21st Century Saga: Cheerios the Valiant

Russell and Coleen arrived at Úlfljótsvatn. They settled in, and began the work that they had arrived to do. Many new skills and ways of being arrived in this time for them. They learned how to prepare breakfast for 45 people. They found out how to run a small shop with treats from thousands of miles away. They learned to mix magical potions in spray form and vanquish bacteria with them. At one point, they even met a Zombie and two talking sheep, who revealed to them their opinions on the great moving Grass-slayers that passed over the campground every week.

Russell and Coleen also met two epic heroes in animal form: Cheerios and Ofsavondur.

Cheerios was an orphan who led a small clan of other orphans. She worked hard by baa-ing night and day to get the milk necessary for them to grow. Raisins, who was also an orphan, was her favourite friend in the group. Even though she sometimes butted heads with him over bottles of milk. Who hasn’t gotten into a scrap with a friend after a few drinks?

Cheerios was protective of Raisins because she could see Raisins was sickly. Raisins had a crooked face and teeth that didn’t seem to stay inside her mouth. Her horns would not grow. She walked with a strange gait. She couldn’t eat much.

Cheerios was growing strong and healthy. She drank liters and liters of milk, and began to eat grass as well. One day, Brown Sugar arrived. Brown Sugar was an older lamb, and given to risky behaviors like a teenager. She led the little sheep to eat all the pretty flowers planted at the village. Cheerios wasn’t too sure about this. She had heard of a Flower Troll who would not be happy about them eating the flowers.

“Whatever,” said Brown Sugar. “There’s no such thing as a Flower Troll.”

“Baaaa?” said Raisins, with a pansy in her mouth.

Cheerios did not eat the flowers. She couldn’t convince the others not to, though. Soon, no more flowers were visible in the planters.

A couple of weeks passed, and nothing had happened. Maybe there were no Flower Trolls after all. But Raisins still seemed the same size as before, her horns twisted and not growing. She still walked with a limp and her teeth still wouldn’t fit in her mouth. Cheerios ate at all meal times hungrily, but Raisins wouldn’t eat enough.

The long summer day began to have slight darkness in the middle of the night. Cheerios and the other sheep began to get cold, but they were all too big to fit inside their church anymore. They wandered the grass and were cold together. Several nights passed. Eventually a friendly old cat called Ofsavondur showed them how to sleep under a ventilation fan in the kitchen, so that their wool blew in the warm breeze as if they were under a hair dryer.

Cheerios, Raisins, and Brown Sugar slept peacefully.

Early in the morning, Cheerios needed to pee. She was a polite sheep and did not want to pee on her comrades, so she got up to wander off for privacy. Her natural business finished, she looked around at the morning. No one was awake yet. Raisins had stolen the warmest spot under the fan. She turned to go back, but then…

A trail of flowers was leading to behind the workshop. Cheerios was suspicious. She followed the trail, glancing back one more time at her small herd.

A Flower Troll was, of course, at the end of the trail of flowers. He was ten feet tall, made of pansies in all colors. He had hands bigger than Cheerios whole body, and he walked with his knuckles on the ground like a great ape. He beckoned Cheerios.

She hesitated. Then, she remembered her secret heritage. She knew this was her destiny.

The Troll was angry about the sheep eating his children, the flowers. He threatened Cheerios, saying, “I know that your herd is responsible for the massacre!”

Cheerios said nothing.

“I will punish you all for this, but especially Raisins!”

Cheerios said nothing.

“Raisins will never be right! If she survives this day, she will twist more and more until she cannot even move, and her horns will twist and cause her pain, and she will never grow bigger than she is now!”

Cheerios said nothing. The troll lost his patience and said, “All right! It’s time! First you, and then I will eat Brown Sugar and curse Raisins!” He took a long step and another, until he was ready to step directly on Cheerios. His foot came down on her.

The Troll suddenly looked surprised, and as soon as his foot crushed Cheerios he turned into a fledgling bird. He could not fly away. He could not curse anyone. He hopped along the ground, but it was too late. The legendary camp cat, Ofsavondur, came and plucked up this easy pickings for breakfast, dragging the bird that had been the Flower Troll up to the kitchen. His useless wings were all that was left.

Cheerios knew she was dying.

She stumbled to the workshack, and laid down. The other sheep would never know what had happened to her. Hours later, and close to death, she saw that the people of the camp were coming. They were concerned, but she beckoned them closer. In her last moments, she was able to tell them her story.

“I was born to a clan of magical sacrificial Lambs, high in the mountains. Our history is long and we have always sacrificed ourselves to save others. Don’t be sad today! I will die, but Raisins will be better. The curse the Flower Troll put on her will be reversed through my sacrifice, and she will grow stronger every day!”

With that, Cheerios laid down her head and was gone.

Raisins woke that morning and felt nothing different. She went to get milk from the humans, napped under the hair dryer vent, had more milk, ate some grass, and slept some more. Brown Sugar and Raisins began to move farther in the magical camp, and they ate more and more grass. Raisins slowly began to grow.

Her horns grew straight. She ate more. She wasn’t ill. Her wool came in. Her teeth even seemed straighter. And she grew to be a large lamb who was healthy and strong, and the little herd of lambs at Úlfljótsvatn never knew that one of their own had saved them.



Prologue and Ancestry: 21st Century Saga

There once was a man called Russell. He was born in a land of four kingdoms, to parents called Steve the Unlucky and Doreen the Burner of Things. He grew up also occasionally burning Things, such as a bunker that made a plume of smoke so high that the whole village was confused. He had two sisters, Emma and Kelly. From Kelly descended a nephew called Ryan.

Russell trained a rolling combat sport from a distant land and worked hard for a long to time save gold to travel. He flew on several friendly dragons to distant continents with exotic names like South America and Asia. This is how he found his partner and wife, Coleen.

Coleen was born the farthest West of her family, the descendent of journeypeople who moved between an old world and a new one. Her entire family was born on the Eastern border of the great Atlantic sea, spread out from Baltimore to Albany. Her father was Mark and her mother was Sharon. Her siblings were the descendent of the challenger, Delaney, and Jake the Wakelee Kaneborn.

Her birth far away from the places of her ancestry in the east and Europe seemed to set her destiny to travel and move thousands and thousands of miles. She moved around the Earth and found Russell in a distant land, and they travelled a great circle around the planet together in their first year. They fell in love and were always together, and a friendly sprite married them in the land of the Scots.

An irksome witch from Russell’s land of birth commanded paper and red tape, and she decreed that only those with enough gold could live in the country with the one they loved. Russell and Coleen worked hard and learned new skills and paid taxes to the Witch’s government, but the Witch did not seem to care. She changed the rules often. New gold levels here. Higher language standards there. More proof of LOVE, in all caps of course, over there.

And so Coleen and Russell continued their journeys, not really wanting to take on the Witch and her Office of the Home directly. Traveling is fun, anyway, and made for an interesting live. This is how they found themselves in China in the last part of the story. 

In the summer of 2016, they moved to Iceland.

When they arrived, they found that the land was much as when they had visited in winter. The sky was gray. The light was low and cast longer shadows. They arrived in sequence, with Coleen bringing the colourful wind of the Rocky Mountains at her back at 6:30 AM. Russell arrived later, the rain of England misting behind him. They entered the new land of their journey with the words of Vikings above them.

“Greater weight than wisdom a traveller cannot carry.”

That summer, an invisible castle would affect the weather of the local area. They would learn the names and words of people from around the world. They would meet local gnomes, birds, and dinosaurs. A valiant sheep friend would protect another, inspiring the Great Verse of Cheerios the Valiant, a famous verse. And they were to bring more of their clan to the place of Fire, Colour, Ice, and Rock.

But they first had to settle in the land of The Settlement.

From the village of skillful people nearby, a place called Ulfjotsvatn, they were offered a quiet place. Little did they know that they were next to a place of great power in Iceland. More than 90% of the power for the country passed through their front yard, and was beamed from the blue lake to the whole of the Great Ring of Movement.

Coleen and Russell, the Nomads, unpacked their greengrayblack clothing and pushed the beds together. This is a good place, they thought. And soon, they would meet another hero.

Next time: The Ballad of Cheerios the Valiant 

Shanghai is impermanent

The train is pulling slowly out of the station and moving into the great interior of the vast middle kingdom, which is zhongguo. It moves slowly, a snake in the firelight of the millions of LEDs shining across the square. This is our entry to Shanghai. NOt on the train. Above it. The eleventh floor of the Zhabei Holiday Inn Express.

The massive building works, covered in their characteristic greens and wildly ordered scaffolding are rising out of what seems to be a massively early darkness for April. It’s 18:30. A huge electrical storm is brewing.

The smog was not yet what it would be, being only April 2015.

Shanghai has a busy, otherworldly look to it in all the videos one can find online. It litteraly buzzes and shimmers with intensity, a growing metropolis of the most 21st century kind. But in person it is nothing of the sort, except for perhaps around East Nanjing road station. The buzz dimmishes to a dull roar, with the wide roads of Minhang quiet and nearly empty at nighttime. The place that we live is actually one of the quietest that I have experienced in a long time, given my history of the Seoul Metro Area and London. It’s calm there, and although the area we live in has high rise apartment buildings crammed in next to one another, it is nothing like the housing projects of the states. The new line 12 opened in December, and if you were to simply take it out there and walk out from the airport itself, you might mistake it for Glasgow.

Yet the LEDs of the buildings, swimming by in the aftermath of a ten or twelve hour shift, burn my retinas palpably. When did I ever work this hard? I’m not sure. I’m pullng 45-50 hour weeks, week in and week out. That doesn’t count the travel to or from work, which is often significant. I have to walk out my door at exactly 7:24 AM or I will not be able to get here in time for a 9 o’clock class. When the time outside of work comes, there isn’t very much to do.

Everything seems to be in a mall here, and I can’t stand malls. I never go to them in the US, and I tried to avoid them mostly in the UK (Although one of my favourite breweries, one which feels a lot like Colorado, is inside the largest mall in Western Europe in Stratford). I wish I had the pay grade that I did in the Brewdog Bar in London…this is a ‘manager’ position which runs me ragged and pays less than I got at my job straight out of college. Of course, the advantage is that my standard of living is lower than before, and my dreams likewise clipped at the wings in terms of material possessions and big houses and cars and kitchens. Shrunk down to manageable, yellow teapot size.

And yet, the dreams are at once wider and more expansive than ever. At 28, I am still not settled. I am married. I am highly educated. I graduated from a top UK university only last year. I can still read and comprehend four major world languages, and marginally get by in two more recently-acquired ones. Yet I do not dream of a house. Not of a cul-de-sac. I dream of a horizon that goes on forever.

My dreams are in a paradox. At once, clipped and stretched. It’s a strange place to be. The wide, quiet places of the Earth are calling to me bodily at this very moment. The quiet of Minhang is nothing at all compared to the breathing, moving Quiet that picks you up in her hands in Patagonia, turning you over and over to see what exactly you are made of. A child with a new favourite shell from the beach. The wind is the only thing that you can hear. The stars are the brightest.


My coworker told me this week that she has never seen a cow.

I laughed, uncharitably. I laughed for far too long. I laughed until she started to look hurt, and then I felt terrible. But still. It is a crazy thing to experience, having someone tell you that they have never seen a cow in their entire life. I could be forgiven for it, given that the high school I graduated from is surrounded by the beasts. I would watch them during lessons that dragged on too long, especially at this time of the year. It was comforting to watch them, licking the randomly discarded farm equipment in pure unadulterated joy and stupifaction. In Chile, cows were the harbingers of the landscape that is not so very different from the one of my birth. In England, cows wander on the lawns of Cambridge’s King’s College, for fuck’s sake.

Another coworker asked me an honest question recently. How do you see the stars?

I didn’t laugh at that one. I didn’t understand what she was even asking, at first. She asked me three times. She was literally asking me, how does one look at the stars? What do they look like?

I…I have been lucky to see the stars on many occasions in my lifetime. The wide swath of the sky covered by what appears at first to be a cloud, but is actually the MIlky Way, the galaxy itself, spinning with us in it and a billion stars. I’ve seen the stars in the Atacama Desert, bright and insistent. In the campo between Puerto Natales and Punta Arenas, many mornings and nights. In the perpetual twilight of Patagonia in winter, the stars were often inlaid with golden pink light around them. The Southern Cross. In this empty northern hemisphere, I’ve seen them in the darkness above the Grand Canyon. In the hazy springtime, just barely, of Tuscany. Above the castle at Montalcino, where the stars themselves seemed to be drunk on Barolo that I had sampled with my classmates. They were winking at us flirtaciously. I’ve seen the stars come out of a crystalline blue sky on Independence Pass in Colorado. At 12,000 feet, a newly-engaged woman.

And…making her question even more bizarre…I’ve seen the stars here in Shanghai.

I wonder if the LEDs are put in place to make up for the lack of stellar light here. Of course, there is an observatory (functional? How?) just a block away from where I work, bathed in the light of LEDs and lasers in Xujiahui’s busy streets.

I wonder if I misinterpreted the question, or if it is just that she hasn’t looked up from her phone when outside in years.

My life in Shanghai isn’t bad, but I have been more miserable here than in some places. My boss asked me the other day why I am not really considering renewing my contract for the next year. He just said, “China gettin’ to you?”

It’s not. It’s not really. I think that a major reason why it’s not the place for me is that it is incredibly boring for me here. I want to be outside hiking and doing things. The AQI doesn’t exactly permit that when it hovers around 180 PPM and makes my throat taste of metal every day. I want to be experiencing China and weirdness and cultural issues and I just simply don’t here. Other than people telling me that they have never seen cows or possibly not understanding what stars look like.

It’s nowhere near as difficult in some ways as Korea. The cultural differences are largely exaggerated in my opinion. It’s just not that hard to adjust to life here and once you do, it’s easy to just be trapped in goddamned malls and do nothing much except work your arse off.

Now that it’s winter, the only things to do are basically go to the pub and go to the pub. We have been to the museums, and they are fine. My ennui is probably due to being spoiled rotten by London. London truly has a huge amount going on. Shanghai seems to simply have a huge amount of people going about their lives in a mostly orderly fashion. It’s fine. It’s just not my place. If I could love spending money, it would be my place. But I’m not into manicures or expensive brands. I don’t have a smartphone. I don’t want one.

I will escape. I often do. Today, seven years ago, I woke up and got on a plane to move abroad for the first time. Tomorrow, I will email some farms in a far-flung area of the world to see if we might move there and learn.

Shanghai is impermanent.

So You Need to Go To The Hospital In Shanghai

Going to the hospital in Shanghai is the equivalent of going to see a GP in England or the USA. Russell has had a bad cold for days and we couldn’t get the pharmacist to give us any medicine that actually worked, so we set off for the hospital in the morning on Wednesday. For Emergency care, your experience may be different.

Shanghai Sixth People’s Hospital is bustling. It’s on a major corner, and ambulances are driving up to the entrance regularly with patients in the back, beeping incessantly at the crowds around the door of the outpatient facility. We are across the road, having grabbed a taxi and done the usual embarassing dance of show and tell with a translated address.

We cross over and enter the fray, through the large glass double doors. It’s very intimidating, as most seems to be in China at first glance. There are people evvvvvverywhere.

The nurse’s station is an island in the middle of rivers of people coming and going, yelling and silent, some coughing, but very few spitting on the floor (although I did catch a couple of grand-dads getting the evil phlem out). We begin our Game of Charades by motioning that Russell has a bad cough, although as it turns out this nurse is the one with practically the best English in the place.

“First, register. Then fifth floor.”

“Ok, thank you.”

We register. The line is long but fast-moving. The woman in front of us has her passport and residence permit out. We don’t need our passport, as it turns out. A provisional driver’s lisence is sufficient. That’s good, since our passports are with the immigration office for two more weeks. I feel as if we are walking around naked without them in my bag. This is made up for by the packet of papers that the registration officer gives to us, along with the change she throws my way. A ‘self-keeping’ booklet for medical records. Some receipts. Some unidentifiable papers.

We head to the fifth floor. It’s not immediately apparent which number is ours, nor which room. Respiratory department, I assume. Left, right, then down a hall lined with metal chairs.

124. Called into room 17.

“Can you speak Chinese?”
“Ok, please speak slowly.”

We explain Russell’s symptoms. We produce the evil-smelling syrup that the pharmacy down the road from our apartment gave us, which seemed only to make things worse. We gesture phlem coming out of our mouths. We gesture insomnia (a toughie).

“I want to give you a blood test.”

“Um…for what purpose…?”

“I want to give you an antibiotic.”


We gesture thanks.

We head to the cashier and throw a receipt at them. They throw it back, and gesture for another one of the papers that we’re holding. We hand it over, gesturing apology. We pay 50 RMB for the consultation, and head to the 4th floor.

Where is the blood test station? Where is the number system? Ok, so they just do the blood draw right there? Through a window? What? Oh, our number has been called already. Go, go, go. Ok, hold this cottonball to your arm. Go somewhere. We gesture confusion. Go somewhere. Confusion again. You speak some English, right? Tell them.

“Go straight, then left, then down.”

We read the signs again, and notice ‘Laboratory Results’ on the first floor. We head down there. We gesture confusion to the harassed woman behind the desk. She checks our recipt with paragraphs of Chinese on it, gestures that it isn’t in the computer, and says, “One hour.”

We go across the street to find something to eat, but fail. I get a boba tea instead. It’s bitter and tasty. I haven’t had one in years. Maybe since…college? In Boulder, at that little place that is near the lingerie shop, behind what is now a grocery store but which was once the cheapest movie theatre…is it even there anymore? I look across the crazy road in Shanghai to the hospital that’s buzzing with people. In what other life did I have that last cup of Boba tea?

We go back inside and collect the laboratory report. There are people sleeping on the benches around the escalators. We gesture thanks.

On the escalator, we notice that our life has become Game of Charades since our Chinese is soooo bad. And now we’re singing the Game of Thrones credits on the escalators in the hospital, thousands drifting past. We’re in that quiet and largely impenetrable bubble that a strong language barrier produces. Embarassment isn’t a concern.

Game of Charades continues. We gesture to some random respiratory doctor about where to take the lab report.

“Go to the room 17, please.”

The doctor is there, waiting for us. We give her the results; she checks a result. Still no idea why a blood test is necessary for an antibiotic. We receive the script. We ask for a doctor’s note for work. The doctor takes us out to the nurse’s station and we get an official (bizzarely) blue stamp.

We go downstairs and attempt to get the medicine.

“Pay first.”

We go to the cashier and pay by card. We take the many accumulated pieces of paper to the pharmacist.

“No! Number 9!”

We retreat to window nine. The massive pharmacy is hugely efficient. Thousands and thousands of prescriptions at once. Runners grabbing bags filled with medicines and passing them to the dispensers. Lines and lines of people waving bits of paper at them.

“This one: one pill, one day. This one: three times, 30ml.”

“Thank you.”

We head outside, 2.5 hours after we walked into Shanghai Sixth People’s Hospital.

Simplified Instructions for those too sick to deal with my long narrative above:

WARNING: If you happen to be British, fight your queuing instincts. Abandon them. They will not serve you. If you’ve ever lived in Italy, dust off your fila elbows.

  1. Go to the nurse station on the first floor.
  2.  Go to the registration station. Pay 12 RMB for a hospital card and packet of papers. DON’T LOSE THESE. It’s best to use cash.
  3.  Go to the department you registered for. Check the number on your receipt from registration and go to the consultation room when your number/name comes up.
  4.  Talk to the doctor. Speak slowly, and consider bringing a translation app.
  5. Pay the cashier on that floor for the consultation. You can use cash or card.
  6.  Get tests done if needed (the laboratory is on the 4th Floor for blood tests).
  7.  Wait one hour for the results.
  8.  Go to the first floor and get the results from the ‘Laboratory Results’ desk.
  9. Take the results back to the doctor you spoke to. There is no number to wait for this time, just wait until they are available.
  10. Get a prescription and/or a doctor’s note.
  11. Go to the cashier on the first floor. Pay for your prescription. You can use cash or card.
  12. Go to the pharmacy on the first floor. Get your prescription.
  13. Go home!

Total cost: 178 RMB (50 for consultation, 116 for dispensed medicines, 12 RMB for registration fee)
Address in Chinese:


No. 600 Yishan Road
Nearest metro: Yishan Rd Station, Line 9 (Exit 3)
Nearest busses: 732, 122, 50 (probably more options)

Russell’s One-Line Review

“Henry Ford would be jealous.”

I Was Here

I hope that London doesn’t turn me into one of those annoying London writers who only writes about London. I’m going to try to write more often now that my MA is well and truly finished. Unceremoniously submitted, after much hand-wringing over supposed self-plagiarism. It turned out that Turnitin believed my bibliography was copied from my previous essays on similar topics. God forbid that I should try to consistently cite my sources. 

A redorange London Ribs boat buzzes by. I am at the Old Thameside Inn, in Southwark. One of the oldest and most storied bits of the Big Smoke. One of the most medieval-felling bits. My lonely status here in the pub as a woman would as recently as the 1940s marked me as one of the many thousands of prostitutes who lay in Cross Bones, less than half a mile from where I”m enjoying a pint on the Thames. Screen Shot 2014-09-02 at 15.23.46

Now the King Edward, Arcadian. Rumbling dully by, and under London Bridge. This pub keeps beautiful peonies and well-trimmed olive trees in pots. 

Now the Avontur IV slides by, the only sound its wake and the water breaking on the bow. I’m writing in pink pen, in my copy of Thinking Fast and Slow. Newly completed, more than four months after I bought it on a whim before a shift. A woman in a silver slicker with a cane has just passed, who will shortly turn around at the porch’s dead end. 

Now the London Eye River Cruise. going upriver away from the sea. My pint of Autumn Red from Edinburgh has finished. It was an OK amber ale. 

Interesting that just by writing in London, my words take on more meaning and more weight. I could be a boring voice among the choruses of boring voices in a London anthology one day. I have one, a big bound book filled with letters and observations about the city stretching to the 1530s. 

“Circuited to Smithfield, in order to see the ceremony of opening Bartholomew Fair my the Lord Mayor–just finished” -1780, A London Year. 

I nip inside and return. Now a Clipper, with no passengers. ‘Making life easier’ by turning the mud over on the low-tide beaches below with its wake. I’ve spilled my Malbec due to the wobbling table, and it looks a bit too much like blood. A rising crescendo of sirens, from both sides of the river at once. I feel guilty about the £10.90 I’ve spent at this pub, but I’m trying to force myself to be a tourist in London for once. 

Now the Mercuria. A few brave ones in the drizzle on the top deck. I haven’t eaten anything today because I was busy crafting things for my wedding and buying quarter-cask Scotch whisky. The wine burns a bit. 

Now another Clipper, fleeing upriver from the sea this time. 

The girl next to me just left her purse open on the chair and her phone out. She’s Chinese, judging by the characters in her journal. She’s had almost a pint; she can be forgiven the massive lapse in judgement. 

Now the oddly-meaningless Salient slips by so silently I almost miss her. A cruel jape at my Linguistics dissertation, submitted today. St. Paul’s is over there, glaring at me for never yet visiting. I pass every night I work, but I’ve never seen the inside of the biggest church in London. There’s still too much to do in the city. The Monument. Westminster Abbey. The old walls. The Science Museum. 

The Korean exchange students behind me (identified by their calls of ‘어디? 어디?’) have ordered pints of Guinness that are probably cheaper than in Suwon and selfied sufficiently with them. My wine and my book are getting drizzle in them. 

Now the Thames Ribs boat is back, having thrilled its passengers with views of Canary Wharf and successfully avoided the ‘horrors’ of the real East London. The one I live in. The drizzle seems to be thickening, turning the City’s skyline a very vintage fray. Instagram, alive. 

The girl who left her bag is back, and on her second cigarette. Revelling in her freedom to openly smoke death sticks, as a woman. Scribbling idly with her watercolours on a page, painting a blue sky that is only in her head. 

Now the City Delta, with its floating greenhouse roof. I hope to do my birthday on the Thames again this year. Last year feels so far away and so close at once. 

Now the Putney River Bus, too far from its supposed Blackfriars terminus. A woman whose orange hennaed hair matches her bag photographs us all in the beer garden, as the sulphuric scent of lit matches washes over. 

Now another Clipper, and its noisy wake. For a moment, we’re at the seaside.

Now the River bus, a different one, rumbling along rhythmically. 

Now another City cruise, marvelling slowly at Southwark. Slowly, slowly…and I’m a part of the historic London landscape. This cruise is on the ‘Millennium of Peace.’ What a farce, with Syria and Iraq and all the rest. The mobile seaside’s back, momentarily. Two or three more boats are edging toward us. I will go scan the mud from aloft for tokens of the past. 

I am part of the city, and I always will be. I will toss a hairpin in the River for some future mudlark. I was here. I was here.