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Petals from the Sky
By Mingmei Yip
KENSINGTON BOOKSCopyright © 2010 Mingmei Yip
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Retreat
Mother choked and spilled her tea. "Ai-ya, what evil person has planted this crazy idea into your head?"
I was twenty and had just told her my wish to become a Buddhist nun.
She stooped to wipe the stain from the floor, her waist disappearing into the fold of flesh around her middle. "Remember the daughter of your great-great-grandfather, who entered the nunnery because she was jilted by her fiancé? She had no face left; she had no name, no friends, no hair.
"She just sat the whole day like a statue; the only difference was she had a cushion to sit on. And she called that meditation." Mother looked me in the eye. "Is that the life you want? No freedom, no love, no meat?"
Before I could respond, she plunged on: "Meng Ning, there are only three reasons a girl wants to become a nun: before she meets the right man, after she has met the wrong one, or worse, after the right one has turned out to be the wrong one." Mother clicked her tongue and added, "Not until after you've tasted love, real love, then tell me again you want to be a nun."
That had been ten years ago, but my wish to be a nun had not faltered.
Not until 1987, on a hot summer day in a Buddhist retreat in Hong Kong.
I hopped off the bus on Lantau Island and walked toward theFragrant Spirit Temple-the oldest in the colony. The path led up a hill beside a maze of crumbling monastery walls over which trees spilled out as if to taste the forbidden world outside.
As I joined the crowd hastening to get under the cool shade of the foliage, a plump, middle-aged woman caught up with me, panting and grinning.
"Miss, is this the route to the Fragrant Spirit Temple for the Seven-Day-Temporary-Leave-Home-Buddhist-Retreat?"
I nodded and gestured toward the throng. Two thick, round pillars flanked the temple's crimson gate. Above its lintel hung a wooden sign with four large, yellow, Chinese characters in ancient seal script: MARVELOUS SCENERY OF GREAT COMPASSION.
My heart raced. Within this gate for the next seven days, I would be tested for my karma to be, or not be, a Buddhist nun. At twenty, I had made up my mind to avoid the harassment of marriage. Now at thirty, I still couldn't decide whether to remain in the dusty world as a single career woman, or to enter the empty world as a career nun.
Why should I feel so nervous? After all, in the absolute sense, is there a difference between a shaved head and one with three-thousand-threads-of-trouble?
Gingerly, I stepped through the crowd into the temple's expansive lobby and a soothing aroma of jasmine incense. Activities were in full swing, with people assembling for the opening ceremony of the retreat. Electronic Buddhist music boomed from different corners of the two-hundred-year-old temple. I listened intently, seeking the music through layers of noise arising from gray-robed monks and nuns, black-robed workers, volunteers, and retreat participants. It was a synthesized version of the traditional Buddhist chant "Precious Incense Offered for Discipline and Meditation." My heart instantly warmed to the familiar tune that I'd heard so many times. However, I still preferred the human voice, even when sung from the wrinkled lips of old monks and nuns. I hurried to the end of a long, slowly moving queue.
A little ahead of me stood a thirtyish man with a robust frame and light hair-a foreigner. Surely a devout Buddhist to have come all the way here to join the retreat.
I flung back my hair, feeling dulled by the heat and hating the sticky feeling of my blouse pasted to my back, unwilling to let go.
Looking around, I saw a gilded Buddha statue on a tall table, hands in the abhaya and dana mudras-the have-no-fear and wish-granting gestures. Flowers, fruits, and thick incense sticks in bronze burners crowded the rosewood surface encircling the golden figure. Under Buddha's all-seeing gaze, an expensively dressed woman stuffed a pile of banknotes into the capacious belly of the gongde xiang-Merit Accumulating Box. How would she look if she shaved her head and wore a Buddhist robe?
"Looks very bad," my mother would say whenever she saw a nun. "Meng Ning, you're a very beautiful woman. Beautiful women deserve nice clothes, nice jewelry, and a nice husband."
Mother was born in the year of the cat. And like a cat, she was snobbish, sensitive, sensuous. In elementary school, she was so cute and petite that her classmates used to call her "Little Sweetie." Then she became "Coca-Cola" in high school. Of course Mother was sweet, bubbly, and as popular as Coke, but she'd told me what her classmates really meant was that her precocious body had the voluptuous shape of the soft-drink bottle.
Mother, beautiful in her youth, had a lot of nice jewelry and, according to her, a nice husband. But a miserable life. My father never bought Mother any of the jewelry; instead, he sold pieces of it so he could go to gambling houses to act like a big spender among the pretty hostesses who'd caress his face with one hand and rummage his pockets with the other. The jewelry came from my grandmother, a businesswoman in Taipei with a chain of jewelry stores.
My grandfather died young, leaving my grandmother with four bony kids and an empty stove. She used the jewelry repair skill she'd learned from Grandfather to obtain work as an apprentice in a small gold store. Later, she was able to start her own business, then expand. She had fourteen stores and more than two hundred employees before she died.
So during those years, the jewelry kept flowing like tap water into my mother's life. But when Grandmother and Father died, they left Mother and me penniless. Grandmother left nearly all her money to her three sons, in accordance with the old Chinese belief that if one left money to daughters, it would eventually be lost to another name. However, she didn't feel right leaving Mother nothing, so over the years she secretly sent Mother money and gave her part of her jewelry. But how would Grandmother feel if she could find out that not only had the jewelry not turned into food on our table, it had paid debts to the loan sharks?
Despite what Father had done, Mother's eyes would moisten and her voice soften when she talked about her first and only love. "Your father was a romantic man. In our age, people had arranged marriages, but we married for love."
Then she told me how Father had hidden a pistol in his pocket the night he proposed.
"Mei Lin"-he'd aimed the gun at his chest-"if you say no, I'll blow my heart out!"
He was gone, and Mother had been the one left with a shattered heart.
That pistol always seemed to me a symbol of my parents' marriage. It had never been fired, but was always there to suggest love, threat, and a bad choice. Their life had constantly shifted between passion and tension, with me squeezed between them like a cushion.
When I was ten, I came home one day and found my parents in a fight.
Mother wagged a finger at Father. "You're a good-for-nothing poet. I can't stand you anymore!"
My heart hurt to hear that. An unhappy marriage makes some women quiet and others garrulous; my mother was definitely among the latter.
"I can't afford you anymore, you spoiled baby!" Father retorted.
"Spoiled? Have you sold your poems or calligraphy to buy me clothes and jewelry?"
Father was speechless for a moment; then he jumped up from the sofa, grabbed me, and shook my arm.
"How did your daughter grow so big if I haven't paid for anything?"
"Do you really think you pay for her-"
Before Mother finished, Father let go of me and snatched my copy of Dream of the Red Chamber from the chipped coffee table. "Doesn't this dream cost money?" Then he threw the book down and seized Mother's TV magazines (we couldn't afford a TV). "Doesn't this gossip cost money?" He went on to grab the radio, the cracked teapot, my drawing book, my crayons, the day-old bread, asking the same question until he exhausted both the list and himself.
During their fight, I looked down at my feet so I didn't have to look at their unhappy faces. I imagined my right big toe was my father. The left big one was my mother. The rest were the brothers and sisters I'd never had.
The little toe on the right was chubby, so he was the chubby little brother who'd died three days after he was born. The little left toe was as small as a peanut, and that was me. It always made me sad to look at my two little toes so far from each other, like the unbridgeable distance between us. Would my little brother have lived if Father had stopped gambling?
When Father's and Mother's voices grew angrier, I moved my toes together as if they had stopped quarreling. Married life didn't appeal to me at all, not even when based on love. Perhaps a nun's life would be better. Later I thought so because of a secret I'd never told anyone since the day I fell into the well.
Chapter TwoThe Fall
It was the day after my thirteenth birthday. Father had just lost five thousand dollars in a casino in Macau, forcing our family to move from Tsim Sha Tsui, the bustling commercial district in Kowloon, to a village house in remote Yuen Long. The rent was two hundred Hong Kong dollars, three times cheaper than what we'd paid in the city.
In the communal backyard behind our house was an abandoned well surrounded by tall grass that whispered when the wind blew on winter nights. Older villagers avoided the well because there were rumors that ghosts dwelled in it. A hundred years before, a young concubine, with a stone tied around her neck, had jumped down the well to prove her innocence after being accused of having an affair with a wandering monk. People believed the well was so old that it had absorbed the essence of the sun, moon, stars, water, air, wind, sound, and light until it acquired a spirit of its own. A blind fortune-teller insisted the well was the third eye of an evil goddess who would observe the people above and snatch down the handsome ones-especially children-to feed her jealousy.
While children were warned to stay away from the forbidden opening, the younger adults didn't care about it one way or another. They simply regarded the well in a practical way-as a trash bin.
As for myself, the myth pricked my curiosity during my lonely adolescence. I'd sneak to the well and stare down into the space below. Most of the time what I saw was completely different from the villagers' descriptions. Rather than frightening, I found it fascinating. In the dim light, I could make out all kinds of objects-blankets, books, branches, twigs, papers, clothes-thrown down through a gaping hole in the mesh that covered the well's mouth. I imagined a diary hidden among the piles of refuse, words inscribed on tear-streaked rice paper in vigorous calligraphy by the doomed concubine to bitterly lament her innocence. I also imagined photographs, faded and brownish, of forgotten people. A young bride, a happy family, the sad-faced concubine with her bald lover, a chubby baby with eyes widened as if asking: why was I thrown into this cold world?
During days of heavy rain, water would rise from the bottom and I'd see my own reflection with a small, round piece of blue sky floating behind my head. Sometimes I'd hear noises whispering below when the wind stirred the long grass aboveground. One evening I saw the reflection of the moon, so round and pregnant that I thought she might burst and drop into the well and make a splash so loud it would wake everybody from their dreams.
On other evenings, I saw stars peeking shyly at their own images. I would throw down a stone and watch the reflection split into tiny diamonds, like those that had once sparkled on my mother's pretty fingers. I imagined time itself reflected on the circle of water and, like a kite snapped off from its string, flying away through the opening, carrying away memories of color, smell, and touch.
Whenever I peeked into the well, I felt the evil goddess also staring back at me, her eye hidden. She'd watch my every move and absorb my heart's deepest secrets. She made me see-by linking the earth and the sky together-another world, familiar yet strange. She was the third eye connecting me to a larger, mysterious universe.
I'd always wondered how it would feel to be on the other side of the world.
One hot September afternoon as I studied, my parents began to fight over my father's purchase of a pair of expensive shoes. Mother said he would rather feed his vanity than his family. He argued that a poet must retain his dignity. As my parents' voices began to simmer and boil, I sneaked out to the backyard, went straight to the well and looked down, wondering what I could find this time to cheer me up: a book, a pillow, a doll, a puff of cloud floating in the sky? But in such dry weather I saw nothing except darkness. I looked up and met the angry glare of the sun.
Just when I began to feel uneasy and thought I should go back home, someone bumped me from behind. I lost my balance and plunged into the dark. I didn't know how long I'd been unconscious, but I woke up surrounded by a fresh coolness. Yet my head ached and my body was clammy with a cold, searing pain. My clothes were torn, my knees badly scraped, and my toes swollen like sausages. But I was alive! The trash in the well had cushioned my fall and saved my life. I kept thinking how ridiculous to be saved by a heap of rubbish. I could have laughed, except my joints throbbed as if on fire.
I looked up toward the dim light and saw blurred faces leaning over the well, staring down and howling, "Meng Ning, can you hear us?" "Are you all right?" "Don't be afraid; we'll get you out as quickly as possible!" I could hear my mother crying and see my father holding her tightly in his arms. The world above looked remote and alien. The people, yelling and gesturing wildly, seemed trapped in the circle of clear, blue sky.
But I was the one who was trapped. I tried shouting back, but the darkness, like a witch, snatched away my breath and swallowed my voice. My chest swelled and my heart jumped like ants in a hot wok. My knees were cut and sore. I wrapped some old dirty rags around them to stop the bleeding. I asked myself if it would be my fate to die, rotting with the garbage, in an obscure hole in the earth. The walls around me exuded the smell of decay and rotten fish. I reached out to touch the stone lining of the well, but immediately withdrew my hands when I felt a stickiness like the blood on my knees. I wanted to cry, but no tears came, only gasps.
I looked up again; people were still leaning over the well and looking down at me, with flashlights and kerosene lamps raised high in their hands. Their loud voices carried down to me, but I sensed hopelessness behind their frightened faces. I could almost see them cupping their mouths and whispering, "A doomed child, what can we do?"
Suddenly, I thought of the Guan Yin statue in my neighbor Mrs. Wong's house and of how this plump woman used to ask the Goddess of Mercy to protect her ancestral graves, give her a son, even cure a cold. She'd kneel before the serene ceramic figure in its small shrine surrounded by lighted joss sticks and offerings of flowers and fruit. Then she would press her hands together, kowtow, and pour out fervent prayers. Now, imitating her, I put my hands together and whispered an ardent prayer to Guan Yin, pleading to her to get me safely out of the well.
I kept praying, ignoring the talking, arguing, and crying above, and the strong odor of vegetation, mildew, and rot surrounding me. Then something grazed my head and landed beside me on the ground with a soft plop. I picked it up and held it to the side of the well where the light was brighter. From a thin red string dangled a brightly colored Guan Yin pendant. The Goddess of Mercy wore an orange robe; her hands held a flask with a willow branch and her bare feet rode on a big fish that looked as if it were swimming toward me.
I felt a tinge of warmth.
I looked up and glimpsed my parents' concerned faces. Mother was still sobbing; Father pulled her close to him. Other faces squeezed to lean over the well, looking down while competing with one another to offer comforts and suggestions. I frantically waved the pendant at them, then cupped my mouth with my hands and yelled at the top of my voice toward the opening, "Mama! Baba!" Suddenly hearing that I was very much alive, people got excited all over again. A child clapped. Several old people pressed their hands together and whispered prayers. Teenagers raised their index and middle fingers to show victory. My parents squeezed through the crowd to peek down at me. "Oh, thank heaven, Ning Ning, are you all right?!" Mother hollered and Father kissed her on her forehead, their earlier quarrel forgotten. Then, with my blurred vision, I saw a bald scalp above a pretty face, glistening in the sun. I blinked and strained, but the scalp and the face were no longer there.
Excerpted from Petals from the Sky by Mingmei Yip Copyright © 2010 by Mingmei Yip. Excerpted by permission.
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