Saturday, February 22, 2014

Chapter 8 - "Clete Gets a Tutoring Gig"

Dear Friends, Family, and Gentle Readers,

Today's post is a lengthy one. And as I warned you earlier, I am throwing a lot of new people at you all at once. If you can't keep them straight, don't worry. Just imagine that you are in Clete's shoes (so to speak...) and are experiencing some of his disorientation. You'll eventually get a full player list, but I'll put a short one of everyone you've met so far at the bottom of this post.

Clete's journal entry and a transcription of a recorded recollection are what comprise this chapter. All this happens on one day.

Love and good luck,

Personal Journal Entry

U.S. Time:             Monday, July 16, 2012
Island Time:         Dragon, Month 5, Day 28, Xingqi 1
Project Date:      Week 4, Day 2

This week I begin my period of working in the domain of Wood. This is the breadbasket of Dog Island; the top soil is rich and deep. The Islanders have a long history (probably centuries) of composting in this area. They have adopted methods of rotating fallow fields. Wish I had equipment to drill. Salt does not invade the groundwater in this area. Refer to dimensions in the survey section. The area is not terribly large, but more than adequate to maintain year-round subsistence crop production for this very small population.

They have pens in which they keep small pigs, lambs, rabbits, and some other pudgy mammal, which I cannot identify, all of which are all kept in this domain. One animal that they have here and do not cultivate, but rather it roams freely, is the civet—I’ve only seen pictures of them heretofore. It’s a good luck animal for them. They are like long skinny cats, abounding in good numbers, basically tame and vegetarian and insectivorous. Ling tells me practically every life form on this island is foreign here, including themselves. All here either because traders or settlers brought them, or because of shipwreck.

Cultivated chickens, geese, ducks, and squabs are kept in another domain—that one is called the Phoenix domain. They have a complicated pen-to-field rotation system that was explained to me that they have found cultivates and fertilizes the land, and makes best use of each animal’s tendency to dig or graze and minimizes animal stress, disease, and parasites. In fact, they keep some of the cleanest pigs I’ve ever seen. They almost look like pets. They are getting set to kill one soon. I have asked if I can record the process from stun to butcher and hide removal and tanning. Lee seems a bit apprehensive about it. For all her talk about being the pig sticker, I get the sense that it’s a sacred process for her and as such should not be photographed. I’m getting close to convincing her.
One thing I did notice is that even with all livestock that is maintained, there are no dogs on Dog Island. I plan to ask about that.

They still don’t trust me to give me all their demographic information, but I think perhaps since my fishing quota is to feed 19, which includes me, 18 people live here? I have certainly seen the inhabitants around. I’ve been on the lookout for men other than Rex, but so far they’ve all evaded my view. So far I have met Lee and Ling, Qin Qin and her mother Lian, and another mother-daughter pair over dinner the week before last Wednesday, the Fourth of July, Lum and her daughter Xiaomei. She is called “xiao” or “little” Mei, because I am told there is an older woman they call Da Mei, “da” meaning “big.” They told me Da Mei is the largest woman on the Island. Don’t let the name fool you. I had in my head a big ol’ muumuu-wearing, rotund, solid, Samoan kind of gal, whom you could not get your arms around, but when she was pointed out to me, she was certainly dark like a Polynesian, but just as slim, girlish, and sylph-like as any of the other women I’ve met here. She did seem to be about an inch taller than the others, but that’s about all that “big” means here.

Their slim, muscular, but petite physiques are probably due to an abundance of strenuous activity and a diet rich in organically grown fruits and vegetables, limited meat intake, fish whenever they can get it, and starches provided by root crops they cultivate, imported rice, as well as buns and noodles made various grain flours that they also import. Since I have been required to eat regularly with Lee and have now subsisted on the same diet, I notice I am starting to lose weight, but not vitality.

Today I selected a random fallow pen-yards and proceeded to dig through the top soil and see how far down I could go before encountering bedrock. I hit the water table within the first eight six feet and proceeded another eight or nine before I became completely exhausted. Again this land defies my expectations. For the amount of rain that falls here, the typical tropical soil is quite nutrient poor and leached of beneficial components for intense agriculture. It was quite obvious that this land had carefully maintained and cultivated for a very long time, but this was unexpected. This part of the Island has a micro-climate of moderate rainfall, but it’s still hotter than blazes here.

I had gotten up well before dawn to put in the hard labor before the most ferocious heat of the day. I had several soil samples. I just needed to rest up and then get back to the lab for testing. As I rested in the shade of a nearby tree, a teenage girl wearing the black and white uniform approached. I recognized her as she got close. It was Xiaomei. I had not talked to her since dinner at Lian’s house.  She got within arm’s length of me and gave me a bow of greeting.

“Good day, Dr. Wong,” she said. “Would you care for some rice water?” She held out a large thermos.
“That  . . . young lady, sounds just fabulous!” I took it from her and popped the top immediately. I remembered the etiquette Lian had shown me and said, “would you like capful yourself?”
“No. I am quite good myself. Please drink it all.” I was so parched, I needed no further prodding.

The word I would use for Xiaomei is intensity. She is a girl who seems highly focused and highly self-directed. She and another girl, to whom I have not been introduced yet, are the primary animal keepers, and they run a tight ship. She barks authoritatively and the animals obey. She approaches and they flock to her. And she seems to have a genuine affection for each living creature in her charge, even though she knows they’ll all wind up in the dinner bowl. Xiaomei’s forehead is high and prominent, and she wears her hair pulled tightly back off her face, making her appear older than her, what I would guess to be 18 years. If she were in one of my college classes, I would expect to see her sitting at the front.

Reporter’s Note: Inserting transcript of recorded recollection of Dragon 5-28 (16 July 2012) by Xiaomei, Second Guardian Princess of the Wood Element and Questor as told to the Guardian Princess of History, Prophecy, and Lore—for the sake of narrative continuity. Reporter notes that Dr. Wong for his part, has refused to divulge any of his thoughts or recollections on this incident. Even for the sake history. How petty.

Qin Qin:  OK, I think this button does it. Testing. [mechanical sounds] It’s working. Mei, go ahead and relate what happened that day.

Xiaomei:  Mother sent me to invite Professor Wong to lunch. He was quite tired from manual labor—he had been digging a trench-ramp, I believe—and I offered him some rice water.

                   “My mother sent me to invite you to share our midday meal with you? If you are agreeable?”
                  “I would love to, but with the work I’ve been doing today, I’m quite sure I stink! Tell her I’ll take a rain check.”
                  “A rain check?”
                  “That means let’s do it another day when I won’t be so offensive.”
                  “She will be very disappointed. I believe she wanted to talk to you about something. If you are worried about smelling, I remind you that our domain is the one that houses the animal pens. Strong smells do not disturb us.”
                  “So I compare well to a pig pen? With a compliment like that, who can resist? All right, you’ve convinced me Mei. I’ll be there.”
                  “Why don’t you come a little early then?”
                  “She saw that you were doing your trench digging work very early, so she has made some preparations for a medicinal bath to refresh you.”
                  “A medicinal bath?”
                  “Herbal infusions are her specialty among the Firsts.”
                  “So she figured an old man would be having aches and pains after lifting a shovel then?”
                  “I do not know what to say to that, Dr. Wong.”
                  “Just like Ling. When will she be ready for me?”
                  “About an hour.”
                  “My hour or your hour?”
                  “Your hour. Come to the Central Bath Shed. Follow that path.”
                  “Fine. I’ll see you then. I going to engage in my favorite pastime here and just sit and sweat. Ain’t that peachy?”

Qin Qin: “Peachy?”

Xiaomei: I did not know what “peachy” meant and I did not ask. I think he was being sarcastic. It is hard to tell with him for me. He was late in coming so Mother sent me after him. He was standing at the border marker.

                  I bowed to him and said, “Please accompany me, Dr. Wong.”
                  “I don’t read Chinese so well, but I think that wooden sign says that another domain starts here, so I’m not going to cross.”
                  “I’m sorry. Why?”
                  “Your elders have given me strict instructions that I am only allowed in one domain per week. I have to report everything I do to Lee every night and I do NOT want to say that I violated my research agreement, so tell your mother I’m sorry, but I’m going back to my lab.”
                  “But it’s just right there. It’s placed near the border to be accessible to more than one domain. Paths and baths are considered neutral territory.”
                  “Yeah, and if it were right here on the border I’d buy it. You know, I really need to hear that from Lee. Get her to come over here and escort me and I’ll do it.”
                  “But she’s working on the other side of the Island today. It’s not really possible.”
                  “She and I have developed a great relationship of passing silent nights together over dinner. I do not want to fuck that up for anything.”
                  “Well, just don’t tell her that you came to the Central Bath then!” It was Mother. “That girl is so disagreeable. She doesn’t need to know everything!” She grabbed his arm and pulled him over the border. She was wearing her gauzy dress that shows you everything about her body but yet shows you nothing.
“Lum? Let’s get something straight,” Dr. Wong said, “if a tree falls in the forest, it makes a sound. Ain’t no debate on that. It might take a while, but they get heard. Every inch of topsoil I cleared this morning is probably 100 years of trees falling, and I’m hearing them now.”
“I have no idea what you are saying. Is that one of those poetic American sayings?” Mother giggled. “I think we can get it down to a proper four words. Tree fall make noise.” 
“What I’m saying is these things always have a way of getting out.” Dr. Wong scanned all over very worriedly, but Mother reassured him.
“Don’t worry. Most everybody is working in The Grove doing branch trimming and seedling planting. They won’t return until near sundown. I’ll be keeping the bath warm for them. You should relax Clete. You get the first dip. And I have a wonderful meal cooking.”

Xiaomei: That was so demoralizing. I was a total disregardable entity. But Mother didn’t even have to give him a reason; she just smiled up sweetly at him. How sickening. Is that really how it is between men and women? He sighed and followed as she pulled him along. So Dr. Wong told me later that he finds it nearly impossible to tell Mother anything approaching a “no.” To do that would be like being cruel to a baby because she’s so cute. And Mother does affect a babyish voice around him. She never did anything like that before she met him. It’s annoying. She is in her 50s!

Qin Qin:  Mei! Back to the recollection? Please?

Xiaomei:  Right. She showed him the bath shed, how it has a barrel tub to hold four, six of us girls if we squeeze in. How we heat the water outside in a separate tank to segregate smoke. The storage closet. And the little steam-sweating dome chamber adjacent. She handed him a towel and told him to undress. She then handed me his clothes and sent me off to wash them out while he bathed and they would talk business over lunch.

I was at the washing station where the water runs clear over the rocks when I heard someone approaching. When I saw who it was I ran back to Mother who was arguing with the Professor.

                  “I’ll be damned if crawl into the fuckin’ Island igloo of yours! You can bake bread in that thing. Or steam baos or whatever. What is it? Over 50 Celsius?”
                  “It’s not the same if you don’t remove your toxins by sweating in the steam. You have to do the purge. Just 20 minutes.”
                  “Sweating out toxins my bony ass! Goddamned new-age pseudo-science. That’s always been a specious claim with no data to back it up. I’ve been sweating like a pig since the minute I got off the chopper. If I had toxins, they’re long gone! The only thing I’ve been losing is salt and electrolytes.”
                  “I think you need to calm down. I’ll go in with you for a bit. It’s perfectly safe.”
                  “Look, you guys think 115 Fahrenheit is a goddamned normal day. I’ll be dead of heat stroke in 10 minutes in there.”
                  “So tell me then, do all American men whine as much as you do?”
                  “Mother!” I shouted.”
                  “Don’t interrupt dear, it’s rude.”
                  “The Security Council is coming!”
                  “Shit!” the Professor yelled. “Where’re my clothes? I gotta get out of here!”
                  “They’re early! Why?” Mother exclaimed.
                  “I DON’T KNOW WHY. BUT THEY’RE COMING.”
                  “My clothes, young lady?”
                  “At the washing station.”
                  “Point me in the right direction and I’ll take care of myself.”
                  “You can’t go that way. The Security Council is coming from there.”
                  “I can see them,” said Mother. “Clete. Into the steam chamber. Now. I’ll put them in the bath and serve them tea and you can slip away after that.”
                  The Professor hesitated for a minute as he got down on his knees to crawl in. “I swear to God Little Lady, I’m going to nail your ass to wall for this someday. Now I know what Hansel and Gretel felt like. Shit.”
                  The First Princesses of the Four Heavenly Beasts arrived talking and laughing, Mu, Feng, Qi, and Ting Ting. “Lum!” yelled Mu, “Sorry we’re early, but the trees practically cut themselves, but we’re still spent. We are so looking forward to that herbal treatment of yours.”
                  “I can’t even feel my left hand anymore,” said Feng. “I can hardly wait for the immersion. I really need you to work on my shoulder too.”
                  “Oh!” said Ting Ting, “The steam is pouring out of the doghouse! It’s ready. I’ll get the ointments!”
                  And before my mother could say anything they had all completely undressed and started crawling into the steam chamber with the Professor. Mother is not good at thinking quickly in crises. All she could think to say was, “Uh, Na is in there already. She’s upset and pouting, so don’t talk to her.”
“Na is always upset,” said Qi. “What else is new? We’ll leave her alone. Ah, this feels good. Like entering a dragon’s mouth.”

Xiaomei:  I asked Auntie Ting Ting what happened in the steam chamber. This is what she told me.

Ting Ting: I went in and we arranged ourselves in a circle back to front like usual and I forced Na to sit in front of me. I poured the oil into everyone’s hands and we just started to working it into each other’s back and shoulders. But I noticed that Na was much too broad and she wrapped the towel on her head which she never does. And the smell from this person was so very different. I had a suspicion about what Cousin Lum might be up to. I took that person in from of me by the shoulders and pulled back and whispered in English.

            “You’re Clete, aren’t you?”
            “I’m sorry, yes. And I’m about to faint from heat stroke and that would be very bad.”
“I see, that’s a problem.”
“I don’t need any more enemies on this Island than I already have. I’ll pay you a million dollars to get me out of here without drawing attention.” He was so funny. I was now quite curious about this fellow.
“I heard you were a professor. You sound more like a pirate.”
“Did you just say ‘two’ for some reason?”
“Never mind. Please get me out of here.”
“Sit quietly while I do a background check and verify your identity.”

Ting Ting: I never get to handle one that close, a man that is, and especially one my age, and I knew he would not make a sound, so I reached down and around and grabbed his “little brother” just to make sure that he was indeed a man. I promise I’ll tell you more about that later dear, and how they work, you will find it useful. I would have played with him a little more—the temptation to use leverage in such a situation was unbearable, but Qi started to make unpleasant remarks.

                  “Na? I know you’re not happy right now,” Qi said, as she was right in front of the Professor, “but please use your whole palm to apply if you’re going to do it at all. Fingertips is very irritating! Not soothing in the least!”
                  “Crouch, huddle, and try to make yourself seem as small as possible,” I said to him, “and then we’ll crawl out, you first. We don’t want to have them see daylight between your legs. Keep them close together.” He nodded.
                  “What are you two whispering in English over there?” asked Mu.
                  “Na is not feeling well, I’m going to assist her out. She has an embarrassing weeping wound. Close eyes please.”
                  “Fine, fine,” said Feng. “Just remember we didn’t ask you to leave. Don’t go blaming me for anything! I’m fine with your staying here. Go to the Sea Witch for treatment as soon as you can.”
After we came out, I hurried him out of sight into the bath shed. “Clete, you’re overheated. You’re really red.”
“Hunh? Oh right . . .” he was not very responsive.
“Get into the tub. It will cool you down a bit. They’ll be out in twenty minutes. Where are your clothes?”
                  “Xiaomei took them someplace.” He started to relax and perk up once he got into the water.
                  “This is Lum’s doing isn’t it? That silly little birdbrain. You stay there. Lee keeps saying you are nothing but trouble. Looks like she’s right. I’ll go find something else for you to wear and get you out of here. You owe me though.”

Xiaomei: That’s the end of Auntie Ting Ting’s part. She then hurried away to find something for the Professor to wear. Mother had gone away to prepare tea service to get the Security Council out, and I had hurried back to the washing station to fetch the Professor’s clothes. As I was approaching I hid as I saw Ting Ting get him out of the steam chamber and place him in the bathing shed. She wandered off and I started to move in when Auntie Mu crawled out of the chamber. I was holding his dripping clothes so I stayed hidden.

I asked Auntie Mu what happened next and this is what she told me:

Mu: I came out thinking I needed to sit and chat with Na. I detest having ill feelings or animosity linger between the Firsts especially. It’s so counterproductive to all of our work. I wanted to reassure her and see what the problem was. I saw that she was sitting alone in the bath with her back to me and that this would be the perfect time by ourselves. I hurried and climbed into the tub across from her. It was not Na.

                  “Ah, you must be the Scientist?” I said.
                  “Uh, yes. About this. There is an explanation,” he insisted.
                  “I’m sure there is. My imagination reels. But the basic thing I see here is that you have committed an unauthorized border crossing.”
                  “It’s going to cost me, isn’t it?”
                  “I’m a big enough person, Doctor, that I can overlook it just this once, but my colleague Council members may not be so forgiving. You are still an unpredictable moral quantity. We take Lee’s reports on you very seriously. That is why the restrictions have been kept firm.”
                  “Can I just throw myself on the mercy of the court?”
                  “I don’t know the facts here, but I suspect a Princess who is, shall I say less than clear on your movement license, invited you here. I think I can manage to obscure your presence and avoid negative impressions. Get out and towel off. I have an idea.” I must say he took orders well and dried himself off. “Quickly,” I said opening the storage closet, “if you crouch you can fit into the upper shelf.”
                  “It’s kind of high up,” he said.
                  “Which makes it a good hiding place. Step on me,” I said crouching down myself, “use my shoulders.”
                  “But . . .”
                  “I assure you, Dr. Wong, I may be small, but I am sturdy. Heavier things have been borne by these shoulders. Use momentum if you’re so worried about me.”
Again he did as told; I don’t know what Lee’s problem is. I barely felt him as he clambered up. Considerate, I thought. I draped his towel over him so he would be obscured if anyone opened the closet door. “Stay quiet. I will get you out and across the border after the bath is done. I will do my best to cut it short. Consider this a favor owed.”
I then went wandering about to see if I could find where he had left his clothes or to find a suitable covering.

Xiaomei: And that’s where Auntie Mu’s part ends.

She left the shed and I went in to find the Professor, but he had disappeared. But where could he have hidden? I couldn’t see him anywhere. Just then Auntie Feng was crawling out of the chamber. I threw the Professor’s clothes into the large straw hamper and hurried out to see where he might have escaped to. I heard Auntie Feng say out loud: “Where is everyone?” She went to the closet to get one of the dried gourds that we use to break open and scrub our skin with its rough interior—they were kept in a basket on the lower shelf. She told me later that she noticed moisture dripping from the upper shelf. She put her finger to the moisture and tasted it and said it was salty. She looked up, saw movement, heard breathing, and removed the towel.

            “Dr. Wong, I presume?” she said.
            “What a pleasant surprise. Good afternoon.”
            “How unusual to find a naked man in the closet here.”
“It is a bath house isn’t it? I rather think I’m appropriately attired. I even removed my tattoos for you.”
“And it is the custom in your country to occupy closet spaces then when taking a bath?”
“Actually most of the men I’ve met who go to bath houses are out of the closet.”
“So it’s true that you speak in idioms and riddles. You only succeed in impressing yourself. You’re grimacing. Tears are in your eyes. And sweating profusely I might add. Is there a problem?”
            “It’s hot and I have a goddamned fuckin’ cramp in my leg, Lady. May I yell now?”
            “Please don’t. And there’s no need to curse.”
            “You have no idea on that one.”
            “This is a blatant contract violation Dr. Wong. You are outside the Wood Domain.”
            “Have your lawyer call my lawyer.”
            “Stealth and evasion are evidence of guilt.”
            “Duly noted. I’m really sorry.”
            “Truly sorry, or sorry you got caught?”
            “What kind of proof do you require?”
            “True contrition’s companion is humility. You seem to have nothing but sarcasm and contempt.”
“Begging your pardon, but it’s my main ego-defense mechanism living as a beleaguered minority person in a hostile culture. It’s a natural response. Don’t take it personally.”
“But America is the ‘Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave’ if I recall your national poetry correctly?”
“Bravery and freedom are all the more necessary for oppressed people like me then, don’t you think?”
“An interesting retort. However, tell you what, I am not a woman without mercy. Come on out of there and I will get you back to where you belong without detection. And I will do so without putting you in a posture to cause you a cramp. But . . .”
            “Yeah, yeah, yeah, I owe you one. That’s what they all say.”
            “Get into the hamper and stay there until we are done here. There are too many things going on right now.”
            “Damn right. Shit! What else could happen?” he said as he climbed into the basket. “A man has no dignity of this damn Island.” She set the lid. Ting Ting and Mu both returned.
            “What do you have there?” asked Mu.
            “A large smock. Didn’t want to get back in my dirty clothes. You?” asked Ting Ting.
            “The same,” said Mu.
            Mother arrived with tea service. She kicked the steam chamber. “Qi honey, time for your scraping and infusion. Everybody into the tub, and I’ll serve. Come on.”
            Auntie Qi crawled out. “Oh that was so good. It was a good hot spell, if you know what I mean. Not one of those unpredictable episodes! Ah, bath time!” said Qi.
“Xiaomei darling, would you check on … ‘Na’?” asked Mother.
            “Na got out a long time ago,” said Qi. “Sigh. I’m ready for the cool dip.”
            “Oh? Where did she go?” asked Mother.
            “MOTHER . . .  we need to step aside for a minute and talk. I have something I need to tell you.” She started to ask me what happened when we looked down the path and saw Na approaching. She smiled and waved.
            “Hey! I smelled the smoke! And the herbals!” she yelled, “You got bath water going? I’m all in! I really need a good wash after the compost turning.”
            “Serve the tea!” Mother ordered me as she pushed her tray into my hands moved to intercept Na. “I’m sorry, you can’t join us.”
            “Why not? I see four heads in there. We’ve gotten six in the Central Tub before.”
            “It . . ., it’s the Security Council,” said Mother.
            “What? If they don’t want me in they can tell me themselves. They can have their top secret meeting on their own time at the meeting hall. This is common ground,” complained Na.
            “Please don’t,” said Mother. “I promise, I’ll make it up to you.”
At that moment we heard the sound of the diesel engine of Lee’s jeep pulling up. She nodded.
“Ling’s doing laundry today. Here to pick up,” she said walking right to the hamper. Before I could say anything she popped the lid and looked inside and put the lid back on. She gave a great huff of disgust. As she looked up she saw Ba and Yi passing by carrying full buckets on their shoulder yolks. She called to them “Hey you girls. You got sea water there?”
            “Yes Auntie,” said Ba. “We’re taking it to the shrine to pour on the Water God for an offering. We’re diving tomorrow.”
            “I need it more here, by order of the Water Princess,” said Lee. They came over and set down the buckets. “Ah. Good and cold. The best! Bring me the rope from the jeep and stay back.” She removed the lid from the hamper and then slowly poured the cold water into the hamper. I heard a stifled grunt. She did the same with the other three buckets. Lee looked almost gleeful as she emptied the seawater. “Thank you girls. You have to fetch them again. I’m sorry.” Lee then started to tie up the hamper so that it would not open.
            Na had put aside her rage and was curious about the spectacle. “What’s this about?” she asked Lee.
            “Two civets are trying to mate in this basket. Had to cool them off before they foul everything inside with their awful spray.” She flipped the hamper on its side and rolled it toward the jeep. She pulled down two pieces of lumber to roll it up into the back. On the first try, she almost seemed to intentionally drop it off the top of the ramp, letting it fall more than a meter to the ground. I gritted my teeth as it hit. I looked over and saw that Auntie Feng was holding her chin, wincing as well. That must have hurt. Na helped her the second time.
            “Give me a lift to The Lake? I want to wash.” asked Na.
            “They got hot bath right there,” said Lee.
            “Bunch of old hens can ‘fookin’ go fook themselves.’ Second dipping them would be like washing in pig piss. No thanks to that.”
            “You and I are just as old! What’s wrong?” said Lee.
            “The usual. I stink. That’s what’s wrong.”
            “No more than usual,” said Lee.
            “Na,” said Mother running up to the jeep, “I’m sorry. I’ll explain.”
            “Nothing to explain, Lil’ Lummy. You’re not the problem. Get me out of here.”

Xiaomei: And so, Lee drove away with Na and that’s how the Professor met Aunties Ting Ting, Mu, and Feng.

Personal Journal Entry – continued
Dr. Clete Wong – July 16, 2012

[Section deleted.]

There were some mishaps and misunderstandings regarding the lunch meeting I had set up with Lum earlier in the day, so it was cancelled. I recounted what happened to Lee, my liaison, and to my surprise she actually believed me.

To follow up, Lee invited Lum and Xiaomei over to dinner with us that evening and after that, Lee hosted and prepared a bath in the smaller facility near our cottages. Bathing is a ritualistic and a social affair on the Island as I have learned. Lee undressed us both, rubbed down our skin with some sort of loofa-like thing, put us in a smaller version of Central Bath’s large tub, and then she took up a post, sitting at the doorway to monitor those who might pass by and also to chaperone us, keeping us in her line of view.

                  “You say whatever you want to say to each other in the bath,” she had told me. “It is the place, the only place on the Island, where what is said is private. Even if you overhear someone, you do not hear it. Outside of the bath everybody hears everything and knows everything. That is the way the Island is. Understand?” I nodded that I understood. Then she scolded Lum. “I am liaison. You should have had me set this meeting for you before! Look at all the trouble you caused. Na’s feelings were hurt.”
                  “I just wanted to do something nice in my favorite bath though. It got so out of control,” said Lum. “But I thought you would deny me.”
                  “How you know I will deny unless you ask? Are you going to ask him something embarrassing or illegal?”
                  “No.” And that was that. Lee left us and sat at the doorway to deny outsider access to our conversation.

Of all those I had met on the Island, unlike Lee and Lian, Lum’s hair was interspersed with silver. I peg her as the Island’s hippie chick, the kind of woman who would be teaching a yoga class, prepping whole grains for all meals, never shaving anything, growing hydroponic pot, having a prodigious dick collection. On the other hand, aren’t all of these girls back-to-nature, hippie chicks? But I guess you can’t go back to nature if you never left.

When I pair Lum up in my mind’s eye with someone, the image goes quite naturally to match her with a balding, bearded Jewish intellectual, making for the picture-perfect biracial, interfaith couple living in educated, liberal harmony, like so many amongst my university colleagues. Come to think of it, I know more Jewish Buddhists than I do Japanese ones. I need to introduce her to Arnie Weinstein over in Microbio—she’s a dead ringer for his ex. I’ll e-mail him her picture and see what he thinks. He’ll buy a ticket here tomorrow. But I digress.

“Turn your back to me,” she said. “I will massage you.” She poured water over my head and then began to massage my scalp, then applying fingertip pressure and rubbing a various places on my ears and on my face. All this time she hovers close to me, invading personal space, but it is strangely not intrusive. It was like a trip to world’s best dental hygienist.
“It’s been years since I’ve had a male to work on,” she said moving down to work my torso. “The head forgets a lot of things, but the hands remember.”
“Your hands are like mechanical vices,” said I. “Concert pianists and sculptors are probably the only ones with fingers that strong.”
“Many years ago when I was little, we had tourists here. One of my relatives was trained in deep-tissue body work that she did for the visitors. She took me on as apprentice. We have no more tourists, but the Islanders work very hard and I treat them.”
After she was done I turned myself back around. “Lum? A little bit of American bath etiquette in case you ever go there? Just so you know where my mind is here? Especially if I don’t seem like I can relax?”
“Yes? You have been very tense.”
“A man and a woman together in a bathtub like this? Back home, this is a situation I would only let myself be in with my wife.”
“Really?” She took that in. “ARE you married Clete?”
“Not anymore.” Time to change the subject. “I noticed when you got in you did not cause a ripple and you barely made the water level barely rise. Don’t you have any displacement mass? You’re like a water fairy.”
“My father always used to say that my body liked being 14, so it just stayed there.”
“With such water affinity, seems like maybe you should have Lee’s job of being the Island ‘Water Commissioner.’”
“Funny you should bring her up. Lee always makes a splash. It’s like the water was afraid of her and moves out of the way.”
“It’s because she’s the water’s boss then. Maybe that’s why she swims so fast. It resists her.”
“So if she’s the Water Commissioner, what does that make me then?”
                  “I guess you would be the Agricultural Commissioner, at least for crops and trees. So, who handles livestock?”
“The responsible regulatory officer for animals would be Qi for mammals, for birds it would be Feng, and for fish, snakes, lizards, and insect control it would be Ting Ting. You weren’t properly introduced today, but you met two of them.”
“So why this division of authority? What’s the rationale?”
“It’s simple. We divide the world that we are caretakers of into eight palaces or domains, based on the five elements, and on the four heavenly beasts.”
“FIVE elements? Hate to tell you this, but there are currently 118; 98 if you only count those on Earth.”
“I’m talking about the traditional elements.”
“I count four. Earth, wind, water, and fire.”
“You’re thinking like a Westerner.”
“I am a Westerner. I’d be the first to tell you I’m about as Chinese as a fortune cookie. Which is, not much.”
“Time for Chinese school then. The elements. Fire, water, wood, metal, and earth. The beasts are the phoenix, the tortoise, the chi lin, what you call the unicorn, and of course the dragon.”
“I count eight jurisdictions but nine officers in total.”
“The dragon domain is the entire world. Mu holds that office. You have met Lee who is the guardian of the Water Element, Lian who is of the Fire Element, and now me, of the Wood Element. The other three you sort of met today are not elemental offices.  All plant life is of the Wood Element which is why I oversee agriculture. See? It makes perfect sense.”
“I suppose. I’m going to have to write this down, Teach.”
“Don’t bother. Lee will explain it to you as you work through all the domains.”
“Lee does not explain anything.”
“That is unfortunate.”
“This is very helpful though. I’ll keep that in mind as I work here. What did you want to talk about tonight?”
“I understand you are a college professor?”
“I’m an adjunct professor. So I am not on a tenure track or anything like that, but it means they hire me from time to time to deliver content that I am expert in.”
“Ah yes. Then you are quite familiar with the processes of admission and testing to enter college?”
“Well, I’ve been admitted to universities four times, so I guess I know something. But yes, I have counseled high school students on how to prepare.”
“I was wondering, if I might engage you to tutor my daughter, Xiaomei, to assist her in being able to score favorably on her college entrance exams?”
“Where is she applying?”
“There is a university in Fiji which is most likely where we would send her.”
“USP? I think I know somebody there. I’ll have to fire up the e-mail network tonight and put out a feeler. What does she intend to study?”
“We don’t know yet. Probably agriculture.”
“My advice? Steer her to petroleum engineering. OR . . . any energy sector engineering program. There’s way too few us in the world and so many depend on what we do.”
“It sounds quite rigorous.”
“I find your life here more rigorous compared to mine. One goes to college to get an easy life, right? Has she considered an American university? How are her grades? I know people where I teach and went to school. If she falls into the acceptance parameters I can ‘sponsor’ her in. But she has to have the academic chops to cut it if I do sponsor.”
“That is very generous, American schools are quite prestigious and but very expensive.”
“I happen to know there are scholarships reserved for young people who are Pacific Islanders that go largely unclaimed. And an energy engineering grads can pay off loans easily since they’re so employable. Don’t dismiss it without some research. So, what’s her GPA?”
“That is why I am asking for your assistance. High school instruction here ends at age 16. She doesn’t really have a GPA. So she must score well on an equivalent exam. She has been taking the sample entrance exams that schools have sent us and she is especially weak in the mathematical portions. I thought that since you were a scientist you might be able to assist her in her weaknesses?”
“Lum,” my voice went down to a whisper and I motioned her in close to me, “I tried to help another girl her on the Island with an acute need and I got shut down faster than the speed of light. And that was by her own mother. Much as I would like to, I don’t know if I can.”
“I know all about the girl you’re speaking of.”
“Do you? Well maybe you can help me there. I think there’s something bigger going here that I can’t understand. Tell me about it.”
“That is a sensitive subject.”
“I know that. What is it?”
“I cannot tell you everything, but I will restrict my comments to my daughter. There are other girls here her age, and she is the only one who will be attending college. This is the cause of some . . . envy and unhappiness.”
“I don’t think there’s a reason that everybody with ability can’t be accommodated. You probably just need someone to help you identify funding sources. I can check in with the financial aid office and start doing some research for you. How about that?”
“Funding is not the main problem. Well, I guess it is. We have eight girls who are college age.”
“Eight eh? Hmmm. That’s a lot for a small community.”
“Oh dear. I am probably disclosing too much to you. The others will be angry with me. Please, just let me know if you would be willing to help Xiaomei.”
“Seems harmless enough. Show me her practice tests and let me assess if I can be of any help. Security Council can’t nail me for helping a kid with math homework can they?”
“Oh I don’t know. I don’t know what those girls think is important. It’s too complicated for me.”
“I suppose we’ll have to do this on the sly then? Just puh-leez don’t ask me to get into a hot tub with her. If video of something like that got up on YouTube, I’d never work at a college again.”
“Oh Dr. Wong. Thank you. This means a lot to us. But we need to discuss your compensation.”
“Forget it. Counseling a young adult is free from me. Just get her into college. Force her to major in engineering. That’s all I ask. The field needs women.”
“Do you have a usual hourly rate?”
“If I calc’ed it, you couldn’t afford it. Just give me something that you think is of equivalent value when I’m done. OK?”
“I make everyone’s clothes on the Island. How about if I make you a garment?”
“Fine. My chest size is 42 inches, my waist . . .”
“We prefer metric here. But Clete, I just had my hands on every part of you. I know ALL of your dimensions.”
“You sure do.” Not quite all, I thought. There was the chick who got me out of “The Igloo from Hell” who knows one more. Of course that particular dimension is variable and she got a much higher reading than normal, but we won’t go there. I hope to God I don’t run into her again. For all the lack of good ol’ American prudery here, THAT would be embarrassing. This is what it must feel like to be a high school girl on a Japanese subway. Can’t take it personally though—gotta remember that farmers, especially animal handlers, have very nitty-gritty sensibilities about bodies. “So, we’re done here then? Shall we get out?”
“Oh let’s not. I want to enjoy this bath a while longer. It still smells so nice.”

We eventually quit the bathtub and went to take a look at Xiaomei’s written work. Her problems were all with algebra and even then I’m sure if I just backtracked to manipulating fractions, all of her issues would disappear. I wrote out a series of 25 problems of accumulating difficulty, told her work them, and then drop by the lab after hours so that I could go over them with her. “Take care of those, young lady, and then let’s get down to some REAL math. You will have an exam score that the schools will fight over you for by the time I’m done.” I counted it as a victory when she managed to break her intensity and give me a smile.

* * * * *

Those Whom You Have Met So Far in the Story
(more or less in order of appearance)

Clete Winston Wong - an oil and gas entrepreneur, geologist, petroleum engineer, and adjunct professor of math and engineering -- good at pole fishing, ever better at intuitively finding underground fossil resources (but it's really the same skill isn't it ...?)

Johnson Lai - fundraiser for the nonprofit Earth Dragon Institute (don't bother remembering him, he will not reappear, his job was to launch the initiating story event)

Sally - Clete's secretary and assistant back in the States

Rex - elderly protectorate government security representative on Dog Island, male

Lee - citizen of Dog Island, 50-ish female, Guardian of the Water Element, and Clete's designated liaison during his research visit

Ling - citizen of Dog Island, 20-something daughter of Lee

Lian - citizen of Dog Island, 50-ish female, Guardian of the Fire Element

Qin Qin ("chin chin") - citizen of Dog Island, 16-year-old female, Second Guardian Princess of the Fire Element, Guardian Princess of History, Prophecy, and Lore, Lian's daughter, and Clete's sometime indigenous  Island research assistant

Ba - citizen of Dog Island, a little older than Qin Qin, female

Yi (pronounced "Ee") - citizen of Dog Island, a little older than Qin Qin, female

Xiaomei  ("shao" rhymes with cow, "may") - citizen of Dog Island, older than Qin Qin, female

Lum - citizen of Dog Island, 50-ish female, Guardian of the Wood Element, Xiaomei's mother, she's very small

Ting Ting - citizen of Dog Island, 50-ish female, member of the Dog Island Security Council, Tortoise Guardian

Mu - citizen of Dog Island, 50-ish female, member of the Dog Island Security Council, Dragon Guardian of the East

Feng ("Fung") - citizen of Dog Island, 50-ish female, member of the Dog Island Security Council, Phoenix Guardian of the South

Qi ("Chee") - citizen of Dog Island, 50-ish female, member of the Dog Island Security Council, Chi Lin Guardian of the West

Na - citizen of Dog Island, 50-ish female, Guardian of the Earth Element