"Did she turn you in?" Ah Sing asked.
"No!" Then after a moment he said, "They raided the Kwong Wo & Company Store; we were in the back, gambling."
It was pitch-black now. Ah Sing drew a stick through the ashes. The bark caught an ember and he blew at the small flame. He threw on more kindling until the wood crackled. The only light came from the small campfire; its shadows highlighted the heavy ridges of Gold Tooth's overgrown brow.
"When I was a kid I found this bottle with a note inside," Gold Tooth continued. "It'd washed up from Taiwan," he said. "Funny thing is, I don't remember what the letter said. It was a wide, fat bottle, like a medicine bottle. It was dull, scratched up by the rocks. I remember grabbing it and trying to open it while the older boys were gambling by the fishboats, and then it started to rain and I ran under an overturned dory. I tried to untwist the lid but it was rusted closed. Then I tried to get it off with a broken clam. I ended up smashing the neck off. I remember the bottle, but not the message. Strange, huh?"
Ah Sing drew his knees up to his chest. "Memory is a funny thing."
"I wonder what it said. Was it a love letter from some guy? Who knows? I don't remember."
Ah Sing didn't answer.
"I remember lots of other things. Swimming in the Zhu Jiang River. Ducks and geese. I ate lily roots. I loved water chestnuts and dates. Have you been to the hills of Guangxi? Limestone towers. I would visit my uncle and play in the fish ponds."
Gold Tooth turned on his side, away from Ah Sing, and curled up in the fetal position. Ah Sing's mother had turned on her side and died facing the wall. She had first lain in bed talking about her childhood, but when the sun rose, she had turned inward and fallen silent.
"In Canton the laundry waved like flags. We threw cats into the fetid canals. I had no parents. Stole food from the seething mass living on boats along the waterfront. Ran through the alleys making cutthroat signs at people and they feared me. I grew up to be a Tong, never did any grunt work. Laundry, houseboy, gardener. Never did any of that. I'm in extortion."
An hour or so later, Gold Tooth started to cry, softly, under his breath. He mumbled something inaudible.
"Will you send my bones back to China?"
Ah Sing sat up.
"You know the worst thing about it?"
"I never knew her real name."
"First it was the cotton balls, I couldn't feel them. Then I couldn't feel the suit against my skin. This is my best suit. My best suit."
"I called her Zao," he said. He started sobbing.
* * * *
Ah Sing dozed in the forest to the sound of Gold Tooth's laboured breathing. The stretches between his exhalations grew longer, as if each breath was becoming too precious to release. Another and another. He clutched the life within him and refused to unleash it, greedily holding the air for ten seconds at a time, fifteen, twenty.
Ah Sing dreamed a man with a roomful of rice was trying to make him swallow it all, and awoke choking. Gold Tooth's eyes appeared fixed on an immature bald eagle circling overhead, and in the dawn light he almost looked alive. Ah Sing rubbed his clawed hands vigorously over his own cheeks. He closed Gold Tooth's eyelids and touched the man's chest. He felt along the body, found the Swiss pocket watch and slipped it into his own pocket. An object valuable enough to buy passage off the island, maybe even to pay the deportation costs back to China. Ah Sing couldn't see clearly and stumbled toward the ocean, moving branches away from his face through the brush.
He ran to the beach, to the emergency flag on the hill.
* * * *
The Victoria Tug Company steamer Alert delivered quarterly supplies: tea, dried fish, axes, razors, handkerchiefs, and, in the last load, a looking glass. It was surprising to see the tug so soon; often they would raise the flag and no one would show up for weeks.
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