The question that is posed in the headline of this installment has been posited earlier in the narrative. I'm sorry, I can't pinpoint it for you right now, it would take well over an hour to find the reference, but trust me, it was asked either rhetorically or mentally or put to someone live by Dr. Wong. Most recently it was asked in the recent story of fugitive ship slave, Grandfather Bao.
I'm going to spoil you in a sense, but the question will NEVER be directly answered. The name of the Island will just sit there in the context of this universe and the longer you think about after you have gotten everything that I will tell you, the more it will seem "Oh, that's just the way it is. Nobody really knows. History is never complete is it?"
Well, last week we ended the happenings of Seven-Seven, a very important holiday to Dog Island. We pick up today on the day after, The Festival of Souls Lost at Sea. This holiday is just as important to the good Island folk. The two together make a good complementary yin-yang pair. Seven-Seven is happy (somewhat) being about reunion and love, and Lost Souls is inherently sad, about death and loss.
Just a warning, the happenings of Lost Souls will come out in the usual blog-size snippets, so it'll take us 4 weeks maybe 5 to get 'em all out to you. But it will be fun. You might even meet a ghost.
That's quite enough author's notes and introduction. Lend your mind's eye to the scene
... as the story continues ...
Personal Journal Entry
U.S. Time: Friday, August 24, 2012
Island Time: Dragon, Month Seven, Day 8, Xingqi 5, Festival of Souls Lost at Sea
Island Time: Dragon, Month Seven, Day 8, Xingqi 5, Festival of Souls Lost at Sea
Project time: Week 9, Day 6
The day after the Seven-Seven Festival I rose early as usual. Lee and Ling were uncharacteristically sleeping in, so I made my own breakfast (or rather, I simply took off the wrapper). Last night, some of the others had come to fetch them shortly before midnight. It seems one of customs here for Seven-Seven is to stay up late and stargaze until the Milky Way begins to fade. The moon on the seventh night is still pretty dim, but if I have not mentioned this before, any night here on the island would seem dazzlingly star-filled to an Angeleno. On clear nights back home we can see Orion and Polaris and maybe some of the planets. But mostly, we don’t care.
I was invited when Lee came by to announce lights out, but I declined. I’m not a night person and I was pretty exhausted, especially after counseling Xiao Mei. Back in the day, some friends took me to a nightclub once and I obligingly had two drinks. I was soundly asleep within an hour and could not be roused, despite blasting techno music. They thought I had had a cardiac arrest or a stroke and summoned paramedics. It sucked the joy and festiveness out of whole evening. They never invited me along again. Smart move.
The sleep-in was expected and planned for because Dog Island celebrates twin festivals back to back—Seven-Seven, and the Festival of Souls Lost at Sea; they’re both days off from work. Although there is a LOT of work done for these two holidays. (And they say I’m working when I’m fishing. HA!) I likewise decided not to labor today and thought I would take a walk on the Island periphery to see how far I would get. I would eventually encounter The Outside, and lacking passage, would turn inland at that point. Lee had gotten me permission to pass through any and all domains today so I was perfectly legal.
I started at the harbor and headed to the western beaches. The coast climbed to a cliff called The Point, where I had spoken with Xiao Mei the night before. It was the place which marked where Lee’s domain ended and where Qi’s western expanse began.
As I descended to the western shores area, I happened upon Faye. I think she saw me coming from a distance; I saw her slip on and tie up a large t-shirt-like garment. I was warned by Lee that some of the Islanders do their shore and water work unclothed and that I should conduct myself to announce my presence in such areas so they know to cover up. Faye was working an intertidal area with a lot of exposed rock. There was a place along the beach that shellfish were known to bed so she was gathering the day’s catch.
I appreciated getting to know her a bit better when I was “incarcerated.” Her demeanor before that had always been a little cool and reserved. I think our conversations over dinner and the table games we played with Wen had certainly loosened her up with me. Despite our rough beginning as teacher and student, we had developed a good, solid, communicative relationship. Had she not been drawn into the interventions of her mother and of those around her, I sensed from her generally aloof manner that she would have been content to live by the guideline to avoid contact with all visitors. I say that with no finding of fault. I certainly would have followed that guideline myself as I have written before.
Now that some time had passed since I lived with them both those three days (I had certainly not lived with anyone else at all during my whole time on that Island or since my 20s). As quirky as the Qi-Fei family were, I found it surprisingly refreshing to be part of a household, having to fit yourself into the life rhythms of others. I realized how much of Qi’s frailties and insecurities I had become aware of, and how protective and attentive Faye was to her mother in regard to her physical challenges. And while I felt the level of physical contact Qi had imposed on me was inappropriate and intrusive, again the passage of time seemed to convert the memory to intimacy and I almost felt like happening upon Faye was like approaching family, especially since the terms of my “parole” required me to act as her mother Qi’s bath attendant every night, unless I got the night off (which rarely happened). It was funny, seeing Faye in that oversized cover-up made her look quite overdressed as both her and Qi’s unclothed forms had become my normal for them.
I was merely going to stop, give a greeting, and pass on by, but a question came to me that I thought she might know the answer to.
“I see you are working quite a large bed of oysters. It’s massive”
“Yes. They do thrive here.”
“So how much do you harvest?”
“Only as many as everybody can eat in a day. But we never take more than 10 percent of the bed overall in a season. We leave the little ones of course. And the traps gave us three nice lobsters for dinner tonight as well. They’re all in the bucket there. See?”
If there were any people who had mastered the science of sustainable sustenance techniques, it was these women. I was so impressed with their ability to keep a closed system healthy and productive. It made me ashamed to think of my own enterprises which extracted natural resources, especially nonrenewable ones like oil and gas, to the point of depletion, but not for self-sustenance, but to support millions of consumers. Consuming fossil fuels is burning biomass that has been dead for millions of years, as opposed to burning live biomass like trees or peat, in the here and now. How do we renew fossil fuels? The theories are that the oil fields are result of cataclysmic mass extinctions followed by inundations of water.
If the Earth Dragon Institute is right and we are ushering in our own doom, maybe we should just not pay too much attention and let it happen. Global warming will eventually cause mass extinctions and flooding and thereby seed the fossil fuels for the next several million years? And isn't that a good thing? Maybe we are in a sustainable cycle but the time frame is just too long to see it. We geologists like to take the REALLY long-term view. The all-powerful God of space and time can find a way preserve humankind, to pick up the needle off the record and put it down again later, if he or she really wanted to. Maybe we already tried and failed before and we are in just one of many restarts.
“Your family; you oversee animal husbandry on the Island, correct?”
“Yes. We are in charge of the furry animals—the pigs, lambs, goats, rabbits, and rodents—but I assist in tending all animals. Not just those. These fellows, ones with shells, are Ting Ting and Jie’s primary responsibility.”
“So why isn’t Angel, uh … Jie, working here with you?”
“It really breaks her heart to tear the oysters out of the bed. I think when your office requires you to care for really small things like ants, spiders, tiny fish, it makes you really soft. I’m not sure why she cares about these. They don’t even have eyes. So, we trade some of our chores.”
“I’ve always meant to ask. Maybe you know since you’re over the mammals. Why are there no dogs here? This place IS called Dog Island after all.”
She was quiet, thinking about the question, and then gave me a look as if she were almost mad at me for asking.
“Why are you asking that question today?”
“I mean, it just seems odd. No dogs on ‘Dog’ Island?”
“No, I am thinking why today of all the days that you could have asked it?”
“Did I just violate another custom? I mean, I was told you are going to be celebrating the Lost Souls Festival this evening, but I wasn’t given any prohibitions to observe.”
“No, you’re fine Professor. It’s just that I’m told your timing is uncanny on so many things. And there is a coincidence. It makes me wonder.”
“There are no dogs, because for some reason they fail to thrive here. There is some kind of disease that will claim any dog that stays here for more than 90 days. Nobody knows why. My mother said the last time they tried to bring a dog here was when she was 8 or 9. She said she was fine right up until the day before she died. Then on the morning of the 91st day, she was found dead on the beach.”
“That’s very morbid. So how did the Island get its name then? It’s not shaped like a dog.”
“Nobody knows that either. I have this story that I made up that it is short for ‘Island of the Dogs’ which is in turn short for ‘Island That Eats the Souls of Dogs.’”
“Sounds like a horror story.”
“Not really. Do you want to hear it?”
“It probably has an unhappy ending, doesn’t it?”
“All of our stories on this Island are unhappy.”
“To me, a happy story is a circle that starts and comes to a close. But my people, the ones who settled this Island, their big story, the one we are living in right now, you and me here on this beach included, it has never closed. As soon as one problem or challenge is met, another one shows up. The unhappy ending is to me an incomplete closure. It’s loose ends. We can’t think of happy endings because we don’t know what they look like. But that's what we are all about here. That’s what I think.”
“Is that why you and Qin Qin are so antagonistic?”
“You think we are?”
“She likes to create endings, the happier and more satisfying, the better. Maybe you don’t see it in your relationship, but you’re always sparring.”
“Maybe. It’s just natural between us. There are many animals here that fight when they are near one another. We are just like them. She’s always buried herself in those sweet fairy tales she constantly reads. They all have happy endings. I can’t stand them myself.”
“Let’s hear your story.”
“It’s short. It’s not elaborate.”
When the Empress first came to this Island, she brought three dogs. They were brothers from the same litter named for their characters: Playful, Watchful, and Courageous. They all slept at her feet in the hut that her servants built for her. On the 31st day, Courageous was found dead on the beach. On the 61st day, Watchful was found dead on the beach. On the night of the 90th day, the Empress pretended to be asleep and followed when Playful got up and headed to the beach in the middle of the night.
Playful set himself down on the water’s edge when two large seals came out of the ocean and headed toward him. The Empress found a stick and rushed to protect her dog. Playful was sitting silently all this time and turned to look at his mistress. The two seals sat silently on either side of Playful also paying an attendant look. She was shocked, that even in the dark, she recognized the faces of the two seals.
The Gods of the Four Directions gave the dog a voice and Playful spoke. ‘Mistress. We cannot sleep at your feet anymore and do our job of protecting you. We must now sleep in the water. We hope you understand.’ Then the soul of Playful exited his dog body in the form of a third seal, leaving behind his previous, furry self. The Empress cast away the stick, but Playful quickly dived after it and returned it to her feet in his final act of play with her. The three seals disappeared into the ocean.
From that day forward, every dog who comes to Dog Island is permitted a season to play on land, but is finally called to serve in the pack of Courageous, Watchful, and Playful to protect the Island and its Empress.”
She stayed thoughtfully quiet keeping her eyes respectfully down.
“Some of my contemporaries in the Seconds believe in you Dr. Wong, that it is a good thing that you have come to this Island. I must confess that I was NOT been one of them. I love this Island. Exactly as it is. It’s my perfect world. The sun keeps me warm. The rain quenches my thirst and cleans me. The trees and plants and the ocean feed me and our animals. My family is my company. I want for nothing here. It protects me. It sustains me. I don’t want to see it change. Ever. But you have come here. You got past the seals, sharks, the rocks, everything that protects us. And you come asking a lot of difficult questions. You ask me today, the Day of Lost Souls, why are we Dog Island? It is like you have come like a fury or a demon, questioning why we even exist. I am afraid that somehow, the work you are doing, it will end our life here.”
“Faye, I am no demon, nor someone or some thing for you or anyone to believe in. I am JUST a researcher. And I’m NOT here to do anything to your world. If I am doing anything, I am here so that others will have a memory of this place as it is. If you don’t like me, you’re not the only on this Island who feels that way. I’ll be gone before you know it. There will be nothing in my report that will make your protectorate come in and dispossess you. If they do, it will be regardless of what I write. National powers do whatever the hell they want. But I will tell you this. You have not been alive in this world even 20 years. The world will change around you. As your mother ages and declines, things will change, I guarantee it. Don’t hold on too tightly to what you think you know. In that story that came out of your head, which one are you?”
“Actually, don’t tell me. I would tell you to be Courageous. Don’t be the Empress—some rich bitch, happy enough to sit around on her fat, passive ass while everything revolves around her for her benefit. Adapt.” She remained eyes downcast and quiet.
“I realize we have been in a period of peace,” she said looking up at me. “I just don’t know what you mean to me yet. I’m trying to figure it out.” She stayed grim-faced and silent, trying to read me. I took off my darkened glasses so that she could see my eyes.
“I know, I know, I should wear sunscreen and protect my eyes from ultraviolet rays. The glasses are by the lobsters.”
“Did I say anything?”
“In my mother’s domain, xi, the West, a path in the sea opens near very low tide for only about two hours. It will take you to that small island you can just see from here. Lowest ebb today will be at 1530. If you take it, carry no weapon. I have to go.” She tapped her ankles together and turned from me and moved toward the southwest hill carrying off her bucket of seafood for tonight’s dinner.
© Copyright 2012 by Vincent Way, all rights reserved.