Read an Excerpt
What can you give me?
Can you give me a back alley, a smoke-filled temple where
white-hooded mourners burn offerings and wail for the dead?
The single chime of a high-pitched temple bell? The knocking
of a wooden fish?
Can you give me hot rain, mould-streaked walls, a sharpness
that creeps into my clothes, infests my books? The smells of
dried oysters, clove hair oil, tiger balm, joss burning to Kuan
Yin in the back room of a Chinese amah? The feverish shriek
of cicadas, the cry of black-eared kites? The translucent green of
sun shining through elephant ear leaves?
Can you give me a handful of coloured silk? An empty pack of
cigarettes? A tape recorder? Narrow, stepped streets, balconies
hung with shop signs, laundry strung on bamboo poles, rattan
birdcages? A ripened pomelo split open? The chalky bone of
Can you give me my father's hand in mine, Frankie's in the
other? Then take everything and go away?
Because if you can't, it's not enough. And if you can, I might
leave anyhow. I'll head for cover. Disappear in jungles of triple
~ ~ ~
Out in the harbour, at the end of summer, fishermen feed the
hungry ghosts. They float paper boats shaped like junks and
steamships. One is double-prowed like the cross-harbour Star
Ferry which plies its way back and forth between Hong Kong
and Kowloon, never having to turn around. The fishermen load
each tiny paper boat with some tea leaves, a drop of cooking oil,
a spoonful of rice, a splash of petrol before setting it afloat.
for the lost at sea, for the drowned. They hire musicians to clang
cymbals. Children throw burning spirit-money into the waves.
This summer, the one I'm going to tell you about, is the only
time that matters. It's the time I'll think of when I'm dying, just
as another might recall a lost lover or regret a love they never
had. For me, there is one story. It's my sister's -- Frankie's.
~ ~ ~
'Touched you last,' Frankie taunts. She runs out across the
beach. Arms waving, shouting Indian war whoops, she plunges
into the warm, green waves. Dares me to follow. Shaking off
the stupor of the heat, I dash out after her.
Inside our shack, it's hot and close. Rank smells of sea salt,
mould, sand. Air so wet, it trickles down the creases of our skin.
Pools collect in the bends of our arms, behind our knees. Waves
lap. Cicadas shriek. Barnacles and snails, stranded above the tide
line, clamp tightly to rocks.
Frankie feeds me roe she's extracted from the belly of a
purple-spined sea urchin, the way the boatman Ah Wong has
taught us. I lick the soft yellow eggs off her finger. The taste is
raw and salty-smooth. It's how explorers, castaways survive:
Magellan, Columbus, Crusoe, eating the flesh of wild sea
turtles, mangy gulls. Sometimes we dive for rubbery black sea
slugs. Frankie squeezes one, shooting me with a film of sticky
innards. It's the creature's only means of defence. It takes them
a full year to rearm.
~ ~ ~
We're already too old for this, our games of castaway. We take
them up self-consciously. Construct our shacks of flotsam and
jetsam: rope, tin, fishing-net, Styrofoam, driftwood. Drag our
finds back from rocks along the shore, step barefoot on crusty
barnacles, rough granite, through tidal pools harbouring crabs
and limpets. At the back of the beach, sharp vines clasp at our
skin: vitex, rattlebox, morning glory. They criss-cross our ankles
with scratches and scabs. Calluses grow thick on the soles of our
feet. Startled, an ungainly coucal crashes through the
undergrowth. Its echoing, whooping cry sounds like a monkey
rather than a bird.
Then again, it's in our nature to gather, to scavenge. My
mother hoards tubes of paints, charcoal pencils, erasers, inks,
pens. Stores them in art boxes and Chinese baskets piled in her
room with hard blocks of watercolour paper. My father keeps
war relics in his darkroom, treasures my mother doesn't like to
see: slivers of shrapnel he dug out of his leg, a grenade pin, a
smuggled AK-47 stashed under the basin. A string of tiny
temple bells that jangle on the door so you have to open it
slowly, carefully, if you don't want anyone to hear you. A thin,
tattered Vietnamese-English dictionary.
Secretly foraging, Frankie and I discover the Vietnamese
words for nationalism and People's Democratic Revolution,
dialectic materialism and exploitation. We find words for blood
transfusion, guerrilla warfare and napalm. A bomb exploded and
killed many people: Bom nô gi ´ êt ch ´ êt nhi`êu ngu'ò'i.
utopia, không tu'o'ng,
and sexual intercourse, gió'i tính
pronounce them phonetically, like witches' spells. We look at
the pictures my father's taken. Photographs of war.
~ ~ ~
Secret sisters. Shipwrecked sisters. Viet Cong sisters is what we
Frankie's back is strong and dark. She ties her long brown hair
in two braids. Although our mother pleads with her to wear a
top, she swims only in cut-off shorts. Maybe she's not ready to
grow up. More likely, she wants to upset our mother. Her
breasts are already full and round, like mangosteens. They
bounce when she runs. Voluptuous is the word McKenna used
when he and my father last came out of Saigon. It made my
Me, I am thinner, leaner. Miró or Giacometti, my mother
calls me. My hair is fair and cropped like a boy. It mats to my
head with sea salt. I wear a threadbare blue-and-white bikini,
hiding pointy, childish nipples. My skin is sunburned. When my
father takes photos of me, I stare straight at the camera. I am
twelve, nearly thirteen.
'Come, Kate,' Frankie calls me from the sea. I sprint. Feet,
knees, legs fly across the sand, batter through the warm water.
A wave rises up and slaps hard against my chest, then sweeps
back, scratching my ankles with island sand, pulls as if to drag
me down. I dive.
Underwater, it's cooler, quieter, green-blue. Purple-black sea
urchins cling to rocks. Rough-skinned starfish stretch their arms
in every direction. Fish dart past, swept along by the wash of
waves. A pink sea anemone shudders fleshy tentacles. I hear the
throbbing whine of a boat engine, an ancient kaido ferrying
passengers to Yung Shue Wan, on the opposite end of Lamma
Frankie grins, swims off; her arms pull broad, strong strokes,
skimming the sandy bottom. I swim as fast as I can, knowing I
won't beat her. Hold my breath until my chest aches, then kick
to the surface, gasp in air. Frankie is faster, bigger, stronger. But
she's also more needy. She needs my participation, my surrender
in order to assert herself.
Breathless, I flip over. Floating upward, I dip my head back
so the water licks my forehead. My eyes squint in the sun. From
here, our shack looks like one of the squatter huts that catch fire
or collapse down the muddy slopes of Hong Kong in sudden
Or maybe it's a Cubist painting in one of my mother's art
books: a collage of forgotten items tacked on a cork-board.
The Chinese believe dragons lie curled asleep under these
hills. Construction of new roads, the digging of foundations for
apartment buildings can cut into the creatures' flesh. The earth
bleeds red ochre. Then the great beasts must be appeased,
offerings made, to avoid disease, bankruptcy or sudden,
unexplained death. These bare, knobby hills are a dragon's
vertebrae, spinal humps that might plunge under at any time,
sucking us down with them.
All Hong Kong's islands look this way. Their forests cut down
for firewood and shipbuilding. Their fertile valleys flooded at
the end of the Ice Age, leaving steep mountains jutting out of
Copyright © 2005 by Richard Lloyd Parry. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.