On Tuesdays we kick up ash in the alley behind Jackson Street, tossing crumpled parchment in bins, twisting our caps until the bills crane sideways, slinging black backpacks into the empty spaces where windows should be. Aiguo won’t unlock the door until half-past-three. We never see his face—just the sound of a rusty copper key, the smell of peach and tobacco.
It’s been years since an electrician last visited, so we bring our own flashlights to navigate the inside. The artifacts are stacked on stucco rectangles that disintegrate into dust at the bottom. There are many of them: a jar filled with pebbles and clay-colored water, a handful of old brass bullet casings, a slip of red fabric with smudges of yellow crimping the holes chopped in the middle. Some large, some small, all older than we can imagine. About thirty in total.
Aiguo refuses to tell us where they came from, even if we slip a platter of buttered biscuits beneath his bedroom door. Thus, we determine the history ourselves; we are archaeologists with toothpicks and secondhand makeup brushes. The thick ivory blade belonged to a warrior who hunted rhinoceros and water buffalo. The mound of gunpowder is all that’s left from a thrilling war two hundred years ago. These stories are etched into our notebooks—in Chinese, not English.
Our mothers don’t like it when we go to Aiguo’s. They buy us baseballs and miniature motorcycles, ask us to pick up potato chips from the nearest grocery chain after school. They buy us backpacks embroidered with American flags, even if we attempt to throw them out.
This Tuesday Aiguo doesn’t let us into the building. We press our ears against the base of cups and position the cups against the door, listening to his rough voice as he talks on the telephone. After twenty minutes, we leave, drop by the supermarket to pick up lychee and apricots. We bury the pits in the ground beside Aiguo’s, praying the trees will become a forest that reminds him of home
The change we keep in pillowcases beneath our beds is pooled in a porcelain bowl. Seven dollars and twenty-two cents. If we keep saving and saving and saving, we can eventually afford a trip back to Beijing, where Aiguo was raised. We will deliver the artifacts to their birthplace: drop the dried flowers in an antique Qing vase, reunite the iron helmet with its chest plate and boots, place the ragdoll in the open palms of a lonely village girl. They cannot stop us from grabbing our ankles, intertwining our roots with the soil that kisses both skyscraper and sea spray. Someday, somehow, we will return home.
Today Aiguo is arrested for involvement in over forty Chinese war crimes. We watch as the police raid his home, handle the artifacts with rubber gloves, suspend them in plexiglass cases, ship them to the land our mothers left fifteen years ago.
Matt Hsu is a student from San Francisco, California. His work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, and he’s published or forthcoming in Roanoke Review, Kissing Dynamite Poetry, Longleaf Review, and The Lumiere Review. Currently he’s querying his first novel: a twisty, thriller-mystery about a crafty assassin. You can find him on Twitter at @MattHsu19 or at his personal website matthsu156538437.wordpress.com.