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Pen Your Pride

2. Old Money

29 1 7


In the morning, Cheung Po Tsai is still asleep.
I crawl out from under his strong arm and the silk covers, leaving my robes tangled somewhere beneath the blankets. It's still early, and the sun hasn't yet risen. I light a single candle, crouching by the stick of wax and my mirror. I glance at myself: long black hair hangs over half of my face because of my posture, and I straighten into a sitting position, drawing my hair back away from my face. My hair is my pride. It's always been healthy, and I can grow it long. I keep it just past my shoulder blades.
I sit back on the floor and listen as the birds start to sing their morning chorus, though the sun still hasn't peaked over the mountains. I hear movement outside the room. Some girls are already up, getting ready for their day. I wonder if Ru is awake.

Ru met me when I was nineteen. I was by the beach near the Macau Wharf. It was a warm day in mid-summer, and the crowds visiting the sea were happy, cheerful. I had sat myself on an old driftwood log and was crying, quietly, so I would not disturb any passer-bys.
A woman approached me, a bit older than I, dressed in a beautiful qipao adorned with florals and leaves, her hair drawn up into a flattering and modern style. She was absolutely stunning, and I felt even more miserable and sorry for myself than ever before in that moment.
"Young girl," she asked me kindly, "what's wrong?"
I sniffed morosely and bowed my head. "Nothing of importance, miss," I managed to choke out. Words seemed difficult to manage at the time. The beautiful woman sat down beside me.
"For such a lovely girl to be crying," she responded, "surely it must be something daunting."
I kept my head down.
"You can tell me, dear," she assured.
I turned to face her, emotion swelling deep in my chest like a rising oceanic volcano.
"Why should you need to know?" I snapped, then quickly softened at the stranger. "I just want to be alone right now, miss. I'm sorry."
"I see the bruises on your arms and throat," she said, her eyes still calm.
I stopped in fear.
"They're nothing," I muttered, pulling my sleeves to my wrists. I watched the visitors of the beach wander happily across the sand and stones, over the wharf.
"Someone hurt you," she pressed. "A man."
My heart sunk. I wailed softly into my hands, and fresh tears burned my eyes and cheeks. My body felt strange, as though I was in a dream. Unfortunately, I knew that couldn't be. I felt as though I had to escape the situation. The woman softly took my hand in hers.
"My name is Ru," she said. "I can help you."

That was years ago.
I draw my robe around myself and quietly exit the room, after making sure that Cheung Po is still asleep. I make my way to the upstairs kitchen, a much smaller and humbler version of the one on sea level, the one for the restaurant.
Fa Ming had this boat built almost twenty years ago. The plan was originally to build a three-story house, but when Fa Ming heard that the tax was much cheaper for crafts docked on a port, he set about to have his very own flower boat. At the time, the reputation surrounding flower boats was murky. Fa Ming changed that. He created his business, one that thrived on an insatiable appetite, a need that never dwindled.
I pour the fresh tea into two cups, then set them on a tray. One for me, one for Cheung Po. Fa Ming's is known for its customer service. When I get back to my room, Cheung Po is at the window. He turns when I open the door, and smiles when he sees I have tea.
"Good morning," I say, and set the tray down on the floor by the bed. Cheung Po kneels, as do I, and we sit across from one another.
"Zheng's crew will be on their way by this time," he says, taking a sip. I nod in understanding. Cheung has his changshan pants on, but has left his shirt off. He has an assortment of tattoos on his body, from colourful animals like birds and a tiger, to different words or scripts. I wonder what they all mean to him. The tiger, I know, represents his loyalty to Zheng. Zheng comes from a long line of powerful pirates, all of them using the great tiger as their symbol. When he moves his body, the tiger on Cheung Po's side moves with him. I watch Cheung Po as he studies his cup of tea, looking suddenly smaller and more like the fragile boy he once was, when Zheng first happened upon him so many years ago.
I set my tea down and move closer to him. I breathe in his scent, let it envelope me, and lay down in his lap.
"Where would you be if you were not a pirate?" I ask him. I feel his hand on my hip.
"I would be a poor fisherman like my father," he answers, voice deep and scratchy from sleep. "Catching fish and crabs and oysters, and making a poor profit."
"You would smell like a fish in either life," I tease him. He playfully swats me on the behind. I touch his face, and look up at him solemnly.
"Don't worry, fish boy," I say. "I'd still like you." He leans down and kisses me, and we forget about our tea.

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