"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's a gap in the building to his left with a wrought iron structure across it. The black metal is cast to look like leaves and branches. In its center is an empty circular opening, considerable in diameter, its rim maybe waist high at its lowest point. He looks at it dumbly for a moment, trying to guess its purpose.
Three men appear in the garden from the left, from where the girl disappeared. They are dressed in bulky padded coats with thick gloves and hats. They bounce a bit and he can see their breath clouding about their faces. They carry snow shovels (screaming gasoline snow blowers would be so unthinkable!) and begin to clear the paths, filling large plastic garbage cans which when full, they wheel out of sight.
After a long indefinite time, the girl reappears. The sun is now hard on the roof of the house. She walks quickly. Her skin is paler than the snow. He has just a fleeting glimpse of her lovely flushed face. He watches the sway of her bottom, the rocking of her shoulders. Her arms hug her breasts.
At this point the workers have finished with the walks and are carefully brushing the snow from the ice on the pond with long-handled garden brooms. They're careful to only stand on the cleared paths, never to mar the pristine snow elsewhere. Already he can see the reflection of the pavilion in the ice's smooth surface. The workers pause to watch her pass over the bridge.
Another girl walks the path in front of his room. She is Chinese, not more than 12. She wears a heavy down coat and a stocking cap. She carries a tray on which there's a bowl of what looks like rice, a glass of milk and a glass of orange juice. He watches as she crosses the bridge and approaches the pavilion. The woman opens the glass door for her and takes the tray and sets it on the low table. The oriental girl sheds her coat and from a pocket takes something. As he watches, the oriental girl sits cross legged and bends, he guesses she is reading. After listening a moment, the woman sits and takes the bowl. The sun now shines on her, they are perfect miniatures. From where he stands they look like two dolls.
Now and then, the young woman stops eating and says something to the girl. The girl then looks up from the book for a moment, leaning forward. After a time, once the woman is finished with her breakfast, the girl sets the book to one side and the two talk. He sees them laugh hard about something.
Once the girl has left and passed back in front of him, carrying the tray with its empty bowl and glasses, the garden sinks into stillness. The three workers have vanished without his noticing. He watches the woman for a bit, sometimes she kneels, sometimes she shifts and sits crosslegged, sometimes she stands and floats about the interior of the pavilion. It's pleasant when she faces him, he wishes that his eyes'd come with a zoom feature.
The garden is now fully sunlit. The evergreens glisten with their snow. As he watches a load of snow shifts off the pavilion roof and hits the path. His eyes are heavy. He sinks down onto the cushions.
He jerks awake, finding himself slumped awkwardly. He sits straight and is rewarded with the sight of the young woman just vanishing to his left. This time she's only gone a scant couple minutes. As she returns in front of him, he has an excellent daylight view of her breasts crushed by her arms against the cold. Her hair moves in carefully crafted strands about her ears and cheeks, its red-brown is rich in the sun. Cold mist rises from her mouth. She steps on the balls of her feet like she's wearing invisible high heels, undoubtedly thanks to the iron cold of the gravel. Again he admires the way her form moves as she crosses the bridge.
When she again settles in the pavilion, he sighs. From his briefcase he takes a photo of a girl in a pale prom dress standing in front of the Grecian columns of a country-club. "Shit," he says. Then after a pause, "shit" again.
He's snapped to the present by the girl pouring the now steaming water into the china teapot. He has a vague memory of watching her spoon tea into an infuser while his wits were scattered. He watches as her lips move and he's amused to see her mouth "one one thousand, two one thousand,..." He loses track at around 40. As he watches her he feels a combination of desire and desperate sadness.
She removes the infuser, sets it in a bowl. She pours the tea into the two china cups.
She stands, then bends, picking up one of the cups and carries it over and hands it to him. Her nipples are not more than a foot from his face. Her eyes catch his and he can see amusement in them. She bows, then brings his friend his cup.
Rather than kneel again, she steps to the far window and looks at the frozen pond.
He sips his tea cautiously. He's not that fond of tea, especially without a ton of sugar. This tea has a delicate almost smoky flavor. He sips again. He can tell that it's expensive and fine, but still doesn't like it much. He glances from the girl's narrow waist to the decanter on the table, pale yellow on black.
"And two shots of scotch," says Gongren, breaking the silence.
The girl turns back to them, drops to her knees, pours the amber liquor into two more china cups and delivers it. All in a series of moves that leave his heart on fire.
She again turns her back to them. A chickadee, black and white, flickers through a bush and through her reflection on the window.
"I see you've kept up your interest in gardening," Tom says.
His old friend laughs, "I have actually. I spend as much time here as I can."
Tom nods and grins, "You're lucky."
"And you, do you still play in your band?"
Tom sighs and sips his drink. He can feel it in his stomach and head. "Not so much. Four years out of business school I was an energy trader. I fell asleep at my desk, my head on my keyboard, snoring not so gently, my band'd played till two in a roadhouse. A joker got it on video. Even though I was doing far and away more business than anyone else, that's what I was always known for at that place. I almost lost my job. I gave music up cold turkey. I've only touched a guitar maybe twice in the last 15 years."
"That sucks," his friend says, "You were very good."
They're quiet again, Tom's eyes slide down the girl's back, admiring the red of the sash. Its bow's tied just at the small of her back, one of its ends brushes a curving cheek.
"How long's it been since we last saw each other?" his friend asks.
"20 years at least."
"I'm sorry to hear of your troubles."
"They're happy enough with the profits. Perhaps it'll blow over."
"And the grand jury next month?"
Tom shrugged. "I'll lie. When the shit comes out, they'll have someone to take the blame. The company's ass will be saved."
"Will this affect our negotiations?"
"Shouldn't think so. This is about building a plastics plant, not fake reconstruction in Iraq."
"Would you like her to come to your room tonight?"
Tom looks at his friend.
His friend goes on, "We have a busy day ahead of us. There is an afternoon of meetings with agreements to be reached. A large dinner with local and provincial party officials and with our developers. There will be entertainment. None of it agreeable. A little relaxation afterwards will get you ready for tomorrow and more of the same."
Tom is quiet a moment, wondering what to say, he settles for "No thanks."
"Where is the Tom of old? No? Well, we should get to business."
"Please," Tom sighs, "I'm happy to talk. But Gongren, so you'll know, I won't commit to anything today. I am very very tired."
"Well, that's wise, I will make it clear to the others. They are very eager though. I'll also see if we can manage to fit in time for a nap before evening."
They discuss business and watch the girl as she moves lazily about, once coming over and refilling their glasses. Often Tom cannot follow the conversation and finds himself trying to fathom what she finds of interest out in the snow.
After some time his friend looks at his watch, "Our first meeting is now but half an hour away. We'd best be getting in."
Later than he likes that night he sags into his room. He is about to just collapse into bed when he has a vague sense of how smoky he is. His hair, his skin, his clothes, all are permeated with cigar and cigarette smoke. He manages to take a shower and then does collapse. The bed's much lower than he's used to, mere inches above the floor. The sheets and covers are rich and warm.
His mind, he finds, is still stupidly awhirl with food and wine and agonizing conversations through interpreters and accents and appalling music and phone calls to the office in Houston. He thinks of the girl and how he'd seen her, miniaturized by the distance, the sun pouring over her, sitting in the pavilion with the black and white and dark green garden about her.
He's just losing the details of the image when there is the faint sound of the sliding door. He feels a puff of cold cleansing air and when he opens his eyes he sees the young woman leaning down over him.
There is light enough from what must be moonlight on the white snow to see her form. The palest of whites in a room of black and gray.
She pulls the bed clothes back and kneels over him.
He opens his mouth to speak, but she lays a cool finger on his lips. "Don't touch me," she murmurs, "I'm quite cold."
He feels her fingers shifting through his pajama bottoms. They are indeed icy on his cock. It starts with gathering excitement and shock. With a chuckle, she uses the silk of the sheets to insulate her fingers and moves him so he is straight up. Pointing to the darkest part of her dark form.
Her sex when she lowers it against him is cool and supple and dry. She adjusts his placement slightly, then lowers herself just an inch, her entrance is just slightly reluctant about letting him in. The contrast is nearly too much for him. He closes his eyes. The head of his cock is now so warm and she is so tight and the rest of his length is so dry and cool and exposed. That head, buried such a little way in her heat is their only point of contact. She has moved her hands. He opens his eyes and looks up. In the dimness he can see the outline of her arms, lifted above her head, balancing her as she shifts her hips in a tight circle.
She is humming some tune he can't quite make out, humming so quietly that later he isn't sure if he didn't imagine it. Her hips move back and forth in time, careful to maintain their connection. Her breasts sway in a counterbalancing rhythm.
She lowers herself down on him, seeming to use the muscles surrounding her passage to slow her fall, like a fireman descending his pole, though it's more as if it's fire itself that's rushing to douse his inferno. He feels her hips push down against his, she feels so amazing. He tries to control himself, he thinks of the snowy garden, the pond with the ice everywhere save where the waterfall cascades into it, of her walking along the path, her breath fogging about her, of her sticking her hands into the icy cascade to fill the jug.
She rocks her hips about, squeezing her bottom. He feels her thighs tense and she lifts herself up, hands still above her head.
As she comes down, he cannot help himself. He grips the wooden frame of the bed and raises his hips to meet her, his balls tighten, the pleasure is sharp and consuming. He pushes himself up against her a second time and it's over.
She slips off him, bends and kisses his cheek then nestles into his arms. Her skin's still cool. She rests her head on his chest. Her breath is hot on his breast. Her hair brushes his lips and nose. She pulls the blankets up and sighs, "The covers are nice."
His eyes droop.
"And the darkness too, it's nice." she murmurs. She puts an arm and a leg over him.
He is asleep.
Cold air wakes him. He sees her pass outside his window. From the lightening sky he can see it's now dawn. He lies looking at the ceiling, sleep has fled leaving exhaustion behind. He feels lost and looks on the coming day without enthusiasm.
In the afternoon, at the conclusion of the negotiations, he steps out into the garden and crosses by himself to the pavilion. She stands with her slim back to him. She doesn't turn when he slides the glass. Today she wears just a black velvet collar around her delicate neck. Her hair is done up elaborately, the better to display that neck.
The sun is low. Lower than the house in fact. It shines through the gap, through the iron trellis with the circle in the middle.
"Twice a year the sun fits right in the circle," she says, "It's still somewhat south, to the left. It's nicer with the moon. When the moon shines through it, you can just stare away."
Then she does turn, "Tea?"
"No, perhaps a glass of water."
When he sees her take the blue enamel pot and step towards the sliding glass, he says quickly, "There's no need."
She pays no attention and slips out. Her breath rises from her lips. He shivers as he watches her bend and fill the pot. The icy water flows over her hands, up her wrists.
"Why don't you keep water in here?" he asks as she pours it into a fine china cup.
"For tea it's like so important to start with the coldest water possible," she says as he sips, "I think it tastes better straight as well."
It is indeed excellent, it seems to wash the taste of the afternoon from his mouth, it's fresh, icy and clean.
"It's the oxygen," she says, "Water's gotta be like oxygenated, then you heat it just as fast as you can to keep as much air in as you can."
"You could have a pipe with a faucet under the table," he points out.
She smiles, "I didn't design the place. Why don't you sit."
"No thanks, I've been sitting all day."
He looks at her. At her cunt, as smooth and hairless as her bottom. He remembers the feel of it. He's the one to blush.
She watches him with a faint smile.
"You were like friends in college? You and Gongren?" she asks.
He looks away, at their long shadows cast across the snow. "Yep. I walked into my dorm room the first day of my freshman year and there he was on the bottom bunk."
"What was he like?"
"Well, he loved gardens, he was always off in the school's greenhouses and arboretum. He was very studious too and actually interested, in everything he took, not just botany. He seemed to like every class. He was always reading and studying."
"Not so much."
"I saw you once when I was a kid," she says, "It was at a Christmas party my parents threw. My Mom and Dad were still together. I sat on the top of the stairs and looked down. What I liked was that from where I sat was that they looked like they were just the best of friends, welcoming one and all. I dozed off. I woke up in my bed, in the dark, someone had carried me there and tucked me in. And like all around me was Joy To The World. It seemed to fill every nook and cranny, I could breath it, I could like feel it in my chest. I went to my window and looked out. You stood on the driveway. You must've been like so plastered. You had my older brother's guitar. The speaker stood like right next to you. I think the cord running into the garage was all that held your feet to the pavement. You just played. It sounded like nothing on this earth, nothing that I'd ever heard. You played and played. Every Christmas tune I knew and ones I'd never heard. Our neighbors, their house was like a couple hundred yards away, their lights came on and I could see them like come out and listen. I don't know what all you played. When I hear Purple Haze or that version of the National Anthem on the radio, in my head I hear you playing Joy to the World. When I hear the Grateful Dead, I hear you playing Divers and Lazarus. I had to buy like a hundred Christmas CDs before I found that one. It's like way obscure."
"That was fifteen years ago at least."
"I was sorry to hear you say yesterday you'd given it up."
"That was about the last time I played. I'd dissolved my band. I didn't intend to ever play again. Then I saw that guitar in your family room. I was wasted."
"I was quite in love with you at that moment," she says, "It was like bitter-sweet. I thought I'd never again see anyone as happy as you that instant, or as sad." She smiles and then her face drains of expression, "The next year as my parents fought and my mom drank I kept remembering you and imagining you'd appear and'd so like carry me away."
The silence of the garden steals in through the glass.
After a moment, she says, "My Dad asked you to find me?"
"We needed someone to come and finalize the deal. Your Dad knew we were college friends. He said that Gongren's daughter'd been your college roommate and that you were visiting here. He asked me to check on you."
"Well," he admits, "He said that you were living here as 'that old goat's concubine'."
"Did you know who I was yesterday?"
She's quiet again.
"Your dad gave me a picture of you at a party at his country club."
There's a pause, then he asks, "Does it matter to you? That I knew?"
"No. You've got like a wife and kids in Houston, does that bother you?"
He sighs and asks, "Are you alright? If there's a problem I can help. I have leverage."
When she's quiet he says, "Are you free to leave?"
She looks at him and says, "Ask him."
There's a silence.
Then she says, "So far I've liked every season. You should've seen it last spring, when I arrived. Pots of blooming flowers lined the walks, water lilies floated on water so clear it looked like the yellow and orange fish hovered in dark air right with the white clouds and tree branches. I would lie in the water, my hair spread on the mossy edge. The gardeners'd like toss rose petals and these big blossoms, peonies maybe, onto the surface every morning. They'd float like they were suspended in space and their scent was so near my nose."
She looks at him with a slight smile, "We could like fuck on the cushions if you want."
He looks at her and flushes again. "No, no thanks."
She looks back out across the black and white expanse, the shadows of the trees are long and sharp. "Bai Gongren would sit on this fragile black painted chair on the grass beside me, his legs crossed, this stupid hat on his head against the sun, an open book in his lap. I'd like to say he was engrossed in me, but he'd always seem more interested in the book. Often guys, these old Chinese guys, would come with like folding chairs, and set them up and they'd discuss things. I'm sure it's a good thing I don't know Chinese."
"That's my first memory of being here, I woke and water lapped about my knees, about my neck, and blossoms brushed my nipples."
"When I first got to China, last spring, it was like so fucking hot. The air sucked. You could only walk maybe 20 feet and then you'd have to stop and choke for air. My eyes stung and my lungs burned. I kept coughing and showing people the piece of paper with the address of his compound, this was in Shenyang.
"There were these four guys, soldiers at the gate. With guns. I said that I wanted to see Provincial Party Secretary Bai Gongren. That I was his daughter Bai Ning's friend from America. They were like so not amused. They yelled stuff at me in Chinese.
"They put me in a small room and locked the door. I'm sure I was pretty disgusting. I'd taken the train from Beijing. I hadn't slept or washed since leaving San Francisco two days before. My eyes were shot, my hair felt greasy. I must've stunk. Just breathing stung.
"After I don't know how long the soldiers came back with this woman. She spoke some English and I explained again. There was more shouting. She searched me very thoroughly while they watched, she wore plastic gloves. She dipped her fingers in Vaseline which so didn't help.
"These two older guys in suits appeared. The shouting got even louder. What they said to the soldiers I don't know. I wrote a note to Gongren and they took me to a room and gave me something to drink. I guess he was like someplace else, maybe Beijing where I'd landed in fact.
"Then they took me to a larger room where there were a number of women. They laughed at the sight of me and talked a mile a minute among themselves. One of them said, "Clothes please" and I stripped again while they tittered. I was bathed and shampooed and then laid on a table and treated with wax. It hurt like hell and I tried to shout the house down. Now I'm like waxed every morning, but it's just a nuisance. That first time it hurt like hell.
"I was given a robe and led into a courtyard and into a white limousine. I tried to stay awake, but couldn't. When I woke I was lying in the pool, there was the scent of flowers all around."
There's movement across the way. Gongren and three others, an under secretary from Beijing, the president of the plastics firm Tom's company is to partner with, and the chairman of a construction company, emerge from the house and make their way to the pavilion.
While tea is made, the men make small talk. All but one speaks some English and he's probably the happiest, there's nothing to distract him from admiring the girl.
Gongren sips then says with a small smile, "Perhaps you would care to see slides from my tour of American gardens last spring? None of you have seen them and I think a glimpse of spring would be a tonic against this winter?"
The men nod, it's not really a question. The girl goes to the section of floor opposite them. She bends, shifts a cushion and then tilts up what proves to be a large flat screen.
"I visited seven gardens, the Sun Yat Sen Chinese Garden, Vancouver, the Montreal Botanical Garden, the Seattle Chinese Garden, Portland Classical Chinese Garden, the Missouri Botanical Garden, the New York Chinese Scholar's Garden, Staten Island, and the private garden of a friend in Hebron, Ohio.
"They were all what are called Scholar's gardens.
"To be considered authentic, a Scholar's garden must be built and planned around seventeen essential elements, it must be: 1) near or at the home; 2) small; 3) walled; 4) have small individual sections; 5) be asymmetrical; 6) have various types of spatial connections; 7) contain interesting architecture; have: 8) rocks; 9) water; 10) trees; 11) plants; 12) sculpture; 13) borrowed scenery; 14) chimes; 15) incense burners; 16) inscriptions; and 17) have used feng shui in choosing the site.
"Here we see the 'Billowing Pine Court', the main entrance to the New York garden."
Tom glances from the young woman kneeling by the tea pot to the screen. It shows a low white understatedly oriental building, a gravel courtyard, artfully arranged rocks, and a young woman. At first he doesn't recognize her. She wears white jeans, a white belt, sandals, a red v-necked top whose bottom idly touches her navel, an open leather jacket, her long hair flows about her shoulders, one strand of it touches the bare skin under her throat. Her thin metal framed glasses make her look very young.
He glances at the other men, he can't tell if they've recognized her. Probably not. If he hadn't seen the picture of her in civilian clothes, he likely wouldn't've connected the two creatures either.
He pays no attention to his host's discussions of the pictures. She isn't in all of them. There she is kneeling, a hand under a golden rose. There she is leaning against an old tree, looking back calmly at the camera. There she is on an arching bridge, there standing encircled in a round gateway ( "A traditional circular entrance, or moon gate, creates the sense of entering a special place. The circle is a symbol of perfection, remember the saying, "Flowers are beautiful when the moon is full").
In the pictures her expression is calm. He cannot guess what she's thinking. He wonders what the passers-by think. Probably that she's Gongren's daughter? But she is very western looking.
"Now," Gongren says, "We come to what I believe is the only true scholar's garden in the United States. The others we visited are public gardens. Faithful to the form, not the spirit. This garden possesses not one of the 17 tedious elements I mentioned earlier.
"The man who owns this garden was a State Department official. He testified before Congress as his masters wished. Lies were exposed in his testimony and in the time honored fashion of power everywhere, he was hung out to dry. At 60 he returned to his family's small gentleman's farm in Ohio and he has remained there since. He has turned it into a thing of beauty, though as you see, not on the Chinese model. There's too much grass, a boring plant, too few human artifacts, it looks too natural, too comfortable. Yet at its heart it is sad and contemplative, a place for an important man to find solace in disgrace."
It is indeed a beautiful place, an old frame farmhouse, white sided, a large gray/red barn along a dirt country road, huge trees, maples and oaks, a farm pond, willows reflected on its still surface, a raft tethered in its middle. The pond calls up mental images of naked boys on a hot summer's day, the boys thankfully somewhere else. There's a kitchen garden with brightly blooming flowers and neat rows of peas and lettuces and tomatoes and peppers, with a gravel path leading through an ivied trellis down along a fenced field to the pond. On a patch of sweet grass and clover is a table covered by a white cloth surrounded by white painted wooden chairs, set with brunch: orange juice, waffles, bacon and coffee.
There's a slide showing the girl standing by the table. She's looking at Gongren. Their host, a slight man with a gray-white beard, wearing jeans and a plaid shirt, is pouring orange juice. Her eyes are wide and surprised, her lips are open, curiously eager, there's almost a smile about them. One of her hands touches the collar of her yellow sweater.
In the next slide she's naked, standing by the table, one hand on the back of a chair, sipping a glass of orange juice, looking at Gongren with a smile. There's a gasp from the men about him as they connect the girls.
There are slides of her bright in the sun, by beds of daffodils, under a trellis of wisteria so violet you could almost smell its scent, of her walking down a path in the shade of a large blue and white umbrella, of her swimming out to the raft in the pond, then she's back in blue jeans, sweater and leather jacket, standing in a misty rain, grinning at the camera, her hand thrust in the gaping jaws of a gleaming black stone dragon, its eyes bulging with appetite.
The "Dr Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden", says Gongren, then he nods to the girl.
The girl steps to where the man on the far right sits, the under secretary from Beijing, she falls to her knees and bends toward his lap. The man laughs excitedly.
Gongren goes on, "In this confined courtyard you see the three friends of winter: pine, bamboo and winter-flowering plum, they symbolize the human virtues of strength and eternity, resiliency amid diversity, and triumphal rebirth."
Later, outside, before they cross the arching footbridge, Tom lays his hand on his friend's shoulder. As the others move on, he asks in a low voice, "She's of course free to go? Her father'd like her home."
His friend looks at him and then turns and looks at the pond, the golden fish are clear where the waterfall keeps the surface ice free, elsewhere they're vague illusive blurs. Mist rises from his mouth as he laughs then says, "Look at the koi in my pond. If one of them stuck its head in the air and asked to go free, I'd say sure, go for it. Tom, it's cold out here and the fucking banquet is soon, let's get in."
He steps out into the garden. Mist rises from the snow. Warmer air has moved in. There's a hint of wind and sleet in the air. His head feels dense and the noise of the banquet still rings in his head. It's after one in the morning.
Using light from the house windows and light reflected off the clouds from some nearby town he moves along the path. After a few steps he is lost in the fog. There is a split in the path he'd not noticed earlier and he feels a hint of stupid panic. The garden is enclosed, there's no way to get very lost.
A few steps further and he sees the glow of the pavilion. He crosses the bridge and steps onto the island. He stands for a moment. She lies on her side on the thin cushion, not more than 2 feet from him. Her back is too him. He admires the still roundness of her bottom, the bumps of her spine, the idle flow of her hair across the arm she rests her head on. He admires the black of the collar that still circles her neck. A shiver causes him to fumble for the slider and step in.
She stands. He steps to her and touches a shoulder. He bends and kisses her. His hands touch her bottom. He pulls her hard against his chest.
She shakes her head to clear it of sleep. She yawns. "You stink of smoke, wine and worse and your clothes, shit," she runs a finger from his neck down the line of his tie to his belt, "are damp and clammy."
He kisses her again and he feels her fingers at his belt buckle. "Let's at least do something about your clothes."