She's a Buddhist, He's a Viking by Michelle deMor Cai

Buddha’s Favor Ended

Cassandra put down her backpack on the aisle seat, lifted her son Peri from the stroller and strapped him in the restrainer in the middle seat. She was about to hoist her backpack onto the overhead luggage rack when she heard a voice behind her,
She's a Buddhist, He's a Viking
She's a Buddhist, He's a Viking by Michelle deMor Cai
“Excuse me, the window seat is mine.” It was the voice of a middle-aged man, about an inch shorter than Cassandra. He had sleek, greasy black hair, and small, contemptuous eyes. Immediately Cassandra dipped her head, and stepped aside to let the little man pass. The man gave her an arrogant grin, sat down, and watched Cassandra lifting her backpack and stroller onto the luggage rack. Finally, when every seat was occupied, and the doors to the overhead luggage racks were snapped close, the captain addressed the passengers that the plane was ready to take off. Flight attendants began the usual life-jacket and airplane safety demonstration. Cassandra stretched her neck to look out the window trying to catch a last glimpse of her homeland—Taiwan. As the plane was gaining altitude into the air, Peri—her nineteen-month-old son began to pull his ears. He was too young to understand the relation between change of air pressure and altitude; he only knew that his ears were hurting and he wanted the hurt to go away. Cassandra felt the pressure on her eardrums too, but she ignored her own discomfort. She grabbed hold of Peri’s little hands and cupped them over his ears. While Peri was bawling “Ah-hah, Ah-hah, Ah-ha-ha-ah-ha-a ...” Cassandra was chanting “Nan-mó Nan-mó ...” Eventually Peri was exhausted and fell asleep to the soft lullaby of his mother’s monotonous chant. When Cassandra strapped Peri back in his seat, she caught a glimpse of disapproval from the man occupying the window seat, and promptly apologized to him over Peri’s fuss. The man accepted her apology with an indifferent shrug and then looked at her hair aghast. “You’re pulling your hair too tight—it might damage your hair follicles and cause hair loss.” Cassandra intuitively grabbed hold of her tightly braided jet-black hair, and stared at it. Her mind raced back to three years ago: What would have happened if I had stuck to my original plan? She tipped her head at the man and turned away. The man gave her a pompous smile, picking up the Chinese newspaper from his lap and resumed reading. Cassandra closed her eyes, and in a short while, her cheek muscles twitched. She squeezed her eyes shut, her lips trembling; big drops of tear were escaping her closed eyelids. She raised her hand to wipe the tears onto the long sleeve of her yellow polo shirt. She cried at the thing that had happened to her since February 14th and at the things which lay ahead. She kept asking herself why her Cinderella story had gone so tragic. What zuìguò—sin had she committed that had caused her husband to divorce her so abruptly and even gave up his only son? She had been chanting and entreating to Buddha to intervene on her behalf—but Buddha had sided with her ex-husband. Wasn’t it Buddha’s will that I married my husband? She recalled her marriage three years ago—her Buddhist master assured her that “It was yuánfèn”—that fate had predetermined her to be Kuan-Shan’s wife. She also recalled that prior to their wedding Kuan-Shan had made a sumptuous donation to the Buddhist temple—didn’t that please Buddha, too? Didn’t I honor his wishes at his time and on his terms without the slightest complaint? She recalled that their honeymoon was short; it included a long distance bus trip to Taipei to get a passport and applied for a F-2 visa from the United States Embassy. Then they boarded another bus which took them from Taipei to Taoyuan International Airport. From there Kuan-Shan flew back to Denton, Texas to resume his graduate study, while she boarded another bus to return to her nuptial home. A few months later, she got her F-2 visa and flew to Denton, Texas to join him. At their dingy little apartment, Cassandra dutifully prepared three meals a day for Kuan-Shan, all vegetarian, no meat. She gave birth to Peri Chou just five months before Kuan-Shan received his PhD from the university. At their return to Taiwan, Kuan-Shan was hired imme-diately as an associate professor, and she had become the professor’s wife—a prestigeous title for a woman who had grown up in an orphanage, and had no dowry. Thirteen months later, Buddha’s favor shifted from Cassandra to a magnate’s daughter, who wanted a man with an impressive academic title for a husband. In a month's time, she was in and Cassandra was out. The new Mrs. Chou was determined to eliminate all links between Cassandra and Kuan-Shan—including baby Peri. She gave Cassandra two options: either she would become a permanent Buddhist monk and give up Peri for adoption, or Cassandra had to take Peri and exile to the United States. Cassandra had not exercised her choice; Kuan-Shan did. He brought her the flight ticket and gave her a small amount of money for compensation, though he didn’t explain what he was compensating. Kuan-Shan’s new wife, backed by her father’s power and wealth, vowed to Cassandra that if she would ever step foot on Taiwan, she would make sure that both her and her son would be more miserable than the Jews under Führer Hitler. Cassandra had many nightmares afterwards; she often woke up in horror and cold sweat. Her once beaming deep-set brown eyes became red and lackluster, and deep bags were showing under her eyes. She was afraid to fall asleep. But sleep is the weapon that the human brain uses to protect its delicate structure. Sleep is an innate mechanism for the brain to throw out stress and bottled-up emotions. Cassandra leaned back at the headrest, drifting ... “Kiù Mín-ā ... Kiù Mín-ā ... Kiù ...” Hearing the cry for “help, save my life,” two flight attendants hurried down the aisle. One attendant shook Cassandra’s shoulders, trying to wake her. “Miss ... Miss ... what’s going on?” Cassandra’s head jolted, she opened her eyes and looked blankly into the flight attendant’s. Around her, sneering faces turned away, shifting bodies relaxed back into their seats, and ears perked up to hear the conversation. A third attendant carrying a little tray arrived. She had an authoritative look to her demeanor. The other two attendants stepped aside. The third attendant picked up a steamed towel to dab around Cassandra’s forehead and wipe away beads of sweat. She then aimed an infrared thermometer at Cassandra’s forehead, and the thermometer screen flashed the digits “37.” Miss, you are fine now—no fever, maybe just a bad dream. Now can we bring you something to drink? A glass of water or juice?” Cassandra glanced down at Peri, who was still deep asleep. She finally came out of her stupor and remembered her whereabouts. She blushed and apologized. “Sorry, Miss. I ... I had a nightmare.” “Water or juice?” “Water, please. Thank you.” The attendant came back with a glass of water and a bag of pretzels. She gave Cassandra a quick benevolent look and put the items on the tray in front of Cassandra. “Hope you feel better soon.” She dipped her head and left to take care of other passengers. Cassandra opened the bag, took out a mini pretzel, paused, and put it back—she had no appetite. The man at the window seat had been watching the commotion quietly and as soon as the attendants had left, he said, “Your English is quite good, you’ve been to America?” Cassandra pressed her hands together and gestured a gassho—a Buddhist gesture of acknowledgement. “Sorry I interrupted your nap,” and quickly looked away. “Buddhist?” “Yes.” “I’m a Buddhist too.” “You are?” “Buddhist, Catholics, I am everything. I’ll worship any god who acts in my favor.” He gestured at Peri “How old is your son?” “Nineteen months.” The man paused to study Cassandra’s physiognomy, and surmised, “You came from southern Taiwan? You don’t look like Han Ren; which mountain aborigine tribes do you belong to?” The man’s bias toward Cassandra may be due to two of his observations. First, most women from Taiwan have lighter skin because they avoid exposure to the sun; Cassandra’s skin was the shade of a brown eggshell. Second, Cassandra’s facial profile was not that of a typical Chinese or Han Ren. She had high cheek-bones and forehead, a widow’s peak hairline, high-arched dense eyebrows, deep-set big brown eyes, and a pointed chin. These are typical physiognomy of Taiwan indigenous tribal people. Like the Native Americans in America, the mountain aborigine tribes had inhabited Taiwan long before the Han people immigrated to the Island. Han Ren represents one of the five major ethnic groups of China. Cassandra had never found out who her biological parents were. I know her biological father—he’s from Missouri. The condescending statement from her fellow pas-senger imbued her with consternation. As if the desertion by her ex-husband was not disheartening enough, this stranger had to remind her that she was an orphan who was not wanted by her own parents. But Cassandra was too downcast to refute this stranger’s affront; she simply looked away and hoped that he would leave her alone. But the man would not. “Are you visiting your husband?” Cassandra shook her head. The man surveyed Cassandra’s finger—no ring. “Married?” Anyone who has a scintilla of self-esteem would have slapped at the man’s face, or told him to get his ass off; but not Cassandra. Rather than feeling angry, she was feeling dejected, shame and unworthy; she reluctantly explained to the man that she was recently divorced, and she had to go to Texas to stay with her ESOL teacher. “What teacher?” “English for Speakers of Other Languages.” “Divorced, uh? Do you have any relative in Texas?” “No.” Cassandra explained again. My ESOL teacher is the closest friend I have.” The man grinned. “You have a green card?” Cassandra shook her head. A sudden disappointment flashed in the man’s eyes. “Are you receiving alimony from your divorced husband?” Cassandra shook her head. “What is that?” The man shrugged in astonishment. “Child support—money for you and your son to live in the United States.” Cassandra shook her head. The man sneered at her in disbelief. “What, you mean you didn’t ask for money? How are you going to live in the United States?” “I’ll find a job, I’m a hard worker.” “Without a green card?” The man blew his lips. “It’s very hard to find a job if you don’t have a green card.” Cassandra suddenly looked earnestly and inquisitive-ly at Mr. Know-it-all. “Do you have a green card, sir?” The man shrugged. “No, not yet ... but my attorney is working on it. What kind of job experience do you have? Do you do hair?” Cassandra shook her head. “What do you do in the United States, sir?” For the first time since she boarded the plane Cassandra paused to look closer at the man—he was wearing a twill suit with coffee-tone polo shirt, and a pair of white leather golfer’s shoes. There was a long silence before the man replied. “I am a hair stylist. It’s a very good business, makes good money.” Cassandra wanted to get more information from the man when she heard, “Abu, góa bē bán sái.” A sudden relief was shown on the man’s face—he was reluctant to give out information about himself. He quickly glanced at Peri and then Cassandra. “Your son needs to use the toilet.” Cassandra quickly surveyed the light on the lavatory door—the vacant light was on. In a split second she grabbed Peri, ran down the aisle, and closed the door to the lavatory. Standing in the lavatory holding Peri over the toilet, Cassandra instinctively felt an urge to protect him—grabbing him as tightly as she could without digging her nails into his soft flesh. When he’s done she put him down on the floor and stood between him and the toilet before she closed the lid and pressed the flush lever. She shuddered at the sharp and instant flushing sound of the toilet. Then she bent down, picked up Peri and folded him in her arms as if to prevent the flushing water from coming out of the toilet to swallow her son. *** Sixteen hours is a long time when the mind is rattling with troubled thoughts. Finally the pilot made the announcement that the plane would be landing at Dallas in two hours. Her heart was pounding—with the excitement of revisiting her confidante, and anxiety—what if she were to be deported right at the moment she landed? She’d only been given a tourist visa. What would she do to support herself and her nineteen-month-old child? She’d barely learned to speak enough English to get around town in Denton, Texas before her ex-husband graduated and took her back to Taiwan, and she had not used the language since. Finally the flight attendant collected the last empty cup and tray and tossed them into the cart. The aisle was quiet again. Passengers inclined their seats and got reabsorbed into the tiny movie screens in front of them, or dozed off into a postprandial nap. Four things a toddler does: eat, sleep, urinate/defecate, and play. Peri had just finished the first three and at the moment was content to play with his Lego blocks. Cassandra was struggling down each line of the Custom Declaration Form and Form I-94, filling in each blank with vacillation. On the I-94 form, she’d filled in Ruth Laffite’s address. Ruth was Cassandra’s sponsor, a retired English teacher Cassandra had met when she was living there with her ex-husband. *** Cassandra wiped away Peri’s tear and was relieved the plane had finally landed—no more earaches. The flight attendant announced, “At this time we will discharge families with young children.” Cassandra reached up to her full height of five feet seven to retrieve her belongings. She fastened her son to the stroller, tugged the potty chair under the stroller, and swung the backpack onto her shoulders. The man at the window got up and thrust a business card in her hand. “Call me.” With that he swaggered past Cassandra and the stroller and quickly mingled into the stream of exiting passengers. A woman who was waiting to get out from her seat had been watching the episode, frowned and asked Cassandra, “I don’t understand your language, but is that your custom that husband doesn’t take care of his wife and child?” Cassandra shook her head. “No, he’s not my husband.” Chapter 2 Romance Is a Beautiful Thing “Stop!” Ingvarr screamed. He charged his ski poles at the snow like he was fighting an enemy. But I can assure you that at that moment he was alone in the forest. He swung around, jabbing his ski poles at the branches like a mad man. Several branches already laden with snow, snapped. He stepped back to watch the branches as they detached from the trunk and fell to the ground. He struck again with escalating force and brutality, until his hands were sore and his chest was panting for breath. He took off his ski goggles, his eyeglasses, and wiped away tears that had obscured his vision, and before they froze on his cheeks. Then he collapsed. Before he would freeze and die in the cold blizzard, I whispered in his ear, “Romance is a beautiful thing!” Ingvarr jerked at my voice and almost banged his occiput against the rock he was leaning against. He was surrounded by blankets of snow, and the cold chill wind was flinging more snow at his unprotected face. He wiped the fresh snow off his face, shook the snow off his glasses and ski goggles, and put them back on. He looked again and saw no sign of any other human in the wilderness. He shouted, “Who are you? Show yourself!” A minute or so later, he heard someone repeated after him—his echo. Daylight was disappearing quickly, the north wind was picking up its speed and Ingvarr was cold to his bone and his stomach was grumbling. He reached into his duffel bag—found exactly what he had put in when he set off this morning: a rifle, a coil of rope, and a bush-craft knife. He was in a hurry to leave his mother’s farm that he skipped breakfast and packed no food or drink with him. When he left his mother’s farm he was prepared to end his life. He had a simple plan: follow his compass, head north until his body was exhausted and he would die in hunger and hypothermia. He had no destination, just run—to a place where he would not be harangued by the voice in his head. Why would he want to die? Just like I said earlier, the voice in his head was driving him to insanity. He could not bear that voice anymore. This is an example of what the voice in his head was constantly jarring at him: "Loser. Stay away from my wife! Kill yourself!" “Stop!” The voice in his head gathered all its venom and vituperated, “Loser, you deserve to die. Die, kill yourself!” My voice softer than snowflake whispered in his ear again “Romance is a beautiful thing.” Ingvarr sprang up, veered, and shouted, “Who are you? Show yourself!” Of course he did not see me because I am only visible when one’s heart is full of me; but Ingvarr’s heart was filled with misfortune of his past and he was oblivious to the present and now. He squint to scan the surrounding again—all he could see and feel was falling snow. For six months he had tried to mute the voice in his head—with hard work. He woke as the first sunray reached his window. He milked the cows, mowed the grass, and baled the hays. He worked, ate; worked, ate, and worked until the summer sun dipped behind the mountain—for a few hours—during which he slept. He had succeeded—temporarily. But as summer turned into fall, as the last batch of hay was baled, and as the first snow covered the ground, Ingvarr had less and less task to do. Time and idleness fueled the voice in his head, and then there was the announcement of his sisters’ engagements. His mother and sisters were running in and out of the kitchen, kneading and baking all kinds of goodies for the holiday parties. There was so much gaiety in his mother’s house and so much wretchedness in his heart. He never revealed his misery to his family; he thought he would bear it all by himself. That only empowered the voice in his head to rapine him of his peace. Ingvarr intuitively scooped a handful of fresh snow into his mouth, and let the snow melt on his tongue. He felt cold; he had only layered himself with a snow parker, a T-shirt, and a pair of jeans. He was in a hurry, to run, to run away from the voice in his head; he had not dressed himself for the blizzard; although he was aware of the weather forecast when he left his mother’s house. He sat still in the quiet of the empty forest; he could almost hear the snowflakes hitting the ground. He remembered her face, her smile when he placed the diamond ring on her finger. He remembered the moment of exhilaration when she said yes to his proposal. He remembered his excitement when he called home to his mother and asked her to mail him the ring—the heirloom in the family. I whispered in his ear again “Romance is a beautiful thing!” “Yes, ... it is.” He signed in a quiet crushing voice. “But there is no use, she’s married, she’s pregnant with another man’s child. I am just a loser.” I heard the voice in his head immediately concurred and jeered, “Yes, loser, kill yourself!” But I know I have a perfect match for Ingvarr, and for him to meet his future wife, he has to live. I whispered in his ear again “Romance is a beautiful thing!” “Yes, it is.” His bleak voice responded. “But you’re a powerless Viking, loser. Soon, you will starve and die in the wilderness, and nobody would even remember you, ha!” The voice in his head sneered. I whispered in his ear“Listen.” Immediately, he froze; he heard movement in the wood. In the dim of the forest, on the snow-covered brushes, the silhouette of a creature was grazing on branches that Ingvarr had knocked down earlier. Ingvarr reached for his rifle, he aimed, and fired. At the sound of the trigger the silhouette swung around and charged in the opposite direction. But it was too late, the bullet had penetrated. The beast galloped, but not for long. Its head plummeted onto the snow, followed by its trunk, then its four limbs were in the air, kicking. It’s whole body convulsed, then the movement of the limbs stopped, and the forest was quiet again. The buck lay motionless in the snow-covered brush. Ingvarr closed his eyes, and breathed a sigh of relief. He wanted to reach his hand into the back of his throat and push his heart back into its place. If the single bullet had not killed the creature immediately, he might become the victim to an angry, injured creature which stood as tall as him, and weighted six to seven times as much of his weight. Although the creature had shed its antlers for the winter, he was still a mighty beast, the ruler of the forest. Deep down in his heart, Ingvarr wanted to live, but his life was under the hegemony of the voice in his head. He returned the empty rifle to his duffel bag. He lunged toward the spot where the beast had fallen. He took out a coil of rope, tied a noose, and looped it around the creature’s neck. He dragged the beast across the snow-covered brushes, urged his left foot forward, and then his right foot. For every foot or so he advanced, he coiled the length of rope around his waist. He paused under a giant spruce with branches drooping in snow. He uncoiled the rope from his waist, and coiled it around the trunk of the spruce. With all his might, he yanked and tugged the rope until the beast was under the canopy of the snow-laden spruce. He brushed away fresh snow to recover fallen branches, he scattered branches and twigs over the beast, stepped back to appraise the result—yes, his game was completely hidden. His stomach was grumbling, and after the physical exertion of tugging and hiding his game, he was really starving. But there was nothing else he could do in a moonless night—too dark to skin the beast. He untied the noose from the neck of the beast, took the rope and tied the hooves of the beast together, and tied the other end to the trunk of the spruce. He layered dry branches between the front and hind limbs of his game, stretched, and lay down next to the beast. The hollow hair of the buck’s fur imparted partial insulation to him. He adjusted his body again and pressed tighter against the fur until his whole body was almost buried in the fur of his giant game, and finally fell asleep. Chapter 3 Are You the Mother? Cassandra’s heart was pounding as she stepped up to the yellow line. Between hope and despair she handed two passports to the customs officer. The customs officer laid the two passports side by side: one was issued by the Republic of China for Cassandra while the other was issued by the United States of America for Peri. He glanced up from the documents to swipe across Cassandra and Peri, and then looked down again to examine the two passports. Cassandra was looking on with trepidation as the customs officer turned each page of the two passports. Is the customs officer suspicious of my motive: a mother taking a nineteen-month-old to travel in the United States? I am not even here to join my husband or see a relative, but to visit an old American lady. The customs officer leaned forward to stare at Cassandra. “Ms. Nan, are you the mother of Peri Chou?” Cassandra’s jaw dropped in disbelief. “Yes, of course; Peri Chou is my son!” The customs officer studied the two passports again. “But your family name is different from your son’s.” It is the custom in Taiwan: a woman does not change her family name when she gets married. Cassandra was given the last name Nan by the Buddhist monk who had found her at the south side of the Buddhist temple and “south” in Mandarin is pronounced as “Nan.” Maybe the customs officer saw the innocent astonishment on Cassandra’s face and realized his unintentional accusation of the poor woman, but it was too late for him to back off. He rephrased his question. “Any proof that you are the mother?” Cassandra unzipped her fanny pack, reached inside to unzip a second pocket, and took out a tiny box. She separated the magnetic button that fastened the cover to the box and then took out a document issued by the Texas Health Department and handed the document to the customs officer. On the birth certificate were Peri’s name, her name as the mother, and her ex-husband’s name as the father. The officer perused it. He stepped out of his booth, bent down in front of Peri, asking “Where is Mama?” The officer’s nose was almost touching Peri’s; Peri instinctively recoiled. He tilted back his head to look at Cassandra, “Kóng sian mih-mia?” asking his mother what the man had said. The officer saw Peri clinging to Cassandra, gesticulated in Cassandra’s direction and asked Peri again, “Mo-ther?” Peri gaped at the man, turning again at Cassandra and repeated “Kóng sian mih-mia?” The eyes of the customs officer were dashing between Cassandra and Peri, and apparently he finally felt that he had done his job. He stepped back to his booth, stamped the passports and handed them back to her. “All right, Cassandra and baby Peri, have a good trip in America.” *** After sixteen hours of confinement to the seat, Peri was eager to get up and walk. He looked imploringly at Cassandra and wiggled under the safety harness of his stroller. Cassandra fixed her eyes on the conveyor belt and watched apprehensively for her luggage. Without looking at Peri, she told him to wait. Ten minutes, twenty minutes, thirty minutes had passed—no luggage. Her anxiety had turned into doubt. Cassandra pushed the stroller and stood in front of the arrival screen to check on the luggage claim section for her flight and found that she had heard the flight attendant correctly. She returned to the spot and a few minutes later spotted her luggage rolling down the conveyor belt. Another tug at her skirt; she told Peri to wait a minute. But Peri pulled her skirt even harder and announced “Abu, góa bē bán sái.” Whenever Peri said that he seriously meant he had to use the toilet. Cassandra swerved to see the grimace on Peri’s face. Without a second’s delay she roved for the restroom sign. Cassandra had started Peri on potty training as soon as she took him home from the hospital—two days old—and he was very cooperative in giving her the warning sign when he needed to go. Cassandra adjusted her backpack, put her hands over the handlebars of the stroller and charged at the women’s restroom. No vacancy. She waited. A minute or so later, a woman came out, towing behind her a luggage. Cassandra dipped her head at the woman and pushed open the toilet stall, backed herself into the nook of the stall, pulled in the stroller, and closed the door. She bent down to take out the potty chair from under Peri’s stroller and placed it on top of the toilet seat. Despite the heavy load on her back, she bent down to unhook the seat belt, lifted Peri out of the stroller, pulled down his pants and in a split second seated him on the potty chair. Immediately she heard the sound of solid hitting water, “Dóan, dóan” followed by the familiar “Pee-pee” sound; and then Peri’s face brightened up, he bobbed his head with alacrity and told his mother proudly that poop-poop was over. Cassandra retrieved her luggage and as they approached the luggage inspection area Peri recognized the familiar Taiwanese physiognomy in the inspector, and in his childish naiveté, waved excitedly at the inspector and loudly said, “A-peh lí hó!” Time stopped—for a fleeting moment the elderly inspector turned his full attention on the child sitting in the stroller, forgetting his official task. He stooped down to pat Peri on his hat and said, “Did you call me great uncle and wish me well?” Instead of asking to see Cassandra’s luggage he complimented her for bringing up Peri with good manner. Then he blinked away tears in his eyes and waved them away. Cassandra expressed her gratitude to the luggage inspector with a Buddhist gassho. After leaving the air-conditioned customs area and stepping into the outside pickup area of Dallas International Airport, Cassandra sensed the sudden rise in temperature. Although it was only early spring, the temperature was soaring at the seventies. She bent down to take off Peri’s light jacket, folded it, and put it next to him in his stroller. She adjusted her long yellow skirt that hung down to her ankles—all the while scanning for Ruth. Peri pointed his finger excitedly at cars running up and down the road by the arrival area. Then he raised his hands to push the woolen hat off his head—not a single hair. Cassandra scanned again, no, she did not see Ruth. Then she heard a voice behind her, “Cassandra?” Cassandra veered in the direction of the familiar voice and she heard, “Yes, it’s you, Cassandra. Welcome back.” It was Ruth Laffite. Without reservation, Cassandra threw herself into the open arms of the elderly woman, sobbing bitterly. Peri heard his mother’s cry, stunned, and momentarily stopped his car watch. He turned around and looking quizzically at Cassandra, who had buried her head in a big tall woman’s arms. He yelled for his mother “Abu?” No reply; Peri yelled again, “Abu.” Ruth gently massaged Cassandra’s curly jet black hair and consoled her “Honey, it’s okay; everything will be fine; it will work out.” She pushed Cassandra back and took out a facial tissue from her purse and dabbed the tears off Cassandra’s face. She pushed back wisps of loose hair to behind Cassandra’s ears, and traced her cheeks like a mother reuniting with a daughter whom she had not seen for a long time. But when Ruth looked down below Cassandra’s neckline, she quickly let go of her and turned her attention at Peri. Cassandra was wearing a plus-sized long sleeve yellow polo shirt that she buttoned all the way to the white collar. She let the hem of her polo shirt hang over her multi-pocket fanny pack around her waist, and that made her look like she was pregnant. Beneath the polo shirt she wore a matching yellow pleated skirt that hung down all the way to her ankles. Her attire was completed with a pair of white tennis shoes and a pair of ankle-high white socks. “Peri, is that you? Look at you; you are a big boy now.” She stooped down to eyelevel with Peri. “Do you remember Grandma Ruth?” Peri jerked; a horizontal furrow spread across his forehead and disappeared almost immediately. He paused, leaned back against the stroller and studied Ruth with his gleaming brown eyes. Peri was only five-month-old when Cassandra returned to Taiwan with her ex-husband; he was too young to remember Ruth. Peri gaped at the elderly woman—snowy white hair, long prominent nose, and big white teeth framed by blazing red lips. She was wearing a pair of big plastic framed glasses—the thick lenses made her blue eyes look imposingly big. He frowned. He turned to look at Cassandra with an unspoken question of “Mom, is this person okay to talk to?” Cassandra responded to his unspoken question with a nod of approval. He turned back to face Ruth and said diffidently, “A-má lí-hó.” Cassandra had never asked if Ruth understood Taiwanese, but Ruth grinned with delight and clasped her hands. She bent down to pinch Peri’s chubby cheeks. “Did you call me grandmother?” Peri gazed at Cassandra again asking another unspoken question “Mom, who is this person?” Cassandra understood. She stooped to pick him up from the stroller, holding him in one arm, lifting his little hand with the other and waving at Ruth. “Peri, this is Grandma Ruth, she is Mommy’s best friend. We are going to stay at her house. Say ‘Hi, Grandma Ruth.’” Little Peri waved his hand and repeated “Ma Uth.” A green Cadillac four-door sedan with a long trunk pulled up by them. The driver came out and walked up to Ruth. The man kissed Ruth’s cheeks. Ruth said, “Cassandra, you remember my husband Jim?” Jim politely took Cassandra’s hand and shook it; and winked at Peri. Jim was tall and slim like a fence-post, with straight broad shoulders. Amazingly at his age he did not show any sign of a beer belly. He had a tanned face, meticulously trimmed white hair and clean-shaven chin. He wore a pair of sunlight activated sunglasses that made it hard to tell the color of his eyes. He was about five inches taller than Ruth. He glanced at the luggage at Cassandra’s heels. “Is there anything you want to keep with you at the back seat?” Cassandra quickly glanced at her watch and remembered it had been almost two hours since Peri’s last visit to the bathroom. She took the stroller and asked, “Ruth, would you mind I take Peri to the restroom for a minute?” Ruth looked at Jim and then Peri, and nodded. “Guess it’s time.” When Cassandra came back from the restroom with Peri in the stroller, she was stunned to find Ruth, Jim, and the green Cadillac had all disappeared. She scanned the area, pushed Peri up and down the sidewalk—no sign of Ruth, Jim, or the green Cadillac. She started to panic and an enormous fear of desertion overtook her. All our belongings are gone! Where are we going to stay? She was chanting, “Nan mor, nan mor ...” when she heard someone honking at her. A voice was shouting from the passenger window, “Cassandra, over here.” It was Ruth. Cassandra quickly swallowed her tears, spun around, and waved. The police patrol limited each car to stay no more than five minutes at the pickup area. When Cassandra had taken Peri to the bathroom, the police came and gave Jim two choices: move his car or get a ticket and then move his car; Jim opted for the first. He’d circled around the airport twice before he spotted Cassandra again. Chapter 4 You’re so Beautiful “... You are so beautiful ...” Ingvarr murmured in his sleep. Shortly after, he rolled off his twig-and-branch bed while yelling, “What the heck ...?” He dusted off the snow from his snow parker and his red hair. He put on his eyeglasses and his ski goggles, saw the motionless buck against the white backdrop, and remembered his whereabouts. Then a smile spread across his face. Ingvarr had not smiled for at least six months. The last time he smiled was a couple of minutes ago, before he woke up. Sometime during the night, when the snow turned powdery and heavy, when the temperature in the forest plummeted, Ingvarr had turned and tossed in the cradle of the thick fur to get warm. He wrapped his arms around the forelimb of the carcass for at that moment I had given him a beautiful dream. When he opened his eyes, he was startled to see a hairy brown object in his arms. He immediately rolled off onto the snow and almost hit his face against the trunk of the tree. Despite the hunger and thirst, he leaned against the tree trunk to savor his dream. But coldness brought him back to reality—he realized he had to build a temporary shelter if he were to outlive the blizzards. In front of him lay a meat- and fur-giver surrounded by feet-deep of snow, and more snow was coming down. He could not light a fire under the tree because the heat from the fire might melt the snow, causing ice to accumulate on the branches and snap above him. He desperately searched for the rock that he had sat on the evening before. Then, he saw it. About three hundred feet away was a granite wall. It was covered by snow on the top but if he looked intently, he would see that in the middle of the wall the color was a little grayer than the rest—it was a cave-in area, and was shielded by a large overhanging piece. That area was not receiving as much snow as the rest of the granite wall because the overhanging roof had absorbed most of the brutal northerly wind. But he had to drag his game to the rock, and at that moment he was both hungry and weak, and his game still weighed about one thousand pounds. He waded through the snow to inspect the wall. Then another reality hit him—he saw another set of footprints. The granite shelter was available to him as well as to all other creatures in the wilderness. There was no place to hide his game meat and to keep other predators away. He had an empty rifle, a coil of rope and a knife not much longer than a pocket knife. The only way he could think of was a fire, a fire that burnt continuously to deter predators and to keep warm. Fueled by the beautiful dream that I had given him earlier, he set to work. He trimmed two fallen branches into two poles. Then using barks, twigs and brushes from the snowy floor he lashed the poles into a contraption that looked like a travois. Using his bush-craft knife he cut a notch on one end of each of the poles. He rolled the dead moose onto the sledge. He noosed each end of his rope to each of the notches. The middle of the rope he twisted it around the empty rifle covered in his duffel bag—a handle for his sledge. He stood up, handle pressed against his empty stomach, inched forward. It was a primitive contraption and he tumbled and fell—countless times. But he clearly demonstrated his resilience—he simple yanked himself up, brushed the snow off his face, and inched forward until he reached the granite wall. His next challenge was to hang the moose upside down so that he could skin the beast using gravity. He could not count on his bush knife: it was not made for that purpose. He climbed up the naked trees—using the butt of his rifle and his weight he forced the snow-covered branches to snap. He used his rope to measure the length and snap branches of approximately equal lengths. Then he cut notches on the branches with his knife and lashed them into tripods with strings made of barks. He made two tripods, which stood apart from each other by the width of the moose on the sledge. He placed a horizontal beam across the two tripods. He sharpened a sturdy branch into a pointed end and punched that end through the moose’s back legs just above the knees, and then wrapped twigs and moss around the pointed end to prevent the beam from slipping off. He then untied the ropes from the sledge, and tied one slip-knot each around the hind hooves of the moose. He picked up the handle of his sledge and passed it over the horizontal beam connecting the tripods. He walked over to the other side, picked up the handle, tugged it against his stomach, and began inching the distance, lifting the dead beast over the tripod crossbeam. I crossed my arms, gazing at Ingvarr with satisfaction—romance is an immeasurable force to push a man beyond his limit. I have to emphasize that as a matchmaker I only do minor physical work like whispering, otherwise I just observe. Finally, the beam connecting the moose hind legs locked into place above the crossbeam between the two tripods—his game was hung upside down. He swept a layer of snow that was covering a rock jutting out of the granite wall, exposed a rugged surface inhabited by moss. He sat down to rest. Until this point, he hadn’t had a morsel of food to eat. As he paused to take in the view of his shelter, he congratulated himself upon his good luck. He watched snow flung by for a while before he got up to prepare his fire pit, and skin and quarter his game. Right before the last daylight retreated behind the darkness, he had a rawhide, a nice fire to roast his game meat, and a small fire made of dampened twigs and branches to smoke his game. After he ate his first meal in two days, he went to collect more branches for his fire. He built a tower with the branches, hoping that it would last through the night. Then he wrapped the fur side of the moose skin around his body, yawned a few times, and fell asleep—sitting up. On the eighth day, I told the blizzards to take a break. Walking back and forth in the crampons he had contrived out of the moose hooves, Ingvarr suddenly realized that no new snow had landed on his fur. “The blizzard is over.” He shouted like a little boy who had been trapped inside a dark basement and was finally able to get out. “Hurray, I have out-lived the blizzards! I’m alive, I’m a strong Viking!” He had used every part of his game to aid his survival. Besides sleep and eat, he had contrived survival tools out of the carcass. He had made a cape with the moose skin, and leggings to keep his lower legs and knees warm. He had made candles using fats and guts of the carcass. He had made bone needles and sewed a freezer bag for the moose steak. He was ready to get on his journey north. He still had no map and no destination except heading north. The mountains were still jagged, and covered with snow; his path treacherous. But the crampons gave him cushion and prevented him from sinking into the snow. He had lost count of the days but eventually he made it to a small village near Jostedalsbreen, the largest glacier in Norway. The village was deserted for the winter. Most of the cabins were half buried in snow. The cabins were used by shepherds or goat herders in the summer but were deserted for the winter. The frozen and snow-covered ground was uneven, and after the sun had gone down, it was hard to navigate. Some of the cabins had been lacerated by years of blizzards and desertion. He finally located one next to a frozen creek. He had contrived a tool out of the carcass to clear the snow at the entrance. There was no switch to turn on—there was no light in the cabin—it was pitching dark inside. He groped his way in the little cabin, inching forward with extreme care until his boots kicked something that echoed “Knk, knkkkkkk.” He felt with the toes of his boots around it and realized that it was a fire-ring. He fumbled in his pocket for flint and tinder. Through the lighted dry pine cone, his eyes were adjusting to the surrounding of the cabin. He saw newspapers plastered to the wall—all around—even the window. Then he felt the draft, through the loosened ends of newspapers, seeping into the cabin. He lighted another cone before the previous one burned to its base. He needed a torch or a campfire—he had to go outside to the snow to gather firewood. Then he thought he saw a hole in the wall. He stooped down, pushing the flaming cone as close as he dared to the wafer-thin newspapers; and there it was—a small flap door. He unlatched the metal bar, yanked several times to loosen the hinges, until the small door “eeeeeeeeked” open; he saw darkness. He circled his flamed cone around the opening and reckoned that it was big enough for a regular adult to crawl through. But cold draft was coming in. He had no time to investigate further; he absolutely had to find branches and twigs to start a fire. *** He was rubbing his hands over the flaming firewood when he saw the shape of a stool under a bench along the wall opposite to where he was squatting. He leapt to grab the object. Then, sitting comfortably before a glowing fire, he had a better view of the room. Above the fire-ring was a large iron ring hanging down from the ceiling. “Ah, lucky me,” he told himself. The iron-ring had hooks curling up and when he looked close enough, he discovered something like a skewer. He searched for more—no, there’s no more. But he decided one was better than none. He took down the skewer and heated it over the fire until the metal glowed red hot. He poked the skewer through the thick side of a moose steak and hung it back on the iron ring. The ring instantly tilted to one side. While his food was roasting, he inspected the old newspapers on the wall again. Some of the newspapers dated back to before WWI. There were two long benches along the wall; Ingvarr cleared the cobweb and—he had a bed. After he had eaten the meat, he wanted a kettle to make a cup of hot tea. He had not drunk anything properly except a handful of fresh snow here and there for ten days. He crouched down on the cold dirt floor of the cabin and used his ski pole to feel around the dark storeroom. He heard his ski pole hitting something which reverberated with a metallic sound. He fished out the object—an ancient tin mug. He didn’t have tea bag or tea leaf to make tea; but his stomach was yearning for hot liquid. He boiled a mug of hot water, and pretended it was tea. He almost choked—trying to swallow and spit at the same time, yelling, “Yuckkkkkkk!” The ancient mug had accumulated centuries of metallic oxide. Chapter 5 Cassandra Nan and Ruth Laffite “Smell this, drink it in. I love magnolia; it’s my favorite tree.” Ruth told Cassandra. From the bay window of Ruth’s guest room, Cassandra‘s gaze followed the towering height of the magnolia tree that stood thirty feet above ground. She sniffed the aroma of the magnolia flowers. “In Taiwan we have a similar tree—the flowers are smaller, but the fragrance is similar. I used to gaze up at the tree and wonder what it would be like to climb up to the treetop and look out.” “Is that right? Not on my magnolia though. Come, let me show you something.” Cassandra followed Ruth to a door. “This door opens to the back yard. I let you use this room so that you have access to the yard anytime. You can go in and out of the house without going through the front door; it’s like having your own private entrance.” Ruth took Cassandra’s hands and clasped them in hers. “Sweetie, you can stay here as long as you need, okay. Don’t worry, all things work together for good; men meant for evil but God meant for good.” Ruth is a sweetie—her mother archetype falls into the house of spirituality; she regards helping young women to re-gain self-esteem as her life calling. By the way, I am the matchmaker for Ruth and Jim. Oh, how they love each other. “Ruth, thank you so much.” Cassandra wrapped her arms around Ruth’s neck. “You are most welcome. Now, let’s check out the room. Ruth pointed at the twin-size bed at one corner and surveyed Cassandra’s slim body. “Do you need a bigger bed?” “No, Ruth, this is fine.” “You have your own bathroom. We had renovated the house a few years ago, rearranged the floor plan to expand the kitchen, and reduced the square footage of this room, and so we put a smaller bed in here.” “Ruth, thank you. We’ll do just fine.” Ruth patted Cassandra on the shoulder. “Honey, I just want you to feel at home here, okay. Do not be dismayed, for in due time, God will make all things beautiful, you’ll see. Now, let’s see what little Peri is up to.” Peri was tottering from one end of the room to the other. At one point, he fell down on the carpet, was surprised that his bottom was not hurt; he got up and resumed his promenade around the room. He touched the bed, the bed frame, the headboard, the end table, the dresser, the chair; and then, he paused. He was standing face-to-face with a little boy with a shiny hairless head, big brown eyes, a little triangular nose, and fat chubby cheeks. He did not recognize his reflection in the mirror. He was both stunned and excited to find a playmate out of nowhere. He ventured to wave at the little boy, and the little boy waved back, instantly. He stretched out his hand to the little boy, and the little boy stretched out his. Peri took a step closer, stuck out his tongue at the little boy and the little boy did the same thing to him. Peri ran up and landed a kiss on the little boy, only to find his lips pressing against a hard and cold surface. Ruth clasped her hands. “Oh, Cassandra, your little boy—he found his twin.” Ruth bent down to pick up Peri who did not resist her. “I see you’ve found a friend who looks exactly like you. Let’s go shake hand with Peri Chou.” Peri scanned between Ruth and the mirror—he saw the little boy in the arms of a woman who looked exactly like Ruth. He gaped at Ruth, touched her nose and then her white hair, and saw the little boy did exactly that. He gazed at Ruth with an unspoken question: “What is going on?” Pointing at the image Ruth said, “Mirror, yes, you see your reflection in a mirror. Isn’t that fun? Let’s see what your mother is doing. Say, bye-bye mirror.” Ruth waved and Peri copied. As they walked along a wall of photos Peri pointed his finger at a picture of a kitten chasing a ball of yarn. He said, “Kiû, mew-mew.” “Yes, that’s right; a kitten is playing with a ball of yarn. You like this photo?” Peri flapped his little hand up and down to show his excitement. “Siú.” “Very good! That means pri-tē, pri-te foυtoυ.” “Pri-fυtυ.” Peri repeated. “Pri-te foυ-toυ.” “Pri-te foυ-toυ.” “Yes, pretty photo. Peri, you are splendid! Give Grandma Ruth a kiss?” Ruth leaned her cheek and Peri intuitively landed a kiss on her white cheek. It was unpretentious, unrehearsed, clumsy, wet—but precious—Ruth was thrilled. “Oh, cutie, I am going to keep you.” A body lunged forward and two hands snatched Peri out of Ruth’s hands—it was Cassandra. “No, Peri is my son. No one takes him away from me!” Both Peri and Ruth were stunned. Peri blinked and then stared into Cassandra’s eyes; waiting for explanation of her sudden aggressiveness. Ruth took a step back, calmed herself and explained, “No, Cassandra, that’s not what I mean. That’s just an endearing way to say that I adore your boy. Peri is your son; I won’t ever steal him from you.” “A-bu, pri-te foυ-toυ; Ma Ruth.” Peri said and eagerly awaiting his mother’s approval. Cassandra just cuddled Peri under her chin and cried convulsively. Peri, shocked and confused by the sudden mood change in his mother, broke down and cried, too. Ruth gently patted Cassandra’s shoulders. “You’re hurting, aren’t you? I’ll leave you two alone.” She glanced down at her watch “Take your time; I’ll come get you around six for dinner.” And then Ruth quietly left the room and closed the door behind her. Cassandra sat down at the edge of the bed—her sobs changed into howls, her body quivered and convulsed. Three years ago, at Denton, Texas, Cassandra was shivering in the rain—when she first met Ruth. *** Cassandra’s ex-husband sent for her while he was in graduate school in order to take care of him, the household affairs and his meals so he could focus on his graduate study. After Cassandra cooked and cleaned for him, she was left alone, idle for hours. One afternoon, she looked out of the apartment window and saw the long sidewalk stretching toward the university. She remembered the big library at her alma mater filled with miles of books—she reminisced the time she had snuggled on the wicker chairs in the library, flipping through ancient books dated back to the fourteenth century. She loved literature—suddenly, her mind was filled with the images of ancient volumes—poetry, history, calligraphy ... At that moment, all her faculties were yearning for freedom—to get out of the confinement of the little apartment; and she thought she knew the direction to the library. She glanced down at her watch—five hours before she needed to make dinner for her husband. She closed her eyes and saw herself as one unit with the heroines she had read in her Chinese chivalry novels—she saw herself jumping from rooftop to rooftop, her body light as a bird and unrestrained by gravity. She gazed up at the crystal blue sky—not a single cloud was in sight. She picked up her English-Chinese dictionary and began her walk to the library. As she strode down University Drive, a couple of pedestrians said, “Hi” or “Nĭ hăo ma” to her. The sound of a familiar language was like soothing music to her ears. She chirped “Wŏ hěn hăo, xiè, xiè.” But the dialog ended just as abruptly as it had started and the passersby continued their own journey. Stunned by the cultural shock and confused about the etiquette, she forgot to read the name of the street where she had made the turn. She did not notice the dark clouds rolling in either, and suddenly the sky opened—in less than five minutes, Cassandra was soaked from head to toes—worse, she forgot her whereabouts. She dashed across the street between buildings, became totally disoriented—all the red and beige brick buildings merged and resembled one another. She swerved, crossed the street, turned, crossed the street again; then she discovered her dictionary was gone. Then two things happened almost simultaneously. Next to the sidewalk, a woman looked out from a moving Cadillac; her hair was almost all white. She was about to open her mouth, when a man rushed out from a red brick building, holding a trash bag over his head to shield himself from the rain. He shouted something that sounded like “Cassandra” to Ruth. He continued to scream until he was standing next to Cassandra and then he shouted into her ear again, something that sounded like “Cassandra” to Ruth. The green Cadillac rolled to a stop. In a gentle but authoritative voice Ruth called out, “Cassandra, are you alright?” The man jerked at the sound of a stranger’s voice, threw back his head and lifted the trash bag in his hands to check out the busybody. “Yes, of course she is alright; she is not Cassandra, she is my wife. I told her to stop running around in the rain.” Ruth looked straight at the man, and in a low voice, said, “Maybe she was lost?” Without hesitation she got out of her car, opened a beach umbrella and held it over Cassandra. With the other hand she spread a beach towel over Cassandra’s dripping wet body. Cassandra shifted the towel to cover the wet clothes sticking to her body, and pressed her palms together in front of her chest, and bowed to Ruth. “To-siā lí.” “My wife said thank you.” Kuan-Shan explained to Ruth. Ruth nodded to acknowledge Kuan-Shan and returned to look at the dripping young lady beside her. “Cassandra, do you speak English?” Cassandra didn’t understand. Mortified, she turned to look at Kuan-Shan, begging him for translation. He gave her a scolding look and turned to face Ruth. “No, she just came from Taiwan. She is my wife, not Cassandra.” Ruth glanced at Cassandra’s wet and dazed face, turned to Kuan-Shan, and said, “I teach an ESOL class, English for Speakers of Other Languages. I would like to invite your wife to come.” The driver stretched out his hand from the driver seat, holding a flyer; Ruth took it and thrust it into Cassandra’s hand. “Hope to see you there, Cassandra.” Then she got back into her car and they drove off. Cassandra’s real name is unknown. She was given a Buddhist name, which sounded like “kā-sē-zhuàn,” and a surname “Nan” because she was found at the doorstep on the south side of the Buddhist temple. After she got married her husband only called her “Boo,” which means wife; her neighbor called her Mrs. Chou; her son called her Abu which means mother; and her parents-in-law called her “Sin-pū," which means daughter-in-law. *** Clutching her son tight, Cassandra continued to howl. Between sobs she said, “Góa só thiàn ê kián, góa chin ài li, góa senn.”—My son, I love you more than my own life. Cassandra had considered suicide many times after her husband had divorced her. She was brought up believing that the physical body was only a trap that hindered her from enjoying spiritual felicity. She was taught to hope in the life after. But when she looked at Peri, the thought of suicide becomes almost too selfish. How could she? Peri needs me, I’ll live for him. Peri became Cassandra’s meaning and reason to live. She wanted to shower him with the love that she had not experienced as she grew up. Peri was her only possession and her final link to the world. Peri’s link to his mother was almost as deep as hers to him. He did not understand what was going on, but he imitated his mother’s emotion anyway and burst out crying. Cassandra’s tears had landed on his head. The sudden wetness and coldness on his scalp made him feel uncomfortable, and not knowing how to express his feeling, he cried even louder. Cassandra pulled him tighter to her bosom, raised her hand to stroke his head, suddenly realizing that his head was getting wet from her tears. She extracted a handkerchief from her dress pocket and wiped Peri’s head. The swirling movement produced a calming effect on the toddler, and temporarily distracted Cassandra from her own self-pity. But to Peri, the storm was over—he wasn’t particularly hungry at the moment, he had no immediate need to use the toilet, and he was too excited to feel sleepy. As Cassandra wiped away his dwindling tears, Peri returned his attention to the new room: there are things to be discovered, and places to explore. He attempted to loosen himself from Cassandra’s grip, backed his little body away, and glanced at Cassandra with the unspoken question of “Is it okay that I get down, now?” Cassandra did not avert him. He stretched his left foot and then his right foot, and suddenly he was free. He grabbed on to Cassandra for another second to feel the footing. After he was sure that he had reached solid landing, he let go of Cassandra. He stood on the carpet, steadied himself, looked around, and began his exploration. He looked up and down the wall of photos, tilted back to look at Cassandra, and happily repeating, “Pri-te foυ-toυ, pri-te foυ-toυ.” Still blinded by her own tears Cassandra watched Peri stammering across the room and repeating the new phrase he had just learned, “Pri-te foυ-toυ, pri-te foυ-toυ.” Peri’s vivacity like anti-depressant somehow lifted Cassandra from the abyss of her sorrow and temporarily numbed her pain. She took down a chain of Buddhist prayer beads from her neck, passed the beads between her fingers chanting “Nan mó nan mó, sà pó sà pó ... au né táu fó ...” Then she heard a knock at the door. “Cassandra, Ruth, can I come in?” Cassandra hastily fastened the chain of prayer beads on her neck and stood up to open the door. “Ruth, I’m sorry, I just got emotional.” Ruth grabbed Cassandra’s hands and clasped them in hers. “Honey, I understand, think nothing of it. If someone threatens to take my son away from me and put him up for adoption, I would prance on her too. Don’t worry, everything will work itself out. Now, are you ready for dinner?” Ruth turned in Peri’s direction and asked, “Peri, sweetie, how about food?” Peri suddenly paused from his photo-promenade, froze at the spot and looked seriously at Cassandra. “Abu, góa bē bán sái.” Cassandra immediate turned from Ruth to Peri. As if she understood Taiwanese, Ruth patted Cassandra on the shoulders “He says he needs to use the bathroom, doesn’t he?” Ruth nodded and Cassandra picked Peri up and took him to the bathroom. Chapter 6 In Pursue of His Dream After the blizzards, Ingvarr could have returned to his mother’s farm. Instead, he decided to continue his journey north, for several reasons. First was his daring personality. Growing up Ingvarr was always a contender to limits; he always believes that he can perform the impossible. As a young boy, he had hiked Jostedalsbreen with his father, who’s a geologist. There’s a mystic tranquility and majesty in the Glacier that Ingvarr revered. In fact, as a teenager he had once told his father that he would one day hike to Jostedalsbreen all by himself, and spend a winter there. But his father talked him out of it. His aspiration about conquering the Glacier had faded and been forgotten over the years; but the seed had been planted and the seed had not forgotten its destiny. Second, Ingvarr is a geologist. One summer, while he was working as an intern for his professor, together they had discovered a stockpile of silver coins and jewelry in an area not far away from the Glacier. His professor believed that they had uncovered an ancient burial site for the Vikings. Later, their proposition was confirmed by archaeologists specialized in Viking history. Since then Ingvarr had been fascinated by his ancient heritage and his link to the Nordmenn, who had lived long before his country was even called Norway. After Ingvarr had survived the seven-day blizzard, the seed of his teenage dream had germinated and had taken root. He might not build a dragon boat like the ancient Vikings or set sail across the North Sea to raid and loot, but he would experience the lives of his peripatetic ancient ancestors. He would survive the harsh winter in the Glacier by hunting wild games that roamed the wilderness. The third reason, which was really what spurred the other two, was because of the dream he had that night sleeping in the arms of the dead moose. He was in search of a place that matched that of what he had seen in his dream; and the young lady that appeared in the dream. He knew that the moose cape would not be sufficient to keep him warm the entire winter in the Glacier—he had to hunt for fur and stock up firewood. He rummaged every cabin in the village to collect items that he could use to set up traps for games. He had to rely on his traps to secure wild games for his survival. One afternoon around four, just when the last ray of the winter sun was about to fade away from the earth, he heard noises—some creature had fallen into one of his traps. When he went out to check, he saw a young doe. She had fallen into one of his traps and was desperately trying to get free. He hid behind a tree and made noises. The more noises he made, the more the doe struggled to get free, and the scared animal urinated on the twigs around the trap. Then Ingvarr walked over almost noiselessly in his moose crampons, untied the trap and released the young doe. He quickly mended the trap and picked up some of the twigs and barks covered with the doe’s urine and spread them over his other traps. After dusk, Ingvarr sat still in his cabin listening to the chill wind howling and noise from his traps. For hours, all he heard was just the wind talking across the valley, but then he heard a distinctly different noise. He put on his crampons, and wrapped himself in the moose skin cape. First he re-traced his step to the trap where he had trapped the young doe. There, a large buck was struggling to get free from the trap. Ingvarr tossed his rope into midair, the noose landed precisely on the neck of the trapped buck. He tied the other end of the rope around the trunk of a tree and stood at a distance to watch his struggling game for a while, and retrieved into his shelter. He would not want to tackle face-to-face with a buck that was fighting for its freedom, when all he had to defend himself with was a bush-craft knife. Inside his cabin, he made a fire, and roasted a moose liver for dinner. Later, he sat down on one of the long benches, read the old newspapers on the wall, and lay down to sleep. He curled into a fetal position in his moose cape, his knees and feet warmed by a small fire in the fire ring. Sometime in the middle of the night, I let him revisit the dream again; he murmured, “... you’re mine ... you’re so beautiful.” Around dawn, Ingvarr was aroused by cold draft creeping through cracks of the thatched roof and the wattle and daub walls. He got down from his bench, shivered a few minutes to shake off the cold, and then bravely charged out of his winter cabin and marched through frozen snow to recover his game. Although he had one good moose cape already, to survive the subzero winter, he needed at least another four to six skins for clothing and beddings. The newspapers on the wall would not suffice the insulation he needed. But he would not be able to consume meats from four to six reindeer, no matter how much he savored the taste of venison. He needed a smokehouse to store his meat. He went back to investigate the trap door. He lit a long twig and poked it through the hole. It was a store room alright. Just as he had suspected, the floor of the room was also part of a frozen creek. He groped his hand about the low wall and felt something—a rope. A dilapidated rope—a frozen rope. And that reminded him that his coil of rope was quite worn out too, he would need stronger rope or other contraption to tow his game in the future. But first he needed to skin and quarter the game that he had already captured. After he had a taste of the fresh venison, he began to build his smoke house. With the axe he contrived out of the moose scapula, he split logs and peeled barks from trees to make a rack for the game meat. Then he collected piles upon piles of wet brushes, barks, and moss, and spread them across the frozen floor. Then he crawled out of the storeroom, lit a few skinny branches and thrust the blazing branches over the bed of wet barks and brushes. He closed the trap door, and went outside. Using the pointed end of his ice pick contrived out of the moose carcass, he cut an outline of a circle. Then using his hands he scooped out the snow within the circle. He made a chimney for his smoke house. After he made his winter clothing, which included a pair of underbukse, moccasins, socks and gloves, all made of reindeer fur; and cured reindeer meat, he started his hike up Jostedalbreen. He thought he was well prepared. The first two trips, he was; and he made those trips in early and middle of February. In early March, boosted by the success of the last two hikes, he was getting bolder. He was planning to hike up to the summit and stay a night in the Glacier. He brought extra food and his reindeer sleeping bag with him. A little past noon, Ingvarr threw his rope. A rope made of smoked reindeer skin with a hook chiseled out of a reindeer antler attached at one end. Reindeer shed their antlers in winters, and if you searched among brushes or trunks marked with strokes like it had been hewed, you would find abandoned antlers. Ingvarr pulled his rope to check the tautness, it felt tight and he thought it was secured. He climbed up a ridge that stretched almost a mile long. At the end of the ridge he looked around, taking in the view of the majestic Glacier that no one had ever reached in the winter. He was proud. Then the ground under him sank and shook. Next, noise like thunder was rolling in his direction, followed by a tsunami of white waves reeling over him and carrying him down so rapidly that in a split second he found himself in total darkness and squashed under massive snow. He heard nothing, except his own heartbeat and the adrenaline pumping through his veins. He tried to move, but it was impossible, he was capped by snow. Then he realized what he had just experienced, he had stepped on an ice bridge or a cap covering a crevasse. He became fearful—he could not tell his location, he wanted to search for his compass in his pocket but he could not move. He tried to wiggle his toes, feel his fingers, twist his body, and turn his head. He felt his rope, which was still tied to his wrist. He needed a Texas pursik which he did not have. He kept tugging and yanking, he was gaining length on the rope, but in the meantime, he was falling deeper. Chapter 7 Making a Decision At the picnic table on Jim’s patio, Jim said, “I grilled the vegetables separately; the meat has not touched the vegetables.” Ruth took Jim’s hand and squeezed. She looked at Cassandra, “Well, Cassandra you are the guest. Take your plate and pick what you want. Jim grows all the vegetables in his garden. We don’t use pesticide or fertilizer.” “Thank you, Jim.” Cassandra pressed her palms together and bowed her head at her host and hostess before she sat down. She cut the cucumber and carrot into tiny pieces for Peri and he ate eagerly, until he saw Jim’s bratwurst. The sausage was juicy and plump, with brown markings of the grill punctuated on the red skin. Peri’s mouth was open to receive the vegetable morsels from Cassandra while his eyes were fixated at Jim’s roasted bratwurst. When he saw Jim’s knife cut into the juicy sausage meat, Peri closed his mouth, turned away from Cassandra and gazed longingly at Jim. “You want a piece of bratwurst, Peri? Let’s see if your mama say it’s okay?” Jim turned to look at Cassandra. Cassandra was silent—the question of whether Peri should eat meat had never come across her mind until that moment. She’d been brought up Buddhist; she had never tasted meat; and her ex-husband was a Buddhist too and did not eat meat. She quickly searched for an answer, looking back and forth between Ruth and Jim, and wondering: what’s the problem with meat? Why can’t Peri eat meat, and why can’t I eat meat? Jim glanced at Ruth, who winked at him. Ruth turned to look at Cassandra. “Peri is not obliged to be a Buddhist, is he?” Cassandra tossed the questions in her head: Can Peri eat meat? Should Peri become a Buddhist? She asked, “Is fish meat?” Ruth and Jim answered simultaneously, “Not technically. Most fish are grown in the wild while most livestock and poultry are raised on farms. Why?” “I ate fish when I was pregnant with Peri. My ex-husband was afraid that vegetables alone would not provide all the vitamins needed by the fetus.” “Do you like fish?” Cassandra wanted to say: Oh, I love fish; but that’s exactly why she should not eat fish—because that would be yielding to her flesh, and her flesh was the enemy to her spiritual enlightenment. Her upbringing told her that she had to deny everything that she loved so that she might have good karma in her next life. She thought about the Empress Dowager CiXi—the last empress of ancient China. She was a Buddhist, and the Chinese dubbed her “Big Buddha,” and she ate meat. But still Cassandra was not sure. She put down her fork and knife and looked at Ruth for advice; she looked glum. Ruth took Cassandra’s hand. “Big fish eat smaller fish or krill, bears eat salmon, and men eat salmon for food. It’s nature’s food chain. Fish die naturally even if man doesn’t eat them for food. The Bible urges man to be manager of all resources on earth. As long as you keep the animals in sufficient numbers so they can multiply, it is perfectly acceptable to eat meat.” Before she was divorced from her husband, Cassandra’s life was to follow orders or pre-arrangements. She’d never made an independent decision. At that moment, at a regular meal, she was forced to make a big decision not for herself, but for her son. She fingered the prayer-beads around her neck, an idea struck her: Everyone has to contribute something—if it is true that livestock and poultry are raised to provide meat, and if they were not eaten but just died, then they have not done their duty. And if I don’t eat meat, won’t I in some way hinder their cycles of reincarnation? The decision was made. She scanned the faces in front of her. “Buddha said that everyone has his or her own path. Yes, Ruth, you’re right, if Peri wants to eat meat, he must be given the opportunity, and he is not obliged to be a Buddhist or conform to any religion.” *** After dinner, sitting in Ruth and Jim’s living room, Cassandra asked, “Where can I get a job?” Jim scratched his white hair. “Do you have permission to work in the States?” “You are on a visitor’s visa, aren’t you?” Ruth reminded Cassandra. Ruth knew about these things, since she had been teaching ESOL classess to women from every corner of the world for years. “You need to find an employer who is willing to sponsor you to work in the States.” Immediately Cassandra plunged into despondence. She grew up in a Buddhist temple, went to college in a small town and then taught high school in a small town. Until she was thirty-two what she would do and where she would go were pre-determined by someone else. Suddenly the life ahead of her was doleful. Ruth read her face. She picked up a ball with a long string attached to it. She feinted tossing the ball in the air, but was dangling it at the kitty. The kitty sprang up from a magazine pile that she was curling on, leapt into the air, and stretched out her paw, trying to catch the ball. Her head turned around and around. “Cassandra, if your vision was as short as the ball is to the cat, you’ll be chasing tail. Finding a job may solve your financial need temporarily, but I am a Christian, I believe finding your purpose of existence is more important than paying bills. What do you really want to do in life, have you thought about that?” Cassandra gaped at Ruth with total blankness. She thought: I live to die so I can reincarnate into a better life; isn’t it? Jim broke the silence. “Do you type, I mean with a typewriter or a word processor—in English?” Cassandra recalled she only took freshman English in college. The last time she read and wrote in English was in Ruth’s ESOL class. With Ruth’s instruction, she was able to understand oral English and she was able to read, though with great effort, with an English-Chinese dictionary at her side; but typing was not a skill she possessed. She shook her head. “I can teach Chinese History and Chinese Calligraphy.” Jim and Ruth looked at each other. “I don’t think we have a big demand for those skills here. What else?” “I made necklaces with Chinese knots. I can buy strings and tools and make necklaces and sell them for money.” Jim shook his head. “Cassandra, people would go to Walmart for those things. You can keep that as a hobby but I don’t think you can pay your bills by making those knots.” While the adults were talking Peri was playing with the kitten on the carpet. Suddenly, he paused and looked at Cassandra with a serious look “A-bu, bē bán sái.” Cassandra sprang up from the couch, picked up Peri and dashed him to the bathroom. When she came back, Jim was thoughtful “How about becoming a nurse? I heard that there is a shortage of nurses in every state.” Ruth agreed with her husband’s thought. “Yes, that’s a great idea. Nursing is a noble profession because you take care of the sick. I knew a few ladies who became nurses and obtained green cards to stay in the States. Cassandra, what do you think?” Cassandra shrugged. “But I have to go to school for that, right? I thought school is expensive—I don’t have money.” Ruth shook her head. “You can get a scholarship. Did you have good grades at college?” “I think you should go to the university to find out the requirements to enroll in nursing school.” Jim said. “Yes, Jim’s right. You’re a foreigner and the requirements may be different. I remember now, you have to pass TOEFL and the GREs. Have you taken those tests before, Cassandra?” “My ex-husband did. But he told me those tests are very hard and they cost money too.” Jim saw the hesitation on her face. He changed the topic. “Cassandra, you know how to drive, don’t you?” Cassandra paused to think. “Jim, I still have the Texas driver’s license. But I’m not sure it is still valid.” “Let’s find out. Do you have it with you?” Cassandra picked up Peri and went to the spare room to search among her documents, and then she dashed back to the living room, “It’s going to expire in a year.” “Very good; the next thing is to get you a car. Jim, do you still keep in touch with the dealership?” Jim glided his fingers under his shaved chin. “My friend is sponsoring a program at the high school called the Student Auto Sale. He takes cars donated to the high school, and teaches his students how to fix them and re-introduce them into the market. Since they are donated cars, they are usually older models and have a lot of miles on them. But, because it’s a high school program, my friend only selects cars that require minimal work to be done to make them pass safety inspection. And since the cars are donated and public high schools are non-profit, the price is reasonable, I mean within your budget. You can think about it, Cassandra, and I will call my friend and see if he has any car up for sale right now.” Chapter 8 I Need To Find Her Ingvarr hung on to the rope, and he remembered that the snow closer to the ground is softer because of the heat from the earth. Instead of fighting to get up, he decided to dig downhill and sideways, trying to feel for spots where snow were not packed tight, and dig a tunnel out. Then he found his next problem—it was getting harder and harder to breathe. A thought puzzled him: why am I so anxious to survive now? Didn’t I set out to kill myself? Isn’t this the perfect setting? Died of suffocation and hypothermia from an avalanche? This would make my death like an accident instead of a suicide. I die a hero? No, I have to find her! She’s so beautiful. I need to get out of here and go find her! Just when he felt he had used up the last oxygen in his lungs, he felt space. He kicked his feet, and instantly he plunged down into an open space. He opened his eyes and was alarmed that his ski goggles and eyeglasses were gone. He surveyed the space, it looked like a cave—a very white and bright one with icicles hanging down from the roof. He looked down, a sheet of frozen ice like glass spread across the river below. Before he had time to behold the beauty of the ice cave, he heard whisper under his feet. Without his eyeglasses he couldn’t see the crack widening on the frozen surface. Instinctively he retrieved his rope and roved around to find anything that looked like an anchor. There was none. He ran, sliding across the frozen surface, his naked eyes blinded by the increasing brightness from the sun and reflection from the snow. He squint his eyes to locate his whereabouts. Suddenly his eyes popped wide-open, his jaw dropped; and then he stopped; ricocheted, and before he was to hit the boulder again, he threw his lasso. An anchor, he thought. Immediately he climbed up the rock and squint his eyes to look for trees that he could lasso. He found one, judged only by the shape of a long brown vertical thing. He threw his rope, tightened the noose, and tugged. Another thundering noise was rolling in from the direction of the cave; he jumped down from the rock and latched on to the rope, treaded every step faster than the previous one, until he reached the bank. He looked back, behind him—white dust and snow flinging and plunging down, the Glacier stood stately under the crispy blue sky, the cave had vanished. Ingvarr let go of the rope, shook off the white dust on his cape, and squint his eyes to let in as little light at possible. He pulled out his compass to locate his direction, and made his way back to the cabin. When he climbed into his cabin, he could barely close the cabin door, before he collapsed on the cabin floor. In the middle of the night, he was aroused by draft coming through cracks in the wall. He stood up, groping his way around the room. His eyes were burning. He felt for his sleeping bench, and realized that his reindeer sleeping bag had been eaten by the Glacier. He could not set a fire because he could not see a thing. The only thing he could do was to feel around for any food he might have left on a table—made from a stump, the remains of a fallen tree. He ate, and then pulled his cape over his knees and curled up like a fetus and slept. For three days, Ingvarr slept; until hunger aroused him again. He sat up and looked around the cabin: the table, the fire ring, the newspaper covered walls, and the trap door. “I can see! I can see! I am not snow-blinded anymore!” That was something to celebrate. Ingvarr got up and, how he ate. After his stomach was refurbished, he had a sudden realization—there was no one to celebrate with. The euphoric joy of knowing himself alive was followed by a forlorn loneliness. His only pair of glasses was gone and he wouldn’t be able to find her without seeing his way. He wanted to write home to ask his mother to send him the spare pair but he didn’t even have a pen or paper to write. He decided to hike into town to a post office in Fjærland, where the Norsk Bre Museum is located. *** As he walked down the foyer of the post office, everyone’s head turned to look at him. A dozen pairs of eyes fixated at Ingvarr. They saw a King-Kong looking creature with hands and legs covered in reindeer skin. He was wearing a pair of snowshoes that had an oblong shape instead of the regular racket-shape, and with spikes like dewclaws sticking out. His hair was uncombed, matted, red and smell like smoked venison; his beard looked like a ring of fire around his lips. He grinned at the people and said, “Morn, du; hi.” No reply from the onlookers—all eyes were on his outfit. Ingvarr followed the gaze of his onlookers to his outfit, and grinned. “I am a private investigator on Viking heritage. I am living at the Jostedal Village for the winter. I climbed the Glacier several times in the winter but I fell through a crevasse and lost my eyeglasses and ski goggles.” “You mean you have survived an avalanche all by yourself?” A husky voice asked. “How did you get here?” The husky voice got closer, and then stood in front of Ingvarr. The owner of the husky voice looked Ingvarr over, and grinned. “Did you take any picture of your adventure?” Ingvarr thought for a moment—he couldn’t tell his audience that he had no camera because his expedition to the Glacier was only a by-product of his initial plan, but a true Viking would not commit suicide. He cleared his stuffy voice. “I don’t have a camera now, that’s why I need to write home to my mother.” “What is your next plan? Are you going to hike the Glacier again?” the husky voice asked. “First I want to borrow paper and pen, an envelope and a stamp so that I can write home and ask my mother to send me my spare pair of glasses. Second, I want to say that you all look so beautiful and so young.” The audience laughed. Suddenly, a little girl in the back of the crowd shouted. “Mr. Viking, you need a good bath.” She said that with one hand pinching over her nose. Ingvarr’s face turned redder than his beard and hair. He had not taken a bath since he had left his mother’s farm. But he had no way to take a bath or a shower. The streams were frozen in deep winter, and there wasn’t any container big enough for him to bath in even if he could melt snow to make water. He apologized for the odor. “Must be the rawhide, I didn’t have time to cure the fur with tannin.” A kind post office clerk gave Ingvarr writing pad and a pen. “Mr. Åversen, why don’t you stand at that corner to write your letter? I’ll get you an envelope and a stamp when you are ready.” *** As he was turning to leave the post office, the clerk followed him out and shouted, “Mr. Åversen, wait up!“ Ingvarr turned around, surprised to see the clerk chasing after him. “Do you want your pen and paper back?” The clerk shook her head. “No, not at all.” Then she sheepishly opened her closed fist and showed him a little round mirror. “Mr. Åversen, maybe you need this more than me. It’s yours now.” Ingvarr stared down at the reflection in the mirror, shocked. “My god, who is this guy?” He took the mirror and thanked the clerk and apologized again for his wilderness appearance and odor. Out in the parking lot, he searched his pocket for his snow goggles whittled out of a fallen branch; when he heard, “Where are you going now?” It was the man with the husky voice. “Hi, did I see you in the post office earlier? I am Ingvarr Åversen.” “Kjøpsiå Selger; you have a car?” Ingvarr looked down at the crampons under his boots and laughed. “It could run up to thirty-five miles per hour when it was alive.” The husky man said, “Tell you what, I run a bookstore not far away from here. I should have some old glasses lying around my office; come with me and we’ll look.” And they did. Kjøpsiå found Ingvarr a pair of old glasses, the prescription was not exactly Ingvarr’s but it definitely improved his vision. He also gave Ingvarr something else—some books. He showed Ingvarr some bookshelves covered only by a tarpaulin and placed under a tree. He told Ingvarr that his store was actually closed for the season but he could help himself on the books placed under the tree. “How would I pay you, I don’t have money?” Kjøpsiå eyed Ingvarr again. “You know how to get here now; next time when you come to town, bring me some venison and we’ll call it a tie.” Chapter 9 An Idiot on Car After Cassandra had put Peri to bed, she stared at the information she had collected from the university—TOEFL and GREs requirements ... application fees. She turned to watch the peaceful face of Peri, while her fingers cycled the beads of her prayer chain.


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