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by Richard Flamm
I am mostly German and African and Native
American, through my red-blooded, pie-loving veins,
And, I feel fairly emblematic of race relations,
Down to my high-fiving DNA.
In 1997, I found out what segregation was
When my private school broke for lunch,
And the Blacks sat at one separate table,
And I didn’t know where to sit
In the 5th Grade.
I remember sitting at home on that brown carpet,
And realizing that there are only, like, two
Superheroes of color in the entire Justice League,
Whom I cherished with an irrational degree of secret pride,
But fear there won’t ever be more,
Because, the Silver Age of comics closed with the Civil Rights.
And when I was seven years old, my mother
Let me dye my hair blond,
So I ran around like a little Dennis Rodman,
And I have no idea why she let me do that,
‘Cause now those bleached pictures make me sick.
Although, I’m not an angry person inside,
I got so jealous of all those private-school girls
Wanting only those fucking blue-eyed, blond-haired boys,
Vouchsafing ignorance with heaving virgin bosoms.
And, we always went to white-church for Dad,
But once we visited black-church for Mom,
Which I didn’t like (yelling), but felt obligated to
Out of some sense of pity
Which, looking back is hilarious, because
Back in WASP land,
Jesus and his blond-haired, blue-eyed portrait
Was as lonely in that florescent-lit hallway as me
Handing out our bulletins and smiling,
And, when the sermon was finally done, I ran out
Screaming, “Free at last! Free at last!”
Which I got yelled at for saying.
That stigma of laziness and welfare checks
Was diffused by my Mom’s 60 hour work week,
Who, on the drive to school,
Played loud, frustrated hip-hop
Which I liked,
But, Dad thought was sinful
Sometimes, I remember that the slaves lost their surnames,
But smile, because not having the parchment of my past
Allows me to create my own fantasy-lineage,
And I pretend that I’m in the line of some Kenyan Royalty,
A wild-haired lost Prince,
And you can’t tell me I’m wrong, because I absolutely could be
To the Slave Owners of 1800
by Richard Flamm
I’m sending this letter back in time to you
So that we can understand each other
Put down that coiled whip
And flip through this by candlelight
I modeled for an Art class last night
In a College of integrated colors
As I stood there in my black underwear
My coffee-cream skin remembered
I thought of the bustling auctions
Grown men stripped naked, being inspected
For strength and submission
Work the farm, sweat upon the field
And then I saw her
A strawberry-haired perky student
Checking me out with blue eyes
She blushed for a cotton pickin’ minute
I don’t have any whip-scars
If you close your eyes, there’s the faint sound
Of silence and pencil-marks
And blackbirds singin’ in the dead of night
I thought it was ironic
That I should stand in my underwear
Like a sheepish victor
And your Great-Great-Granddaughter
Should want to ride the Underground Railroad
I stood contrapposto like David and daydreamed
Of playing racquetball with Jim Crowe
They looked into my fixed eyes
Like runaways gazed at the northstar
A student had me sign his work
It was awkward for me
But I took the pen
And felt as uncrossable as the Ohio River
The Art Professor likes me
Shoulder to shoulder with every race
Of our American brotherhood
Sincerely, all the best
The Sun Sets on Duneb
by Richard Flamm
Of letters unrequited
Our raspy voices grovel
And reason with its glare
Bars us in with sorrow
Red rosary is broken
Beads scatter on the floor
The sweaty brutes are pounding
Crashing through the door
The virgin in the tower
Sings no more at all
The years have rendered mute
A song that once enthralled
The Knights and King return
This land has had a plague
Amidst the wailing ashes
…there is no one to save
Passing the Coldstar
By Richard Flamm
The snowy hills bypassing
Shimmering sun at an angle
The heart is pumping and splashing
As fog and music entangle
Enter the land at -20
Piercing eyes start to grasp
The beauty makes up for the empty
Stuttering small tank of gas
Friends see the road still unfurling
Diverges at each window seat
Imagination starts swirling
Till even the deer lose their feet
Veiled are the words reprimanding
Path covered by slickest of ice
The cost of the journey demanding
They struggle to pay the price
To pass the air still and frozen
What does the sojourn entail
Lovers begin their musing
In light between Heaven and Hell
We Forgot What Friendship Was
By Richard Flamm
By the sea they stand alone
Their threadbare clothes have set the tone
A meeting fey as eyes exchange
A love is felt although it strange
Forgot the skin, and human sound
In burning mist, in silence found
By the tower, vines are risking
Lighthouse calls them in from listing
From city hutch to rolling ocean
Like risk consumes a new devotion
They’ve faced the Grimories and its meaning
Suffered terror’s cry demeaning
From the grey heart bursts a sprout
Creeps toward other despite doubt
Art for this piece was provided by TheABones at http://theabones.deviantart.com/gallery/
At Death I Bend My Bow
By Richard Flamm
As the vengeful virgin stabs her cold dagger into my exposed neck, my soul will shoot from its jugular into space and observe the spherical curve of the world as Superman sees it.
As the semi-truck slams my soft body into a crinkled mass of jutting broken bones, I’ll wake on my back and feel the static electricity of encircling Fairies cause my hair to stand on end.
As I die I want to know exactly who the two debating voices in my head are, and which is right most often.
After three years of coughing up cancer-blood, I may gasp awake and full-strength punch the nearest person in the face.
After the Elysium Viper plunges its dripping fangs into my neck, I plan to discover the Bastions of the 3rd Hell and deliver a group of starving political prisoners.
When I stare up from exactly 100 feet underwater at the crimped surface, I want to feel the refracted sunlight glimmer on my face giving me a silent send off.
When the visceral Brown bear has its teeth pinning my throat to the ground and I feel my eyes start to flutter as I bleed out slowly, I want to feel the hard dirt begin to pull me into a blackening sleep.
When I float o’er the clouds through the fabled gates, I will look down and use my hands to verify that I have fully functioning genitalia.
When the door-to-door fanatic takes from me the last spare moment of my time, my patience will plummet like a life bar undertaking a Preacher’s beating.
When contradiction leads me to the Herpe’d Harpy’s claws, freshly worn tears of shame will fall to the rough young planet at my feet and start little phosphorescent sprouts of future trees.
When faithfulness requires me to wrestle a corrupted Professor off a waterfalled cliff, I will later smoke a sweet smelling wooden pipe of masculine victory.
When it turns out the bottom of the pit floor I was falling into is colored stained glass, the shattering may cut my skin and form long viney scars that glow fire-blue when I feel intense anger.
When the gowned Lady dips Excalibur on either shoulder, my tongue may regain its eloquent composure and my eyes refocus like a winterbred Owl’s.
When the powder-wigged judge climbs down from his lofty leather seat and uppercuts by body over the first four pews, I will experience for the first time weightlessness at the fury of the people’s rebuke.
When the star-studded mace’s spikes roll across my cheek, I may startle-sit-up to attention at a U.N. council meeting at an ebony table.
When my athletic body is finally run through with the silver sword of time, I will find my muscles resurged with potential energy and glossed with glowing gold-translucent skin.
When I crash land my Existential Ship onto a yellow dusty planet, I may wrestle a piercing-eyed many-tentacled purple space beast.
When I strike arms and clasp with a limited reserve of resurrected heroes, I may begin to feel the cogs of my fresh brain accessing an infinitely expanding universe of stored personal memory.
When I discover a pedestal in the forest with an ancient dagger on it and prick my finger to see if a drop of bright red forms, I will experience pain for the first time in an Eternal form.
When the sun at last peeks over dreary stone ruins, I’ll find my way through eon-thick overbrush to the long-lost grey bricked castle.
When I rip the sheets off my entombed body, I’ll find in its place a deep colored waiving embroided flag with a crest that is all my own.
When my hand is pressed upon the frozen face of an ancient wall, I may see mystical hieroglyphics tell a horrifying but journey-inspiring tale.
When my erotic body sacrifices itself for the Garlanded Wailing Maiden, my blind face will feel a silk scarf race across its cheek and smell a flower-perfume that calls like a voice.
When the smoky orbed scrying hour passes, I will race through fog and wandering corpses until I stumble before a Priest who holds a gilded staff to the sky causing the moon and sun to rotate places and incinerate the undead.
When my legacy has been established in a war of fascinating personalities, I may wake in a dark room before a straight corridor of half-to-the-ceiling parallel pillars crowned with bowls of flame.
When I stab the red dragon in the neck and his scaly heap crushes me to death, I want to wake up in a cold sweat with night-mist clinging to my face.
When I hear high trumpets calling from foreign mountains, I may irrationally push aside innocent citizens to discover the whereabouts of every stillborn child and emaciated cadaver.
When the firm Knight of the Law banishes me from the world of my birth, I want to stumble through a dense wood until I find a delicate beauty sitting on a fountainside immersed in a sea-breeze book.
When Zeus grows tired of me eyeing his virgins, my huddled defense will fail in a misery of yellow sparks and blood.
When Poseidon’s wrath falls on my prideful ship like an oil spill, I will feel the pain of his three-pronged trident through my lungs.
When Cupid at last trains his arrow squarely upon my wild heart, I will fall like a deer without a sound.
When the God-who-melts-the-others holds me in his court, some wild thing I could not imagine will likely happen.
Then I will wake up in a strewn bed within a room of intricate woodwork, smelling cedar and feeling the soft morning light bid me to rest.
Then the scrupulous trusting eyes of an immutable authority will scan my own, and I may be handed a bejeweled sword reflective of the life I lived.
At last, when the sky sobs upon my freshly laser-etched epitaph, I will open my eyes lying on a soft hill beside the greenest corn field I have ever seen.
I’m joyous to report that this piece was published this month in the Sandhill Review. Here is the short story in its entirety.
Peckish Soul Orca
by Richard Flamm
Peter Hanford dug his toe into the dirt of the seaside cliff, and heard the crash of distant waves below him. A chunk of tobacco was lodged in a familiar place under his lip, and his brown truck was parked a stone’s throw from the overlook. A gull called, as cloud cover prevented the usual warm spot from forming on the missing circlet of hair at the top of his head. This patch receded from years of construction and explosive domestic exchanges. A member of PETA (People for Eating Tasty Animals), Hanford owned three rifles, and was the kind of man who swore for punctuation. At present, he was glad to be taking a weekend retreat from the family, enjoying the coastline. As the cold wind tugged at his unshaven face, he closed his eyes and remembered.
SeaWorld, 1987, kids bickering like Chinese merchants, wife sipping a four dollar lemonade. Matt and Caroline were screeching at each other for the lion share of a spindle of pink cotton candy, and his wife Wendy had given up trying to stop them. As they walked, he was unaware of the massive wad of gum his shoe had smooshed into the asphalt. It wasn’t until the glass panels of the Aquatic Adventure section of the park that he noticed the way his right boot was producing an unpleasant sticking sensation. Leaning against a rail, he cursed, and began to scrape the gooey mess onto a curb. Wendy sauntered on ahead, the kids racing around the corner under poor artificial light. Alongside Hanford, who was now alone in the exhibit, an Orca whale had drifted. Looking up, as the boot scraping had grown vigorous, he took a short breath as the black pupil of the whale focused. The glass between them was so pure and clean, it seemed only a thin force field was holding back the tonnage of water, as if the whale was floating lazily in the air beside. It chirped, a high and silver note, which echoed through the tank, inaudible to observers. But Hanford heard a name. “Petrol,” a nickname he had in high school, back when he was known as an upbeat and generous car mechanic. Hastily taking several steps back from the looming creature, the rear of Hanford’s knees met the edge of a yellow bench, the momentum forcing him to sit down. His brain didn’t fully register Caroline’s voice cooing loudly about sea turtles around the corner. He was entranced by the now silent monochrome behemoth before him.
He had never told Wendy or the kids about this, the incredulous wonder fading into a buzz of Maker’s Mark. A year would go by with only the most occasional ponderance given to whalish whispers. It wasn’t until the ocean fishing trip next summer with his two brothers that there was a second occurrence.
On the first day of that trip, the sky was an airy light blue. The afternoon was so bright it hurt Hanford’s eyes to look directly at the white of the yacht. Swordfish had been spotted in the morning by his younger brother Jamie. Ray, the oldest, had promised to sight “at least one damn whale by evening.” Both brothers were inside the cabin, playing cards on a circular green felt table. Chips with brown bottles of beer were slowly consumed, as jokes about married life and women filled the air with raucous laughter. Outside, Hanford smiled and leaned back into an almost comfortable deck chair, his feet facing the portside railing and ocean. The rhythmic lap of the waves against the bow was periodically cut by his brothers’ mirth. He lowered his head to create shade with one of the ridiculous straw hats that Ray had bought. He could smell the burgers cooking on the upper deck grill, and after breathing in, leaned forward to spit his tobacco chew over the railing. At the beginning of his spit, a blowhole sounded not fifty feet from the boat, causing the rest of his brown saliva to expel furiously.
An Orca swam towards him slowly, as if heavy with purpose, and came so close that Hanford could have jumped over it. He heard, “Petrol, where have you been?” He stood frozen, a mixture of horror and peace, until the creature ducked beneath the boat and disappeared. He was quiet that night and the rest of the trip. Under all the dark stars, despite the four beers and healthy dose of whiskey that his brothers pushed on him, he only uttered somber single syllable words.
A gull screech pulled Hanford back from his memories as a short powerful gust chilled him through his jacket. His brown truck sat silent behind him as he looked out at the sea and imagined every rolling dark spot to be a whale. He squinted and scanned from one side of the horizon to the other. As the wind buffeted the cliffside and his face, he thought he heard a whisper; holding still, he didn’t notice the streaks of tears being blown back to his ears.
Art for this piece was provided by Ryan Braund. His fantastic art can be found at http://ryanbraund.deviantart.com/gallery/?offset=24
Knights at Midday
A wounded man leans on the hilt of a sword, breathing heavily, a bloodied spear at his feet. Two allied soldiers, Percival and Brynn stand over him and talk loudly with sweeping hand gestures.
Percival: Lo! The battle is spent and we have prevailed, the sons of derision lie before us broken!
Brynn: It was hard fought. Bespian and Kiros are fallen.
Percival:Their blood furrows my brow and pierces my heart.
The wounded soldier between them breathes heavily and coughs up blood.
Brynn:Then let us avenge them, and spill this one’s bowls upon the field.
Percival: I do not think Kiros would have us do that, slay a wounded man. He has kin with the enemy, and oft bespoke of his longing for the war’s end.
Brynn: And yet the war continues, like the embers of a fire that is stirred when it seems to almost die. If this one lives, he may heal, and we may be pressed to fight him again; or worse, he may kill our friends.
Percival: Our friends are stronger than you give credit for! I saw this one in battle. He is a farmer or a tavern keep. His flailing harmed no one, and he was speared at the beginning. Surely, if he recovers and picks up the sword again, he will be cut down swiftly.
Brynn: You underestimate the burn of revenge. I would not submit my family to the sulfuric heart of a pampered criminal. It is not for us to pardon. We are soldiers, and so must keep the people safe.
Percival: The people? Indeed Brynn, what do you see before us?
Brynn: Your sympathy is commendable, but misplaced. We are on the right, and I would see the right maintained.
Percival: The right is greater than us, and punishment is not always the best course.
Brynn: Would you bind his wounds and set him free in our homeland? Why not give him your sword and tell him of our wives beauty?
Percival: If we aided in his healing, his heart may change.
Brynn:And it may not. What do you think drives a citizen to wage war against his own Kingdom? This rebellion stems from drunkenness and greed; we cannot speak to it any more than a man may speak to a charging bear.
Percival:Even still I would try. The bear dialect cannot be too complex.
Brynn: You jest, and a man bleeds.
Percival: Are you in a haste to kill him?
Brynn: Did you not hear of the rapes in our outlying villages? They happened in the spring, when the pink leaves were returning and the white flowers were rising. I would kill him twice.
The wounded soldier shifts his eyes back and forth between Percival and Brynn. The sun catches their armor, and he has to look away for the glare.
Percival: Perhaps it is mercilessness such as that which drove him and his allies to rebel.
Brynn: Do you blame me brother in arms? Do you blame me for the sins of a gluttonous and entitled lot?
Percival: And yet…he seems so mild…so quiet…so needful…
Brynn: He is quiet at the advent of his long withheld judgment day.
Brynn sweeps back the edge of his cape and draws his sword. Percival motions for him to stop.
Percival: You cannot run him through without cause! We defend the weak. Our violence is to quench the shadow and the monster, a sun-shield for those without hope. We are not executioners.
Brynn: My cause is justice. And I have the weak at heart. The laws we profess are with reason; will you stand in the way of those who pursue peace?
Percival: Nay. But I must stand against those who propagate bloodshed for the sake of smoldering convenience.
Percival throws a leg back, shifting his cape, revealing the hilt of his sword.
Percival: His wounds are already severe; he has paid the price for standing against order. Even now, his life may slip, into some fevered dream, and beat us to the dark voyage. Indeed, how do we know that the days he spent in Sunfield did not grow in him some wisdom? Some silver thing not found elsewhere in our Kingdom.
Brynn: You stand against peace in the name of peace. What sliver of wisdom he may of possessed was cast to flames in the slaughter at Wyeth. No. The dead children and weeping virgins have relegated him to beasthood. I will put him down like a rabid dog, for that is his behavior, and his choice. Waxing eloquent is untimely in war, our actions must set the right.
Percival draws his sword.
Percival: I see now that your malice will not be contained. I cannot let you fell the wintered Oak; or slay the stumbling fool. I cannot let clemency run awash in your stream of crimson dominance.
Brynn: Your treason will come to nothing. Have at thee brother; defend the rapist and the murderer then. Watch with wide eyes the desecration of beauty? I say thee nay. Defend yourself!
Art for this piece was provided by Smiling-Raven. His beautiful and moving art can be found at http://smiling-raven.deviantart.com/gallery/.
The Memory is like Looking at a Star and then Seeing Ten More Next to It
By Richard Flamm
China was steel, grease, and snowflakes. I remember arriving, shuffling through the airport past soldiers with automated rifles, keeping my head down as I passed the defenders of the People’s Republic. On the taxi drive from the Shanghai airport, I looked around and saw worn down tenements, laundry draped over every balcony – each like an individual country’s flag of independence. As I gazed with my forehead pressed against the window, my new school friends made excited small talk; and an army-green, war-era truck drove past.
Each of us in our 19 and 20’s: we were packed to explore, packed with emotion, packed to rally the faith. As we arrived at our hotel in Shanghai, waves of smells greeted us. Our first walk on Oriental streets was defined by our noses. First, the sweet smell of pork buns – a commoner’s delicacy (I wonder if they know how good they taste?). Second, the smell of mechanical oil – motorcycles buzzing past. Third, was excrement, pungent and foul, followed by an immediate returning smell of sweetness; the return of the pork bun. The smell of food mixed for a horrid moment with the smell of poop. It was bewildering to take in; our hearts, like our noses, raced to keep up.
Night in Shanghai was a spectacle for our little group. Ellie was from England. Evie was from Australia. Chris, Bettina, and Eva were from Germany. I alone repped the U.S.A. Chris would call me Mei Gua for most of the trip – the Mandarin word for America, meaning “the beautiful country”. Down the side street adjacent of our hotel we wandered. The pervading color was neon red, and beneath was a stream of a thousand people. On the right were suits and dresses behind glass, stashed in stores the size of small kitchens. Farther down, a restaurant lined with a gaudy gold dragon embellishing the entrance overhead; the storefront window a massive fish tank full of large goldfish, lobster, and unrecognizable fish. We walked. Chris of Deutschland was exuberant, loudly pointing out each new sight with sing-song admiration. He contrasted with my complete silence.
As we walked back to the hotel for our first night, we switched sides of the road. This would prove important; as it made possible the first time a stranger offered me a hand job. I remember that moment; the lights were bulbous and gold, like the front of a classic Hollywood theatre. Chinese lettering was luminous along the street, and especially where our path would cross with a main road, 200 feet ahead. Suddenly a girl, 17 – 25, my western eye unable to surmise, stood before me. The group was meanwhile distracted by the rest of China. She said, “You want massage?” shoving a pamphlet into my hand. I was intrigued, startled, and politely declined. She pressed, “Why? You have girlfriend? You want massage?” At the moment, I sort of did have a girlfriend, but I couldn’t see why that mattered. Later, perhaps a year or so, I realized why it mattered.
There is nothing like authentic street Chinese food. To them, simply “food”, to me a glorious white dragon descending and showering heaven-light. I see it clearly, the clean glass paned bakery shop that sat before the insanity of the subway. Everything in China has a Chineseness to it. We noted this. If we stepped on grass, it was Chinese grass. If we saw a bird, it wasn’t just a bird, but a Chinese bird. So too, these pastries, Chinese pastries. My American dollar, robust as it was, was worth 7 to 1 RNB, the Chinese dollar. Everything about me cost pennies, and this was very dangerous in an exotic pastry shop.
This exploration went on for weeks, and I fell more in love with the overpowering city. By day and night, I would wander the main streets and back alleys. The close-to-the-ground billboard by the river, that old woman selling oranges in a cart she struggled to push, the children in their taut black school uniforms behind the grey iron fence, the boy who would later inspire me to write poems: his tiny frame running to fly a kite on a brown, trash littered, and sun scorched field. When the midnight hour rolled around, I would sometimes find myself lost; I would feel a twinge of panic, but then a return of reckless fearlessness. Feelings of wonder and tremendous purpose overrode my normal sense of safety. I reached out in joyous and broken Mandarin to complete strangers: “Where is the bathroom?” and “This tastes delicious!” I learned to navigate using the tallest buildings in the city. When confused by my surroundings I would walk a street until I could see down an alley, the “Pearl Tower” jutting up from the adjacent city of Pudong; a beacon that would lead me to the “bund” (the river bank), and then straightaway to my unpronounceable hotel.
Bettina of Germany and I would go on walks through grey streets and green raised parks. I had the slightest crush on her, but the grandeur of the moment was distracting me from the way her hair gently curled up at the sides. On an overcast day we went walking through the city praying for the people as we passed by them. Most people in China don’t speak English, so we felt like secret ninja-missionaries and love-fueled-bad-asses. We would speak out loud, “Yes Lord, I just pray you bless this person and this city…” As we spoke, we began to perceive the gaiety of the moment. At one point, we walked through a park, praying out loud in tongues – a supernatural language given to us by God. Full voice, I remember us agreeing that Bettina’s language sounded something like Latin. Those people who were around us then still have no idea what happened the time two prayer bandits struck in broad daylight.
My group visited churches and met at English speaking corners, places where students would gather to practice their English. We discussed opinions with young Chinese students over subjects ranging from Mao Se Tung (whose brass statue overlooks the University still), the one child law, and popular movies. Our team’s mission statement “To know God, and to make Him known” was ever present, and we were instructed with an air of austerity by our team leader Mrs. Manson. While I appreciated the depth of the task at hand, I was severely distracted by the absence of my semi-girlfriend, Sunny. Sunny and I had rather salaciously (for missionaries) been in flirtatious correspondence across different school groups. She was a team leader on the pacific island of Vanuatu, and within our mission organization outranked me. For this, in the eyes of her school, our relationship was seen as fraternization of the worst kind. As I stared at the black kettle fireplace in our lovely hostel (we had moved, reducing costs), I thought of her. I imagined her running around in sandals on a brown dirt island; the everlasting sunshine illuminating running children and wooden huts. I remembered where I was: cold, concrete, dark. I could see her spreading the good news with a grin, probably falling for some gorgeous pastor-boy-blond-haired-jackass. Checking my email an embarrassing amount, I was miserable in the abject sense. People think missionaries don’t love romance or fucking. They do. Especially if they don’t.
It was desperation that drove me to the truth. Morning prayer, worship time, plan for the day. Try not to feel angry and alone. Feel angry and alone. Meet with the Underground Church… as in, “We’re Chinese Christians and we punch tyrannical Communism in the ballsack… oh hello, western boy who grew up playing Nintendo while trying not to burn his mouth eating microwave burritos, would you and your friends like to share a few words of encouragement?” Flash to thinking of Sunny’s very touchable dancer curves. “Ummmm.”
And so confliction. And so revelation. While I failed to keep up as a missionary, I fell deeply in love with China. My expectation of bringing sagely wisdom was made small under the weight of a 2,000 year old culture. Instead, I was brought excellent food. I was brought friendship and wise council. I was brought to deeper faith. All around me was the fantastic and ancient – my soul was quieted.
This zenith of perspicuity served to fuel curiosity and deepened my enjoyment of the place. On a spiritual retreat themed weekend, my group took a train ride (filled with playing the card game “Mafia”) into the countryside city of Hang Zou. Our train arrived late at the night, all the buses had stopped running, and the cold nipped at the places our skin was bare. We scouted for food around the station, and met smashing success: hot food for the soul. Unsure of how to get to our hostel, we prayed and walked. Suddenly, a red bus swung in front of us, flung its double doors open, and shouted if we needed a ride. We said that we did, and I don’t even think he charged us. It was in this way that our confidence grew, a feeling of Providence about us at every corner.
Hang Zuo was a dream. There were hillsides, topped with oriental looking pagodas – you know, the kind that they train Ninjas at (Ninjas are actually Japanese, but you get it). All about us were parks with ponds, shops with large antique weapons, toothless beggars, and green misty hills in the distance that closed us in. It was exactly like a video game. One night we dared each other to try the fried scorpions in the marketplace. No one chickened out, but English Ellie made such a girlish fuss about it, we must have had 50 people gathered around us laughing. We had a mock U.N. council in the upstairs of a luxuriously priced Starbucks (again, I was the only American for miles). We biked a long white cobble Chinese path through trees with falling Chinese leaves, lake on both sides. It was idyllic; a gasoline balm to my burning soul.
When we returned to Shanghai refreshed, the magic didn’t stop. We met with a long term missionary from Chicago name Alan West. He was black, and I found this to be unspeakably awesome. He was also a youth pastor, and about to rock my world. We sat down at a dinner party the underground church had thrown for us (THE FREAKING UNDERGROUND CHURCH), and he sat down next to me and we had a discussion that changed my life. “I’ve been thinking of working more exclusively with troubled kids,” said Alan.
I replied, “It suits you.”
He gave me a quizzical look, paused, and smiled. I thought I had offended him. He said, “It’s good to finally have met you Rich.” I went quiet and thought I had misheard him. “I had a dream about you a year ago. About the words you just said, ‘It suits you.’ I wrote it in my journal. So it’s good to finally have met you.” Questions of fate flooded me, but the overwhelming sensation was one of warmth and belonging; I felt peace, as though I was pleasing a Divine will by being exactly where I was at.
As days past, my friendship and amazement with Alan grew. It was snowing out when Alan and I had a movie night in the cozy TV room of the hostel. I was roused to brave the cold and buy some dumpling across the street. They were sold 24/7 off a curb by a family, bright fluorescent lights in their doorway, neighbors smoking, motorcycles buzzing by to pick up a one in the morning snack. In my wild hunger, I ran out across the street, snow falling, from the hostel in my white T-shirt, only to find a line. As I shifted back and forth to keep from shivering I looked up at the sky to see the stars. But in Shanghai there are no stars. The sky was burnt orange yellow – snowflakes and mist refracting the light emanating from the surrounding endless construction. I hastily paid for my dumplings and ran back inside the warm hostel.
A week later or so I was wandering the streets around the hostel as I was accustomed to doing. Out of the crowd ran a grey haired woman toward me, calling out. She had her hand outstretched and spoke, “Yo change.” She took my hand and dumped into it a series of coins, the exact amount I had thoughtlessly overpaid a week before. She represented China to me. Even now I can see her slender white fingers reaching through grease slick snowflakes under amber light…reaching out to me, winter dressed in a t-shirt and blue jeans with holes at the knee.