"When young I was not as others, I loved the mountains, hills and misted rivers. But Oh I was dazzled by visions of power From which I've only awakened in this, my final hour." - Tao Yuan-ming, 365-427
Perfect stillness cloaks the garden. Snow lies white and deep.
Snow clings to the rocks on the little island in the pond, snow clings to the railing of the arching footbridge, snow clings to the curved roof of the pavilion. Ice glints and gleams where the black waterfall pours down the rocks. Ice gleams on the neatly cleared pond. Snow clings to the three rough limestone boulders, making them look all the more like distant mountains. Snow clings to the dark green bushes, hollies, boxwoods, rhododendrons, and azaleas. Clumps of snow cling to the leaves of the bamboo that lines the pond, the stalks bend low. With the slightest shiver of air, that bamboo would shrug off its snowy melancholy and spring straight with renewed vigor.
Snow blankets the curved roof of the building that surrounds the garden, whose courtyard it is.
The garden reflects off the building's large windows, every room of consequence must have a view of the garden, the best rooms must have a view of the pond, the island and the small pavilion.
Everywhere is the supersaturated white of cold sun on snow, the gleam of sun on ice, the reflection of sun on glass.
For color there's the shadowy glimpses of fish beneath the ice, the dark greens of azalea and rhododendron and bamboo, peeking out through the snow, and the light red of the sash about the girl's stomach, just below her breasts, tied with a bow behind her back. She kneels in the pavilion. Its glass walls are so clear she might be kneeling on a rice mat outside, frozen in the icy air.
Her skin is the palest white, paler even than the rice matting. Her hair is brown with glints of red, the same shade as the varnish of the wood that frames the wide windows. The little pavilion is almost all window, its windowsills are just inches above the floor. Her hands rest on her knees, her breasts rise and fall as she breaths, her only motion.
Just before her sits a low table of dark wood, its surface waxed and shining. Beneath its top is a shelf on which china cups are arrayed, white as the snow, painted with delicate floral patterns. On the table is a single delicate china tea pot and a decanter of some pale golden liquid.
The sun throws her shadow across the soft mat. The shadow of her head falls on the long cushions that border the sides of the space. Her shadow seems so hot it would be sure to ignite the dry mat were it not doused by the icy brilliance of the sun.
The red sash is her only clothing.
Two men leave the house. They are dressed more or less similarly in slacks and knit shirts. One is Chinese, the other western, both are gray haired and middle aged. They wear socks and slippers on their feet. They walk along the path. Their breath condenses in the cold air. The path leads them over the arched wooden bridge, onto the island, to the pavilion. As they step onto the bridge, the snow slips from one of the bamboo clumps by the path. Leaving grief behind, the stalks leap straight, showering the men with fine white powder. They pause at the apex of the bridge and brush themselves off, their brief laughter further breaks the stillness.
The Chinese man slides pavilion's the glass door. Cold air wafts over the girl, she does not stir. The men step out of their slippers, leaving them on the cold flagstones outside and enter the pavilion. The glass door is slid shut.
Tom shivers involuntarily as he is enveloped by the warm air within. There's a faint sigh and a clicking as hot water circulates under the floor. Tom glances at the girl and then away.
The two men sink onto the thin cushion that runs along the floor next to the windows. Tom's knee touches the shadow of her hair. He shifts back.
"Tea or scotch?" his friend asks.
"Tea please, Gongren," Tom answers
"Fine. Two teas."
The men watch the girl. She picks up a blue enamel pot and stands. Tom is enthralled by the way the muscles in her calves tense, the tendons along her thighs stand out, the way her bottom shifts, the way her shoulders and arms all move as she rises. Folds that had creased her stomach as she knelt vanish into smooth porcelain.
She steps to the sliding door and opens it just enough to slip through. Cold air washes over them. She steps out, sliding the door shut behind her.
She goes to the waterfall and kneels on the glistening wet rock, the air from her breath rises in a fog about her face. She bends forward and holds the enamel pot under the waterfall. Water flows over her hands, its flow so smooth it looks like clear hard ice.
When she returns her fingers are red with cold.
She kneels again and lifts a square panel from the floor, revealing a gas burner. She sets the pot down on the burner and the gas lights with a quick electronic click click click. Blue flames circle the base of the pot and hiss. She presses her cold hands to her thighs and it's as if her whole body shivers once and banishes the cold.
Tom arrived that morning at close to 3:30 local time. His memories are scattered: of climbing out of the limousine that'd brought him from the airport, of a low white building in a large expanse of snow, of snow falling heavily in the dark, of the building stretching a considerable distance to either side, vanishing in the dark and snow.
He has a memory of a front hall, of being greeted by a young Chinese girl in jeans and white blouse, of apologizing for the hour unsure how much English she understands, of giving up his coat, his shoes, being handed soft slippers, of being led through what seemed endless corridors, finally arriving at a simple elegant room.
There is a low platform bed, its mattress very thin. There are rice mats on the floor and cushions along the window.
One whole wall of the bedroom is taken by the window's glass. All he can see through it is a hint of white and black, mostly he can see his own reflection, tired and haggard, he looks a tired lost old man, someone he doesn't recognize. Part of the window is a glass slider. He could open it and step into the dark and be free of that unknown guy. Behind his reflection he sees that of the fresh young woman, his guide, and the reflection of the bed.
He feels a vague rise of interest, desire quickly suppressed.
The girl points to a phone which sits on a shelf behind the bed. She mimes speaking into the handset, "Sleep as long as you like," she says in perfect English. "Call and someone will guide you to breakfast." Then she's gone.
Tom turns out the lamp. In the dark, through the now transparent glass, he sees a light. Maybe 30 yards from his room is what looks like a lit platform. On a black rectangle lies the white form of a woman, her back to him. The drowsily falling snow makes it all look soft and strange and dreamlike. Looking more carefully, he realizes it's a small pavilion, he can just make out the dark of its roof and frame, its sides must be almost all glass.
The light seems to lay a path across the snow. He feels a tug. Now if he opened the slider, he wouldn't be lost, he could follow the path, past the hints of rocks and bushes and trees, across a flat expanse, then up the little hill and there he'd be.
He realizes how tired he is. He is too tired to deal with his suitcase or clothes.
He stretches on the bed. It feels more comfortable than it looks. He closes his eyes. He lies for a time, but it's useless. He's too strung out with planes and airports and waiting and planes and cars and snow and wind and travel and strangeness to relax.
He stands and goes to the window and looks out. He can see more of the garden now. The sky's grown light. The storm has broken. There's the piled mass of clouds towards the horizon. Overhead it's dark blue.
The garden slopes gently down from the level of the house so he now has quite a good view of its still shadowy expanse. The several winding paths, the low shapely dark evergreens, the little black pond surrounded by willows, the island, the arching bridge, the pile of black rocks down which water cascades, the graceful pavilion with its thin columns and dark sharply curved roof.
As he watches, the woman's form stands in the pavilion. In the dim half light she is dark, shrunk to child's cut-out size by the 30 or so yards of distance. She is naked.
He watches her stretch. He sees her step to the side of the pavilion and slide a panel. He watches as she steps onto the snow covered walk. She jumps up and down as she slides the glass door shut and then runs to the bridge. He sees her slip and fall to her knees, the wood slick under the snow. He sees her trot along the path, at her closest approach to him she is perhaps 20 feet distant. He admires the active silhouette of her breasts and the lines of her running form against the snow. The snow rises from where her feet strike the ground. The snow is as deep as her knees in places. She passes to the side, beyond where he can see and is gone.
The garden is still again. Light flows in imperceptibly. Now he can see several benches, the details of the shapes of bushes, some evergreen, some deciduous with dense barren branches. He can see the reflection of the garden on the windows of the other side of the building, a considerable distance away. There's the illusion of great space. His eyes grow heavy and he thinks of lying down.
.... There is more of this story ...