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Art by Alice Meichi Li.
From the editor:
Lim Jia is the youngest clerk on an expedition to Cuba to investigate the indentured laborer trade. But he has a secret motive: to discover the fate of his long-missing older brother... which might require speaking with a ghost or two.Jaymee Goh is a Clarion graduate with a PhD in comparative literature, and has contributed to Tor.com, Racialicious.com, Beyond Victoriana, and more. She lives in Berkeley, California, where she also works as an editor at Tachyon Publications.
From the author: A young clerk on the 1876 Cuba Commission from China investigating the coolie trade sees the ghosts of indentured Chinese laborers who cannot come home.
“Thousands of words are under the sweep of our brushes, but they are too many to be put down in words. Whips lash our backs; shackles chain our bodies. The young and strong can merely live with starvation; the old and weak die with unrighted wrong. From now on, if we remain alive, we will be cold and hungry men; if we die, we will be ghosts of the starved.”
– trans. Lisa Yun, The Coolie Speaks
My father died when I was very small, and my mother could not afford to take care of us all, so she gave me to the local temple to raise. The priests were very gracious about it, and appreciated one more pair of hands to help keep everything tidy. They taught me to read that I may answer the petitions of the people who came to our temple, taught me to cook for the beggars that sought succor, taught me to chant the sutras that would calm souls both dead and living. To read and write was more than what my brothers could do. Only our eldest brother, Kheng, had had such an education.
Still, I was very close to my brothers, and my mother also, and they visited me at the temple often. It was very inappropriate, according to the neighbours, but the priests didn't seem to mind. We were a happy family, except for one sadness: the unknown fate of Kheng. He disappeared a little after I was born, so I have no memories of him. The last letter he sent said he was boarding a ship to a place called Cuba, to work there as a clerk. My mother refused to believe he was dead, so he did not have a tablet on our small family shrine.
It was part of my temple duties to attend to the ghosts that drifted around the village. We didn’t have many lost spirits, but ancestors often visited. During the seventh month, I would see them in the empty chairs we set out for them at feasts, enjoying the ambience. Whenever I visited homes, I would hear them muttering by their altars. The priests, when they finally realized out why I would talk to empty air, cautioned me to not tell anyone else, because it would open me to requests far beyond my ability to fulfill.
Master Wong in particular was very adamant about it. Before he retired to our temple, he had been an exorcist, and he warned me that unless I was truly committed to that path, indulging in my sight would bring no good. Then he taught me a few sutras, to alleviate the pain of ghosts, or to chase them away, so that I could calm them, and thus calm my own fears.
I came to know my deceased father through this ability. He was a quiet spirit, a shadow of the man my mother and brothers described him as. Still, in and out of ghost month, he would visit. He looked on me kindly, was by my bedside if I woke up from a nightmare, and laughed with us when Third Brother, the joker of our family, said something funny. I would find him often at the edge of the village, gazing off into the distance, waiting for something, or someone.
Master Wong took me with him to Heong Kong many times a year. He shaved the front of my head and braided my hair into a queue, so that no one would ask questions. When I returned, my family would teasingly ask what new language I had learned on my latest trip. I used these languages to ask stevedores if they had seen my brother, gave them his name and home village. Always, they shook their heads.
Perhaps it was fate, perhaps it was karma; I learned of an imperial commission that required servants and clerks who could handle long journeys. I was able to read and write, which raised me in the commissioner’s esteem. When I demonstrated my facility in language, I was engaged immediately, with less than a week to prepare.
There was an uproar over this. My mother had lost her eldest; she did not want to lose her youngest, too. Half of my extended family took her side, both Father and Mother’s relations. The other half was all for my going. I turned to the family altar for an appeal. Go, my father insisted, his voice less in my ears than in my head. Come home safe.
Thus was I engaged with the Educational Mission abroad, assistant to Commissioner Chen Lanpin. I copied documents, and sorted and stored them. I cleaned and cooked when needed. I wrote home often, and sent home money when I could. I was the youngest of the staff, but not bothersome, so my cleverness was tolerated. There were also no spirits in Master Chen’s offices, so it was quite peaceful work. Master Chen was a kindly man who taught me guan-hwa, the court language, and spoke to me often in Gongtung-hwa, so that we both would not lose our tongue away from home. Doubtless I would have passed several years this way, and gone home to let my hair grow out and get married.
Then came the edict that would determine the rest of my life, on the tenth day of the tenth moon of the twelve year of Tungchih: the Son of Heaven tasked Commissioner Chen with investigating our countrymen who were sold into bondage in the place called Cuba.
“His Majesty’s kindness is like a wide ocean, extending to the corners of the world. We are like grass and trees that benefit from his rain-like generosity, which is a rare grace in thousands of years.” – trans. Lisa Yun, The Coolie Speaks
We arrived in Havana on the second day of the second moon. Commissioner Macpherson, one of Master Chen’s companions on this inquiry, had already arrived, and had arranged apartments for us in the hotel he stayed in.
At first, they left me in the hotel room to look after their belongings while they conducted their inquiry. In the evenings, I would sort through the depositions and petitions they brought back, and transcribe and categorize them carefully. The petitions, in particular, were challenging to sort, since they were written on all sorts of paper: scraps, the backs of receipts, old yellowing pieces. It was only on the fourth night, as the commissioners were conducting their enquiries in the Havana jail, that I thought to read them carefully, rather than simply copy every stroke I saw.
“Only our hearts look forward to our country as sunflowers look forward to the sun,” I read aloud, relishing the poetry on my tongue as I transcribed the petition. “Voices crying wrong and bearing pain, shapes of broken skin and flesh, suicides are not isolated cases here.”
I flipped another, and another. My heart beat hard but slow, and every character, every stroke etched anguish onto the petitions “Come home safe,” my father had told me, and he surely must have told my brother the same.
Such words, I realized, would never be fulfilled by these men, far away from home. A fear gripped my heart—if my brother had truly reached this place, he would have been trapped here, unable to write home. I took stock of the pile of papers on my table. If this hundred was just a sliver of the number of Chinese here, then how could I find Kheng?
I went through the pile. Every petition mentioned at least a few names of the men who either wrote it or men they knew. Every name seemed precious and necessary to record—their home villages, their occupations before, how they came to be here. To every name clung an unspoken hope that the wrongs they suffered would be righted.
Petition after petition after petition, and no sign of my brother’s name. I tried very hard, that night, to console myself that it was just the start of the journey. Perhaps the depot would have a roster of coolies registered with them.
“We are now more than 100,000 Chinese in this island, whose daily existence is that of criminals confined in jail.” – trans. Lisa Yun, The Coolie Speaks
After the first day at the depot, the commissioners were already overwhelmed with the number of petitions and depositions they had to handle. So I was asked to go with them, to the Havana jail. Outside, the roads were clear, but within, I heard the familiar mutterings of ghosts.
“My name is Chen A’Ren! My cedula is real and I demand it back!” something shrieked from the corner of the room.
“I have done nothing! Nothing!”
“I am Hong A’Jin from Guangzhou! My name is not Julio!”
What were they doing here? It was months before the gates of the afterlife would be open, although, perhaps, there were no such gates here. I didn’t ponder the metaphysics of the problem, because the noise was so loud.
I looked around and found a man knocking his head on the wall rhythmically. “Abah! Abah! Abah! Abah!” he moaned. No one else noticed him, and Commissioner Chen walked right through him.
A ghost, then. I swallowed and gripped the box of paper tighter. I ducked my head under the rafters from which men hung, their spirits overlapping each other in blithe disrespect for the laws of physical space. I told myself, of course, it is to be expected that the jail would have many ghosts.
When we spoke to the Chinese prisoners, and when they mentioned a suicide, a death, or a disappearance, the ghosts would take an interest in the matter. When I glanced up, they had an air of waiting. And when they heard a name they recognized, they beat their breast and wailed. I was never sure if it was because they had heard their own name.
Under my breath, I whispered the sutra that Master Wong had taught me. The ghosts did not disappear, nor did they fall silent.
My only consolation was that Kheng was clearly not in the jail, among the dead or the living. Yet, it was small comfort, because I didn’t know where else to look.
“I was whipped many times; my name was changed.” – trans., Denise Kelly, The Cuba Commission Report: A Hidden History of the Chinese in Cuba
Las Cañas plantation was the only plantation in Havana that would assent to the inquiry. We took the depositions in the back of the house where the plantation owner had prepared a shed for us to meet with workers. Labourers came from other plantations as well, having heard of our commission. I was sent out to ensure the lines were orderly. This was an easy task, not because we Chinese apparently keep our manners when abroad, although certainly we do and must, but because no one had the strength to fight my authority about it. The novelty of being able to tell grown men twice my size what to do wore off quickly, because their faces were so worn, and so sad.
The sun was high. I didn’t see a living soul in the sugarcane field, just the sea of green, swaying softly with the heat. The workers had a day off, because of the commission, even though we had to ask questions as swiftly as possible. Behind me, in the line of men, I heard mutterings that having the one day off from the work was the best thing they could hope for.
I began to hum softly to myself, and then saw.
In the leaves of the tall grasses, faces.
I stopped humming, and then heard.
In the rustle of the leaves, whispers.
They gazed at me, these green faces put together—their eyes in the blades, their mouths in the spaces between, yawning lamentations. When I blinked, they were still there, insistent on my gaze. They were everywhere.
How many were there? I couldn’t count.
Hastily, I ran back to the shed, hot and stuffy, but quiet. A man stood in front of Commissioner Chen. “Who is Gui Chen and why was I forced to sign his contract?” he was asking. He looked baffled, as if he expected us to have an answer.
I must have looked restless, because Master Chen thrust some papers into my hands to sort. “Don’t go too far without an escort,” he warned me in a hush. “It’s dangerous.” I sat down by his feet to work, listening to the interviews with half an ear.
Coolie after coolie corroborated that they had been asked to take on another man’s contract, or sign under a different name. Then, after finishing the terms of that contract, they would sign another one, under their own name, assuming they survived.
Maybe my brother was still alive, and he had been forced to take another person's contract, too. If so, then my work was harder than I expected. I would not be able to simply look at the lists of names of workers.
“Something’s wrong with that young fellow,” Commissioner Macpherson declared, in English, as we made our way back to the Havana hotel.
“Probably overwhelmed by the heat and the work,” Commissioner Huber replied in my defense. “It’s a lot to take in, you know. Jia’s very little.”
Master Chen glanced at me. I didn’t have to pretend to look tired.
I took dinner with the few other helpers who were part of Master Chen’s entourage, and one of them offered me a local newspaper. “So you can practice your Spanish,” he sniggered.
Out of curiosity, I flipped through the newspaper, glancing across the articles. My eyes chanced on a column. “Runaways,” I translated aloud. “There’s a column about our people!”
My Spanish was slow, but I had an old dictionary from our United States mission. Carefully, I translated a section, and frowned. “What kind of name is Fernando? Why would any jongkok-yan have that name?”
Suddenly, the cries of ghosts insisting on their names made sense. My shoulders felt heavier than before. Not only were workers forced to take someone else’s contract, but they weren’t even called by their own names. Lim Kheng wouldn’t even be Lim Kheng, here.
“Looking at the sky, I cannot reach it. Looking at the ground, I cannot rest in peace. How sad and desperate I feel.” - trans. Lisa Yun, The Coolie Speaks
Over the next several days, we went to Matanzas, then to Cardenas, and at each, we stopped at the depot, the jail, and maybe a plantation or two, or three.
Against Master Chen’s wishes, Commissioners Macpherson and Huber sent me out to spread the word about the inquiries they were conducting. The local officials were not always cooperative. They set the hours for visiting the depots and jails, and we were lucky if we managed to visit more than two plantations at each town we stopped, knowing full well there were tens more we were not permitted to visit. I was the lightest of the entourage, thus would tire the horse less, so I could cover wider ground.
The nights before beginning work in a new town, I copied information about the commission’s visits onto multiple sheets of paper, working late into the night. The ink on my hands would still be drying even when I set out early in the morning, in advance of the commissioners, to distribute the papers to any of my fellow countrymen that I saw. They would do the rest of work in spreading the word. I would turn back in the middle of the morning, returning to my master’s side by lunchtime.
On these mornings, I would see that Chinese ghosts were not the only ones wandering the roads. They often would sit by the ghosts of black slaves, gesturing to each other as if they could, in life and death, try to communicate. Perhaps they got on better in death than in life, considering the antipathy I saw between the living workers on the field. There were also the ghosts of the Spaniards, but if I focused on them, they would abstract themselves out of my apprehension disdainfully.
If I looked out into the streets, the winds blew the sands up against the silhouettes of dead men walking, eyes sunken in despair and mouths wide open in hunger. If I looked to the trees, I saw the trails of the dead in the bark, their arms the branches reaching out in supplication. The most disturbing sights I saw at breakfast, when I served the commissioners at breakfast. The English commissioners liked to have tea in the morning, and with their tea, milk and sugar. In the sugar bowl, there would be spirits, drowning.
I understood, or thought I did. In many of the depositions and petitions, at every single plantation we visited, at every sugar refinery, there was at least one report of a suicide by jumping into the sugar cauldron. Death by boiling sugar, chosen over suffering, and their spirits were trapped in the sugar. Their forms were disintegrated beyond human recognition, and I winced as Macpherson and Huber stabbed their teaspoons in and out of the bowls.
One of the commission’s concerns was how employers handled affairs when a man dies. The answers: there were no graves, or just shallow ones. There was no coffin, or proper cremation with the ashes sent home to waiting families. Master Wong had always insisted on proper funeral rites; the lack of them made spirits malevolent, and added to a ghost’s pain tenfold. There is no reason for anyone to suffer after death even more.
One day, my mouth itched too much. “What happens to the bones?” I asked, interrupting Commissioner Huber before he could ask the next question. I ignored Master Chen’s frown.
The men they were questioning glanced at each other. One of them, Lo A’Chi, said shortly, “they are used for fuel.”
“What do you mean?”
He shrugged. “They use the bones of oxen for fuel sometimes. And they will mix in the bones of dead men.”
Commissioner Chen sat up, his brows knitted together. “What? Why do they do that?” he asked sharply, in Gongtung-hwa.
“Because, your honour, if you use the bones of men, the sugar will be a purer white.”
“And if they don’t use the bones as fuel?”
Chi shrugged again. “They scatter the ashes to the wind. Especially if the man committed suicide in the sugar cauldron.”
Another coolie added, “Hu A’Jing died like that. So did Yue A’Er. And their bones were used under the same sugar cauldron they killed themselves in.”
The other men supplied further names of coolies whose bodies were burned without ceremony. Then they gave us several more names of men who were simply left to rot, in the fields. As we left the plantation, my gaze glazed past the crying leaves and praying trees, and saw overhead how the crows perched on the trees, the signposts, the fences, black eyes waiting for the next man’s death.
I have never been able to bear the sight of white sugar since.
“You could die easily like an ant.” - trans. Lisa Yun, The Coolie Speaks
It was the fifth town, or the sixth, that I was attacked on my route. My master was due to interview at a store owned by a Chinese man before visiting the depot. It was one of the very few places owned by Chinese, and the commissioners had been given so little time at the depot, they agreed that Commissioner Huber would go with his secretary to the depot to inquire there.
I was knocked off my horse with a bag of heavy grain. Someone hooted from the side of the road, and when I scrambled to get up, another voice shouted, in Spanish, “be careful!” They threw another bag at me, soft to not damage me, heavy enough to smack me back down.
I leapt to my feet. Five Cuban men, sweat shining on their sandy skin, surrounded me. A sixth was trying to capture my horse, which bucked wildly.
“I am the assistant to Commissioner Chen Lanpin, here on the orders of the Emperor of China!” I yelled at them in Spanish, one of the first things I had learned to say.
A couple of the men glanced at each other, then to their leader, who didn’t take his eyes off me.
Glancing around, I saw that ghosts had gathered at the side of the road. One of them approached, and then jumped threateningly towards us. My horse shrieked in response, and I slapped its rump to make it run away, back to where we had come from. The men jumped out of my horse’s way to avoid being run over, and I sprinted past them after it. Then I ran off the road, and vaulted over the first fence I saw into a sugarcane field.
The leaves sliced across my cheeks and forehead, and sweat and blood streaked across my face as I dashed towards the first group of workers I saw. They were both black and Chinese, and I ducked amidst them as my pursuers behind me shouted at them to stop me. I didn’t hear anyone shout anything against them, but I heard men trip behind me, even as I kept running.
Finally, in a tiny clearing among tall sugarcane grasses, I crashed to the ground, panting heavily. My knees knocked against each other as I curled up. I lay there a long while, contemplating what had almost happened.
Shadows hovered over me, and I didn’t have to look up to tell that they were ghosts. Overexposure to the multitudes of ghosts here had taught me by now how they felt: a prickling under my skin, a new thickness in the air. They patted me, maybe to determine whether I had joined their ranks yet, and they sat around me. In the distance, I heard the shouts of angry men, and knew that my pursuers were still looking for me.
I lay still, murmuring sutras under my breath over and over. The rustling passing me grew louder, and I saw the leaves of the sugarcane trees around me weave into a protective barrier. Soon, the danger moment lifted, and I was left alone in my hiding place save for one ghost who was staring at my face hungrily when I finally focused on him.
Even on his ghostly form his face was pale, but there was something about it I knew immediately—Ah Kheng! He had my father’s long face, but my mother’s eyes. Fourth Brother had a very similar face; my siblings and I were known in our village for our distinctive looks.
Breathless, my words tumbled forth. “It’s me. I’ve come for you. I am Lim Jia, our father was Lim Sung. From Red Leaf Village. Don’t you recognize me?” It was a stupid question; he had left when I was an infant. Yet I couldn’t help myself, in my rush to make the connection.
His hands reached out for my face, and the remains of a spider web drifted across his face, the dew his tears. Then he stepped away, and I peered closely at him—perhaps I was mistaken. He shook his head, and began to walk away towards a copse of trees at the corner of the plantation.
When I did not follow, he stopped, turned to me, and beckoned.
Something in me grew cold. I didn’t want to go.
He stood in the corner of the field, and gazed down at the root of a sugarcane tree. Tears ran down his face, and he gestured to it.
I blinked, then bent down to the plant. It didn't look anything out of the ordinary.
He gestured again, even more insistently, and emitted a grunting sound. It should not have felt like a shriek, but it did, and I covered my ears and crouched down. When I opened my eyes, I noticed a rock at the bottom of the sugarcane.
They burned the bodies and scattered the ashes across the field.
I had heard that two towns ago! Why was I thinking of it now? But trembling, I reached down for the stone, and dug around the corners to pull it up.
The fragment of a skull, black as charcoal, smudged grey by the earth.
The singing of blood, the certainty of tears, the clenching of the heart—these are ways the mind expresses its grasp on truth when logical explanation will do no accounting for itself. This is how I knew I had found my brother.
I curled up around it, pressing it to my chest. “First Brother, how can I take this home to our family?” I wept. “You are scattered across the fields and your ashes have been pounded into the dirt. Even Mother wouldn’t be able to recognize you.”
I scrubbed my eyes with my sleeve, and then saw an ant on the edge of my robe. We are like ants, and can be crushed any minute like one, I recalled. Several of the petitions wrote on the same theme.
“Friend in the soil,” I murmured to it, “all my countrymen are just like you in this land. Please, let me recite a sutra for you, that you all may be reborn in a better life.”
When the words tumbled from my mouth, I meant every syllable. The ant waved its antennae at me, and when I was finished, it seemed satisfied at my offering, and began to walk again. I set my robe against a leaf, and let it walk off.
I looked up at my brother, his face sallow with the suffering he had borne before dying. I felt like I had to say something, so I babbled about Mother keeping faith that he was still alive, and the women who had married our Second and Third Brothers. I told him about Father’s ghost still keeping watch over the family, and about growing up in the temple. He squatted down to listen to me.
A prickling at my feet made me glance down, and I found a line of ants, each with a black speck of dust in their pincers. I blinked, then looked at Kheng, who was starting to smile. His form sharpened around the edges, and as the ants dropped their burdens at my feet, he seemed to become more solid, although I knew he wasn’t.
His ashes. I cried again in relief and gratitude, and mumbled all the prayers of thanksgiving I could think of, for the ants, for the earth, for the spirits and living men in the field who had helped me. I reached into a pocket for a handkerchief and carefully swept Kheng’s ashes into it, then tied it up.
I made my way out of the sugarcane field, and stood on the fence to look around, making sure there wasn’t another group waiting to ambush me before I headed back. The walk back took a while, but I happily babbled at Kheng’s ghost, walking next to me. Labourers who saw me stopped to look at me curiously, because I must have appeared completely mad, talking to empty air. My clothes were muddy, my face a mess, and my queue probably looked as terrible as the rest of me. I didn’t care. In my arms I cradled the cloth with my brother's ashes. For the first time since arriving on this island of complete misery, I had something to be happy about.
When I stumbled into the small dry-goods shop where the commissioners were conducting their inquiry, Master Chen was just finishing with a group of men. Their eyes were dull when I looked in, but one of them turned to face me, and began to stare.
As they filed out to let the next group in, the coolie stopped to talk to me just outside the door. “You look like one of the men who worked here.”
“Lim Kheng?” I whispered.
I closed my eyes, trying not to cry. Again. “Did you see him die?”
He hesitated. “Yes.”
He didn’t want to answer.
“How,” I hissed.
He swallowed. “He was a foreman. He beat us. So we killed him.” He licked his mouth nervously. “I’m sorry. We didn’t want to, but it was already too much. We had already killed all the other overseers, and we thought a countryman would understand, but he beat us all the same.” His words fell out in a waterfall rush. “We thought we would just beat him to teach him a lesson, but he was sick and we didn’t know. I’m sorry.”
I couldn’t say anything for a long time. It seemed so impossible that a family member of mine could have been cruel—no one in our family was cruel! But I had seen so many such impossible things here, so I bit my tongue.
The coolie’s eyes were very still, waiting for my reaction. He knew the wrong, a wrong among so many other wrongs.
“Thank you for telling me,” I told the man. I took a deep breath. “I’m also sorry.” Then I turned to enter the room where the commissioners had begun to question the new group of men.
But my brother’s ghost stood in front of me, stern and grim. He gestured back at the men who killed him. I blinked. Did he want me to punish them? Did he want me to beat them, blow for each blow he had been dealt? He shook his head, and pressed a hand over his heart. He cupped my cheek with the other one, and looked over my head at his killers, who were also his countrymen, who were also my countrymen.
I turned back and ran after the coolie. He seemed frightened by me, and shrank back.
Instead, I bowed low. “Sir, on behalf of my brother, please accept my humblest apologies for the pain he has caused you.”
He was confused.
“In this place, you all are suffering so much. Even in death, you may not be able to go home. I am only a small clerk, but I hope you will give me the opportunity to help you. If you tell me your names and your hometown, I will make sure I send home word to your families. That is the only merciful thing to do, and my brother would have done the same for you, if he had been able.”
I kept myself bowed, waiting for the man’s answer. He licked his lips uneasily.
Finally, he bowed. “We would be honoured.”
Later, the commissioners exclaimed a bit over my condition, and Master Chen was furious that a servant of his had been attacked by Cubans. But the rest of the day, I would feel the bundle of ashes in my sleeve pocket, and see my brother’s ghost, now close to me.
The stinging of my face and the aches I felt the rest of the trip were, I thought, worthwhile.
“There are hundreds of thousands of Chinese labourers in Luasong, while there are hundreds of thousands of sorrowful families in China.” – trans., Denise Kelly, The Cuba Commission Report: A Hidden History of the Chinese in Cuba
Master Chen did not raise the incident again and soon, we were on the way back to Havana. We would stop there one more time, visit yet another nearby town, and return to China from after. He had not sent me on any further errands by myself, and, when Macpherson and Huber had suggested I ride out again, given them such a terrible glare it made their faces, usually red from heat, pale. I even got to ride in the carriage with them, rather than on the wagon behind.
At a rest stop, while the other commissioners had gone to take some air before continuing, he leaned forward. “What are your thoughts, Ah Jia?”
I pondered the question, thrown by the guan-hwa. At that moment, I hadn’t been thinking about anything in particular. “About what, master?”
“This mission we are on.”
“Oh.” I frowned. It was a question that could easily draw an offensive answer. “I think that it is…. going as well as could be expected.”
Commissioner Chen’s eyebrow twitched—a small gesture, but indicative of when he felt he was being lied to. “How do you feel about it?”
“It is distressing to see so many of my own countrymen in such states of suffering, with so little recourse to justice.”
“It is good that you are so honest, Ah Jia. Perhaps I remember wrongly, but you once mentioned your eldest brother?”
I nodded, pleased he remembered. “Lim Kheng. The last we heard of him… the last we heard of him, he said he was coming to Cuba.”
“And have you found any sign of him?”
“I met a man at one of the plantations who said he saw the family resemblance.”
“And what are you holding so tightly in your pockets?”
I hadn’t realized that my hands, which I had tucked into my sleeves, had been trembling as I gripped onto my brother’s ashes. I swallowed. “The man gave me these ashes, and said they were the last of my brother.”
Again, the small twitch of his eyebrow. “And you believe him.”
I turned my head to look through the window. “There are three zhongguo-ren on the railing, watching this conveyance, your eminence,” I remarked. “They sit on the stile by the side of the road beside the building that your honourable colleagues have entered.”
Master Chen had a look, then leaned back. His eyebrow, however, did not twitch. “There are no countrymen of ours on the railing, and if there were, that would give credence to the idea that those who are trapped here are lazy and should be at work.”
I kept silent a moment. “One of them has half his head ripped open by blows, and the other two have twisted arms and necks. They are all hungry, but no one will feed them in this land, because those who know our traditions cannot, and those who don’t will never feel their vengeance. Their spirits are disintegrating, and will never know justice.”
He contemplated what I told him. “I had rather thought your secret a bit more mundane, Ah Jia,” he said at last.
I managed a small smile at him. “I entered your service under no false pretenses, your honour. You requested a servant and a clerk, and I have served you in both capacities.”
“You have done it well. You will make fine sons, Lim Jia.”
Master Chen patted the front of my head, where I had shaved away my hair for a queue. It was one of the rare times he ever touched me.
I might have replied him, but Commissioners Huber and Macpherson returned then from their cigar, and we continued our way to Havana.
Like every night, I copied the petitions and deposition transcriptions. My wrist began to ache with every stroke of my brush, and eventually I set it down to consider the stacks before me. I heard the commissioners at work in the next room, their guan-hwa soft beneath the wind that signaled a storm.
My brother’s ashes were a small bundle, taking up a fraction of my table. If I had had lost all four brothers, the pile would be higher, wider. If I had lost my cousin brothers, the ashes would spill over and fall to the floor. If even a tenth of my village had been lost, the ashes would cover the floor. The windows clapped open, and I was lost on a sea of ashes and brittle white bones. The flecks blew on the wind, bone shards cutting my skin. Howling in the distance were the cries of men who would never see their homes again, unclaimed by family and country.
Thunder jolted me awake, and I hurriedly rose to close the windows. Some rain had got in, and the wind had blown my work all over the place. Commissioner Huber came in to check on me, and found me picking up papers, ink stains on my hands and face.
“What’s wrong? What’s the matter? What happened?” he kept asking, his bad Gongtung-hwa grating on my ears.
Nothing. Everything. All the papers in my hands, and all the words that could have been written, all the names that would never be anymore. No one would ever be able to bring home this sea of ashes, much less lay to rest all their souls. Yet, to never try seemed worst of all.
“We beg your honor to show pity on our ant-like lives. Save us and right this injustice!”
- trans. Lisa Yun, The Coolie Speaks
After we had returned to the Tsung-li Yamen, Commissioner Chen released me from my service, and rewarded me generously. I paid him my final obeisance and took my leave, riding home on just a horse for a swifter journey. It was not like returning with a new rank, but it was no less glorious a return, because my brother’s ghost finally touched the soil of our homeland.
When I reached my village, my family welcomed me home with a great hubbub. I presented to them Kheng’s ashes, now in a proper urn, and instated them into the family shrine. We agreed on a date for the funeral, and I left for the temple.
The temple was quiet, and most of the monks had gone to sleep by the time I arrived. Master Wong, however, I found sitting in the hall, contemplating the face of the Goddess of Mercy. We exchanged news, our whispers bouncing off the walls gently; he told me of what had happened in my absence, and I told him of my service to Commissioner Chen.
Then, he asked me the question I itched to answer. “So, does your sight work in the lands abroad?”
I threw myself at his feet, weeping, and told him of the ghosts I saw, the thousands upon thousands fading in the wind, souls trapped in sugarcane trees and sweet grains transported across the world. I tallied them against the souls of the living, trapped by the laws of men which enmesh them further, and the helplessness of the Emperor’s reach. I doubted I could have brought my brother home alive, and the spirits I had to leave behind weighed heavy on my conscience.
“Teach me,” I begged. “Teach me how to bring them home.”
This story originally appeared in Hidden Youth: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History.