The story “Blue Tears” is excerpted from Go Home! (forthcoming March 13, 2018), an anthology edited by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan and published by the Feminist Press in collaboration with the Asian American Writers’ Workshop.
If the Communists swim ashore, they’ll slit our throats in our sleep and cut off our ears. That’s what some of the other men say. The Communist generals wear belts of ears around their waists, the cartilage and skin turned black, curling into themselves like dried fungus.
Nobody sleeps on the beach, not even the areas where there are no mines. Nobody except me. I volunteer for all the night sentinel posts, stationed in that little tower overlooking the sea. After my shift is over, instead of heading back to my bunk, I sleep out on the sand. I tell people it’s because I like looking at the fading stars. My commander, Colonel Li, never stops me.
You’re a lunatic, he says. But a brave one. I like that.
Kimmui, Jinmen, Golden Gate, island of shit. I’ve been stationed here three months and have yet to find the gold the name speaks of. When I slept in the bunks, I never slept well. The humid air hung around me beneath the useless mosquito nets; the fucking vampires still needled around my ears. The hollow whooping call of some native bird kept me from ever completely resting. Now when I sleep outside, those same birds shit on me. The sun darkens the skin around the shit so that I walk around permanently with pale shit-stain-shaped blotches on my arms. It’s better with the sea breeze, though. At least the air moves out here.
Out on this island, there’s jungle and dust and sea and barracks and an omnipresent blanket of heat, and near nothing else. An unfriendly island meant to keep out unfriendly people, one of the lieutenants always jokes. I know when he says “people,” he means the Communists, who fire on us sporadically, but by the way some of the local Jinmenese won’t meet my eyes when I walk through town, I can’t help but think they might believe it means us.
The sea is wide and gray and smells of brine, just like it did back home. I can’t tell how deep the water goes, but on the clearest of days, I can see the shoreline of Amoy, the city of my birth. It’s the closest I’ve been to home since I left over four years ago. If I squint, I think I can see people going about their day. I think I can see folks haggling at market, buying vegetables, stopping to gossip with neighbors. I wonder if there’s anyone I know. I wonder if I squint hard enough I’ll be able see the road that would take me back to our village, back to my home.
It’s two kilometers from where I stand to that swath of land. A man can swim that distance in an hour on a good day, if the current isn’t too strong and the water isn’t too cold, if the man is a strong swimmer and isn’t prone to panic.
Of course, we’re told that the only things on the other side of the gray strait that divides us are Communists. No markets, no tea shops, no small stands. There’s probably nothing left on that shore but artillery, tanks, men who want us dead.
I write a letter to you every night, wrap it around a stone, and throw it into the sea. One truth for every lie: Dear Mother, I am well, they are feeding us. Dear Mother, I’m a good shooter and I’ve learned to fight; I no longer cry easily when I’m bullied. Dear Mother, We’re winning the war and will be home any day now. Dear Mother, I know you would tell me not to scratch my mosquito bites, but I can’t help it—itch can drive a man insane. Dear Mother, You’d be proud of how brave I am, even when the artillery shells come. Dear Mother, I’m married now, don’t worry about me dying alone. Dear Mother, From my shore, I can see yours and sometimes I think you might be able to see me waving.
My arms are getting stronger. I can feel the ropiness of my tendons when I clench my fists, the hard ball of muscle when I press my arms to my side. The commanders are brutal: they make us toil in this heat, carrying heavy sacks of rice and equipment from one shore to another; they row us out to the middle of the sea, throw us in and tell us to swim back. If we fail, we squat. If we fail, we run. If we fail, we’re berated and reminded of how the Communists will slit cartilage from skull when they catch us. Remember our comrades who died two years ago, fighting for your right to go home, they bark. Think you could protect us the way they did? If the Battle of Guningtou happened today, you punks, we’d all be dead.
I don’t resist anymore. Four years and I’ve learned not to resist. Instead, I do extra push-ups and pull-ups after drills, run an extra two laps when I wake up from my morning sleep. Colonel Li tells me he’s impressed with my progress. He winks and tells me I deserve a promotion. You’ll be a KMT officer yet, he says.
They tell us it’s treasonous to miss home. Almost as bad as desertion, which is punishable by death. We are home, they remind us. Jinmen, Matsu, Taiwan. This is still China, and we are still home. It’s only a matter of time, they say, until we’re reunited with the Mainland. It’s only a matter of time until we take the Mainland back.
They said that last year, and the year before that, and the year before that, and the year before that.
Last week, Xiao Su, my favorite teahouse girl, shook me awake. You were calling for your mother, she said. You were yelling. Her face looked weary as she blotted out my tears with a handkerchief. I turned my head away. Don’t be embarrassed, she said. You’re not the first one to miss his mother in his sleep.
She lay down on her side, one fist propped under her cheek, as if she had done this hundreds of times before. Stroking my arm, she said, Tell me about her.
I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to invoke my memory of you. The way you smelled of fish and kumquats. The way your hair was going gray at your temples. The way you hid your teeth behind your hands when you smiled because you were shy about how crooked they were.
Another day, I said, pulling on my pants. My time here is nearly up.
At dusk, the anti-landing barricades sticking out of the beach look like the skin of a spiny lizard, something fantastical and to be feared. Imagining the whole island as merely the back of a mythical creature makes me think of the stories you used to tell me: of a world propped up on a turtle’s back to prevent collapse, of a little boy who flew through clouds on the spine of a golden dragon to save his mother from the moon, of two sisters who transformed into a giant moss-covered rock and its surrounding lake to protect themselves from men who chased them. In all these stories, the world—its magnificence, its beauty—is created from long-suffering, from the sacrifice borne from love.
Be selfless, be brave, be filial, you said whenever you finished telling me the stories. These were the morals to your tales. These were the qualities you most wanted me to embody.
I’m trying, Mother. We are fighting for a free world, they tell us. We are fighting for our countrymen still trapped behind the Communist borders. But every day we’re reminded that the Communists might sneak up on our shores and cut us down in our sleep. Every day we’re told today might be the day we die. The unexpected rounds of fire, the mines that go off by accident, the terrifying loom of a China that is both home and enemy, the mosquitoes, the shit, the wetness and sand loitering in every crack of my soul—what is any of it for? They tell us and tell us but to be honest, I’m long past believing in the world my suffering is meant to build.
When the sun sets purple and red upon the glittering dark seas, there’s always a moment when Amoy looks like it’s burning.
Everyone misses home of course, even if we don’t say it. I see the way Ah Lin fingers the small patch of fabric—not quite a handkerchief—that the others say he sleeps with under his pillow. I catch Min Min staring at a photograph that he always keeps in his breast pocket. Jiu Di grumbles often about how bland the food is, missing the chili peppers that dotted his food back home. Wei laughs as he tells us stories about the trouble he and his trickster brother used to get into, his body shaking until tears stream freely down his face.
As far as I can tell though, I’m the only one who can see his home from the coast. I’ve told no one but they probably already know. Maybe it’s my Hokkien accent, the fact that sometimes I slip and speak in my mother tongue with the locals instead of the Mandarin we’re all supposed to use. Or maybe it doesn’t even come to that; maybe the way my gaze always drifts toward the sea is enough to raise suspicions.
In my dreams, you say the same words you said to me right before I left.
Be careful. Be brave.
Your face is blurry at the edges.
I’ll burn a light for you, so you can always find your way home.
Three nights ago, I told Xiao Su about these dreams. Her face went pale. Don’t repeat that story to Jinmenese, she said. Here they burn little lanterns outside their homes to guide the spirits of their dead ancestors. They’ll find it inauspicious that your mother would do this for you while you’re still alive.
I didn’t tell her that was one of our superstitions too.
She looked worried, bit her red-painted lip. I hope she’s stopped doing that, she said.
I know you. You haven’t stopped lighting the candle. Maybe it’s because you haven’t given up on me yet. But once Xiao Su voiced her concern, I wondered if maybe it’s possible that you already believe I’m dead.
If you see anyone in the waters, you shoot, we’re reminded over and over by our commanders. Doesn’t matter if it’s ours or theirs. Doesn’t matter if they’re coming or going. If you see them in the waters, they’ve already become our enemy and they cannot live.
I patrol the wall with its loopy barbed wire. I stare through the little notched windows of the tower. I see nothing but black sea and more black sea. Somewhere out there is our village, but it might as well be space, it might as well be air. Something I know exists but have no proof of.
I hold my gun through the slot in the tower and practice my aim. I stare at the words painted on the wall: If you cannot see, do not shoot. If you cannot aim, do not shoot. If you cannot hit, do not shoot.
But we know what they mean: what you can see, you shoot to kill.
There are rumors circulating that if you can find a local Taiwanese girl to marry, you can get off this wretched island, get sent back to Taiwan. Those who still have friends stationed in Taiwan keep writing them, asking if maybe they know of someone whose family might be more open-minded about marrying a KMT soldier. A comrade’s girlfriend’s friend, perhaps. A friend’s sister. They long for families, for someone to write them a letter lightly scented with perfume, for someone to weep and burn money at their graves if the Communists kill us. They are thinking of legacy, of sons, of someone to carry on their family names. They’re lonely.
I’ve even heard some of the slightly older officers, the ones who left behind wives in their hometowns, ruminating on whether or not they should find a good woman here. Perhaps we’d feel more at home, they say. These same men who tell us we’ll be taking back the Mainland soon. They’ve finally begun to give up hope.
But I don’t want to put down roots here. I don’t care if it’s treasonous to think this: this isn’t my home. Decades could pass and I still will never forget where I come from.
Sometimes toward the end of my shift, when the early sun rakes through the clouds, I think if I stare at Amoy’s coastline hard enough, if I bulge my eyes out of its sockets, I could separate my spirit and find my way back home. I could watch you as you are in that very moment, going about your morning chores: feeding chickens, splashing water on the steps, stirring a pot of peanut soup for breakfast. I could wait as Little Sister—forever nine in my mind, forever apple-cheeked—emerges grumbling and rubbing sand out of her eyes.
I could even drift out the door, past our neighbors’ houses with their bowed roofs, and find that the same familiar routines of my childhood are still playing out:
Uncle Lim tying baskets of vegetables to a donkey cart; Auntie Zhay humming Peking opera as she dries oysters on her bamboo mat; Ah Kong, mouth smiling with betel nut, selling fresh meat buns from his stall; Old Tan crouching barefoot in the dirt with his small clay zodiac figurines, muttering: Where is the cat? Where is the cat?
If I follow the path far enough, if I continue toward the stream, would I still find Father, shirt off, back muscles rippling, enjoying his morning swim? Would his hair have gotten grayer, his body softer? If I picture his fuzzy features hard enough, will his narrow, sloped eyes—my eyes—twitch, will his large shell-shaped ears—my ears—ring? Will he know I am thinking of him?
I circle back to you, standing in the kitchen, cleaver in your palm. My thoughts of home always come back to you. Sometimes I think if I only imagine with enough sincerity, the slight breeze will seize your heart into stillness. Your hands will drop listlessly onto your cutting board, vegetables momentarily forgotten. You will know, then, that I am alive.
The visions dissipate but my spirit still lingers across the sea. If only you knew to turn your gaze toward this island. If only you knew I am standing right here.
At around three in the morning, the night is darkest. I know people think it’s at midnight, but I swear, the night is darkest at three. On the island, all the windows are covered, the lights are out, and everything that isn’t curtailed by curfew moves under the quiet of night. I can see nothing across the water; it’s as if Amoy has been swallowed up by the ocean.
On certain nights, if I’m lucky, wisps of the shore begin to glow blue, an unearthly electric color, like someone in the sea has a flashlight and is shining it upward. Sometimes they glow in the snaking shape of the coastline. Sometimes they pool in circles. Sometimes they ripple outward. Sometimes they simply speckle across the expanse of the sea. Once, they created a trail, like the wake of a boat had left a path of blue smoke behind. Blue tears, they’re called. The glow of some sea flora I don’t understand. I’ve never seen anything like them before, but they are mesmerizing. The nights that they appear are the only nights that I forget, for a moment, how miserable I really am.
Last night, some of the men confided that they thought we might never be going home. The Communists will never let us return, Jiu Di said. They’ll kill us all before we can go back. Min Min said, It’s been six years since I saw my fiancée. Do you think she’s forgotten me? Wei laughed, quietly but without malice. I think it’s time to settle down here. Find a nice new girl, not that brothel girl you always go to see, but someone you can picture raising your children. I don’t want to, I said, glancing at Ah Lin who nodded. I’m not ready. Jiu Di put his hand on my arm. Aren’t you sick of being homeless? he asked. Wei tossed back the rest of his beer. I’ve begun forgetting what my mother looks like, he said. She’s right. I’m a terrible son. He laughed but I saw the tears brightening his eyes.
On some nights I imagine what story you’d come up with about the blue tears. Maybe you would say they were supernatural, that a little boy could jump in them and be transported to another universe where he would be a wuxia hero. Maybe you would say they were the tears of an ocean god crying for the loss of his only daughter; touch them and you’d be turned into sea foam. Maybe you’d say they were a potion for eternal youth, and to drink them would mean one could live a thousand years without aging, without sadness. But I can’t find the morals in these stories, not like the morals you might have told me. I wish you could see this wonder with me, explain to me whose suffering created this beauty, what sacrifice was required for us to have this gift.
An unexpected round of artillery fire hits the island during the day. Just a warning from our friends on the other shore, our commanders joked grimly, since the shells mainly landed on the beach, but flying debris still hit several buildings, injured some of our men. Ah Lin’s arm caught some of the shrapnel while he was patrolling and had to be amputated. I saw him biting down on the ball of his fabric scrap to keep from screaming as they carried him to the medic.
If it had been nighttime, it would have been me. I would have been sleeping on that beach. I would have been hit. My brains would have been splattered across the sand, bits of my flesh thrown in the waves for fish food. Or maybe I would only have been injured, like Ah Lin, and I’d be missing a leg now, or an arm. Maybe my face would have been burned off, and I’d become unrecognizable, to you, to myself, to anyone. Without my face, without my legs, would you still know me when I came home?
This is the recurring nightmare I have, one I have even when I’m awake: I walk up our path, I knock on our door. I am ready to hold your arms, ready to collapse with relief at finally being home. But instead you stare. You stare and stare and then you murmur, You must have the wrong house. Or, You look nothing like my son. Or, You must be mistaken, my son has long since passed away. And you close the door in my face, leaving me standing alone.
Thinking twice about sleeping on the beach yet? Colonel Li asked me, once everything calmed down a bit. You’re going to die out there if you don’t stop acting so crazy.
Tonight again, the water glows blue. The other men have gone to bed early, sober despite the extra beers we all ingested. Everyone rattled by the day’s events. In the quiet of the night, I watch the blue tears undulate in the water. From up here in the tower, they look like a necklace cuffing our land.
Jiu Di, put on duty for extra security tonight, has fallen asleep. I know because I can hear his snores loud from his post. He doesn’t stir when I leave the tower, when I skirt along the wall and down the steps, doesn’t even notice me when I step out onto the beach.
I want to touch the sea, I want to see if I can cup the tears in my palms. But like any magic, it dies when it’s disturbed. The water is normal in my calloused hands. It tastes like regular salt water against my tongue.
Across the sea, with the little bit of light from the blue tears, I think I can see a pinprick of light where Amoy could be.
I let the water drip from between my fingers.
I don’t want to die here, Mother. Don’t let me die here.
It’s a lie, the thing I told Xiao Su. You never said you’d wait for me, never said you’d burn a light. That happens only in my dreams, even though it happens every night.
I don’t remember the last thing you said to me. I don’t even remember the way you looked the last time I saw you. Maybe you were wearing that indigo cotton shirt you liked best. Maybe you had an apron on. I wish I could remember, I keep trying to remember.
I was walking in the fields, on my way back from town. I had purchased a cup of rice, a bag of oil. I was supposed to go home immediately, but I’d dawdled, had enjoyed watching the hustle and bustle of the city, so different from what it was like in our quiet little village.
And then the KMT army marched past, a ragged group of men. I watched them, taking in their gaunt faces, their torn-up uniforms, the sour stench of sweat and grime wafting around them in a cloud. I thought to myself how sorry they looked, how I hoped the war would end soon. I started to turn away, away from my discomfort and pity, when a dull pop cracked the back of my skull, and I went sprawling to the ground. I opened my eyes and saw the muzzle of a rifle prodding me to get up. Then I was marching in line with them. Mumbling through the words of army songs I did not know. The oil and rice dropped somewhere behind me. I had no chance to turn back. No chance to tell you goodbye.
I was fourteen.
Maybe your last words to me were Be careful. Maybe, as you stashed the money into my hands and retreated back into the kitchen, you called out, Hurry home soon.
The sea isn’t as cold as I expected it to be. It’s relatively warm. My arms are slicing through the water at a steady pace, like a knife through the night. I can’t see Amoy but I know it’s there. I know you’re there. I know, too, the possibilities: that I might drown, that I might be caught by the Communists and become nothing more than a pair of ears, that I might be caught by my own men and shot before tomorrow morning.
But none of that matters. Behind me is that bastard island, Kimmui, Golden Gate. I’ve left my rifle, my helmet. I’ve left the other men, those who miss home as much as me. Behind me are the blue tears whose glow I can no longer see, though maybe I’ve already caught their magic, maybe their iridescent molecules are clinging to my hairs, buoying my skin. The sea welcomes me, it cleaves a path for me. I’m riding on the back of a water dragon, I’m coasting on the shell of a tortoise.
Two kilometers separates me from home. Beyond this sea is beach and land and road and a light that will guide me home. Beyond this sea sleep the donkey and the stream, Ah Kong and his buns, Old Tan and his lost cat. Beyond this sea are Father and Little Sister with their faces I don’t know if I know anymore. Beyond this sea is you, and you are waiting for me. Less than two kilometers. If I keep going. If I keep going.
Rumpus original art by Alison Stine.