by Shan Xiaoming
Ah Kang had repeated the sentence "Blood is thicker than water" for more than one hundred times. He was now sick of saying it. Well, he was sick. He went to see Lao Zhao, who ran a Chinese herbal medicine store. He sat down on the chair before Lao Zhao's table, stretched out his right arm towards him and pulled up the sleeve. Lao Zhao took hold of his right wrist, felt his impulses and asked him to stick out his tongue, which he found was heavily furred. He concluded that Ah Kang had a lot of internal heat.
"What is internal heat?" Ah Kang asked.
"It means that the Yang is too strong. It is usually induced by worry, anger and anxiety that make one feel hot internally." Lao Zhao went on to ask, "Is there anything that is bothering you?"
Ah Kang grimaced and then sighed while shaking his head.
Ah Kang could not agree with Lao Zhao more. Inside him, worry, anger and anxiety were making him feel unbearably hot, so hot that he felt he was going to be burned.
An ambulance siren suddenly started screaming somewhere in the street and it squealed louder and louder. Recently he had repeative dreams of ambulance, screaming ear-piercing sirens and rushing recklessly towards the hospital with his Honghong lying moribund in it. He involuntarily turned around to see what the siren was about this time, then realizing it was irrelevant, turned back and forced a smile to Lao Zhao, joking that he was such a sensitive idiot.
Honghong was Ah Kang's foster daughter. Five years ago, one day when he was passing a dustbin, he heard a very weak cry from a box beside it. He went closer and opened the box. To his greatest surprise, he found in it a newborn baby wrapped up in a small thin quilt, together with a bag of milk and a piece of folded paper. He unfolded the paper to see a date and a Chinese character Zhang on it. The date must be baby's birth date and the character must be her family name.
Ah Kang, holding the baby in his hands, did not know what to do. After quite a while's soul-searching, he finally decided to take the baby home. Unmarried and poor, the arrival of the baby seemed to him a gift from heaven. He called the baby Honghong, which denoted the red color of the quilt she was wrapped up with. Besides, the color red is the symbol of thriving in Chinese culture. He hoped the unexpected arrival of a baby of redness would make his life thrive.
Every day, Ah Kang would take Honghong to his neighbor's home and leave her there before he went off to work. Every time he waved goodbye to her, the little thing would embrace his neck and cry bitterly, unwilling to let him go. When in the evening he came to get her, she would shuffle along to the door to greet him and then jumped into the arms he had extended, kissing him wildly on the face. When they were back home, the erstwhile shabby and dark room where Ah Kang had lived alone for more than thirty years was enlivened by their laughter and brightened by the brimming happiness that filled the father and daughter.
A year later, the baby learned to speak and the first discernable syllables she uttered were "Papa". Prior to this, as an orphan, Ah Kang had never called anyone Papa or been called Papa. The sensation of being called as "Papa" by a little baby ecstasized him. He felt as if he had won the top prize in a lottery and all the past hardships of buying lottery without winning back anything was finally paid off. No, it was more than lottery. Could one buy anybody else calling himself "Papa" so sweetly and naturally, even though they were not biologically tied at all, with whatever a big sum of money? The father and daughter lived together happily for two years till Honghong turned three. One day, he was washing Honghong's feet just before he was about to put her to bed when he found some mysterious red spots along her two legs. Then, a weird illness took possession of her; she had fever continuously and whenever her legs or some other parts of her body bleed accidentally, it was very difficult to stop the bleeding. Such strange symptoms unnerved Ah Kang immensely. He took her to see Lao Zhao, who prescribed some medicine herbs for her. The herbs, however, did not take effect. Then, Lao Zhao suggested they go to the hospital, where he was instructed to take the child to do a lot of tests and then asked to come back for the result a week later.
He waited impatiently for a week. When the day finally came, he went alone to the hospital again. He first went to take the report of results and then took it to the doctor. When the doctor was looking at the paper of report, his eyebrows came together in a frown above his gauze mask. He then handed back to him the report and told him that it was leukemia.
"Leukemia?" Ai Kang did not understand what it was. Whatever it was, it must be the name of a certain illness. Now that the doctor knew what was wrong with Honghong, he said to the doctor he hoped that Honghong could be treated immediately.
"There is no cure for that," the doctor said. Then, he paused, probing for the most appropriate words before he said again, "It is also called 'blood cancer'." The doctor's voice was gentle but it sounded like thunder to Ah Kang; the floor seemed to be swaying beneath his feet; he had to hold the corner of a nearby desk with his left hand.
Ah Kang knew what "blood cancer" was. He had watched a TV serial in which a beautiful girl died of blood cancer.
"Are you sure there isn't any mistake about that?" Ah Kang asked in a trembling voice.
"It can't be wrong. I have already suspected that according to her symptoms. Now, with the report of the tests, the suspicion is confirmed," the doctor said confidently.
"How come there is no cure?" Ah Kang asked, the last word cracking as it left his mouth. Tears welled up in his eyes.
"Well, not exactly. Marrow transplantation is one possible cure. But it is usually very troublesome and expensive."
Ah Kang was encouraged; his hope was reviving. If only there was a cure, no matter how troublesome and expensive.
"It is troublesome because it needs the marrow of the donor to match exactly that of the patient. Generally speaking, the family members like parents, children and siblings are more likely to be successful in the matching," the doctor explained.
Ah Kang's heart sank.
"Even if we can find the perfect donor, the operation is very expensive. Many people gave up the operation on account of economic problem," the doctor added.
"How much is it?" Ah Kang asked tentatively. He knew any amount of money would be too much for him.
"If everything goes smoothly, it is estimated to be a little more than three hundred thousand."
Three hundred thousand! Never had Ah Kang possessed or even seen such a big sum of money.
No family members as the donor and no money for the operation, Honghong was surely doomed. Irritated, Ah Kang went to Lao Zhao's place for help with the piece of paper that bore the date of Honghong's birth and the character of Honghong's family name, hoping that Lao Zhao could figure out something from it.
Lao Zhao studied the piece of paper for a long while; his thick eyebrows knitted together. He finally looked up from the paper and said finding Honghong's parents was almost akin to finding a needle in the ocean.
Indeed, in the ocean of people, how could he find someone as tiny as a needle? Ah Kang flopped down on a chair and clutched at his forehead, the muscles of his face tightened with disappointment. Lao Zhao gave off a long sigh and then put down the piece of paper and took up the newspaper he had been reading when Ah Kang came to see him a while ago.
Out of the corner of his eyes, Ah Kang caught sight of a headline in the newspaper, which read, "Looking for a Long Lost Friend". Immediately, his eyes stretched wide. He jumped up and grabbed the newspaper from Lao Zhao. Excitedly, he shouted to him, "Lao Zhao, we can ask the newspaper to help us." He then threw away the newspaper, and took hold of Lao Zhao's shoulders, shaking him wildly, which almost made the spectacles on his nose drop on the ground. He had the impulse to kiss Lao Zhao on his wrinkled and greasy face.
Lao Zhao quickly comprehended Ah Kang's excitement. He became excited, too. He struck his forehead with the palm of his hand, saying, "Yes. Why haven't I thought of it earlier?"
Immediately, they made a phone call to the newspaper. A woman answered. After Ah Kang's brief account of why he had made the phone call, the woman seemed to be interested. She asked Ah Kang to give her his address and said she would send a reporter over for an interview.
Ah Kang waited impatiently with Lao Zhao in the store. Soon, it started to rain. They began to worry that perhaps the reporter would never come. But just then, a young man dashed into the store, sprinkling raindrops everywhere.
He introduced himself as Xiao Liu, the reporter from the newspaper.
They excitedly made him seated. Lao Zhao went to get a towel for the young man to wipe the raindrops off his head with. Ah Kang handed him a cup of newly brewed jasmine tea. Then the young man took out a notebook and started the interview while taking sips from the cup of tea once in a while.
On and off, Ah Kang managed to finish the story. Lao Zhao, as a witness, confirmed from time to time what he was saying and supplemented his story with his passionate comments. Xiao Liu, after Ah Kang finished his story, asked him a few questions. Before he left, he asked them to be patient before the report came out.
On the first day after the interview, the report did not come out. They said to each other it took a while to write the report. On the second day the report did not come out, either. They became worried and regretted that they had not bribed the young man to make sure that the report would come out. On the third day, before Lao Zhao had yet got up early in the morning,
Ah Kang was pounding noisily on the door, holding the newspaper with the report.
The report had a very impressive title: "Find the Family, Save the Girl". The report gave a realistic picture of how Ah Kang found the girl beside a dust bin, how he had raised the girl despite all the difficulties, how unfortunately the girl was now inflicted with leukemia, and how the family members were urgently needed to be found as the donor of marrow to save the poor girl.
When it came to the end, it said emotionally, "We believe that blood is thicker than water. Inside Honghong and her family members is running the same blood. We hope the girl will not only be saved by what the family can donate for her, but also by the genuine love they will unselfishly shed on the girl. Love, we believe, is the best cure for any deadly disease and more effective than any expensive medicine in the world. "
Ah Kang was very much impressed by the saying "blood is thicker than water". The family blood was so fully pregnant of love and kinship that it was of course a much stronger bond than plain water.
Soon after the report was published, everyday there were phone calls to claim that they were Honghong's parents. Besides the phone calls, some people went directly to the office building of the newspaper, demanding to see the child and then take the child home.
An emergent meeting was held to discuss the matter. Of course, of all the people claiming to be Honghong's parents, there could be and could only be one couple who were the child's genuine parents. Since most of them had taken along with them what they themselves termed as ironclad evidences, it was really very difficult to decide who Honghong's parents were. Finally, someone suggested that they do DNA test to help make the decision.
On learning about the DNA test, many people never appeared again. Only a few remained, insisting they were the child's parents and saying they were not afraid of any tests. After a week, the result of the tests came out. A couple from a nearby neighborhood proved to the child's parents. They were immediately brought to see Honghong. When they saw Honghong, the mother embraced and hugged her alternatively while the father grinned beside them, bearing his tobacco-stained teeth. However, Honghong was scared when suddenly some total strangers came up to her, hugged her and embraced her, calling her "honey" and "sweetie". She kept wriggling to get herself free while holding out her hands toward Ah Kang, calling to him, "Papa, Papa".
Honghong's parents then went with Ah Kang to the hospital to have their blood samples tested. They emphatically promised to Ah Kang that they were willing to do everything to save the girl. They said they felt guilty of casting the child away soon after she was born and not being around to take care of her. Now they said it was the time for them to make the compensation.
A week later, the results of their blood samples turned out to be disappointing.
The doctor asked them if Honghong had any brothers or sisters, who, the doctor said, were usually the perfect donors.
The doctor's words reminded Honghong's parents of their elder daughter. The hope was lit up again. The elder daughter was immediately sent for and without a minute's hesitation, her blood sample was tested.
They had to wait for another week before the result of the test came out. Meanwhile, a good-hearted businessman, after reading Honghong's story in the newspaper, promised to donate a sum of money, enough for the operation. It was clear that as soon as the elder daughter was proved to be the appropriate donor, Honghong could then be saved.
A week later, they all came to the hospital again and waited nervously outside the medical lab. At nine o'clock the result came out. After examining carefully the result, the doctor broke out the good news that the two daughters' blood samples were one hundred percently matched. They were overjoyed and embraced each other, everyone happy and beautiful. Ah Kang felt his eyes stinging and heaved a long sigh of relief. He held the test report before his eyes for a long time, wondering how came such a flimsy piece of paper had such amazing power of saving the life of a child. The power, he assumed, came from the fact that blood was indeed thicker than water.
Honghong was then brought to the hospital to go through all the necessary pre-operation examinations while her parents went home to be further notified. Seeing Honghong lying peaceful in the bed of the sickroom, Ah Kang could not help thinking Honghong was really a lucky girl. She was abandoned the moment she was born, but she was soon after picked up by a doting father, to be well clad and well fed. She was fatally sick, but she had overcome the most troublesome job of finding the perfect donor in the ocean of people and at the same time received a generous financial help to make the operation possible. If it had been others, a cataclysm of such magnitude would certain ruin everything.
Soon, the doctor came to inform Ah Kang that Honghong was ready for the operation. Ah Kang went to Lao Zhao's place to give a call to Honghong's parents. The call was soon answered by Honghong's father. However, he sounded as cold as if he was speaking to a total stranger. When Ah Kang told him Honghong was ready for the transplantation operation, the line was quiet for a moment. And then he heard Honghong's father saying his elder daughter could not go to the hospital.
"Why? What happened? Is she sick?" Ah Kang asked in a quavery voice. Something in him clenched. He was afraid that the operation might be delayed.
"She is not sick. She is alright. I mean she can't be the donor." The voice coming from the other end of the line was monotonously emotionless. Ah Kang felt all at sea about what he was driving at. A sense of apprehension was growing within him.
"I am sorry. What did you say?" After a short pause, Ah Kang asked. He suspected he perhaps had some hearing problem.
"I say she can't denote her marrow for Honghong." Ah Kang was confirmed he did not have any hearing problem.
Just as Ah Kang was about to ask why, the line clicked and buzzed. Why was there such a change? Holding the receiver, Ah Kang kept asking himself. He decided to go to Honghong's parents' home to have a look.
It did not take him a long time to get to Honghong's parents' home. The door was locked. He knocked on the door gently for a while. There was no response. He knocked again, this time harder. He then heard someone coming to the door and then the door opened a crack. From the crack, he saw Honghong's father.
Seeing him, Honghong's father intended to close the door at once. Ah Kang quickly inserted his arm into the crack. Through the crack, he stared at him and asked, regardless of propriety, "Tell me please, why you changed your mind."
"There is no why. We simply can't be the donor," Honghong's father said as he pushed hard Ah Kang's arm out of the crack.
"There should be at least an explanation for this." Ah Kang was almost wailing.
"Sorry, no explanations," Honghong's father said flatly. With that, he closed the door after he successfully pushed out Ah Kang's arm. The door then never opened no matter how hard Ah Kang pounded on it.
Frustrated and nonplussed, Ah Kang went back. He did not go directly to his own home. As what he would usually do when he needed help, he went to see Lao Zhao. As soon as he entered his store, he slumped in one chair and rubbed his forehead with his fingers continuously.
Lao Zhao asked him what happened. He then yammered to him Honghong's parents' change of mind. Lao Zhao was angered. How could one be so unreliable? But on a second thought, he said to Ah Kang there must be some misunderstanding.
Anyway, they were Honghong's parents. Lao Zhao then picked up the telephone, saying he would like to ask them for him.
In no time, Lao Zhao was talking with Honghong's father. The conversation lasted for about ten minutes. At first, he talked angrily; then, he became impatient; then, unexpectedly, he burst into laughter as if he was amused by something; then, he calmed down and became very patient, explaining something; then, he became impatient again and even started to shout something into the phone and finally, he furiously threw the phone on the table.
"What did he say?" Ah Kang came closer and enquired.
"It is ridiculous," Lao Zhao said angrily. "They think if they donate their elder daughter's marrow to Honghong, she herself would die on account of the deprivation of marrow."
"But, it is impossible." Ah Kang remembered what the doctor had explained to him.
"Marrow can be regenerated. It does almost no harm to the donor."
"They would not listen." Lao Zhao sighed wearily. "I have explained everything to them, but they just would not listen. What made me most angry is that they think I have made up the story about how harmless donation of marrow is because we are good friends and I want to help you. They even cursed me for being inconsiderate of them by forcing their elder daughter to donate her marrow for the benefit of somebody else."
Ah Kang simply could not imagine that in such a modern world there were still people as knuckleheaded, uncivilized, and ill-informed as they were. He almost blacked out in anger.
"What then can we do?" he asked. His voice was throaty and exasperated.
"Don't you worry about that. There should be a way out," Lao Zhao comforted him.
"Since they did not trust us, we might as well ask the doctor to explain the matter to them."
Ah Kang then went immediately to the hospital. Luckily, without much trouble he found the doctor in charge of Honghong.
The doctor was amused by the story Ah Kang narrated to him. He picked up the telephone and dialed the number Ah Kang had given him. Believe it or not, in the end, the doctor, too, threw the phone receiver on the table, fuming.
Ah Kang's heart sank. He knew what Honghong's parents had said to the doctor, even without asking. Honghong's parents simply did not believe anything about the safety of marrow donation, even with a doctor corroborating it.
Ah Kang walked out of the hospital heart-brokenly. When he was passing a bookstore, an idea flashed across his mind. Since they did not believe in him, or his friend, or the doctor, or anything or anybody that had anything to do with him and Honghong, he assumed that a book explaining what marrow transplantation was might help.
Ah Kang went into the bookstore and with the help of an assistant, found an appropriate book. He wrapped up the book carefully and went home. At night, he waded through the book and bookmarked a few places where there were paragraphs that explained marrow donation was safe and harmless.
Early the next day, Ah Kang set off. When he got to his destination, he found that the door was, unlike last time, wide open. The room was quite dusky. He peeked inside but could not see anything. He knocked on the door to inform the people inside there was a visitor and then went in. After his eyes were adjusted to the darkness of the room, to his slight surprise, he found
Honghong's father was sitting on a stool right in front of him, peeling a basin of potatoes.
Honghong's father was a fiftyish man with a plume of pure-white hair growing from his right temple. His hooded eyes were shrewd, though they looked sleepy.
"Hello, Honghong's father," Ah Kang greeted, feeling his heart in his throat. He was, however, not responded to.
"I think you have misunderstood us," Ah Kang continued, ignoring the slight. "To tell you honestly, it is indeed one hundred percently safe to donate the marrow. A lot of people have already done that, and no one was harmed in anyway."
Honghong's father continued peeling potatoes silently without lifting his head. Ah Kang noticed that a muscle in his right cheek twitched slightly and his Adam's apple was bobbing faster. Exhaling a sigh, Ah Kang resumed dolefully, "I can understand you do not believe in me. But at least you should believe what a book says. I have bought you a book. The book explains everything."
Honghong's father finally lifted his head from the basin of potato, squinted and, without stopping the peeling, said in a raucous voice, "We can't read the book. We are illiterate."
Hearing this, Ah Kang became desperate. He said stridently, "No problem. Let me read something in the book to you." He then opened the book and riffled some pages. Quickly he found the bookmarked place and started to read ardently. As he read, spittle darted in every direction, some of it falling on the potatoes and some on the ground.
"Don't give me that crap!" His recitation was suddenly chopped off. "The book is of no use really. The marrow is where the essence of one's life is stored. You cannot cajole us anymore. Don't you think it is a simple fact that one can never live or live properly when his or her marrow is deprived? I am not as that stupid as to be fooled by a book of rubbish." As he was speaking, his sparse eyebrows joined and his forehead puckered.
"But it is indeed harmless to donate one's marrow." Ah Kang felt helpless. "Anyway, can you just stand there idly and watch your Honghong die? You know blood is thicker than water." The last sentence made his throat constrict; he could barely finish it.
"Go hell with blood or water," Honghong's father rasped. His voice had an angry edge to it, serrated like a knife. He continued, "Everyone has got his own blood, bad or good. Why do you just have her interest in mind? We can't make a decision. We are sorry we can't do anything for Honghong." He then stopped peeling and stood up. He went towards Ah Kang, and extended one of his hands towards the door, indicating the way out. He lowered his voice into a growl, "Now, please do me a favor, leave us alone and please go."
Ah Kang was abashed but still wanted to make the last effort. Just as he was about to say something, Honghong's mother, who obviously had been listening to them all the time, rushed out from an inside room. She made her way directly to him, snatched the book from him unexpectedly and threw the book out of the room furiously. Then forcefully she pushed Ah Kang out of the door. Before she locked up the door she said to him, "Go, please. Don't pester us like this. We don't want to see you again."
Outside the house, Ah Kang hugged himself to stop a chill radiating from his spine. He remained there for a while, not knowing what to do next, his two hands still holding two tiny scraps of the paper with his thumbs and forefingers. Finally, he decided to go home. On his way home, Ah Kang wanted to cry. The day was gray, with low clouds weighing on the rooftops and on his mind, too. He thought miserably that without Honghong, he would be utterly bereft. He shuddered at the prospect.
He then decided to go to see Honghong. When Honghong saw him enter the sickroom, a smile broke out on her face. She tilted her head towards one side and asked him when she would be well again. Ah Kang had the impulse to cry but he held his tears, his buckteeth on his lower lip. He forced a smile and said she would be well again very soon. Then, on an impulse, he took Honghong's hand and held it crossways in his own, as though hoping to offer her some mysterious transfer of health. He gulped back forcefully tears; his eyes looking off into the window.
Since then, though unwelcomed, Ah Kang went to Honghong's parent's home everyday to explain to them the safety of marrow donation. He hoped that by sticking to doing this, Honghong's parents would in the end change their minds. But to his disappointment, Honghong's parents always looked like two senseless retardates, making no response at all to whatever Ah Kang said to them. Just as what Lao Zhao had explained to him, anger, in the form of internal heat, was accumulating inside him. Many a time he had the impulse to grab their shoulders and shake them out of their wooden state. But he always fought down the impulse. He knew any impulsive act would only worsen the matter. Instead, he went to Lao Zhao's place and asked him to fix some traditional Chinese medicine for him to quench the heat inside him.
Honghong was getting worse and worse. The doctor had talked with Ah Kang, saying unless the operation was immediately performed, Honghong would be in great danger. On the last day of September, Honghong was in a very critical condition. The doctor said this might be her last day. Devastated, Ah Kang went to Honghong' s parents place, again, though he knew it was too late for everything. When he got there, all the family members were having lunch. Ah Kang staggered into the room without knocking. He looked at everyone by turn and for a long while did not say anything. The strange expressions on his face frightened them. They all stopped eating, not knowing what Ah Kang would do, but they all sensed that he was going to be very violent. But Ah Kang did not turn out to be violent. In a torn and quiet voice he said, "You know, blood is thicker than water." He had wanted to say more, but as soon as he finished this, he felt so choked that he could not say another word. He then turned around and shuffled away down the trail that had led him to the place.
When he came back to the sickroom, he did not see Honghong in her bed. Just as he was wondering what had happened, Lao Zhao came in. His mouth was trembling and his face was bathed in tears. When he saw him, he started to cry. In a wailing voice, he said, "Ah Kang, Honghong is gone, gone forever."
Ah Kang did not cry. He was sad indeed, but he had been sadder. He was more angry than sad. Accidentally, on the cabinet beside the empty bed, Ah Kang saw the paper of test report that he had thought to have the amazing power to save Honghong. He took it and crumpled it into a ball. He went to the window, opened it and threw the ball of paper out of the window with all his strength. Through his teeth, he shouted, "They are the murderers. They have murdered their own daughter."
Shan Xiaoming is a Chinese English teacher who writes stories in English in his spare time. One of his stories has appeared in Writethis.com and his other stories have won several honorable mentions from Glimmer Train. He can be contacted at shanxiaoming at hotmail dot com.