The Bukowski Agency - Midnight at the Dragon Café - Excerpt
Midnight at the Dragon Café

a novel by Judy Fong Bates

EXCERPT

I HAVE KEPT only three possessions from my childhood. Each one is a book. The first is a coil-bound sketch pad with a cover made of heavy cardboard, a muted olive green. The pages are filled with drawings – of trees and flowers, of animals and soft nudes, but also of fantastic creatures, some beautiful, some hideous, entwined and growing out of one another, out of eyes, bellies, tongues, mouths. As a child I found the drawings magical, yet they unsettled me, pulling me into a world I did not understand. When I look at them now, many years later, they disturb me in a different way; I am left feeling hollow and haunted.

The other two books are from China, handwritten with red cloth covers, bound with red string. One book is thick with pages of line drawings of Buddha-shaped faces, dotted with moles. A mole in a certain place on a cheek might be lucky, my mother once told me, but in the same place on the other cheek could spell a life of tragedy and pain. In the rows of faces, the noses, eyes, lips, and ears are drawn in different shapes. Long, fleshy earlobes mean longevity and wealth; thin lips mean poverty. Whenever Chinese visitors came to our restaurant, I would catch my mother secretly studying their faces. Once, there was a Chinese man who came through our town and had supper with us. He kept trying to engage my mother in conversation, but she took an instant dislike to him. Afterwards she said, “Syah how, sei gnun, that’s what he is. A serpent head with dung-filled eyes.” His narrow eyes were shaped in an evil way, she told me, a bad person, not to be trusted. Later we found out the man was a notorious gambler and womanizer in Chinatown in Toronto. Sometimes her face readings were more direct. “That man, he has ears that are too small and thin. No matter how hard he works, he won’t amount to anything.” She once said to me about my grown-up brother, “The shape of his face and nose are strong. He will eventually be rich, but he will always have to work hard. His mouth is too full. He wants so much, yet nothing in the first half of his life will be easy.”

The second book from China, though it looks similar on the outside, holds other secrets. It holds the story of my life, my destiny. Before leaving Hong Kong, my mother took me to a fortune teller to have my I Ching read and my fate revealed. I have no memory of what the fortune teller looked like, only of watching his long slender hands lay out narrow sticks of different lengths. The smell of incense had filled the air. My mother paid a handsome price for the book. Each page was filled with black hand-brushed characters, on the front was a single column of elegant black calligraphy. The characters held such power and mystery, all the more so because I could not read them. When I touch the pages, I can almost sense the heat of the fortune teller’s hand moving down the rice paper with the bamboo-handle brush in his fingers. As a child, I often found myself with the book upside down, turning the pages backwards; I had to remind myself to open it left to right, opposite to the way I opened books at school.

Whenever I asked my mother what was written inside, she seemed to hesitate. Her unwillingness made me uneasy. She told me that I would live in more than one country. She told me that until the age of thirteen, water would be my danger sign, that I was never to trust it. I would beg her for greater details about my future, but she would only shake her head and say there was nothing else in the book that mattered.

 

 

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