Jiaqi Kang

Jiaqi Kang is the founding editor-in-chief of the Sine Theta Magazine, an international, print-based publication made by and for the Sino diaspora. Their work can be found in Hobart, Jellyfish Review, and X-R-A-Y. Website: jiaqikang.carrd.co.

Monologue of a pirate ship that doesn’t have a figurehead, or maybe it did, long ago, but it’s hard to tell now because its bow is encrusted with these ossified clam shells and barnacles, which, during a storm, scuttle about and open up and scream, as though they had mouths. by Jiaqi Kang

I only ever wanted to know how it felt to have the wind beneath your feet, eager to hoist you up to where you needed to be, hands outstretched, palms faced upwards and fingers laced together, inviting. As a sapling I watched children do that, paid special attention to the one at the bottom who was always getting a faceful of leg, ass, and hand as his friends used him to clamber over the wall. I was friends with the wall. My roots were entwined with the bricks at its foundation. We’d come up around the same time, the wall erected where before there was only common. When the time came for me to leave, it was difficult for them to cut me down. Like the wall was holding on to me, trying to keep me there. They had to smash some of the stone to tear me out, and dig their heels into the mud and pull and pull. 

Afterwards, they stripped my bark and made me smooth. Made me bend and curve the way they wanted. The wall stayed put and did its job, which was to enclose, and forgot me. Part of me became the holster for a sail, and when the wind blew across the water and filled my puffed-out cheeks I learned that nothing is as good as you think it’ll be when you’re lying on your back on a common that no longer exists while your mother rubs your belly in comforting circles. I learned that you can miss stomachaches, and the sky when it’s placid, and children who snap your branches and tuck their garbage into the crooks of your trunk. I learned that you can be seasick. 

The sea was so wide, the first time. The sky was empty. I crossed them and crossed them and didn’t leave so much as a mark. The water held no imprint. It took me years to realise that the waves lapping against me wanted nothing from me, and had nothing to say to me either.

My captain sings to me when he thinks only I can hear. My captain shares his rum with me and sometimes falls out of his bed so I can feel his skin. My captain saw my run-down husk and replaced each and every one of my planks, some himself, some by others under his orders. When I first met my captain he was only a child. He reminded me of myself at that age: supple, wicked, with conniving thoughts. I watched him shed his skirts and cut his hair. I watched him kill his masters with a cleaver he pocketed from the kitchens. I was there when he lost his leg and I gave him a part of me to use as peg, and it was like how he used to run a finger across the coarse grain of my body to see if I’d splinter him; that hiss of pain and prick of blood always such a thrill, as though in that moment he understood me. The splinters always pushed themselves out some days later but when he received the peg, it was mine for him to keep. His.

My name is Shen. It means deep. It means God. It means aunt. It means that I live in the gap beneath your bed and only come out to call you down to mealtimes. No, it doesn’t. My kidnappers only thought it would be an easy name to use for when they needed me to wade into the water on their behalf. Sometimes, I drop my anchor into the sands in the dark and wonder if I’ll fall in love with whatever I find next. There was a particular ripple that passed through me once and made me wonder whether that’s what it feels like, when it happens—as though something has moved through you, has made use of you in that moment as some kind of transit or vessel, and now all you want to do is to follow it wherever it goes so that it may use you again. I think it was made of sound, the ripple, though I don’t know what it sounds like. 

Here’s what I do know: I know that aunts are meant to look like dads, all square faces and round eyes, lips clicking around pistachio shells. I know the sound of my captain’s footsteps, the drag of him across the floor. I know that the color purple exists, though I have never seen it. I know that the common is gone. I know that my captain’s parrot did not die of an accident, that the first mate poisoned it, that he will use the same poison to kill my captain. I know that I will not let them throw my captain’s body into the ocean after they kill him. I will not even let them touch his body, which only I have felt, his breasts tucked between his chest and the straw mattress when he sleeps, his scarred and mottled arms, the snail that lives in his hair, he sound of his snoring. I would sooner sink myself and every soul that has carved a space for itself inside my brig than let my captain’s crew dispose of him like some aging widow too old to sweep an alehouse floor. 

They think because I am an aged, creaking thing, because I am ugly and damp, that I cannot fight back. What they don’t know is that my captain loves me for what he sees of me. I’d always hoped I’d die by fire, but if I am to drown, for my captain, I’d be glad, I’d be honored, I wouldn’t cry. Let the breeze take the pieces of me to some faraway shore, with enough wood to start anew.

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is beige and washed with soft, settled dust. It nests between sand dunes, two-tone hills that whistle and whisper at dusk, the breeze bringing mysterious dreams to those who sleep under its soupy night sky. My guests, pilgrims whose cotton shifts are streaked with the brown patterns of their journeys, spend the last of their silver on a bed and a meal in my inn. They are tired, worn, and bone-thin, but there is that momentary sense of relief in their eyes when they clap an ugly coin into my palm. I lead them to their cots and my husband ladles precious wine into their bowls; twice a year, he makes hard candies out of the sugar grains that have stuck to the bottoms of jars, and I hand them to the pilgrims’ children. “Ah—” I tease, holding the candy just out of reach. “Say, ‘Thank you, Mister Innkeeper!’” The parents smile as the toddlers’ fingers work to unwrap the treats. Inside the wrapping paper, my husband makes an inscription: a character from a sutra, painstakingly calligraphic and minuscule—just big enough to cast a spell. I don’t believe in these words anymore, but he does, and I adore him for his insistence on sewing whole sheets of sutras into our winter clothes so that they sometimes swish and crinkle when I do the morning chores. 

Not that we need winter clothes here in the desert, but even after twelve winters—a full zodiac cycle—we haven’t shaken that habit of renewing ourselves for the start of each year. In the weeks before the spring festival, we sew them for each other, then exchange them over a rare feast of pork buns. It would shock our younger selves, the effort we put into every stitch and our miserly use of the cloth, but now that we’re poor, we pay more attention. In recent years, I have become worried that our annual gift-giving lacks fairness, that he has ruined his eyes copying our sutras by candlelight. I have offered to write my own, but he says it wouldn’t work—heathen that I am. It has taken me some time, but this summer, I have prepared an extra gift for him: his own sword. 

When we’d left the world, he pretended not to mind leaving it behind—, he threw it nonchalantly into the Yangtze and didn’t look back. In that moment, I’d thought of that idiom, ke-zhou-qiu-jian, about the fool from the Warring States era who, instead of diving to retrieve his drowning sword, carved a mark onto the edge of the boat and said, This is where the sword fell. When we reach shore, I shall dive from here. They don’t say what happened to him afterwards. For what was a wuxia without his weapon? A martial artist without his art; a fool; a wastrel; an innkeeper, a cook—someone without a name hiding somewhere far off doing ordinary things that would never be told of over campfires across the jianghu. I’d thought of selling the sword, but my husband hadn’t wanted to draw attention with such a famous weapon. 

He’d been right, as always: when, some years ago, I began to discreetly ask about the sword, it was too easy to track it down to some middle-class collector in the capital city with the audacity to admit visitors in exchange for an entry fee. The hard part was stealing it. I debated whether to reveal myself to one of our old friends, an imperial general, perhaps, who might remember what I did for him in the war, or instead to venture out on my own with some plausible cover story. In the end, it was one of the rare merchants at the inn who helped me secure the services of a rogue wuxia who could travel to the capital and back, no questions asked. All it took was a tumble in the hay with the merchant, under the watery eyes of our one wizened donkey. And money, of course; money all the time, the entirety of my secret savings as well as one of the two gold bars we hid under the kitchen floorboards, which my husband does not often check and which I will blame on a thieving pilgrim when he does find out. 

Would a thief only steal half our gold? I must continue to work on the story, but it is hard to focus when all I can think of is the smile that will bloom on my husband’s face when I present him with the sword next week, the kind of pure and joyous smile that even he is unable to suppress, maybe even a smile with teeth! Or else I worry about the naked blade’s condition after having traveled such a distance—I could not afford the scabbard, which remains at the collector’s. I think we could go retrieve it together. We’ll shut the inn for a month or two, go on vacation for the first time; a kind of honeymoon. We could detour through Jiangnan, spy on those we left behind: our shifu, our sworn brothers and sisters who by now will have taken on disciples of their own, the teahouses where we eavesdropped on local gossip, and my husband’s grandfather, though perhaps he has died. Would it be too painful? I suppose that question is too far into the future, considering that we cannot afford to shut the inn. Business slows in the summer for reasons I still haven’t fully comprehended. Some days, there are so few guests that I am able to leave our hired girl in charge and accompany my husband to the market. 

In town, we are careful not to walk too closely together. Everyone on the Silk Road has a secret, and people in Dunhuang don’t mind these things, but it also means that any tanned, forgettable face could be masking violence. The assumption, I think, is that we are brothers, and technically we are—brothers-in-arms, fellow disciples under one shifu. I don’t mind: it reminds me of our youth, when there was always this invisible hurricane that raged in the space between our bodies and into which we would throw everything we weren’t allowed to say or feel. Sometimes I miss those days, not because we were wealthy, but because of the back-and-forth of our dance, how precarious it all was, how miraculous, how heartbreaking. Everything was so new that I’d sometimes forget we were fighting a civil war; even in the midst of a battle, when across the melee in the corner of my eye I could watch him slash and parry, I’d felt so attuned to him, as though we were the only ones there, as though my hands weren’t full of someone else’s blood. I miss that, too, but I don’t tell my husband that I do: he’d made me promise, that day on the Yangtze, that we’d leave it all behind. I think he prefers Dunhuang, our inn, the lazy fog of sunlight, the spices and curiosities brought in from the West, the foreign languages that he practices with the street sellers. The callouses on his hands have faded; instead, he has little cuts here and there from the cleaver brought down too fast or too hard. 

Today, a week before the wuxia arrives in Dunhuang with the gift, the sunset sends rays of glimmering pink clouds across the sky, and my husband stops by a Persian carpet-seller to feel the soft weave on the tapestries. I am admiring the way that his face, bathed in golden light, seems to be chiseled from the sand dunes that surround and cradle us when I am hit with a nauseating premonition and stumble a little. I steady myself against the merchant’s camel, which wavers its head, as if aware of my distress. It has suddenly occurred to me that my husband may not want his sword back at all, that I have made a terrible mistake; I have overreached, overstepped, overwhelmingly overstated—it is over. I imagine him trying and failing to hide his profound disappointment, turning his back to me as he rolls up his sleeves to knead more dough, the rise and fall of his silent shoulders. My husband is gripping my arm now, saying something with his low voice that I can’t make out—all I hear is the rush of blood in my ears and the fuzziness in my mouth. I am frozen, like that night on the battlefield so many years ago, an agony I’d forgotten. He leads me away from the crowd, into a quieter alley, and I start to calm down a little, I think. He leans against the wall next to me as my breathing slows. After some time, I shuffle closer, lean my head against his shoulder, touch his hand. He lets me. 

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