His reunion with Ayaou was strained from the start. She’d given birth two months earlier, and Robert was relieved to learn that she had gone through the delivery without difficulty. He had worried that she might die during childbirth.
He had not forgotten about the child—a memory that only magnified his guilt. Since he was not married to Ayaou, he was betraying everything he’d been taught as a Christian.
The baby was a girl with dark skin and fluffy brown hair. Although still beautiful, Ayaou looked tired. “Robert,” she said, “it needs a name.”
“She’s two months old and doesn’t have a name yet?” He couldn’t take his eyes off the child. “I don’t understand.”
“You are the father,” she said. “You name it.”
He did not want to give the baby a name. If he named her, he was accepting responsibility for her. He stared at the child and hated himself. He was starting to think too much like a Chinese man.
Although he admired much about Chinese culture, that was one aspect he refused to adopt. “I’ll name her Anna,” he said. He wanted Anna to have his last name. He didn’t want her to hear the word ‘bastard’ during her life. “Her name will be Anna Hart.”
“If you hadn’t come, I would have named it after Uncle Bark.”
“You’re not serious,” he said. Could she have been that cruel to this little girl? He didn’t want to believe it.
“Is Uncle Bark here?” he asked.
“Uncle Bark is dead,” she said.
Later, Robert asked Guan-jiah. “Is it true that Uncle Bark is gone?”
“Yes, Master. He died like a ripe fruit dropping from a tree. It was peaceful and natural, a good death.”
Losing Uncle Bark reminded him of his own mortality and that life could end in a moment. He’d always miss Uncle Bark and would never forget him. If it hadn’t been for that old man, Robert would already be dead. He would have killed himself or Ward would have done it.
Bark Hart, he thought. It was a good name but not for his daughter. I am sorry, Uncle Bark. He looked at the timbers above his head. I’m sure you would understand. It would not be fair to Anna.
* * *
It didn’t take long for Anna to capture his heart. He forgot about his discomfort at giving the child his last name. Happy moments arrived when he held her and looked into her chubby face. He marveled at how tiny every part of her was. It thrilled him when she wrapped her hand around one of his fingers and held on.
He swore that he would never abandon this child God gave him.
He trembled and a slight chill raced along the surface of his skin. Startled, he sucked in a breath and held it while he listened for something else in the silence.
Surely, God was sending him a message. If that is what it was, he had to be a good father.
* * *
Robert worked alongside everyone else hoping to impress Ayaou.
“I protest," cousin Weed replied. “I cannot have a guest working as if he were a peasant.” Cousin Weed looked like a younger Uncle Bark with the same features and leather skin. Robert detected approval in cousin Weed’s eyes.
“I insist,” he replied. “It is my duty to share the work. Chou Luk called me his son-in-law. Surely, I must earn the right to be part of this family.”
Cousin Weed put Robert to work pumping water out of the bilge or moving cargo on and off the junk. It was sweaty, backbreaking work that Ayaou did alongside him with Anna strapped to her chest.
Cousin Weed’s junk had two large sails made of bamboo. Because the bamboo was so strong, there weren’t many ropes. The boat’s design reminded Robert of the interior structure of bamboo with multiple compartments separated by hatches and ladders. The stern was horseshoe-shaped. The bottom was flat with no keel.
Meals consisted of fish, seaweed and rice. Toasted watermelon seeds were always available as a snack. Years later, he would remember the sound of Ayaou cracking the seeds as she squatted on the deck beside him.
When they worked together, he often took a strand of hair that had fallen into her eyes and tucked it behind an ear. In the past, she smiled when he did that. This time there was no response. She kept right on working as if nothing had happened.
He felt his heart shrivel.
Honorable Mentions in General Fiction