Hiu Ching Cheung
Ching is from Hong Kong and is studying writing at SCAD. She is also a painter and a fiction writer. She wants to use her artwork and writing to share her culture and explore American society.
The sun was bathing the ocean when the storm tossed us from the ship. The ship had come from Shanghai, headed I knew not where, but everyone on it had wanted new chances in the western places—including me and the man who bought me, Benny. Even though I had never known my destination, I didn’t regret selling myself to another country. At least I’d had enough underground cash to bury my mother in a coffin in the mud. But the destination didn’t matter now. Everyone was sinking to the deep, including me and Benny.
One week ago, my mother had died of syphilis. She asked me to burn her body when she died. She wanted to be burned because she thought she had serviced too many men in Shanghai. She thought she wasn’t clean enough when she was alive, and the fire would wash away all her immorality. I didn’t follow her wishes and buried her whole. She wouldn’t agree with me, but I wanted to spare her the pain. Her whole life she had been living in fire.
I was sinking. Soon, my last breath would bubble to the surface of a foreign ocean. I didn’t blame Benny, who was a middle-aged white man with a round beard. Even though he had slept with me two or three times, he didn’t hold my hand as we sank. Underwater, my vision blurred; I couldn’t see Benny, but I saw the gold embedded in his belt. Benny kept his gold with him, even when he was naked. In the dark water, the gold reflected fragmented yellow light. The gold was cold, but the yellow was warm. The ocean was black, but the yellow was bright enough to illuminate the scar on my left arm.
The scar was a mark from Benny, but I couldn’t read the word. I learned some words from a couple of white men, but Benny’s words didn’t sound like their language.
It was peaceful and silent under the water. I reached for the yellow, but I couldn’t sense Benny’s presence anymore. Without the yellow, there was no light in my world. I thought the ocean would keep the yellow for me because its kindness was bigger than Benny’s greed. But the ocean was silent, like my mother. The air in my lungs was thin enough to be exhaled, but I held my last breath while the ship lost furniture to the bottom of the foreign ocean. Everything was reaching toward the dark, following the yellow. Debris dragged me down to the deep. I had never learned how to swim because it couldn’t be used on men. I tried to move my hands and legs, but they weren’t working.
Saltwater filled my mouth, my throat, my lungs. People usually burned dead bodies and threw them into the ocean, which was what my mother had wanted. I missed her, even though she had been gone for only a week. I knew I was too far away to visit her gravestone, but she wouldn’t blame me. Closing my eyes, I pretended I was lying in the coffin with my mother. The ocean remained silent, but I knew it didn’t like Benny, who always told me things that I couldn’t understand.
My mother had found her peace. Soon, I would find my peace as well. Behind my closed eyelids, I could see my mother’s face. She wanted to see me as well, but she didn’t expect it would be so soon. She would understand.
I continued to sink until I reached the end of the dark.
“Ben je oké?”
The yellow sank faster than me, but it was the brightest thing in the ocean. My eyes were closed, but I wasn’t dead.
I had reached the yellow. Somehow, it was too bright. The wind was faint, and the warmth of the yellow was flashing on my cheeks. My heartbeat was clear, and my body didn’t feel the cold or the dark. Maybe this was peace. I grabbed at the yellow again, even though it would never be mine. My hand was stiff, and the yellow was dry and solid—but it was just the ground. The yellow light intensified, shining past my eyelids. When I opened my eyes, the yellow was different. It wasn’t Benny or his gold.
It was the sun.
It was merciful, hanging gently in the sky. I didn’t know where I was, but I wasn’t in Shanghai. A pair of green eyes knelt next to me.
“Ben je oké?” the green eyes asked me again. They belonged to a man, but he wasn’t Benny or the Western men in my mother’s room. Under the sunlight, his eyes shone like a pair of green diamonds. The man had the same white skin as Benny, but he looked kinder, though he was frowning. The sunlight smashed its yellow on his red hair until it turned orange, like his beard. I didn’t recognize his face; maybe he had never been to Shanghai. His left ear was covered with white bandages which extended to his chin. The wound was new—fresh blood stained the white fabric.
“Ben je oké,” the man said again, but he was patient.
I didn’t mean to ignore him, but I wasn’t familiar with his language. He had the same accent as Benny but heavier. I guessed they came from the same place, but they didn’t know each other. I pulled my sleeve down and covered Liefde, the scar on my left arm. The sunlight became unbearable, the ground started to burn my back. I tried to get up, but my body was too heavy. My clothes were wet and my lungs were filled with water. I coughed, and the man patted my shoulder until I retched all the water out. Then he gave me his hand, which Benny had refused to give me in the water.
I stood up. Instead of the ocean, I saw a field of sunflowers, surrounding me with their vivid yellow. I had seen sunflowers in Shanghai before. The only clean man to visit my mother, he brought her sunflowers. But mother didn’t marry the sailor, and he never came back.
It took me a while to stand firm in this sunflower field. The green-eyed man wasn’t able to support me with two hands. He was carrying a toolbox, which had a name on it: Vincent Van Gogh.
I knew Western names were different; their family name came last. I learned that from an English jade trader who often came to my mother’s room. The green-eyed man was called Vincent, and Van Gogh must be his surname. I had seen Benny’s surname, too, which was not Van Gogh. My mother knew a lot of things about men; if she were here, she could tell which type of man Vincent was.
“Thank you. May I…asked…your name, ” I said, using what little English I knew.
Vincent stared at me for a few seconds, but he didn’t respond. He walked to the sunflower field and picked a few flowers. I had never seen so many sunflowers before because my mother never brought me to the wild place. She said the tiger was there, and it would eat a young woman like me. The sun was low in the sky, and the yellow light enlarged Vincent’s shadow, making it look bigger and stronger than Benny. I walked closer to Vincent so that his shadow covered my body.
I followed Vincent without his permission, but he didn’t stop me. The field beyond was empty, and the sky blanketed us with white clouds. The sky was big, but Benny wasn’t up there. We didn’t have a big sky in Shanghai—I only saw a small piece of sky through my mother’s window. If my mother were here, she would probably see freedom in the sky.
The fields beyond the sunflowers were unplanted, and a few cows nosed at the ground. I could tell Vincent didn’t own the cattle because they weren’t interested in him. They weren’t interested, either, in the two blue-eyed women approaching Vincent.
It may have been that my color was different from theirs, or that my wet dress made me look like a poor survivor, but the two blue-eyed women looked at me aggressively. I was used to this, as Shanghai women didn’t like me, either. Vincent’s left ear was still bleeding, and we passed the two women without a word.
The road widened as we left the field before the yellow vanished with the sunset. It hurt to breathe. I tried to follow, but my lungs ached. I knelt down on the ground. The pain was brutal. I thought I had left the ocean, but my spirit was still sinking into the deep. One day, I would meet Benny again, either in the ocean or in the ground. I couldn’t escape because he bought me from the market. You could get what you wanted if you paid for it.
The sun and the yellow disappeared. I felt the last breath of my mother in my throat. I hadn’t given Vincent anything, so I didn’t expect anything from him in return. I lay down on the ground, closing my eyes.
My body left the ground.
“Hang on,” Vincent said, as he carried me in his arms.
The pain in my lungs eased, but the ocean roared again. Benny left without a proper goodbye and took the gold and the yellow with him. The ocean was dragging me down, but my body could fight. I saw the yellow above the water and the bright stars hanging in the sky. I tried to swim, but I was sinking. I tried to grab one of the stars, but it was too far. I tried again and again until I grasped something warm.
Vincent stood next to the bed. I was grabbing his hand. My pain and the odd dream had gone. The house was small; Vincent must have been living by himself. He didn’t have much in the house—only a small table and two yellow chairs. The sunlight streamed in through the window, and his toolbox and the sunflowers were on the floor. There was a sunflower painting on an easel, but it was rough and damaged; a long scar carved through the canvas.
I looked at my left arm. The word Liefde was covered by a bandage. I had forgotten the scar was new, that it took time to recover, just like Vincent’s left ear. He’d used a bandage to cover my wound, and he’d given himself a new bandage as well. His bandage was white, and there was no fresh blood staining it.
“You are called Liefde?” Vincent asked. Maybe he didn’t know Benny or the meaning of my scar, but I didn’t know my name in English.
“You can speak English, yes?” Vincent asked when I didn’t respond.
“Yes…” I didn’t want to say no, even though the only English I’d learned was from my mother’s customers. I wanted Vincent to talk to me, so he could tell me more about the ocean and himself.
“The bread is hot,” Vincent said, placing a steaming loaf of bread on his small table. He didn’t ask for my name again.
Vincent smiled, then he went to meet an old woman who was sitting outside the door. He gave her some money, and she took my dress away. “She was the one who changed you and she will wash your dress for you.” Vincent looked out the window. The new dress was a bit small, but it didn’t bother me.
“Thank you,” I said.
Vincent turned from the window, grabbing his toolbox, canvas, and easel. “I am going out.”
“Why?” I asked, realizing too late that I had asked a question without his permission. But he didn’t seem to mind.
“The yellow is pretty.”
Vincent looked at the sunlight, and then he left without a proper goodbye. There was no reason for me to chase him, and the bread was still hot. After eating it, my lungs felt better. The yellow was bright, but it was different from the gold in the ocean. I tried to approach the window, but the wooden floor was cold. I couldn’t find my shoes in Vincent’s house. They could be lost in the ocean. Walking barefoot made me feel stable—the floor was solid. I wasn’t sinking.
I closed the door without a key and walked up the road. The ground was warm, and the yellow was flickering on my face. I looked up to the sun; the yellow was brighter than the one at the bottom of the ocean. Vincent was right, the yellow was beautiful.
The narrow road was long but empty. I passed a few damaged paintings in the grass. They looked similar to the sunflower painting. I picked them up, and they were all carved into, like the painting in Vincent’s house: a green mountain, blue skies, an orange sun, a purple flower, and something unrecognizable. I had never seen paintings like these. In Shanghai, Western artists only painted real things. Vincent’s paintings were rough, but his yellow was different.
I took the paintings with me and kept walking. My breathing was heavy, but the paintings were light. The road led to a small town, and I found a crowd of people packed into a bar. Everyone was laughing and singing along to music, dancing amidst the smell of beer. Farther into town, I came across an art gallery. I peered inside the windows, but Vincent’s paintings weren’t in the shop.
“Wat ben je aan het doen?” A middle-aged man came out. His skin was white and so was his beard. I held out Vincent’s damaged paintings. The man glanced at the paintings, but I could tell he was mocking me with his loud voice.
Some people came out of the bar, all of them gawking at me and Vincent’s ruined paintings. The two blue-eyed women were among them, and it seemed like they were gossiping about me and Vincent. Soon, I was surrounded by people. They were all white, but they were not the same as Vincent.
The gallery owner pointed down a road. I held the paintings tighter and followed the direction of his finger. My lungs were suddenly painful again, and I couldn’t walk very fast. The sunlight was gentle, and its yellow was comforting. I continued on until I saw the cattle again. Vincent was there, painting two of them; on his canvas, the cows looked rough and surreal.
“Vincent!” I called his name and the two cows ran away.
He put down his brushes and looked at me, angry. The sunlight was stronger now, and the yellow light smashed into my face. I tried to apologize and pat his shoulder.
“Don’t touch me,” Vincent said. Turning his head, he began packing up his things. Then he left, but he didn’t ask me to come after him. The yellow enlarged his shadow again, and I walked in it so that I wouldn’t lose him. He was irritated with me, but he didn’t walk too fast.
Vincent stopped at the top of a small hill and lay down on the grass. I stood next to him, but he didn’t look at me, so I put the paintings down and sat beside him. He continued to gaze at the sky like the sun didn’t hurt him or his wounded left ear. The white gauze was still clean, and I couldn’t see any new blood seeping through. He was recovering.
Vincent laid on the ground for so long that the yellow changed, yet again.
The light was dim down in the village below, but the stars were big spots of light in the darkening sky. The wind turned cold, so Vincent took his brown jacket off and handed it to me. It was big on me, but it kept me warm.
Vincent’s green eyes reflected the yellow of the stars. They completed the yellow. In the starlight, I could almost see the wind swirling through the trees down to the village below. Vincent pulled off the white gauze fabric around his head and showed me his wound. Up above us, the moon had lost a small piece of its circle, just like Vincent had lost a small piece of his left ear.
“The yellow is pretty, right?” He looked at me, offering a smile.
When I looked back at him, I wasn’t in the ocean. Something changed in my heart, but it wasn’t yellow. I turned my face to the sky. The wind was ceaseless, circulating the pain in my lungs. I didn’t tell Vincent.
Since that night, I lived with the woman who washed my dress. Every morning, Vincent gave me freshly baked bread and carried me to see the things he painted. He was gentle, but he never held my hand. I thought he would hold my hand at least once, but he didn’t.
Every night we would sit on the small hill, and I would look at the stars and the swirls with Vincent. After a few months, my lungs grew worse. One night, his brother Theo came to him and they talked about business in France. I understood some of their conversation, and I knew Vincent was going back to France. He wanted me to come with him because in France there was a bigger hospital. Theo rejected his request; he said I was from the ocean, and people wouldn’t recognize me.
“I will be back after a few months,” Vincent told me.
I helped Vincent to pack his luggage while the stars glowed outside. I found more damaged paintings under his bed, including a new one of a pretty woman. I touched the painting; it wasn’t rough but smooth. Vincent took it from my hands immediately, and he held the painting to his chest. My lungs ached, but I didn’t feel the pain.
I left his house. The stars were no longer yellow. The sky had changed. It was dark; the yellow wasn’t yellow anymore. I kept running. The stars were still hanging in the sky, but they grew small. I tried to lift up my hand to touch them. I went to the sunflower field, but by then, the yellow had disappeared.
Vincent had followed me. I collapsed; it was too hard to breathe. He tried to carry me, but the yellow didn’t belong to me anymore. I lay on the ground like I was lying in the coffin with my mother. Vincent knew I couldn’t see the yellow. He didn’t leave me. He put his good ear on my chest so that he could hear my last breath. He was shaking and crying, and as he held me tightly, he tried to help me see the whole starry night again.
There was so much to see. He told me about the blue, the green, the red, the black, the white, the purple, the orange, and the yellow. I tried to see the yellow again, but it was too hard. I covered his left ear with my left hand so that his missing piece would come back to him.
“Don’t go away,” Vincent begged, as tears from his bright green eyes trailed down his face.
“The yellow is pretty,” I said. It had returned to take me away.
The green diamonds reflected the yellow of the sky. I embraced Vincent with my last strength, and the yellow brought me back to the ocean. My body was cold and my breath had stopped. Vincent gave my forehead one last kiss. I couldn’t feel his pain, but I could see the yellow again. Vincent carried me in his arms to the sea. I couldn’t hear his heartbeats, but I knew he was telling me about the starry night.
Vincent’s tears dropped on my cheek as he wrote a sentence on his sunflower painting.
Beste Mijn Liefde
He tucked the sunflower painting under my hands and released me to the ocean. He was shouting, and I was sinking. I couldn’t see Vincent, but I saw the yellow again. Maybe I would see Benny again, but he didn’t own the gold or the yellow anymore. The ocean was dark, but I knew the yellow was here—it would guide me to find my mother. Vincent had never left me; his yellow illuminated the ocean.