1883 Bundle of Sticks: A Short Story

Written by: Pam Backlund  

 Illustrated and read aloud at: https://youtu.be/5jCwwqOqVJo                                     

Dearest Mother and Father,            August 8, 1883

It is with great regret that I send you news about your son, Yong, losing a thumb on his left hand.  It was no accident, I assure you and the evil man involved has not and will not be punished. But I have other news, some good and some bad to share with you.

A flood last year erased a town of Ben Ficklin so the perfect opportunity to arrange a laundry establishment in San Angela arose.  We have been set up for business for five months now and our routine is set.  My three brothers and I work hard to send you money as we know you really need it.  By the way, how are my friends there in Shandong?  I know most of them are married with wonderful husbands.  I of course have no boyfriend here.  My brothers make sure of that, but I’m optimistic that my coming to the USA was not a mistake.  I will forever miss my deceased twin brother and you too.  I wish that beast was dead!

Our laundry is called the “Zhen Brothers Laundry” as far as almost everyone knows I still pose as a male.  I couldn’t help but give hints to my seamstress friends, Maggie and Laura, that I’m feminine.  I told them how in China a US Hiring Agent approached father about letting his four sons (my twin included) arrive in San Francisco to escape the crises of China and send money home to us.  But then a week before they were to leave us, Jang was killed by that beast.  I told Maggie that it was in my best interest to pose as Jang, go to the USA and make a new life for myself.  It has been incredibly hard work, but I’m hoping the money I send to you relieves you.

Let me describe my two friends, Maggie and Laura.  I met them when they approached me.  They said that if there was too much mending to be done, that they being seamstresses could help.  They could aid us when we are too busy and if they’re NOT too busy.  

That is in fact how they became friends.  They both would go to the Nimitz Hotel and other places such as the stage station to offer sewing and mending services to the fine ladies.  They were competing against each other and were enemies until one became too stressed by an order while the other had no work at all.  So they teamed up together.  They want to band up with me, but I have to go behind my brothers’ backs to subcontract some extreme sewing projects to them.  I’m always so busy that I think I’ll go crazy sometimes.  I don’t mind paying them a fair price occasionally so that I don’t have to work 18 hour days. 

I’m learning English better than my brothers.  I have to translate for them all of the time.  This is a burden to me, but being the youngest, they say I pick it up faster than them.  Sometimes Maggie and Laura have been in the shop when an order comes in or is leaving.  I have to explain to the customer what I’m writing on their pickup ticket.  They don’t like the Chinese characters.  Some of them think I am writing a bad word on it.  Many times Laura has interceded into the situation and everyone has left in peace.

Some people don’t keep up with their pickup ticket.  They might think the Chinese characters are just decorations.  A man named Alejo did just that and discarded the ticket.  When he wanted to pick up his clothing, I showed him the ledger and the paper packages of clean clothes and asked him if he knew which was his.  He got very angry with me and I’m not sure what all he said, but it felt like he was threatening our very lives over a piece of paper.  Maggie came into the store and we solved the crises, but not before he threw my abacus on the floor scattering beads throughout.

One time when Yong was NOT chopping wood for the washing water, someone robbed our clotheslines of its drying garments.  We did not get much sympathy from the sheriff when we reported it.  He said that this is what happens when you don’t guard the laundry.  We took a financial loss when this occurred as there were some pretty lady dresses on the line.

Another setback involves fire insurance.  We are in a wooden building and are expected to contribute to the block’s (We’re on Chadbourne near Concho) fire protection fund.  This is because our shops are almost all connected and all wooden.  If Yong was to mismanage our wood stove‘s fire in our place, then their places would almost certainly burn, too.  What is unfair is the AMOUNT we are to pay.  It is not equitable to the white’s bill.  We pay almost twice that of our neighboring businesses.

Maggie says just pay the extra money and let it be.  But she’s not the one who works 16 hours a day!  There’s cutting wood, hauling water from the river, tending the fire, buying the soap, starch and other supplies.  There’s the actual washing, rinsing, wringing, drying, ironing and packaging to do.  There’s working with the customers.  Then of course there’s the mending, (a chore my brothers won’t do.)

One time we did not pay the money on time.  Yong was at the river with our rented mule and the water barrel cart.  As he was bucketing water into the barrel, Alejo came up to him from behind and wrestled him into the water.  He tried to drown him!  Fortunately, Yong is like one of the brothers in the story you have fondly told us called “Ten Chinese Brothers”.  Yong held his breath so well that Alejo got tired of the whole thing and just shouted something and left.  (Yong does have a talent for holding his breath for a very long time…great lungs!)

But Yong was not to be so lucky another time, as he does not have the talent of a steel neck or thumb as in the story of the “Ten Chinese Brothers”.  A masked man, who we are nearly certain, was Alejo, snuck up on Yong while he was sawing wood to fit into our wooden stove.  (Yong is really is a terrific worker.)  Anyway he spoke to Yong in some gibberish, and roughed him up a bit.  When Yong remained non-compliant, a second masked man entered the drama.  Yong could understand some of what the second thug was saying. And it had to do with Chinese in general.  They just don’t like us “Coolies.”  Anyway they managed to take the ax and cut his left thumb off as if it were nothing!  Yong’s left hand now is no better than a dog’s paw!  It healed OK as I sewed it shut after washing it with whiskey.  Brother Fu is taking on the chopping and water hauling aspects of our business, now.

You would think that the mean people would eventually get bored at harassing us.  Maggie says to comply and pay the extra money.  Laura says its extortion and is outrageous.  But what are our options?  Laura says that we could do laundry in a more hospitable town.  We should move, she says, to protect ourselves.  Maggie has more hope for the situation; she says that they will eventually come to accept us.  It is so confusing.  We work harder than the whites.  We stay sober.  We offer services that they need!  What to do, what to do!

And Mother did I mention that I really miss my true love in China.  I am crying as I write this because I know Quing married Li Jie.  My heart breaks when I think of him. 

I truly regret what I have to tell you next, my dear parents.  I will start by saying that I am shaken but OK.  There was an incident that was supposed to happen to another brother I think but because we all dress alike and everyone thinks I’m a man, I turned out to be the unlucky one.  It happened a week ago. 

I was walking back to the laundry from the river late one stormy evening.  Four men on horses had come upon me during my hurried steps.  Most of the town was readying for sleep.  I consider that part of the day to be my personal quiet time when I can worship.  How they knew I was down at the river, I have no idea.  Maybe they’d been stalking me and knew my pattern of behavior.

But for whatever reason, one of them grabbed me and pinned me to him and put his other hand over my mouth.  I was so surprised and confused.  I thought, “Am I going to lose a thumb, too?”

What happened to me was something no one dreams of happening.  I was taken to a secluded area out of town in a field surrounded by scrubby trees.  My screams reached no ears.  I was then gagged and told I’d be dismembered as an example to any Chinaman who didn’t comply to their demands.  I didn’t really understand what they were saying but I understood their tone.   I also understood that I was doomed. 

They tied a separate rope to both hands and feet.  Then they stretched the four long ropes north, south, east and west.  They were in the process of tying their ropes to the horn of their saddles when a bolt of lightning struck nearby.  The thunder came next.  The lightning made even the hairs on my neck stand upright.  One of the men began to have second thoughts about pulling my limbs from my torso.  He said he had religion and he knew a sign from God when he saw one.

During this time I was still stretched somewhat, but not to the point of real pain.  The men discussed the situation and I was freed after a stern lecture on how useless I am.  I fled.

So you see dear parents, I was not hurt.  Maggie and Laura were so upset when I told them what happened.  Laura said I was lucky that they didn’t realize I was a woman or they would have raped me as well. 

Maggie told me a story from Aesop’s Fables.  It was about sticks.  She said that it is easy to break a stick by itself, but it is difficult (if not impossible) to break sticks when they are in a bundle.  She said she had heard that more Chinese persons were coming into town to start laundries and restaurants.  “You can stop the bullying as a unified group,” she said.

At first I cringed. Competition would be hazardous to our livelihood.  How could we send money to China if we don’t have enough customers?   But then Maggie and Laura explained what with San Angela being the new county seat, it would be a very prosperous place.

So mother, your sons and I are in-between phases of culture development.  Hopefully we will form our own little china town in Santa Angela.  Maybe I’ll find a man to replace my love, Quing. Maybe I will no longer have to pose as a man to get by in this society.  Maybe people will change.

I end this letter asking for your thoughts for us.  We are afraid; but not for much longer.

                                                                                    Your loving daughter,

Jin Zhen

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my research for this short story

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