“Go around to the other side,” he said, afraid someone onshore might notice that a foreign devil had gone aboard this junk. The sampan moved around to the far side and bumped against the larger boat’s hull. Robert was so nervous he almost fell in the water when he missed the knotted rope that was tossed down.
His legs were shaky and weak from anticipation. He managed to take hold of the rope and climb. He was tempted to look down. He closed his eyes instead, reached for the next knot in the rope, and pulled himself toward the deck.
“Master.” It was Guan-jiah’s voice. Robert opened his eyes. The eunuch’s smiling face hung above him. The servant took Robert’s hand and helped pull him aboard. Robert shrugged off a desire to throw his arms around the eunuch. A man, looking like a younger Uncle Bark, stood next to Guan-jiah.
“This is Cousin Weed, Uncle Bark’s only surviving son,” Guan-jiah said.
Robert nodded to Weed, who nodded back. “How is your father’s health?” Robert asked
“He is well. He’s waiting to see you.”
Robert forced an iron band around his heart to hold it in place in an effort to be polite. He was trying to see Ayaou without looking obvious. She wasn’t where he’d first spotted her from the sampan.
No matter how eager he was to see her, he felt it only proper to see Uncle Bark first and pay his respects. After all, the old man had been instrumental in helping Robert survive his darkest hours.
* * *
Robert was ushered into a large cabin at the stern of the junk where Uncle Bark waited. He still looked like the old toothless man Robert had first met in Ningpo. Bark's skin was the color of dried leather. His face looked as if it had been shrunk to fit against the bones of his skull making his head look like a shriveled apple. He was close to eighty, yet Robert knew that this old man was strong. He remembered how easily Bark had killed men more than half his age during the fight that saved Ayaou's life.
Guan-jiah had already steeped the chrysanthemum tea. The cabin was filled with the flowery scent. There was also a bowl of Shan-tung red dates. "Sit," Uncle Bark said. He held out a hand to guide Robert to the floor mat in the center of the cabin. A serving tray with the tea and bowl of dates sat between them.
Robert reached for the teapot. Uncle Bark said, "Allow me." The old man poured the tea into two cups without spilling a drop. His hands looked like dried roots but did not tremble.
"I see you are in good health," Robert said.
"Early in the morning when I open my eyes, I stare at the stars before the sun chases them from the sky and feel as I did when I was a young man. Then I move, and the stiffness in my joints reminds me how long I have been here." He shrugged and studied Robert's face with shrewd eyes. "How have you been?"
"My days are busy. The rebels make life challenging. Thanks to that, I do not have much time to think."
"But when you try to sleep, you feel an emptiness," Uncle Bark said. "Do you remember when you were sitting at your kitchen table in Ningpo with the loaded pistol between your hands?"
"Yes, it was after Shao-mei's funeral. It was a dark moment and you read my mind and took the pistol away before I made a horrible mistake. I was desperate. Ward's demonic laughter haunted me."
"And what did I say?"
"You told me about the five women and twenty-two children you have lost during your life. You said that Ayaou was going to be a living, dead thing if I didn't go to her. I had to be the rock she could cling to while the river of life flowed around us."
Uncle Bark nodded. "I often think of Shao-mei's burial ceremony. Do you remember what I said about the incense I gave you?"
"That I could say anything I wished."
"I left before I could hear your words. What did you say to her?"
He recited the poem he had taught Shao-mei—the one she had memorized. “Like molten gold appears the setting sun. Clouds at evening like jade-blocks pieced into one. Where is the one close and dear to my heart from whom without mental pain, I cannot part?” He felt a twinge of agony but managed to keep it from showing. Why was Uncle Bark dredging up the memoires Robert wanted to forget?
The old man studied him. "You have recovered better than Ayaou. She has been deeply wounded as the land after a typhoon uproots trees and blows houses away. It takes a great effort to rebuild. For Ayaou to heal, you must be the manure and water that her roots need. It is the only way. She fears the future."
"She must know that I still love her," Robert said. "How could she doubt that?"
"When you were working at the consulate, Shao-mei and Ayaou were inseparable. For Ayaou to heal, she must find a balance where she is the yin and you are the yang like a pair of Mandarin love ducks. She will recover knowing you are always there."
"She has doubts?"
"When you left for Canton, she was not ready for the separation. Be patient. When her tongue tests you, remember the good times before Ward murdered Shao-mei. It is the only way that her darkness might be pushed back and her light shines again." Uncle Bark waved a hand. "Go to her. We can sip tea together another time."
Instead of speaking, Robert nodded his thanks and grasped Uncle Bark's hand in a warm embrace. He didn’t trust his tongue to say what he was thinking. He blushed and cursed himself for this sign of weakness.
Once he was outside, Guan-jiah said, “Go down that ladder, Master.” The eunuch indicated a rectangular, black hole in the deck. “Ayaou is waiting.”
He hurried to the hole and remembered the first time he had been intimate with Ayaou. He’d dropped into a similar opening not knowing what to expect. This time he didn’t feel the same misgivings. In his rush, he half slipped on the ladder and almost ended in a pile at the bottom. It was gloomy and musty like Ward’s cellar that first time he’d been with her. He squinted to see. Then he saw her.
He stepped forward and wrapped his arms around her. He couldn’t describe how it felt holding her again. His throat swelled with emotion. His eyes watered. He could have missed this moment if he’d been killed back on shore. He didn’t want to let go. He smelled the warm, ocean scent clinging to her hair, and Uncle Bark's warning was forgotten—for now.
“Let us go to our house,” she said. There were tears on her face.
He heard the hunger in her raspy voice. His heart beat faster with anticipation. “There is no house,” he said. “I didn’t have the time. The situation here is dangerous. After I leave, send Guan-jiah to find a house. Even with all the English and French soldiers in Canton, the wives of Westerners are staying in Hong Kong or Macao. People are killed daily. Many have fled.”
“I see,” she said. A sternness came into her eyes. The following silence indicated she wasn’t pleased.
“Once we have a suitable place, I’ll come in the night,” he said. “I will have to leave in the morning before sunrise. Until it is safer, that is how we will meet. Tell Guan-jiah to send the same boy with the location for the house.”
“Poetry cannot take your place in my heart,” she said, and stared into his eyes as if she were trying to read words there. She brushed his hand aside and pressed against him. He felt the rise and fall of her breasts. Her heart was beating fast like his.
“It sounds like you have been missing me, Ayaou.” His eyes had adjusted to the darkness. He lifted her chin to see her face and kissed away the tears.
“I do one thing when I miss you too much,” she said.
“What’s that?” he asked. He loved listening to her silky voice. It reminded him of the evenings he’d spent teaching her and Shao-mei to read.
“I read books. I still have trouble believing I can read. Books are blocks between us. Every time I remove one, I am one-step closer to you. See, it is true . I am here.”
“I must say, hearing that impresses me,” he said. “How did you get here so fast?”
“This junk belongs to Cousin Weed,” she replied. “When I received your letter, I went to Uncle Bark for advice and discovered his son had delivered a cargo from South China to Shanghai that day and would be returning to Macao. We immediately went from Ningpo to Shanghai and sailed with him.”
The sensuous way her lips moved as she talked captivated him. He didn’t want to go ashore and return to his empty, cold bed.
“Would you like to stay tonight?” Ayaou asked. “I have been practicing on eggplants, so I would not forget how you like to be kissed.”
“Eggplants?” he said. He felt like laughing but looked serious instead. “I thought you practiced on carrots.”
“Stop talking.” She took his hand and led him to a lower deck where the headspace was restricted. He had to walk bent over, and he wasn’t a tall man. His thoughts were lost in a bedlam of emotions. He worried that if he didn’t return quickly to the commission his absence would be noticed. What would Parkes say if he knew about Ayaou? The first voice in his head said to leave before he was missed. A second voice said to stay. The second voice won. He followed her without resistance.
“The first time we were together,” he said, “you told me your father made you practice on carrots.”
“Carrots are hard,” she replied. “Boiled eggplant is soft like your lips.” He had a hard time imagining that his lips felt like eggplant. It wasn’t a flattering image.
The smell of mildew and rot was strong. Bales of cargo crowded the space. She pulled him between the bales, pushed past a burlap curtain and into a narrow space filled with quilted pads and blankets. It reminded him of their first time together in the root cellar under Ward’s house.
Thinking of Ward reminded him that while the mercenary lived, he was a threat to Robert’s happiness and Ayaou’s safety. Canton might not be a safe place for Ayaou, but it was a long way from Ward, which brought Robert some comfort. The further they were from the Devil Soldier, the safer he felt.
She took both his hands in hers and pulled him down beside her. Their lips fed on each other. “This is much better than eggplant,” she said.
“That makes me feel better,” he replied.
“Be quiet,” she said.
It was a night to remember. They didn’t sleep.
Links to Reviews for "Our Hart"
Honorable Mentions in General Fiction