When hearts have once mingled
Love first leaves the well-built nest;
The weak one is singled
To endure what it once possessed.
O Love! who bewailest
The frailty of all things here,
Why choose you the frailest
For your cradle, your home, and your bier?
–Percy Bysshe Shelley, When the Lamp is Shattered
“Hold onto the floatboard. Hold it tight. Don’t let go!”
“I’m scared, Dad.”
“What’re you scared of? I’m right here.”
“But it’s so deep here…”
“You just have to hold on tight to the board and relax, and you will stay afloat. If anything happens, I’m right here. Now, hold on to the board and kick your feet.”
“No, it won’t work, Dad.”
“It will. Xu Ping, you’re a brave boy.”
“…cough…cough… I can’t do it, Dad!”
“And you know that after trying just once? Do it again!”
“…Dad, I don’t want to learn anymore.”
“Do it again!”
“I want to go up. I don’t want to learn.”
“Your brother’s watching you! Do it again!”
“I really don’t want to!”
“Even Xu Zheng can swim by now. How can the big brother not know how to swim?”
“Xu Zheng this. Xu Zheng that. It’s all about Xu Zheng! What did I do to become his brother?!”
Xu Ping was lying on a beach chair under the parasol. He lazily opened his eyes and saw his brother standing in front of him, completely soaked in his swim trunks.
“What’s the matter, Xiao-Zheng?”
“Gege fell asleep.”
“Yeah.” Xu Ping sat up straight and looked around. He found his literature magazine under the chair and brushed the sand off. “I wanted to read for a while, but I just fell asleep. Maybe I’ve been overworked lately.”
“Gege was sleeptalking.”
“Oh, really?” Xu Ping smiled. “What did I say?”
Xu Zheng shook his head. “Didn’t hear.”
Xu Ping leaned back into the chair. “I had a dream. Dad took us to the swimming centre to teach us to swim, but I couldn’t do it no matter what I did, and I was so scared I just kept crying.”
Xu Zheng sat down on the other chair and covered his head with a towel. “And then?”
Xu Ping grinned towards the boundless water. “And then Xiao-Zheng appeared, of course! You said, I’ll teach you to swim, Gege, and you held my hand and led me around the pool. I thought to myself, Xiao-Zheng is the best. I want to be his gege for the rest of my life.”
His brother lowered his head shyly and asked in a whisper sometime later, “What else?”
Xu Ping chuckled. “Nothing. I woke up from the dream.”
“Oh.” His brother seemed rather disappointed.
He pulled off the towel and stood up turning his neck and ankles.
“Gege, I take you swimming.”
Xu Ping shook his head. “You go ahead. I’m going to nap a little longer.”
“Gege is sleeping all day long.”
Xu Ping was caught off guard. “Oh, yeah. It’s the heat. It makes me sleepy.”
He patted his brother. “You go ahead, but don’t swim out too far.” He glanced at his watch. “Come back in ten minutes. I already told Auntie Lin not to cook dinner for us. We’re going to walk and eat at the restaurant in town.”
His brother nodded and put his goggles back on. He turned back to Xu Ping saying, “I’m off, Gege.”
Smiling, Xu Ping nodded. He watched his brother wade into the seawater against the waves, and then he plunged straight into a wave, his head popping back out a few metres away. Then, he swam out into the distance with nimble, powerful strokes.
The only restaurant on the island looked quite like the dai pai dong in the Hong Kong films – red plastic chairs and white folding tables in the open air with a make-shift roof over head; on the table were a bucket of chopsticks and a roll of toilet paper. Along one wall was a row of cages inhabited by chickens and ducks and other poultry, while the other wall was flanked by a stack of tanks with live shrimps and crabs and other seafood. The owner had moved the kitchen outside as well and cooked on a stove made from an oil drum. This way, as soon as the customer made the order, the animal could be butchered and fried in the wok.
The menu was very simple – one page laminated – that was it.
The restaurant was a family business, and the waitress was the owner’s daughter. She was wearing a white, floral dress and a pair of sponge cake shoes.
It took Xu Ping a while to decipher the owner’s squiggly handwriting, but he ordered a fish, a plate of shrimps, a vegetable dish and clam soup.
But the girl did not leave after taking the menu from Xu Ping. “Would you like anything to drink, sir?” she asked Xu Ping but was looking at Xu Zheng.
Xu Zheng stared at the bucket of chopsticks.
Xu Ping sighed quietly. “Do you have beer?”
“Yes. Do you want that chilled?”
“Sure. I’ll take a bottle.”
The girl would not give up and turned to Xu Zheng. “Would you like a beer too, sir?”
The other customers were starting to stare.
Xu Zheng didn’t seem to have heard.
Xu Ping tried to save the situation. “One is enough. I’ll share with my brother.”
The other patrons seemed to be local islanders and quite familiar with the owner’s family. One of the younger ones burst out laughing and called out to the girl in the local tongue. The others all followed in guffaws.
The girl was so indignant that she was shaking and her eyes were brimming. Feeling sorry, Xu Ping was about to stand up and explain, but she threw the menu down, stomped on it and stormed into the building.
Xu Ping sat back in his seat after a long pause.
The girl didn’t show up again that night.
It was the girl’s mother who brought out the chilled beer. The woman looked about forty or so with a chubby body and generous smile.
She took out a cap opener from her apron pocket, wiped it quickly and opened the bottle with a pop.
White foam surged over the mouth of the bottle.
“Um, is she okay? The lady from just now…” Xu Ping asked secretively.
“Oh, you mean my daughter, Ah-Zhi?” the woman laughed heartily. “She’s fine. She’s fine.”
Xu Ping stayed quiet for a second before explaining, “My brother doesn’t like talking with people. He didn’t mean to embarrass her.”
She poured the beer into a plastic cup. “Teenage girls are the worst, always full of temper. She’ll get over it in her own time.”
She glanced at Xu Zheng. “Oh what do we got here? Sir, your brother is very handsome. He looks like that star on TV.”
Xu Ping grinned.
“You enjoy your stay on the island?”
“Yes. We’ve been here for a couple days now. You could tell?”
“We’ve lived on this island for all these years. We know every family here, so it’s easy to tell who the tourists are.”
“That’s wonderful,” Xu Ping remarked. “Having friends and family around you.”
“We older folks think the island’s lovely. The food is good. The environment’s good. But the young’uns all want to see the world. Like my girl, she keeps saying she wants to be in that talent show on TV, y’know, the one where they wear skimpy clothes and prance around. Says she wants to be a star, make big bucks. Heavens, all she wants to do is play dress up, and she won’t help out with the family things…”
Just as she finished, something shattered in the house.
“Looks like my girl’s angry. We’ll have to continue later.” The woman chuckled apologetically. “The food will be ready soon, sirs.”
The taste was average, but the ingredients were as fresh as could be. The owner put them in a bucket for Xu Ping to inspect that they were live before bringing them to the sink to butcher and wash.
Halfway into their meal, the other customers began to depart leaving Xu Ping and Xu Zheng alone. The mother was very warm and came out many times to refill their water and ask about the food. The owner, on the other hand, was much quieter. After turning off the fire in the oil drum, he sat on a stool far off by the light and smoked by himself.
Tiny bugs swarmed around the bright bulb, and from time to time one would bump into the burning glass before flapping away for its life.
The second floor of the concrete building was the living quarters of the owner and his family. Light and what seemed to be the songs of the television show, Super Girl, were coming from the windows.
The breeze gradually cooled. It was different from the winds in the North; moist and salty, it didn’t dry the skin.
After finishing the last drop of beer in his glass, Xu Ping went over to the owner to pay.
The owner’s wife beamed at him. “Please come again.”
A bit tipsy, Xu Ping nodded.
Afraid that his brother would trip, Xu Zheng stepped towards him and held him by the shoulder, and his brother flashed a smile at him.
Behind them, the owner and his wife began moving the tables and chairs to close for the night.
Most of the shops on the one and only commercial street in town were closed, save a tiny convenience store. The owner had his head tilted back watching the television set on top of a shelf.
It was Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils produced by TVB which had been rerun for god knows how many times.
“Your Majesty, I, Siu Fung, am Khitay and, in threatening Your Majesty today, have become a sinner of Khitay and can face this world no longer.” Then he pierced his own chest.
The owner’s breathing hitched dramatically.
Xu Ping halted his brother. “Do you want ice cream?”
Xu Zheng considered for a second before nodding.
Xu Ping looked through the choices in the freezer. “Mister, can you get me two cones?”
The man slid the freezer open while his gaze stayed on the screen.
Xu Ping paid accordingly, and the man passed him an extra packet of fireworks.
“On the house.”
Xu Ping took it.
On the counter were an unfinished pack of Baisha and a box of matches. Xu Ping held up the latter and waved it towards the owner.
The man glanced over at him and waved his hand impatiently.
The brothers began ripping the packaging on the ice cream cones as they strolled out the store.
Behind them the heroes were bawling around Siu Fung. The actors playing Duen Yu and Hui-juk kept calling “Big Brother!” over and over again until the owner was brimming with tears.
Xu Ping took a bite of the whipped cream on the top and continued down the road, head bent.
“Like it?” he turned to ask his brother.
Xu Zheng nodded.
Xu Ping smiled back.
The moon was exceptionally bright that night. They walked along the beach towards the cottage. The pure moonlight shone down on the sand dancing off in faint flurries.
Xu Ping passed his cone to his brother. “Here.”
“What about you, Gege?”
“I don’t like cold things.”
Xu Zheng took it but looked rather perplexed holding a cone in each hand.
Xu Ping bent down and rinsed off the cream in the seawater. He said after straightening, “Let’s sit down and eat. We’re in no rush. Afterwards we can light the fireworks on the sand.”
He pressed down on his brother’s shoulders to get him to sit before fixing his own clothes and lying down beside him.
He looked up at the sparkling stars. The environment was superb on the island; not only was there no air pollution but there was no light pollution either. The summer night sky was clear and clean, and the weakest of stars were visible scattered across the deep blue curtain like miniscule specks of shiny dust.
His brother was munching away.
“…do you remember Dad?”
Xu Ping slowly turned his head. “Do you…do you know where Dad went?”
“Dad went travelling just like me and Gege.”
Xu Ping looked up at the stars for a long time before continuing hesitantly, “Well, actually it’s not really like that. Dad…he…” But the words got stuck.
He mustered his courage to try again. “He…”
“Dad went on a trip to a place far, far, far away, so far he cannot contact us. I remember. You said it.” Xu Zheng licked a cone.
“Yeah,” Xu Ping answered after a silence. “I did say that.”
“Do you miss Dad?” Xu Ping asked in a bare whisper.
His brother stopped and turned to look at him.
And after a long time, he spoke: “I just need Gege.”
Xu Ping could not speak for a while. He stared at the night sky without so much as a blink while his chest rose and fell.
Then he snapped up. “Let’s light the fireworks.”
Xu Zheng faltered dumbly.
Xu Ping ripped open the packaging to find only two thumb-sized fireworks, and he secured them in the sand about a metre apart from each other.
He beckoned to his brother. “Get away.”
Xu Zheng stood up and took a few steps away.
Xu Ping struck a match and lit the fuses of the two sticks.
He ran over to his brother and covered his ears. “It’s going to be really loud.”
Xu Zheng grinned.
They watched as the fuses burned out, but even long after that there were no explosions.
Xu Ping let his hands fall and said disappointedly, “They probably got damp after sitting around for too long.” He clapped his brother’s shoulder. “Let me take a look.”
He had only taken two steps when the two sticks burst open.
For Xu Ping, the world spun around and his ears rang, and when he opened his eyes again his brother was on top of him.
“Gege.” His brother was cupping his face.
“GEGE!” Xu Zheng was getting loud.
“I’m fine.” Xu Ping chuckled. “I’m fine, Xiao-Zheng. Just gave me scare, is all.”
His brother hugged him tightly.
Purplish red and blue sparks were shooting out from the two sticks with loud pops. The bits of fire propelled high into the air before tracing a parabola and extinguishing in silence on the inky water.
But neither of the brothers had eyes for that.
Xu Ping lay on the beach hugging his brother’s neck.
Caught in a silent, passionate kiss.
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _
Oil drums modelled into outdoor cookers
Various models of Baisha cigarette, the most representative of which is the second, white one.
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _
ayszhang: Mwah~ *3*
Brother - English Translation by ayszhang is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.