Zen relied more and more on entering the Green in order to find peace and balance. His home life left him so desperate and lonely that he needed the quiet meditation and tranquil solitude of nature. He relaxed in the Green and used it to clear his thoughts.
The forest was in full bloom and everywhere animals and insects he never thought existed in the city popped out to say hello. There were many small brown sparrows—some that looked as if someone had been plucking out their feathers; plump red and brown horned squirrels with bright eyes and huge teeth; red-tipped, white tipped, and blue-tipped, magpies that sang marvelously in the canopy above; shiny black and green beetles skittering through the air; frightening finger-long centipedes; huge purple-winged flies; ubiquitous mosquitoes and gnats (especially after it rained); small spiders launching themselves into the air trailing their silken threads and large spiders building catcher’s mitt-sized traps between the pale branches of the Korean willow trees. And humans. Young and old. Here, there, and everywhere.
With the warmer weather the forest became populated at all hours of the day and night. In the summer, the sun came out promptly at three-thirty AM and by four the tai ji players were out in the clearings of the forest, moving their hands like fog across a lake surface, some practicing with their flexible tai ji swords, others not; the tree huggers were out soaking up the green energy shooting upwards and outwards from the earth, into the reticulated net of roots, rising through the wet trunks, and into their shriveled fingers; middle-aged women shrouded from head to foot in order to protect their delicate skin from the strong rays of the sun were power walking along the trails, some singing classic army songs from their youth; musicians were trilling on flutes or horns; lovers who had been up all night were ensconced on diverse benches and lost in each other’s eyes and lips; and Zen. The only foreigner in this forest, a forest alive with small forest creatures and large hairless apes.
Zen didn’t mind. He walked quickly between the trees, picking his path carefully to avoid the people. He didn’t like them staring at him while he practiced archery. He didn’t mind either, but he didn’t particularly care for it. Chinese people had no qualms interrupting someone while he or she was practicing whatever art or exercise of choice. Westerners would respect a person’s privacy, even in a public space. In China, that concept was greatly diminished. In the West, Zen only ever worried about the police harassing him when he practiced martial arts outdoors. Here martial arts were commonplace and people were not afraid of anyone swinging a sword or a staff or a pair of nunchakus. Nor apparently shooting arrows.
Zen was worried that his archery practice would be considered reckless. In the late winter when they was much less people about, he felt nigh invisible. A ghost slipping between the slumbering forest sentinels to send darts through the cold air into a handmade target. He carried the bow and arrows concealed in a cheap green sack, the target wrapped in an old black plastic garbage bag. He hoped anyone who might see him would think he was just crossing the forest after doing some shopping. He was not fooling anyone however. The shape of the bow under the green sack was too obvious. Once when he took Hobbit into the Green with him, they were questioned by the old guard at the gate. Zen ignored the old man’s question but Hobbit turned very brightly to him and said, “We’re practicing archery!”
Zen chided her for revealing “his business.” “This is my business. I don’t like people to know my business!”
“Sorry. I didn’t know. You didn’t tell me not to say anything.”
“It’s probably not legal to do this here.”
“I doubt it matters.”
And it didn’t matter. Subsequently, after he passed the guard watching dramas on his iPad device, the old man would see him and raise his arms, pulling back on an imaginary bow, and smile. Zen forced a smile. And after many weeks, the smile was no longer forced. Each time Zen arrived the old man was happy to see him and smiled broadly. Zen began to look forward to seeing the old guard. He no longer felt like an outsider. He felt as if he belonged to the forest and the forest to him. The forest had accepted him. Now that there were more people, Zen took extra care that no one was coming down the path where he practiced. He was not shooting far in any event, only thirty yards or so and he selected a path that was not much in use. It sloped slightly downhill and where he stood the toddler-sized target made of old clothes and cardboard against a good-sized oak, there was a gully that rose slightly on the other side. It was perfect and seemed made to order. If he ever missed the target (which was rare), his cheap arrows fell harmlessly into the muddy bank of the gully. It was less than twenty minutes for Zen to find blissful peace.
Zen was in love.
Even back in America he had never had such a perfect place to shoot his bow. In America you had to live out in the country if you wanted to set up an archery target and shoot off some arrows. He had tried to do that in West Houston once and the police were quickly on the scene, the contemptuous neighbors peeking through the window curtains. Zen couldn’t always make it to the archery range or drive out to the countryside where no one would care. For one thing, he rode a motorcycle. He couldn’t tote his bow and had to rely on family or friends to give him a lift. Then, traveling by city bus was always an ordeal in Texas. The truth was he just could not bring himself to carry his bow case on public transport. It just seemed wrong.
Here in Harbin, on the other hand, he could walk out the apartment door and escape the city in minutes. In minutes.
Zen was in love.
True, this was his first summer shooting in the forest and he had to be wary of granddads and their screeching grandkids, but they never walked down his path, narrow dark and wet and away from the main trails. Occasionally an old man or old woman would cross between the trees, searching for wild herbs, but Zen could hear them stumbling through the brambles from a long way off. Zen was sure he would never accidentally hurt anyone with his arrows and he didn’t.
Zen was content. This had worked out much better than he had ever expected. He crossed an ocean to find the type of meditative practice that fulfilled him. He breathed in the wet oxygen-rich air and felt the forest breathe joyously with him. He swore he could hear the trees soughing in ecstasy with him.
A gentle smile on his face, Zen entered the green, crossed the broad stone path that crisscrossed and circled the forest, and slipped down the narrow path that led to his clearing, his clearing, the clearing he had so judiciously selected to remain away from prying eyes and screaming children and moon-eyed lovers and jogging geezers.
He was almost to the clearing when he saw a strange sight, a phantasmagorical vision. It was a perfect heart-shaped ass, so white it literally glowed, the symmetrical cheeks like large luminous eyes, just above the ground, near the oak tree where he placed his target. Zen’s pace slowed. What the hell? Zen did not register what he was seeing at first. He thought it was an animal, a forest sprite. Then the beautiful buttocks trembled ever so slightly and squeezed out a dollop of excrement.
“Oh hell no! Stop! Stop!” Zen ran at the floating ghostly magnificent buttocks yelling at the top of his voice. “You can’t do that here! Stop!”
Zen was so engrossed to stem the desecration of his sacred space that he didn’t see the young man rushing up to detain him.
“Please wait a moment!”
Zen tried to circle the young man, but the young man fended him off, imploring him to wait. A young female voice yelled out, “Don’t look! Don’t look!”
Zen was livid. He didn’t look. He turned away but berated the young couple over his shoulder.
“There’s a bathroom at the front gate. If you need to go to the bathroom, just go there. This path is for people to walk on.”
The young man begged his forgiveness and explained that his friend was “urgent” and felt “much pain” and just “couldn’t wait.”
“God damn it,” Zen said in English. The young lass wiped herself clean and dropped the used tissues on the ground.
The couple vanished down the other end of the path and Zen was left alone in his precious forest with a fresh steaming steamer, the slightly redolent odor of female excreta rising in the green-tinted air.
“Fucksticks,” was all he could manage. “Just fucksticks.”
There was nothing else to be done. Zen laid down the target and bow, making sure there weren’t any other surprises underfoot, and got to work. He fashioned a digging stick and dug a hole, a good ways away from his practice area. Then he found some thick broad banana-leaf kind of weeds and used it to transport the offensive matter away from his precious area. Finally, he swept the forest floor with a dead branch. Good. He was satisfied. No harm no foul. Time for peace. Thank God she was a woman!
The next time he almost stepped in it. And it was a sizeable steamer from someone who had obviously had had a lot of corn in his recent meal. Zen wanted to vomit. He had to peel off a huge section of bark from a dead log in order to scrape “it” away. Zen took extra pains to be careful. He did not want to track human “mud” back home. Hobbit would kill him.
Was this the end of his archery? Zen had tried other spaces in which to practice and this small clearing in the middle of the forest along a narrow path closeted in by the thick foliage was just so perfect. Away from prying eyes. Private. Too private obviously.
In the warm sunny days that followed, Zen was forced to perform clean up duty each time he went to his precious spot. Only when it rained was he given respite from this odious task. He had had enough and complained to the old guard, but the old man only blinked at him uncomprehendingly and raised his arms, shooting imaginary arrows.
Zen then made up signs, very tastefully and artfully done and in perfect elegant Chinese, asking people not to go down this path and use it for a toilet. Please use the bathroom located at the front gate. When next he returned, the signs were kicked over. One man had even—almost assuredly a man because only a male would perform such an atrocious and vicious act of defilement—dropped his odious loaf right on the center of one of Zen’s polite signs, looking like a bizarre postmodern work of art: shit on a plate.
This was war.
Zen was not going to give up his sacred space so easily. It was his tranquil turf and he’d be damned if he was going to let these barbarians defecate all over it. This was his forest, his. And he belonged to the forest. He loved her like a good woman. And he was not going to let her moist holy spaces be profaned by hairless apes with weak sphincters. He had tried being polite. Now it was time for more drastic measures.
Still, he couldn’t very well chase away perpetrators while carrying a bow and arrows (even if the archery set was for young teens and not in any way suitable for real archery or hunting). There was always the police to consider. Moreover, Zen didn’t want to get confrontational. Chinese people had a keen disregard for any official signage. Witness the thousands who lit up right next to no smoking signs or who shoved to the front of queues even when orderly lines where painstakingly roped off. No, Zen had to think out of the box. What might scare people off? Or at least prevent them from going down the path? He had to think about it. Ghosts? Make people afraid of a ghost or some monstrous creature? He doubted he could pull it off. This wasn’t a Scooby-Doo cartoon. In the middle of the city, who was going to believe that a horrible monster lurked in these small woods? And then, it occurred to Zen.
“Ah ha!” he yelled from the bathroom.
“Ah ha what,” asked Hobbit. ‘What’s going on in there? What are you doing?”
Zen laughed. This just might possibly work.
“What are you doing in there? Are you watching porn? I told you to stop that!”
“I’m not watching porn! Goddammit! You shut up and mind your own business! Damn Hobbitses.”
Zen went out and bought the supplies he needed. That evening he got to work.
“Oh my gorsh! What are you doing? Cooking all that food! I’m not eating dinner here you know. I’m going to my parents’ home.”
“This food ain’t for you, silly Hobbit. Away with you!”
“Hmm. Crazy dwarf. Who wants to eat your food anyway? Still, I should taste a little to make sure you’re doing it right.”
“Away with you I say!”
“Humph! How rude!”
Zen cooked a feast for an army. He made egg and tomato and mushrooms with green and red spicy peppers, red curry potato and broccoli and tomato, steamed corn, and four different kinds of dumplings: pork and celery, beef and carrot and green pepper, egg and leek, and shrimp and corn and vegetable. In addition he bought fried chicken hamburgers and chicken burritos from the local cangmai. They weren’t real burritos like back home, but they would do the trick. He cooked four cups of rice in the rice cooker and then laid out all of the dishes on the foldable round table in the living room.
“Are you inviting someone over? Is it your girlfriend? If you invite that vampire into my home and I’ll kill her! I will!”
“I ain’t inviting anyone over anywhere. Jeez. For a small Hobbit you got a big imagination. Now I’m busy. This’s work. Lemme alone.”
“Fine. But I’m not doing any dishes.”
“Do you ever?”
Hobbit slammed the door on the way out to her parents’ home and Zen sat down to eat.
He was so full he thought he might die. He felt awful and happy at the same time. He could barely move to clean up the dishes. He lumbered into his office and fell down on the dog-bed. He fell asleep listening to his stomach gurgling like some diabolical machine. Indeed, there was something infernal happening inside his digestive system. With every morsel that Zen ate he made sure he dabbed on some kind of fiery spice: Tabasco sauce from the import market, spicy Korean bean curd paste, Hobbit’s father’s special super-hot red pepper oil, Thai sweet chili sauce, and finally good old American yellow mustard. It was a lethal concoction.
When Hobbit returned from dinner she demanded that he open all the windows.
“You open ‘em. I can’t move.”
“You’re trying to kill me. That’s what it is. You want kill me and marry a younger girl. Pervert.”
Early the next morning, Zen got up and made coffee. He poured the boiling hot coffee into a thermos and took out some special pills he bought at the pharmacist. He packed up his small yellow backpack and set off with his archery gear for the forest.
Ninety minutes later Zen returned, whistling quietly and looking quite satisfied.
“Had fun? Good shooting?”
“Oh yes. Very good shooting.” He kissed Hobbit three times, one on each cheek and then on her lips. This time he didn’t pretend it was disagreeable.
Later that day a young couple was strolling through the Forestry University’s experimental forest along the smooth stone pathway. They walked together happily, the young man holding his beautiful girlfriend tightly, and the young woman leaning into him. They paused at the entrance of a small path that led off into a section of the forest that was particularly thick and dark and green. The young woman whispered something to the young man and he nodded. She pulled out a package of tissues from her purse and then gave the purse to her boyfriend. She disappeared down the path, but came running back almost immediately. Her face was aghast and she was pinching her nose closed. She hooked her boyfriend’s arm at a run without explanation, and the two of them pounded down the stone pathway until they made it to the safety of the front gate.
Afterward, the path gained a certain notoriety and almost everyone avoided that dark green heavily wooded section of the forest. A fetor, not quite human, but definitely not animal, terrible and fearsome, lingering and caustic, pervaded the shadows among the trees and formed a palpable deterrent to the forest visitors, leaving only one man, one lone foreign man, carrying a bow and some cheap arrows and a handmade target made of old clothes and tape and cardboard, light of foot, light of spirit.