Sara Schaff received her BA from Brown University and her MFA from the University of Michigan, where she served as a Lecturer in the English Department Writing Program. She has also taught in China, Colombia, and Northern Ireland. Her work has appeared in Carve Magazine, Inkwell, and Fiction Writers Review, and she was awarded a residency from the Ragdale Foundation. She is working on a novel.
Olivia and Thomas have come to this remote Naxi village on their way to the Tiger Leaping Gorge Trail, which Thomas promises will be the pinnacle of their honeymoon adventure. Because Olivia is tired and disoriented from a week of biking around Yunnan Province, these empty, dusty streets feel more dreamlike than they might otherwise; it's like walking through an abandoned movie set.
"Wait!" she calls to Thomas, who walks briskly ahead of her on the wide and unpaved central street. Watching his confident strides, an unfamiliar panic hits her, and she jogs to catch up with him. When she does, he turns, looking delighted and—frankly—a little surprised to see her. For a moment this look increases her fear, because, if this were a movie, it might be a horror film, and Thomas would be the human vessel colonized by cunning aliens.
Where is the hapless, ill-at-ease man she rescued a year ago from the Whole Foods parking lot because he couldn't change his flat tire? In that dwindling twilight, as she put away her jack and wiped her hands on her khaki shorts, she had felt his handsome face watching and admiring her, and she'd felt buoyed by that admiration. For the duration of this trip, however, it's been her turn to admire, and be baffled by, his ability to be so at ease in a place that feels absurdly difficult to navigate. Yes, he lived in southwestern China in his early twenties, but that was thirteen years ago, and even he keeps exclaiming how much has changed and how little of the language he understands now. But when he takes her hand, his firm grasp is reassuring, and they walk together past the gray-tiled facades of the newer buildings in the village.
Since their arrival in Daju hours before, they have seen no one except the woman who took down their passport information at the airless hostel. Their mission is to find a shop selling bottled water and snacks for tomorrow's hike. They have only vague directions, and Olivia doubts the existence of any commercial enterprise here, but Thomas insists they must explore. They will find bottled water—Daju has become a town of modern conveniences! Now they're wandering toward the narrow alleys of more traditional Naxi houses, even though Olivia's knees ache and she'd rather rest before the sharp incline of tomorrow's switchbacks. She would rather be propped against piles of down pillows, snoozing or watching Star Television, the movie channel in the nice hotels in Beijing and Shanghai. She's a lightweight, a spoiled American traveler—this is what she has learned about herself in China.
But at home she's the rock, the one who changes the oil and unclogs the drains and caulks gaps in old windows. Eleven years ago, when her father became too ill to work, she took time off from college to wait tables and support her family. Much later, she spent her remaining savings on the tiny printing business that, because of its success, will allow Thomas to spend more time with his photography, less time on odd jobs. Before she came here, she really thought she could chi ku, eat bitter, Thomas's favorite Chinese phrase.
"What a beautiful place," Thomas says. "So quiet."
"It's a ghost town."
"An enchanted village," he corrects her, from behind his camera.
He wears this camera around his neck like a pendant that offers its wearer the special ability to see beauty in desolation. His pictures now cover the walls of their new apartment back home, in the town where Olivia has lived for most of her life.
It's hot under the afternoon sun, it's not enchanting. "But Husband," she says, trying not to laugh at the strange-sounding word, "where are all the people?"
He puts his arm around her in an instructive fashion and tells her what he has said before: working in the fields, moved to bigger towns and cities. During their trip, they've stopped in other villages, many of them populated by grandparents and babies. Anyone of working age in larger towns and cities. But the silence of Daju feels extreme. Her husband's explanation disappointing.
He points to the snowy peaks of the surrounding mountains, awash in the afternoon sun. From here they can see the far edge of the village, where the houses end and a blanket of yellow flowers begins.
She looks down at their hiking boots, covered in a red film, the dirt from these narrow streets. Her toes are blistered, but she does not want to complain. Back home, she is not a complainer.
They turn onto a narrow alley lined with traditional houses. Not surprisingly, this architecture excites Thomas. He loves the stone-tile roofs, the way the corner tiles curve up, like a dragon's tail. Olivia has to admit that he's attractive like this, delight bubbling from within. She moves to the shade afforded by these adobe houses and runs her hand against the cool, whitewashed walls.
The alley leads them to an open, dry field. Once a crop grew here, but now withered stalks lie bent on the ground. Thomas finds something interesting about this, the contrast of the red dirt and blue sky, and he takes more pictures than Olivia thinks necessary.
"I'm thirsty," she reminds him.
But actually she could lie in the dirt and rest, this field more appealing than the damp mattress and stained sheets back in the hostel. She follows Thomas over the rows of bent plants, along a crumbling stone wall. Ahead of them, a shrub rustles, then giggles, and a girl emerges and races toward a nearby outhouse. Her blue dress and pigtails fan out behind her. The door of the outhouse opens, then shuts with the child inside.
The door opens a crack, a blinking eye on them.
Thomas twinkles in glee. "Hot on our tails," he says.
They walk on, not talking, Thomas the only gleeful one, through other narrow alleys. Upon one roof, a cactus blooms hot-pink flowers. They pass an open red door and poke their heads inside, seeing no one in the open-air courtyard, just a workbench and shavings of wood on the ground. The air in the doorway smells of cedar. Olivia can't help but think that someone had to leave his wood carving in a hurry, and she whirls around, feeling watched.
She spots two small heads peering around the corner of a house at the end of the row. The girl in blue points at Olivia. "Nihao," Olivia says tentatively, waving. It's one of the few Mandarin words she remembers from Thomas's patient tutorial, and these girls probably don't even speak Mandarin, but Naxi. The heads disappear and clouds of dust indicate their hurried retreat.
"Creepy," Olivia says. "Kind of feels like Children of the Corn, doesn't it?"
Thomas shrugs. He hasn't seen much popular American cinema.
She still can't quite see him as the young person who taught in Lijiang, city of the pretty, stone streets and red, wooden houses. He lived in an unheated room in a farmer's house, learning the language by sharing cigarettes and jokes with the men at a neighborhood noodle shop. Olivia practically fainted over the toilets at the hostel: holes in the cement floor—overflowing and swarmed by maggots. "Hold your breath," Thomas had said, simply.
"Here we are," he says now. Their alley has let out onto a wider street, perhaps once bustling—signs hover over dark or boarded up windows. The road is the same dirt as the narrower alleys.
Across this road, a woman sits outside the one open shop, surrounded by cages of chickens and baskets of eggs. She wears an old style Naxi dress: blue, long-sleeved shirt underneath a pleated white apron and long, black skirt. White straps, like those of a baby carrier, crisscross her shoulders. The white fabric, decorated with a horizontal line of embroidered black circles, fans down her back, which is so bent that she is forced to lean into her lap.
"Commerce?" Olivia asks. She is surprised by her relief. "Nihao," she says, grinning and waving.
Unsmiling, the woman watches them approach.
The woman looks at Thomas, who is saying something in Naxi, and she hoists herself from her chair and waddles to the storefront, Thomas close behind.
"I'll wait here," Olivia says, feeling left out, but Thomas does not turn around.
With a handkerchief in her pocket, she wipes the sweat from her forehead, walking amongst the cages, three or four birds to every cage. Their heads pressed against the mesh, they peer at her and cluck.
A gust of air startles her. Next to her stand the two girls from before. They hold hands and stare at Olivia. She smiles. Of course they're not creepy; they're so young—four and six maybe—and pretty behind smudges of dirt on their cheeks. The older one puts her arm around the other possessively, maternally. She wears a blue dress under a ragged gray sweater. The small girl is in dusty black trousers and a sweatshirt with the word, "RADICAL," in pink, puffy paint across the front. They look at each other and start laughing, pointing to each other's hair and faces, and then at Olivia.
Thomas returns, carrying two large bottles of water in one hand and a plastic sack in the other. "You're not going to believe this," he says, "but I found Snickers in there."
"My favorite!" For once, her enthusiasm mirrors his, and she suddenly feels very happy about the hike tomorrow.
But as the girls chatter and glance between Olivia and Thomas, she becomes convinced that they're making fun of her. No, she is merely tired and thirsty, she tells herself. Gratefully, she takes one of Thomas's bottles and starts to drink.
"They're talking about your red hair and freckles," he says. "They think you're ill."
In response, she drags a protective hand through her gritty tangles.
The children run off, laughing hysterically.
"A little skittish around the waiguoren." He points at Olivia, as if she were the culprit, the foreigner, and Thomas were as Naxi as the girls. Gesturing toward the end of the street, he says "There's an old hospital at the dead end there." Olivia follows his gaze to a brown building. Over the door hangs a red cross. He doesn't say he wants to go there, but they do.
And at the hospital doors, the girls return to them again, smiling curiously, and together, the quartet enters the building.
Inside, they stand at the center of a dark waiting room. A receptionist's desk sits empty. When Thomas opens a mustard-colored curtain, Olivia notices how the floating dust glows in the sunlight, like haunted particles, portents. She sneezes as they rise and settle again.
In the only other room, rows of hospital beds line opposite walls. Olivia runs a hand over a formerly white pillowcase, and her fingertips return to her coated in dust.
Thomas takes pictures of the beds and curtains. When the girls become curious, he bends to show them the images on his screen. They point to themselves and take positions on different beds, feigning sleep. The older girl opens her eyes, speaks to Thomas, then resumes her former, slumbering pose. Thomas kneels for the best composition.
"Are they pretending to be patients?" Olivia asks, lightly amused.
"Princesses under the spell of an evil witch. They've been asleep for a hundred years."
"And where's the evil witch?"
The smallest girl watches Olivia with one open eye. When Olivia smiles, the girl giggles until her friend or sister sits up and barks an order. The smallest girl turns over, hunching herself into a tiny ball.
Thomas chuckles, clearly enjoying the joke. "I hate to break it to you, Livvy, but Princess here says the evil witch is you."
"Ha. Ha," she says, even though she doesn't see the joke. She sits down on a dusty bed, and it feels so good to be off her feet, but she doesn't feel like she is actually here. She is just a body on an old hospital bed; her consciousness is elsewhere. "I want to go home," she says. And she is not talking about their hostel.
By the time Olivia and Thomas return to the hostel, girl-less and tense, a large group of German tourists has arrived from the Gorge, and they are milling about the lobby in their hiking gear, smelling very much like people who have gone a while without a shower. The sudden noise and bustle surprises Olivia. Thomas immediately begins chatting to a couple about what to expect from the hike, and instead of joining the conversation, Olivia stays outside on the front steps and stares out across the village square toward Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, its jagged line purple from the setting sun.
The evening has been infused with a stir of pleasurable activity. Two elderly couples pace the square together. And several children—including the two girls from earlier—jump from a low cement wall and climb back onto it, then jump down again. The girl in the blue dress smiles at Olivia with comfortable familiarity, then shouts a happy greeting. Now all of the children on or around the wall stop for a moment to wave at Olivia, the strange and pale foreigner whose hair appears to be on fire.
This is no false-fronted film set, no indistinct landscape viewed through a shimmer of desert air. Olivia's calves throb, as they should, as they will on the switchbacks on the other side of the river.
She already knows that the hike tomorrow will be beautiful, the mountainside covered in steep-terraced greenery. She knows that she will appreciate the air quality, both the thinness and cool fragrance of it. She doesn't know that they will walk for a while with friendly horses that belong to nearby farmers, and that as she feeds an especially fuzzy pony an apple from her hand, she'll laugh at the feel of his rough tongue. She will exclaim at the rushing turquoise water of the Yangze River, feeling remarkably fresh and broken open by the view and by the accumulation of experiences that have come before it. At the same time, she'll be incredibly afraid of the rapid current and the extreme height. She'll almost twist her ankle on their descent to the river's edge, but Thomas will catch her arm. Holding on to her until their feet are flat and firmly planted, he will tell her that the river might be dammed in the near future, that all the terraced farms they have passed on the way will be flooded out, and that it's important that they're seeing all of this now.
Gazing out at the square, her future life with Thomas is a blank to her, and she is sure now that she barely knows this man, but walking toward him she feels happy. And when he turns to include her in the conversation with the Germans, she smiles and is relieved that he suggests they go inside to eat.
They sit in the small hostel restaurant and hold hands on the plastic tablecloth. Their hostess brings them sautéed lettuce, scrambled eggs and tomato, and a tofu dish that Thomas describes as the epitome of ma la—of spicy and numbing. When Olivia bites into one of the numbing peppercorns, half of her tongue goes slack, but she continues shoveling food into her mouth with her plastic chopsticks, which the hostess says she holds better than most foreigners.
The compliment lifts her spirits further, and she and Thomas talk a in a flushed, excited manner about the two-day hike in front of them. They will stay tomorrow night at a hostel called Half-Way House, where the Germans stayed. "They have hot water in some of the rooms," Thomas says. His watery gaze is full of love, as far as she can tell. "How does that sound Livvy? Does that sound good?"
Famished, her tongue still tingling, she speaks through a mouthful of tofu, and Thomas does not seem to find this rude. "You know me," she says, "up for anything."