Abbess Wang was the first to discover the baby at the doorstep of the temple, bundled up in thick layers of blankets, protecting it from the chilly night. She checked its sex. Instantly, she developed a deep dislike for the boy. This was the first time someone had left an infant at the temple, and Abbess Wang did not want it to acquire a reputation for being an orphanage.
She thought about calling a social worker but thought she should check first with the higher authority. She brought the baby into the main hall and laid it down in front of a statue of Mazu. The goddess is benevolent and attracts a large following for that reason. She is not only the patron saint for fishermen but is also known to show mercy to those who are devout in their hearts.
What caused Abbess Wang to change her mind at that point is anyone’s guess. The simplest explanation was that she was lonely. Her only helper, Lu, was eighty years old with a back bent like a pine tree, battered by years on a windy slope. At some point, she would not be around any longer. Abbess Wang was not sure if she could find a replacement who would accept nothing more in return than a bed to sleep in and three meals a day. Perhaps too, Abbess Wang was fed up with the life she was leading. Dedicating every day of her life to Mazu could be wearing. At 45 years old, she was still a relatively young woman. She wondered if she could endure the rest of her life in celibacy.
Rumors buzzed through the temple that Abbess Wang’s heart kept vacillating between letting the baby go and keeping it as a progeny for the temple. In that moment of indecision, she prayed to Mazu for direction. She lit three sticks of incense and recited the sutra, which she had memorized as a child and never forgotten. When the incense finished burning, she was awakened from her trance by the baby’s cry. When she looked up to Mazu, she saw a tear on each corner of her eyes.
“The goddess has answered me,” she said.
Ni was not an easy child to raise. At first, Abbess Wang tried to treat him like he was her own baby. One time, when she could not placate his crying, she unbuttoned her shirt, lifted up her undergarments, and tried to silence him with her breast. Ni rejected this intimate offer. Abbess Wang was utterly disappointed. She knew she had a mole under her left breast which had always irked her, but a baby at this age could not have discerned such fine imperfection. She regretted her display of motherly affection toward the baby.
“I will never repeat this error in judgement,” she said.
Of course, Ni had no recollection of this episode. His thoughts as an adolescent were preoccupied with the girls in his class whom he stared at all day long. He would let his thoughts wander. Not only what personality each of them had, but what they were wearing underneath their plain school uniform. Sometimes, he would get an erection in the middle of a class, and on more than one occasion he was asked to stand up, which totally embarrassed him. The girls had noticed the bulging in his trousers, and he knew that they joked about it behind his back.
After school, Ni was resigned to the boring chores at the temple – sweeping the floor with a homemade broom, dusting furniture, and cleaning up ashes from the day’s offerings at the urns. Occasionally, he would show a few tourists around the temple complex. He noticed that the place had been steadily gaining in popularity. People came to ask Mazu to grant them their wishes. They would naturally return to give thanks if their wishes were granted. Even if they had been denied, which was probably due to them not praying hard enough, they would redouble the money they donated and the amount of incense they burned. The more smoke one caused to rise up in Mazu’s face, the more benevolently she would smile on them.
From time to time, tourists would give Ni some small change as a tip. At first, he did not think much of these alms. He used the money to buy sweets and would give some to the girls in his class to impress them, but they all avoided him like he was a pervert.
Those days were soon behind him. He had found himself a new goal: to save up enough money to buy himself an iPhone. He had been using the computer in the school’s library, but most of the sites he was interested in were blocked off. He could only imagine the day when he could surf the internet freely from his own bed.
He began giving guided tours of the temple to visitors. He would tell them the fantastic anecdote about Mazu saving his father from a fishing accident, and he made up stories about how some followers’ prayers were answered. Some would ask for their sons and daughters to pass certain exams, some for a grandson to uphold their family line, and others begged for a promotion in their jobs. He would teach tourists the right way to hold the incense, what to recite in their supplications, and how to prostrate themselves in front of the statue. He would save it for last to take them up to the viewing garden area on the upper level, where they could get an impressive view of the temple complex as well as a panoramic view of the neighboring Danshui River. By the end of the day, this routine would usually make his pockets jingle with the pleasant rewards of his hard work. All of this was done behind Abbess Wang’s back, as she never suspected that Ni was now an irascible boy on the threshold of puberty.
While this new incentive had become a reinvigorating force in Ni’s life, his hatred for Abbess Wang deepened with every bit of independence he gained. He despised her for putting up a saintly façade, as if she was the personification of Mazu.
“Ni would be homeless if not for me,” she said.
Her nagging and constant reminding of his indebtedness to her annoyed Ni to no end. He knew his time would come, but for now Abbess Wang was in firm control. The temple was prospering like never before. Even Ni had to agree that Abbess Wang had been a good administrator, keeping everything in tip top shape. Every other year, she had the elaborate carvings on the roof touched up and the gold color tiles glazed. Donations poured in and sales of incense and oil were plentiful.
No one knew how much of this money Abbess Wang had pocketed for her own sake. She had proven to be a shrewd business woman who squeezed every penny out of the unsuspecting followers of Mazu. There was no accounting as far as Ni knew. He could see that the success of the temple had much to do with her holding hands with all the tour companies who made the temple one of their stops on their itineraries. She was savvy with using the internet and monitored reviews constantly, even though she prohibited Ni from getting any access to it.
Abbess Wang never went shopping herself. She would certainly attract much unnecessary attention in her habit, which would certainly promote gossip. It would not have been considered proper behavior for the Abbess of a Mazu temple to indulge in the luxury of the materialistic world. Secretly, though, she had been replenishing her wardrobe. Ni went through her drawers all the time. When he saw packages delivered to the temple, he knew that Abbess Wang had made new purchases.
Why would Abbess Wang buy clothes she never wore? Ni often wondered about these stylish clothes, which were out of character for someone of Abbess Wang’s position. When he found a pair of lace underwear hidden at the back of her drawer, it drove Ni crazy. He put it to his nose and inhaled with a deep sustained breath. The tag was still attached, but Ni would savor the womanly scent conjured up by his imagination.
The next day, Abbess Wang was in a fit when Ni came back from school.
“Have you been snooping around my stuff?”
Ni shook his head and remained quiet. He knew he must have left behind evidence of his hasty break-in. It was better to keep his mouth shut and weather the storm.
“Stop sniffing around like a stray dog. And don’t think that I don’t know what’s going on in your lewd mind.”
This was followed by the same outburst about how Abbess Wang took him in for the mercy shown by Mazu.
“I’ve got to be doubly careful from now on.” Ni thought.
From that day on, Ni became extremely vigilant, especially with using his newly acquired phone, a used one he bought with the tips he had saved. To have his prized possession confiscated was the last thing he wanted. He would take it out only after Abbess Wang had retired to her room for the night and he only used it under the cover of his blanket and with the sound muted. It became his toy and his secret companion.
While Ni knew the temple complex inside out, there was one area that remained off limits to him. At the back of the residential section of the temple was a cave. He was kept there once for a day as punishment for not performing his daily chores. It was hard to tell what effect a terrifying place like this would have on the psyche of a small child. Both sides of the cave were lined with life-sized statues of divas, at the end of which stood Guanyin (the goddess of mercy) who has a thousand eyes and a thousand hands.
Ni took these effigies for real and was always afraid he would get ensnared by their tentacles or that his stealthy acts would be uncovered by their all-seeing vision. Since his incarceration there, he had never set foot near the grotto again. When he showed visitors around, he would just point it out to his guests and let them explore it on their own.
Lately, Ni noticed that Abbess Wang had been entering the cave with more frequency. Every time she arrived; she would look around first to make sure she was not being followed. Ni did not believe she went there for prayers or meditation. The fact that she sneaked in only when she thought he was in bed piqued his curiosity even more.
He decided to investigate. He used the light on his phone as his guide so that he would not trip over any rocks or knock over a diva by accident. He inspected the first few divas as he entered. They looked eerily serene but otherwise their poses were similar to each other. He could feel the dampness in the air the further in he went. He knew Abbess Wang would not be far away, so he turned off his searchlight to make sure he would not be noticed. He stopped momentarily to let his eyes adjust to the darkness and continued only when the divas in front of him became visible again.
First, there was a small whimper. Ni thought it could be a bat even though he had never seen or heard a bat before. The whimper got louder until he realized it was Abbess Wang. When he tried to move closer to the source of the noise, his foot got tangled up with something. As he tried to remove it, he could feel that it had the same texture as the underwear he discovered in Abbess Wang’s drawer. He put it up to his nose. It still had the smell of new fabric, but the tag had been removed.
Abbess Wang could not be far away. Ni took out his phone and surveyed it through its camera, as it had better night vision. He could hardly believe what he saw through his lens. It was like watching a movie. The whimpers kept coming from Abbess Wang’s mouth, even when she was trying her hardest to cover it up.
The next day, a short clip was published on the internet. Even though it was taken down within hours, the 53-second clip had caused a big stir. The publisher was a first-time user with the screen name, Temple Dog.
Abbess Wang disappeared.
Some people claimed they saw a woman jump off a bridge into the Danshui River. But after an extensive search, no body was recovered. Upon interviewing with the police and reporters, Ni, the apparent heir to the temple, insisted that Abbess Wang had apotheosized into one of the divas in order to dedicate herself to the service of Guanyin.
“This had always been Abbess Wang’s wish.”
Ni was not shy in turning the event into a propaganda campaign. The cave has since acquired an extra aura of sainthood. Mazu’s smile has never changed. Once in a while, she was seen to shed a tear or two while people were not watching. The temple continued to prosper, perhaps even more so, under the tutelage of its new heir.
4 thoughts on “Temple Dog by Richard Yu”
This is a fine and subtle work. It also has a top villain and an MC who is just being a kid, thus somewhat of a villain in his own right. Excellent debut.
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This is an absolute lesson on ‘the understated’.
This really could have went into sleazy territory but didn’t. And by fuck was that skilled!!!
The wee guy was a fud. But all teenagers are. I do like the mix of old and new with the idea of temple type things and a mobile phone.
There is so much of this to think on and it stays with you.
There is so much regret and resentment mingled in with the thoughts of ‘You should be grateful’ and then in balance, ‘Let him go you bitch’.
This really does play with your mind!
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Very enjoyable. Reads like a blend of a fable, a coming-of-age story and a mystery, with a bit of mysticism stirred in.
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Cool story. I like the description of the course of the strange relationship between the Abbess and Ni. Into the mystic… and back out into reality. Those cel phones certainly have strong lights.