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THE NINE FOLD HEAVEN
By Mingmei Yip
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2013 Mingmei Yip
All rights reserved.
My Fate on a Piece of Paper
After I decided to go back to Shanghai where I'd run away from, I planned to do something that I'd never done before: go to a Buddhist temple to pray for my safe trip to Shanghai and an equally safe one back. Although I was not a superstitious person, I needed to rest my mind and pacify my heart. After all, I was a fugitive from two gangs and a criminal in the eyes of the law.
However, I knew well these matters would not be decided by my praying, no matter how sincere or urgent, but my dark karma—which so far was as bad as a rotten apple.
The Pure Light Temple was remotely situated in Diamond Hill on the Kowloon peninsula. I chose this small temple so as to minimize my chance of being recognized. However, I doubted any monks or nuns read gossip news—even in the unlikely event that there would be any Shanghai gossip in Hong Kong newspapers.
The tanned and wrinkled rickshaw puller abruptly stopped at a small gate, inside of which was a muddy path. "Miss, you have to walk fifteen minutes to go to the temple."
"Why can't you just take me there?"
He pointed a knotty finger to the scorching sun above. "Miss, the path is filled with holes. You want me to have a heat stroke, set my rickshaw on fire, and ruin my business so my family will starve?"
There was no way to argue with this. "All right," I said, paid him generously to soothe my guilt, then got off.
Of course, I could have paid him a lot more to carry me. But I feared him thinking I was rich. Though I had enough money, I wasn't sure I had enough good karma. That's why I had come to the temple, to generate more.
So I began a tortuous walk with the hot sun beating down on my head to keep me company. I passed stores selling all sorts of necessities such as dried plums, bags of sugar, salt, tinned biscuits, bottles of sauces: chili, black bean, XO, and more. Also on display were household utensils, such as thermos bottles, electric fans, and blankets. Interspersed were a clothing store, a shoe repair store, a barber shop, and a couple of street stalls selling such delicacies as pig's ears and cow's intestines in bubbling dark sauce, filling the air with pungent, yet appetizing, aromas. On benches, a few women were napping as small children dutifully fanned their mothers', or grandmothers', semi-exposed, protuberant bellies.
Feeling wilted by the sun, I stepped into a small food store and paid a few cents for a soda. When I was handed the drink, the bottle was as warm as the overbearing sun.
I protested to the vendor, a fortyish, droop-shouldered man. "It's not cold."
"But you only paid three cents."
"One more cent"—he pointed to a refrigerator—"cold soda in here."
"All right." I smiled and paid him the extra cent.
Downing my cold drink and feeling much relieved from the physical and mental heat, I asked, adopting a casual tone, "You know the Pure Light Temple?"
He cast me a curious glance. "Why would a young girl like you want to go there? It's nothing but superstition."
"Aren't all us Chinese superstitious?" I pointed to the jade pendant hanging from his scrawny neck.
He chuckled. "You're right, miss. This will protect me from being scared."
"What are you scared of?"
"A lot of things: rich people, poor people, gangsters, ghosts, pretty women."
This time it was I who chuckled. "Why pretty women? I think all men love them."
"Because they are always making trouble. Haven't you heard about skeleton women?"
My heart skipped a beat. That was what people called me in Shanghai, behind my back, of course, but also in the gossip columns. And it was not something pretty. Because women like me, considered beautiful, talented, and extremely scheming, could turn men—as well as women—into skeletons under our touch, though it was as light as a petal and as tender as silk.
I didn't want to talk about this, so I gulped my soda, then pointed to his jade. "Does it work?"
"Of course. Now I have no fear, even talking to a pretty woman like you." He paused and looked curiously at me. "Where are you from? Why visit our run-down temple?"
Rather than answer these questions, I decided, as I finished my soda, that it was time to conclude our conversation.
"Oh, just passing by and curious to take a look. Thanks for the cold soda. Good-bye."
He called to my back. "Come back soon, miss. Superstitious or not, pretty girls are always welcome here!"
Fifteen minutes later, I reached the small, red-roofed temple. As I stepped across the threshold, the faint fragrance of incense snaked its way into my nostrils. Then I noticed an altar with a gilded Buddha and a white ceramic Guan Yin statue. In front of the figures had been placed the usual offerings of flowers in vases and fruit in bowls. Incense rose from the openings in a bronze burner, curling into question marks, or so they looked to me. Except me, there were no other people in the temple, at least not that I could see.
At the foot in front of the altar were three cushions for the faithful to kneel and pray. I took an incense stick from the burner, held it in both hands, and made wishes to the Buddha and Guan Yin—that my trip back to Shanghai would be safe and that I'd find Jinying and that our son, Jinjin, would somehow be alive. I prayed for the enlightened ones' generous protection so that I would complete this dangerous trip of mine without losing even one strand of hair. And that heaven would decide to smile down at me and let me return with my son and his father.
Was it too much to ask? Was I too greedy?
When I finished praying, a gaunt, sunken-faced, fiftyish man in a gray monk's robe emerged from a hidden door.
He didn't look like a monk since he had his full head of tea-and-milk hair, but I nevertheless bowed and said respectfully, "Master, I hope I am not disturbing the tranquility of the temple."
He smiled, revealing some long teeth. "Oh, not at all, miss. This temple has known many with troubled minds."
Was trouble written on my forehead like a newspaper headline?
Instinctively, I faked my most cheerful smile. "But I'm not troubled. I just happened to pass by and decided to come in to pay my respects to the Buddha. I'm sure you've heard the saying, 'Whenever you arrive in a new country, follow its customs; whenever you enter a temple, make offerings to the gods'?"
"The offering to the gods" is, of course, a donation, with cash, checks, jewelry, or even land, to be humbly offered and respectfully—but enthusiastically—accepted.
"Ha-ha! Of course I know this saying. Anyway, good for you. I don't mean you particularly, but all us sentient beings swimming in the sea of suffering. We are all troubled. No one can escape this karmic cycle until we attain enlightenment. That's why we all need temples and incense."
And donations. I silently finished his sentence.
He paused to give me a once-over. "So, do you want your fortune read?"
"Oh, you didn't know that our temple also provides this service? Are you ready?"
Was I ready? Not if he would predict something bad—I had troubles enough already. I remembered what the sage Laozi said, "When things reach their peak, there is no other way to go but down." I believed my life had already hit bottom, so according to the same theory, I hoped it meant that I was about to begin my ascent.
But he seemed to read my mind, saying, "Don't worry, miss, as they say, 'If you haven't done any wrong, you needn't fear even knocks on your door in the middle of the night.' "
Damn, but I had done wrong. In fact, my whole life in Shanghai was wrongdoing. They were not entirely my fault, yet the list of my offenses was long: I'd alerted Big Brother Wang to send his gang members to assassinate Master Lung. Not only did I have sex with Lung, I'd made love to his son, Jinying, and also his most trusted bodyguard, Gao. I'd caused my singing and knife-throwing show partner, the magician Shadow, to lose part of her little finger, just to keep her from stealing the limelight—and Master Lung—from me. As her revenge against me, she'd also ruined our much publicized show the "Great Escape" by nearly drowning in the water tank then disappearing from my life.
Anyway, I was very bad. I knew I was referred to as a "skeleton woman," a femme fatale who could bring anyone to ruin with the blink of a mascaraed eye.
The fortune-teller's voice interrupted my reverie. "Miss, please have a seat."
He signaled me to sit down by a table next to the altar, then sat down across from me.
He picked up a cylindrical bamboo holder and put it in my hand. "Miss, shake it until a stick falls out."
"What about if it's more than one?"
"Believe me, that won't happen."
I did and miraculously, though I shook as hard as I could, only one stick fell out onto the table as if it obeyed the man's bidding.
The man picked it up. "All right, it's number eighteen." Then he shifted through a pile of yellow papers, lifted one out, and began to read silently. "Hmm ... it's a strange reading, not the worst, not the best. But it's not neutral either."
"What does that mean?"
"You can read it yourself," he said, handing me the yellow slip with characters printed in red.
The beauty crosses the sea to the immortal's realm. Golden lights shine at the end of her journey. In the wind and clouds, dragon and tigers advance To the gathering of heroes and sages at Jasmine Lake. Then she leaves like a cicada shedding its shell. Heaven's mystery should be kept to oneself, not revealed.
After the main text, there were three smaller lines below:
Let the wind steer your boat, Move forward. Have no fear.
After I finished reading, I said, "But I don't understand."
The man replied, "Since it's heaven's secret not to be revealed, I'm afraid I can't interpret this for you."
I protested. "But that's your job!"
"Some jobs are better left undone."
"What a disappointment." I should have said, "What nonsense!"
"There are always disappointments on one's path, miss. You better get used to it while you're still young. Anyway, go home and read it over, and you'll be able to understand your situation. Pay attention to 'she leaves like a cicada shedding its shell' and also 'golden lights shine at the end of her journey.' These are all good predictions. Have you heard the saying, 'A hidden dragon does not act'?"
I nodded, though I was not completely sure what it meant.
He went on. "When a person is not ready, she should be like the dragon who does not act. Not until the right moment arrives, then she'll soar to the nine fold heaven, looking down on the ordinary as she enjoys her long-awaited success and glory."
He studied me. "Miss, you must hide now like the hidden dragon, but one day you will be the dragon that soars to the nine fold heaven."
"Thank you, master." I nodded, savoring his every word.
"Remember, miss, heaven only advises, you must take your fate in your own hands. That's all I can say about your fortune."
He scrutinized me for seconds. "But I can give you some personal advice if you like."
He studied me carefully, then spoke as if reciting a riddle. "You are beautiful. For some that brings good luck, for others, tragedy. When beauty is on your side, even the moon and stars lose their brilliance. But someday it will leave you. Be careful not to end up with a hard heart and an unfeeling body. Because if that happens, even if good fortune approaches you, it will give you no happiness.
"Remember, the greatest fortune is not beauty, but family. That's where you can always return." He thought for a while, then recited something I recognized was from the sage Laozi's Classic of the Way and Virtue:
The ten thousand things arise and return to their origin. Returning to the origin is called tranquility. Tranquility is recovering your original nature. Recovering your original nature is called the unchanging. Knowing the unchanging is called enlightenment. To not know the unchanging is calamity.
When finished, he added, "Miss, now when you have your beauty, don't give all your attention to it and neglect other things. Look for the unchanging in your life—find your root and you will find tranquility, even happiness, that's all I can say."
An abandoned orphan, I had no root that I could trace. Nor tranquility now that I was on the run from two gangs!
But I said, trying my best to sound calm, "Master, but the Book of Changes says that everything changes."
He cast me a curious glance. "Yes, but we're not talking about this impermanent world, but the one beyond, the true, original one."
"Oh ... that makes sense," I responded, although I actually had no idea what he meant.
It was time to leave. Part of my spy training was never to stay in one place for too long, no matter how much I found it appealing.
"Master, how much do I owe you?"
He waved a jade-ringed hand. "Let's not talk about money today. This is a very unusual encounter, so the temple won't charge you. Because if money is involved, the magic will be gone."
What sort of magic, I wondered. I hoped not like my magician friend Shadow's staged version.
The master spoke again. "Find your root. Then magic will follow."
"I will." I thanked him again and took my leave.
During my way back on the crude, muddy path, I tried to decipher the enigmatic poem on the slip and what it had to do with the diviner's portentous advice. It had taken all I could summon in myself to become the talented, charming, and mysterious singer, Camilla the Heavenly Songbird. What would be left without my beauty? It was my weapon against men and their power. But I also knew that time does not wait for anyone, and one day my beauty would be completely gone like a gambler's money at the roulette table.
A Plunging Toddler
When I arrived back at the main road, I heard a commotion. I hurried across the street to where a small group of people stood, looking upward while emitting heated comments in the hot air. Curious, I squeezed my way to the front and looked.
On the second floor of a dilapidated building, a toddler was standing by a wide-open window and looking down on the street, his eyes open as wide as the window where tears rolled down his cheeks.
His mouth opened to emit hysterical screams, "Mama! Mama! Mama! I want my mama! Mama!"
Someone in the crowd lamented. "Ah ... where's his mother? So heartless to leave her child like this all by himself!"
A plump woman exclaimed, "Oh, yes, you have no idea how neglectful some mothers are! I heard that one even locked her child in a closet so she could play mahjong with her friends. When she came home, he was swimming in his own foam and vomit!"
Another woman added, "Yes, mothers like this might as well give birth to a piece of roasted pork to eat! At least she'd get some nutrition out of it!"
The small crowd burst into nervous laughter. But no one did anything to help. Anyway, what could they do since no one knew who or where the mother was? Even if someone dashed up to the floor where the toddler lived, no one would come and open the door. Even if the rescuer could break open the apartment door, it might be worse. What about if the toddler would be startled by the sound and jump?
I looked at the little boy and felt pain wringing my heart. What if this toddler were my baby, Jinjin, neglected, scared, and about to jump to his ... to turn from a handsome baby to bleeding flesh and shattered bones? Just then the baby, crying and feet wobbling, began to totter....
It was as if my little Jinjin were calling "Mama! Mama!" In a moment I had pushed aside the nattering onlookers and was standing under the window. I rooted myself firmly on the ground and reached up. In a split second, I felt a heavy object drop into my grasp, seeming to almost pull my arms from their sockets. Searing pain spread from my shoulders to my chest, and I fainted amidst cries and horrified exclamations....
Someone must have called an ambulance because I awoke to find myself in a medicinal-smelling hospital room. A fortyish nurse's round face hovered over mine.
"Good, you're finally awake."
"Where am I?" I looked around. It was a relatively small room with four beds. Two were empty and the one across from me was taken by a wrinkled old woman, asleep and snoring loudly.
"Kwong Wah Hospital in Waterloo Road."
"How's the baby?" I asked, while suddenly feeling confused. What baby did I refer to? Was it my son, Jinjin? No, now I remembered. It was the one who'd been crying and tottering on the second floor of an apartment building.
"He's doing fine, no bones broken, just some minor scratches. A miracle baby."
"I'm glad to hear that. How lucky!"
"He was amazingly lucky that you happened to be standing there. You're lucky, too, that your shoulders aren't dislocated. Then you would have had them in slings for months."
She leaned closer to my face. "Miss, you are very brave."
I chuckled inside. So in a mere week I'd turned from an emotionless, murderous spy into a courageous and compassionate baby rescuer.
Excerpted from THE NINE FOLD HEAVEN by Mingmei Yip. Copyright © 2013 by Mingmei Yip. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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