One Life

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READ BY MIRACLE JONES
ART BY MAGGIE BROWN
MUSIC BY GOODMAN CARTER (samples by dyzv0r / CC BY 3.0)



Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome begins with a high fever, 38 degrees Celsius or more, accompanied by headache, discomfort, and body pain. Ten to twenty percent of patients get diarrhea. A dry cough develops within two to seven days, usually followed by pneumonia.

Worldwide, 8,098 people are sick with SARS. Of these, 774 are dead. One of them, my wife Mei Lin. If there's a God, I'll be the 775th victim.

Stepping off Cathay Pacific Flight 6121 at Hong Kong International, I breathe in a chest-load of air, slide my hand along the tunnel rail, and wipe my mouth.


***


Leaving the terminal, I pass the luggage carousels headed for immigration check-in. This time, I have no suitcases or travel bags so full they barely zip. No gifts from America or tax free airport wine for Mei Lin's parents. Everything I own is in a black travel pouch strapped around my waist.

At the counter, a thin man checks my passport, staring at me over a baby blue surgeon's mask. He stamps the book beside the stamps of other trips to Hong Kong: our wedding; Christmas; summer visits; Mei Lin's funeral.

He slides the passport back to me and, muffled behind his mask, says, "Immigrant Entrance Card." I hand him the small yellow card I filled out on the plane. The writing is barely legible, and I'm not sure if that's from turbulence or because my hands won't stop shaking.

"Enjoy your stay," he tells me, and I step in. Cutting through the swarm of people in the central lobby, I drop my passport in a trash container near the exit, letting my fingertips smear the edge of the container's opening.


***


Outside the airport, I walk toward the bus stop. Tai Mo Shan and the Eight Dragon Mountains are wrapped around the back of the island, dark and green and disappearing into the morning skyline. Two years ago, Mei Lin and I stood in this same bus line, huddled against the wind coming off the South China Sea. It was December, and we were staying through Chinese New Year.

"The dragon dancers," she told me, "come right into your home–even if you live on the fortieth floor–and dance in each room." Smiling, she said, "For good luck."

I board the KMB City Bus and spiral up the stairs to the top level, sliding my hand along the rail to lift as many germs as possible. There are six or seven other passengers, each one sitting at least five seats apart. Except for an old man near the middle, they're all wearing surgical masks, their eyes following me until I pass.

I drop into the seat beside the old man, lean in close, and take a deep breath, patting him on the hand. His forehead bunches up. "Tsi sing, gwai lo," he says in Cantonese, calling me a crazy white man. He stands up and plows over me, heading for the staircase. Over the hiss of the bus pulling away, he yells something else I can't hear, shakes his head, and drops down the stairs out of sight.

I breathe in deep through my mouth and hold it.

The other passengers twist toward me in their seats, all eyes and muffled breathing. A couple of their masks are blank, but the others are decorated with words and colors; pictures and symbols.

There's a British-Hong Kong flag.

A "Peace" sign.

There's a teenage girl a few seats up. Her mask says: "NO KISSING."

The people are wearing these masks because SARS can be transmitted by air. If someone sneezes or coughs, the corona virus is released, backflipping along drafts until it finds a surface or it is breathed in with your cologne or perfume. Your own oxygen draws it straight through the front door with the smell of your breakfast or green tea.

I take another deep breath and kiss the window glass. Outside, we're crossing the Tsing Ma Bridge, headed into the congested streets of the New Territories. The bus brakes hard every few seconds, squealing and stopping inches away from the double-decker ahead.

I unzip my travel pouch and lay the contents across my lap. There's Mei Lin's wedding ring. An envelope with forty-five thousand Hong Kong dollars. There's a wedding reception photo of us standing above our red and gold cake, our arms hooked at the elbow, drinking after a toast. Her mouth is covered in red icing, her cheeks flushed from the champagne, the way they always did when she drank. In the photo, I'm so nervous that my glass is blurry from shaking.

I hold the wedding ring up and look at the inscription: Chinese characters meaning, "One life, One love." I slide it onto my little finger and twist it around, the light reflecting off the gold. The bus slips through a tunnel, and the ring and everyone staring at me goes black.


***


Tragedy and disease are educational. They teach you in a week what it takes months to memorize in any medical school. A son suffers massive head trauma in a motorcycle accident: give it a few days and his parents will be talking about brain injuries in words you can barely pronounce, let alone spell. Your wife gets SARS and you learn she died without knowing she was dying. She's got a cold; then she's dead.

What's left are facts. The statistics. And you learn them all because now, that's your relationship with your wife. It's as close as you can get.

Even after a few months, your memories are just loose strings that used to have knots. Like medical facts you've heard of but never experienced.

With my wife, I remember washing dishes. Side-by-side, one washing, one drying. Me helping her with English, her teaching me Cantonese. I'd tell her the rules of "American" football, and she'd tell me about Chinese history and culture -– legends and mythology. Superstitions. She told me that red is like their white, so it's worn at weddings for good luck. "White's our black," she said, rinsing a soup bowl. "It symbolizes death, so we wear it at funerals." She told me how they avoid the number four because it's pronounced the same as "death." "So really," she said, "four's our thirteen."

I heard about the switch back from British to Chinese rule. About how street gangs fight with knives instead of guns, and that spitting is a good thing. "Spitting," she said, handing me a wine glass, "is our \'knock on wood.'"

One night, at the sink, she said, "My grandmother believes that to reunite with loved ones in the afterlife, those loved ones must die the same way." Standing at the sink, scrubbing fettuccini from a dinner plate, she said there's a different afterlife for every way of dying. "If a father dies of a heart attack and his son dies in a war, the real tragedy is they won't be together in spirit." Then she slapped me on the shoulder and said, "But that's bad luck talk," and laughing, we both spat into the sink.

I remember all this, but it's slipping. Becoming a fragment.

I also remember her sister getting breast cancer last year. Starting treatment in January. And Mei Lin flying over to be with her. And me not being able to get off work. Her sister recovering and my wife contracting SARS, and not much else except for the facts and silence and everyone dressed in white.


***


I step off the bus in the Shatin shopping district, and everyone's shoulder to shoulder. Cutting through the crowd, they move around me, just staring eyes over the tops of their masks.

One mask has puckered red lips drawn on it.

There's buck teeth and freckles on another.

I walk through the shopping malls, running my hands along the escalator rails. Using the crowded restrooms. Not washing my hands. Hoping to find the germ, I touch the toilet seats and wipe my nose. I force my way into overcrowded elevators.

All this is desperation. I'm running out of time. The news said that the World Health Organization has found a cure, and that by now all the hospitals have been quarantined. Right in time to stop me, but not in time to save Mei. The window is closing.

Outside, I take a mini-bus and get off in Tsim Sha Tsui in Kowloon and walk along Victoria Harbor, on the Avenue of Stars. It's chilly and starting to drizzle and I take off my coat and let the wind eat at my skin. If I catch a cold, my immune system will be weaker. Like laying out a "welcome" mat for the germ.

I place my hands in the cemented handprints of all the Asian film stars along the walkway, thinking how many people might have touched here recently. Thinking about the germs possibly waiting in the palm of Jackie Chan's hand. The viruses on Sammi Cheng's fingertips. Death in Bruce Lee's fist.

I look out at the dark sea. The surface is like dragon scales in the breeze. Mei Lin said this water is some of the filthiest in the world. That if you fall in, it takes days to get the smell out of your skin.

And behind me, I hear: "Sir? You want picture?"

I hear: "Clouds make good picture."

A man walks toward me carrying a camera and tripod, a mask tied over his mouth that says: "SMILE!" "Cheap picture," he says.

On my first visit, Mei Lin and I had our picture taken on the harbor at night with the city lit up behind us. The sky full of color from the light shows. It was probably this exact place. Maybe this exact man.

I lift my hand and shake my head no. I pull out the envelope of money and slip out two thousand dollars. Pointing at the sea, I hold the cash up and say, "But, I'll give you this if you can get me a glass of that water."


***


I take the Star Ferry from Kowloon to Hong Kong Island. Usually, the ferry is spilling over with tourists, but now it's just me and an older Chinese lady sitting a row over. She's wearing a mask and watching me. A few gray bands of hair mouse-tail over her eyes, and she glances down at the glass Coke bottle of seawater I'm holding.

Inside the bottle, trash and debris whip around like a shaken snow globe, and some kind of thin, oily liquid is layered at the top. I gave the man with the camera an extra thousand dollars after he filled the bottle because his hand got wet.

I hold it up, say "water" in Cantonese, and take a sip, nearly gagging. The lady looks away and I spit out something gritty. It's risky, I know. There's all kinds of other diseases I could get. But like I said, I'm getting desperate.

Stepping off the ferry dock, I grab a cab and hop inside.

"Where you going?" the cab driver says in the rearview mirror.

"To my wife," I tell him.

He says, "Where she at?"

"She's dead," I say, and he spins around in the seat, his mask deflating over his mouth as he breathes. "Gallant Garden Cemetery," I tell him, and take another drink.


***


Cemeteries are different here than in the States. Space is limited where population is not, so the dead are buried on a steep slope. Like their houses, they go up instead of out. Mei Lin said after six years, the bodies are dug up for the space to be reused. One afternoon, staring at her grandmother's headstone, she told me: "if the family is wealthy, they can pay to have the skeletons cleaned and reburied in the same place."

She sat beside the grave, above where she'd be buried herself in under a year and, squinting at the sun, she said: "if they can't afford it, the remains are cremated."

I step through the gates and already there are four or five fresh mounds of dirt.

Probably SARS taking someone else's wife or husband. Mother or son. At one of the mounds, a lady is on her knees, her hands finger-to-finger, palm-to-palm, and laced with Buddhist prayer beads, chanting "Namo Amituo Fo," over and over.

I walk to Mei Lin's grave and sit down. White roses are spread out like a Chinese fan in front of the tombstone, and at the foot there are three incense sticks burned to the stem.

It's the first time I've been here since the funeral.

I close my eyes tight and try to cry but can't. Those things are gone now. This is just a rock and a patch of grass. Below that, a sunken mound of dirt is crushing a box with nothing like my wife inside.

I'm not moving on. I'm moving to.

"Namo Amituo Fo," the lady behind me says.

I open my eyes and I see Mei Lin in front of me, like the day we saw her grandmother. She looks at me and -- squinting her eyes into the wind -- she disappears.

My hands tremble and I slip the wedding ring off my pinky and hold it up. One life, one love. But all I need is one death. "I'm on my way," I say, and pop the ring inside my mouth. Throwing my head back, I turn the Coke bottle upside down and swallow the ring with the rest of the seawater.


***


It's getting late. The sky is the color of soaked newspaper and the buildings are blinking silhouettes. What's left of the light is sliding behind the mountains like a drop of dishwater on a wine glass.

I ferry back across the harbor to Tsim Sha Tsui. It's time to stop wasting time. To end this. To get through the window before the window shuts.

Leaving the shore, I place the envelope of money and the wedding picture in my shoe and walk toward Nathan Road. To where the dirty shit goes down and my odds go up.

To the Chungking Mansions.

This place is seventeen stories high. Four towers of boarding houses. Air conditioners are knotted in windows, and the fa├žade is chipped and peeling like skin. The first two floors are a maze of curry messes that smell like old chicken blood. Nothing but poorly lit sweat-shops and rundown sari stores.

Mei Lin said the Mansions are known for murderers and drug dealers. Prostitution and gambling. Illegal immigrants from India and Sri Lanka wander the labyrinth of halls and alleys. "And the poor," she said, "they're crammed together, sleeping in the alleys, begging for scraps of food like so many pigs."

I step inside and the heat, sweat, and food melts to my face. I let my fingertips slide along the dingy surfaces. The graffiti covered walls and snot-smeared handrails. Shoving through the hordes of people, I pass a shop where thin, patchy chickens flutter inside small cages. A fabric store where a stained Yin and Yang blanket hangs from a wire. The sign stapled to it: "16 HKD." Neon signs reflect from the main hall's mirrored ceiling where banners and Chinese lamps twist in a half-arc.

I feel hands reaching into my pockets, clawing at whatever I may be carrying. Someone grabs the Coke bottle in my pocket, releases it, and pinches me.

Somebody's ring gets caught and my pocket rips open. My travel pouch is clicked off and snatched away.

I keep my head down. If I take a knife to the guts, show's over. Curtain closed. Any hope of seeing my wife again is out the wrong window.

I step inside a bric-a-brac shop and an old fortuneteller watches me from across the room. His hair is white and ratty. He stands and follows me down an aisle.

"Fortune?" he says. "Fortune today?"

I hold my palm out flat and he takes it in his twitching fingers.

He looks up at me, then back at my hand. At me. My hand.

He smiles and shakes his head. "Good fortune, gwai lo." Patting my hand, he says, "Long life."

I snatch my hand away and tell him he's wrong. I say, "You're a liar," and step out, disappearing into the crowd.

At a food outlet, I stop and order a box of Indian curry.

"Something else?" the man taking my order says, and I tell him, "Not unless you'll touch the food with your bare hands."

I move on, taking large bites of curry and rice with my fingertips. It's cold and gummy inside my mouth, and the chicken meat is not chicken.

I turn down an alley that's empty except for a pair of small legs sticking straight up out of a trash dumpster. Beside the legs, a baby carriage. After a few minutes, the legs seesaw at the waist and a frail girl slides over the lip of the dumpster, back to the ground. She's holding a glass bottle in each hand.

She places the bottles in a plastic bag hanging on the carriage handle. I walk toward her, licking slimy green curry off each finger. The light is weak, making the hall fluorescent green. When she sees me, she freezes, her eyes wide, and grabs the carriage, pushing it down the alley.

"Wait," I tell her in Cantonese. I say, "I won't hurt you."

Over her shoulder she's watching me, the carriage rattling on the rough floor. A wheel catches on a garbage bag, turning the carriage sideways, almost tipping it.

I run toward her.

The smell of rotting meat is so strong that I cover my nose with my arm.

"Please," I tell her. "Let me help."

She rights the carriage, never taking her eyes off me. Her cheeks and clothes are smudged in something tar black and she smells like the dumpster.

"Dau tze," she says, her teeth rotten, and I tell her, "You're welcome."

Inside the plastic bag, there are several beer and wine bottles. Inside the carriage, a baby, completely covered by a dirty white blanket.

I've heard about these children. How the Chinese pregnant mothers would come over and give birth to their babies, then after a while go back to the mainland without the children. Most die. Some are taken care of by other homeless children.

"The lucky ones," Mei Lin told me. These new caretakers have to find things to sell.
Like bottles. Cans and trash.

"Family?" I ask the girl, pointing at the baby.

And she says, "Sister," never taking her eyes off me.

Reaching slowly into my torn pocket, I pull out the Coke bottle, hold it up, and place it in the bag.

She bows, watching.

And suddenly, I lean down and start digging through the piles of garbage. Looking for bottles -– for anything -– I tear holes in the bags and empty them onto the floor.

The odor shoots through my nose and my eyes water.

I find a Blue Girl beer bottle and slip it inside the bag. She watches me for a few seconds, then gets down and sifts through the junk beside me.

I find a bottle.

She finds a can.

I'm digging faster and faster, running my hands through dark wet trash, clawing for anything worth something. I pull bottles out like babies from a womb. Saving them. Harvesting them.

I stand up again after I've checked all the bags. My pants are cold and they stick to my knees and thighs.

The little girl is still digging, holding up a bag and emptying it. Wads of muck scatter from her like a virus.

I watch, wiping my mouth with the back of my hand.

And then, as quietly as possible, I reach down and lift the baby from the carriage.

The smell.

I pull the blanket back from her face and can tell she's been dead at least three weeks. Not much is left of the cheeks and nose. Her lips are gone, eaten away from gums where teeth never got a chance to grow.

The girl sees me. She stands; eyes wide. "Please give me sister," she says, "Please give me sister." She holds her arms out, her hands shaking so bad they're almost blurry.

I smile, hold my index finger to my lips, and say, "Ssh." Pulling the blanket over the baby's face, I lay her back down, slow and easy, into the carriage.

She puts her arm over her sister, still staring up at me. Reaching down to my foot, I slip my shoe off and take out the envelope of money. I lay it down on the baby's still stomach and walk back up the alley.

Mei Lin once told me how the Mongols were able to conquer most of the Eastern world by wearing silk shirts.

I laughed.

"Not kidding," she said, a soap bubble on her nose. "If a Mongolian warrior was hit by an arrow, he'd just grab a fistful of shirt on each side of the shaft and pull in opposite directions." Rinsing a dumpling plate, she said, "Because it couldn't go through the silk, the arrow popped right out."

What's left are the facts. As if they really matter.

Leaving the Mansions, I grab a young guy by the arm, yank him toward me, and say,

"If we just had silk shirts, the whole world could stay alive." The guy snatches his arm away and backs inside, watching me.

I walk back to the Avenue of Stars, still covered in wet black. Across the harbor, the light show has started. Red, blue, yellow, and violet reflections are thrown across the dragon scales in the water. I sit at the railing and watch.

After a while, I pull out the wedding picture and stare at it. My shaking hands. Her red face. The lights throw shadows across me, then her. Me, then her.

Me nervous. Her laughing.

Everything red for luck.

A single tear slips over my cheek and snakes through the caked curry and trash on my face.

I wipe my eye and laugh. Things like crying are gone now. Like strings without knots. Warriors without silk.

The shadow covers me. Covers her.

Me.

Her.

And I put my fist to my mouth, close my eyes, and wait to start coughing.





Kevin Brown recently won the Permafrost Literary Journal's Midnight Sun Fiction Contest, the Touchstone Fiction Competition, and placed third in the Cadenza Fiction Contest. He was nominated for a 2007 Journey Award, a 2009 Micro Award, and has published in Alligator Juniper, sub-TERRAIN, Rosebud, New Delta Review, Underground Voices, Conclave, and Vulcan. His website is: www.InvisibleBodies.com

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