The Chinese railroad story called to me because the marginalized people who accomplished this herculean task deserve to be known and recognized for their contributions.
The bigger issue I grapple with now is the systems we’ve established and how to backtrack from there.
Those of us living in developed countries exist at an apex of technology and structures designed for easy living (and buying). But we are also at a point where most of us understand this way of living is not sustainable.
Just this last year, we saw Congress avert economic devastation when the national railroad workers threatened to strike. Stronger-than-ever storms are shredding housing and infrastructure and in California, Earth-scorching firestorms and drought are constant worries.
Established infastructure is fragile and revealing weak spots.
A Barbara Kingsolver book I read recently provided an idea I’ve latched onto for backtracking some of my own contributions to Western culture’s ever-expanding quest for growth.
In the book, a middle-aged woman, Willa, grapples with dissatisfaction after a lifetime spent following the rules and doing what’s expected. Along with supporting adult children, a grandchild, and an aging parent, her historic home is falling to pieces around her.
Willa’s epiphany comes when she releases ‘American Dream’ ideas about family constructs, retirement security, and wealth. Once she does, the solution to her house problem becomes obvious. Not to reveal spoilers, but with Gen. Z guidance, part of her land is repurposed to serve community needs.
In her book, Kingsolver demonstrates ways to reformulate ingrained expectations. She gives examples of how to reduce one’s lifetime footprint, leaving the world different and, hopefully, better.
“If you build it, they will come,” happened with the railroad and other developed living, transportation, energy, judicial, and healthcare systems. Now we must work to change collective expectations and redesign the way we live on planet Earth.
Donner Mountain trembled when Nian woke. Yawning, her jagged teeth glisten in the light of the round moon as a frigid white wave churns down a steep slope, snapping pine trees like chopsticks. Hunger and the smell of sustenance drove Nian’s movements. In this strange land, she located a field planted with rotting young men. Close to the surface, one paw scrape revealed juicy carcasses she scooped into her mouth. Careful not to shatter bones, she sucks them clean, spitting out neat piles, ready for bundling and overseas transport. Nian senses anxious thoughts of people huddled like mice beneath the deep snow. All of them, save one, missing family gatherings and the safety they provide. As the year of the Rabbit ends, they ready supplies to defend themselves from the Nian.
Inside a rough wooden cabin engulfed by a thirty-foot snowdrift, Gee Lee pitched his bed covers. Delirious, he sought icy air to tame his fire. Once it touched him, he shivered, curling into a ball.
Foshan had been nursing bossy-man for three days, leaving their camp cooking to inexperienced hands. Foshan hadn’t seen Lee sick during the two years they’d worked at Donner Summit. Lee claimed his good health was maintained by a steady diet of Ginseng and mushrooms.
Time spent prepping food with Mr. Gee had been the best and worst of Foshan’s life. Two years older, Lee radiated confidence as he ordered supplies and advocated for spices from home. His management style was firm, yet respectful. The man was devoted to his wife, and their young daughter; he regretted not seeing his son born before he left.
Lee’s shoulders were wide, his grip strong, and his voice felt like velvet brushing over Foshan’s skin. Worst of all, were Lee’s knowing grins while he offered womanly advice. “If your female behaves like warm cheese, she will be receptive when you approach her for clouds and rain; remaining faithful to marriage vows keeps vices from enslaving one while sojourning.”
Laughing with him, Foshan replied, “Do you consider cutting the emperor’s sleeve a vice?”
“Making love to a man?”
“It satisfies the urges,” Foshan replied, his eyes bright.
As if seeing Foshan for the first time, Lee’s smile faded, “I know, but I could not touch a man the same way I touch my wife.”
Foshan’s hope plummeted. He held his breath while turning away so Lee wouldn’t notice his disappointment.
Across the ocean, Liu was thankful the village had emptied for the Spring Festival. Round and ripe, she needed to escape the confines of the house. Since she’d learned of her pregnancy, Liu stayed hidden while her sister-in-law, Ai, paraded in public with padding over her belly. Mama Gee decided that Liu’s baby would be raised as Yang’s son.
Her mother-in-law’s plan meant that Liu could prevent her husband from knowing her shame.
As tall grass brushed against her calves, Liu couldn’t help worrying about Mama Gee’s assumption. What if the child was a girl? Liu wished Nian would take it.
Going to their secluded warm spring, the place Lee first introduced her to the delights of the flesh, felt like another betrayal of the man she loved. But there was no other place Liu wanted to be, except with him on Donner Mountain.
Bathing Lee’s forehead and giving him tea wasn’t helping. For the first time since Lee had taken ill, Foshan feared that bossy-man might die. Even thinking this thought could attract the Nian!
During the latest storm, the tunnel between Lee’s quarters and the kitchen collapsed, cutting them off. No one had cleared it and Foshan wasn’t about to leave Lee to do the excavation. Their tiny room felt as far away as China, and as silent as a tomb.
Guangzhou & Donner Summit:
Mama Gee in Guangzhou and Foshan on the summit worked to guard their space.
Pulling red cloth from storage they hung it on walls and draped it over furniture. They fed paper money to hearth flames while praying to ancestors for protection.
Drawing in a breath, Nian tasted the smoky flavors. Donner Mountain quaked when she growled.
Lee’s mind was as untethered and as windblown as paper lanterns released to the night sky. As the ground shuddered, his thoughts settled upon the source of his misery. “Norden?” Lee muttered. “How bad?”
Foshan wrung out another cloth, laying it on Lee’s forehead. “It’s a dream, Mr. Gee,” or a nightmare, he thought.
Following a messenger, Lee struggled up through the snow shaft coming into the midday light. Unaccustomed to the brightness, his eyes streamed like a woman in mourning. Shouts from a distance drew him in their direction.
At the mountain’s peak, Lee saw the opposite hillside swept clean. Stacks of lumber, wagons, mules, wooden tunnel frames and cabins were gone. Silence, where there should have been hubbub, made Lee’s breath hitch. In the valley below, splintered beams poked through the remains of a frozen tsunami like porcupine quills.
Joining men racing to save survivors, Lee saw fingers, shaped liked unmoving claws, and bloody legs separated from torsos. If not for jewel-colored sparkles winking across a sugar-dusted expanse, Lee would have thought the debris field resembled destruction rendered by a Bei River flood.
Like a dog frantically digging for a bone, Lee’s hands gyrated as he screamed, “Yang! Yang!”
Grasping Lee’s forearms, Foshan needed Lee to understand, “It’s not real!”
Sobbing, Lee ranted. “You told me to protect him, to make sure both your sons returned.”
Foshan wiped Lee’s tears, trying to soothe him. His heart fractured a little more with every word.
“I failed you, Mother!”
Gentle hands stroking Lee’s neck and chest calmed him into sleep while his inner vision replayed the next scenes.
Skies cleared and the sun-warmed. Snow warrens cracked open, forming deep channels directing swift flows of spring run-off.
Every day, names of the dead were read after meals. Lee had known them all but the name he dreaded hearing remained absent. Could Yang have run away? Maybe he was lounging in an opium den in San Francisco?
When a messenger came to stand beside his butcher block, Lee placed his knife flat on the work surface, following suit with his hands. Leaning all his weight over his wrists, he bowed his head.
“You must come,” the man said while pulling at stitches on his hat.
For the first time, Lee wished he were on a tunnel crew, blasting holes in impenetrable rock or carrying nitroglycerin from Howden’s mixing station into the widening mountain gap.
Arriving on the scene, Lee saw his brother standing where they’d uncovered him. A hammer, clutched in his right hand, raised above his head while his left supported a beam. His eyes were open. There were concentration lines between his brows, he was biting his lower lip. If his skin were not gray, if his eyes not cloudy, and his clothes not sopping, Lee could believe Yang would continue his next action.
Lee rode in the wagon with Yang, watching his body relax. Holding his hand over his brother’s eyes until they warmed, Lee drew down his lids.
Remaining with him, Lee watched as they stripped his clothes, bundled him in coarse cloth, placed him in a shallow grave, and covered him with mud.
The enormity of being the last Gee left, solely responsible for his parents, their wives and children settled on Lee’s shoulders as heavy as any granite boulder pulled out of the tunnel shaft.
Not, since watching his wife from the boat deck, growing smaller and indistinct, had Lee yearned for her with such power. “Liu, Liu,” He crooned, reaching for her, weeping.
A Wife’s Comforting Touch
As if summoned by the water gods, Lee opened his eyes to see Liu floating before him, her hair loose, suspended around her head, her face showing a mixture of confusion and pleasure. Lee ran his thumb along her cheek. Opening his arms, she came to him, pressing herself against his chest, wrapping her legs around his waist.
Burrowing his face against her neck, it didn’t occur to Lee that breathing was unnecessary.
When Liu first dove into the pool, she was startled to find her husband. Believing it was a visitation beyond the grave, she was paralyzed. But when she felt his touch, when she saw his wounded expression, and heard his voice in her mind saying, Yang is dead, she knew it was something else.
Clinging to him, she didn’t notice her stomach was flat.
Do you remember the first time I brought you here? Lee asked.
You said the water’s buoyancy would allow me to control the pain. Blowing bubbles, Liu’s eyes crinkled at the edges with her smile.
Liu grinned, reaching down, she took hold of his rigid shaft.
At her wifely greeting, Lee bucked, sending a milky spray into the water. When he was capable of communication, Lee apologized, I dream of pleasuring you with exquisite leisure, my Willow, but I’ve been without you so long I lost control.
And I…. Liu, hesitated, remembering what she had to hide. Leaning in, she pressed her lips to his, Hold me!
They caressed and kissed, muscles tightening and releasing, as fluid as octopi in a coupling ballet. They repeated ravenous acts of love until contentment cocooned them like mists over mountain tops.
Floating with Liu’s back pressed to Lee’s chest. Lee unhurriedly caressed her. Mother will be devastated when she learns she’s lost another son, his thoughts said.
Yes, Liu agreed. YOU must return to me, I wouldn’t want to live without you!
Never say such a thing! Our children need you, I need you. Lee’s strokes moved down her torso.
Liu could feel the change in his body when his hands discovered something unexpected. Stiffening, she realized her encumbrance had reappeared. Ripping herself from his hold, Liu broke the water’s surface, inhaling an anguished lungful of air.
Following the Year of the Rabbit
Lee also jerked to wakefulness, squinting as his cabin came into focus. Still reaching for his wife, he called groggily, “Liu?”
She was sitting at the end of his bed, rumpled bed sheets draped around her hips. Her long hair cascading over a shoulder, the curve of her back glowed in the firelight.
“Come back to me, Love,” Lee smiled, holding out a hand.
A volley of firecrackers detonating outside heralded in the year of the Yellow Earth Dragon.
When his partner faced him, Lee’s afterglow erupted in a white, hot flash of fury.
Frightened by the noise and explosives, Nian retreated to the shadows. Licking her jowls, she sighed. Frozen, sweet corpse flesh appeased her gnawing hunger. Inhaling a mother’s excruciating grief tasted of fish roe, salty splashes of placental fluid exploding under her tongue. Two new purple feathers appeared in Nian’s mane. Betrayal and forbidden desire tasted of savory dumplings, a satisfying sticky lump, swallowed whole. Fresh yellow feathers appeared, gleaming in the lunar light.
Leaping into the heavens the monster followed the year of the Rabbit around the globe until reaching the South China Sea.
Settling into her underwater cave, Nian let the tropical warmth lull her into a restful year-long sleep.
Based on Chinese New Year legends and records from the Donner Summit Historical Society many elements are cultural and nonfictional.
Monster embellishment is an author vide! My additions to Nian include; her hibernation and feathers, her effect on snow slides, and her hunger for death and betrayal.
The title for this piece is a wordplay on “Cut Sleeve” a Chinese narrative about homosexuality written by Pu Songling in the seventeenth century.
Setting – Donner Summit 1865-1869. A harsh mountain environment near Lake Tahoe where railroad construction crews work 24/7 blasting tunnels through granite outcroppings and laying track. Winter storms drop between eighteen to twenty feet of snow. Avalanches claim lives; bodies, not recovered till spring thaw, are found with tools still clutched in hands.
Gee Lee – Chinese immigrant working as a camp cook for the Central Pacific Railroad. Lee embraces family obligations, toiling to send money home to improve impoverished living conditions. Dreams of returning to his lovely wife and young children keep Lee motivated.
Wèi An – Lee’s wife and mother of his two children, a daughter, and a son. Plagued by her controlling mother-in-law, Liu spends most of her time outside, working in the rice fields. Violated by a district official, she is now confined to the house.
Gee Yang – Lee’s older brother. Yang is charming and fun-loving; gambling and opiates have a magnetic appeal. He enjoys being away from his mother’s influence and is pulling away from Lee, who keeps reminding him of his responsibilities. He’s moved from working with tunnel gangs to constructing wooden show sheds at Norden.
Tang Ai (Eye) – Yang’s wife, mother of his daughter. Yang and Ai’s union did not produce a male child before he left for California. In this, Yang neglected his duty to the family. The couple discovered that living in the same house amplified their cantankerous relationship.
Gee Pei (Pay) – Matriarch of the Gee family, mother of Yang and Lee. After losing her oldest son in the Opium War, Pei sold her daughter-in-law and granddaughter to finance a California sojourn for her younger two sons.
Foshan – Lee’s Donner Summit kitchen assistant. He is named for his birth town in China. An orphan, Foshan plans to seek employment in San Francisco once his railroad job concludes. Foshan is wildly in love with his bossy-man.
Jaingshui – A reanimated corpse that hops. A Jaingshui is created when a Chinese person dies away from home and is not buried with his ancestors. Like the western vampire, the Jaingshui searches for life-energy (qi) to consume.
Nian – Chinese lion monster whose name means ‘year.’ Nian grows a unicorn-like horn and collects feathers in her shaggy mane. The monster hibernates in the sea or under mountains for eleven out of twelve months. The weather worsens when Nian wakes to hunt, during February’s new moon. On the menu; infants and children, crops, farm animals, early death, and betrayal.
Have you ever looked at a tree and seen a monster? When I was five, I was terrorized by thinking that the giant sequoia I was about to drive through would bend over to snatch me from the back seat.
As an adult, in the middle of a windy night, I was awoken by a sound like a gunshot. My car was totaled when the walnut tree I’d parked under snapped. (The insurance did not cover an ‘act of God.’) A decade or so later, I cleaned-up shattered window glass after an arborist removed a cedar tree that was growing too close to the house. While I appreciate the daily benefits of breathing, I recognize the hazards trees can cause when things go wrong.
For me, the car totaling experience resolved the age-old philosophical question about the sound a tree makes (or doesn’t make) when it falls in the woods. The same debates about the nature of reality and how it relates to experience can be applied to monsters.
Are there really extra large, hair-covered, humanoids hiding in the forests of the Pacific Northwest? Does a diabetic older man enter your house each year with the intent to delight your children? (It’s OK! He’s not a stranger, he knows what they’ve been thinking.)
Monsters are grown inside an electrically charged, submerged, gelatin-like structure that everyone carries inside their skull. This magnificent organ has evolved to specialize in pattern recognition. When we see or experience something that doesn’t make sense or for which we have no prior information, our brains concoct stories that seem real and make sense.
Addiction, accidents, rejection, unrealistic expectations, loss, grief and the fear of disappearing
are a few of the thoughts, emotions, and behaviors that breathe life into our own personal monsters.
Because we are social creatures, our monsters can spread like a virus. Screaming fire in a crowded amphitheater or a run on the market because a rumor predicted a crash are examples of monsters gone viral.
Monsters are as adaptable. as we are. Before we understood the stages of decomposition, we thought evil spirits inhabited dead bodies, causing them to move. Every time we drop our kids off at school, we hope that a gunman doesn’t lose his marbles anywhere in the neighborhood. We worry that refugees and immigrants are taking our jobs.
With easy access to a world of information and a bit of discernment, monsters can be vaporized. Yet, instead of doing the work to accomplish this, many of us cozy up to them, inviting them to tea, and letting them share our pillow at night.
Monsters are with us to stay. Many of them are portrayed as hideous and frightful, while others are beguiling. All of them signal some kind of danger and remind us to be alert.
With certainty, we know that tomorrow’s monster will be different from today’s.
Below is a variety of contemporary and classic monster representations and lists of themes they exemplify.
A shrill scream, erupting suddenly in the darkness, sent prickles scuttling up their spines.
Bolin’s panic attack at the tunnel’s mouth made them late for their shift. Now they were alone, stumbling over rubble, feeling their way to the worksite.
According to Bolin, the ceiling was crawling with Jiang Shi (Jang-sure).
“I’ve got you,” Yáng said, gripping his arm above the elbow, squeezing like a vice.
“They’re watching!” Bolin shook his head as if he were trying to loosen clay marbles inside. Lurching forward, he broke Yáng’s hold.
It was Yáng and Foshan’s first day working in tunnel number six. Bolin had been here for a month. He was taller and more muscular than most of his countrymen. Once he started hammering a borehole, Bolin could do it in half the time as anyone else. The problem was getting him into the tunnel.
Upon arrival, a railroad gang leader informed Foshan and Yáng, “We work in teams of three.”
“Foshan is one of the best, but he’s been troubled since his brother’s death.”
“Stick with him, he’ll teach you all you need to know.”
Nitroglycerine was a new construction tool recently brought to the mountain. Blasting holes don’t have to be as deep as those for black powder. After detonation, there is less residual dust. Its downside is volatility. Slight movements or temperature shifts can set it off.
No one makes eye contact with the nitro carrier, bets are placed on how long he’ll last.
All work ceases when the nitro bearer arrives, stepping softly, holding his breath.
Bolin’s brother had been a nitro carrier. An untimely sneeze turned him into red rain.
Chinese dead must be buried with their ancestors. A soul is cursed if there are no remains.
In Chinese tradition, the dead must be buried on home soil. Systems are in place to return sojourner bones to China. When ancestors are gathered, the family grows stronger. Living relatives honor them with celebrations.
Spirits of the dead are cursed if they leave no human remains. Hun and po split. Po, the evil, foolish part lurks in the dark hunting for life force energy (qi), stealing it from the living. Once enough qi is gathered, the po can reanimate a dead body. Stiff and green with mold, they grow claw-like fingernails and fang-like teeth. Hopping, they move slowly, but they never stop. Ever.
Foshan trotted to keep up, patting Bolin’s back. “The power of legend is only as strong as your belief,” he soothed.
Bolin turned to stare with wide, torment-filled eyes. “You haven’t been here long enough to see most your friends die.” He tilted his chin toward Yáng, “or your brother.”
“True,” Foshan admitted, “but we can’t get lost in the bad. The living must inhabit our thoughts. Tell me of your children.”
Nodding, Bolin started, “I have a beautiful little girl.”
“I have a daughter too.” Foshan nudged him to walk while talking, “How old is yours?”
Approaching the rock face, Yáng hoisted a drill bar. Regarding the eight-pound sledgehammer in Foshan’s hand, he warned, “Don’t miss.”
A corner of Bolin’s mouth turned up. “Watch and learn.” Gripping high on the handle, he slid his opposite hand close to his hammer’s head.
Bolin, swung the sledge high. The blow, ringing like a bell, sent shock waves through Yáng’s arms and shoulders.
Foshan, following Bolin’s example, raised his hammer. The heavy tool came down on Yáng’s hand.
“Idiot!” Yáng cried, holding up a broken, bloody finger. Diving at Foshan, Yáng pummeled him with his good fist.
Bolin broke them apart. It didn’t register immediately that he was frantic. “Stop!
“Jiang Shi are attracted by blood.”
It took several work crews and irate supervisors to calm the scuffle. The three were sent back to camp, ashamed.
Four months later, the brothers congratulated themselves for helping Bolin. By talking about their families, he could get in and out of the tunnel without incident. Bolin told them he could still see the Jiang Shi because his brother was one. “There are hundreds of them hanging from the ceiling. Their ears rotate, following sounds made by people below,” he confided.
Crews working at both ends of the tunnel, plus from the inside out, had broken through. The three had finished their most recent borehole. They took a break while waiting for the nitro carrier.
Yáng walked a short distance to stand behind a boulder. He was appreciating the fresh alpine breeze while creating a warm puddle near his feet.
A loud pop, a burst of air, and a wet spray pelted his back.
Bolin was right, Yáng thought, as he entered the tunnel with his new crew. Hordes of menacing ghouls hung from the ceiling. Maniacal, green-tinged faces smiled at him revealing double rows of sharp teeth.
Two of them looked like Foshan and Bolin.
Yáng let loose a demented scream.
Tunnel Spirit Crossings Poem
To learn more about Bonnie McKeegan, her poetry, fiction, and therapeutic writing exercises click here.
The origins of mythical creatures, created from fear, to explain the, as yet, unexplainable is always an intriguing subject!
When background research for Crossings EAST revealed the Jiang Shi, I was thrilled. It took a considerable amount of thinking to decide to leave the paranormal element out of that story.
This short story was written to get the ‘paranormal’ out of my system before the work of deep character development begins on Crossings EAST, a historical fiction novel about Chinese railroad workers at Donner Pass.