A warm offshore breeze did nothing to quell the stench from the floating city, and Chien Feng's face reflected his distaste at being on his father-in-law's ancient boat. He looked around. As far as his eye could see, the harbor was wall-to-wall junks and sampans. People hopped from one boat to another, on their way to work or shop or to visit friends. In the distance rose the skyscrapers of Hong Kong, but here in Aberdeen harbor, daily life bore little sign of the influence of corporate globalization. The smell of cooking: onions, cabbage, garlic mixed with the oily odor of diesel fuel, while the stench of human waste floating under and around the boats was enough to make Feng queasy.
Yee-ling, Feng's wife, let go of their daughter's hand, and the little girl dodged a small basket of apples as she ran silently to greet her grandfather. Four-year-old Xiao threw her thin arms about the old man's legs, nearly toppling him.
“There, there, my little iris blossom,” Grandfather welcomed her. “Have you come to play music with me today?”
Xiao bobbed her head, the straight black flyaway hair lifting in the breeze. She looked up at him with a grin then cast an anxious look back at her parents. Grandfather patted her head and told her to come below and see if she could master the strings on the ruan, and she went with him willingly. Grandfather bowed briefly in the direction of Feng and his daughter, who returned the obeisance.
Feng looked at his wife as she watched her daughter and father vanish into the interior of the junk.
“You look so tired,” Feng said. “This cannot go on.”
Yee-ling flinched. “Not now. Let's not discuss this now.”
“Now,” he insisted. “Xiao is getting worse. She screamed all night. You are exhausted and so am I. My work at the factory is suffering. The neighbors are all angry with us, too. Our daughter needs help but she will not allow us to help her.”
“She blames us,” Yee-ling said quickly. “For the operation that separated her from Mei. For Mei's death.”
“But what could we have done?” Feng argued. “Let both of them die? We had to choose one. We should have done it when they were first born. Not waited until they developed separate personalities.”
Yee-ling shook her head. “They were too weak; we would have lost them both. The doctors said so.”
“We have lost them both anyway. Xiao will not let us close to her. She is not like other children. Please, you must see. We have to give her to the agency people. The Americans will adopt her. They can provide much for her that we cannot. Special care. All the time. And she will like to be away from us.”
“But she is my daughter.” Yee-ling's face was a mask of pain and fatigue.
“This daughter is killing you. Do you see how much weight you have lost? When did you last sleep? Do you not see how she is torturing us emotionally? She may not understand, she may not mean to, but we cannot reach her. Yee-ling, we can petition the government to allow us another child,” Feng insisted. “They will be in our favor, I am sure. I spoke to the district administrator –.” He stopped when he saw the look on his wife's face.
“You are making this decision without me? You want to me to send away my daughter when I have lost one child already?”
Feng's impatience melted with compassion. His heart ached for the beautiful wife who was being destroyed by her love for a child who either would not or could not return even a little of that love.
“And if you decide we must keep Xiao, you make the decision for both of us, is that not true? Look, we both lost Mei. And if you look at the way Xiao has been ever since: completely mute except for the screaming at night, being forced to eat, rejecting us at every turn, happy to be with anyone but us – can you honestly say that giving her to the American couple would be a bad thing for any of us? Xiao could live a normal life, perhaps even begin to speak again. You and I, Yee-ling, we could find our own lives again. And we could have another child, a normal child.”
He stopped as Yee-ling's face was drowned in tears. He put his arms around her, something he disliked doing in public, but her pain was so acute and he just wanted...
“I just want things to be like they were,” he whispered into her ear. “I want to see you smile. I want to watch you sleep peacefully. I want to be able to go to the factory and not feel that I have abandoned you to a monster.”
Yee-ling looked up, startled. “A monster?”
Feng almost took the word back, almost. Then he said, “She is torturing us. Maybe not deliberately, not consciously, but isn't it torture all the same?”
Yee-ling's tears fell again and slowly she nodded. “But she is my daughter. How can I let her go?” It wasn't a refusal to send Xiao away, Feng knew. His wife was asking how to cope with the guilt after sending her away. Her resistance had crumbled, more so because of her exhaustion than to the weight of his arguments.
“She can be someone else's daughter. While she remains with us, she cannot be our daughter. She is our jailer.”
Yee-ling was very still in his arms but at last he felt her nod, felt the tension melt from her body.
“All right,” she whispered. “Yes. I know it is best for her. But will it truly be better for us, too? Can it ever be better?”
He cupped her face in his hands, using his thumbs to wipe away her tears. “It is already better,” he told her. She smiled weakly.
Her father's voice shattered the small moment of peace.
“My daughter, where is Xiao? Where is my little iris blossom?” Yee-ling's father stood at the hatch that led below.
Yee-ling twisted around to face her father. “What?”
“Xiao? I sent her up to bring down that basket of apples. Where is she?” His question ended on a note of panic as he hobbled around the deck, searching for the thin child who did not answer his cries..
Yee-ling stared helplessly, a keening sound beginning to build in her throat. Feng looked around. As far as his eye could see, the harbor was wall-to-wall junks and sampans. As far as his eye could see, he could not see his daughter.
© 2010 Naomi Johnson is a retired financial analyst with an unused degree in criminology. Her stories have appeared online in Southern Cross Review, A Twist of Noir, and Powder Burn Flash, and will appear in a forthcoming issue of CrimeFactory.