Something in the Water
By Marshall J. Getz
Dr Felix Ho looked at a black-and-white photo of his wife, framed in silver and placed in a far corner of his desk. He liked that picture, taken around the time of her university graduation, because he was colorblind. Black, white and silver appealed to Felix. Naturally, he adored the young woman in the photograph. He ignored the clutter of papers, books and articles on his desk, and focused his attention on his wife's picture. He worried about her, because as a newly relocated lawyer, she seemed to be having trouble finding the right kind of job. In moments of frustration, Nancy said that she regretted leaving Britain. A sour taste rose from his stomach into his throat. How could he enjoy his new post at Hong Kong's Prince of Wales Hospital when Nancy remained unhappy?
Felix glanced at his silver Rolex and saw that it was five minutes to three - five minutes until his next appointment. He forced himself to look at her file. Connie P. H. Wu had been seen by four GPs after her family physician gave up on her headaches. She complained about headaches from the moment she could talk. Abdominal pains as well. X-rays, MRI, CAT-scans, all done. Cancer, no, tumors, no, allergies, minor. Viruses, no. Her blood said so. Seizures, no. behavior problems, no. Parents are Phil Wu and Marsha Wu Li Sau-heung, both educated professionals, probably have money. Parents very concerned about the child, but other than that, the family seems happy. The family may move to California. That will not relieve her migraines. Migraines. Who was the first to call her headaches "migraines"? Dr Chan of the Kieu Wah Hospital, the second one. The other three doctors agreed with this diagnosis. Of course they did, Mr and Mrs Wu, because they were afraid that you would think they were imbeciles if they did not have a fancy textbook diagnosis. They all disagreed about the cause and treatment. Disagreement meant keeping their professional integrity. So many drugs prescribed, with none effective. Adult medicines given to a child. Tranquilizers. I bet the parents took them.
Felix noticed that it was 3:10. They were late, but that did not surprise him, since the lift ran at least eight or nine minutes to reach the eleventh floor - the psychiatric unit. Nancy resented much of the inconvenience that came with Hong Kong living, and she complained about their cramped flat, the small stove, and the lack of truly great shampoo and clothes at the Marks and Spencer's here. Hong Kong never claimed to be London, and this hospital had a different feel than any British teaching hospital, but this experience would give him unique research opportunities and a promotion. Felix had no desire to work himself into high blood pressure and a stroke in fifteen years, trying to keep up with a private practice.
A nurse brought the Wu's into his office.
Phil Wu, a civil engineer, spoke rapidly, and his eyes watered behind his glasses as he told of his daughter waking up in the middle of the night, crying and clutching her head. His black hair was salted with dandruff, and as he played with his wedding band, Felix saw that the man chewed his fingernails. Mrs Wu, an attractive woman, watched him as he asked her husband questions. She remained silent, but she jotted something in a diary, using an elegant fountain pen.
Felix turned to Connie, and found a cute, bright, healthy-looking ten-year-old, wearing the uniform of the American West International School. Felix had heard of that institution. It was one of those schools where money seemed to be the primary admission criterion. After Felix asked her parents to wait outside, he examined Connie. He asked her about her headaches.
Connie smiled. "I used to have headaches."
"Used to ?"
"Yes, used to. I got them all the time, and I would get pretty sick."
"I'm sure you did. But you don't get them anymore?"
"When did the headaches begin, and when did they end? Do you remember all that?"
"I do, Dr. Ho. They began when I was little, and stopped in June."
"Well, that's very good. But then I wonder, why are you here?"
"Because of my Mum and Dad. They worry way too much."
"Parents do worry. That is their main job. Since you're already here, maybe you can tell me about those headaches."
"They hurt a lot."
"And where on your head did you feel them ?"
Pointing to her temples and forehead, she said, "Like it would go from here to here."
"Always like that? Never any differences?"
"When you had the headaches, how did you feel?"
"Bad." Connie looked at him disapprovingly, and her little fingers began to run over his sterling silver cardholder on his desk.
"Of course. That was a silly question. I'm sorry for asking that." Felix realized that he had to deal with a highly intelligent patient, and he was losing her in the interview.
Connie pointed to the photograph. "Who is the lady?"
"My wife, Nancy."
"She is very pretty."
"I agree with you," Felix laughed. "Thank you, Connie."
"I wonder, is she Chinese?"
"Of course. You don't think she looks Chinese?"
"She looks Chinese, but there is something else. I don't think she's from here."
"You are right. She isn't from Hong Kong. My wife was born in England."
"Have you ever been to England or Europe?"
"No, but I've been to America. And I may go back next year."
"I gathered that. Is that why you go to AWIS?"
"Yes, that's my school."
"Are you happy about it?"
"What? Going to America or AWIS?"
Felix smiled. "Tell me about both."
"School is good, because I have lots of friends, but I don't like science or rough sports. Oh, but I do like dance class."
"What's wrong with science?"
"It always gets messy. My teacher, she brought in some bugs. And they were alive!"
"And you didn't like that much?"
"She made everybody touch them, but I didn't."
"Because you don't like touching messy stuff." Felix saw her nod, and continued. "What about moving to the States? That's a pretty big deal."
"I like Hong Kong. I'm from Hong Kong. I don't want to go to another place, far away, that isn't my home. And I don't like the food there. And what about my friends? Won't I miss my good friends, like Amber and Sandi?"
"I'm sure you will."
"She doesn't look happy there."
Connie confused Felix. Then he noticed that she stared at another picture, framed and standing on top of a file cabinet behind his desk. He and Nancy, smiles on their faces, but tired from their move, at a gathering shortly after they arrived in Hong Kong. "What do you mean?"
"That's Nancy - excuse me, I mean Mrs Ho."
"She looks a little upset."
"I don't think so." God, this one is smarter than I am, he thought. If I could guarantee that my child would be this brilliant, we'd have one. Migraines or not.
"Connie, have you ever had some sensations, what I mean is, have you ever heard anything when you were having a headache?"
"Heard anything?" Connie's eyes widened, and she was aghast. "Do you mean, like bells?"
"No," she said emphatically. "Hearing bells is what crazy people do. Not me."
"Not everyone who hears things is crazy. You may not believe this, but I've met some very smart people who heard noises - bells, noises, voices."
"They must've been loonies."
"No, Connie, they were not. They were people, a little like you, who had headaches and problems. Did you know that some people who have headaches hear music?"
"What kind of music? Like Faye or Ekin?"
"Sorry, no Cantopop. It's more like classical: piano, the harp, even violins or trumpets. The beautiful part is that it's their own personal compositions. But other people who have migraines have visual hallucinations - sorry, that means they see things. When you had headaches, did you ever see things?"
"Funny about that."
"The very last time I had a headache - what did you call them?"
"Migraines. Your other doctors thought you had migraines."
"Yes, a migraine, and that was in June. I saw. lights. not lights, more like fireworks."
"Like at Chinese New Year?"
"Yes, over the harbor."
"Wow, your own private show. That sounds very interesting. Tell me about it."
"It looked like fire and flashes, and it was very pretty."
"And this happened while you were having a headache?"
"No, just before."
"Did the fireworks last very long?"
"No, I don't think so. But then, later, I saw the beautiful fireworks again, and I didn't get a headache."
"You didn't get a headache?"
"No migraines that time. Just flashes. After that time, when that happened again, I could see interesting things."
Felix leaned forward, concerned. "What kind of things, Connie?"
"Can you tell me about them?"
"Then they aren't private anymore."
"But if you tell me, I might be able to help you."
"But I like what I see. Why do you have to help me?"
Felix's mind flitted and zapped as he tried to come up with an answer for her. She has an answer for everything, he thought. She should be taking philosophy classes, or perhaps teaching them. "Remember, you told me that your Mum and Dad are very worried about you, and that is not a good thing. We have to figure out a way to put their minds at ease, but without bothering you too much. What do you see?"
"All kinds of things. Animals and birds. I like birds. We were driving in the New Territories on a Sunday. I saw a flash, and I knew it wasn't the sun."
"How did you know?"
"Because the sun was already out. It was like a star, and then I saw these birds. Do you know much about birds?"
Felix shrugged. "Not too much."
"I like them. I like them a lot. And I knew these were swallows, a whole flock."
"There are many birds in the New Territories. I should take my wife out there to see them."
"They almost looked real."
"But they were not, Connie?"
"No. They were magic."
"Wow! That sounds great. But can you tell me, how did you know these birds were magical?"
"Because they were bright blue, and sparkling."
"Blue's nice, but it isn't unusual for birds to be blue. Aren't bluebirds blue?"
Connie looked at Felix as if he were from another planet. "Yes, but bluebirds don't live in Hong Kong!"
"I'm sorry. I just didn't know."
"That's okay, but I don't know if you are a great doctor, if you don't know about bluebirds."
Felix chuckled as he tried to stifle his laugh. "Goodness, Connie, you're right! I'm not so hot, but you're just beautiful. So young and you know so much. Tell me about the bluebirds."
"They were swallows."
This moment was absolutely the most joyous one Felix had experienced since returning to Hong Kong. Nothing could be more wonderful than this child, even if she had some symptoms, even if she had migraines, or even the unlikely possibility of a glioma.
"They had special tails," Connie elaborated. "They looked like this." She held up her index and middle fingers in a V. "They had to be swallows, Dr. Ho, because of those tails and because they were in a flock. I saw a flock of flashing, beautiful blue swallows, and they flew funny." Connie saw the doctor's gesture. "You don't know what I mean?"
"I don't, but I bet you could explain it to me."
"OK. Swallows fly in flocks. And those flocks look like us."
"When we go into a class, the teacher wants us to line up in order, two by two, but we never do it right, and the teacher gets mad."
"She expects too much, being orderly and such."
"That's right. Look at grown-ups."
"I often do."
"When grown-ups flock, it's a crowd, and Hong Kong has many crowds. The people push and shove."
"Right. But how are we like swallows?"
"That's our flock. Birds push and shove each other. They even crash into each other when they fly. Just like us."
And she's a sociologist too, he thought. God, I have to have one. As soon as Nancy settles down, I will broach the issue. It was time.
The little girl stood up and moved to the only window in the cramped office. "Is it OK if I move around a little?"
"Please do. Whatever makes you comfortable."
Connie was tall for her age, and carried herself well. Felix guessed that she took ballet lessons, the Cantonese answer to physical fitness for girls. If something were genuinely wrong with her, which he doubted, she certainly gave no sign of it in her outward appearance. She leaned on the metal still, craning to look out of a window that, despite her height, was still too high for her. He felt sorry that the institutional-looking doctors' residence served as the only view, and the window had not been cleaned since Sir Robert Lister visited the hospital.
"Dr. Ho, there are not too many birds here."
"I guess not. When you said the swallows flocked in a funny way, what was so funny about them?"
"My blue swallows didn't push and shove. They stayed as one big group, and they never changed shape. They were flying fast, and the group stayed in order."
"And the parts became a whole?"
Connie turned, and even at a distance of about six feet, Felix could see the bluish cast to her eyes. He had never seen blue before. It was wonderful - but fleeting.
"Come over here and talk to me, please," he said.
She sat down at the desk again, and Felix stifled a gasp as he saw the flashes of blue, clearly visible in her black irises. Connie blinked, and the blue lights were still there.
"Connie, when you looked out the window just now, did you see the swallows?"
"No, but I'm thinking about them right now. Can I go now?"
After Connie left the office, a nurse entertained her while Felix talked with her parents. He spoke at length about migraine headaches and hallucinations in children, and as they seemed nervous, especially Mr Wu, he tried to explain that while this was not an everyday condition, juvenile migraines had some precedence, and was something Connie could live with. He asked them about her ophthalmologic work-up, and gently suggested that she might need another.
Felix slept that night and dreamed of swallows.
The next morning, Felix waited as the line to the University of Hong Kong rang five or six times. An elderly British voice finally answered. "Grantham here."
"Professor Grantham, Felix Ho here. I called because I need your advice on an especially unusual case. Yesterday I saw - "
"Please allow me to cut in, Felix. I was planning to call you myself. I've a devilish case of my own. Saw him two days ago. Local chap, seventy-five-years old. Never anything remarkable about his medical history, until about three months ago. Began having visual hallucinations."
"Any psychological component?"
"No. He rather enjoyed them, the way he related it all."
"How did your patient describe them?"
"Birds. Bright, colorful birds. He seemed to have a bloody aviary flying around in his head." Professor Grantham got quiet for a moment. "Funny thing about all this, is when I examined him with the old ophthalmoscope, I could not see anything out of the ordinary, except for a touch of cataracts and retinal degeneration. Later on, when I was interviewing him, I swear that I could see something in his eyes."
"What do you mean, Professor Grantham?"
"I'm nearly seventy-nine myself, and my peepers are not what they were, but I could see birds. There he was, chattering away in Cantonese, his grandson translating, and as I studied him, it was as if his irises were mirrors, and I could see birds flying by."
"What can cause it ?"
"I have no idea, Felix. I don't know whether it's him or me. Gave me a queasy feeling in the pit of my stomach, that's for sure. What's your take on this, old boy ?"
Felix held the receiver, reeling over Grantham's problem. Grantham, now professor emeritus, had a distinguished reputation as a neuropsychiatrist and migraine researcher. He taught Felix at Hong Kong U, and when he took a post at Cardiff, Felix followed him to Wales. Despite his age, Grantham constantly published, still taught and shuttled back and forth between the UK and Hong Kong.
"Felix, you still there?"
"Yes, Professor. Your problem floors me, because my case is virtually identical."
"You don't say!"
"I do say. My patient is a ten-year-old girl, hallucinating birds, but she first presented herself with migraine symptoms."
"Children especially get those auras, colorful lights and such. My chap never complained about headaches. In fact, he seemed rather enthralled by this business. The family worried, of course."
"When I looked in that girl's eyes, I could see birds, too. She talked about swallows, and I watched blue swallows against tiny skies. And I'm colorblind."
"You saw birds in both eyes?"
"And my patient seemed very much at ease with her visions. Since they began, the headaches stopped. And by the way, she only hallucinated birds."
"Same with Mr Law."
"We need to find out if they have anything else in common. Shared delusions have been documented, but there's no literature on dual hallucinations."
"Are you suggesting a folie à deux, old boy? I did study a case more than twenty years ago. Woman in Cumberland, good family, reported having visions of Napoleon and Josephine throughout the house, especially in the kitchen. She saw reflections of them making love in her kitchen sink. Couldn't wash the dishes for fear of disturbing them."
"That's a very classy touch. Your patient must have been educated."
"She was an ex-teacher and true nutter. But the shared part came in because her daughter began to see Napoleon in the loo. The poor dear refused to bathe at home. But this case must be different. Mr Law is a retired businessman, sandwich class, with his family around him. Traditional Cantonese. High-rise flat in the New Territories."
"Mine's from the NT as well."
"He lives in Rainbow Vision Gardens."
Felix recalled that name. "Very appropriate name for the housing development."
"Look, Felix, life's too brief to worry about what's probably happenstance. If it's more, then we'll get an article out of it. You can do most of the writing; my name goes first. Now tell me, how is that stunner of a solicitor you married?"
Mrs Hung was a neatly dressed woman, somewhere between sixty and seventy. Her son and sister brought her to Felix as a referral from a GP. Diabetes blinded her many years ago, but she began with, "I've been seeing faint lights and creatures. My life has been darkness for so long, that I no longer remember what anything looks like. I guess it was a month ago, I woke up during the night and I saw flashes of colored light. Later that day, I noticed my constant darkness was lifting. I still could not see, but that blackness - shut your eyes and you'll know what I mean - the blackness got lighter and turned from gray fog - April fog - to white clouds."
"That is rather unusual, Mrs Hung."
"I had constant clouds, even in completely dark rooms. And lightning in the background. Then I saw flashes of things. Animals and characters, characters from Chinese fables. Little Monkey Princes in cute costumes, and Piggy the Monk, and Peking opera figures - all in costumes. I never saw so much! I couldn't see all of them, an arm here, or a face, or a mouth, or a crown, but I was seeing something."
"Do you get headaches?"
"All the time. I'm a woman. Do you have a mother, a wife or sisters? They get them all the time, too."
"Did you feel pain in your eyes?"
"Ai-yah, no! No! I just want to see my visions more clearly. Would glasses help?"
"No, Mrs Hung. You're blind."
"But she says her visions are getting more recognizable," her sister interrupted. Felix stared at the heavyset, middle-aged woman, with thick glasses and teased, jet-dyed hair. "We don't see so good in our family, so I told Ah-Hing that maybe with glasses or medicine, she wasn't so blind. Maybe she sees visions. She isn't blind anymore."
"Madam, your sister will always be blind. Diabetes destroyed the optic nerves. This is forever. The visions came from her mind, or her brain, really."
"What do my visions mean, and why are they changing?" asked Mrs. Hung.
"I don't know what your hallucinations mean, but I am going to do my best to find out. I wouldn't get too upset."
"I'm not upset, Dr Ho."
"Well, no need for any anxiety, I'm sure."
"I like what I see, and I want to see more. Last week, I saw beautiful birds and a shadow in my clouds."
"Yes, Dr Ho, a shadow within the shadows. I know what that shadow was supposed to be. When I could see, I used to read. I loved to read, mostly Chinese literature. As a girl, I read Shiu Ho-fai, a Cantonese author from the Late Qing period. My favorite story was 'The Heavenly Eagle,' a story about a noble gigantic bird."
"A phoenix!" snapped her sister.
"No, Rose, the bird was an eagle. A giant eagle, like the bird from The Arabian Nights. Sinbad's friend. This eagle flew down from Mongolia, covering all the provinces, visiting even Taiwan and Japan. In Korea, this bird became a legend. This Heavenly Eagle glided over my family village in 1899. Such a blessing! My grandfather and his friends built a temple in its honor."
"Was this in the New Territories?"
"No, of course not. We grew up in Guangdong, China."
"But you hear stories like that in the remote New Territories," said Felix. "So many villages in Shatin and Yuen Long."
"We live in the New Territories, Dr Ho !" Rose leaned closer to the desk as she spoke. "But not in a village. You think we're village bumpkins?"
"No, madam, I don't think that at all."
Rose sat up straight. "We own a three-bedroom flat in Rainbow Vision Gardens."
Felix felt his throat go dry. "I've heard about that estate. Very nice." He stepped from behind his desk and leaned into Mrs Hung. "I'd like to look into your eyes." He gently touched her cheekbones and lifted her broad face. Her eyes had a blue-gray cast. Cataracts, too. As Felix stared, he saw a flicker, white and diffuse, behind the milky corneas. "I'm going to take a wild shot here. Do you know a Mr Law?"
"No," answered Rose.
"Or a young girl named Connie ?"
"I don't think so." Mrs Hung smiled. "But I love children. Why do you ask ?"
Felix paused. "Because Connie - and perhaps Mr Law - sees the world the way you do."
"Can this child see?" asked Mrs Hung.
"A child who sees the Heavenly Eagle will lead a wonderful life, and do great things for her family and community. Hong Kong needs people like that, more than gold, more than a jump in the stock market, more than another new tycoon."
"I agree. Can you be here tomorrow at 2 pm? I'd like you to meet her."
The little girl and elderly woman walked ahead of Felix in the small park adjoining the hospital grounds. The Wu's and Mrs Hung's son stood back, watching. Mrs Hung spoke in a soft voice, so low that Felix had trouble hearing. Connie heard, and they spoke about many important things, too mystical for a man to understand. Felix liked the way Connie held Mrs Hung's arm. This child from a Western school behaved like a Chinese angel.
Felix looked up at the sunny sky. A glimmer off the hospital building caught his attention. The windows reflected like blue mirrors, and he saw a large black eagle, soaring from pane to pane. Felix spun around and looked up. There was no bird. He looked back at the hospital, and the eagle flew along each window. Connie and Mrs Hung laughed, and called Felix over.
Four eyes like mirrors, two young and clear, two opaque and old, watched him, with Heavenly Eagles drifting across their irises.
Author's note: A tale about a "Corean roc" appears in the excellent book, Vignettes from the Chinese: Lithographs from Shanghai in the Late Nineteenth Century, edited and translated by Don J. Cohn (Hong Kong: A Renditions Paperback, Research Centre for Translation, Chinese University of Hong Kong, 1987). This account inspired Mrs Hung's memory. The story is mine. QLRS Vol. 4 No. 3 Apr 2005