– Chapter Two –
A Folk Song of Two Lost Birds
Hâo Xîwàng crouched behind the cobbled ledge along Wall Street and watched the great ship slide noiselessly towards New York Harbor. He was thirteen, thin as twine, and thousands of miles from his mother’s small apartment outside the Tin Shui Wai province near the port of Hong Kong. He’d found a waistcoat and wool trousers in the alley behind a funeral parlor earlier that week. He’d tied the trousers tight with a stretch of rope from the shipyard. When he crouched against the cobbled wall, he practically disappeared—like a pile of laundry errant from the back of a passing carriage.
Hâo knew of the Undertow by its legend alone. A ship whose sails stop the clock at midnight and sail unfettered by time’s grasp for hours, he’d heard. A captain as tall as the mizzen with a barrel-chest thick as the main, he’d heard. Counting the small fishing boat he’d stolen on the Whangpoo, Hâo had fallen asleep under the wide stretch of stars on twenty-eight vessels since leaving Tin Shui Wai two years earlier.
Hâo grew up watching white sailors dance with his mother. Their smooth bronzed cheeks pressed against her face, alabaster and painted rose. From the time he was six years old, she brought these men into their home. She prepared and served a quiet dinner of handmade noodles spiced with chile and ginger. She made them tea using an ancient recipe with dried poppies, anise and lime leaf—a dram meant to loosen the neck and shoulders, to draw one’s eyelids to half-mast and render a land-lost man of the open ocean at peace.
“Geishas are Japanese,” his mother would say to him. “But all men forgive a little cultural inaccuracy when their eyes are half-closed.”
Hâo learned his role. He was to remain silent through dinner, eating with his eyes lowered as the men spoke of new beautiful cities in a place called America. As the tea steeped, he was to sing a folk song about two lost birds, eyes still closed, arms crossed behind his back. Upon completion of this song, each sailor would give him a small gift—from most it was coins from foreign lands, which Hâo kept in a small leather pouch under his bed in the attic. From a British sailor he received a compass made of tin and white bone. From another sailor he received a white lace kerchief.
His favorite piece was a long-necked tropical bird carved from hard wood. The carving was intricate, the feathers of the bird’s neck criss-crossed with fine detail. A finely-carved seam circled the bird’s waist—a quarter turn unlocked the bird’s neck from its body and revealed a small knife, its blade rusted and tarnished save for the edges which had been sharpened down to gleaming steel. The bulk of his gifts and possessions were packed neatly in a small box beneath his bed but the carved bird sat on the table next to his pillow. Hâo believed it kept him safe as he slept, his mother and a handsome white sailor dancing in the room below.
Hâo suspected that his real father had been one of these wind-brushed sailors despite the stories his mother told him of a wealthy landowner from the Chang’Anzhen province who took her away from the gritty streets of the Hong Kong when she was just a girl. Orchards of white-blossomed trees and the finest things in life, she would tell him. The stories always finished the same way—his father traveling to London to establish better trade routes. Soon, she would say, he will send for us and we will join him in a new place far away from here.
Women who dance for money always have a better life somewhere behind them. And for young men with stories instead of fathers, tomorrow will always be better than yesterday.
A long series of tomorrows came and went. Shortly after Hâo’s eleventh birthday his voice began to dip and weave during his after-dinner performances. The folk song of the two lost birds sounded like a broken melody coming from a bent flute. Hâo knew the time had come.
Hâo Xîwàng, son of a false Geisha, slipped away one night without a sound and aimed up the Whangpoo towards Shanghai, towards America.