China had been a mistake.
Father Garrett knew that now.
The endless green valleys of Chalan—and the bandits who called it home—were unforgiving towards travelers. From their perches in the gingko trees, they swooped down on unsuspecting itinerants to promptly relieve them of currency, tea, and the burden of anything else valuable. Father Garrett had been warned about them, but it was another matter entirely to meet them face-to-face. The reverend presented only a small obstacle, and after it was over, he sat in the dusty road for some time, rubbing a sore jaw.
It was indecent of the fellows to rob him, and they needn’t have been so rough. He looked about at the scattered remnants of his bag—mostly collars, clothes, the few ragged books they had left him, and a small cylindrical device that had gotten tossed across the road.
“I should be grateful the ruffians did not take everything,” he said to comfort himself, trying not to think about how the encounter might have ended. He also did not want to think about how the loss of his money might alter the rest of his journey. The sun poured over his black hat and clothing, and the garments stifled him like tar.
From his coat, he took a few thin, stamped wafers of a tea brick and slipped them into his wallet as they were the only currency he now possessed. If all else failed, he had heard it was possible to eat these powdered, hammered rectangles of tea.
“Small blessings, I suppose,” he mumbled, pushing the wallet inside his bag.
Another sound on the road came to his ears, and Father Garrett sat up, wary. Another man might have scrambled into the brambles, but the reverend remained. They’d be upon him in no time as it was. A steam-assisted cart being pulled by two sad-faced donkeys came into view. There were four men in the cart, and while the driver pulled the animals to a halt, a Chinese youth jumped down.
“By all means, take whatever you please,” said the reverend, gesturing to the various items around him like a frustrated rug merchant. “It’s all still out for ease of viewing.”
“Beg pardon, rev, but are you in trouble?” the young man asked, coming closer.
Father Garrett, surprised to hear English—and quite good English at that—glanced up. “I’ll look to you for the answer to that.” He searched the dark, thin eyes of the young man.
“You look like you been robbed,” he replied.
“I have,” said Father Garrett, his voice a blend of bitterness and laughter. “Twice today.”
One of the other men jumped from the cart and approached. “Must have been bandits,” he said, the edges of his voice curling with Russian tones. His pale face was ruddy under days of sun. Turning to the cart, he waved, saying, “You, come. Come give your hands.”
The Chinese youth helped Father Garrett to his feet and asked, “You hurt, rev?”
“Nothing irreparable, I hope,” he answered, his muscles hitching with stiffness. “Thank you for stopping. Can you tell me if there is a…a settlement nearby?”
The Russian said, “We are from the place up the road. We take you there if you want to go.”
“I’d be much obliged to you.”
“Call me Ilyushin.”
With help, the reverend gathered up the small remainder of his articles in only a few moments. The other man from the cart, returning from across the road, held up the strange cylinder that had fallen there. “Found this, too, though I’ll be hanged if I know what it is.”
Father Garrett said, “Oh, I am very glad to see this. Quite glad.”
Ilyushin looked to the sky. “Sun is starting down. Better get to home.”
Some time later, the cart rolled into a small dusty village filled with squat huts. Some of the buildings were supported by wood and nails, but most of the thatch roofs and bamboo rods looked as permanent and sturdy as playing cards and toothpicks. The clearing in the jungle was only large enough to hold the village, the huts barely pushing back the wild forest enough to claim a civilized space. A caravan of travelers had settled on the outskirts of the village, and the cart rolled through their camp to reach the village. As they approached the well situated at the center of the town, a band of ragged children, all colors of coffee to cream, tagged after them.
As Garrett eased himself from the contraption, one of the men shooed the gaggle of children away with a sharp gesture, and they scattered like mice. Some of the villagers approached and greeted the returning men.
“This is Father Garrett,” Ilyushin told a tall woman who was seeing to the donkeys. “Bandits took him twice on the road.”
“It’s a miracle you’re still with us, Father,” she said. “Ain’t never known ‘em to be the considerate kind. Even once. Not many can walk as good as you after neither.”
Father Garrett was a little taken back by this, but he said, “Whatever the case, I’m thankful to be here now.” His thoughts glowered at the sentiment, and he knew that he was not grateful to be in China, no matter how glad he was to be whole.
Ilyushin was kind enough to find some food for Father Garrett, but then he took his leave. The sun set, and the doors of the village closed on the night.
The reverend settled himself near one of the caravan tents outside of the village. Some of the women were preparing meals for their upcoming journey, setting aside portions to wrap up later. Father Garrett rolled out his bedroll, sat on it, and considered the crumbly loaf of bread before him in the half-light. He heard the crackle of the campfire some distance away, the voices of the people around it, and he blinked at the bread.
He was grateful, he told himself. He was alive. He was relatively safe. Yet now, he wanted nothing more than to look up and see between the banyan trees the gables of his cottage home. But that was countless miles and two lifetimes from here. That house belonged to a man who had never been farther than Glasgow. In the dark, he thought on each corner of that cottage’s tiny kitchen, felt the smooth wood of the cabinet, the cold spoon swimming through the coffee grounds in the canvas pouch. He found himself holding the small cylinder, slightly dented now. A French press would do him little good now, he thought.
In the last light of the day, Father Garrett could see flashes of movement and the faces of the children who had been following and watching him ever since his arrival. They seemed to belong to no one, be wanted by no one, and no one was calling from the lighted houses. He broke the loaf into several pieces, laid them out, and in a few moments, the children began creeping closer. He tried to talk to them, but it seemed that they did not understand him very well, even the children who appeared European.
Light illumined his pathetic plot, and he looked up to find the young Chinese man from before standing over him.
“Would you like a light, rev? It gets dark here.” He placed the Ready-Lite lantern in his hand in front of Father Garrett.
“The light is pleasant,” Garrett said, forcing a more amiable tone into his voice. He sniffed and diverted his emotions into his handkerchief. “Thank you…?”
“They call me Li.”
He was surprised when the young man crouched down beside him and remained. For what seemed like a long while, they stared out into the night, listening. The children crept close again, but it was Li, using his native tongue, who finally encouraged them to take the food Garrett offered.
“Why does no one look for you?” Father Garrett asked the children. When they merely stared at him, he looked to Li. “Where are their parents?”
“They are gone,” Li told him. “Lost by sickness, accidents. The children of tea workers.”
“Orphans…” Father Garrett murmured, searching the faces of the ragged group.
One of the children, eyeing him, said something and gave back the bread. Father Garrett was confused, but the child insisted he take it.
“They think you have sadness,” Li said.
“What, me?” Father Garrett turned to him, flabbergasted. “If anyone, I should think they are the ones who are sad, and with every reason to be so.” He sighed, a deep pang of hurt lodging itself in his chest. He was overwhelmed by fatigue and now even compassion was painful. “I have regret,” he said, “for I have nothing to give them.” This was more true than he wished to acknowledge even to himself. The reverend put down the bread. He had little appetite.
A little boy asked something, which Li translated. “He wants to know why you have no home.”
“But I do,” Father Garrett said, answering both of them. “It is far from here, over a few oceans. That is where my home is.”
Li gave his answer to the boy, who looked at him strangely.
After another query, Li said, “He wants to know why you have no home, no…tent.” He gestured over his head.
“It was taken from me,” he answered. But that wasn’t entirely true. The tent, yes, but he had left the other on his own.
A girl, her features a pretty blend of Chinese and European, asked in stilted, difficult English, “Your name…is…what?”
“I am Father Garrett,” he told her.
She considered this. “Family is…where? Child are where?”
“What? Oh. I…I have no family.”
“Father…with no family. Most strange.”
“I suppose it is,” he admitted while the girl returned to munching her piece of bread. Though he had never had a parish of his own, the little cottage and the ones nestled around it had been a pleasant home and family. He was itinerant now, lost in the wilds of China, and perhaps just as much an orphan as these children.
Father Garrett watched them gamboling and teasing with each other, dirty and laughing. Around them, night gathered and made silhouettes of the trees against the emerging stars. Another day was coming to a close, and Father Garrett thought to mark it in his journal before he realized that all his pens were gone. He sniffed again.
Li peered at him. “You sick, rev?”
Father Garrett responded quickly after Li had to ask him a second time. “No, no,” he told the young man, fussing with his handkerchief. “No, I’m quite well.” The reverend chided himself for indulging in such self-pity. It was a terrible thing, especially when there were so many others that were hurting around him. His mission was to help them, to love them, but at the moment, even love seemed a feat that would require more strength than he had left. You have been away from home too long, he told himself.
After sitting there for a while, listening to Li talk with some of the little ones, Father Garrett noticed that the children were slipping away back to wherever they kept themselves. Li insisted that Father Garrett keep the lantern, and while the reverend stood to shake his hand to thank him for his thoughtfulness, he saw a little girl out of the corner of his eye looking through his rucksack.
“Thank you for the light,” he told Li, who bowed slightly. “It’s a great comfort.”
The young man took his leave of Father Garrett and playfully chased some of the boys into the night. Garrett turned back to his effects in time to lock eyes with the little girl. She hesitated only a split moment before snatching up the French press and tearing away with it into the shadows. He started after her, calling lamely, “I say, now…now, see here…!”
She did not return, and Father Garrett was left standing alone, staring into the darkness. The faint voices of the caravan drifted past him, and he frowned. It was a small thing, really, shiny and attractive to young eyes, and there was no way she could have known that she had just stolen away his last semblance of home. “No,” he told the darkness. “Please. Keep it. Use in good health.”
With that, he returned to the bedroll and sat down upon it as he tried to avoid his own thoughts. Resting his head against his hands, Father Garrett breathed a solitary prayer, whispering, “If it is in Your good will, please let me return home.”
He remained in that position so long, turning those words over and over in his mind, that he eventually drifted to sleep. A sudden noise startled him from it, however, and he looked around for the source. The night was quite black and the glow from the Ready-Lite lantern seemed impossibly bright in comparison. Behind him, people from the caravan were shouting. Without thinking, Father Garrett scrambled to his feet, reached for the lantern, and stumbled towards the ruckus.
The campfire had not burned itself out, so the scene was well-lit. A loose gathering of adults clustered around one of the tents. A woman pushed through, dragging two scraggly boys by their arms. She was scolding and demanding.
“What’s happening here?” Father Garrett said. He was heavy with fatigue, but he pressed into the crowd. The lantern’s light illuminated his path, and several people stepped back to let him pass. “What’s happening?” he asked again, raising his voice.
The adults closest immediately gave him their attention. A stranger intervening in one’s affairs often has that effect.
The woman holding the children said, “These ragamuffins were fixing to steal from us. And take every last scrap if I hadn’t turned round!”
Father Garrett remembered the food being prepared earlier. He wondered if the children’s actions might somehow be his fault, but he pushed past that thought to attend to the matter at hand. Speaking firmly enough to be heard over the hubbub, he asked, “Did they take anything?”
The woman shook the boys. “Haven’t had time to properly search, have we?”
“Those edibles might be already gone,” said another man.
“Some hospitality this village has,” someone mocked. “They’ve sent their urchins to steal from guests.”
The woman started to shake the boys again, but Father Garrett stepped in. “They don’t belong to anyone,” he said. “They’re orphans and probably starving, that’s all.”
The feeling of ire shifted almost palpably from the two suspects to Father Garrett. Sympathy and benefit of the doubt must not have been valued among this clan.
“That makes it right, does it, father?” challenged the woman. “Them taking our food and making us starve makes it all fine and dandy, does it now?”
“That’s not what I meant,” Father Garrett answered.
“They’re old enough to know what it is they do.”
“We’re not responsible to feed this town’s brats, whether they have parents or not. They should answer for this outrage! Get them all out here. Wake up this backwater scrapyard.”
Unease clung to Father Garrett. “Please,” he said. “Check your supplies. If anything is missing, I will…I will make it right.”
This seemed to affect them in some way because several people hurried off to inspect their stores. Father Garrett, while anxious about the confident looks on their faces, was relieved by this lull. He watched the two small suspects and hoped fervently that they had not taken anything. Their wide eyes stared back at him, guileless and giving away nothing, and he spent the next minutes attempting to figure out how he would make things right if they had. The group muttered around him.
After what seemed like an eternity, the ones that had left returned, shuffling and looking a little glum.
“I can’t see that there’s anything missing,” said one man, and it seemed as if he were speaking for the others as well, who nodded.
The woman seemed dissatisfied, but she did release her grip. The boys looked as if they would bolt, but Father Garrett opened his arms and nodded to them with such forceful calm that they gathered to him without a word.
“I’m sorry if they’ve troubled you,” he said. “Don’t worry yourselves further about them.”
The grumblings did not subside, but the group seemed content enough to let them leave. Father Garrett gave the lantern to one of the boys, and, placing a hand on their shoulders, guided them out of the crowd. Some of the caravan threw harsh, quiet jeers after them and a bit of coarse language Father Garrett tried not to take personally. Someone hissed something virulent in Chinese, something that made the boy on Garrett’s right startle and stop in his tracks. Garrett squeezed the boy’s shoulder.
“Come on, boys,” he said softly. “Let’s get away from here.”
He brought them to his small pallet, and, giving the caravan people the satisfaction of only one quick glance back, invested his full attention in the present moment. The boys couldn’t stop looking at the grumbling adults.
Father Garrett made a show of sitting down. “Glad that’s over and done with,” he said. “Come now,” he said to them, gesturing. “Have a seat if you like.”
They did so after Father Garrett repeated the motion, and he was pleased that from where they were seated, the camp was out of their view, hidden behind the wall of a tent. The Ready-Lite lantern played with their shadows as they looked at Father Garrett and at each other.
“I’m sorry for that,” the reverend said, and he realized that they might not understand him. He kept talking anyway to lighten the mood and started rummaging in his sack. “I’m sorry for a lot of things, but there are some apologies that shouldn’t have to be made to children.”
One of the boys cleared his throat and said in comfortable English, “Thanks, rev.”
Father Garrett, a little startled, looked up. “You’re quite welcome,” he answered.
“You didn’t have to do it.”
“Of course I did,” Garrett told him. “But I want to have your word you won’t go snooping around others’ things again, regardless of intention. Am I clear?”
The boy nodded, and his friend did, too.
“Excellent. And that will make an end of it. Now, I’m not certain about you two, but I have worked up quite an appetite.” He pulled out his wallet and took one of the thin wafers of pressed tea from it. Only a slight hesitation slowed his decision. These wafers were all he had left. This is an emergency, he told himself. With a small smirk, he added, You do have something left after all.
He made the preparations with deliberate motions, gathering a bit of wood from the close forest edge and water from the well. When he returned each time from these short expeditions, the boys were still waiting for him, sitting quietly on his bedroll. In a short time, he’d cooked the pressed tea and made something of a stew from it, which he divided carefully between them. Proper plates or bowls were out of the question, but they made due with scraps of bark.
Soft footfalls pattered in the darkness around them. Father Garrett set aside his portion as a few pairs of eyes appeared in the lantern light. “Friends of yours?” he asked the boys.
They gestured to the night, and soon, a few of the ragged children reappeared, creeping closer. The boys were eager to share their food with the others, and Father Garrett divided the remaining share with as many as came. It was not tasty fare by any means, but it did work to satisfy some of the gnawing hunger. As he moved to check that there was no food left in the borrowed pot, his shadow threw itself up against the wall of the tent and a little girl shrieked.
He was confused for a moment, but following her terrified little gaze, he soon discovered the reason. Father Garrett sat down again and this mollified her somewhat. “Ah, sorry about that,” he said. “Better?”
She nodded but still seemed uncertain about him. The boy that had spoken English to Father Garrett tried to explain something in Chinese, but she continued to stare wide-eyed.
Father Garrett thought hard for a minute and then held up a finger. “I’ll tell you what.” He shifted the lantern a little and then lifted his hands. “Now, this certainly isn’t food,” he said, “but maybe it will do some good.” He started entwining his fingers, bending them and lacing them together in front of the light. On the side of the tent, the shadow was forming into something more recognizable. It’d been a while since he’d done this, but he knew he’d gotten it right when two of the children gasped as a goat appeared there. With a few rearrangements of fingers, he made a dog, then a rabbit. The rabbit they liked, but nothing so much as the elephant. The little girl clapped her hands.
Father Garrett sometimes caught glimpses of the caravan people, stalking about their tents, and for all their disparaging glances at the festivities, they did not come over. Thankfully, the tent beside which Garrett had set up his miniscule camp was filled with supplies and not tired travellers.
After the reverend had done a few of these shadow puppets, a boy shuttled over to try his skill and after a few minutes of Father Garrett demonstrating how to hold his hands, a bird appeared. The children were delighted and made a wonderful kind of noise, the likes of which Father Garrett had not heard for months. Some of the other children tried to get involved and soon they had got up a small show of their own, complete with sounds and dialogue that the reverend did not understand but he laughed despite himself.
It was beautiful.
He did not know how much time had passed, but eventually, his bunny rabbit was the only one hopping on the side of the tent, the children all fast asleep. He leaned backwards to ease a hunched back and marveled at the indigo ribbons in the night sky.
Father Garrett awoke with the glare of a full morning, finding himself lying on his back and staring up into the face of Li smiling down at him.
“Morning, rev,” said the young man.
Father Garrett started to sit up and as he did so, a cascade of leaves and flowers spilled off of him. “Now…now what’s this?”
“They didn’t want you to get cold,” said Li, grinning. Somewhere among the nearby trees, Father Garrett heard giggling.
Father Garrett plucked an azalea from the pile. “How terribly kind. I don’t believe I’ve ever had, er, such a beautiful blanket.” He tried to give the Chinese equivalent of thank you, which resulted in renewed laughter from the bush. “Did I not say that right?” Father Garrett looked to Li, who only shook his head as he helped the reverend rise. Chinese was an incredibly difficult language.
Father Garrett squinted into the sun. Morning was well underway. “I must be going soon,” he said. “I’ll need to reach someplace with a telegraph.” It was a basic plan for figuring his way out of his predicament of no money or gear, but it was all he had. Oddly enough, he felt comfortable with its simplicity.
Li told him about a town to the north where he believed they had such an apparatus. “Will you be all right to travel?”
“I’m perfectly fine,” Father Garrett told him, and the sensation of a smile on his face surprised him. He still felt the effects of a long walk the day before, encountering two rounds of bandits, and sleeping on the ground, but he felt light on his feet.
“Rev,” Li began, “I know what you did last night. And I thank you for it.”
Father Garrett nodded, waved off his thanks, but he could say nothing. Instead, he bent down and returned the Ready-Lite lantern to its owner. “Thank you for the use of this. It was…indispensable.”
At this time, Ilyushin found them and asked after Father Garrett’s plans. “Day is going without you, father,” said the man. “Should you wish to go north, I will show you to the crossroads.”
Father Garrett thanked him, and in a short amount of time, he was walking towards the village’s outskirts with Ilyushin. Li accompanied them, and the reverend was aware of movement by the forest’s edge.
Before they came to the road leading out between the last two structures, Ilyushin gave advice on how he should travel to avoid bandits. “This road is safer than to the south, but still dangerous for a lonely traveler.”
Father Garrett paused to dig about in his coat, saying, “That reminds me…” He drew out his wallet and handed the remaining tea wafers to Li. “I doubt I’ll be able to hold onto these very much longer, so please take them. Give them to the children.”
Li, in the customary manner of the Chinese, refused several times, but ultimately he did accept the gift. Father Garrett understood the passion behind his refusal: Li knew precisely what it was he was being given. The reverend gave the young man a look in which he tried to express that it was all right. Garrett wanted to give them away. It felt like the right thing to do. Besides, if he were going to get out of this jungle intact, God— not five wafers of tea—would provide a way.
Ilyushin told Li he had better get the donkeys ready for their southern journey, so the young man turned to go, thanking Father Garrett again. The two men still on the road were about to continue to the crossroads when a familiar girl emerged from the underbrush. She ran to Father Garrett and when he leaned down to catch her, he felt her pushing something cylindrical and metallic into his hands. Without a word or a look, she sprinted away, leaving Father Garrett holding his slightly dented French press.
Ilyushin merely shrugged at this and started away. Garrett trailed after him, looking over the item. Opening it, he found the container stuffed with bread and nuts. He browsed the forest, searching, but seeing nothing, he resorted to a smile.
As they walked on, Father Garrett looked back one last time at the small village as the roofs vanished in the foliage of banyan trees and vines. Something there reminded him of that place he thought on so often. It certainly was not the buildings or the flora. Yet, thinking on the night before, on shadow puppets and laughter, he realized it was not really a place he had missed. It was how he felt when he was there.
As he walked with Ilyushin, he turned the French press over in his hands. Birds twittered from branches and swooped overhead as light poured over them. I can be at home with myself, he thought.
Perhaps I was wrong about China. He watched the dust float up from the road. God knows, there are no mistakes.