Sex and sadness
Joe Byrne and the young Chinese woman who walked in on his bath
banner by Erendira
He looked older than the picture in her mind, like an apprentice returned from the wilderness, chewed and spat out by the Buddha to go and test his inner strength some more. Filthy dirty, she could barely see him through the mud, blood and overgrown beard. But she knew how he moved. Back at the camp she had watched him walk many times, watched how the longer limbs than those of her race carried him great distances slowly, his knees bending with the movement of the earth. She had been barely 14 in the months of that hard winter when she had last seen him, the winter before she came to this house. A snow fall heralded bitter winds and colder skies but she had watched him come and go, from behind screen doors or from the anonymity of many. She looked down quickly in case he caught the eye following him, though he would not know her. Did not the light eyes say that the Chinese all look the same?
Can you help...
Now she was a laundry and kitchen maid, nanny, whatever else the Mistress said she was. She had cried silent tears, when she was sent from her sisters and her mother, away from the Woolshed camp where they worked like the demons that they were called in the dry dust or the raging storm torrents. The ground didn’t give the gold up so easily, and many of her people had moved to the outskirts of Beechworth, a slice of China cutting a red swathe through the town. She however had come to this house to work, her wages, such as they were, part of a communal pot of family and back home.
While the Mistress wrung her hands and pleaded with the man they called Ned Kelly, she stole another lookout of the corner of her eye at him leading the horses to water, moving with unsteady grace, animal and rider both, a thickness to his thighs still that spoke of power not quite broken. Ah Joe. She had seen him, two years ago, him and his friend almost crawl out of the camp on the occasions that their shared their smoke with her uncles and brothers, but always then they had the youth and the permanence of boys. Like stones in the river they thought they would stay forever. They did not know of the flood.
to scrub my back?
The boys tipped buckets from the pump, but he asked for warm water for a bath, a polite quiet request, he was prepared to wait, delay his pleasure and cleanliness until the pots bubbled and were emptied into the speckled rustiness of the old tin bath, perhaps he knew that the water could only clean his skin, that there was no hurry. They said he shot a policeman in the woods, said he was a cold blooded murderer and maybe he was, but her senses told her otherwise, he moved with purpose and consideration but he could challenge the sun with an unfettered smile.
She served him tea while the pans boiled, scuttling about the kitchen in soft shoes and with her head bowed while she considered using words instead of gestures, frowning at his hands shaking with hunger and the cold nights on bare earth. A little rice, the food of life, and for the first time he looked up at her, the nod of thanks accompanied by a grin at her quiet plea
“ 請吃更多, 您是雞骨頭” (Eat more, you are nothing but chicken bones)
“I wouldn’t make much more than a thin soup at best, is that what you mean? Alright then I will have another bowl” She watched him come back into himself. The pans had been heavy, spilling water on her skirts and his boots as they struggled with them to the out house, but once emptied she stepped back outside and leant against the wall listening to the heels clatter against the stone floor and clang of his belt. Mei Lien shut her eyes to see the images of his hands finding buttons and buckles and stiff sweat baked cloth. She watched him transformed in her mind
I can't reach.
He smiled a question at her giggle while she decided whether to look up and see naked limbs and chest, her hands full of laundry that should have been elsewhere, but an answer all the same as she closed the door behind her.
He is different now, as if he awakened his senses, and instead of heat and hard and hunger he can feel the waters’ gentle caress on his skin, the food in his belly and the tobacco smoke in his lungs, as if he remembered he can do more than survive, memories of being a man finding warm circles in his mind. I should be careful, and yet it is he who is looking at me troubled still, searching my face for clues. You do not have many more years than me Ah Joe, though I think that yours were made more full. “I am old enough” he nods deeper than most and watches me place the basket on the chair.
One step closer and I will have to shroud my eyes if I am not to see his maleness and yet he makes no move to hide himself, he is not afraid of who he is. The sponge is still in his hand, though I think that he may have forgotten his question, made in jest perhaps but now full like the sponge itself in this stifling room. A single droplet tinkles and sends rings across the surface of the still water to where the tin encloses it and I take the sponge from him, casting my eyes around for a sliver of soap. My breath is so light it would not move a blade of grass in the field; I can only feel its warmth in my mouth as I reach out to touch his shoulder, my fingers slippery with the mixture of lye and oil. He flinches underneath his skin and closes his eyes as my hands sweep along to where his fingers rest on the bath top and I whisper “My name is Mei Lien, I know of you Joseph Byrne, my father, my uncles they talk often of the squatters and the police and the gang of outlaws that run circles around the police, you have many friends in the camps, those that remember you as boy, who know your mother and her land so close to ours, and amoungst those that do not, those that know also of the police and the value of community” He turns his head to smile at me now, the words alien in his western mouth
“And what about you Mei Lien? What do you say?”
“I say that there is also value in being of service to a man who would stand up tall” He straightens, the water finding it’s paths over the muscles of his chest and stomach back down to the bath, his head falling forward to drop curls over his cheeks and his eyes, he does not answer. I feel my stomach pull tight as I speak “ I will go, I have offended you” but as I stand his fingers catch mine and when I return his stare there are no boyish smiles
“Mei Lien, I have need of your fingers and your hands and Jesus I could weep for you standing there right now, my eyes have been as empty as me belly, it is not the difference that has me pause. I am no animal, though they say that I am, and God help me and I won’t take what isn’t freely mine. A thousand men and women, maybe more, are out there in those selections watching to see what happens next and yet all I can see now is you, wet to the elbows and nothing I can think of right in this minute would be better than you staying exactly where you are. But I do not ask you for service” He has let go of my hand, I am free to step towards the door, but my feet stay rooted “I speak too plain- will yer forgive me that? I am not sure that so many words have passed me lips in a week.”
I sink my hands into the water and rub the hard soap, my eyes lifting to his and returning to his skin with a gentle pressure “then there is also pleasure in staying, I will wash you Ah Joe.” He is beautiful like moon, smooth and clear and hard white, not as the western men that the friends of my mothers age laugh at, thick and hairy and fat bellied. I watch him lie back in the water and close his eyes to give up to my strong fingers and hands, fingers that know hard work and now slip over his arms and his shoulders and his chest, smoothing and healing the wrinkles of his soul. His legs are bent, too long for this bath, but he cannot see me looking beneath the water watching his thoughts stiffening his body, the still surface hymen broken as he moves. He does not see me watching until I touch his thigh, slow eyes open and I have to glance away, the words in my head making me blush. Yet here in this room is neither China, nor the camps, no selections nor Bush and we are both out of our elements. My ancestors passed down no rules in black ink sweeps that seem to fit here in this room with him. Or maybe there are none that I chose to see.
“Mei Lien” he speaks quietly and leans to kiss my face smiling at me at last “and you thought I was just lying there enjoying myself imagining? I have been searching me mind for the words- for your name, precious orchid isn’t that right? Though I am not so sure that I have ever seen a Chinese one up so close.” He is teasing me now, seeing what is in my thoughts and letting me sink deeper, his eyes shading to watch my small hands sink into the dark water to brush light finger tips over where he wants them most. I hear myself mutter an oath, his skin sliding in my palm, slippery still with soap and hot blood heat. Harsher breaths out his mouth are urgent now struggling with a question that seems to be hard to speak “can I not touch you?” and as I watch him sway with the movement of my hand, his fingers reaching to touch my hair and my lips and my throat, I answer
“ I cannot lie with you Joseph Byrne, I cannot be outcast with a child taller than my father” and he holds me still, his own fingers mixing with mine in the water while we sit bare faced on either side of tin
“That is not what I asked, I would not ask you that” he is stumbling over the unfamiliar words. In Cantonese there are many words for perhaps. Yes you can touch me; I close my eyes to nod. A water fall of sound and he stands up, stepping from the bath so that the floor is a wash and crossing the room to lock the door before he returns, wet and naked against my clothed body. Slow blunt fingers find knots and ties to loosen and I just stand looking, his height now a mountain and the strength of his body belittling mine, but I have power yet and it is in his sigh of pleasure at the form and his silent thank to his God. “Come with me, though the water is half cold” and holding my hand he steps back to slip into the warm wet translucent sheet.
My legs folded over his I watch him marvel at the feel of my skin, watch him look up to my face and smile at my sighs, sighs that threaten to escape the window as his fingers rub over my breasts and my belly, catching water in cup fulls to trickle over and bending to let it flow into his mouth. The babe at my sisters breast did not look so content as this man. He resists my hand, kissing my fingers and returning them to his chest “Not yet Mei Lien, it has been too long” but I cannot stop, I want to see those light eyes full of desire, so my demanding kisses hold him still and my hand finds him again, thick and full and taut, I can feel him moan into my mouth and press into my hand. ‘Let me’ whispers in a tongue that he half knows and I lean over him moving slowly and steady, watching him gasp and smile and plead with me for both more and less. It would be easy to sit, let his body slip into my own, give him more and take for myself but I will not, instead I will store this memory in my head, the ecstasy of his beautiful face as his white heat spills into cool water, mixing and dispersing like the mist of the dawn