Further down the dock, they scoop out fish eyes. I don’t do that; I’m an honest fisherman. I live in harmony with the Tao. Even when the tide comes, I dock my boat empty-handed. I won’t ever scoop out fish eyes. Government men tell us there’s no toxins, but I don’t believe a word they say. This river’s polluted. That’s why I keep my fish eyes in. Men need integrity in times like these.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Father motions to me; he’s watching television again. I don’t understand how he can sit still and stare at that flashing screen for so long. I lean the dustpan against the bamboo wall and walk over. As the years have passed, more and more Western trinkets have come to decorate our formerly sparse abode, a grandfather clock the newest addition. In Father’s words, Feng Shui is a thing of the past. Two steps forward, a sticky blob yanks at my bare foot. I must’ve missed it while sweeping: it’s dried soda. Mother must’ve spilled Coca-Cola. It’s all she’s been drinking ever since that new shop opened up.
Crossing the threshold, a set of blond hair and ruby red lips stares back at me. It’s a poster of Marilyn Monroe. Ever since the local cinema began playing old Hollywood reruns, a bit of a cult following had formed. Even with Mother’s disapproval, Father joined the legion. A couple more steps and and I’m beside him, his right arm extended, pointing at the screen. It takes me a moment to read the letters; I’m still not too good at reading English. It says ‘University of California.’ There are shots of Chinese boys and girls walking across campus, mixed in with the whites, blacks, and browns.
F ——— Look at the all the Chinese, Yong. There’s so many Chinese.Everyone is going to America. They call it the land of the opportunities.
F ——— Xiuting’s going to America, you know. He’s going to attend college there.
Y ——— I know Xiuting’s going to America.
Looking down from those washed-up eyes, I scan the wrinkles beside his mouth. They curl down into his chin, following the loose white whiskers of his mustache. Not even his body can deny a lifetime’s worth of scowling.
Y ——— I struggled so much just to finish secondary, Father. College isn’t for me. I just want to stay here and become a fisherman. A fisherman like you.
F ——— Wuzhen already has plenty fisherman. If you want to follow in my footsteps, listen to what I say. Go to America. Settle down and bring the family name with you.
Y ——— My family name is Fong. My kind has lived in Wuzhen for hundreds of years. They built this home. Why would I even think about carrying our name beyond here? This is my city, my home and my culture-
I pause, waiting for his mouth to follow the line of wrinkles.
Y ——— I thought it was yours too.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
I jam my fork into it. The left eye should be here. Ma said it was bad manners to play with food at the dinner table, but I just don’t like the way the fish looks at me without actually looking at me. Like always, she finished first and went up to her room. It’s not like she’ll notice, it’s just me and this fish. We started dinner without Pa. Ma said he’s busy with work, but she said that with such a bad stutter. She never stutters. I don’t think she knows where Pa actually is.
I rip out the fork and jab it again into the hole where the fish’s eye should be. The meat is darkened, almost to the point of blackness, but it still doesn’t taste right. It’s funky, like it’s been cooked, then recooked: the flesh is so chewy. Fish bits keeps getting caught in my teeth.
Would it be looking at me if its eyes were still there? Maybe it would. Maybe it would give me a sad look, like it was wondering if I was the one who baked him till he turned black. I reach for my knife, but stop short. I hate using those metal things; they’re just so big and forceful - like their inventors. I can’t get around the bone in the middle, though. I flip the fish over with my fingers. Pa’d call that bad manners.
- - - - - - - - - - -
Even though the water’s only to my ankles, I’m already shivering. Ma and Pa said not to wade this far out into the river. I look back to Xiuting standing on the bank. Remember what he said: Your parents don’t know what they don’t know.
He’s coming in after me anyway.
The rocks prick my feet as I wade across. A couple jagged stones dig into the soles of my feet. The water used to be so much bluer now it’s a mix of greens and purples among the blue. It only get murkier the deeper I wade. The river’s up to my calves now, and it’s starting to sting. Another step forward, it’s above my knee. This water’s turning black here, and I don’t feel any more fishes swimming around my feet. This doesn’t feel like water anymore, it’s thicker, oily and it hurts, it really hurts. Even though the water’s freezing, my legs feel as if they’re burning. The skin of my thigh’s turning greenish-purple. I look back and see Xiuting. He stops smiling. Ma and Pa were right; I shouldn’t wade this far out into the river. Still, they won’t know what they won’t know.
- - - - - -
I ask Pa to read to me. He knows I like stories. Grabbing the newspaper that rests on the wooden table, he skims the front cover. Climbing onto the couch, I stare at the bowl of fruits: kiwi and kumquat. Our living room is almost empty: only a table, two couches and a landscape painting hung across the wall. Flattening the yellowed sheet against his thigh, he frowns before reading the front cover. Pa is starting to look a little old, black hair turning grey.
F ——— The government is revamping its program to Westernize ancient cities.
Y ——— What does that mean, Pa?
F ——— The government’s going to make places like Wuzhen more advanced. They want more foreigners in China, especially Americans. The government really wants Americans to move here.
I’ve never met an American. I’m sure Pa never has either. What’s so special about them? People are people.
Y ——— Read me another one, Pa.
He flips the page and scans the inked columns. He puts his finger on one section before reading it aloud to me.
F ——— Source reports Wuzhen tributaries are becoming dark and cloudy. Officials refuse to comment.
Y ——— What’s a tributary, Pa?
F ——— It’s a little river that comes together with other little rivers to make a bigger one.
Y ——— So does that mean that the water in Wuzhen is going to turn dark?
F ——— The newspaper seems to think so, but we can only tell with time, Yong. Time always tells.
- - - - -
I poke at the center bone; I’ve eaten all the meat on this side of the fish. I look up at Ma and Pa. They keep talking over each other, things about government and fishing and foreign people. They’re talking too fast for me to keep up, but I like watching Ma’s cheeks get redder and redder. Her face is round, just like mine, and she says that we have the same eyes. She has pretty eyes. So I must have pretty eyes. They keep repeating that same word: yoo-nigh-ted-stay-tis. I don’t know what that means. I look down at the golden brown fish. A trace of blue remains in its eye.
Blue fish with blue eyes swim in the blue river.
I poke at the eye with my chopstick. It’s fleshy; my chopstick bounces back at me. I poke at it again and a bit of goo runs down the side. It’s eye juice. I’m going to eat the rest of this fish, though, and I can’t eat it if there’s eye juice all over. With the tips of my chopsticks, I pinch the loose flap of skin and flip the fish over.
Pa stops talking and immediately grabs my right hand: my eating hand. Squeezing it, he uses my chopsticks to grab that same flap of skin and flip the piece of meat over.
F ——— Don’t ever flip a fish, Yong. That’s the fisherman’s curse. You’ll make my boat sink the next time I go out on the river.
M ——— Lăogōng, someone told me that some fisherman’s boat sank earlier this week.
Pa looks back at her and they start talking fast again. I hope I can talk like them one day. But I can’t curse him; I don’t want his boat to sink. Then he won’t be able to catch any more fish. Never flip the fish. Remember that, Yong. Never flip the fish.
- - -
Only Ma is here. She’s upstairs. I think I can get past the door. I can. It’s cold outside, but the water, it’s so blue and so clear. I have to see it up close. It keeps going down and down and down. I see little fishies too. I’m almost there. I’m on the grass, and it’s soft and wet. Look at it. Wuzhen water is so pretty. I cup my hands to get some. It’s cold. I lift my hands to my lips, and they tingle as I drink. I take another gulp, and watch the river keep going and going. I hope it always stays this blue.