Two Princes in San Francisco

It was likely early in the morning, with how much Zaihao’s stomach rolled. The ground rose and fell rhythmically, in time with his own chest. It made him even sicker. The ship was breathing with him; the waves were breathing with him. It was disgusting. When he leaned his head against the delightfully cool wall, he could see Ma, standing huddled against the far corner, revulsion drawn upon her face. The air was too hot. Zaihao wanted to die. He wanted to go home. He wanted to see the sun. He looked to his mother again, not daring to open his mouth. Please, Ma, sense his pain.

“Here! Gold Mountain!” came the cry from above, in terrible Chinese, and Zaihao immediately stood up. His head was clear; his stomach was settled. Golden Mountain. All that time spent on the seas, crossing the ill-named Peaceful Ocean. He wobbled to his feet, alongside the hundreds of eager faces that surrounded him since they cast off. Slowly, the gates of the hold slid open, and some handful of pale men nervously entered. They stared at the passengers. The passengers stared at them. For a long second, nobody moved, as if they were two armies facing each other, as if they were in Canton again, trading gunfire for the fate of the Empire.

“Uhh . . . Gold Mountain?” said one of the pale men, breaking the stillness, and the life force returned to all of the people. Passengers clambered over the cargo, charging past the dockworkers in a wave of desperation. Even if Zaihao wanted to stay in the dark, vomit-scented chamber, he would be jostled out into the clean air by swarms of angry hands. Cries of relief, frustration, and excitement, in dozens of dialects, surrounded him. Like rats.

“Ma!” he shouted into the crowd. Where was she? Everywhere he looked was a stranger. He wrestled on the open deck with a mass of men, spinning around and around, struggling to look over much larger shoulders. “Ma!” His voice came out almost silent in the din. He couldn’t hear it in his own ears; if he didn’t feel the movement of his mouth, perhaps he didn’t say it at all. He kept shouting, pushing fruitlessly against the crowd, until at last he realized that everything had gone still. Why had that happened? Zaihao gathered himself up on his tiptoes. Finally, he saw.

At the pier had gathered a crowd. They looked, curiously, up at the incoming crowd, both seeking something familiar in the other. There was an invisible barrier between them, emanating from one figure; a pale man, dressed in a disheveled blue coat. He, from his lower perch, somehow looked down upon them, with his wet brown eyes. He raised a slow hand up, and with the command of an assured general waved gracefully. This broke the barrier. The locals surged forward, shouting names and expressions of filiation. Brothers, spouses, children, and countless relations met. At last, Zaihao could see his mother’s nervous face peeking between the arms of a long-separated pair. The whirl of bodies shifted, bringing the two together again.

“Treasure,” Ma said, coolly, as if he hadn’t stepped out of her sight for a second. “Stay near me now.” She beckoned with a practiced hand, calling him to her side. Zaihao did as he was instructed, but looked around curiously for the pale fellow. He was gone.

“Did you see the man?” he asked Ma. “With the brown beard?”

“Do not trust the pale faces,” Ma responded, sharply. “They are no friends of ours, no different from Great-Aunt. Remember; no matter where we hide, we are still imperial blood; these white men will drink us like wine.”

“G’morning, Dad,” said Clara, having snuck up behind him and wrapped her arms around his shoulders. Normally this would make him jolt, or jump, something to that effect. However, today he barely moved, hunched over he was in front of that newspaper. “I said ‘g’morning.’”

“Yes. G’morn,” he mumbled. “These traitors. This ‘Congress.’ I will send them a letter once again; this is truly the last straw.” He rustled the paper in such a way as, annoyingly, to obscure the words.

“Your Imperial Majesty, ever punctual!” came a chipper voice, from across the room, and a steaming plate was shoved down in front of Dad. He peered right over the plate at the restauranteur. His face bore an impish grin, which grew strained as he turned his face to Clara. 

“. . . Your Highness.” He left quickly after that. She tried to focus on the page, the one that had ired Dad so.

“Page Act?”

“Unconscionable!” Dad blustered, as he does sometimes when he is in a mood. “Just this morning, I extended my royal protection to a ship of Chinese. Just this morning! Undesirable? This won’t be the end of it!” His rant was cut short by a fierce tremor, and Clara reached out to steady him. Luckily his spoon didn’t splash its contents. “Thankee.”

“Of course.” The shakes had gotten worse since last year, with the Nativists. The newspapers went wild with it; the Emperor vs the American People. His Majesty Joshua Norton; not so loyal to San Francisco? More on page six. They could’ve killed him. They could’ve killed her twice over. 

“I can walk; don’t bother.” Dad struggled to his feet, leaning hard on his umbrella. The saber at his side rattled gently with the effort. “Don’t bother.” She did nonetheless.

Zaihao could not say exactly why he and Ma left home. It had something to do with Great-Aunt, who kept the throne on behalf of cousin Zaitian. Perhaps now some other name. Great-Aunt had no love for him, or perhaps no love for Pa. Somehow, this meant he and Ma couldn’t stay in Beijing. It was Master Smith the missionary who arranged for them to stow away on the ship bound for Gold Mountain. Master Smith who taught him English, or as much as he could. Zaihao practiced a few words aloud, while he had silence in his mind. 

“‘Hello, my name is Zachary,’” he said to the air. Apparently it was common in the Beautiful Country. “‘I am Zachary.’ ‘Good morning.’” Ma nodded along.

“That sounds correct,” she said. Sometimes they would pass others on the streets, and Ma would reach out to them, as if to give them commands. If they noticed, they would shuffle away. If they didn’t, Ma would suddenly remember herself and pull back, becoming even more withdrawn into herself.

Zaihao could not begin to guess what fate could have befallen Pa. Perhaps his head hung from the walls of the Forbidden City. Perhaps he withers away in a dungeon, more cramped even than the ship’s hold, going mad as he sings Tang poems at the walls. He didn’t know exactly what sort of power Great-Aunt wielded, but even he knew that the whole of China, from the court of the Forbidden City to its far corners, feared her name. They say “Cixi” as the way they would say “Cao Cao;” in hushed whispers, lest they by some turn of fate appear. Surely Pa and Ma were no exception.

“. . . Now the Pacific Appeal,” Clara said. She held Dad tight by the arm.

“Yes, yes, I remember,” he grumbled, but patted her hand with his free one. “The tremors do nothing to my mind.” That was a lie. He has been falling over his own words more and more, and memories besides. He had taken to staring into the distance, at some distant item only visible to his eyes. Even his beard had suffered the toll of time, having taken on a speckle. “Yes, the Pacific Appeal. The Fourth and noblest of the Estates. The Pacific.”

“This way,” Clara said, guiding him down a path that would cut through Chinatown. His grip on her tightened. He wobbled a little, and had to stop and right himself.

“Tremor? Nonsense.” The Emperor in him faded and flickered like the embers in coal. Clara shook her head.

“There!” Zaihao pointed into the distance. The bearded man. “I saw him again; I must know who he is to the Gold Mountain people.”

“Do not follow him,” Ma said. “Do not leave my side.” 

“But I-”

“Do not.” Ma reached out and grabbed his wrist. He froze. Her face was shattered, like porcelain. It was then that he realized she was scared, far more so than he was. His curiosity burned in his chest like a disease. He slowly pried his mother’s hand off of him. She made little effort, in the end, to resist.

“I will stay,” he said. That was that.

“Huang Di,” followed Clara wherever she went. They stared at Dad with reverence, the words following in mutters behind them. Occasionally an older fellow would approach them and offer them some samplings of Chinese food. Dad never refused. In Chinatown, the memories lurk in dark corners. She walked quicker, past the packed residences, past the orphanages, past home. Past her mom, she couldn’t say, as she turned her head away from those middle-aged ladies who sold themselves in the night. Past her dad, she couldn’t say, as she glanced sideways at the aging men at their gambling tables, dreaming of gold veins long dried up.

“Clara,” Dad whispered, and she realized how far she had dragged them. “Clara. Please. I can’t keep up.”

“Sorry.” The warm air dropped to a chill.

“You can’t be racing away from your subjects when you are Empress of these United States, you know. And they all are. Even your-”

“I know,” she said. That was that.

3 thoughts on “Two Princes in San Francisco”

Leave a Comment