Chapter 1

The Nian

A plane emerges from thick clouds and lands
Between tall mountains where an airport stands.
As the Taylors step down its stairs, they see
Mountains like soldiers waiting anxiously
While an amber pheasant gently glides by,
Then turns in the wind to the twilight sky.

Soon with passports stamped and Puff’s cage secure,
Mr. Taylor smiles down to reassure
Their precious cat that everything is fine,
While Mrs. Taylor and Kathy resign
To board the cab Mr. Taylor waved down,
As the adventure moves to higher ground.

Puff ponders how the Chinese seem to care
About their fellow man and how they fare.
Like when a man appeared with nothing to say,
As Kathy’s mother tripped on the way,
And caught her just before she hit the ground,
Then vanished in the crowd without a sound.

Puff feels peace in this oriental place
Where politeness bows with a humble grace.

Soon they arrive where a village appears
With a small stilt-home where the driver steers.
Here mountains like fingers poke through the sky
With their tops hidden by clouds passing by.
Some vertical climbs in the truest sense.
Protection with the ultimate defense.

Some neighbors stop to admire Puff’s white hair
And his deep blue eyes that capture their stare.
Others are content dancing in the streets,
Resembling crazed gymnastic athletes.

“Today is quite special,” says the driver.
“It is the eve of the Lunar New Year
When the locals come together and play.
It is a day which we Chinese hold dear.

“Today we celebrate all that life is:
Honoring our family—here and gone.
We recognize the harvests which feed us
And heaven to which we all are drawn.”

Puff sees red is the color of the day
As crimson graffiti drifts far away.
There are countless red ribbons dangling down,
With red paper lanterns placed all around
That hang from porches and branches of trees,
Lit by soft candles in the evening breeze.

Mr. Taylor looks down at Kathy’s eyes
Watching some local dancers improvise
Below a large monkey perched in a tree,
Staring at her almost enviously.
Her father gently turns her toward him
As the monkey climbs to a higher limb.

“Please listen to me carefully Kathy.
We are guests of the Zhangs while we are here.
We must show respect for what they honor
And simply ask if something is unclear.

“They have their customs we must recognize—
Certain things might seem a little bit strange,
Like remembering to take off your shoes
Before entering the house for a change.

“Do not lay your bags down on the floor.
They will show you precisely where they go,
And you must stay away from their bedrooms.
That is extremely important to know.

“At dinner—sit where you are asked to sit.
Be patient for Mr. Zhang to speak first.
Be honored, Kathy, that we are their guests.
They will fill our cups long before we thirst.

“This town is like a family, Kathy.
They help each other along graciously,
Especially the older grandparents
Like your dear mom and I may someday be.

“That is the heart of the reason why the
Doors are left wide-open all of the time,
So that neighbors can walk in when they please
Like one big family without any crime.

“Also, the Chinese are polite people.
If they disagree with what you have said
They might not tell you, leaving you to think
They agreed with you all along instead.

“Finally, as we heard at the airport,
They speak somewhat more loudly than they could
Because their language has some complex sounds
And like us, they wish to be understood.”

Mr. Zhang looks down with a friendly smile
As the Taylors ascend in single file
Up the hand-carved wooden stairs from below
With the long day seeming to steal their glow.

But they all smile when Mrs. Zhang comes out
With her two daughters, who playfully shout.

The Zhangs warmly greet the Taylors and Puff
Who by this point is tired and has had enough
Of being cooped up all day in a steel cage.
He is ready to move to the next stage
Of doing the obvious social rounds
Of inspecting the house and nearby grounds.

The Zhangs show them around their humble home
With just a few places to freely roam.
They show Kathy’s parents where they will stay,
While Kathy and the girls just laugh and play.
Puff whiffs a sweet burnt smell—somewhat intense—
He once heard referred to as frankincense.

Puff is brought into the guest room alone.
It seems once again he is on his own,
Left to walk back and forth in his cramped cage:
A less than desirable fashion rage.
He listens—as they all begin to eat,
Hoping that someone will save him a treat.

Then Puff hears Mr. Taylor speaking out
And wonders what the topic is about.

“On behalf of my family, thank you
For being so kind to let us stay here.
We have a small gift we would like to share,
Something we hope will bring you some cheer.”

But when Mr. Taylor presents the gift
Mr. Zhang looks down with a quick head shift,
Refusing what was kindly presented
As Mr. Taylor’s feelings get dented.

But the driver said he might act that way
And to be persistent in a kind way.

Mr. Taylor smiles with a hopeful grin
As Mr. Zhang in a short while gives in.

The families talk lively for a time
While Puff, stuck in the back room, wants to climb
Out of his cage and get a bite to eat,
Hopefully something with a bit of meat.
Puff shouts a meow to gain attention
And save him from his lonely detention.

Then Mr. Zhang turns toward the back room
And suggests releasing Puff from his tomb.
Mr. Taylor, with a smile on his face,
Walks over and frees Puff’s confining space.
Puff follows him to where the rest are seated,
Realizing his meow was not defeated.

After Puff finally finds Kathy’s seat,
He leaps on her lap in search of a treat,
As Kathy prepares a question to ask
While putting aside her modesty mask.

“Mr. Zhang, why is there red everywhere
When pretty colors like purple are rare?”

“Kathy!” Mr. Taylor says quite sternly.
“She is fine, Mr. Taylor. No harm done.
We can learn from the frankness of a child
How the innocence of their mind is spun.

“I will answer your question, young lady,
Which I hope will not frighten you away.
Many centuries ago, something rose
From the sea depths in a horrible way.

“A terrifying beast called the Nian
Wandered through the vast Chinese countryside
Searching for children to ease its hunger
Who lacked the good wisdom to run and hide.”

Kathy wished she never asked the question
As the story fights with her digestion.
Her parents, famished from the day, just eat
Their noodles, gently spiced both sour and sweet.
Puff watches the moon rise through the window
As he wonders when some cat food will show.

“Now the Nian,” Mr. Zhang continues,
“Has a jaw so wide and deep it can munch
Many children in a single mouthful,
Licking its lips after the final crunch.

“It has several large horns on its head
Which it uses to skewer children through,
Then roast them like marshmallows over fire,
But it has been known to eat them raw too.

“It has the sturdy body of an ox
And a lion’s head with a large flat face.
Its razor-sharp teeth can cut through children’s
Clothing easily, like cutting through space.

“Now on the eve of each Lunar New Year,”
Continues Mr. Zhang, “villagers from
All over China would hide in the hills
Anticipating the Nian to come.

“One year, when the people of Cherry Knoll
Were preparing to depart to the hills,
An old man came with silvery white hair
Who had some very unusual skills.

“No one had time to speak with the old man
Which seemed to him to be a little rude,
Till an old woman invited him in
And fed him some wonton and local food.

“She asked him to go with her to the hills,
That he would surely be killed if he stayed.
The old man replied, “it will be okay
And there is no reason to be afraid.”

“But the old woman had seen many die
Over the years—the suffering and pain.
She knew she must leave quickly to the hills
And perhaps never return again.

“She told the old man he could stay the night
And rushed as fast as she could out the door,
While the old man took supplies from his bag
And laid them carefully out on the floor.

“Soon night fell and the dreaded Nian came
Searching for fleshy children to devour
And was angry to find the town had fled,
Leaving it with nothing but rice and flour.

“Then it saw candles in the woman’s home
When everywhere in the village was dark.
It approached cautiously toward the door,
Then was shocked when it saw a crimson spark.

“The door opened and the red glow inside
Frightened the Nian’s aggressive display.
Then just as the old man lit some fireworks
The creature sprinted the opposite way.

Mr. Zhang finished saying, “we have used
Red to protect ourselves for centuries,
As well as it being a kind of prayer
For healthy rice harvests and plump peach trees.”

Kathy ponders watching the others eat
Why the nasty Nian prefers child meat.