Sixty miles off the coast of Northern California, an old man named Xu fell over the railing of a large cargo ship that carried marketable sundries from Taiwan to San Diego. A younger man named Wei had assisted Xu in this misadventure. Had the youth simply advised his elder that he could not afford to pay the small gambling debt incurred between them over a game of Sic Bo in the depths of the hold, the old man would have accepted an equitable and honorable trade. The young man, however—hot with the shame that a mildly arthritic codger could best him at both work and dice—felt that the ship was too small for the both of them and sought to create more space for his own grand self.
The old man did not scream as he fell. The silence inspired Wei to lean over and attempt to witness his former shipmate’s final journey. The young man could see only the midnight stars reflected in the black waters. He feared, then, that the old man had not fallen but taken flight and had been a devil sent to test him. Wei spent the rest of the journey looking up. The fear of being attacked from above hampered his work and his contract was cancelled when the ship docked in California. Both Xu and his murderer had been Buddhists and therefore the law of moral causation would restore even more precious balance—in a rather gruesome fashion, two years hence—but concern with the second participant in this death has ended.
The old man had anticipated that his mortal life would end on the voyage. He had assumed that a sudden stammering of his heart or the blow from an errant crane or, preferably, a nap would precede the event, but, once complete, the manner of his transition seemed appropriate. He had been quietly drowning for years in the dark waters that had filled the hole his beloved Xiao Hong, his beautiful Morning Rainbow, had left behind in her passing.
Until his business on the cargo ship began, Xu had steadfastly worked the garden Xiao had established and for many years had continued to bring the glorious descendents of her vegetables to market each week despite the entreaties of his five admirable and well-educated children to sell his land and move to any one of their homes and live in lazy comfort for the remainder of his years. After some time, the gentle suggestions of his children had become sharp-edged and demanding. Xu realized that his offspring were speaking amongst themselves in preparation to take matters of his welfare in to their own hands. Concerned that he was close to losing control of his future to the fierce and protective love of his children, Xu offered a fragrant Buddha’s Hand to Morning Rainbow’s shrine and asked her shadow for guidance.
One morning, soon thereafter, (a morning that, unbeknownst to him, his daughter Chloe had boarded a plane in Australia to meet with her brother Thomas in Kaohsiung, who would then accompany his sister on a mission to kidnap their father from his own self), yes, that same morning, while standing on a dock to buy a turtle for soup, he heard a woman’s laugh and smelled incense
The laughter was not that of his wife but the lilt was similar enough to heat the blood beneath his skin. Xiao was living in a different place now—her flame flickered on a new candle in another world—but the lingering sandalwood smoke of who she had been still drifted in the air and what was left of her, on rare occasions, spoke. When he smelled her breath and heard the delighted sound, Xu believed that his beloved had cleared her throat to speak and would use the sounds of the world around him to be heard. He listened for her voice.
Two women argued on the damp planks to his left as he selected his turtle from the tub.
“He’s probably just sleeping it off,” said one to the other. “He’ll be back before we push out.”
“He can stay asleep,” said the other. “I’m done with him.”
“Will we feed them canned peas for six weeks?”
“We can feed them each other, for all I care.”
Xu wanted to hear more so he took his time lifting the turtle and settling the doomed creature into his wooden cart. Going slow was not difficult; Xu had been compelled to select a very large turtle.
“The crew won’t like that,” said the one.
“Then get a new crew,” snapped the other.
“You’re being unreasonable.”
“Then get a new cook, if that’s easier. I don’t care if you have to knock one over the head and drag him feet-first up the ramp, just get one before dusk.”
When he turned, Xu saw the two women. Scribed on their sky-blue caps and windbreakers, a rainbow. The rainbow matched the one painted on the side of a massive cargo ship in the distance. Above the blue ship, the living spectrum of light formed an arc of color in the sky as though denoting a gate to Nirvana. Needing no further guidance, Xu bowed once to the women and then left the dock and went home.
While he prepared the turtle soup, he wrote a letter to his eldest daughter Chloe that advised her as to how to handle the division of his property and other belongings. Instead of mailing it, as he had intended to do, he set it on the kitchen table to await her arrival because he had the feeling that she would be there soon. By that evening, after demonstrating his abilities with a kettle of soup that had weakened the captain’s knees and brought tears to the eyes of her first mate, he was aboard the ship, as cook. He felt twenty years old again; only now his wisdom was more real than imagined and he was, unfortunately, better at dice.