From China Mary
Evanston, Wyoming, 1869
Down by the river, I watch the water
crest into waves and crash on rocks, spitting
bits of froth into the air. On the banks
the trees are starting to bud, flashing a hint
of green in this bare land. Spring melt,
I’ve heard people say, from the mountains
that soared over the trail I took here, blue
in the distance and their peaks still gleaming
with snow. Bear River, they call these waters,
really a cub compared to the oceans
of my youth. I watch the waves crest and flow
toward dreams I cannot yet see, singing
of journeys across this desert of sage
and rock and bringing me farther from home.
Some nights I wonder how I got here, these desert badlands where taking a breath feels like shards in my lungs. I live in a shack by the river and I wander where I wish. There is no other Chinese woman in town, nor have I seen the kind of white woman who shivers at the sight of debauchery. I tried to make good – I lost a man in Park City, a mine blast, I could not even find his body to bury. I cooked for the Pony Express but they let a man take my place, though I spoke English and he did not. So I returned to my old profession. A customer told me about the railroad they are building across the country, something about a sea and shining sea. So I came to Evanston, where the sun burns in my eyes and at night, the winds bristle through the slits in the walls. The candles flicker and I hold my wool blankets closer to me.
The tracks run along the river and nearly
every night I wake to trains arriving
in town, steam puffing, horns blaring, steel
clashing on steel.
I close my eyes but I cannot
return to sleep, my mind rewinding
these last years, trying to forge a story
from shreds of memory.
The night is quiet again but still I feel
the weight of the steel, as if
the trains would turn back and crush me.
Black clouds blanket the evening sky and shoot claws of lightning to the earth. I have never seen rain like this, ceaseless grey drapes that pool on the parched soil and spill like rivers along the streets. Men huddle by the stove and pass bottles of wine. I light a joint of opium and fill the room with sweet smoke. They tell stories of working the railroad in the high peaks of the Sierra, blasting rock and laying track, sleeping in snow sheds, praying that the earth would not crack and bury them. Years ago some white devils tried to cross that pass but a blizzard trapped them in the mountains. In the spring they were found to have eaten the flesh of their dead – and they call us barbarians? Now they hammer in some golden spike and when they went to their cabins to party it was we who lifted that chunk of gold and drove in the iron for the final strike. We risked our lives for their glory! They pass me a bottle and I take a swig – I listen to rain splatter on the roof and drip on me.
Maybe I can never leave this terrible profession – two husbands and three towns later I’m still selling what is left of my youth. At least I can keep what I earn and some of the men I consider both customer and friend. They thought they’d spend a year or two in America, return to their families as rich men. But they are still here, working in the mines and the railroads, not knowing if they would see their children again. Sometimes I hold them as if I could assure them their bodies would never give out – but who will hold me when my youth and beauty fade away?
Teow Lim Goh is the author of Islanders (Conundrum Press, 2016), a volume of poems on the history of Chinese exclusion at the Angel Island Immigration Station. Her work has been featured in Tin House, Catapult, PBS NewsHour, Colorado Public Radio, and The New Yorker. She lives in Denver. The ‘From China Mary’ poems above are a part of a book-length sequence of lyric-narrative poems on Chinese prostitution in the Old West. They are loosely based on the life of a woman in San Francisco and Evanston, Wyoming whose story has been largely lost to history.