One of the great thing about teaching kids in Taiwan is that so many of them turn out brilliant. Their keen ability to study and remember (gained during their years of hard work learning to read and write their native language Chinese) now and again results in great things--especially when a student decides to take up the pen for more than just the usual dull homework.
The following story by my student Claire Fan-Chiang (范姜詠欣) is a great example of a serious young creative mind in action. Claire is in junior high school in Taipei. She’s never lived or studied in an English-speaking country. Nonetheless, she’s got a great knack for narrative in English, and pulls of some really fine passages. Claire’s a pretty serious artist too. Her own illustration appears below.
IN THE REFLECTION IS THE DAUGHTER OF TIME
A battered green car sped over the muddy road, the rain thumping on its windows. Ingrid glanced down at the fuel gauge and furrowed her brows. The pointer was closing in on the ‘E’, but from what the GPS system showed she was still far from the campsite.
“Damn it,” she muttered.
What a mistake it had been to pass the gas station without fueling the car two hours ago. As she slowed down the car made a deep honking sound similar to a horn blowing through the wind.
The driving seemed endless. Three hours had passed, but she’d seen no landmark through the length of the journey. By now she seriously suspected that the GPS system had broken down. Cursing silently in her mind, she stopped by the road and dug out the map and compass. The compass told her she was driving east when she should have been driving north.
Night was falling, and she had no idea if she could reach the site in time. She was actually more worried about the fuel. It didn’t seem that it could last much longer. Since she had no choice but to head back, she turned the car keys in the ignition to restart the engine.
But the car would not react.
“Damn the bloody hell!”
She kicked hard against the floorboard, frustrated. Still, the car made no sound.
I’m stuck in the middle of the wild.
I’m stuck in the middle of the wild with bears lurking in the forest.
The thought shot a spasm of fear through her mind. Bears are strong and fierce, and her second-hand Toyota didn’t look stable enough to defend her from a bear. But if she got out of the car she would have nothing else to defend herself than the Swiss army blade in her pocket.
However, she was overwhelmed by fatigue, and after sitting there awhile sleep crept up on her before she had made a decision.
Ingrid’s eyes shot open, her olive green irises wide and alert. Her mind raced and her heart pounded. Slowly, she glanced out from the car windows. Outside stood a man, his face slightly illuminated by the snowy moonlight. Wrinkles were etched deep into his face, and he looked around sixty.
“Miss?” His voice was rather muffled, but she could still hear a thick accent in it. “You lost?”
Ingrid got a better image of him now: the man was wearing a hunting cap covering half his forehead; a red stubby nose shaped like a tomato sat between his rosy cheeks. He was rather plump, and his hair was pepper-and-salt. He carried a hunting rifle on his back.
Ingrid’s heart pounded so badly now she could feel it beating in her veins.
Should I trust him?
“Miss? Miss, you okay in there?” The rapping went on, harder and faster. Still, she made no answer.
“Miss? Miss?” The tone begun to change, worry filled it.
“Huh?” Ingrid faked a sleepy voice, as if she had just woken up. “What’d’ya say?”
“Thank God you’re all right! Are you lost?” The old man let out a chortle that sounded like the screech of a dying goat.
“Yeah, I mean, no, not really, you know—I just got tired and slipped off...heh heh. I’m not lost, really, just tired.” Ingrid laughed with some effort, trying to persuade the old man.
The old man laughed. “Plenty of people lose their way down here, missy. No need to be embarrassed. I guess you were trying to go to the campsite north, right?”
“Um…” Her cheeks burned red. “Well…”
“I’m retired. I usually lives by myself in my villa, hunting wild doves and smoking pipes; but my family visit me every vacation,” said the old man. “My villa is not far away from here, and if you don’t mind, why don’t you come and spend the night with me and my family?”
Ingrid blinked. Her instincts told her something was wrong: maybe it was the overt kindness of the man; maybe it was the invitation to spend the night at his villa. But exhaustion won over her instincts and her head nodded before she could stop herself.
The rest of what happened was a blur. All she remembered was that she packed up her things and walked after the old man for a long time. Just as she started to feel she could walk and sleep at the same time, they reached their destination.
As they approached, Ingrid could see the villa was filled with a warm yellow light and silhouettes of people moving inside. A thirst to get inside it as soon as possible burned inside Ingrid’s mind. The scent of porridge never smelt so amazing, and the warm air seem to be calling her into a paradise. The door swung open, and a boy with bright blue eyes and flaxen hair waved at her with enthusiasm, calling her name. Laughter like tinkling glass reached her ears, and her feet moved up the porch and in through the front door.
A woman named Chelsea with red flaming hair and a man named Edward greeted her. By the fire an old lady in a grey shawl smiled at her. A girl ran over, brown braids flying behind. They took her things upstairs, and Chelsea led her to the bathroom. Fifteen minutes later she was sitting in the tub, foam covering her body, all the aches from her cold nap having seeped out into the water.
Then she was led to the dining room, the scent of vanilla candles intoxicating. The silverware was well polished, and the mahogany table glowed. Vases held flowers of crimson, yellow and white, while the plates served all sorts of food. Steak tartare, boeuf bourguignon, cotoletta, and ossobuco; mounds of bread and desserts extended to the bottom of the table. The fragrance was killing her.
Chairs were pulled out and the family sat, motioning for Ingrid to join them.
Dinner was fabulous; the food was amazing, the kids charming, and the adults humorous. For a second Ingrid felt that she was part of the family, and she was even longing to stay.
When it was time for bed, Ingrid crawled under the blankets, all her luggage packed neatly under the bed. The pillow was extremely soft and comfortable—the best that she had slept on in her whole life. Her eyelids drooped and sleep engulfed her, whisking her into the land of dreams.
She had a sudden urge to go to the bathroom. The moonlight slanted through the windows and bathed the woods in peace. An owl was cooing somewhere deep in the tree branches, and a few stars sparkled, like tiny shards of glass.
Ingrid swung her legs out from the quilt-covered bed, the tips of her feet touching the cold ground. It was icy, like frost in autumn. She smiled at the thought of frost. She loved the silvery-grey splinters of frost.
She stood up, stretching and yawning, hearing her joints make a faint cracking sound. She went over to the lights and tried to turn them on.
Yet there was no reaction.
She pushed hard on the button, but it stayed stuck in place, too stubborn to budge. Her brows knit, her eyes narrowing into slits of green.
After a whole minute of the pressing-the-button game (in which Ingrid lost spectacularly against the small, black square of plastic) she went across the room and dug through her pack. The large yellow flashlight was hidden deep inside her bag, and when she switched it on, it gave a strong beam of light.
Pushing the door open, she entered the corridor. The faces in the oil paintings seemed stiff and grotesque, the echo of her footsteps hollow. The corridors twisted and turned, and she was soon lost. It felt like walking in a never-ending labyrinth; she would always come back to the same place she had left minutes ago. She had never expected bathrooms to be so hard to find.
Climbing up an icy marble staircase, the ebony banisters glowing, she came finally to a new landing. The painting next to the staircase portrayed a serene woman, her pale fingers curled around a scarlet apple. Ingrid stared at it, a feeling of familiarity nagging at the back of her mind.
A hiss startled her, like the steam breaking suddenly from the lid of a copper kettle. She turned to see a hallway extend behind her; patches of white moonlight shone while eerie shadows of indigo slanted off the snowy walls. She took a single slow step, the floor creaking below her feet. At the end of the hallway was a door.
The door was dark and well polished, sleek and shiny under the silver moonlight. A brass handle glowed, not a single spec of rust could be felt on it. She knocked softly, making a dull tapping sound. No one answered. Ingrid knocked some more, yet there was still no reply.
“Hello? Can I come in?” Ingrid frowned at her voice. Somehow, it was raspy and dry. She cleared her throat several times, waiting for anybody to answer. Half a minute passed and nothing happened.
“I’m coming in,” she called. Wrapping her fingers firmly round the handle, she swung the door open, only to see a large empty bed, windows gaping wide and the curtains blowing. The room was empty, a feeling of desolation curling out from it. Cobwebs draped lazily over the chest of drawers, and a thick layer of dust could be seen on the glass panes covering the bookshelves. The shelves themselves were locked firmly, and they rattled when she tugged them. It was like the sound of bones knocking against each other.
The closet, however, was open. She shone the light at it and saw several pieces of clothing inside. They’d been thrown or stuffed into it without care, a chaotic heap. Behind them and to the side was a mirror, also dust-covered and filthy. Ingrid stepped forwards, slowly and carefully, and wiped some of the dust off. Black smudges appeared on her rosy fingers and soft white palm, resembling soot on snow.
Reflected in the mirror, however, was a smiling figure, the color of olive and putty, a conglomeration of deep purple gashes held together with strands of crimson thread. The eyes were two empty pits black as coal, and a few white hairs stuck out awkwardly from its head.
Held in his hand was a long hunting rifle; his red nose twitched.