Lillian Howan spent her early childhood in Tahiti and later graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law. Her writings have been published in Asian American Literary Review, Café Irreal, Calyx, New England Review, and the anthology Under Western Eyes. She is the editor of Rosebud and Other Stories, a collection by legendary playwright Wakako Yamauchi, and the author of the novel The Charm Buyers.
From “The Blue Medium”
It is my profession to be lost. When I was an apprentice, my teacher took me to a grove of mape trees, a place where sunlight was hidden, disappearing into the canopy of leaves. The wood of the mape was dark, nearly black, and the trunks opened like wings. “Losing your way is easy,” said my teacher.
We had left his pick-up truck by the side of the road and were wandering through the elephant-ear taro that grew in the shadows beneath the mape trees. There arose the scent of things unseen: the earth damp below the thickness of leaves, the smoke from garbage burning far away. Over the ground, the mape spread its roots in serpentine ridges.
The teacher walked to where two roots ran close together, the gap within curving like a narrow boat. “Sit here,” he said, and I shook out an empty rice sack and placed it inside. A cloud of mosquitos rose from the ground as I sat. “Are there spirits here?” I asked.
“Sit down and don’t move,” said the teacher. He was the age of my grandfather and smelled of camphor oil and Hundred Flowers liniment.
I looked up above at the web of branches, the green darkness that obscured the sky. “Will spirits come if I wait?”
From the Contributor Commentary
When I was a child, my mother told me stories about her family name. Pronounced Mu in the Hakka dialect that my parents spoke, this name means a shaman or a sorcerer. My mother had a strict sense of the truth and did not tolerate exaggeration, but I loved elaborating and embellishing the truth. My mother’s stories about her Mu name fascinated me, but she was stern about not encouraging my predilection for the dramatic.
My mother was born on the island of Raiatea, where she lived with her grandparents. She told me that she had a great-uncle who was so tall that he could pluck a bird from a tree. He went to buy bread for the family early in the morning, and sometimes when he returned, he amused my mother by showing her a wild bird that he released from his hand, allowing it to fly free back into the trees. As a boy, he was trained by his teacher in the Mu village in China. The teacher taught the young boys of the village, but only one would become his true apprentice.
“What would happen to the other boys?” I asked.