Maybe True, Mostly Metaphor Part XII
Have you ever felt threatened by the entire world around you, reader? I’m not talking about a specific, short term threat to your life—like being chased by a lion through the African Savannah. No, I mean in a more general, foreboding sense. The lurching feeling in your stomach that creeps up the back of your throat with the coppery taste of tension. Knowing you don’t belong, but in the most extreme sense. I know what being a stranger in a new town feels like, but this wasn’t it. This was its darker, existential cousin. Being in Yanbian was different from simply traveling somewhere new. The excitement one would normally feel was instead replaced with dread.
Like…the first day of American High School. Yeah, that’s the closest analogy I can think of.
I spent my first morning in Yanbian not in the city at all actually. I was panting, catching my breath in the basket of the Candlewind. I fled from the screaming woman and her son, nervous of what attention she was going to bring about. I ran all the way back down the road I had come, and peeled off into the trees where my vehicle was hidden. My lungs were bursting and my knees were aching from the uneven ground by the time I climbed back inside.
My home was well hidden, if I say so myself. The patchwork canopy that Sondra had sewn up was tightly folded and packed away to avoid any tears. I had folded it in a way that one edge of the fabric was easily accessible so I could pull it over the basket as a sort of roof for my abode without having to unfold the entire thing. The metal framework that Moog and I had repaired still held strong.
Feeling safe, I took a moment to catch my breath and think.
Maybe the woman’s reaction was a one off? Perhaps she was just scared from seeing an unfamiliar face in such a remote part of the world? Maybe she was worried about her son and reacted in an extreme way, like a bear aggressively protecting her cub? I shouldn’t base the entire behavior of a city on one woman. Besides, I’m sure I didn’t look very friendly and approachable, having spent who knows how much time traveling across the Atlantic with minimal hygiene habits. I probably made the grimiest of homeless vagabonds look like the CEO of an international finance firm. Or, at least the owner of a new wave coffee shop.
I looked at my food stores and fuel. I couldn’t go much further without a re-supply. Besides, where would I go? What were my options other than Yanbian? As startling as my first contact in this border town had been, going the opposite direction would take me right into North Korea. Talk about a cold welcome. I wasn’t a decision at all, really.
It was just one lady, I convinced myself. Yanbian can’t be that dangerous. I’m sure if I cleaned up and came back to the town, I’d be met with a much friendlier reception. Or, better yet, no reception at all—good or bad. I could just slip into town, resupply, and perhaps find a route to the nearest major city where I could find a way to research my next steps. A place with English weather charts, maybe, where I could compare my notes and see where my goal may have drifted to. Maybe I could even figure out why I had flown so far off course, going west instead of south when I left the United States. Better yet, maybe I could find a place with internet so I could both research and contact Moog and Sondra. Maybe they would have ideas.
I was getting ahead of myself, though. My immediate steps were to clean up, go into town, resupply, and find the nearest major city.
I decided to spend my first day tidying up. I wandered a little ways down to a nearby river to wash myself as best I could. After vigorously scrubbing the dirt and sweat off my clothes, I hung them on a branch to dry while I bathed. The water was frigid and I wondered where the water flowed from.
That’s when I heard a rustling up river. I paused mid-scrub. An animal? Or something else?
Without any other form of cover or concealment, I lowered myself as deep into the water as I could. I felt like a crocodile with the frigid, gentle current up to my nose now. Except I quickly realized I was much, much more helpless. I wasn’t a lurking crocodile. I was a sitting duck.
The rustling continued for a few more seconds and I even heard a branch snap. I had the sense of something moving frantically, quickly, but trying to minimize its footprint in the process. Not an animal in full stampede, but maybe something running away, darting to and fro.
I still couldn’t directly see anything as I tried to peer upstream into the foliage. Then, out of the dense green and brown shadows, something plunged into the water too fast for me to comprehend what it might be. It completely submerged and didn’t come back up until it was on the other side of the river. Then it…wait no, two its…lunged back out of the water on the opposite shore. I saw legs and hands. One hand was red with blood—a large gash along the arm. People. Wounded people. Then they were off again through the trees and away from me.
Did I just watch…
Time to finish up. Quickly. If those people were doing what I thought they were doing, then this was not a good spot for me to be sitting naked. I climbed out, dried off as best I could, and barely had my shirt back on as I stumbled through the forest back to the Candlewind.
I spent the rest of the day hiding in the basket. I was a fair distance away from the river. And I didn’t think it was The River—as in the border between China and North Korea. It seemed too small. Maybe a tributary? Regardless, I was convinced that North Korean troops would be thrashing their way through the forest looking for…whoever it was that I saw back there.
When I first got back, I packed up everything I didn’t immediately need and stowed it all as concealed as possible in the basket’s many hidden compartments. Then, I took some fallen branches and tried to erect some sort of camouflage to hide the basket, propping larger tree limbs up against the metal frame so it took the shape of an A frame but broke up the straight lines of the basket’s structure. Hopefully a passerby wouldn’t look too closely and just see some fallen limbs that had landed at an odd, vertical angle.
After that, I huddled inside, too scared to even breathe too heavily.
That settled any doubt. I definitely wasn’t heading east. Yanbian it was. Screaming woman or not.
As the sky got darker and the air cooled, fatigue pushed away my fears, flooding my limbs and mind as I drifted into a dreamless half-sleep.
That’s a lie. It wasn’t quite dreamless. Only one image filled my head that night. A person, free of any distinguishing marks, completely in shadow except for an arm—sticky and covered in red—racing through the forest.
Have you ever felt threatened by the entire world around you, reader?
I woke the next morning as the first tendrils of light peeked their way through the trees. No surprise ambushes. No angry soldiers startling me awake at gunpoint, marching me to some dangerous unknown.
My stomach growled.
Well, if they were going to find me, they would have by now. Time to head into town.
Day two in Yanbian was much less eventful. I walked down that quiet road to civilization without seeing a soul until I was well past the giant stone marker where I had encountered the woman.
As I approached the cluster of buildings, humanity finally started to make itself known. I saw one face, two, three. Some were lounging on the street, smoking. Some were elbow deep in motor oil and grease, working on scooters and motorcycles outside of tiny, worn down garages. Others were simply going about their day. All of them stopped what they were doing to stare at me, but no one dared to interact. They all seemed surprised, but not endangered. And no one screamed.
I made my way down several blocks, unsure of what exactly I was looking for. My stomach growled again. Something to eat, then. After walking a little ways further into what seemed like the town proper, I looked down a narrow alleyway off the sidewalk. It looked to be full of small, hole in the wall bars. Outside of one, there was a small, ragged wooded board. It took me a second to realize what was written on it. Scrawled in faded chalk were some ill-shaped English letters that said, “Wify.”
Wify? Wifi? Internet!
I stepped into the alley way, walked up to the little shack—really it was nothing more than a fifteen by thirty foot space cut into the side of the building. A handful of cheap chairs and a counter. Behind the counter, an old man (unbelievably old) hobbled up from a small back room. Looking past him, I saw a small mattress with a tiny television propped up on a plastic box in that second space.
“Knee how,” he coughed and snorted, “Knee yow pee joe ma?”
I didn’t have a clue what he was saying, but I was too tired to care so I just nodded and gave a him a weak smile.
He didn’t leave. Instead, he studied me with wrinkled eyes from behind a pair of giant eyeglasses that were half the size of his head, He smiled and I realized I could count the number of teeth I saw with one hand, “knee maigwhoaren ma?”
The rapid fire syllables and strange sounds made me dizzy. Just trying to keep up with it was difficult, let alone making a guess or attempt to match the words to any meaning I could understand.
“hmm…knee hun lay maigwhoaren. Ah, knee hun lay,” he nodded his head and reached across the bar to pat my shoulder. Shuffling behind the bar, he pulled out two bottles of beer. He then called over his shoulder to the back room with the mattress, “Ma, liangwan tang! Huh hong cha!”
Opening the bottles, he handed one to me, “peejoe,” and grunted.
So, peejoe was “beer”. Or maybe it was, “here you go” or “cheers” or “that’ll be five dollars. If you don’t pay up I’ll stuff you in that back room and have some friends smuggle you across the border.”
Or, maybe it just meant beer.
As he took a swig out of his bottle, a tiny woman—somehow even older than the man—shuffled out from the room with the mattress. That room was already barely big enough to house the tiny mattress and tv, where could she have come from? She was so small, though, that she must have been sitting, curled up behind the wall.
With hands shaking from old age and exertion, she held a teapot with two cups.
The man smiled again at me and, for every visible tooth in his mouth, the world felt a little less threatening.
That is to say, the world still felt pretty threatening, but it was slightly—just slightly—less threatening than yesterday.
The old lady smiled at me as she poured the tea, revealing no teeth at all.
After a respectful breath of silence, I made an attempt,
“Um,” I pointed at the sign outside, “wi-fi?”
The man furrowed his brow in confusion. The old lady’s face was so withered and wrinkled that I couldn’t make out a facial expression at all.
I pulled out my phone, battery long dead, though I had the charger stowed in my small day bag.
Pointing to the small device, I repeated, “wi-fi?”
At the sight of the phone, the man smiled and nodded, “wifi!” Which he followed up with a chuckle.
“Wifi!” The man continued to grin, and then took a sip of his beer.
“Yes! Wifi! I’m looking for wifi, like your sign says.”
“Wifi!” Slowly, but in old man fashion, he threw his arms in faux triumph, “wifi!”
“Yeah…that’s what I’m saying, wifi.”
“Wifi,” he nodded, a little less enthusiastically now.
“You…know what wifi is, right?” I asked, mostly to myself…I half guessed at what he would respond with.
“Wifi!” Another swig of beer.
Yep. I sighed and put my phone back. Whatever he meant by putting “wi-fy” on his sign, I doubted he had any idea what it meant.
He finished his bottle and turned to toss it in a bin while saying to himself, “wifi,” with a nod.
Ok, maybe not progress yet. Oh well. At least I was still on the right side of the border.
At that thought, my stomach growled again and I remembered that, despite having a beer and cup of tea at my disposal, I still hadn’t found anything I was actually looking for. I shrugged.
At least the beer was good.
The next day, I came back to that little bar. After all, the old man and his wife were the only people this side of the hemisphere who had smiled and talked to me so far. Sure, there wasn’t a single comprehended word between us, but still.
Today, he brought me a bowl of soup before the beer. A few dumplings drifted around in the broth. It both smelled and tasted delicious. The old lady was in the back room, sitting on the mattress and watching the little television.
This little alley shop was becoming a quiet respite from the strangeness outside. I decided it might serve well as a kind of home base for my wanderings around the town. After the meal, I’d go exploring for a little bit before coming back here in the evening for another meal.
The shop wasn’t crowded, but it was so small that it only took five or six patrons to fill the little space. As I sat there with my soup, a few locals stopped in—grabbing a quick plate of something, shooting the breeze with the old man and leaving all while trying their best not to notice me. Or at least, trying not to let me notice them noticing me. They would steal a few quick glances and stares while I ate and drank. Some of the older men would ignore any sense of hiding and just openly stare at me. Younger people, though would be more cautious. I also noticed that not everyone who walked in was speaking Mandarin. As little as I understood of the language, there was a noticeable difference in the way the most of the people spoke and sounded compared to how the old man spoke to me. It had to be Korean.
About halfway through my bowl of soup, another type of person walked in. A young woman. And not a local. The old man gave the broadest of smiles when she walked in. Taking a seat next to me, she said to the man, “Suh guh bout zuh huh ebay cha,” he nodded and she’d finish with a “xie xie.” Not that I was anything close to an expert, but she spoke with such ease she must have been fluent.
She saw me and gave a polite nod with the slightest of smiles before turning away. There was a sense of kindness and soft confidence to her voice that I hadn’t heard in anyone else, regardless of language. And her eyes spoke of something deep and knowing—equally as kind as her speech, but with a touch of knowledge that hinted at sympathy.
Wait…I forgot to smile back! What did my face look like when she smiled and looked at me? Was I staring? Was my mouth open?
I can’t write about love, reader. I just can’t. Trust me, I’ve tried. I’ve re-written this part of the story over and over again a thousand times trying to perfectly capture how I felt but it just doesn’t come through. I’m not a poet. I’m no Baudelaire waxing long about his paid lovers or even Hemingway concisely capturing in vivid words his true love for…alcohol.
I’m no good at capturing romantic feelings and human emotions of affection. Authors write what they know, and I’m not romantic enough to even fully understand how I felt that day, let alone put it into words.
What I do know, however, is the sense of wonder and excitement at the unknown that accompanies every new story…and every new person I meet. So that is what I write about, and reader, when I first saw this woman—saw her eyes and heard her speak, I was downright captivated by wonder and excitement of the unknown. Sure, I enjoy meeting anyone new. But this was different.
When I met Alice, I saw a wild, adventurous, brave-hearted partner in crime.
In Moog, I saw family. Hyper-focused in his loyalty his loved ones and his dreams.
In Sondra, I saw a peer who balanced a head full of books and wonder with down to earth street smarts, reason, and style.
This woman, though. She was entirely different. I was enthralled in a way that no one else had managed. To the core of my being I was captivated. Who was she? I had to know. What was she doing here?
What was her story?
What was she like?
My mind flooded with thoughts and questions but not a single word escaped my mouth. Like the locals who had stared in unexpected surprise at me yesterday, so I stared at her with equal curiosity.
The old man came back with a small plate of dumplings and a cup of tea. The woman had a small book with her and she read while eating and drinking in silence. She kept to herself, reading with the book in her lap. She finished her meal then promptly left—disappearing down the alley and onto the main street.
As soon as she left, my mind was made up.
I’d be coming back again tomorrow.
She came back the next day. And the day after that. Each time, I was there with my little bowl of soup. Each time she’d order the same thing with that soft, perfect voice—four dumplings with a cup of tea—and read her book silently. I felt compelled to talk to her, but I had spent so many days in my own head with no one to communicate with that I didn’t remember how. Besides, why did I assume she knew English? Because she looked Caucasian? What if she was German or French or any number of non-English speaking countries?
Five days went by like this in silence. One the sixth day, I finally tried something.
She walked in just as expected and took her normal seat. As the man walked up, however, I jumped in.
“uh…see guh bout zuh…and…cha, xie xie”
…Why. Why did I think I could order in Mandarin for her?
The man looked at me with an expressionless face, “knee yow shenme? Knee yow boutzi huh—”
I could feel the dizzying headache coming on as I prepared for the barrage of foreign words, but the young woman jumped in and saved me, giving her food order with perfect ease. Each word in her voice was a soothing balm for my hurting mind…and ego. No headache when she spoke, just poetry.
Embarrassed, I turned back to my bowl of soup. I felt my face flush and I couldn’t bear to look at her. Was I always this out of control of myself? I tried to look uninterested, as though nothing had happened. I focused hard on my bowl, studiously examining the little swirls of fat and oil coalescing around the dumplings.
Then I heard her speak. In English this time,
“They don’t get a lot of Americans in these parts.”
The first time I saw her, I was too surprised to return a smile. This time, it took me an eternity to remember even how to speak.
“Hm..yeah. Uh, yeah, seems so.” I forced myself to look up at her and my face involuntarily broke into a sheepish smile. I felt like Moog when he first saw Sondra.
“Where are you from?” Her voice lilted through my mind and melted my heart, “Are you visiting long?”
“Yeah, just visiting. I’ve been on the road for a little while actually. Actually, not on the road, I guess, but, ah. Balloons.”
She didn’t smile, but instead looked thoughtful, almost concerned, “Hmm.”
I tried to keep the conversation going, “I’ve been all around the US. Omaha and Seattle most recently and, I don’t know, just ended up here.” I shrugged, “Are you from the States? Ever been to Seattle?”
Her concern turned to a frown. I was doing something wrong. What was it? Aside from everything.
She turned her face away slightly, “Hmm, no. No, I’ve never been. I’m here as a student in Yanji, just north of here,” she looked back towards me with a smile on her face. A fake smile.
A fake smile. The kind of polite smile you put on when you want to get away.
“Well, good to meet you, but I should be going.” Her dumplings had only just arrived but she was already standing and turning to go.
“Wait, I..ah,” but she was already gone. What did I do wrong?
I came back the next day, but she never showed up.
The following morning, I started to feel out of place. I was also tired of having dumpling soup after eight days straight. I didn’t know how to order anything else, though.
Just one more day, I decided. I don’t know why. Clearly she wasn’t coming back.
On the ninth and final day, someone was there before me. A man this time. He was unremarkable except for the fact that, like the woman, he also did not look like a local. He was drinking tea in silence. His face looked sad and possibly even pained. As though he had nowhere to go, but didn’t want to be here.
It seemed rather strange to find two foreigners this far out. I should have tried to talk to him, but decided to let him be. After all, I was still rather down after my failed encounter with the woman.
Alright, well, it was a nice week, I thought to myself, but I needed to get back on track. I didn’t find much in town by way of knowledge or internet or anything. This was less a town and more a roadside neighborhood. The woman, however, mentioned Yanji north of here. If she was a student there, that meant a school. I wondered how far north that was. Was it still within the “Yanbian Autonomous Prefecture” as the giant stone down the road had declared this place? I still didn’t know the proper name for “this place” or if it even had one.
I made a mental map. The Candlewind was in the forest east and north of here. I walked west and found a road that ran north to south. I followed it south and found this town. If I followed it north, past the point in the forest where my home was hidden, maybe Yanji wouldn’t be too far ahead.
The woman may have also entered my decision-making, reader, but I refuse to publicly admit that I helplessly followed a woman I had only barely met to a strange town in an even stranger country on the off chance that I might bump into her again…based on an off-hand comment from aforementioned woman. I’m not that irrational. At least, I don’t admit to being that irrational.
She didn’t seem bothered until I mentioned coming here from Seattle and Omaha.
I sighed. Oh well. No sense dwelling on it.
I finished my soup, paid, and left with slumped shoulders. Stepping into the alleyway, I paused to look around. This little town in this little corner of the world. Hard to think that it felt so threatening just a week ago.
The last thing I remember was a searing pain in my neck.
A coarse, black fabric being pulled tight over my face.
The sound of a car trunk slamming closed.
And the barest flash of the person who did it. Not a face but—right as the black hood came down—out of the corner of my vision, an arm with a fresh, jagged looking scar.
Check back in two more weeks for more (assuming this big, big world hasn’t ended by then).