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A young guy named Jack Hong hitchhikes throughout America following the keilin, a mystical unicorn out of Chinese mythology. The keilin leads him to ten adventures with ghosts and other supernatural figures. These experiences reveal to him not only parts of American history he never knew, but also his own identity and the role he will choose for his life.~~~~~ Description ~~~~~The moonlight was still strong, and Lo Man Gong still sat up on the overhead window, where few people and no old men could ever get.“Feel better, Chinaman?” he asked mildly.The night before, my resistance had been low, and his presence had somehow seemed tolerable, if not rational. Now I was more clear-headed ... yet he was still here. I didn’t like him as much.I let my eyes drop closed again. Once I was cured of malaria, I’d be free of him. I had eaten twice today; now, if I slept well, I’d be in sound shape pretty soon.“You know the keilin, Chinaman Jack?”That was the Chinese unicorn, a mystical animal whose rare appearances were highly auspicious. In the Cantonese I normally heard, it was pronounced “keilun.” It wasn’t like European ones, though. This unicorn had the body of a deer, the hooves of a horse, the tail of an ox, and a fleshy horn. I knew that much.“The unicorn?” I opened my eyes and looked at him. As before, the moonlight glowed through his shape.“Ah, you know the keilin. He smiled and nodded thoughtfully. “The keilin means good things happen. It’s very powerful.”I watched him silently.After a while, he looked into my eyes again. “Nobody remember me, Jack. Some people remember, some of my frien’. A few of them. Most, nobody remember at all. No children, no relative. You, Jack. You like me. Unless you change.”Yes, I knew that. I had already come to understand that. And I knew that he had come for me, here in the middle of the country, away from his home as longtime Californ’. But I didn’t know why.
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The Complete Adventures of Jack Hong
by William F. Wu
Portions of this collection were previously published as follows:
Copyright 1985 William F. Wu (Abridged) “Wild Garlic,” Faery!, ed. Terri Windling. N.Y.: Ace Books, 1985.
Copyright 1988 Crispin Burnham. (Complete) “Wild Garlic,” Eldritch Tales, ed. Crispin Burnham, Vol. 5, No. 1, Whole Number 15 (January 1988) Reprinted: Pulphouse: the Hardback Magazine, ed. Kristine Kathryn Rush, Issue Nine. Fall 1990.
Copyright 1988 William F. Wu. “On a Phantom Tide,” Pulphouse: the Hardback Magazine, ed. Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Issue One, Fall 1988. Reprinted: The Best of Pulphouse: The Hardback Magazine, ed. Kristine Kathryn Rusch. NY: St. Martin’s Press, 1991.
Copyright 1988 William F. Wu. “The Shade of Lo Man Gong,” Pulphouse: the Hardback Magazine, ed. Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Issue Two, Winter 1988. Reprinted: Short Story Paperbacks, Eugene, OR: Pulphouse Publishing. No. 35, August 1991; Unicorns II!, ed. Jack Dann and Gardner Dozois. N.Y: Ace Books, 1992.
Copyright 1989 William F. Wu. “Pagan Midnight,” Pulphouse: the Hardback Magazine, ed. Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Issue Three, Spring 1989.
Copyright 1989 William F. Wu. “Desert Night Ride,” Pulphouse: the Hardback Magazine, ed. Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Issue Five, Fall 1989.
Copyright 1990 William F. Wu. “Caravan of Death,” Pulphouse: the Hardback Magazine, ed. Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Issue Six, Winter 1990.
Copyright 1990 William F. Wu. “Up on Tong Yun Guy,” Pulphouse: the Hardback Magazine, ed. Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Issue Seven, Spring 1990.
Copyright 1991 William F. Wu. “Shaunessy Fong,” Pulphouse: the Hardback Magazine, ed. Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Issue Eleven, Spring 1991. Reprinted: Short Story Paperbacks, Eugene OR: Pulphouse Publishing. No. 60, July 1992; Short Story Hardbacks, Eugene, OR: Pulphouse Publishing. No. 40, July 1992.
Copyright 1993 William F. Wu. “Tinsel Chink,” Pulphouse the Hardback Magazine, ed. Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Issue Twelve, Fall 1993.
Copyright 1993 William F. Wu. “In the Temple of Forgotten Spirits,” Pulphouse the Hardback Magazine, ed. Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Issue Twelve, Fall 1993.
This collection is dedicated to my parents, Dr. William Q. Wu and Cecile F. Wu, and my brother, Christopher Nelson Wu.
Special thanks are due to the following for invaluable aid and friendship involving this collection:
Dr. William Q. Wu and Cecile F. Wu, my parents, who explained our heritage, told me anecdotes, took me around the United States and to East Asia, and helped me with the Chinese dialects;
Dean Wesley Smith and Kristine Kathryn Rusch of Pulphouse Publishing, who provided Pulphouse: The Hardback Magazine as a home for these stories;
Michael D. Toman, who critiqued some of the early stories and provided special research aid and friendship over the years;
Rob Chilson, who critiqued many of the remaining stories and provided moral support and friendship during this time;
Diana G. Gallagher, who offered enthusiastic support for “On a Phantom Tide” at a reading in Florida, and for keeping many of the following years interesting;
Chelsea Gallagher Streb, who read a few lines of this manuscript over my shoulder occasionally while trying to get me to stop working and play games with her, or while she practiced for a possible future in hairstyling;
Laura J. LeHew, for her ongoing friendship and support and my special affection for her;
Chris, Jenny, and Michael Wu, my brother and his family, who have always been supportive and who hosted me on some of my research trips;
Alan Brennert, for his friendship, encouragement, and advice during these years;
Garrett Kaoru Hongo, for his friendship and our youthful sharing of thoughts on writing, our Asian American heritages, and life in general;
Connie Hayashi Smith, for her friendship and our sharing of our respective cultural heritages, both similarities and differences;
The memory of Milton B. Edmonson, who first took me deep into the Ozark Mountains and introduced me to the camping, canoeing, and small towns to be found there;
Leonard Carpenter, who hosted my last research trip up and down the central coast of California;
Pamela L. Paine, for her help in the final preparation of the manuscript;
Clarion, The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Workshop of 1974;
The Milford Writer’s Workshop of 1980;
Sharon Hamil for her eighth-grade creative writing club and her short story assignments in class.
Finally, this collection is also presented in memory of Karl Chen.
“Where are you from?”
I’ve been weary of this question since I was very young. My parents have often told how, on my returning home from kindergarten in a suburb of the Kansas City area on the Kansas side, I asked them why everyone at school, teachers as well as other kids, kept asking me where I came from. My mother told me in a firm tone, “ You’re a Chinese American. You were born in Kansas City, Missouri.”
Years later I realized that the hard but supportive edge in her voice came from being asked the same question during her childhood in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Yet the question never stopped. It was not the everyday version of the same words, often heard at social occasions or business meetings when people are merely getting acquainted; this was something apart, a question I was asked at times when my white companions were not being asked. I heard it all through my childhood, then in adulthood -- and answering “I’m from Kansas City” often brought exchanges like this one, which occurred in my early twenties in Kansas City, Missouri:
“Where are you from?”
“No, I mean, where were you born?”
“Uh, no, I mean, what’s your nationality?”“I’m an American.”
“Uh, yeah, but I mean, where are you from?”
“No, but I mean, what’s your origin?”
“My ancestors were Chinese, if that’s what you mean.”
“Oh, yeah, that’s what I meant.”
The unfortunate white man speaking to me was courteous, curious, and meant well. He had, however, stumbled across the question that I had not only heard all my life, but had largely come to hate hearing by that time. I was giving him trouble partly to make a point -- that he should ask the question he intended, and phrase it correctly; he knew very well I was an American --and partly to amuse myself because the question was so old and unpleasantly routine to me. I also let him off easy; to the word “origin,” I was tempted to say “Kansas City” again. Of course I knew what he meant all along; he meant what most such well-meaning white acquaintances meant: You don’t look like my idea of an American, so to me “your nationality” means a foreign country.
How is this different when another Asian American asks the same question? Among us, it’s a step in bonding. When I meet an Asian American of any ethnicity who also grew up in a suburb or small town in the interior of the country, I know we have certain experiences in common regardless of our ages and our locations during our formative years.
On the coasts, Americans of all races tend to imagine that the Midwest, and most of the nation, is empty of Asian Americans. In fact, even Kansas City, in the middle of the country, has had a continuous Chinese American population since the 1870s. America’s cultural beliefs about Chinese-American history have more to do with image than facts. Chinese Americans from the Midwest and South present a puzzle to other Americans of all backgrounds in that we don’t fit the mass media images of Chinese Americans.
As I was growing up, our home had contemporary American furniture mixed subtly with Chinese furniture and artwork. At a friend’s house down the street, where my friend’s father was from New Orleans, I discovered I liked grits; from friends who were one generation removed from the Ozarks, I developed a Midwestern accent with southern Missouri flavors, though years of living away have now mostly washed it out; from family trips to Chinese restaurants, I found the joys of dim sum long before our white friends had ever heard of it. Like many of my generation, I grew up on both classic rock and folk music, and I also became a fan of Johnny Cash and a fair amount of classic country music.
In the world of entertainment, that would be a comedian’s one-liner: An Asian American who sings “Folsom Prison Blues” with the car stereo.
I learned, however, that I was not alone as a Chinese American growing up away from the big coastal cities. Among the friends and acquaintances I’ve met are Chinese Amerians from Junction City, Kansas; Terre Haute, Indiana; Moscow, Idaho; Stevens Point, Wisconsin; and many other places around the country never seen as the homes of Asian Americans in most books, films, and television shows.
Yet even wearing jeans and a t-shirt, eating grits for breakfast and talking a bit like Johnny Cash, I still had people wanting to know, “Where are you from?”
And they did not mean Kansas City, Missouri.
This series of adventures about Jack Hong, a young American of Chinese descent, tells a distinctly American story. The tales range throughout the nation, including some major cities but not limited to them. The character, despite the first-person narrative and occasional similarities to the author, is not me. His knowledge about his cultural background is limited and sketchy when his adventures begin; in fact, he is not even interested in the subject.
While the story is American, Jack is led on his quest by a creature out of Chinese folklore. A “unicorn” in the strictest definition, it has no connection to the unicorn of European lore. According to tradition, the creature is very gentle, never stepping on any living animals or plants. It appears fleetingly, always at auspicious moments. With the body of a deer, tail of an ox, the hooves of a horse, and one fleshy horn, it does not tread on the grass or eat anything living. A traditional saying about it, “qilin guo shan,” or “The unicorn passes over the mountains,” meant that it showed great spiritual power. However, in recent centuries, even its place in folklore diminished, until it became little more than a common symbol of good luck rather than a creature of great importance.
In keeping with the folklore tradition of the Chinese unicorn, these stories are themselves fantasy, as Jack lives not only in an everyday world much like ours, but at the same time finds it a world where ghosts, deities, and demons also thrive among and around humans. In that sense, the stories about Jack Hong are a continuation in the long trail of the elusive creature he follows.
During Jack’s personal search for a meaningful direction in his own life, he discovers the variety and geographical range of his heritage in America. In finding others, he finds himself. He learns, in his own way, where he’s from.
Author’s note: Each individual adventure is followed by an author’s afterword. If these seem intrusive to the flow of the story, skip ‘em!
by William F. Wu
I was standing on Main Street in the fading darkness of early morning, ready to stick my thumb out, walking backward down the sidewalk. The only lights, though, came from streetlights and locked-up storefronts. The city was still asleep.
I needed direction in my Iife.
On the graveyard shift, lunchtime should have fallen around four in the morning. I worked until six every day, though, so I could eat breakfast in the Canton Forever, a greasy little Chinese diner that served congee in the morning.
Every day, just as alarm clocks were buzzing and ringing all over town, I walked there from whatever supermarket I had been gracing with my janitorial expertise that night.
I worked for a string of six supermarkets and rotated six nights a week, filling in for the regular janitor on his night off. It was the most creative, challenging field I had ever worked in.
“Cuh ming, Mistah Hong,” said the proprietor. He was trying to say, “Come in.” As I entered, he held the door and gave me his usual broad, phony smile and jerky nods. Then he reversed the sign to “Open.”
“Cuh ming,” he repeated, still smiling. He was a short, muscular immigrant with permanently uncombed hair, anywhere between twenty-five and forty years old. Maybe. He wore baggy gray flannel pants and a white undershirt he called a singlet.
I slid into my usual booth.
The little diner had a perpetually dingy look to its black and white linoleum tiles, white formica tables, and torn fake-leather booths. It looked like a set for a cheap biker movie. Still, the food was good and it was hot.
“Goo moing,” said the guy’s wife. It was her version of “good morning.” She was short and chubby, with a pleasant smile. Then she set down a big bowl of hot, steaming congee -- a thick rice gruel with vegetables and meat in it, plus a little plate of other stuff I could drop in it. I liked it all, but I didn’t know what most of it was.
“Hi.” I leaned forward to smell the steam and reached for the soy sauce.
She poured tea for me and left the metal pot. After I had ordered the same breakfast six mornings a week for two weeks, she had quit taking my order and now just brought it out to me. I had been coming for two years.
Other people began drifting in, most of them regulars. Traffic picked up outside. A rowdy bunch of guys, dirty and sweaty and red-eyed, crowded into one booth wearing ratty t-shirts cut off over the waist and baggy, stained pants and work boots. They had the nervous energy and raucous laughter of people who had stayed up all night without planning to.
I ate with a porcelain Chinese spoon, watching the kitchen door as I did every day. Every so often, the couple’s daughter, who appeared to be about four, would peek out and look at me. If I smiled at her, she ran away in terror. However, if I concentrated on my congee, she would watch me until her mother yelled at her.
I sat there blowing on the congee and pondering the directionless state of my existence. That was another morning ritual. I had once expected more than brooms and mops out of life, but was now unburdened of that fallacy.
Working alone every night, six nights out of seven, gave me a strange isolated routine. I had no friends in town, only acquaintances, and had somehow lost the drive for close companionship. Still, I did nothing to fight the situation; I had no more rebelliousness than the dried brown fluffy stuff and the green shiny pickled stuff I was drowning in the congee.
The kitchen door creaked open a few inches. I looked away, into my bowl, and watched in my peripheral vision as one black pigtail in a red ribbon appeared. A second later, I saw two ribbons swaying. A second later, two small, dark eyes peered at me intently out of a chubby face.
Smiley came out to bring tea to the guys who had been up all night. He took a long time getting their orders, since they kept giggling and yelling at each other. Finally, though, he gave them one more idiotic smile and returned to the kitchen.
I scraped the bottom of the bowl for the end of the congeeand sat back, gazing blankly at the empty seat across from me. The rut I was in took me in a circle, rotating from supermarket to supermarket without meeting anyone new or finding any breaks in the routine. My mind knew there was more to life, but I didn’t feel there was. The seat had dried mustard on it. So what?
“Hi, sweetie,” called one of the rowdy guys.
I turned to look. The little girl had been peeking out of the kitchen. She started to duck back, but her father came out with several pieces of sausage and eggs and she had to dart forward, to hide among the tables and chairs.
I sipped my tea. It was hard to believe I had been a janitor for two years, but in the beginning it had been hard to believe I was going to do it at all. Well, so much for deep reflective self-analysis.
“Say, ‘hi,’ kid.”
The little girl cowered against a chair, but she didn’t run. One of the guys rose and picked her up. She stared at him, wide-eyed, without making any noise.
“What’s your name?” Still holding her, the guy returned to the booth. Some of his friends started talking to her, but she was too scared to respond. They meant to be nice, actually, but they were strangers to her and loud and rough.
I looked at the kitchen door. Her mother and father were talking inside as they prepared the orders of other patrons. “Uh ... wait a minute.” My voice was not loud enough, and wavered uncertainly.
I didn’t do things like this. Solitude and isolation defined my life.
“Hi, honey. Say ‘hi.’” The guy holding her laughed and held her up to a friend, who tried to tickle her. All of them guffawed and petted her on the top of her head, or on her cheeks or shoulders. She started to sniffle.
I glanced back at the kitchen again, but Smiley and his wife were still busy back there. With a deep breath, I got up and walked slowly over to the table, hoping they would put the kid down before I got there.
They didn’t, though.
They looked up at me, expectantly.
“Could I, uh, have her? We’re, uh, old friends.”
“Aw, we aren’t hurtin’ her.” One of them laughed, showing multi-colored teeth, all in shades of brown and green.
“Yeah, she likes me,” said the one holding her. He lifted her up and nuzzled her with a day’s growth of beard.
She sniffled harder. They weren’t going to hurt her, but they weren’t too sensitive, either. On the other hand, I had no clear idea of what I was doing.
“I’ll take her,” I said firmly.
“Oh, yeah?” The one in front of me laughed, stood up, and gave me a casual shove on the chest. I batted his hand away, folded my stomach over his fist, and then rammed the side of my head onto a metal teapot lifted, no doubt ceremoniously, by one of the others.
This was not the direction I was looking for.
I grabbed all six of them by their shirt fronts and yanked them down on top of me on the floor, which bounced twice against the back of my head. I heard the kid screaming and a lot of people shouting, as I drifted off to sleep.
The screams woke me up. I bolted upright in the darkness, still screaming, panicked by the noise. The screams echoed in my skull and scorched my throat. I threw myself shoulder-first off the narrow bunk and fell screaming through the shaft of moonlight angling from a window crisscrossed by heavy wire.
The impact shut me up. I gathered my wits and myself off the floor and returned to my bunk just before the men in blue came running in. They flashed lights around the dorm, muttered to themselves, and walked away reluctantly. When dawn arrived, I woke up like everyone else.
Dormitory Two was just a big room in the one-story building, as opposed to Dormitory One, which was another room in the same building. From our regimented walks down the hall at prescribed times, the only difference I could see was in the signs. Dormitory One had a sign saying “1.” Dormitory Two had a sign saying, “No Smoking in Hallway.”
The room had five rows of beds, fifteen deep, made of molded plastic with little walls separating the beds and thin little mattresses.
A big tv, turned off, sat bolted to a high shelf at the front of the room. A trusty, wearing white, swept patiently around the room, rarely looking up. After a while, the men in blue trooped down the hall toward us, visible through the solid glass on the upper half of the interior wall. The outside walls had no windows. They unlocked the door and led us out to breakfast at the mess hall.
I tried to lose myself in the middle of the crowd, straightening my new two-piece suit of institutional green as I went. It fit like a pillowcase on a rabbit. We went up the hall past the guard station, the showers, and Dormitory One to the door of the building. Outside, I squinted in the sunny April afternoon. I had seen very few sunny afternoons since taking over the graveyard shift.
Breakfast in the mess hall was much like my own cooking, gray and tasteless. Just as I turned my used tray in at the window, one of the men in blue came up and motioned for me to go with him.
“Hong,” was all he said.
I followed him, outside and up a little sidewalk to the main building. The man in blue walked with his hands in his pockets and just glanced over his shoulder occasionally to make sure I was still behind him.
And he considered himself a lawman.
All around us, guys in green were working on the grounds. One was driving a small tractor with a wide mower hitched to the back. Two guys with rakes ran around chasing the clippings. I could hear the banging of hammers and the rhythmic buzzing of a hand saw, but I didn’t see them anywhere. This was a minimum security place. The inmates kept the County Farm functioning; in a sense, we were all trusties.
I followed the man in blue into the back of the main building, giving one curious glance toward the women’s building before I went in. None of them was in sight. That was no surprise.
The main building was mostly offices, but it also housed the medical facilities. They were completely sealed off from the rest of the building, accessible only through a heavy metal door. Inside, everything was different.
The man in blue turned me over to a nurse and then left.
“Mr. Hong?” She smiled pleasantly. “I’m Marian. I received your card, volunteering your services.”
“Hi,” I said cautiously. She was about forty and extremely pretty. Her most notable feature was lavender eye shadow. She was tall and big-boned, with a solid, efficient look. I had been looking exclusively at men in blue and men in green or white for some time.
“Come into the office.” She turned, and I followed her into a small room, studying her snug nurse’s uniform.
The room had been set up as a neat and clean little office, though it was extremely cramped. It smelled like a bottle of cologne had been broken there recently. A guy with a pointy face and baggy clothes was writing at a desk. He looked like a rat in a zoot suit.
“Andy,” said Marian. “This is Mr. Hong. Jack, this is Mr. Sand.”
“All right,” said the guy, looking up. “You’ll be with us fourteen days, correct?”
“Yes.” I’d been given thirty, with credit for the fifteen I had done at the County Jail before anyone had given me any.
“Well, we only have one study to put you on right now. A malaria study began yesterday. Can you read?”
“Yeah. I also go to the bathroom alone and cut my own toenails.” That, or something like it, was from a movie I had seen once.
Marian laughed, but Sand ignored me.
“Here,” he said. “This is the contract.”
He handed me a single sheet of paper. If I signed it, they would inject me with malaria and then keep me in the infirmary until they cured it. I would get one hundred fifty dollars from them, in addition to malaria, the money payable when I was released less any purchases I made at the commissary. They had three strains of malaria, of varying strengths, and several cures. Also, if I developed malaria any time in the rest of my life, I could enter a hospital anywhere in this country to be cured at the expense of this natty rodent.
“My name’s cheap; I’ll sign.” I took the pen the guy held out and wrote my name. They were confident they could cure me; most likely, they were testing their cures for side effects, like to see if curing malaria made my feet jettison my toes or something.
I spent the rest of the day getting acquainted with my new surroundings. Outside the rat’s office, Marian led me down another long rectangular room to the far end. The near half was the regular infirmary of twelve beds, where they kept inmates who were contagious but not sick enough for a hospital. It was empty now and the overhead lights were out.
The far half was the research unit. One portion of it was of empty of people, though the beds were full of strange elaborate contraptions made of clear plastic tubes and cubes and swirly shapes. The area against the far wall was lit up.
This section had four beds facing the wall so the occupants could see a small black-and-white tv. Another two beds were placed alongside the tv. To the left stood a desk with an old manual typewriter and a telephone. Marian pointed out my bed, against one of the far walls, and left.
I sat down and looked around. The three other beds in my row were full, and all three guys were asleep. One, however -- despite being asleep or maybe delirious -- kept rolling around and sitting up. He was in his thirties and glistened with a layer of sweat, like a roasting duck. Every time he rolled my way, he showed a stare that clearly saw nothing this side of dreamland. The guy in the middle was black and lay face down on the mattress, as motionless as the bed itself. The bed next to me held another white guy who seemed to be sleeping normally.
I didn’t have much to do. After a moment, I got up and turned on the tv, and spent the morning watching game shows. Marian came in and gave me a shot as I observed a young blonde housewife decide whether to accept three hundred dollars and go home, or risk it all by continuing to play. As Marian eased any number of tiny malaria bugs into my bloodstream, the contestant won another seventy-five dollars by agreeing to have two live frogs dropped into her halter top. Between the two of us, I suspected she had the better deal.
Marian brought me lunch on one of the metal trays and I watched an old black-and-white horror movie. None of my companions in experimentation woke up.
Marian glanced at the movie on tv as she breezed through to collect my lunch tray. “Looks like the malaria unit, here.”
I watched her go, then looked back at the movie.
On the screen, a German doctor in a long white coat was giving injections to a bunch of people strapped down on narrow cots, all in a row. Except for the straps, they looked very much like my snoozing partners and I did. As I watched, one of them raised his palm and started screaming in horror when he saw fur growing on it.
I looked at my own palm. It was sweaty, but not hirsute.
The movie was dull, and my eyes kept closing. So, I had awakened screaming again last night. That kept happening. I didn’t remember my dreams -- nightmares, really -- but I knew what they were about. After all, what was I doing in jail, anyhow? Then again, it was easier than sweeping grocery stores, a position from which I had no doubt been cashiered.
I drifted off to sleep once again, with the sound of muffled shrieks and whimpers emanating from the little tv. One guy had stolen a straight razor, either to escape or to shave his palms. This room was better than a dormitory full of men talking.
I woke up to the sensation of a cool thermometer sliding between my teeth. I squinted my eyes open and gazed at Marian as she also held my wrist and studied her watch. Painfully bright streaks of sunlight slanted severely through the windows, set high in the walls. Apparently dinner time was approaching. I could feel that I had a fever, but it didn’t seem too bad. Yet.
When Marian began shaking down the mercury, I asked, “What’d it say?”
“I’ll get you some aspirin.”
I tried to make a joke about a talking thermometer, but she turned away too soon.
Marian gave me the aspirin, brought me dinner, and went off duty. A smaller, younger nurse with dirty-blonde hair came on, but I floated back to sleep before I heard her speak.
The dream was a vision:
A hand gripped the sword handle, and hard muscles tensed along the forearm.
I am the law.
The law is mine.
I am the law.
The clash of steel in the night, the swirl of robes, and the screaming of horses faded away in spinning moonbeams.
I awakened suddenly, comfortably cool in the darkened infirmary. My diseased comrades were all still breathing, from what I could tell. I supposed one or two of them had awakened occasionally when I was sleeping. For their sake, I hoped so. I turned to one side, where the gentle moonlight streaked in through the windows. A heavyset elderly man sat fused with the light, up on the high windowsill of yellow cinder blocks.
Discounting the sight, I closed my eyes to go back to sleep. Though the aspirin had taken my fever down, I was still sick and needed rest. Yet ....
I looked again. The strange shape was still there, a kind of shade against the moonlight, translucent but sharply defined. It was an old man, Chinese by race and heritage, wearing a rumpled, baggy black suit and a battered brown felt hat with a broad brim. It might have been a ‘20s snapbrim, back when it still had some firmness.
“You see me, eh, Chinaman?” His voice was gentle, hoarse, and accented. The outline of his hat and head had changed; he had turned to face me.
Delirious, I thought to myself, and closed my eyes again.
Then again ....
I looked once more. He was still there, an old man perched up high, with moonlight glowing through his form.
“Why you here, Chinaman?”
No one else was awake here. If I talked to a window for a little while, no one else would know.
“Judge gave me a little time.” I cleared my throat, which was hoarse from disuse. “Disturbing the peace, vandalism, assault. I forget exactly what.”
“You do it?”
“No! I mean, I did, but I didn’t do anything wrong. I was trying to help. Only, the owners of this place -- this little restaurant -- called the cops and had me thrown in jail. Not the guys who were pestering their kid.”
“Why they do that?”
“I ... I’m not sure.”
“You don’t know why they do that?”
“I said no.” I answered with anger, but was too tired to project my voice any. Besides, getting mad at a hallucination was silly. I was just sick enough not to care if he was real or not.
“You good boy; that’s good.” He nodded to himself. “Who you?”
“I’m Jack Hong. Who are you?”
He smiled, slowly and wearily. “Nobody care me. You call me, ah, Lo Man Gong. Okay?”
Lo Man Gong, the slang term for the old men of Chinatown in earlier times. A general term he was taking for a name.
“Okay,” I said aloud.
“You like me.”
“Huh? I guess so.”
“No, no. You like me.”
“Sure. I like you.”
He shook his head. “No, I mean, you and me, alla same.”
“Mm -- oh. We’re alike?”
“Yah, we alike.” He nodded sharply, his hat exaggerating the movement. “We Tong yun.”
Tong yun, people of Tang. It was an old slang term for people from Guangdong Province, who still spoke the language of the Golden Age of China under the Tang Dynasty. I knew just a little about that sort of thing, stuff I had picked up here and there.
He confirmed it for me. “Tong yun, yah. We are Guangdong yun. Not the effete Song, or the slaves of Yuan, or the hidebound Ming. Not the weaklings under Qing. We are people of Tang, the glory of China, masters of our world.”
I was surprised. In English, he shifted dialects, and used Mandarin names, not the See Yup dialect he used with
Chinese phrases. “I’m no master of anything.”
“Your life is your world, same as anyone else. You Tong yun, you make your own life. Your own laws.”
I shook my head. “I’m no criminal. I’m a law-abiding citizen. We can’t all go making our own laws; then there wouldn’t be any law at all.” I sounded like a schoolmarm.
He lowered his head and shook it. “Not outlaw, not lawless. Your own law. You live by the laws you make. Your principles, your life, your law to live by.”
So I got it, finally. He meant a way of life, and I did need something like that.
“You like me. I was like you. I come over here as teacher, many year ago. Work laundry, gamble some. Work restaurant, sweep floor. Now longtime Californ’, dead many year. Back then, Chinaman don’t teach much; they don’t allow.” He raised his head slightly. “Nobody teach you, eh?”
“I went to college ....”
“Goo’ boy, goo’ boy. You go college, okay. But nobody teach you, eh?”
I didn’t say anything. First, I wasn’t sure what he meant, and second, I wasn’t sure he was there at all. I was sleepy and ill with malaria. With no more than a closing of my eyes, I shut him out and went to sleep.
The malaria really took hold the next day. I slept until the room was bright with sunshine, and awakened only long enough for Marian to give me more aspirin. At some point, she would start giving me the cure, whatever it was. Until then, I would sleep, take aspirin, and feel my fever go up and down. Sometimes, I was just barely aware of shots and thermometers.
The fever broke just before mealtimes, and I ate some lunch and dinner. After each one, I stared unthinking at the black-and-white tv until I eased back to sleep again. I thrashed a lot, trying to avoid the heat I was generating, but if I dreamed again, I never remembered it.
Directionless -- I had been directionless for years. That dream about the hand on the sword, I recognized that in one of my half-waking fevered states: it was the written character for “I,” the personal pronoun, in Chinese. I.
To become an “I,” I needed my hand on my sword -- needed my own laws to live by.
That’s what I had done in the restaurant, of course. Of course.
My fever broke again in the dead of night. This time I really did feel better, and suspected that Marian had been giving me doses of their experimental cure during the previous day. If so, it had worked well. Since they knew I only had two weeks here, they had probably given me the weakest strain of malaria and the most effective cure. Now, they would continue checking my vital signs and skin pigmentation for side effects as my recovery progressed.
The moonlight was still strong, and Lo Man Gong still sat up on the overhead window, where few people and no old men could ever get.
“Feel better, Chinaman?” He asked mildly.
The night before, my resistance had been low, and his presence had somehow seemed tolerable, if not rational. Now I was more clear-headed ... yet he was still here. I didn’t like him as much.
I let my eyes drop closed again. Once I was cured of malaria, I’d be free of him. I had eaten twice today; now, if I slept well, I’d be in sound shape pretty soon.
“You know the keilin, Chinaman Jack?”
That was the Chinese unicorn, a mystical animal whose rare appearances were highly auspicious. In the Cantonese I normally heard, it was pronounced “keilun.” It wasn’t like European ones, though. This unicorn had the body of a deer, the hooves of a horse, the tail of an ox, and a fleshy horn. I knew that much.
“The unicorn?” I opened my eyes and looked at him. As before, the moonlight glowed through his shape.
“Ah, you know the keilin. He smiled and nodded thoughtfully. “The keilin means good things happen. It’s very powerful.”
I watched him silently.
After a while, he looked into my eyes again. “Nobody remember me, Jack. Some people remember, some of my frien’. A few of them. Most, nobody remember at all. No children, no relative. You, Jack. You like me. Unless you change.”
Yes, I knew that. I had already come to understand that. And I knew that he had come for me, here in the middle of the country, away from his home as longtime Californ’. But I didn’t know why.
“Who you, Jack?”
I shrugged. “Just Jack Hong.”
“No. You Jack Ng.”
“No, no. Hong. H-o-n-g.”
He shook his head firmly.
“You Ng Gahkiu. I know. Long time ago, when I was still alive, I have friend come over. His name Ng Wenlim, come over from Toisan like me. You know Toisan?”
“My family was Toisanese. But, I’m who?”
“So, Ng Wenlim can’t come in here. Not allowed by ‘Merican law. So, he changed his name to Hong, come in as son of fella already here. Pay money to be his son. You understand?”
I was chilled to the bone, literally, as my joints and spine ached with confusion and malaria.
“I never found wife. No China girl allowed here in those days, or not enough. By law. Chinaman can’t marry other kind girl then, either, most states. You descend my old friend, but you don’t know who you are.”
“But what about my name? Ng? Ng Gahkiu?”
“You Ng Gahkiu. You descend from Ng, but you, yah, you Jack Hong.”
“Yeah ... yeah, okay.” I nodded slowly, sideways on the pillow. The part about my last name was simple enough. Now I was trying to remember -- had no one told me my personal Chinese name when I was growing up? Of course they had. I never used it, never thought about it, hadn’t remembered it. It was my name and yet it wasn’t. “No matter what, I’ve always been Jack Hong. I still am.”
“Don’t want be like me. You like me, you no life forever. Don’t like me.”
I watched him, letting that sink in.
That surprised me, but I slowly drew back the covers and stood up on the cold floor, barefoot. I was glad I had used the bathroom the last time I’d been awake. With my arms out for balance, and still light-headed, I made my way to the wall. The sill on which the shade of Lo Man Gung sat was at the height of my nose.
“Look outside,” he whispered.
I rose up on tiptoe, leaning against the sill. At first, I couldn’t see anything but the lawn, some trees, and of course the chain-link fence, topped with six rows of barbed wire. All were pale and inviting in the strong light of the moon.
“Through the fence,” he whispered.
I searched for a moment, and then saw it. The oxtail flicked gently back and forth as it moved primly on its horse’s hooves over a concrete curb. The keilin would not step on any living thing, not even plants. As I watched, it swung its head upward for a moment into a clear profile,
The single horn shone slightly in the moonlight.
“Your clothes locker is unlock,” whispered the shade at my side. “When the man in blue put your stuff away, he thought he saw a little something scary and he got careless. He hurry away too fast.”
I turned slowly to look up at him. The brim of his hat hid most of his face.
“The window not lock. No wire here. The woman in white opened it to wash here, and she saw something, too. Forgot to lock again.” He chuckled softly, in a dry voice. “She got spook.”
I was a good little boy, a law-abiding citizen. Nor did I believe in ghosts. I was just sick and probably delirious. Or maybe this was one of the side effects Marian was testing for.
Actually, I didn’t feel very sick anymore, or delirious at all. My dreams had been vague and confused and mysterious, but Lo Man Gong and the keilin were as clear as the cool window sill and the cold floor.
“Do you know why they did it?” I asked quietly.
“Your restaurant frien’s. No, I don’t know why. Or maybe I do. Maybe Chinaman customer take for granted, ‘Merican boy customer more important. But the keilin has come for you. Come very rare, maybe hundred, thousand year apart. Very auspicious. Maybe keilin know why they put you in jail, not the others. But maybe, it don’t care.”
“I don’t suppose it does.” I watched it, moving about slightly by the fence. It was waiting for me now, but I doubted it would wait long. I had twelve days left to do. I could go the keilin now, or wait to get well and serve out my time. If I waited, I would just have to figure I was delirious. The keilin and Lo Man Gong were just figments out of disease, to be long forgotten in the sunlight of a normal day.
Instead, I reached for my sword.
Quickly, I walked to the lockers and extracted my clothes.I needed a shower and something more to eat, but those were impossible. Once I was dressed, I put my hands on the window sill and started to pull and squirm up the wall. In my weakened condition, it was harder than it should have been. I stopped when I happened to glimpse the rows of barbed wire strung over the fence.
“Blanket,” said Lo Man Gong, in his dry, raspy voice.
I dropped to the floor and stripped the blanket off my bed. A minute later, I was scaling the wall again, with the folded blanket draped across my shoulders like an obese towel.
From the window sill, I was able to open the window with some effort. Then, with a sudden thrill of excitement, I climbed through the opening and dropped to the dewy grass below. I was an escaped convict now, with three months automatically added to my time if I was caught.
I trotted quickly across the lawn. This was a minimum security facility, I repeated to myself, and I had heard on my first day that a number of inmates escaped every so often. Most were vagrants who were easily picked up again later, especially visible in their green institutional suits.
I hadn’t climbed a chain-link fence since I was little. My feet were a lot bigger now, of course, but the climb was no different. The black boots I wore had a slightly narrow, rounded toe that fit right into the openings. When I reached the top, I carefully arranged the blanket over the barbed wire. Then, gingerly, I put my hands on the blanket and began to shift my weight.
I was just swinging one leg over the blanketed wires when it slipped. The pale night spun in my eyes as my legs flung around, the blanket flipped over the moon, and I landed hard on the damp grass. I lay motionless, stunned.
After a moment, the bright round moon came back into focus. I heard the wind rustling the leaves of the trees overhead. Slowly, I rolled to one side and got to my feet. I was hurting, mostly where I’d been banged up in the restaurant.
The keilin had turned to look at me with one glistening eye. Then it swung around and began to walk away, up the driveway. I started after it.
As I went, I took one look back at the window. The shade of Lo Man Gong was still sitting motionless on the sill, his hat brim pulled low. As I watched, he suddenly just wasn’t there any more.
Ahead of me, the keilin went into a canter and moved smoothly through the darkness, down the deserted street. I ran after it clumsily in my boots.
“I’m coming,” I said softly, after it. “I’m coming -- Jack Ng, Jack Hong. I.”
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