Grandmother always said that the ancestors could hear a body better with songs that were true and from the heart. Vienna had scoffed at the very notion of the influence of the ancestors. After all, weren’t they living in the age of independence from such foolish ideas? She was wearing a dress that was sewn in England, reading a letter from a friend back in Boston. The Teng family owned houses in Philadelphia and Taipei, purchased with money from the shipping business her grandfather had founded. Men in America were drinking tea that her father had sold them, transported on a ship that could make the journey from Canton to Boston in less than three months! Why would any one need to beg a favor from the ancestors in this day and age? Grandmother had looked at Vienna with sorrow in her eyes and said that she hoped Vienna would never need to understand.
But the day her father returned, bearing news of a storm, of a fall mast, of the look on John’s face when he realized there was nowhere to go but over the rail. Of the way that the crew searched for as long as they could in the rolling waters of the Pacific and the way the waves had crashed over the bow, threatening more lives than her father could justify. (And the whispers that maybe some on the crew had been glad to be rid of the 死鬼佬1, who would never be worthy to marry the only daughter of their captain.) It was in that moment, when Vienna realized that John was never again going to surprise her with chocolates from France, that they were never again going to sneak off in the middle of the night to watch the moon rise over the bow, when all of the possibilities of their future were shut down forever and ever, that she understood just why the ancestors may need to grant a favor.
She never could remember much about that night other than the tears that wouldn’t fall, but in the morning as the sun began to rise over the coast, Vienna sat down at her piano and began to play. She played songs of love and songs of loss. She began to mix and match the melodies that she played for her family, the tunes that she dreamed could one day be heard in concert halls and the simple songs of joy she played only for John. She offered up every emotion she possesed and when it was done, Vienna laid her head down on the piano and wept. “Oh 媽祖2, mother of the ocean. If you have any mercy for this daughter, I have a favor to implore.”
When 媽祖 appeared, Vienna poured out her grief. “I know I have not always been most the devout of daughters, but I will do anything you ask if only you can restore him to me.” 媽祖 stood quietly by Vienna’s side for a time and Vienna felt as though her heart would burst as she waited for her response. 媽祖 shook her head and replied “Daughter, if you had made this request earlier, there may have been something I could have done. But he has passed on to his next lifetime and there is nothing I can do about that.”
“But if I wait until my next lifetime, we will have forgotten about each other.” Vienna spoke strongly. “There must be something that can be done!”
媽祖 said “I can arrange for you both to find each other in the next life, and in all of the lives following it, but only in exchange for his death at a young age each time.”
Vienna began to cry quietly. “It is hopeless then?”
“John can be given back to you after his death, once you have learned how to give him up. Your first instinct will be to ask for him back and there is no shame or blame in that. But once you can learn how to raise your voice in thanksgiving for the love you both shared rather than to mourn the future you lost, you will be reunited for the rest of that lifetime, to grow old and live the life that you both dreamed of together.” Vienna nodded fiercely, wiping tears from her eyes. Of course there were conditions, Grandmother had always talked of foolish men and women who had not listened to the terms before hastily entering into an agreement with the ancestors. But surely this was not a term that would break her resolve. Vienna wiped her eyes and cleared her throat. “I agree to your terms,” she said in a shaky but clear voice. 媽祖 nodded and leaned over to wipe a tear off of Vienna’s cheek before fading away.
Vienna continued to sit at the piano, emotionally spent and still as the morning air. She couldn’t say how long she sat unmoving until she felt her mother’s hand on her shoulder. Vienna turned around, smiled faintly and turned back to the piano to work on the tune which had finally summoned 媽祖 to her side. After all, she had nothing but time now.
The memories did not come immediately flooding back upon meeting John in her future lives. Sometimes it was a nagging hint, a premonition of future love and loss. Other times it was only in dreams forgotten upon awakening. Some times were harder than others, for humanity’s prejudices changed, but irrational hatred persisted. But in every age, they met and loved. The places and dates turned into a never ceasing blur, but always John was taken by the sea far too young. And as soon as he died, Vienna remembered the pain of every death before, and her heart was resolved to continue her prayer to bring him back. The song always the same, the instrument changing according to Grandmother’s wisdom about the ancestors responding best to what comes from the heart.
Sometimes when she was caught up in the song, 媽祖 would leave her gifts. The watch that she had given John the first time they were betrothed, lost forever to the depths of the sea. The picture John had drawn of her during another of their courtships, burned in the fire that destroyed the house they had shared three or four lifetimes after the first. Sometimes, when she became distracted from her devotion by grief, she thought she saw John out of the corner of her eye. Every time she turned her head and every time it was revealed to be a trick of the light, or possibly just 媽祖 chastising her for allowing her attention to wander.
The first time she laid down with a man who wasn’t John, after he had been taken from her during four or five lifetimes, she was shocked to enjoy it.
The first time she laid with a woman, a lifetime or two after that, she had to admit that her heart was beginning to heal.
And a lifetime or two after that, she had built up enough memories of the good times that could follow the hurt that she first began to entertain the idea of letting their spirits continue along the wheel of reincarnation. That lifetime and the next were spent alone and fearful. How could she allow herself to heal when John was still lost?
But time continued to pass and Vienna’s heart continued to heal, no matter how hard she tried to deny both things. Slowly and surely, the good experiences, the happy events in life, began to outweigh her pain. The memories of all of the past life times, though inextricably tied to the moment of John’s death, all built up into a symphony of love and accomplishments and living.
As she readied her self to begin her song, a smile came across her face. Perhaps this would be the time she was reunited with her lost love, perhaps she would find someone new to share the rest of this life with. But for the first time since she began playing this tune, she understood the gift 媽祖 had given her. Vienna placed her hands on the keys and began to play.