"The Orenda" by Joseph Boyden (2013)
I'm on the train to Taipei. Or am I? I might be among the Huron, with the Iroquois in close pursuit.
"I awake. A few minutes, maybe, of troubled sleep. My teeth chatter so violently I can taste I've bitten my swollen tongue. Spitting red into the snow, I try to rise but my body's seized. The oldest Huron, their leader, who kept us walking all night around the big lake rather than across it because of some ridiculous dream, stands above me with a thorn club. The weight these men give their dreams will be the end of them."
We take the MRT to the Shin Yi shopping district and walk a great deal. I eat a crispy jalapeno burger at the Gordon Biersch restaurant near the 101. I have a second beer at the Brass Monkey before we visit the Eslite Bookstore near the MRT stop on our way back to Keelung. No snow, just a light mist. No Iroquois in pursuit, and the only thing that hurries us is the need to meet my older daughter at the Taipei Train Station.
"Each day as we struggle against the current, I watch the men turn leaner, more focused, more silent. From first light until night threatens we push up this wide, black river with birch and maple and poplar thick on the banks. So many good places for my father's brothers to ambush these canoes. I hope they've brought a hundred men, two hundred men."
We get off the train at Nan Gang Station. We aren't familiar with this part of Taipei, so we get lost in our search for Global Mall, which lies somewhere above us. I order the spicy beef soup with rice from a Korean restaurant in the Food Terrace. The only people waiting to ambush us are saleswomen, who occasionally emerge from the nearest escalator with advertisements in their hands, urging us to visit a nearby store, or to sign up for the newest credit card.
"She slits the neck open and, using an awl, pulls until its long black tongue hangs out. She then carefully works the awl into the head from below, scraping and cutting as she goes, until the tongue and the muscles that held it in place, and then the eyes and their tendons, and finally the yellow mush that was once the animal's brain lie in a small pile beside me."
I follow the road past Ba De Train Station down the rain-soaked hill, wondering how far Keelung Port is from my brother-in-law's apartment. Twenty minutes? An hour? I enter a tunnel and emerge into sunlight again, glad that it's the first day of Chinese New Year, and that the traffic is light. As I turn a corner into downtown Keelung I see a dog standing on an aluminum roof. Is it trapped there? Has it somehow climbed there from somewhere else?
"'I hate feasts!' I say. 'I hate people!' They've killed my raccoon and now they expect me to join them in eating him to fulfill the dream of an old woman who clearly hates me."
After the town of Nuan Nuan the road climbs up a steep hill. It's a lot farther to Ping Shi than I expected, but the view improves as I enter the Nuan Dong Valley. Twenty or so minutes later I have to get off the bike and walk. It's just too steep. And then I am riding through a 6 kilometer-long tunnel, until I emerge into Ping Shi District on the other side. It's a beautiful morning, and I'm glad I made the trip.
"Carries an Axe finally comes home with just a few hares and partridge to show for his days away. He's a good hunter, but the world seems like it's turned against us. I can feel the worry, even a slow burning fear, when I leave our longhouse on my walks. Everyone knows what comes, and yet none of us, as hard as we try, can prevent it."
We pack our things carefully and get ready to leave my brother-in-law's apartment. We say our goodbyes and walk into the hall to put our shoes back on, debating whether we should leave our bags in Song Shan or Taipei Train Stations before making a final excursion into Taipei City.
As we do so, I think about the gruesome ways in which many of the characters in Joseph Boyden's "The Orenda" meet their end. Plagues. Tortures. Arrows in the neck. Yes, it's good to be alive, and to live in the modern world.
Taipei might not be as exciting as early colonial Canada, but I'm happy that this is the case. I'll take the Eslite bookstore over Hurons bearing thorn clubs. I'll take dogs on roofs over animal brains. I'll even take credit card debt over starving in the winter cold - any day of the week. The modern world has its imperfections, but I'll gladly take the flaws in the modern over the savageries of the antique.