Wild Dog River

Chapter Thirty-one – The Healer


The Kingfisher sailed down the broad waters of the Pearl River estuary under the stars and moon. At dawn she cleared the mouth, sailing through the vast space between Macao and Hong Kong, gliding past the many islands, squat and immovable like the bulldog guards of an emperor, the stone at their bases glowing red with the sun’s first rays.

Other ships were leaving the river at the same time. They varied in size from fishing sampans to great junks, some appearing from the multiple channels that made up the Pearl River Delta. Keeping a sharp look out, and the need for regular course changes, kept the crew scrambling and orders ringing across the misty morning air.

In a cabin that had originally been designed for a dignitary or owner, the Dragon Head’s son Haoyu thrashed and sweated and screamed, attended by a healer who was experienced in treating addictions to the poppy. Guards remained at the door day and night.

The healer was called Zhiyu. She was a Laotian woman of advanced age, with wrinkled skin, and the most curious hands, where the webbing of each finger and thumb extended to the first joint, making her appear frog-like.  Yet, she was spry and wise, and performed Tai Chi on the deck each dawn, ignoring the rest of the crew, and the world itself, as if they did not exist.

In the cabin hung ropes of dried roots and herbs. Fragrant joss burned from sticks day and night. At all times she was concerned with the brewing of healing teas, the most important of which she called an-jun-ning.

‘The claws of the poppy are sharp,’ she explained to Liang. ‘The addiction manifests itself most seriously in the qi – the life force – of the addict. It steals from him all love – love of his family, his friends, and himself. It takes joy from him until, if you withhold opium, there is not enough left to sustain life. An-jun-ning helps, but it works only when the patient is strong.’

‘How long will the process of weaning him away from the drug take?’ Liang asked.

‘Days, perhaps weeks – if he lives through the first trials.’

The crew, along with Liang’s ten fighters, took a dim view of the fat and sweating young man who had the luxury of a cabin to himself. To them, hard-bitten Triad members as they were, filial duty, responsibility and honour were values to live by, and to see these virtues flouted by the son of the Dragon Head was repugnant to them.

In the evenings, lounging around the main cabin in their multi-coloured seaman’s garb, while the evening meal of rice, vegetables and dried fish was served, the men shared stories of good and responsible Chinese sons and daughters – folklore that they had grown up with.

The mother for example, who had hated thunderstorms so much that, after her death, her daughter would hasten to the cemetery, to kneel at the grave and comfort her deceased parent, no matter how powerfully the rain pelted down and the thunder roared. They told stories of a boy who lay naked on the surface of a frozen pond, in order to melt enough ice that he could fish for the carp below, merely to provide his father with a meal. The most extreme of these stories were both entertaining and somewhat macabre – such as the one involving a boy whose father was deathly ill. The daily prognosis, so the story went, required the son to assess the taste of his sick parent’s stools each morning.

These fables were followed by tales of the sticky ends met by offspring who failed to honour and love their parents. Death was not usually enough for these ingrates – humiliation, pain and suffering was their lot. A similar fate, the older men sagely counselled, would surely be Haoyu’s unless he could change his attitude and make amends.

The weather, in those first days, was benign; the sea flat and the breeze steady. At night the stars were a glittering array, and Liang stood, leaning on the poop rail, counting them one by one, assessing which celestial body’s radiance might compare with that of Meilin, his bride-to-be.

At times, on watch in the middle of the night, Liang fancied that he was viewing the one-hundred-and-eight stars of destiny, of both popular folklore and Daoist philosophy, and he knew himself to be on a journey to great things.

In the gentler moments of the afternoons, when the off-duty crew gathered to doze and play Pai Gow, Liang sought out those who had been to the River of Gold on previous voyages. These veterans were an interesting bunch – though all were consummate seamen. Some bore tattooed faces – punishments for long-ago crimes, and the hatred of the Qing dynastic rulers ran deep.

Liang peppered them with questions. What are the inhabitants of the country like? What are the port facilities in Cooktown? Most importantly he wanted to know where the gold shipments were stored, so he could wrestle with the problem of moving them securely to the vessel.

‘Last time the gold was hidden at the Temple of Wong Tai Sin in Maytown,’ said a wizened character called Bo, who still scaled the mainmast like a boy, though he was old enough to have grandchildren. ‘But that will have changed after the disaster of the last shipment.’

‘What of the Rì Chū Guild? Where are they located?’

‘They have almost as many indentured labourers as we do, with barracks in Cooktown and temples throughout the goldfields. They, however, are not our only rivals. There are thousands of men from Peking and Macao. There is frequently trouble between us, and they will need to be watched.’

After seven days the yelling from the cabin subsided, and Liang went in to see Haoyu. He had lost weight, and his skin was a rippled hide across his bare upper body. When Liang entered, the Dragon Head’s son put aside the bowl of rice and fragrant fried fish he had been eating and glared with eyes sunk into deep black sockets.

‘I may have underestimated you,’ said Haoyu.

Liang gave no physical sign that he had heard, but merely said, ‘Your opinion of me matters little. If you had stayed where you were, sooner or later a black funeral sampan would have carried your body down the river to the island of reeds where your mother and father dwell. That, in my experience, is what happens to those who mire themselves so deeply in the poppy as you.’

Haoyu raised an eyebrow. ‘That fate, at this moment, seems preferable to occupying a stinking cabin on a boat filled with old sea dogs and unwashed village boys who take themselves too seriously.’

Liang realised that the barb was aimed at him. The insult was not important, however. Returning the Dragon Head’s son to his father free of drugs and in good condition, was the only factor worth considering.

Haoyu cocked an eyebrow at Liang and studied him carefully. ‘You are a little of everything,’ mused the giant captive. ‘You are well-favoured in body, face and mind. There is something of the poet in your words and there is a steadfast quality about you that is appealing. You are a rock – which is, of course, why my father chose you to command this voyage.’

‘If I am a rock,’ said Liang, ‘then you are a buffalo. Happy to lie in a wallow of mud and ignore his responsibilities.’

The door opened and the healer, Zhiyu, entered the cabin. She walked to her charge and, lifting his arm by the wrist, felt for his pulse with her thumb and left it there for some time.

‘Leave us now,’ she said to Liang. ‘Haoyu needs rest. He is not yet free of the opium beast.’

Haoyu grinned wickedly. ‘I know this woman well. She has been an ill wind at my father’s house since I was knee-high, drying her herbs and shaking her concoctions. You tell the future, don’t you Zhiyu?’

The woman did not react or answer, but she let his wrist drop, standing stock-still.

‘Go on, Rock,’ said Haoyu. ‘Ask Zhiyu what the future holds for you.’

‘I don’t wish to know,’ said Liang.

‘Liar,’ accused Haoyu. ‘Zhiyu has already told me of my fate, and I am unafraid. Ask her yours.’

‘I will not,’ said Liang.

‘Ahh Rock,’ said Haoyu. ‘I know that sooner or later you will ask Zhiyu to read the signs for you. Already the need to know gnaws away at you like the teeth of a rodent.’

‘No,’ said Liang, more loudly than necessary. ‘I will not ask. Now, I have many duties to attend to.’ He bowed. ‘Joigin, Buffalo. As your father’s representative, I am pleased with your progress.’

Joigin, Rock,’ said Haoyu. ‘Don’t come back too soon.’

There was a look in the recovering man’s eye that Liang could not countenance. It indeed made him feel like a mere village boy again, a boy whose dreams never extended beyond being a Red Pole in the Sheathed Sword. A boy who has been honoured beyond imagining, to command an important mission and carry the dragon token of the society’s leader.

Liang turned and left the cabin, closing the door firmly, before Haoyu could read the feelings that must be obvious on his face.

©2024 Greg Barron

Read previous chapters here.

Continued next Saturday.

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