She closed her eyes and let the gentle undulations of the ferry transport her to a place and time the other passengers could never know. And he was waiting there, by the door of the old house, as she made her way down the rough track between brilliant green paddy fields. Her older brother, Da Ge, who had been everything to her since their parents were taken from them.
She remembered that, even from a distance, he had looked older than she had expected that day. His hair was silver grey by then, although the spiky haircut was just the same; and the familiarity of it had brought a deeply warm smile to her face. He had looked thinner too; perhaps “more frail” would have been a better expression, although thinking back, she had never considered him frail, so how could he appear more frail? In her anticipation of this moment, they had run towards each other; but seeing him now, she could understand why he was waiting, motionless at the door; and the tinge of disappointment she felt was not from his apparent lack of enthusiasm, but in the fact that the years of their separation appeared to have treated him harshly.
He was considerably older than her and the thing about him that she remembered most was his strength: physical and spiritual. So many times, following their parents’ death, she had cried in his arms and felt comforted there, knowing that he shared her pain but was strong enough for both of them. She remembered him, farther back in time, carrying her on his shoulders through the rice fields as though she was weightless; taking her to the market to buy shoes for her first day at school. She remembered how he encouraged her to study hard, although he, himself, had only received the most basic schooling; but he had been so kind to her, and so gentle, that she would have done anything for him – and so she did study hard, with all her heart, and it had taken her to places neither of them could have imagined. And when she outgrew the village, then outgrew the big town, and the thought of leaving him set her head in conflict with her heart, it was Da Ge, calmly and sensibly, with wisdom and compassion, who was able to break the deadlock and reassure her that moving on was the right thing to do. Onward and upward, to places and experiences she could never have imaged when they lived together in that tiny hovel in the countryside, planting rice and raising chickens.
So many times she had tried to convince him to join her in the city. She had room. She had money. And they could be together again, just like they had been when she was small. But her brother’s answer was always the same: my place is here; you’re place is there; but only the miles separate us, nothing else. And as the city consumed her life, the visits became less frequent; replaced by letters which only said what each of them wanted the other to hear, preserving a memory of each other as at their last meeting.
Seeing him, that day, in the distance, silver haired and frail, the details of his ageing growing more vivid with each approaching step, she began to weigh what she had gained against what she had given up; and behind the warm smile she fought to preserve, there grew a sadness that was made all the more profound in the knowledge that her brother would not only detect it but he would have all the right words to place it in perspective, just has he had consoled her and brushed away her childhood tears so often, so many years ago.
And now, as she left behind the glamour of Hong Kong and rode the ferry to Macau on the first leg of a journey through space and time, as she made her way back to her humble beginnings in China, to sweep her brother’s grave, she knew that there was nothing in the world more precious to her than his memory. Her material success was due, in the greatest part, to his encouragement and his sacrifice; but in his own way, he too had succeeded in achieving this task that he had set himself, with no one to support or encourage him. “So, how do we measure success?”, she wondered. “By the reward it brings; or by the price we pay?”
As the ferry came to rest at the wharf in Macau, a tear ran down her cheek; and no one knew why.