Roots on display in a herbal Chinese remedy shop.
Several times in my life I've seen things that I couldn't explain. Most of them occurred when I was young. I can't remember exactly what they were, but I remember feeling scared. There was an uncomfortable shift in my understanding of the world, like a jarring of my mental tectonic plates, followed by a feeling of calmness and certainty. Like the setting a broken bone, it hurt for a minute, but in the end it felt like something had been made right.
Most of those occurrences were probably the result of a boy learning the workings of a world that is not as simple as Saturday morning cartoons would have us believe. The story I'm about to tell you, however, is much more recent. It happened when I was thirty-years-old, an age at which my grasp of reality, one would hope, was more akin to the Origin of Species than Tom and Jerry.
My girlfriend Christine and I were walking down the street in Tainan, Taiwan, when a Taiwanese man shouted at us from the liquor store next door. "Lai, Lai (come here, come here)." He implored. We went inside.
"A ghost is following your girlfriend." He said.
"How do you know?"
"I saw it." He pointed at her foot, which was wrapped in thick white bandages. "An accident?"
A week earlier Christine had been riding her scooter when she was cut off and forced into the scooter next to her. Her little toe, which had been hanging off the edge of the scooter, had gotten caught on the other scooter so that when they veered away from each other it was pulled partly away from her foot. Doctors had fixed it in place with metal pins. It was extremely swollen.
"It happened because of the ghost." He told me.
The vast majority of Taiwanese, especially the older generation, believe in ghosts. Most Taiwanese people will tell you that they have seen a ghost before.
The man told me that he wanted to help Christine. He was a traditional Chinese healer. He assured me that he didn't want any money.
I told Christine his offer.
"Do you think it would it be strange?"
"Should do it?"
She agreed and he motioned for her to sit on a stool.
He began moving his hands through the air in fluid motions like the Karate Kid's wax-on wax-off exercise. The circles movements became wilder and wilder and began making strange noises.
"Ooh, wacka wacka wacka. Ooh, woogy woogy woogy."
It was quite entertaining.
Through all his hand waving, the man didn't touch Christine until the end when he placed one hand behind her head and then, with the same form that you would expect to see a martial artist punch through a board, he thrust is open palm forcefully into her forehead and held it there, hand quivering, and shouted, "Ooha!" He repeated this action three times and announced that he was finished. He told me that he had adjusted her chi, which had been blocked. He said the treatment would help her foot over the short term, but that she would have to return two more times before the end of Ghost Month (the month when the fabric separating our world from the ghosts' is most permeable) in order to rid herself of the troublesome spirit.
We thanked the man for his kind help and left. On the scooter we laughed about the performance. I waved my hands in the air.
"Wacka wacka wacka," I said.
"Ha ha ha. Oh Matt. Don't be mean."
"Woogy woogy woogy."
"Ho ho ho."
A couple of hours later as we watched TV at home Christine suddenly grabbed my arm.
"Oh my God Matt. Look!"
She had just unwrapped her foot. When we went out that night it had been so swollen that it looked like a big pink potato with toes. But now it was back to its normal size. The swelling had gone down so fast that her skin was wrinkled like she had just gotten out of a long bath.
Here is a picture that I snapped with my iPhone.
I have no explanation for what happened. Over the following days I became accustomed the idea that our limited senses and short time on this planet allow us to understand the universe about as much as a pygmy could understand a David Lynch movie by watching its filming through the keyhole of a door on the set.
There are many things we will never understand. I used to dislike the idea, but I'm growing to like it more and more. It makes the world strange and mysterious. On a good day it's almost bizarre and profound as a David Lynch movie.