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An excerpt from

Song

Michelle Jana Chan

The crowd started to grow agitated. Song felt someone shove him from behind. There was pushing and shouting as they were hustled towards the carts. A family was being split. An elder brother was yelling. The Englishman was telling him to shut up but the brother was panicking. He pushed the Englishman away from his family. Three Englishmen moved in and one hit him with the butt of his shotgun. The brother slumped to the ground. Everyone fell silent climbing quickly on to the carts.

“Name?” A man was taking note of each passenger. He looked down at Song. “Name?”

“Song.”

“Forty-three,” the man said.

Song used the spokes of the wheel to climb into the back of the cart. They pulled away. The bumping of the wheels on the uneven road felt good after the swaying motion of the sea. Song hung on to the side studying the tall trees and spotting colourful squawking birds flying in pairs. He sniffed the dusty heat of the earth and the freshness of leaves. A man rode by in the other direction on a bicycle with a basket of okra and squash. There were odd ramshackle houses and children playing out front. Some pointed at the cart. Song and the others stared back unsmiling.

The roads widened and there were trees planted neatly on both sides of the street. The grand whitewashed homes resembled those Song had seen in Guangzhou with their large windows and wraparound porches. There were rattan lounge-chairs and knotted hammocks on either side of the front door with gardens of rolling green lawns and beds of red and pink flowers. Song saw a young man in sky-blue clothes trimming a bush with clippers and thought how he would like such work.
On the pavements women dressed in soft colours carrying parasols walked with men in pale suits wearing hats. They looked away as Song’s cart rolled past.

The tree-lined streets narrowed and houses bordering the road became more modest. Paint was peeling off the walls. The front-yards were filled with junk. Men slept in hammocks in the shade. An old woman rocked in a chair.

As the cart rolled on the sugar plantations came into view, just like Song had imagined. The cane fields spread out as far as he could see, rising and dipping like a swell, revealing huge stretches of cultivated land beyond. The sugar cane was tall and green and dense. It whispered with the same sound Zhu Wei had described. Song allowed himself a smile. It was as beautiful as he had hoped.

The cart stopped at a clearing beside the road where there were several wooden buildings. Song was taken to the one furthest away.

Inside there was a row of bed mats running along each wall with a number painted above. At the foot of the mats was a metal bowl. Song looked for his number 43 and lay his jacket down on the mat.

The other boys in the room also seemed to be the young ones from the ship. He recognised one who had boarded in Madras. A bony boy, he was shorter than Song but his pigeon-chest and raised shoulders gave the impression he was bulkier. Everyone knew him because of his bad breathing. He whistled as he slept.

“I’m Song.” He spoke to the Indian boy in English.

“I’m Jinda,” he panted. “I saw you. On the boat.” He could only say a few words before running out of breath. “I thought you were sick,” Jinda continued. “You never said much.”

“Just sick of the boat,” Song said.

Jinda laughed and that made him cough. “Me too.”

“Did you come on your own?” Song asked.

“I ran away. My father beat me. So after my mother died I left. One morning she stopped cooking. She sat down. Rested her head on the table. That was it. I watched her. So peaceful.” Jinda seemed to be in his old life for a moment. His breathing had become deeper, calmer. Song watched him visibly shake himself back to the present. “That’s when I left. My father came after me. But he couldn’t find me. And you?”

“My father died in a flood. We lost our crop and there was nothing to eat. So I came to find work. I’ll go home when I’m rich.”

“You’re a long way from home now.”

“I’m a long way from being rich too.”

Jinda laughed again which gave rise to another fit of coughing.

Song frowned. “Are you all right?”

“I don’t breathe so well,” he wheezed. “Runs in the family.”

Within the hour the boys were already on their way to the fields. That afternoon Song learnt how to cut cane with a machete, how to stack it in alternate directions and lift it on to his back. By the end of the day his arms were aching and his hands rubbed raw but he felt renewed. On their way back to the camp he and the others sucked the splintered ends of cut cane. Song could not have been happier. The land was sweet like he had been told, exactly as he had hoped.