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Anna & Amber's Secret Powers


Painting by Lin Xu

Sure, they knew “Ni Hao” and “Xie Xie,” and they could have asked their mom to translate for them, but they didn’t want to get her suspicious.  So they got a notebook and wrote down the questions in English they wanted to ask Wai Gong, then they set about trying to find out what each word would be for “Do you remember Xu Xia Yu?  Did she ever have any old books?  Did she ever leave anything behind after she had passed away like a book?  Did you ever see her make it rain?”


   Then they took several weeks to ask their mom what the right Chinese words were for that.  They would ask a few words, not all at once, because they knew she would ask why and, if she found out, try to talk them out of believing what they already knew to be a fact.

   In the first week they asked her the word for “remember” (Yi) and “have” (Yo) “old” (Lao) and “book” (Bu Zi), but not all at the same time.  Mom would look quizzical, but she’d give them the answer.  In their mind they’d repeat it (Yi Yi Yi, remember, remember, remember) until they got a chance to write it down.


   Finally it was time to approach Wai Gong, their grandfather.  He was in the kitchen, peeling garlic.

   “Ni Hao Wai Gong!” Said Amber, coming downstairs with Anna following her close behind.  She spoke the Chinese and then Anna would say it in English right after.

   “Ahh?” said Wai Gong.  He was a little surprised that the girls were trying to communicate with him in Chinese, but he said  “Ni hao” with a gummy grin.

   “Wo men (we) yi chi (together)  yao (want) shoa hua (speak language) wen ni (question you).”

   Wai gong smiled a toothless smile.  Though he was in his early 80’s he was still dapperly handsome with his slicked back hair, and his beak-like nose made him look like an eagle.

   “Ok,” he said in unsteady English.

    "Ni yi Xu Xia Yu?”

   He thought that she was saying rain was “number one” as Yi was also the word for “one.”  The pronunciation was important.

   “Wo bu dong,” he said.  (I don’t understand).

   Amber scrunched up her nose in frustration, so she tried again.

   “Xu Xia Yu.” she stated. 

   “Ni yi ta ma?”  Added Anna. (You remember her, question mark).  They were getting pretty good at it after just a few weeks.

   But Wai Gong did not understand where they were going with this, and just smiled at them and said “Dway bu chi” (which meant “I’m sorry” in Chinese).

   So Anna got out a piece of paper and did a quick drawing of a woman with large sleeves and dragons on her robe.  “Xu Xia Yu,” she said, pointing at the drawing.

   Wei Gong’s eyes widened as he started to understand “Ah, ah, ah” he said.  “Xu Xia      Yu, Wo de Jie Jie.”  (Xu Xia Yu, my older sister).

   “Dway,”  (Yes) answered Amber.

   “Ta yo mei yo bu zi?” ventured Anna.  (She have/not have book?)

   “Bu Zi?” he asked blankly.

    This was harder than they thought, but in some way they were happy to try to understand and make a connection with their grandfather who was, for them, a somewhat unintelligible fellow who was part of their family. They realized that all it took was a little open-minded effort to communicate without words, and there were ways if you looked for them.

   Anna drew a picture of a book on her piece of paper.  “Bu Zi” She stated. “Ta yo mei yo?” (She have/not have?)

   “Ahh.  Dway, dway” he said.  (Yes, yes).  “Wo gei Shao Wei,” he said finally.

(I gave to little Wei).  Little Wei was their mom’s old Chinese name when she was a child.  He made a gesture of the body language for “give”, and the girls seemed to understand.  That sounded like what Linda had said… he gave a box to Wei, their mom.

   Maybe the box had the book they were seeking in it!

   “Xie Xie!” they cried in unison, which meant thank you, and raced off back upstairs.


   “Wai Gong just said that he gave the book to mom!” Anna exclaimed.  “Mom must have it somewhere.”        She slid into her lower bunk and started pushing up on the mattress above her head.

   “But where?” asked Amber, bouncing from left to right on her mattress above Anna.

   “Maybe in a box.”

   “Which box?  We have so many.”

  “Well,” mused Anna, “Maybe its in a box in the garage.”


  So the two set off to the garage to look in boxes one at a time.  When they got to the garage Daddy was in there working on his music.

  “Dad!” they called.

  “Huh?” he called back.

  “Dad, can we look for books in these boxes?”

  “Books for what?”

  “Well, maybe we’ll find some that we can sell at a garage sale.”

  “Sounds ok to me,” he said.

   So they dove into the first box labeled “books” they could find, but when they looked inside it had a bunch of old literature in it: Raymond Carver and Grace Paley’s “Enormous Changes At The Last Minute”, and some Mark Twain, and Kerouac, but none of them looked Chinese.  There was poetry, too. Ntozake Shange, and Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” and Allen Ginsburg and ee cummings and Lao Tzu’s The Book of the Tao. That one was Chinese but was filled with Buddhist koans or riddles like “what is the sound of one hand clapping?”  These were supposed to make you see the world in a philosophical way.


   “I can do it,” said Amber, and she slapped her fingers to her palm to make a slap.

   Anna answered by trying to make the snap sound people made when they snapped their fingers, but it was faint.  “Listen to this,” said Dad, as they were digging into box after box.  He had found an old tape of his music.  “I call it, ‘This is What I Was Wasting All My Time On’”.


   They went through three boxes of kid’s books, one box of Chinese-English dictionaries and history books, two boxes of old photos, notebooks and writings by Dad and Mom (“Look at this, Mom used to be chubby,” said Amber when she found a photo of her mom back when she lived in Japan), and four boxes of old fiction from when Dad went to college, but they had still not found any box of old Chinese memorabilia that might contain the book they were looking for.

   “Dad, we still can’t find what we’re looking for,” they told him.

   “Well, this is not all of our boxes.  There’s also the storage place in Mt. Baldy Village.  I don’t even know what’s left over there.”

   “What storage?”

   “In Mt. Baldy.”  Dad then went on to explain that when he and Mom were getting married, they looked at a lot of places to have the wedding. One was the Mt. Baldy Protestant Church.  “We told them we wanted to reserve the church for our date, but they said that we could only do that if we lived in Mt. Baldy Village," said Dad.  “So we went to Mt. Baldy Village and looked around, and there was this lady who owned a house with a little guesthouse that she was renting. Mrs. Whillameena. We told her we wanted to rent it and gave her a down payment. Then we got some of our boxes and took them up the hill.  She told us that she wanted to clean out the room first and to put our boxes on their storage room pool shed.”

   “Then what happened?” Anna urged.

   “Well, so then she died before we could move in. Heart attack.  She was 78 years old already anyway.  Her son came up from, I guess it was San Diego, and told us that he was going to move into her house and that we couldn’t move in after all.  So we cancelled the wedding there and had it in the Claremont Botanical Gardens instead.”  Then he laughed outloud.  “Ha!  I think we never went back to pick up our old boxes.  They’re probably still there.  The Deer Lodge, it was called… A storage shed in back of the Lodge, behind an old swimming pool that had no water and was full of old leaves.  Mom told me to go back there and fetch the stuff but we never got around to it, I think.  Probably they threw it all out.”

    “Thanks dad!” the two girls bellowed, but they were already halfway through the door to the laundy room by the time their words reached Dad’s ears.


*          *          *

   And so that was why the girls were rising from their naps that early October afternoon, with the idea of setting out for Mt. Baldy to find the box with the magical book.

   “What if the boxes aren’t there anymore?” asked Anna.

   “I told you, I called the Deer Lodge.”

   Amber had remembered the name of the hotel where the storage area was, and then had looked them up on the internet where she found their phone number.  When she called, a man had answered, saying in a gravelly voice, “Deer.” 

   Amber had started out sneaky and had politely asked if any rooms were available. 

   “Our mom was friends with your mom, I think” she said, in case that mattered.  “Do we get any discount?” 

   “My Mom?” said the man, turning the words slowly over on his tongue as if he hadn’t pronounced them in years.

   “Yes- Mrs., um—“

   “Will-hem-meen-ah” said the man, taking his time with each syllable.

  “Yes—that’s it.  Veee have trouble pronouncing wubba yews,” said Amber, thinking quickly.


   And that is how they found out that the old woman’s name was Mrs. Willhemeena, and her son was named Dirk, and that there were several rooms out in the back of the Lodge but they hadn’t been rented for years. The Storage room their Dad had talked about was called “the pool room” by Dirk, because he said it housed the pump and heater for the pool.  “I haven’t been out there for years, pool’s closed. We used to clean the place but I haven’t cleaned it out since she died.” He said.

   “Oh, that’s ok, its too cold to swim.”

   “Well, no discounts,” Dirk concluded.

   “Thanks, we’ll call back if we need a room,” Amber said.


   Slowly they gathered up all the things they were going to carry in their backpack for the journey: two flashlights, a package of beef jerky, two sweaters, two books for reading when things got slow ("Molly Mapkins, Mapmaker and Investigator Extraordinaire"), ten dollars worth of quarters, and a giant package of sunflower seeds.

   They were a little doubtful about it, but both didn’t want the other to think she was scared.

   “Do you think we should tell mom?”  Anna ventured. 

   But she knew the answer already, because they had gone over it about five times—if they asked mom, she would surely tell them that nothing was there anymore, that when the old lady died they most likely threw all the old boxes away, and that they’d have to wait until the next time they went to Mt. Baldy to even take a look, and that might be during the winter if the family went up to play in the snow.  But if they had to wait that long there would be snow and Dirk had said that the cabins in the back of the lodge were not available in the winter because they got buried in drifts of snow and he “wasn’t going to be the one to dig them out for a few measley extra dollars" of rent he could possibly collect.

   “Anyway, we’ll be back in a few hours, that’s all,” assured Amber.

   "Well, I feel bad lying to her.  She does so much for us, I hate to.”

   “Me too,” admitted Amber.

   “If we break her trust,” continued Anna, “It’ll break her heart. She won't be able to trust us afterwards.”

   “Well, we’ll tell her the truth after we get back with the book,” offered Amber. 'We'll just tell her after."

   “Ok,” agreed Anna.


   They had it all mapped out.  If they walked to Terra Vista Parkway and Miliken by 4:43 pm, they could catch a bus, the #444, to the Ontario Transfer Center.  If they got there by 5:21 (and they should, since the 444 was scheduled to arrive there at 5:19), they could get the 287 which took them to the north side of Claremont (Baseline and Padua)  by 5:43pm.  There, at the Padua Hills Theater  (they had found out by doing some online research) was a van that took visitors to the Mt. Baldy Zen Center once a day, which left at 6pm sharp and came down the mountain at 8pm sharp.  The Deer Lodge cabins were about a mile below the Zen center.  Down the mountain and back to Padua Road by 8:25, they would catch the 287 back to Ontario (8:28pm), and then get on the 444 and be back to Rancho by 9:24pm. 

   They had told their Mom that they would be going to a birthday party for their friend Sherene, and that Sherene’s mom would be picking them up from their home early so that they could help do the decorations. Sherene lived only about a mile away in a big apartment complex with a clubhouse. So at exactly 4:30 they were going to go down stairs and, gathering together an empty box they had wrapped with birthday wrapping paper, wait for Anna to sneak out the back with a CD player. On the CD player was a CD with 30 seconds of silence and the sound of a car horn on it. Anna would then run back inside and wait near the front door. When the CD player sounded the car horn, they would yell “She’s here!” and run out the front door before mom could get a look.  That was their plan, and it was practically foolproof.

   “Let’s go,” Amber sighed with some trepidation, and they both hoisted their backpacks and went downstairs to begin their adventure.


*     *     *


   Amber went to the computer room to distract Mom while Anna picked up the CD player and went into the kitchen.  While Mom asked Amber about how much of the online chemistry tutoring she had finished, Anna slid open the glass door silently and started to make her way around the back yard to the small cement strip that went along the side of the house.


   There was a close call when Anna nearly tripped over a bunch of wood that was piled up outside the window near the computer, and she made an involuntary “Oh!”   Inside, Mom was looking at the computer screen when Amber saw Anna’s shadow coming along and when she heard a little “oh” she made a bigger one: “Ahh!” she wailed.  “I bumped my toe on the chair!”  So that was how Mom didn’t notice when the shadow slipped past the window.

   “Mom, Sherene’s mother is going to pick us up soon so we can help decorate for the party,” Amber quickly added, now certain that their plan would work out.

  “Oh, no!  So soon? Let me do your hair!”

   “Please, mom, we don’t need it.”

   “Anna, come down here.  Wash your face and comb your hair!” Mom ordered. 

   She began to chase Amber around the room, but Amber was quick and evaded the brush Mom held in her hand.  They both laughed and giggled, but Mom said “I’m serious,” and then she again called, louder, “Anna, you have five seconds to get down here…”

   “What?” Said Anna.  She had appeared in the doorway to the kitchen.

   “Why do I have to always chase you?” Mom demanded.

   The two girls gave each other sideways glances, then both looked at their watches.  Amber mouthed the words “ten seconds” to Anna, and then they both quickly went to the bathroom and let Mom start running the brush through their hair. (They knew the torture wouldn’t last long and it was good to take care of yourself).


   Just then, they heard the sound of a car horn from outside.

   “That’s Sherene’s Mom!” they both said at the same time, not even bothering to jinx each other.

   “Wash your face!” Mom demanded.

   They both quickly took a wet washcloth and smeared their noses in it.  The hot water on their face made them feel clean and fresh.

   “Ok, Sherene’s Mom will bring us back when the party’s over,” they called behind them as they both swiftly flung open the front door, stepped outside, and then just as swiftly closed it. So far so good.

   Of course, in their haste, they had forgotten to grab the fake gift they had wrapped for Sherene, but it was too late for that now anyway and they couldn’t go back.



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