Dear Gentle Readers,
In our last episode, Clete returns to the beach, to The Rookery specifically, and spends some time with the Dog Island "Coast Guard" who are enjoying a little R&R. For whatever reason, Qi is their commanding officer (oh, that's right, she's the Chilin Guardian of theWest--I suppose seals do have fur? Don't they? If not, she commands their fealty).
She takes him up a cliff and pushes him off. There is no malice this time in her forcing him to take a swim. She does this platform dive herself all the time. Her view of him has changed over the time that the have spent together. Old thoughts that she gave up on a long time ago, before adopting the religious life, have come back to her, and she is not happy about that.
It's obvious to her that Clete is not a man who can keep up, and she's simply putting that matter to rest (... so that she can go back to sleeping uneasily? She continues to have good night's rest even without him next to her ...).
And in this episode, yes, you find out what "Third Branch" means
as the story continues ...
(we are in Clete's journal point of view, in case you forgot
I kept my hands together and entered the water without a three-storey belly flop, thank GOD! The impetus probably took me down a good 20 feet or more. I landed softly enough on the back of something very large. It was like it had been waiting for me to show up. I instinctively put my fingers around some fin or flipper, and when it felt my fingers curl on it, it was like sliding into 5th gear at 6000 RPM, and off we went up for a breath and then for an up-and-down, in-and-out ride at the surface of the ocean. The thing I was riding tired out but passed me over to something else. I want to say it was like water skiing without the skis or the boat.
It took me a while to calm the hell down and figure this out, but I think this was Qi’s odd way of trying to take me out for a drive in the country. I was passed around by her creatures a various speeds, was taken far out to sea, run back close to shore, taken on deep momentary dives and brought back to the surface. It was exhilarating.
Finally, Qi showed up alongside me, riding on the backs of a group of her seals. I realized I was riding on a crowd of seals as well. Our rides converged so that we could clasp hands, and then they eventually deposited us on the beach.
“You wouldn’t believe how long it took me to teach them that,” said Qi.
“Lady,” I said panting, “that’s one helluva pony ride. There’s nothing to be said after that. HOOOOO-wheee.”
I had to lay there in the sun and dry out while my heart rate decreased. She just sat there beside me, raking her fingers through my hair while I caught my breath. I don’t know why I was tired—I wasn’t doing any of the swimming. I eventually sat up and faced her.
“Time for you to tell me something about yourself,” I said. “Explain what it means to be ‘Third Branch.’”
“Ah that. My great-grandmother Nu, after whom Mu’s daughter is named, had three daughters. They were identical triplets. Her first and only pregnancy, in her mid thirties. Nobody could tell them apart but her. She was also called the Tiny Empress of the Numinous Moon. She even named her daughters in the old tradition, One, Two, and Three. She had their names tattooed on their ankles as soon as it was safe to do so—that way everyone else could keep track of them too. My grandmother was Three—she really didn’t need a tattoo. She had a birthmark that became red, crimson actually, over time. One’s descendants are called First Branch; Two’s Second Branch; my grandmother’s Third Branch. That’s all.”
“OK, that makes sense. Seems like there is more to it than that. Lee uses that term in, how shall we say, judgmental ways …”
Qi smiled at that.
“How diplomatic of you. Lee can be quite rude to us. As well as the others. They say terrible things about us behind our ... often bare ... backs. But we don’t care. Ting Ting, Lum, and myself, and our daughters Jie, Xiao Mei, and Fei, comprise the Third Branch. What have you noticed about us? This is a test …”
“Well, you’re all rather small, light, and mercurial. You all seem to have a high-flying spiritual attitude to match. And while everyone here is connected to the land, you three seem to be more so than …”
“I think you’re avoiding something obvious and you don’t want to say it.”
“OK why are you all a buncha goddamned nudists who want to take off your clothes—AND MINE I might add—at the drop of a hat?”
“Thank you. Grandmother Three never liked wearing clothes. And her daughters have always felt the same way. She trained us that way--but she really didn't have to, it's just a natural thing for us. Grandmother told us that her sisters One and Two were both extremely modest and prudish and never liked showing any part of their bodies, preferring to wear their Manchurian-heritage outfits. Can you believe they still used that form of dress even that late? Grandmother thought they looked like they were in clown suits and would have none of it.
"She liked her body just as it was and would walk around the Island totally bare unless her parents ordered her to cover up. And she would, until she got out of their sight. She would say ‘It’s hot here and that clothes are unnecessary except for doing work with rough surfaces or sharp edges, and even then if you are uncovered, the threat of harm makes you more careful and skillful.’ She said it was even improper to cover up in such a place as this. I believe it was her thinking that eventually moved the rest of the royal family to move the more appropriate tropical wear that they use now. More like Southeast Asian attire.
“She said One and Two would get so mad at her because they looked exactly alike—and by exposing herself they were thus also exposed. But when you are a Princess, almost nobody can tell you ‘no’—so Three’s skin was eventually understood to be her ‘clothes.’ And so we in the Third Branch have something of an unwarranted reputation for wanton disregard and rebellion. But our attitude to body covering does not mean we are promiscuous, undisciplined, or unguarded in the rest of our lives, as I am sure you now know. We can get a little cuddly, though. I think we just like feeling things all over.”
“Have you ever considered that the reason you are cuddly is THAT YOU DON’T WEAR ENOUGH CLOTHES? That maybe you’re cold?”
“You live in a very simplistic world, Clete. This is a hot climate. We were not alone in Dog Island Society in our practice of nudity. It’s not uncommon elsewhere in the tropics. I hear the Indian people of Central America and northern South America are just like us, and many tribes in tropical Africa. If it were possible, I think I would like to visit those places. Choosing a lifestyle without clothes was also quite widespread in the Outside here I understand until their Great Shift.”
“Their religious reawakening. When worship of the 10th god became ascendant. You’ll have to ask the Sea Witch more about that. We pray and offer and burn at that altar, but each one of us are responsible for our own god. There was a time when the Outside had the less prudish culture. They are so stodgy now. They were quite licentious in fact—the headquarters of an international pirate network—quite lawless too. But I digress. Clete, you’ve been sweating buckets from day one. If anyone would be tearing off their clothes if given an excuse I’d think it’d be you. You’re not sweating right now are you?”
“No, I’m not, but I just came out of the ocean.”
“And you continue to cover yourself chin to toe. So ironic. I DID try to retrain you when you were under my authority. I’m sure that Ting Ting and Lum are also trying to get you undressed because they see you are uncomfortable and are feeling sorry for your suffering. We’re being kind. Try to appreciate it.
“I think it’s ironic,” I said, “that Lum is the one who makes everyone’s clothes. Pardon me for mentioning it, but is that a tattoo on your right buttock?”
“Does it look like a rising red phoenix?”
“It does actually.”
“It’s the Third Branch birthmark I mentioned earlier. All of Three’s girl kin have it in the same general area.”
“I’ll have to pay more attention.”
“Look, but don’t stare.”
“I wouldn’t dream of it.”
“Any other questions of me?”
“You’ve never trained your seals to cut fishermen’s nets have you?”
“Why would I ever do something like that?”
“I can think of a lot of reasons.”
© Copyright 2012 by Vincent Way, all rights reserved.