During the day, Darron typed for Uncle Sam. The propaganda he transcribed from the Vice Admiral’s longhand was filed, handed off to translators, and sent up in planes that swooped along the South China coast. At 17:03, he was left to his own devices. He stood on the beach, the wings of birds overhead were a balm for his aching eyes.
His eyes slicked over the surface of a cormorant. The waves camouflaged the bird’s face to match the dark shine of the sea. The beak hooked, the base burnt gold, the body darkened.
“Feichang piaoliang,” Darron said. The words were from his phrasebook. They meant, unusually beautiful. He liked rolling the foreign words around his mouth. The Great Cormorant was held by nothing, could fly from South China to the beach of Quemoy and wing onward, reaching the shores of Taiwan proper.
Darron used to be a runner, in the long, long ago last year, when he was in high school. Now he never ran. The beach was strewn with bombs. Darron stopped, stood, faced the fuzzy enemy, the thin brown line of China. He stood at the lip of danger, at the farthest point from home. The paper he scratched on yesterday would be in her hand by next week. He waited, as if the flying paper could support a relationship. It couldn’t.
Friday night meant the guys were going into Chincheng. They would either get drunk off kaoliang liquor, visit the brothels, or both. Darron was better than that. Darron didn’t drink, because if he started he might end up at a brothel. Darron didn’t go to the brothels, because he was in love with an idea.
Darron’s idea was named Elizabeth, and she waited for him on the other side of the world, pacing as he slept, sleeping as he paced. If writing weren’t such a chore for him, and if he had taken the time to assess his own life, Darron could easily write the book on long distance. The first chapter: “The empty actions.” The first topic: letter writing. The first subtopic would be whimsical reactions to the exotic long-distance locale. The temples, the way the tile roofs of the houses bend down in the middle, following the underside of a canoe; or, as he wrote, the curved belly of a bird with wings pointing down. Other observations: They have a night market here, he wrote. All the hard bargaining is conducted under the glow of red paper lanterns. An important follow-up point would be the necessity of asking about how people are doing whom one doesn’t care about, just so that she’ll have to write more in reply. What’s ol’ Peggy up to? he asked in his last letter. Peggy was her cross-eyed neighbor who she barely ever spoke to. The sendoff should be an emphatic restatement of undying, unwavering love. All he had were the long letters received in reply, the time spent writing and reading them subtracting from the eternity of his exile, the feeling that he was not alone.
But he was.
Darron walked to the water line, so his footprints would press into the wet sand. In their 11-month relationship, they might have had more letters than dates. He wrote about the food they had, potatoes made from powder, eggs made from powder, bread that tasted like powder. He tried to tell her about the smells from the red-tiled houses, but he didn’t have the words. Smells like seafood, he’d write, and then wonder where to go from there. He didn’t know the spices; he didn’t have the right vocabulary.
The blast hiccupped the ground beneath him. Smoke, a smear of sand, and drifting feathers spread in air. A cormorant had tripped an anti-personnel mine. The carnage spilled across the beach, the beak a pale lone entity. The strip lay pitted with mines and used artillery shells, was rimmed in barbed wire. Two years before, it was the epicenter of the Cold War, withstanding 44 days of Chinese shelling.
No writing to Elizabeth about the birds. He took a few breaths and turned to go home.
“Ni!” He called, trying out his limited Chinese. “Bu keyi!” It meant, “you can’t.” He didn’t know what else to say. A woman slouched forward on the beach, lugging a rucksack. She straightened for a moment. She wore a gray skirt and a gray shirt, but her dark hair had a shifting silver sheen that folded along the curves of her two long black braids. She tilted her head at him, so it bent into the curve of the wind.
Darron could see her eyes taking her in— his trim frame, his untucked navy shirt. He was a short guy, as short as the islanders. She returned to picking up pieces of artillery.
There was no way she didn’t see the exploded bird a few feet away from them. He tried to stride over to her, slightly off balance in the sand.
“Bu keyi,” he said again.
“Sorry,” she said. “I have to.”
She knew English, which to him meant one thing: prostitute.
“You have to leave,” Darron said. “Too dangerous.”
“I take to Wu Tsong Shan,” she said.
“Don’t know him. Take what?” he said.
“Shrapnel.” He was always surprised at the English the natives knew, and didn’t know.
“You have to leave,” he repeated.
“Shrapnel,” she said, and pointed.
Of course there was plenty of shrapnel on the beach.
“You need to leave now,” he said, “or I will have to remove you. Not safe.”
“Pay me,” she said. She was getting angry. “Do you have money? What will you pay me for?”
Her face was flat and cold, but he knew she suggested everything. Darron felt heat in his face, and in his armpits. “You must go,” he said.
She started to walk away from him, but didn’t leave the beach. Her basket of shrapnel was only a third full and the rucksack on her back was half empty. All that steel must break backs, he thought.
“Leave!” he called. She ignored him.
He was about to follow her, but the wind picked up in that moment and he was relieved of the burden of saying or doing anything. Her plain, Soviet-style work tunic blew up slightly to reveal the backs of her knees. Almost nothing to see, but he wanted that joint of her inner knee. They were so vulnerable, like the legs of birds.
The dismal war of 1960 was carried out by slumped men in Quonset huts—typing, filing, smoking, and trading leaflet bombs. Darron didn’t smoke, but he had the nervous habits of a man dying for a cigarette. His hands still quivered from the typing as he walked into town the following Sunday. In the reflection of a stream by the road, he tried to see his face, but it wavered and was impossible to capture. He told himself he was going to find a noodle house. He did not admit that he wanted to see the woman again, her stone face, her light, airy frame.
He looked for details so he could write another letter to Elizabeth. It was getting increasingly difficult. They eat dogs here, Darron wrote in his last letter, and crossed it out. He didn’t write about the sound of masturbating in the barracks, or how the others were getting matching tattoos. No one invited him; he didn’t want them to, either. Not the wreckage of this bombed-over island, the poor condition of the vegetables, or the human defecation. Not the overwhelming feeling of stupidity he had typing on the other side of the world. The whole project was precious and boring.
His trip to Chincheng was the main topic. He had already composed the beginning: Chincheng meant gold town, just like the island itself, Quemoy, was a transliteration of something like chinmen, or gold gate. There were no gates, of course. But she wouldn’t know that. He couldn’t assume anything. The city stayed closed to him, but he continued walking, looking at doors, looking at doorways.
Darron passed a clothing store, and his eye caught a tan leather trench coat. The shade matched the leather of his old car, and that was all he needed. He slipped into memory, hearing her words in his head.
“Mean it?” The hope in Elizabeth’s words dripped.
His words rushed out when he had one hand on the clutch and the other under her skirt. The driver’s seat stretched without boundary, from him to her. Darron made his first move in the last third of Ben-Hur, when Charlton Heston engaged in battle, when Elizabeth cringed in the corner of the car, afraid of combat. He thought about the stretched tan leather reaching from his thigh to her wool skirt until he couldn’t stand it. She had been initially receptive. But Lutheran girls die hard. He brought his hand out from within her. His left knee jammed up against the wood grain steering wheel of his Chrysler, and he had to use his hands to pull it back around. He fell back on the seat, tapped his knee, tried to calm down.
“Yes,” he said. “Love at first sight. I mean it.”
What had he committed himself to? Back in the United States he had left a girl, told her they were soul mates. He remembered thinking at home that night that, sure, he believed what he had said. Her eyes had shaped to moons. Since entering the service he tried to remember what that lightness felt like, the guiltless surrender to an impulse—Love? Sure, why not—but he couldn’t. He couldn’t move that lightly through life, through anything.
Here, the women were shaped by a nuclear sun. They worried about rice, and what language to speak to strike the next deal. They joined up the men in the fields, they thrust forward to haggle, their English, when spoken, was simple, direct. He tried to keep these women out of his dreams. He tried to keep Elizabeth alive in a small corner of his mind he visited every night before sleeping. Sometimes, he couldn’t picture her face. Most of the time he could, but only in that frozen expression, that sideways look enshrined in his wallet picture.
He circled the fish market, smelling the scents that bled everywhere in Taiwan but only stood isolated at home in Philadelphia, in places like the Reading Terminal Market, Chinatown, Headhouse Square. Saying the names was crucial. His whole identity stayed needed it.
Ducks hung from a storefront window. Thin birds, strung and brushed a darker gold. A butcher came, took down a huge rack of ribs, and started chopping away with a cleaver. There were characters engraved into the side of the knife. The butcher cut the meat smaller than Darron was used to.
He could talk about that in his letter. Dull, but then again, Elizabeth’s last letter had been a list of potential baby names—mostly her dead relatives. She had asked him for some names on his side of the family. He told her he’d have to dust off the old family bible, and look at the generations inscribed in the cover. He never did, though.
He ran into the chaplain, Mallory, at the corner. Mallory lived with them in the barracks, but he was older, more educated, aloof. They said hello, and Mallory asked where Darron was going. Darron wasn’t going anywhere. Mallory would walk with him.
Darron wasn’t sure that he wanted company. Walking was the only time he had the patience to compose these letters. Mallory invaded the small space he had created.
The markets still filled with women feeling lychees and men pointing out the best cuts of fish. The bustle was defiant, despite the limitations of trade. Taiwanese from the large island were not allowed to enter because of all of the military operations, and Mainland Chinese entered at their own peril–their presence would be considered an enemy invasion. The hemmed-in islanders adapted, unflinching. The soldiers were just tension on the tightrope.
“My faith is renewed every day when I see how life goes on here,” Mallory said.
“That’s nice,” said Darron. He wouldn’t be rude, but he wouldn’t encourage him, either.
Mallory was a young priest. He brought his hand up to his blond box haircut, which tried to make a man out of a baby face. “They’ve adapted so much—think of it. They used to be part of Japan, now stuck between Taiwan and China. Never enough food, family on both sides of the strait.”
“They’re like robots,” Darron offered. Lately he’d been reading science fiction, Asimov and Orson Scott Card. “Inexorable. Mechanical.”
“I don’t think so,” said Mallory. “We’re all human. I’ve been learning the language … have you?”
“No,” Darron said. To make life more confusing, the Navy had distributed phrasebooks for both the Mandarin of the ruling Kuomintang government, and Taiwanese. It was too much to even attempt.
“Their language is extremely practical. Think of the Mandarin for love,” and Mallory looked at Darron, to see if he already knew. Darron didn’t.
“Ai. Ai is the word for love. But they don’t use it here, or not the same way,” he said. “At home, we love everything and everyone. We let it slip out of our mouths without thinking. As a priest, I am constantly speaking about love. Love thy neighbor, love thy enemy, love thy faith, love, celibate love, marital love, love of god … but they aren’t like that here.”
“They don’t love?” They turned a corner, and though he hated to hear it, the inflection in his voice was hopeful. A way out, he thought.
“They don’t say it like that. Love as in to be fond of, sure. But to say, “I love you”? Too much,” he said. “You’ll hear more talk of respect.”
“Respect?” said Darron. There was a buzzing noise in the distance, and they both looked to the sky.
“Respect and responsibility. Why talk of love when your children are starving? Love is a given, it goes out from you in concentric circles, connecting you to your family in well-defined patterns of relationship and connection. You don’t speak of it, mostly.”
“You have to speak of it,” said Darron. He wouldn’t be irritated by the priest’s naivety. “If you don’t work at, it slips away.”
Darron’s mind flashed over the divided self he had created, the one that went through the motions here, and the one he kept behind it, a small altar to her and to home. “Keep them in your mind. Make them keep you in theirs.” He kept his pronouns vague.
“I don’t think you can make anyone do anything,” Mallory said. “Hard enough to make yourself do what you want.”
The buzzing sound deepened into the drone of airplanes, a set of three. The two men ducked under the tile roof of the nearest restaurant. The clatter and chatter continued as workers washed dishes inside. Darron saw Mallory blink several times beneath his spectacles.
The missiles began to drop from the sky.
Pop, and they heard the small explosion of shrapnel and paper. The shrapnel clattered first and the leaflets drifted after, a flurry of propaganda. Mallory grabbed a sheet. They moved out from the ledge and into the flurry of words.
“I don’t know any of these words,” said Mallory. “Except for America, China, and ‘not good.’”
“You’re trying to learn characters too?”
Mallory ignored his question. “Be careful about what you write to Elizabeth,” he said, cutting through Darron’s vague references. “Don’t promise something that you can’t deliver.”
“Mallory,” said Darron. He thought about what he had with Elizabeth, about those memory reels of kisses, soft leather. “No offense, but, you’re not the first person I’d turn to for advice about girls.”
“Fine,” said Mallory. “Just doesn’t look healthy, that’s all. You’re not here, on the island. You’re in your head. I’ll leave you to it.”
Mallory never bothered with tact. He turned immediately, his swift motion concealing from Darron whether he was disgusted or hurt; the way the priest would have wanted it. The wave of the father’s black cassock flashed the memory of the girl’s tunic from the beach.
Mallory hadn’t hurt him, though. Maybe he thought that Darron was stuck on Elizabeth. He wished he was. It was then he admitted that he was out on the town to look for the new girl, and not to write letters at all.
Even if he were too good to go to them, he knew where the brothels in Quemoy were. Darron could find them blindfolded. They weren’t far from the Shinto temple leftover from the Japanese occupation.
The two houses were right next door to one another. They stood larger than the other houses on the street, two stories tall. He didn’t know which one she lived in. He fingered his money clip. He had enough, he knew. He could pay, and make her his. No love involved. Just his need.
The sun was low in the sky. Two hours had passed since Darron wandered off base. Somewhere on the island, taps was playing. When the bugle began taps, he was supposed to drop what he was doing and face the flag. He walked through his imagined sounds, disoriented, even though everyone around him also moving.
He nerved himself up enough to go in, but then she came out. She was still carrying that sack. She moved slow and sure, so directed she didn’t even notice him ten feet from the door.
He had no clue what a woman would want with all that shrapnel. He followed her, wondering if he was about to stumble into something illicit. First prostitution, then … well, you never knew with the natives. Here the Cold War burned hot, real. He wanted no knowledge beyond the punctuation in his memos. But he couldn’t stop following her. She was wearing the same type of work tunic. He wondered where she kept her silks.
She entered a small, low house. The building was white but dirty, and had a broken window that had never been repaired. A loud clanging sound came out from within the house, and he wanted to turn around immediately. He couldn’t go further. He wouldn’t have gone to the window if the broken shard still in the frame hadn’t refracted a sparking, orange light.
Darron bent his body around the window. Piles and piles of spent artillery shells spread around the floor of the wide room that made up the entirety of the dwelling. In the far corner, a balding man stood in front of a hissing furnace with a pair of tongs. Darron watched as the older man held the casing to the fire until it grew orange-hot, and then withdrew it to place on a blacksmith’s anvil.
The man reshaped the artillery shell into a belt. No, a butcher’s knife. His mind flashed back to the ribs in the shop. Again, the island folded around the warfare, pulled resources out of misery. Quemoy’s “natural” source of steel.
His woman stood and waited until the older man was done, and then pointed at the sack of casings she had put by the door. He glanced at her, peeled out a few bills from his coveralls. She kept her eyes down the whole time, turned, and left.
Whatever money the old man had given her could not compensate her for digging up shells on mined beaches, but maybe she was trying to throw her life away.
Ten days had passed and it was 16:30, almost time to call it a day at the Quonset hut. He listened to the Admiral’s voice in his ear as he typed about democracy and tried to think above it. He didn’t know what he was typing about anymore, and he hadn’t thought of a thing to write Elizabeth. She would be waiting for his letter, going down to the row of mailboxes in her apartment building and trying to snap it up before her father saw. The thought of her father made him punch the keys harder. Click, click! Her father had told Elizabeth she needed someone who had a career. After Elizabeth told Darron this, the Navy was the only option he could come up with. He knew the trucking job his own father had lined up would not count. Click, click!
Thousands of miles too late to change that decision, he knew. He had fragmentary thoughts. Sometimes when he looked at his transcription, “missile” became “miss you” and “area of concern” became “area that burns.” That page was such a mess of correcting fluid that Darron threw it out and began again.
The Admiral’s crackly voice discussed the possibility of affairs advancing to a “a nuclear sunset.” 16:43, he had typed his sunset. He took his hands off the stenographer keyboard. He almost expected the keys to type on their own, the reflexive legs of insects.
If he could have banged the flimsy Quonset door, he would have, but the material was too light. The door knocked against the frame a few times instead.
“Is everything okay?” Mallory asked. “You look dazed.”
After all the mind numbing typing, Darron didn’t have the filter that would usually help him manage small talk.
“Nine hours, not one complete thought. Wasted day.”
“Very Protestant of you, thinking of wastefulness and work. Maybe you should be Catholic, where you talk to me and I absolve you.”
“Maybe I should be Buddhist, where emptiness is a virtue.”
Mallory smiled. “There are all sorts of belief varieties here. Have you noticed the Wind Lion statues they put up everywhere?”
“What do you notice, these days?” Mallory asked. Darron cringed. Girls that weren’t his girlfriend, he thought. But he was not a Catholic, and not about to confess. “The Wind Lion statues,” Mallory continued, “are gods. Set to ward off enemy attack. Right now all the Wind Lions face China. It’s traditional, home-grown spirituality. If only I could get the Virgin Mary to take root in the same way.”
“You’re not evangelizing here?” Darron asked. He was suspicious. He had started attending Mallory’s services, because the guy asked all the time, and because it was another routine. But he didn’t believe. He wondered if Mallory knew.
“The challenge for me is always to carry Christ’s message around in everything, from churches to marketplaces.”
Darron did not understand this man. And yet he was always lumped with the priest, just because he didn’t visit the prostitutes.
“Look, Mallory, I’ve got to go. I think I just need to walk around and clear my head.”
“But I thought your head was empty?” said Mallory.
As Darron walked away he noticed Mallory staring at the distance, holding his cigarette. Mallory was also in love with an idea, and it was hard on him too.
The beach loomed ahead and he watched the beige tongue of sand curve around the barbed wire fence that blocked it from civilians. The fence bent, tattered in a dozen places, and Darron never had any problems getting through. The sun was still high in the sky, and it was warm. His mind was nervy but his body was cramped, exhausted. He wondered if he could even run the mile anymore. One of his recent routines was to listen to the race results come in from the Olympic games in Rome every night over the radio. He loved the relays. He wanted to make a trip to see the news reels sometime soon, but he saved such excursions for true boredom, although sometimes it was hard to distinguish the shades.
In his pocket, he fingered his pack of Camels. He liked the way the camel stood in the burning gold field, enduring. He remembered his track coach, who had kept him from smoke and other sins all throughout high school. But here personal problems were dwarfed by the larger problems that hung overhead: clashing economic systems, the sovereignty of nations, the justification of military presence in small places like this, places that hardly needed government at all.
On the landward side of the fence, houses reached up a hillside in rings, each bravely facing west. Some were ruins, circa ‘58 or WWII, and had not been repaired. Birds that had the tenacity to wing in from China hugged the tiny houses, flying in and out of them like they had a total flying radius of 50 yards. Maybe they had families within the eaves of those houses. Maybe they had loved ones in nests that they could not bear to leave.
On a few rooftops he finally saw what Mallory had been talking about: the wind lion gods. The lion part was clear enough. The figures had snarls, large teeth, inflamed eyes. The wind threat stayed invisible, uncarved. Just something carried within.
He wanted to see her so badly.
He saw her staggering down the beach, picking up artillery. Her hair was down that day, which made her seem older. He approached her, trying to be the confident man he wasn’t.
“You can’t be here,” he said to her in English.
“I need the money. Are you going to pay me?”
“You have to leave.”
“I owe 1000 yen.”
“Stop risking your life.”
“My life,” she laughed.
He looked at her, and he thought they understood each other completely. They stood on the same beach, same battleground, same coast that hundreds of pilots had patrolled and bombed. But they both were nowhere. Elizabeth’s image in his mind was a reflection on an eye closing shut.
Their differences were plain on the beach, and her body grew big in his eyes as his money grew big in hers.
Neither talked, because the desperation didn’t have to be negotiated. He simply held the cash.
The sand felt unsteady as he walked forward. Quivering all over, he made his arm into a crook that she could step into. His hands stilled fingers resting on her shoulder. She rested her head on his as if falling into an old practice. Then they both straightened and walked to a rocky outcrop in the curve of the beach that could just conceal them.
He had kept Elizabeth’s honor back at home. She had reminded him of it when he wanted to forget. He left her safe. His mind raced with all the things they could not quite do yet. But on this island, he could do them all. He couldn’t. He was all drone, all building noise, all plane, all artillery. He felt like a kamikaze but his mission was just a flutter of broken words. Paper rain. She was probably writing more baby names.
“Darron,” said this woman, Jing-Wen. The “r” sound was wholly there, but overly round. It was awful and beautiful that she knew his name.
“Jing-Wen,” he said. It was awful that he knew hers. He could see Elizabeth, cringing in the corner of the car. “I want you to know that I will pay you—but I’m not like that.”
“You won’t pay?” She turned to him, blunt. She misunderstood.
He had angered her. Darron searched for words to make it better. Quick and simple words… what was the word that Mallory had taught him? “Ai?” he tried aloud. Love? The word hung there without a sentence to make sense of it. It sounded like a gasp. No, that wasn’t what he wanted to say at all.
She didn’t understand him, so he took out his wallet and ended that uncertainty.
“Now I must go,” she said. “To my father.”
“Is he far away?”
“No,” she said. “Close. He makes knives.”
That was her father? He’d barely looked at her. Darron wondered how much shame he carried.
“And then what?”
Darron stroked her dark hair that burned brown in the light of the late afternoon sun. Her cheek was soft, but her eyes were clear as always.
“I want to make knives,” she said. He didn’t understand.
She had a soft face, not a stone face, he reflected. Stone nerves, he thought. Bird frame. “Feichang piaoliang,” he tried, but swallowed the words before they left him. She didn’t hear him, stared blankly above him, eyes slit against the gold of the sun.
“Do you smoke?” he asked instead, and she nodded.
Before, he’d survived with the idea of him doing the right thing, and now it was gone.
“At first sight,” he remembered, and was afraid. He saw in the set of Jing-Wen’s eyes what words wouldn’t say. He left her his cigarettes. He wanted to fly away, but that wasn’t an option. Tomorrow he would write another letter, like always. He slept with his hands under his pillow to keep them from trembling.