(A Student of Confucianism left China, for Argentina, then on to Peru)
I stepped off the ship. Glaring lights from Montevideo (Uruguay), it lay at anchor in the Rio de la Plata. Then after a week, I found my way to Buenos Aires, Argentina, the city was busy, with a European carefree illumination. In the country, I had come from, the cities lights were oil lit, and only for a portion of the night, likened to in the Dark Ages. I had come from 19th Century Manchuria (China, 1898) found my way to Shanghai. The ship was a passenger vessel. When it was being loaded with fish, meat and vegetables, I found a boxed-in corner, there I hid among all the crates, and took in the drifting smells. It was a large ship. All the ships that left China in those days were large to me.
It was late at night and the hold was dark, and it seemed to me, the ship was deserted, then I heard someone pacing aimlessly about, and he lit a lantern. A moment later, I heard steps behind me. I kept silent. Then my mind started wandering here and there, especially if I was to be arrested and sent back to China—if so, I would be imprisoned.
I had come from living at a Confucius Temple one with high and thick walls, difficult to escape from, but I had climbed them nonetheless, and made my escape. I was a student of Confucianism, and not in too good a standing with the Master who did not live up to analects of Confucius—his teachings, which I believed to be back then the art of reasoning by use of the mind upon the opinions of his pupils, whom he never listened to. Logic was not the core, rather thinking clearly and to the point, clarity and honesty of thought, and expression were. Anyhow, these were my first lessons by the Master. The objective for the student was for his speech from beginning to end, the whole thing, to be understood, whereas too often philosophers miss this. You see when you know a thing, it is to hold onto it, that you know it and if not simply admit it: this is knowledge. Dimness of thought, and artificial inexactness of speech, this could not be accepted—it causes misfortune.
I had escaped the torments and torrents of the Mad Master of the temple. My mother had told me more than once, ‘Son, dragons kept watch over you at birth, and they still do.’ Thus, to this day I must say, those dragons are still keeping watch.
Now the man was just above me, looking down. He was a little thinner than I was and about my height.
“Are you Chinese?” he asked in Manchurian.
I shook my head yes, and kept my silence.
I did not answer. I looked up at him; I knew he was no police officer, just a deckhand of some sort, who spoke Chinese very well.
“I’m not a night watchman,” the man said.
I believed him. He was wearing plain deckhand cloths, nothing fancy. I had papers but he did not ask for them. I saw him with indifference to his face. He looked as pathetic as I did, if not homeless, surely friendless.
“Do you want to go to South America?” the man asked.
I did not reply. He already knew I did.
He jumped down off the crate and kicked over one to sit on.
“Here,” said the man, reaching into his pocket “one ticket for the boat ride.”
I saw the ticket. I could read the writing only slightly in the shabby light of the lantern some twenty-feet away. I felt safer now.
“What is all this?” I questioned him in disbelief.
“You can have it,” said the man. “I got a job on the ship, I don’t need it anymore.”
I stared at the man, I understood English and French and a little German, he spoke in both Chinese and English at the same time; I figured that if he had wanted me arrested, he need not have gone through all this trouble with such a game.
“I haven’t any money left,” I told him, although it was not true, I had yen, perhaps fifty-dollars worth.
“I didn’t say I wanted to sell it,” replied the man.
I looked back at the ticket it was real, genuine.
He handed it to me without a word, just a smile.
“I don’t understand,” I commented.
“Well, there is one condition,” he said.
“Sure” I thought, here it comes.
“It’s a long voyage, and I don’t have any friends, I want you to be my friend, no other strings attached. You have to stop and greet me, say hello to me on deck.”
“You just want me for conversations?”
“Yes, until we arrive in Montevideo.”
“Yes, that is all!”
“You sure there is nothing else?”
I looked at him disbelievingly. On the other hand, I knew folks like him and I, if we had too much solitude we would go crazy on such a long voyage. At the temple no one talked to me, the head monk was a thief, and he knew I knew it. Therefore, I knew this dread of silence, this void one can place upon another. Moreover, here we were, two strangers, one wanting to help the other, and his reward would be to become friends. I gave him a positive gesture and took the ticket, and found the room 212.
Arturo Garcia looked at me. “I know the feeling, so you changed your name to Manuel Peñaloza, after the family you’ve lived with these past several years?”
I now got the jitters, and felt a tightening in my stomach.
“I want to know everything, why did the family you lived with tell you to leave?”
It appears to be a reproach, as if I had done wrong again, but I had not. However, I did not have a passport, and the detective knew it.
“It didn’t help,” I told the Buenos Aires, detective, “when the children of the family got married; they blamed me for everything that went wrong in that big house. For a few years, they were obsessed with the thought that their parents might leave me a great sum of money, because they had often confided in me.”
“It didn’t help in the long run I see. You knew their affairs too well.”
“Yes,” I said, adding, after I felt his human warmth again, and a lowered voice, I had gotten rid of that ugly feeling.
“I had to leave but I had no place to go. In addition, I did not want to go back to China, god forbid. And I knew the family was a powerful family in Argentina, so I left and just slept in the park these past few days.”
The detective looked at my papers, and then he handed them back to me.
“What did the children do, or say to make you leave?” he asked.
“‘ You got to stop sneaking about the house, checking out my father’s papers looking for his will,’ said the older brother at the dinner table to me once when I was working in the kitchen helping the cook, and serving them food.
“The sister smiled. ‘Oh yes, father, he must stop that romping about at night.’
“‘And exactly what were you looking for Manuel?’ said the father.
“‘No. I wasn’t looking for anything; I was in my room all those nights, every night.’
“Then the father stood up and left the table, as if I was defying him, not his children. Then it occurred to me, they were setting me up.”
“I was alone again. They avoided me as if I had been a thief. Moreover, I could not explain it to anyone, no one in the family would listen to me. Do you know what I mean?”
He nodded. “The world never looks worse than when you’re being set up, thinking you had friends.”
His eyes were devouring me; pupils dilated, with long, very long stares, rigid, as if he should or should not believe me. My insides were frantic. The officers at a nearby table stood up, looked across several desks, “Arturo, we’re going to lunch!” He nodded his head, as if to say okay.
“If I could only stay here,” I said, “I don’t feel a bit like going back to China.”
The police held me over for the following day, and night. However, it was a hard night for me. I was afraid they would send me back to China. In the following afternoon, I was calmed down, and the same detective called me over to his desk.
“I’ve decided to let you go, are you familiar with the way to Peru?” he asked.
Actually, I felt the boarders were not all that guarded, nobody really wanted to get into Peru, so I figured. On the other hand, Buenos Aires had been my home for several years, but sleeping on benches, were no good, and the family that had employed me would only cause more trouble for me in the future. As I sat there, I was already planning my attempt to cross the boarders. I would have liked best to wait, but I assured Arturo I would leave that night, for fear that too long a stay in the city would attract attention.
I shall never forget that night; my body was alert, in every way. My sense were sharp, I was prepared for anything, without fear, and when I started my journey to cross the boarders into Bolivia and then into Lima, Peru, I felt as if I was crossing Manchuria all over again, into Shanghai. However, this would be my home, and I would never return to China or Argentina.
It was hot the first few nights in Lima, and I slept naked in the parks. The nights were black and very cool that way. In addition, nearby I would plunge into the river, and it struck me as symbolic of my past, washing away everything—I had felt like driftwood for so long, but not anymore. I dried myself, and got on my way looking for a job picking fruit. For a long while, I met no one. I worked until twilight, and started back up again at dawn, watching men and women, children—families meeting each other on the way back home after a twelve hour work day. Everything to me that was the real meaning of revulsion was behind me now. I would tell my story to my son Fidel,
…he in turn, would—in his old age, tell it to his son Augusto, and he to his daughter Rosa and her husband (son-in-law) a gringo from Minnesota, in the United States of America, and someday it would be retold, written down for posterity, hence, becoming history (as it is now).
No. 832 (10-24-2011); Historical Fiction, inspired in fact
Original name “Driftwood’ changed to “Dragons Kept Watch”
Dedicated to Augusto Peñaloza’s grandfather