We continue in Clete Wong's journal account of his activities on the eighth day of the seventh lunar month in the year of the dragon.
As you may recall, he took a morning hike, and then an unexpected ocean swim with his old pal and nemesis, the frequently underdressed Princess Qi, keeper of the seals. In case you missed it last week, and if so, I'm a terrible narrative author then, Qi has become the second of the First Princesses willing to believe that Clete may be the man they have been waiting for (Na is the other). However, the prospect makes absolutely no sense to Qi; and yet her own seals seem to confirm this, but it's all circumstantial evidence still.
Evening is falling and it's time for the "charming native custom" of setting candle boats out to sea. If you were a tourist, this would be picture time that might get you an award in a travel magazine's amateur photography contest. But it's not quaint or picturesque. It's meaningful to the people who do it, as you will find out. And if they were less polite, they'd tell you to go to hell if your heart were not in the right place.
Pay attention to details in the parts that make up the festival. They'll come together later. Trust me.
In any case, it's time to let things unfold
as the story continues ...
Continuing from earlier journal entry.
All daytime preparations, as party-like and as festive as they can get, are inevitably turned toward the actual observance in the evening. As the sun goes down, likewise does the tone of conversation and deportment become quiet and contemplative. A meal is spread out and shared on rugs and mats spread out on the sand of the north beach. The girls wanted to joke and cut up among themselves, but if they did, they were given words of stern reproof. As much as I could tell, the conversation was about remembered conversations and deeds of past Islanders who had since died.
This second day of Dog Island’s summer festival is the Islanders’ observance of the traditional Hungry Ghosts Festival, which they put back-to-back with their Seven-Seven Festival. My parents never did anything remotely related to this observance, nor did any of my living grandparents, but as I understand it, it’s the day that families make food and joss offerings to all those people who died without descendants or who died away from home, and thus wander the earth. Supposedly they cause trouble because they’re cranky and undernourished; just like living people. By offering them food, or material things like cash and appliances that are burnt in effigy, you keep them away from you. It’s a welfare system for the supernatural. I believe that in classic practice, this is observed at the full moon, Day 15 or thereabouts, but the Islanders moved the holiday, I suspect, to get a longer break from work.
Things started in earnest just before dusk. After the meal was eaten, the Sea Witch would next come and recite special prayers and then small boats made from leaves are loaded with a votive candle and some food and released into the harbor. The hope is that they will float out to sea to nourish those who were lost at sea. Mu told me that never happens. The prevailing current keeps things in the harbor; nothing ever goes out. But it looks pretty. Below the surface the current cycles about, but on the on top, things stay calm. That has certainly been my experience on all of my Sunday harbor fishing trips. As the sky began to darken I went over to talk to Mu.
“Good evening Professor,” she said.
“Good evening yourself.”
“Did you have a good walk today?”
“Sure did. Very eventful. I suppose the best thing to cap it all off would be a tall glass of ‘Sex on the Beach.’”
“Dr. Wong! I beg your pardon.”
“Oh, sorry. It’s the name of a drink. I’d offer to make one, but you don’t have any of the ingredients here. You need vodka, peach schnapps, and a couple fruit juices. Not that I … ”
“PROFESSOR, a little decorum please. This is a somber observance.”
“I think I’ll just shut up now.”
“You do that.”
“Where will they do the launching?” I asked.
“I thought you were going to be quiet. The girls will do it from the overhang, beyond the surf break.”
“Have you ever taken the offerings out by boat into the open water?” I asked.
“We do not go on the open sea.”
“Qi and Faye seem pretty fine with it.”
“If they do not have their sea dogs with them, the story is quite different. And there is a little more to it than that. In any case, since it is a shore launch, we all get to do something and enjoy watching.”
“Will I see the Sea Witch officiating tonight’s activity then?”
“Her daughter says she has become ill again. Daughter Natsuki will come and say the prayers.”
We watched as the girls placed on the water small triangular prisms of compressed rice with various fillings, wrapped in leaves on the small vessels that they were constructing earlier for this occasion.
“I meant to tell you,” Mu continued, “that even though you do not believe in the things we do, it very gracious of you to join in our dance yesterday.”
“You’ve all been very kind and gracious to me. I am pleased to participate.” Mu, who has always regarded me with a certain circumspection and distrust, dropped her fierceness and showed me her kind eyes.
“I believe you. Since you so ably and willingly danced with us, your comment just now has given me an idea. Perhaps you would care to assist with this festival as well?”
“First off. Do you believe in ghosts, Dr. Wong?”
“I most certainly do not. They’re figments of the popular imagination.”
“Do you think that a living intelligent being might leave a remnant that could be perceived, even after his or her body has died? What is the intelligence and where does it reside?”
“Is that your personal thought as to what a ghost is?”
“I think they are potentially very powerful forces and you should not discount them too lightly.”
“There are a lot of phenomena we have yet to explain. I guess I’m willing to use that word to assign to some of these unexplained things.”
“Dr. Wong, many things protect this Island. I cannot comprehend or begin to understand them all. The least we can do is give thanks to the powers that watch over us and offer our remembrance and comfort to all those who sailed in our waters, ran afoul of our protectors, unintentionally or no, and never made it home.”
“That’s a generous thought that I can agree with. So, what would you like me to do?”
“At first I was going to have you issue a vocal call to the Ocean Gods, but on further consideration, I think your suggestion of setting some offerings out to sea as part of our ceremony is excellent. Perhaps some of our offerings COULD go into the open water and be of real purpose to the Lost, if you were to take your usual fishing boat, you could launch them outside the harbor, yes?”
“I don’t see why I couldn’t. Sure. The sea looks pretty calm. The small boat should not be a problem.”
“I will send two of the Second Princesses with you so you don’t have to do all the work by yourself.”
“Lee said something about a prohibition against any Princess leaving the Island? Does going out on the open sea violate that?”
“Ah! You ARE aware. That is what I was alluding to earlier. If you are the pilot and not any of us, especially not the First Princesses, it should be fine. But you need to stay within view of us on the beach at all times. And you must not put yourself in a situation where you cannot visibly see the Island.”
“The Day of the Hungry Ghosts is a liminal time period. Portals between this world and the ghost world open up. As ghosts can come into our world, you can pass into theirs just as easily, and my understanding is that on the sea, you cannot easily see where those portals appear.”
“But this isn’t the REAL Day of the Hungry Ghosts right? It’s the 15th day.”
“For a nonbeliever, you surprise me with your understanding Doctor. Would you be concerned if this WERE the 15th?”
“I’m not worried about a thing as long as the seas are calm.”
“Nevertheless, don’t discount the local history of any place.”
And so they gave me a good portion of the prepared food offerings—it seemed that a number just short of 50 were loaded into the outboard fishing boat that I had become so accustomed to. Probably 49, seven squared, I’m not sure. I can’t remember if seven is lucky or unlucky.
Faye and Angel were chosen to accompany me—Faye was designated to render to the sea the offerings of animal flesh, over which her office presided, and Angel to mediate communication with the creatures of the Tortoise domain which included things with hard shells and scales. I was told they would not say anything, but merely be present.
I was a good boy and complied with Lee’s requirement of wearing life jackets in the boat and enforced it on Faye and Angel as well. We embarked toward the mouth of the harbor. Daylight was fading and the Cousins lit large harbor torches on the beach so that we could navigate back easily after the sun set. I stopped the boat just outside of the harbor as instructed and the girls began the process of lighting candles and setting the lantern vessels out on the sea.
Without warning a patch of fog blew around us. I could still see the glow of the torches so I knew where we were in relation to the shore. I looked around and several hundred yards away I saw a shadow of a person on what appeared to be a raft. He was motioning us over. It looked like he was signaling for help.
© Copyright 2012 by Vincent Way, all rights reserved.