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This is taken from a larger ethnographic memoir about my time in Dang Jiashan village (also spelled Dang Jia Shan). I was in the village to document its traditions for posterity, but I had a personal story in being there also, centered around dealing with my dad's passing, which happened two years earlier. This chapter, which I made kind of into a self-contained essay for the purposes of publishing here, came at the end of the full work. If you've read any of the other chapters from the Travel Essays section, you will be familiar with the characters.

The Loveliest Day

Takeshi, me, and the village crew hiking around Dang Jiashan village, Shaanxi Province, China.

In the morning after we breakfasted, we took the path out of the village to the southeast, walking along the tops of the soft hills through a patchy carpet of summer crops.  Lei-Lei pressed her small, warm hand into mine as she always did when we walked together.  This morning she sang “Row Row Row Your Boat” over and over as we swung our arms with our stride.  The words had disintegrated in her little mouth over the weeks since it had been taught to her, so that beyond the first stanza they were approximations of the sounds of the words, her native Chinese tongue having swished them around into a gentle mush of vowels.

Her sixteen-year old cousin, Cao-Yu, joined in singing, and as we left the path and cut across the terraced fields of millet, soy and sesame, she sang instead a current pop song I didn’t know in perfectly rendered English, her voice lilting into mezzo-soprano range.  I can’t carry a tune very well but I contributed Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. Lei-Lei, Cao-Yu and their cousin, Wei, caught on immediately to the tune, and we la-la-la’ed our way over the hills to see the professional singers that a neighboring village had hired for an annual celebration. 

Anrong was my host in this remote corner of China, at the northern end of Shaanxi Province, just below Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region.  He and his niece, Li-Li, who was my personal translator, plus my three singing companions, led the way for me and the other four volunteers who were helping Anrong document all cultural and geological aspects of his home village.  We came from America, Austria, and Japan, and Qi-Wei was a graduate student Anrong sponsored in Beijing.

Here in the northern countryside, in the loess hills populated with peasants living in cave dwellings, places like my home in Colorado, and even the city of Beijing, had no substance, they were strange figments of some other existence; they lay around a generous bend in the road of reality, and I was happy for them to be out of sight, because I just wanted to be where I was, among these rural villages.

After awhile we came to another path and followed it the rest of the way to the neighboring village.  The side of it was lined with small flags about every 50 feet—white flags with black Chinese characters on thin wooden sticks, only about a foot high.  I asked Anrong what they were; I can’t read Chinese script.  Since they were right beside a field, I thought perhaps they were markers related to boundaries or crop designations.

“We call those spirit flags,” Anrong said.  “They mark the way for spirits.”

A local villager had recently died.  The flags were marking the way for the deceased’s spirit to find its way from the cave dwelling where its body had resided to its new home in the family cemetery.

Spirit flags marking the way for a deceased person to find their way to their grave at the cemetery and find their way in heaven, along a path in the rural village of Dang Jia Shan, Shaanxi Province, China.“Also, it is symbolic of marking the path for spirit to travel from earth to heaven, of making this transformation.”

I thought of a dead person’s spirit hovering over its body and wondering where to go, waiting restlessly for these flags to be erected to direct it to the grave, where the escalator to heaven was located.  It had never occurred to me that a spirit would need directions. I hadn’t marked the way for my dad three years earlier, but surely he would know the way to his ashen grave by heart.  He’d backpacked there with me many times, with me and my mom and brother, with his brothers, with our cousins, with all kinds of people.  Only on our last trip there, when the path was covered in snow and he was much weakened from Parkinson’s disease and the earlier cancer, it wasn’t quite so clear any more; he couldn’t measure things with the same yardsticks of time and stride that he always had. 

With a spirit freed from his diseased body, though, he’d find his way there in a snap, up to the rock fall overlooking both lakes and the pond, to the two slim trees where we laid his ashes.  Despite all the other places he’d backpacked around Colorado and the fabulous places he’d pitched his tent in around the world, he’d have to know that we took him back to Mount Zirkle Wilderness to the simple group of lakes where he came to more often than anywhere else.  And he could find it in his sleep, even in eternal sleep. 

The spirit flags continued down the dusty path, but we stopped at the base of a hill lined with maturing crops.  Winding his way down through the crops came a man with a portable temple—a wooden box with legs that fit over the man’s shoulders, containing a little effigy inside it.  The man bent at his waist bowing over and over as he came down the hill.  We stopped in the path and waited for him to reach us.  I didn’t know what we should do, and Anrong instructed us to drop to our knees and kowtow to the wooden box, to the little god that had been brought down the hill to us.

I set my knees into the fine dirt and bowed down before the portable temple. (The actual temple of this obscure village—one of thousands tucked into the hills of the vast Loess Plateau—looked down on us from above.)  I wished desperately that when I got back home, I could tell my dad about this unique experience.

But Takeshi, the Japanese man in our little band of foreigners, was so like my dad that I often found myself comforted by his presence.  He was about the same age as my dad, late sixties, with children my age, a retired engineer who also loved to hike and climb mountains, a gentle and honest spirit, adventurous, with mannerisms spookily like my dad’s—even his facial expressions sometimes were a mimicry. 

He spoke limited English, and I no Japanese, and neither of us much Chinese, so our time together wasn’t hampered by words—words which might have diluted the strength of the coincidences and ambiguities that made his presence in my life during that time in the village delicately suspicious.

After we paid our respects to the tiny god in the wooden box, we followed the man up the hill to his village’s temple. 

There he turned around in numerous circles, bowed deeply, and finally set down the portable effigy.  The villagers were awaiting our arrival, eager to see the four foreigners, and they lined the courtyard walls of the temple, where inside, bowls of food sat humbly on a table beneath the Dragon God.

The band of professional singers was covered by a pink tent across from the temple.  All around the hilltop, villagers sat with piles of watermelon and candy and snacks for the audience to buy.  This was the second day of the celebration, and the singers had begun their musical tales the day before.  The stories were so long that they continued on into today.  The singer stood at a microphone whose output was a bullhorn attached to the top of the tent.  Beside him three men played their instruments: a Chinese banjo, an erhu and a flute, the flutist blowing lyrically into his instrument between drags on his cigarette, which he stored deftly in the crook of his first two fingers while he played.  Behind them two women sat playing small percussion instruments. 

After we took our seats they sang to us, welcoming each of us foreigners, naming our individual countries and entreating us to enjoy their performance.  They were really quite serious about it—a little while later in the performance when some of the villagers were talking a little loudly and walking in front of the stage, the singer asked them to please settle down, they wanted to give their best performance for the foreigners.  This was their first international audience.

I rather liked the singing even though I couldn’t understand the words.  From time to time Li-Li or Anrong translated some of the plot, but it was very complex and convoluted … brothers and brothers-in-law, and fathers with marriageable daughters, prospective suitors, tests of strength and loyalty, inheritance, magic, all kinds of stuff.  The singer was marvelously animated.  The banjo player so obviously enjoyed his music, and it was mesmerizing to watch the flute player with his cigarette.  Sitting in the audience under a sapphire blue sky, sucking candy Anrong’s sister bought for me, surrounded by strangers of a magnitude stranger than a crowd I might sit with back in America, was my peculiar kind of heaven. 

Little Xiu-Xiu’s grandmother spied me, and came over to hug my shoulders and rub my back and chest.  She asked me to come to her daughter’s house for tea, because I had recently given her granddaughter an art set of crayons and paints and colored pencils after I’d seen the previous year what a talented little artist she was.  Her grandmother loved me even more than Xiu-Xiu did, who was so overwhelmed by the gift that her precocious nature abandoned her and she fell to whispered shyness in my presence.  Grandma’s love was just one more tiny brick in my heaven. 

We left the performance about lunch time.  I left reluctantly, but then I had no idea what lay in store for the rest of the day.  On the way back to our village, I asked Takeshi what he thought of the music. 

“The view,” he said, “very beautiful.”  The music was fine, but it was just the same thing over and over, and he got rather tired of it after awhile.  The tune was, in fact, repeated perpetually, and because we didn’t understand the lyrics it was akin to a repetitive chant.  Me, I can get into that kind of thing, but Takeshi’s appreciation was just what my dad’s would have been:  The view. 

*

It was our habit after lunch to rest inside the cool cave-homes during the mid-afternoon heat.  So we left the village at about 5:00 pm to start our next adventure of the day. Little Lei-Lei didn’t come with us, but her cousin, Cao-Yu’s younger brother Cao-Jie, joined us.  We started by walking south up the main valley along which the village lay.  The heavy rains this year had drown most of the crops in it and we walked on the drying silt the floods had deposited.  We passed a small herd of sheep grazing.

“I thought you were no longer allowed to graze sheep freely,” I said to Anrong, knowing that his family kept their livestock in stick pens, and cut and delivered grasses to their feeding troughs, only letting the animals out in the mornings to run laps around the paths of the village.

“They are not supposed to,” Anrong said.  “But this villager, he always just do what he wants.  He’s always been that way.”

As we walked by, I baaah’ed at the sheep quietly until I turned and saw Anrong had his video camera focused on me and I gave a little hiccup of embarrassment.  We came across two villagers, a husband and wife, who were about to cut willow branches up a little side valley.  The man had a very long pole with a short saw attached to the end of it.  We followed them up the narrow vein and arrived at a culdesac of lush, green meadow below vertical cliffs of golden dirt.  It was an unprecedented find in this area of arid, dusty, windblown land, of nude hills struggling to support agriculture, barely fighting off a terrible barrenness.  Here was soft, thick ground cover, dark green and damp.

Grassy meadow and grazing cows in Dang Jia Shan Valley, Shaanxi Province, China.Villager about to cut down willow branches in Dang Jiashan Valley, Shaanxi Province, China.

We ran into the meadow.  Cao-Yu lay down on her back in the coolness.  The meadow was on a little bit of a slope, and I walked up a ways, stretched out on the grass, and log-rolled down the meadow.  Everyone else laughed and clapped, and somehow, that was like some sort of catalyst for unrestrained frolicking. 

Me, Cao-Yu and Li-Li lying in a grassy meadow in Dang Jiashan Valley, Shaanxi Province, China.

The kids made me a head-wreath of willow leaves and we did can-can dancing and lay in the grass putting our arms and legs up into patterns like synchronized swimmers do.  I did backward somersaults, and Li-Li chased Cao-Jie.  Anrong told us to march around like we had days earlier with a dancing troupe in the capital city of the county while he trained his video camera on the mini-parade.  I stood off to the side and tried to stay there out of video-camera range, but I was finally goaded into joining.  I grabbed a willow branch that the peasant couple had just sawed off the tall tree and marched with it like a drum major at the front of a marching band, thrusting it up and down in the air like a giant baton, up and down through our brassy laughter.  Cao-Jie ran and got himself a branch also and Cao-Yu led us through the meadow in mock seriousness. 

Head wreath made for me by the kids. Dang Jiashan, Shaanxi Province, China.Kids marching through the grassy meadow in Dang Jiashan Valley, Shaanxi Province, China.

I knew all of this was completely unbecoming of a woman my age.  It seems I’m always doing things unbecoming of my age, but here it felt perfectly natural, even encouraged by Anrong and the kids, and the others watched with non-judging amusement.  The kids thought I had such great ideas with my log-rolling and willow staffs, my somersaults and can-can dances.  This was the quintessential enactment of everything care-free, of whimsy and the purest form of delight; of innocence, really.  It made me feel light-headed.

My dad was usually beyond this sort of degenerative behavior.  I think he often thought of me that I should act a little more grown-up, that perhaps I was often undignified and immature.  But when time started closing in around him, even he gave way to little outbursts of abandon.  Once when we were skiing (his second favorite activity after backpacking), he jumped off the chairlift at the top, poles in hand and fled down the hill yelling, “Bonzai!”

I was so taken aback at his uncharacteristic outburst, I didn’t know how to react. I thought for a brief second that it was unbecoming of his years.  Then I thought, my god, what am I thinking?  Go dad go!  I guess whatever people might think of my childish behavior, it will never come as a surprise to anyone, won’t catch anyone off-guard.

One time when we were all walking through the village, Papa Dang picked the long, thin leaf of a daylily, put it in his mouth and blew on it to make a squeaky noise that he modulated around into little tunes, almost like a kazoo.  This greatly amused the rest of us, and of course we all had to try it for ourselves.  Nobody could make it work; we blew and blew to no avail.  Takeshi picked a leaf and tried, too.  After everyone else gave up, he was still blowing, and suddenly a great squeak came out and he jumped back and raised his eyebrows comically.  He blew again and started making a tune.  He lifted up one knee and started hopping around on one foot, waving one hand around in the air above his head as he played his lily leaf with glee.  It was just about the greatest thing I ever saw. 

When Takeshi finished his triumphant jig, he took the reed out of his mouth and chuckled just a little, then threw the leaf away. Once in a great while my dad would have a brief moment of silliness, and I revel often in my crystal-clear memories of Takeshi as a proxy for memories of my dad, which are mostly too painful for me to touch, to remember that those times were real, because then the loss feels overwhelming. 

When we left the little meadow, the sun had fallen behind the ridge.  We continued walking up the big valley in cool shade. High above us on the hilltop, the rogue shepherd stood.  He and his sheep had covered a lot of ground while we played in the meadow, having crossed the valley and climbed all the way out.  Now he stood with the light of the lowering sun glowing behind him so he was just a colorless, dark figure on the rim.  His white sheep spilled down the steep cliff, their hooves improbably planted in the soft dirt of the vertical slope.  They looked like they had been pasted there with glue.  The disobedient peasant with this free-ranging sheep seemed somehow Biblical.  I felt that I was skirting a parable.

We climbed up out of the valley on the opposite side of the shepherd.  We passed through a grove of trees whose branches met in the sky, filtering the harsh sun and giving the ground a pleasant shade that invited more grass than usual to grow there.  It was a terribly pleasant atmosphere, and it stirred everyone.  We stopped and suddenly Cao-Yu, Li-Li and Anrong open their mouths and sprouted songs.  They sang folk songs, one of which I’d heard before in this region, and some I hadn’t.  The girls’ voices lilted up through the branches and they laughed when Anrong forgot the words.

Scenery walking around Dang Jiashan village, Shaanxi Province, China.

In his waning years, my dad also latched onto song like never before.  He had a terrible singing voice, absolutely tone-deaf.  Yet he loved to sing.  Part of his speech therapy for the Parkinson’s was to sing along loudly to recorded songs.  So he had made several “sing-along” tapes for himself of his favorites and played it in his truck whenever he drove.  He would try to coax his passengers to sing with him, but we were always too self-conscious and reserved.  And I’ll feel badly about it forever.  He so wanted to have a jolly sing-along, everyone having as much fun as him belting out these old tunes. I honestly have no idea why I felt too reserved in this circumstance, when my behavior does not typically reflect this reservation. Even before this, he had always been peculiarly prone to breaking out into nursery-rhyme type songs and children’s ditties, old folk songs and particularly Froggy Went A Courtin’ and The Fox Went Out On A Chilly Night and Red River Valley.  He used to sing them to me when I was very young, bouncing me up and down on his foot while he played the guitar. 

He would have loved this, would have loved that these people busted out folk song whenever the inspiration hit them, and that a pleasant grove of trees inspired them in this way; that three of them sang together with no reservation.  It was at this point that I asked Li-Li to take a photo of me together with Takeshi.  Takeshi seemed slightly surprised that I would want a picture of just the two of us.  It was a request quite out of the blue from his perspective.  The picture, when I looked at it later, was out of focus.  At first this greatly disappointed me.  But then somehow it grew to be appropriate for Takeshi’s fuzzy role in my life; he stands beside me smiling but blurred, so maybe I can’t tell exactly who he is.

Unfocused picture of me and Takeshi.

The subsequent three photos show me standing between Takeshi and Anrong, holding my hands with my two thumbs and my two forefingers connected to form a halo—first over Takeshi’s head, then Anrong’s, then my own.  I was suggesting that Takeshi was an angel, and we laughed over it, and then Anrong wanted to be an angel, and then I made myself one.  Why I said such a ridiculous thing out loud, I don’t remember.  For it was only later that I wondered if it was not irrelevant that Takeshi had shown up at our expedition's rendezvous point in Yulin City without tickets or slips tracing his journey,. He claimed he came to China across the sea by boat and then took a train to Yulin, but had no proof.

I’d been mulling over Takeshi’s presence in our group for the past two weeks, but only tangentially as I thought about events from my previous visit to the village.  That previous summer, Papa Dang gave me tissue paper and banknotes from the Bank of Heaven to burn for the spirit of my father—the customary offering the Chinese make to their ancestors.  Also,  I had brought from home a ring that my dad gave to me from China many years ago when he first visited the country. I brought it back because I have a personal fondness for geometry, and it seemed like that would complete some kind of circle.  I buried it beneath the ashes of my paper offerings.  Now spending time with Takeshi the following year, sharing the village with him often took the edge off the melancholy that I had left there in the dirt the previous year.

We climbed up out of the grove of trees and walked up and up, following Anrong up to the hilltop, with no path, like baby ducks behind their mother.  It was completely open on the hilltop, only grasses and low bushes; nothing impeded the view.  We climbed uphill as if climbing into dawn; the sun, which had set behind the hills while we were in the valley, now grew brighter and brighter as we rose slowly closer to the sky, until at last when we stood on the spine of the plateau, and could see the entire world around us, the sun was directly across to the west, resting on the horizon.  We were the VonTrapp family—Anrong was the nanny and the rest of us his wards, and we’d just been out for the most marvelous day, and as we approached the summit, “the hills are alive with the sound of music” was ringing in my heart and in my ears.  I opened my arms wide like an airplane and turned a few circles.  I think perhaps it’s the only time in my life where I have felt absolutely glorious.

The crew climbing up to the high plateau above Dang Jiashan Valley, Shaanxi Province, China.

Once on top of the plateau, where I could see and hear for 360 degrees, I realized the sound in my ears was real music, coming to us clear as a bell from the village we’d been to earlier in the day.  The singer was still singing his tale into the evening.  I could just pick out the shape of the temple on the hilltop off in the distance.  There was nothing between it and me but air; a crow could have flown between us, skimming along the top of the plateau.  The music slid through that stretch of air with the clean lines of a beak, sleek with clarity as though the air had no friction.

From our own village, it’s difficult to gauge the extent of the plateau from which all the local valleys and canyons are carved; none of its hilltops are high enough.  Coming up to this view literally took my breath away.  In fact, it made me cry, and I had to walk away from the rest of the group.  There is nothing I can appreciate more than the majesty and breadth of our spinning planet as it exists independent of us.  But this spot was especially incredible because not only were folds upon folds, mile after mile of natural world visible and astonishingly beautiful, but the human, historical world laid on top of it in perfect harmony, one of its traditional songs from a long-standing traditional civilization crystallizing the air, tolling the depth of its cultural past.

In the west, the hills rumbled and rolled to the edge of my vision.  The sun was molten red, setting behind a veil of yellow loess dust.  Terraced fields fell away from the mesa top to the north and south, the slopes planted with crops and grass that struggled to belong, to be strong enough for this world.  The shepherd was still walking along the rim of a great bowl above the valley, where his sheep had fallen off the edge.  To the north, if  I squinted, I could see our village through the dusty haze, particularly the blue-painted walls of the primary school, nestled into and flush with the hillside like all cave-dwellings.  The east was a multitude of gulches and arroyos cut and melted out of the soft plateau.  The cliffs of dirt left standing spread down to the valley like giant, red chicken feet standing next to the seasonal river.

Looking down Dang Jiashan Valley from the plateau. Shaanxi Province, China.

I always feel closest to my dad when I’m beholding some spectacular natural beauty, and I feel that my profound appreciation for these scenes is a gift from my dad, perhaps the most enduring and meaningful one I’ve been given. 

Anrong came up to me with his video camera and asked me to describe the scene as he panned around, but I couldn’t come up with much to say.  There was so much inside me trying to rush out in emotion and word that it just got stuck in my neck..

“It’s just beautiful,” I said.  Pure joy, I thought.  “Amazing.”

Yet I also feel the most heartbroken at these times, for knowing that so many of these experiences will remain inside my cavernous heart like a dusty book on a dusty shelf; all the eager words for my dad’s ears now lie unspoken.  At this particular moment, as I fumbled with the word “amazing,” I was simultaneously the happiest and the saddest I’d ever been.

 *

As the horizon began to swallow the sun’s belly, we began making our way back down into the valley.  Takeshi had stood alone most of the time on top, like me, until Cao-Yu came and threw her arms around him and said, “Let’s go!”  Though I know he could have happily stayed up there for hours, he had the same endearing immediate acquiescence to the beckoning of a child as my dad did, with the same peculiar air of “Me? You want me to come with you?” as though he would never expect the honor of being so chosen. 

There was a path to follow, and Anrong was staying up on top a while longer to wait for a call from a colleague to come in on his cell phone.  So I lingered on top alone for some time before heading down.  I wanted to lie down in the bushes and hide and spend the next year out there alone with this huge landscape to contemplate.  But of course Anrong would worry too much about my health.  I had to head back down.

When I reached the bottom, the kids were playing with a little water pump, which was very randomly in the middle of nowhere.  They were having an enormous amount of fun pumping the handle and watching clear water rush out of a floppy plastic pipe.

“Shara!” they called to me as I approached.  “Do you want to wash your hands?”

They gleefully pumped the water for me and it felt good to put my dusty hands in the cool water, as apparently everyone else had been encouraged to do also. 

Anrong washing his hands at the pump in Dang Jiashan Valley, Shaanxi Province, China.

The light was getting quite dim now and Anrong came down and said we needed to get moving.  We came to a grove of willow trees, many of which had been decapitated of all their branches and were left as elaborate stumps.  I called a halt to everyone and set up my camera on one of these stumps and we gathered in front for a self-timer photo—the VonTrapp family.  It’s the best photo of the trip:  everyone’s smiles were still immersed in our evening adventure. 

The willows gave way to cornfield, and we made our way along the valley floor through rows of corn that towered high over our heads, their tassels almost beyond my reach.  It made me think of the Qin terra cotta army soldiers in Xian that I’d visited the previous year, silent rows of warriors standing perfectly still.  It was a little spooky walking through these giant cornstalks in the fading light.  No one was talking; there was only the sound of the waxy leaves brushing against our shoulders and our footfalls in the ancient dirt.

We straggled on and ended up split into two groups as the field petered out into a rocky stream bed, and we left the corn soldiers behind us.  We walked right along the joint of the valley floor and its eastern wall.  I hung back with Anrong, and as a massive cathedral of red earth loomed above us, he told me that he hadn’t been up this valley for many, many years, since he was a child.

“What?” I was a bit incredulous.  “Why not?  It’s so lovely.”

“Yes, it’s lovely, but I never have the time.  Now when I come back I just have the time to visit with my family; I don’t go out hiking.”

“A pity,” I said.

“You know, when I was a child my brothers and sisters and I came to this valley and collected leaves.  In September or October, the leaves of these trees fall on the ground and we collect them into big bags for the winter to feed to the sheep.  I still dream of doing that.”

“Dream that you want to do it again?”

“No, I mean that I dream at night, in my sleep, of that time.  It’s a very good memory.”

We walked on silently for awhile, he in memory and me trying to imagine his memory, growing up around here a poor peasant child with the leaves … leaves and huge spires of dirt.  Then Anrong pointed out to Qi-Wei and Takeshi, who were straggling behind with us, two tall, narrow trees on top of a ridge.

 “They look like signal trees from the older days of the war,” he said.  Qi-Wei said they looked like something else, and Takeshi said they looked like the roman numeral four, which is exactly what I thought.  For some reason, we all laughed over it.  Anrong said, “It means it’s four kilometers to the road.”  But I was thinking, and Takeshi said, “No, there are four people, the four of us!”  This really made us laugh; I don’t know why.

After we walked just a little further on, a dirt formation on another ridge above the valley looked like some kind of animal to Anrong, and he pointed it out.  But I was thinking, and Takeshi said, that it looked like an “OK” sign—a hand with its thumb up.  We all found this unreasonably humorous.  I said, “So there are four of us in the valley and we are all OK!” (making a thumbs-up with my hand.)  We clapped our hands together hysterically and staggered along the riverbed.  We were completely slap-happy. 

Anrong called out to Peter, one of the other foreigner volunteers up ahead, to be careful in the failing light.  We could no longer see him and the others.  Instead of Peter, a cuckoo bird replied to Anrong.  Our band of four doubled over laughing and wrapped our arms around our stomachs as if to keep our guts from busting. We each started calling out “coo-coo” into the valley to hear our voice echoing through its larynx.  Peter started calling back to us in “coo-coo.”   We just couldn’t stop laughing—like kids at a slumber party who giggle at any little thing just to keep themselves awake.  None of us wanted the day to end.  It was the loveliest day.

As we came at last to the foot of the village, whose dwellings lay scattered up the slope high above the valley, it was dark.  We could see above us the lights from some of the courtyards.  And though I was not scared of the darkness nor even particularly glad to be back home, those lights were the coziest, warmest, most beckoning things I’d ever seen.  Tucked into the hillside, the low-wattage lights seemed like porch lights for little fairy hovels.  It was like walking up into a painting.  It was a last dusting of magic over us as we came back home to end our day.  Papa Dang was waiting for us on the path, just below our courtyard; he’d been sitting there anxiously looking for signs of us ever since it started getting dark.  It was deliriously cozy, having a papa worrying and waiting for us to return to the little lights in the hillside; I wanted to lie down right there and curl up at Papa Dang’s feet until sunrise. 

*

There was only one very minor bobble in our perfect day, but it was a bobble just to everyone else, not to me.  For me it was a secret indulgence, as if I’d poked my finger into the sweet icing on a cake and no one had noticed.  As we were nearing our village in the dim light, after we split into two groups but before we got slap-happy in ours, Wei and Cao-Jie still were walking along with us then, and Takeshi rather mindlessly followed in their footsteps.  In one kind of tricky place in the valley, the boys started climbing higher up the slope, up off the valley floor, and Takeshi went right along.  When coming back down off the slope, he slipped and fell, scraping up his knee and shin.

He reacted in exactly the same way my dad did every time he tripped and fell during the last years of his Parkinson’s disease.  Anrong rushed to help Takeshi up and Takeshi brushed him off, saying he was fine.  Anrong fussed and worried almost in a tizzy, as people usually did around my dad, trying to do something to help.  But Takeshi said, “Please just give me a moment.”  And he sat for ten or fifteen seconds to get firm hold again of his bearings, his balance, his body.  I knew this was what he was doing, while everyone else worried that his stillness indicated injury or that he was upset.  I’d been through it with my dad numerous times, and other people around me thought I was some kind of callous ass for not immediately helping him up from the ground—but I asked every time he fell what he wanted me to do to help, and every time his reply was, just give me a moment.  He would lay still, gathering his bearings and his breath, and then accept my hand to help him up and steady him. 

After Takeshi stood up and began limping, only slightly, down the trail again, Anrong still fussed and yelled at Wei and Cao-Jie for leading him that way, and Takeshi chuckled in just the same way as my dad—a kind of one-chuck chuckle—and said it was his own fault, he wasn’t watching where he was going, he was fine.  He brushed vaguely at the dirt clinging to his gray, jersey-knit shorts and straightened his tee-shirt.  Anrong kept trying to dab at the trickle of blood and Takeshi finally had to firmly insist he was OK.

That was the last straw.  I knew then as I watched Takeshi recompose himself—as much as I can “know” that something absolutely absurd and totally impossible might be true—that the feather he’d revealed to us earlier that day was not from an earth-bound bird: 

When we had made it to the top of the mesa that evening, to find the spectacular 360-degree view, Qi-Wei, who had never before climbed a mountain, said, “Now we have to get back down!”  The rest of us were amused at his assessment of the situation.  It had never occurred to me that climbing up there could have any consequence other than satisfaction.  But to Qi-Wei the consequence was that we had to get back down.  I suggested that perhaps we should have kept some of those willow branches from the meadow and we could flap them like wings, and fly back home to our cave-dwelling in the village. As if we were white-winged angels like I'd pretended Takeshi and I were just a short while earlier.  

Then Takeshi took his slim journal from his waist-belt pouch and opened it.  Lying neatly between two blank pages was a downy bird feather.

“No way!” I exclaimed.  Everyone looked at it with a gleeful sense of wonder.  Takeshi lifted it from the paper, held it between his thumb and forefinger and flapped it up and down vigorously with a comic look on his face, like Sylvester the Cat trying to use a single feather from Tweety Bird’s tail to fly over the dog pound.

“Fly!” Takeshi said amid our uproarious laughter.  So random, only Takeshi could have produced that.

“Fly home!”

“Where did you get that?” Qi-Wei asked.  Takeshi didn’t answer; he just smiled.  I touched the soft, young feather.  My dad had been dead only three years then; it must take awhile to grow a full spread of mature feathers.

The previous year when I buried the ring, I purposefully didn’t take note of where exactly I’d put it.  I wanted it to be a secret, something that nobody would ever know outside of the specific moment in time when it was buried -- a secret between me, the land, and time.  I didn’t know about spirit flags that year, that you could mark a path for spirits.  When I planted that ring in the ground in the roots of a tree, all I wanted then was for my dad to be back on earth with eyes and ears so I could tell him all about my amazing experiences in the little Chinese village.

It was right about that time that my dad abandoned my dreams.  When I came back to the village the following summer, it had been over a year since I’d seen him at night, and I’d been devastated at having him completely disappear from the one place where I could still be with him, where I could hear his deep, gentle voice. 

But maybe he’d just been too busy packing. 

My dad instilled in me the creed that hard evidence is the only justification for belief, that faith is an incomplete data set which cannot be used to prove anything.  I subscribe whole-heartedly to that creed, but it’s hard not to postulate that Takeshi’s many similarities to my dad are evidence for the impossible, especially when he’s actually got feathers.

*

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