Dedicated to all prisoners of war,
my grandfather Iosif Snop and 1,816 POW of Lisbon Maru
I gave her a sixty-minute feet massage for 100 HK dollars and she told me this story I keep thinking about, for free. Sometimes, the best things have no value. So you don’t have to pay me for the story. You can tip me if you want, though.
I FIRST TELL YOU ABOUT ME: I am twenty and I was born in Mainland China. I was bad karma for my family, a disgrace, a shame. My people believe that blindness and deafness are a punishment for bad doings in a past life. I got lucky. My parents didn’t kill me, tie me to the bed or lock me in a dark room. They gave me away to the Catholic nuns. I learned to read Braille there, Chinese and English. At seventeen, Sister Mary took me to a massage school in Hong Kong. She blessed me and told me to remember that against cruelty there is always Faith and Mercy, and to help others the way others helped me. Her God made me angry. He was cruel. Like my father, he abandoned his children. I have my own Faith: Mercy, from people, and Godless Luck. For I am lucky as hell.
In Hong Kong, I lucked out again: my massage school got me a job here. I will not stay, though. I study hard. In four months, I take my gaokao, the university entry exam. If they don’t let me study medicine, I will go to London. I decided this after I heard John’s story. Here it is.
Two years ago, a woman came to our massage store. Of course, I couldn’t see her well but something about her was different from other Western tourists who come in after shopping at the Goldfish and Flower market. She didn’t have shopping bags and smelled like perfume even through the usual street scent of smoke and salt fish.
She wrote in a notebook and as I set up my talking alarm, poured the foamy water in the tub and soaked her feet — tired and swollen, but skin smooth and no calluses, just a few blisters. She kept writing as I dried her feet and winced as I started to roll my thumb around her big toe and along her narrow insole.
I always talk to my clients — to practice my English and to get better tips. I am the only man here. The girls don’t speak English but men tip them anyway. I, I have to speak.
I asked her if she was a writer. She stopped scribbling and stared at me. I always sense the direction of people’s eyes. I am not completely blind, just severely visually impaired. Then she started saying something, and I asked her to speak louder because I am also partially deaf. When I say it, tourists tip me more. Funny how it works: your own parents throw you out like a bone to dogs because you can’t see and hear. Strangers give you mercy — and money. I save all the tips for the future.
Her name was Sandy, and, yes, she was a writer and how did I know — of course, I knew because she was writing in her notebook! I asked what her book was about. And then, loudly, she told me John’s story. Some words I didn’t understand. But I understood the important things.
IT HAPPENED IN 1942, in October, in Hong Kong. At a camp for prisoners of war. Sandy’s grandfather, John, was there. She was writing about her grandfather. I respect this. If I knew my grandfather, if I knew what he did during that war — and I hope he was a hero, too — I’d write a book about him. But I don’t know my grandfather, nor my father, nor my mother.
Like all British soldiers, John surrendered on Christmas Day in 1941 and got stuck at Sham Shui Po Camp. John was twenty, like me. Before the war, he made advertising signs for life, for butchers and barbers and flower shops, in a small town in England. I always wished I could paint. I liked John right away.
John loved his pint of beer and a good joke at a pub. Like Sandy, tall, broad, and a redhead, he once lifted the whole table with a roasted pig and beers back home and threw it into a wall. In the camp, he wrote limericks and drew cartoons. That’s how he kept alive despite the peeling skin, the rat droppings in rice, lice, and filth. They had rice morning, day, and night. Some men ate fattened maggots, but John didn’t have to do it.
Like me, John was lucky. He didn’t get shot or beaten with a sword. He didn’t get malaria or dysentery. He married this Wan Chai girl he knew from before his imprisonment. They got married in prison, they had a priest there. His wife walked through the mud every week, bringing parcels with brown sugar, dried fish, and cigarettes. She had a small child, and she walked with this child on her back. He called her Sugar Pie.
On the last day of September the prisoners, the Brits and Scots, about two thousand, were dragged to the parade ground. A Japanese officer spoke to them, with a translator, of course. He said that the prisoners were going to a beautiful country and told them to remember his face — he would look after them. John drew a caricature of him: a horse-face man with a small mustache, eyes fierce.
John didn’t want to go to a beautiful country. He wanted to go home, to his Mum and Pop, to his dog Bumble. And, in Hong Kong, he had his Sugar Pie. But prisoners don’t choose their fate, John wrote in a letter to his Mum. Sandy had all his letters.
The Japanese loaded the prisoners on board a freighter and then put them in three holds, packed like sardines, shoulder to shoulder, lying on the floor and on some platforms. With no washing, the hold smelled like a barn in three days. They still had rice and tea, but sometimes at night they had bully beef. Big James, the squinting man to his right, told everyone that the Japanese were better at home, that they wanted to show their humanity. A doctor to the left of John, a small man with a big black beard sticking out — John made lots of caricatures of him in the camp — Dr. McDouglas, said the Japanese doctor took away all his medical books in the camp and told him they could only be slaves once the Japanese win the war. Dr. McDouglas told him that everyone was a slave. The Japanese slapped him on the face. But Big James said it would be better: he had a gut feeling. He said God would save them. Dr. McDouglas said nothing would save this cruel world. John said they all needed a little luck.
I LOVED JOHN. I rubbed Sandy’s arches with almond oil. What if John were my grandfather? What if his wife, Sugar Pie, raised his son, my father? I wanted a grandfather like John. I kept listening, but now with even more attention.
THE PRISONERS ONLY GOT OUT to use latrines, wooden huts hanging over the ocean, off the deck. Some Japanese were kinder than others, and a few times John got to smoke on the deck and look at the green water.
During the endless hours inside John mind-painted. The Japanese took his notepad and pencils, but in his mind, he had a canvas and oil paints on a palette, the fat worms of brilliant blue and burning red, warm sienna, and final, funeral black. He mind-painted Bumble, scratching behind the ear by the pub door in the rain, and felt Bumble’s wet, dog scent: home.
He painted his yard at sunset: Mom shooing the chicken into the barn, saw-dust, and hay, Pop, his crooked pipe in yellow fingers, on a bench, puffing away, smoke rings rising, tobacco reeking sweet and strong. He mind-painted Sugar Pie in her best dress made of a curtain, green silk soft and warm under his hands. Mind-painting got sweeter than dreams or real painting: it had touch and smell and felt more real than the Japanese barks on the deck or Big James’s sweat bath.
I KNEW ABOUT MIND-PAINTING. How many times I mind-painted sweet girl from the bakery downstairs and her ponytail over the nape of her neck and the shadow in the V-neck of her shirt.
JOHN HAD ONE SPECIAL PAINTING from his house. It hung over his bed when he was a boy. The Virgin held her baby close to her chest and the folds of her robe, smooth and shining, were flowing over the oak floor. John remembered every wrinkle in her sleeve, every strand of her hair, and for hours, Big James praying on his right, Dr. McDouglas silent on his left, John mind-painted the Virgin. Only, instead of the Virgin’s grape-shaped and blue eyes, he painted his Sugar Pie: face, small, almost triangle, eyes like chocolate. The ship rocked. Big James was right: there was hope.
WHEN I WAS FIVE, Sister Mary let me touch the statue in our chapel, brushed my fingers over the smooth wood. It was Our Lady of Mercy. I could feel her pointed nose, her straight hair, the circles of her breasts. Sister Mary then told me I had eyes in my fingers and in my heart. She said my heart is full of eyes and I could see. With those eyes you would find your real family one day, she said.
I listened to Sandy and kneaded her calves — tight and angular — and also hoped. I hoped that Sugar Pie was my grandmother, and Sandy found me on purpose. That my real family found me.
ON THE FIFTH DAY, at six in the morning officer Stewart woke everyone up for a roll call. John climbed the iron ladder to the deck and used the latrine. The water was still, the sun was shining orange-pink and a fishing boat rocked on the mirror-like water. John even whistled a little tune that he heard years — seemed ages ago — back home, at a pub, and had a brief vision of Mum’s pie. The Japanese on guard, the kind fellow, laughed at him.
Then came a loud explosion. The engines stopped. All lights went out. The Japanese guard hit John with his rifle and pushed him into the hold.
Inside everyone screamed: Big James about a torpedo and Allies and rescue, Dr. McDouglas about the engine exploding. After two hours men stopped speaking. John fell into a heavy slumber. He woke up either from the explosion or Big James having bad diarrhea. No one could go up anymore. The Japanese stopped answering: no more water, no latrines. They did put a canvas over the hatches, in wind funnels, though, and John started to mind-paint on that canvas, the face, the eyes, the small round ear. Almost no air came in. Dr. McDouglas said that’s how the hell would smell. Big James said it was hell. John said they needed luck now, that’s all.
It got darker. By the time John painted the pink toenails of the Virgin’s feet, the canvas stretched. The hatches closed. Blind darkness set in. Sweat rolled off John’s arms. He didn’t drink for over a day. He was delirious, he knew that.
Big James got up and climbed over the bodies and up the ladder, cut open the canvas with a long butcher knife he stole from the camp. A deep incision went through the Brown Sugar Virgin’s cheek. Bloody tears rolled down along with light. Dr. McDouglas lay still, black beard stuck up, nose yellow and transparent. Dead. John climbed over him and up the ladder and up to the deck.
After that, he remembered only parts: the kind Japanese shooting Big James, his body plummeting into the water and disappearing, officer Stewart jumping into the water after him, being shot, red ink in green, two men clinging to the mast, the cold of the water, gunfire, gunfire, gunfire, and through all, the Mother of God with his wife’s face walking towards him, John, on the water, her arms outstretched.
MY ALARM CLOCK SAID “Five minutes.” Sandy stopped talking. I washed the oil off her toes and started to dry them, one by one, with a towel, waiting. I could see them, my fingers could see them. I thought of the Virgin’s toes and how John painted them without seeing them.
Sandy kept still. I needed to know what happened to John and if he made it to shore, and if he went back to England, and what happened to his Hong Kong wife, his Sugar Pie, my grandmother, and if John really was my grandfather, and I waited for her to say that, now, then, but she didn’t and then I shot all these questions at her, at once, and then the clock said “Over.”
Sandy cried, whispered something that I didn’t hear, then blew her nose, apologized, gave me a 35 HK dollar tip, hugged me, and left.
I do believe that John could have been my grandfather. There could be no success on account of a small obstacle, I think. John didn’t give up, and I won’t give up. I am like him. Locked in the dark hold of a hell ship, but my heart is full of eyes. I don’t believe in cruel karma or evil spirits. I don’t need anyone’s pity. I believe in Godless Luck and People’s Mercy and I will get there, no matter what. You’ll see.
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Zarina Zabrisky is the author three short story collections, a book of collaborative poetry co-written with Simon Rogghe, and a novel, We, Monsters. Her work has been included in more than thirty literary journals, among them The Nervous Breakdown, A Capella Zoo, Eleven Eleven, and Red Fez.