Cleaning his ear with a long stalk of grass, Ah Sing filled his wood stove with kindling. Alder leaves were fluttering in the trees, displaying their yellow undersides, which meant rain. Ah Sing shivered but did not light the fire; instead, he put a rough wool jacket over his cotton shirt. His room had no hooks but all his clothing was tidily folded and stacked on the wooden stool in the corner by the door. On top of the clothes he laid a few bone-white sticks. Sun-bleached, lighter than the pine branches he had originally whittled down for his kite, the driftwood would make a good frame. He sneezed and shivered again. He had lost his upper incisor yesterday.
The nerves of Ah Sing's arms and legs had grown hard as jade; he was turning into a mountain, solidifying. Even his face was like a palace statue. Smooth. Hairless. Varnished-looking. He had lost his eyelashes and three-quarters of his eyebrows; and lately, his ulcerated feet left tracks of blood on the wood floor. But he refused to wear the government-issue overshoes. His extremities felt no heat, no cold, no pain, anyway. In the next life he would be a mountain, the mountain he was now turning into, eternal and hard.
He had wept at the official diagnosis of leprosy.
"They sick but I not," Ah Sing would say in English to the doctors who accompanied the steamer Alert to the island and took flakes of skin from the backs of his hands. (Speaking English was masonry work, the words like bricks laid by hands; he spoke Cantonese with the other men on the colony, and the words flowed easily then, even when they had nothing to say.) His lost fingers, he explained to the doctors, "Coal mine in Nanaimo. Frostbite." He had difficulty pronouncing the word and it came out sounding like "flossed bite." Grunting once or twice, he would pry an oyster off a stone with his remaining fingers and hold it up.
"You send away Ah Sing," he always said to the visiting doctors, "back to China."
Today Ah Sing had fallen asleep on the beach next to his half-eaten lunch of sea urchins. Awoken by the sound of birds near his head, he had opened his eyes and was startled to see four black cormorants flying away. They reminded him of something: the cormorants he had felt sorry for when he was six years old and had laughed at by the age of nine, black birds circling the ancient uplifted seabeds in Chongwu Bay, catching fish they could taste but never swallow because of the white choke collars around their necks.
Three men left on D'Arcy Island now. They lived in the main building. Four cubicles side by side, each with its own door that opened onto a verandah facing Cordova Bay. Ge Shou hadn't been right in the head since a tree fell on him, and he spent his nights in the woods singing. Gold Tooth, who had never told Ah Sing his real name, cried all day and then sat at the edge of the forest, dulled and deadened, refusing to move. He had a cough that possessed him like a malevolent spirit, wracking his body until he spat blood. He was the newest resident.
Gold Tooth had arrived at the colony three years ago with his bowler hat and a Swiss pocket watch on a chain. Slipping on patches of seagrass in leather shoes, over barnacle-covered stones still wet from the tide, refusing any attempts at help from the government official from Victoria. Ah Sing had laughed at his vanity, but the watch - the watch - was as round as an eye. He stared at it until he felt like he was staring into a thousand tiny suns.
When they had the energy, Ah Sing and Ge Shou said they would murder the filthy thief while he slept. But the daily chores sapped their passion, the harvesting of clams and mussels, the chopping of firewood, the collection of rainwater from below the eaves or in the summer from the bog. Most days, when Ah Sing had finished, he would sit on the boulders that ringed the bay and watch the waves, pondering Buddha's question: How does one stop a drop of water from ever drying out?
Now, in his room, Ah Sing picked up his Buck knife and eyed the driftwood. He was searching for the most evenly balanced of sticks. He would carve the exact spaces needed to neatly wedge two smaller sticks into either side. He would wrap the joints with sewing thread. He would cut a tail to look like phoenix wings, or find some cormorant feathers on the beach to stand in their place.
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