It was said that Ah Ding was good at jumping into the sea and disappearing. And each and everytime, he would resurface on the streets three months later.
But not this time. Three months passed, and he wasn't standing at the counter of Daiji pawnshop redeeming his emerald pocket watch. Nor was he lounging on a chaise at Chan bathhouse having his foot-long black mane washed, or leaning in the doorway of Zhangji's fish market, his Stetson pulled low, gulping down a bowl of water full of thrashing tadpoles. Every other time, invariably someone would bow to him and say, So, Ah Ding, you're back.
Ah Ding would snarl, Whaddya mean, back? Wasn't I sleeping with your wife just last night?
Soon he was ancient history in a city that grew as fast as cancer and came up with tall tales daily.
Only the prostitutes who bought his picture could prove he'd ever been here at all. At the age of seventeen, Ah Ding began printing nude photos of himself to sell to hookers. The first buyers were South American and Polish and then gradually the Chinese. He never got more than seventy cents for them and never sold them himself; he had vendors of hair oil, ribbons, and chignon blossoms peddle them up and down the streets. While he wasn't the most handsome man around, his amazing ability to be offensive matched the evil of the city notorious for it. The hookers bought his photo for its magical powers, to use evil to ward off evil.
By the third year, no one even remembered to wonder whether Ah Ding would return or not. The little baby girl he'd strangled to death had become a mound of earth. The little teeth that had once vaguely entertained the notion of biting someone were now chewing on the roots of spring flowers and autumn grasses. The foreign histories a hundred years later barely mentioned her at all: "The youngest of the Chinese girls sold into prostitution here was five months old.'
One day, two whites came to Chinatown, barged into the fruit shop, the jeweler's, and the pedicurist's, and forced the cashiers to hand over the money through the slot in the wire mesh. Their last stop was the herbalist's, where they set piles of medicinal roots and bark on fire. People finally believed that Ah Ding and his daggers were no more.
With Ah Ding gone, whites routinely strolled in and out of shops and took the cash.
Most of the girls who escaped the police roundup that night were dead by now, killed by disease, by a fight, by who knows what.
Fusang was the one who didn't die.
Fusang, who in two years had aborted five pregnancies with caustic drugs, had a rounder face now. She went out around noon with Ah Cha and Ah Jiao to buy a few feet of satin to make embroidered shoe tops.
The three women walked in front, and a thug followed a few paces behind, to make sure they didn't run off. Once the women's pace quickened, he hopped on his horse. When the streets got crowded, he stayed on horseback to keep an eye on the women's every intention, however minor it might be.
The women stopped at a fruit stand to buy slices of pineapple, and then bought pouches of fried river snails and barbecued duck livers at a food stand. They didn't pay for any of it. Thanking the vendors, they walked off eating and the thug came behind and settled up.
As they passed Chan bathhouse, the women slowed down. A few hundred men were going in one door and coming out another. When they went in they were heavier and darker and when they came out they were thinner, their faces lighter. The men going in the front door undressed and handed their clothes to an attendant, who took them to a pawnshop. He stopped and bought new clothes on his way back, returning just in time to give them to the men as they climbed out of the water.
Rid of lice, beard, tartar, and long finger-and toenails, the men coming out the back door of the bathhouse gave off warm steam, as if they had just been blanched. Brothel madams always checked the men's nails; they had to be clipped to the nub and filed smooth so the girls weren't left covered with scratches by the end of the night.
From The Lost Daughter of Happiness, copyright (c) 2001, Hyperion Press. Reproduced with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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