PEARL RIVER, 1875
WEI WATCHES HER little brother, Sheng. His dark hair is shorn so close to his skull it is merely a field of prickles across his head. She knows, up close, his scalp gleams through, the colour of a boiled duck egg. His eyes are puffy, and the birthmark, mulberry red in the shape of a stork in flight, cups his left eyebrow. Over his grimy shirt he wears a vest, the tattered wool much too thin to guard his sparrow chest against the wind’s bite. He holds a rice bowl in one hand, and he wipes his nose along his sleeve, smearing a snail-line of snot. He’s still crying, and their sister, Jyu, shorter than he is, slaps his flat cheek.
A tuft of Jyu’s thick hair rises like a wave in a sleek, black ocean, from where she has slept on it. The sleeves of her jacket only reach mid wrist. For two winters now it has been too small for her. Her red slippers – once Wei’s – are faded, and Wei can see the soy-bean stain on the toe of one of them from the time her sister dropped her bowl of noodles. The baby is too heavy for her. Jyu can only hold it beneath one armpit as it slides down her hip. Its head lolls back as she takes the fried bread their mother hands her.
They are both so young, neither of them reaches Wei’s elbow. Much too young to be taken away. Sold. Bargained down to the best price, so the family can repay the loan their father has failed to honour.
Even from her hiding place behind the crate of geese, Wei can see the planes of her mother’s face, how her cheeks are collapsed in on where her molars are missing from the back of her mouth. The furrows etched between her brows, the glaze in her eyes like she’s already dead. Even when a peddler runs past, pulling a cart piled high with radishes, she doesn’t blink away the dust that rises in the air, nor step back from its trundling wheels. She doesn’t flinch, either, when the broker hammers the sign into the dirt that advertises Wei’s siblings for sale.
WEI DREAMS THAT they’re in their house near Broken Bowls Point, in the room painted serpent green. Three men are there, she can’t see their faces, and they lead her mother away, her hands braced high above her head.
When Wei wakes, her chest quakes like she’s still weeping. Pressing her eyes shut against their instinctive flutter, she tries to hold onto the feeling of being at home, but the warmth she feels is not from being coiled around her younger siblings under their blankets, and the smell in this hut is not of piddle emanating from the baby’s swaddling. When she finally opens her eyes, she stares at the familiar pattern of mould that blotches the canvas wall. Voices rumble through the torn fabric, the sound almost drowned out by the sharp beat of pickaxe pounding rock.
She lies on her side and sweat pools in the hollow between her collar bone and throat. The bedding beneath her, and the dirt beneath that, is as warm as heated brick. Perspiration beads her brow, heats her bones, as if she has a fever. She thinks of her mother again, wonders how she reacted when she realised Wei and her older brother had run away. Was she so angry that a tincture of blood flushed her chest, like the time she caught Lai Yue breaking a window to steal a coin left on the sill? Or did she collapse in a heap on the timber floors, wailing at their desertion? Sadness claws at Wei’s chest and she feels a prickle at the corner of her eye. She rolls onto her back and stares up at the sagging roof. Maybe her mother didn’t react at all. Maybe she just stared ahead, blinded, like the last time Wei saw her in the distance near the docks, when that man led Wei’s younger siblings away.
Sitting up, she crosses her legs and tightens the band around her chest. Her breasts are not any bigger than shrimp dumplings, but she has to hide them. She’s seen the look in the eyes of some of the men when they catch sight of the white women in town. She doesn’t want to see that look directed at her. Not here. Not where lust will be mixed with fury at her trickery.
She stands and lifts the flap that serves as the door to their hut, wondering where Lai Yue can be. Her eyes take in the makeshift shanty town they’ve created: a huddle of lean-to buildings erected upon the ruins of the last shanty town. A group of men tramps past, shovels resting on their shoulders, pigtails swinging. Their neighbour, Taw Taw, slurps rice porridge from a bowl. Wei feels her stomach stretch, as empty as a hollowed gourd.
Sidling past, she dodges other improvised shacks made from timber debris and sacking, hessian and tin, and crosses a shallow clearing that’s been pitted and ravaged by those feverishly hunting for gold. She makes her way as far into the bush as she dares, to crouch by a shrub at the very edge of the foul-smelling copse. As she relieves herself, a small bird stares down at her from a high branch, its breast as yellow as the Qing porcelain bowl her father once prized – the one with the elegant pheasant painted across its surface. The bird tweets at Wei three times while the feathery grass whispers against her bottom.
Returning to her tent, she passes Taw Taw again. Her mouth waters as she watches him drink the last of his soup. She’ll sip some water – that often works, for a short period, at least, to soothe the familiar pangs that warble their hungry notes in her stomach. As she looks around for her brother, hoping he’s managed to beg some porridge for their morning meal, her left hand slips into her pocket, feels for the preserved plum she’s saved there. A small prize she found just lying on the path to the other side of camp three days ago. Her fingers rub its pruned skin, find the ridges from where her teeth have nibbled a little hole in its flesh. Her tongue clenches at her throat, but she’s not hungry enough yet. Not so starving that her fingers tremble and her heart shudders. Her pocket food is for such a time. Until then it rests, waiting for her. ‘How is the porridge?’ she asks Taw Taw, politely.
He burps. ‘Is good,’ he says in English. Nods at her. ‘Say English. Is good.’
Wei repeats what she hears. Taw Taw’s a neat little man with the cheekbones of a squirrel. He hasn’t stepped straight off a boat like Wei and Lai Yue. He wears a felt hat with a wide brim like the white men, and his shiny coat, long-sleeved with white peonies embroidered upon it, is even fancier than the headman’s. It’s like the one her grandfather wore on market day when he was still alive. But that was sold long ago, after the second thirsty summer when the mulberry leaves drooped on the trees, and the green fruit remained hard and bristled. Taw Taw’s been in this southern land for many years, knows the language, can comprehend the white people. He arrived at their dig site three days after Wei and her brother, and he works for the Chen tong like they all do. But he isn’t beholden to the syndicate’s supply of food and water like the others. He already has copper and silver coins of his own. When the rest of the diggers wait for their porridge and watery tea, he eats well, buying the odd cabbage and piece of meat from the pedlars who pick their way through their camp every few days.
The first time Wei saw Taw Taw, she’d felt a pinch of alarm, because he smoked from a pipe – carved rosewood, with a bronze tip and a jade stem – that reminded her of the pipe the village taxman puffed. The taxman was a tall man, with features as hard and unforgiving as a jagged slate outcrop, and when he last visited her mother, not that long before Wei fled with her brother, he carried away the last of the silk thread, four fine, ceramic bowls and a sack of rice. But he’d missed her grandmother’s mortar and pestle, made from swollen stone the colour of sand. It was too heavy to lug across the seas, so Wei had left it hidden from the taxman behind the broken tub, although she’d managed to tuck the smaller set – the wooden one with the ceramic pestle – into her sack.
When Wei was little, her grandmother let her open and close the many drawers of her medicine cabinet that was made of a wood so old the tree was now extinct. Of course, the cabinet was long gone, sold to pay gambling debts. Wei had deposited what medicinal ingredients she could – cardamom, silkworm droppings, gingko nuts and more – into fabric pockets tied with string. Only four of the herbs and seeds remained. By the time they reached dry land again, most of her belongings were covered in mildew, and her sack was soiled with vomit and salt water.
LATER IN THE morning, Wei’s brother finds her standing by the side of the river, a little downstream from the camp. She’s gazing at her countrymen who step through the water, crouching low over their pans. Clusters of straw hats bob in and out of view far up the riverbed until, in the distance, she can see a group of lean, white men at their own derelict camp. The sounds of rock scraping tin, the slough of wet dirt, the low murmur of Kwun’s singing, are punctuated by the raucous caw of the large grey birds that bicker among the branches of the ironbarks. The heat from the sun is implacable, and most of the men have taken off their shirts. Wah Sing’s back is flushed red as he bends over the splintered cradle he’d purchased from a departing miner, while the skin on Poh’s back peels away in blowsy, dirty flakes.
Of course, Wei can’t take off her shirt, exposing the band that bounds her femaleness. When they first arrived at the site five weeks ago, she’d cut the sleeves from her blue shirt and, on days like today, when the fabric is wrung through with sweat, she waits for – prays for – the occasional breath of air to fan her body. Wei wishes her dig site was in the water instead of this small area of rubble she’s been assigned. The best she can do to cool down is to tramp through the shallows. She’s also learnt to soak a cloth in the water, place it over her head under her straw hat, and wait for the exquisite trickle of chill water down her neck and back.
The river is the colour of her mother’s pork and lettuce soup, but it smells of mud and decaying tea-tree leaves. Taw Taw says that originally the water was clear, full of fish. A week ago, Lai Yue caught one, long and spangled; just reached into the murky water beyond his pan and grabbed it by the tail. Once they’d shared out the roasted flesh among some of their friends, Wei had eaten her ration of four pale flakes one at a time, savouring its muddy taste, not even wishing there was some soy sauce to splash across the dish.
Wei’s eyes search the trees that rustle at the edge of the camp. She looks across the river to the other side, past the brown grass and shrubs that shimmer in the blaze of the sun. But no dark figures shift in the shadows of the gums. Beneath the fear that rests inside her, she wonders. She wonders if they miss their fish.
‘Wei, found anything?’
She looks up at her brother, who’s holding out a small bowl to her. She swats a fly from where it’s trying to sup on the salty perspiration that forms at her hairline.
Shaking her head, she says, ‘Nothing today,’ and stares down into the cold porridge he’s given her. Barely enough to fill a teacup. ‘Remember the porridge Mother made us when we were ill, brother?’ The sprinkle of spring onions across the top, pink pickles, sometimes sausage. Steam rising against the winter air. So much porridge it would make her stomach as tight and distended as a drum. A single tear drops onto her thumb that holds the bowl. She can barely feel the tear’s trail down her cheek, through the sweat that slicks her face.
‘I had that dream again,’ she says. ‘Of the taxman taking Mother away. I don’t know why I keep dreaming of it. Do you think it has happened? That I’m dreaming of what is actually happening at home?’
Her brother scowls. ‘Wei, wipe your face,’ he says, setting a stool on the ground. ‘It will look strange if the others see tears in your eyes. They will wonder what sort of man weeps.’
Wei sips the porridge from the lip of the bowl. She glimpses something black in the rice and, pressing her eyes shut, she takes another mouthful, imagining that it’s a cube of preserved duck egg. She can almost feel its jelly melting against her tongue. Only three more mouthfuls – painstakingly measured mouthfuls – and the porridge is finished.
Lowering herself onto the stool in front of her brother, she lifts the straw hat from her head. She holds her plait in her right hand so that it coils in her lap like a resting adder, and she leans her head back towards him. The metal of the razor scrapes across her scalp, as warm as blood.
When he’s finished, Wei gingerly runs her hand over the bald front-half of her head. Her fingertips search out the line that divides the skin of her scalp from where her queue begins.
She turns to glare at Lai Yue. ‘You always take too much off. It looks ugly.’ She unravels the plait so she can free the shaved hair that hangs loose from her scalp.
Her brother shrugs. ‘I have to make it straight. Sometimes I shave too much in one place, and then I have to straighten up the rest. And anyway, you’re supposed to look like an ugly boy. You’re not a pretty girl here, Wei.’ A grin lifts his lips. ‘Not that you were ever a pretty girl, even in China.’
His words sting, yet she’s pleased to see that smile. She can’t remember the last time she saw him look happy. He’s only nineteen years old, but there are creases in his forehead that weren’t there before they came to this place, and the skin under his eyes is pale, baggy. The bruise on his cheek has faded a little, is no longer the livid purple of an eggplant, and the cut above his lip has nearly healed and looks like nothing more than one of the many other wrinkles or creases scored into his skin by this land’s cruel sun.
They weren’t quick enough the last time a rowdy bunch of white fellows descended upon them. Didn’t hear the drunken cries of ‘Roll up! Roll up!’ in time to save their two pickaxes, the sturdy metal pan they’d traded for Wei’s winter coat, the last of the rice they’d hidden deep in the soil. One man – as gingery as a fox, with bristling, shaggy eyebrows, who seemed taller because he was so skinny – swung the spade across Lai Yue’s head and called out something in his devil tongue before chasing after others. Their camp, nearly sixty Chinese men, scattered in all directions, like a swarm of locusts shaken violently from a tree.
Wei’s learning their white language swiftly, but not quickly enough to catch words shouted in anger, in threat.
WEI PAUSES FOR a moment and leans against her long-handled shovel. The sun is directly above, baking her straw hat. She feels dizzy and, when she glances up, her vision is sepia-tinted. Water. She needs water. Her tongue runs across her cracked bottom lip. Her legs are wobbly as she makes her way to the jam jar full of water she’s left by the stacked dirt. Her hand trembles a little as she lifts the glass to her lips so that some dribbles down her chin. She thinks again of the preserved plum nestled in her pocket, imagines rolling its sweetness in her mouth. Her stomach shifts, but she decides she won’t eat it. It won’t be too long until their next bowl of porridge. She can wait, just as she’s waited every other day, her stomach shrinking against her backbone like a starving beast. Placing her left hand into her pocket, though, she runs her fingers over the fruit. She brings her fingertips to her nose as though she’s swiping a fly away and sniffs the star-anise fragrance that lingers there. It’s almost as pleasurable as tasting the plum. Almost.
The men are quieter now in the stark heat of the day as they hack rock and toss dirt across their wash dishes. Even Kwun doesn’t sing anymore. He hunches over his cradle, rocking it back and forth. Wei has tried using a cradle only once. There’s a knack to it that she just couldn’t master, so by the end of the day, the headman had moved her to the dry plots, where gravel islands wait for the younger men – boys – to bring their buckets of water to wash through the soil.
Wei moves to a space beside the one she’s worked all morning and, her toe nudging away a rusty sardine can left by the white miners who’d been here before them, she slices the earth with her shovel. Luckily the dirt is rubbly, easily dug, almost like the red soil of home, where her family’s orchard once flourished. When she has a small heap of paydirt, she falls to her knees and rummages through it, picking out shards of broken whisky bottles. Her palms have taken on the colour of the soil, darker at the creases. Even if she soaks her hands in the river water, she’s unable to rinse away all of the dirt. She thinks that maybe she will be stained by this riverbed for the rest of her life.
Handful by handful, she deposits the dirt to her pan, jiggles it around, searches out some colour. But the only thing that glimmers is a drop of her sweat that dashes against the dull metal of the pan. The tip of her third finger catches against the jagged edge of a tin lid, splitting flesh and nail. For the rest of the afternoon she digs with her injured finger held aloft. By the time the sun is to the west, she’s stacked the dirt into a fresh gravel island.
A flicker – so tiny Wei wonders if it’s just a quiver of sweat marring her vision – catches her attention as she shovels away some earth from the side of the hole. She drops to her knees and scrabbles through the dirt, ignoring the sharp pangs that travel up her forearm from her injured fingertip. Her insides clench with excitement. But she’s patient, her tongue pressed between her lips, as she sifts through the lumpy earth in her pan. She presses the balls of soil between her fingers until they crumble into granules. By the fourth handful, a speck, the size of a satiated flea, sparkles against the skin of her palm. She grins. Feels as proud, as happy, as when she’d trapped seven sparrows for her mother’s soup last winter. She stands and looks around for Lai Yue, but she can’t see him. The other diggers gathered close by, mesmerised by the heat and their own pack-animal rhythms, pay her no attention. Lai Yue likes her to keep their finds secret, until he’s seen what she’s uncovered. Gulping down the last of her water, she gently flicks the crumb of gold into the bottom of her jam jar.
BY THE TIME the men wander off from their plots to seek their evening porridge, Wei has found nine gold fragments. Three of them are even as big as grains of rice. She wonders if she should stay throughout the night, guarding her site, or if she should continue digging by the light of a lantern. But she knows that would make others curious; they might even take over her plot and she wants to be the one to unearth what riches she’s discovered. She will return to her panning in the morning, just as she normally would. Tucking the jam jar under her arm, she walks towards her side of the camp.
She approaches her tent, passing Taw Taw, who’s roasting a large chunk of bullock meat over an open fire.
‘How are you feeling?’ she asks him, in English, averting her eyes from his meal. But the aroma of the smoke, the charred meat, are almost too much for her. It feels like there are marbles in her stomach, slipping and rearranging themselves. Her fingertips find the preserved plum.
‘Much better,’ he says. Nods at her. ‘Better.’
‘Better,’ she repeats.
Taw Taw remained aloof from his countrymen when he first came to their camp. He worked his allotted areas and then returned to his hut and fire, only ever speaking with the headman. By dawn of his fifth day, though, Wei heard terrible retching coming from outside their tent. By the ashen light of that morning, she found Taw Taw lying next to his barren fire, curled into himself like a sleeping pangolin. Vomit covered his shirt, and a milky trail of diarrhoea seeped into the ground. Wei still smiles to think of Lai Yue’s gagging as they pulled Taw Taw’s inert body into his shelter. She relished the opportunity to use her grandmother’s herbs, to sort through the bark that looked like woodchips, to grind them until they were as loose and fine as silt. They begged salt from Poh, and she made a paste from a root that resembled miniscule yams, eventually leaving Taw Taw to sip rice water left over from the cook. Each day, for eight days, Taw Taw paid for her care with a piece of gold the size of an oatmeal flake. And now he teaches her the white man’s tongue.
She’s placing the jam jar on the floor of the tent she shares with Lai Yue when the sound of raised voices reaches her. Her heartbeat picks up pace. Not another attack, please. She stands on her tiptoes to peer over the men who dip in and out of her field of vision, but Taw Taw remains seated, just glances over his shoulder.
A group of white men, perhaps nine or ten of them, cleaves a path through the rabble. Wei hears someone mutter ‘barbarians’ and Wah Sing spits in the dirt.
Lai Yue appears at her side. ‘They’ve come to check we have our digging licences.’
Wei thinks of the two government notes hidden away in the secret pocket of Lai Yue’s belt; of how their price of twenty shillings had forced them further into debt to the syndicate.
The white man who leads the posse holds his hand up, forcing those behind him to halt. A rifle is cradled in his left arm. His mouth widens into a smile as his gaze takes in the Chinese crowd. He’s slighter than his men, and clean-shaven. Wei’s shoulders relax. He seems friendly. Reasonable.
The man speaks loudly to make himself heard. Wei recognises some of his English words, like ‘warden’, ‘licence’, ‘pay’ and ‘Maytown’.
The headman of their dig, Lee Hung, pushes forward. He exchanges a few words with the warden and then indicates to his people that they must line up, present their papers. As Wei’s countrymen gather, a small commotion by the riverbed catches their attention. One of the warden’s men returns, grasping a Chinese youth by the upper arm. She thinks the boy’s name is Xia. He’s skinny, his blue shirt tattered, and he is no taller than the white man’s shoulder.
He’s protesting, trying to pull away. His captor says something to the warden, shaking his head. No licence.
The warden shrugs and calls to his men at the back. Two burly fellows lead a chestnut packhorse forward. With much ceremony and some jangling, they unfurl a long chain. Tens upon tens of metal pendants – Wei doesn’t know what they are – dangle from the links.
Xia howls and scrapes his heels through the dirt as they tug him towards the horse. Wei holds her breath and watches in horror as the tall men circle the boy. She can’t see what they’re doing. When they finally step back, their captive is manacled to the chain. Nearly another hundred handcuffs swing free.
The warden smiles pleasantly at the line of Chinese men, gesturing for them to move forward, show their licences. Each time he checks a slip of paper, he tips his hat and says, ‘Thank you, John Chinaman.’
Wei’s about sixth in line now, just behind her brother. She tries to concentrate on the sound of the dry leaves rustling above her, the shuffle of feet across the scrubby earth. Anything to drown out Xia’s shrieks, and the loud, pleading voices of those who join him on that long, thin chain. The warden’s men laugh, cup their hands to their ears like they can’t hear, can’t understand.
When Lai Yue hands over their licences to the warden, Wei wonders if his fingers are trembling, or if it’s the slight breeze that ruffles the paper. The warden reads the slips of paper, glances up at their faces. He smiles, but his eyes are as blank as sea-polished pebbles. He folds the licences over, hands them back. ‘Thank you, John Chinamen.’ As they make their way back to their tent, one of the warden’s men shoulders past them, heading straight for Taw Taw, who remains seated by his fire. With their countenances obscured behind shaggy facial hair and their pink skin florid from the sun, Wei finds it difficult to tell the difference between most of these white men. But the man who pushes past them, who stands over Taw Taw, has thick mutton chops, and his face is as pockmarked and dirty as a yam wrenched straight from the earth.
Taw Taw holds his hand up, nods, places the prong holding the bullock meat down on a boulder. He says something in English and tries to stand, but the other man pushes him back, so that Taw Taw nearly rocks off his stool. Wei thinks the warden’s man is talking in English but she can’t understand the rolls of his tongue, how the words growl from his mouth.
Taw Taw looks up at the white man, puzzled, says something again. ‘Yes,’ Wei hears. ‘I will get now.’
Slowly, he stands and moves to his hut, the other man inches behind. Taw Taw tries to smile reassuringly at Wei, says, ‘I was waiting for the end of the line. I was waiting for my meat to cook.’ He returns with a neat, leather satchel. Sliding his long fingers into the opening, he feels around.
He frowns. Pulling the satchel open wider, he peers inside. Rummages some more.
The white man shouts something, and Wei finds her fingers curling around the handle of her shovel. She feels faint.
‘I have it. I have it.’ Taw Taw repeats this, three times, once in English, as he sets the satchel on the ground, emptying its contents of tobacco, pumpkin seeds and one folded newspaper. ‘My money? My licence?’ Others press forward, and the fire’s smoke, mixed with the stench of curdled sweat and something like the gamey stench of fear, start to make Wei feel sick.
Taw Taw rests back on his heels, his eyes wide, as he stares at the satchel. An angry blush mottles the skin of his throat and Wei can see neat beads of sweat pepper his forehead. He holds his hands open, palms up. ‘Where is it?’
‘Another one,’ the pockmarked man calls out to his boss, grasping Taw Taw by the elbow. Taw Taw doesn’t resist, doesn’t protest. It’s like all energy has been shocked out of him. He only has time to gather together his satchel before the warden’s man drags him away from his camp.
The Chinese headman moves forward to intercede, but he’s pushed out of the way. The warden gazes at Taw Taw, looks almost sympathetic, and then nods his head towards the chain. Taw Taw stares at the dozen men already shackled and shakes his head, slowly, from side to side, his arms tightly folded around his satchel. He tries to pull away, takes three running steps towards the bush. With a whoop, the pockmarked man grabs Taw Taw’s queue. He yanks him by the hair across the clearing, as though Taw Taw is a yoked goat. Taw Taw falls to his knees in the dust, and Wei has to look away, can’t stand to see his shame. She grasps her shovel more strongly. It’s then that she notices that Taw Taw’s bullock meat, blackened at the edges, has rolled into the dirt.
Taw Taw is out of sight now. She can only hear the clanging of the chain and the harsh voices of the white men. The warden’s horse snorts, and the warden strokes its nose, says, ‘Not long.’
As Lai Yue and others crane forward to watch what’s happening, Wei takes a few steps towards the meat. An ant has already found it, cuts a quick route across the grains of the flesh. A few seconds later, another ant joins him. Eventually, five ants dart around in circles, surveying their find.
The warden finishes checking licences, tethering those who cannot pay the fine. His men gather up their captives in a long line and prepare to leave. Glancing up, Wei thinks she recognises the back of Taw Taws’s neat, bare head as they’re lead away. Through her despair her stomach constricts with hunger.
A tin cup arcs through the air, ricocheting off the warden’s hat. He takes the hat from his head, and his fingers smooth the felt. With a final friendly smile, he says, ‘You Chinkies have to learn there is no cheating our laws.’ He turns to follow his men through the bloodwoods, his rifle slung over his shoulder.
Beneath a gold-dust sunset that shudders above the gumtrees, Wei’s countrymen huddle in a group murmuring to each other.
One man, hunched, head bowed, weeps into the muddy river water.
Nobody looks Wei’s way.
Swiftly, she bends down and swoops up the bullock meat and slips it into her pocket.
Level 4, Griffith Graduate Centre
South Bank, Campus – Griffith University
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South Bank Campus, Griffith University
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