climbed back onto the bus quietly. Her gym bag was thumping against the back of her legs with each step, reminding her that she wasn’t the winner she thought she was. “That’s” right step; “What” left step; “you” right step “get” left step. “That’s” right step; “What” left step; “you” right step “get” left step. “That’s” right step; “What” left step; “you” right step “get” left step. “That’s” right step; “What” left step; “you” right step “get” left step.
She finally reached the back of the bus and plopped her bag down and just about fell down onto the seat herself. She scooted over knowing that one of the girls would be sitting next to her for the ride home. At this point, she didn’t even care if it was Claire who sat next to her. Coming toward her were Kelly and Sandy, Sandy sat next to her and Kelly sat right in front of them. Sitting sideways, and putting her bag in her seat so no one would sit there.
Sandy and Kelly were laughing and so were many of the girls. Even the coach didn’t seem upset, angry or defeated. Cassandra sat there confused. She wondered if these girls were playing the same game she just played. Why were they not upset? Did they not realize they needed to go home and face their families and tell them they lost?
Suddenly, she realized, most of them, if not all of them, had their families there. They had no one to face, except those at school on Monday. They’d be facing the school together, as a team. The school, would be supportive of the team, not critical. Cassandra realized that she was alone in telling of their losses today. She suddenly felt more despondent, more alone and wished even more that she could just escape to the garden of the willow tree.
She stared out the window and wondered if Kwang Se ever felt alone? Her mind wondered back to the time that it always went to at a time like this …back to the willow garden.
Kwang Se looked out her bedroom window in the palace. She wondered if her days would ever be different. She looked at the fence that bordered the garden. How many people had praised it’s craftsmanship? Her father had paid an emperors price for that fence. Its beauty probably was incomparable in lands far and near.
Who knew that it was not meant to be decorative? She looked at the dew on the grass. The drops of waters sparkled like diamonds on the blades of grass. Each one reflecting the sunlight and shrinking as the sun warmed them, till they disappeared into the day. As she watched the dew disappear, Kwang Se’s eyes moved toward the butterflies flitting around the flowers. There were two or three of them diving and pitching toward each other, then alternatively at the flower as if they can’t make up their mind which they want to play with; the flower or the other butterflies.
Kwang Se got up and got dressed into her most comfortable daytime dress. She hoped that if she went into the garden this morning, no one would notice, especially her father.
“Just a walk in the early morning” she said out loud and startled herself.
Kwang Se carefully brushed her long black hair. She decided to leave it straight today. She could put it into a bun later. But for now, she’d let it hang down and let it be free. Putting it up, would take much too long and increase her chance of being caught and stopped before her escape into her beloved garden.
Kwang Se put on her slippers. She knew that the grass was dry enough to not get her slippers wet, so she didn’t worry about getting into trouble for soiling her slippers. She quietly opened the front door, hoping none of the servants heard her, they might alert her father to her presence.
Once she closed the door, Kwang Se sprinted for the creek by the bridge under the Willow tree. How she loved that tree. She stopped and picked a small branch from the tree to hold while she walked through the garden. She wanted to breathe and smell the life of the tree while she walked.
She turned slowly toward the creek and looked at the flowers, trying to find where the butterflies had been just a few minutes before. There was no sign of the 3 flighty creatures that had brought a smile to her face. The smell of the flowers wafted up to her and she was tempted to just sit down and soak it all in. Kwang Se knew if she did, she’d sit there and get lost in the scent and not get up. Then she’d get into trouble, again.
She picked a beautiful blue morning glory and smelled it’s nectar. Was there ever anything as sweet as the smell of a flower just after the dew of the morning? She wondered. As she worked her way through the flowers, her thoughts wondered. How wonderful it would be to be able to share this with a friend.
If only one of the girls from the village could come and spend a few days with her! They could have tea in the garden and they could sit under the willow tree and giggle about boys and they could fly kites in the field. But, Kwang Se knew her father was never going to allow her to leave the grounds, nor bring in a child for her to talk to. She was company enough for him, and he said, he was company enough for her. If only he understood how much her heart ached to share her dreams with someone just like her!
As she got to the fence that was so respected among the villagers. Her mood turned sour. Why did they think this fence was such a thing of beauty? Did they not know it was not only to keep her in, but to keep them out as well? Did they not know it was not a piece of architecture to be admired but a wall of separation and division?
What would happen if she crossed the bridge by the Willow tree that led past the fence of beauty? What if she just walked over it and kept walking into the village?
As Kwang Se started to think her rebellious, thoughts, her heart started to beat fast. Excitement started to build. Such thoughts had never occurred to her that there might be a life outside of the palace and her garden. Then her eyes caught sight of the Willow tree. Could she leave the willow tree? She loved her beautiful garden, but she so desperately wanted the company of others who shared her love of beauty.
The bus came to a stop and Cassandra was forced back into the present. Time seemed to dissipate when she ‘visited’ Kwang Se. ‘If only’ Cassandra thought, ‘I could have been friends with her.’ Cassandra looked around the parking lot for her parent’s car. She saw her father’s secretary instead. Cassandra didn’t know if she was relieved or disappointed. It meant she didn’t have to tell them till later that she lost, if they’d even ask.. but it also meant they couldn’t be bothered with picking her up.
Her father’s secretary, Heather, smiled at her and told her that she was there to take Cassandra to the restaurant where everyone was celebrating the recital that was up and coming. The practice had gone perfect and Camille’s song had been flawless.
“Not a surprise” Cassandra said, as she swung her bag into the back of Heather’s car. She was nice enough to swing by the house and let Cassandra take a quick shower and change. Cassandra assumed it was because she didn’t look presentable or worse … her mother had asked that she make sure of it, so Cassandra didn’t embarrass them by coming in her ‘sports costume.’
Dressed in a simple dress and minimal make up, Cassandra came back out and the secretary gave a tense smile. Little did Cassandra know that Heather approved fully of how Cassandra looked, but she knew that Cassandra’s parents were going to be less than supportive.
They got into the car and arrived at the restaurant just as the food was being served. Dorothy had taken it upon herself to order for Cassandra in her absence. That didn’t quite surprise her as much as the fact that she’d ordered for her father’s secretary as well. Cassandra could see the surprise on Heather’s face. Was she offended? Cassandra couldn’t quite tell. Maybe her mother’s lack of manners weren’t just obvious to Cassandra after all!
The next obstacle that Cassandra faced was getting through the meal. With over a dozen people present, she hoped no one would even pay attention to her and her food. She knew that the fact that she’d been to a game was already done and forgotten. No one in her family had asked yet. They would not ask. She would not have to tell them of the loss.
As Cassandra looked at the plate being put in front of her, she wanted to get up and walk away. She knew it would be unacceptable behavior and her parents would never tolerate it. How could her mom ever have thought she’d even want to eat duck? Duck is one of the highest calorie meats that she could think of. She didn’t even know that anyone would fry a duck, as if it didn’t have enough calories on it’s own. Cassandra stared at her plate of fried duck, placed elegantly on the plate next to scalloped potatoes and snow peas swimming in a butter sauce.
The calories staring at Cassandra made her head swim. The cheese on the scalloped potatoes alone would be more than the calories Cassandra had allotted for the day. Yet, here she was, caught in the middle of this large group of people, this high fat food and no where to run. Cassandra picked up her knife and fork and started to cut up the duck. She cut the duck into tiny pieces. As small as she could get pieces, she kept cutting until the bites could be recognized as meat, much less fried duck.
Then she put down her knife, laying it gently across the top of her plate. She looked around the table. Everyone was talking, and eating their food. She’d yet to take a single bite and some were already half way done with their meals. Camille was obviously enjoying her dinner. Cassandra briefly wondered what it would be like to sit at a table and enjoy the experience. She couldn’t remember ever enjoying it. She thought for a moment, wondering if she’d always been afraid to eat.
She took her fork and started to separate the foods from each other. Putting the potatoes into their own box, they must make a perfect square before she could take a bite. The snow peas would not cooperate. They were uneven and their butter sauce ran. Cassandra could feel the panic rising in her throat.
The foods must go into the boxes.
They cannot touch each other.
They cannot contaminate each other.
They cannot continue to flow outside the parameters set!
Cassandra reached for a dinner roll in the basket of rolls in front of her. She ripped the roll into half, then half again. Four equal portions of the roll. Then she carefully took the crust off each quarter of the roll, and set the crust on the plate beside her dinner plate. She took one of the quarters to absorb the butter sauce. She could feel some of the tension and panic leaving. Her fingers relaxed a bit as the plate’s patter was visible under where the butter sauce had been just a moment before.
She put the butter filled roll down, and picked up another, to absorb the cheese sauce from the potatoes. She slowly dabbed it up, making sure the roll got every single calorie that she was unwilling to digest. With each stroke of the roll on the plate, Cassandra was able to breathe just a little better.
With the clear boxes and no sauces running, Cassandra then started to cut the snow peas into smaller bite size pieces as she had done the duck. She knew that cutting the snow peas would make it smaller, and would make it appear that she’d eaten more than she ever intended to eat. After she’d cut the peas just as small as she could, she took a small nibble. She chewed the requisite ten chews, then the necessary eight that followed. Ess Enn Ohh Double Eww, Pee, eee, Aaa, Ess. She spelled the word out in her mind instead of counting. She needed to do that because of all the people around her. The chatter was so hard to tune out. Not impossible, but hard.
She gulped down some water to help her swallow the small bite of food and took another bite. One two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, Ess Enn Ohh Double Eww, Pee, eee, Aaa, Ess. Then four gulps of water to help her swallow. The anxiety level increased to a point where sweat was actually forming on her forehead. She knew that if she took another bite, she’d have a reaction and everyone would watch.
She turned her attention to the potatoes, and started to cut them into the tiny shreds she’d done with the rest of her food. Cut, cut, cut, cut, slice, slice, slice. The conversation going on around her sounded like buzzing. She was lost in a world that was filled with food that she was obsessed with not consuming.
She thought for a brief moment. Scalloped potatoes. She’d be able to take her time on chewing this one. She took a small bite like she had the peas. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, Ess, Sea, aaa, ell, ell, ohh, pee, eee, dee, pee, ohh, tee, aaa, tee, ohh, eee, ess. She picked up the water to help her swallow the remnants of what was left in her mouth. She took another bite and repeated the routine. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, Ess, Sea, aaa, ell, ell, ohh, pee, eee, dee, pee, ohh, tee, aaa, tee, ohh, eee, ess. Again, she took four gulps of water to down the food that she imagined being left in her mouth. The reality was, after chewing that many times, the food had been all but annihilated.
Then she was left with the duck. The horrendous, high calorie, high fat duck that her mother had for some unknown reason, thought she’d actually want. Who in the world eats duck? Took her fork and put as little as she could manage on the fork. There was no winning with the duck. It was either high fat meat, or there was fried breading. How in the world could she do this? A four letter word, that wasn’t nearly enough! She put her fork back down and picked up one of the quarters of bread that she hadn’t used to absorb the sauces. She dabbed it all over the duck to pick up any possible extra fat or grease that might be on the duck. She put it back down and then took several drinks of water.
The waiter came by and filled her water, he was also taking plates and asked her if she was done. She readily put her napkin on top of her plate and handed it to him hoping no one had seen how little she’d eaten. She could not wait to get out of there.
Other’s were ordering desserts and she knew she’d be stuck there for a while, while everyone sat and visited over dessert and coffee. She asked for some lemon for her water. “At least I’ll get some vitamin C” She justified to herself, the lack of calories and getting some nutrition in the water.
Cassandra asked her mother if it’d be ok if she went and looked at the Koi Pond outside of the restaurant. Her mother said that yes, it’d be fine. Cassandra felt silly. She was fourteen years old and asking if she could do something like she was nine. Why hadn’t she just excused herself from the table and quietly told her mom what she was going to do. Sometimes she felt like she was just a dumb kid.
Cassandra stepped outside into the cool night air. She loved this time of year. She sat down on the rocks next to the Koi Pond and marveled at the beautiful fish. The fish were large, and friendly. They loved attention and they all swam toward her. She knew they were looking for food, but she didn’t have any. Cassandra dangled her fingers into the water and a few of the fish swam away, but most of them kept coming.
Cassandra thought Kwang Se and the Willow garden. Kwang Se must have gotten to see Koi every day in her garden. No Chinese garden would have been complete without Koi.
Kwang Se finished her breakfast with her father. The flowers she’d picked earlier in the day were in a vase in her room. He seemed to be unaware that she’d been out in the garden. She knew this was a good thing. Her father did seem to be in a good mood today. So maybe it would not have mattered.
The Emperor looked at his daughter and contemplated what she might be thinking.
“So, my daughter, what time are your tutors due today?”
“ They will be here shortly, my father, and my learning will be hard, and swift and they will leave the palace before you’ve even known they were here.”
Her father smiled, his daughter was not only learning the history of the great Chinese world, but she was becoming wise beyond her years.
“How is your flute coming along? I heard you playing beneath the willow tree the other day. Not all of it sounded like the lessons you have been given.”
There was a certain sternness to his voice with this last sentence.
Kwang Se was not sure how to answer.
“Yes, my Father, I was practicing under the shadow of my most favorite tree. I practiced my scales, and the music given to me by my instructor.” Kwang Se answered carefully, “Then, and only then, did I practice some music I have been working on that comes from within myself.”
Her father’s shoulders stiffened.
“See to it, that your instructions always come first.”
Kwang Se was so relieved that there was no mention of the messenger boy. How she would have answered to her direct eye contact with him, there simply was no answer.
“Father, my Father. May I take a stroll along the Koi pond before the instructor’s come today? I could practice the names of the flowers and the water garden plants while I am down there. It would not be wasted time.”
“Go, my child. Do not disturb me today. We may be going to war.”
Kwang Se got up and walked quickly to the door before he changed his mind.
As she walked toward the pond, her mind immediately went to the messenger boy. Could it possibly be the nation that he came from? Surely, it is not his land? Oh, they could not be getting ready to war with him. Kwang Se had never seen such beautiful eyes, the idea of being at war with him, broke her heart! She prayed peace would be found before a solution of war was sought.
She reached the Koi pond and looked up at the bridge. Just a few days ago, this young man who’d changed her way of looking at the world crossed that bridge. Would he ever cross that bridge again? Kwang Se sat down at the edge of the pond and dangled her fingers in the water. The Koi came to the edge of the pond hoping for some food. Kwang Se would not disappoint.
As she tossed them some food, she talked to the fish.::: She had names for some of the more distinct fish. The white one with the one orange dot on it’s head, she called Bride. She often imagined Bride as the leader among the fish. She sparkled the brightest in the water. Surely, the other fish knew that she was the most glorious. There was an orange one, as deep orange as the oranges that grew on the orange tree behind the castle. He had black dots all over him, as if someone had carelessly shaken a pen right after being in the ink well. She called him Feather, for the feather pen that she used to carefully write her letters.
She laughed as Bride and Feather fought over a crumb she tossed into the water. Suddenly, their reflection seemed to be covered by shade. It wasn’t cloudy, and there were no tree’s here to block the sun, so she looked up to see what could be blocking the beautiful fish’s reflection. As she looked up, she smiled. Chang was leaning over the wall of the bridge, watching her.
“Hello Kwang Se. Do the fish talk back to you when you talk to them?” He teased her and stood up straight.
She stood up straight and walked to the foot of the bridge.
“No, they do not, but if they did, I imagine they would be great conversationalists. Telling me what it is like to swim everywhere they wanted to go, as they pleased, with no one to tell them what they had to do.” Kwang Se, sadly looked toward the Palace. “Do you bring news for my father?”
“Yes,” Chang said solemnly “ I am afraid the news is not good. I was told to hurry, but I could not make my feet rush. My emperor is not willing to bend and your father is not willing to give.”
“My father is a stubborn and willful man.” Kwang Se said quietly. “It seems to serve only himself, and no one else.”
“For that, I am truly sorry, Kwang Se, you deserve much better” Chang looked to the palace. “I was hoping to hear your flute again. I hear it as I fall asleep. I dream of the day I will hear it again.”
“Maybe next time you come. There will be a next time?” Kwang Se asked, half hopeful, half afraid. She was shameful for being so forward about with this boy, but her heart seemed strangely attached to him.
Cassandra stood up as she heard her father’s voice. He was opening the door for their group. They all came out laughing and talking at once. No one seemed to notice that Cassandra had not walked out with them, so she just joined with them and walked to the family car.
“Thank you for picking me up today.” Cassandra said quietly, as her father’s secretary waved goodbye. She winked at Cassandra and took off to where she had parked her car.
They got into the car and for once, the family was quiet. Cassandra knew there would be no questions about her game. She’d grown accustomed to that, and today, she was relieved. Reporting on such a dismal show, would not have been pleasant. It would have given them proof she didn’t need to be competing.
They had driven about half way home and Camille spoke up.
“Dad, did I do ok?” Her voice sounded remarkably timid. Was Camille the Perfect actually asking for approval? Didn’t she know that she automatically had the seal of approval for everything she did? Cassandra was a bit surprised by Camille’s timidity.
“Yes, you did just fine.” That was it. No critique, no criticism. Just a pointed “fine.” It was far more approval than Cassandra ever got, but Cassandra was starting to see that her father didn’t give approval to anyone, not even Camille, without some begging on the part of the person who was looking for it.
They pulled into the driveway, and Cassandra went to her bedroom. She changed into her pajama’s and climbed onto her bed. She took the Blue Willow tea cup from the window.
“If only.” She placed it back in the window, wishing she could just go to the garden herself. How wonderful it would be to be able to talk to Kwang Se.