Heaven Lake: A Novelby John Dalton
Heaven Lake is about many things: China, God, passion, friendship, travel, even the reckless smuggling of hashish. But above all, this extraordinary debut is about the mysteries of love.
Vincent Saunders has graduated from college, left his small hometown in Illinois, and arrived in Taiwan as a Christian volunteer. After opening a ministry house, he/i>… See more details below
Heaven Lake is about many things: China, God, passion, friendship, travel, even the reckless smuggling of hashish. But above all, this extraordinary debut is about the mysteries of love.
Vincent Saunders has graduated from college, left his small hometown in Illinois, and arrived in Taiwan as a Christian volunteer. After opening a ministry house, he meets a wealthy Taiwanese businessman, Mr. Gwa, who tells Vincent that on his far travels to western China he has discovered a beautiful young woman living near the famous landmark Heaven Lake. Elegant, regal, clever, she works as a lowly clerk in the local railway station. Gwa wishes to marry her, but is thwarted by the political conflict between China and Taiwan. In exchange for a sum of money, will Vincent travel to China on Gwa's behalf, take part in a counterfeit marriage, and bring her back to Taiwan for Gwa to marry legitimately? Vincent, largely innocent about the ways of the world and believing that marriage is a sacrament, says no. Gwa is furious.
Soon, though, everything Vincent understands about himself and his vocation in Taiwan changes. Supplementing his income from his sparsely attended Bible-study classes, he teaches English to a group of enthusiastic schoolgirls -- and it is his tender, complicated friendship with a student that forces Vincent to abandon the ministry house and sends him on a path toward spiritual reckoning. It also causes him to reconsider Gwa's extraordinary proposition.
What follows is not just an exhilarating -- sometimes harrowing -- journey to a remote city in China, but an exploration of love, passion, loneliness, and the nature of faith. John Dalton's exquisite narrative arcs across China as gracefully as it plumbs the human heart, announcing a major new talent.
John Dalton was born and raised in St. Louis, Missouri, the youngest of seven children. Upon graduation from college, he received a plane ticket to travel around the world, and so began an enduring interest in travel and foreign culture. During the late 1980s he lived in Taiwan for several years and traveled in Mainland China and other Asian countries. He attended the University of Iowa Writer's Workshop in the early 1990s and was awarded two fellowships at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown as well as a James Michener/Paul Engle Award for his novel-in-progress, Heaven Lake. He presently lives with his wife in North Carolina.
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Without chagrin or even a trace of contradiction, Jonathan Hwang informed Vincent that his new class at the Ming-da Academy would be comprised of forty-two teenaged girls. "The contest and the judging were both fair," Hwang said, and then wiggled his bony fingers to suggest the fickle nature of chance. "They're meeting with the principal now. I'll send them over as soon as they finish." He made an aloof, stiff-shouldered bow and left Vincent with a key to the language laboratory.
Once inside, Vincent found the room's consoles and chairs in pristine order. He practiced writing on the glossy board with erasable markers, forming loops and squiggled lines and words, and then wiping away everything but the word welcome, which he underlined in red and blue. Standing at the head of the class, before a waist-high lectern, he imagined himself in a white lab coat shuffling beakers and test tubes, and with a sudden smoky fizzle, distilling verbs, nouns, adjectives.
A sparkling panel of windows ran along the laboratory's south wall, and through them he could see the sweeping Ming-da courtyard. Soon a tidy column of students advanced from the east wing, swung left, and crossed under the spindly shadow of Chiang Kai-shek. They made a procession-like turn into the main building and moments later reappeared in two parallel lines outside the laboratory door. They all wore deep maroon uniforms with gold crests sewn to their lapels, and as they waited to enter, they shifted about, eagerly straightening one another's collars and shirtsleeves.
They carried this same air of regimented discipline into the classroom, where they paired off in four long rows and took their seats while a delegated student, the class secretary, called out attendance. She then held out the attendance booklet for Vincent to sign. The class president and vice president stepped forward and presented a typed letter in English from their school principal. It stated that their class had competed in and won a school-wide English competition. The letter went on to declare them an able and worthy class that had been given the distinct privilege of studying English conversation on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons with a highly honored, foreign-born master of English.
Vincent smiled at the tone of the letter. He already suspected -- from a brief but polite exchange of words with the class president -- that their language ability might outrival the simple lessons he had developed for his Bible study class. He began with his now standard model sentence: Mark went to the park with Mr. Jones on Tuesday. The class repeated this in an eager, melodic singsong, their pronunciation exceptionally clear.
He pointed to a girl in the first seat of the first row. "Where did Mark go?" he asked.
The girl rose to her feet. She stood taller than most of her classmates and wore wire-rimmed glasses. "To the park," she replied.
"Good answer," Vincent said. "But I would like you to answer in a complete sentence. Do you understand what I mean, complete sentence?"
"Yes," she said. She gazed timidly about the room, looking to her classmates for encouragement. "Well," she began. "As you told us, Mark went to the park with Mr. Jones on Tuesday. But I think that maybe he went to one or two other areas. Perhaps he went to the cinema to see a foreign movie or perhaps he went to the zoo to see the lovely panda bears."
Vincent could hardly contain his delight. He made a great show of wadding up his lesson plan and throwing it in the waste bin. "You're too clever for that," he told the class. They applauded the announcement and favored him with bright, self-satisfied smiles. Now lessonless, he resorted to drawing a map of America on the board and then described the state of Illinois and his hometown of Red Bud. He rounded out the hour-long lesson by having each student ask him a question. They began with the standard inquiries, familiar questions that had been put to Vincent both by students in other classes and by complete strangers on trains and buses. How old are you? Are you married? How many people are in your family? Then questions of finance, which the Taiwanese considered perfectly acceptable topics of conversation. How much money do you make each month? How much is a car in America? And last, several odd queries, ones, Vincent suspected, the girls had simply translated into English from their homework assignments. Why is Taiwan the true China? How does the color red affect your mood? A student in the back row asked him to please describe the heroic natures of Chiang Kai-shek and Dr. Sun Yat-sen.
He answered all these questions with great care. He praised Taiwan and its national heroes, stated prudently that the situation in the Mainland was unfortunate. All the personal questions he answered truthfully, with the exception of those concerning his invented sister, Gloria, and his monthly salary. This he reduced to half its amount so the students would not think him too money-minded.
Before they left, he outlined a seating chart and worked his way down the long rows writing their names in the square grids. They all insisted on English names, which ranged from the customary, Sally and Christina, to the unconventional, Cookie and Snoopy. Violet proved to be a highly sought-after name. Three girls claimed it as their own, and when none of the three would accept another name, Vincent dubbed them Violet One, Violet Two, and Violet Three. At the end of the third row, a slim girl with large, sleepy eyes peered into his chart and said, "My Chinese name is Ch'iu Y�eh, which means 'Autumn Moon,' but I choose the English name Trudy because it is a lovely name and because it is a true name." Vincent penciled this in and when he lifted his eyes from the paper, she was tilting her head up toward him with a fondly amused grin.
During the course of succeeding lessons, Vincent learned that the girls were all third-year students, all either sixteen or seventeen years old. Evidently their high school had chosen a British English curriculum. Thus, their vocabulary was sprinkled with phrases such as waiting in the queue, my auntie from Taipei, and my bright red jumper. They used the word lovely to describe everything from fried rice to Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek. They shared a troublesome habit of lifting large, powerfully charged words from their Chinese-English dictionaries and inserting them clumsily into otherwise plain sentences: My plan to go to the department store was demolished by my father.
As proficient as they were in their English speaking, there remained long, uncomfortable pauses during class conversation. They understood his questions and knew the answers, and yet when asked to stand and speak, many became paralyzed with shyness. Collectively, they put forth a restrained, virginal sense of propriety that caused them to blush over the most minor mistakes and incidents. The word kiss discovered in a long list of English vocabulary made their faces redden and their hands fly up and cover their mouths. Most extraordinary of all was their ability to witness a single event -- a joke, a mispronounced word -- and react in a strikingly similar way, often mirroring one another's exact expressions. Vincent could enter the class and cunningly pretend to trip over the lectern's wooden base and send every girl reeling with laughter. How easily amused they were, and how beautiful, too. Their hair was dark and thick; their school did not allow them to wear it long, but even short it was full and clean and, he imagined, softly textured. Their bodies were slender with delicate, narrow waists, and they were shapely and tender in a way Vincent decided he was best off not thinking about.
On one particular Tuesday afternoon, Vincent turned from writing on the chalkboard and spied a hand in the back row bouncing fervently above his dark-haired audience. He glanced at his seating chart, called out the student's name, Trudy, and she stood.
"Teacher Vincent, do you have a girlfriend?" Trudy asked.
Because many people in Toulio knew he was a single male teacher, and an enigmatic foreigner as well, this had been another common question, one he consistently responded to with a good-natured no.
"No, I don't have a girlfriend." He shrugged amiably.
"Would you say," Trudy continued, "that I have a chance to become your girlfriend?"
The other students gasped in astonishment. A few girls raised tremulous hands to their lips. Trudy's question, it seemed, was not just an off-color remark. It was a stunner, an unexpected showstopper that bore down upon the class-the girls sank visibly in their seats-and produced a blunt, unbridgeable silence. Trudy herself was absolutely beaming; she had straightened her pose, widened her already large eyes in anticipation of his reply.
Against her prompting, against the class's stunned reaction, Vincent struggled for an answer. It had to be something witty enough to lighten the oppressive climate, but also uncomplicated enough so that everyone was sure to understand. He could not think of a single response. Finally, after far too long a pause, he said, "No, Trudy, I'm at least six years older than you and I'm also your teacher. I would say you have no chance."
Trudy, still beaming, remained undaunted by this answer. "Thank you," she said, smiling resolutely, bowing into her seat as if she'd just been granted a compliment.
After the hour had finished, the class president and vice president stayed behind in the room.
"Teacher Vincent, we apologize for our classmate," the president said. "She has a . . . a . . ."
". . . a broken thing in her mind," the vice president interjected.
"What kind of broken thing?" Vincent asked. He was curious now that the room's tension had dissipated.
The president thought hard, rubbed her index finger and thumb together as if she could produce words with this kind of friction. The vice president flipped through her dictionary. They leaned their heads together and consulted a moment.
"Don't know how to say in English," the president said.
The class met again the following Thursday, a windy, overcast shadow of a day. Vincent arrived at the academy and as he made his way across the courtyard, he heard a timorous voice call out his name. He turned and saw Trudy jogging toward him from the east wing, holding her uniform skirt against her legs so that it did not flip unexpectedly in the wind. Apparently, she had raced well ahead of her classmates in order to gain his attention before he stepped into the building. She slowed to a walk, a prettily cautious stride, and smoothed out her disheveled hair, which had been cut unevenly in ragged layers, like a farmboy's.
"Teacher Vincent," she said, out of breath and looking down at the courtyard pavement. "I'm sorry I said the thing to you on Tuesday. I said the thing so my classmates would laugh. I'm sorry your face became pink. I think I must be a very stupid girl."
Her entire manner was one of such humility and overwhelming shyness that Vincent felt immediately uneasy for her. He suspected that her classmates had put her up to this apology. Perhaps they had all confronted her after the incident and made her feel far worse than was necessary. "It's nothing. Just forget about it," Vincent consoled her. "I knew you were joking."
Her eyes remained fixed on the pavement.
"Really," he said. "There's nothing to feel bad about now."
She sighed then and lifted her head a bit, the corners of her mouth creasing outward in a faint suggestion of a smile.
In class, Vincent drilled the students on their use of comparative adjectives. Cindy is honest, but George is more honest. Mary is the most honest of them all. The girls chimed along. Later, as he gave instructions for an upcoming speech assignment, he observed Trudy seeking his attention with vehement waves of her hand. He wasn't yet ready to begin taking questions. Still, there was something peculiarly urgent in the way she waited for him to call on her. She held her hand high and tracked him with a tenacious gaze.
"Teacher Vincent," she said aloud, interrupting the class. She had already risen to her feet, and Vincent decided against criticizing her for the interruption and hoped instead that this was some kind of attempt to redeem herself in the eyes of her classmates. "Yes?" he asked.
She cleared her throat and said, "Mary is a splendid swimmer, but George is a more splendid swimmer. Teacher Vincent is the most splendid swimmer of them all."
"That's correct," Vincent said. "That's very good."
"Yes, it is," she agreed. "And I would very much like to see you swimming in the blue ocean. Do you know why I plan to see you swimming there?"
The class was well aware that things had gone amiss. The president and vice president exchanged pained expressions. More than a few of Trudy's classmates were trying to signal her quiet with their fingers pressed tightly against their lips.
"No, but I want you to stop -- "
"Because!" she said, and the exultant pitch of her voice rang out over his. "Because I would very much like to see the lovely muscles of your body."
"All right," he sighed. "That's enough already."
"I'm thinking about you now," Trudy said, lowering her pale eyelids and bowing her head in concentration. "You're in the ocean. I see you there, all alone, and I see that you really are the most splendid swimmer."
"That's enough," Vincent ordered. "Sit down, Trudy." The forcefulness in his voice proved unnecessary. She was already stooping down, easing casually into her chair. Vincent took a moment to compose himself and then went back to discussing the short speech assignment due the following week. The girls, with the exception of Trudy, sat dumbstruck and frozen, their embarrassment, their shame, acute and, as always, shared. It wasn't until almost the end of the lesson that any kind of natural rhythm returned to the class. When the bell rang, Trudy rose and filed out the door as if nothing had happened.
Over the weekend, Vincent worried about Trudy's speech project, what her topic might be and into which distressing avenues she might digress. What stayed with him most was Trudy's remarkable composure during both her apology and her outburst. All weekend he wavered back and forth, unable to decide when she had been acting and when she had been earnest. His anxiety turned out to be uncalled for. Trudy did not attend class Tuesday or the following Thursday. When she did not show the next week, Vincent asked the class president if Trudy was ill.
"No," the president said. "Now Trudy goes every day to the other Toulio high school."
"Why is that?"
"Well," the president said. "Please wait a minute and I'll tell you." She stepped up to the board and wrote out a single character. As if on cue, all her classmates pulled out their Chinese-English dictionaries and raced to find the translation.
Violet Two found the entry first. "Ex-pel or kick out," she reported.
"Yes," the president said. "She made big problems in one, two, three other classes. Not just your class. So the principal said good-bye, Trudy." The other girls giggled and nodded accordingly. Perhaps they had seen her expulsion coming. At the very least they appeared to relish the principal's decision. Now, they leaned back in their seats and exchanged ecstatic tidbits of gossip.
At the Ming-da Academy, Trudy's class now carried on without her. In Vincent's mind there was little difference: only the element of unsavory surprise had been eliminated. The remaining forty-one girls were as forthright as ever, their maroon jackets pressed and worn crisply across their narrow backs, their bright, untroubled faces turned toward him. The language laboratory contained a VCR and a series of half-hour English-language programs. After viewing these, the girls were generally positive, but again their language ability outrivaled the programs' curriculum of mild cartoons and giddy puppets. Next, he rented and showed the class E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Just as he expected, they were enchanted by the homely visitor from space. Vincent paused the tape after the first half hour and stepped before the class with a prepared sheet of questions. He glanced at the seating chart and called on Cookie.
"Please describe E.T. Where does he come from and what does he look like?"
Cookie rose sheepishly to her feet. "E.T. is a man from the stars. He is a small man. He is not a handsome man. I cannot think of one thing that he looks like. He has a true and lovely heart. My classmates and I like everything about him, but there is one thing we do not like."
"Teacher Vincent, we do not like you to stop the movie."
The class applauded her announcement, and Vincent set the stalled picture back into motion. Before long E.T.'s adventure on Earth took a perilous turn. When he was discovered ashen-colored and unconscious beneath a highway embankment, the entire class released a collective groan of anxiety. Later, when he died on the operating table, they were all thrown headlong into despair. Yet still, a glimmer of hope endured.
A warm, pulsing light began to bloom inside E.T.'s chest.
This was a moment Vincent cherished. He was sitting opposite the class behind his desk. He was not interested in the least in watching E.T.'s resurrection or in drawing attention to its likeness to Christ's own resurrection. Instead, he studied their fascination, the fall and rise of their sentiments, watched as their unguarded expressions became charged with the naked emotional beauty women reveal only to their most intimate friends and family members. E.T. shimmered back to life and in the passing of a few heartbeats their lovely, captivated faces went from sorrow to bewilderment, to a nearly unnameable emotion that verged on reverence. At last, E.T. rose up from his sickbed, and they were swept away by wild, contagious joy.
After the movie ended, they sat stunned in their seats for a moment then collected their books and papers and filed dreamily out the door.
Vincent sat at his desk and began poring over the girls' handwritten speech assignments. From the classroom next door, he could hear Jonathan Hwang leading a chorus of students through an English nursery rhyme. He also heard a polite "Excuse me" and looked up to find Trudy standing before him. She now wore a stiff black uniform, the same design and insignia that Shao-fei wore to Toulio Provincial High School.
"Teacher Vincent, I ride here to see you because I want to ask you an important question." She sat down in the empty chair beside him, quite close.
"All right," Vincent said. "Go ahead." The language laboratory was an audience of vacant chairs.
"What is your plan for Saturday afternoon?"
"Well, that's the day I grade papers and plan lessons."
"What is your plan for Sunday afternoon?"
"Well, I'm not sure now but -- "
"My family," she interjected, "is excited to meet you. So they plan a lunch dinner for you. Fish, shrimp, pig's feet, good Chinese food. I think Sunday is a good day."
"That's nice of your family, but are you sure they want to have a visitor now? I mean, aren't your parents upset about you going to a different school?"
Trudy wrinkled her eyebrows at the oddness of his question. "No, my father doesn't worry about that thing. He worries about other things. He worries about having the chance to meet you. He's very excited to meet you, Vincent. Can you make the plan on Sunday?"
It was clear he should say no, should fabricate an excuse or refuse outright, and then, in the wake of days to come, recast the visit as theory. In this form, he could ponder what would have happened but didn't with equal measures of whimsy and gratitude.
"You need to tell me how to get to your house," he said.
"My father and brother and me are coming to drive you there. We have a car," she said proudly.
"Then you need to know where I live." He reached for a piece of paper.
"Oh, I already know that, Vincent. Everybody knows where you live."
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