East of the Sierra

The following story is the winner of the second annual Marguerite McGlinn National Fiction Prize. Visit www.philadelphiastories.org for details on the 2011 contest.

[img_assist|nid=6811|title=Buttery Light by Brian Griffiths © 2010|desc=|link=node|align=right|width=200|height=300]         The boy stays close. From the moment the steamship docks, his son’s jacket brushes his own. Lin-Hui thinks they must make for an odd sight: the taller, wide-shouldered youth crouching in the armpit of a man almost old enough to be a grandfather. But Lin-Hui remembers he was no different the first time he came to dai fao, San Francisco. He nearly climbed on his uncle’s back at the first sight of so many blue-eyed barbarians, their guns, their red goat beards. And now, even though he has seen ten thousand Americans, he thinks it better to keep the boy near. Anything can happen on Gold Mountain. It is not so certain as its name. Lin-Hui has paid for insurance. Should he or his son meet with death on this trip, they will not be left to lie in this ghostland. Their bodies will be shipped home; their spirits tended to.

            They travel by ferry from San Francisco to Oakland where they board a train, passing Stockton, Sacramento, and then climb into the Sierra: Auburn, Donner Lake, Truckee, over tracks Lin-Hui helped to stitch across the soil. They cross into Nevada whose mountains, their fellow tong yun now say, contain hidden clefts of silver.

            They will have to rename it now, one of the men jokes. Silver Mountain.

            A second-class dream, Lin-Hui thinks, and still it is enough to lure men across an ocean.

            Like Lin-Hui, the men are from Sunning County. They are staked outside of Reno, close to where Lin-Hui and his son are headed. As a precaution, Lin-Hui tells them he and his son will stop by their claim once they have finished. If the men do not see Lin-Hui or Chi within ten days, they are to come looking.

            Perhaps you have forgotten what the desert is like, one of the men says.

            Lin-Hui looks out the window. But it is late and the window shows nothing.

            Much can happen before ten days.

            I have not forgotten, Lin-Hui replies. He is glad his son is sleeping.

            At Reno, they get out. Lin-Hui buys Chi his first leather boots. They rent a small wagon, a single horse. They load bedrolls, rice, longan beans, dried fish, pots, and two shovels onto the bed. Lin-Hui also brings tea, a tin of liver pills. He does not want to exhaust the horse. There is not money enough to buy it if it dies. Lin-Hui tells Chi they must walk alongside the wagon. 

            They pin up their braids and wear wide straw hats to block the sun. They are careful not to stray far from the tracks. The land is as dead as Lin-Hui has remembered, like something cooked too long. Immediately his feet begin to flatten against the baked earth.

            Where are the trees? Chi asks.

            Lin-Hui has tried to warn his son. But such talk is pointless. How can one prepare for something one has never known?

            His son is not used to his new leather boots. The father cannot have his son limping with blisters; Chi must walk. Lin-Hui regrets not having purchased boots in Hong Kong and breaking them in during the weeks on the steamship. A foolish oversight. At least he has had the sense to bring binding cloth. Tonight they must wrap his son’s feet.


            As a younger man, Lin-Hui traveled to Gold Mountain twice: once for gold, which he found, and once for the railroads, for which he laid track. Six years after his second return, his uncle came to him. The villagers wanted Lin-Hui return a third time, he explained to his nephew, to fulfill a  jup seen yu, a final task. His uncle held up his fingers. Four men still waited to return home. Lin-Hui understood. He was to comb the deserts for the bodies of those taken by the railroads. He was to return east of the Sierra.

            Lin-Hui listened out of obligation to the uncle who had herded him safely through the first trip. But Lin-Hui said he would not return. In the following days, his relatives and neighbors plagued him.

             It is not right that these fellow spirits lay in untended graves, they reminded Lin-Hui. Our ancestors will not know peace until they are home, until they are properly buried in the family plots and provided for with incense, oranges, eggs, and money.

            Still, Lin-Hui refused.

            These men are clan, they insisted. To neglect them is a shame on the entire village.

            Lin-Hui knew all this. He was done with gum san. Find a younger man, he told them. Find two. Younger men, he repeated.

            But you already have one, they pointed out. Seventeen and true to his name. Chi is a boy of strong intentions, nearly a man. We have saved, they revealed, pooled our money for two passages from Hong Kong.

            Others have gone to Gold Mountain, he said. Ask Sun Wen. Ask Wing.

            No. Sun Wen has no sons. Wing has lost all his money to dice. Sun Wen and Wing are not lucky men. But you, Lin-Hui have a house and a little land, a healthy son and an obedient wife who has not frittered as others did, money on silk and pearls. You are lucky. Ji.

            Lin-Hui knew they were flattering him so he would agree. And he supposed he was lucky. At least compared to them. Many returned from Gold Mountain with nothing but holes in their pockets. Some did not return at all. There were men with other wives across the water. Others sent money home only to have it wasted by foolish women. Fortunately, his own wife showed more sense. She had born him a son and only one daughter–the girl already married and settled. If he was lucky, Lin-Hui thought, it was because his parents chose well. 


            At first, their task seems hopeless. The light is too bright. It is too hot, the eighth breath of the year, the time of ripening grain. But there is no grain here; it is too dry for fields. The sand, the stone, the scrub blur into one. 

            Lin-Hui catches his son dipping his bowl into a stream.

            The water runs slow, the father explains. It must all be boiled. Cold tea for day, hot for night. The Americans and Irish miners never understood this. They drank dirty water and whiskey and wondered why they were always painting the dust with their shit. He must watch his son closely. Chi may look like a man but he is not. He has not gone hungry or had to sleep on the ground. He has not had to carry all he owned on his back or been threatened with a knife. He has not seen a man fall to his death. Lin-Hui has tried to keep his son from such things. Now, however, he wonders if some part of him has brought Chi here as a test.                    

            They camp, search the surrounding area, and move on. Lin-Hui’s sense of distance has changed. They must move further from Reno than he remembers.


            After the third visit from the villagers, Lin-Hui’s mind began the journey back east of the Sierra. He did not want to return, but the darkness over his bed opened like a door and he found himself back on the high plains, whipped by dust. He found himself back on a land that cost too much to blast and scrape for track, a place to be traveled over and not one to stay, a place where white men feared their wagons might break a wheel, their horses an ankle, where the snow might fall early. From this worn, faded, stubborn soil leaves did not grow so much green as gray. Here the wind could twist the trunk of a tree into the knots of an old man’s knuckle.

            Here in the bleached sweep between the Sierra and the Washoe, winter fell hard and fast in December 1866. Men disappeared under drifts that crashed like waves. Here he made promises to the broken and dying; he swore to men like his friend Shen that he would not leave his fellow tong yun to spend eternity in the fallow soil of the eastern Sierra or even worse, in the rusty stretches of Nevada’s sands. He would help them with their ronggui, their glorious return home to Pearl River, to Sunning County, so that their children and grandchildren could see them into the spirit world with chickens, lychees, and all the money the men never made working themselves to death on Gold Mountain.       

            The door closed and Lin-Hui stared into the darkness. He could not refuse an obligation of his own making. He would settle his debts, right his wrong to Shen. Reaching out a hand, he found the soft hump of his wife’s hip.

  [img_assist|nid=6812|title=Ovation by Dorrie Rifkin © 2010|desc=|link=node|align=right|width=200|height=135]          I am going back to Gold Mountain, he said. I am taking Chi.

            She rolled from his hand onto her back. Chi wants this?

            Her words surprised him. They suggested he should have asked his son’s permission.

            It is an honor, he reminded her.

            Yes, she said. In the moonlight, he saw her hands go to her face.

            Lin-Hui thought again. Chi must see gum san for himself, he said. All the young men talk about it. Better that Chi go now and be done with it. You know he has already asked me about such a trip, he lied. 

            Neither spoke for some time.

            See the fortuneteller, she finally said. Begin the trip on an auspicious day.

            Did his wife think he had lost his head? Of course, Lin Hui said. Then: I am sorry to leave again.

            The first time he left, he was gone over two years, the second almost as long. He knew the song the washerwomen sang down at the river, the one about marrying Gold Mountain men, about dusty sheets and spider webs on the bed. He did not like to think of his own wife calling out the words.

            He said his wife’s name, pulled the hands from her eyes.

            It will not be as long this time, he reassured. There is a new steamship, an iron giant. The passage is now four weeks, half of what it was. We will be gone only a season, three months. In the meantime, first uncle will help with the fields.

            Have you forgotten what it was like there? she asked.


            And I have not forgotten how to wait.


            Gradually, their eyes adjust and they begin to see the small ridges and humps, the exceptions to an otherwise endless span. On the third day, they spot a telltale pile of rocks rising up from the scrub, a wooden stake placed to catch the eye. They dig. Lin-Hui watches his son.

            Do not force the pace, the father says. Be slow but persistent.

            The remains are wrapped in a tent fly. Lin-Hui tells his son to reach down and find the bottle. Chi hits the glass against his pants to shake off the dust and hands the bottle to his father. Lin-Hui breaks the wax seal and extracts a strip of cotton that he guesses was once part of a shirt. But the father cannot read as well as his schooled son, and so he hands the cotton back. Chi must decipher the painted characters that sum up this life. They are few: a name, a date, a place of birth.

            It is hard to read, his son says.

            It was written in grief. Concentrate.

            His son shakes his head. No. This man is from Kaiping.

            They recap the bottle, shovel the dirt back over the body. Lin-Hui has let himself forget. All he can be sure of is that no one was buried out of sight of the tracks. There was no time to travel further, to find a proper spot. They move ten, fifteen miles from Reno. They find one body. The remains are loaded onto the wagon and brought back to camp. They find other things, too: a rusted mallet, a jackrabbit’s skull, a tin cup, a chipped miniature of Tien Hou, the patron goddess of wanderers. Lin-Hui slips the cracked figure into his pocket.


            To hear the coyotes at night in the deserts east of the Sierra is to think this world is endless suffering. The boy has never heard such cries except in dreams. Lin-Hui remembers the wailing from before. His dreams are not of wild dogs but of Shen, white-faced and flying among the Washoe’s bony ridges.  

            Night makes a quick stranger of the day’s heat and they build a fire. When Chi tells his father he wishes for a thicker jacket, his father nods and explains that the men who worked the track were like them, Pearl Delta men, many from their own county. Some did not even own socks. They had never known the cold of a five-layer morning. It was the way they came to call that cold. 

            It is not lucky to be buried in five layers, his schooled son reminds him. The character for five sounds too much like the character for causing evil.

            Lin-Hui nods. It is why we called it so.

            To ease his son’s fears, to ease his own, the father tells his son about the emperor’s robe. It is all things he explains: the sea, the heavens and of course, the brilliant yellow earth. From the emperor’s left shoulder shines a red sun and a rooster, from his right, a silver moon and a hare. His chest bears the three constellations, his nape, the rock of strength. He explains the five qualities and colors, the twelve symbols of the emperor’s twelve powers. He describes the waves along the hem, the mountains rising above, the clouds along the chest, and the most important, the emperor’s symbol: the five-clawed dragon that brings rain each spring.

             Lin-Hui has never seen the robe of course, never been within one thousand miles of the Dragon Throne, but he has learned about it from his own father, repeated its patterns until they became as familiar as his own cotton jacket. It comforts him to think of the universe contained in silk.

             When the emperor dies, time stops. The emperor becomes a dragon again and a new emperor must rise from the depths. Time is renamed and begins anew. But the robe remains the same. The robe does not change. To not wear the robe is to invite the end of the world.

            His son sleeps. Lin-Hui watches the stars. In them, he sees the pale hands of the emperor. The father tells himself that his fears are pointless; all is as it should be. A perfect grip holds him, even here, even in the fallow desert east of the Sierra.


            They must wait out the hottest part of the day under the shade of the tent. To dig when the sun is overhead is to risk headache, cramps. Lin-Hui curses himself for trusting a scholar’s tea leaves before his own experience. He should have set his own date, waited until autumn.

            When the sun begins to sink, they head out. It is easy to miss the rocks; most of the markers have eroded and blown away. They spread to cover more ground but keep each other within sight. Lin-Hui cannot now fathom how he worked this ground for track, how they blasted through granite to get here. Even memory exhausts him. The day the lines from the east met the lines of the west, the newspapers wrote of conquest and progress. But the photographs of the two trains showed no Chinese, only American men in tight wool suits, their fingers clasped around clean mallets.

            Chi calls out. He has found rocks. They dig. 


             On the sixth day, they find Shen’s grave. They move the rocks and Chi digs. His shovel lifts the bottle into the air. The vial is closer to the surface than they would have expected. Indeed the cloth inside bears Shen’s name. They continue to dig. Lin-Hui prepares himself for the worst; he cannot remember if a tent fly was spared to cover the body. The hole grows deeper. Finally, they catch a glimpse of canvas. Chi bends down to brush away the dirt but Lin-Hui stops his son, bends down himself. He scoops the dirt to the side, expecting to touch bone through the fabric. But there is nothing. The canvas is empty. Shen’s body is gone.

            Chi gasps.

            Stop that, Lin-Hui demands. His son is crying. The father refuses to let the boy see his own fear. Coyotes, wolves, he says and waves a hand towards the hills.

            Chi shakes his head. It was covered in dirt. Dogs do not cover empty graves.

            Lin-Hui could tell his son that when Shen died, he could not find the strength to shovel the frozen ground and bury his closest friend. He could tell his son Shen’s body lay in the snow for seven days until fearing animals, others took on the task. But Lin-Hui does not tell his son any of this. He does not want his son to think that the world rewards such behavior. The desert snatches weak men. Even more, Lin-Hui does not want his son to see him as such a man. Lin-Hui is tired and raw and cannot control his anger.

            He hits the ground with his shovel again and again. This is nothing! You have been spared the worst stories. You will never know what it was to suffer here.

            His son continues to cry, mumbling about ghosts, curses. Lin-Hui raises his hand and slaps his son hard across the jaw.


            There is no more crying. They speak of the task at hand: of shovels, of cloth strips, of boiling water for rice and tea. At night, when Lin-Hui tests his son to see what he has learned of the emperor’s robe, his son rolls his back to the fire and pretends to sleep.

            After eight days, Lin-Hui calls off the search. They have recovered three of the four men. The skeletons are all burned to remove any remaining flesh, then dried on flat rocks. They place the bones in white muslin sacks brought from home, soft coffins sewn and embroidered by a wife or mother who, thousands of miles away, sits waiting for her man to return.

            It is a two-day walk back to Reno. The miners offer dinner. As they board the train for San Francisco, Lin-Hui knows he is abandoning Shen forever. Shen has been lost to the desert, a sand ghost. Lin-Hui wonders if curses are strong enough to cross an ocean.


            In dai fao, San Francisco, they pamper themselves like merchant men. They sit on polished bamboo stools and eat shark fin soup on the top floor of a restaurant. They do not talk about the desert. Lin-Hui sends word ahead about Shen and the other three and then vows that no part of him–foot, mind, or tongue will ever return east of the Sierra. With one week to fill before the steamship departs, they check into a boarding house and tour the streets. Lin-Hui marvels at the buildings and stops in Chy Lung’s Bazaar for gifts. They eat salted plums, spit the seeds as they meander. So many new places, shops, sidewalks. Little China has grown he tells his son. A city now, eight blocks!

            But the father also sees what has not changed: the tide of men, the endless bobbing waves of black jackets, hats, and braids. He sees the old men, young enough when the gold was found, who now sit on stoops and peddle old cups and spoons. Lin-Hui has always believed that what the universe intends for tong yun is clear: fields, a wife and sons, a daughter to help clean and cook. This bachelor society, with fifteen males for every female is not natural. And children, what few exist, are spoiled by lonely men who pay to be Sunday uncles. No, there can be no family here. At most, dai fao is a place for work, not one to stay.

            As Lin-Hui turns to share these thoughts with his son, he realizes he is looking at the back of his Chi’s jacket. The boy now walks two steps ahead as if he already knows his way around Fifteen Cent Street. Lin-Hui watches his son’s braid snap from side to side. They have just been to the barber’s shop and now his son’s braid hangs thick and polished as an ink brush. The father decides the desert has in fact, yielded treasure. It has revealed the man hidden in the depths of his boy.


            On Sunday, they sip tea and eat sweet bean cakes in a darkened theater on Jackson Street. They watch four plays sung by painted men who tell of heroes and gods, of ancient battles and sacrifice. Like everyone in the audience, Lin-Hui and his son know how the stories will end. But they watch anyway and are no less moved. Between the acts, Lin Hui talks with old friends, men he worked with when they were able to crouch in the dirt for hours. One man sets and swings himself forward on a crutch. He points to the empty space below his ankle: dynamite.

            Your father is a clever man, they tell Chi. Sifting the dust from the floor of cabins abandoned by American miners. Content to gather small treasures when others looked for the mother lode. They tap their foreheads to show their admiration. Lin-Hui shakes his hands and pretends to quiet them. He was a little lucky, that is all. In truth, he is pleased his son hears their words.

            They will be going back to Sunning County, they all say, land of oranges and lychees. To not come back to the delta is like wearing silk in the dark. If no one can see the money, what does it all matter?

            Some press letters into Lin-Hui’s hand to pass on. Others give him coins and make him promise to stop by their lands. 

            Soon, very soon we will see you there, they repeat.

            Lin-Hui nods. Yes. Very soon.

            But he knows he will not see them in Sunning. His friends are now gum san ghi, Gold Mountain men. They are Chinese yes, but this place has made them something else–not American–they can never be that, but between. They drink whiskey and coffee. They have traded slippers for boots, round caps for felt bowlers. Some have even cut their hair. From the back perhaps, they could be mistaken for American. Lin-Hui wonders if in fact, this is what his friends desire. They have stayed too long. Sunning County is no longer home, no longer even a place. It is like the emperor’s robe, an idea to think about, a comfort in this ghostland.


            The next morning Chi announces he will not be boarding the ship. 

            The Lin-Hui laughs. The gold is long gone, the railroad done. Many men, even American men, are out of work. They blame Chinese and rough them up. No, the time for Gold Mountain is over.

            Chi repeats that he will stay.

            Have you so quickly forgotten why we have come? Lin-Hui asks. The white muslin sacks waiting to return home? And what of the others who never will, spirits like Shen? They trapped here forever.

            I will not end up like them.

            Don’t you see why the city grows? Lin-Hui pleads. The men do not return. When it is time for their leaves to fall, they will not find their roots.

            Old sayings are for old men.

            Lin-Hi raises his hand to slap his son for a second time but the boy does not turn away. He juts his chin, offering his cheek. I am not a coward. Opening his pocketknife, Chi holds the blade to the back of his neck.

            Lin-Hui cries out. He reaches for the knife, but he is too late. The blade slices through the braid. His son’s hair falls, sounding with a knock against the floorboards.

             I too, am clever and dutiful, the boy tells his father. I will make my own ronggui. I will return to Pearl River to buy more land, to build new rooms for your house! In the meantime, I will send money just as you did.

            Lin-Hui does not hear any of this. He sits on his bunk. It is done. To return now will mean a fine or prison, misfortune on the village. His son must remain on Gold Mountain long enough to grow his braid back. His son’s remaining hair falls forward in a jagged hem along his jaw. It cannot remain like this, crazed, unkempt. They must return to the barber to have it shaped American-style like the other gum san ghi.

            The next morning, the boy’s passage is sold. The boy tries to give the money to his father but Lin-Hui tells him to keep it. He tells his son to sell his hair. It is all he can offer now. The son helps his father carry a trunk with gifts and the three muslin sacks onto the steamer and waves goodbye. As Lin-Hui settles into the hold with the other Chinese, he realizes he now has twenty-six days to practice what he will tell his wife.


            Lin-Hui sits on a bench in the shade of a longan tree. He looks over fields bought long ago with gum san money. Today marks the start of bai lu, white dew, the fifteenth joint of the year, the pause before autumn’s amber breath. He is an old man now, more than sixty. He has lived longer than a man should, longer than Sun Wen who died three years ago from water in the chest, ten years longer than first uncle. This morning over rice and dried fish, Lin-Hui’s wife said they must go to the tailor to commission burial robes. It is the third time she has said this.

            Death is an eternal winter, she reminded him. One must dress warmly for it. 

            He can hear the women singing down at the river, chanting the same songs as their mothers. Dusty sheets. Spider webs on the bed. He closes his eyes to hear the words but is quickly interrupted by a man’s voice. It has been years since Lin-Hui has allowed himself to hope. He received a few letters: one posted from a silver mine, a fishing camp, then artichoke fields, then nothing.

            Lin-Hi opens his eyes. It is only Wing–Wing who was too unlucky to be sent to Gold Mountain, so unlucky that he is now grandfather to five boys, so unlucky that his eldest son has recently presented him with a burial suit embroidered with silk cranes. Lin-Hui’s friend stops to sit. Of late, Wing likes to talk of the southern rebels and their growing numbers. He draws lines in the dirt with his cane. Sometimes, Lin-Hui thinks, Wing talks as if he himself were riding in the rebels’ flanks. Lin-Hui does not think Wing sees these battles for what they are. After all these years, his friend is still a gambler. Wing sees this world as a game to be won or lost, then played again. But Lin-Hui understands the stakes–the end of the emperor’s robe, the unraveling of the universe.

            Wing raises a finger in the air. Even some of the soldiers now side with the rebels, he pronounces. Soon, no more Manchu.

            Lin-Hui sees his wife toss scraps to the chickens. He has seen enough change.

            Wing laughs. Ai-yah! For thousands of years, China has been sleeping. Now it will wake up! A new century. A new China. Such news is wasted on you, Lin-Hui.

            Lin-Hui watches Wing make his way down to the river to bother the washerwomen. He watches a leaf fall and sail with the wind. Tomorrow, Lin-Hui decides, he will go to the tailor. He knows winter, its many layers.

            He has not kept his promise never to return east of the Sierra. In his mind, he has gone back many, many times. He cannot say when the door will open–as he listens to his wife turn at night, as he watches her with the chickens, as the women gather at the river. In his mind, he makes it right. He holds his calloused hand back from his son’s cheek. He explains that Sunning men were not meant for this place. He touches his son’s shoulder and tells him that older, stronger men wept there. He tells him it is wrong to bring a boy into the desert to make amends for his father.

            He sits and waits. At the river, the women are singing again. Perhaps, they have grown tired of Wing’s war talk and sent him away. Such battles are not their stories. What happens now will be decided by young men. Lin-Hui listens to the voices for a moment, then hums to their song.


Allison Alsup lives with her husband in New Orleans. This story is from an emerging work centered on the lives of Chinese-American immigrants at the turn of the century. Other stories from this collection have won awards from New Millennium Writings and from A Room of Her Own Foundation.

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