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.
His sixteen-year-old bride arrived in a gold-painted sedan chair. Carried by her brothers, the conveyance bobbed behind honking geese, herded by children dressed in red silk. Breeze-ruffled curtains concealed all but her profile and rigid posture.
Like a boy, Lee wished he could run down the lane, and pull back the cloth to see. But his upbringing would not allow him to dishonor the family. He remained in place, bland-faced, keeping his tumultuous emotions from showing.
As the procession drew near, Lee expected the geese to be shoo’ed inside their animal pen. Instead, the children formed a circle around the birds, using bamboo poles to avoid vicious snaps.
Stepping forward, the bride’s father declared, “ As tradition dictates, a wife must come to her husband with nothing, but my disobedient daughter refused to leave behind one item.” Smiling, Mr. Tie waved his arms at the flock, bowing deeply. “A messenger bird holds this item. You must decide what to do with it, Gee Lee.”
The gander stood at the center, feathers erect, beak open, hissing, tongue at full point. Dark eyes locked onto Lee, the enemy.
Crossing his arms, Lee nodded. Secured around the messenger’s neck was a bright blue ribbon; a yellow purse dangled from it. This was the first test of the marriage ceremony.
The wedding party expected Lee to refuse outright or walk through the flock, subjecting himself to injury. Lee took his time assessing, ignoring the sweat breaking out on his upper lip, as his exhilarating mating fantasies submerged under icy waters of responsibility.
He strode forward, taking two bamboo rods from the children. Lee directed them to move away. Tapping and swinging them, Lee drove the geese into the pen, separating the messenger.
Tossing the rods to the ground, Lee scooped a handful of pebbles while making a cautious advance. The gander raised its wings, lowered its head, and charged.
Lee threw stones in the bird’s face, deflecting the charge, but not before the infuriated fowl clipped the tender flesh above Lee’s knee. It clamped on; its beak like crab pincers, tearing the fabric and skin. Refusing to yell, Lee grabbed the ribbon while kicking at the animal. The purse dropped, landing in the dirt as the gander waddled away, rejoining its gaggle. Lee stared at the scene feeling a vein thumping in his temple.
Biting the inside of his cheek until he tasted blood, Lee willed himself to walk without limping, retrieving the purse. As he considered opening it, pitching it, or handing it over to his mother, a Confucian quote floated to the surface of his thoughts.
When it is obvious that goals cannot be reached, don’t adjust the goals, adjust the action steps.
Taking measured steps, Lee approached the sedan. After a thoughtful pause, he plunged his hand inside, offering the purse.
As he waited, anger sparked into a blaze, threatening to incinerate the curtains. It would be within his right to humiliate her, make her kneel before him in the open air.
When cool, trembling hands cupped his, Lee’s violent emotions plummeted. A shiver traveled down his spine.
From inside, a breathless, “thank you,” came as the purse lifted away.
With the return of Lee’s exhilarating fantasies, only the force of his will kept Lee from smiling.
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.