Your northern grasses as blue as jade,Mulberries curve green-threaded branches;
And at last you think of returning home,
Now when my heart is almost broken
O breeze of the spring, since I dare not know you,
Why part the silk curtains by my bed?
Liping admired the beautiful characters, still slightly damp, that graced the paper pinned to her wall. It had been one of her favorite pieces of Tang poetry when she was small. When she closed her eyes, she could still hear her grandfather’s steady voice reciting each phrase, the syllables swirling into the air on tufts of steam released from the bamboo baskets. It was their little custom, a poem for the little girl before they bit into the sweet steamed buns. She’d understood only some of the words then, but the sounds were a kind of magic to her ears.
Liping had transcribed the poem, verse by verse, line by line, on a large sheet of paper that had been rolled up in one of the desk drawers. The characters hadn’t come out perfectly–certainly nowhere near the way her grandfather painted them–but they were there nevertheless. Liping had needed to see them. She’d needed to know that those characters were still a part of her.
The truth was, Sophie’s words had frightened her. As outlandish as her tales had been, Liping had worried that there had been some truth to them. After all, how was it possible that these foreigners all spoke such clear Chinese? There’d been no stumbling, no mispronunciation. Not even the hint of an accept. They’d spoken it natively, and even amongst themselves. How could something like that be explained?
Liping read the characters aloud again, savoring the sound of her own voice as it proved, proudly, that she was still Chinese. Whatever changes the world had undergone, she had been untouched, and that was what counted.
“You chanting in here?” Asked a man’s voice from the doorway behind her with a suddenness that startled her.
“How did you get in here!” Liping snapped.
“Your door was open. I heard you saying the same thing over and over, thought I’d come check it out,” Jack said.
“This doesn’t concern you,” Liping said, her lips an unyielding crease in a scowling face.
“Hey, easy. I’m not trying to be nosy, I just wanted to see what was up. See if you were in trouble, ok?”
“I don’t need any foreigner’s help!” Liping hissed.
“Foreigner? What’s that supposed to mean?”
“American, British, European, whatever you are. I don’t care. I just want my privacy.”
“Wait, where are you from?” Jack asked.
“I’m Chinese, of course!”
“Well your English is pretty good. I thought you were American. No accent.”
“No accent? I don’t speak English!”
“You must be pulling my leg, lady. We’re speakin’ it right now.”
Liping froze. It was true. The language she now spoke with this man was not the same she’d been reading the poetry in. In the heat of the moment she’d missed the change, but it had come, with all the ease of flipping a light switch or turning a dial. Somehow, she had learned a new tongue overnight, just as Sophie had said.
“Goodnight!” Liping said abruptly, pushing Jack into the hallway and shutting the door.
Liping stood in the center of the room, nerves buzzing. How was it possible? What had these people done to her? Was this even real?
“Vestigial organs,” boomed a deep voice from somewhere behind Charlie. He jumped slightly, turning to see where the words had erupted from.
“Excuse me?” Charlie asked, noting a tall man in a plaid yellow coat. The man smiled widely and removed a large right hand from his jacket pocket, extending it in Charlie’s direction.
“I didn’t mean to eavesdrop, but I heard your inquiry at the front desk. My name is Vladimir Rousek.”
“Oh, hi there,” Charlie said, fumbling with his bag to free one of his hands. “Nice meeting you, Brother Rousek. I’m Charlie.”
“Hello. When I first heard you talking with Kiana, my mind wondered what a brother in the New World would want with information on vestigial organs.”
“They’re what the evolutionists used to call biological structures that seemed useless.”
“Oh, I see. Yes, I’m here to do some research.”
“Let me guess–you’ve been assigned with welcoming back an Old World scientist who didn’t believe in the existence of a Creator and you’re preparing for his arrival?”
“Close enough. Actually, he’s already here. I’ve come to realize I need to brush up on my biology. It sounds like you’ve got some experience, though.”
“I was an evolutionist myself, many years ago, and a scientist.”
“You don’t say.” Charlie turned to face Vladmir and pulled out a chair for him to sit.
“In those days, looking for so-called useless organs was believed to be a means to disprove intelligent design. However, one by one, these biological structures were all proven to have uses. Some very significant.”
“For example?” Charlie asked. The two were now seated at a long oak table on the second floor. Charlie removed a notebook and pencil for one of his bag’s pockets and began taking notes.
“Well, two examples would be tonsils and the appendix in humans. After all, people in the Old World would often have these surgically removed without any evident ill effects. Of course, that’s sort of like removing a few rivets on an airplane’s wings to prove that they’re not necessary for flight.”
“What was their function–I mean, not the rivets, the organs?”
“Actually these organs are related; both are part of the body’s lymphatic system, which helps us to fight off infections. You can remove them without compromising the body’s main functions, but they still play an important role. They’re just one extra layer of defense in an already incredibly well-protected and intricately-designed organism.”
“And that wasn’t the only problem of pointing to the appendix as proof of evolution. You see, the whole idea of vestigial structures revolves around the notion that as a species evolves over time, certain unused organs atrophy and eventually completely disappear in the organism’s descendants. So, that would mean that in man’s supposed ancestors–namely, primates–some of our so-called vestigial organs should have a function, or at the very least, exist in some pre-evolved form.”
“Ok, I’m following,” said Charlie.
“Well, this is not the case. In fact, the appendix is missing entirely from certain ape species! Even Darwin was aware of this issue, and he wrote about it in one of his books. Still, over one hundred and fifty years later, many textbooks still liked to mention vestigial organs. I guess they were an easy sell to the scientifically unwary.”
Charlie scribbled madly in his notebook, barely keeping up. “What about vestigial structures in birds? The man I’m assisting–Harold is his name–he specifically mentioned birds as having useless organs. What do you think he was talking about?”
“Well, you’d have to ask him, but my guess would be that he was referring to the wings of flightless birds. That was a favorite of evolutionists back in the day.”
“But they do have a use, don’t they?”
“I’m not ornithologist, but I could cite a few examples for you.”
“Please. This is very helpful.”
“Well, there are quite a few flightless birds, but I do recall some Old World studies that were done on the wings of ostriches.”
Charlie jotted the word OSTRICH in large letters at the top of a new page.
“At one time, scientists hypothesized that one day, flightless birds would lose their wings entirely. They claimed that since the wings served no purpose, evolution would eventually do its job and remove them. Smart thing, that evolution!” Vladimir winked.
“But one by one, after a careful study of these different bird species, the wings were proven to serve crucial functions. Have you ever seen an ostrich running at full speed?”
Charlie paused for a moment as he tried to remember. He shook his head.
“Exquisite creatures, those ostriches. They move at speeds comparable to cars on an Old World freeway, and unlike other animals, can maintain their speed over some distance. The problem, of course, is stopping. And turning. You can’t put brakes on legs, and if you’ve ever tried to make a sharp turn while running as fast as you can, you know it’s near impossible. Well, fortunately for the ostrich, it’s got these great set of wings. The wings flap out to create air resistance when the bird wants to make a sudden stop, and a single wing will reach out to help the bird pivot when it wants to turn while running. Does that sound vestigial to you?”
Charlie shook his head again. “This is all very interesting,” he muttered under his breath. “I just hope it’s enough to convince Harold.”
“My advice: be patient with him. Many evolutionists in the Old World held on to their beliefs religiously. Many had shut the door on God in their mind and heart, and it was difficult to let Him back in.”
“What convinced you?” Charlie asked.
“Well it certainly wasn’t scientific fact. My Bible study conductor wasn’t highly educated, and at the time the Organization hadn’t published many books on the subject. But what really stood out to me was the love I felt at the Kingdom Hall. My wife and I both could see it was something special. I had my colleagues and she had her friends, but it was nothing like the feeling of family we experienced in Jehovah’s organization. That was definitely the factor that won me over, in the end. And then, with time, I began to see the whole creation element come alive in my personal research.”
“That’s good advice, and it’s the same thing I’ve been telling myself since I first met him, but I’m not sure our love is getting through. He seems to have his mind set, and he just refuses to accept another way of looking at things.”
Vladimir rubbed his chin thoughtfully, then said, “Well, none of us can read hearts. We can only do our best. Give him time. He may be farther along than he’s showing. What seems like a battle with you may actually be a battle with his own pride. Be patient.” Vladimir smiled and gave Charlie a slap on the back that nearly sent him face-forward into the table. “I’m sure things will work out,” said Brother Rousek as he slipped from his chair and stood beside the desk.
“Thanks for your advice,” Charlie said, shaking the man’s hand. “I’ll keep in it mind. And hey, if you ever get a chance, come see us. We’re on the peak, at the top of the lift. I bet Harold and you would have a lot to talk about.”
“I’ll take you up on that,” Vladimir said. Then, with a wave, he’d disappeared back down the wrought iron staircase, leaving Charlie alone in the quiet room with his bag, notebook, and the sudden realization that it was already dark and he was very, very hungry.
Where was he?
It was unusual for him to miss a day at the center, and stranger still that he hadn’t been at the kitchen table buried in the pages of his books when she’d returned home. And now it was past seven o’clock and completely dark outside. He wasn’t at the lake, either. She’d checked. Strange.
Naomi glanced over at the table where Charlie had been reading when she left him that morning. The books were still there, stacked in a neat pile, though his notebook was gone. She sighed, trying to shake off the stirrings of anxiety.
It was probably nothing to worry about. She was just all nerves lately. With the guests, Adrina’s fall, the fight at the peak, having to scramble here and there to take care of everyone... It had been thoroughly exhausting. Maybe it would be easier with Adrina close by, Naomi wondered. It was hard to tell.
“Hey, Mom,” Sophie said as she walked through the front door. “I saw the lights on in the guest house. Who’s visiting?”
“Oh, Adrina’s in there. She wanted to get out of the center for awhile.”
“Why? Did something happen?”
“I don’t know, she won’t tell me.”
“You sure it’s ok that she’s down here?”
“I haven’t asked your father yet–he hasn’t been here all day. But I don’t think he’d mind.”
“Huh,” Sophie said, shrugging. “How is she otherwise?”
“Seems ok. She’s finally opening up a little about her past. There’s still a lot I don’t know, but I think it’ll come out eventually.”
“Well, that sounds better than Liping. She’s kind of getting weirder and weirder.”
“Well, the other day she asked about language. I guess she noticed that everyone was speaking in a tongue she could understand, so I went through the whole explanation. Tried to keep it very simple. I was really hopeful that it would be a turning point for her, that she’d think that was something positive.”
“But she didn’t.”
“Nope. She went into this whole thing about China and some revolution where they tried to change the people’s language and culture, and she somehow connected that to this.”
“And what did you say?”
“Nothing, really. We talked about something else. What would you have done?”
“I’m not sure I would’ve known what to do. But we do have to try our best to understand them. You know, your father and I went to Old China when we first adopted you.”
“Yeah, I remember the stories,” Sophie said, falling into a sofa in the den.
“My first impression wasn’t a good one, to be honest. I was under a lot of stress at the time. I was taking a lot of my frustration out on your dad. When we arrived in Zhengzhou, we were shocked by how heavily polluted it was–the air, the water, everything. Pollution–I know that’s just a word to you, Sophie, because you’ve spent most of your life here in paradise and you have no way of imagining it. It was literally difficult to breathe. You could smell the chemicals in the air. It was awful! On top of that, the adoption center was loud and full of children and not very clean.
“It wasn’t until we came back home, with you, our little Chinese girl, that I began taking an interest in Chinese language and culture. One of the reasons, of course, was to figure out how you knew about the Society’s publications. I know you’ve heard the story a thousand times, but I can’t express just how shocked your dad and I were to learn that one of the caretakers of the adoption center was our sister and had been reading through the Great Teacher book with you.”
“I still remember how excited I was to see that book on your shelf. I had been praying for good parents, and when I saw that book I knew I’d found the best,” Sophie said warmly. Naomi thought back to that day hundreds of years ago and how thankful they’d been for making the right decision. Naomi and her husband were convinced it had been Jehovah’s direction.
“Of course, your dad was much better with the language–he started learning Mandarin long before we flew out there and he could speak quite a bit. Eventually we even joined a Chinese congregation for awhile.”
“I remember that. That was shortly before the Tribulation…”
“That’s right. After we joined the congregation and started talking with some of the Chinese that had moved abroad, I really began understanding more about what life there was like, and what it had been like for the previous generations, including the one Liping belonged to.”
“So you know about the revolution?”
“Sophie, that revolution was one of many. The Chinese of your mother’s generation experienced so many atrocities, and the generation before them was the same. It was literally one tragedy to the next, and often it was instigated by those in power.”
“But that’s what I don’t understand–why does she have so much pride for a country that abused its people so badly?”
“That’s what patriotism did, Sophie. It masked a country’s true nature in bright colors and loud national anthems and stirred up the people into a fervor while it dominated them to their injury. It was one of Satan’s chief means of controlling the Old World.”
“It’s so hard to understand...” Sophie said, looking out the back windows at the moonlit lake.
“But we have to try,” Naomi said. “If we put a wall between us and them, they’ll never learn about Jehovah as we have.”
The two sat for a moment without speaking, instead letting the droll of singing crickets roll in through the open windows and fill the air. Then came a ring, shattering the silence of the room.
Naomi ran to the phone and lifted the receiver.
“Hey babe, it’s me,” said the voice on the other end.
“Where are you? I was starting to worry,” Naomi said in a voice with a harshness that surprised her.
“I’m sorry, I got carried away doing research. I’m at the Clive Public Library.”
“Way out there? How will you get home in the dark?”
“I think I’ll stay with friends here for the night and bike back to the cabin first thing in the morning.”
“Ok, but be careful. We’ve already had too many injuries in the last few days and I don’t want to have to haul you back with a sprained ankle.”
“I’ll be fine. Love you. See you in the morning.”
Naomi let out a long sigh and returned the phone to the cradle. She walked over slowly to Sophie, who was already fast asleep on the couch. Leaning over, she brushed Sophie’s hair from her eyes and kissed her gently on the forehead.
“Love you, baby girl,” Naomi whispered, dimming the lights and retreating to her upstairs bedroom for the night.
Harold sat hunched over his journal on the back deck of the Welcome Center, buried in his thoughts. This conspiracy spread farther than he’d first anticipated. It went beyond this little family on a hill. It extended to whole towns... Assuming, of course, he had actually been connected to a real town. It was just as likely that there was someone huddled in a room of this very same building posing as an operator, taking calls. There was no way to be certain.
The temperature had dropped with the sunset, and even the thick quilt draped around Harold’s shoulders and legs wasn’t keeping the chill out. He lumbered over to the wood stack next to the outdoor chimney and threw another pine log into the flames, watching as the fire chewed at the wood’s loose fibers and singed its edges black. Harold tilted his head back and watched the wire of blue smoke twist into the clear night sky. The air here certainly was cleaner than back home.
There was a shuffling noise behind Harold as a door clicked shut.
“Yes?” He said without looking back.
“It’s me,” said a soft voice.
Harold felt the tendons in his neck and back tighten. His pulse quickened, a wave of heat descending suddenly over his body. His hand clenched the fire stoker with blanched knuckles.
“What do you want, Jack?”
“I just want to talk.”
“Yeah? Well, if memory serves me right, last time we talked it didn’t end well,” Harold said, turning the heavy tool slowly in his hands, his back still facing Jack.
“Yeah, well, I didn’t mean to. It was the alcohol. It must’ve been stronger than what was written on the bottle.”
Harold shrugged. “What’s done is done. What do you want?”
“Can we sit?” Jack asked.
Harold turned slightly, revealing the iron pick in his hand. Seeing it, Jack’s eyes widened. He took a step back and raised his palms in front of him.
“Harold, I’m sorry about hitting you. Please, let’s just talk.”
Harold lifted the curved point into the air, holding the rod like the sword of a sparring fencer. He stood a few paces from Jack, but the end of the stoker pointed at Jack’s chest. “Now what could the two of us possibly have to talk about?” Harold’s voice sizzled.
“You were a scientist, right?” Jack said, hands still in the air.
“I am a scientist. And?”
“And have they talked to you about this place? Do you know what they’re saying about everything, about us? How we came back from the dead?”
“I’ve heard enough.”
“And what?” Harold hissed.
“What do you make of it? Is it possible?”
Harold lowered the stoker slightly, the look on his face a mix of anger and distaste. “Of course not!” He scoffed.
“So how do you explain it then? How is it that one moment we were dying and the next we’re here on a mountain somewhere. I mean, even my scars are gone...”
Harold turned and tossed the stoker next to the wood pile. It clanged loudly against the wood planks of the deck. Harold rubbed his face and patted down his slick black hair.
“I’m not sure yet,” he said softly.
“But you don’t believe them,” Jack said.
“Of course not. Do you?”
“I... I don’t know, man. I can’t figure out what else could be going on here, unless we’re all dead and gone to heaven.”
“What is it with you Americans and always trying to answer questions with religion?” Harold said.
“Hey, I came to you for answers and you’ve got nothing. I’m just saying it’s a possibility, is all. I mean, isn’t that what scientists are supposed to do? Consider all the possibilities and then make a decision?”
“We don’t consider the impossible.”
“So you think this is impossible?”
“It’s not scientific.”
“I know it sounds crazy, but... Look, my last memory before I woke up in that room was losing my legs. Some Jihad Joe in Iraq shot a grenade at me and it literally blew me in half. I was lying there in the sand, losing consciousness, realizing that I was gonna die. And the next thing I know, I’m opening my eyes here. How does science explain that?”
“I told you, I’m not sure yet. But there has to be an explanation.”
“What about you? What was your last memory?” Jack asked.
“I was going to a seminar in England.”
“That’s it? You were going to some seminar and then–POOF!–you arrive here?”
“No. I was having chest pains that day. I got to the meeting hall, one of my colleagues was there. And then I felt a bad pain.”
“Let me guess, you had a heart attack?”
“I... don’t know. I don’t remember much from the event. I just remember waking here.”
“Let me ask you another question: how old were you when you... had those last memories?”
Harold paused for a moment. “Sixty,” he said grudgingly.
“Sixty! Have you taken a look in a mirror lately?”
“You look like you’re in your twenties.”
“And what are you trying to say?”
“I’m just looking for another explanation, is all.” Jack mumbled. He stuffed his hands in his pockets and walked over to the balcony railing, peering up at a vast web of stars and planets.
“Well if you really want to look for an explanation,” Harold said, “then maybe I have an idea.”