Panning for Gold

Short Story by Sarah Jiang

Panning for Gold

I was born in the winter of 1982. A week later, my father transported me and my mother from the town hospital back home on a wooden horse cart. The unrelenting snowflakes oscillated from the dreary sky and soon smothered the blanket under which my mother cuddled her infant daughter. Many years later my mother confided, or complained, that my father grudgingly hauled the cart choosing broken road and stones for the wheels to roll over to declare his vexation at having another girl. At the time, we were not affluent, so going against the law to have a third child was a fantasy. My father’s frustration was understandable as he had no hope in his life to have a son to continue his family line, for daughters were meant to be married out. There was a Chinese saying – a married daughter was like the kitchen wastewater that was tossed out. Many days after we returned home, my father did not bother to pay us a visit at our bedchamber.

Not long after I was born, my father and his friends discovered a lucrative business – gold prospecting. They paid the government a sum of money to mine gold in a mountain on north side of our village. That was before the government banned private gold mining and restricted it to major state-owned corporations. Out of pure luck – my father would have said it was because of our ancestors’ accumulated virtues and merits – the field in which they invested was rich in gold.

Our town was nicknamed “gold town,” possessing one of the five major gold mines in the country. At the time, many townsfolk were covertly panning for gold at home. Some folks who dared to gamble, like my father, invested money in a gold mine; some simply purchased crushed gold ores from mine owners for gold extraction. At home, we had the east and west wings of our quadrangle house modified into miniature factories. The sound of gold panning was a soothing melody: the rustling of the heavy metals on stainless steel as the machine rhythmically swished left and right, the burbling water running down the slanted panning bed (a shallow reservoir a size of a twin bed). The cold running water chilled a full room of summer air and refrigerated my childhood.

Among the workers helping at our house, there was a scrawny old man. My dad called him by his first name, Lin, and the villagers called him “Bachelor Lin” because he was never married. A colloquial name for bachelor in Chinese was “naked stick” – a derogatory term attached with heavy stigma, especially in a small village where folks enjoyed gossip, not only for the sake of killing time, but also for the immense pleasure to compensate for the monotony of their daily lives. You would wonder how a guy wound up becoming a bachelor – a failure in sexual selection from a biological standpoint: bearing no chance to pass on his genes. With a pockmarked face and a crooked spine, he vaguely resembled a hunchbacked toad. But I thought his ill financial standing was to blame for a wealthy man, albeit grotesque, could always find a mate. He had been around the household as long as I was able to recollect. He worked assiduously– fetching water from the well, tending to the machine, chopping firewood, tending to the hearth to boil water in the cauldron. I always saw his back – his hump-accentuated back, while he fussed about at the house. He was, however, parsimonious with words, like me. Unlike other hired men who worked from eight to five, he had early or late shifts. Yet, he toiled willingly and never complained. I just thought a person with a tainted reputation would be grateful for even having a job.

With the prosperity of the gold business, we were the first family to own a sedan, Volkswagen Santana. When I was four and my elder sister was ten, my mother was pregnant with my little brother. The government imposed on us an enormous fine as a result of the one-child policy. My parents were well-acquainted with the concomitant penalty for having my little brother, Peng. The thriving gold mining business was the reason why my brother existed. The one-child policy, as I interpret it, really referred to “one-boy policy.” Parents were granted the second and last chance – a chance for a boy, if their firstborn was a girl. However, if their firstborn was a boy, the project of human making was finished. The “one-boy” policy was the very reason why I existed. When my parents were granted the last chance for a boy, much to their disappointment, it was a girl again. I wondered why they did not abort me.

My mother and infant brother were brought home not on a horse cart, but in a sedan. My parents threw three lavish receptions to celebrate the birth of my brother. There were one-month-old, 100-day-old, and one-year-old banquets as our ancestors believed that celebrations were worthwhile, for a newborn survived the three crucial stages of infancy. The banquets involved sumptuous feasts partaken by all relatives and friends that my family could possibly summon up, and booze was inevitable. For the sake of not “losing face,” expensive dishes were often served: abalone soup, shark’s fin soup, stir-fried sea cucumber with vegetables.

There was a saying in Chinese culture: some children were born to repay debts; some were to collect debts. My little brother was never “an oil-saving lantern.” At the age of five, my brother pushed a kid in his kindergarten who refused to share his toy; the kid’s head smashed onto the sharp edge of a marble stair. While the kid was rushed to the emergency room, my mother was summoned by the school principal.

That night, at the dining table, a five-year-old Peng grasped his bowl tightly, fidgeted with his spoon as if he couldn’t decide how much rice to scoop. The daytime commotion had rattled him. My father picked up a chunk of pork lean meat and dropped it in Peng’s bowl. He glanced at Peng with twinkles in his eyes: the same look he had when he examined gold.

“Eat meat, my son. If you don’t eat, you won’t grow stronger than other kids,” he said in a tender voice and ruffled Peng’s crewcut hair.

“You didn’t do wrong, son. Next time you send other kids to the hospital, I’ll be happy to smooth it over for you, son.” He sipped his beer and continued, “Just make sure you don’t get bullied. Money is not a panacea; however, without money you are absolutely doomed,” my father recited the Chinese proverb. “Don’t you worry, my son. Your daddy has money,” my father said boisterously upon guzzling down the second bottle of beer. A big grin spread across his face. His eyes squinted into two slits. The corners of his eyes tilted up as if his eyes were concurrently grinning.

My brother’s stiffness softened by degrees.

“Don’t forget you have a big sister, whoever dares to bully my little brother will suffer from my wrath,” my elder sister chimed in, one hand patting her own chest, and shot my brother a reassuring, comradery sort of look.

My brother glanced up at my sister and reciprocated with a grin.

“Stop spoiling him!” my mother said. “You’re training your son to be a warmonger.” The nascent flicker of relief quickly dissipated in Peng’s eyes. My mother’s resolution soon wavered. She said, “You don’t want to hurt anyone unless they try to hurt you first, okay?”

My grandparents did not partake in nurturing us like most traditional Chinese grandparents. The three of us were raised solely by my parents. My maternal grandparents lived in another province and had never visited. My paternal grandfather died when my father was an infant, and his aloof wife was still alive at the time but made no attempt to intervene in our lives. By the time my elder sister left home for high school in the city, I took on the responsibility of looking after my brother. Despite being just four years older than him, I was entrusted with the babysitting job. Those were times when I felt like a grown-up. Peng, a pampered child, had to depend on me. As much as I secretively found delight in my newfound authority over him, I learned to wield the wand tactically so as not to provoke his tears. Every time Peng cried to my parents, I couldn’t escape a stern rebuke. I was indignant at my parents’ favoritism and involuntarily took it out on Peng who had always retaliated through my parents.

One Saturday afternoon, when Peng ached for a treat, we headed to the convenience store in the village. The store, situated at the center of the village, was only half a mile away from our house. If you kept on walking, you could reach the Amber Mountain. I liked to adore the mountain from afar. Layers of morning fog obscured its sturdy, ragged torso, which imparted to it an aura of mystery. The mountain, generous and forgiving, had nourished the village people for generations like a mother. On a clear day, you could see the individual pine trees erected on the mountain like little spacecrafts, ready to venture into the universe. We used to forage pinecones to feed the hearth to cook meals in the caldron – that was before gas stoves were introduced to households. And right now, the mountain was overlooking us as we ambled to the general store. Somewhere the gold miners were gluttonously gouging the mountain’s flesh in search of gold. At night or early in the morning, we could feel the subtle tremble of the earth as the blasting of dynamite intermittently disturbed the otherwise tranquil atmosphere. If the mountain were a sentient being, it would scream in pain and maybe one day seek its revenge.

We had been well acquainted with the owners – the Zhang family. Three years ago, we took candies from the store and told Mrs. Zhang to charge to my parents. Far from being angry, my parents were elated at the fact that, we, at the age of three and seven, had known to buy on credit. I was amazed at my financing talent at such a young age. What I didn’t realize was our privilege — the privilege granted to rich kids. Ever since the incident, we were permitted to take anything on credit as if our family owned the store.

As always, Mrs. Zhang was standing behind the wrap-around glass cabinet. Showcased in the cabinet were miscellaneous mouth-watering candies – white rabbit candy, haw flakes, chewing gum, popping candy, and lollypops. Behind her, snacks were assorted in vibrantly colored bags on rows of shelves – shrimp chips, cream puffs, egg yolk pies. As I was scrutinizing the goodies, saliva had surreptitiously exuded into my mouth which triggered an embarrassing swallow. Mrs. Zhang instantly walked out to greet us while complimenting my brother’s resemblance to my father. She then hoisted my brother and sat him on the glass countertop, while remarking on how much he had grown. Every time Mrs. Zhang beamed at us, I wondered what she saw in us. Money, maybe.

“I want jelly balls!” Peng’s eyes gravitated to the jelly balls on the shelf. Those jelly balls, the size of cherries, were assorted in five colors, and immersed in sugar water in a transparent container.

“I heard your father’s gold business’s going pretty well,” Mrs. Zhang said gleefully while taking notes on her ledger.

“Yeah. I guess,” I said.

“Is ‘Bachelor Lin’ still hanging around the house?” she said, “Oh.” A brief pause. “It’s not fair to call him that. But since that’s his nickname, we kinda get used to it. You two should really call him ‘ye-ye’!” she said. There was a secretive and self-righteous gleam in her eyes.

“Ye-ye?” I was scandalized.

At the moment, two customers entered the shop. Before Mrs. Zhang turned her attention away, she asked, “Anything else for you two?”

“No. Thanks!” I said.

My mind was whirling, a plethora of questions darting by. Why should we respect Lin and call him “ye-ye?” (“Ye-ye” was how we addressed our paternal grandfather. We sometimes addressed elder males as “Ye-ye” due to respect.) Didn’t the villagers disdain him? How could we call him “ye-ye,” when nobody respected him?

Lin had been around our house as long as I could remember. He came to the house at least twice daily to tend to the panning machines and household chores – always early morning and late evening, before other workers arrived and after they left. During the summer season, he brought us his garden produce – green beans, tomatoes, and ears of tender corn. He raised two goats and had offered us goat milk once. But my mother turned him down exclaiming that the scent of goat milk was intolerable. I didn’t recall we had ever invited him to eat with us, not once. We had never invited him to play Mahjong or poker during family gatherings. Satisfied with my understanding that we should call him “ye-ye” to show respect because he was kind to us, I soon forgot about Mrs. Zhang’s comments.

There was a creek that meandered down Amber Mountain and traversed our village, where Peng and I frequented during our childhood. The villagers enjoyed doing their laundry beside the creek. The water trickled down from the mountain into a large, shallow reservoir where we would stand knee-deep catching fish and shrimp. Sometimes, we pretended to be turtles wading in the shallow water: we would crane our necks in and out of our collarbones while flapping speedily with our hands tucked in against our ribs. I distinctly remember dipping my skin in the water, relaxing my muscles, and surrendering to the water’s buoyancy as the moving water carried away my body heat.

At the creek bank, two women were washing clothes that day. Piece by piece, clothes were drenched, soaped, thrust up and down against the washboard, rinsed, and wrung.

“Those are Bachelor Lin’s grandchildren?” a woman whispered a few feet upstream, shooting furtive glances at us from the corner of her eyes.

“Yeah. Widow Hua and Bachelor Lin had an affair… the old man was sick in bed,” the other woman whispered, dragging her man’s red boxer in the water.

“Who said Lin is a loser?” murmured the first woman.

A stifled laugh broke out, while I watched a water bug charge a minnow I was after. The water bug was three times bigger, monstrous and mighty. Soon, the minnow dissolved into a sachet of slush into which the water bug sunk its proboscis. I wondered how people could draw immense pleasure from other’s misfortune. I hated those gossipy women. I knew my grandmother’s maiden name was Hua. So, I should call Lin “ye-ye,” not because we should respect him but because he was my grandfather? Why had my parents never told us? I enticed Peng to leave, lying that my father bought him a truck.

As much as I loathed those women, I felt deceived. I was told that my grandfather died when my father was a toddler. I’d visited his grave a few times on Chinese festivals in accordance with the ritual. As much as I contested the despicable lie, I had to admit that Lin didn’t fit any of the profiles I envisioned. I thought my grandfather was a well-respected village elder, a farmer, or a miner.

My father never acknowledged him as his father. My father called him “Lin.” “Lin, don’t forget to add logs to the hearth.” “Lin, be careful with these high-grade ores.” “Lin, can you substitute for Lao Wang this weekend?” It would bring shame to my father and his family that Lin was a loser and my father was born of an affair. That’s why my father repudiated him. To my ten-year-old, justice-sensitive heart, my father would be deplorable if Lin was really his father. To expose my father, I decided to investigate.

Once I suspected Lin was my grandfather, I couldn’t resist gawking at him. He simply returned a benevolent smile when he caught me staring. For the first time I saw his face, his eyes, not just his humped back. It seemed, maybe, my father’s eyes resembled his. His eyelids were thin and creased, which we called “double eyelids” – a rare trait for a Chinese. My father happened to have the creases in his eyelids as well. Neither me nor any of my siblings had “double eyelids,” because my mother had “single eyelids,” a trait controlled by a recessive gene as I later learned in my biology class. I often found myself scrutinizing my reflection in the mirror. According to my sixth-grade biology textbook, a child shared 25% of the DNA with their grandparents. Perhaps, the resemblance lay in the way our mouths took shape when we smiled faintly?

I once asked my mother. My mother gainsaid the prospect, contending that Lin was never married, and my grandfather died shortly after my father was born. And my mother admonished me to steer clear of villagers’ after-dinner gossip.

“But he’d been around like family,” I contested.

“We never asked Lin to stick around the house,” my mother said.

The gold-crowned teeth in either side of her lower jaw glistened a wealthy sheen.

“So… he isn’t paid?” I asked.

“We never hired him in the first place. He just likes to stick around,” my mother said. “Your father and I had suggested him not to come to avoid gossip. Rumor was circulating in the village that your father’s widowed mother hooked up with Bachelor Lin and had your father. Nonsense!”

“But he did a lot of work for us,” I said, “for free.”

“He’s willing,” my mother snapped, “nobody forces him!”

I wondered why my mother could be so ungrateful, so cruel to him. He had offered free labor in return for our approval. The only plausible explanation I could come up with was that he was indeed my grandfather. He was affectionate to my father; you could tell from his sparkling eyes when he gazed at him. When we accepted his offer, whether it was vegetables or to housesit, elation graced his face, like a wilted rose blossom regaining its vitality. I wondered how one’s happiness could so much hinge on another person. It was only later in my life that I came to the revelation: that altruistic kind of dependence was what we call “love” – a word that has such a profound meaning, seemingly inscrutable, a word that takes our entire lifetime to comprehend.

I started to see through his rough surface and saw his pure, loving heart. I decided to like him.

Later, I had inquired about Lin to my father. My father simply said, “Children don’t meddle in adults’ affairs!” Adults’ affairs? I was old enough to know the truth. Before I could articulate my thoughts, he dismissed me. I remember asking my elder sister when she came home from school. She said she’d heard the rumor since she was my age. “If father doesn’t want to accept him, we should pretend we don’t know,” my sister said.

My father was despicable after all.

Wealth wasn’t the only product of gold mining. Through robbing gold mines and bribing government officials, a few gangs quickly gained control of the lucrative gold trade. The most nefarious gangster in our town was named Guang Ming, which meant “bright light” and “integrity.” His deeds had disappointed the good wishes embodied by his name and whoever granted him that name. We secretly called him “black gold boss” – the underworld society in Chinese was called “black society.” Before he became a gangster boss, he was imprisoned for sexual assault. Two years’ imprisonment had not purged his wickedness, for he had resumed his immoral business. He was illicitly married to three wives and had five children at the time; his youngest wife’s parents lived in our village, so did his brother-in-law.

It was a Saturday evening. My elder sister returned home from school for a short break. My mother bought abalone to celebrate her return. Eight abalones, each the size of a fist, lay in their shells on a white China plate, garnished with shredded carrots and cucumber. Under the dining room chandelier, the abalone shells gave off an iridescent, ethereal gleam. Using the abalone broth, my mother made us each a bowl of soup. Sitting at the dinner table, we were eager to partake of this extravagant meal when Lin stomped in and urged us to turn on the TV in a panicked voice. My parents were apparently annoyed as I could tell from my father’s furrowed eyebrows, and my mother snapped, “What’s the matter?”

“Black gold boss’s gang had a fight with another gang,” Lin said, “A few are dead.” Worries darkened his face.

We turned on the TV. “Earlier this afternoon, in Palm City, two gangs fought for a gold mine in the foothills of Majestic Mountain,” the anchor droned on, “the local authorities are reluctant to investigate, claiming they have no jurisdiction over the gold mines in Palm City.”

A chaotic scene appeared on the screen. Amid the commotion, one gangster stabbed another in the stomach, the latter collapsing to the ground in a well-lit mine as blood drenched his grimy green uniform. My mother covered my brother’s eyes.

“Guang Ming’s looking for trouble, going against a more powerful gang,” my father said with a grim face.

“We better be careful,” Lin said earnestly to my father. “We haven’t had any trouble in the field, have we?”

“We,” as if we were a family, as if my father was his son.

“No. We’ve been on good terms with his wife’s family,” my father said. “We invited them for Peng’s birth ceremonies, and in return, they invited us for old man Jin’s sixty-seventh birthday.”

The reciprocity of hospitality in a community was highly valued in Chinese culture. In her notebook, my mother diligently recorded the gifts received from each guest and made notes to return with gifts of equal worth on special occasions.

“Tomorrow, I’ll visit Jin’s family. Their eldest grandson’s going to college. I’ll gift him some money,” my mother said.

She gave my father and Lin a reassuring look, which apparently eased their nerves a little. The rest of the dinner was eaten in dreadful silence. Even Peng ate his dinner quietly. At age six, he couldn’t possibly grasp the magnitude of the situation, but, apparently, he had sensed the tension in the atmosphere.

In winter, the blistering cold temperature obstructed the gold panning. Snow was common in the north. For one quarter of the year, the earth was covered by snow and ice, the temperature frequently dropping below zero. At seven in the morning, it was barely visible outside and yet I had to rise to attend school. It was my first year of middle school. Without a middle school in our village, I had to journey a mile and a half to attend school in the nearby town. Every morning, while the rest of the family was still in heavy slumber, I flicked off my alarm, peeled myself off from bed and began my morning routine. I always cooked myself a bag of instant noodles with an egg. By 7:45, I was ready, and that was when Lin arrived at the house to walk me to school. I was ecstatic when my parents allowed him to walk me to school.

He rarely spoke, and I could never come up with an engaging topic. So, we walked silently as the snow scrunched under our shoes. For a while, I had successfully subdued my urge to bring up the taboo for fear of the dreadful air until one morning.

“I heard a rumor that you are my grandfather,” I said, “is that true?” As soon as the words slipped through my mouth, remorse consumed me.

He quickly averted his eyes. He was caught unprepared but managed to feign composure. After a brief silence, he said, “What did your parents tell you?”

“My mother told me not to listen to other people’s gossip,” I said.

“Well,” he said. A long pause. “Listen to your mother then,” he finally said. His voice was hollowed with despair.

“But, you’re so nice to us, like,” I said, “like family to us.”

He didn’t say anything but summoned up a pale smile.

Why didn’t he have the courage to admit it? I saw a shadow of defeat shroud him. The man had failed to stand up for what was his. Life had defeated him. He surrendered – hands up, weapons relinquished. Or perhaps he had never picked up his weapons to fight. I somewhat hated him for his cowardice. Or perhaps, life was cruel to him and never granted him a chance.

At the school gate, he waited until I walked inside (I never thanked him, as if I was entitled to his kindness). Normally, I would turn around and wave him goodbye. But that day, I didn’t. Years later, revisiting the scene, I saw him standing behind the steel gate (three vertical bars superimposed on his tiny body) against a snow-covered backdrop, waving his goodbye, knowing that I was upset. Perhaps he feelt guilty for allowing the lie to prevail.

Soon, the lambing season came in the spring. It was the time of the year when Lin’s two ewes reproduced. The ewes were his only source of income besides his retirement allowance from the local government. He sold the baby goats before winter and kept the two ewes for milk and more spring babies. It had been our ritual to visit the baby goats every spring.

One Saturday, when we arrived at his house, two baby goats were resting beside their mother, who were leisurely partaking of dry silage at the door. As I stepped into his courtyard, a peculiar goat scent permeated the air and immediately invaded my nostrils. A dead fetus was lying on a makeshift bed made of wheat straws. A placenta, a bruise color of blue and dark purple, splayed on the straw bedding beside the dead fetus. Instantly, I wondered about the sex of the dead fetus. Eleven years ago, it would have been me lying in a tray, poisoned and suffocated, like millions of aborted female fetuses. I should have never existed. I was tolerated but not wanted. The mother ewe started to eat her own placenta – a seemingly strange phenomena, but I later learned that it had evolutionary significance – to hide the evidence of lambing to avoid predators.

Lin crouched beside the dead fetus in a daze – a posture that accentuated his hump. What was he thinking? Was he lamenting the loss of a life, or money, or both?

His house, or more accurately, a shack, was enclosed by mud-plastered brick walls. The dirt floor lay bare and raw. You had to be very careful not to spill water on the floor, or else it would become a marshland. Once the water dried out, shallow depressions scattered like rabbit holes.

At first, we enjoyed just patting and holding the baby goat. “Let’s feed the baby goats!” A light bulb came upon Peng. So, Peng made a trip to the convenience store and bought a baby bottle and filled it with milk.

“Drink! Baby goat, yum yum,” Peng said, smacking his own lips, while thrusting the nipple into the baby goat’s mouth. The baby goat clenched its jaw and jerked its head to shake it off.

“Please drink, baby goat!” Peng pleaded, caressing the goat’s head. “Take a sip, you’ll like it!” Five minutes later, Peng had lost his patience. “Drink it! I command you!” Peng said. Locking the goat’s head in one arm, he shoved the bottle to its mouth with great force.

Unable to escape his grip, the baby goat let out a plaintive cry. The ewe stood up, stomped anxiously on its leash, and let out a heart-wrenching bleat.

“Stop it! Peng. You are going to kill it,” I shouted.

“Let it go!” Lin snapped and rose up to reach his 5’ 6’’ height.

My brother paused and turned to glare at Lin. I wasn’t sure what he saw – maybe his beehive-like skin, maybe the anger in his eyes, or his shriveled, deformed body. All I knew was my brother hurled the bottle on the ground and cursed.

This was the first time I saw an agitated Lin. To punish Lin, my parents banned him from coming to our house for a while.

Not long after, an accident at our gold mine shuttered our business. A miner was trapped at the bottom of the well when a high-voltage cable caught on fire. The miner was pronounced dead once rescued. After the incident, my father was called to the police station to assist with the investigation. We ended up paying the victim’s family a huge sum of money to avoid a lawsuit. The incident had prompted my father to forgo the gold business and invest money in real estate. And yet, our family did not escape a deadly blow.

It was the evening of June 23rd, 1994. We just had dinner, and the shampoo commercials were blasting on the black and white TV. Lin was at the house that day. Since we stopped the mining business, he came to the house infrequently. My mother was in the east wing, washing dishes. In the main room, my father lounged on the sofa, smoking a cigarette. Squatting beside my father, Peng was scribbling on the coffee table. Earlier that day, my mother had pressured him to finish his homework. Lin reclined on the side sofa. He was not really watching TV nor talking to my father. Like always, he just quietly sat there observing – not getting into anyone’s business. He was self-sufficient in that manner.

“Juan, go cut the watermelon,” my father ordered, “and put the rest of the beer into the fridge.”

I nodded and left the living room. I was used to being the waitress/babysitter at home. Once my father came home from work, he immediately crowned himself the king of the family, a king who expected to be served. He would throw a fit if he came back to a messy home or if dinner was unprepared. By default, cleaning the house was my job, while my mother was to cook supper. I put away the beer, then made another trip to the courtyard to retrieve the watermelon. The watermelon, elongated in shape, twenty pounds at least, was chilled in cold water. I hoisted it up and really had to concentrate on its weight. For a moment, I dreaded how to slice it.

When I finally maneuvered it onto the cutting board, I worked up my nerves and swung a knife toward the middle of the watermelon. With a crisp whacking sound, the watermelon cracked open and tumbled into two halves. That was when I heard the house gate was bust open. From the window, I saw two men carrying handguns darting across the courtyard to the main room.

My heart was thumping in my throat.

“Bastard! You dared to mess with my boss’s nephew!” one of the gunmen snarled. Two deafening gunshots ensued, followed by the noises of their hasty departure from the scene of crime.

It all happened in less than five minutes. I bolted into the living room. Lin collapsed to the floor and lay on his side, blood oozing from his chest, his heartbeat hastened, leaving him gasping for air. Terror and disbelief wrung my father’s face. Peng curled into a ball like a millipede; his hands firmly clasped the back of my father’s shirt. He was terrified but didn’t dare to make a sound.

The ambulance roared in, followed by police cars with blaring sirens. Lin was rushed to the hospital; we were questioned by two policemen, while others secured the scene and snapped hundreds of pictures.

When we hurried to the hospital, Lin was still in the emergency room. An hour later, a nurse came to inform us that a blood transfusion was needed. The doctor asked for blood with a type B-negative or O-negative. My father volunteered to donate his blood because his blood type was O. The doctor inquired about his relationship with the patient.

“I am his son,” my father said.

My father finally conceded. He would never have admitted it if it wasn’t an emergency, if Lin hadn’t used his body to shield them from the bullets.

Three hours later, the head doctor emerged. “Sorry,” the doctor said apologetically, “We’ve done what we could.” One bullet not only penetrated his left lung but also tore his pericardium (I later learned that it’s the membrane that covers the heart); the other had gone into his abdomen, puncturing his intestines.

Lin’s tomb stood alone in a deserted dirt lot beside a corn field. Slabs of tombstones scattered across the makeshift cemetery. A few yards away, I saw the tombstone of my “grandfather.” My grandmother’s name had already been engraved on the same tombstone, leaving the death date blank. Alive, Lin was solitary; dead, he’s a lonely apparition.

The deafening gunshots often jolted me awake at night. Confronted by the two gunmen, my father shoved my brother behind him; Lin dashed to my father to receive the bullets.

Later, we found that Peng had a fight with Guang Ming’s nephew, Kun, who was a year his senior. The two were playing glass marbles. When Peng won a few rounds, Kun, a sore loser, hurled the marbles in his face, which triggered a scuffle.

After a month’s investigation, my parents were called to the police station to identify the two suspects. Later, Guang Ming’s two minions were convicted of murder but were released two years later, for Guang Ming had paid the ransom.

As a well-preserved, ancient tradition, the living were expected to pay visits to the dead on Chinese festivals. Every Chinese New Year, my father would bring Peng and me to visit our deceased ancestors at the cemetery, while my mother and elder sister were preparing dinner at home. My father would burn paper money, pour Chinese spirits in front of the grave, and we would all drop on our knees and Kowtow three times.

“Lin, we come to see you,” my father said, kneeling in front of Lin’s tomb. “We hope you rest in peace. We owe you…” My father broke down crying.

I silently wept. I knew Lin was watching us from above. “Forgive me, ye-ye,” I murmured. Peng rested his forehead on the ground, refusing to let us see his tears.

It seemed Peng had changed overnight. To everyone’s surprise, he had grown to be a reticent, agreeable, and soft-spoken young adult. Traumatic incident silenced people, and guilt humbled people, I thought. My father had finally told us the story of Lin. It was too late.

I saw his body curl up, which vaguely resembled an “N;” his blood-soaked hands press against his chest and stomach, the light in his eyes growing fainter and fainter. I have not dared to cut a watermelon ever since. I woke up from happy dreams cheerful, full of hope, and bad dreams devastated. It was in those dreams that I called him “ye-ye,” and he turned around to give me his incandescent smile. Sometimes, it was the image of him standing behind the gate waving his goodbye. I was wrong about Lin. He stood up for the people he loved. He was a fighter, a true fighter. The man may not care about worldly fame, success, and wealth, but he fought for the people he loved with his own life.

I missed dearly the time of gold panning. Water carried away the beguiling impurities – the rocks, dirt, iron, and copper, leaving behind the heaviest gold – a metal that was so rare, resistant, and precious, like some people’s soul, dense and pure.

“Don’t let the pyrite fool you!” my father once told me when teaching me how to identify gold ore. “Gold shine, not glisten.”

About the Author

Sarah Jiang

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Sarah Jiang is an MFA student at the University of Kentucky. She writes mainly short stories. She holds a Ph.D. in Microbiology and is hoping to incorporate scientific methods into her own creative writing process. She is the fiction editor for Pluck: the journal of Affrilachian arts and culture, and a reader for the New Limestone Review.