(Flash Fiction by Deanne Gwinn)
A Special Report
by Jo Farley, cultural correspondent
Rose Mae Ling opens her jewelry box to show me a set of exquisitely carved lotus blossom earrings, a gift from her grandparents. The earrings for Ling came with a matching gift for her husband, Ryan – a silver tie clip, inlaid with two creamy lotus blossoms.
“My grandparents wanted to bring good luck to our marriage,” says the 34-year-old insurance actuary from San Francisco. “They gave a pair of blossoms to each of us, to remind us we are inseparable.”
The young couple had been married two years before they could afford the trip to Asia that culminated in a four-day visit with Ling’s grandparents near the Yangste River in China.
“We were so happy,” says Ling. “Soon after marriage, I was promoted at work, and Ryan negotiated a big contract for his company. We found a cute apartment in a good neighborhood, and could afford a trip to Asia sooner than we expected, which made Ma happy. She wanted us to meet her parents before they were gone.”
On the morning of the young couple’s departure from China, Ling’s grandparents presented them with the gifts. Not wanting to appear greedy by opening them at once, Ling tucked them into her carry-on bag. Then, while walking to the taxi out front, Ling tripped on uneven concrete and sprained her ankle.
“Everyone was fussing over me,” says Ling. “It was just a little accident. I knew in a week my foot would be fine. But Ryan insisted we go to a clinic.”
They missed their flight, and had to wait two days at the airport for the next available seats. The first day, Ling suffered a mild case of food poisoning caused by a vendor’s improper refrigeration.
“My ankle was so swollen,” says Ling, “and then I got sick. Ryan waited on me hand and foot, but I felt too lousy to enjoy it.”
At the end of the second day, while Ryan stood in line to check for seat cancellations, a pickpocket took his wallet and passport. For the next week, the couple found themselves navigating a gauntlet of misplaced papers, unreturned phone calls, and obstinate clerks.
“I finally flew home by myself,” says Ling. “Ryan was stuck in China. He was in identity limbo over a month.”
In San Francisco, Ling’s mother helped her unpack. The older woman found the gifts, and told Ling to open them immediately.
“Ma insisted,” Ling says. “She knew what was in the boxes, because Grandmother had mentioned in a letter what they planned to give us. In Chinese culture, the lotus blossom brings good luck. Ma thought the blossoms would stop our string of bad luck. She even told me to send the tie clip to Ryan so he could come home right away. But I was afraid it would get lost.”
Ling did not believe in superstitions. To make her mother happy, though, she agreed to wear the earrings every day. Yet the bad luck continued.
“The next problem — I felt it was my fault,” says Ling. “I was worried about Ryan, distracted. I had trouble sleeping, so I couldn’t concentrate at work.”
Ling’s employer was tolerant at first, but after a couple weeks, he warned the young woman her performance would need to improve. She was making too many mistakes.
Ryan finally flew back to San Francisco after his father, a prominent business executive in New York, asked an associate in China to intervene.
“I was so relieved when Ryan got home,” says Ling. “I thought, now life will be normal. We’ll be happy again. Ma thanked the lotus blossoms, and told Ryan to wear the tie clip every day.”
However, normalcy did not return. Rose Mae Ling still couldn’t concentrate. She lost her job.
Suspecting a neurological problem, Ling consulted a series of doctors, who found nothing wrong with the young woman. To treat her symptoms, they prescribed sleeping pills, anti-depressants, anti-anxiety pills, and stimulants. Ling gained weight rapidly, adding 45 pounds to her slight frame, and developed acne for the first time. Weighing 160 pounds, and feeling ugly, she dragged herself through each day with dulled senses and overwhelming fatigue.
“It was like I had turned into a warty walrus crawling through a cardboard world,” says Ling. “Everything looked the same color, and two-dimensional. Food had no flavor. I had no ambition or energy. I felt like a zombie.” She laughs. “One doctor told me it must be substance abuse, because he had no other explanation. Then he gave me another prescription.”
Deeply concerned, Ryan did as much housework as he could, but his career with the multi-national corporation demanded most of his time. He had to travel frequently. With his wife’s income gone, and three year’s worth of vacation time spent on China, the young man could not afford to slack off at work.
“We were afraid we’d lose our apartment,” says Ling.
Their troubles increased, for now Ryan also had concentration problems, and insomnia. They thought it was stress, and jet lag from frequent flights back East.
Ling’s mother expressed anger at the doctors who had not helped her daughter. She dropped by every afternoon to plead with Ling to consult a spirit medium who could track down the cause of all the bad luck, and advise them how to counter it.
“Ma was convinced we had angered a household spirit in China,” says Ling. “She also thought the taxi driver there had cursed us because he was jealous of our happy marriage. Ma asked all her friends for advice, and kept giving me names of spirit mediums in Chinatown. I thought it was nonsense.”
While Ling scoffed at the idea of talking to a spirit medium, she agreed about the doctors, feeling the medications had done more harm than good. Ling weaned herself from all except dietary supplements, and took daily walks to lose weight, reduce stress, and regain optimism. She lost a few pounds, and the acne began to clear up.
Then disaster struck.
After representing his company at a trade show in Hong Kong, Ryan flew to Nepal to scout business prospects. A few days later, the phone woke Ling at midnight. It was Ryan’s supervisor. An earthquake had hit Nepal, and Ryan was missing.
Weeks passed with no word about Ryan. Desperate for answers, Ling finally gave in to her mother’s insistence, and went to see a spirit medium recommended by the aunt of one of her mother’s friends.
“He kept staring at my ears,” says Ling.“The whole time I talked about all the bad luck, he stared at my ears. By the time I told him everything, I felt like my ears were larger than an elephant’s. But Ban Lu was the first person to give me answers that made some sense.”
Ban Lu is a spirit medium I tracked down in the heart of Chinatown to interview for a report on whether superstition influences the lives of modern Asian-Americans. He is the person who sent me to see Rose Mae Ling.
An elfin wisp of a man, gray and wrinkled, this native of Thailand lives in a cramped two-room apartment. He is as shy as a rainforest creature reluctant to come out of hiding. During the interview, he spoke only in whispers. He dare not make much noise, he told me, because he walks too close to the spirit world and might awaken something evil.
“Unfortunate people come to me every day,” said Ban Lu. “More every day. I see so much misfortune among Chinese and others. Often, they don’t like it when I tell them the cause of their unhappiness.”
He looked down and shook his head. “One young woman, Rose Mae Ling, wears earrings made of angry ivory. I told her she should feed those earrings to the ocean, and burn pictures that show her wearing them. But she will not, because she doesn’t want to upset her mother.”
After serving green tea from a glazed pot painted with peacocks, Ban Lu gave me a history lesson.
Ever since the first blossoming of ancient Asian cultures, ivory artifacts have been held in high esteem. Prohibitively expensive, ivory could belong only to wealthy people. Intricate ivory carvings and inlays decorated Chinese palaces, houses of the high caste in India, and the temples of Siam (now Thailand).
In Siam, people also used elephant images in religious art, and kept live elephants on temple grounds. The Chinese were not as interested in live elephants, but everyone wanted ivory, because it was a mark of high status.
[A paper written by Carl Bishop in 1921 points out that wherever Chinese populations spread into elephant habitat, human demand for ivory and agricultural land drove the massive animals out of the region. Recent discoveries reveal an entire species of straight-tusked elephants may have been driven to extinction by expansion of Chinese feudal states in Northern China.]
“Modern economic reform in China means common people have money now,” said Ban Lu. “They buy ivory for status, and give it to others to impress them.”
Unfortunately, said Ban Lu, elephant tusks have a unique property that even the master carvers of ancient China never suspected.
“Ivory is a spirit sponge,” he explained. “Elephants being slaughtered are angry, so their ivory becomes angry. If angry ivory enters a house, the ivory already there absorbs the anger. It’s bad luck. If people bring enough ivory into a country, it may cause disasters that sound like ten thousand stampeding elephants. Floods, earthquakes, landslides, bombs, fires.”
Ban Lu also believes ivory absorbs grief when elephant calves watch their parents die, and absorbs the terror of African villagers being raped and beheaded by lawless militias using weapons bought with poached ivory.
Ban Lu sipped his tea. “A true lotus blossom brings good luck,” he said, “but a blossom carved of ivory is only ivory. Nothing about ivory brings good luck. Elephants have ivory, and are killed for it. It’s all angry ivory.”
Ban Lu pointed at the tea pot, and compared people who own ivory to the peacocks fanning their tails. “The decoration catches society’s eye,” he said, “but the feathers are an unlucky weight that drags the birds down when they try to fly above the trees.”
Ban Lu believes Rose Mae Ling sprained her ankle because the ivory earrings remembered how the elephant fell after poachers shot it. The couple missed their flight because a dead elephant cannot travel. Ling got sick at the airport because decaying elephant corpses foul waterholes. Ryan lost his passport because poachers rob elephants of their tusks. Ryan could not leave China because massacred elephants cannot find their way home.
The ivory earrings, said Ban Lu, distracted Ling with ghostly screams and bellows of dying elephants. That’s why she made so many mistakes at work. She gained weight because a motherless elephant calf is always hungry, and she lost ambition because a motherless calf does not know which direction to go.
Ban Lu believes Ryan was lost in Nepal because people’s demand for ivory drives elephants into extinction. They can no longer be found.
Rose Mae Ling has lost hope she will ever hear from her husband. She gently closes the jewelry box.
“I’m using Photoshop,” she says, “to remove those earrings from pictures. I ordered plastic earrings that look similar to the ivory ones. They’ll fool my mother until she has her cataracts fixed.”
Ling stops and puts a hand to her forehead.
“Just listen to me,” she says. “I sound like a superstitious auntie. It’s embarrassing, but as soon as I can, I’m going to send those ivory earrings to the bottom of the ocean.”
If you have a story about bad luck that can be traced to owning ivory, tell us at #angryivory .