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May 20, 2024

The Twinning 8

By Barbara Rendall

Chapter Eight: Great Wisdom Hill

Halfway through the last week of twinning events, the days began to pass quickly for the Canadians. The pace of group activities picked up again. There were a few more places that Henry and the city officials insisted that the delegates had to visit. They were taken to a restaurant at a nearby lake for lunch, and afterwards shown an adjacent "luxury resort and spa" under construction. Perhaps they could stay there on their next visit to Yutian, suggested the young woman who was showing them around. And, she added, it would also make an excellent investment.

Another day, they were guests of honor at a traditional festival in the nearest Gu village. Gu people young and old, charming people with and without teeth, made a great fuss over the delegates to the point that it was almost embarrassing. They kept them dancing and singing and eating and drinking until late at night, and they made Sheldon an honorary Gu by forcing him to drink a large bowlful of their sweet yellow wine. The villagers were deeply impressed by the big foreigner who looked something like themselves, and they shrieked in amazement every time he tried out a few broken words of their dialect.

The last event on the schedule was their farewell from the City of Yutian, which promised to be a grand occasion. An outdoor banquet was to be held at the top of Great Wisdom Hill, in a place called Ten Thousand Stones Park. The civic officials who had greeted them on their arrival would be there again to bid them farewell, Henry said, and members of the local press were also coming to film the event and interview the Canadian visitors on their impressions of their twin city.

The delegates weren't very sanguine about the menu that would be offered, since they all still vividly remembered the "typical dishes" of the welcoming banquet. But someone pointed out that it would be easier to dispose of anything inedible in an outdoor setting. Henry frowned when he overheard this. "'The Banquet on the Hill,'" he informed them, "is an important tradition, based on the ancient history of Yutian."

Henry had finally reappeared to accompany them on their last engagements. Trish figured he must have completed his mysterious "private consultations" ahead of schedule. She had also noticed that his wrist was weighed down by a beautiful and complicated-looking new gold watch, and that he was sporting a pair of Gucci sunglasses. She suspected that both acquisitions were the fruit of those "consultations."

Henry went on: "A visiting emperor once asked to have a banquet on the flat place at the top of Great Wisdom Hill, which has a fine view of the temple rooftops and the river. There is now a special pavilion designated for this use. It is a great honor to be invited there," he assured them.

On the appointed day, to gain access to the pavilion and the honor, the delegates were given two choices: they could ride up the hill in a minibus, or they could ascend in the traditional way, by climbing through the temple grounds and then following an ancient pathway to the peak through Ten Thousand Stones Park.

"Damn," said Mike. "I was hoping the second option would be bearers. You know, with those chairs on bamboo poles, like in the old adventure movies?"

"Hahaha," replied Henry, accustomed to Mike's comments by now. "That would be much too feudal for these times, of course."

But in spite of such comments, Mike did seem uncharacteristically upbeat about going to the banquet. Trish had thought that after his outburst at the bar, and the lack of response to his charms from both Mei Li and herself, he might go his own way for the rest of the trip. He did disappear for a day or two. Tony, his roommate, said he was spending most of his time at the Australian coffee place, eating muffins and reading the International Herald Tribune. But now he was back with the group. Last night, he had enjoyed dancing with the girls at the Gu festival, and he hadn't been harassing Mei Li as much as before. Naturally he was totally ignoring Trish, but that was fine with her.

The late-afternoon humidity hung in the air like a suffocating curtain of gauze as the delegates assembled at five o'clock for the ascent to the banquet. Fortunately, after two weeks in Yutian, they had grown used to going around dripping with sweat, flapping at themselves with fans, and changing into dry clothes halfway through the day. Now the full group plus Henry and Mei Li, all of them having just emerged from deep air- conditioning, huddled in a small patch of shade near the entrance to the New Dynasty-Rits waiting for the bus to the banquet.

Sheldon, Jerome, Rudy and Trish had decided to walk up the hill in spite of the heat, because they wanted another look at the temple and liked the idea of following an ancient pathway. They were hoping the temperature would cool as the sun went lower. The bus would drop them at the temple gate and then continue to the top with the rest of the group. The banquet was scheduled for six-thirty, but there would be "traditional musical entertainment" beforehand, Henry promised them.

On the ride to the temple, Mike kept dithering out loud about whether to walk up or ride. Trish guessed that he was waiting to see what Mei Li was going to do -- evidently that fascination was still there. Amused, she watch him shifting restlessly in his seat and talking loudly to Sheldon about his knowledge of Buddhism, obviously hoping Mei Li would be impressed.

The humidity didn't bring out the best in any of them, thought Trish, but Mike looked especially dragged out. While the other men wore freshly donned sports shirts, he was wearing the same faded navy-blue t-shirt he'd worn all day, probably his last shred of clean clothing, she surmised. His graying ponytail hung thin and lank, as if some prankster had tied a drowned rat to the back of his neck.

Betty was looking at him too. "Really," she whispered to Trish, "someone ought to tell men who are beginning to go gray that a ponytail is not a good idea. It makes them look so desperate. And I can't imagine why he doesn't shave regularly."

"He thinks it makes him look irresistible," Trish replied. She couldn't help wondering what Mei Li thought of him. Most Chinese men were so neat and tidy-looking, she had observed, even in the awful heat.

Actually, she reflected, Will held up in the heat as well as a Chinese. He kept his hair quite short in the summer, and she liked the way that looked. She surveyed the men around her on the bus, and became more conscious of the fact that Will was really exceptionally good-looking, in a completely unselfconscious way. And just plain good, as well. He was sensitive and calm, kind and optimistic. She was coming to realize that she had been taking this for granted for a long time, and that it was really something rare and undervalued in a world of too many Mikes.

The bus pulled up to the main gate of Great Wisdom Temple, and as Trish, Jerome, Rudy and Sheldon got off, it became clear that Mei Li was staying on board. So Mike stayed put too, much to Trish's relief.

Mei Li handed the four of them bottles of water and reminded them to be at the pavilion on top of the hill before six-thirty.

"Sheldon knows the way. Keep to the path!" she called after them, like a stern young mother.

The bus pulled away, and Trish could see Mike already moving forward to take a seat closer to Mei Li. Sheldon was watching, too.

"That guy's up to something," he chuckled.

"You're telling me," Trish replied, rolling her eyes.

The temple courtyard, shaded by two tall cypress trees, was green and tranquil after the long grind up the hill on the chatter-filled bus.

"It should be nice up here late in the day," said Jerome, as they approached the first temple building. All the walls of the temple were a soft terracotta red that was tinged with gold in the late-afternoon light. "There's more shade, and we ought to be able to get a better feel for the atmosphere this time, going through on our own."

The courtyard was flanked by two small, square buildings with pointed roofs. Sheldon said they were the bell tower and the drum tower. Between them, on the steps of the main building, a monk tended a large bronze burner with smoking incense sticks set in sand. Sheldon strolled off to peer into the drum tower, and Rudy followed him.

"Rudy's branching out a bit lately, isn't he?" Trish commented to Jerome. "He's not clinging to you like when we first got here."

Jerome laughed. "I don't know about clinging. I think he just felt a little awkward with the others since he didn't know them well. But yesterday I hardly saw him. He spent a lot of time talking to Doug. He said he wanted to find out more about genetically engineered foods."

"Oh," Trish said thoughtfully, as they stepped inside a doorway that seemed to be the gate to the rest of the temple. Something had just occurred to her, and she felt a small prick of conscience. Four bigger-than-life statues of temple guardians stared down accusingly.

"I wonder ... . I hope Rudy's going his own way doesn't have anything to do with something I said in one of my columns. He's been steering clear of me, too, now that I think about it."

Jerome turned from examining the figure of a sword-wielding guard and peered at her quizzically. "Something you wrote? Trish, what have you done?" His blue eyes were alight with curiosity.

"Oh, well. You know me. Sometimes I get a little overly-whimsical in my column. I mean, I was just trying to be amusing ... "

"Trish." He raised his eyebrows at her. "I thought Howard was checking your columns before you sent them off."

"That didn't last long. I was always so far behind and in a hurry to send them off, and he didn't get any complaints, so I guess he forgot about that. Anyway, I just sort of made an observation in the column before last -- it must have appeared a day or so ago -- about how you and Rudy were always going off on your expeditions together, you know, searching for old temples and churches, and interviewing clergy and social workers and so on. I just said something like -- oh -- that, you know, the Chinese might be forgiven for thinking that you two were a gay couple ... "

They were moving toward the rear door of the gate house, but Jerome stopped in his tracks.

"I mean," insisted Trish, "it was just a funny comparison, I wasn't saying you actually -- "

"That was in the Gleaner?" He looked at her incredulously.

"It was just a witticism!"

He broke into a slow grin, and stepped out into the sunshine of the next courtyard. "My kids will have a field day with that one." He took a sip from his water bottle, recapped it, and shook it at her. "And I'll be looking forward to Marian's next e-mail, for sure."

Trish was relieved. How pleasant to see a man who was so secure in his sexual identity. Will would have laughed too. But, she realized now, Rudy wasn't the type to see the humor in such a situation.

"Do you think Rudy's wife might have already mentioned it to him in an e-mail?" Trish asked. "But surely she'd know it was just a joke."

"She'd be more concerned with how the parishioners felt about it," said Jerome. "Good Shepherd is a pretty conservative congregation. He has some issues with them. One of my sons is dating his older daughter, and that's an issue with the congregation, if you can believe it."

"Really?" said Trish, worried again.

"Or maybe she didn't read it at all," Jerome added quickly, seeing her face. "Don't fret about it. It's just as likely Rudy decided he should get to know a few more people. Where did he and Sheldon go? We'd better catch up with them."

Sheldon and Rudy were already in front of the next temple hall, one level higher on the hill. Trish and Jerome searched around for the stairway.

Trish had another concern to share -- Vanessa. "Speaking of e-mails," she said as they climbed. "You said Marian had mentioned Vanessa when she wrote you, and everything was fine?"

"Yes, absolutely." His face brightened at the sound of his wife's name. "She said Vanessa is having a civilizing effect on the boys. And she also said Will came over and took her and a girlfriend of hers to a concert -- some boy band thing."

"Did he? He said he might. What a martyr he is."

"He's also taken them to the mall downtown a few times. Marian said to tell you Vanessa keeps meaning to send you a message, but then she gets involved in something else."

"That sounds typical," said Trish. But it also meant that she couldn't be too forlorn, so that was good.

"Oh, and Marian also said Vanessa got her period and didn't have any supplies with her, but Marian took care of it."

Trish was taken aback. Jerome said that so matter-of-factly, and he didn't even have any daughters. She was mortified she'd forgotten about that. She felt like a terrible mother.

"That was good of her," she replied humbly, gratefully. "Was there anything else? I hope Vanessa hasn't been too moody. She can be kind of -- "

"No, not at all." He became truly chatty whenever he was quoting Marian, Trish had noticed. "In fact, Marian said she's enjoying having a girl around for a change, talking about things boys aren't interested in. She said the two of them were having fun."

Fun? Marian and Vanessa? To her shame, Trish felt a nasty stab of jealousy.

"Could you print it out for me? The e-mail?" she asked him without thinking. Maternal instinct had stirred a sudden need to hear everything about Vanessa first-hand.

Jerome hesitated for the slightest beat, and then said, "Sure."

Trish blushed. What was she doing? Who knew what kind of messages Marian wrote her husband? "I mean, I don't need to read your personal mail. You could just select the part about Vanessa. I just feel like I need to--"

"No problem," he assured her, already poking his head into the next temple building and looking up at a statue of a serene golden Buddha. Candles and incense and piles of fruit and little cakes were grouped in front of it, and an old woman was kneeling on a pillow, rattling some sticks in a bamboo container, then tossing them on the floor. "I'm going to check my e-mail when we get back," he told her, at the same time watching the old woman's rituals. "I'll print it for you then." He lowered his voice. "Just look at this," he said, standing at a respectful distance from the altar, just beside the door. He seemed intent on absorbing all the details of this alien form of worship.

But it wasn't Buddhism that occupied Trish's thoughts just now. Growing inside her was a different sort of curiosity: she had to admit, it might be kind of interesting to read Marian's message to Jerome, and not just to find out how Vanessa was doing. It would give her a small, voyeuristic peek into their marriage -- the Traditional Marriage, the Good Marriage -- that she had always half scoffed at and half envied. She wondered how Marian sounded when she wrote to Jerome -- what voice, what tone, what turns of phrase would she use? It was as if this was her one opportunity to gather some information which she had just realized was important to her, for some reason.

She and Jerome climbed on towards yet another level of the temple, where they could see Sheldon and Rudy waiting for them.

"This one is the library," Sheldon called down from above, to urge them on. "We missed it last time."

The late sun was shining flat onto the face of the hill as Jerome and Trish tackled another flight of stone steps. Trish sighed, dabbed her face with a ball of tissue, and fanned herself with the folding sandalwood fan she carried everywhere. In her pre-China life, she had thought of a fan as an antiquated affectation. Now, it had become as necessary as her lipstick.

Jerome permitted himself a wry complaint. "It seems to get hotter the higher we go. I was hoping for trees and shade."

Tiny beads of sweat were appearing at his neatly trimmed hairline. Trish was gratified to see that he actually did sweat.

"It's interesting, though," she admitted, once they'd reached a level patch of ground again. "In a way, a temple complex is the same as a cathedral, isn't it? It's designed to go up and up toward heaven, with the sections growing smaller and smaller the closer you get."

"Yes," Jerome agreed. "It is interesting that it's similar. I like that."

"You do?" asked Trish, a little surprised. "All this -- " she waved her fan at the rooftops below -- "doesn't strike you as a little pagan? The kow-towing? The little food gifts in front of statues? People throwing sticks to find out their fortunes?"

Jerome shrugged and smiled. "Maybe at first. But really, it all seems more the same than different, once you look closely. Think about the things our grandmothers did at church, the things my mother still does -- the candle-burning, the throat-blessings, the rosary, the novenas. And have you ever seen the cathedral at home decorated for the harvest mass? The altar looks like a farmers' market. And all this incense" -- it still floated in the air around them --"it's like the Easter vigil. It's not so hard to relate," he concluded.

"And that doesn't bother you?" She had always thought of him as being such a conservative Catholic.

"It might have, at one time. But it's fascinating, really, to see how rites can overlap. It confirms something." He looked as happy as a clam. They climbed on, past the many-armed Guan Yin that Trish remembered from their last visit, and some other smaller shrines.

Sheldon and Rudy were on the steps in front of the top-most temple building, listening to an old monk draped in yellow robes. A small wooden table stood beside the doorway, with what looked like a donation box on top. Trish was reminded of the Poor Box in the churches of her childhood. But she didn't think churches had them anymore -- they'd be pilfered now. On a stool next to the table sat a younger monk who appeared to be text-messaging on his cell phone.

Sheldon told Trish and Jerome as they joined them, "This is where the monks study -- they keep all their sacred texts here. He says there are about a dozen monks who live in a courtyard just over there." He pointed to some adjoining buildings. "A nice spot, eh?" Then he pulled a twenty yuan note out of his pocket and stuffed it in the box. "I think they expect a little something from the visitors who trek through here."

The others rummaged in their wallets and did the same. Trish wondered if the money would go toward fruit offerings to the Buddha or cell phone bills. Maybe both -- the Middle Way.

"He says the gate to Ten Thousand Stones Park is just a little farther up," Sheldon added. "We take a path behind that small pavilion up there. So we're making good time."

"That looks like a good spot for a photo," said Rudy, gazing up at the picturesquely-situated pavilion. He began unzipping the camera case he carried slung across his chest and started to fiddle with the settings. He had promised to do a presentation for his congregation when he got back, so he needed plenty of photos.

Trish looked up at the small pavilion with its pointy roof topped by a knob, like the lid of a cookie jar. From here the little structure looked delicate and vulnerable, perched on a rocky outcrop with the deepening blue sky hung between its four slender pillars. It looked a little magical, like one of those pavilions in the scroll paintings they'd seen so many of at the local art museum. Those scenes always featured furrowed mountains with tiny buildings tucked here and there between strange rocks and crooked trees. The landscape always looked impossibly exotic, and yet here they were in the middle of just such a place.

The four of them pressed on towards the top.

"Can you see the gate to the park?" Trish asked Sheldon hopefully. "We have to be getting close." She was beginning to feel very weary.

"I think it must be just beyond those big rocks up there," he said, pointing to the top of the slope above them. The slope itself was an open space littered with large stones of various shapes and sizes. Some of them were engraved with red-painted Chinese characters.

"Are there really ten thousand, do you think?" Rudy asked Sheldon, since he seemed to know everything. Trish guessed Rudy was probably thinking his congregation would ask him about that.

"It's an auspicious number in China," Sheldon replied. "You hear a lot about ten thousand this, ten thousand that. It sounds like exaggeration, but it's really a sort of blessing."

"Here's a blessing," declared Jerome. After a short, steep climb, they'd reached the pavilion, and he was the first one to step inside and take in the view. Straight below their feet, the green-tiled rooftops of the temple gleamed in the sun as they flowed down the hill in perfect symmetry, conforming to the slope and seemingly held there by a few clusters of big rocks and old trees.

"It's really strange," said Trish as she joined him. "Some things in China seem so disorderly, like the little shops and alleyways in the city, and those country villages we saw. But others are so beautifully orderly, like this. Imagine living with a view like this, where everything just seems to belong."

"Most places look like that if they've been around long enough," said Jerome. "I've been struck by that ever since we arrived in China. Everything in North America seems rough-cornered, new and raw by comparison -- embarrassingly so. But here, even in an unremarkable city like Yutian, perfect bits of ancient civilizations are just around the corner."

Trish had to agree. "The row house I live in was built in 1918. I've always thought of it as practically antique, but that's modern times here."

"Better push on," Sheldon called. He and Rudy were already setting out on the path to the park.

Jerome checked his watch. "It looks like we should make Mei Li's deadline."

"She'll be pleased," said Trish as they went down the steps of the pavilion. "She's so well-organized -- or controlling, you could call it. I hope she's able to control Mike until our flight leaves tomorrow."

"Control Mike?" asked Jerome. They began to follow the path through the rocks.

"Jerome, have you missed it?" She stopped and looked back at him. "He's desperately trying to seduce her." With his conservative nature in mind, she was careful to choose an old-fashioned expression.

"Mike is attracted to Mei Li?" He looked genuinely surprised. "But he's been so critical of her. All those digs about the Communist Party and so on. He's been quite insulting."

Trish laughed as she stepped back, to let him forge the way up a steep, overgrown flight of steps between two rock faces. "Jerome, don't you remember junior high school? He's constantly trying to get her attention in any way he can."

"I don't think so." He sounded quite sure of that.

"Why not?"

"She's not his type."

"What do you mean?"

"Well," Jerome replied, pulling himself through an awkward place by grasping a branch, then handing the branch back to her. "For one thing, she doesn't have breasts."

Trish had just taken hold of the branch as he passed it to her, but she was so surprised she forgot to pull herself up. Then she had to laugh. Who would have thought Jerome was even looking? Naturally, being the only other youngish woman in the group, Trish had felt, between herself and Mei Li, that slight sense of competition that often crops up between women of the same generation who find themselves among a group of men. She'd noticed right away Mei Li's extreme slimness, and she hadn't been able to help thinking, probably goaded by mild envy, that the girl could do with a better bra, something with an underwire and a bit of padding. Although it had occurred to her that Mei Li's failure to enhance her figure might have something to do with being an economist -- or maybe it was a communist thing.

Her surprise at this newly-revealed side of Jerome's character released Trish's urge to tease. "Some men like that, you know -- really slim girls who look like they might snap in two at the slightest --"

"I doubt Mike is one of them" countered Jerome.

She grinned at him.

"What?" he laughed. "I'm a guy -- an older guy, but I have eyes."

Trish had to admire how he kept his eyes on her face as he said that. "Well, I declare," she replied.

"Hey, look at this," Sheldon called out as Trish and Jerome emerged from the stairway. "Caves!"

They had reached a flat place on the hillside lined with strange rock outcroppings, and small openings here and there, as big as a man, in the rock face. Sheldon and Rudy were already exploring them.

"It's a whole row of little caves," said Rudy as Trish and Jerome joined them. "Can they be natural, or are they man-made, I wonder?"

"My guess is they're natural, but probably hollowed out further by the monks," said Sheldon. "For meditation or prayer." He looked deeper into one opening. "There are carvings inside, too."

"Amazing," said Jerome. "It's like a little hermitage."

Trish looked over his shoulder. "Like in the cartoons? The sage in the cave on top of the mountain? Oh my gosh, look, this one has a window cut into the side." She stepped partway through the rounded doorway. "And there's even a little seat cut into the wall, with carvings of flowers on it. How neat -- like a hobbit house. And cool -- ah!" A refreshing wave of natural air-conditioning seemed to seep from the heart of the mountain.

As they made their way along the hillside, they found more caves of different shapes and sizes, all ranged on different levels and connected by steps cut into the rock. They climbed from one cave to the next, like excited children.

"Imagine the work," exclaimed Jerome. "It looks like it was all done with hammer and chisel. You can see the grooves."

"This one has two windows," Trish called out, enchanted. "And a long bench carved into the wall -- and a table! Look at the detail. Vanessa would adore this."

"Monks have plenty of time, I guess," said Sheldon, and he moved off to look at the next cave where Rudy was taking pictures.

"Not exactly ascetic, though, is it?" Trish asked Jerome, as she ran her finger along the border of plum blossoms that ran along the edge of the bench, making it look like it was made of fine wood. She remembered there was something auspicious about plum blossoms.

Then she propped herself against the stone wall and stretched her legs out along the bench. "This is delicious," she sighed appreciatively. The cool stone felt good along the backs of her bare legs which, she knew, were displayed to advantage below her short denim skirt. She was pleased to catch Jerome's eyes flicking over them as he settled himself on a stone stool, on the other side of the low stone table.

"I've never seen such a thing in my life," he said, shaking his head and looking around. He set his water bottle on the table familiarly, as if he were at home.

"All our houses should be like this," Trish said. "Carved right out of the earth instead of plunked down on it -- don't you think?"

Jerome looked at the roof of the cave thoughtfully. "It's probably a little damp in winter."

"Don't be so practical!" She was more annoyed than she should have been by this predictable response. He always took the role of an authority, and yet he was completely blind to the most obvious things.

"Going back to our previous topic. Do you know what I think?" she asked him a little wickedly. "I think you don't believe Mike could be after Mei Li because you're a little afraid of that sort of thing yourself."

She had a sudden urge to shake up his irritating self-assurance, to annoy him, to flirt with him or at least make him uncomfortable. Why, she couldn't say. She just needed to.

"Me?" he asked, surprised and amused. "Afraid of what?"

"Oh, you know. Fooling around."

"Not afraid," he stated. "I just couldn't do that."

That. He made it sound like something unquestionably beneath him, Trish thought. Something sloppy, or stupid.

"Because it would be a sin," she anticipated, with a mocking smile.

"No," Jerome replied, as calm as ever. "Worse. It wouldn't be real."

Surprised, Trish sat up straight and let her feet drop back to the stone floor. Not real? That would be worse than sin? Only Marian was real? Trish was a little crushed. Being real, being taken seriously, being true to herself -- all that was important to her, too. Thinking about this, she smoothed the denim of her skirt over her knees. She was very glad she hadn't said more, or done more. What had she been thinking of doing? Tempting him? Testing the Good Marriage?

But here was a discovery, in any case, although it was something she half knew already, in her bones: Will, placed in the same position and not even being a married, conservative, middle-aged man, would have said exactly the same thing. And a man like Mike Shasko never would have.

Trish eyed Jerome across the stone table as he twirled his water bottle and eyed her back. Smiling, she looked around the perfectly proportioned little space that had been there, in some form, as long as the mountain had.

"It's actually quite simple, isn't it?" she observed.

"What?" he asked, still smiling. "This room? Or marriage?"

"Both, I guess," she said, just realizing it. "When it's made of something solid. When you get the angles right."

"Exactly," he agreed.

Somewhere at the center of herself Trish felt a balance strike and settle.

Article © Barbara Rendall. All rights reserved.
Published on 2012-05-28
Image(s) © Tom Rendall. All rights reserved.
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