Wed 1 Feb 2012
A Tale of Guan Yu, the Chinese God of War, in America
“All life is an experiment.”
– Ralph Waldo Emerson
“For an American, one’s entire life is spent as a game of chance, a time of revolution, a day of battle. “
– Alexis de Tocqueville
The Missouri Boys snuck into Idaho City around 4:30 AM, when everything was still dark and Isabelle’s Joy Club was the only house with a lit window.
Obee and Crick made straight for the Thirsty Fish. Earlier in the day, J.J. Kelly, the proprietor, had invited Obee and Crick out of his saloon with his Smith & Wesson revolver. With little effort and making no sound, Obee and Crick broke the latch on the door of the Thirsty Fish and quickly disappeared inside.
“I’ll show that little Irishman some manners,” Crick hissed. Through the alcoholic mist, his eyes could focus on only one image: the diminutive Kelly walking towards him, gun at the ready, and the jeering crowd behind him. We might just bury you under the new outhouse next time you show yourselves in Idaho City.
Though he was a little unsteady on his feet, he successfully tiptoed his way up the stairs to the family’s living quarters, an iron crowbar in hand.
Obee, less drunk, set about rectifying that situation promptly by jumping behind the bar and helping himself to the supplies. Carelessly, he took down bottles of various sizes and colors from the shelves around him, and having taken a sip from each, smashed the bottles against the counters or dashed them to the ground. Alcohol flowed freely everywhere, soaking into the floors and the furniture.
A woman’s scream tore out of the darkness upstairs. Obee jumped up and drew his revolver. Not sure whether to run upstairs to help his friend or out the door, down the street, and into the woods before he could be caught, he hesitated at the bottom of the stairs. Overhead came the sound of boots that no longer cared about silence, followed by the crash of something heavy and soft onto the floor. Obee cursed and jumped back, his big, dirty hands trying to rub out the coat of dust that just fell from the ceiling into his eyes. More muffled screams and cursing, and then, complete silence.
“Woo!” Crick appeared at the top of the stairs, the gleeful grin on his face limned by the light of the oil lamp he held aloft. “Grab some rags. Let’s burn this dump down.”
By the time the 7000 people of Idaho City had tallied up the damage of the Great Fire of May 18th, 1865, the Missouri Boys were miles away on the Wells Fargo trail, sleeping off the headache from hard drinking and fast riding. Idaho City lost a newspaper, two theaters, two photograph galleries, three express offices, four restaurants, four breweries, four drugstores, five groceries, six blacksmith shops, seven meat markets, seven bakeries, eight hotels, twelve doctor’s offices, twenty-two law offices, twenty-four saloons, and thirty-six general merchandise stores.
This was why, when the band of weary and gaunt Chinamen showed up a few weeks later with their funny bamboo carrying poles over their shoulders and their pockets heavy with cold, hard cash sewn into the lining, the people of Idaho City almost held a welcome party for them. Everyone promptly set about the task of separating the Chinamen from their money.
Elsie Seaver, Lily’s mother, complained to Lily’s father about the Chinamen almost every evening.
“Thaddeus, will you please tell the heathens to keep their noise down? I can’t hear myself think.”
“For fourteen dollars a week in rent, Elsie, I think the Chinamen are entitled to a few hours of their own music.”
The Seavers’ store had been one of those burned down a few weeks earlier. Lily’s father, Thad (though he preferred to be called Jack) Seaver, was still in the middle of rebuilding it. Elsie knew as well as her husband that they needed the Chinamen’s rent. She sighed, stuffed some cotton balls in her ears, and took her sewing into the kitchen.
Lily rather liked the music of the Chinamen. It was indeed loud. The gongs, cymbals, wooden clappers, and drums made such a racket that her heart wanted to beat in time to their rhythm. The high-pitched fiddle with only two strings wailed so high and pure that Lily thought she could float on air, just listening to it. And then in the fading light of the dusk, the big, red-faced Chinaman would pluck out a sad quiet tune on the three-stringed lute and sing his songs in the street, his companions squatting in a circle around him, quiet as they listened to him and their faces by turns smiling and grave. He was over six feet tall and had a dark, bushy beard that covered his chest. Lily thought his thin, long eyes looked like the eyes of a great eagle as he turned his head, looking at each of his companions. Once in a while they burst into loud guffaws, and they slapped the big, red-faced Chinaman on his back as he smiled and kept on singing.
“What do you think he’s singing about?” Lily asked her mother from the porch.
“No doubt some unspeakably vile vice of their barbaric homeland. Opium dens and sing song girls and such. Come back in here and close the door. Have you finished your sewing?”
Lily continued to watch them from her window, wishing she could understand what his songs were about. She was glad that the music made her mother unable to think. It meant that she couldn’t think of more chores for Lily to do.
Lily’s father was more intrigued by the Chinamen’s cooking. Even their cooking was loud, the splattering and sizzling of hot oil and the suh-suh-suh beating of cleaver against chopping board making another kind of music. The cooking also smelled loud, the smoke drifting from the open door carrying the peppery smell of unknown spices and unknown vegetables across the street and making Lily’s stomach growl.
“What in the world are they making over there? There’s no way cucumbers can smell like that.” Lily’s father asked no one in particular. Lily saw him lick his lips.
“We could ask them,” Lily suggested.
“Ha! Don’t get any ideas. I’m sure the Chinamen would love to chop up a little Christian girl like you and fry you in those big saucepans of theirs. Stay away from them, you hear?”
Lily didn’t believe that the Chinamen would eat her. They seemed friendly enough. And if they were going to supplement their diet with little girls, why would they bother spending all day working on that vegetable garden they’ve planted behind their house?
There were many mysteries about the Chinamen, not the least of which was how they managed to all fit inside those tiny houses they had rented. The band of twenty-seven Chinamen rented five saltbox houses along Placer Street, two of them owned by Jack Seaver, and bought three others from Mr. Kenan, whose bank had been burned down and who was moving his family back east. The saltbox houses were simple, one-story affairs with a living room in the front that doubled as the kitchen, and a bedroom in the back. Twelve feet deep and thirty feet across, the small houses were made of thin planks of wood and their front porches were squeezed so tightly together that they formed a covered sidewalk.
The white miners who had rented these houses from Jack Seaver in the past lived in them alone, or at most shared a house with one roommate. The Chinamen, on the other hand, lived five or six to a house. This frugality rather disappointed some of the people in Idaho City, who had been hoping the Chinamen would be more free with their money. They broke down the tables and chairs left by the previous tenants of the houses and used the lumber to build bunks along the walls of the bedrooms and laid out mattresses on the floors of the living rooms. The previous occupants also left pictures of Lincoln and Lee on the walls. These the Chinamen left alone.
“Logan said he likes the pictures,” Jack Seaver said at dinner.
“The big, red-faced Chinaman. He asked me who Lee was, and I told him he was a great general who picked the losing side but was still admired for his bravery and loyalty. He was impressed by that. Oh, and he also liked Lee’s beard.”
Lily had heard the conversation between her father and the Chinaman by hiding herself behind the piano. She didn’t think the big Chinaman’s name sounded anything like “Logan.” She had listened to the other Chinamen calling out to him, and it sounded to her like they were saying “Lao Guan.”
“Such a strange people, these Celestials,” Elsie said. “That Logan scares me. The size of his hands! He has killed. I’m sure of it. I wish you could find some other tenants, Thaddeus.”
No one except Lily’s mother ever called her husband “Thaddeus.” To everyone else he was either “Mr. Seaver” or “Jack.” Lily was used to the fact that people had many names out here in the West. After all, everyone called the banker “Mr. Kenan” when they were at the bank, but when he wasn’t around they called him “Shylock.” And while Lily’s mother always addressed her as “Liliane,” Lily’s father always called her “Nugget.” And it seemed that the big Chinaman already got a new name in this house, “Logan.”
“You are my nugget of gold, sweetie,” he told her every morning, before he left for the store.
“You’re going to puff her up full of vanity,” Lily’s mother said from the kitchen.
It was the height of the mining season, and the Chinamen began to head out to look for gold the moment they were settled in. They left as soon as it was light, dressed in their loose blouses and baggy trousers, their queues snaking out from under their big straw hats. A few of the older men stayed behind to work in the vegetable garden or to do the laundry and the cooking.
Lily was largely left alone during the day. While her mother went shopping or busied herself around the house, her father was away working at the site for the new store. Jack was thinking of setting aside a section in the new store for preserved duck eggs, pickled vegetables, dried tofu, spices, soy sauce, and bitter melons imported from San Francisco to sell to the Chinese miners.
“These Chinamen are going to be carting around a lot of gold dust soon, Elsie. I’ll be ready to take it from them when they do.”
Elsie didn’t like this plan. The thought of the Chinamen’s strange food making everything smell funny in her husband’s store made her queasy. But she knew it was pointless to argue with Thad once he got a notion in his head. After all, he had packed up everything and dragged her and Lily all the way out here from Hartford, where he had been doing perfectly well as a tutor, just because he got it in his head that they’d be much happier on their own out West, where nobody knew them and they knew nobody.
Not even Elsie’s father could persuade her husband to change his mind then. He had asked Thad to come to Boston and work for him in his law office. Business was good, he said, he could use his help. Elsie beamed at the thought of all the shops and the fashion of Beacon Hill.
“I appreciate the offer,” Thad had said to her father. “But I don’t think I’m cut out to be a lawyer.”
Elsie had to placate her father for hours afterwards with tea and a fresh batch of oatmeal cookies. And even then he refused to say goodbye to Thad the next day, when he left to go back to Boston. “Damned the day that I became friends with his father,” he muttered, too loud for Elsie to pretend that she hadn’t heard him.
“I’m sick of this,” Thad said to her later. “We don’t know anybody who’s ever done anything. Everyone in Hartford just carries on what his father had started. Aren’t we supposed to be a nation where every generation picks up and goes somewhere new? I think we should go and start our own life. You can even pick a new name for yourself. Wouldn’t that be fun?”
Elsie was happy with her own name. But Thad wasn’t. This was how he ended up as “Jack.”
“I’ve always wanted to be a ‘Jack,’” he told her, as if names were like shirts that you could just put on and take off. She refused to call him by his new name.
Once when Lily was alone with her mother she had told Lily that this was all because of the War.
“That Rebel bullet put him on his back in less than a day from when he got onto the field. This is what happens to a man when he has to lie on his back for eight months. He gets all sorts of strange notions into his head and not even an angelic manifestation can get those ideas out of him.”
If the Rebels were responsible for getting her family out here to Idaho, Lily wasn’t sure they were such evil people.
Lily had learned the hard way that if she stayed in the house her mother would always find something for her to do. Until school started again, the best thing for Lily was to get out of the house the first chance she had in the morning and not return until it was dinner time.
Lily liked to be in the hills outside the town. The forest of Douglas firs, mountain maples, and ponderosa pines shaded her from the noon sun. She could take some bread and cheese with her for lunch, and there were plenty of streams to drink from. She spent some time picking out leaves that had been chewed by worms into shapes that reminded her of different animals. When she was bored with that she waded in a stream to cool off. Before she went into the water, she took the back hem of her dress, pulled it forward and up from between her legs and tucked the hem into the sash at her waist. She was glad that her mother was not around to see her turning her skirt into pants. But it was much easier to wade in the mud and the water with her skirt out of the way.
Lily waded downstream along the shallow edge of the stream. The day was starting to get more hot than warm, and she splashed some water on her neck and forehead. Lily looked for bird nests in the trees and raccoon prints in the mud. She thought she could walk on like this forever, alone and not trying to get anything done in particular, her feet cool in the water, the sun warm on her back, and knowing that she had a good, filling lunch with her that she could have any time she wanted and would have an even better dinner waiting for her later.
Faint sounds of men singing came to her from around the bend in the river. Lily stopped. Maybe there was a camp of placer miners just downstream from where she was. That would be fun to watch.
She walked onto the bank of the river and into the woods. The singing became louder. Although she couldn’t make out any of the words, the melody told her it wasn’t any song that she recognized.
She carefully made her way among the trees. She was deep in the shadows now and a light breeze quickly dried the sweat and water on her face. Her heart began to beat faster. She could hear the singing voices more clearly now. A lone, deep, male voice sang in words that she could not make out, the strange shape of the melody reminding her of the way the Chinamen’s music had sounded. Then a chorus of other male voices answered, the slow, steady rhythm letting her know that it was a working men’s song, whose words and music came from the cycle of labored breath and heartbeat.
She came to the edge of the woods, and hiding herself behind the thick trunk of a maple, she peeked out at the singing men by the stream.
Except the stream was nowhere to be found.
After they found this bend to be a good placer spot, the Chinese miners had built a dam to divert the stream. Where the stream used to be, there were now five or six miners using picks and shovels to dig down to the bedrock. Others were digging out bits of gold-laden sand and gravel from between the crevices in areas where the digging had already been done. The men wore their straw hats to keep the sun off their head. The solo singer, Lily now saw, was Logan. The red-faced Chinaman had wrapped a rolled-up handkerchief around his thick beard and tucked the ends of the handkerchief into his shirt to keep it out of his way as he worked. Every time he bellowed out another verse of the song he stood still and leaned on his shovel, and his beard pouch moved with his singing like the neck of a rooster. Lily almost giggled out loud.
A loud bang cut through the noise and activity and echoed around the banks of the dry stream bed. The singing stopped and all the miners stopped where they were. The mountain air suddenly became quiet and still, and only the sound of panicked birds taking flight into the air broke the silence.
Crick, slowly waving above his head the pistol that fired the shot, swaggered out of the woods across the stream bed from where Lily was hiding. Obee came behind him, his shotgun’s barrel shifting from pointing at one miner to the next with each step he took.
“Well, well, well,” Crick said. “Lookee here. A singing circus of Chinee monkeys.”
Logan stared at him. “What do you boys want?”
“Boys?” Crick let out a holler. “Obee, listen to this. The Chinaman just called us ‘boys.’”
“He won’t be saying much after I blow his head off,” Obee said.
Logan began to walk towards them. The heavy shovel trailed from his large hand and long arm.
“Stop right where you are, you filthy yellow monkey.” Crick pointed the pistol at him.
“What do you want?”
“Why, to collect what’s ours, of course. We know you’ve been keeping our gold safe and we’ve come to ask for it back.”
“We don’t have any of your gold.”
“Jesus,” Crick said, shaking his head. “I’ve always heard that Chinamen are thieves and liars, on account of them growing up eating rats and maggots, but I’ve always kept an open mind about the Celestials. But now I’m seeing it with my own eyes.”
“Filthy liars,” Obee affirmed.
“Obee and me, we found this spot last spring and claimed it. We’ve been a little busy lately, and so we thought we’d take pity on you and let you work the deposit and pay you a fair wage for your work. We thought we were doing our Christian duty.”
“We were being nice,” Obee added.
“Very generous of us,” Crick agreed. “But look where that’s gotten us? Being kind doesn’t work with these heathens. On our way here I was still inclined to let you keep a little gold dust for your work these last few weeks, but now I think we are going to take it all.”
“Ingrates,” Obee said.
A young Chinaman, barely more than a boy really, angrily shouted something in his own language at Logan. Logan waved his hand at the youth to keep him back, his gaze never leaving Crick’s face.
“I don’t think you have your facts straight,” Logan said. Even though he didn’t shout, his voice reverberated and echoed around the valley of the river and the woods in a way that made Lily tremble with its force and strength. “We found this deposit and we put the claim on it. You can go check at the courthouse.”
“Are you deaf?” Crick asked. “What makes you think I need to check at the courthouse? I just told you the facts, and after conferring with the law” — he waved his pistol impatiently — “I’m told that the claim is indeed mine and you are the claim jumpers. By law I’m entitled to shoot you dead like so many rats right where you are. But as I am unwilling to shed blood needlessly, I’ll let you hand over the gold and spare your worthless lives. I may even let you keep on working this deposit for me if you agree not to pull a stunt like this and deny us our gold in the future.”
Without any warning that he was going to do it, Obee fired his gun. The shot shattered the rocks at the feet of the boy who had angrily shouted at Logan earlier. Obee and Crick doubled over in laughter as the boy jumped back and dropped his pickaxe, giving out a startled yelp. A piece of shattered rock had cut his hand, and he slowly sat down on the ground, staring incredulously as the blood from the wound in his palm quickly soaked the tan sleeves of his shirt. A few of the other Chinamen gathered around to tend to him. Lily barely managed to stifle her own scream. She wanted to turn around and run back into town, but her legs would not hold her up if she didn’t hug tightly the tree she was hiding behind.
Logan turned his attention back to Crick. His face had turned an even darker shade of red, so that Lily was afraid that blood would pour from his eyes.
“Don’t,” he said.
“Hand over the gold,” Crick said. “Or I’ll make him stop breathing instead of just getting him dancing.”
Logan casually threw the shovel, which had been dangling from his hand until now, behind him. “Why don’t you put down your gun and we’ll have a fair fight?”
Crick hesitated for a moment. If it came to that, he thought he could take care of himself in a fight, having survived enough brawls in New Orleans to know exactly how it felt to have your ribs stop a knife. But Logan was taller by about a foot and heavier by about fifty pounds, and though that beard made him look ancient, Crick wasn’t sure whether Logan really was old enough to have his reflexes slow down. And in any case Crick was a little scared of the red-faced Chinaman: he looked angry enough to fight like a crazy man, and Crick knew enough about fights to know that you didn’t come out of fights with crazy men without at least a few broken bones.
The plan was going all wrong! Crick and Obee knew all about Chinamen, having spent years in San Francisco. They had all been scrawny midgets, giving him and Obee barely more trouble than a bunch of women, which was not surprising considering all they did was women’s work: cooking and laundry, and not one of them had ever put up a real fight. This band of Chinamen was supposed to fall down on their knees and beg for mercy as soon as he and Obee showly walked out of the woods, and hand over all their gold to them. The red-faced giant was ruining their plan!
“I think we have a pretty fair fight right now,” Crick said. He pointed his revolver at Logan. “Almighty God created men, but Colonel Colt made them equal.”
Logan untied the handkerchief around his beard, unrolled it, and tied it around the top of his head like a bandana. He took off his jacket and rolled up the sleeves of his shirt. The leathery, brown skin covering the wiry muscles on his arms was full of scars. He took a few steps towards Crick. Though his face was redder than ever, his walk was calm, like he was taking a stroll at night, singing his songs back in front of Lily’s house back in Idaho City.
“Don’t think I won’t shoot,” Crick said. “The Missouri Boys don’t have a lot of patience.”
Logan bent down and picked up a rock the size of an egg. He wrapped his fingers around it tightly. “Get out of here. We don’t have any of your gold.” He took another few calm steps towards Crick.
And in another moment he was running, his legs closing up the distance between him and the gunmen. He cocked his right arm back as he ran, looking steadily into Crick’s face.
Obee fired. He didn’t have the time to brace himself and the force of the shot threw him on his back.
Logan’s left shoulder exploded. A bright red shower of blood sprayed behind him. In the sunlight it looked to Lily like a rose was blossoming behind him.
None of the other Chinamen said anything. They looked on, stunned.
Lily’s breath stopped. Time seemed frozen to her. The mist of blood hung in the air, refusing to fall or dissipate.
Then she sucked in a great gulp of air and screamed as loud as she could ever remember, louder even than the time she was stung on the lips by that wasp she hadn’t seen hiding in her lemonade cup. Her scream echoed around the woods, startling more birds into the air. Is that really me? Lily thought. It didn’t sound like her. It didn’t even sound human.
Crick was looking into her eyes from across the river. His face was so filled with cold rage and hatred that Lily’s heart stopped beating.
Oh God, please, please, I promise I’ll pray every night from now on. I promise I won’t disobey Mother ever again.
She tried to turn around and run, but her legs wouldn’t listen to her. She stumbled back, tripped over an exposed root, and fell heavily to the ground. The fall knocked the air out of her and finally cut off her scream. She struggled to sit up, expecting to see Crick’s gun pointed at her.
Logan was looking at her. Incredibly, he was still standing. Half of his body was soaked with blood. He was looking at her, and she thought he didn’t look like someone who had just been shot, someone who was about to die. Though blood had splattered half of his face, the other half had lost its deep, crimson color. Still, Lily thought he looked calm, like he wasn’t in any pain, though he was a little sad.
Lily felt a calmness come over her. She didn’t know why, but she knew everything was going to be all right.
Logan turned away from her. He began to walk towards Crick again. His walk was slow, deliberate. His left arm was hanging limply at his side.
Crick aimed his pistol at Logan.
Logan stumbled. Then he stopped. The blood had soaked into his beard, and as the wind lifted it, droplets of blood flew into the air. He took a step back and let fly the rock in his hand. The rock made a graceful arc in the air. Crick stood frozen where he was. The rock smashed into his face and the thud as the rock cracked open his skull was as loud as Obee’s gun shot.
His body stayed up for a few seconds before collapsing into a lifeless heap on the ground. Obee scrambled to his feet, took a look at Crick’s motionless body, and without looking back at the Chinamen began to run as fast as he could deep into the woods.
Logan fell to his knees. For a moment he swayed uncertainly in place as his left arm swung at his side, useless for stopping his fall. Then he topped overl. The other Chinamen ran to him.
It all seemed so unreal to Lily, like a play on a stage. She thought she should have been terrified. She should have been screaming, or maybe even fainted. That’s what her mother would have done, she thought. But everything had slowed down in the last few seconds, and she felt safe, calm, like nothing could hurt her.
She came out from behind her tree and walked towards the crowd of Chinamen.
Lily wasn’t sure if she would ever understand this game.
“I can’t move the seeds at all? Ever?”
They were sitting in the vegetable garden behind Logan’s house, where her mother wouldn’t be able to see her if she happened to look out the living room window as she finished her needlework. They were both sitting with their legs folded under them, and Lily liked the way the cool, moist soil felt under her legs. (“This was how the Buddha sat,” Logan had told her.) On the ground between them Logan had drawn a grid of nine horizontal lines intersected with nine vertical lines with the tip of his knife.
“No, you can’t.” Logan shifted his left arm to make it easier for Ah Yan, the young Chinaman who had been the target of Obee’s first shot, to run the wet rag in his hand over the wound in Logan’s shoulder. Lily gingerly touched the bandage on her leg. Her fall against the tree root had scraped off a large patch of skin on the back of her left calf. Ah Yan had cleaned it for her and wrapped it up in a plain cotton bandage that was coated in some black paste that smelled strongly of medicine and spices. The cool paste had stung at first against the wound, but Lily bit her lips and didn’t cry out. Ah Yan’s touch had been gentle, and Lily asked him if he was a doctor.
“No,” the young Chinaman had said. Then he had smiled at her and given her a piece of dried plum coated in sugar for her to suck on. Lily thought it was the sweetest thing she had ever tasted.
Ah Yan rinsed the rag out in the basin next to Logan. The water was again bright red and this was already the third basin of hot water.
Logan paid no attention to Ah Yan’s ministrations. “We’ll play on a smaller board than usual since you are just learning. This game is called wei qi, which means ‘the game of surrounding.’ Think of laying down each seed as driving a post into the field as you build a fence to surround the land you are claiming. The posts don’t move, do they?”
Lily was playing with lotus seeds while Logan’s pieces were watermelon seeds. The white and black pieces made a pretty pattern on the grid between them.
“So it’s kind of like the way they get land in Kansas,” Lily said.
“Yes,” Logan said. “I guess it’s a little like that, though I’ve never been to Kansas. You want to surround the largest territory possible, and defend your land well so that my posts can’t carve out another homestead in your land.”
He took a long drink from the gourd in his hand. The gourd looked a little like a snowman, a small sphere on top of a larger one, with a piece of red silk tied around the narrow waist to provide a good grip. The golden surface of the gourd was shiny from constant use in Logan’s rough, leathery palm. Logan had told her that the gourd grew on a vine. When the gourd was ripe it was cut down and the top sawn off so that the seeds inside could be taken out to make the shell into a good bottle for wine.
Logan smacked his lips and sighed. “Whiskey, it’s almost as good as sorghum mead.” He offered Lily a sip. Lily, shocked, shook her head no. No wonder her mother thought these Chinamen barbaric. To drink whiskey out of a gourd was bad enough, but to offer a drink to a young Christian girl?
“There’s no whiskey in China?”
Logan took another drink and wiped the whiskey from his beard. “When I was a boy I was taught that there were only five flavors in the world, and all the world’s joys and sorrows came from different mixtures of the five. I’ve learned since then that’s not true. Every place has a taste that’s new to it, and whiskey is the taste of America.”
“Lao Guan,” Ah Yan called out. Logan turned towards him. Ah Yan spoke to him in Chinese, gesturing at the basin. After looking at the water in the basin, Logan nodded. Ah Yan got up with the basin and poured out the water in a far corner of the field before going into the house.
“He’s gotten as much of the poisoned blood and dirt and torn rags out as possible,” Logan explained. “Time to sew me up.”
“My dad thinks your name is Logan,” Lily said. “I knew he was wrong.”
Logan laughed. His laugh was loud and careless, the same as the way he sang and told his stories. “All my friends call me Lao Guan, which just means Old Guan, Guan being my family name. I guess it sounds like Logan to your dad. I kind of like the ring of it. Maybe I’ll just use it as my American name.”
“He also picked out a new name for himself when we came here,” Lily said. “Mother doesn’t think he should do that.”
“I don’t know why she should be so against it. This is a country full of new names. Didn’t she change her name when she married your father? Everyone gets a new name when they come here.”
Lily thought about this. It was true. Her father didn’t call her “Nugget” until they lived here.
Ah Yan came back with a needle and some thread. He proceeded to stitch up the wound on Logan’s shoulder. Lily looked closely at Logan’s face to see if he would wince with the pain.
“It’s still your turn,” Logan said. “And I’m going to capture all of your seeds in that corner if you don’t do something about it.”
“Doesn’t it hurt?”
“This?” The way he pointed at his shoulder by wagging his beard made Lily laugh. “This is nothing compared to the time I had to have my bones scraped.”
“You had to have your bones scraped?”
“Once I was shot with a poisoned arrow, and the tip of the arrow was buried into the bones in my arm. I was going to die unless I got the poison out. Hua Tuo, the most skilled doctor in the world, came to help me. He had to cut into my arm, peel back the flesh and skin, and scrape off the poisoned bits of bone with his scalpel. Let me tell you, that hurt a lot more than this. It helped that Hua Tuo had me drink the strongest rice wine he could find, and I was playing wei qi against my First Lieutenant, a very good player himself. It took my mind off the pain.”
“Where was this? Back in China?”
“Yes, a long time ago back in China.”
Ah Yan finished his sutures. Logan said something to him and Ah Yan handed a small silk bundle to him. Lily was about to ask Ah Yan about the bundle but he just smiled at her and held a finger to his lips. He pointed at Logan and mouthed “watch” at her.
Logan laid the bundle on the ground and unrolled the silk wrap. Inside was a set of long, silver needles. Logan picked up one of the needles in his right hand and before Lily could even yell “Stop,” he stuck the needle into his left shoulder, right above the wound.
“What did you do that for?” Lily squeaked. For some reason the sight of the long needle sticking out Logan’s shoulder made her more queasy than when Logan’s shoulder had exploded with Obee’s shot.
“It stops the pain,” Logan said. He took another needle and stuck it into his shoulder about an inch above the other one. He twisted the end of the needle a little to make sure it’s settled in the right spot.
“I don’t believe you.”
Logan laughed. “There are many things little American girls don’t understand, and many things old Chinamen don’t understand. I can show you how it works. Does your leg still hurt?”
“Here, hold still.” Logan leaned forward and held out his left palm low to the ground. “Put your foot in my hand.”
“Hey, you can move your left arm again.”
“Oh, this is nothing. The time I had to have my bones scraped, I was back on the battlefield within two hours.”
Lily was sure that Logan was joking with her. “My father was shot in the leg and chest in the War, and it took him eight months before he could walk again. He still has a limp.” She lifted her foot, wincing at the pain. Logan cupped her ankle with his palm.
His palm felt warm, hot actually, on Lily’s ankle. Logan closed his eyes and began to breathe slowly and evenly. Lily felt the heat on her ankle increase. It felt nice, like having a very hot towel pressed around her injured calf. The pain gradually melted into the heat. Lily felt so relaxed and comfortable that she could fall asleep. She closed her eyes.
“Okay, you are all set.”
Logan released her ankle and gently deposited her foot on the ground. Lily opened her eyes and saw a great silver needle sticking out from her leg just below her kneecap.
Lily was going to cry out in pain until she realized that she didn’t feel any. There was a slight numbness around where the needle went into her skin, and heat continued to radiate from it, blocking any pain from her wound.
“That feels weird,” Lily said. She experimentally flexed her leg a few times.
“As good as new.”
“Mother is going to faint when she sees this.”
“I’ll take it out before you go home. Your skin won’t heal for a few more days, but most of the poison in your blood should be gone with the medicine Ah Yan put on the bandage and the acupuncture should have taken out the rest. Just get the bandage changed to a clean one tomorrow and you shouldn’t even have a scar when this is over.”
Lily wanted to thank him, but she suddenly felt shy. Talking with Logan was strange. He was unlike anyone she had ever met. One moment he was killing a man with his bare hands, and the next he was holding her ankle as gently as she would a kitten. One moment he was singing songs that seemed as old as the earth itself, and the next he was laughing with her over a game played with watermelon and lotus seeds. He was interesting, but also more than a little scary.
“I like playing with the black seeds,” Logan said as he placed another seed on the grid, capturing a block of Lily’s seeds. He picked them up and popped the handful of lotus seeds into his mouth. “Lotus seeds are much better to eat.”
Lily laughed. How could she be scared of an old man who talked with his mouth full?
“Logan, that story about the poisoned arrow and the doctor scraping your bones, that didn’t really happen to you, did it?”
Logan tilted his head and looked at Lily thoughtfully. Slowly, he chewed the lotus seeds in his mouth, swallowed, and grinned. “That happened to Guan Yu, the Chinese God of War.”
“I knew it! You’re just like my father’s friends, always telling me tall tales just because I’m a child.”
Logan laughed his deep, booming laugh. “Not all stories are made up.”
Lily had never heard of the Chinese God of War, and she was sure that her father hadn’t either. It was now twilight, and the sounds and the smell of the loud and oily cooking of the Chinamen filled the garden.
“I should go home,” Lily said, even though she desperately wanted to try some of the food that she was smelling and hear more about Guan Yu. “Can I come and visit you tomorrow, and you can tell me more stories about Guan Yu?”
Logan stroked his beard with his hand. His face was serious. “It would be an honor.” Then his face broke into a smile. “Even though I’ll have to eat all the seeds myself now.”
Before Guan Yu became a god, he was just a boy.
Actually, before that, he was almost just a ghost. His mother carried him in her belly for twelve months, and still he refused to be born. The midwife gave her some herbs and then told her husband to hold her down while she kicked and screamed. The baby finally came out and didn’t breathe. Its face was bright red. “Either from choking or too much barbaric blood in the father,” the midwife thought.
“It would have been a huge baby,” the midwife whispered to the father. The mother was asleep. “Too big to have a long life anyway.” She began to wrap up the body with what would have been his swaddling clothes. “Did you have a name picked out?”
“Just as well. You don’t want to give the demons a name to hang on to on his way down below.”
The baby let out an ear-splitting cry. The midwife almost dropped him.
“He’s too big to have a long life,” the midwife insisted as she unwrapped the body, a little peeved that the baby dared to defy her authority on these matters. “And that face. So red!”
“Then I’ll call him Chang Sheng, Long Life.”
The dry summer sun and the dusty spring winds of Shanxi carved lines and sprinkled salt into the chapped, ruddy faces of the Chinese who tried to make a living here in the heart of northern China. When the barbarians climbed over the Great Wall and rode down from the north on their raids on the backs of their towering steeds, it was these men who took up their hoes and melted their plows to fight them to the death. It was these women who fought alongside the men with their kitchen knives, and when they failed, ended up as the slaves and then the wives of the barbarians, learning their language and bearing their children, until the barbarians began to think of themselves as Chinese, and they, in turn, fought against the next wave of barbarians.
While weak men and delicate women who were afraid to die fled south so that they could row around on their flower boats and sing their drunken verses, those who stayed behind, matching the music of their lives to the rhythm of the howling rage of the desert, grew tall with the barbaric blood mixed into their veins and became full of pride at their life of toil.
“This is why,” Chang Sheng’s father said to him, “the Qin and Han Emperors all came out of the Great Northwest, our land. From us come the generals and the poets, the ministers and the scholars of the Empire. We are the only ones who value pride.”
In addition to helping his father in the fields, it was Chang Sheng’s job to gather the firewood and kindling for the kitchen. Chang Sheng’s favorite time of the day was the hour or so before the sun set. That was when he took the rusty axe and the even rustier machete from behind the kitchen door and climbed the mountain behind the village.
Crack, the axe split the rotting trunk of a tree. Zang, the blade swung through the dry grass. It was hard work, but Chang Sheng pretended that he was a great hero cutting down his enemies like weeds.
Back home, dinner was stir-fried bitter melon and pickled cabbage to go with scallions dipped in soy sauce and wrapped in flat sorghum pancakes. Sometimes, when his father was in a particular good mood, Chang Sheng would even get a sip of plum wine, sweet on the tip of the tongue, burning hot down the throat. His face grew to an even darker shade of red.
“There you are, little one,” his father said, smiling as Chang Sheng’s eyes teared up from the alcohol burn while his hand reached out for another sip. “Sweet, sour, bitter, hot, and salty, all the flavors in balance.”
Chang Sheng grew up to be a tall boy. His mother was forever sewing new robes for him as he outgrew the old ones. The drought that had already lasted five years showed no signs of letting up, and even though the men labored harder than ever in the fields, the harvest seemed to grew smaller year after year. There was no money to send him to school, so his father took up the task of teaching him.
History was his favorite subject, but there was always something sad in his father’s eyes when they discussed history. Chang Sheng learned to not ask too many questions. Instead, he spent more time reading the history books. Then, when he was out gathering firewood, he acted out the great battles with his axe and machete against the endless hordes of the barbaric woods.
“You like to fight?” his father asked him one day.
“I’ll teach you to play wei qi then.”
“Did Chang Sheng’s father use lotus seeds and watermelon seeds too?”
“No, he used real stones.”
“I prefer your way of playing wei qi. Using seeds is more fun.”
“I think so too. And I like eating too much. Now, where was I?”
Within a day Chang Sheng was able to win one game out of three against his father. In a week he was losing only one out of five. In a month he was winning every game even when he gave his father the advantage of a five-stone handicap.
Wei qi was even better than plum wine. There was sweetness in the simplicity of the rules, bitterness in defeat, and burning hot joy in victory. The patterns made by the stones were meant to be chewed over, savored.
While out walking, he got lost staring at the patterns made by black streaks of mud thrown up by passing oxcarts against the whitewashed house walls. Instead of chopping firewood, he carved the nineteen by nineteen playing grid into the floor of the kitchen with his axe. During dinner, Chang Sheng forgot to eat while he laid out formations on the table with grains of wild rice and black watermelon seeds. His mother wanted to scold him.
“Let him alone,” his father said. “That boy has the makings of a great general.”
“Maybe he does,” his mother said. “But your family hasn’t been in the Emperor’s service for generations. What is he going to be a general of? A flock of geese?”
“He’s still the son of queens and poets, generals and ministers,” his father insisted.
“Playing a game is not going to put rice in the pot, nor wood into the stove. We are going to need to borrow money again this year.”
The neighboring villages sent their best players to challenge him. He defeated them all. Eventually, Hua Xiong, the son of the county’s wealthiest man, heard about Chang Sheng, the wei qi prodigy.
Hua Xiong’s family made its fortune by acquiring a coveted license to sell salt. There was a large lake in the county, its waters made salty by the blood of Chi Yu after he was defeated by the Yellow Emperor and his body chopped into pieces. The Han Emperors taxed the salt trade as their principal source of revenue and the imperial salt monopoly was strictly enforced. Hua Xiong’s grandfather placed some strategic bribes, and the family had been growing fat from the salt fortune ever since.
Hua Xiong was the same age as Chang Sheng. He was the sort of boy who tortured cats and delighted in galloping his horse through the fields of his father’s tenants, trampling down the sorghum and wheat so that the tracks formed his name. That was how he showed up at the door of the Guan house when he came to play a game of wei qi with Chang Sheng, high on his horse, a swath of trampled sorghum behind him.
He brought his wei qi set with him: the board made from the pine trees of Mount Tai; the black stones were green jade while the white stones were polished pieces of coral. Chang Sheng made the game last as long as he could so he could finger the cool, smooth stones a little longer.
“The game is getting boring,” Hua Xiong said. “I haven’t lost to anyone in years.”
Chang Sheng’s father smiled as he thought to himself, “Doesn’t he know that people who have to borrow money from his father would make sure he wins the game?”
Hua Xiong was actually a pretty good wei qi player, but not as good as Chang Sheng.
“Very impressive,” Hua Xiong said to Chang Sheng’s father. “Brother Chang Sheng has a gift. I am ashamed to say that I am not his match.”
Chang Sheng’s father was surprised. He was too proud to ever tell his son to deliberately throw the game to Hua Xiong. He had expected Hau Xiong to throw a tantrum. But not this.
“He’s not so bad,” he thought. “He’s graceful in defeat. That’s a quality that belongs to a phoenix among men.”
“What’s so impressive about that? I never get mad when my father beats me at checkers. I know I just have to get better.”
“Those are wise words. Not everyone sees a loss as an opportunity.”
“So is this Hua Xiong really a good man?”
“If you don’t interrupt me, you’ll soon find out.”
“I’ll have more watermelon seeds. I won’t be able to talk if my mouth is full.”
The harvests grew even worse in the next five years. Locusts hit the province. A plague sealed off the next county. There were rumors of cannibalism. The Emperor raised the taxes.
Now eighteen years of age, Hua Xiong was the head of the family after his father choked to death on the leg bone of a pheasant cooked in rice wine. He took advantage of depressed property prices to buy up as much land as possible in the county. Chang Sheng’s father went to see him on New Year’s Eve.
“Don’t worry, Master Guan,” Hua Xiong said as they both signed the deed. “I have fond memories of the games Chang Sheng and I used to play as children. I will take care of you and your family.”
In exchange for selling his land to Hua Xiong, Chang Sheng’s father got enough money to pay off the family’s mounting debt. He was then supposed to lease back the land from Hua Xiong, and pay a share of the proceeds from the harvest each year as rent.
“He gave us a good deal,” he told Chang Sheng’s mother. “I always knew he would grow up to be a good man.”
That year, they worked especially hard in the fields. The locusts came again to the county but missed their village. The sorghum stalks shot up tall and straight, bobbing in the dry winds of late summer. It was the best harvest they had had in years.
On New Year’s Eve, Hua Xiong arrived with a retinue of burly servants.
“May the new year bring you good fortune, Master Guan.” They bowed to each other at the door.
Chang Sheng’s father invited him in for some tea and plum wine. They knelt down on the clean, new straw mats, across from each other, the small table with the pot of warm wine between them.
They toasted each other’s health and had the customary three cups each. Hua Xiong gave a little awkward laugh. “Well, Master Guan, I came for the little matter of the rent.”
“Of course,” Chang Sheng’s father said. He called for Chang Sheng to bring out the five taels of silver. “Here you are, Master Hua. Five percent of my year’s proceeds.”
Hua Xiong gave a little cough. “Of course I understand how things have been rather hard on you and your family for the last few years. If you’d like some time to prepare the rest of the payment, that is perfectly acceptable.” He got up and bowed deeply.
“But I have all the money here. I can show you the books. I had a good year, and took in ninety-three taels of silver at the market. Five percent of that is four taels and eight coins. But since you were generous to me in the original sale, I thought I would pay you full five taelss to thank you.”
Hua Xiong bowed even deeper. “Surely Master Guan is having a joke at lowly Hua Xiong’s expense. Some evil persons have been saying that Master Guan is going to try to get out of paying the full amount of the rent this year, but lowly Hua Xiong did not believe them. Lowly Hua Xiong was sure that everything would be cleared up as soon as he came to see Master Guan in person.”
“What are you talking about?”
Hua Xiong looked as if a spider were crawling up his spine. He spread out his hands helplessly. “Is Master Guan asking lowly Hua Xiong to produce the deed and the lease?”
Chang Sheng’s father’s face became an iron mask. “Show me.”
Hua Xiong made a great show of searching for the documents. He patted down his sleeves and the breast pockets of his robe. He shouted at his burly servants to look in the wagon. Finally, one of them, a big man with gigantic, misshapen knuckles came up to Hua Xiong and presented the rolled-up document to him, giving Chang Sheng’s father a hard, long sneer.
“Whew,” Hua Xiong wiped his forehead with his sleeve. “I almost thought we lost it. I had not thought it would be necessary.”
They knelt down again, and Hua Xiong spread out the lease on the table between them. “The rent is to be eighty-five percent of the proceeds from the year’s sale of crops,” he read, pointing to the characters with his delicate, long fingers.
“Perhaps you could explain to me why the ‘eighty’ is written in such narrow characters as compared with the rest of the document,” Chang Sheng’s father said, after examining the lease.
“The clerk who drafted the lease was indeed a poor writer,” Hua Xiong said. He gave an ingratiating smile. “No doubt Master Guan is a much more cultivated calligrapher. But for a lease you will agree that it does not matter that his hand was poor?”
Chang Sheng’s father stood up. Chang Sheng could see that the hem of his sleeves trembled. “Do you think I would have placed my seal on a lease like that? Eighty-five percent? I might as well go join a band of bandits if I want to live on that.” He took a step towards Hua Xiong.
Hua Xiong backed up a few steps. Two of the big, burly men stepped up and formed a screen between him and the older man. “Please,” Hua Xiong said, his face twisted in a show of regret. “Don’t make me take this to the magistrate.”
Chang Sheng looked at the axe leaning behind the door. He began to walk towards it.
“Oh no. Don’t do it!”
“Go to the kitchen and see if your mother needs more wood,” his father said.
Chang Sheng hesitated.
“Go!” his father said.
Chang Sheng walked away and the burly men relaxed.
“Sorry I interrupted.”
“No, it’s fine. You were trying to save Chang Sheng, like his father.
Later, after Hua Xiong left, the family ate the New Year’s Eve dinner in silence.
“A phoenix among men indeed,” his father finally said after the meal. He laughed long and hard. Chang Sheng stayed up the whole night with him, drinking the last of their plum wine.
The father wrote a long petition to the magistrate’s court, detailing Hua Xiong’s treachery.
“It is a sad thing that the bureaucrats must be involved,” he said to Chang Sheng, “but sometimes we have no choice.”
The soldiers showed up at their house a week later. They broke down the door and hauled Chang Sheng and his mother into the yard and proceeded to overturn every piece of furniture in the house and break every plate, cup, bowl and dish.
“What is the charge against me?”
“Crafty peasant,” the captain said as his soldiers locked the cangue around the neck and arms of Chang Sheng’s father, “you are plotting to raise a band of bandits to join the Yellow Turbans. Now confess the names of your co-conspirators.”
Four soldiers had to hold Chang Sheng back, eventually wrestling him to the ground and sitting on him, as he struggled and cursed the soldiers.
“I think your son also has a rebellious spine,” the captain said. “I think we’ll bring him in too.”
“Chang Sheng, stop fighting. This is not the time. I’ll go see the magistrate. This will be cleared up.”
His father did not come back the next day, or the day after that. Runners from the town came to the village to tell the family that he had been thrown into jail by the magistrate, pending his trial for treasonous rebellion. Horrified, mother and son made the trip into town to appeal to the magistrate at the yamen.
The magistrate refused to see them, or to let them see Chang Sheng’s father.
“Crafty peasants, out, out!” the magistrate threw the scholar’s rock that he used as a paperweight at Chang Sheng, missing him by a foot. Swinging their bamboo poles, the guards drove Chang Sheng and his mother out of the halls of the yamen.
Spring came but mother and son let the fields go fallow. Hua Xiong’s henchmen came to cart away any thing of value left in the house that hadn’t been broken by the soldiers. His mother held him back as Chang Sheng clenched his teeth and ground them together until he felt the saltiness of blood on his tongue. His face grew redder and redder so that Hua Xiong’s servants were frightened and left before they could take everything.
He took his axe and machete and spent the days in the mountains. He cleared out entire hillsides with his swinging blade. Crack! Boys playing in the mountains ran back to their mothers and spoke of how they had seen a great eagle swooping among the trees, breaking down the branches with its iron beak. Zang! Girls doing the washing by the river ran back to the village and told each other how they had heard an angry tiger crashing through the woods, tearing down saplings with its great paws.
The bundles of firewood and kindling were exchanged for sorghum meal and pickled vegetables from the neighbors. The son waited while the mother swallowed the food in silence, flavoring it with her tears. He seemed to survive on sorghum mead and plum wine alone. With each drink, his face grew darker and redder. The blood hue of sorghum and plum would not fade from his face.
“Chila, chila!” Ah Yan called out, interrupting Logan’s story.
“It’s time for dinner,” Logan said to Lily. He set down his bowl of watermelon seeds. “Will you join us? Ah Yan is making Mala Wife’s Tofu and Duke of Wei’s Meat, his best dishes.”
Lily didn’t want Logan to stop. She wanted Hua Xiong to get what he deserved. She wished she could see Chang Sheng angry in the forest, flying and dancing like an eagle or a tiger. But the Chinamen were bustling about, arranging empty crates and benches around the garden in a circle, talking loudly and laughing amongst themselves. The smell emanating from the open kitchen door made Lily’s stomach growl. She had been so absorbed in Logan’s tale that she didn’t even know she was hungry.
“I promise we’ll finish the story some other time.”
The miners were in high spirits. Logan had told her that the spot that they had been working on turned out to be a rich deposit, yielding gold by the panful. Ah Yan had checked on her leg as soon as he came back with the other Chinamen and pronounced himself satisfied with her healing process so long as she kept up with plenty of good food and exercise to keep up her strength.
“I have a good story for you,” Ah Yan said.
During the day the Chinese miners were visited by the Sheriff, Davey Gaskins. The territorial legislature had passed a Foreign Miner’s Tax a few years earlier at the rate of five dollars per person per month and he was there to collect it. The tax was meant to drive out the Chinamen, who were pouring into the territory like so many locusts. But the towns had a lot of trouble collecting it. Gaskins hated the monthly rounds to the Chinese mining camps, it made him feel like he was losing his mind.
First of all, the camps were so far apart that he could never hit all of them in a single day. And somehow they always knew when he was coming to collect the tax. There he would be, standing in a middle of a camp with enough picks, pans and shovels strewn about for twenty or thirty men at least, and only five or six Chinamen would greet him, insisting that the extra tools were there because they worked so hard that the tools “wore out quickie quickie.”
And even worse, they seemed to constantly move about.
“Howdy, Sheriff,” Ah Yan greeted him that afternoon. “Good to see you again.”
“What’s your name again?” Gaskins could never tell the Chinamen apart.
“I’m Loh Yip,” Ah Yan said. “You came for our taxes on Monday, remember?”
Gaskins was sure that he had not come to this camp on Monday. He was on the other side of the town, collecting the taxes from three claims that were each supposedly just being worked on by five men.
“I was over near Pioneerville on Monday.”
“Sure, so were we. We just moved here yesterday.”
Ah Yan showed the Sheriff the tax receipts. Sure enough, there was the name “Loh Yip” and four others, followed by Gaskin’s own signature.
“Sorry I didn’t recognize you,” Gaskins said. He felt for sure that he was being tricked, but he had no proof. There were the receipts, written out in his own hand.
“No problem,” Ah Yan said, giving him a huge grin. “All Chinamen look alike. Easy mistake to make.”
Lily laughed along with the miners as Ah Yan finished his story. She couldn’t believe how silly Sheriff Gaskins was. How could he not recognize Ah Yan? It was absurd.
As they worked to set up the makeshift table and chairs in the vegetable garden, the Chinamen talked and joked with each other loudly and easily. Lily found it amusing to try to pick out the English words in their conversation. She was getting used to their accent, which she thought was like their music, brassy, percussive, and punctuated by a rhythm like the beating of a joyous heart.
“I have to tell Dad about this later,” she thought. “He always told me that the Irish accent of his uncles and aunts reminded him of his favorite drinking songs.”
Lily hadn’t been able to go out to see the miners during the day while they were working. Her mother was adamant about keeping her inside the house after her “accident” yesterday.
“I just tripped, that’s all. I promise to be more careful.”
Her mother just told her to write out more verses in her copy book.
Lily knew that her mother suspected that there was more to the accident than she was telling her. She had been dying to tell her dad about everything that happened to her yesterday, but her mother became so alarmed at the sight and smell of her bandaged leg that she insisted Lily wash off all of the “Chinamen’s poison” immediately. After that it was simply impossible to tell them the truth.
It was only after Jack Seaver got home that Lily managed to get out of the house.
“Elsie, she’s a child, not a houseplant. You can’t keep her in the house all day. She’s got to get some skin scraped off now and then. Some day maybe you can put a corset on her and wrap her up for her husband, but not for a while. For now she needs to be out in the sun, running around.”
Elsie Seaver was not happy with this, but she let Lily out. “Dinner is going to be late tonight,” she said. “Your father and I need to talk.”
Lily slipped out of the house before she could change her mind. The sun was low in the west, casting long shadows on the street, where a cool breeze carried the voices of the returning miners far among the houses of Idaho City. The two Chinamen at the door of the house across the street told her that Logan was in the vegetable garden. She had gone there directly, and, when Lily lost their wei qi game from yesterday, Logan began to tell her the story of Guan Yu, the God of War, to console her.
The results of Ah Yan’s cooking were carried out of the kitchen into the garden in large plates and set on a makeshift table made out of overturned crates in the middle of the circle. The Chinamen, each holding a large bowl of steamed white rice, milled around the table to pile food on top of the rice. Ah Yan emerged from the crowd and handed Lily a small blue porcelain bowl decorated with pink birds and flowers. The rice in the bowl was covered with small cubes of tofu and pork coated in red sauce and dark pieces of roasted meat with scallions and slices of bitter melon. The smell from the unfamiliar hot spice made Lily’s eyes and mouth water at the same time.
Ah Yan handed her a pair of chopsticks and headed back into the crowd to get his own food. He was so small and thin that he nimbly ducked under the shoulders and arms of the other men like a rabbit running under a hedgerow. Before long he ducked back out with his own large bowl of rice piled high with tofu and meat. He saw that Lily was watching him, anxious that he got his fair share. Lifting his bowl from his seat on a stool across the circle from Logan, he told Lily, “Eat, eat!”
Lily sort of got the hang of using chopsticks, after Logan showed her how. It amazed Lily to see his big clumsy hands manipulating his chopsticks so skillfully that he could pick up the delicate pieces of tofu and carry them to his mouth without crushing any of the pieces, causing them to fall, as Lily did the first few times she tried to eat the tofu.
Lily finally managed to get a piece of tofu into her mouth, and she gratefully bit down on it. Flavors until then unknown filled her mouth. Her whole tongue delighted in the richness of the taste: the saltiness, a hint of hot peppers, the almost-sweet base of the sauce, and something else that tickled her tongue. She tried to chew the tofu a little, to bring the flavor out so she could identify that new component more clearly. The taste of hot peppers became stronger, and the tickling grew into a tingling that covered her tongue from tip to base. She chewed yet a little more …
“Awww!” Lily cried out. The tingling suddenly exploded into a thousand hot little needles all over her tongue. The back of her nose felt full of water and her vision became blurring with tears. The Chinamen, stunned into silence by her yelp, burst into laughter when they saw what caused it.
“Eat some white rice,” Logan said to her. “Quick.”
Lily gulped down several mouthfuls of rice as fast as she could, letting the soft grains massage her tongue and sooth the back of her throat. Her tongue felt numb, paralyzed, and the tingling, now subdued, continued to tickle the inside of her cheeks.
“Welcome to a new taste,” Logan said to her, a mischievous joy in his eyes. “That was mala, the tingling hotness that made the Kingdom of Shu famous throughout China. You have to be careful with it, as the taste lures you in and then hits you like a mouthful of flame. But once you get used to it, it will make your tongue dance and nothing less will do.”
Following Logan’s suggestions, Lily tried a few pieces of bitter melon and scallions to rest her tongue a little between pieces of tofu. The bitterness of the melons contrasted nicely with the mala of the tofu.
“I bet you’ve never liked anything bitter before,” Logan said.
Lily nodded. She couldn’t think of a single dish her mother made that tasted bitter.
“It’s all about the balance of the flavors. The Chinese know that you cannot avoid having things be sweet, sour, bitter, hot, salty, mala, and whiskey-smooth all at the same time — well, actually the Chinese don’t know about whiskey, but you understand my point.”
“Lily, it’s time for dinner.”
Lily looked up. Her father was standing beyond the edge of the vegetable garden, beckoning for her to come over.
“Jack,” Logan called out. “Why don’t you join us for some of Ah Yan’s cooking?”
Taken aback by the suggestion, Jack Seaver nodded after a short pause. He could barely hide his grin as he strode between the rows of cucumbers and cabbages, coming up next to Logan.
“Thank you,” he said. “I’ve been wanting to try this since the first time I smelled it back when you first moved in.” He turned to the rest of the circle. “How’s the mining been so far, boys?”
“Wonderful, Mr. Seaver.” “The gold is everywhere.” “Logan has the touch.”
“That’s just what I want to hear,” Jack said. “I’m about to put in an order to San Francisco for my store. Tell me what you want from Chinatown, and I’ll work on getting some of that gold out of your hands into mine.”
While the circle laughed and shouted out suggestions which Jack scribbled down on a piece of scrap paper, occasionally pausing so that one of the Chinamen could write down the suggestion in Chinese characters for his agent in San Francisco if the men didn’t know the English name for something, Ah Yan ran back into the kitchen to retrieve a new bowl of rice for Jack.
Jack stared at the dishes in the middle of the circle, licking his lips appreciatively. “What are we having today?”
“Mala Wife’s Tofu,” Lily told him. “You have to be careful with it. It has a new taste. And Duke Wei’s Meat.”
“What kind of meat is it?”
“Dog meat roasted with scallions and bitter melon,” Logan said.
Lily, who was about to eat a piece of the roasted meat, dropped her bowl. Rice and tofu and meat and red sauce spilled everywhere. She felt sick.
Jack picked her up and hugged her closely. “How can you do such a thing?” He demanded. “Whose dog did you kill? There’s going to be trouble from this.” His frown grew more pronounced. “Elsie is going to be hysterical if she hears about this.”
“Nobody’s. It was a wild dog running in the woods. It looked like a dog that’s been abandoned out in the woods since it was a pup. I killed it when it tried to bite me,” Ah Yan, who had come out of the kitchen holding the new bowl of rice for Jack, said.
“But don’t you have dogs as pets? Eating a dog is like … like eating a child,” Jack said.
“We also have dogs as pets. We do not eat them if they are pets. But this dog was wild, and Ah Yan had to kill it to defend himself. Why would you let a wild dog’s meat go to waste when it is delicious?” Logan said. The rest of the Chinamen had stopped eating, intent on the conversation.
“Whether it was wild or not, eating a dog is barbaric.”
“You do not eat dogs because you like them too much.” Logan thought about this. “I thought you also do not eat rats.”
“Of course not! What a disgusting thought. Rats are dirty creatures full of disease.” Jack’s stomach turned at the very idea.
“We don’t eat rats, as a rule,” said Logan. “But if we are starving and there’s no other meat, it could be cooked to be palatable.”
Was there no end to the depravity of the Chinamen? “I can’t imagine when I would willingly eat a rat.”
“I see, ” said Logan. “You only eat animals you like a little, but not too much.”
There really wasn’t anything to say in response to that. Cradling Lily, who was trying hard not to throw up, Jack Seaver walked out of the vegetable garden back to his own house. Elsie had made a chicken pot pie, but neither he nor Lily was any longer in the mood for eating.
The eastern sky was still as grey as the belly of a fish when Chang Sheng climbed over the wall. By the time he had finished, the rooster had yet to crow for the first time. The old house, its beams and walls hollowed out by termites and rats over the years, burned easily. By the time the villagers raised the alarm, he was already twenty li away.
The rising sun burned the clouds that were draped across the mountains on the eastern horizon in an unbroken chain to a hue red enough to match his face. “Blood red long clouds,” he thought. “Even the Heavens are celebrating with me.” He laughed long and loud at the joy of vengeance. His felt light as a feather, like he could run forever towards the east, until he ran into the long clouds or into the ocean.
“I will need a new name now,” thought Chang Sheng. “I shall henceforth be known as Guan Yu, the Feather, also styled Yun Chang, Long Clouds.”
A month ago, the Autumn Assizes had taken place. Because the penalty for rebellion was death, the Circuit Intendant had overseen the trial himself. The Elder Guan had been hauled into the hall of the yamen in chains and made to kneel on the hard, stone floor while Chang Sheng and his mother watched from among the crowd that had gathered for the trial.
Hua Xiong, now fatter than ever and shaking like a leaf in the wind in front of the Intendant, a young scholar judge fresh out of Luo Yang and filled with the arrogance of the Emperor’s favor, produced the lease for the Intendant’s inspection. He recounted how he had tried to help out the Guan family during their time of need and was dumbfounded when the Elder Guan insisted on setting the lease at eighty-five percent.
“I asked him, ‘How could you live on that?’ And Your Reverence, he told me, ‘Everyone is going to starve if that’ — and here he disrespected the Son of Heaven’s name — ‘is going to rule the country by the advice of his eunuchs and the flattering courtiers that pass for scholars these days. I might as well give all the harvest to you as to lose it all in taxes. It doesn’t matter. I’ll have a better chance joining the Yellow Turbans and live as a bandit.’” He bowed his head before the Intendant and continued to tremble.
The Intendant glanced at the kneeling figure of the Elder Guan below the dais of the yamen, the corners of his mouth turned down in displeasure. “Humph. ‘Flattering courtiers that pass for scholars these days.’ Indeed, peasant, is there no respect for the Emperor and the majesty of the law in your eyes? Have you lost all sense of piety? What do you have to say in answer to these accusations?”
The Elder Guan straightened his back as much as he could in his shackles. He looked up at the severe, young face of the Intendant. “It is true that I believe the Emperor has been misled by unscrupulous advisors who view the people as so much fish and meat to be squeezed for their last drop of wealth without regard for their suffering. But I have not forgotten my duty towards the Emperor or my family’s many generations of service in the Imperial Army, and I would never raise my arm in rebellion to him. My accuser has fabricated these lies in order to impoverish my family and disgrace me, simply because my son had humiliated him in a game. The Emperor has entrusted you with the power of life and death no doubt because you have wisdom despite your youth, and I have no doubt that your wisdom will reveal the truth of my innocence to you.”
Even though he was kneeling, the air that he spoke with made him seem to tower over everyone in the hall of the yamen. Even the Intendant seemed impressed.
Noting the change in the Intendant’s mien, Hua Xiong fell to his knees and kowtowed three times in rapid succession. “Your Reverence, I should never have dared to accuse Master Guan unless I had solid evidence, seeing as how his son and I have been childhood friends. I am merely a lowly merchant, while Master Guan is descended from a distinguished family of generals and scholars in the Emperor’s service. But I was motivated by love and zeal for the Emperor, so much so that I dared to accuse such a man. It was my fear that he would use his family’s glorious record as a shield to cover up all his impious vices. I pray that you would uphold justice.” He kept on kowtowing after this speech.
“Stop that,” the Intendant said impatiently. “You need not fear his family’s history of glory. The Emperor’s law is to be administered blindly and impartially. Even were he the son of a Duke or a Prince, if he plotted against the Emperor, you need not fear accusing him.” He took another look at the Elder Guan, his face hardening. “I have known many evil men like him: puffed up with the honors heaped upon their families by the Emperor for their ancestors’ loyal service, they think they are beyond the law. Well, I will be sure to punish them extra harshly. What other evidence do you have?”
Hua Xiong nodded towards three young girls cowering in the corner behind him. “These young women have seen and heard Master Guan practicing with his axe and machete in the woods. They saw him leaping about, pretending to … to … ”
“To do what?”
“To be visiting those blows upon the Son of Heaven.” Hua Xiong went back to his incessant kowtowing, drawing blood on his forehead.
“That is a lie,” Chang Sheng cried out from the crowd. He was livid at those young girls for agreeing to back up such a blatant falsehood. But then he saw that they were all from families who owed a great deal of money to Hua Xiong. He felt as if the veins in his neck would burst if he didn’t speak. “I was the one –”
“Chang Sheng, whatever happens, do not speak,” the Elder Guan shouted. “You must take care of your mother.”
“Come,” the Intendant called out to his soldiers, “drive that lawless child and his unchaste mother from the yamen. I will not have them make a spectacle of my court.”
To keep himself from striking back, Chang Sheng bit down on his tongue until he drew blood. He tried to shield his mother from the blows of the soldiers as they stumbled away from the yamen.
The Elder Guan was sentenced to death that afternoon for plotting treason, and his head soon afterwards was hung on the flag pole outside the yamen. That evening, Chang Sheng’s mother put her head in a loop of rope tied to the beam in the middle of the kitchen and kicked the stool out from under herself.
Chang Sheng had left Hua Xiong alive until the end. After he had dispatched the rest of the Hua household (some twenty people), he woke Hua Xiong from his slumber (pausing first to slit the throats of the two concubines in bed with him with quick flicks of his wrist). In the dim light of the torch that Chang Sheng was carrying with him, Hua Xiong thought he looked like a red-faced demon, a soldier from hell coming for his soul.”
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” he blabbered and lost control of his bowels.
Chang Sheng used his knife to cut the ligaments in Hua Xiong’s shoulders and hips, completely paralyzing him. He laid down the heavy, drooping body back on the bed, cuddled between the lifeless bodies of the two concubines.
“I will not give you a clean death. You said my father was a bandit, I will now show you how a bandit deals with people like you.”
He proceeded to set fire throughout the house. Soon the smoke was so heavy that Hua Xiong could no longer scream for help. His coughing grew spasmodic and panicked; he was choking in his own spit.
Guan Yu continued to run to the east, where the blood-red long clouds beckoned to him. His heart was light as a feather, and it seemed as if love of the fight and joy in vengeance would never leave him. He felt like a god.
There was a clearing in the middle of the woods on the side of the hill opposite the river from the Chinamen’s mining camp. Now that it was late June, the syringa bushes were in full bloom in the rocky soil along the edge of the clearing, filling the air with its fresh, orange-like scent. The yellow of the blooming arrowleaf balsamroot carpeted the middle of the clearing, with a touch here and there of the purple-blue of the chicory to break the monotony.
Lily loved to sit in the shade of the trees at the edge of the clearing, and stare at the colors in front of her. If she sat still long enough, the gentle breeze and the slanting rays of the sun would conspire to blend the individual flowers into an undulating field of light. The world seemed then made afresh to her, full of tomorrows and undiscovered delights. And singing seemed the only thing worth doing.
A plume of smoke rose at the edge of the clearing, breaking her reverie.
She walked across the clearing towards the smoke. The dark figure of a man crouched by it. He was cooking something that smelled delicious to Lily. But there was also a hint of something unpleasant in that smell, like burning hair.
Lily was close enough now to see that the man was large, even larger than Logan. Just as Lily realized that the man was roasting the whole carcass of a large dog whose hide was red as blood. He turned around and grinned at Lily, revealing a mouth full of sharp, dagger-like teeth.
It was Crick.
Jack told Elsie to go back to sleep.
“It’s all right. I’ll make some tea for her.”
The sound of water boiling and the comforting warmth of her father’s arms dissipated the last traces of the nightmare from Lily’s mind. Sipping tea and whispering lest they be overheard by her mother, Lily told Jack what she had seen of the fight between Logan and Crick.
“What happened to Obee?”
“I don’t know, he ran off.”
“And what did they do with Crick’s body?”
Lily wasn’t sure about that either.
“And you definitely saw Obee shoot first? And the bullet hit Logan in the shoulder?”
Lily nodded vigorously. The image of Logan’s shoulder exploding was carved indelible into her brain. And she marveled again at how calm she felt when Logan looked at her, as if he had some power to pass his strength onto her, letting her know that she would be safe.
Jack pondered this. If Lily was right, the wound to Logan was serious, yet he had been back at work with his companions less than twelve hours later. Either the Chinaman was the toughest human being he had ever known, or Lily was exaggerating. But he knew his daughter. She was an imaginative child, but not one who lied.
Obee and Crick were notorious outlaws, and lots of people in town suspected that they were behind the fire that had ruined so many people in town and killed the Kellys. But there were no witnesses to the fire and the murders, and no charges had been brought. Now if Obee decided to accuse Logan of murder, he might indeed have a chance of getting Logan hanged since he and Lily and all the Chinamen actually saw it happen. The Chinamen weren’t well liked by the whites, on account of their taking claims away from the white miners — never mind that most of these claims had been abandoned by the whites since they didn’t have the Chinese rice farmers’ skill and patience with water management or their willingness to survive on rice and vegetables and to squeeze as many people as possible into the tiny saltbox houses in order to save money. There was no telling what a jury might do even if it sounded like Logan killed Crick to protect himself and the others.
“Dad, are you angry with me?”
Startled from his reverie, Jack collected himself. “No. Why should I be?”
“Because you said Logan looked like a killer and you told me to stay away from the Chinamen, and … and I almost ate a dog last week.”
Jack laughed. “I can’t be angry with you for that. The Chinamen’s cooking smelled so good that I was interested in the dog myself — and still am, a little. You didn’t do anything wrong. Although it was dangerous for you to get mixed up in their fight, it wasn’t by any means your fault. And I guess it turned out all right. You weren’t hurt.”
“I was, a little.”
“Luckily the Chinamen’s medicine seemed to have fixed it. That Logan is quite a character.”
“He tells good stories,” Lily said. She wanted to tell him about the battles of Guan Yu, the God of War, or the songs of Jie You, the Princess Who Became a Barbarian. She wanted to describe to him how she felt, listening to Logan recite those stories in the rhythm of his clanging, whiskey-sharpened accent so that they sounded at the same time so fantastic and so familiar while the long, gnarled fingers of his large hands made the scene come alive with comic and solemn gestures. But it was all still so new and confusing, and she didn’t think she knew the right words yet to paint a proper picture of those moments for her father.
“I’m sure he does. This is why we are out here, where the country belongs to nobody and everyone is a stranger with a tale of his own. The Celestials are filling up California and soon, Idaho Territory. Soon everyone here will know their stories.”
Lily finished her tea. She was comfortable, but the lingering excitement from the nightmare kept her from being sleepy.
“Dad, will you sing me a song? I can’t sleep now.”
“Sure thing, Nugget. But let’s go outside and take a walk, or else we’ll wake your mother.”
Lily and Jack threw jackets over their night clothes and slipped outside the house. The summer evening was warm, and the sky, cloudless and moonless, glowed with the light of a million stars.
Some of the Chinamen were still up on the porch. They played a game with dice by the weak light of an oil lamp. Jack and Lily waved at them as the two of them strode down the street.
“Guess they can’t sleep either,” Jack said. “Don’t blame them. Can’t imagine how you’d sleep with five other guys packed in like sardines with you, all of them snoring and with smelly feet.”
Before long they had left the weak light of the Chinamen’s oil lamp behind them, and then they were beyond the edge of the town. Jack sat down on a rock by the side of the road into the hills and lifted Lily to sit beside him, his arm wrapped around her.
“What song would you like to hear?”
“How about the one that Mom would never let you sing, the one about the funeral?”
“That’s a good one.”
Jack took out his pipe and lit it to keep the insects away from them, and he began to sing:
Tim Finnegan lived in Walkin’ Street,
A gentle Irishman mighty odd;
He had a brogue both rich and sweet,
And to rise in the world he carried a hod.
Now Tim had a sort of a tipplin’ way,
With a love of the whiskey he was born,
And to help him on with his work each day,
He’d a drop of the craythur every morn.
Lily looked up into her father’s face. Lit by the flame from the pipe, it took on a red glow that brought a sudden rush of love and comfort to her heart. Smiling at each other, father and daughter belted out the chorus:
Whack fol the dah O, dance to your partner,
Welt the floor, your trotters shake;
Wasn’t it the truth I told you,
Lots of fun at Finnegan’s wake!
Jack continued with the rest of the song:
One mornin’ Tim was feelin’ full, His friends assembled at the wake, Then Maggie O’Connor took up the job, Then Mickey Maloney ducked his head,
His head was heavy which made him shake;
He fell from the ladder and broke his skull,
And they carried him home his corpse to wake.
They rolled him up in a nice clean sheet,
And laid him out upon the bed,
A gallon of whiskey at his feet,
And a barrel of porter at his head.
And Mrs. Finnegan called for lunch,
First they brought in tay and cake,
Then pipes, tobacco and whiskey punch.
Biddy O’Brien began to bawl,
“Such a nice clean corpse, did you ever see?
“O Tim, mavourneen, why did you die?”
“Arragh, hold your gob,” said Paddy McGhee!
“O Biddy,” says she, “You’re wrong, I’m sure”,
Biddy she gave her a belt in the gob,
And left her sprawlin’ on the floor.
And then the war did soon engage,
‘Twas woman to woman and man to man,
Shillelagh law was all the rage,
And a row and a ruction soon began.
When a noggin of whiskey flew at him,
It missed, and falling on the bed,
The liquor scattered over Tim!
The corpse revives! See how he raises!
Timothy rising from the bed,
Says,”Whirl your whiskey around like blazes,
Thanum an Dhoul! Do you think I’m dead?”
His friends assembled at the wake,
Then Maggie O’Connor took up the job,
Then Mickey Maloney ducked his head,
“Feeling sleepy yet?”
“All right, we’ll sing another one.”
They stayed out under the stars for a long, long time.
It was whispered among the soldiers of all of the Three Kingdoms that Guan Yu could not be killed. The generals of the deceitful Cao Cao and the arrogant Sun Quan tried to laugh at this rumor and executed those who spread it. All the same, when it came time to face Guan Yu on the battlefield, even the invincible Lü Bu hesitated.
But I have gotten ahead of myself. How did the Han Dynasty fall? How did the Three Kingdoms rise? Who were the heroes among whom Guan Yu made his way?
The Yellow Turbans ravaged the land, their rallying rebel cry that the Emperor was a child who had never set foot outside the Palace while his eunuchs preyed upon the blood and flesh of the peasants. Taking up arms against the rebels, the dreaded warlord Cao Cao made the Emperor a hostage in his own capital and ruled in his name from the plains and deserts of the North.
In the South, the rich rice fields and winding rivers propelled Sun Quan, the Little Tyrant, to hold sway over ships, and hunger for the title of Emperor.
Everywhere there was sickness and starvation, and armies marched over fields empty of cultivation.
Liu Bei, a man so full of charm that his ear lobes reached his shoulders, was merely a peddler of straw shoes and straw mats when he met Zhang Fei, the butcher, and Guan Yu, the outlaw who was still running. Guan Yu now had the beginning of his famous beard, a bushy and vibrant beard that made him look old and young at the same time. It made a nice addition to a handsome face, whose smooth features looked like they were carved out of the red stone of the Crimson Cliffs of the Yangtze River.
“If I had men who could fight like tigers with me, I would restore the glory of the Han Dynasty,” Liu Bei said to the two strangers who shared a bowl of sorghum mead with him in the peach orchard.
“And what good is that to me?” asked Zhang Fei, whose face was black as coal and whose arms daily wrestled oxen to the ground for the slaughter.
Liu Bei shrugged. “Maybe you do not care. But if I were Emperor, the magistrates would again mete out justice, the fields would be cultivated with industry and virtue, and the teahouses would again be filled with the songs and laughter of scholars and dancing women.” His eyes lingered a moment longer on Guan Yu’s face, which was familiar to him from the many posters putting a price on his head that he had seen around the city. “There are many men who are outlaws in this day and age, but many of them are outside the law only because the laws have not been administered with virtue. Were I Emperor, I would make them the judges, not the criminals.”
“And what makes you think you will succeed?” asked Guan Yu. His face darkened to the color of blood, but he stroked his beard carelessly, like a scholar stroking his brush as he was about to pen a poem about girls collecting flowers in May.
“I don’t know I will succeed,” Liu Bei said. “All life is an experiment. But when I die I will know that I once tried to fly as high as a dragon.”
In the peach orchard then, they became sworn brothers.
“Though we were not born on the same day of the same month of the same year, we ask that Fate give us the satisfaction of dying on the same second of the same minute of the same hour.”
They headed West, and there, in the mountainous Province of Shu, where Guan Yu first tasted mala, they founded the Kingdom of Shu Han.
All-Under-Heaven was thus split into the Three Kingdoms of Cao Cao, Sun Quan, and Liu Bei. Of the three, Cao Cao had the valor and wildness of the Northern Skies while Sun Quan had the wealth and resilience of the Southern Earth, but only Liu Bei had the virtue and love of the People.
Guan Yu was his greatest warrior. He had the strength of a thousand men and the love of even more.
“He is not made of flesh and blood.” Cao Cao sighed when he heard the report of how Guan Yu slew six of his best generals and broke through five passes to rejoin Liu Bei on his Long March of a Thousand Li.
“He is a phoenix among swallows and sparrows.” Sun Quan shook his head when he heard how Guan Yu laughed and played wei qi while his bones were scraped free of poison. Guan Yu was back on his horse and swinging his sword the next day.
War raged between the Three Kingdoms for years, neither one able to subdue the other two. Guan Yu’s face never lost its blood red color, and his dark beard grew longer and longer until he wore it in a silk pouch to keep it clean and out of the way in battle.
Though Liu Bei was virtuous, the Mandate of Heaven was not with him. His armies fought and lost, lost and fought, in battle after battle. During a retreat on one of their campaigns to the North, Guan Yu and Zhang Fei were separated from the main army, and their detachment of one hundred scouts became surrounded by the army of Cao Cao, numbering more than ten thousand. Cao Cao asked for parley with the two.
“Surrender and swear fealty to me, and I shall make you into Dukes who do not have to kneel even in the presence of the Son of Heaven,” Cao Cao said.
Guan Yu laughed. “You do not understand why men like me fight. There is the joy of battle, of course, but that is not all.” He opened up his old, faded battle cape to show Cao Cao the holes in the fabric, the frayed edges and patches upon more patches. “This was given to me by my sworn brother Liu Bei. Before I put on the cape, I was nobody, a murderer running from the law. But after I put on the cape, every swing of my sword was in the name of virtue. What can you offer me better than that?”
Cao Cao turned around and rode back to his camp. He ordered his army to begin attack immediately. The generals gave the orders, but the soldiers, thousands upon thousands of them lined up in rank after rank, refused to advance against Guan Yu and Zhang Fei, and their small circle of one hundred men.
Cao Cao ordered the soldiers standing in the back killed on the spot. The panicked soldiers pushed against their comrades in front. The tide of men surged slowly forward, closing in on Guan Yu and Zhang Fei.
The battle lasted from morning till night, and then throughout the night till the next morning.
“Remember the Oath of the Peach Orchard,” Guan Yu yelled to Zhang Fei. He was riding through Cao Cao’s men on his war stallion, the great Red Hare, whose skin matched the hue of Guan Yu’s face and who sweated blood as he trampled men beneath his giant hooves. “If Fate will have us succumb this day, then we will have at least fulfilled our oath.”
“But then our brother Liu Bei will be late,” replied Zhang Fei, as he impaled two men at once on his iron-shafted spear.
“We will forgive him,” Guan Yu said. The Brothers laughed and separated once again for the battle.
Wherever Guan Yu rode, swinging his moon-shaped sword, the soldiers of Cao Cao fell over each other to get away from the rider and his horse, parting before them like a flock of sheep before a tiger or a brood of chickens before an eagle. Guan Yu mowed them down mercilessly, and Red Hare frothed at the mouth, the bloodlust overcoming his exhaustion.
“When I am fighting next to you,” Zhang Fei said, wiping streams of blood from his black face, “I do not know what fear is. My mind is harder, my heart keener, my spirit the greater as our might lessens.”
The one hundred men with Guan Yu and Zhang Fei gradually became fifty men, and then fifteen, and finally, only Guan Yu and Zhang Fei were left, charging back and forth through the sea of swords and spears that was Cao Cao’s army.
It was evening again. Cao Cao called for a halt to the battle, pulling his troops back. Rivers of blood ran across the field, and hacked-off limbs and heads littered the ground like sea shells on the beach at low tide. The evening sun cast long, scarlet shadows over everything so that one could no longer be sure whether the redness was from the light or blood.
“Surrender,” Cao Cao called out to them. “You have proven your courage and loyalty to Liu Bei. No god or man would ask more of you.”
“I would,” Guan Yu said.
Though Cao Cao was a man with a cold heart and a narrow mind, he was overwhelmed with admiration for Guan Yu.
“Will you drink with me,” he said, “before you die?”
“Of course,” said Guan Yu. “I never say no to sorghum mead.”
“No sorghum mead here, I’m afraid. But I have some barrels of a new drink the barbarians of the West have given to me as tribute.”
The drink was made from grapes, a new fruit brought over the desert by the barbarian emissaries of the West.
You mean wine?
Yes, but that was the first time Guan Yu had seen it.
Guan Yu and Cao Cao drank it in jade cups, whose cold stony surface complemented the warmth of the wine excellently. It was getting dark, but the jade from which the cups were made had an inner glow to them that lit up the faces of the two men. The pretty barbarian girls who were part of the tribute to Cao Cao played a mournful tune on their strange pear-shaped lutes, which they called pi pa.
Guan Yu listened to the music, lost in his own thoughts. Suddenly he stood up, and began to sing to the tune of the barbarian lute:
Give me grape wine overflowing night-glowing cups,
I would drink it all but the pi pa calls me to my horse.
If I should fall down drunk on the battlefield, do not laugh at me,
For how many have ever returned from war, how many?
He tossed the cup away. “Lord Cao Cao, I thank you for the wine, but I think it is now time to get back to what we have to do.”
“So, that banjo-thing you were playing, that’s a pi pa, isn’t it?” The mournful song Logan had been singing was still in Lily’s head. She wanted to ask Logan to teach it to her.
“Yes, it is.” He shifted the pi pa around on his knees, cradling its pear-shaped body lovingly, like a baby. “This one is pretty old, and it sounds better with every year that passes.”
“But it’s not really Chinese, is it?”
Logan was thoughtful for a moment. “I don’t know. I guess you’d say it’s really not, not if you look back thousands of years. But I don’t think that way. Lots of things start out not Chinese and end up that way.”
“That’s not what I would have expected to hear from a Celestial,” Jack said. He was still trying to get used to the taste of the sorghum liquor that Logan assured him was what every Chinese boy drank along with mother’s milk. Swallowing it was like swallowing a mouthful of razors. Lily saw his furrowed brows as he took another drink and laughed.
“I thought you Celestials were supposed to be mighty jealous of your long history, Confucius being from before Christ and everything. I didn’t think I’d hear one of you admit that you learned anything from the barbarians.”
Logan laughed at this. “I myself have some blood of the northern barbarians flowing in my veins. What is Chinese? What is barbarian? These questions will not put rice into bellies or smiles onto the faces of my companions. I’d much rather sing about pretty girls with green eyes from west of the Gobi Desert and play my pi pa.”
“If I didn’t know better, Logan, I’d say you sound like a Chinese American.”
Jack and Logan laughed at this. “Gan bei, gan bei,” they said, and tossed back cups of whiskey and sorghum liquor.
“I want to learn ‘Finnegan’s Wake’ from you. Ever since I heard the two of you singing that night, I can’t get it out of my head.”
“You have to finish the story first!” Lily said.
“All right. But I have to warn you. I’ve told this story so many times, and each time I tell it, it’s different. I’m not sure I know how the story ends any more.”
How long did the battle last? Was it still against the treacherous Cao Cao or the deceitful Sun Quan? Guan Yu could not remember.
He did remember telling Zhang Fei to leave, and get back to Liu Bei.
“I am in charge of the men, and because of my carelessness, I have led them into death. I cannot show my face back in Cheng Du, where the wives and fathers of those men will ask me why I have returned when their husbands and sons have not. Fight your way out, Brother, and seek revenge for me.”
Zhang Fei halted his horse and gave a long cry. At the piercing sound of that cry, full of sorrow and regret, the ten thousand men around them shook in their boots and stumbled back three steps each.
“Goodbye, Brother.” Zhang Fei spurred his horse to the west, and the soldiers parted to make way for his spear and horse, fought with each other to get out of his path.
“On, on!” Cao Cao shouted angrily. “The man who captures Guan Yu shall be made a Duke.”
Red Hare stumbled. He had lost too much blood. Guan Yu deftly leapt off the back of the war stallion just as he fell to the ground.
“I’m sorry, old friend. I wish I could have protected you.” Blood and sweat dripped from his beard, and tears carved out clear channels through the dried blood and dirt on his face.
He threw down his sword and put his hands behind him, looking for all the world like a scholar-poet about to recite from the Book of Poetry in front of the Emperor at his court. He stared at the approaching soldiers with contempt.
“They cut off his head at the next sunrise,” Logan said.
“Oh,” said Lily. This wasn’t the ending she had wanted to hear.
The three of them were silent for a bit, while the smoke from Ah Yan’s cooking in the kitchen drifted into the clear sky. The sound of spatula on wok sounded like the din of sword on shield to Lily’s ears.
“You are not going to ask me what happened next?” Logan said.
“What do you mean?” Jack and Lily said at the same time.
“What do you mean?” Cao Cao shouted and stood up in a hurry, overturning the writing desk in the process. The ink stone and brushes flew everywhere. “What do you mean you can’t find it?”
“Lord Cao Cao, I am telling you what I saw with my own eyes. One minute his head was rolling on the ground, and the next his head and body were simply nowhere to be found. He… he disappeared into thin air.”
“What kind of fool do you take me for? Come!” Cao Cao gestured to the guards. “Tie him up and have him executed. We’ll hang his head outside my tent since he lost Guan Yu’s head.”
“Of course he’s not dead,” the grizzled veteran said to the pink-faced new recruits. “I was there the day Lord Guan Yu was captured. Among the one hundred thousand men of the Army of Wei, he fought as if they were nothing more than motes of dust. A man like that, do you think he would succumb to an executioner’s axe?”
“Of course he’s not dead,” Liu Bei said to Zhang Fei. They were both covered in the white armor of mourning, and they had raised an army of every last able-bodied men of the Kingdom of Shu for vengeance. “Our brother would not die when he still has the Oath of the Peach Orchard to fulfill.”
“Of course he’s not dead,” Sun Quan said as he lay on his death bed. “Guan Yu had no fear of death, and my only regret is that I will not have his company where I am going. I had hoped we might one day be friends.”
“Of course he’s not dead,” said Cao Cao to Liu Chan, Liu Bei’s son, as he gave the order to break the Seal of the Kingdom of Shu, now that he had finally united the Three Kingdoms. “I have never thought much of your father or you, but if Guan Yu was willing to serve your father, then he must have seen something that I couldn’t. As Lord Guan Yu may still be watching over you, I would show him that I am not without virtue. I will not harm you and you will always live in my house as an honored guest.”
“Of course he’s not dead,” said the mother to the child. “Lord Guan Yu was the greatest man the Middle Kingdom has ever produced. If you have even one hundredth of his strength and courage, I will never need to fear thieves and bandits.”
“Let us pray to Lord Guan Yu,” said the scholar to his students. “He was a poet and a warrior, and he lived each day as a test of his honor.”
“Let us pray to Lord Guan Yu,” said the Emperor as he dedicated the Temple to the God of War. “May he grant us victory over the barbarians.”
“Let us pray to Lord Guan Yu,” said the player with the black stones. “All of us wei qi players wish we could play a game against him. If we play well today, perhaps he will deign to come and give us lessons.”
“Let us pray to Lord Guan Yu,” said the merchants as they prepared to set out across the ocean for the fabled ports of Ceylon and Singapore. “He will watch over us and subdue the pirates and typhoons.”
“Let us pray to Lord Guan Yu,” said the laborers as they boarded the sailing ships headed for the Sandalwood Mountains of Hawaii and the Old Gold Mountain of California. “He will help us endure the journey, and he will break apart mountains before us. He will keep us safe until we have made our fortune, and then he will guide us home.”
By late summer, the stream that fed the Chinamen’s claim had dried to a trickle. Though Logan and his men were good at managing water, the onset of the dry season meant that it was no longer possible to mine the placer deposit effectively. They had to settle in and wait until next spring.
Though they had done well with the mining season during spring and summer, the Chinamen had by no means accumulated a large fortune. As they settled in to the life of Idaho City and waited out the rest of the year, they tried to figure out other ways to make ends meet.
Ah Yan and some of the younger men looked for work around the town and talked amongst themselves. They noticed that there were plenty of single men in town who simply refused to or couldn’t wash their own shirts, and there simply weren’t enough laundresses taking in the washing for all the men.
“But that’s women’s work! Have these men no sense of decency?” Elsie was incredulous when Jack told her the Chinamen’s plan.
“Well, what of it? Why do you seem to hate everything the Chinamen do?” Jack said, amusement and annoyance struggling in his voice.
“Thaddeus Seaver,” Elsie looked sternly at her husband. She knew better than to expect that her husband would show any proper sense of shock at the antics of these outrageous Chinamen when Thad was the one who encouraged them to become bolder and bolder everyday. But then she hit upon an argument that even Thad had to acknowledge.
“Why, think about it, Thad,” she said. “I’ve seen the way these heathen Chinamen go about their work. When they set up their laundry shops, they’ll work seven days a week, sixteen hours a day. They’ll do it since their hearts are filled with greed for gold and pumped full of sinful opium so that they never stop for a moment to think about the Glory of God, not even on Sundays. And I’ve seen the way they eat. The Chinamen are like locusts: they survive on nothing but cheap rice and vegetables when honest Christian men and women need to eat meat to keep up their strength. And they do not spend money on honest wholesome entertainment and camaraderie that keep the town’s shops and taverns afloat as our men do, but rather waste their evenings away wailing their cacophonous songs and telling their secretive stories. Finally, when night rolls around and every Christian family withdraws around the privacy of the familial hearth” — and here she paused to give Jack a meaningful stare — “the Chinamen squeeze as many bodies into as few beds as possible to save on rent.”
“Why Elsie,” Jack laughed uproariously. “I’ve heard of faint praise before, but I do believe this is the first time I’ve ever heard of faint damnation. The way you go on, I’d think you are a lover of the Chinese if I didn’t know better. You claim to be showing me their faults, but all you’ve said simply show that they are industrious, frugal, clever, happy with each other’s company, and willing to bear hardships. If this is the worst you can say about the Chinamen, then it is all but certain that the Civilization of Confucius is going to triumph over the Civilization of Christ.”
“You are not thinking,” Elsie said coldly. “What do you think the inevitable result of the cheap labor of these Chinamen will be? These Chinamen are going to undercharge Mrs. O’Scannlain and Mrs. Day and all the other widows. These women have a hard enough time as it is, working day and night, their fingers all red and raw from the constant washing, and they barely make enough to feed themselves and their children. Naturally the weak men of this town, uncertain of their Christian duty, will give their work to the Chinamen, who’ll charge them less than the honest widows who must keep God and their virtue close to their hearts. What will you have these widows do when their work has been stolen from them by the Chinamen? Will you have them throwing themselves at the mercy of Madam Isabelle and her house of sin?”
For once, Jack Seaver didn’t know what to say in reply to his wife.
“How about carpentry? Furniture finishing? I could hire you to come and work in my store as clerks,” Jack said to Ah Yan.
“You can’t afford me,” Ah Yan said. “We charge twenty-five cents a shirt, and that means almost ten dollars a day from the bachelors alone. I’m not even counting the money from the blankets and sheets from the hotels. I’ve been told that we do a better job ironing than the women used to.” Ah Yan gave a rueful smile and flexed out his wiry right arm to look at the distended thumb at the end. “Even my thumb is getting bigger from pushing that iron all day. My wife back home will be tickled pink to hear that I’m a master of the iron now.”
To hear Ah Yan talk of his family was jarring to Jack, reminding him that Ah Yan, who looked so young to Jack’s eyes, wasn’t just some clever young man who knew how to cook and wash, but rather a husband and probably a father who was forced to learn how to do these things because his wife couldn’t be with him.
Lily had told Jack a few days earlier that the Chinamen were coming up with some new ideas that they wanted to ask his advice on. Finally, this morning, he could leave the store for a few hours to come over with Lily, who ran into the backyard to be with Logan as soon as they arrived. Jack thoughtfully bit into the steamed bun that Ah Yan had given him for breakfast; the bun burst open in his mouth, filling his tongue with the juice and flavor of sweet pork and hot and salty vegetables.
“Wait.” Jack swallowed quickly, regretting that he couldn’t enjoy the taste as long as he would have liked. “I have an idea. Before tasting your cooking, I would never have believed that cabbage and beans could taste better than beef and sausage, or that bitterness that lingered could be something that you liked. But you’ve been able to prove me wrong. Why not show the other people in Idaho City? You and the others could open up a restaurant and make a lot more money.”
Ah Yan shook his head. “Won’t work, Mr. Seaver. My friends in Old Gold Mountain tried it. Most Americans aren’t like you. They can’t stand the taste of Chinese food. It makes them sick.”
“I’ve heard of Chinese restaurants in San Francisco.”
“Those aren’t Chinese restaurants. Well, they are, but not the kind you are thinking of. They are owned by Chinese people, but all they serve is Western food: roast beef, chocolate cake, French toast. I don’t know how to make any of that stuff, not even well enough to the point where I’d want to eat it myself.”
“But I’m telling you, you are good, really good.” Jack looked around and lowered his voice. “You cook a lot better than Elsie, and I know she cooks as well as most of the wives out here. If you open your restaurant and I pass the word to the men discreetly, you’ll have filled tables every night.”
“Mr. Seaver, you are too generous with your praise. I know that in the eyes of a husband, there’s no way for anyone’s cooking to best his wife’s.” He paused for a moment, as if his thoughts were momentarily somewhere far away. “Besides, we are not chefs. All the stuff I make is just home style cooking, the kind of thing the real chefs in Canton would not even feed to their dogs. There can’t be a Chinese restaurant in America until there are enough Chinese people in America and rich enough to want to eat at one.”
“That just means more Chinese will have to become Americans,” said Jack.
“Or lots more Americans will have to learn to be more Chinese,” said Ah Yan.
A few of the other Chinamen had gathered around to listen to the conversation. One of them offered a comment in Chinese at this point, and the group exploded in laughter. Tears came out of Ah Yan’s eyes.
“What did he say?” Although Jack was making an earnest effort to learn the language by singing drinking songs with Logan, he was nowhere good enough to follow a conversation yet, though Lily seemed to have picked it up much more easily and now often conversed with Logan half in Chinese and half in English.
Ah Yan wiped his eyes. “San Long said that we should name the restaurant ‘Dog Won’t Eat Here and You Won’t Eat Dog.’”
“I don’t get it.”
“There’s this really famous kind of steamed buns in China that’s called ‘Dog Won’t Eat Here,’ and you know how you Americans have this thing about eating dog meat” — Ah Yan gave up when he saw the expression on Jack’s face. “Never mind. This humor is too Chinese for you.”
San Long now picked up some twigs from the ground and mimed doing something with them and looked to Jack as if he were drunkenly throwing darts at some target a few inches in front of this face. Ah Yan and the others laughed even harder.
“He’s saying that a Chinese restaurant will never work in America since every customer will have to learn to use chopsticks,” Ah Yan explained to Jack.
“Yeah, yeah, very funny. Fine, no restaurant for you. And while we are on the subject of dogs and compliments that don’t sound like compliments, you did manage to make me curious about eating a dog for the first time in my life that evening.”
“Dad is worried about the laundresses who are now out of work,” Lily told Logan.
They were walking down the middle of Chicory Lane together, side by side. Logan had a bamboo pole over his shoulder. At each end of the pole hung giant woven baskets filled with cucumbers, green onions, carrots, squash, tomatoes, string beans, and sugar beets.
“He’s not sure what to do. He says Ah Yan and the others are charging too little for the washing and the ironing, but if they don’t charge less, the white men won’t give them any work.”
“Two dollars for a dozen cucumbers, a dollar for a dozen green onions!” Logan called out in his booming voice, which reverberated in all directions until the echoes disappeared into the alleyways between the tightly packed houses. “Fresh carrots, beans, and beets! Come and have a look for yourself. Girls, fresh vegetables make your skin soft and smooth. Boys, fresh vegetables get rid of sailor’s lips!”
He called out his prices and offerings in a steady, rolling chant, not unlike the way he led the others in their work songs.
Doors opened on all sides of them. The curious wives and bachelors came out into the street to see what Logan was singing about.
“You should bring some of this up to Owyhee Creek, where Davey’s crew is still working their claim on account of that spring the Indians helped them find,” said one of the men. “I know they haven’t had any greens for a week now, and they’d pay you five dollars for a dozen of those cucumbers.”
“Thanks for the tip.”
“Where did you get the produce?” one of the wives wanted to know. “It looks a lot fresher than what you find in Seaver’s store, though I know he ships them in quick as he can.”
“It’s all grown right in our backyard, ma’am. Plucked those carrots from the ground myself this morning not even a hour ago.”
“In your backyard? How do you manage it? I can’t even get a bit of sage and rosemary to grow properly.”
“Well,” said Logan, “I started in China as a dirt-poor farmer. I guess I just have the knack for getting food to come out of dirt, one way or another.”
“Sure wish I had these fresh green onions and cucumbers to eat back in the spring instead of having to chew on potatoes soaked in vinegar every other day,” one of the older miners said, handling the giant cucumbers and tomatoes from Logan’s basket lovingly. “You are right that scurvy is a terrible thing, and fresh vegetables are the only thing for it. Too bad none of the young men believe it till it’s too late. I’ll have a dozen of these.”
“I don’t think we are going to let you leave today without emptying out your baskets,” another one of the younger wives said, to the sound of approval of the other women. “Did you save any for yourself and your friends?”
“Don’t worry about us,” Logan said. “I think we can get five or six harvests out of the garden this year. Buy as much as you want. I’ll be back again in a few weeks.”
Soon Logan sold all the vegetables he had with him. He counted out twenty dollars and handed the bills to Lily. “Give ten dollars to Mrs. O’Scannlain; I know she doesn’t have much saved up and she’s got two growing boys to feed. Ask your father who should have the rest.”
The old man and the young girl turned around and began the long, leisurely walk back to the Chinaman’s house on the other side of the town. In the empty street bathed in the bright, shimmering sunlight of high noon, the loping gait of the tall Chinaman and the baskets swinging lazily at the end of the bamboo pole over his shoulder made him look like some graceful water strider gliding across the still surface of a sunlit pond.
And in a moment, the man and the girl disappeared around the street corner and all was still again in the street.
It had been snowing nonstop for a whole week. The whole of Idaho City seemed asleep in the middle of February, resigned to wait for the spring that was still months away.
Well, almost the whole of Idaho City. The Chinamen were busy preparing for Chinese New Year.
For the whole week the Chinamen talked about nothing except the coming New Year celebration. Strings of bright red firecrackers shipped from San Francisco were unpacked and laid out on shelves so that they would be kept dry. A few of the more nimble-fingered were set to the task of folding and cutting the paper animals that would be offered along with bundles of incense to the ancestors. Everyone worked to wrap pieces of candy and dried lotus seeds in red paper to be handed out to the children as sweet beginnings to a new year. Two days before New Year’s Eve, Ah Yan directed all the men in the preparation of the thousands of dumplings that would be consumed on New Year’s Day. The living room was turned into an assembly line for a dumpling factory, with some men rolling out the dough at one end, others preparing the stuffing of diced pork and shrimp and chopped vegetables mixed with sesame oil, and the rest wrapping scoops of stuffing into dumplings shaped like closed clams. The finished dumplings were then packed into buckets covered with dried sheets of lotus leaves and left outside, frozen in the ice, until they could be cooked in boiling water on New Year’s Eve.
Lily helped out wherever she could. She sorted the strings of firecrackers by size until her fingers smelled of gunpowder. She learned to cut pieces of colorful paper into the shapes of chickens and goats and sheep so that they could be burned in the presence of the gods and the ancestors and allow them to share in the feast of the people.
“Will Lord Guan Yu be there to appreciate the paper sheep?” Lily asked Logan.
Logan looked amused for a moment before his face, made even ruddier than usual because of the cold, turned serious. “I’m sure he will be there.”
In the end, Lily proved most valuable as the final step in the dumpling assembly line. She was an expert at sculpting the edges of the dumplings with a fork to create the wavy scallop shell pattern that signified the unbroken line of prosperity.
“You are really good at that,” Logan said. “If you didn’t have red hair and green eyes, I’d think you were a Chinese girl.”
“It’s just like shaping a pie crust,” Lily said. “Mom taught me.”
“You’ll have to show me how to make a proper pie crust after New Year’s,” Ah Yan said. “I’ve always wanted to learn that American trick.”
The activity of the Chinamen stirred up all kinds of excitement in the rest of Idaho City.
“Everybody gets a red packet filled with money and sweets,” the children whispered to each other. “All you have to do is to show up at their door and wish them to come into their fortune in the new year.”
“Jack Seaver has been raving about the cooking of the Chinamen for months now,” the women said to each other in the shops and streets. “Here’s our only chance to try it out. They say the Chinamen will serve anyone who comes to their door with pork dumplings that combine all the flavors in the world.”
“Are you going to be at the Chinamen’s when they celebrate their New Year?” the men asked each other. “They say that the heathens will put on a parade to honor their ancestors, with lots of loud music and colorful costumes. At the end, they’ll even serve up a feast such as never before seen in all of Boise Basin.”
“What was Logan like back in China? Does he have a large family there?” Lily asked Ah Yan as she helped the young man carry large jars of sweet bamboo shoots into the house. She was tired from all the work she had done that day and couldn’t wait until the feast tomorrow. Truth be told, she felt a little guilty. She was never this eager when her own mother asked her to help around the house. She resolved to do better after tomorrow.
“Don’t know,” Ah Yan said. “Logan wasn’t from our village. He wasn’t even a Southerner. He just showed up on the docks on the day we were supposed to ship out for San Francisco.”
“So he was a stranger even in his own land.”
“Yup. You should ask him to tell you the story of our trip here.”
“It is hardly the happy and the powerful who go into exile.”
– Alexis de Tocqueville
On a good day the captain allowed a small number of his cargo to come up on deck from steerage for some air. The rest of the time each man made do with a six-foot bunk that was narrower than a coffin. In the complete darkness of the locked hold they tried to sleep away the hours, their dreams mixtures of unfounded hopes and cryptic dangers. Their constant companion was the smell of sixty men and their vomit and excrement and their food and unwashed bodies crammed into a space meant for bales of cotton and drums of rum. That, and the constant motion of the sailing ship, as it made the six-week journey across the Pacific Ocean.
They asked for water. Sometimes that request was even granted. Other times they waited for it to rain and listened for leaks into the hold. They learned very quickly to cut salted fish out of their diet. It made them thirsty.
To keep the darkness from making them crazy, they told each other stories that they all knew by heart.
They took turns to recite the story of Lord Guan Yu, the God of War, and how he once made it through six forts and slew five of Treacherous Cao Cao’s generals with the help of only Red Hare, his war steed, and Green Dragon Moon, his trusty sword.
“Lord Guan Yu would laugh at us as mere children if he heard us complaining about a little thirst and hunger and taking a trip in a boat,” said the Chinaman whom the others called Lao Guan. He was so tall that he had to sleep with his knees curled up to his chest to fit into his bunk. “What are we afraid of? We are not going there to fight a war but to build a railroad. America is not a land of wolves and tigers. It is a land of men. Men who must work and eat, just as we do.”
The others laughed in the darkness. They imagined the red face of Lord Guan Yu, fearless in any battle and full of witty stratagems to get himself out of any trap. What was a little hunger and thirst and darkness when Lord Guan Yu faced down dangers ten thousand times worse?
They sucked and nursed on the turnips and cabbages they had carried with them from the fields of their villages. The men held them up to their noses and inhaled deeply the smell of the soil that still clung to the roots. It would be the last time they would smell home for years.
Some of the men became sick and coughed all night, and the noise kept everyone awake for hours. Their foreheads felt like irons left for too long on the stove. The men had no medicine with them, no cubes of ice sugar or slices of goose pear. All they could do was to wait in the darkness silently.
“Let us sing the songs that our mothers sang to us as children,” said Lao Guan. He was so tall he had to stoop as he felt his way around the dark hold, clasping the hand of each comrade, sick and healthy alike. “Since our families are not with us, we should do as Lord Guan Yu did with Lord Liu Bei and Lord Zhang Fei in the Peach Orchard. We must become as brothers to each other.”
The men sang the nonsense songs of their childhood in the stifling air of the hold, and their voices washed over the bodies of the sick men like a cool breeze, lulling them to sleep.
In the morning the coughing did not resume. A few of the men were found in their coffin-wide bunks, their unmoving legs curled close to their still bodies like sleeping babies.
“Throw them overboard,” said the Captain. “The rest of you will now have to pay back the price of their tickets.”
Lao Guan’s face was redder than the fever-flushed faces of the sick. He stooped next to the bodies and cut off locks of hair from each of them, carefully sealing each lock into an envelope. “I’ll bring these back to their ancestral villages so that their spirits will not wander the oceans without being able to return home.”
Wrapped up in dirty sheets, the bodies were cast over the side of the ship.
At last they made it to San Francisco, the Old Gold Mountain. Although sixty men boarded the ship, only fifty walked down the planks onto the quays. The men squinted in the bright sun light at the rows of small houses running up and down the steep, rolling hills. The streets, they found, were not paved with gold, and some of the white men on the quays looked as hungry and dirty as they felt.
They were taken by a Chinaman who was dressed like the white men, to a dank basement in Chinatown. He didn’t have a queue, and his hair was parted and slicked down with oil whose strange smell made the other Chinamen sneeze.
“Here are your employment contracts,” the white Chinaman said. He gave them pieces of paper filled with characters smaller than flies’ heads to sign.
“According to this,” said Lao Guan, “we still owe you interest for the price of the passage from China. But the families of these men have already sold everything they could in order to raise money to buy the tickets that got us here.”
“If you don’t like it,” said the white Chinaman, picking between his teeth with the long, manicured nail of his right pinkie, “you can try to find a way to go back on your own. What can I say? Shipping Chinamen is expensive.”
“But it would take us three years of work to pay back the amount you say we owe you here, even longer since you have now made us responsible for the debts of the men who died on the sea.”
“Then you should have taken care that they didn’t get sick.” The white Chinaman checked his pocket watch. “Hurry up and sign the contracts. I don’t have all day.”
The next day they were packed into wagons and taken inland. The camp in the mountains where they were finally dropped off was a city of tents. On one side of the camp the railroad stretched into the distance as far as they could see. On the other side was a mountain over which the Chinamen with spades and pickaxes swarmed like ants.
Night fell, and the Chinamen at the camp welcomed the new arrivals with a feast by the camp fires.
“Eat, eat,” they told the new arrivals. “Eat as much as you like.” The Chinamen had trouble deciding which was sweeter: the food that went into their bellies, or the sound of those words in their ears.
They passed around bottles of a liquor that the old timers said was called “whiskey.” It was strong and there was enough for everyone to get drunk. When they ran out of drink the old timers asked the new group whether they wanted to visit the large tent at the edge of the camp with them. A red silk scarf and a pair of women’s shoes dangled from a pole outside the tent.
“You lucky bastards,” grumbled one of the older man, whose name was San Long. “I gave all my money to Annie on Monday. I’ll have to wait another week.”
“She’ll run a tab for you,” said one of the others. “Though you might have to be with Sally instead of her tonight.”
San Long cracked a huge smile and got up to join his companions.
“This must be heaven,” said Ah Yan, who was barely more than a boy. “Look how free they are with money! They must be making so much that they paid off their debt early and can save up a fortune for their families while having all this fun.”
Lao Guan shook his head and stroked his beard. He sat next to the dying embers of the fire and smoked his pipe, staring at the big tent with the silk scarf and the pair of women’s shoes. The light in that tent stayed lit until late into the night.
The work was hard. They had to carve a path through the mountain in front of them for the railroad. The mountain yielded to their pickaxes and chisels reluctantly, and only after repeated hammering that made the men’s shoulders and arms sore down to the bones. There was so much mountain to move that it was like trying to gouge through the steel doors of the Emperor’s palace with wooden spoons. All the while, the white foremen screamed at the Chinamen to move faster and set upon anyone who tried to sit down for a minute with whips and fists.
They were making so little progress day after day that the men were tired each morning before they had even begun their work. Their spirit sagged. One by one they laid down their tools. The mountain had defeated them. The white foremen jumped around, whipping at the Chinamen to get them to go back to work, but the Chinamen simply ducked away.
Lao Guan jumped onto a rock on the side of the mountain so that he was higher than everyone. “Tu-ne-mah,” he shouted, and spit at the mountain. “Tu-ne-mah!” He look at the white foremen and smiled at them.
The mountain pass was filled with the laughter of Chinamen. One by one they took up the chant. “Tu-ne-mah! Tu-ne-mah!” They smiled at the white foremen as they sang, and gestured at them. The white foremen, not sure what was wanted, joined in the chanting. This seemed to make the Chinamen even happier. They picked up their tools and went back to hacking at the mountain with a fury and vengeance directed by the rhythm of their chant. They made more progress in that afternoon than they had all week.
“Goddamn these monkeys,” said the site overseer. “But they certainly can work when they want to. What is that song they are singing?”
“Who knows?” The foremen shook their heads. “We can’t ever make heads or tails of their pidgin. It sounds like a work song.”
“Tell them that we’ll name this pass Tunemah,” said the overseer. “Maybe these monkeys will work even harder when they know that their song will be forever remembered every time a train passes this place.”
The Chinamen continued their chant even after they were done with their work for the day. “Tu-ne-mah!” They shouted at the white foremen, their smiles as wide as they’d ever smiled. “Fuck your mother!”
At the end of the week the Chinamen were paid.
“This is not what I was promised,” said Lao Guan to the clerk. “This is not even as much as half of what my wages should be.”
“You are deducted for the food you eat and for your space in the tents. I’d show you the math if you can could that high.” The clerk gestured for Lao Guan to move away from the table. “Next!”
“Have they always done this?” Lao Guan asked San Long.
“Oh yeah. It’s always been that way. The amount they charge for food and sleep have already gone up three times this year.”
“But this means you’ll never be able to pay back your debt and save up a fortune to take home with you.”
“What else can you do?” San Long shrugged. “There’s no place to buy food within fifty miles of here. We’ll never be able to pay back the debt we owe them anyway, since they just raise the interest whenever it seems like someone is about to pay it all back. All we can do is to take the money that we do get and drink and gamble and spend it all on Annie and the other girls. When you are drunk and asleep you won’t be thinking about it.”
“They are playing a trick on us then,” said Lao Guan. “This is all a trap.”
“Hey,” said San Long, “it’s too late to cry about that now. This is what you get for believing those stories told about the Old Gold Mountain. Serves us right.”
Lao Guan went around and asked men to come and join him. He had a plan. They would run away into the mountains and go into hiding, and then make their way back to San Francisco.
“We’ll need to learn English and understand the ways of this land if we want to make our fortune. Staying here will only make us into slaves with nothing to call our own excepting mounting debts in the white men’s books.” Lao Guan looked at each man in the eyes, and he was so tall and imposing that the other men avoided looking back.
“But we’ll be breaking our contract and leaving our debts unpaid,” said Ah Yan. “We will be burdening our families and ancestors with shame. It is not Chinese to break one’s word.”
“We’ve already paid back the debt we owe these people twenty times and more. Why should we be faithful when they have not been honest with us? This is a land of trickery, and we must learn to become as tricky as the Americans.”
The men were still not convinced. Lao Guan decided to tell them the story of of Jie You, the Han Princess whose name meant “Dissolver of Sorrows.”
She was given away in marriage by the Martial Emperor to a barbarian king out in the Western Steppes, a thousand li from China, so that the barbarians would sell the Chinese the strong war horses that the Chinese army needed to defend the Empire.
“I hear that you are homesick,” wrote the Martial Emperior, “my precious daughter, and that you cannot swallow the rough uncooked meat of the foreigners, nor fall asleep on their beds made from the hairy hides of yaks and bears. I hear that the sandstorms have scarred your skin that was once as flawless as silk, and the deadly chill of the winters have darkened your eyes that were once bright as the moon. I hear that you call for home, and cry yourself to sleep. If any of this is true, then write to me and I shall send the whole army to bring you home. I cannot bear to think that you are suffering, my child, for you are the light of my old age, the solace of my soul.”
“Father and Emperor,” wrote the Princess. “What you have heard is true. But I know my duty, and you know yours. The Empire needs horses for the defense of the frontier against the Xiong Nu raids. How can you let the unhappiness of your daughter cause you to risk the death and suffering of your people at the hands of the invading barbarian hordes? You have named me wisely, and I will dissolve my sorrow to learn the happiness of my new home. I will learn to mix the rough meat with milk, and I will learn to sleep with a night shirt. I will learn to cover my face with a veil, and I will learn to keep warm by riding with my husband. Since I am in a foreign land, I will learn the foreigners’ ways. By becoming one of the barbarians I will become truly Chinese. Though I will never return to China, I will bring glory to you.”
“How can we be less wise or less manly than a young girl, even if she was a daughter of the Martial Emperor?” said Lao Guan. “If you truly want to bring glory to your ancestors and your families, then you must first become Americans.”
“What will the gods think of this?” asked San Long. “We will become outlaws. Aren’t we struggling against our fate? Some of us are not meant to have great fortunes, but only to work and starve — we are lucky to have what we have even now.”
“Wasn’t Lord Guan Yu once an outlaw? Didn’t he teach us that the gods only smile upon those who take fate into their own hands? Why should we settle for having nothing for the rest of our lives when we know that we have enough strength in our arms to blast a path through mountains and enough wit in our heads to survive an ocean with only our stories and laughter?”
“But how do you know we’ll find anything better if we run away?” asked Ay Yan. “What if we are caught? What if we are set upon by bandits? What if we find only more suffering and danger in the darkness out there, beyond the firelight of this camp?”
“I don’t know what will happen to us out there,” Lao Guan said. “All life is an experiment. But at the end of our lives we’d know that no man could do with our lives as he pleased except ourselves, and our triumphs and mistakes alike were our own.”
He stretched out his arms and described the circle of the horizon around them. Long clouds piled low in the sky to the west. “Though the land here does not smell of home, the sky here is wider and higher than I have ever known. Every day I learn names for things I did not know existed and perform feats that I did not know that I could do. Why should we fear to rise as high as we can and make new names for ourselves?”
In the dim firelight Lao Guan looked to the others to be as tall as a tree, and his long, slim eyes glinted like jewels set in his flame-colored face. The hearts of the Chinamen were suddenly filled with resolve and a yearning for something that they did not yet know the name for.
“You feel it?” asked Lao Guan. “You feel that lift in your heart? That lightness in your head? That is the taste of whiskey, the essence of America. We have been wrong to be drunk and asleep. We should be drunk and fighting.”
“To exchange the pure and tranquil pleasures that the native country offers even to the poor for the sterile enjoyments that well-being provides under a foreign sky; to flee the paternal hearth and the fields where one’s ancestors rest; to abandon the living and the dead to run after fortune — there is nothing that merits more praise in their eyes.”
– Alexis de Toqueville
The Idaho City Brass Band played “Finnegan’s Wake” at the insistence of Logan.
“There’s not enough noise,” he told them. “In China we’d have all the children of the village setting off firecrackers and fireworks for the whole day to chase off the greedy evil spirits. Here we have only enough firecrackers to last a few hours. We’ll need all the help you boys can give us to scare the evil sprits off.”
The men of the brass band, their bellies now full of sweet sticky rice buns filled with bean paste and hot and spicy dumplings, set to their appointed task with gusto. They had not played with as much spirit even for Independence Day.
All the rumors about the Chinese New Year celebration were true. The children’s pockets were filled sweets and jangling coins, and the men and women were laughing as they enjoyed the feast that had been laid out before them. They had to shout to make each other heard amidst the unending explosions of the firecrackers and the music blasting from the brass band.
Jack found Elsie among the other women in the vegetable garden. An open bonfire had been lit there so that the guests would be warm as they mingled and ate.
“I’m surprised at you,” Jack said to her. “I’d swear that I saw you take three servings of the dumplings. I thought you said you’d never touch the food of the Chinamen.”
“Thaddeus Seaver,” Elsie said severely. “I don’t know where you get such strange notions. It’s positively unchristian to behave as you suggest when your neighbors have opened up their houses to you and invited you to break bread with them in their feast. If I didn’t know better, I’d think you were the heathen here.”
“That’s my girl,” said Jack. “Though isn’t it time for you to start calling me Jack? Everyone else does now.”
“I’ll think about it after I’ve tried a piece of that sweet ginger,” Elsie said. She laughed, and Jack realized how much he missed hearing that sound since they moved here to Idaho City. “Did you know that the first boy I liked was named Jack?”
The other women laughed, and Jack laughed along with them.
Abruptly the brass band stopped playing. One by one the men stopped talking and turned to the door of the house. There, in the door, stood Sheriff Gaskins, who was looking apologetic and a little ashamed.
“Sorry, folks,” he said. “This isn’t my idea.”
He saw Ah Yan in the corner and waved to him. “Don’t think I won’t recognize you next time I come for your taxes.”
“Time enough for that later, Sheriff. This is a day of feasting and joy.”
“You might want to wait on that. I’m here on official business.”
Logan walked into the room, and the crowd parted before him. He was face to face with the Sheriff before another man darted into view behind the Sheriff, and just as quickly, skulked out of sight.
“Obee has accused you with murder,” said the Sheriff. “And I’m here to arrest you.”
As a child growing up in Mock Turtle, Pennsylvania, the last thing Emmett Hayworth thought he would end up doing one day was to be a judge out in the middle of the Rocky Mountains.
Emmett was a big man, the same as his father, a banker who had retired from Philadelphia to live quietly out in the country. Before he was twenty, Emmett’s greatest claim to fame was that he had won the all-county pie eating contest three years in a row. It was assumed that Emmett would never amount to much, since he would have enough money to not have to work very hard, and not enough money to really get into much mischief. Everyone liked him, for he was always willing to buy you a drink if you called him Sir.
And then came the War, and back then everyone still thought the Rebels would fold like a house of cards in three months. Emmett said to himself, “Why the heck not? This will probably be my only chance in life to see New Orleans.” With his father’s money he raised a regiment, and overnight he was Colonel Emmett Hayworth of the Union Army.
He took surprisingly well to being a soldier, and while his body slimmed down with riding and getting less than enough to eat, his good cheer never flagged. Somehow his regiment managed to stay out of the meat grinders that were the great battles that made newspaper headlines, and they lost fewer men than most. The men were grateful for Emmett’s luck. “Oh, if I were a woman as I am a man,” they sang, “Colonel Hayworth is the man I’d marry. His hands are steady, and his words are always merry. He’ll bring us to New Orleans.” Emmett laughed when he heard the song.
They did get to New Orleans eventually, but by then it wasn’t much of a party town any more. The War was over, and Emmett had scraped through with no bullet holes in him and no medals. “That’s not so bad,” he said to himself. “I can live with that.”
But then he got the order that President Lincoln wanted to see him, in D.C.
Emmett did not remember much about the meeting, save that Lincoln was a lot taller than he had imagined. They shook hands, and Lincoln began to explain to him about the situation in Idaho Territory.
“The Confederate Democratic refugees from Missouri are filling up the mines of Idaho. I’ll need men like you there, men who have proven their bravery, integrity, and dedication to the cause.”
The only thing Emmett could think of was that they had the wrong man.
The trouble, as it turned out, had entirely been the fault of that song his men made up as a joke. It grew to be popular with the other regiments, and spread its way wherever the Union marched. New verses were added as it passed from man to man, and the soldiers, having no idea who Emmett Hayworth was, attributed great acts of courage and sacrifice to him. Colonel Hayworth became famous, almost as famous as John Brown.
Be that as it may, Emmett Hayworth packed up everything he owned and left for Boise, and only when he arrived did he find out that the Territorial Governor had just appointed him to be a district judge for the Territory of Idaho.
Jack Seaver looked across the desk at the plump form of The Honorable Emmett Hayworth. The Judge was still working on a plate of fried chicken that served as his lunch. Life out here in the booming territory of Idaho had been good to him, and he showed it in his barrel-like chest, his sack-like belly, his glistening forehead dripping with sweat from the effort of licking strips of juicy meat from the chicken bones.
The man was supposed to be some kind of war hero. Jack Seaver knew the type: a man accustomed to living off the money of his father who probably bought himself a cushy commission managing the supply lines and then puffed up his every accomplishment in the name of Union and Glory until he weaseled his way to a sinecure here while man like Jack Seaver dodged bullets in the mud and froze their toes off in winter. Jack clenched his teeth. This was neither the time nor the place to show his contempt. He did reflect upon the irony that despite what he had told Elsie’s father back East, he now wished that he had studied to be a lawyer.
“What is this I hear about chicken blood?” Emmett asked.
“That’s outrageous,” said Obee. “I won’t do it. Why are you even letting the Chinaman talk? This is not the way it works in California.”
“You are going to have to,” Judge Hayworth said to him. He hadn’t been very enamored of the idea of the Chinamen’s ceremony at first, but that Jack Seaver had been very persuasive. If he ever decided to become a lawyer, he’d eat the other guys in town for lunch. “Maybe in California they’ll just take a white man’s word for it since the Chinamen can’t testify in court, but this isn’t California. The accused has the right to a fair trial, and since he has agreed to swear with his hand on the Bible as is our custom, it’s only fair that you agree to swear the way that his people have always sworn in witnesses.”
“That may be. But if you won’t do it, I’ll have to direct the jury to acquit.”
Obee swore under his breath.
“Fine,” he said. He stared at Logan, who was across the courthouse from him. Obee’s eyes were so filled with hate that he looked even more like a rat than usual.
Ah Yan was called for, and he came up to the witness box. In his left hand was a struggling hen dangling by her legs while in his right hand was a small bowl.
He set the bowl down in front of Obee. Taking a knife from his belt, he slit the hen’s throat efficiently. The blood of the hen dripped into the bowl until the hen stopped kicking in Ah Yan’s hands.
“Dip your hand into the blood and make sure it covers your whole hand,” Ah Yan said. Obee reluctantly did as he was told. His hand shook so much that the bowl clattered against the wooden surface on which it was set.
“Now you have to clasp Logan’s hand and look into his eyes, and swear that you’ll tell the truth.”
Logan was escorted over to the witness box by Sheriff Gaskins. Since his legs and arms were shackled together, this took some time.
Logan looked down at Obee, contempt was written in every wrinkle in his blood-red face. He dipped both of his shackled hands into the bowl of chicken blood, soaking them thoroughly. Lifting his hands out of the bowl, he shook off the excess blood and stretched the open palm of his right hand towards Obee. The color of his hands now matched his face.
“Well,” Judge Hayworth said impatiently. “Get on with it. Shake the man’s hand.”
“Your honor,” Obee turned towards him. “This is a trick. He’s going to crush my hand if I give it to him.”
Laughter shook the courtroom.
“No, he won’t,” said the Judge, trying to control his smirk. “If he does I’ll personally thrash him.”
Obee gingerly stretched his hand towards Logan’s hand. He eyes were focused on the shrinking distance between their palms as if his life depended on it. He wasn’t breathing, and his hand shook violently.
Logan stepped forward and made a grab for Obee’s hand, and he gave a low growl from his throat.
Obee screamed as if he had been stabbed with a hot poker. He stumbled back frantically, pulling his hand out of Logan’s grasp. A spreading, wet patch appeared at the crotch of his pants. A moment later the Sheriff and the Judge were hit with the unpleasant smell of excrement.
“I didn’t even get to touch him,” Logan said, holding up his hands. The pattern of chicken blood on his right palm was undisturbed with the print from Obee’s hand.
“Order, order!” Judge Hayworth banged the gavel. Then he gave up and shook his head in disbelief. “Get him out of here and cleaned up,” he said to Sheriff Gaskins, trying to keep himself from smiling. “Stop laughing. It’s, uh, unbecoming for officers of the law. And hand me that chicken, will you? No sense in letting perfectly good poultry go to waste.”
“All you have to do is to tell the truth,” Lily said to Logan, “that’s what Dad told me to do. It’s easy.”
“The law is a funny thing,” said Logan. “You’ve heard my stories.”
“It won’t be like that here. I promise.”
Earlier that day, she had told the jury what she saw on that day by the Chinamen’s camp.
Mrs. O’Scannlain, who was in the front row of the courtroom, had smiled at her as she walked up to sit in the witness box next to the judge. It had made her feel very brave.
The faces of the men in the jury box were severe and expressionless, and she had been terrified. But then she told herself that it was just like telling a story, the way Logan told her his stories. The only thing was that it was all true so she didn’t even have to make any of it up.
Afterwards, she couldn’t tell if they believed her. But Mrs. O’Scannlain and the others in the courtroom clapped after her testimony and that made her happy, even after the Judge banged his gavel several times to get the crowd to settle down.
But now was not the time to tell Logan that. “Of course they will believe you,” she said to Logan. “You have all these people who saw what happened.”
“But except for you, they are all just worthless Chinamen.”
“Why do you say that?” Lily became angry. “I’d rather be a Chinaman than someone who’d believe Obee’s lies.”
Logan laughed, but he was quickly serious again. “I’m sorry, Lily. Even men who have lived as long as I have sometimes get cynical.”
They were silent for a while, each lost in their own thoughts.
“When you are freed,” Lily broke the silence after a while. “Will you stay here instead of going back to China?”
“I’m going home.”
“Oh,” Lily said.
“Though I’d like to have my own house instead of always renting. Maybe your father will consider helping me build one?”
Lily looked at him, not understanding.
“This is home,” Logan said, smiling at her. “This is where I have finally found all the flavors of the world, all the sweetness and bitterness, all the whiskey and sorghum mead, all the excitement and agitation of a wilderness of untamed, beautiful men and women, all the peace and solitude of a barely settled land — in a word, the exhilarating lift to the spirit that is the taste of America.”
Lily wanted to shout for joy, but she didn’t want to get her hopes up, not just yet. Logan had yet to tell his story to the jury tomorrow.
But meanwhile, there was a still a night of storytelling ahead.
“Will you tell me another story?” Lily asked.
“Sure, but I think from now on I won’t tell you any more stories about my life as a Chinaman. I’ll tell you the story of how I became an American.”
When the band of weary and gaunt Chinamen showed up in Idaho City with their funny bamboo carrying poles over their shoulders…
The Chinese made up a large percentage of the population of Idaho Territory in the late 1800s.1 They formed a vibrant community of miners, cooks, laundry operators and gardeners that integrated well with the white communities of the mining towns. Almost all of the Chinese were men seeking to make their fortune in America.2
By the time many of them decided to settle in America and become Americans, anti-Chinese sentiment had swept the western half of the United States. Beginning with the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, a series of national laws, state laws, and court decisions forbade these men from bringing their wives into America from China and stemmed the flow of any more Chinese, men or women, from entering America. Intermarriage between whites and Chinese was not permitted by law. As a result, the bachelor communities of Chinese in the Idaho mining towns gradually dwindled until all the Chinese had died before the repeal of the Exclusion Acts during World War II.
To this day, some of the mining towns of Idaho still celebrate Chinese New Year in memory of the presence of the Chinese among them.
1The Chinese were 28.5% of the population of Idaho in 1870.
2For more on the history of the Chinese in gold-rush Idaho, see Zhu, Liping. A Chinaman’s Chance: The Chinese on the Rocky Mountain Mining Frontier. Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 1997.
Copyright 2012 Ken Liu