Book II: China
in the world am I going to explain this? Diego thought desperately, and took a deep breath.
Explaining in English, since they seemed to understand a little
of that language, he said, “I had to disguise myself…on a ship… to
destroy cargo that was bad for China,” Diego tried to explain simply.
He sighed, that sounded so asinine.
“I was caught and I had to jump overboard.
Then you found me.” He
paused and looked intently at Leiching and then at Xian.
“I swear by the Holy Mother of God, I am not a pirate.”
gazed at him, studying this Englishman, feeling something that disturbed
her belief- and she rebelled against that.
He was a foreign devil, one of those hated barbarians.
Why would he want to do something good for China?
His eyes held no deception in their depths, his demeanor, no
haughtiness. But still, she
had to think about the children.
She looked at the mask in her hands.
No one but a bandit would wear a disguise.
believe him,” Leiching said.
turned toward her husband, her mouth set in stern disapproval.
“I do not, but I will defer to your judgment.”
She paused, drawing in breath through clenched teeth.
“Remember, though, my husband, that if he harms the children,
that it was your decision,” she said.
nodded. “I understand,
but hear this, my wife . . . if I thought this man was a real pirate, he
would have been over the railing already.”
turned to Diego, “English, my husband feels you are telling the truth.
I do not. You harm
my children, and I will kill you myself,” she said to Diego in
English, showing him her knife.
thrust the mask back at Diego, who had been listening to the exchange,
not understanding any of it, but knowing that they were arguing about
him. As he took the
black cloth, Diego nodded, feeling a partial relief.
At least he was not going to be tossed back overboard just yet. If they understood little of the rest, they understood what
he had said, and Leiching, at least, believed him when he denied being a
pirate. Bowman had told him
that pirates did operate in Asian waters, which was why the China Star had cannons on each side of the ship.
It seemed the Chinese liked pirates as little as did the British,
and Xian was determined that he was a pirate.
He hoped that he could somehow make the woman believe him.
Leiching, I thank you for helping me.
For saving my life.” Diego
stiffly rose to his knees and executed what he hoped was a good kowtow.
When he finished, Xian's gaze was unreadable, but her eyes seemed
a bit softer. Obviously,
his kowtow was acceptable.
reached over and touched the shirt.
“My daughter fixed this shirt for you,” she said, a slight
frown on her face.
smiled. “I thank you both
for your . . . hospitality,” he told Xian, hoping that they understood
him. Xian pointed to the
older girl and he assumed she had been the seamstress.
He thanked her personally and she beamed.
Then the girl handed him a pair of pants that had similarly been
altered. Xian snorted and
Diego could only assume that the job had not been done with her
permission. Again, the Californiano
thanked the woman and her daughter.
With a bit of help from Leiching, Diego rose to his feet and
walked behind a screen where he changed into the more comfortable pants.
He was still stiff and sore, but the numbness was gone and he
felt as though he might possibly survive.
he was changing, Eldest Daughter went to the little stove and served up
bowls of steaming rice with pieces of stir-fried fish and vegetables,
and round rice balls rolled in sesame seeds.
When Diego returned, Leiching was served first, then Diego, then
Xian and the children.
looked around the low table for a fork or spoon. All he saw were the two long ivory-colored sticks the younger
daughter had handed him. Vaguely,
he remembered the kidnapped Chinese prince owning a pair of sticks like
these. Leiching was
clearing his throat, and Diego looked up, embarrassed by his
inattentiveness. At a
little shrine or altar, the man bowed and said something.
Diego waited quietly, his head bowed in respect, for the family
to finish what seemed to him to be a pre-dinner prayer or ritual.
While they were doing this, Diego silently said a fervent prayer
of his own.
older boy, who looked to be about sixteen, picked up a pair of the
little sticks and showed Diego how he held them in his hand. Then the young man picked up his bowl, and holding it near
his mouth, started eating the rice with them.
It helped that the rice was somewhat sticky and clumped, but when
Diego tried to hold the utensils the same way, his rice became very
elusive and cascaded back into the bowl.
Rubbing his still stiff fingers, he looked at his supper in
consternation. The little boy said something, then gently took the
sticks and placed Diego’s fingers around them the correct way.
This time he was able to get his fingers and the sticks to work
properly. “By the
Saints,” Diego exclaimed softly.
“I might yet be able to do this.”
He smiled his thanks to the little boy.
conversation ebbed and flowed around him like the water around the
Chinese ship. It reminded
Diego of times at home when family and friends were gathered together in
a congenial atmosphere. He
pictured a meal in the sala with his father, Sergeant Garcia, Don
Cornelio and Moneta. It was so vivid, even to the laughter and the clinking
of the wine glasses as a toast was raised.
Suddenly, the last of the rice stuck in his throat and he bowed
to excuse himself, making his way to the deck.
Looking to the east where he presumed California would lie, Diego
remembered that when he had been at the university, he would
occasionally feel pangs of homesickness, but never anything like the
knife sharp longing for home that was filling him with anguish at this
felt a presence at his side. “You
look to your home?” Leiching asked softly in English. “England is that way.”
He pointed to the west.
shook his head. “No, my
home is that way,” he said pointing to the east. “California is my
home.” Leiching looked
puzzled. “California is
in Spanish America,” he further explained.
are not English?” the fisherman asked.
“You speak English.”
am a Californiano,” Diego explained. “I speak Spanish first
and then English.”
is far away?” Leiching
asked next. Diego just
nodded. “Maybe in Canton- Guangzhou- you find your way
home,” he told the Californiano. “We will be in Canton in
about four days, maybe a little more.”
you, Wang Leiching,” Diego said gratefully.
“And thank you for believing me.”
are welcome. My wife still
doubts, but I think she believes you a little bit,” Leiching replied
with a smile. He watched
the lowering sun with his foreign companion.
“Do those from your land only have one name?” the fisherman
asked. “Or are you known
by more than just Diego?”
rest of my name is de la Vega. I
am Diego de la Vega y de la Cruz, the son of Alejandro de la Vega,”
Diego said. The
little boy had followed them on deck and was asking his father
something. His father spoke
to him in Chinese, then he turned to Diego, chuckling.
Son says that he was right. He
told Eldest Daughter that you were not English, you were from somewhere
have a very smart son.”
beamed at the compliment. “Youngest
Son wants to know if you have brothers and sisters,” the father asked
for his son.
brothers and no sisters.” The
boy took his hand and said something solemnly.
says that it must be hard to not have brothers and sisters.”
was touched by the sincerity of the little boy. “Sometimes it was hard not having someone else near my age
to talk to or play with, but most of the time I was very happy.
My mother and father loved me very much and taught me much as
well. And I had many
friends. Please tell
Youngest Son I am touched by his concern.”
response, Youngest Son took him by the hand and led him back into the
family room. His mood was
lifted somewhat by the concern of a little boy he barely knew.
the next morning, Diego felt almost back to full strength.
When he got up, he saw that Eldest Daughter had already started
breakfast. It was rice
served with some kind of tortilla-like food made with eggs, vegetables,
and fish cooked in a small pan. She
bowed to him; he reciprocated. She
younger bows to the older, not older to younger, Diego,” Leiching
explained as he entered the room.
laughed. “I’m sorry, I
have had to learn so many new things recently.
I feel stupid sometimes, not remembering everything.”
learn quickly.” Leiching
complimented his guest. “You
have now learned some Chinese and how to act politely in our society. And I have learned more English.”
Diego said. “Thank
you.” He pondered a
moment, remembering the impromptu language lesson of the previous night. “I am thinking that some words are the same in many
languages, except I say them wrong.”
Both men laughed, remembering when Diego had tried to use the
Chinese word for Youngest Son’s mother and had been informed that he
had said it at the wrong pitch and was talking about a horse.
That had taken a great deal of signing and pantomime to get Diego
to understand what he had done wrong, but in the end they had had a good
time with his mistake, even Xian, who had not scowled at him this
morning when he bowed to her.
breakfast, which Diego had found to be delicious, he concentrated on
seeing what he could do to restore his gloves and boots after being
soaked in seawater for so long. They
were dried stiff and had a film of salt crystals on them.
Leiching suggested for want of anything better, to try fish oil.
The stuff had a strong odor, but Diego decided that it was better
to have them fit well and smell bad, than to smell good and fit
worked the oil into the gloves until they were supple enough for him to
easily hold and use his saber. Youngest
Son watched in rapt attention as Diego went through some fencing moves.
The Californiano also used a little fish oil on the sword,
and hung it and the scabbard on hooks to dry.
It took a little longer to get the boots in shape, but eventually
they, too, were flexible enough for him to wear comfortably.
times during the day, he helped Eldest Son and Second Son with the
sails. They were set at a different angle on the mast then the sails of
the British ship had been, but the principle was the same.
At other times, he stood at the helm and watched Leiching
maneuver the ship through the seemingly endless sea.
of the time, however, the two younger members of the Wang family took it
upon themselves to enlighten Diego in the rudiments of Chinese culture
and language. “Chi…
eat,” Second Daughter told him.
. . . food,” Youngest Son said.
fan? To eat a meal?”
Diego asked, venturing into the realm of experimentation.
. . . yes!” Second Daughter exclaimed.
pointed at himself. “Xiansheng,”
he was told. Gentleman? he finally figured out what the word
meant. He pointed
Youngest Son. “Didi
. . . younger brother,” the children said.
. . . no,” Diego shook his head, he did not want to know
classification or title. He
wanted to know what the word for man, male was, but he didn’t know how
to ask. Youngest Son gave him a puzzled look. Diego started making motions with his hands, giving
Bernardo’s sign for a woman.
Daughter’s face lit in comprehension.
She pointed to herself, “Nu.”
Then she pointed to him and Youngest Son, “Nan.”
With a great smile, Diego pointed to Youngest Son and quipped, “Shao Nan, Little Man.”
Nan,” Youngest Son pointed at him and declared, making motions. Diego realized that the little boy was calling him ‘big
man.’ When he saw that
Diego understood what he had said, Youngest Son began laughing and the
rest of them joined in.
three more days the lessons continued, whenever Diego was not helping
Leiching and his elder sons with the sails or the fishing. At times he had to go on deck to let his mind clear of the
confusion of trying to assimilate too much, too fast. During one of those times, he and Leiching stood at the
railing watching the dolphins frolicking at the bow of the ship.
Diego asked a question that had been on his mind.
“I am curious. If
I’m not being too bold, where did you learn to speak English?”
I got married, I worked as a servant in the household of one of the
British Trade Commission officials,” he explained.
“I learned some English and earned money to buy a fishing boat
and get the bride price to marry Xian.
But until you came, I did not have a need for speaking
language lessons continued and by the end of the third day, Diego felt
he could converse and make himself understood.
What was even better, he felt confident that he understood most
of what the others were saying.
the afternoon of the third day, Second Daughter limped into the next
room and brought Diego some tea. Diego
had noticed that Eldest Daughter and their mother also hobbled around
the ship. It had been
something that he had wondered about for the past two and a half days,
but had feared offending anyone by asking something that may be a taboo
subject. His curiosity got
the better of him, though. “Second
Daughter, why is it that you and your sister and mother all limp?”
He had noticed, also, that all had very small feet and wondered
if there was a correlation.
feet have been bound as is customary,” Second Daughter replied, making
signs to make sure he understood what she meant.
is such a thing . . . customary?” Diego asked, also supplementing his
questions with hand signs.
just is, Xiansheng Diego,” she answered.
“No one would marry us if we had large feet.”
Why not, he thought, but he chose not to ask that question aloud. “But is it not . . . painful?” he asked instead.
Second Daughter said, it is a custom,” Xian said from the doorway, a
frown on her face. “And
it is better for there to be a little pain and be desirable then to have
no pain and be lonely.”
all nu to have this done?” he asked as politely as he could,
not wanting to undo the small amount of trust that Xian seemed to have
for him now.
Diego, except for barbarians,” Xian replied, her tone indicating
Diego said. “I was only .
. . curious. I meant
no . . . offense.” He
wondered at the barbarity of putting someone through such pain and
misery for the sake of desirability.
is how one learns,” Xian said, a slight smile indicating that there
had been no offense taken.
he went up on deck, late in the afternoon of the fifth day of his
sojourn on board Leiching’s boat, sailing vessels could be seen in the
distance and Diego felt a small thrill of excitement in the assumption
that they must be nearing their destination.
At last he might be able to start the journey home.
he watched the sun set, Second Daughter and Youngest Son found him and
pestered him to tell about his home. As simply as he could, he told them
about the de la Vega hacienda, the rolling hills, his horses, the
blazing sky, and his father. At
times, he had to also use hand signs, but they understood.
Heaving a deep sigh, he thought how it seemed forever since he
had been on a horse.
sharp cry brought him from his reverie; Eldest Son and Second Son had
landed an exceptionally large fish and were having difficulty bringing
it in. Leiching was
struggling with a fish of his own and couldn’t help.
motioned to Youngest Son to get his gloves; while he ran to grab the end
of the rope the young men were struggling with.
Xian and Eldest Daughter came and grabbed on also.
Youngest Son brought the gloves and helped Diego get them on.
Taking a tight hold on the rope and drawing it around his waist,
he became the anchorman. With
the traction that the soft-soled boots gave him, he was able to draw the
rope back steadily. He had seen sailors on the China
Star catching and hauling in fish to supplement their diet, and he,
himself had done some fishing, but this one had to surpass them all.
Even with all of them on the rope, the fish thrashed and dragged
at the line with a strength that astonished him.
Diego figured this creature had to be the size of a horse.
boys were chanting something to give cadence to their efforts to pull
the fish on board, and Diego found himself repeating it with them.
A half an hour later, they all drew in the biggest fish that
Diego had ever seen. It was a shark, but one that was more than twice
the size of any that he had seen during the voyage.
It wasn’t as large as a horse, but it appeared to be the size
of a half-grown colt, at least. He
had previously thought tales of such large sharks to be rum-induced
delusions. When he
approached it to get a closer look, Eldest Son grabbed him by the shirt
and jerked him back. The fish began snapping and thrashing, and Eldest
Son and his brother quickly killed it with harpoons and clubs.
continue to thrash and fight for life even out of water.
These kinds of sharks can take off a hand or foot even out of the
water, Diego,” Leiching informed him, having landed his own fish and
joining them to inspect this one.
paled slightly. “Ai, I
was very fortunate when I was in the water,” he said softly.
“Yes, you were. Your ancestors were watching out for you,” Leiching agreed.