The Northern Border, by Li Zishu
Li Zishu was born in 1971 in Ipoh, Malaysia. Her works include several short story collections and the novel An Age of Farewell; an anthology of her travel writing was released earlier this year.
This story was originally published in the Summer 2014 issue of Pathlight.
This is how he passes through the town: you see his thin, stooped shadow emerge from the sidelong glance of the sunlight – it is the first month of the lunar new year, and the flashing sun has just begun its descent into dusk. He slowly crosses the near-empty street carrying a flaccid travel bag. You watch him enter from the edge of town, and move into its heart.
He has an obvious limp, inching past storefronts sheltered beneath second-floor residences. He faces you throughout his approach, but the moment he passes, his image vanishes from your mind, like the face of your late father. Your memory no longer holds images, only scents, sounds, and touch. You wonder who he is, and your sense of smell answers with the thick reek of death. It rushes deep into your lungs like rotting grass or the acid belch of stomach cancer.
The streets are strewn with the red husks of firecrackers spent in new year’s celebrations. You turn your head to follow him, but he has already disappeared into the silent drifts of shredded paper. It is still light out, but it’s as if he has dissolved into the gradually blurring spectrum of the approaching dusk.
On the day of your father’s funeral you were dressed in black seated on your mother’s knee. Your little sister was in her arms, and the smell of frankincense drifted to your nostrils from the swaddling clothes. The thick fragrance called forth a deep longing in you. It pierced the black and white drapery hung around the room as surely as your mother’s sewing needle. You were held over the heads and shoulders of the mourners to see the portrait of your father. His face didn’t register in your memory, but the terror did. Even today you can look up to see your struggling form held aloft, your two small hands covering your eyes, face ashen, lips trembling.
In the city you had a string of nightmares. You were in a dark morgue, dissecting a faceless corpse. The skin had the rough texture and large pores of a man. In the crotch you discovered a penis, though the testicles were missing. When your knife cut through the sternum a bloody heart leapt out, landing against your chest where it continued to beat audibly.
It was these dreams, smothering you like the tentacles of a jellyfish, that drove you back to this small town. You threw some tranquilizers and sleeping pills in a leather bag and came here to find the mythical herb that can cure you of your headaches and nightmares. There is a description of the plant in your father’s notebook:
The stem is straight and upright, the branches wing-shaped and sharp-edged; drooping leaves alternate, shaped like elongated eggs. It is identifiable by its unusually potent stench. The leaves and stems contain a powerful poison, while the root material has a strong calming effect, and can treat otherwise intractable headaches, incontinence, epilepsy, and neurasthenia. It is only found in a certain valley to the west of town.
West of this northern border town lies a wall of mountains. When you were small, your father guided you over crags and across streams, deep into the swamps and jungles that lie beyond. You faintly remember a valley that matches the description in your father’s notebook, westward, beyond the growls of enervated tigers, the damp calls of tree frogs, and the dense stands of Japanese bloodgrass. That is where your nose will guide you to the magic herb.
Your headaches left you sleepless for a week. On the seventh restless night you opened the suitcase left to you by your father. You didn’t have the key, so you forced it open with a triangular file, and found a mirror resting on the contents of the suitcase. You trembled at the sight of your sunken eyes, and protruding cheekbones, your pallor tinged by death, hunger, and thirst. Your cheeks sagged with the weight of the youth you were prematurely sloughing off at 29. You pressed your swollen eyes, releasing a stream of emotionless tears.
Sandwiched between the final pages of the notebook was a piece of paper which read, in faded cursive:
Before the age of 30, you must find the dragon tongue Amaranthus. Boil 100g of its root with Rauvolfia verticillata and striped Crotalaria. The addition of a senescent soft-shelled turtle potentiates the medicine. The wild herb is said to give off an intolerable stench. This is only cure for the disease that threatens to end the Chen family line.
You were told this was written by your grandfather. On the back, in pencil, is your father’s cursive: “I caught the scent of the dragon tongue 20 km west of town. 1989.” You spent all night flipping through the notebook. The first half was a record of the progression of your uncle’s illness during the last 36 days of his life. The second half contained your father’s personal research notes. While still a child you heard about the curse upon your family. The adults had done their best to conceal it from you, but the look in their eyes was enough to convey the essentials to you – eyes shimmering with tears, filled with the wrenching compassion of the wise. They knew exactly what awaited you; like pallbearers their gazes sealed you in the dark cave of your fate. This slow funeral procession was to last 30 years. Every male of the Chen family must devote his life to the quest for the dragon tongue Amaranthus.
You brought the notebook, letters and other documents from your father’s suitcase to this northern town. Your sister saw you off when you left, her infant son in her arms. You saw her wave from the platform and thought of your father in his coffin, the way his frozen gaze must have met the mourners clutching their incense, coming to pay their respects. The image of your father has faded, like an apparition in the fog, but you remember his voice, his scent. You remember his whispered recitation of passages from The Compendium of Herbal Medicine in his shop. In those days you often clung to his back like a macaque, inhaling the pungent odors of various herbs wafting up from the pages of the book in his lap. Asiatic plantain, saxifrage, pereskia, spreading hedyotis… The names alone were enough to convey something of their character and ecology.
It was after your uncle fell ill that you first heard the words “dragon tongue Amaranthus.” Your uncle was moved into the storage room at the far end of the family villa to suffer through his final days. At night you could hear a beastly moan emanating from the depths of the storeroom, scaring you so badly you couldn’t muster the courage to burrow out from under your blankets and grope your way across the darkened courtyard to use the toilet. For the first time you tasted the bitterness of a sleepless night as you lay curled between the humid warmth of your mother and father, enduring the strained fullness of your bladder. Your psychologist thinks this memory is the key to the incontinence that now afflicts you. You know that you must travel back in time to face that creature of the night, and boldly walk straight into the blackness of its pupils if you are ever to free yourself from the shame and disease that have tormented you so many years. Now, in this town on the northern border, the final stop of a rail line that stretches for hundreds of kilometers, you wake each morning at dawn in the station hotel to discover your sheets are once again stained with urine.
This town used to be saturated with the smells of medicinal herbs, the scent of compost rising from the mud, and the light fragrance of sunlight lingering on wild grasses. Now the oppressive odor of urine fills your room, as it did the storage room where your uncle died. The accumulated reek of 36 days of bed wetting never left the place. For three days after your uncle’s passing, your father sat dumbly in that fetid atmosphere while you and your mother hovered outside the partially closed door, watching the man’s silhouette fade in the thin light.
Your father was three years your uncle’s junior, meaning your father now had, at best, three years of life remaining. Among the heirlooms in the suitcase was a letter written by your great-grandfather:
Not long after arriving in Malaysia I was forced to work in the mountains building roads. One night, consumed with hunger, I killed and ate a strange creature I happened upon in the jungle. This must have offended the mountain spirits, for I was soon struck by convulsions, fever, sweats, and hallucinations. I sought help from local shamans, but none were able to cure me. Finally, I met an elderly man who told me it was a hex that could not be easily removed: unless I located the dragon tongue, none of my male descendents would live past the age of thirty.
Facing his final three years, your father decided to close up his apothecary and go into the mountains to search for the dragon tongue Amaranthus. The night before he left you saw him hunched behind the counter in his shop muttering as he copied passages from herbal texts. When you awoke at dawn, your father was gone, and there were crumpled balls of paper lying around the oil lamp. Uncrumpling the paper was like prying open the stiffened fist of a corpse. Inside you found a drawing of a thick-stemmed leafy plant, the dragon tongue Amaranthus, your family’s secret totem since the premature death of your great-grandfather.
“The Search” was the central proposition in the lives of all descendents of the Chen family, and it had scattered them to the wind. The seven brothers of your grandfather’s generation spread themselves between the jungles of East and West Malaysia, often by attaching themselves to regiments of the People’s Army, taking advantage of the upheaval of the times to enter many of the most isolated regions of the country in search of the stench that haunted the family consciousness. The old suitcase contains letters from the brothers, each reporting the death of one of their number.
“Eldest Brother died yesterday, on the winter solstice, two days shy of his thirtieth birthday. His passing was not easy.”
“Second Brother was captured by the British, tortured, and killed. His health had been good, and I firmly believe had he just managed to hang on until his birthday, the curse would have been broken. But fate is not so easily circumvented. He was executed by firing squad.”
“I received word of Third Brother’s death. It’s not long for me now.”
“Fourth Brother took his monastic vows at a young age, but he has preceded his elder brothers in death. My heart aches at the thought of it, but I also wonder if his peaceful passing is perhaps a blessing.”
“The Japanese army executed Fifth Brother in the public square. I was there in the throng, tortured by my inability to help him. My heart is so filled with hatred that I have not eaten or slept properly for over a year. My head feels as if it will split open. My limbs are wracked by convulsions. Visions swim before my eyes. I have counted out the days – the end is near. I cannot convey the depth of my regret that I will not find the dragon tongue in this lifetime. Now I can only pray for the protection of our ancestors in the afterlife.”
The last train rolls into the station at dawn, waking you with a whistle that heralds the arrival of the scorching summer heat. Soaked with sweat, you fall back to sleep, diving into a silent abyss. You are certain you saw your father one last time before he left. While you were half asleep, someone entered your darkened room and gently brushed your forehead with a hand. Then a fierce hug. You never told anyone. Maybe your mother and sister had similar experiences they were unwilling to share. When you woke your body smelled of herbs and your cheek stung as if it had been tattooed with invisible ink. In the pocket of your pajamas you found a key, verifying your body’s memory of the nighttime farewell. That key was all your father left to you.
Five days later, you and your mother waited at the apothecary for your father’s corpse. Even at such a young age, you, like your mother, had a premonition of your father’s death. There was a moment – looking up at the red lacquer plaque on the family altar on which was written, “Ancestors of the Chen Household,” as the portraits of previous generations of Chens looked down on your orphaned family of three, eyes flickering, ephemeral as candle flames – when you suddenly realized you had grown up. You found you were able to stand upon the towering threshold of the afterlife, and gaze into the eyes of the god of death, unflinching.
You returned the key to your father. His corpse was bloated with river water, infused with the pong of the riverbed. A tiny fish lay dead in a pool of mud at the depression below his Adam’s apple. You pried open his hand and placed the key – and along with it the weight of all of the secrets in the old suitcase – in his palm. In that moment, your memory ceased to function. Image, light, and movement no longer stuck firmly in your mind, and you never again could recall the face of your father, that face marked by the curse of the South China Sea and the seductions of the jungle.
The dry years that followed seem absurd upon reflection. In your dorm room in the city you raised a soft-shelled turtle who barely qualified as aquatic. You were witness to the fading of its muddy stench, the slow loss of swampy instinct through long years of separation from its kind, erased by immersion in the fastidious world of humans. You checked the encyclopedia to see at what age the turtle would qualify as “senescent,” and thus suitable to potentiate the dragon tongue concoction. Though you did your best to ignore the mute turtle, the scraping of its claws against the floor in time to its measured steps constantly reminded you of its presence. The incense that frequently burned in your small room drove the turtle under the stove for refuge, where it occasionally opened its rheumy eyes to observe you at work, at rest, and in your dreams.
Sometimes you held up the turtle to scrutinize the markings on its shell. The turtle was long accustomed to your movements and scent, or at least had grown weary with the passing of indistinguishable years, so that it no longer struggled to escape your grasp. There was something wise and unfathomable in its rippled gaze that convinced you the creature had developed a kind of sentience. Had its time under the stove born fruit? Even the coal fire and ashes in that stove had been endowed with spirit through long exposure to the vapors of cooking herbs.
You would boil 100g of dried fameflower leaves and root, resulting in a sweet brew for treating exhaustion, coughs, incontinence, and irregular menses; or sometimes 50g of Rauvolfia verticillata to make a bitter – and mildly toxic – tea for headache, insomnia, dizziness, and epilepsy. Your father only taught you herbs, but you often experimented with animal ingredients as well: civet, lizards, and crocodile meat. Once you butchered a stray cat to potentiate an herbal preparation. It had entered your room uninvited, and you couldn’t stand the way this animal of plainly inferior intellect toyed with the turtle under the stove. With a devilish grin, it sank its claws into the turtle’s soft shell. Its lack of respect for an elder sentient creature revolted you. In any case, you had heard that cat meat contained poison, and following the principle of “treat like with like,” you hoped to counteract the Rauvolfia toxins that had been slowly accumulating in your stomach and brain tissues by adding cat meat to your medicinal regimen.
The clay pot you used for boiling herbs was an heirloom from your father’s shop, infused with the aroma of decades of medicinal preparations. Your classmates drank the snake venom, Saururus chinensis, Croton crassifolius, and Chinese knotweed you cooked, and the soothing, maternal residues of these substances still line the pot.
Your mother did not understand the principles of herbal medicine, nor did she understand how well your father concealed his emotions. She believed the man lying beside her at night felt no fear of death, his mind so clear that terror found no foothold within him. She read his notebooks, but his copybook handwriting showed no quiver that would betray the intrusion of death into his thoughts. Of course your father knew he would die, and often locked himself in the storeroom where your uncle had passed away to carry out his research, and to better conceal his anxiety. Once, your mother tidied up the room for him as you watched from outside the door, your newborn sister in a carrier on your back. The cluttered and poorly-maintained storeroom was finally transformed into a study, tidy and bright with sunlight. A canvas cot stretched out adjacent to a desk with bookshelves. The desk was arranged with a calendar and a brush holder on one side, and a kerosene lamp on the other.
At medical school you once had a discussion about euthanasia with your classmates. When the debate died down, the layout of that storeroom rushed into your consciousness. You confessed to your classmates: the storeroom was your ideal place to die; your memories of it were limned in the inviting amber tones of a 50-watt lamp. By day, the sunlight angled gently through the window, creating the perfect environment for extended stretches of reading or thought. The medicinal smell of the room was intoxicating – not the chemical sting of disinfectant, but something akin to the alluring scent of wild grasses, dry and vegetative, like opium smoked from a bamboo pipe – not the metallic tang of morphine. Your classmates were flummoxed. As accustomed as they were to death from hours spent dissecting cadavers, they had never come close enough to feel death’s ambient temperature against their skin, not as your family had, sensing the approach of the thirtieth year with every cell, waiting to engage death in a mad act of intercourse, of procreation.
Your uncle had sons who had all long since begun to spread their seed, evening out your family’s tug of war with death as fast as the biology of reproduction would allow. Their steady stream of wedding invitations and first month of life celebrations always went straight into your garbage can. Their feverish feats of reproduction, their blind replication of life, was laughable in your eyes. None of them gave a thought to the dragon tongue Amaranthus. They even joked about the superstitious tales of your ancestors, forgetting they would never live to see their fourth decade of life. Only you, the eccentric cousin, saw value in spending your meager allotment of hours on your studies, reading texts and taking exams, testing into university, enrolling in medical courses. Death perched upon the roof of the Chen family villa, leviathan wings spread wide, yet its boundless shadow had done nothing so much as induce a frenzied heat in the majority of your relations. Thus your family seemed to expand with each passing month. Your cousins scattered far and wide, intermarrying with people of every color and nationality, adopting local religions and customs, each branch of the family in essence becoming its own tribe.
By the time you returned to your birthplace, no one remained. The family villa was divided amongst two multigenerational Indian families, over 20 people drinking from the old well in the courtyard. From outside the door you watched the strangers laughing and chatting, and then they went silent, turning suspicious eyes towards you. You had no alternative but to pick up your luggage and head back to the train station, where the only hotel in town is located.
In two months it will be your 30th birthday. As you checked in, you realized that this room in the train station hotel at the northern terminus of the rail line may be where you spend your final days. For an extra ten ringgit you booked the room at the end of the hall. It was supposed to be quiet, but the whistles of arriving and departing trains disturb your thoughts. For the last few days you have noticed spots appearing on the inside of your lower eyelids, and a pale green coating has grown on your tongue. All of these symptoms match those recorded in your father’s notebook. Soon you will develop a fever, and capillaries in your eyes may burst. Your heartbeat will become irregular. Your bronchial tubes will constrict. Your thoughts will become disordered. Headaches and insomnia are nothing new, all visiting like clockwork just as they did in your uncle’s last 36 days of life.
You up your dose of sedatives, and on days when the headaches are bad, you take some amphetamine. The soft-shelled turtle, unable to find its old haunt under the stove, spends most of its time pacing between the toilet and the bathtub. You can’t seem to adjust to the new levels of pain. The headaches often reduce you to moaning and cursing the heavens in a state of delirium. The turtle, unsettled by your ravings, withdraws into its shell with its limbs quivering and tears streaming from its eyes. You can’t understand where your father found the strength to stoically endure this torment. Somehow, in his final days, he was able to distance himself from the pain that wracked his body to write journal entries in neat clerical script:
*Today my head feels as if it may split open, as if a thousand fire leeches were inside my skull, gnawing and burning away my brain. Their heat penetrates to my core. *
Unbearable muscle pain makes it impossible to sit and meditate. Chaotic visions swarm before my eyes.
I drink over five liters of water every day, but I cannot extinguish the flames that course through me, nor can I quench the thirst scratching at my throat.
Having read this passage, you suddenly develop a nervous itch all over your body. It begins with discomfort in your eyes, as if the act of reading has transmitted some pathogen from your father’s notebook into your body. The phrase “a thousand fire leeches” induces a physiological reaction, and the itching spreads outward. You unconsciously rub your eye sockets, which only accelerates the spread of the itching from your head to the soles of your feet, then inward into your viscera. You scratch at yourself madly as your ears begin to detect the sound of insects gnawing at the marrow of your bones, like ants feasting on a corpse.
You experienced a similar episode once while in the mountains searching for the dragon tongue Amaranthus. The feeling lay somewhere between a pain and an itch, as if invisible maggots were burrowing into your flesh. You clutched your knees to your chest and howled into the wilderness. A tapir drew near, as if responding to your call. It extended its sinuous tongue into your mouth and wriggled it down your throat. Such a longue tongue, long enough to scrape the inner walls of your stomach. You were frozen, mute. Even your sweat congealed in your pores. You felt stiff and lifeless as a rotten block of wood. Just as you wished you could simply close your eyes and wait for death, your mind suddenly cleared and your unmet great-grandfather appeared before your eyes. The old man was riding on the back of the tapir, smiling without feeling. You recalled his letter from the old suitcase: “…I killed and ate a strange creature I had happened upon in the jungle. This must have offended the mountain spirits…” Without warning the sun burst through a gap in the forest canopy, momentarily blinding you as sweat once again streamed down your forehead. Blinking under the glare of sunlight, you watched the tapir dissolve into a dark wisp of smoke, save for its tongue, which dropped to the forest floor writhing like a flame before transforming into a lush patch of foliage with a spray of tiny yellow flowers at its center.
It was the dwarf umbrella tree of family trilliaceae – according to the The Pictorial Guide to Chinese Medicinal Herbs – containing a poison similar to that found in Paris polyphylla rhizome. Known to induce vomiting and headaches, and in larger doses, convulsions. Though unsure whether the tapir was a hallucination, you are convinced that it was nonetheless a symptom of your disease. Both your uncle and your father reported similar experiences. You open the notebook and read:
I tossed and turned for most of the night before rising to push open the window. Outside, in the moonlight, I saw my elder brother astride a strange beast with the body of a pig and the trunk of an elephant, which it used to forage for food amongst the underbrush. Just as I called out to my brother, the moonlight burst into the room like rushing water. My vision split apart like the surface of a lake, moonlight flying outwards like sheets of rain. When my eyes refocused, the liquid moonlight, the strange beast, and my brother were all gone.
Phrases like “strange beast,” and “creature,” appear throughout the letters in the suitcase. Could your elders all have been referring to tapirs? You could easily imagine your great-grandfather, newly arrived in Malaysia from China, gazing in shock at a tapir. But it was unlikely that your father, born in Malaysia, would consider a tapir a “strange beast.” The words are more often associated with mythical creatures like dragons, or qilin, or astrological symbols like the Vermillion Bird of the south, or the Black Turtle of the north.
You are beginning to understand why madness often precedes death for men of the Chen family. You recall your cousin who spent his last days in a mental hospital. When you visited he would grab you by the collar and repeatedly shout, “vile beasts!” in your face. In the end he climbed the tallest tree on the grounds, a Malay paduak, and jumped screaming to his death. Was he trying to escape the same nameless creatures that haunted your father and grandfather? Or had he simply followed the creature to some other existence on life’s hinterlands?
Once you’re settled at the hotel you begin making excursions into the mountains on bicycle. You leave before dawn with a basket strapped to your back, pedaling west – where the dragon grows. Your father’s note said that he had detected the scent there. With spine bent, you push on into a cold, pre-dawn rain. The road narrows as you pass through fields, then becomes a trail once you reach the mountains. You continue on foot, occasionally making eye-contact with animals of the jungle, hoping they will somehow reveal the correct path to you. The way is difficult, requiring you spend days tramping in the mountains if you are to cover reasonable ground. By the time you return your cheeks are dark with facial hair, your body so worn that spirit alone propels you. Your map is covered in new markings showing that you’ve covered most of the western mountains, but the basket on your back is still empty, and time grows short. You return to your father’s notebook, desperate for clues. The binding is falling apart by the time you depart on your next excursion.
You are not entirely alone in the mountains. There are natives collecting bean trefoil and honey. Occasionally, clusters of their dry thatched huts sprout from the jungle floor like mushrooms, as much a part of the jungle as the trees. Here, you are an intruder, your eyeglasses the mark of your allegiance to civilization. The light reflected from your lenses flashes into the jungle like a warning beacon.
None of the natives have heard of the dragon tongue Amaranthus. They wonder if you mean tongkat Ali – “Ali’s walking stick” – the aphrodisiac root that draws many to these mountains. This mountain range lies close to the border, and the past few years have seen many people cross over from southern Thailand, digging up the roots of any tree they come across. In this region, jungle shamans and Chinese doctors alike venerate tongkat Ali root. Its fame far exceeds that of any Chinese herb. A plethora of formulas for preparing the root have been passed down, each with its own adherents who will provide personal testimony to its effectiveness.
You laugh bitterly. Tongkat Ali is a collective superstition for Malaysians, not unlike the dragon tongue Amaranthus within your family. But the Chen family’s faith has lost out; your cousins now fear impotence far more than death. It disgusts you that they see an engorged cock as a sign of strength, fortitude, and ambition. Only you have laid this aside, and sacrificed your virgin life to the task of finding the dragon tongue Amaranthus. Or do you simply have different loves, you wonder, as your thoughts return to the soft-shelled turtle alone in your hotel room ruminating on its loneliness. At night you dream of riding the turtle, its broad back bearing you to the place where the dragon tongue Amaranthus grows. Tears stream down your face as you straddle its shell, and when you awake, you find yourself struggling to formulate parting words for your chelonian companion.
At the herbal apothecaries back in the town, medicinal wine made from tongkat Ali root outsells liquors steeped with tiger, deer, and sea lion penis. Two different shops offer a concoction called Tongkat Ali Complete Herbal Supplement, the difference between them being one is potentiated with river turtle, the other with flying squirrel. While you were in town you visited the shops and ladeled up the dregs of the wine jars to confirm their claims. Within the jumbled profusion of herbal ingredients you indeed made out the paw of a flying squirrel in one, the claw of a river turtle in the other. The shops also dealt in tongkat Ali coffee. The packages of ground beans bore the gold foil insignia of a government-authorized ginseng distributor. You felt like a renunciate, liberated from the burning desires of the flesh, alone in a world that had turned to tongkat Ali root for solace.
The dragon tongue Amaranthus brought you here, you tell them, but you have trouble understanding the natives’ replies. The root gatherers from Thailand all say they have never heard of the dragon tongue. Against the crashing waves of rain, and the clamor of frog songs and bird calls, you try to describe the valley as you remember it. To the west… dense stands of Japanese bloodgrass… the fetid odor of the dragon tongue… The natives shake their heads in confusion, the root collectors in derision, all saying they’ve never seen such a place. The fact is you’ve already crisscrossed the dozens of square kilometers of the mountain range west of town, and it seems that the valley is nothing more than a faded impression existing only in your mind. But you’re still holding out for the missing link, the alchemical ingredient that will transform your indistinct memory into a full-fledged reality, a mountain valley swimming with the dark aroma of the dragon tongue Amaranthus.
Your unshakable faith in the dragon tongue is not without justification. You’ve never shared this with your heretical cousins, but after your father died you smelled a pungent odor seeping from his coffin, filling your courtyard home. You secretly pried open the clenched fist of your father’s corpse and found a sprig of an unusual plant. Leaves shaped like inverted eggs sprouted from alternating sides along the length of each stem, giving the appearance of strings of firecrackers. It gave off a nauseating stench like the rotten flesh stuck between the teeth of an engorged predator. Your youthful body shivered as you realized this had to be the dragon tongue Amaranthus. You quickly straightened your father’s clutched fingers and stared at the shrivelled leaves, dark and oily, like a serpent freshly emerged from a river. You carefully picked up the sprig, and noticed it had been roughly torn from the plant that bore it, leaving no trace of the root. In your disappointment, you are comforted to think your father did not drown himself to escape his fate, as the villagers said. He had died in pursuit of the dragon tongue root.
That one sprig was enough. A strong life line had appeared on the palm of your left hand. Studying medicine was your preparation. Within the tangled theories of mathematics, chemistry, and biology, you teased out a unifying thread of philosophy to guide your course. You raised the soft-shelled turtle through long bitter years at your beck and call. The moment the dragon tongue Amaranthus root appears, the turtle will enter the boiling clay pot to permit you life beyond your thirtieth year. Like a fine net, the curse is silent and inescapable. As you approached 29 you began to show symptoms. You started to go bald, though every hair on your head remained black. Your stomach produces a constant stream of gas, which you belch out, tainting the air around you with the scent of rotting vegetation. You have night sweats that soak your bedclothes. Your limbs intermittently twitch. Your dreams come as profusely as your bedwetting. You wake each morning to the sound of your heart pounding in your chest.
You spread open your map and review the terrain that you already know by heart. You realize your father’s death is the best clue you have. His body was found beyond the jungle at the mouth of the river. Judging from the bloating, he had been dead for at least three days. You trace the course of the river northward and refocus your search there. The dragon tongue Amaranthus must grow on the river bank, or perhaps in the river itself. You and your native porters strip down and dive into the water, searching for clues on the river bottom. They bring up aquatic plants of every imaginable kind and lay them on the bank for you to inspect. You are having trouble catching your breath. Your exertions in the water have weakened your condition, allowing the infectious agents in your body to voice their presence. You survey the river’s bounty, but there is no sign of the dragon tongue. All you can smell are the partially decayed plants from the river bottom, and the dank fishy odor that still clings to your body from having brushed against unseen aquatic creatures in the river’s depths.
The search works its way slowly up river, and your body grows weaker with each passing day. You vaguely recall dreams in which an animal licks at your skin, draining away your life force. You fall asleep thinking tonight’s dreams will steal what little of your life remains, but each morning before dawn you wake up and struggle to your feet – sometimes in the quiet of the train station hotel, sometimes in a tent by the river, sometimes in the hut of one of your native guides, but always waiting for the whistle blast of the last train as it approaches the station.
You haven’t given up hope. After three days searching the river, you reach the Thai border. Dark clouds gather, dropping rain from within their deep layers. Your native guides have an instinctive fear of storms, and they watch the river swell in panic. A few more steps and you will be in another country. They shake their heads and wave at you, like slaves respectfully begging to be allowed to return home. You offer to increase their pay, and then before they have time to think, you dive straight into the roaring water.
The current is too strong for you to crawl along the river bottom as you did before. You writhe in its grip. The furious water is dark with mud and debris from the river bed, obscuring your vision. You reach out in panic, hoping to steady yourself. Your hand latches onto something moving in the water, the shell of a massive turtle. You recoil in disgust as images from countless dreams rush through your mind: riding on the soft-shelled turtle’s back… the turtle bearing you to the legendary dragon tongue Amaranthus. Your arms and legs are cramping, and your skull feels as if it will burst. The pain is hard and cold, like lead. As it pours into your viscera you feel yourself sinking to the river bottom.
For a moment you are sure you will drown, just as your father did. You begin to mourn your passing. In the sightless depths of the river you mentally recite the mantra of rebirth. Will the next life be like this one? A brief thirty years? Are you doomed to be a lonely, wandering spirit, always in search of the dragon tongue Amaranthus? A faceless, shapeless creature swims out of your muddled thoughts. You feel it near you in the current, and the water around you is suddenly black as night. The very pores of your skin can detect the fetid odor wafting from its gaping maw. The stench is familiar, like the belch of a predator that has gorged itself on meat. Bits of blood and rotting flesh are suspended in the mist of its putrid breath.
You regain consciousness. You stare up at a ring of native faces, giving the impression that you are falling backwards into a well. They are pumping your chest as you regurgitate foul, muddy river water. You finally found the creature, you tell them, the strange beast. Formless, shapeless, its mouth was lined with rank grasses. They don’t understand. They think that you’re at the threshold of death, incoherent, mumbling, your gaze swaying like a bat hanging from the forest canopy. You feel as if half your soul is still in the river, trapped inside the shell of that gigantic turtle. You can’t seem to remember who you are. How did you get here? The natives still don’t understand. They pinch their noses, pointing at something clenched in your fist. There is an inescapable stench, bringing on dizziness, nausea.
A letter arrives from your sister informing you of your mother’s condition at the nursing home. Attached is a picture of your nephew taken at his first month celebration. Your mother is kissing the boy’s soft white cheek. Gazing at the heartache evident in her eyes, you catch yourself trembling at the tragedy of death. You never learned from your father how to say farewell to your loved ones when death draws near. And there is no need for you to leave behind a notebook exhorting your descendents to continue the search. Having arrived at your generation, death has become a lonely and private affair. It is a personal obsession, unrelated to those around you. That afternoon you have another attack. There is a strange itch in your throat. Just as your uncle did on day 28, you begin gnawing on anything in your room made of wood. One post of the bed takes the brunt of the damage. You are on all fours on the floor, biting and chewing with all your might like a mouse stuck in a glue trap. After a full night of compulsive mastication, one of your incisors falls out, and your mouth fills with the taste of fresh blood.
It is one week before the non-negotiable boundary of your thirtieth birthday. You are too weak to make another excursion into the mountains. Convulsions make movement difficult, but you still bathe and dress each morning to offer a civilized reception to the last days of a life that has already lost all interest for you. With only sparse hair on your head, and a gap-toothed grin, at best you look comical and decrepit. Your back is bent after so many nights curled in a tight ball, and your body is covered with welts from scratching at yourself. You can smell the stench of death emanating from within you. This failing body can no longer contain your family’s secret. It is publicly revealed when you leave your room and go to the phone booth on the street outside. Your sister sobs at the other end of the line as you tell her it is time to follow your father. Soon you will be the last martyr in the Chen family line.
At a loss for what to do, you allow your nostalgia to lure you out into town. It is clear that the town is in decline, like a python preparing to shed its skin, and most Chinese have left, fearing there is worse to come. You ask around a bit before someone directs you to the last casket maker in town. The shop is empty, and you wander alone amongst finished and half-finished caskets just as you wander between a life that is finished and one which still remains. You remember your father, many years ago, lying in that large ingot-shaped coffin from Liuzhou, a region famous for its hand-crafted caskets. Even the thick, vulgar aroma of sandalwood failed to cover the stifling stench of the dragon tongue Amaranthus. You haven’t seen this style of traditional casket in years. At the back of the shop you discover an adjoining room, where a single casket is laid out. There is no offering candle or spirit plaque, but in the unusual silence of the backroom, you are possessed with the thought that a body lies inside. You shudder as you suddenly recall a passage from your father’s notebook:
Confined to bed for thirty days, and I can see the form of death drawing near. At first I thought it was some kind of animal with bent legs and a hunched back. Then its back straightened and it extended its forelimbs, appearing almost human. At midnight on the thirtieth day, its features settled into form. The face was long, the mouth wide, the forehead high and domed. The likeness was nearly perfect; its face was quite like my own.
When she hears the word “death,” your sister, normally so strong, begins to sob, as if it has triggered a pain suppressed for years. She doesn’t dare believe that you found the dragon tongue. Just like the notebook said, the stench is awful, the leaves and stem are poisonous. But what we didn’t know, little sister, is that it has no root. It’s an aquatic member of the family Viscaceae. The hollow stem secretes a sulphuric compound that allows it to digest and absorb nutrients from microscopic organisms in the water. As you speak, a faint fetid odor wafts from the palm of your hand. You guess that the fluid has already been absorbed into your blood and bones, and your whole body will soon begin to reek. You can’t wait to be in your coffin.
Though you have spent years preparing for this day, there is still one thing you haven’t been able to let go of. Your father left a will stuck between the pages of his notebook giving instructions for handling affairs after his death. At the end of the will these words appear in tiny script:
Five years ago I had an affair with a widow surnamed Feng, and she gave birth to a son on October 21, 1968. We named him Guan Hong. To keep the matter quiet, I entrusted Guan Hong to the care of the Liang family, proprietors of the Tranquility casket store. If the dragon tongue Amaranthus is found, please do not neglect to save my son Guan Hong.
You have the will in your pocket. You didn’t harbor hopes of meeting your half-brother. According to the date written in the will, Guan Hong was your elder by three years, and should be dead by now. You hope that he died alone, that this curse had not sent forth new branches, and thus would end with your generation.
But at the sight of that immense Liuzhou-style casket in the back room of the shop, you are consumed with fear. The ingot-shaped casket presses on your rapidly thinning life like an ornately carved paperweight. You hear the sound of finger nails scratching from inside. In a panic, you flee the shop, not daring to look back.
There is an old man seated on the root of a massive tree outside. Hair white, eyes grey with cataracts, but his skin remains soft, his face full like a child’s, his age difficult to guess. The Liang family sold the shop years ago, he says. You ask him about the boy they took in. Mrs. Liang didn’t like the boy’s dark skin and thick lips. Suspected he was mixed race. To make matters worse, a fortune teller said the boy was born under a bad star, so Mrs. Liang passed him off to a Malay family in the kampung west of town. Kid was skinny and agile as a macaque. Used to make a living climbing palm trees to fetch coconuts. I saw him most nights, sitting on the stone steps of his family’s home playing guitar and singing songs. Now he sells his own tongkat Ali salve out of a house he built. Makes good money, enough to feed his whole family, a dozen of them, and well-fed at that. All fat and pale as aristocrats.
You head in the direction indicated by the old man, and arrive at a stilt-house west of town. You’ve passed this way many times before, and you don’t ever recall seeing a Malay home here by the road – but here it is, seeming to have appeared out of nowhere, like an elder brother you’ve never met. The door is open, and a young Malay woman opens a window to ask if you are here to buy tongkat Ali salve. A tin of their special formulation costs fifty ringgit – they also have tongkat Ali wrinkle cream. You ask about the boss. It’s Friday, he’s off at the mosque for prayers. The young woman keeps pushing the salve. Rub it on before you hop in the sack. It’ll keep your flag raised for three hours, guaranteed. Just look at my husband. Three wives and eight kids. How else do you explain that? She wears a sly grin as she speaks, her sidelong glance washing over you like a full moon tide.
All four walls of the front room are hung with portraits of family members. You begin to look them over, following the passing of one decade into the next. The first yellowed photograph shows a boy with eyes like yours sitting on the shoulders of a middle-aged man in a singlet and sarong in the fading light, their faces touched by the remnants of the sun’s color and warmth. In the upper right corner of a family portrait, a coffee stain darkens the boy’s complexion to almost perfectly blend in with his dozen or so family members. There are three wedding pictures to the left of the family portrait, each bride younger than the one before, the groom’s hairline creeping upward, his cheeks fuller in each picture. After that, more family portraits, children multiplying, more crowding and jostling, then a full length shot of the man holding up a tongkat Ali root, his dark eyes and generous belly testifying to his enjoyment of food and drink these past years, his face having made a complete departure from the thin-faced, high-cheekboned model of the Chens. The eyes and nose seem to be afterthoughts tacked on to the meaty fullness of his cheeks. Bulbous lips like a fish, sharp canines like a dog. The last photograph was taken during the hajj. It shows him chin held high, eyes sparkling, his expression focused and full of pathos, his faith in his pilgrimage clearly exceeding even your faith in the dragon tongue Amaranthus.
You suddenly recall why you have come and turn to the young woman. The will said Guan Hong was born in 1968. He should be three years dead now. The woman doesn’t understand. Guan Hong? Who is this Guan Hong? Do you mean my husband Hamza? There’s nothing wrong with him. You Chinese are always wishing misfortune upon others. Her lips curl fiercely. Our true lord Allah protects us. He protects Hamza, my husband. He gave us the tongkat Ali that feeds our family. Listen to me, Chinaman, maybe you are also a child of the tongkat Ali. How else could your old man father a bastard like you? Hamza is doing the work of Allah. Every cent he earns is by the will of Allah. Don’t be envious. Don’t curse us for this.
Her face is stern. Though her voice remains low and soft it somehow attracts the attention of the household. They stream into the cramped front room from all directions. The women have children in their arms, on their backs, or clinging to their sides. The boys drip snot from moist nostrils. The girls have tears dangling from their eyelashes. All are vigilant, filled with suspicion. Standing in their midst, you are abruptly aware of your status as a stranger here in the north, near the border, where the train tracks run no further. You are a wanderer with a suitcase full of heirlooms, motherless, fatherless, no family, no enemies, no origin, no place to return to. Searching for your elder brother was a fool’s errand, just like searching for the rootless dragon tongue Amaranthus. You’ve been looking for buried treasure in the jungle with nothing but hearsay and a crudely drawn map to guide you. The deeper you push into the jungle, the more clear it becomes that nothing awaits you there but pitfalls and illusions. In those depths you have found nothing but your own desperate will to survive, writhing like a subterranean worm.
Under the harsh gaze of the three wives and eight children, you are forced to pull back in defeat. You pay for a tin of tongkat Ali salve, and bow deeply to them before you exit the stilt-house. You don’t dare look back, though whether from deep-seated fear or hope, you cannot guess. With a “poof” and a flash of blue flame that rises to the heavens, you imagine the stilt-home vanishing from the mountains and wilderness at your back, like a phantasm returning to the mist.
It all seems like an illusion, as if you’ve been fast asleep, dreaming for thirty years. You wake in the station hotel. You’ve only emptied half your bladder, but that is enough to soak your shorts and the bed. The soft-shelled turtle raises his head to look up at you from the floor. His unfocused gaze seems to hint at something. You remove the tin of tongkat Ali salve from your pocket. The tin is the only thing left that seems real, as if a wild fire has swept through you, tongues of flame licking at your every memory, burning them to smoke and ash, leaving behind this single object. You unscrew the lid. The milky white salve shimmers in the dim moonlight, its color reminding you of your mother’s embrace, the frankincense ointment she used to treat her skin, her smile.
You rub the salve into the turtle’s head. The turtle obediently holds still as you slowly rub in the entire tin. Only then do you realize the turtle has transformed into a massive bronze statue. It is the legendary Black Turtle of the north, in its customary pose with head raised, tongue extended, a snake riding on its back. The bronze is ancient, with a thick layer of oxidation on the shell. Only the turtle’s eyes are unchanged – still fresh and moist, still full of heartache.
Two months pass. The lunar new year has been startled by the firecrackers so popular with the Malay children of the town. No one knows that you are still at the station hotel. You spend most days holed up in your room, toying with that rootless sprig of dragon tongue Amaranthus. Sometimes you take a walk through the shadows of the town, keeping your ears tuned to the hiss and churn of the trains as they charge towards the trackless land ahead. In the afternoon the station is shrouded in the shadows cast by nearby trees. Passengers disembark, tired eyes streaked with red. One by one they move off in the direction of the mosque. On one such day you see the man emerge from the arched doorway of the train station, his body stooped, his boyish face bearing the scattered lashings of passing time.
He carries an empty travel bag. He slowly crosses the quiet street. As he approaches, his features gradually take form within the shadows. His face is long, his mouth wide, forehead high and domed – the face of your family, like no other. You freeze for a moment. Unaware of your existence, he continues to advance in tired, limping steps. In a moment he passes.
Clasping your hand to your chest, you turn around. It seems he has turned to face you as well. He must have caught a whiff of the enticing, bloodstained dragon tongue Amaranthus. Your eyes meet. The face is familiar, but you can’t find a name to match it. Nothing registers on the man’s face. He turns and continues walking down a road where nothing lies ahead. His silhouette wavers before dissolving into the swathes of sunlight and shadow.
Like that, he appeared in your skewed field of vision, and passed through a nameless town at the northern terminus of the railroad tracks.