An Extract

The next morning, the SS City of Peking steamship eased out of its Hong Kong dock at Central. A sturdy workhorse, it was built in 1874. She and her sister ship, the City of Tokio, were the largest vessels ever built in the United States. Shu Wei and Shu Lan-lan leaned over its starboard rails as squawking gulls traced intersecting arcs in the air at the stern. They were entranced with the enormity of the vessel and its ability to deftly maneuver among the many craft that seemed to crawl like fleets of dragonflies scurrying across the water, sails like gauzy wings.
   Shu Wei’s mind had cleared somewhat from the previous evening although tiny spasms now ran through his taut neck muscles. The ship was now on a westward tack, passing by the Hong Kong-Canton-and-Macau Ferry Pier. Hordes of people milled about the landing: British men in their white jackets, boaters and pith helmets; bare-chested dock workers with coned hats; women in their late-fall finery flaunting their artful Chinese umbrellas; and the locals peering down on the scene from nearby deep-set balconies.
   As they moved away from shore, the hills became a dominant wooded backdrop with a long string of buildings, their arched colonnades resembling unending cells of honeycombs. Now heading past Victoria Peak and the Mid-Levels, they turned to the south, and the two felt the first stiff sea breeze hitting their faces. It felt good. It was restorative. Their despondency over their travails had consumed them. But this feeling was finally being tempered by the promise of new beginnings.
   “I am going down to our quarters to organize my things,” said Shu Lan-lan. “Are you coming?”
   “I will be down in a few minutes. I need to feel the breezes for now.”
   Shu Lan-lan splayed her fingers on her brother’s back and worked them in circles. She could feel strands of his muscles, like bundles of reeds from the harvest.
   “The length of your hair would make a fine loon’s nest——not sure about a queue,” said Shu Lan-lan. She pulled on the inky strands and wove them, twisting and turning, into the approximation of a short braid. “Maybe more luck at the end of our trip.” She drifted away toward the staircase to steerage.
   Settling in on the edge of her cot in their sparse quarters she glanced at her sleeve and saw that a thread had unravelled at the cuff. She recalled the time she’d made the muslin blouse, her favorite chèn shān. She helped cut a large section of fabric, pins as guides, from one of the several bolts of cloth that Auntie kept in her sewing nook. Shu Lan-lan loved to explore Auntie’s collection of pins, pin cushions, ribbons, cords, thimbles, and all manner of small tools and accessories. Her dexterity grew as she practiced on her own patterns made of rice paper, cutting and basting scraps together in rough stitches for fit, binding, gathering, and finishing. Just two weeks ago Auntie had said she had become a móshu shī, a magician with the thread. Scraps became owl puppets and crocheted hats with ear flaps for the cold months in Sanhou.
   Memories slid by like leaves on a frozen lake. The one that settled was that final visit to the mulberry tree. Shu Lan-lan felt an icy chill creep across her skin even though it was warm and musty in the overcrowded steerage cabin. A stinging tug of joylessness grabbed at her stomach. She wondered where all this would end. Her father was very sick and her brother was vague in his talk, even distant. She was struggling to find meaning now in the sayings of their beloved Buddhist scholar in the village: ‘Hold fast to every trial and hardship for those are the very things that shape the future self. Inner strength and courage are born of these.‘I must remember to keep these words close to my heart. She slumped to the floor on her knees, elbows resting on the cot, hands clasped together in prayer.
   Still standing at the upper deck rails, Shu Wei felt the moist air fill his lungs. He watched a cormorant dip and glide across the sea’s frothy surface, beak occasionally slicing through the surface to find a suitable dinner. Being in the habit of parsing many things he encountered, he wondered, where have you come from? Have you strayed too far from a safe haven? he asked the bird. Maybe you have found cozy lodgings somewhere on this ship. I would pay any sum to trade my life for yours right now.
   The sudden firm grip pinched his forearm. Before even looking around he knew. It was Huǒlóng.
   “Enjoying the trip so far?” he sneered. His wardrobe had been subdued for greater anonymity. He now wore a maroon cape, hitched at the top with a jeweled clasp. A more modest dragon insignia was now appliquéd to a muffler that rode high on his neck. Like the mythical nine-tailed fox, the man’s eyes were narrow and penetrating. A raised scar ran from the edge of his mouth to his left ear.
   Shu Wei was incapable of speech or reaction.
   “I know, you thought your little nightmare was over,” the evil man continued. “Well, if you do as I say everything will work out just fine.” Shu Wei felt a sharp jab in his side. When he looked down Huǒlóng had a short knife, My own knife! How did he get it?
   “I can see you’re finding it interesting that I have one of your knives. When I approached just now you were lost in thought. A bit of advice: Don’t hide your prized possessions in your pants pocket.”
   Shu Wei’s thoughts came in a barrage of notions careening about like dice. No time to sort this all out. I can’t run, he has a grip on me. Can’t yell, it may be the worst thing to do.
   “You and I will get to know each other quite well from here on out. Our little show in the town square was just the beginning. Don’t try to do anything clever. I will never be far away. And, one more thing ... do not say anything about our little get-together here to your family or anyone else. If you do, you will find yourself getting all tied up and awfully wet. Let me remind you that I spared you only because I have big things in mind for you.”
   Huǒlóng ambled off, a remnant of the day’s sun glinting off the angular pin holding his layered headpiece. A long braided queue hung down his back to his waist, its ribbon dancing in syncopation with his crooked walk. Shu Wei rubbed his arm where Huǒlóng had held him. He watched as the man turned and winked, his lips curled into a smirk. His back muscles, newly constricted, brought pain to his shoulders. What does he mean by “big things”?