Monday, March 31, 2014

Malibu Daybreak - March 31, 2014 0730

Hi there,

For those of you who don't know, I work at a university in Southern California, specifically in the city of Malibu. This is probably a reason a lot of my characters tend to be professors and teachers.

My daughter-in-law gave me a smartphone and I've slowly been learning how to use its various features. Thought I would learn how to share pictures since everybody does.

This is what I saw getting out of my car in the parking lot at work today.My son said to post this stuff on my blog. Phones don't really do a good job of capturing what you see, but here's something for you.

Malibu, 3/31/2014, 7:30 AM

Yep, that's my car in the lower left.

Have a great day.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Three Loves Seven, Chapter 10, Part 1 - "It Was a Slaughter"

Dear Friends, Family, and Gentle Readers,

Getting this out a little late this weekend, but got tax clients to take care of. We're back into Clete's point of view for this passage.

Here in Los Angeles, we've tamed the three rivers that would flood this town regularly, and forced them into concrete channels that empty into the sea. These water flumes are dry most of the time, but when it rains they become high-speed death traps. And of course that always attracts stupid people who go down to look at them, jump fences and see how powerful the water is against their feet or hands. They of course get sucked in and carried to oblivion, gaining their 15 minutes of fame on the nightly news. An exciting way to exit our mortal coil no doubt!

As an Angeleno (a native of Los Angeles) Clete should know this truth about life's hazards. And yet he dips his toe into one. Well, we're glad he did, because he teaches us a lesson, no?

You may have noticed I don't describe things or people very much. I think actions tend describe people and things more adequately. That said, in my own mind, Princess Feng, who figures a lot in this part, is one of those people with a facial type that has a very high and prominent forehead. There was an accountant in a company I used to work for who is the model for what I think Feng looks like.

Those of you who have read the "Cinderella" story, will have noticed that there is a "Qi" who has surfaced in this story arc. There is a relationship, but they are different persons and that will be explained in chapters to come.

Have a great week and thanks for reading. Love,

Personal Journal Entry

U.S. Time:           Thursday, July 19, 2012
Island Time:        Dragon, Month 6, Day 1, Xingqi 4, New Moon
Project Time:      Week 4, Day 5

My work in the Wood Domain continues. Today is a photo documentation day for this sector; and I have taken many photos and videos. I decided to wait until later in the week to break out the cameras because it looked like the rainy spell would end—and I was right. The lighting today was spectacular. Everything had a just-washed sheen about it, rather like a new-car-lot. I could sell these to magazines if I wanted. The major order of the day, I was informed, was that they were going to kill one of the pigs. They grow these little Vietnamese porkers they grow here. I don’t really know farm animals, but they all look fat, happy, and healthy to me. I was strictly forbidden to not document the slaughter however.

Qi and her daughter Fei, whom I had been introduced to in passing last night at the Security Council meeting, were outfitted in a different sort of uniform—sashed smocks made of heavy canvas-like material. They were a natural brownish linen color, clean but stained from the blood of many butcheries past. And yet they were highly perfumed, as if the robes had been infused with nectar. They wore hats of the same material. The pig knew them quite well and followed them quite contentedly as they escorted it to its doom in a special area far removed from its pen-mates. It was a neutered male, I think they call them barrows, and it was washed down and carefully dried and examined for any cuts or bruises. If he were injured in any way the slaughter would be postponed until he had fully healed, but he was perfect.

Qi and Fei sat with the creature for a good half hour, brushing him, massaging him, and singing songs to make him peaceful and calm. After a while there were five or so points that Qi continued to massage, which had the effect of lulling the pig into a stupor. She had Fei insert needles at those points and then they rolled the pig onto its back. Qi and Fei put on thick gloves, crowded him between them and applied two heavy cloth straps as a restraint.

Lee, who was similarly attired had been present this entire time with Ling. Lee was seated at the pig’s hind end now moved up toward the torso. She had also been speaking a gentle, droning verse over and over all this time. Her left hand caressed the pig’s chest, felt for the heartbeat, and her thumb expertly found the insertion point above the breastbone. She held out her right hand and Ling handed her mother a shining, freshly sharpened knife. It was extremely narrow, almost sword like. She set it on the spot that her thumb had found, broke her song into what seemed like a prayer, and then pushed it in a motion that was confident and effortlessly smooth, and then she made a small pull to the side. The pig started, then went limp. Lee extracted the blade. True to her word, Lee was an expert killer.

For some reason I wondered if she had ever dispatched a human. I started to wonder if that's what happened to all the men on this island. Were these girls like top-of-the-food-chain preying mantises who killed and subsequently ate their lovers upon a successful mating? How close had I come to a sure demise? But my imagination was running wild. Still, their ability to put a dumb animal into stupor and complacency before a killing stroke was impressive.

Qi and Fei hung the pig securely, placed a pan, slit the throat, and left it to drain properly for the next several hours. Qi told me that the pig died without fear, and because of that the meat would be most sweet, or so she was told because she said she herself was a vegetarian. Vegetarianism on Dog Island is just a fine shade of difference of lifestyle, because meat is not often on the menu. Eating the meals that Lee had prepared for me, I felt like I had gone vegetarian myself. I think my ability to pull fish rather easily out of their waters had made Lee feel like I was somewhat useful to have around. I had become a consistent provider of protein.

Fei, I assume was the pig’s primary keeper. She stood for a while touching the pig’s haunches and back. She told me she was admiring the beauty of the curves and forms, and while there was a sadness in parting with her charge, she was grateful to the little one for nourishing the Island community.

The end-of-day uplink was made and all of the day’s observations were stored to the server as usual. I shut everything up. I was waiting for Xiaomei to show up and we would work on her math issues, but Qin Qin had come back and told me that I was to meet Xiaomei at a place called the Classroom Annex. It was apparently a room adjoining Feng’s cottage and she was going to take me there. I thought that was odd, but she told me Feng lived quite close by the lab and so it was no hardship to get there. As we walked, Qin was uncharacteristically silent and I should have taken that a clue that something was up.

Feng was awaiting me outside, dressed in standard Black and White. Qin Qin proceeded straight through the door of what I assumed was the classroom without a word. Feng gave me a polite bow. “Welcome to my home, Dr. Wong,” she said. She walked me to an additional room that had been built on her prefab cottage and pulled the door for me. “Please enter.”

Waiting for me inside was a small classroom. We were standing at the front of the class. There were nine old-style Japanese school desks at which you sit on the floor, arranged in a three-by-three formation. Seated before me were Ling, Nu, and Xiaomei in the first row. Fei, Wen, and Jie sat in the second. In the third were two girls I had not met, and Qin Qin. I now knew their age order. The girls had name signs at their desks, their names carved into the wood. Unfortunately, the names were rendered in their Chinese ideograms which I could not read without a dictionary.

I had failed to notice Lum who was standing to my right. My glance caught her, and I shot her a surprised look—she probably rightfully interpreted it as “WHAT THE FUCK?” She had an embarrassed look on her face.

    “These are ALL the daughters of Dog Island,” said Feng. “You have met most of them. We understand that you have been retained to tutor Xiaomei to improve her scores on her college entrance exams?” I looked at Lum. She nodded that it was OK to own up to it.
    “I am here to represent all of their mothers. And we would like to respectfully request that you would tutor all of them so that they would likewise meet the admission standards to university, such as the one at which you teach.”
    “Before I answer, do you mind if I have a word with Lum? Privately?”
    “Please do.”
    “We’ll be right back.” I held the door for Lum and we stepped outside.

No sooner had we stepped out then that poor woman started to cry. I started to reach for my bandana to offer to her, but realized this is just her coping mechanism. Still, there is a little-girl quality about her that makes me want to scoop her up and rock her. But if she’s anything like Lee, she’s a iron-armed farm woman who can flip me on my back anytime.

    “I’m so sorry! This was supposed to be our secret! I didn’t know this was going to happen. I don’t know what to do,” she sobbed.
    “Subterfuge is probably not your strong game, sister,” I said. “So now I know why I was ordered to appear at the council last night. It was my job interview unawares. Fuck, man, that Feng is pretty scary looking. She reminds me of the vice provost who gets on my case if my grades are late. She has that look of someone who’s got your balls in her fist and is not afraid to squeeze. Ugh.” I had to think for a bit. “You know. I don’t have time for this. I’m just going to turn it all down. We can try again later.”
    “It’s no use, you are now under surveillance.”
    “I could take Xiaomei on as my second research assistant, or replace her for Qin Qin and kind of work with her on the side that way.”
    “Lian would kill me if I got in the way of the relationship you’ve already started with Qin Qin. I DO have to live next door to her. If you gave her a job, they’d make you give all of them jobs. It would be the same thing.”
    “You got any advice for me? If I turn this down it looks like I make an enemy out of this Feng person. Is she dangerous to me?”
    “I never thought of her in that way. But if you’re an outsider, she could be trouble. She is the smartest person on the Island and I think she is the second most powerful. She maintains the library that lines the walls of the classroom. She is consulted on all of our issues of education, law, and ritual.”
     “OK. She’s a pretty big fish in this pond. What are the plusses for being on her good side?”
    “She is the Phoenix Guardian Princess of the South and so is the overseer of bird domestication. You can probably get a chicken to slaughter anytime you want. And maybe at least one duck or two while you’re here. And eggs. She may even cook the chicken for you. Her steeped chicken is the best. She has this tea technique . . .”
    “You guys are all REALLY into food, aren’t you?”
    “I suppose. What else do we have to occupy our time here? Clete, I’ll still make you that garment I promised.”
    “Forget it. Not like I made good on my part.”
     “That’s not true. Mei so, so much more confident in herself now I don’t know what the Firsts are willing to do to compensate you. It’s going to be a lot of work that you weren’t counting on, isn’t it?”
    “Lum. Don’t worry about it. I’m a big boy, I’ll handle it. It’s not going be doing anything that I don’t want to do. But you need to be punished. I am going to make YOU take a bath with me every Saturday night and give me a full goddamned body massage.”
    “Well,” she said, “ I suppose I could do that . . .” She was starting to work that out in her head.
    “LUM! I’m being sarcastic!” She looked a little disappointed. And actually because she was, so was I. But I didn’t have time for that kind of thing either. “Why don’t you go in and have Feng come out and talk to me now?”

Feng emerged from the annex and slowly and carefully strided over to me. I stood there with my arms folded across my chest in the universal defense posture.  I tried to make myself look as big as possible.  I decided to dispense with build-ups and go with an initial denial.

    “I am sorry, but my personal schedule will not allow me to take on your request. I am sorry that you have put everybody out like this and built up expectations, but. . .” She was having none of it.
    “I am calling in my favor, Dr. Wong.  I believe you said you owe me one. This is it. You are teaching those girls to be college-ready.”
    “Wait a fuckin’ minute. It was not you who got me out of that situation. Let me remind you it was Lee.”
    “I held subsequent silence on your behalf.”
    She had me there. Time to act like a pompous jerk who's better than she is.“I'll have you know I teach doctoral level fluid mechanics issues. I run seminars on exploration geology. This is Mickey Mouse league. I don’t have time to be running a goddamned rinky-dink cram school for your daughters.”
    “I am then sufficiently impressed with your credentials to do a more than adequate job. You apparently have time to tutor Xiaomei surreptitiously. You have time to make repairs on Lee’s cottage. You have time to give lessons in computer information transfer to Qin Qin.”
    “It’s ONE thing to help ONE girl with her algebra. To run a course for nine girls of disparate age and skill level to meet a common performance objective within eight weeks? That’s totally something else. Do I look like Annie Sullivan to you?"
    "Who is Annie Sullivan?"
    "An American teacher who set the bar higher than anyone could reach since. A miracle worker."
    "Our girls are very bright. I don't think I"m asking for a miracle."
    "SHIT! Why can’t you people leave me to my own charitable intents? Why can’t I buy one girl one damn pair of glasses! What’s wrong here?”
    “On Dog Island, you may NOT help just ONE girl. Or haven’t you figured that out?”
    “How can I figure ANYTHING out about you people? Nobody answers my questions about this place. You’re all mysterious, close-lipped, obfuscation artists. You’re all driving me fuckin’ nuts!”
    “Your first class is waiting to start Professor. They need to all get to dinner after that.”
    “I refuse.”
    “That is really not an option you have.”
    “Fuck you. I am hereby no longer tutoring Xiaomei. OK. I admit I helped her a few times already. And if it makes you all happy, I will dismiss Qin Qin as my helper and I am just going to work on my own from here on, talking only to Lee.”
    “This is no longer about those relationships, Dr. Wong. You WILL run this class for me.”
    “This is for YOUR daughter, WEN? Is it? Let’s just cut a deal and I’ll help her too and that’s it.”
    “She must be a beneficiary. But I have all the daughters of Dog Island in mind.”
    “And if I don’t do this?”
    “I am the primary administrator of your research contract. Your agreement will be terminated immediately with all assets forfeit and fees payable in full to the Island.”
    “On what grounds?”
    “Primarily express violation of boundary agreements that you know that I know. But I have other things. Violation of sanitation regulations. Violation of religious taboo. What will your sponsoring NGO say when you have forfeited all of their millions of dollars of invested assets here?”

DAMN, I thought. Earth Dragon won’t give a damn. It’s not their nickel. It’s mine. Several million nickels actually. Was I ready to walk away from this? I decided to try playing a "culture card."

    “I thought in Asian cultures, teachers are to be respected, to be revered like royalty? How do you justify jackin’ me around like this?”
    “What you say is true about teachers’ status in general society. But, I AM royalty; a true princess. I outrank you. I CAN push you around as I need to.”
    “You’re bluffing. You can’t be that petty.”
    “You’re wrong if you think that I think the future of my Island is a petty matter. Do you have your satellite phone on you?”
    “I do.”
    “Your Earth Dragon liaison is on the speed dial list, no? Mr. Lai?”
    “He is.” I got my phone out.
    “Call him now. And then hand me the phone.”
    “He’s sleeping right now.”
    “Do I care?”
    I hit Johnson’s entry. One ring. Two ring. Three ring. Pickup.
    “Clete? Is that you? Is something wrong? Why are you calling me?”
    “Johnson . . .” Feng extended her hand, ready to take the phone. Come on, lady. Blink.
    “How ya doin’?” Hand still out. Deadpan serious look on her face.
    “Damn you! You better be getting kidnapped by pirates or something. You know what time it is here?”
    “Look, I thought I had a situation here, but I think I can handle it.” I learned Feng was capable of an evil smile right there.
    “My wife’s throwin’ daggers at me. She has a hard time sleeping. You woke her up.”
    “Take her shopping for shoes, send Sally the bill.”
    “Too expensive. No fuckin’ way.”
    “We can do Asian then, you racist you. Jimmy Choo.”
    “You outta your mind?”
    “OK. Vera Wang then.”
    I sighed. “Whatever.”
    “Missus says you can call whenever you want then.”
    “Go to hell.” I hung up and turned to Feng. “I run it like an American classroom. Voluntary students only, NO compulsories.”
    “Agreed. Your classroom, your rules. But if Wen doesn’t want to be there though, too bad for her. Discipline hard as applicable. Cane if needed.” Feng bowed to me.

I hung my head in submission, shoulders drooped, as I walked over to the classroom door. No matter what part of the world I’m in, I FUCKIN’ HATE vice provosts with too much power. Have I lost my touch in sizing up how to deal with an opponent?

    She pointed out my stupid error when she said to me, “That outcome wasn’t very hard to predict. You know Dr. Wong, there are much nicer places in this world where you can spend a three-month vacation, and yet you came here.”

Was she right? Did I want to be here? Do I really, REALLY like it here? No. It's awful here. It's a hell hole--there's not been a minute I haven't felt oppressed by the climate. Every fiber of my body tells me at every moment to get the hell out of here. Or maybe I really want to help out Qin Qin? I certainly have had research assistants or "bush helpers" in the past that I became fond of and "adopted," giving them taxi fare and buying them meals and the like. It's probably because I'm a cheapskate and spent so much to get here, I don't want to flush it away.

    The only thing I could think to say in reply to Feng was, “Lucky for us both I actually like teaching.”
    “Thank you. I promise, Dr. Wong, that at some point, when the time is right. I will give you some of the answers that you deserve.”
    “Yeah, yeah. That’s what they all say.” At least we were even from that point on and I turned the knob to meet my students.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Chapter 9, Part 4 - The First Meeting of the Conspiracy of Second Princesses

Gentle Readers,

Today we get some of the viewpoints of the younger members on this Island. Just warning you, in the second portion, the longest portion, a lot of thoughts get passed around by nine girls in playful speculation of the stranger who has come to town. Despite what some of them say, I think all of them are going to have a bit of fun with this summer project they are setting up for themselves.

If you haven't figured it out, there's a foundational myth on this Island that underlies a lot of their belief system--something Clete would want little to do with at this point. But guess what? He's going to learn more whether he likes it or not.

Thanks for reading,

Personal Journal of Qin Qin, Guardian Princess of History, Prophecy, and Lore

U.S. Time:             Wednesday, July 18, 2012
Island Time:         Dragon, Month 5, Day 30, Xingqi 3

[Reporter’s note: This is my personal recollection of events later that evening.]

That evening I saw Nu returning Dr. Wong to the Water Domain and I decided to intercept her on her way back home.

    “Did the meeting go well?” I asked.
    She smiled. “It did. Thank you for all your help.”
    “You didn’t make full use of all your leverage.”
    “I’m not as skillful as you. Or maybe I should say guile-ful.”
    “No. But you have cuteness, which I don’t. That’s probably just as good.”
    “I think you’re wrong there, you’re plenty cute.”
    “I’m only cute because I’m the youngest and the smallest. If there were someone younger here, I’d be quite plain. Probably even thought of as a defective.”
    “It’s unusual for you to be here at this time. Did you want something from me?”
    “I was wondering if I could ask you a favor?”
    “Is the Security Council adjourning?”
    “I think they are going to be talking for a long time yet.”
    “What are they meeting about?”
    “They’re probably deciding Dr. Wong’s fate here.”
    “His FATE? They’re not going to kill him? ARE they?”
    “No they’re NOT going to kill him. What an imagination you have! How silly. I have overheard other conversations they have had that they think he’s very disruptive. It seems he has had interactions with Islanders that have led to difficulties.”
    “Why are you looking at ME like that?
    “I think if they could afford it, they’d terminate the research contract. Auntie Feng was assigned to look for any kind of breach of contract to hold over him. So he is the subject of their meeting. Yes.”
    “That’s awful. He’s the only interesting thing to happen on this Island since I’ve been alive!”
    “Don’t exaggerate. Anyway, what did you want?”
    “I want to have a meeting, of the Seconds, tonight too. It would be perfect since most of the Firsts are preoccupied—the important ones anyway. Will you ask everyone to come? I’ll get Ba, Yi, Xiaomei, and Ling.”
    “What’s this about?”
    “Same topic as the Firsts. I know the Junior Council will all come if you ask. They would all just ignore me.”
    “You’re not going to do something stupid are you?”
    “Even if I do, will you still ask them?”
    “How about the Classroom Annex?”
    “I suggest the Hall of Justice Courtyard. Fei will be the least cooperative but since she’ll be at her own home, she can’t do anything but just sit with us and wait for us to leave.”
    “That’s a great idea. I’ll get my half there.”

It took a little while, but we did get all of the Second Princesses into one place. It doesn’t happen that often. Once a month we all have dinner together, the Royals that is, on the night of the full moon. We were all sitting on benches we had pulled around in the garden courtyard outside of Qi and Fei’s cottage.

    “I am calling to order this first meeting of the Seconds,” I said.
    “You? This is Qin’s meeting? Not yours?” said Fei. “If I’d known that, I would not have bothered.”
    “So are you going to leave and go home then?” asked Ba. She giggled sarcastically as she said it.
    Fei whined “Nuuuuuu?”
    “I don’t what she is going to say, but please hear her out,” said Nu.
    I continued, “I want to say something about Dr. Wong, but before I do, I know he was at the Security Council meeting tonight. Nu would please tell those of us who were not there what was said or decided about him?”
    “When everything was said, they mostly came to a resolution, or a joint understanding, that he was definitely NOT The One. Fei? Jie? Wen? Do you agree?” They all nodded or voiced agreement.
    “Very interesting,” I said. “That they would be thinking about that. I am here today to make the opposite claim. I say that he IS most definitely The One.”
    “You’re crazy!” yelled Fei. “That doesn’t even make sense. He does not act like The One. And all the Firsts there said he isn’t. They gave all kinds of reasons. What makes you so sure?”
     “Mostly I just feel it. It has to be. The time is right. And so he is not allowed to leave until he fulfills his duty to us and to the Island,” said Qin Qin.
    “You’re just feeling gushy toward him because he gave you his old books and magazines and a couple of magnifying glasses,” said Ba.
    “AND, she has a part-time job. That pays REAL money,” said Yi.
    “Don’t be so short sighted,” I said. “Look at the signs. He’s the right age. He’s smart, a scholar. He’s rich enough to have THREE pair of glasses. One for each kind of distance: close-up, nearby, and faraway! THAT is extravagant. Very princely if you ask me.”
    “Aren’t you forgetting a major thing? The One’s title is ‘The Great Prince of Southern CHINA?’” said Xiaomei. “So he’s going to have to be Chinese. Dr. Wong is mei … guo … ren, an American person. What part of that don’t you get?  Your assertion fails right there.”
    “Yeah I know, I know. but he seems to have the right kind of name. Wong sounds Chinese to me.”
    “Wong is not strictly a Chinese name,” said Wen. “It’s so common. It’s like when my mother tells me there are people named Lee in practically every country and culture. Even if it’s not pronounced as in Chinese, it would be ‘King.’ That’s pretty common around the world.”
    “OK, OK, OK. Here’s another thing,” I said. “The One, or the Great Prince, is supposed to come here and claim his princess right? I think he likes my mother. He talks to her whenever he sees her.”
    “Is that really your best argument?” asked Jie. “Doesn’t he have a need to talk to your mother because you are his employee? It would natural that he should have conversations with her.  Because of your working relationship, he has license to talk to her given by the Council. He does not speak to my mother because he was ORDERED not to start conversations with anyone else.”
    “But,” I said, “he gave my mom a rare and expensive present,” Qin Qin insisted.
    “What kind of present?” asked Jie.
    “He gave her mom two cartons of American Marlboro cigarettes. It’s not that special,” Xiaomei remarked.
    “Have you ever seen that brand of cigarette on this Island before?” I retorted.
    “OK. They’re rare here,” said Fei. “We’ll give you that. It’s not like he bought them just for her. He didn’t even know her before coming here.”
    “ANYWAY, how about this? In his science building, get this. He has five, count them, FIVE laptop computers,” I said.
    “I’ve seen them. They’re all beat up and clunky looking. Like little black suitcases. Not even a name brand. Just something like CIA is printed on them. And didn’t that company Earth Dragon buy that for him anyway?” said Ba.
    “So I’m still developing my case for him. It IS my job as the appointed Guardian Princess of History, Prophecy, and Lore to analyze and verify claimants to the title of The One, the Great Prince. I just need some more time and information,” I said.
    “Guardian Princess of History?!” Fei scoffed at me. “That’s not a real job! Not like Xiaomei’s office! You don’t get paid. Don’t get so high and mighty. You’ve only had that appointment for a year and a half,” said Fei. “They just created that for you to entice you to keep on reading and writing. But all you ever do is read your fairy tale books and write fairy tales. I am not convinced.”
    “And, IF he is The One. And that’s a big IF!” said Wen, “There’s not a lot of time to convince us to start with, or our mothers. He’s only here for eight more weeks. The Protectorate’s navy boat will come for him shortly after the Lost Souls Festival,” said Wen.
    “I’ve thought about that and I have a contingency plan. If he does not realize his duty by then, we will kidnap him and hide him until he misses the boat. We can put him in Anto’s Storehouse in the pirate grotto. Then he will have to stay for another three months when the next boat will come,” said Qin Qin.
    “WAIT A MINUTE!” said Nu. “You said ‘kidnap! I’m pretty sure that’s a crime here on Dog Island.”
    “It can’t be a crime if that’s only way to have the Great Prince manifest himself. The whole reason for this Island’s existence is to await his coming.”
    “You’re the only one who thinks he is,” said Fei.
    “Oh yeah? We’ve been talking for a while now. Let’s take a vote. How many think Dr. Wong is The One who has come to save the Island? Raise your hand.” I looked around and only my hand was up. “That’s disappointing.”
    “What if we do your plan and we’re wrong?” asked Ba.
    “He’s delayed getting home and we get lectured. OK maybe beaten ... a little. BUT … what if we do nothing, and I’m right?” I asserted. As I looked around, some of them now seemed a little troubled by that thought. “No possible candidate has gotten here, except him. There are so many protections on this Island. How do you explain that he made it through? And yeah, I read a lot of fairy tales. I have also been reading a lot of the oracles and dreams that have been written about The One. The avatars of the Empress only recently started interpreting the prophecies in a very literal way as a reaction against the last Sea Witch’s attempt to usurp leadership of the Island.”
    “The Witches Rebellion . . .” It was the first time Ling had said a word.
    “The very one. We don’t know much about it. But the Royal House became very paranoid after that and the walls went up between us and The Outside. Our mothers just accepted their mothers’ stance.”
    “And then the Great Surge came,” said Nu.
    “What do you think of all this, Nu?” asked Xiaomei.
    “It’s a lot to take think about. Ling? You’re the eldest,” said Nu.
    “We don’t know enough to decide anything,” said Ling.
    “Agreed. Most of us have not said a word to him!” said Fei.
    “I’ve spoken to him now,” said Nu.
    “So have I,” said Xiaomei.
    “So neither of you think he’s The One?” asked Fei.
    “I know that he is very smart,” said Xiaomei, “an excellent math teacher, and I like him a lot.”
    “I like him a lot too. And I,” said Nu, “I am NOT going to do anything to bother him or harm him. And I won’t allow anyone else to do it either. So get those ideas for kidnapping him out of your head right now Qin Qin. I’m going to watch you.”
    “But Nu,” said Jie, “if a liberal reading is given to the prophecy, do you think it’s possible he might be The One?” said Jie.
    “Dr. Wong is a fine person. But for me to believe he is The One,” said Nu, “I think I’d need a definite sign or signifying event. Why does he not assert himself if he is?”
    “Do you think it’s possible he doesn’t know he’s The One?” Jie continued.
    “I’m having a hard enough time considering the idea of a nonliteral application,” said Nu. “His not even knowing, or maybe discovering that … I suppose that could be?”
    “How would he find out or discover that about himself?” asked Xiaomei.
    “You’re The Questor! Aren’t you supposed to know?” Fei complained.
    “I DON’T KNOW. They just took me to The Shrine one day and gave me that title. I didn’t ask for it. It’s not like they gave me a list of things to look for.”
    “I’m the prophecy guardian,” said Qin Qin. “I’m getting the list together. That’s why you should pay attention when I say I think somebody’s The One. You’re not going to have to look far.”
    “I haven’t seen your list yet,” said Yi. “You keep saying you’re working on it.”
    “I’m sorry that I have bad eyes! I haven’t been able to write very easily until just a couple of weeks ago.”
    “Yeah, so we have nothing to go on except your word. And to me, you’re untrustworthy. Even if he is The One. What is he going to do?” asked Fei.
    “I don’t know,” I said. “It’s not clear. But according the stories, the Prince of Southern China always seems to have a plan. I heard him talking to my mother. He thinks ALL of us girls should be going to college. Not just Xiaomei. Isn’t that something that a person like a father would think? And he wants us to go to HIS college, Yao Ah Seh I think it’s called. Not sure what that means--his Chinese pronunciation is pretty darn bad. Anyway, that’s definitely going to be part of his plans.”
    “That’s U – S – C. In English,” said Nu.
    “What does that stand for?” asked Ba.
    “Probably United States College,” said Nu, “but to go the United States means leaving the Island. That doesn’t sound right,” said Nu.
    “HELLO! That’s what the Prophecy of the Return of the Prince is all about! ‘He is coming back to get his wife and daughter and bring salvation and prosperity to the Island.’ I think prosperity could mean all of the Island’s children get to go to college and maybe, maybe …. hmmm, and maybe all of our mothers get their own refrigerator?”
    “Refrigerators? But that would mean electricity 24 hours a day,” said Ba.
     “I believe THAT would easily fall under the definition of ‘prosperity,’” said Jie.
    “Wouldn’t it be great to get some beef that didn’t come out of a can or dried as jerky? I heard it’s really tasty when fresh,” said Ba.
    “You’re getting off the subject,” I suggested.
    “But USC is in Los Angeles right? Los Angeles is such a dangerous place. It always looks so crowded on the TV shows,” said Ba. “With lots of car chases and explosions and criminals.”
    “So then only one of us leaves the Island with him?” asked Yi.
    “I always imagined in my head when the Prince came, he would claim his princess and settle down here, like Nu suggested,” said Jie. “And if he’s a Prince of Southern China, wouldn’t we then be going to a Chinese university? Or at least Singapore?” said Jie.
    “That’s why I don’t buy him as being The One. He’s American. It’s just like the Firsts said. My mother said he speaks Chinese like a six-year-old boy. She thinks it’s so cute when he tries, she wants to pat his head like a dog,” said Xiaomei.
    “Getting back to what Qin said, what if the stories and predictions about the Prince are  prophetic language? Maybe like some religious writing—it doesn’t have to be literally true?” suggested Jie.
    “I’m not clear how this would work Qin,” said Ba. “The Scientist discovers he’s our Prince and then we tell him, ‘Welcome! Now pick wife and a daughter from among us?’ And then he moves into their cottage?” said Ba.
    “I suppose he’ll be rich enough to build on another room?” said Yi. “Or he would just take over the guest cottage.”
    “Well, how about this? He figures it out after he falls in love with the right woman,” said Nu.
    “But how is that supposed to happen if he’s told NOT to talk to anybody and all the Firsts seem to avoid him,” said Wen.
    “That’s probably not a good theory. He just told me that he is NOT looking for a girlfriend,” I added.
    “There’s only one woman he spends a lot of time with, Auntie Lee. And it’s DEFINITELY NOT going to be her. Do you see the way they fight? Oh uh, sorry Ling.” said Ba.
    “Don’t worry,” said Ling. She was sitting quietly so it was easy to forget she was there. “But you’re right. That will NOT happen. Mama hates him. If in the remotest chance they fell for each other I would have move to China to avoid the bickering. Or maybe the Outside Witches would take me in.”
    “Ling, do you hate Dr. Wong?” asked Fei.
    “What a silly question,” said Ling.
    “Doesn’t it bother you that he always makes your mother angry?”
    “THAT is mother’s own fault. And you can’t hate Dr. Wong. He’s so smart but he keeps messing up and saying or doing the wrong thing. He makes me laugh all the time. I don’t dare do it in front of him, though. He’s almost like a little boy with my mother. Like one time she had gotten a chicken from yards and she told him to kill it and pluck it and he heard wrong and instead dressed it up like a doll. I think he doesn’t want to look stupid in front of her so he doesn’t ask questions and he improvises.”
    “Why does she hate him then?” said Fei.
    “She was the worst person to put in charge of him. She has no patience and no sense of humor,” said Ling. “It would be hard for me to imagine that he is the Prince, and someone who would then want to live here. That’s what it means to be the Prince, The One, right? That’s why I think he can’t be it.”
    “That’s right. He’s a teacher in Los Angeles. Nobody from there would want to live here. It’s a cold climate there. It’s obviously too hot for him here. This is why thinking he is The One makes no sense to me either,” said Fei.
    “I need to hear that whole story about the Prince again. I’ve only heard parts. Qin, you need to tell it,” said Jie. “Why don’t you tell it to us again now?”
    “It’s too long to say the whole thing now. I’ll recite it when the time is right. I only just got Granny Lulu’s version of one part last month. I have to piece it in.”
    “I don’t believe he’s anything like The One, but I’m willing to consider the possibility with a less rigid interpretation of the stories once you make a better case Qin,” Jie said.
    And then Ling finally spoke her piece. “I’m willing to let Qin’s idea be open to investigation. Let me suggest something. Dr. Wong would say this is what you should do if you lack a developed thesis. Just make observations and gather data. The data will tell you what it wants to be asked eventually.”
    “What would that mean?” asked Nu.
    “We should take turns watching him and record everything he does when he is with any of the Firsts. Without his knowing of course,” said Ling.
    “Oh that’s easy,” said Wen. “Jie and I are doing that already.”
    “WHAT? You’ve been spying on him? Since when?” I yelled. “I’ve never seen you around.”
    “My mother asked me to. Early on. But Jie and I have been doing it from the start. We’re just curious. AND we’re better at tracking than you are,” said Wen. “Remember that you have bad eyesight. You can be on the lookout for us now. Bet you still won’t see us.”
    “Oh shut up,” I said.
    “It needs to be all of us,” said Ling, “and we should do it in pairs.”
    “Why pairs?” asked Yi.
    “Some of us might be more partisan to interpret things in favor of their own mother,” said Nu.
    “Why are you all looking at ME?” I said.
    “Wow. If this turns into a competition, THIS will be a lot of fun!” said Ba.
    “Fate is fate,” said Fei. “There is no use anticipating an outcome since if he is here to fulfill a prophecy, it’ll just happen.”
    “Yeah,” said Ba, “but even so, WE don’t know the outcome, so it’ll still be fun to watch unfold.”
    “Why Fei! Sounds like I’ve pushed you into thinking of this as a possibility,” I said to needle Fei.
    “Whatever happens happens. Just so you know, I am not leaving this Island. Ever. Prince or no Prince. This is my home. And I love it here. You can all leave if it comes to that. But I will always be here to take care of this place and all the things that live here.”
    “Well said, my darling.” It was Auntie Qi who said that. She had come behind Fei and put her arms around Fei and they pressed their heads together. At the sound of Qi’s voice, all of the Soul Birds who lived in the courtyard trotted over, flocking around her. She put her hands on all of them, caressing them and calming them with a song.
    “How long have you been there mother?” asked Fei.
    “I just walked up. I promise I only heard your last sentence. If you’ve been sharing secrets. Is that why you’re all here? Goodness! It’s a conspiracy of Seconds!”
    “They were curious about what the Security Council was talking about,” said Nu. “We were giving a report.”
    “Well, we forgot to swear you to secrecy and there are no secrets here anyway. Shall I make you girls some tea?” The warning bell rang.
    “Power’s going off anyway,” said Ling. “It’s late. We’d all better be going.
    “You were so beautiful in your formal robe! But that awful man was an idiot for not selecting your tea, mother. I shall never forgive him for that,” said Fei.
    Auntie Qi sighed heavily. “I don’t know why Feng wanted to set that up like a contest. But, that MAN! How can one person engender so much karma just by walking into a room? Please forgive him, darling. It’s only tea.”
    “Was that Auntie Mu’s tea that he picked?” asked Fei.
    “Yes. And she tried so hard not to be impressed with herself that I actually felt sorry for her. You can tell your mother that if you want, Nu. Good night girls.”

We are The Conspiracy of Seconds, I thought as I walked home. I liked the sound of that.