The Hong Kong sky was filled with large white birds that made Lo Ling’s lips curve into a smile. The graceful birds were chattering, telling the noisy city below that they were on their way to the sea for a fine fish meal. But Lo Ling’s smile disappeared when he remembered the letter that had failed to come from America.
“Mai Chang promised,” he told his mother. His head longed to shake out the words describing the irritation he felt, but he had been taught to show respect. Instead, he thought unhappily that a promise was a sacred word, and Mai Chang was breaking her word.
He remembered that near the teahouse she had taken him aside and, with a voice like a dove, had said, “When Chinese Easter comes, go to the cemetery as is our tradition and sweep the graves of my parents and grandparents. Dig out weeds also. Take incense and bowls of rice, too, that their spirits may not hunger. Even though I shall be far away in America, my ancestors must be honored. Go also at the time of the Moon Festival (Mid-Autumn Festival). I will send money from America.”
“Mai Chang will keep her promise,” his mother said.
“But when?” Lo Ling insisted. “Even now it is almost the time of the Ching Ming, (Easter Festival).”
“When? When there is money to send,” answered his mother quietly.
“But there is money to send!” Lo Ling blustered, forgetting himself. It was not easy to remain silent when he believed that riches abounded in America.
“And who says there is gold in America?” she asked with a quizzical smile.
“Mai Chang herself!” Lo Ling flung back.
“Mai Chang?” His mother’s eyebrows arched. “And how did Mai Chang learn this?”
“From the men in the teahouse!” Lo Ling’s black eyes brightened. Mai Chang had told him, “While I scrub the floor I listen to the men talk. They say that the streets in America are paved with gold, that riches are everywhere.”
“From the men in the teahouse?” mocked his mother. “Have these men been to America, have they seen with their own eyes the fortune they speak of?”
Lo Ling bowed his head, unable to answer.
“Then I shall tell you. These men have not even traveled to the next province. They dream dreams, dreams without fact, dreams they wish to believe and cling to.” She paused, watching disappointment touch Lo Ling’s face, then went on. “But there need not be riches to keep a promise. Mai Chang will send the money.”
“And if she does not,” Lo Ling declared, “I shall not sweep the graves!” Disappointment had made him forget what he had been taught.
“Lo Ling!” his mother uttered in surprise. “You have made a bargain.”
“Yes,” Lo Ling agreed with snapping eyes. “And I shall sweep the graves at Ching Ming, but not when the Moon Festival comes! Why should I?”
“For the same reason Father gives ricksha rides to the elderly and sick who have no money.”
Lo Ling said no more, but he decided that when the Moon Festival came he would not go to the cemetery and sweep the graves of Mai Chang’s ancestors. Besides, it was so far away that most people rode there by train. “Why should I walk my feet off?” he muttered half to himself.
Later that same day he made his way to the teahouse. Why he went there, he didn’t know. He just stood in front of the door with the dragon face and observed the men who came outside.
One man seemed to know Lo Ling. “Son of Tao Ling, are you not?” he addressed the boy. Then his eyes narrowed as he studied Lo Ling. He seemed satisfied with what he saw and pressed a piece of folded paper into Lo Ling’s hand. “Deliver this to Chin Wong at the shop of herbs,” the man said, “and return here tomorrow at this time and you shall receive a coin.” Then he walked quickly away.
Lo Ling was too surprised to think, let alone answer. By the time he had regained his wits, the gentleman had disappeared in the crowd.
“Deliver this to Chin Wong at the shop of herbs?” Lo Ling repeated in frustration. “I shall not!” The man is another Mai Chang, Lo Ling thought, wanting a favor without giving payment. He let out a snort and started running in the opposite direction.
But halfway down the Street of the Dragons he stopped, remembering the words of his father and mother. Slowly he turned around and returned to the Street of the Lotus Blossoms where the shop of herbs was located.
The shop was dim and uninviting. Nevertheless, he opened the door. Inside, the twilight was even deeper, and the musky aroma of a thousand herbs filled the air. Other than a clutter of nestling jars and bottles, no one seemed to be there. Suddenly Lo Ling was startled by a voice from the shadows, “I am Chin Wong. May I be of service?” And immediately Lo Ling surrendered the folded piece of paper.
Chin Wong read the message carefully, then smiled at Lo Ling. “You were paid to deliver the message?” he asked kindly.
Lo Ling quickly moved his head from side to side.
Chin Wong smiled, his eyes half shut. But they were open enough to watch and study Lo Ling closely. “You were not paid,” he said at last, “yet you came here. Why?”
Lo Ling’s tongue remained silent.
Chin Wong’s smile deepened, and he pressed a coin into Lo Ling’s palm. “For your service.” He bowed, then pressed another coin into Lo Ling’s open hand, and said, “An extra yen for being your father’s honorable son.”
Lo Ling had not expected even one coin. He was speechless. And when he found his tongue again, Chin Wong was gone. So Lo Ling stood with an unsaid thanks on his lips and the wonderful feel of the coins in his hand, while thoughts raced through his head. Then he left the shop happily and started for the teakwood shop where he intended to purchase the finest incense his coins could buy!
After that he planned to hurry home and rest. Easter would arrive in two days, and the hike to the cemetery would be long and hard. The thought made Lo Ling smile as he whispered to himself, “But not too hard.”