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Prologue : The Bear Whispers to Me

by Chang Ying-Tai, translated by Darryl Sterk


Page Turning

Our tribe was fashioned by the Celestial Spirit from the leaves of every tree. 
—A sample of Father’s cramped handwriting

At the time he wrote this, he was carefully recording  everything that had happened in the mountains.

He didn’t tell me what he was doing; it was like he was keeping secrets. I only started finding out about Father’s secrets the year I turned twelve, when I came across a proverb in a scrapbook that Father had started when he was ten years old. Father never ever told me stories or bought me children’s storybooks. I had only a single pastime to relieve the loneliness of my childhood: to take Father’s keys and open up all of his drawers, feeling a bit like a thief, or maybe like a sleuth. I found a scrapbook in one of the drawers. It was wrapped in brown kraft paper and pressed under a rusted metal box. In the box, Father had stored a pair of delicate bird’s nests. One was shaped like a bowl and woven out of bits of bark, grass, moss and lichen. The other was spherical, with an entrance on the side. Holding the latter up to the lamp, I saw that the interior seemed to be made of dry bamboo leaves and silver grass, with very fine down crammed in the cracks. A few filaments of this down had been pressed between two of the pages of the scrapbook for so long they had become stuck to one of the pages. On the opposite page was a drawing of a little bird. I would stare at this little bird, wondering if it was the one to which the down belonged. I just have to find out what kind of bird this is, I often thought, like it was a lead I’d been pursuing for too long to just give up and let it be.

Later on I made myself a drawer with a lock and key, like I too had secrets to keep, like I finally had my own story to tell. But the first story I collected came from Father.

The proverb in the scrapbook seems exotic:

When a needle falls in the forest, the eagle sees it, the deer hears it and the bear smells it. The eagle, deer and bear are the eyes, ears and nose of the Celestial Spirit.

He must have been about ten when he wrote this proverb. I don’t know why he copied out this particular one. Or why he failed to finish filling the scrapbook. Except for bits of fluff and little drawings of birds and insects, it had nothing much to tell me. For some reason, he copied this proverb out and left the rest of the scrapbook mostly blank.

It wasn’t until I found the key to a certain cabinet, which to me at the time seemed like a veritable treasure chest, that I was able to continue my sleuthing career. Inside the cabinet I found an album. This album contained no foreign proverb to arouse my curiosity, only a series of crayon drawings with explanatory captions. It was an album, but it was also like a diary; the captioned illustrations were like diary entries. Father dated each of the entries, and, based on the dates, he must have been twelve years old when he completed his diary-album.

This is the caption for the first picture in the album:

Our tribe was fashioned by the Celestial Spirit from the leaves of every tree. After we die our spirits fly, guided by the light of the moon up to the highest peak.

The picture itself is of a darkling forest with the moon and a constellation of stars shining brilliantly overhead. There is a clearing in the forest, and a cabin with a lattice window in the clearing. There is no sense of wind. But somehow when I gazed at the picture as a twelve year old child, it seemed to come alive. The leaves would start falling from the trees and twirling in the breeze. I could make out the veins in the leaves, which would transform into jingling musical notes as they floated down through the moonlight and starlight towards the cabin. Through the lattice window I could make out a children’s storybook set upon a table, open to the very first page. Then, in a close-up, I would see the proverb from Father’s scrapbook:

When a needle falls in the forest, the eagle sees it, the deer hears it and the bear smells it. They are the eyes, ears and nose of the Celestial Spirit.

The page would turn and I would see a pine tree and a pine needle hanging in midair beneath a branch. I would stare and stare, and the pages of the storybook would turn and turn, showing me an eagle, eyes wide open, perched on a branch, a deer with its ears cocked, and a bear poking its head out of a cave.

The second picture in Father’s album adopts a different perspective: it lets you see the world from inside the cabin. The storybook is still on the table, but now you see a gigantic scarab beetle sharing the tabletop. It must be a pet scarab, because there is a string tied in a loop around its neck. The scarab is shiny blue and black, and its head is buried in a rotten peach. The peach is brownish, except for a pink ripe-and-juicy part, which the scarab would polish off in a single bite. The other end of the string is held by a boy—that must be Father—who would have to hold his pet scarab back when it would attempt to crawl out through an opening in the lattice window. Through the window a faint breeze would blow in bits of flashing dandelion fluff. The boy would put his mouth near and the spores would scatter, some floating back up to become twinkling stars in the night-time sky, others floating towards the marsh and turning into glowworms. Two of the glowworms would drift into a mountain cave, looking just like a pair of eyes, round and bright, staring right at you. Here Father wrote a second caption:

In the whole wide world, apart from that pair of eyes glowing in the mountain cave, I have no one to watch over me.

The breeze would blow and blow, turning the pages of the storybook on the table by the lattice window, until the last page would flip shut. At that moment, the constellation of stars, and the moon itself, would shine all the brighter through the lattice window of the cabin in the woods, into my father’s childhood world. The moon and the stars keep shining and shining, like insomniac eyes, like silent deathless spirits.

But it seems there were many things to listen to in Father’s world. He recorded many sounds in the album he buried in the ground.

One is a light throaty sound, gulooo gulooo gulooo

Another is a quick sound produced in the depths of the belly, guh guh guh guh guh guh

There’s also a whistling sound, shhhhhiuuuu, shhhhhiuuuuu

There’s even a song in Father’s album! When I first saw the lyrics to this ancient tribal song, I tried to read them, but found them unintelligible:

nasicui rumahlaree rumaihlaveesa

ihlaveesa imiravusa vulahla

vulahla ui hlalumalumai

hlalumalumai hlimahlulailai ’ampulai laita iaiaai

To you, too, it may seem that these lines are simply gobbledygook. But I promise you, they are the lyrics of a sacred song written in a language that people once used to share their memories, and that people still use when they talk in their dreams.

And it may seem to you that the pictures in his album, too, are made up, silly childhood fantasies. But I assure you, the events in the pictures really happened. I know, because I have become intimately familiar with the places in the pictures—I have come to know every kind of tree and bush, every sound and smell. I have visited these hills, this secluded little corner of the world. Its history is lost, unrecorded and untraceable. Except for this album, there is no proof, not even any evidence. There is really very little to go on. But together the pictures in the album tell a coherent story, the story of a boy and a bear. And this story really happened. You must believe me: Father would not lie!

Father’s album brings you to a roadside field of ripe beans. Imagine white and purple flowers. You can almost see them nodding in the breeze. You smell sweet mountain berries and the odour of dirt moistened by dew and you start walking along a path. You walk and walk, until the path crosses a steep slope. It is high summer. Spring water trickles down the slope. A cloud of butterflies flutter over to drink. Several hundred pairs of fanning wings paint a swathe of brilliant colour in midair. The path forks, one route leading down into a narrow gully, dark and cool, haunted by ladybirds, scarab beetles, crickets, grasshoppers and praying mantises. Instead of going down the gully, you keep going straight, until the path finally ends at a primeval forest. In the forest, there is a thick carpet of fallen leaves, through which cimicids and centipedes crawl. You choose a spot and use your foot to brush away the layer of leaves, revealing stag beetles and rhinoceros beetles creeping around on the moist soil. Clearing away the soil, you uncover a colony of hister beetles gnawing on the putrid corpse of a rat. In a couple of decaying tree stumps, you find shiny black longhorn beetles and click bugs going at the rotten wood like there is no tomorrow. By the stumps is an animal dropping and, on a patch of ground next to the faeces, the stench of urine. A single dung beetle, knowing it can’t finish off the dropping in a single meal, is rolling it towards its lair. The urine attracts several cabbage whites and leaf butterflies, which pause here to mud-puddle.

You keep going through the forest until you come to a clearing, at the foot of another slope. The clearing looks somehow familiar. You see a cabin—my father’s cabin. In front of the window of the cabin, a couple of leaves twirl in midair. Looking more closely, you see a fuzzy bee transporting the leaves. The leaves disappear into the bamboo pole on which Father used to dry his clothes. You split the bamboo and find hidden inside what look like swaddling clothes, but are actually insect eggs wrapped in leaves that have been shaped into cones. Some grubs have already hatched from the eggs in the cones, and some of the grubs are already mature. They are getting ready to pupate.

After dark, the mists have blanched the hills. Extending up from the cabin for miles, all the way to the crest of the mountain, is a belt of pines, a sea of green. Into this sea a goshawk suddenly dives. When it bottoms out and rises again, there is a large lizard squirming in its claws.

yike-Yiiiike yike-Yiiiike is its triumphant call.

The sounds are clearly indicated in speech bubbles in the pictures. I tried to imitate the sound of a goshawk by whistling, but it came out sounding like the yieeoou-yieeoou of a streak-throated fulvetta, not the majestic and desolate cry of a hawk. Way above, in the upper reaches of a canyon, a crested serpent eagle perches next to its nest on a branch of a craggy tree. It is regurgitating bits of snake meat and feeding them to its young. Who-you-who-you hooo hooo is its sure and resonant call. A huge eagle comes round a ridge and, flying low, takes sight of a hare. It blows its cover too early, though, and his prey eludes it; but then it spots a fawn caught in a hunter’s trap, easy pickings for the eagle, which is so intent on devouring the deer that you no longer hear its calm, confident call. But just then the silence is broken by a white-bellied green pigeon cooing oooowa-oooowa, forming a creepy accompaniment to the sound of the eagle feeding.

In the moonlight, the silver branches of the pines seem covered in tiny blue buds, and on one branch rests a scimitar babbler with a long, black eye-stripe: kwa-kway-kway.

On another branch is a pair of songbirds: gwo-gogo… gwo-gogo… gwo-gogo.

And a delicate, perfectly round grey-headed thrush perches on a third branch: jeeeep jeep jeep jeep, jeeeep jeep jeep jeep. (Here Father noted: A light nasal sound.)

Then the sweetest little thing comes leaping over a thicket of grass. It has a copper neck and an olive body. It hops along vines heavy with tomatoes and scurries into another tuft of grass. Its call is chiu-chi, chiu-chi, cho cho cho cho.

What’s that? Father asks an old man by his side wearing a buckskin hat and a black sleeveless sweater.

Red-headed thrush, the old man says.

At the tip of a soaring tree is another little creature, this one white-crested and black-cheeked.

Teechee, teechee, it says.

It’s a black chickadee, says the old man.

What about that skinny bird in the silver grass calling teecha teecha? asks Father.

Brown hill-warbler.

The old man has a pouch slung round his neck and a curved knife at his hip. His body glows. The moonlight casts his shadow on the ground. It is the shadow of a massive beast.

Father calls him Grandpa.

Father’s grandfather only appears in human form on this night, on this page of the album. But he is in other pictures, too, as a ray of light, a gust of wind, a leaf or a glimmering moonshadow.

Father understood birdsong, almost certainly taught to him by his grandfather. The old songs Father recorded were probably taught to him by his grandfather, too, along with natural and ritual lore.

On one page Father adopted his grandfather’s tone and wrote about how our tribe once lived in the north at Hlaseng, a place we shared with a population of dwarf spirits. Our people got along really well with the dwarf spirits, so well that when we left Hlaseng, the dwarf spirits gave us twelve Sacred Shells, which we handed down to generation after generation. These shells were preternatural, capable of invisibility, shapeshifting and flight. Every year at our tribe’s biggest ritual we would worship the shells, praying for protection and abundance. The ritual was always held after the millet harvest.

When I was twelve years old, I made a small hut by our house out of twitch grass, rattan and green bamboo, just like the Forbidden Room that Father drew on one page of his album. I placed sacred objects inside a rectangular box, a shrine made of tough old vines and arrow bamboo, just like in Father’s album. Father used to call this box the Holy Vault.

I also made a house for hunters which I called the Lodge of Braves. It was a bamboo platform raised three feet above the ground, and it had an awning. Beneath it was a pile of firewood. Inside were long racks constructed out of the bones of beasts. On the racks were trophies of the hunt: ram skulls, boar tusks and deer antlers. Also hung on the wall was all the equipment a warrior could ever need: a hunting knife, pike, spear, bow and arrow, buckskin cap, tunic, quiver and pouch. I was too young to have my own hunting gear, much less my own trophies. But I could certainly draw and colour these things on cardboard and cut them out to hang on the wall of the Lodge of Braves. It was like an inventory of antique curiosities, or talismans protecting the hunt.

What animals did Father hunt? In his album, on page after page, he recorded wolves, boars, squirrels, muntjacs, leopards, rattlesnakes and bears, especially bears. I sometimes wonder whether Father really saw all of these creatures, let alone hunted them.

For as a child Father was thin and weak and easily scared. A man used to cook praying mantis eggs, or grind the dried bodies of mantises into powder, for Father to eat. Hill folk in those days apparently believed that cooked mantis eggs cured bedwetting, while the powder was a remedy for the colic. This man had a gloomy face, like a tired old tree bound tight by tendrils and creepers. He was my grandfather, my father’s father. Father rarely called him Father. Usually he called him Momo, or Moe for short.

The year I was twelve, I found the keys to my father’s drawers as well as his cabinet. I found two books he’d made, a scrapbook and an album, and followed the hints they contained back into his childhood. Father never gave me a storybook to read. While I was growing up, I lived in a world of my own. All I had were his stories. I planned to write stories of my own, partly real, partly make-believe, and put them in a storybook. But the first story I ever wrote was Father’s. I walked step by step, page by page, back into the alpine world in Father’s album. I intended to keep walking day after day, month after month, year after year, until one day I wouldn’t have to wander any more. Then I would return, exhausted, to that cabin in the clearing in the woods. I was sure there would be a stool waiting there just for me, and a steaming pot of rice porridge on the stove, along with a book of stories of our family—Father, Grandfather Momo, Great-grandfather, and me—the stories of our tribe, the pages turning one by one in the wind. Then the wind would die down. In that moment of perfect tranquillity, I hoped that, though I might be alone, I would no longer be lonely.

Not everything a boy hopes for can come true. But at least now there is an intelligible written record—you hold it in your hands—of the world Father once knew.

This is how I’ve told the story of Father’s childhood.

Excerpts from the book The Bear Whispers to Me © Balestier Press 2015