Got a long passage for you today. I could split it up, but I want to move this along. So at the risk of losing my few readers with attention spans of only 10 minutes, this will take you a little longer to get through.
We left off last week with Qin Qin and Clete chatting and working while an incessant rain had begun. The storm system has lingered and it has gained strength to become a tropical storm on its way to being a typhoon. So, you need to imagine lots of of the noise of wind and rain during the remembered conversation mentioned in this passage.
The context of today's passage is only hinted at, but you will learn that there has been a passage of time and like all of the other chapters, this one is retrospective, but recorded in greater retrospect, with all the implications that their banter seem to point at. You'll get the idea
... as the story continues ...
[Transcription of audio recording of discussion moderated by the reporter.]
QIN QIN: Recording begins now. Today’s date is August 31, 2013. This is an oral account of the events of one year ago, Friday, August 31, 2012, by the Second Princesses of Dog Island.
FEI: Before we start, what is the point of doing this now?
QQ: Well. Let me say first. I’m glad you all showed up. I thank you for that. I have an answer, I think you’ll all know what I would say. Maybe somebody other than me should say something.
XIAO MEI: We were given a job to do—all of us. He said, “You have three jobs that I am going to give you, nothing else matters now. They are contingent on each other. Stay alive for an hour. After that, stay alive for 24 hours. After that, stay alive for a year. Can you do that for me?” Does anybody disagree with me on that?
BA: I remember that Yi had a followup question.
YI: SHUT UP. You don’t have say anything about that.
BA: She asked if the 24 hours started when the first 2 hours ended, making it 26 hours later or should we count the first 2 hours as being part of the 24.
YI: Well, the way he stated the question was unclear. I was just making sure I knew what he really meant.
JIE: I thought it was valid. And then he patiently responded something like, “Eve, we don’t have a lot of time to discuss this, and since we’re under some pressure here I may have not come up with the best styling. But let’s take a moment to unpack it. How would you phrase it to be unambiguous?” And then you responded, “If you meant 26 hours …
WEN: OH GODS! We are going to be here ALL WEEKEND! I hope you catered in some food.
QQ: Fei? Does that answer your question?
FEI: Fine. FINE. THIS is the one-year wrap-up. I GET it. Let’s move on. Shall we?
QQ: I thought it would be best to start if Ling would just describe everything that happened at her house, and maybe what happened leading up to that, and everybody else can add in their thoughts if something comes to mind.
LING: It had heavily rained all day on the day before and into the night. After midnight, the winds began to pick up. The four weather stations that Dr. Wong set up turned out to be quite helpful which transmitted data about winds speed, rain levels, temperature, air pressure, all of that, without our having to be there to observe. He just watched them all night so that Mother could rest that night. Reports were coming in that a major tropical storm was moving toward us and that was just the leading edge.
I remember that as soon as day broke, all of us here were given the job to get all of the animals to the high point in The Grove. I just remember that that took hours to do in the high winds and heavy rain, and to let them all loose there.
FEI: Yeah, Mother said that that was always the best thing to do. That they know how to find the safest place for themselves in a storm, better than we do. But you want to know something strange? I didn’t remember it until just now. Every other animal started to coming to our house that night.
WEN: You mean more than the civets and pangolins and the soul birds that live there?
FEI: All the wild ones. And I mean EVERYTHING. The sloths, the lorises, the monkeys, the bats, every bug, every bird, ants, termites, spiders, flies, bees, hoppers, beetles, snakes, lizards, frogs. And when the ran out of room, they just started stacking up on one another, all quietly standing or sitting there.
JIE: And they didn’t eat each other?
FEI: Remember? My house? Hall of Justice? Karma-free zone? It got so crowded, Mother and I could not move. And it was spooky because as we stood outside in the yard, we were getting drenched by the rain, but they were all perfectly dry. Mother said it was clear we had been cursed and that any protection that we enjoyed there had been rescinded, probably by the Sea Witch, and that we should probably leave. That was when we set out for The Shrine.
LING: What time did that start to happen?
FEI: After the 9 p.m. curfew.
LING: I think I have an explanation. We had our supper late, around 7 p.m. Mother had deputized Dr. Wong as a water element warden and she had him down on South Island monitoring your pumps, you might recall? Well, the weather eased up a bit and she called him back to supper for the night.
Dinner was nothing special, just several bowls of brown rice. Oh that rice was so good that night. After he too a few mouthfuls, he put some up on his shoulder for his centipede to eat.
JIE: Scarlet! He called her Scarlet because she was red.
LING: The very one. Ma was totally disgusted and repulsed that he would have such a pet.
“Why you keep such a thing on your body? Very poisonous. Very dangerous.”
“She’s OK. Haven’t had a problem yet.”
“She might make a mistake. Forget it is you for a minute.”
“It all evens out. I find that when she’s riding on me, no other bug comes near me. I haven’t had a bug bite since she started hanging out on me. I think she eats anything that lands on me. I almost believe she is sentient sometimes.”
“It’s a filthy thing.”
“I’ll give her a bath if you really want. You get all the livestock secured Ling?”
‘Yes. Very easy, just time consuming. All our animals obey.”
“Too bad we don’t have a safe zone for the wild critters. The civets and soul birds don’t have handlers. If I were in charge and boss of this place, I’d declare it a refuge as deep as the core of the earth and up to the stratosphere and I’d tell them all to head to the Hall of Justice and hunker down til this blows over. What do you think Miss 100-Feet?”
And as soon as he says that, the centipede dropped down to the floor and scurried out as if she had just gotten an assignment. He said something like “Be safe! Tell all your friends!” And then he laughed and went back to eating his rice. But the odd thing in addition to that is shortly after the house felt very still, and empty, and dead.
FEI: LING! Why didn’t you ever tell me that before?
LING: I never really remembered. It was such a busy night. But why didn’t you tell me about what happened at your house?
QQ: We heard it now. Ling, go ahead and relate everything that happened.
LING: The wind seemed to lighten up, so Mother told Dr. Wong to do another round to the south and then retire unless things got worse. So went back down, took level readings, and inspected the pumps and the high path to the south was still very walkable. As he came back the winds picked back up and he noticed part of the roof on his cottage had blown off and the rest was ready to come off if things got worse. He said he had tried to pack everything that should not get wet in watertight casings, basically his electronic equipment, and then he came knocking on our door. Mother went to see him.
“Can I come in? The roof is coming off the cottage, it’s not safe.”
“It’s past curfew. You know the law. You cannot be here overnight.”
“This is an emergency, isn’t it? Law be damned.”
“What? You’re not letting me in? I can’t believe this. How inhumane is that?”
“You have other choices. You can go to Bathhouse number one, climb in the tub, it has an iron core. There is an old soldier’s helmet there you can wear to protect your head. You can ride it out there. Or you can take refuge in The Shrine.”
“After all we have been through together? This is how you treat me?”
“I take our laws and traditions very seriously. How can I not? Otherwise, why am I even here?”
“Can I just sit here on your porch then?”
“In driving rain? That is foolish. If that makes you happy, do it. But it is not safe. Go take shelter like I said.”
“I want to be here next to you if you need me. Is that a crime?”
“I want you to be safe. OK? You’re important to me.” And he just sat down and huddled on the porch.
Mother shifted into Cantonese and bawled him out. He just continued to sit. And then Mother sat down next to him.
“Get in the house!” he said. “You might get hit by flying debris. It’s dark out. You won’t see it coming.”
“Don’t you tell me what to do. I do what I want. I have been taking care of myself for over 30 years. I don’t need you.”
“Well of course you don’t. But isn’t it nice to have help? If you think it’s so dangerous out here, why are you sitting down here?”
“Someone needs to protect an idiot like yourself who doesn’t know enough to take shelter. I am your assigned liaison, so I am still responsible for you.”
“I hereby relieve you of that authority.”
“You have no authority to end my authority. You want to stay here? Fine! Stay her. Ling and I will go stay with Ting Ting and Jie. It all works out.”
“I think you are BOTH being very stubborn, AND very silly,” I yelled out. They turned and looked at me.
“Ling,” Dr. Wong said, “you are absolutely right. There is only one way to solve this problem the way I want. Come stand over here by us. You need to hear this and take part.”
So I went over by them. Rain was hitting us sideways. He turned to Mother.
“Lee, I demand to speak to your honorable father.”
“What are you talking about? Fool! I told you my parents were dead.”
At first I thought he was speaking some nonsense, and then I realized what he was starting to do.
“MOTHER! Listen to him.”
“Lee, from my study your culture, I don’t understand that to be one of the standard responses.”
Mother’s eyes opened up very wide for just a minute, but she picked up the rhythm exactly.
“I regret to advise you that my honorable father is deceased.”
“I demand to speak to your honorable brother.”
“He is also deceased.”
“I demand to speak to your honorable mother.”
“I regret to say she is also deceased.”
“I am sorry to hear that and I offer my respect to memory of the dead. I then demand to speak to your next of kin who may speak on behalf of Lee, a maiden of your household on the prospect of marriage.”
“I am she!” I think I croaked it out. “But please wait, I need to get to the walkie talkie for just a minute.”
“You will do nothing of the kind,” said Dr. Wong who rose and grabbed my wrist. “I know what you girls are up to, and this has nothing to do with any legends or royalty, and in fact, it’s better if it doesn’t at all. It is between your mother and me, a mere man and a mere woman.”
She was deadpan and showed no emotion, looking entirely business.
“Ling. You may proceed on my behalf, on his terms. It is now proper to invite him inside and begin your negotiation. And get us all some towels.”
And so Dr. Wong laid out his offer to me. I don’t think I need to bore you with the details.
QQ: NO! Leave nothing out.
LING: Very well. He proposed marriage. He laid these terms, that he would adopt me as his legal daughter, that he would provide for my college and professional education, that we would live as a family in the city where I would go to school, presumably Los Angeles, that after I completed school, Mother would then select where they would live and settle, and that he would groom me to eventually take over his business interests when he retired. And he swore that he would pledge his loyalty to Mother for the rest of his life.
“Tell me why you want to marry me,” Mother asked.
“I don’t want to live the rest of my life alone. I’ve determined that I would like to be with you.”
“I am not a warm and affectionate person if that is what you are hoping for. That will not change.”
“I know exactly what you are like. It’s what I want.”
“What about love? How about that?”
“What about it?”
“Is that an important thing to you?”
“Not really. It’s a not a factor.”
“Love comes and goes. It’s fickle. It’s nice if you have it. But you can’t count on it. I want my spouse to be a consistent, dependable person.”
“Good answer. My thinking exactly.”
“Mother! How cold!”
“Is there debate between you two? Should I leave while you discuss it?” asked the Professor.
“No argument between us. We go on,” said Mother. “You talked to Mu. You know I am promised to another. We all are.”
“Yeah, and every avatar in every generation has broken that promise and where has it gotten you? It’s time to end it Lee. The only reason that whole project continued is because you jumped off the boat 30 years ago. If you call it done, it’s over for everyone. And that’s a good thing for Ling. Do you want her here fixing the drinking water system until she’s an old woman and dies here alone by herself? Stop waiting for a nonexistent prince.”
“I have NOT been waiting for that BASTARD of a Prince!”
“MOTHER!” I yelled.
“Good,” said the Professor. “Glad to hear it from one of you, cuz that dude is never coming. If that's how you really feel about the prophecy, what ARE you waiting for?”
“I am waiting to put my people at rest. The Lost 47.”
“So Mu tells me. Has a single one of them washed up since you returned that day?”
“Then I would say it’s not your task to do that.”
“Who are you to tell me that?”
“I’m just a man who has put fresh eyes on the sitch. I have nothing to gain either way.”
“You want me to go away with you.”
“That’s true. But only if you want to go with me. Doesn’t that mean something to you? That the sea has NOT given you a single one of them?”
Mother is not one to cry very easily. In fact, I had never seen her cry until that moment.
“Oh CLETE!” Mother was crying now. “Why do YOU have to be the one to tell me? It is so cruel for you to say it.”
“It's probably easier coming from me. I find I prefer bad news coming from someone I don’t like. It was a noble sentiment what you did. I nearly cried when Mu told me about it. But it’s done.”
“And so I have wasted my life, and my cousins' too. And YOU are asking to marry me?”
“Doesn’t make any sense does it? And yet, I want you.”
“You have been a confusing man from the start. It cannot be just me you want from this plan. What else are you after?”
“Yeah you’re right. I’m acting out classic displacement behavior. I never got to raise a family and send kids to college. If I marry you, I get to send Ling. It’s like getting a ready-made family. And it looks like I can send Nu too since she seems to have adopted me. I figure if you leave the Island with me, the social structures holding their resolve against progress will start to fail, and maybe, just maybe, they’ll let their new in-law, me, get the rest of the girls educated.”
“So you are marrying me to recruit for your college and educate the Second Princesses?”
“That’s a part of it. They’ll all be done with school in about eight years. We will still be together after that. Is that a bad thing?”
“Another reason why. It might look like Feng and Mu are in charge, but if you do something, something really important, everyone else follows. You’re the real leader.”
“Ling! What do you think about all this?”
“Dr. Wong? This might be a good time to let you know. Some of the Second Princesses are convinced that you … might actually be … the Great Prince.”
“Ling. Think about that. THAT is so ludicrous. If someone like your Ma here has been waiting 500 years for Prince Charming and then I show up. Isn’t that as depressing and disappointing as hell?”
“Oh you’re not so bad,” I said.
“On that topic. If your mother says yes, I’m adopting you. Is that okay with you?”
“I think that would be fine. You haven’t been half bad as a pretend father these last few weeks. Will you keep telling bad jokes?”
“Endlessly. You’re probably going to have to share a bedroom with Nu. Since I’ve been ‘adopted’ by her she’s gonna insist on coming along. Qin Qin too probably. I offered her a job as my intern.”
“We’ll manage. But Professor? About bedrooms? In our culture, I know you can’t tell right now, women and men normally sleep apart.”
“But your Aunt Qi …”
“Qi is not normal,” Mother butted in, “AND you were in jail … very ANTI-normal!”
“I think you mean AB-normal.”
“DO NOT correct me! Put that in the contract. I talk the way I talk. If you marry me, YOU learn how I say things.”
“Fine. But let’s also put in the contract American sleeping arrangements. I want my wife next to me every night.”
“So much time together! That’s too much! We will hate each other.”
“We don’t already? Can’t be worse than it is now. But as to time, it might be less than you think. People our age drop dead regularly. We’re getting a late start.”
“OK. I will let you have that. How about sex?”
“I’m highly in favor of it.”
“IDIOT! I am serious. How often?”
“I was thinking about that. Howzabout twice a day? Is that enough? Subject to moods, illness, or change of mind of course. You’re making a face at me. Not enough? How often do you want it?”
“I’m just thinking when?”
“Right before bedtime is one. That’s a no-brainer.”
“The other depends on when we do our jobs. It’s possible. We work it out. But two conditions.”
“No dirty dishes around. And house must always be clean first. Spotless.”
“So should I take over housekeeping then?”
“No. It must be MY standard of clean. I will train you.”
“Sounds like a deal to me. Agreed. Next point.”
QQ: Did he REALLY say two times a DAY?
JIE: Wah! That seems like a lot. Is it?
LING: I have no idea. But she did not flinch.
WEN: Is frequency of sex really part of the marriage agreement?
LING: You think it should be. For them it was. I thought it was charming to hear them talk about it.
YI: How often did your mom say she wanted it?
LING: She never did. But it was apparently OK with her because they kept on going. Do you REALLY want to hear ALL of their negotiated points? It got pretty tedious.
JIE: What about his cussing? Did she make him promise to give it up?
LING: No. She figured it was too hard to change him.
[Manchurian] “Ling. His terms are agreeable to me. You may accept on my behalf.”
“Dr. Wong, we are in agreement,” I said.
“OH! Another thing,” added Mother, “all of the First Princesses must approve of this marriage,” said mother. “The chances are very small of that happening. We are pledged to one another all to await the coming of the Prince of Southern China. Mu and Lian I know for certain will oppose. How will you overcome that?”
“When Qin Qin was uploading your laws the other day, I was reviewing the docs as a double check and I noticed a provision you have for emergency marriage. It seems that in a time of societal duress, the couple and one witness just have to make it to The Shrine and repeat prayers and vows to the Earth Deity and all they have to do is consummate it and it cannot be undone. We are in the middle of a typhoon. I think that qualifies us. We’ll just go over now, say our prayers, come back, do the marital deed, and Ling can bring your judicial officers Feng and Qi to inspect us in the morning and declare it done. I think that will work.”
“I have never heard of this provision or seen it invoked,” said Mother, “but if we do it, we should do it now. Let’s go.”
“N…n…ow?” I asked. “There’s a typhoon blowing!”
“Emergency may be over tomorrow,” said Mother. “Oh, but before we do, bride price and dowry negotiations must be had.”
“As a princess of the royal house, Lee’s dowry is her 1/18 share of the Dog Island National Trust assets, which as her husband you have the right and the responsibility to manage and ...”
“I hereby decline any such interest,” said Dr. Wong.
“WHAT? Really? But that’s …
“THAT is what Dog Island’s stranger paranoia is about, isn’t it? Fear that some interloper is going to swindle you out of your patrimony? Therefore, I’m taking it off the table entirely. I waive that requirement. Lee keeps that as her separate property. Let the record show that I am not asking to marry a member of the royal family, I’m just asking to marry Lee.”
“But if that is case, you don’t get anything. She owns nothing by herself.”
“But what bride price are you offering?”
“What is customary?”
I had no idea. I looked at Mother.
[Manchurian] ‘How much?”
“If I do not bring a dowry, then he owes no bride price.”
“Ling, it’s not that I devalue what she can bring to the marriage. The Island cannot spare the loss of control of her assets. OK? I get that. I don’t have such a problem. I want to pay what is fair and customary.”
“I don’t know what price to say! We have not had a marriage negotiated on this Island in decades! Ling just say $500 U.S. to say something.”
“$500 U.S.” I announced.
“That’s it? Five hundred bucks?”
“Is that too much?”
“Ling, I’ve bought business suits that cost more than that. It’s an insult to your mother. Raise it.”
“Do you mind if I make a phone call and get advice?”
“Can you even get a phone connection in this storm?”
“It’s been working.”
So he called his advisor, a man named Carlton.
“Carlton, I need to spend some money. I’m getting married.”
“Clete! Congratulations are in order. Who’s the …”
“Carl, don’t have time to chat. Bad storm here, the line can drop at any time.”
“Need some help there. How much is a traditional bride price for a Chinese woman?”
“You’re buying a Chinese wife? What level of barbarity are you sinking to now? Is this to seal some tawdry Third-World mining deal with some backwoods chieftain somewhere? Does she come complete with a bone in her nose? Really Clete. What with all your high and mighty talk about being a beleaguered American minority …”
“I didn’t call you for a lecture. By the way, you’re on speaker and she’s here next to me. AND she speaks English.”
“Clete,” asked my mother, “is there something wrong with bone jewelry to him? My grandmother would make beautiful adornments from bone and shells which are like the bones of crawling sea animals.”
“Carlton. That Jag you bought for your wife you were bragging about. Any ivory-colored highlights in the leather and wood interior?”
“Yes. Lots. Sets off the dark browns. What’s your point?”
“Think about it. As well as her pearl jewelry. Anyway, back to biz. I need your advice Mr. Cosmopolitan Man-of-the-World! I know nothing about bride prices.”
“The Chinese don’t do that anymore. They’re Communists. You have to go to someplace like Taiwan or Singapore to figure that out. I’ll find out. But it’ll take me some time.”
“She’s a goddamned overseas Chinese like me. Pacific Island Chinese. I don’t have time for research. What’s your gut?”
“I figure most middle-class Chinese diaspora would probably think US$10,000 as a in-law present would be nicely extravagant, but that kind of gift is probably more symbolic than anything . The equivalent of a nice weekend vacation trip, $1,000 U.S., is probably sufficient.”
“Hmmm, $1,000. That reminds me. I seem to recall someone in my family saying there a proverb in Chinese that a daughter is worth 1,000 pieces of gold.”
“I’ve heard it too. But you’ve only got one half of that saying. The rest goes that a son is worth 10,000.”
“What? Really? Fuck that sexist chink bullshit. How much is a proverbial ‘piece of gold’ you figger?”
“I have no idea.”
“What’s the current trading unit for gold?”
“What’s the market price for gold today?”
“Now THAT I can tell you. Since it’s Chinese we’re talking about, they ONLY think in 24K not 18K. Melt price … about $1,770. Multiply by a factor of 10,000 and you’re at $17.7 million.”
Doctor Wong made a loud long whistling noise.
“I don’t know about you, Clete, but the price of $1.7 million, though sexist, is looking like a nice bargain.”
“Can I afford it?”
“Yes, you can easily cover $1.7 mil out of your liquidity. But is any woman worth that?”
“I mean the $17.7 mil.”
“It’s your nickel. Want me to calculate how many nickels that would be? Clete. Can I get you to marry me instead? I’ll get surgery so I can look good in a sarong for you. I’ll only charge you $15 million.”
“Very funny. Shut the fuck up. Hey Ling! Is $17.7 million OK with your mother?”
[Manchurian] “Mother? Is that a lot?”
“Cannot be that much since he is just a teacher. Dollars must be like rupiah, yen, or rial. Always high numbers. Whatever he says is fine.”
“Mother approves. We are agreed.”
“Your personal account has been unusually active the past few weeks. What’s going on with you? This is a lot of money for you, for something that is NOT a investment transaction. Are you under any kind of duress?”
“Carlton. This is probably the most significant expenditure I will make in my life. I want it to be meaningful to her.”
“We should make it from one of your foreign accounts otherwise your tax collector will get a wedding present too. How about a full-value contract for delivery of product instead? Or a share of partnership?”
“I think husbands and wives can give each other as much as they want.”
“If they’re both U.S. citizens. But if you have spending authority on wherever this goes, it’s just a bookkeeping entry. Let Irv figure it out for you. Or better yet, you need to call in your favors at the U.S. State Department. But yeah, you can do it. You can do it a few times over.”
“Get Jose on the line so we can do the transfer. This will need a voiceprint verification.”
“Jose will be in bed in his time zone.”
“He will wake up to earn this commission. He’s a greedy bastard so he’ll wake up. And he needs to be on standby for the next 12 hours, as do you.”
“I started my clock when I picked up the phone.”
FEI: Do we REALLY need to hear every detail about the Professor’s phone calls with his bankers that night? That is so boring.
LING: But that’s the story of how he arrived at the Bride Price.
QQ: Fine. We have that now. You can skip.
LING: When that was settled, I said I needed to get my hat before we went. I managed to leave the room and give you the three-blip signal before we left for the Shrine. You probably need to take over as to what happened next.
© Copyright 2012 by Vincent Way, all rights reserved.