The Spy Lover
By Kiana Davenport
About the book:
Era Tom is leading a double life. Desperate to find her father - Chinese immigrant who has been promised US citizenship in exchange for serving in the Union army - she agrees to work as a nurse at a Confederate camp while spying for the Union. But when she falls in love with a Confederate cavalryman, her loyalties are divided between the father she adores in the North and the love that sustains her in the South.
Each night his dreams begin with rice, the taste and texture of each grain aligned to parallel his hunger. But some nights his dreams are seized by Laughter and by Rain, two women so merged in his past they run together like mercury. In his sleep, he calls out to them in words that make no sense in English. At first light, he sits up and rests his weary head against his arm’s hard cradle. Dawn lends a greenish cast to his sallow face, and in the cold his lips look mauve. Around him, wounded soldiers call out to their mothers; others lie still, so frail the weight of the air can scarcely be borne.
With stiffened fingers, Johnny scratches at the earth, lifts a small mound of dirt to his lips, and swallows, remembering how Raindance loved eating ashes from the fire. Thoughtfully, he pulls up blades of grass, arranging them to spell out the names of his wives. Laughter. Raindance. He presses each blade to his lips and thinks of his daughter, lost somewhere in the madness. If she survives, will her half-Chinese womb be fruitful? Will she give me immortality?
Wolves howl across the fogged Virginia mountains as a camp guard approaches, his face raw from the Piedmont cold. He kicks at a Federal prisoner who has been horribly shot up, then turns his attention to Johnny.
“Say something.” He nudges him with his rifle butt. “G’wan! Say somethin’…I wanna hear what one o’ you sounds like.”
Johnny hesitates, then speaks in careful English. “You will…live…long fruitful…life…”
The man guffaws and shouts to his friends. “Hear that, boys? Hear what the pigtail said?” He unbuttons his filthy pants and aims at Johnny’s foot, pissing a steaming arc that instantly draws flies.
Johnny whispers after him. “Dog’s vomit! Wild pigs will gorge on your liver.”
Breathing in the acrid smell of sewage, he shudders, as throughout the stockade typhus spreads. There is no food, no fresh water for prisoners. Corpses lie unburied, slowly becoming their own moist graves. Men who try to bury them are shot. He crawls inside his ragged tent and pulls a cricket from his breast pocket, and chirps softly. The cricket chirps back. Its carapace is lovely, the color of chrysanthemum tea whose steam is blue. Its ferocious little face is shaped like a hatchet and the beady eyes shift like a gangster, making Johnny smile. The cricket has given him hours of pleasure and soon he will let it go. He is less kind to lice, snapping them between his teeth with a popping sound, swallowing them for nourishment.
He lies back, thinking how in his homeland great famines had spared him. Monsoons had clamored over him, bringing floods that washed whole villages away. Why I was spared to end like this? He wonders. No one to mourn my death, no one to wail. No one to offer meats and fruits, or burn paper money at Ching Ming time so I not starve in the Afterlife.
He rolls over, striking the earth softly with his forehead, his long queue bouncing down his back. Be brave! Remember was born in Year of the Boar. He thinks back on all that has befallen him and—always pleased to be amazed—feels almost grateful for this war, for having cured him of his childhood.
Is no worse than drought, which then brought clouds of locusts burying the land. He remembers how they swarmed to three feet deep, devouring crops, then harnesses on oxen, handles on farm tools. How they layered the walls of houses until each house collapsed, then crawled down the throats of humans and laid their eggs, smothering them to death in the tens, then hundreds, of thousands.
He remembers how the aftermath of locusts brought famine. Which then brought madness, people eating their elders, their dead children, while Emperor smoked opium in jade-lined rooms. It had been rumored by the Emperor’s enemies that when his eunuchs told him of the famine, millions dead, he dreamily replied, “Jan Yeh, Jan Yeh.” So it is. His eunuchs had smiled indulgently, and resumed decoding the secret life of chopsticks.
And war is no worse than bandits, armies of them growing in famine’s wake.
From one catastrophe to the next, one generation to the next, his people had grown to hold their lives as worthless. That part of China deep in the province of Shensi became so destitute and ravaged it robbed their lives of all meaning. Johnny’s village, a collection of weed-and-mud huts in the backwater swamps of the great Yellow River, no longer attracted rain and so their fields did not come to fruition. Water became so rare, a mere bucketful was traded for precious flint and iron with which men had created flames. Without water or fire, their village began to die.
When there was no dead flesh left to consume, people ate dirt. Johnny’s mother grew dreadfully thin and yet her stomach swelled. One day, his father put his fingers down her throat and pulled out a worm, twisting and twisting until the ball of the thing was as big as a fist. Fascinated, Johnny and younger brother, Ah Fat, watched as their mother deflated and the ball of worm grew big as a melon, until finally their father pulled out the head, wide as his thumb with eyes and a mouth. While their mother expired, villagers stretched the worm from end to end of the village, then hacked it in sections to be shared.
Their father looked down at the swelling stomachs of his sons and whispered,
“Run! So you not become worm-dumplings.”
The brothers had fled. After months of foraging and thieving their way through squalid villages, they came upon a parklike town called Po Lin, Precious Lotus, outside the great city of Chiangnan, where scholars and merchants had built summer homes. In Po Lin, the two boys had squatted in the shadows, watching people languidly repose, eat sugared lotus seeds, and bathe in scented waters. Even the lowliest citizens spoke in the scholarly tongue of Mandarin, and even the thieves comported themselves with dignity.
It was such a wondrously civilized town that Imperial Censors and District Magistrates from Chiangnan stopped their palanquins outside the town gates while retainers trimmed their ear hairs and nose hairs, clipped their toenails and fingernails and scented their sleeves before they entered. Though they were swiftly run out of town as famine refugees, it was Po Lin that taught the brothers to dream, to imagine that one day they could become prosperous and admired. Looking back, Johnny sees that though his life has been eventful, he never quite achieved these goals. Yet, I am prisoner of war. Is that not honorable thing to be?
He looks round the filthy stockade at prisoners huddled together, their expressions those of old children waiting to die. The Battle at Kernstown, in Jackson’s Valley Campaign, had been disastrous for Union forces. Ashamed of their defeat and capture, a boy gone mad has hanged himself.
But we will soon win, Johnny thinks. In Christian God’s eyes, Union Army is right, Confederates wrong. He wonders if in fact this Christian God has eyes. Does he have a generous American nose? He cannot imagine such a being; in China one worshipped only the Emperor. But now Johnny is here, fighting for the Union, and he has been told that when the Union wins, he will become an American citizen.
His comrades tell him that to achieve citizenship it is important to know the Christian Bible that so many soldiers quote from and sleep with, and carry into battle. Hoping to barter for such a book, with a sharpened stone he whittles away at branches, bird skulls and rat skulls, fashioning little brooches and whatnots. Focused on his carvings, he is not fully aware of how his comrades regard him—some with lazy curiosity, others with outright hostility. A slender but wiry little man with smooth yellow skin, a shaven foreskull, and long black pigtail, he looks alternately playful and threatening.
His command of spoken English is fair, but when confused or tense he drops his articles, barks out made-up words that sound like hat tricks. Most irksome to the prison guards is how relentlessly he smiles, especially when sad or frightened or embarrassed. Just now he thinks of his wife and daughter, wondering if they have survived. He whittles at a branch and smiles.
At first, his comrades had interpreted Johnny’s smile as craftiness; he had defected from the Other Side, perhaps a spy. Then they saw how ferocious he was in skirmishes with the enemy. And he was sly, with the movements of a cat. Sometimes he moved so fast he appeared to be there, and not there. They had seen him drive a sharpened branch straight through a Rebel’s eardrums, after which he dangled the corpse by the branch like something hanging from a clothesline. They had watched him strangulate a man, leap from behind and slash his jugular so swiftly he went down with a sigh. He once showed them how to render a man a eunuch with their teeth, a practice swiftly banned by the company commander.
Still, seasoned troopers are wary of him, his broken English, his sallow skin, the way he slides his glances along without moving his head. But they are prisoners and desperate, and younger men begin to look to him, sharing meals of grilled rat he has trapped. And when there is only grass to chew, they sit close and listen to Johnny’s stories that sometimes resemble Scriptures from the Bible. He is generous with his memories, knowing it will be the talking and listening that saves them.
“Busy tongue,” he tells them, “keeps fear in shadows, hope alive.”
But often he sits alone. Because of his modest grasp of English, he cannot join in discussions with men who speak a slangy shorthand; he cannot joke with them like brothers. After years in America, he has begun to feel nowhere and half-where, a man who still speaks English like a child, and speaks his Mother Tongue with half a tongue. In his desire to become American, he has begun to squeeze Chinese from his brain.
One day he strikes a bargain. In return for his stories, a boy will loan him his Bible for an hour every day. And so each day at the appointed time, Johnny hunches over the Good Book and follows words discreetly with his finger. Leviticus. Deuteronomy. Words that threaten to deform his jaw. When he attempts to pronounce them aloud, his mouth feels as if it will fall off in his hands. Still, he perseveres.
Later, he gathers boys hungry to the point of death and recounts earlier times of hunger in his life: two brothers in rag-shoes, foraging for food while winds harvested their icicled brows. He and Ah Fat had finally arrived in Yangchow on the Yangtze River, but so had millions of beggars, and bamboo yokes nearly broke their slender shoulders as they carried gourds and roots, begging folks to buy. When no one bought, they stalked old men, knocking them down for rice-balls.
“One day, we see public execution of man who sell his queue. Bald heads against Emperor’s edict. So! Ax flies, man’s head roll between my legs. Then family of executed man rush forward waving thread and needles, join head and body back together so his spirit be whole in Afterlife, so he not wander in little pieces. Even execution have happy ending.”
Their lives vacillating between starvation and the executioner’s ax, one day the two boys had stood on the docks of Yangchow, gaping at big American ships and their well-fed crews. Cautiously, they approached a ship where long-nosed men with ruddy faces signed on a crew. They walked up the gangway to beckoning sailors, but before they could ask about wages, canvas sacks were thrown over them and they were rolled down to the galleys with a thousand other kidnapped Chinese.
While Johnny “talks story.” he adds little asides and footnotes, believing that they give bones and gristle to a tale.
“Only Chinese tongsee…sugarmasters…treated well as part of crew. Old experts in sugar refining, they badly needed all over world wherever was sugar plantations.”
Thus, he and his brother, Ah Fat, had arrived in the Hawaiian Isles far across the Pacific Ocean.
“After many months at sea, ho! First gulp of island air so clean, flowers so perfume it make us sick for days.”
And it was here at Honolulu Immigrations that his name had been changed to Johnny. “My real name Zhong Yi, Needle Master, for my fingers shaped like such masters who cure illness by pushing needles into flesh. My poor mama dream one day I become such revered needle man.”
He holds out his hands, showing long, slender fingers, so incongruous to his wiry, cunning body.
“Immigration man cannot make tongue say ‘Zhong Yi,’ so change name to Johnny!”
A boy with gangrened feet leans forward. “What happened next? Did you meet cannibals in those islands?”
“No cannibals. We taken to outer island so large was called Moku Nui, Big Island. Here I meet brown-shouldered girl, Mahealani Hanohano. Her name so ha-full I give up! I call her Laughter.”
His eyes close, he drifts, hearing her laughter like temple bells, while he recalls how he and mobs of Chinese were trucked to sugar plantations as forced labor, and how in time he and the girl had found each other. Still, Johnny grew to detest the crippling work of cutting cane—machete wounds, infections, food that left them a hair’s breadth from starvation—and white plantation owners with their vicious luna foremen.
They had been forced to sign labor contracts for three years, or be returned to China where they would be swiftly executed. No matter that they had been kidnapped; the Emperor had not granted them exit favors.
“No choice but work like slaves or die. In first year, eighteen men hang themselves.”
Still, when Johnny lay with Laughter the lion of contentment stretched its paw across his chest. But then the girl broke his heart and disappeared. He began to hear rumors of California, how streets were paved with gold. He began looking toward the sea. One day, Laughter’s father hacked his way through the cane fields, threatening to cut off Johnny’s testicles for giving his daughter a “yellow monkey” baby.
Fearing for his manhood, he gambled his wages for passage on a ship and sailed for San Francisco. The day he departed, Laughter appeared at the dock, holding their child, and as she frantically waved her uplifted arm, so slender and defenseless, it touched his heart. He pleaded with the captain to drop anchor, allow him to rescue his wife and child, and take them with him. The captain laughed. The ship sailed on.
A boy with a helmet of head lice moves closer, gums gone black, his teeth a rich, rice-paddy green. “What happened next, Johnny? Did you get to San Francisco?”
He nods his head, exhausted. “A tale for tomorrow’s ears.”
Dark now, and cold. Prisoners, pressed together for warmth, snore fitfully. He wanders to his tent, but it is someone else’s hour in the tent. He lies down and hunches up, pulls his long queue over his shoulder, and thinks of Second Wife, Raindance. He has been gone almost a year, his letters not answered. Perhaps she thinks he deserted her. Perhaps she thinks he is dead.
Pencils have no purpose here. Paper has become a source of food; men are eating their Bibles. As boys, he and Ah Fat had grown their pinky fingernails to long, sharp points, ideal for snapping lice in half and for digging insects out of ears. Lately, he had adopted a more urgent application for his extended fingernail—penning letters to Raindance on the palm of his hand.
Each day he “writes in his journal,” pressing down hard with his pointed nail so that the letter of each word is briefly visible on his palm. A process slow and laborious, so the words have come to feel engraved like scars. In this way, he memorizes each word he writes: each rice-ball belly of a C, each listing chopstick of an M, imprinted upon his brain. Thus he is able to read his letters over and over in his head.
“My honorable and cherished Raindance,
To continue with my story…We fought hard at Kernstown in Shenandoah Valley. Ah, but even so, they bested us. Speed of our defeat astounding, hundreds our soldiers turn and ran. Now prisoners, we are dead weary, dog hungry. Much death before and after dark.
Still I slaughter many enemy, make many children orphans. For this my dreams are haunted. In battle I run over dead like logs. Run over many faces. White, red, even Russian, French. See many hundreds stomachs burst. Strange skins of many hues, but intestines all same color!…”
Now and then, while Johnny writes, he pauses, searching for a word.
“We die for clean water. Here is only sewage. So, are forced to drink our ruin. At first men turn away, disgusted. I tell them is old Chinese custom in famine and drought. They watch silent when I drink my ruin. When I not die, they drink their ruin too.
Most uncomfortable news. Chinese boy from Kentucky in our brigade, caught as spy for Rebels. Soldiers pour gasoline down his throat, then light match and stick up nose. He explode, float down in little rags. Even so, I wonder, would they do such thing to Rebel spy with white skin?…”
He stops writing and flexes his hand, softly repeating what he has written, trying to memorize each word. Then he begins the hard part—deleting in his mind what is not essential. He scribbles in his palm again, frowning with concentration.
“How I will remember everything? Am living so many lives my brain become a stone sinking to forgetful depths. Will you believe such tales I write? Will our daughter? Is fitting for young girl to know such things?…”
His daughter is sixteen now, or eighteen. The war has done strange things to his mind. Is she still beautiful? he wonders. Does she still have special love for books? And does she read to Raindance?
He moans softly, recalling his wife’s scent, honeysuckle, wildcat hide, the glow of her copper-colored breasts. Then he returns to his writing, fingernail busy scratching at his palm, practicing words whose spelling gives him trouble. Urine. Ruin.
Captain Jenson from his regiment approaches, a young man so weary and gaunt his head seems too large for his frame. “How are you keeping, Private Tom?”
Johnny jumps to his feet and salutes. “OK, sir! Everything OK.”
“At ease, man. I want to commend you for keeping up morale, cheering the boys with your stories. And I don’t want you thinking on that Chinese boy, Elijah Low. He was a spy and got what he deserved.”
He straightens up, tightening a filthy bandage made into an arm-sling. “I’ve watched you on the battlefield. You’re one of the bravest men in our regiment. I’m proud to have you serving under me.”
Embarrassed, Johnny nods repeatedly and smiles.
Jenson hesitates, then offers something hidden in his fist. “Take it. I’m tired of seeing you whittle with that hunk of stone.”
Johnny stares at a small, bone-handled object with a button at one end. When he presses it, the blade snaps out like a small, slender fish caught in a sheaf of sunlight. He strokes the blade, remembering a similar knife he had given his daughter because it was delicate like her. He folds the blade and slips the knife into his shoe.
For weeks, he spies on the captain while he forages for roots with other prisoners, and while he lectures them to keep their courage up. He spies on Jenson when he defecates, and squats beside him while he sleeps, feeling forever attached to this young man because he has given Johnny something infinitely more precious than a knife: the faint hope of acceptance, of acknowledgment that he is human and brave, and therefore significant.
He has observed the confidence of Americans: that of accepting their lives completely, never wishing they were anyone else, or that they were born anywhere else, or raised in any other way. Just now, they may be wounded and starving, but they are secure in a way a Chinese could never be. Captain Jenson’s pride in Johnny fills him with confidence, the sense that he is becoming more like them, that he is becoming, incontrovertibly, one of them. And so his spirits lift.
He presses on through months of near starvation, of whippings by prison guards, of gangrene and typhus that take more than half the prisoners. He presses on because he believes this time will pass. America is so large and generous it will never abandon or betray him. He has offered up his life for it, and one day it will reward him by welcoming him as a citizen. He moves through each day with burgeoning pride, almost with arrogance, as if his feet had turned to dragon claws.
But on the day of his release, lined up with fellow prisoners awaiting the exchange, Johnny sees crows darting overhead in a floating and shifting calligraphy. Hearing their garrulous and raucous cries, he looks up again and sees they have formed the Chinese character for death.
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