Corner with Garnet street (on the right) to Limehouse Link where Narrow Street comes off on the right hand side
Upon a sea of blossom
Words by Neil Baker, Illustrations by Nick Parker
I am Sheep.
Some say I steal.
Pathir was a good boy. We met the day he docked in Limehouse. He came on a steamer with a blue funnel; worked his way from China, mopping decks, scrubbing pots. They dumped him in London. No money, no ticket home.
All he had was the skin he stood up in, and the bag of Kanto Plums his mother gave him for the journey. They had rotted at sea, uneaten. The stones he kept and polished.
I gave him a job making noodles. He had a knack for it. Business was good through the Autumn. I had plans for that lad.
But he wouldn’t forget the old country. The nights in the smoky yurt; Heavenly Mountain, its peak covered in Summer snow; the Kanto Plums that blossomed in the Spring; Father, who lost the whole flock one day; Mother, who said she couldn’t feed Pathir. And Wolf.
Every night he polished the plum stones and cried out in his sleep. Wolf whose eyes are black as charcoal; Wolf whose fur is grey like smoke; Wolf whose tongue is a burning ember. Wolf is everywhere, he said. I told him, this is London, 1892. There is no Wolf.
I threw his plum stones into the river.
Did I hurt him?
I am Sheep.
I am Pathir and Wolf is near.
Over the bog of morning Limehouse I smell him. When I walk the wharves looking for a ship, any ship. Every morning, the same thing: No ship today; come back tomorrow. Always tomorrow. I wake in the night and taste yurt smoke, hear Mother singing in the dark. But I open my eyes and see rats scurrying in the rafters. Sheep tells me to forget my dreams. He has forgotten his. Sheep who drifts like a cloud. Sheep who denies Wolf. But Wolf is coming. He scratches at the door.
I am Monkey.
Some say I cheat.
Pathir had nothing when I found him, down in the Cut. Legs like chopsticks. He would pick up a stone, suck it a while, then throw it into the river. I asked him, Why suck the stone boy? They taste of Kanto Plums, he said. I laughed at that. Come with me and I’ll feed you, I said. He was willing enough.
I had less trouble when it was Pathir scooping the money into the hat. He could make them forget their losses. But he’d never stop chattering about Kanto Plums, Heavenly Mountain.
I asked him one day, what do these plums taste like? You know, he said he’d never tasted them. He’d never been on Heavenly Mountain. He wasn’t old enough to take the flock that far from the yurt. He said his family were afraid of Wolf. I slapped him when he said that name. I warned him never to say it again.
One Winter morning, I told Pathir they’d landed a shipment of Kanto Plums at Dunbar Wharf. I had some and would share them with him. The look in his eyes! But I wanted something in return. He didn’t ask what.
I gave him a fig laced with opium and told him it was a Kanto Plum. He said it tasted sour. On the mountain, they are fresh, I said. These plums have travelled a long way. But do you feel how they take you back there? He said he could see blossom falling.
Did I trick him?
I am Monkey.
I am Pathir and Wolf comes closer.
I see his teeth glinting in the shadows. He chases me through the gutterways of Limehouse. Every day I run a little slower and Wolf runs a little faster. Every day there is no ship home. I hear Mother less often. I have learned that Kanto Plums are sour. I told Monkey I don’t want them. They make me sleepy, slow me down. I lose my way. Monkey who once danced in the streams of the mountain. Monkey who gambled with Wolf and lost. He got angry and hurt me. The thick scent of Wolf is close by. He whispers my name in the dark.
I am Hare.
Some say I lie.
The alleys of Limehouse are my warren, not a maze. I told Pathir this. In his terror, he thought I was Wolf. I held him tight and calmed him.
I showed him the clear air, the fresh water, the places where the light shines. I weaned him off the sour fruit and the iniquities of Monkey. I restored the dreams that Sheep stole.
Heavenly Mountain, the yurt. I know these places, I said. And I know Mother and Father and Sheep and Monkey and everything that has happened to you and everything that will happen. And I know the taste of Kanto Plums.
His face brightened like the dawn. And Wolf? he said. Do you know Wolf?
In the Spring, I prepared Pathir for his journey. I told him not to be afraid, he would see his family soon. There was a boat for him. I told him that I knew the ways of Wolf; I fought him every day. Together we would smite Wolf down.
Did I forsake him?
I am Hare.
I am Pathir and Wolf is here.
His eyes are black as charcoal. His fur is grey like smoke. His tongue is a burning ember. He licks my ear, sings to me of Heavenly Mountain, of Mother and the yurt. I feel that I am nearly there. Through a broken window I see my ship. In my pocket, the Bible Hare gave me. It is my ticket. Wolf knows I have it. I feel his whiskers brush my cheek.
And will my ship float on a sea of blossom? I ask him. He drops another Kanto Plum into my mouth.