Sunday, February 3, 2008
In the start of the novel, Cheng Lin, a young Chinese road engineer is clearly out of his element in Tibet. The reader may question Cheng's perception, or believe him and begin to change their own perceptions as the novel progresses. Either way, this scene is pieced together from feelings I've felt when deep in the paranoia of culture shock. Cheng has much to learn in his journey to the Fire Horses.
“Fire Horses,” the woman whispered into Cheng's ear, her braid falling against his shoulder again as it had in the tent. He looked at the shiny strands of hair, incandescent like a dark sea shell.
“Fire Horse?” Cheng swallowed, his interest in the sword man gone. He remembered her earlier words about a journey to the Fire Horse. “I don’t believe in Astrology. Fire Horses mean nothing to me.”
“You do not believe in the destructive power of Fire Horse women?” the woman replied lifting her head.
Cheng felt his throat closing from the incense. This woman was bating him, trying to get him to talk about Lili. She must be a spy. “I need to get back.” He turned, but the woman caught him with her words.
“I am only asking for your compassion.” Something in her voice compelled him to turn. She placed her hand on Cheng’s arm and the warmth of her skin cauterized him, filled his heart. “I know you can feel compassion.”
Before he could reply, someone grasped him from behind. Cheng’s heart still pulsated with the warmth of the Tibetan woman’s touch as he felt himself being tossed over a man’s shoulder. Hanging upside down he watched the man in the dress charging at him, jumping around bodies and bowls. The masked actor with the wooden rod attached to his pants had caught him up. Cheng tightened his grip. He didn’t want to be the next human shield, felt embarrassed by the explosion of laughter erupting from the crowd. If he thought he had not been noticed before, now he realized his error as the crowd's cheers rose at his humiliation. The round, grinning faces pressed against him the fervor of their screams increasing, as if someone had thrown gasoline on a fire. They could attack him, who would tell.
Cheng stiffened, squirmed and tried to get off the actor’s shoulders but the man only tightened his grip. Cheng pinched the actor’s forearm until the man released him, and he grasped for his balance before landing onto the unyielding stage. Silver pain coursed through him as he slammed his rigid elbow on the floor. The crowd silenced.
The actor dressed as a man whipped off his mask, revealing the pockmarked face of one of his road workers. A worker Cheng had told Dorje to fire for his slow work. The shadowy craters gave the worker’s face a sinister look. The villagers pressed into him. The worker rotated Cheng’s arm, and then patted him on the back. The crush of drunken faces cheered. The pulsating activity returned. Cheng took a deep breath and closed his eyes. He needed fresh air.
“It is not broken.” The woman stifled a grin. Cheng followed her eyes to his hands. He’d been wringing the worker's wooden rod. He tossed it from him, his head beginning to pound. “You hit a nerve.”
Squatting next to Cheng, the worker nodded, his eyes piercingly intelligent. Cunning. Cheng would need to watch this man. The worker donned his mask and the two actors slapped Cheng on the back, motioning their good intentions. The worker picked up the rod and rubbed it into Cheng’s hair as the villagers cheered and crushed against him. The villagers' earlier hostility still prickling against the back of his neck, Cheng resisted any reaction of anger, moving only when the worker tied the rod around his waist again.
“You must return to your camp. The sun is rising,” The woman urged her words like the icy plateau slick with reality. She placed her long fingers on his shoulder and he wondered how a hand so soft could be found in this inhospitable climate.
As he followed her through the crowded tent, he didn’t look at his watch. He didn’t want to know the lateness of the hour.
Outside, the surreal events dissipated as the night’s air filled his lungs and cleared the heavy incense from his nose. An orange slit lit the Kunlun Shan peaks. Night lay like a mountain shadow at his feet, deceptively dark below the awakening sun. The shadows rolled back quickly once the sun crested the peaks.
“I still need your help.” Cheng kept his eyes on the rising orange glow.
The woman's words prodded him. “Run toward the rising sun. You will find your camp. If you hurry no one will know you were gone.”
-- Copyright C. Tkaczyk 2008