Song of the Silk Roadby Mingmei Yip
In this richly imaginative novel, Mingmei Yip--author of Peach Blossom Pavilion and Petals From the Sky--follows one woman's daunting journey along China's fabled Silk Road.
As a girl growing up in Hong Kong, Lily Lin was captivated by photographs of the desert--its long, lonely vistas and shifting sand dunes. Now living in New York, Lily is struggling/i>/i>… See more details below
In this richly imaginative novel, Mingmei Yip--author of Peach Blossom Pavilion and Petals From the Sky--follows one woman's daunting journey along China's fabled Silk Road.
As a girl growing up in Hong Kong, Lily Lin was captivated by photographs of the desert--its long, lonely vistas and shifting sand dunes. Now living in New York, Lily is struggling to finish her graduate degree when she receives an astonishing offer. An aunt she never knew existed will pay Lily a huge sum to travel across China's desolate Taklamakan Desert--and carry out a series of tasks along the way.
Intrigued, Lily accepts. Her assignments range from the dangerous to the bizarre. Lily must seduce a monk. She must scrape a piece of clay from the famous Terracotta Warriors, and climb the Mountains of Heaven to gather a rare herb. At Xian, her first stop, Lily meets Alex, a young American with whom she forms a powerful connection. And soon, she faces revelations that will redefine her past, her destiny, and the shocking truth behind her aunt's motivations. . .
Powerful and eloquent, Song of the Silk Road is a captivating story of self-discovery, resonant with the mysteries of its haunting, exotic landscape.
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Song of the Silk Road
By Mingmei Yip
KENSINGTON BOOKSCopyright © 2011 Mingmei Yip
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Million-Dollar Journey
AChinese saying goes: "In good fortune is always some misfortune, and in misfortune, always some good fortune."
Maybe they're right. After losing both my parents at twenty-eight, I was abandoned—penniless—into this treacherous Ten Thousand Miles of Red Dust.
Or so I had thought.
Then a year later I received a letter from a law firm in Manhattan, Mills and Mann, informing me that I was to be given a sum of money. In fact, a very large sum of money.
Three Million Dollars.
But from whom? And why? Since I had to max out my credit cards just to lay my parents in thin coffins and watch them—with my hard-earned money—turn into ashes.
Wow. I had to use all my willpower to stifle my about-to-shootout, uncontrollable, deliriously happy laughter to be able to continue to read.
My benefactress was someone by the name of Mindy Madison, supposedly my aunt from my mother's side. Neither of my parents had ever mentioned any aunt in this world—or the next one.
So where could this Mindy Madison have come from?
Besides, Madison was not my mother's last name, which was Cai, or mine, which was Lin.
Then a light went on in my head. Wasn't this too good to be true? Fishy? Like a clichéd plot in a cheap novel?
Without further thought, but much reluctance, I stuffed the letter under my novel-in-progress manuscript on the desk and tried to push the whole thing out of my mind.
But, as the Chinese also say: "When wealth comes, its force will push you against the wall."
Two days later, after I arrived home from waitressing at Shun Lee Palace—an overpriced Chinese restaurant in midtown Manhattan—the blinking red light in my dark apartment caught my attention. I pressed the phone's button and the room was immediately filled with a pleasant male voice: "Hello, I'm David Mann from Mills and Mann Associates. This is for Miss Lily Lin concerning a large sum of money from her aunt, Mindy Madison. Please contact us as soon as possible so we can process this matter promptly. We look forward to meeting with Miss Lin. Thanks."
The next day, restless with nervous energy, I was sitting across from two impeccably dressed attorneys in a posh law firm located in one of the most expensive districts in Manhattan, listening to a most amazing, stranger-than-fantasy-fiction speech.
"Yes, the whole thing is real, Miss Lin. You're not dreaming, but about to be granted three million dollars." David Mann, a thirtyish lanky man with blond hair, assured me with his slick lawyer's voice. In this office filled with rows of bricklike books and angular, deep brown furniture, his gleaming eyes were the only two bright spots.
"But there is more. Don't think it's just going to drop into your hands," admonished his partner, the fiftyish, Margaret Thatcher look-alike Margaret Mills. "Your aunt—apparently she's quite an adventurer—specified that you have to take on a long journey in China, along the Silk Road. This is very specific—you must retrace the same routes that she took, do the same things that she did. Until you complete this, the three million dollars will be waiting for you in the bank." She paused to frown at some document lying like a corpse on the desk. Then she added, in a tone of disapproval, "However, you do get fifty thousand dollars in advance for the preparation of your trip."
Still in shock, I asked numbly, "How long is the trip?"
Mann's voice piped up from the honey jar. "It specifies in the document that it will take somewhere from to six to eight months."
I did a quick calculation in my head: Would the fifty thousand dollars last six or eight months in China? Of course. Most Chinese couldn't even make this in their whole life!
I watched as the two yin–yang creatures—one heavy and stuffy, the other slim and slick—went on to explain details: The Mills and Mann firm was only acting as intermediary; the matter was being taken care of by another law firm in Beijing. Therefore, if I agreed to go ahead with this improbable business, I also needed to meet with a Mr. Lo in Beijing. More details followed but did not make much sense to me. Finally, when their long-winded harangue, delivered in a lawyerly monotone, was finished, I sat dumbfounded.
David Mann flashed a row of neat, whitened teeth, his blue eyes sparkling like two sapphires. "So, Miss Lin, are you willing to accept your aunt's terms and take on this journey of a thousand miles?"
Should I accept such an offer? For a moment, I had no answer. But, putting aside the bizarre stipulations from a total stranger, supposedly my aunt, could anyone resist a seven-figure fortune? Certainly not a yet-to-be published writer and on-the-side waitress. So I put on a smile especially aimed at the impossible windfall.
I would certainly take the fifty thousand up front and then ... maybe I could even cheat my way out later, who knows?
My mind was racing; I had no idea what I would be getting myself into. But I also did not want to take any chances on this dropped-from-the-sky bonanza. So I nodded emphatically. "Absolutely. I have always wanted to be an adventurer, and I certainly have no intention of turning down this three-million-dollar fortune."
Margaret Mills immediately pushed the document across the desk for me to sign. With my slightly trembling hand, I scribbled on the death-pale paper my name, Lily, which means Beautiful in Chinese, also a homonym with Fortune, then my family name, Lin, which means Forest or Abundance.
Mills took the document back, and the duo reached out to vigorously shake my hand. "Congratulations, Miss Lin!"
Now suddenly the tomblike office looked almost like a sunny garden. Even the middle-aged, Margaret Thatcher look-alike Margaret Mills could now pass as handsome. I studied her officious expression while remembering the Spanish foreign minister's speech to the other Margaret: "Madame, I was prepared for your intelligence, but not for your beauty!"
With the images of the two Margarets, one in Britain and the other right before my eyes, I tried very hard to suppress a chuckle.
The Manhattan Margaret spoke again. "Miss Lin, these things take time to process. Come back next week and we'll have the fifty-thousand-dollar check waiting for you."
David Mann added, "You will be a rich woman. We will be happy to help you with your future legal affairs."
At four-thirty, I stood on the street outside the law firm, dizzy and disoriented by my sudden change of fortune. The sun was bright and warm, while the sparkling air matched my rising mood. Though the world outside looked unchanged with people hurrying and cars inching forward, the world inside me was like an hourglass suddenly turned upside down. I felt ambushed from all sides, even though no one paid me any mind. I kept thinking of the strange demands by this strange supposed aunt, who had never even existed for me in my entire twenty-nine years. Not to mention the unbearable lightness of a small piece of paper with "$50,000" written on it, soon to be sitting arrogantly yet happily in my purse!
During the following week, I ate and slept and waitressed at Shun Lee Palace as usual, but my mind had already flown to the Silk Road, where my body was enjoying a sauna under the hot sun, my bare toes and soles baking on the desert's fiery golden sand and my eyes dreamy in the intoxicating heat.
I imagined caravans on their way to the mysterious East, with exotic, smooth-skinned women with veiled faces and bodies draped in luminous silk. Their skin as golden as the sand, they hummed strange melodies to the accompaniment of tinkling bells tied around the camels' ankles....
The days crept by until I finally dragged my numbed feet back to the Mills and Mann office and settled the surreal affair in a banal, legalistic manner. I was briefed about the terms one more time and was given the fifty-thousand-dollar check.
Margaret Mills said, handing me a big manila envelope, "Miss Lin, here are the preliminary itinerary and the tasks you are required to carry out on the Silk Road. Details of your aunt's document and her journey will be in Beijing for you to pick up from Mr. Lo."
When I stood up to leave, the envelope pressed tightly against my chest, I caught a smirk on David Mann's face. "Good luck with your aunt's requests!"
After leaving the lawyers' office on this note of high suspense, I went straight to the Chase Bank in Union Square near where I lived and deposited the check. Then I strolled around aimlessly, trying to clear my mind. Near the subway station, three teenagers were showing off their impossible skating skills by flipping, flying, and somersaulting in all directions, their skateboards scraping hard on the ground, making a threatening Zeeet! Zeeeet! Zeeet! sound.
"Watch out!" I yelled to the kids, and quickly stepped aside to avoid a possible hit and run—reminding myself that I was now a three-million-dollar heiress.
Queeeeiiit! A skateboard squealed to a halt directly in front of me. It was the youngest of the kids.
He saluted me, splitting a big, heart-melting smile, then shouted, "Yes, ma'am!" His rhinestone stud sparkled like morning dew on his impossibly smooth face.
I flashed him back a soon-to-be-millionaire smile, then continued to walk. Could anyone tell that this white-shirted and blue-jeaned Chinese woman was soon to be sporting nothing but designer clothes, flawless three-carat diamonds, and a three-hundred-dollar hairdo and dining only in high-end, fashionable restaurants? Hmm ... actually, one person could. The young male bank manager. Although he had not made any comment, his smile had betrayed his approving mood. I couldn't wait to see what his smile would look like (stretching all the way outside his face?) in six months—assuming I would come back from China alive and in one piece.
Back home, I immediately plunged into reading Mindy Madison's documents. I flipped through the thick stack, reading a section here and skipping another one there. At first glance, I was quite relieved to find that the routes to take, cities to visit, people to meet, and things to do didn't seem all that daunting. However, as I read further, the requests started to become a little weird, one even perverse.
At the edge of a desert called the Taklamakan, I needed to retrieve something (it was not specified what) buried in a small, ruined town.
I had to meet with a blind fortune-teller on a certain mountain and tell him nothing but lies about everything.
And the perverse one:
I had to seduce a certain monk in a certain temple and have sex with him in the "hanging-upside-down-lotus" position, something I, though I considered myself pretty open about sex, had never heard of. Would I get a brain hemorrhage? I couldn't help but chuckle—not that I found this funny, but just hoping the chuckle would somehow dissipate the uneasy feelings that were emerging inside me.
After I finished reading, I let out a sigh. The whole thing struck me as peculiar. Very peculiar. And scary. If my "aunt," Mindy Madison, had already done these things, then why pay me to repeat them? There must be something not quite proper—or downright crooked—going on behind all this, but what, I had no idea.
Like a bad cold, the uneasy feeling refused to go away.
Chapter TwoMy Professor, My Lover
The following morning I called Shun Lee Palace and told the owner I wouldn't be in that day due to female discomfort. I needed a whole day to clear my mind and plan for my immediate future. Since I already had fifty thousand in my bank account and would receive another huge sum in six months, should I just quit my job for the trip? Or ask for a six-month leave? But what if I failed to complete my journey? What if I got sick or even died on the road? Murdered? Strangled by silk? Engulfed by sand and eaten alive by horrible insects?
On the other hand, if all of these were really going to happen, why should I care, as a ghost?
Since my early teens, my dream was to be an adventurer exploring exotic, mysterious places, especially the Sahara Desert. The soft, tender, sensuously shifting golden dunes were to me crawling dragons, or voluptuous goddesses striking elegant yoga poses. When the sun shone on these masses, I saw the ferocity of an attacking tiger and the docility of a retreating virgin. However, I'd never imagined that my dream to visit a desert would be realized so soon, albeit not the Sahara but the Taklamakan.
Silk Road. I felt a smile hovering on my face as the two words tenderly rolled on my tongue. In my mind I felt rainbow-colored silk caressing my body, rendering me achingly mysterious and desirable. I imagined myself as a tall, robust woman. By Chinese standards my five feet five inches is tall, but at 118 pounds I should have more flesh.
I was dressed in a bright turquoise sarong with matching scarf, balancing a jug of milk on top of my head. The sand oozed through my long, bronze toes as I wriggled to the rhythm of the undulating milk. The sun, like a yellow mask, began its spectacular descent behind my back. Exotic birds flapped their wings, then flew across the orange sky as it turned blood red....
If the desert was a lover, I was ready for a passionate affair!
But my elation soon drained away as I read more of the strange demands from the aunt. Would there really be three million dollars waiting for me at the end of the journey? Or was it just an elaborate scam, a come-on with some inscrutable motive?
But curiosity, my sense of adventure, and greed won out. I decided to quit my waitressing job and depart for China but keep my three-hundred-square-foot studio. I'd always felt different—the bright dot of brilliant red among a vast expanse of green. An earth-shattering lion's roar amidst the mundane drones of everyday life.
After all, this was a once-in-a-thousand-incarnations chance.
I told myself that if I didn't come back alive from the Silk Road, So. Be. It. At least I'd die in a romantic place—not as a back-straining, leg-numbing waitress; a stomach-rumbling, mind-constipating novelist-to-be; or a bed-warming, albeit not-childbearing, mistress.
I exclaimed, "I'd rather die a goddess of adventure than a waitress of no venture!"
Then the great Indian poet Tagore's line flashed in my mind: "Even though the sky had no trace of me, I knew I'd flown through it."
Yes, I was going!
There was only one person whom I needed to tell about my impending departure. Chris Adams, my creative writing professor turned lover.
In A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens declared, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." How true for me, too, in my two cities—Hong Kong and New York. The worst of times was that I lost both my parents in Hong Kong in a year—my father of liver cancer and my mother of a heart attack not long after. The best of times was that Chris Adams, then my professor of creative writing at New York University, felt so sorry for what had happened that he let me graduate even though I hadn't quite finished my novel, a requirement for the MFA degree. Not only that, his contact with a restaurant owner helped me get my waitressing job at Shun Lee Palace.
This had all happened a year ago, in 1995.
With my twenty-five-thousand-dollar income, I was able to rent a tiny, rent-controlled studio three blocks from work for five hundred a month, and I settled in my beloved city, the Big Apple. Feeling I had to repay my professor's kindness, one day while his wife and kid were visiting her in-laws out of town, I went to his apartment, then straight to his bed.
Of course, affairs don't just start on one person's initiation. As the Chinese say: "You can't press down the cow's head if it doesn't want to drink." Chris Adams and I had been flirting since the first day I took his creative writing course. Toward the end of each class, he'd ask a student to read aloud a passage from the classics—Macbeth, Paradise Lost, The Canterbury Tales, For Whom the Bell Tolls. However, when he'd pick me to read, it was always something like Lady Chatterley's Lover, The Scarlet Letter, Anna Karenina, or Madame Bovary. The message was quite obvious. The result was I'd finally become the woman who, though not his wife, shared the wifely duty of warming his bed, and—true to his class—in all sorts of creative ways.
Excerpted from Song of the Silk Road by Mingmei Yip Copyright © 2011 by Mingmei Yip. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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