A strange old woman waved me down on a deserted mountain road not far from Puli (埔里). I pulled my bike over to the side of the road, uncertain as to how I was to tell her that, although I have lived in Taiwan for 13 years and considered it my home, my Chinese was really awful and I most likely would not understand a word she said. Sure enough, when she spoke, I understood nothing. Seeing this, she brushed her withered fingers across my eyes.
All of a sudden, we were not alone. There were others on the road, spectral figures, young and old, some dressed in attire from recent times and others in costumes worn in the past. Some were Aboriginal, others were Chinese. They spoke gently and kindly in their various dialects. Strangely, I understood the words. The spirit of a girl, who could not have been more than a teenager when she died, as her hair was colored in that “mosaic” fashion that is the latest trend, stepped up to me and said: “When the dead speak everyone understands, but most cannot listen.”
“What do you want from me?” I said, for I was more than a little afraid.
“We have something we need you to tell the Taiwanese,” she said.
“Why me?” I asked again. “I do not even speak Chinese.”
“We have seen you planting saplings on that barren hillside over there, watering and caring for them over the years until they grow into big trees,” she said. “We have asked the medicine woman to approach others, but they are blind and deaf to nature, so they cannot see or hear us.”
“What do you want me to tell Taiwanese?” I asked, alarmed because I now saw spirits approaching me from the road, the fields and the forest nearby.
One stepped up and surprised me by saying: “We do not need money where we are. Tell everybody to please stop burning paper money in our honor. We would prefer they turned Taiwan’s recycled paper into toilet paper and paper towels for the public bathrooms. We do not like to see people stuck in a toilet with no paper to wipe themselves and no paper towels to dry their hands.”
Another astonished me, with these words: “We do not want them pulling the weeds around our graves every year. Tell them to instead plant native trees to mark our graves and let forests grow up where there are now graveyards. When the birds and the little animals come back to inhabit the forests then our graves will be honored in a way that matters to us.”
A third spoke up: “We do not like it that there are no sidewalks for pedestrians or that the sidewalks that there are get deliberately blocked by owners so that people cannot walk on them. We want to see people walking the cities and towns of Taiwan, and bringing them alive with business.”
A fourth came forward: “Even we can feel the hot sun here, blazing down on our beloved homeland. We do not want electricity plants powered by polluting coal or nuclear energy. We want the government to subsidize solar panels on all the rooftops so that even the poor can make money from their roofs and sell electricity back to the grid.”
I was so surprised that such things mattered to wandering ghosts. As if they could read my mind, one of them explained: “We are only wandering ghosts to the extent that our own children and grandchildren are killing this land, polluting the rivers, poisoning the soils and cutting down the forests. Wherever they attend to the landscape and make the hills come alive again with native vegetation and wildlife, there we become free spirits delighting in our eternity.”
Another one edged in and said: “Could you tell them to please plant trees, like you are doing, and to save up their compostable garbage like you do, to put around the little trees for fertilizer, then cover this up with a thick layer of dead leaves and branches so it does not attract vermin. It matters to us that the lateritic red clay slowly comes alive again with all manner of soil organisms and takes the dark hue that it had in times of old.”
Seeing somehow that I had enough already to remember with all that they had told me, they began to disperse. At the last minute, one of them turned back to me and said: “We like all the new highways and expressways, but we do not see why they do not put in a system of bicycle trails, so that the young can get strong and the old can stay healthy.”
At that moment, the old woman’s fingertips brushed across my eyes again and all the spirits were suddenly gone. She and I again stood alone on that deserted road. She smiled and said something I did not understand. Then she turned and walked on. I rode my bike home as fast as I could to type all this up before I forgot any of it, and get it to the Taipei Times.
William R. Stimson is a writer based in Taiwan.
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