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Falls Church, Virginia, USA

 Untamable curiosity, my biggest weakness, has led me into not a few unpleasant and even life-threatening situations. At the same time, several fascinating discoveries have been made. I’d like to share the one that really stands out. Let me rewind time a little bit. At a small local bar, mysterious gossip was whispered about a dead young woman who reappeared 33 years later. No one seemed to be able to confirm the actual cause of her death or to explain the resurrection. The bartender was doing a great job of coaxing his customers to spill more facts about the mystery. I thought he could make a decent journalist. Several different versions of the story were entertained, some overly exaggerated. For example, one account had it that she was in fact a sly ancient fox with nine tails, which shifted its shape into human form by putting on a skull. Another version explained it away as an alien abduction case. Amused by the conjecture, one customer smirked and shouted,

“I knew a chap. What was his name? Anyway, he found this tiny strange thingy implanted at the foot of his skull when he woke up in his cornfield. I bet she has one of those on the back of her neck!”

Without taking his eyes off of the baseball game on TV, another customer chimed in,

“God knows what those space animals did to her body. My ten bucks says she was knocked up with a star child, yeah, with creepy rat eyes!”

To the bartender’s satisfaction, one foggy night a mildly drunken customer, allegedly the uncle of the resurrected woman, finally put flesh on the skeletal rumor. I was lucky to be there to eavesdrop on his story. According to him, three decades ago his niece fell down during a rock climb, was reported to be missing, and presumed to be dead. He called her ‘Sweet Ocean’ in his smudged speech. One day, she reappeared to her father out of thin air. At first, he thought that his daughter was a ghost. She looked just like his daughter 33 years ago – in the same clothing and with no sign of aging. The barman, all ears, declared that drinks were on the house and encouraged the uncle to continue. The customer recounted that his niece acted as if she was just woken up from a long sleep, remembering almost everything up to the unfortunate incident but nothing afterward. From what I could gather at the bar, the lady’s story was marinated in mysteries, with more questions than answers. It called for an in-depth investigation.

 The drunken customer eventually led me to the mysterious woman. Despite the long time that had elapsed, her school records, the related newspapers, and the police report were easy to find. The description of the event was rather sketchy, and some of the important details were missing. The police document briefly mentioned that there was another individual on the mountain but nothing more than that. A local newspaper described how search teams were organized to find her but were unsuccessful.

Luckily, my company showed an interest in the story and gave me the go-ahead. I carried out background checks on her parent and the relatives, which turned out to be useless. Getting nowhere fast, I arranged an initial interview with the resurrected person.

When the woman introduced herself, she insisted that the first ‘a’ in her name, Oceana, should be unpronounced: Ocean, ah! That way she could keep the ocean close to her heart, she was poetically convinced. Oceana’s father, looking more like her grandfather than anything else, wanted to join the interview. His daughter’s story must have been reiterated a thousand times, but the old man looked as interested as if he had heard it for the first time. Before the interview he called me aside and warned me not to mention spider or snake to his daughter. Even the words scared her, he said with parental concern. I made a mental note. No spider and no snake. Check! Few people are fond of those poisonous creeping creatures. I automatically wondered if scorpions were off-limits as well. Check!

At the interview, Oceana’s fingers were busy wrestling with one another, though the whole interview seemed to thrill her. She began her story with the mountain climbing. She remembered that some pictures were taken there. While she rummaged through old memories, she wrinkled her forehead. She believed that she had lost her footing and slipped off a cliff. Her father looked perturbed. Oceana described how terrified she felt when she was falling, about to plunge into the rushing brown river. Her friend’s hysterical voice calling her name from the cliff top echoed down the narrow valley, she added. The anticipation of the impact was dreadful. Oceana was quick to mention that she couldn’t even scream because terror gripped her throat.

I could easily tell that she wasn’t a great liar. Obviously she was making up some parts of her story. It isn’t uncommon for interviewees to exaggerate, particularly when a tape recorder is rolling in front of them and someone is studiously making a note of their accounts. As a reporter I have trained myself to notice small unconscious gestures, micro-expressions. When people lie, their body movements are cut to the bare minimum to dedicate their full brain power in making up believable stories. Moreover, the change of the tone of voice and the shunning of eye contact are pretty reliable clues.

The very next thing Oceana remembered was the big purple door of her own house. It was a dog’s loud barking sound from her house that must have woken her up, she realized. Parching thirst and a severe headache instantly struck her. It took a while for her to get oriented, she recalled. That was all she could withdraw from her memory bank.

Once awake, Oceana was surprised to discover that her voice was thick with the Queen’s English, heavy with Victorian style. She called it awfully curious. Exactly what happened between the falling down and the waking up remained a mystery. I was mystified as to how she was beamed down from her past or maybe from the world of the dead. Oceana couldn’t answer most of my questions and rehearsed her story as if she herself was a third person narrating an ancient tale. Her account was loaded with speculations and assumptions. Disappointingly, my research didn’t go anywhere and more interviews with Oceana contributed very little. There was a chance that her lost memories would come back someday. Nonetheless, I didn’t pin my hopes on it, knowing well that memory is the most whimsical creature under the sun, not to be relied upon.

 Over the course of the interviews with Oceana I learned that she had a very close friend called Choy. In fact, it was the same person briefly mentioned in the old police statement, who was with Oceana at the mountain on the day of her disappearance. As far as my investigation on Oceana is concerned, Choy turns out to be even more intriguing than the resurrected woman. Oceana’s friend has remained in Virginia for the last three decades and was incidentally out of town for weeks when Oceana reappeared. Today she is supposed to return from a long trip to China. Oceana is impatiently waiting for her in front of Choy’s deluxe mansion. A taxi drives in and a middle-aged Asian lady rushes out of the car. As soon as the eyes of these women meet, they run to each other, hug, and do not let go. The reunion is heart-stopping. Imagine 33 years of separation! A reunion of a mother and her long lost daughter couldn’t have been more moving. Their crying soon turns into wailing. Oceana’s father sheds tears of his own. People know well that Choy suffered severe depression after losing Oceana, her best and only friend. That fact makes the day even more dramatic and emotional. Trying to cause minimum interruption, I photograph the occasion with journalistic professionalism. These two women start to speak in Choy’s language. The click from my camera makes me feel a bit impolite. Through the viewfinder I see Oceana and then her friend. There is something vaguely familiar about Choy. I have definitely seen her somewhere before but my memory fails me. My mind is busy calculating the next moves to find out more about Oceana’s friend.

 Choy, seemingly skeptical and pessimistic about everything, looks like she once was attractive enough to break the hearts of a thousand men. She is in her early 50’s with streaks of gray hair and furrows of wrinkles. It doesn’t take a doctoral degree in psychology to see that her life has been bitter. When around her, it is like being at the worst job interview. Her cold eyes are loaded with permanent disapproval. It probably has to do with her clothing. I come to notice that all her dresses are either black or dark gray, suitable for a witch from a far once-upon-a-time land. According to Oceana, Choy’s Chinese mother, deceased now, married an American ambassador back in her home country. Nevertheless, I can’t see much of the American side in Choy’s look or mannerisms. Wanting her daughter to grow up Chinese, her mother never spoke English to her. No language but Choy’s mother tongue was allowed around her. Her mother taught her Eastern values partly through ancient proverbs but mostly through her character and life stories. Several years after Oceana’s disappearance, Choy supposedly inherited a fortune from a Chinese relative, genealogically close but emotionally distant. She was given more than enough to support herself for the rest of her life. Her luxurious lifestyle and exotic house speak for themselves. Nonetheless, it is never clear what she is doing with her spare time.

 People rarely visited Choy after Oceana’s fall. Her social interaction wasn’t very different before the tragic incident. Oceana was the only companion she had. It isn’t just her depression that kept her distant from others. Apart from Oceana, the Chinese woman didn’t know anyone who was fluent in her language. It is not the case, however, that Choy has totally cocooned herself from the rest of the world. She has kept herself up-to-date through every kind of magazine and newspaper. Some of the periodicals she has collected are so specialized that I even didn’t know they ever existed. There is, for example, a monthly magazine called The Ignorable which publishes notes, letters, and pictures found on streets, subways, public corridors, abandoned buildings, and so forth. These items tell fragments of stories with too little information to trace their origins but enough detail to tickle the imagination. Choy is especially obsessed with collecting unusual stories, covering such topics as historical events, top news, famous people, popular places, strange phenomena, and conspiracies. She only compiles the pictures, not the text articles, in her scrapbooks. These pictures have her comments in Chinese words which are all Greek to me. Her house has several rooms with shelves of well-categorized photo scrapbooks. For instance, the pictures related to UFOs, aliens, and government secrets are kept in a dark room guarded by many stern locks. When you are in one of those rooms, you feel as though you are standing in a small top secret chamber. Unsettlingly, after the day of her reunion with Oceana, Choy started to collect pictures related to me and my work. Whatever her intention may have been, instead of feeling honored, I felt as anxious as a Chihuahua dog on a treetop. I have yet to find out the reason behind it. Choy has put off interviews with me several times. Instinct tells me that she is hiding something. In fact, I can sense her uneasiness when I am around. Maybe she isn’t sure how to treat a man in a wheelchair.