by Richard Lutman
She will always be mine, my forever swallow from China. She began to undress, unclasped her bra, slipped out of her panties and slid in next to me. I made room for her, giving up the warm space my body had created. I brushed the hair away from her black penetrating eyes. The sunlight on her hair, her perfumed skin, and the glitter of the gold she wore. I had forgotten about my life. What was it when compared to what I found with her?
Our haven was an abandoned church at the north end of Crooked Man Island where the richness of the place was like sex: languorous and sweet. We were awakened on our first night by the roar of rain on the leaves that sounded like a waterfall. As we lay on our cot in the dark bedroom, wind-blown drops burst against the screen and misted our skin. Our bodies tingled. At dawn a bird chirped. Then another, thrush-like, answered from the trees below the steps. Rain birds. She was happy.
“You are my flower,” I said.
“Flower die,” she said.
“I want to hold you.”
“Arms cold. Birthday tomorrow, give me present of pearls.”
She was the taste in my mouth. The tongue in my ear. The pearls were hers.
She told me her family first came to the New Territories to escape the Communist regime. After that they moved frequently, leaving few records until they settled in Sai Kung. The small apartment was barely large enough for the growing family. Her father became a fisherman the way his father and grandfather had. He had many mouths to feed. She said her father wanted to help her, but he didn’t know how. She described how he stood at the stern of his leaky old boat and felt the pulse of the sea move in his legs and back, giving him a grace and dignity he had never felt before. She said he felt young again.
Her father hauled the lines alone, lifting the fish through water the color of green olives. He told her how he flung the fish at his feet where they flipped and thrashed and beat themselves to death. She said he wanted to take her with him one day so she would understand life as he knew it when he held a silver fish in his knotted hands.
He liked it when the sea was calm, the surface lightly puckered by the day’s breeze. The snake of hose that rose from below deck spurted rainbow-oiled water onto the surface of the sea. The deck was a random scatter of rusty oil cans and crates. Her father’s hands were as leathered and grooved as the hide of the sea turtle he hoped one day to catch. The fish piled up at his feet. He sang to them of the future and of a husband for his fragile and beautiful swallow.
She hated the Catholic school on a nearby island where she had been sent. The yellow church, visible from the main pathway through the mangrove swamps, seemed out of place in the nearly deserted village, where for two weeks every summer the Girl Guides camped in the cement barracks half a mile away. Behind the camp was a cemetery of small white marble tombs with crosses and open fronts facing south toward the bay and sandbar. During bad weather the inlet was full of colored junks seeking shelter. She laughed at the old women who scurried like crabs across the rippled flats at low tide to gather shellfish. She wished I could have seen them.
She told me of how she ran to the place where the broken cement path formed a T by the mossy wall below the schoolyard, then continued down the stairs to the abandoned paddy fields and flats where mud skippers squirted through the ebbing tide and crabs raised their claws at all intruders, then scampered for cover.
To the left the path went past two deserted barns, then ended in saw grass and Banana trees. The roof of the farthest barn had collapsed and the jungle pushed through the broken walls. Once she found a yellow-spotted snake curled loosely around the roots of a red lantana. It raised its head to stare at her, tongue licking the air then slithered away.
In the next barn were bird cages of all shapes and sizes piled against the walls and filling the loft. She stood in the dark shadow of the door and imagined silent birds quivering and dainty on their perches in the leafy patches of sun that burst through the roof.
She told me about the sounds of the others in the schoolyard. The click of shoes, laughter and the rustle of the nuns by the wall where the yellow flowers grew. And beyond that, the constant buzz of the thick, hot air. She brought noodles for lunch and ate by herself in one corner of the sunny schoolyard. Sometimes the steam made her eyes itch. Afterward she stunk of noodles and sweat.
The peaks of the mountains to the west seemed to be forever covered in a thick gray mist. Dogs on the fish farm below the school barked and fought incessantly. The screams of the injured animals made her afraid. On her first day, the other students pinned her down and spat on her because she was a swallow from China who loved an American. She met me when I helped gather her scattered school papers that had blown across the main pier of Sai Kung. She was sixteen and looked to be twenty. From then on she had no interest in school.
On the side of the trail below the church frightened toads hopped frantically through the beams of my flashlight. Tomorrow I knew the island roads would be full of their bodies crushed by the passing trucks and cars. The pattern of death, quick and without warning, where no favorites were played in Nature’s selection.
I shut off my flashlight. We stood on a boulder that looked out over the water. Green lightning flashed over Hong Kong. It reminded us of a distant battle. The sky exploded again and again, but we heard no cries, saw no blood, smelled no death. The earth was still and did not shake. We wondered who won the distant conflict that tore the sky?
The sound and lights of a helicopter charged through the dark. Searchlights snapped on. The helicopter hovered above the island’s landing pad, then touched down briefly before careening once more into the night. Its sound died quickly. I wondered if it had landed invisible refugees from the distant battle.
Above the silent island the moon was like a plate of white jade. Then the brush rustled and the dark form of a snake slid across the path ahead. She grabbed my arm and I felt her tremble.
I snapped my flashlight on. The sharp beam of light reflected off the delicate patterns of a spider web. Below a dog began to bark hysterically. We heard voices yelling, the cries of the dog. Then silence.
The next day to escape a downpour we found ourselves stuck under a Banyan tree in the center square of the island. The wind was strong and the alleys were full of rivulets of brown water. A young girl slid open a gate behind us and put up her umbrella. She stepped out into the wet, wild air that smashed at the houses and people trying to take cover. In a few minutes she returned with a small red phone tucked in her arm like a baby.
Tired of waiting we ran back to the church. I slipped and fell against an old woman with an umbrella. She looked at us once then proceeded on her way down an alley. My thigh was sore for days. The stain on my shirt never washed away.
The glassy-eyed beggar we’d seen earlier, who smelled like urine and sweet vomit, squatted over the battered wooden trough behind the small alley restaurant we frequented scooped the discarded noodles into his mouth. A small child stared at him as she walked by, tripping over him, but the beggar kept on with his meal.
The rain stopped and Gloria stood in front of an old man with strands of hair on his chin pondered the lines on her hand. He seemed to understand what the lines said, laughed, peered closer, then thrust his wrinkled hand toward us for money. He smelled like rotten cheese. She yelled at him and pushed him away.
Then she stood looking at a baby that had fallen asleep on its mother’s lap. I thought I saw a tear shine in her eye
Below the church an old woman with her fishing pole slid through the scrub bushes to the beach below. She glanced at us. I started after her, stumbling on the uneven terrain and plunged forward, losing my footing and tumbling onto a coarse white sand full of shells. My swallow laughed and gave me her hand. The old woman positioned herself among the brown boulders further down the beach, intent on the fishing line that disappeared into the murky water.
A pile of driftwood had been tossed against one of the boulders that defined the other end of the beach. A shallow pool between the rocks and beach was clear and inviting. I stripped to my underwear and sat in the tepid water. I plunged my head under then surfaced. The water didn’t cool me and I felt the sun’s penetrating heat. I plunged under once more, breast stroking. I lay back in the water as my swallow laughed and splashed water at me. The old woman jerked her rod and a fish broke the surface.
“I tell you the story about the Fangs,” said my swallow kneeling next to me on the sand. “It is time now and is as I tell. They fly through forest much pursue by Fangs whose terrible working with head choppers of Kun Shing much feared in China.
“Sometimes she trip and he hold her up, sometimes dress caught on the branches and rip. ‘Go run! Leave me! Save yourself” she cry, but he drag her. Night come and forest no sound. They reach rocky place to lie down, much tired in each other’s arms. As we do. They huddle there, hear no pursuit. Forest afraid. ‘You are so brave,’ she whisper. ‘So magnificent, so…’ She sigh. Very much gratitude. She untie cloth belt her cloak open. ‘Until you,’ she said, ‘I have been as pure as the mountain ice.’ Like me. Little did she know that at that moment many Fang circle them in great silence.”
Editor’s Note on A Swallow from China:
A Swallow from China is not Richard Lutman’s first work to appear in Eastlit. His previous published pieces are the three chapters of The Iron Butterfly: