When I am kidnapped, it does not happen in an alleyway. It does not happen in the middle of the night. It does not happen when I am alone.
When I am kidnapped, I am thirteen and standing in the middle of the Zhifu fish market on Beach Road, watching a fleshy woman assemble whitefish the shape of spades into a pile. The woman squats, her knees in her armpits, rearranging the fish so the best ones rise to the top. Around us, a dozen fishmongers do the same, their own piles of fish suspended in nets, squirming. Below the nets are pails to catch the water sliding off fish bodies. The ground is glossy with water from the ones that are not yet dead. When they flail in the air, they gleam like silver firecrackers.
The whole place smells wet and raw.
Someone yells about red snapper. Fresh, they say. Straight from the Gulf of Pechili. Another voice tumbles over that one, louder, brighter. Real shark fin! Boost sexual potency, make skin better, increase energy for your little emperor!
This is poetry to the house servants who came to the fish market for their masters. Bodies surge in the direction of the shark fin voice, knocking and grinding for the promise of a promotion, of rank advancement, of favorability. It could all rest on the quality of shark fin.
While the others clamor, I remain staring at the fish woman, who continues to rearrange her pile. Her fish are not in a net like the others, but laid out on a tarp. At her shuffling, loose fish slide down from the top of the heap to the tarp’s edge, where they remain vulnerable and unattended.
Hunger presses against the walls of my stomach. It would be so easy to snatch one. In the time it takes for me to approach, grab the fish farthest from her, and sprint away, the woman would barely be able to rise to her feet. I finger the silver pieces in my pants before letting them fall back into the lining. This money should be saved, not wasted on some limp fish. I would just take one or two, nothing she could not make up the next day. The ocean holds plenty.
But by the time I decide, the fish woman has noticed me. She knows immediately who I am, sees the gnawing in my belly, an insistence that hollows all the things it touches. My body betrays me; it is as thin as a reed. She recognizes what she sees in all the urchins who dare slide into the fish market, and before I can look away, she is in front of me, body heaving.
What do you want?
Her eyes are narrowed. She flaps at me, hands the size of pans.
I duck one, then two blows. Away, away! she yells. Behind her, the whitefish wait in their pile, glistening. There is still time to grab a few and run away.
But the rest of the market has noticed us by now.
I saw that scamp here yesterday, someone shouts. Grab him and we will give him a good whipping!
The fishmongers nearby roar in agreement. They emerge from behind their fish and form a barricade around me and the woman. I have stayed too long, I think, as their shoulders lock against each other. There will be a lot to explain to Master Wang if I ever get home. If I am still allowed to stay at home.
Get him, someone else yells gleefully. The woman lunges forward, hands outstretched. Her gums are the color of rot. Behind her, the fishmongers’ faces fatten with anticipation. I close my eyes and brace.
But what I am expecting does not come. Instead, a pressure descends on my shoulder, warm and sure. I open my eyes. The woman is frozen, her arms outstretched. The fishmongers inhale together.
Where have you been, a voice says. It comes from above, the color of honey. I have been looking all over for you.
I raise my head. A slender man with a large forehead and a pointed chin smiles down at me. He is young, but he carries himself with the weight of someone older. I have heard tales of immortals who descend from the sky, of dragons that turn into wardens who turn into human forms. Of those who protect people like me.
The man winks at me.
You know this scoundrel? the fish woman pants. Her arms now hang at her sides, red and splotched.
Scoundrel? The man laughs. This is no scoundrel. This is my nephew.
The fishmongers around us groan and begin to disperse, returning to their unmanned fish. There would be no excitement today. Red snapper, red snapper, the first voice offers again.
But the fish woman does not believe the man. I can tell. She glares at him, then at me, daring me to look away. Something about the man’s hand on my shoulder, the calm heat of it, tells me that if I do, we will never leave this place. I continue to stare back at the fish woman, unblinking.
If you have a problem, the man continues, you can speak with my father, Master Eng.
And just like that, as if the man has spoken magic into the air, the fish woman looks away first. I blink one, two, three times, the backs of my eyelids raw.
I am so sorry, Brother Eng, she says, bowing. So dark in here, and the fish are making me light-headed. I will send Master Eng my best fish to make up for this terrible mistake.
We leave the market together, me and this tall winking stranger. He keeps his hand on my shoulder until we are both back on the street. It is midday, and the light from the sun casts everything into greens and gold. A merchant walks past us with a sow in tow, her teats swinging.
We are in the foreign business center of Zhifu’s Beach Road. Over the tile roofs and the British consulate, a rush of green fields swells toward faraway hills. The cotton roar of the beach is at our backs, the sea breeze one long exhale around us. The air here is rich with salt. Everything clings to me, and I to everything.
I have come because there is always something to be found here. In places where foreigners roam, I find silver pieces, embroidered handkerchiefs, dropped gloves. The frivolous things with which Westerners garnish their bodies. Today brought two pieces of silver. They jingle in my pocket next to the four pieces I earned from Master Wang. Today, I could call myself wealthy.
In the daylight, I inspect my strange winking man. He feels rich, but he is not dressed like the other rich men I have seen. Instead of a silk chang shan, he wears a white shirt with a shiny fabric dangling from his neck. His black jacket is heavy and open, instead of buttoned to the neck, and his pants are tight. Most odd of all is his hair—not braided into a queue but shorn and cropped close to his head.
What do you think, little nephew? my savior says, still smiling.
I am a girl, I blurt out. I cannot help myself.
He laughs. The sunlight reflects two yellow teeth. I think of tales where men have yellow teeth, how those teeth grew from pieces of gold. That I knew, he says, but being a boy worked out better for us both, in this case.
He scans me, eyes bright with intent. Are you hungry? Are you here alone? Where is your family?
I tell him, Yes, I am starving. I am eager for him to show me his mercy. There are things I want to ask him, too, like, Who are you? Where did you come from? Who is Master Eng, and why did the fish woman back away so suddenly when you said his name?
Let me tell you all about it, he says, placing his hand back on my shoulder. He suggests noodles—there is a good shop just down the street.
Something tells me that this invitation is not one to be taken lightly. I nod and offer him a shy smile. This is answer enough. He steers me farther away from the fish market and we stroll down the street together, passing the post office, three more foreign consulates, and a church. Passersby stare at us before returning to themselves, momentarily stunned by this odd father-and-son duo, one dressed like a character from the theater, the other wan and skittish. Behind us, the ocean froths.
With every noodle shop we pass I ask my savior, Is it this one? With every noodle shop we pass he says, No, little nephew, not quite yet. We keep walking until I do not know where we are anymore, and by the time we are done walking, I understand that we will never arrive at the noodle shop.
It is the first day of spring.
Copyright © 2022 by Jenny Tinghui Zhang.