Cut Sleeve

Recommended: Read Crossings Cast of Characters

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Nian Awakes 1868

Donner Summit:

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.

____

Betrayal

Guangzhou:

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.

_______

Sick

Donner Summit:

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.

____

Smoky Flavors

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.

____

Yang

Donner Summit:

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

Something Else:

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.

Did it?

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

Donner Summit:

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.

Foshan!

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.

Author’s Note:

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.

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Intimacy with Personal Monsters & Un-Monsters

A Monstrous Tree?

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.

Photo Credit: Mark Crawly, flickr

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.)

historic Spanish sea monster
Historic Spanish sea monster

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.

chaos and the sun god
Chaos and the sun god

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.

istoric depiction of body parts and monster assembly in Frankenstien
A historic depiction of body parts and monster assembly in Frankenstein

 

Frankenstein

contemporary portrayal of Frankenstein monster running through the woods

  • Parental rejection
  • Grief & loss from children dying (bringing the dead back to life)
  • Love outside of acceptable social norms
  • Weariness of industrial age science

 

The Shape of Water creature

  • Disenfranchised finding a voice
  • Courage to defy authority
  • Courage to fight for justice
  • Love outside social norms

 

 

Haylee and the Travelers Stone and Haylee and the Last Traveler book cover art
Haylee and the Travelers Stone and Haylee and the Last Traveler book covers

 

Haylee in the Traveler’s Stone & the Last Traveler

  • Power of sexual attraction
  • Responsibility for dependents
  • Reconciliation of love outside expectations
  • Acceptance that all wrongs can’t be repaired

 

a lightning strike causes Adeline to stop aging in Age of Adeline
A lightning strike causes Adeline to stop aging in Age of Adeline
contemporary portrayal of a vampire - exploration of immortality
Contemporary portrayal of a vampire – exploration of immortality

Age of Adeline & Vampires

  • Power of sexual attraction/ youth
  • Societal parasite
  • Fear of death
  • Immortality exploration

 

 

P.T. Barnum style poster of Phineas Gage after his TBI
P.T. Barnum style poster of Phineas Gage after his TBI

Phineas Gage

  • Physical deformity and social rejection
  • Loss of expectations for a young life (caused by a traumatic brain injury)
  • Anger from a detrimental, permanent change of circumstances
  • Family response to long-term care requirements
  • Legendary, iconic brain science/psychology touchstone

 

Chinese Railroad Workers’ Jaingshi

  • Conquering nature
  • Facing death, injury & disfigurement
  • Removed from and longing for culture and familiar
  • Racism and social ostracization
  • Fear of being lost & forgotten
graffiti in the Donner Summit train tunnels depicts contemporary monsters
Graffiti in the Donner Summit train tunnels depicts contemporary monsters

Contemporary Train Tunnel Graffiti

Colorful monsters and beasties painted on snowshed walls at Donner Summit tell their own stories.

  • Injustice
  • Disenfranchised finding a voice
  • Addiction
  • Fear of death
  • Self-expression
  • Seizing power
  • Claiming a space in place
  • Fear of being lost and forgotten

 

Un monster collage
Un-monster collage

Lisa’s Un-Monsters

The collage reflects the ugliness and beauty of struggles with self-criticism. Matching an image to feelings allows expression of concepts that seem impossible to say out loud.

  • Unconscious, underwater, unseen, unknown, unheard
  • Exposed
  • Choking with self-doubt

 

a cairn built on top of the center shaft cap for tunnel #6 at Donner Summit
A cairn built on top of the center shaft cap for tunnel #6 at Donner Summit

Like ice sculptures, sand castles, and graffiti, monster varieties come and go. They change with what we are thinking about at a particular moment in time, and they allow us to put faces on our fears.

 

Resources:

KQED – Why Don’t Murals Get Covered by Graffiti in the Mission? – “…you first need to know that there are three groups: graffiti writers, street artists and muralists.”

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tuesdays with Morrie Book Review

Our culture sells concepts. If we make lots of money, have a beautiful house, send kids to good schools, and travel we’ll be successful. This will make us happy. But does it?

In tuesdays with Morrie, Mitch Albom, a sportswriter on life’s fast track, slows down to visit his dying college professor.

Morrie Swartz has ALS, a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord. He’s spending his last moments sharing lessons for a meaningful life.

Keeping a supply of tissues at hand, I read this book in two sittings. It touched tender spots; missing loved ones after relationship breaks, forgiveness, the meaning of family, grief and loss, the decision to have children, and saying good-bye.

[Scroll to the end for still images with quotes for social media sharing.]

“Once you learn how to die, you learn how to live.” ~ Morrie Schwartz.

In a series of interviews with Ted Koppel and audio recordings taken by Mitch, Morrie gifted his wisdom to people who never knew him. He wanted to bring dignity to death.

Morrie accomplished what he set out to do. Wherever he is now, I thank him for it.

Note: I remember where I was and what I was doing during the O.J. trial, the time when tuesdays with Morrie first came out. It wasn’t until after the book celebrated its 20th anniversary, and I’d run Phases of Gage (historical fiction novella) through the ScoreIt! linguistic analysis program that I finally read Albom’s book. Gage and Morrie are a match.

Perhaps I’m too close to my work to see similarities beyond neurological challenges and giving death dignity, but I’m glad to have read Morrie’s story no matter how it happened.

Full-length movie

Resources

ALS Association

 

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