the invitation. But we couldn’t understand …"

"… with the obstacles of getting here from the capital," Wen-hsiung said.

" … and the fact that she HATED this house, especially after her mother died here, we just couldn’t understand," Mei-ling perplexed, "why are we even here?"

Through the rear-view mirror Aunt Ruby exchanged a look with her impassive, thin-mustached driver, who soon — upon reaching a tall, surprisingly inviting Japanese Colonial-style house with many brightly lit windows and a swung-open gate — announced their arrival.

"Isn’t that funny?" Mei-ling snickered. "That couldn’t have been than a ten-minute walk."

Three skulls are displayed at the Wulai Atayal Museum (烏来泰雅民族博物館). Head-hunting, which according to Atayal custom was required of a man in order to gain entry to the afterlife, was outlawed during Japan’s military occupation of Taiwan.

Addressing a misconception that the tribe was cannibalistic, the exhibit argues that the ancestral legacy of head-hunting shouldn’t be seen as any more barbaric than large-scale modern warfare or the atrocities of wars waged between Hakka and Fukien people or those from Zhangzhou and Qianzhou. “There are written records that in fights with Atayals, the Hans dismembered the bodies of the dead and sold them together with pork and beef in the market,”  an in-house pamphlet entitled “We Are Not Cannibals” reads. “Many Taiwanese indigenous people had the practice of head-hunting, but we didn’t have the anthropophagic practice.”

According to lore, the ghost of the beheaded is beholden to protect its killer.

(Credit: Letters I Wrote to Some Dude)

Three skulls are displayed at the Wulai Atayal Museum (烏来泰雅民族博物館). Head-hunting, which according to Atayal custom was required of a man in order to gain entry to the afterlife, was outlawed during Japan’s military occupation of Taiwan.

Addressing a misconception that the tribe was cannibalistic, the exhibit argues that the ancestral legacy of head-hunting shouldn’t be seen as any more barbaric than large-scale modern warfare or the atrocities of wars waged between Hakka and Fukien people or those from Zhangzhou and Qianzhou. “There are written records that in fights with Atayals, the Hans dismembered the bodies of the dead and sold them together with pork and beef in the market,” an in-house pamphlet entitled “We Are Not Cannibals” reads. “Many Taiwanese indigenous people had the practice of head-hunting, but we didn’t have the anthropophagic practice.”

According to lore, the ghost of the beheaded is beholden to protect its killer.

(Credit: Letters I Wrote to Some Dude)

Aunt Ruby

Hours after their punctually inspected, under-ten-thousand-miles-driven car had mysteriously stalled on a desolate mountain road, Mei-ling and Wen-hsiung Wang were far past the how-could-this-have-happened stage of their ordeal. Night had fallen. With bugged-out eyes and perked-up ears, they sat as stiff as rigor mortis, marking every chitter and crackled twig of prowling woodland creatures.

Rolled-up windows as their only available defense against the fanged fear of fear itself, they were so convinced that they were going to be dragged off into the forest that when they heard the sudden rap of a walking cane on the driver-side window, their screams rang with a demented conclusiveness: death was here.

"Need a ride?" asked a very standard-looking old lady with a very standard old-lady cotton-fluff hairdo donning a shimmering, pink-satin frock. The gorgeous pearls draped around her neck finally sold Mei-ling on the trustworthiness of the stranger.

Aunt Ruby’s voice, which had dropped down to a husky baritone in old age, lacked the singsong quality that could lullaby a child to sleep. Still, owing to its promise of rescue, it was the sweetest-sounding croak the two newlyweds had ever heard.

An undated photograph of Atayal hunters is displayed along the Time Tunnel in Fusing Township, Taiwan.

An undated photograph of Atayal hunters is displayed along the Time Tunnel in Fusing Township, Taiwan.

Devil’s horns

As Su-yi left her bedroom, the laughter downstairs was so foreign to the walls, she paused: for the first time ever the mountain home seemed almost inhabitable. The tenant ghosts in the hallway were shooed deeper into nooks with each arrival of a guest who, like the white-confectioned cake in the dining room, came three-tiered: there were family and friends, people who called themselves family and friends, and stragglers who shared a personal stake in slogging over to this godforsaken speck in the forest in hopes of winning her father’s favor. All were welcome.

As the crow flies, the car ride shouldn’t have taken a guest more than two hours. After crossing the Sanchong Bridge spanning the marshlands along the western border of the capital, whose skyline with the influx of U.S. investment was rising taller and taller, the cross-island highway meandered southwestward through the suburbs, which, to the collective lament of Taiwan’s growing middle class, were beginning to look the same. The sedate blur of boxy, white-tiled sameness continued until suddenly the highway narrowed into one lane and swirled downward like a promising career being flushed down a toilet.

So much hope once resided in that sylvan valley formed by twin peaks that resembled horns.

"Devil’s horns," Su-yi sneered when she first set tearful eyes on them, watching from the window of a car crammed with all her prized belongings, none of which could comfort her in that most petulant of hours. This place — for her, as well as for everyone else in that sedan — would become a personal hell.

On the day the Jiangs moved here, a river flowed bountifully and rice fields were tended assiduously by a mountain tribe along the banks. Rice fields — like the presence of so-called canary species, such as swallowtails and damselflies — can indicate the health of a river far more truthfully than a politician’s speech.

The dam, whose construction Mr. Jiang had been sent to oversee, was touted as a beacon of civilization to the mountains. A savage brand of misery followed. People would lose homes and loved ones, but none suffered more than young Su-yi, because of how many birthday parties she was missing back home — and mosquitos.

Everything changed, even Su-yi, in a very short time though. The transformation of the river mimicked that of her father: clear and virile turned obscure and gray. An icy, desiccated trickle.

On the night of the party, the old man’s cold-fire glare was as frightful as you’d expect from any honest, respected family man who slowly, and against his fighting will, realized that because he trusted a friend’s prospecting advice, his lasting legacy would be the near extermination of a tribe and lingering pestilence in a place of former natural beauty. Hellbent he became on obtaining one thing at the expense of all others: revenge.

A double-back loom and heddle rod display an unfinished Atayal garment, woven with a white, red and green warp and an intricate, white weft of ramie thread. Shapes of Xs, which represent the pestle and mortar, eyes, which are totems of ancestor worship and the soul, and arrows, which are historical records of routs, are typical symbols found on Atayal garments, which aspire to be wearable historical-religious parchments. 

(Credit: Letters I Wrote to Some Dude)

A double-back loom and heddle rod display an unfinished Atayal garment, woven with a white, red and green warp and an intricate, white weft of ramie thread. Shapes of Xs, which represent the pestle and mortar, eyes, which are totems of ancestor worship and the soul, and arrows, which are historical records of routs, are typical symbols found on Atayal garments, which aspire to be wearable historical-religious parchments.

(Credit: Letters I Wrote to Some Dude)