Saturday, May 31, 2014

Three Loves Seven, Chapter 13 - "Feng Is Not Jealous, Really She Isn't"

Hello there friends, family, and gentle readers,

Just in case any of you tune in regularly to see my daily pictures of Malibu mornings, I've been on vacation--so nothing has been posted. Sorry. Didn't take my laptop with me either, even though I thought about it... I'm not dogged blogger it seems.

A psychologist friend of mine once told me that he had come to believe that all interpersonal relationships are triangular; that is, that one-to-one relationships, like that between friends, lovers, spouses, siblings, etc., will inevitably consist of dialogue of their observations about a third person or thing ("the kids," "the boss," "my mother," "my best friend Shirley," "the vacation plans," etc.). As I have come to observe people and the conversations they have, I can see where my psychologist friend is coming from. Rarely do we engage in a true one-on-one exchange. When we do, it's usually in the aftermath of a conflict.

Today's entry is one of the younger inhabitants observing a couple of conversations between her elders. It tells her something as it also tells all of the Seconds something. The reporter does not record the ensuing discussion. I'm sure it was lively and I am sure it became partisan. I know what I would think at this point. Hopefully you want to know more, because if you do, you're in luck. Stay tuned.


Entry into the Island Annals

U.S. Time:             Saturday, July 28, 2012
Island Time:        Dragon, Month 6, Day 10, Xingqi 6

Note from the Guardian of History, Prophecy, and Lore: A meeting of the Security Council was called this evening. Of the junior council, Wen and Nu were present. Later that evening a secret meeting of the Second Princesses was convened to take reports on all observations of and relating to my assertion that Dr. Wong is the Island’s awaited Prince.

Following is Wen’s report captured:

WEN:  A meeting of the Security Council was called to review my mother’s report as treasurer, to approve a few major energy purchases, and to hear Dr. Wong’s second report on his research, as was requested of him. His field work so far has taken him to the domains of Fire, Wood, Metal, and Earth. There was a lot of discussion about the depth and nature of the topsoil in what he called the central breadbasket region. He seemed extremely puzzled why we even have as much topsoil as we do, that it was not normal for a tropical island to be like this. In fact, he said he would like to rename the Island “Anomalous Island” since so many things run counter to his presumptions about what one would expect here.

He said he had done extensive groundwater collection and analysis and was pleased to report that saline incursion was not as large an issue as his sponsor, the Earth Dragon Institute, had imagined. In fact, he said they will probably be unhappy with his report. He said he would have more to report on these overall findings in his final report. He had several things to say about chemical composition but I will leave that to Auntie Ting Ting’s minutes if any of you are curious.

Dr. Wong wore his coat and tie to the council meeting this time. I thought he looked quite handsome in his business attire, and with his hair combed quite neatly rather than his usual messy hair after taking off his field hat when coming into class sessions. I think he had just freshly shaved too.

For some reason, my mother seemed kind of cold and a little upset, like the way she gets with me when she has one of her headaches. She seemed to glare at Auntie Lee the entire time Dr. Wong was at the meeting—he had brought her along even though she had not been invited. I wonder if mother and Lee had an argument recently. Ling, have you seen or heard any conflict between your mother and mine? [Ling indicated that she had not.] Interesting. Here is an example of the sort of exchange they had:

[in Mandarin]

     “Lee. What is that?” mother said pointing to Lee’s thermos.
     “Just some tea. After he talks a long time he gets hoarse.”
     “There is a perfectly good and fresh pot here. Either of the girls can pour it for him.”
     “That is your fancy party tea. I can smell it from here. Very nice, but it can be irritating. He just needs something that wets and soothes his throat. Everyday stuff. He told me he prefers my tea for that purpose.”
     “Why are you even here? We’re not talking about any issues related to your domain.”
     “He asked me to come in case I need to translate something into English from you all. You know his Chinese is terrible.”
     “I would not use the word ‘terrible.’ Unpracticed perhaps. But, my English skills are excellent.”
     “I didn’t say they weren’t. He is my responsibility. You didn’t ask me to come, but HE did.” She handed him the thermos cap filled with tea.

[in English]

     “You. Drink.” Lee delivered it like a gruff command.
    “Thank you Lee,” said Dr. Wong. “What hell are you two talking about? Some goddamned point of Roberts Rules? The way you keep throwing the word “cha” around it almost sounds you’re talking about tea. . .”
     “Clete, you just finish what you need to say as soon as possible so we can be off. We are just talking about small housekeeping matters.”

[switch to Mandarin]

     [Lee to Feng] “I heard you’re approving a fuel purchase. That does involve me.”
     “Yes, but you don’t need to be here for that,” said mother. “You never have been before. You just put in the requisition and we approve as a matter of course. Are you changing the requisition?”
     “No changes, but I’m here anyway if you want to ask any questions while I’m here.”

[switch to English]

     “Excuse me, can I continue?” asked Dr. Wong. “That’s all for my report on my research. I thought you might like to hear how the girls are doing in our tutoring sessions?”
     “Thank you Dr. Wong,” said mother, “but we have a full agenda, madam chair?”
     “That is right,” said Mu. “We will be happy to hear that report at our next meeting.”
     “I would like to say,” said Feng, “that I am most pleased with Wen’s progress. I have been looking at her written work quite closely. Her essays are much more structured and coherent. Frankly, I am amazed at the difference with just one week’s instruction.”
     “The girls are all bright. I’m just reminding them of what they know and encouraging them to bring what they already know out. I’m glad to hear you think my efforts are worthwhile.”
     “They are MORE than worthwhile. I assure you. I appreciate it.”

WEN: Let me interject at this point that mother DOES seems quite pleased with his work with me. She is not a smiling person. But she always seems to find one when the Professor is present.

     “In that case, we will go,” said Lee as she got to her feet and then offered her hand to Dr. Wong.

[switch to Mandarin]

     “Why do you treat him like a child? I find it disgusting! I’m sure he can get up on his own.”
     “I get criticized in the past for being disagreeable. Now I am getting criticized for being helpful? Please make up your mind.”
     “Would you two STOP it!” said Qi. “You’re both giving me a headache.”

[switch to English]

     “Thanks Lee. My knees do get stiff and sore sitting like that. Well ladies, it’s been a pleasure as always.”

[switch to Mandarin]

     “See,” said Lee. “He worked hard on his feet all day. He’s tired. But he got dressed up for you. He’s learning to be a better guest, thanks to me.”

[in English]

     “Gotta get a move on,” said Dr. Wong, “I promised Lee here I’d help move some sorghum for the livestock feed before it gets dark. It’s on the way back.”

[in Mandarin]

     “What? You’re having him do your manual labor in his dress clothes? What kind of hypocrisy is this? All this false concern for his knees! What kind of a slave driver are you?” my mother practically yelled.
     “I cannot stop him when he is intent on being helpful! And why do YOU make him sit on the floor? And how dare you talk to me about him on forced labor.”

[in English]

     “What’s going on?” asked Dr. Wong.
     “Shut up and let’s go,” said Lee. “None of your business. Just mine!”
     “Like you said, Professor,” Mu broke in, “a minor misunderstanding on procedure. You are dismissed and we look forward to your next report. Thank you.”

WEN: Lee did not stay for the discussion on fuel purchases. Nu and I did happen to overhear the following conversation between our mothers as we straightened the Meeting Hall following the meeting. Nu, please correct anything you think I heard wrong.

     “What was that about?” asked Mu.
     “Lee can be very exasperating,” said mother.
     “I’M not exasperated. If she wants to come to a council meeting that’s fine. All are invited.”
     “She’s become quite clingy to him don’t you think?”
     “What if she has? They still get along like a cat and a dog if you haven’t noticed. But they have moved to a kind of equilibrium. Clashy, but still something of a truce. In fact, I think it’s rather cute that he has started to act like Lee’s henpecked husband. The two of them sort of remind me of my own parents. Especially toward the end.”
     “If you want to know what I think? I think she’s attracted to him. I think her stances of aggressiveness are her attempts to try to push him away.”
     “And what of it? Lee’s entitled to her feelings. He’s not going to be with us much longer. It seems healthy enough to me—her keeping her distance and all. You know what will happen. He will just turn into a nice memory that she will hold and talk about until she dies. I am kind of curious how her assessment of him will shift after time.”
     “It just irks me the way she treats him.”
     “You were very nice to him tonight. But I have heard you were not so nice to him when you were negotiating his teaching contract. Are we compensating him by the way? Somebody asked me.”
     “I …, I … No, we did not specify compensation. I will prepare a roasted duck for him on completion of his duties.”
     “That’s your favorite meal too, isn’t it?”
     “What if it is?”
     “Would it help you for me to say that I think you’re right? About Lee being fond of him but not willing to admit it to herself. But Lee is working it through just fine. Do you think he is developing feelings for her?”
     “NO. Well, maybe no. He seems indifferent, but he seems to be getting uncomfortably familiar with her.”
     “Uncomfortable for who? We DID assign her to him, so they ARE going to get familiar with one another. Are YOU jealous of their working relationship by any chance?”
     “Why that’s preposterous. No. I could never be. We NEVER told her she had to make his breakfasts and dinners and make daily reports to her.”
     “We didn’t tell her she couldn’t. Let me remind you it was YOUR idea to make Lee his liaison.”
     “It was strategic. She has the nastiest, pushiest personality of all of us.”
     “Second to you, of course.”
     Mother smirked. “I will let that pass. She was supposed to function as a repulsion to native contact. I did NOT expect him to have a complementary pushy personality. THAT was an error.”
     “We can always reassign. No Third Branches. I think that’s certain.”
     “Oh, DEFINITELY not Thirds. Did you hear about Lum?”
     “You’re getting off the track dear. But yes. Who didn’t? Lian cannot be objective with him now either. I thought maybe Na, but did you know she is wearing one of his shirts on an everyday basis? It’s dark crimson denim. She says she likes it because it is like the color of dried blood and . . . and . . . and it doesn’t show stains.”
     “Almost everyone I can think of is a worse choice at this point. I don’t want to make a change and have it look like we made a mistake.”
     “You mean, like YOU made a mistake.”
     A huff of hot air from mother. “Do you think I’m personalizing this too much?”
     “A bit. You’ve become somewhat unpracticed at being empathetic. You need to work on that. Seven-Seven is coming up and you’re going to hurt someone.”
     “I know. I’m sorry.”
     “I was going suggest that I be his replacement contact, but I know you have problems with that. Just making sure . . . you’re only concerned on Lee’s behalf then? Looking out for her best interests?”
     “That sounds right. I think so. Actually, the ISLAND’S best interest. Maybe I should have a talk with Dr. Wong about Lee. Just so he knows who he is dealing with.”
     “Warning him against her? MY you ARE jealous.”
     “MU! It’s NOT like that at all!”
     “I don’t recommend it. Leave it alone. You’re only going to stir things up for them and possibly you. But you are free to do what you think best. Nobody questions your judgment but even you can have a blind spot. Be careful if you do.”
     “If it were anyone else, it would not make me so alert. But it is Lee we’re talking about. And when she finally chooses to do something, well . . . I mean she can be brash and impetuous and she is known to act without thinking things through.”

WEN:  Auntie Mu nodded and then looked over at Nu and myself as we were doing our work. We both pretended not to be listening.

     “Have you girls been listening to us?”
     “No Auntie,” I lied.
     “These jars have big ears,” she said grasping my earlobes, and then Nu’s after me. “Empty jars my dears. We need empty jars.”  

WEN: We bowed to our mothers, but their intrigues seemed to be like girlish gossip compared our business, and I am complying with her order a bit late and emptying the jar, right here in front of you.

[Reporter's note: There were other reports not notable enough to mention. The Seconds took a secret ballot on my assertion. I was still the only yea, but there were now three abstentions.]

© Copyright 2012, Vincent G. Way, all rights reserved.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Three Loves Seven, Chapter 12, Part 3 - "An Excellent Game of Capture Treasure"

Happy Memorial Day gentle readers,

When I was writing this section, I was thinking about how a culture creates games that are important to the values they want to preserve.

I looked at the inventory of games in my house and  saw that a majority declare a victory based on the accumulation of wealth, either by collecting denominated money, properties, or a figurative accumulation of points. It's no surprise. We're capitalists. The primary incentive for the American Dream of going to college is to make money (since education costs so much in itself).

As we head into summer, many of us will get all focused on baseball. So many people I know complain how slow-moving and boring it is, and why don't we just get rid of it? To me it persists because it says something about the American mind right now. It's a big team, nine, and everybody has a specific job to do at which they can shine, but they most rely on all of the others. The truly American part is that everybody has to get up and take a turn at bat when they go on offense. It is a recognition of the individual apart from the team. And while it appears boring if you're not paying attention, it's really the most tense part of watching your team play.  And anybody can be a hero, or a goat.

Na has just dragged Clete off into one of Dog Island's games. It says something about the Island's past. Just warning you, you will never get the full story of the Island's past. It's too long for the scope of this novel even though the Island as a human settlement has not existed for that long.  This book will never get to a point where I will be fielding questions at an author's talk--it's just too quirky a work--but if it ever does, you can ask all about this strange place, because it DOES have a back story.

Have a fine Memorial Day however you spend it. I fully expect nobody will be reading this on a holiday, and that is a good thing. You have a life. Live it.


Clete's personal journal entry continues.

U.S. Time:            Wednesday evening, July 25, 2012
Island Time:        Dragon, Month 6, Day 7, Xingqi 3
Project Date:       Week 4, Day 3

Na had initiated a game they played as girls. I had the role of the mute “Hostage” who was ordered where to go by the “Slaver” who was behind him. The role of the “Hunter” was to track down the Slaver and capture the Hostage by placing two fingertips on the Slaver’s spine, as if a knife or gun. The Slaver and the Hunter then switch roles upon which the new Hunter must slowly count to 99 while the Slaver and Hostage make their escape before the new hunt begins. We had passed into Feng’s domain to the west when we heard a fierce cry of the word “HUNT!” rise up in the distance.
“Head to the north,” her fingers punctuated the order with her tapping on my spine. “To the left. We have got to get out of the open. We are going to move behind Feng’s chicken coops. We moved quickly. Feng also had a small fenced duck pond as well. We settled behind one coop and waited for Mei to pass, at which point we would backtrack. I hung close to a wall while Na crept around me to get a look, when Mei jumped out and made the first capture.

     “You are SO predictable! You always come to the coops first.”
     “Ugh! One, two, three, . . .” started Na.
     “Slow down! You’re counting too fast! Hostage, move in the direction I nudge.”

So on we went. The Slaver had a logistical disadvantage of trying to manipulate the movements of two people, while a Hunter could quickly run ahead of a less than cooperative pair. We proceeded to the north, but when she thought we were out of sight, Mei shifted us to the west. Na’s cry of “HUNT!” rose up and Da Mei hurried me over a gentle hill which descended to a calm beach where there were several caves. She motioned me into one of them. Again, the same strategy of taking a guarded position waiting for the Hunter to overshoot. We were hunched behind a boulder and we had a wide vantage point to observe 270 degrees of approach. However, fingers touched Mei’s back, and Na announced my recapture.

     “You should listen to our daughters chat once in a while. They said a new connecting passage had opened between this cave and Cave 5 at low tide.”
     “Ungh,” groaned Mei. She started her count, “One, two, three. . .”

And so we continued.  Na pushed me to the north and we entered familiar territory for me, Lee’s Water Domain. We got onto the main path and she advised us to make a run for the lab. I complied and we took refuge in a stand of palm trees nearby. It was at a point higher than any place around. She looked about carefully. She spotted Ling and someone else—I couldn’t tell who it was—walking off the path into an area that looked like a stand of trees with broad leaves like banana trees. She smiled to herself, and motioned us out into the open. We lingered slowly a bit. I think when she felt like Mei had a chance to spot us, we ran into the “banana”-tree grove, but cutting away off the path after we had entered. She ordered me to grab an overhead branch and swing myself over some brush and she did likewise. She was apparently trying to cause a gap in our footprint trail. The ruse worked as we watched Mei pad stealthily past our hidden position.

     “HA! I got her to follow Ling.” She had us backtrack up to our previous high point so that she could monitor Mei’s actions. “She’ll be off on an unnecessary side trip for a while. Your right leg seems to be getting tired. Let’s sit and rest her for a bit.”
     “Am I OK to talk now?”
     “You can call a recess, any player can, so fine.”
     “We’ve covered quite a bit of terrain. I need to see these caves at some point.”
     “You want to go now? I can call off the game.”
     “I’m not on duty—this is R and R. Plus, I don’t have my lanterns. But yes! I want YOU to show them to me some time.”
     “I will. But the sea caves in the southeastern quarter you will find MUCH more interesting. I will have to calculate the next low tide though. ”
     “I can look it up online. You have kayaks?”
     “We have paddle boards.” Na just stared at me for a time.
     “Something on my nose?” I asked.
     “You can stop acting now. I have seen enough. I am convinced.”
     “Convinced of what?”
     “You. You’re The One. You’re the Prince.”
     “I don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about.”
     “Play it that way if you want. Maybe you have your own timing. Fine. But I am SO ready to leave. Just, … please Clete? Include me in your plans? Yi and me? ”
     Then it dawned on me. That story the Daughters told me. “Now wait a minute. You’re not mixing me up with that fairy tale of yours are you? That legend of the return of the Prince of China?”
      “That’s SOUTHERN China. There’s a difference. And it’s not a return. He’s never been here.”
      “EVERYBODY’S a goddamned literature professor here! Na! You don’t need me for jack shit. You and your daughter are autonomous people right? You’re both free agents. If you get passports you can leave this place anytime you want.”
     “It’s not that simple for us. You have to be The One to make it happen.”
     “Hey, I realize you’re isolated here and maybe the process seems daunting to you, but I’m sure it’s just paperwork. I’m happy to work on your behalf. Let’s go the agent of the Protectorate, Rex, tomorrow and start the process. Do you have family someplace else you need to contact to stay with?”
     “I am not stupid. Please. I know how to legally emigrate if I want. But if you really are the Prince, that’s not how it’ll be done. I can’t just up and leave them all here.”
     “I am the third son of man who had print shop in Los Angeles. He did business cards, menus, and sales flyers. He had a niche business because he could set up jobs in three sizes of Chinese type. His father was a cannery worker. I guarantee you I am not a prince.”
     “Things happen here. Things that cannot be explained. Things are not always as they seem.”
     “That tells me nothing. How will it be done? You want me to help you and Yi get liberated from this place? Give me a clue.”
     “I don’t know. I don’t know. I DON’T KNOW!” She put her face into her hands. “I just know there has to be something more than this … for Yi especially. This is a transition time for her right? At her age? I don’t want her life to be taking care her cousins’ shit. And is there something more for me even? Is that selfish to ask?”
     “I’m a teacher. I am all about preparing someone to be more than they are. Moving toward a better life is what I help others do. But why do you think I’m your man? I’m just an engineer on vacation. Since this character you’re on the lookout for is prince, shouldn’t you be looking for a person with royal blood? Why am I special?”
     “The main thing is you actually made it here.”
     “That’s a pretty low bar to clear.” She gave me a blank face—American idiom alert. “That’s not a hard test to pass.”
     “It is though. You have survived. It’s been a month right?  NOBODY can get onto this damned Island. Every man who did since the Great Surge, and who did not have an existing family connection died, went crazy, became incapacitated, or disappeared at sea. And we’re only a talking about a few over the decades.” I recalled the crew that located my equipment here. I should probably follow up. “Do you believe in samsara?”
     “The cycle of rebirth? The religious teaching? No. That’s a load of bullshit. There’s no proof for that kind of thing. When you think about it, there are more people alive today than there have been up until now. Where did all the extra people come from?”
     “I am not a priest. But when you think about it, you breed a lot of cattle in America right? To eat right?”
     “Yeah? What’s your point?”
     “Maybe all the extra people are cattle who have worked their way up.”
     I admitted to myself that that was the most reasonable explanation for reincarnation I’d ever heard in my life. “Well, judging by the way people drive in L.A., you may be on to something.”
     “And, … we get along. You and me. I feel like we have known each other before.”
     “Do you?”
     “Don’t you?”
     “I don’t know. I don’t know many people—at least not personally. I’m not a friendly person. People all over the world find me rude. Not just you guys.”
     “Friendly has nothing to do with it. I know that you are not friendly. And that is fine. You say sharp things so that nobody will draw near to you. But I am hoping that you are not mean, or evil, or that you will be unkind to Yi.”
     “That’s ridiculous. I will never do anything to hurt Yi, or you, or anyone on this Island. I like you all.”
     “Then that is a promise you cannot make.”
     “You’re a cynic. Not that I blame you. Apparently your job—your whole situation here—has made you bitter. If I had to live your life I would not be happy either.”
     “People who like each other, who are friends, they are the ones who hurt each other the most.”
     Those words rang loud in my head. “Too true, my dear. Too true.”
     “We need to move,” she said rising. “Silence Hostage! I sense the Hunter is coming near. Damn.”
     “Are we still playing …”
     “Fuck this fuckin’ game. Na. Talk to me.” And then she unloaded, fast.
     “Clete. I am only going to tell you this. And I am going to tell you this once. I think you are The One. But you don’t know what you’re doing. You either going to save us or you’re going to destroy us. I can’t tell which. But I’ve wanted the place, all of us, to be saved all my life. That’s not selfish is it? I mean, you are not The One imagined would show up. You’re less than I thought, but you are something else. Do not get me wrong. A teacher is good. A college profressor is pretty good. I think it’s really good. Because that means you’re a scholar right?  And he was a scholar. But it was unexpected. I was thinking more like a sea captain or a pirate or an airplane pilot. It’s a puzzle . . . and a surprise. But it seems right. It really does. And you are here. And it’s like I’ve known you all along . . . from the first minute we talked.”
     She was talking so fast her words were slurring and bumping into one another. “NA! Would you slow down? I haven’t even gotten half of what you just said.” I held her by the shoulders and looked carefully into her eyes. They seemed to be tracking together which was good. I lifted my right finger and moved it back and forth. “Watch the finger please.”
     “Don’t do that! I am perfectly fine. I am sorry, but my mind is just going too fast. I’ve been thinking about this a lot. Please, please, please Clete. Be The One. But don’t hurt anybody. I will never forgive you or myself if people get hurt, or worse.”
     “You’re getting incoherent. I’m stopping things right now and I’m taking you home. You’re hyper. Relax. Breathe. I’m not going anywhere for a while so we have all the time in world to talk. OK?”
     “That’s the thing. We DON’T. You’re only here a few more weeks. And it’s taken you forever to get to my domain. Something has to give! And soon. It’s all speeding up. Can’t you tell?”
     “Na. Stop. Again. I’m saying slow down. I’m worried about you.”
     “Are you? Are you really?”
     “Yes. Do you believe me?”
     “Yes. I believe you.”
     “Let’s go home then.”
     “No. It’s too soon. We’re not done yet. We have to go on.”
     “So what does that mean?”
     “It means I like you AND we have to keep on playing the game. We’re not at the end. We need to move, she’s coming. Down and to the right.” She stuck her knife finger in my back. “Actually, you wait here while I figure out where the enemy is.”

No sooner had she left me alone than I heard a voice call out to me. I turned about and there was a girl in the bushes. It was Eve.

     “Yi!” I whisper-yelled. “We need to get your Mom home. She’s having some kind of a cognitive breakdown.”
     “Professor! She’s OK. She gets like that. Her head goes faster than her mouth. You just made her think more about things than she ever does. Just get her to stop talking for a while and she will get back her regular thinking rhythm.”
     “How the fuck do I do that?”
     “I think you should sneak up behind her, turn her around suddenly, and then just kiss her for a long time.”
     “Eve, be serious. I am so NOT going to do that. Besides, your mom hits really hard. I don’t want to get punched in the gut. I’ll bleed out by morning.”
     “If you hold her tight against you, in a big hug just like in the movies, she can only slap your back. It’s almost sunset. She will give up and then hug you back right? It would be very romantic.”
     “Grown-ups in real life do not act like they do in the movies. And in California that would be a felony sexual assault to boot. Do you realize how much more trouble that will cause for me if anyone sees me do that to her?”
     “Sigh. You are no fun. Well then, just sneak up behind her, put your two fingers on her back like a gunpoint, and yell ‘switch.’”
     “They didn’t tell you, but the Hostage is also a strategic player in the game. The Hostage can switch roles with the Slaver if the Slaver is stupid enough to turn his back for a long time. She thinks she’s safe because she didn’t tell you that rule.”
     “That’s not fair.”
     "Now that I think about it, they NEVER tell a first-time Hostage. They have to figure it out."
     "So WE cheated then?"
     “Yeah, but this game is all about deception and evasion. So we're good. Anyway, when she’s the Hostage she can’t talk. Do it now!”

So I did exactly as Eve suggested and yelled “Switch!”

     “Damn! Clete! Who told you?”
     “Shush. You’re mine now. Not a word.” I thought for a moment. “OK back through the garden, through the sunflowers and the corn, and behind the pig pens.” Na did calm down thankfully. I found a likely spot for wide-angle observance, but as soon as I settled down, keeping Na in front of me at all times, I felt the firm push of two fingers on my back. It was Da Mei.
     “Clete, I knew you would come this way. You only know the north-central domains, so it had to be.”
     “Touche,” I said.
     “Clete,” said Da Mei, “I will be taking that hostage. Start your count.”
     Na had calmed down back to normal—quieter than normal actually. I figured it was safe to release her to Mei. “Sure thing. Take care of her.”
     “A word of caution. We are at the border of The Outside. It is taboo to set foot within. At least for us of the Island. I don’t know what your research contract says about it.”
     “It’s limited by time. How do I know where The Outside is?”
      “There are stone markers to suggest the perimeter, but a lot of them are overgrown so they’re hard to see unless you know they’re there. I should probably clear those off for your benefit tomorrow. In any case, at this point, just consider the wooded area as The Outside so just stay out of the trees.  The lightly shaded area is what we call The Margin. Since you’re a stranger and you now have the role of Hunter, I will give you a tip and let you know we will proceed up through The Margin. Are you ready?”
     “Wait a minute. Why is this “outside” area taboo? What happens if you step into it? I mean, are there like old World War II land mines or something there?”
     Na and Mei looked at each other in frustration. “Why the hell did you bring him to the border anyway?” questioned Mei.
     “I’m not allowed to speak. He brought us here himself. He didn’t know any better.”
     “But you’re talking now. So that’s no excuse.”
     Na turned to me. “You need to ask Lee or the Security Council. I have been told not to share those things with a foreigner.”
     I rolled my eyes. “Duly noted ladies. Na. Mei. One, two, three . . .”
     And so off they went. When I reached 99, I yelled “HUNT!” and started my way north along the border of the forest.

The sun was getting low and the woods looked ominous. There were some ancient growth trees in there. It would not be until my last week that I would get to have a look around in there, I thought. Just then I heard some music and my attention was drawn away from the game to an elaborate structure that was sitting at the edge of the woods.  I walked up to the building. I could see one of the Daughters dressed in a white robe working inside. She and was sweeping the large wraparound porch. I approached and saw that it was Jie handling the broom.

     “Good evening Angel.”
     “Why good evening, Dr. Wong. What a surprise? Are you here to pray or perform a ritual?” She flashed me a sweet smile. Seeing her teeth was highly unusual. In class she was quite silent and shy. Her teeth were prominent, white, and straight. Only Fei had a similarly well-formed set.
     “Actually no. But I was attracted by the music. A plucked tenor-bass pitch instrument I think.”
     “Oh, that is Auntie Feng playing the guqin right now. She likes to practice here in the shrine.”
     “It’s beautiful.”
     “Isn’t it though? Her daughter, Wen is getting quite proficient as well. Can I help you with something?”
     “I’m looking for Na and Da Mei. Have you seen them?”
     “Well, I did see. . .,” she checked herself and frowned. “Um, are you by any chance playing Capture Treasure? I thought I may have heard your voice sound out an advance.”
     “I am.” Again her smile with the perfect teeth.
     “Then I am definitely NOT allowed to say anything.”
     “That’s too bad. I’m at a handicap since I don’t know this part of the Island.”
     “Let me just say that since it’s Aunties Na and Mei, your ears will probably tell you more than your eyes.”
     “Thank you for your advice.”
     “Oh, and Dr. Wong, if you do want to come and perform service at the Shrine, let me know and I will make some preparations for you, and I can arrange for Feng or Wen to play for your service as well, since now I know you like the music.”
     “Thank you Angel. I’ll bear that in mind.” 

True to Jie’s word, I had only to keep quiet and I heard Na and Mei engrossed in an argument. They were NOT headed deeper into The Margin as announced, but backtracking to the pens.  I ran ahead to the cornfield and crouched. Sure enough they were arguing as they approached and never even saw me in the dimming light. My hand reached out and touched them both.

     “Clete! You are too smart. You catch on quickly!”
     “I had to hit you both there. Since you were both talking I did not know who was the Slaver.”
     “It was me,” said Mei. “One, two, three . . .” I dispensed with the gun-toting pantomime and just grabbed Na by the hand and we took off running back toward her home, but I pulled her to the east toward the southeast hill.
     “There’s a structure over there. What is it?” Na motioned that she was mute. “I give you permission to speak.”
     “That is the entrance to the granaries. The elevated caves where we keep dry grains.”
     “Let’s go there,” I said.

We hurried over, I opened the door, locked the bolt into the open position so that we would not get locked in and then we took our place there just inside the door.

     “This is probably too obvious, but so be it. I’m going into a neutral position.” With that announcement I stood directly in front of her and took both her hands in mine, interlocking the fingers and held them up shoulder high. We almost looked like we were in a folk dance posture. “So now we wait.”
     “I don’t mind waiting, it’s part of the game,” she said.
     “How does the game resolve?”
     “The initiator sets a goal, usually the pier. But I forgot to set a goal, so we just play until one player doesn’t want to continue. Or until it gets too dark.”
     “You were right.”
     “About what?”
     “This is a lot more fun than that movie ever could be.”
     “We probably look so silly. I’m sure my daughter has been monitoring us this whole time. I will never hear the end of it.”
     “She is. Shall I call off the game?”
     “No. Let us wait until Mei finds us. The end is near. You can always feel it.”
     “While we’re waiting. I was thinking about what you told me earlier.”
     “I am sorry. That was very embarrassing. I was speaking so fast and stupidly.”
     “I’m talking about earlier. Before dinner. You called yourself the Princess of Shit. I don’t think you were just being sarcastic or ironic were you? Qin Qin introduced herself to me with two titles. Rex said there are a lot of people with the title ‘Princess’ here. Fei declared she was a Second Princess when I was exercising authority over her. And Feng  said she was royalty. What’s all this about? Who has what title here?”
     “It is a very long story and I am not really supposed to tell you.” She paused a bit. “But it seems several others have started to break silence on that—so it’s not my fault. Don’t let them blame me for anything.”
      “I’m not looking to do any harm or take unlawful advantage.  So relax. I’m just curious. How is my knowing about your social structure here a threat?”
     “Good question. I do not know myself. I can not see the problem. There is nothing here to be gained or lost. The directional guardians HAVE to be believers. Otherwise what use do they have?”
     “I am just trying to understand you all better. Maybe I would be more polite if I know more about you?”
     “I believe you Clete. But do I believe IN you just because of frustration? Despair?” She took a deep breath. “We all have the title ‘Princess’—ALL of us—because we are each of us descended from the original founder of the Island, the Empress.”
     “Yes, the girls, the Daughters, they told me that much.”  Just then the door to the granary swung open. It was not Mei. It was Lee. I had become dark. As she stepped in I I said “BOO!”
     “WAH! Who is there?” I heard a click and on came a bare bulb at the end of spindly cable lighting up the entry way. CLETE? Why are you here? Who is that hiding behind you?” She sniffed the air. “NA. What is this? Why are you huddled in the dark? NA! You should be a. . .”
     “What are you doing here Lee?” asked Na.
     “I’m gathering rice rations for Ting Ting and myself. But I asked you first.”
     “If it matters to you, we are simply playing a game. This is our after-dinner entertainment.”
     “Entertainment? By acting like children? I think you would do well, to remember who you are and what kind of decorum that requires of you.”
     “Did we change games? It looks like ‘Sardines,’” it was Da Mei’s voice. Everyone looked over Lee’s shoulder.
     “Mei, what is going on?” asked Lee.
     “Hello there Lee. We are just wrapping an excellent game of Capture Treasure.”
     “Capture Treasure? Just how old ARE you two?”
     “You know exactly how old we are. To the minute. And you don’t have to be so disagreeable—I’m sorry that you were never good at this game when we were small. . .”
     “Please grow up!” said Lee.
     “Lee,” said Mei, “you need to fookin’ lighten up.”
     “Clete,”said Lee turning to me, “let go of Na’s hands now. Game is done.”
     “Oh right.”
     “Clete,” ordered Lee, “please make yourself useful and go down and bring up two sacks of rice and put them in the barrow. You can assist me in making Ting Ting’s delivery, and mine. I need to speak to my cousins privately.”

Their conversation switched into something other Chinese or Japanese—probably that Manchurian language—as I flipped on the light for the inner chamber and headed back into the vaults and retrieved two 50-pound sacks. I assumed Lee was complaining about me. I came back to the front chamber and loaded the barrow. Mei caught my eye and switched intentionally back into English.

     “Well, SOME of us know how to make a guest feel welcome more than others I could mention. We might actually learn something new and interesting. What a strange idea!” Horse laugh. “Lee, we’ll just let you be the BORING one. Clete, hope you had a nice time. You made me feel 12 years old again. We are being dismissed by your handler.”
     “Dinner was wonderful.” I gave a pause. “It took a lot of guts to prepare that supper.”

That joke they got, at least I think they did. Mei struck me as the kind of girl who would let bolster a guy’s confidence as a date progressed by laughing at all of his jokes even if she didn’t understand them. Lee was clueless, and she frowned at being left out. The two each thanked me for taking care of their daughters and gave me a deep, solemn bow before moving off. “Join us for lunch tomorrow if you want,” said Na.

I picked up the handles of the barrow as Lee secured the door against animals that might wander in.  She led and I soundlessly followed her. She sensed I was slowing down because I was tiring and so we stopped to sit and rest on a couple of carved stones.

     “Why are you wearing Na’s smock? You reek in that thing.”
     “We traded outer garments.”
     “I see. If you are going to wear that in my domain, next to my house, I am washing it. And that is fraying! It’s going to Lum for patching. If you want that kind of smock, you should just hire Lum to make one for you.”
     “I’m surprised in as small a society that you have here, that you have an untouchable.”
     “A what?”
     “Someone who does the unpleasant, but very necessary dirty work. And whom the others shun. Na.”
     “I don’t deny it. We all have our places and our duties.” Lee was not going to take it any farther than that.
     “These things we’re sitting on, they’re boundary markers for The Outside aren’t they?”
     “Yes. They told you about them then?”
     “Only that much. To keep me from blundering in. I still really know nothing, but as silly as that game may seem,” I said, “it was actually quite helpful.”
     “I got to roam about a bit freely. And I now have a greater sense of the wider nature of the Island.”
     “How so?”
     “Here’s my big-picture observation. It’s rather like a fortress or a castle on a roughly rectangular floor plan. The three hills and the one mountain are like the lookout battlements on the northwest, northeast, southeast, and southwest corners. Think of the harbor as the main gate on the north. The inhabitants live on the highlands for the most part except the agricultural experts and the religious authorities, who reside in the protected inner realms.”
     “A castle. I have never thought of it that way.” She looked up and around and took in that thought. An almost wistful look came on her face—an emotion on her that I had not seen before. I continued.
     “In addition, the reef that has formed on the west and on the south is rather like a moat. I don’t intend to do soundings, but I suspect those waters are not deep enough to allow most seagoing vessels to enter. That may be a pretty good fishery. Am I wrong?”
     “That is absolutely right. The waters around are extremely treacherous for even good sailors. That reef is where the families that you were supping with this evening go and dive for shells and fish. Some of the others do so as well, but Na and Da Mei and their daughters are particularly adept at it.”
     “And, it seems almost cliché that your uniformed security is perched there at the castle gates.”
     “Uniformed security? Oh, you mean old Rex. That old wreck.”
     “Rex, the man whose name means ‘king.’ I could not have engineered the metaphor any better.”
     Her tone changed as she changed the subject. “I talked to Mu who in turn spoke with the council. And I have been authorized to disclose some things about our Island’s social structure as needed.”
     “Why the change?”
     “I told them I was tired of you asking me things that I was not allowed to answer—questions that you keep asking me, all the time. It is very bothersome. Rather, YOU are bothersome. I don’t know why you just don’t stop. And nobody seems to be willing to restrict themselves to the original plan where I was your sole contact. I am hoping that maybe if I tell you some things, you will stop asking questions that will make Islanders uncomfortable about answering. And will you stop being so nosy. Can you do that? Will you do that for me?”
     It was the first time she ever made a request of me and had not given me an order. “Yes. I agree.”
     “Dog Island is divided into nine domains. Well, 10 really, but I will get into that later. Water, Fire, Wood, Earth, Metal, Dragon, Phoenix, Chi-lin, and Tortoise. Each sector has an administrative authority, and that authority has oversight over matters relating to their classification. I am the Water authority, so all matters relating water come to my attention.”
     “You’re the mechanic. Should you be metal instead?”
     “You would think so, but these designations were assigned to us when we were quite young, and before anyone knew our aptitudes. So there are a few duties that have been traded to one another over the years. For instance, I am also in charge of operating and maintaining the electrical system which should be Lian’s job as the fire administrator.”
     “It seems you have taken on several duties of others. Has anything of yours in terms of water, been given away?”
     “That hardly seems fair. Maybe even a tad exploitative. Or maybe you have control issues?”
     “Clete, you are doing that thing you do again. I do not dwell on it. I just do what I enjoy and I do what needs to be done. Back to my explanation. Now then. In meeting Na and Da Mei this week, you have now met all of the administrators. It happens that each administrator has an adult daughter. You have now met all of them in your tutoring course.”
     “Qin Qin is an adult? She is only 16.”
     “In our custom, a girl reaches adulthood when she begins menstruating or reaches age 18, whichever occurs first.”
     “What about boys?”
     “A boy reaches adulthood when he demonstrates self-sufficiency or reaches age 18, whichever occurs first. Currently there are no boys on the entire island.”
     She continued. “The four administrators who represent the offices of the directions, Dragon of the East, Phoenix of the South, Chi-lin of the West, and Tortoise of the North comprise the Security Council. The first of them is Mu of the East. She represents us to other nations and entities. Qi, of the West, acts as our justice officer. Ting Ting deals with rituals and cultural affairs. Feng handles the treasury, education, and natural resources, and she has an at-large portfolio since she is considered the most wise of all of us. Jurisdiction of the animals is also distributed to them by the traditional divisions. Oh, and the official title for an administrator is ‘Guardian Princess.’”
     “So, is there hereditary monarchy thing going on here?”
     “Nobody is the king. We can all trace our ancestry back to the founding Empress. We are related by blood, but none are any closer than being a first cousin and no more distant than a second cousin. We are all political equals, even the daughters to the mothers. But then, deference to your elder or parent does apply.”
     “Do the daughters have titles?”
     “They are all considered apprentices to their mothers’ duties. So we call them ‘Second Princesses.’ Because they are called ‘Second,” we are unofficially called ‘First.’ Some of the Seconds have been given specific duties because of a demonstrated interest or ability. Qin Qin, because of her interest in collecting stories of Dog Island, was designated the Guardian Princess of History, Prophecy, and Lore in addition to being the hereditary Second Princess of Fire. Is that all clear to you now?”
     “Is it proper for me to address you as ‘Your Highness’ then?”
     “NO! You are NEVER to use that form of address with any of us. Not even as a joke. You did that when we first met and I brushed it off, or tried to, because I knew you had not been properly informed by Rex, who is NOT an Islander. I still remember when you said it, and it still colors how I think of you. So be VERY careful. If you do use it, you will signal that you are opting to be treated as a subject of this Island and we will be constrained from speaking in any kind of direct way with you. It will make our communications very difficult. Subjects of the Island may not address the royal family directly. Under our current law you were originally given the status of a visiting worker with limited communication, but nobody seems to be abiding by that law, so the council upgraded you to the status of a visiting dignitary but subject to all local laws and ordinances.”
     “So can get rid of me for any reason at any time then?”
     Lee sighed. “Think about what you said and how you said it.” I thought about it. And then I dropped my head. I was a jerk. “All I ask is that you do that thinking inside your head before you open your mouth. I know you now. You can do much better than you have been.”
     “You said there was a 10th sector.”
     “The western portion of the physical island is called ‘The Outside.’ It is a separate jurisdiction, similar in your hemisphere to the island Hispaniola which has both Haiti and the Dominican Republic. The Outside is wholly apart from Dog Island, but we rely on each other for certain functions and we respect each other’s laws.”
     “Like what?”
     “If there is a need for you to know, I will tell you. We cannot pass there without permission. Permission is readily granted when asked for, but it must be asked for. Your research agreement gives you access I believe in your last two weeks?”
     “That is correct. Who lives there?”
     “The authority there is called the Sea Witch. She has an adult daughter as well.”
     “They were mentioned to me. So they must get permission to come to your side?”
     “No, they can come over whenever they want, but they are restricted to certain paths and areas.”
     “Your island is so small. Why is there such a division?”
     “If there is a need to know, I will tell you. You might want to save that for the Sea Witch. Her story will be different from ours, but she is not as constrained by policies as we are. Is that enough to make you content and to coexist with us in your remaining time here?”
     “I will see that it is. Lee, thank you.”
     “You are welcome.”
     “You guys are like a fairy tale here.”
     “A fairy tale?”
     “A decrepit king, eighteen princesses, and two witches stuck in the middle of the sea in an enchanted castle, guarded by magical barriers. All waiting for the coming of the messiah prince. It seems one side is the prisoner of the other. The question is, Who is the prisoner of whom? What is the answer to that?”
     “The game you played tonight has the answer.”
     “When you hold someone else prisoner, you are a prisoner yourself are you not? Unable to move freely. You are forced into a certain action. And always in jeopardy.”
     “Lee! I had no idea you indulged yourself in metaphorical thought.”
     “Your fairy tale leaves out the character of the wandering petroleum engineer.”
     “He doesn’t fit in that story. He’s an anachronism. Does not fit in fairy tale time. I’d get rid of him.”
     “And I have been trying. Be he seems intent on staying. He is NOT so out-of-time as you say. Are you familiar with the story of Aladdin?”
     “We were just talking about it.”
     “There was a lamp salesman. I’m sure he sold oil too—what lamp salesman would not sell oil? Oil to create heat and light. I say he is like someone we both know. He tried to convince people to give up their old things for new things.”
     “He was evil, wasn’t he? As I recall, a greedy liar?”
     Hai. But it was not easy for the person he tricked to discern.”
     “I guess not.”
     “But I have to admit, he moved the story along. Let us go. Ting Ting needs her rice.”

© Copyright 2012 by Vincent Way, all rights reserved.