"Living this way was not a matter of preference…but of integrity."
Graduated from Los Angeles Mission College in 2010 with an Associate of Arts in Computer Science, Darrell has a Bachelor of Arts in English from USC. He has had many short stories and poetry accepted by literary publications.
The Age of Ice
He began to wonder what kind of snowbird this was, so much like himself
When the snowbird first appeared outside Tsang’s window, he wanted to ignore it. Like an ordinary feeling, it would probably end up being trouble. One never knew about these sorts of things, and Tsang prided himself on being honorable. The snowbird must have appreciated this because it pressed itself into a corner of the sill and refused to move. That is when Tsang realized that this little snowbird might make a good companion after all, since they seemed to have something in common. He opened the window and reached out and nabbed it.
As the days migrated into weeks, it turned out that the snowbird loved the cold, still air of Tsang’s apartment as much as he did. The snowbird sat in a bowl filled with crushed ice, stretching its legs out as far as possible from its breast feathers. Tsang dressed in cut-off pants and a faded, wrinkled shirt, like a man who was going for a walk on a beach in the Bahamas. The mist from Tsang’s breath fogged his bifocals, and why not, given that the thermometer on the wall was pegged at 10 degrees Fahrenheit. He had long since forgotten whether he had always favored the cold, but he knew he had consciously developed certain behavioral responses that seemed to adapt him for it.
Living this way was not a matter of preference, he believed, but of integrity. Like the snowbird, Tsang consumed just one small meal a day. He ventured out to do grocery shopping once a month, at night. Once, he had contemplated taking the snowbird with him, perhaps stuffing it into his pants pocket, but he believed that the warmth of his body would upset the snowbird’s complicated balance, as he knew he would be thrown into disequilibrium should a colossus carry him against its body without permission. They both despised body heat.
He began to wonder what kind of snowbird this was, so much like himself. Perhaps a Dark-eyed Junco, although the eyes were light rather than dark and the wing bars were greenish rather than white. It also was much smaller and weaker than any sparrow he remembered. Moreover, it enjoyed the cold more than any bird he ever knew did, though, truth be told, Tsang had not known many birds. The snowbird was his first genuine friend.
It was in January that Tsang started to make outfits for the snowbird. He used the curtains from the big picture window, drawing patterns with crayon. He carefully cut the material with his sharpest scissors and painstakingly sewed the fabric together. He constructed hundreds of little hats, skirts, dresses, pants and blouses. He taught himself how to make sophisticated attire for the snowbird, pinning magnificent pattern pieces to the material and cutting out spectacular designs, purfling the borders of his best creations with blue velvet. The snowbird would have looked soigné had it spent a night on the town wearing a Tsang original. He made women’s clothes because he thought that the snowbird had to be female, although he could not really say why. When he had depleted the material in the curtains, he used sheets from his bed to fashion stylish silk, Lilliputian gowns.
Tsang became adept at putting various hats on the snowbird, who seemed indifferent to anything except the ice cube bath he prepared for it every day. It was around this time that Tsang decided to give the snowbird a name. He liked the name Xue, Mandarin for snow.
He had heard a riddle once but reasoned that maybe the snowbird would think it boorish. Had he told the riddle it would have been:
“What flies without wings?”
Sometimes he wondered whether the snowbird would try to fly away had he opened the window. After all, as far as he could tell the snowbird’s wings were undamaged. On one occasion, he had tried to inspect the snowbird’s wings for himself, gently clasping the apex of the left and right wings and slowly spreading them. The wings were thin and crinkly; to Tsang, they sounded like the Yuan compensation cooks gave him when he was a child for wrapping steaming potato dumplings in bamboo leafs. When he got the snowbird’s wings partially unfurled Tsang felt uneasy and let go quickly, the wings snapping back like stretched rubber bands. He thought this had discomfited the snowbird so he never touched its wings again.
One night while on his monthly shopping trip Tsang met a woman. She was taller than he was and her skin was dark brown like the rocks that stood as silent sentinels in the moats and palisades surrounding the island shores of his homeland. She was from Belize and her ebony hair flowed like a braid of downy feathers from the nape of her neck to the small of her back. She was from a hot part of the world and told him that she hated living in the Midwest because it was too cold too often. He liked hearing about Belize and, for a bit, fancied himself living there. He imagined the damp Chiquibul jungles spread upon the earth like the innards of an enormous, primeval beast. He dreamed about the passionate love songs of Baird tapirs prowling the sticky warm undergrowth of the rain forests, sniffing for the scent of concubines. He thought he could actually taste the spicy, sizzling armadillo-meat stews and blood-red achiote paste sauces she described.
On their second date, she had used an expression something to the effect of “when it snows in Africa” to fervidly express the day she would relish the brutal Midwestern winters – that is, never. This innocuous aside angered Tsang, in part because he had lived in Johannesburg for three months, understanding that many people do not realize that it snows quite liberally in South Africa, as the region lies almost entirely south of the Tropic of Capricorn, situating it in the temperate zone, not the tropics.
Tsang could have told her that if you go to South Africa during its winter months - June, July, and August - it is often very cold. If you go to Johannesburg, you may need to purchase a thick sweater if you did not bring suitable winter clothes. You will see women sitting on street corners in Durban and Johannesburg, knitting long heavy sweaters to sell to unprepared tourists. Not only is there snowfall, he could have explained, but powerful blizzards and high winds form in the uKhahlamba Mountains in the winter months.
Tsang had hiked in uKhahlamba, collecting rare tussock grass, creepers and spiral aloe specimens. He had stood on the frozen slopes mesmerized by the hundreds of miles of uKhahlamba’s spiked peaks, glowing reddish gold in the morning sun. He had wanted to photograph the extraordinary Mountain Pipits, the only bird species native to uKhahlamba’s high treeless peaks. He never saw the birds.
Before their third date, he imagined the woman wanted way too much from him, that she lacked his lofty commitment to honor, and that she would never love cold weather like he and the snowbird. Her motives, he observed, were transparent. Therefore, that was that. He never saw her again. In this, the Age of Ice, truth is what you make of it.
In the time before the end of winter and the arrival of spring, Tsang and the snowbird began to hear loud, cumbersome sounds in the modest apartment. Once, Tsang was staring out the window, eyeing the snowdrifts abutting the curbs, with the snowbird perched near the window, when they both heard something creeping around in the rooms behind them. Perhaps it was the roof creaking under the weight of the new tier of snow squalls that fell last night, for out the window Tsang and the snowbird saw fresh fluff on the limbs of the trees in the front yard, new chunky crud in the fields, and white finger drifts squeezing the road like skeleton hands pulling rope in a tug of war.
This made Tsang think about his older, expatriate brother, who had come to America before him to take a job in law enforcement and send money home to his brothers and sisters, so that one day they too could come and enjoy the fruits of his newly adopted country. Tsang’s oldest sister was crude, keeping all the money and spending it on perfumes, costume jewelry and boyfriends. After a few years, the family received a letter from a government official stating that Tsang’s brother had passed, and could a family representative come to the United States to handle the disposition of his personal effects. Tsang’s sister was furious because the brother would no longer be sending the “family” money.
Tsang used all the scholarship money he had been receiving for his college education and his personal savings to fly to America. His brother had been a policeman in New York. When Tsang went to his brother’s apartment, he was astounded to see that his brother had lived like a common pauper, having sent every dime he earned to his family so that they too could one day enjoy a better life in America. The apartment was filthy, with cockroaches and rats everywhere. Tsang’s brother had died of heart failure.
Tsang believed that neither his brother nor his sister had nobility, for his brother should not have died this way and his sister should not have lived that way. It was then that Tsang swore he would never live without high honor, believing that life was an unending struggle between grace and decadence, hope and rejection.
The skulking sounds in the rooms had become much worse now, so much so that both Tsang and the snowbird spent all their time in the front room, staring out the window. Last week, Tsang thought that he had found the root cause of the trouble when he had heard a particularly insistent groan from the floorboards in the hallway. Using a claw hammer, he pried up a board, finding part of a life-size block of ice. He removed more boards until he could see that water had frozen into a perfectly translucent cube as tall and as wide as a man. It looked as though it had been there for a long time and was perhaps as old as he was. He could not tell the age of the ice. It was far too heavy and embedded to remove without help. He nailed the floorboards back in place, hiding the ice cube from sight. When he was younger and uncouth, his fiery convictions alone would have been enough, having gotten him branded as a political hooligan and subversive for his involvement in the Tiananmen Square Protests of 1989.
When winter ended and spring began to slush the snow slabs that had erected themselves against the walls of the apartment, Tsang noticed that his elegant friend stopped eating. Like him, it had an abstemious lifestyle but now seemed disdainful of the cracked corn and sunflower seeds he fed it. Maybe it had spent too much time in a desolate, cold room. “You are the most honorable person I will ever know,” Tsang told the snowbird. The sounds of something running amok in the apartment were now constant, like the chiming of hundreds of Big Bens.
Tsang and the snowbird spent a lot of their time together looking out the window. Then, on a whim, Tsang opened the window as far as he could and the snowbird – a young male after all – flew away, toward the horizon and the breeding grounds.
Tsang did not shed a tear at his best friend’s departure. A week after that, Tsang saw a white, fixed wing airplane high in the sky, far away, its flight pattern an ellipse over the boisterous city. It was a skywriting plane, emitting its fogging agent into the upper atmosphere, where it reacted with water vapor and ice crystals to form letters. Tsang squinted as hard as he could but he could not make out any words in the message.