Medicine for Mā-Mā
Doctors Never Lie
Liú Bai ran, his feet slapping against the damp wood of the docks as he dodged around fishermen and merchants alike, ducking and weaving under rope and net. The boy ignored the angry shouts of one man he bumped into, too focused on his goal. There, at the end of the pier, three men were finishing their morning preparations and stepping into their boat, ready to push out to sea.
“Wait!” He shouted breathlessly, waving the men down. “Wait, Uncle Chén! Let me come with you!”
“Liú Bai?” One of the men held his hand up for the others to wait, and stepped out of the boat to meet him. Uncle Chén crossed his burly arms over his chest as he looked down at the scraggly boy, who bent over to catch his breath. “What are you doing here, A-Bai? Shouldn’t you be back at home, looking after your grandmother?”
“That’s… why I’m here,” Liú Bai panted. He pushed himself upright, desperation and determination making equal plays on his expression. “Mā-mā, isn’t getting better. She just keeps getting weaker, but Dr. Zhāng… he said if we bought shark fin medicine, it would make her better. She’d get her strength back.”
He looked past Uncle Chén briefly to the boat, brows turned up with anxiety, and the old fisherman could see the boy struggle to keep his lip from wobbling. “We… We don’t have the money to buy the medicine…” It hurt Liú Bai to admit it. “But I heard from auntie that you fish for sharks! Please,” Liú Bai put his hands together, begging, “I can help. I- I can hold nets, or tie rope – anything! Let me fish with you and take something home for mā-mā. You don’t have to pay me anything, but for that, however little!”
“How old are ya, kid?” One of the other men asked, looking Liú Bai over skeptically. He was rail-thin, as many kids were in a poor town like this, but his eyes were bright. Whatever illness was ailing his grandmother at least hadn’t affected the kid.
“Thirteen,” Liú Bai answered, pressing his lips together and jutting his chin out to meet the man’s gaze. “I’m not a kid anymore.”
Uncle Chén huffed and shook his head at that, but said, “Old enough to learn, anyway,” and waved Liú Bai over to the boat. Perhaps it was foolish, but Uncle Chén couldn’t turn away his nephew when he asked so earnestly, not even for a favor, a bargain, or a hand-out. It didn’t even occur to Liú Bai to just ask for a fin from their catch at the end of the day, for family. He only wanted to work and earn it for his grandmother by his own hand, and Chén Dong would honor that wish, for a boy he could see growing into a good young man.
Liú Bai’s face lit up and he bowed, grinning from ear to ear. “Thank you! I won’t disappoint you, Uncle!”
“You can’t be serious,” the other fisherman complained, watching the boy dash past him. “This child doesn’t know anything about hunting sharks! One wrong move, one sudden jerk or slipped foot, and he’s chum in the water,” he hissed under his breath.
“True,” Uncle Chén answered stoically under his breath. “That is why we won’t let him make any mistakes, or you’ll have to answer my sister why her son’s less a leg. Get on, Huong Hui.” He slapped Huong Hui’s back and stepped over the starboard bow, taking his position at the wheel.
“‘Auntie’ said, but what does his ma have to say about it, hm? How am I the one answering, when the kid came on his own and Boss Chén lets him?” Huong Hui groused under his breath as he pushed them away from shore. “Bù zuò bù sǐ. If you don’ do stupid things, you won’t end up in tragedy!”
The sky is clear and the waves steady and calm, an ideal day for fishing if not for the scorching summer sun. Chén Dong’s boat was not the only one out, one of several also hunting for sharks. They all spread chum in the water to bait the predators in, and once one team spotted a shark and claimed it the others would turn away, looking for their own marks.
The other one of Chén Dong’s men, Lǐ Yuze hefted a harpoon over his head in one hand, watching the coveted fin slice through the water. In one thrust, the harpoon sailed through the air and sunk into their target. The shark thrashed and dove, red blooming in the water, but the barrel tied to the harpoon kept the creature close to the surface. Liú Bai worried the inside of his cheek as they tracked it – the cure for his grandmother’s illness – and he ignored the pull in his chest as he watched the shark slowly give up the fight for his life and float to the surface.
Huong Hui and Lǐ Yuze hauled the massive beast up and into the boat. Exhausted, it still flailed from side to side, weakly resisting his captors until it landed on the deck with a thump that made Liú Bai jump. The shark’s gills flexed, reaching for water in the open air. He couldn’t turn his eyes away, and a glint of light forced him to blink and wince.
“It’s time you earn your pay, A-Bai.” Uncle Chén held out a knife in front of him, and Liú Bai turned cringing from where Huong Hui was bashing the shark’s head in with a club. “Cut around the fins, and put them in the crate. Start with the dorsal, then the pectoral – the ones on the sides – and work your way back. I’ll help you with the tail,” he said, helpfully pointing out each part Liú Bai needed to carve off of the body.
Liú Bai gulped back a flood of bile in his throat as he looked between his uncle and the dying shark, but held out a shaking hand anyways.“Y-yes, Uncle.”
Liú Bai took the knife, kneeled in the blood and sea water that now coated the deck, and took up his Uncle’s task. The feel of the knife sliding through flesh after pushing past the tough hide made the boy sick to his stomach, and he nearly vomited on their kill several times over. He wasn’t sure how he managed to get through it, except by chanting, “It’s for mā-mā’s medicine, It’s for mā-mā’s medicine,” over and over in the back of his mind. He could forget about what his hands were doing, if he focused on the image of his grandmother, frail and sick in bed at home, barely able to eat porridge or drink water. This fin would make her well, the doctor promised, and doctors never lie.
At some point they must have finished finning the shark, for Liú Bai startled to feel a great hand on his shoulder. “Good job, A-Bai. Maybe instead of taking up your father’s work, you can join my crew, huh? He can always have a second son.” Uncle Chén chuckled heartily and stood, pulling Liú Bai back. “Alright, toss it overboard! It’s time we moved on.”
“What?” Liú Bai blinked owlishly at his uncle, uncomprehending. “We’re throwing it back in, just like that?” He thought that they had been carving it up to store and make more room on the boat. Surely they would keep the meat and the liver, at least?
“Nah,” Huong Hui said over his shoulder as he and Lǐ Yuze hefted the now significantly lighter and slipperier shark over the portside bow. “You can get five times the price for the fins than all the rest of it combined, so keeping the rest? What a waste of space, right?” The finless corpse landed with a great splash below.
“But… Can’t you use the liver to, like… make oil for boats, or something?” Liú Bai asks, prying up bits of memory from conversations long ago.
“True, the other parts can be used for other reasons,” Uncle Chén said, “but we need the money… more than we need to follow the old ways.” And that was where he left it, scowling and stern-faced, before calling out orders to move them on to a stretch of sea free from the scent of shark’s blood.
Liú Bai swallowed back his questions and looked back out on the ocean… the grey and red body bobbing along the waves. He followed the red trail in the ocean blue with his eyes, back to the railing, back along the deck and down, down to his hands… His hands, red and raw… Suddenly, something was shoved into his open hands, and a bucket was dropped next to him with a clang.
“Wash them,” Lǐ Yuze said, pointing to his hands, “and wash the deck. Keep yourself busy, and don’t think.” Although he showed no expression and his words were brusque, they weren’t unkind. “…The first step is always the hardest.”
Liú Bai nodded mutely, and Lǐ Yuze turned away, leaving the boy with his task. He tried to take the older man’s advice and focus on cleaning the deck of blood, but every time he looked at it, he couldn’t help but think… The shark’s gills were still flaring, when they left it.
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