Love Is a Souvenir
The Opium Den
The first time my employer took me to an opium den on Cholon, the old Chinatown in Saigon, he rode in one pedicab and I in the other, following him, carrying his trinkets in a round wicker basket—his pipe, a teapot, two tiny handleless cups, and sugary confections wrapped inside two layers of brown paper.
The door opened into a narrow, dimly lit hall by the red glow of the lamps. A sweet caramel odor, warm and intoxicating. I stared into the murkiness. Small peanut-oil lamps flickered in their crystal globes, illuminating half-naked bodies that leaned on cushions on the mats. My employer stepped carefully between the mats, saying not a word, and I kept close to him as we picked our way past the burning lamps that sent spirals to the ceiling.
At the end of the hall there was a bead curtain that clinked when one went through it. The world behind it glowed in a soft light from the paper lanterns, round and yellow, that hung from the rafters. Silk parasols in guava green, aqua blue, and bright lilac leaned in the gossamer-thin light at the heads of narrow, low-lying beds of carved wood. Bodies reclined in eddying plumes, the opium crackling over low-necked lamps. My employer told me to tend my tasks as quietly as a mouse, never talk to the servants who served the patrons, and never stare at the patrons while they were deep in their reveries.
I was in awe the first time I set foot inside the den. After my employer lay down on a low bed made of wood, I sat gingerly on the edge of it. Its fine curved legs were carved with pale, glittering mother-of-pearl etchings of small tortoises and cranes and dwarfed trees. I touched the dark-red satin sheet. It was cool, smooth. After a while I looked up at the yellow silk canopy dangling with tassels above me. The room flickered with peanut-oil lamps, their crystal globes a handsome bulbous shape, and they suddenly grew dim when a patron leaned out, drawing deeply on his pipe. Over the door hung an orange paper lantern attached to the ceiling. When I gazed up at the beautiful tear shape, still and solitary, I thought of an ethereal world free of all pain, all worries. I breathed in a dark odor of caramel, and the room came to life with the occasional crackling of pipes.
I didn’t know opium smelled like burnt sugar. My employer explained that only premium opium smelled that way. He said base opium had an unpleasant smell.
He was very picky about his opium habit. He didn’t like the tea served by the den’s servants, so he had me brew it just as he began preparing his first pipe. The tea must be hot when he drank it. That was why the teapot held just a pinch of his select tea, enough to make two tiny cups. I had to brew it again and again. Three months after I went to work for him, he taught me how to prepare a pipe. Reclining on his elbow, he watched me.
I heated a wooden-handled needle over the lamp and dipped it into the crystal opium jar, watching the brown drug glue itself to the tip of the pin. I could sense him following my every move as I brought the needle to the lamp and cooked the sticky drop. I twirled the pin, the lamp burning a soft yellow. I watched the drop intently, and it swelled, glistening a brown color. I picked it off the pin and kneaded it against the palm of my hand until it became puttylike. Holding my breath, I pushed the paste neatly into the tiny opening of the bowl. With both hands, I held the pipe over the lamp, ignoring the heat on my fingertips, and watched the dark-brown opium melt into smoke.
He brought his lips to the stem and drew in the smoke as deeply as he could. His eyes slowly closed, his head tilted back, and he exhaled the smoke through his nostrils and mouth. I kept the pipe still as his lips again found the pipe stem and his cheeks hollowed as he sucked in the fumes.
He would take five draws before preparing a fresh pipe. Some evenings he smoked 15 pipes, some evenings 20. Between drags, he sipped tea and nibbled a caramel confection, savoring the taste as it melted in his mouth. His wife made delectable sweetmeats. Then he napped. I started cleaning his pipe. One of the knickknacks in the basket I carried was a thin iron pin that I used to scrape out the opium dregs in the blowhole of the pipe bowl.
In the opposite corner of the room stood a canary-yellow silk screen framed in glossy black wood. Behind the silk screen, you could glimpse the girls changing their attire before they came out to entertain the patrons. They would come out dressed in shiny green or blue or red moiré cheongsams. When one of them came to my employer’s bed, I could sometimes smell a lemon or rose scent when she slid in at his side. Her smooth, white skin made his skin look sickly and pale in comparison, and when she reached for the pipe, her dress was pulled back tight and I could see the whiteness of her upper arms where the sleeves stopped a finger-length short of her armpits. I couldn’t take my eyes from her blood-red fingernails.
Before I arrived, my employer had to do all these chores by himself—he had to prepare his pipe and brew his own tea, not to mention carry all his playthings himself. Now he had me, a college student who worked as his attendant on nights he needed me, and who earned a pittance to help pay my lodging and food.
One night while he napped, I was cleaning his pipe and a den servant came to me and asked me to let him have the dregs I was scraping out of the pipe’s bowl. I looked up at him and then at a piece of brown paper he held in his hand.
“Why?” I said. “I’ll trash this myself.”
“Just give it to me.”
I watched him wrap the dregs carefully inside the paper. “You aren’t trashing this, are you?”
He said nothing, just eyeing me. He put the packet in his trouser pocket and pointed at the pipe. “Any time you get the dirt out, don’t dump it. Understand? I can make some money on this.”
“You sell it?”
“Street drug addicts.”
“They smoke this crap?”
“Yeah. Smoke. Drink. Mix it with tobacco. Tonic for them.”
“And good money for you.”
“A sin to waste even crap.”
From that night on I thought of saving up the opium residues and selling them to the addicts. But where would I find the dope fiends? And how many visits to the den with my employer would it take for me to earn money? Each patron, I noticed, smoked 15 to 30 pipes an evening. Even a light smoker could go for 10 pipes before he nodded off. If I cleaned every pipe in the den, how much could I earn selling this sort of poison?
The Soot-Faced Girl
One evening as we were leaving the den, a drizzle was falling. As always, my employer would carry his opium basket back while riding in a pedicab, and I would walk home.
The air smelled sodden as a cool breeze came from the river. I turned onto a crossroad that ran perpendicular to the river. Two human figures moved across the street in the dancing reflection of a lantern. They were barefoot and seemed to glide in darkness. A child, clothed in rags, was pulling along a blind old man, holding in his other hand a red paper lantern at the end of a stick. I watched the child and the blind man heading into a dense, wild banana grove by the roadside. The red of their lantern dimmed, wavering eerily, and suddenly disappeared. In the blackness of the grove a torch light glowed.
A group of men, at least 10, squatted around the torch. They were Chinese. You could see their shaved heads. It sounded like they were haggling over something. Finally they stood up, each looking at something in his hands. Standing in the center was a girl counting coins. They clanked as she dropped them into her bag. Her soot-covered face, so black in the dancing torch light, looked ghoulish. Was she hiding her face so she could go unnoticed while peddling the illegal drug? She swung her bag over her shoulder, her plait dangling behind her, and strode out of the grove.
Suddenly, out of the darkness a motorcyclist rode up. He rode up so quickly that everyone, including me, just stared at him, bewildered, for a moment. Perhaps he had been there, waiting in the dark, unseen, for his whole outfit was black. A drug trafficking cop. He wore a tight-looking leather jacket and trousers that were tucked into his black boots. Even his motorcycle was black as an otter. He shouted something in Vietnamese, and the Chinese broke off running. The torch remained on the ground, sputtering with blue sparks. The girl froze in her tracks.
He leaned out and grabbed her by the braid. Before she could move, he reached into her bag and pulled something out. A bad feeling hit me. She must be selling opium dregs. He kicked the torch over, dragged her to his motorbike by her braid, and swung himself back up on the seat. He coasted along, the girl being dragged by her braid alongside, tumbling over her feet as her arms flailed wildly. I didn’t know what to do. Then I ran after them. I stumbled on something, and I dropped to the ground. A rock. I picked it up and stood, sucking in my pain. I let it fly. The motorcycle veered, the black shape dropped to the ground. The girl tottered, groping like she was blind. I ran up to her. Fright burned my dry throat. Had I just killed a cop?
“Run!” I shouted to her.
We squeezed through the grove and came back out on the streets. My ears buzzed, my breathing came in gasps. In a dark alley she stopped running and slumped against a wall. Gasping, I walked up to her. Her face was so dark only her white teeth showed in the black alley.
“What’s your name?” I asked in Vietnamese.
She was silent, and simply looked at me. She said, “Xiaoli.” She was Chinese.
“Did he ever get you before, that drug cop?”
“The policeman?” she said in a slight accent. “You killed him, yes?”
“I hope not,” I said, pained. I spoke slowly to her. “What you did is very dangerous.”
“Don’t I know that?”
“Then why keep doing it?”
“Why are you asking?”
I shook my head. To her, I was a stranger who happened to save her. “You work in an opium den?” I said.
“You will come?”
“I don’t smoke opium.”
She thought for a moment and then spoke. Her hands drew invisible directions. I heard the name Sail Street, a cross street somewhere with no name, but there was an old woman on the corner selling silk from early morning till dusk. Off the cross street was an alley with shops and houses. The den had no name.
“Ask for me if you are lost,” she said.
“Ask? Who?” I said.
“The silk woman. She doesn’t talk. She knows me.”
“Ask for Xiaoli?”
“No. They call me White Lily.”
“She understands? Say ‘White Lily’ in Chinese.”
She said it slowly and swung her cloth bag onto her back. “I must get on home.”
“I’ll walk with you,” I said.
“This way.” She pointed in the direction of the street we were heading toward. Even blackened with soot, her face was gentle, with soft lines flowing from her well-shaped nose to her lips and chin.
A cross street up beyond the alley entrance. A pedicab went past. A cart squeaked by on four little wheels. A man was pushing it up the street and on one side of the cart hung a lantern. The side was painted with red Chinese characters. I couldn’t tell what they said. Perhaps they told of his trade. I could see a pair of ducks, brown with fire and glinting with grease, hung upside down on a rod. Past a corner an odor of late-night noodles came drifting, and with it came the odor of opium. Squalid dens were squeezed into those dark alleys.
She turned into an alley. Shards of a broken vat lay strewn across the dirt. They crunched under my shoes. The alley dead-ended with a wall—set in it was a blood-red door framed with wrought iron.
“I live here,” she said. “I’m a maid.”
“Here—and in the opium den?”
“You sneak out at night—to go to the den?”
“They let you out? The family you work for.”
“They own the den.”
She opened the big door with a bulky key and dropped it back in the bag. It clanked against the coins. She turned to me. “Would you like to sit in the garden?”
“I would love that,” I said.
There was a wood bench by a rockwork basin. I sat there and waited for her. She disappeared into the house through a side door that had a small, round mirror above the doorway. Later, she told me that a mirror over a door guarded against malign spirits. The full moon washed the blue-tiled roofs with yellow light. The quiet made my heart throb with an unknown trepidation. She came out soundlessly like a cat. She had a tin can in her hand, and her face was clean of black soot. I couldn’t help but gaze at her face. Her pupils were peppercorn-black, her eyes so symmetrically shaped and clear that I felt thick in my throat.
“I sit here every night when there is a full moon,” she said as she sat down beside me. “I want to see if the silver carp will come up.”
I looked toward the rock basin where she pointed.
“What silver carp?” I said.
“It lives in there,” she said, flicking her gaze toward the basin. “If you are the one who sees it jump from the water when the full moon is just above it, something wonderful will happen to you.”
She sipped from the tin can and handed it to me. I drank. Cold and fragrant and sweet. I shivered. She said it was hong cha. I knew the tea. My employer drank it. She said she added some white sugar and lemon and left it in a thick clay pot in the cellar where they kept fresh herbs and vegetables for the household. I peered up at the sky. In its dead blackness the moon hung so bright its halo was a shade paler.
She drew a sharp breath. “Such a beautiful sight!”
A shadow crossed the dark garden. We watched a cat saunter off the brick walk into the darkness, its eyes two shining marbles.
“Watch the night sky,” she said. “Sometimes you see a falling star. It might tell you someone close to you just died.” She paused, and said, “If it falls in the direction where someone you know lives.”
I handed her the tin can. “You ever seen one?”
“Where did it fall to?”
“North. My home.”
“How long ago?”
“But many people live there. What’re the odds?”
“But not many people see a falling star.”
“What made you think someone you love died when you saw it?”
“I just know. My mother might have died.”
A hollow in my stomach seized my breath. “Why?” I said.
“Mother is very poor and ill.”
“And your father?”
“No father. Only mother.”
“Will you ever leave that place?”
“The opium lair.”
“When I save enough. I will go back to my mother.”
“What’s your family name?”
“Zhang.” She smiled. “You have a name?”
“You don’t speak Chinese,” she said. “No?”
“No.” I could speak a few words that I learned from my employer. But her words made me feel warm again deep down. “When can I see you again?”
“Come to the quay tomorrow night.”
The Fatal Quay
The following night I went to the quay. The smell of the river was in the air. It was muddy and foul with waste, fish and bamboo scraps, rotten cabbage, and orange peels. There were lights on the quay. I stood back under an Indian almond tree. Sampans and junks and small steam ships dotted the water’s edge, and the quay lay trembling in the yellowy light of the lanterns. On the gangplank, the coolies stood naked above the waist. Some sat slumped against the rail and some lay like corpses on top of coiled ropes. I felt my knife. Where the hilt met the sheath’s opening, it was banded with a metal clasp that had a small ring. I had run a short string through it. When I went out at night, I tucked the sheathed knife under my belt and tied the string to it.
A sudden smashing sound. One of the coolies rose from the planks, raising his fist. You could see an opium pipe in his clenched hand. He was half naked, his torso oxblood and his arms sinewy. He kicked the broken neck of a lamp with his bare foot, and it shattered against a wooden pile. The other coolies hollered, jabbing their fingers at him as he brought his other hand up to his mouth. I saw a glinting shard of glass. You could hear him crunch it with his teeth as if he were crunching ice cubes. He chewed. His companions laughed and gawked and spat, and the dazed coolie chewed on. There were red threads coming out of his mouth and you could see him trying to swallow with difficulty. When he finally did, his head jerked and the other coolies’ bantering suddenly subsided.
Then I saw her.
Out of darkness she emerged, lithe, quick-stepping, a cloth bag flung across her shoulder, her braid bouncing. She moved swiftly onto the quay. Like ants to sugar, they swarmed around her. The stuporous coolie stood mumbling to himself. I caught a glimpse of her blackened face between thrusting arms and snatching hands. The coins jangled. I hurried out to the quay, my eyes fixed on the disturbed coolie.
He tucked his pipe into his trousers, bent, picked up another broken piece of glass, and fed it into his mouth. He crunched it, chewed. He stopped. His arms flailed. Blood was coming out the corners of his mouth as he teetered toward a lantern. All the coolies were oblivious to him before he came crashing into them. He flung his arm and grabbed her by the shoulder. The other coolies cursed and shoved him back, and coins fell. I grabbed him by the arm that held her. His arm was hard. He yanked her toward him, and she fell against his chest. The coolies broke up. He had his hand in her bag as I pummeled his face. His head didn’t even move. All I saw were the slits of his eyes, his bulging teeth, and a shaven head, pale to the top. I saw a knife in his hand. He grabbed her by the neck as though he was angered she had kept him waiting. I pulled out my knife. She was flailing her arms helplessly in the vise of his grip. I slid up just as his knife came at my stomach.
I grabbed his blade. My knees locked, my hand screamed with pain, and I felt him seize me by the back of my neck. I was helpless as his knife went into my body. My breath was cut off. The only thing that kept me standing was my will. Don’t die! My head hit his shoulder, and I willed my hand that clutched my knife to drive it up into his chest. I grunted. Liquid was forced up from my convulsed stomach, and I tasted blood.
He fell against me and his whole body knocked me down. My knife, still in my hand, slid from his chest. I saw a black sky, and I could taste more blood in my mouth and I gagged, trying to breathe. She squatted down beside me, her eyes searching my face as if she wanted an answer. She saw my cut hand cupping my stomach. The handle of his knife was the only thing outside my body. I saw her looking down, a face black as the sky above. Then she cried. Footfalls. Faces. The shaved heads. The gray blouses. Like they all came together in the same picture. She cried hysterically. She shouted in Chinese, and the Chinese coolies, frenzied, talked among themselves. Someone ran out to the street with a torch. She dropped her gaze to my hand that still clutched my own knife, unclasped my fingers, and tried to sheathe it. After she secured it under my belt, she cupped her hand over mine on my stomach. Her other hand wiped the blood that had started leaking from the corner of my mouth. I couldn’t see very well because of a wet film over my eyes, and my nose felt soggy. I had to breathe through my mouth. Beneath me the earth shook. I heard the clacking of wheels. She was crying out to someone.
Melody of a Bygone Past
For one moment before coming out of a blackest mass, I heard a soothing, peaceful melody. A long bar of sunlight fell across the plank bed from the latticed window high above, where a patch of blue sky hung. This wasn’t my place. I could tell. The plank bed was raised on a platform. It had a headrest, a footrest. I was lying on a thin floral quilt. I was alive. I had a body. Its midsection was wrapped heavily in white cloth under an unfamiliar gray shirt. My head rested against a round wooden pillow covered in blue linen. Was I in a room of somebody’s home? The melody. Was I hallucinating?
I slept, woke, and slept again. Each time I woke, my abdomen and my hand twinged. When I moved my body, it screamed. Once I woke, I caught myself groaning. She was sitting on the edge of the bed, holding a clay bowl in her hands.
“I brought you medicine,” she said.
I looked at her. Her ponytail was flung over her shoulder, touching her abdomen. Her dark-blue blouse had a sheen. I tried to find words. She was real, no more a furtive figure gliding through the night. At my silence, she moved the bowl to my lips. I sipped the first taste of liquid and winced. She held the rim of the bowl near my lips, her fingers long and tapered, and I could see the white facings of her sleeves’ cuffs. I leaned forward and took another sip, this time holding it in my mouth until the herbal smell stung my nose. I gulped it down. She watched me calmly, patiently. I took hold of the bowl and her hands as they held it.
“Let me—” I said and felt a sharp twitch in my left hand. The liquid spilled onto my chest.
Quickly she wiped it with her hand. “Don’t use your hand,” she said. “Rest it.”
They had put something yellow like turmeric on the palm of my cut hand and fingers. The yellow powder had caked on the slashes, but it hurt sharply when I made a fist. I sipped and swallowed with difficulty, and each time I gazed up I met her eyes, steadily watching me. For the last sip I took, I had to lean my head back as she tilted the bowl almost upside down, and it covered my face completely.
“Xiaoli,” I said, choked, liquid dripping from my lips.
“Oh, I’m clumsy,” she said, giggling, then suddenly solemn. “You saved me twice.”
“I’ll never feel the same again,” I said, taking in her gentle features for one brief moment while she looked down. “How did you end up selling opium?”
“Ah,” she said, crimping her lips.
I could see her thick lashes flutter. She seemed to be searching for something to say. Finally she looked up. “This … merchant, yes, merchant, gave my mother some money, borrowed money, yes. I was 11. I went in a ship with many women and little girls like me. They made many of us take opium, so we don’t cry while we are at sea.”
Now I understood why she was so bent on selling opium dregs to earn extra money to buy out her bondage because of her mother’s debt. I met her gaze. I felt thick in the throat.
“Are you hungry?” she asked.
The pain seemed to be the only thing I felt. It was like a malicious omnipresence.
She smiled as she rose. “I’ll bring you something to eat.”
I heard a cuckoo in the quiet. Through the latticed window, the streak of sunlight had become longer across the floor. Watching it, I wondered about the time of day. I noticed that they had also put a fresh pair of cotton trousers on me. Mine must have been covered with bloodstains.
I felt hot in the head. Who changed my clothes?
She came back carrying a small bamboo food steamer. It had two decks, round, veined with gray stains from steam and heat from cooking. She lifted the lid of the top deck. In it there were two white steamed buns.
“I made them,” she said, handing me one.
It was warm as I held it in my good hand. Steam was coming from its silky skin. “I eat one,” I said. “You eat one.”
I chewed. It tasted sweet, with a bamboo fragrance clinging to its skin. I watched her take a bite, forgetting my discomfort. In the quiet we ate.
“I need to wash your wounds later,” she said.
“The physician said you must change it twice a day. Or you might get infection.”
I swallowed what was in my mouth and opened my cut hand. “What is this yellow stuff?”
“That? Ah.” She squinted her eyes, thought, and said something to herself in Chinese. She raised her face at me. “I don’t know what it is here, in this country. It’s a round fruit like an egg. Its flesh is yellow and thick.”
I thought of the mamey sapote. “Cây trứng gà,” I said.
“That’s what it is. They grind the seeds into powder. It heals cuts.” She dropped her gaze to my midsection. “You passed out in the pedicab. We didn’t know if you would ever wake up again. You lost so much blood, you would have died if we had not taken you back to the house in time.” At my silence, she continued. “We have a family physician nearby. That’s why I avoided taking you to a hospital.” She gestured with her hand toward the courtyard. “I washed your clothes. They had much blood on them. I will patch your shirt when it’s dried.”
“You’re very kind, Xiaoli.”
“Because of me you almost died.”
“Don’t say that.”
The cuckoo called again. A desolate sound in the quiet.
“I must wash your wound now and dress it,” she said.
“Is it afternoon now?” I said.
She nodded, picked up the steamer and left the room. She came back shortly with a brass pail of water, and a handkerchief and a roll of white cloth draped over her forearm. Without saying a word, she slid up to me and began removing the pins that fastened the strip of cloth around my midsection. She unwrapped it deftly, lifting me up with her hand pressed against the small of my back. I held my breath, watching her hands, and then the wound. It was covered with the yellow powder. She wrung the handkerchief and gently washed the powder away. My chest heaved. A faint lemon scent got in my nostrils. It wasn’t from the water or the powder. By then I could see the gash, red and raw, and her fingers dabbing it with the fresh yellow powder she took from a pouch in her blouse pocket. When she unrolled the fresh cloth strip, I pushed myself up from the bed with both hands and let her wind the strip around my midsection. Her face was serene as she dressed my wound. She never frowned. Her skin was so clear, her nose straight and so finely shaped. I noticed the nick on her throat. That addict could have killed her had I not killed him.
“Who changed my clothes?” I said quietly.
“Me,” she said, glancing quickly at me, and dropped her gaze.
I gulped, but she did not see.
“I will change the bandage again tonight,” she said, buttoning up the side of my blouse.
“How long will I be staying here?”
“Until you are healed.” She washed her hands in the pail. “When you can walk again.”
“Where’s your room?”
She nodded and flung her ponytail back over her shoulder.
“I can sleep anywhere else but here,” I said. “You don’t have to put up with me.”
She crimped her lips and smiled. “I don’t think like that.”
“Where d’you sleep?”
“In another room.”
She rose and the lemon scent rose with her. “You rest now. Sleep, you are still tired. It’s very quiet here.”
Something struck me. “Do you play any type of musical instrument?” I said.
“No.” She shook her head. “You asked because you want me to play something for you?”
“No. I heard some melody when I woke. Beautiful sound.”
“Ah.” She canted her head to one side and said nothing as she left the room with the pail.
Moments later she came back into the room while I was feeling gloomy. She sat down on the edge of the bed and gave me what was in her hand. “Open it,” she said, smiling.
It was a pocket watch, round and silvery. The cover was engraved with flowers around the fringe, and in the center there was a bird hovering over two nestlings. I flipped open the hinged cover. A melody rose, clinking into the air. Listening, I felt the weight on my heart lifted. All the time I gazed at a woman’s face that was on the inside of the cover. Her hair was brushed back and clasped with a white flower. She had such soft and gentle features that her beauty made me think of Xiaoli, though they did not look like each other.
The melody wound down to tiny jingles and ended.
“Who’s she?” I said, not wanting to close the cover.
“I couldn’t tell. Well, it’s a picture.”
“She has not changed. She always looks like that.”
“Who made it for her?”
“My father. She said he loved her so much he carried it with him all the time. Then he gave it to her because she loved it.”
“She wants you to remember her,” I said, placing the watch in her hand.
The Moon Festival
It took a month for my recuperation. She would meet me outside the opium den my employer frequented. Sometimes it rained, for it rained often now, just before the Moon Festival, and along the unlit streets her raised lantern would shine on the breathtaking, bright-red poinciana flowers. On a dark corner, children were catching fireflies in glass jars, and they waved at anyone who passed by. When we looked back, the dark corner was blinking with glow worms.
For two nights I didn’t see her. On the night of Moon Festival, she showed up unexpectedly as I was coming out of the opium den. My heart jumped with joy. We stopped at a street corner, and I took out a moon cake wrapped in waxed paper. Had she not come, I told her, I would have had to eat it alone. I asked her what the four Chinese characters embossed on the rust-colored wheat-flour crust said.
“Mid-Autumn Moon Cake,” she replied.
We leaned against a wall between two shops and each ate our share. She said she had always loved this pastry, filled with red bean paste and lotus seeds. Up Hemp Street we passed closed shops with unsold toys still dangling on strings in the display windows—colored paper lanterns printed with flowers and animals. I looked at the children’s toys bright in the shops’ lanterns, and I saw her smile while she gazed at them. Her face was tranquil. I saw the gentle lines that flowed from her nose to her lips, the arch of her throat, the satiny white of her skin.
A procession of unicorn dancers pranced down the street. We stood back in the lee of the shop walls as they went by. The unicorn head bobbed and weaved in the cadence of the drums, its long body a flowing train of red cloth. The first firecrackers that went off startled her, and she laughed. Trailing the unicorn were children carrying their octagon-shaped lanterns.
She pointed and said, “Look, the revolving lanterns.” They glowed red and yellow as they passed by, and I could see the silhouettes of eight warriors on horseback go around and around. She asked what made them circle, and I explained to her that the lantern’s candle created hot air that propelled the figures.
I walked with her into the dark alley to the red door of her place. She blew out the light and hugged me. We stood as one in the dark for a long time, and she broke off and entered the door without looking back. I stood beneath the dark vault of sky. A feeling came over me as old as the earth, as if I had been here eons before, as air, as dust, or as the scent that clung to her.
The Red Poppy
The evenings we spent together whenever my employer wouldn’t need me, we walked through the city streets, sometimes just wandering until our legs gave out. A few nights later I went up to the opium den where she worked. She was crossing the street. In her hand was a yellow paper lantern. Nimble feet in thick-soled, black Chinese shoes with curved tips. She held her lantern away from me, and it swung to and fro on a thin bamboo rod. She wasn’t clad all in black.
“You still go out and sell that stuff tonight?” I asked her softly.
“No,” she said with a sharp inhalation. “Not tonight.”
“Why not tonight?”
“I have to help a monk.”
“You help … what?” I couldn’t hear clearly because of her accent.
“A. Monk.” She said it slowly this time.
“A monk? A Buddhist monk? There is no Buddhist pagoda in the Chinese quarter.”
“He is not Chinese. And it is not in the Chinese quarter.”
“Help him? What kind of help does he need?”
“He has to make books so they … stay around.”
“Oh. So they won’t be extinct.”
She tilted her head to look at me.
“They will be gone forever,” I said, “if he doesn’t do what he’s doing.”
“How does he make them? How can you help?”
“Do you want to see?”
“Sure,” I said.
“Do you want to walk with me to the pagoda?”
It was drizzling when we took to the road. She folded her umbrella, and we walked under mine. She laced her fingers in mine and held the lantern on her side. Droplets of rain spattered on the lantern and occasionally hit the flame. It sputtered. In the quiet I told her I missed the clanking of coins in her bag, because every time I met her, she was with a bag that jangled with coins. She didn’t laugh.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“Nothing,” she said, cutting her gaze away from me.
“You seem like you’re not here.”
“I’m here. I’m sorry.”
“Tell me what’s wrong?”
“Are you afraid for me whenever you don’t see me?” Her face was a glimmer as she turned it toward me.
“Are you mad?”
“Wish I could be there with you every night. I’m not mad.”
“No, you are not. I have never seen you mad.”
“But I could be.”
I felt her grip on my hand. I could feel her sharp fingernails dig into my palm.
“I’ll be going back home in three days,” she said finally.
“Why?” I turned sharply to her. “To visit your mother?”
“No,” she said. “She’s dead.”
She lowered her head and brought her hand to her mouth. I put my arm around her and, leaning my head against hers, said, “I’m sorry.” The glow of her lantern held my attention. “Xiaoli.” I met her serene stare. In it an unknown world awaited me.
“Will you come back?”
“I do not belong here.”
All I felt was a hollowness inside myself. What would be waiting for her at home? Home? You cannot call a place a home when there is nothing but emptiness around you.
Around the bend where tangles of vines and shrubbery caught our feet, rain felt harder. Wind blew through cane brakes, sweetening the air with an odor of floral decay. She raised her lantern and pointed it toward the muddy bank. White egrets stepped silently in the wet mud, heads cocked, watching with one eye for fish. Seeing the lantern’s light, the birds tipped their heads, regarding us. A night bird called down the embankment, which was pale with withering grass. On a pond a pagoda was perched atop stone bedding.
I was standing before the pagoda’s peculiar structure when she set her lantern on the ground, rolled her pants to her knees, and removed her shoes. She looked back at me.
“Are you just going to stand there?” she said.
I did what she did. We waded into the pond until we were knee-deep in water. Her lantern shone on a network of weathered, brown wood beams, sloping sharply, leaning against the black rocks. Out of the pond we stood under the steep, battered roof dotted with lichens in pale gray.
Inside the pagoda it was pitch dark. Her lantern’s light fell over bins and crates, and trailed a conical yellow sphere on the floorboard. The air was damp. Everywhere you turned, the mustiness stung your nostrils. The mildewed air was so thick it was brittle.
“Where’s he tonight?” I asked her.
“He went to town,” she said. “For a death … memorial service?”
“Will he be back tonight?”
“No. He has a remarkable voice when he chants the sutra. People want him.”
It struck me as odd. She surely knew the monk wouldn’t be here. A wind blew through the door and the lantern’s flame danced wildly. Beyond the entrance the bell turret was a ghostly white. An earsplitting thunderclap shook the floor.
She moved the lantern into the corner where it burned, now yellow, now blue, and she lay inclined on the floor, resting her head on the rim of the wooden crate. The side of her face went dark, only the white of her throat glowed. The flame flickered and died. From the eaves rain streaked down like a curtain. I picked up the lantern and rose. She pulled me back down.
“Let the fire die,” she said.
“Might not be safe. I’m thinking of wild animals.”
“Let it die.” She paused. “Why don’t you lie here.”
She held her face upturned, a pale tender oval, and her eyes trailed away when my hand touched the curve of her throat, sloping down in a soft alabaster valley in the open-necked shirt. Out in the night a nocturnal bird cried. Broken branches clattered like castanets. The rain let up. In the lull, I heard a crack of thunder. The air smelled of rain and sodden leaves, and the wind was warm and wet coming through the door. The scent of wet leaves was in her hair, damp still, tangled and thick. In the fragrance of her skin clung a wood-smoke scent.
When I lay down by her, her hands came up soft and warm, touching my face. I held still, forgetting myself. Warm, fragrant heat clung to her skin. The curve of her throat sloped into the valley of her shoulder. Wind came sweeping through the door, the air infused with a tinge of wet moss. Her curved back, hollowed to kiss the fingertips. Patches of light on her feverish skin, white worms writhing in the sky. Through the open door, a lighting shuddered white.
“You ever wear your hair without a plait?” I asked.
“Yes, but rarely. Why?”
I said that my mother when she was young used to wear hers around her head, and it was so long it hung down her back to her waist, and that the only time she let down her hair was after her bath, when it flowed to the ground like the banyan’s aerial roots. She smiled at my description, her teeth white in the dark. She found the twists of her plait and undid them with her fingers and ran them through her hair, letting it spread like black satin, and her whole body was a pale white. She opened her arms and held my face against her chest. Her skin was cool and her heart thumped against my ear. She asked if I had known any woman before her. Yes, I said, wanting to be pure at heart in her aura. “Tell me about her,” she said. I became a storyteller and she a curious listener. She asked if I loved the girl, and I said no and took her hand and pressed it against the side of my face as though to calm a sudden dark, alien agitation that stirred in my heart. “Do you love me?” she whispered. “Yes, I love you,” I said. The palpitation in my heart beat on. “Do you love me no matter what happens?” she asked. “No matter what happens,” I said. “Will you go with me to Lijiang?” “Yes,” I said, “I will go wherever you want me to.” I closed my eyes. I saw a red poppy.