Cleaning his ear with a long stalk of grass, Ah Sing filled his wood stove with kindling. Alder leaves were fluttering in the trees, displaying their yellow undersides, which meant rain. Ah Sing shivered but did not light the fire; instead, he put a rough wool jacket over his cotton shirt. His room had no hooks but all his clothing was tidily folded and stacked on the wooden stool in the corner by the door. On top of the clothes he laid a few bone-white sticks. Sun-bleached, lighter than the pine branches he had originally whittled down for his kite, the driftwood would make a good frame. He sneezed and shivered again. He had lost his upper incisor yesterday.
The nerves of Ah Sing's arms and legs had grown hard as jade; he was turning into a mountain, solidifying. Even his face was like a palace statue. Smooth. Hairless. Varnished-looking. He had lost his eyelashes and three-quarters of his eyebrows; and lately, his ulcerated feet left tracks of blood on the wood floor. But he refused to wear the government-issue overshoes. His extremities felt no heat, no cold, no pain, anyway. In the next life he would be a mountain, the mountain he was now turning into, eternal and hard.
He had wept at the official diagnosis of leprosy.
"They sick but I not," Ah Sing would say in English to the doctors who accompanied the steamer Alert to the island and took flakes of skin from the backs of his hands. (Speaking English was masonry work, the words like bricks laid by hands; he spoke Cantonese with the other men on the colony, and the words flowed easily then, even when they had nothing to say.) His lost fingers, he explained to the doctors, "Coal mine in Nanaimo. Frostbite." He had difficulty pronouncing the word and it came out sounding like "flossed bite." Grunting once or twice, he would pry an oyster off a stone with his remaining fingers and hold it up.
"You send away Ah Sing," he always said to the visiting doctors, "back to China."
Today Ah Sing had fallen asleep on the beach next to his half-eaten lunch of sea urchins. Awoken by the sound of birds near his head, he had opened his eyes and was startled to see four black cormorants flying away. They reminded him of something: the cormorants he had felt sorry for when he was six years old and had laughed at by the age of nine, black birds circling the ancient uplifted seabeds in Chongwu Bay, catching fish they could taste but never swallow because of the white choke collars around their necks.
Three men left on D'Arcy Island now. They lived in the main building. Four cubicles side by side, each with its own door that opened onto a verandah facing Cordova Bay. Ge Shou hadn't been right in the head since a tree fell on him, and he spent his nights in the woods singing. Gold Tooth, who had never told Ah Sing his real name, cried all day and then sat at the edge of the forest, dulled and deadened, refusing to move. He had a cough that possessed him like a malevolent spirit, wracking his body until he spat blood. He was the newest resident.
Gold Tooth had arrived at the colony three years ago with his bowler hat and a Swiss pocket watch on a chain. Slipping on patches of seagrass in leather shoes, over barnacle-covered stones still wet from the tide, refusing any attempts at help from the government official from Victoria. Ah Sing had laughed at his vanity, but the watch - the watch - was as round as an eye. He stared at it until he felt like he was staring into a thousand tiny suns.
When they had the energy, Ah Sing and Ge Shou said they would murder the filthy thief while he slept. But the daily chores sapped their passion, the harvesting of clams and mussels, the chopping of firewood, the collection of rainwater from below the eaves or in the summer from the bog. Most days, when Ah Sing had finished, he would sit on the boulders that ringed the bay and watch the waves, pondering Buddha's question: How does one stop a drop of water from ever drying out?
Now, in his room, Ah Sing picked up his Buck knife and eyed the driftwood. He was searching for the most evenly balanced of sticks. He would carve the exact spaces needed to neatly wedge two smaller sticks into either side. He would wrap the joints with sewing thread. He would cut a tail to look like phoenix wings, or find some cormorant feathers on the beach to stand in their place.
As curly shavings collected around his feet, he remembered how, as a child, he had believed the most ornate kites could talk to the spirits. His thoughts were interrupted by the sound of something heavy being dragged across a wooden floor. A sob. Another. He dropped his knife.
Gold Tooth was on the verandah, dappled light sifting through the fir trees and falling in shadows across his back. It was hard to tell which were shadows and which were stains, for Ah Sing could not remember when Gold Tooth had last taken off the silk suit he wore. Gold Tooth's face was flushed with terror and his eyes darted like birds in the trees, afraid of being caught.
"Take it easy. What are you doing with your bed?"
Gold Tooth shook off Ah Sing's hand like a dog shakes off water. He heaved the cot against the doorframe, where it got stuck. "I can't breathe," he said. "I can't breathe in there. The walls. They'll try to crush me if, if I go to sleep." He yanked. He stumbled backward.
"Do you want me to hold up the walls while you pull your bed outside?"
Gold Tooth stopped.
Ah Sing squeezed over the straw mattress and into the room. Half-eaten plates of food had been scattered from one side to the other by raccoons. The air smelled like yeast.
Ah Sing, his legs shoulder-width apart, spread his arms wide against the two walls and held them with his clawed hands so they wouldn't crush Gold Tooth, who unhinged the bed from the doorway and wrestled it outside.
On the verandah, Gold Tooth nodded toward the forest. He motioned to Ah Sing. "Pick up that end," he said.
The two men carried the wooden bed with the straw mattress past roaming chickens and beyond the storage shed with the rice, sugar, flour, meal, gardening tools, and coffins. They carried the bed beyond the vegetable garden. Past three graves, each marked with a pile of stones - the resting places of the men who had arrived with Ah Sing when the provincial government had left them on this island four years ago with a load of construction supplies. They carried it past the bog and into the forest. Ge Shou followed them, chattering.
"Do you have any pigs' feet for me?" Ge Shou asked. Ah Sing shook his head.
"Can we fly your kite?"
"When it's ready, I promise."
"Washing Matilda, washing Matilda," Ge Shou sang, "who'll come a-washing Matilda with me?" He stopped and stretched his arms above his head. "Are you going swimming tonight, Sing, you going swimming in the ocean?"
"No, not tonight."
"Swimming, swimming." Ge Shou made breaststroke motions. "Swimming in the ocean. I feel happy. Washing Matilda, you'll come a-washing Matilda with me?"
Ah Sing and Gold Tooth set the bed down in a clearing among the ferns and salal, where the ground was soft with pine needles. Through the trees they could see the ditch system that ran from the bog to the garden, where they grew lettuce, potatoes, carrots, and onions; Ge Shou playing among the vegetables. Gold Tooth shuddered onto his bed and immediately rolled onto his side as if in a deep sleep.
Ah Sing shook his shoulder.
* * * *
After sitting near Gold Tooth for a time, Ah Sing came to a decision. He shuffled past the crops, spoiled before men with waning appetites had been able to eat them, and the pigs rooting in the waste. He nodded to Ge Shou, who sat among the pigs. He passed the site where they would soon start an orchard.
Back in his cabin, Ah Sing filled his shoulder basket with a Hudson's Bay blanket, a cast-iron kettle, a wok, a dead grouse, a handful of onions, some mint leaves, a cupful of cooking oil in a canning jar, and some government-issue opium. Returning to Gold Tooth, he touched his shoulder again. Gold Tooth grunted.
Ah Sing opened the blanket over him; then he placed stones in a circle on the ground around some kindling and lit a fire with the wooden matches in his pocket. He emptied his shoulder basket, picked up the kettle, and went to the woodshed, filling his shoulder basket again. The load weighed him down. He trod to the bog, sinking deep into the mud. He dipped his kettle, filling it with brown water. When he came back, neither of the men spoke, but Ah Sing didn't mind. He added more branches to the fire and set the kettle upon it.
A few minutes later, Gold Tooth said, "Why do you talk to me?"
Ah Sing shrugged. Before the disease had made his threats to beat up the other men laughable, Gold Tooth had hoarded the best rations, stashing second barrels of salt pork in his cubicle while the others looked on with mask-like eyes. But Ah Sing, at fifty-two, had himself hit a woman; had fondled the flesh of his brother's wife; had ignored the unemployed after the smelters closed; had beaten a man when he was drunk while onlookers cheered. He sat cross-legged by the fire, poking the embers with a stick. He felt feverish, strange. Far away through the trees, he could hear Ge Shou singing.
Ah Sing poured the oil into the wok and dried the canning jar with the hem of his shirt. He put two stalks of mint inside it and some of the opium. The mint grew wild near the bog. Ah Sing usually hung it from his cabin's ceiling. He poured the boiling water into the canning jar. He wrapped a green maple leaf around it and passed the jar to Gold Tooth, but Gold Tooth pushed it away.
Ah Sing put the jar on the ground. The steam rose and scented the air with mint. He fussed over the flames, moving the kettle to make room for the wok. He busied himself with the onions and the grouse he had killed just that morning with his shotgun until the aroma rose into the air, overpowering the mint.
"I used to be a cook, you know," Ah Sing said. "I worked for Mr. and Mrs. Edward Price in Victoria."
Ah Sing moved coals and added more kindling to adjust the heat. He rotated the wok and stirred its contents with a stick, testing the mixture frequently and inhaling its scent with his eyes closed.
Gold Tooth turned to him and snorted. "Look down. Your hand."
"Oh," Ah Sing said. "I've burned myself."
A patch of flesh two inches wide was stuck to the outside of the wok.
"No one will notice. Look at your face. Have you looked in a mirror lately?"
When the food was ready, Ah Sing placed the wok down between them. Gold Tooth eyed the food with a strange appetite Ah Sing had not seen in weeks. Ah Sing chewed in silence, watching Gold Tooth eat; his clawed fingers, scooping the mixture into his mouth, were like fingers made of tree bark or elephant's hooves - strange but beautiful.
"It gets easier," Ah Sing said.
"I'm not a leper."
"No one wants to believe they are. I'll tell you something. I'm going to escape. I've got to go back to China. To my son and wife."
Gold Tooth gave a disgusted grunt. "Has anyone escaped before?"
Ah Sing didn't answer. He told Gold Tooth he'd heard that two lepers had been shipped in a crate by the CPR as far west as Saskatchewan, and he thought they'd been deported. "My son," Ah Sing said, changing the subject, "my son would be eighteen years old now. He was five the last time I saw him. It would be good if he could come to Gold Mountain. He would find work."
They sat looking at each other while dusk fell. Neither one said a word. Ah Sing cracked open grouse bones and sucked out the marrow. Gold Tooth lay on his back and smoked tobacco from the supply ship. The fire had turned to coals and the coals had turned ashy before Gold Tooth spoke.
"I used to get all the girls. Best one's name was Zao. I called her 'Zao,' chirp, because of the sound she made when we had sex. On hot nights she ran ice cubes up and down my spine, and on cold nights she tickled me with cotton balls. When I couldn't sleep, she massaged my feet while humming Strauss. She polished my shoes and every morning brought me my gambling spreadsheets. The way she pencilled in her eyebrows. I'm going to give you a piece of advice. Only hit a woman when she needs it, and only with an open hand. You got to keep them in their place because they want it. You have to answer their questions for them, that's love."
"Did she turn you in?" Ah Sing asked.
"No!" Then after a moment he said, "They raided the Kwong Wo & Company Store; we were in the back, gambling."
It was pitch-black now. Ah Sing drew a stick through the ashes. The bark caught an ember and he blew at the small flame. He threw on more kindling until the wood crackled. The only light came from the small campfire; its shadows highlighted the heavy ridges of Gold Tooth's overgrown brow.
"When I was a kid I found this bottle with a note inside," Gold Tooth continued. "It'd washed up from Taiwan," he said. "Funny thing is, I don't remember what the letter said. It was a wide, fat bottle, like a medicine bottle. It was dull, scratched up by the rocks. I remember grabbing it and trying to open it while the older boys were gambling by the fishboats, and then it started to rain and I ran under an overturned dory. I tried to untwist the lid but it was rusted closed. Then I tried to get it off with a broken clam. I ended up smashing the neck off. I remember the bottle, but not the message. Strange, huh?"
Ah Sing drew his knees up to his chest. "Memory is a funny thing."
"I wonder what it said. Was it a love letter from some guy? Who knows? I don't remember."
Ah Sing didn't answer.
"I remember lots of other things. Swimming in the Zhu Jiang River. Ducks and geese. I ate lily roots. I loved water chestnuts and dates. Have you been to the hills of Guangxi? Limestone towers. I would visit my uncle and play in the fish ponds."
Gold Tooth turned on his side, away from Ah Sing, and curled up in the fetal position. Ah Sing's mother had turned on her side and died facing the wall. She had first lain in bed talking about her childhood, but when the sun rose, she had turned inward and fallen silent.
"In Canton the laundry waved like flags. We threw cats into the fetid canals. I had no parents. Stole food from the seething mass living on boats along the waterfront. Ran through the alleys making cutthroat signs at people and they feared me. I grew up to be a Tong, never did any grunt work. Laundry, houseboy, gardener. Never did any of that. I'm in extortion."
An hour or so later, Gold Tooth started to cry, softly, under his breath. He mumbled something inaudible.
"Will you send my bones back to China?"
Ah Sing sat up.
"You know the worst thing about it?"
"I never knew her real name."
"First it was the cotton balls, I couldn't feel them. Then I couldn't feel the suit against my skin. This is my best suit. My best suit."
"I called her Zao," he said. He started sobbing.
* * * *
Ah Sing dozed in the forest to the sound of Gold Tooth's laboured breathing. The stretches between his exhalations grew longer, as if each breath was becoming too precious to release. Another and another. He clutched the life within him and refused to unleash it, greedily holding the air for ten seconds at a time, fifteen, twenty.
Ah Sing dreamed a man with a roomful of rice was trying to make him swallow it all, and awoke choking. Gold Tooth's eyes appeared fixed on an immature bald eagle circling overhead, and in the dawn light he almost looked alive. Ah Sing rubbed his clawed hands vigorously over his own cheeks. He closed Gold Tooth's eyelids and touched the man's chest. He felt along the body, found the Swiss pocket watch and slipped it into his own pocket. An object valuable enough to buy passage off the island, maybe even to pay the deportation costs back to China. Ah Sing couldn't see clearly and stumbled toward the ocean, moving branches away from his face through the brush.
He ran to the beach, to the emergency flag on the hill.
* * * *
The Victoria Tug Company steamer Alert delivered quarterly supplies: tea, dried fish, axes, razors, handkerchiefs, and, in the last load, a looking glass. It was surprising to see the tug so soon; often they would raise the flag and no one would show up for weeks.
Ah Sing had fought to bury Gold Tooth in his silk suit, but Ge Shou had slipped away with the jacket. So when the boat came, Ah Sing was digging alone, near the bog, past the vegetable garden where the ground was soft, and far enough away from Ah Sing's cabin that even a spirit as restless as Gold Tooth's couldn't haunt him.
As the steamer cut through the chop, Ah Sing flung a last shovel of soil onto the coffin. Then, brushing his hands together, he scrambled down the gravelled slope to the shore, pebbles tumbling away from the edges of his footsteps. He watched as a dory was lowered from the boat, loaded with supplies, and rowed toward the shore.
Ah Sing grabbed hold of the wooden dory with two men aboard, helping to pull it onto the beach. A man with a red moustache that hid his upper lip got out of it with the doctor.
The doctor straightened his back.
"Good, sir. Still strong, see?" Ah Sing said, lifting a barrel from the bottom of the boat.
Ah Sing recounted what had happened the night before. The doctor pulled a bag from the dory and withdrew a ledger of dates, names, and other notes. He looked down his spectacles.
"The one you call . . . Go Chou?"
"Fong Wah Yuen."
Ah Sing nodded.
The doctor wrote something on his ledger and turned toward the main building. When he was halfway up the slope, Ah Sing tilted his head toward a termite-filigreed log to indicate he wished a word with the other man, whom the doctor had introduced as a reporter. The man's pants were cinched high upon his waist. He took two steps toward the log and stood, smoothing his hands over his thighs.
Ah Sing stepped over to the log and sat down. His mouth was dry. The man was smiling, but his gaze jumped from Ah Sing to a spot beyond his head, then back to Ah Sing, then to the doctor stumbling up the gravel slope. The man did not sit.
Ah Sing cleared his throat. "I favour you . . . no, me . . . no, you favour me." The disease in his larynx made his voice no more than a loud whisper. "I, I have something." He stood up and pulled the Swiss watch from his pocket, where he had been clutching it so tightly that it was slick with sweat. He wiped it against the leg of his pants. He dangled it between them, letting it catch the sun.
"This is for you," Ah Sing said.
"Look at that." The man scratched his head and smiled.
The man nodded. "This is a nice island," he said, rubbing the back of his neck. He looked from the boulders that ringed one side of the bay to the mud flats on the other. He glanced at the doctor, who was talking to Ge Shou at the main building. "I hear you men hunt, and fish, too."
"No." The man's moustache brushed his bottom lip when he smiled. "I don't think I should."
"No," Ah Sing nodded his head. "For you."
The man looked down at the watch.
"But is gift."
The man fingered his eyebrows.
"Gift," Ah Sing repeated. "A gift for you. Your wife?"
On the verandah of the cabin, Ge Shou danced, circling the doctor, his long black ponytail bouncing on his back.
A sudden gust of wind blew the reporter's hat off his head. It rolled a few feet, snagged on a log, then rolled again with the next gust. The man chased it but Ah Sing bounded ahead, stopping the hat with his bare foot. Ah Sing dusted off the sand and shards of clamshell. He held the hat toward the man.
"Oh. Well, then." The man inched his fingertips forward. "Thank you."
The man took his hat between his thumb and forefinger and walked to the dory. Leaning into the boat, he dropped the hat onto one of its wooden benches. He grabbed a heavy sack. Ah Sing did the same. Sack after sack, barrel after barrel, crate after crate, the two men, Ah Sing and the reporter, worked in this way until they were done unloading. When the man began rolling a barrel up the beach toward the slope, his shoes slapping on the gravel, Ah Sing rushed after him.
"Gift, you help me. Gift," he said, his throat tightening so he could not swallow. "Please, please, you take." He pushed out a laugh. It felt like choking on a ball of rice. "You remember Ah Sing to the CPR."
The man stopped, his eyes focused on Ah Sing for the first time, clear blue eyes the colour of frozen ponds in the spring when the ice cracks. Ah Sing was sure he heard the man sigh. The man shifted his weight from one foot to the other and rubbed his wiry eyebrows that shot straight up. Ah Sing held the watch in his open palm.
He imagined slapping it into the man's hand. The man would laugh and throw it over his shoulder; it would shatter into a thousand golden pieces.
"It is a beautiful timepiece," the man said.
"Yes, beautiful," Ah Sing answered. His throat was a bird's throat, filled with small stones.
"A gift, you take."
The man smiled. "Right, then. Thank you." The man dropped it almost without touching it into his jacket pocket.
Then he said, "Look, man, look what I have here." He undid the buttons of his tweed jacket and fished around in the breast pocket of his blue shirt, the same colour as his eyes. "Here, look at this. This is a Kruger coin. It's all the way from the South African Republic."
Ah Sing raised what was left of his eyebrows.
"I've got some others at home, a pocketful, in fact. But they're rare, quite rare, in spite of that. You'd have to go all the way to the South African Republic; I came back with them after the Boer War." The man stopped and buffed the coin against his chest. "If you would take this to show my appreciation."
Ah Sing stared at it. He felt an ache in the bottom of his stomach. It grew worse. He would vomit. He knew it. His legs tensed, waiting for it. He imagined running. Running. The man would start chasing him. Would throw handfuls of Kruger coins. They would hit him on the back, handful after handful. Stinging, like golden hail. What a silly, infuriating man. Ah Sing could decorate his cabin. He could use them as sinkers when he fished.
Ah Sing held the coin between his thumb and forefinger. He spat on its tarnished surface.
The man widened his eyes.
"Superstition. It bring more money when spit. Bring good luck."
"Oh," the man said. He clapped his hands together. "Well, then."
Far from shore, the steamer bobbed in the chop. A crow cawed. The waves tumbled.
The man walked to the dory and Ah Sing followed. Reaching in, the man picked up his hat from where it lay. It was a green plaid cheese cutter, wool, with yellow and orange stripes. Under the leather strap at the back he had tucked some heron feathers, and for an instant Ah Sing was reminded of the ladies of Victoria who had worn hats adorned with enough feathers to drive certain birds to extinction. These wealthy of Victoria who had called men like Ah Sing their "Celestials." Romanticizing their roast duck, their porcelain figurines for sale in every Chinatown store, their opium pipes.
The man held his hat out to Ah Sing. "Do you like this hat?"
"It's fine hat."
Ah Sing walked with the coin in his pocket where the watch had been and the hat on his head, counting his footsteps as he rolled the barrel up the slope. He fought against quick breaths, trying not to hyperventilate. He stacked the barrel in the storage shed next to the coffins and the axes.
He was walking toward the cabin, looking at the ground, when something hit his shoulder. He looked up. A heron in the fir tree. He looked at the ground. Frog bones. And he noticed a drop of red blood that had fallen onto a green alder leaf.
In his cabin, he packed an empty burlap bag, his driftwood pieces, his Buck knife, his cast-iron kettle, and his tin cup. He looked around the cabin, at the clothes folded on the stool by the door, the walls papered with the Daily Colonist and Chinese New Year's decorations, their glossy black characters jumping off the red background. Then he went back to the beach.
He sat in the loose shale by the boulders. He dug for his Buck knife in his bag. Waiting, he whittled eight sticks and two larger ones. He carved grooves into the two big sticks and then he fitted in the small ones, trying them each in turn. If he finished in time, he could leave the kite for Ge Shou.
Leaning against a boulder, watching the ocean, Ah Sing was reminded of his thirty-ninth year. With his back against the rock wall of Kwangtung and the South China Sea spread out wide before him - trapped by famines in Anhui across the border, and by the dirt and drought of Jing Gang on the eastern border with Hunan - he had paid a CPR labour broker and hopped a freighter bound for Canada. He smiled now, remembering. As the journey progressed, his excitement had been replaced by tense muscles. He had felt trapped, with no breath, no arms to fight; the mountains of black waves spanned for miles in any direction. How he had trembled on the deck! How he had been convinced the waves would swallow him, the same way Gold Tooth had trembled on the verandah as he heaved his bed outside, convinced the walls would crush him - solid walls that Ah Sing himself had built. And how, on the freighter, another man from Fujien had touched Ah Sing on the shoulder. The man had said, "There's nothing to be afraid of."
The sun shifted; the boulders cooled. In the distance, he saw the reporter and the doctor. They were taking off their shoes and wading out to the dory.
"Hallo! Hallo!" Ah Sing yelled.
They nodded to him and waved.
He stood up. He threw his bag around his shoulder.
They plunged their oars into the water. They were rowing back to the Alert that pitched offshore. Ah Sing narrowed his eyes at the doctor and reporter and could feel the hot sun falling onto his back.
He bent down and dropped his knife back into his bag. He could hear the waves, and Ge Shou singing in the background. He touched the coin in his pocket. His jaw tightened. He undressed so quickly his shirt got caught on his ears. He pulled down his pants and dropped his wool shirt onto the rock next to his bag.
He dove. His breath froze inside his lungs, and his limbs froze, too: he was a stone, armless and legless. He began to sink, watching the bubbles rising past his face.
Fear made a body heavy; fear made a person sink and drown. Dead bodies floated because all the fear was gone. Once, a leper had swum toward the lights of Cordova Bay. His body had floated with the grace of a lotus flower back to the gravel slope. Then Ah Sing and Ge Shou had buried him, silently, beyond the goldenrods. If only he had let the water flow through him as if he were made of it, he could have floated to freedom. Another leper had once escaped D'Arcy Island by swallowing a vial of poison. He swallowed it on board the steamer, had died before even arriving at the colony.
Ah Sing thought he would never stop sinking, but then his arms and legs sprang to life. He kicked as fast as he could while whitecaps crashed around his ears. The doctor and the reporter were not stopping. He slapped the water. He cried into the wind, his eyes open against the salt and the horrifying green.
The seagulls laughed. Ah Sing sputtered, yet the two men ignored him and boarded the steamer. His breath felt scant and thread-like in his lungs. His ears rang, his head thudded.
He plunged his head under. When he surfaced, he squinted at Ge Shou standing on the rocky outcrop of beach, who had picked up his clothes and was waving them, flag-like. Then Ge Shou reached for the kite but stopped short of picking it up.
Ah Sing swam back to shore and clung to a rock. Ge Shou looked down in silence. Ah Sing breathed deeply, filling his nostrils with salt air and water droplets that burned. He wiped his eyes with the back of his hand. Water remained on his lashless lids and formed prisms, through which he looked at the setting sun. Oystercatchers circled and screeched.
Ge Shou lowered his hand to help Ah Sing onto the boulder. Ah Sing shook his head. He spat over his shoulder and then heaved his body out, panting as he clambered up. There he hunched forward and held himself.
After a while, he stood up and took the hat from the rock; he spun it around on his hand a few times. Holding it aloft, he pulled out the heron feathers. Then he tossed the hat into the ocean.
He reached for the coin. He put it in his mouth. It tasted like oak. His tongue moved it from one side of his mouth to the other and warmed the metal. He spat the coin back out, into his hand. He hurled it toward the ocean. It glinted in the air. When it hit the water, it skimmed like a cormorant before sinking into the grey-green waves.
* * * *
A breeze dimpled the ocean. Ah Sing picked up the kite frame and offered it to Ge Shou. Ge Shou rubbed his forehead.
"Don't be scared, Ge Shou."
Ge Shou hopped from foot to foot, holding the kite.
"Don't cry, Ge Shou."
Ah Sing put his arm around Ge Shou's shoulder. He stroked him up and down. He could feel the warmth of his flesh through the damp cotton of his shirt. Ah Sing's arm was covered in goose pimples. Ge Shou's black braid tickled his armpit.
"There's nothing to be afraid of," he said to Ge Shou. "Do you want to help me fly the kite?"
When he was a boy, Ah Sing's bed had been a strong rush mat, and he had slept on it with his four brothers and sisters, his parents, and their parents, by the great mouth of the Yangtze River where it emptied into the East China Sea.
The sea touched everything with lapping hands, probing fingers, reaching across countries and exploring fjords with whales, bays of volcanic rock, and ancient crevasses. A single drop could circumnavigate the globe in five thousand years.
As a boy, he would float in the warm waters of Chongwu Bay until he felt his body liquefying, his loose limbs pulled by small currents and pushed by gentle swells. He would float as if dead while the sun burned his back. He grew and fished with the older boys. He went to work in the tin mines of Malaysia. He went to the plantations of Borneo. He forgot how to turn into the sea.
The water dripping from his body had formed a puddle at his feet. Ah Sing shook the remaining drops from his limbs and stood on one leg to dry the bottom of his feet with his shirt. Then he used his shirt to towel the top of his head. He stepped into his pants. He pulled his shirt over his neck and the hair that was still wet dripped down his back. The fabric of the shirt stuck to his skin.
The warmth was returning to his body, but the back of his head still ached with cold. He looked out over the water.
"Hey Ge Shou, here's a riddle for you: How does one stop a drop of water from ever drying out?"
"A riddle." Ge Shou clapped. "I love riddles."
Floating Like the Dead, by Yasuko Thanh. From The Journey Prize Stories 21, edited by Camilla Gibb, Lee Henderson, and Rebecca Rosenblum. In stores now. Excerpted by permission of McClelland & Stewart. All rights reserved.