Along a Silent Brook: One




Fading Meadow


        Chen Au-yong ran as quietly as he could through the wobbling trees, the occasional crunch of leaves underfoot following him with the tones of crumbling disintegration; he was lean and tall for his age of ten-and-six years, akin to a slender feline forced into labor that tightened muscles, with a face that retained a youthful roundness and was pocked by the twin spheres of midnight black that were his eyes.  Usually alight with thought, they were rimmed with the red webbing of bloodshot awareness now, darting in anxious movements from one corner to the other.

        He swore, a quiet guttural word hidden under his breath as he ducked the prodding limb of a tree, bare feet slipping through a faint layer of mud that peeked in a spot where no leaves awaited his presence.  There was a growing tightness in his chest, the dull pounding ache of his heart beating erratically and a burning lining his lungs with each shallow, hurried breath.  The trees obscured the moon's position from him and, impatient but not wanting to risk aggravating the sharp pangs in his body, he began slogging at a slower pace through the leaves and mud.

        Finally, as the moments of edged progress silently racked together, he pulled free of the small forest, the calloused soles of his feet finding nothing but sleek, wet grass padding his weight.  "Bless and thanks, Gong De Tian," he muttered, sketching a quick symbol with the side of his hand and shuddering in the moonlight.  A soft breeze lifted, once, in murmuring question, and then faded, leaving him to dry in the moist June air as his sweat lined the white cloth of his jacket, a thing of long, open sleeves and thin material as fit the river basin's climate.

        One final spasm struck the back of his shoulders, knotting into a tense bow between the bones of his shoulder blades and relaxing swiftly, and he wiped his clammy hands over the beaded salt along his yellow face.  Faint tremors, so faint as to be all but noticeable, traced through the muscles of his hands as he cleaned sweat from his face, a wordless testimony to his exhausted state.  Wiry and athletic as he was, having been raised in the harsh life of the yi that demanded physical stamina and quickness, he was also young.  For him to stay in the land of waking for more than one passage of the sun's rise and fall was both unhealthy and dangerous.

        Another sudden shudder ripped through his body and he clutched his hands into fists, falling to his knees and trying his best to be quiet as he was sick, keeping his head turned to the forest so as to keep from staining the meadow's placid perfection.  He waited a moment, breathing slowly as he steadied the pulse of his lungs, drawing the sticky warm air in carefully, and then receded back in the lopsided embrace of the meadow.  It had not taken long and was mostly water anyway; when one was fleeing certain death, he grinned wryly, one was not half as concerned with eating as with running.

        "This meadow," he said after some time, bowing his shoulders as he tried to focus his vision, "will do."  It was succinct enough for him, and he closed his eyes briefly.  Had it been not a meadow but a den of fork-tongued demons, he could hardly have cared; he only wanted sleep.  "Guan Yin," he began hoarsely in a voice that was dry, placing two of his fingers an inch apart in the nearly hidden traces of mud at the base of the tree, one fingertip pressing in the loam of the forest, the other into the softness of the meadow.

        Clearing his throat, he opened his slanted eyes briefly, short eyelashes fringing the heavy lids, and began anew: "Guan Yin, god of mercy and those who pledge for His assistance," his fingers began trailing deep gouges in the mud, an exact doubled path coming closer to his thigh, "You who have watched me at the pleading of my mother barren from other sons," with some effort and a grunt, he shifted his fingers further from one another and in careful mirroring curlicues, "I come now to beg for Your protection that You might grant me this boon."  Another painful swirl, accompanied with a second grunt, was etched deep into the brown substance, and then a half-moon shape before he pulled his fingers free.

         He hoped as he dug his fingers in the whorls of the bark of the tree he had rested on, pulling himself up and swinging his legs around to clamber up its height, that his prayer, informal and hasty though it had been, would be respected by his beseeched god.  If it was not, then he supposed he would wake in the morn to see the face of Ma-mian of the underworld.  Settling his body in the crook of two branches that wove and interlocked together in an impromptu sling, Chen closed his eyes and allowed his mind to fade.


        I woke, if that was the word to best suit it, in a strange haze that enveloped my mind in a fuzzy sort of embrace.  As this was a frequent occurrence – I have never been particularly fond of waking; sleep is an ally, a friend – I paid little heed to it and simply pulled my coat higher around my face.  It didn't bother me why exactly I would be wearing my coat in bed, nor did the fact that the material pillowing my cheek was too coarse to be cotton and too prickly to be any cloth.  Everything in my body felt limp and tired, wanting to just stay motionless and be like that for however long it may be.

        A shiver took hold of me and I curled my legs up, squeezing my eyes tight in reflection as my nose wrinkled, an uncomfortable heat growing on the edge of my senses.  It made little sense that I should shiver when I was so warm, and I supposed in my sleepy presence of mind that maybe something strange had happened.  Shock, a semester of high school intro-to-psychology piped up helpfully.  There are many symptoms to shock, continued the old memorized portion of text, which range from the physical to the psychological.  Tremors are a physical presentation, as is hysterical laughter and sobbing…

        I tried to burrow into my coat, though that only served to heighten the dank warmth, and decided I could hardly be in shock.  First off I was not being hysterical at all – I yawned in the heat of my coat and fluttered one of my eyes open to stare at the dark inside of the layered cloth – and secondly, why on Earth would I be in shock?  As I shifted a leg, feeling a warning stiffness in the joint, I paused, rubbing my leg slowly back in the path it had taken.

        The muffled, quiet sound of crushed grass being ground over managed to pierce my coat and I hesitated, closing my eyes again and growing still.  A faint trill of fear struck me, suddenly thinking on how many ways there were to poison a girl and take her where you wish, and I could not remember anything after waiting at the bus stop.  I twisted one hand out, slapping it in a small trickle of mud and gripping my ragged fingernails in it as if to anchor myself in reality; was I in a park, I wondered dazedly, too afraid to peek out of the engulfing collar of my coat.

        After several moments of this odd balance between reality and whatever was opposing it, I finally stretched my legs out to their full, rather short lengths, feeling an unpleasant dampness where the cloth was wet.  Afraid and more than a little confused, I took a deep, bolstering breath and slowly poked my head out of my coat.

        A tree faced me stoutly, brown and slender, shaking slightly as though it carried some weight to it, and I jerked back as reflex, blinking and scrabbling in the wet grass.  The unbearable heat, it seemed, was from the humid summer atmosphere and I was caught off-guard by this realization; it was January, cold, bleak, numbing January along the eastern seaboard adrift with snow and frequent blizzards that shut down power and sparked grumbling unhappiness.

        Memory came then, smooth and deeply foggy, and I remembered uneasily some faint sense of a June breeze creeping along my spine.  It seemed very odd and even more frightening that I could not remember where from, and I sat up with some effort, fisting my hands and crossing my arms as to cradle myself.  Why, I wondered and swallowed the nervous little pain in my throat; why was it so warm?  It couldn't be, this was winter, it had to be, so why was I sweating and feeling as if someone had reached into my skull and tickled my mind?  Punch drunk, I thought and a helpless smile creased my lips.

        Oh God, as I felt tears prickling the back of my eyes, clapping my palms firmly over them to try and hold the wetness in.  I don't know what's happening.  My feeble attempts to hide my tears failed and the silver beads plucked their stern paths down my cheeks, peeling over fingers and dripping from my chin.  Through the tears my lips twisted up and I started laughing, brief choked gestures that were birthed by whatever strange thing was driving me.

        Shock, I repeated in my head and lowered my hands, wiping the backs of my hands over my cheeks to clear the tears as best I could.  I'm in shock, but why.  And if I'm in shock, I continued, pushing my hands down hard in the grass and, with a harmony of squelches, pushed myself up into a wobbling stance, how come I can still think right?  I failed psychology; how would I know?

        As I spent a few more moments sniffling and trying to dry off my face, I grew aware I was in a clearing, a small meadow in the center of a forest of squat evergreens, and I turned around, slowly.  Where were the manic sounds of Winchester?  There was no place in the entire city this eerily silent, never had been, and it was the source of a deeper fear than anything I had ever felt before.  A disoriented feeling swarmed up in my chest when I moved again, shifting in discomfort at the sweating heat of my coat but stubbornly not wanting to remove it.

        I remembered reading, once, in a glossy magazine thrown heedlessly on the smooth mahogany of the dentist's waiting room table, of memory would sometimes lapse suddenly with no warning.  People could forget entire months of their life and I told myself, maybe falsely, that they probably did just fine. 

        "Okay, then," I whispered in the meadow, then cleared my throat and brushed my lifeless hair out of my face.  "It's summer."  Of course; this heat was nearly unbearable, the same humid feel that plagued the eastern coast.  "I'm in a forest," my voice quavered on the next word, nearly breaking, "alone.  Which means," I broke off, swallowing heavily.  "There's lots of undeveloped forest areas in New York, right?" asked of the sky.  "So maybe Aunt Jenny's taking me on summer vacation."

        Which is why I was sleeping in the middle of a rainy meadow wearing my coat and the same clothes from the bus stop, drolly spoke the voice in my head.

        "Coincidence," I said a little too cheerfully, shaking slightly and rocking my head from side to side in order to rid the hated voice.  "Things happen, right, so all I need to do is find Aunt Jenny."  Another shiver hit me, and I felt a sob catch in my throat, coming out as a low, pathetic keen.  "Aunt Jenny," I whispered, too afraid to yell, and I repeated her name several more times before, my head bowing forward and blonde hair falling as a wisping curtain, I started crying.

        A scrape as of cloth snagging on thin, easily broken branches interrupted my weeping and I started, the fear rising and adrenaline – where from? – leaping.  "Stop," I sobbed, "go away!"  I lifted one of my hands, keeping my head low as I stumbled to the side, trying to get away from the tree and finding it hard to muster the will to do so.

        And then a pair of hands were upon me, rough and slender and far too quick to allow me time to scream or pull away, fingers of one foreign hand grabbing the collar of my coat to tug it down smoothly and quickly.  I shut my eyes tighter than I ever had, thinning my lips and praying desperately, heavily, oh God in heaven, hallowed be Thy name. 

        "Aunt Jenny!" I cried, pulling my elbows up in front of my face.  "Oh God, Aunt Jenny!"  As I tried to cry for my aunt – she has to be here, oh God she can't not be here, where is she – a soft, strange word was said to my left, fingers tightening around my hair and pulling sharply.  "Aunt Jenny," I tried to yell and a hand wormed under my arms, clapping firmly over my mouth and muffling the sounds.  My arms were jerked down then, wrists pinned together by a straining opposite hand, and I pulled back, ashamed and scared as the tears kept coming.

        I hated crying and I hated being confused, sticky and hot under my coat with a rough hand pressing hard against my mouth, and it only made my cry harder.  The hand around my wrists shook me, suddenly, yanking forward and then pushing in a quick shake, and I stared stupidly into a pair slanted black eyes.  The fingers pressing over my mouth were pinching the skin around it and, startled into silence temporarily, I let out a whimper; why is he doing this to me, I whined piteously.  As if I even had the slightest clue who he was.

        He made a gesture for silence, cutting his hand through the air, and I wriggled my wrists, knowing I wanted to be able to defend myself somehow.  To my surprise he let go, but not without a warning shove that had me staggering back a few paces and massaging my wrists.  When he spoke, following a moment of silent study, it was in a foreign language, simultaneously melodic and guttural.  I blinked, hard, and took a step backward of my own will, unsure of what to make of his demand; and he repeated it, slower this time. 

        "Why tell me to shut up if you're going to talk?" I asked grouchily; I was reminded of a little kid, then, who when faced with a confusing riddle, chooses the stupidest thing to comment on.  If I could not understand him, I reasoned in the part of my mind not acting like a brat, then how could he understand me?

        'He' was far more interested, it seemed, in picking at my hair, fiddling with the strands and lowering his decisively Asian face to it in study.  His height was not remarkable, maybe an inch or so shorter than me, but he was very lean, as if he did not eat enough and had to run a lot; like Bobby in track and field, I thought, and a strange sense of homesickness attacked me, almost like I was somewhere completely foreign.

        I crushed the uneasiness with a heavy swallow and forced myself to be still, eyes watching him from the corners and judging him with all the distrust of a true New Yorker teenager.  Handsome, in a youthful way, and with sheaths of black hair hanging in disarray, he wore a strange outfit: baggy yellow trousers, a long red jacket with thick sleeves, and the button designs that were unique to the Chinese.  I thought, with a slow feeling of doom, on the sound of his speech and his accent, the fact that I was still wearing my coat in summer weather, and glanced at the way the trees in particular looked.

        So if a plane leaves from Point A at 7: 05 in the morning, from the Winchester International airport, when will it get at Point B somewhere in China

        "This isn't real, is it," I pleaded, grabbing my blonde hair and forcefully removing it from his grip.  "I mean, this has to be a dream, right?  And you aren't real, which means you're a dream," I struggled for a word, ignoring his odd look, "manifestation!  But then how come I don't feel weird, like dreaming weird.  I'm insane."  I knew my expressions were changing throughout my brief rambling, from desperate to distant to shocked, but his – though he had glanced away, flickering his eyes around the meadow as though looking for something – remained the same.

        Until his spine stiffened and his eyes narrowed even further, turning them into slits of darkness, and he grabbed my upper arm in a wiry grip like a vice, ignoring my protests and whimpers as he dragged me. 

        "What are you doing?" I demanded, voice cracking; I could never get used to being forceful, something he clearly had no problem with whatsoever.  "Please let me go, I won't tell anyone," a thought occurred to me, "not even the police."  I waited, for a second, in hopes that this word of universal meaning might come across, but he only glared at me and pulled harder.

        I glanced over my shoulder, the moments before he pulled me into the trees and began running, and saw a horrible face on the opposite end of the meadow.  It was a tall man, but broad as well, with a face that looked like a flattened and scarred crocodile.  A slightly jabbing jaw, like a scaly muzzle that was ejected partly from a human face, snapped open in clear threat, black and rotting teeth visible as much as the shining ivory ones.  He grinned.

        Immediately, I screamed and helplessly floundered after the angry boy, too utterly terrified to mind I was burning under my coat or that tears were making my entire face soaked with salt.  Sobbing, I followed him, legs pumping in swift steps as I focused my watery gaze, blurred and unfocused, on the soiled yellow of his outfit.  It was a comfort to see, barely, when he hesitated once to smile kindly, and we vanished into the woods.



Notes:  My apologies both for the delay and the rushed feeling of this part.  I can vouch that the next chapter will be at least twice as long as this (to sate my guilt and make me feel arrogant - ^^).

Thanks:  Laralie, ed_the_female, and Morbane.  I'm trying to work on my narrative, toning it down and all.  I think my problem is that I'm not used to writing first person so much as the much-beloved third-person omniscient (power!), and my narrative style is bleeding into my first person perspective.  If that made any sense…

Terms and Definitions: 

The breakdown of Chen's name is the following:                                     

-Chen, male/female (meaning it can be used for both genders) Chinese name meaning dawn                                                                                       

-Au-yong, Chinese surname that can be translated in a variety of ways – positive, sun, bright, clear, masculine, pertaining to the world – which interestingly enough are mostly aspects of the Yang (light/masculine) principle                                                                                                                                                    

-Chen Au-yong can therefore be translated as dawn(ing) sun

(Joanne Beckett, for those interested, means something a bit less comprehensive: God is gracious and little beak, respectively)

Gong De Tian is a Chinese goddess of luck; Guan Yin (also can be Romanized as Kwan Yin) is the god of mercy and barren women; and Ma-mian is a bureaucrat of the underworld.

A yi is a tribesman, and the outfit (as well as the social class of yi) he wore is from the Yin Shang period.