Migration was first published in the St. John Sun Times in 2005, as a series of nine short chapters. These chapters provide the framework for a larger project, such as a film or TV serial.
The story follows Feng, a Chinese pediatrician and Veronique, a Haitian laundress, as they each make heroic journeys toward better lives. When they come together on the beach of a Caribbean vacation island, they demonstrate the innate human instincts that have guided wanderers for eons, as they struggle to realize their dreams.
But, moreover, they show us how all of human existence has balanced goodness, valor and strength with exploitation, greed and folly.
This is work of fiction, though similarities to real people and events are certainly intended.
Since the beginning of human existence there has been the urge to migrate. St. John plays a role in a present-day exodus that spans the globe. This is the story of two wayfarers from different cultures, trying to enter a third.
Chapter One – Feng’s Dream
It was 20,000 years ago, during what scientists call the “last glacial maximum”. Feng walked with his family, plodding, step by step, across an endless icy valley surrounded by mountain peaks. The family had left their home in Northern China before his grandfather was born. They had stopped for a generation in what was now Siberia. Feng was born just before they had crossed the frozen land bridge to Beringia. He was an old man with a large family traveling across that corner of the planet that one day would be called the Yukon Territory. His bifacial stone blades would one day rest under glass in a museum in Juneau, Alaska. Shi Zhi Feng was on his way to America.
Dental and genetic evidence would show that, over the next ten thousand years, Feng’s people would migrate to and colonize North America. Shawnee and Maya carried traces of Feng inside them. He saw it clearly, as if he was there. He opened his eyes.
Recently, Fujian Province, China:
Last July, Shi Zhi Feng said goodbye to his family. There were many tears and reassuring words were spoken, that everybody wanted to believe. The whole family had gathered to wish him well. There were five generations assembled. His great-grandmother was one hundred and three years old. Only Feng and his great-grandmother did not cry. He was afraid to cry for on his strength and his success rested the future of all these relatives. They had come to see him off on a journey and each one, in their own way, had sacrificed to make that journey possible. It would cost the equivalent of $40,000; money that no one could really spare.
The old people, who had sold their lifelong treasures, watched as Feng said a few words to each person gathered in the small house. The children, who worshipped him, were quiet for they knew that today was a monumental day. For many, Feng’s was the first face they had ever seen because he was a pediatrician, trained in Shanghai and returned to his small town in Fujian Province. He had attended the births of many of these children.
This day would be a re-birth, of sorts, for Feng’s journey would take him to the other side of the world. It was a concept that only a few understood, though all knew the importance of his success. Feng would take his training and his compassion to America, to the “Golden Mountain”, where he would become rich like all Americans. Then he would summon his family to join him in California, USA and they would own a car like the one idling outside. The driver sat inside the car and he raced the engine every few minutes.
Feng held his father’s hand and spoke in a hush, “Die, wo hui cheng gong. I will succeed, Father.” The old man’s eyes were filled with tears for he knew that this day was the last day he would see his only son. He understood the words his doctor son had spoken last summer. He understood about the cancer that grew within him. He understood the approaching end of his life and he was proud that Feng would carry the name of Shi to America and become a rich doctor like the ones on the satellite television at the market in the village. The show was called E.R. and the doctors spoke a language he didn’t understand. One day, Feng’s life would be like E.R. where everything was clean and new.
Suddenly, a shadow fell across the room as the driver of the car entered the doorway. This man was just a low-level enforcer but he was a “Snakehead”, one of the criminals that operated the vast human smuggling network that each year allowed thousands of Chinese professionals to enter the United States illegally. He cocked his head in the direction of the car. It was time to go. He took the package of money from Feng’s father.
Chapter Two – Veronique’s Dream
The little wooden ship was pitching and rolling terribly. The sound of the storm blocked out all rational thought. Every twist of the hull brought more seawater into the hold and those Africans still alive wailed in terror. The ocean was claiming them one by one. So far, more than half the human cargo had drowned, for they were chained below the rising level of the bilge. The ship was sinking. “Mungo, Mungo. God, God,” cried the young girl as the ankle chains cut her flesh. Running footsteps above her head caught her attention.
“The Cap’n says we’re well north of our rhumbline. This must be Hispaniola. It’s not Jamaica, I tell ye,” yelled a European seaman. “We’re lost for sure if we run aground here! The old man must head ‘er up or we’re goners, mate,” said another. Moments later, there came a mighty crash and the ship was lifted skyward. All aboard prayed to their gods for salvation. The young girl opened her eyes.
Recently, Port-au-Prince, Haiti:
A group of ragged people huddled together on a darkened wharf. There was no moon yet and the streetlights weren’t working as usual. Forty-foot steel containers, stacked three high, towered over them. The growl of the giant lifters drowned out the prayers of the women and the curses of the men. The violent men who guarded them were former policemen and members of the Tonton Macoute, the paramilitary group founded in 1959 by former-dictator, “Papa Doc” Duvalier. They had stopped being policemen when the government ran out of money. They had never stopped being Tontons. They wore their sunglasses at night and carried machetes. The people were afraid of these men for only last night they had seen a woman hanged from a bridge and left as a warning to others. She had made the mistake of asking questions of these men.
Finally, a stevedore opened the doors to one of the containers. “An ale! Lot ba dlo. Let’s go! Across the water,” said one of the Tontons, pushing the crowd forward with the flat blade of his machete. It was hot and dark and it smelled of motor oil in the container. Everyone was shaking with fear. There were cases of canned food and jugs of water in the container. There were piles of burlap sacks and several five-gallon buckets toward the rear. There were jagged slits cut high up in the sides. The Tontons closed the doors and all light was extinguished.
One of the people in the container was a young woman named Veronique Manigot. When, at the age of ten, her parents were killed in a mudslide, she was taken by her uncle to the capital where she was forced to work in a laundry. She was a hard worker and a smart girl. She had saved one thousand dollars in less than ten years. Her boss at the laundry had arranged her passage out of Haiti. Once again she had no money, but soon, she was told, she would be in Les Etat Unis, the Untied States. A hard worker and a smart girl could earn thousands in a few months there. This container would take her and her companions to America. The trip would take a day and a night, they were told.
Chapter Three – Voyage
The container ship that Veronique traveled on had been across the Atlantic Ocean and back in a global shellgame. While at sea, the doors of the container were opened and the occupants could enjoy the fresh air. But, in each port, the container was sealed again and the air soon became stifling inside. Over time, six people, mostly old and sick, had died. Their bodies had been dropped into the sea. Now, everyone was sick. The inside of the container was an indescribable horror. Twice the captain had ordered Veronique up to his cabin. She was too weak from seasickness to resist him.
Now, the ship lay alongside a quay on St. Maarten. Nearby, was a small freighter of Chinese registry. Feng stood, smoking, on the fantail studying the filthy neighbor. He had been forced to chip rusty metal and paint the ship every day since he had come aboard. The ship had stopped in a dozen ports before this one. In each place he had been hidden from authorities. He was about to turn toward the sound of footsteps when a heavy blow hit his head. His vision dimmed and he felt himself falling.
The first thing Feng sensed was the smell. “This can’t be healthy,” he thought. It was the smell of death and filth and more filth. His head ached and he was jammed against something hard in a dark, close space with many other people he couldn’t see. Someone, small and trembling, leaned against him. “Je n’ai pas le gout de vivre. I no longer have the desire to live,” the girl said. He couldn’t understand the language. The girl continued to shake beside him. She cried silently.
Only a gray light filtered through the slits near the roof of the container. Feng used all his skills to try to comprehend his situation. He had been nearly three months at sea. He was on his way to America to work in a hospital. He had been knocked unconscious while in a West Indian port and was now in a dark metal box with some seriously sick people. Maybe some were dead. He had a bloody lump on his head and a frightened girl clutching his arm. The thrum of engines told him he was on a ship, probably a container ship, maybe the one from the harbor. The engines were slowing down and the movement of the ship lessened. He heard more voices that he couldn’t understand.
When the big doors were swung open, Feng saw that it was a moonless night. The only illumination came from deck lights around the ship. Ten or more men were rousting the people out of the container. He looked around and saw the girl that was next to him. He had never seen a black face before, only in books and on the television. Everyone but him was a dark brown color. The girl was curiously pretty despite the ordeal she had suffered. She was thin from hunger but her eyes were clear. Her teeth were snowy white. She looked at him strangely but held onto his arm just the same. The ship’s crew was forcing the occupants of the container over the side where a cargo net hung. “Mei mei, bu yao hai pa. Do not be afraid, Sister,” Feng said. They went over the side of the ship where a large speedboat bobbed on the inky sea.
Chapter Four – The Island
A small Korean-made flatbed truck ground its way up the first of five sharp switchbacks. In the air-conditioned cab, two American men talked about the up-coming World Series. The driver popped the truck into a lower gear as it bore its human cargo ever higher up the steep side of the hill. The other man shielded his eyes from the glare and cursed his decision to have “just one more” last night before going home. In the back of the truck rode seventeen laborers from several Caribbean nations. They each carried small bundles containing food and a change of clothes. One man had a plastic bag tucked inside his clean shirt. Inside, there was a cellular phone, a map and a packet of important-looking papers he could not read.
All these men were on their way to a massive development site on the Eastend of the island of St. John. The road they were on had taken nearly two years to complete. From its imposing gateway arch, to a blunt cul-de-sac, it was a mile long and climbed up and down six hundred vertical feet. It was built smack into a hillside of scrub brush and cactus. Every foot of the road was lined with a beautiful native-stone wall. At various intervals, the wall was broken up by a set of steps up or down to observation patios. The views stretched from St. John to Tortola in the north, to Virgin Gorda to the east. In between, the smaller islands of Ginger, Cooper, Salt, Peter and Norman lay like emeralds in a multi-billion-dollar necklace. The men in the back of the truck had moved and cut and lifted and fit every stone in that wall. The concrete road, zigging up the steep slope shimmered in the early morning heat. At night, it spelled a brilliant white double-zee against the side of the island.
The truck lurched to a halt near the end of the road. Only a few more places needed to be completed by the stonemasons. A set of three hundred steps and a dozen landings wound up a near-vertical ledge to a flattened building site. The man whose money was creating this development would have a house here. He had hovered over the site in a helicopter five years before. He might visit the house when it was finished. He might sell it without even spending the night there.
In this same general area, two hundred and seventy years before, plantation slaves had left stolen food and jugs of water for renegade comrades, escaped from the brutality of the plantation system. Absentee owners hired corrupt managers and violent overseers to manage this system that provided their income. The runaways, many of whom were African royalty, required the help of loyal supporters to survive. There wasn’t one of them, woman or man, who had chosen this life in a foreign land.
The men piled out of the truck and hung their bundles from branches or nails hammered into trees. They needed only a few words of instruction to begin their work. Only a couple of the men were master masons. The rest provided the manpower that moved the project forward. They pried the big rocks from the unforgiving earth. They beat them with heavy hammers into usable sizes. They lugged the sand and cement and water that held the stones together in the shapes that the architect in New York had drawn on his computer. They were muscle and fiber and strength. They were energy in human form.
As the two Americans drove away in the empty white truck, the man with the cell phone in his shirt looked down on a lonely, rocky beach. Ignored by his fellows, he started down the path to the shore. He would lay his plastic-wrapped bundle by a twisted tree.
Chapter Five – Landfall
There were thirty-five people in the boat. It was dangerously overloaded and wallowed in the steady southeasterly swell. Occasionally, a rogue wave would break over the side and the frightened passengers would scream and cry. The man driving the boat ignored their anguish and concentrated on his course. He held a small GPS navigation device and followed the prescribed waypoints. The night was dark but for a few stars appearing through the clouds from time to time. The moon, when it would rise, would be a tiny sliver.
Feng sat among the other passengers trying not to display the fear that he shared with them all. He didn’t know them, of course, but he felt a responsibility to maintain order. He would care for them for he was a doctor. Beside him, Veronique huddled with another young woman. Feng thought they looked alike except that the other one was obviously pregnant. The girls were quietly talking, holding hands in the dark bottom of the boat. Without even meaning to, Feng diagnosed the pregnant woman’s condition. Protectively, he put his arms around her. He gently held her wrist in his right hand. He checked her pulse.
The boat was circling around the northeast corner of St. John. The lights of Tortola, to the north, were clearly visible despite the overcast sky and scattered rain squalls. The passengers watched them expectantly as the driver throttled back and turned away from them; toward the dark hills on his left. As they rounded a barren peninsula, they all saw the landmark. A vivid white line scrawled a slashing double-zee against the black-green hillside. As they entered the shelter of the surrounding cliffs, the water grew calm and a feeling of excitement rushed through the veins of the people in the boat.
The driver nudged the bow of the vessel against a gradually sloped stone and shell beach with the confidence that comes with experience. He had done this trip once a week for the past year. The people scrambled over the sides of the boat; some falling in the shallow water; others helping the slower ones ashore. Feng and Veronique guided the pregnant girl (she couldn’t be more than sixteen, Feng thought) toward a flat clearing next to a bent and twisted tree. “Ni yi ge ren zai yi qi ma? Are you alone?” he asked the girl. She looked at him in terror.
Next to them, a man was feeling around the base of the tree, searching for something. As he pulled the plastic-wrapped bundle from its hiding place, he smiled. He looked around and saw that all the people from the boat were now on the island of St. John. The boat was backing away as he un-wrapped his package. The passengers were spread out along the shore, drying their feet.
Chapter Six – The Baby
A chorus of birds erupted as the sky began to lighten. The gentle lapping of the waves on the rocky coast and the murmurs of the weary travelers were the only other sounds. One man, having retrieved the wrapped bundle from the base of the twisted tree, had assumed the role of leader of the group. They were a ragtag collection of human flotsam, washed upon a strange and foreign shore.
Feng, still protecting the two young women, watched as the leader passed among the group whispering instructions and distributing sheets of paper. The papers were crudely forged immigration documents, copied from a single example of the real thing. They had been produced in Haiti and declared that the bearer had a status hearing at a future date. There was one issued in a male name and one in a female name. The leader pushed a paper into Feng’s hand. Mistakenly, he received a woman’s copy: Rosa Alvarado.
The pregnant woman, still holding Veronique’s hand, was showing signs of distress. Her breathing was erratic and her body shook with fear. Feng thought, “This baby is coming,” as he studied his default patient. He tried to calm her with the words he had used so many times before in his village in China. He instructed Veronique to make the woman more comfortable and encouraged them to relax. “Wo shi xiao hai zi de yi sheng. I am a doctor of children,” he said. The women looked at him in terror as the other members of the group began to depart the stony beach.
By the time the sun rose above the horizon, Feng and his two charges were the only people there. He and Veronique had made a rough bed of palm fronds, swept clear the area around them and gathered together the rude instruments with which the doctor would perform his duties. From the hills above them a relentless hammering sound echoed and the shouts of the workers could be heard as they leveled the massive building site.
It was not a difficult labor. The woman was young and, despite her weariness, was a strong and eager patient. Somehow, instinctively, she had come to trust the young Chinese pediatrician. Veronique became a naturally talented midwife and watched as Feng prepared the makeshift hospital. Clean, clear saltwater replaced the saline solution that would have otherwise been available to him. Sea-washed and sun-dried rags, made from discarded clothing, became the towels and gauze he would require.
Above them, the masons were adding the last remaining sections of the stonework at the end of the road. The day was hot and at noon the gang of seventeen workers sought the meager patches of shade that the scraggly trees afforded. The giant machine that had been beating the hillside into relative flatness fell silent and the operator climbed down from his seat. As he passed his sweaty towel across his face he thought he heard a strange sound. He cocked his head and looked down toward the beach, a hundred yards below. Disbelieving, he turned and walked toward his truck to eat his lunch. He’d thought he’d heard a baby cry. On the beach another American was born.
Chapter Seven – The Long Walk
Time seems to pass slowly in the islands. For the three travelers, huddled on the rocky shore of a desolate St. John bay, the day took forever. Afraid of detection, they tried to silence the newborn baby with all their powers. They took turns holding and rocking the little girl who was surprisingly well behaved, despite her rude beginning in life. Blissfully, she mostly did what new babies do, she slept. When she wasn’t asleep she was at her mother’s breast. The sun, once it reached the top of the sky, beat down with a relentless heat that withered the leaves and left the people drenched in their clothes.
By mid-afternoon, the construction site above them fell silent as the workmen piled into their trucks and left. Despite the debilitating temperature, the makeshift family started to move. Leaving all but the most meager of their possessions, they climbed the narrow goat path to the abandoned construction site, pausing to drink cold water from a yellow jug hanging from a tree. There they found a container of food, left by a pile of rocks by one of the workers. The leader had spoken at length to Veronique in her language, but Feng hadn’t understood a word of the hurried instructions. He could see they were at the end of the road, so they clearly needed to head west toward the sinking sun. Feng had his instructions, too, given to him by the snakehead driver so many weeks ago.
The road, paved in white concrete, provided an easy way for their tired feet but still the going was hard. The baby was always a cause for concern. Feng knew, of course, the dangers the trek posed to the newborn, but they had no choice. The women took turns carrying the little bundle while Feng lugged a plastic bottle of water, the food and the other items they had decided to keep. Up one hill and down the other side they went, walking without stopping as the sun set. Only once did a vehicle pass them. Wide-eyed white people peered at them through tinted glass from the air-conditioned interior. They passed a few houses, the people inside turning on lights, fixing dinner, watching TV, unaware of the weary trio trudging by.
Over and over, Feng practiced the words he’s been taught. He was supposed to find a policeman or a soldier and say, “Immigration Office, please.” “Im ah gray shun ahf us pleez,” he repeated. Those words, he’d been told, would start him properly on his way to an American city where he could get a job in a big hospital. He would be welcomed there and he would quickly learn the language the other doctors spoke. In time, his family would come to live with him. His life would be like the show ER.
Veronique was thinking, too, about the money she would make in America. Lots of money. Money to buy clothes and soaps that smelled like flowers and jewelry to wear and a pair of yellow shoes. Yellow was her favorite color. She would have a room in a house all to herself and she would paint it yellow. She would be rich in America and send half her money home to her sisters and brothers and her girlfriends. In a short time, they too could make the trip to America.
The baby slept in her mother’s arms. The young girl was too tired, fatigued nearly beyond all bounds, to think. She walked; one step after another. By the time they reached the little town, they had walked eight tough miles.
The town was just a collection of shops and bars, a school and a firehouse but there were people there. Feng practiced his words and the women kept to the shadows. Feng looked for a policeman but there were none to be seen. In his village there were police everywhere. Here, in Coral Bay, there was no police station. The voices of people, laughing over their dinner and drinks in the bars, swelled into the streets but Feng couldn’t find anybody to turn himself in to. He stood at the door to one restaurant and surveyed the crowd for some kind of official. One man, dressed in blue short pants and a white officer’s shirt, drank from a green beer bottle and seemed to be in charge of a small group. Maybe he was an immigration man, Feng thought.
Leaving the women with the baby outside, Feng stepped into the room. Nobody seemed to notice him as he approached the man in the white shirt. “Wo shi zheng zhi nan min. I am a political refugee,” he said. “Im ah gray shun ahf us pleez.” The people burst into peels of drunken laughter. Bewildered, Feng turned back to the street. The women were gone.
Chapter Eight – Separation
Veronique, the young mother and the sleeping baby were in the darkened backseat of a late model van. The driver wasn’t saying a word as the van climbed the winding road out of the town of Coral Bay. The women, for the time being, were content to wait to see what the immediate future would bring. They were so tired, so confused and scared that, at least while the baby slept, they would let things happen as they would. They had no choice, either. One minute they were outside the busy bar, the next they were shoved into the van and the door was slammed from the outside as they started moving. They watched the flickering of the headlights in the overhanging tree branches as the van ground steadily up the hill.
From time to time they saw some lights from the houses they passed. Mostly, it was dark. At the top of the hill there were a few buildings, closed at this time of night, and then they plunged down a steep grade. Then, up again, over and over all along the spine of the island.
After about twenty minutes the van slowed to a stop. There was a cluster of small wooden houses, little more than cobbled together shacks, with corrugated metal roofs. The door slid open and they were told to get out. The van drove away and the women realized that the driver hadn’t said one word during the whole trip. A woman, very fat with a big smile and curlers in her hair, beckoned them to follow her into the house closest to the road. Inside, they were given plates of food; rice and meat and vegetable. They ate, without question, as if they were starving. They hadn’t had a full meal in two weeks. There was water and juice being served by a number of different women, girls really, who took the baby and gave her a warm bottle. It seemed like a dream, but Veronique and the girl weren’t thinking about anything but the comfort and sustenance these people were providing. After their ordeal, any kindness was welcome. It seemed the trip to America was over.
Hardly anyone spoke to the young women. The people in the house spoke Spanish, but they understood the Creole dialect the two girls spoke. Outside, two men sat smoking cigarettes. After they had eaten, the girls were shown to a small room, no bigger than the bed that lay inside. Their new friends pointed out the toilet and sink at the end of the hallway. Once inside, Veronique took the young girl’s hand and together they made a bed for the baby. As they lay back on the bed the door swung closed.
At about this time, Feng was walking out of Coral Bay, following the road that the few cars that passed him had taken. He earnestly wished to find the immigration office. There, he’d been told, he could explain his situation. He would explain that he was a doctor from China. There he would be welcomed to America. The dark road was all uphill. Behind him, he heard a vehicle approaching. Hopefully, it would stop for him and take him to the American officials. He stood facing back the way he had come as a pickup truck came to a stop beside him. “Yu going too town?” the driver said. Feng climbed in back.
Chapter Nine – The End?
The nine chapters of this story are entirely fiction. Similar events have happened on St. John and are happening all over the world where people yearn to migrate. Had Feng really existed, he would have been transported to Louisiana for a hearing on his refugee status. It’s unlikely that his Chinese training would be sufficient to allow him to become a doctor in an American hospital. If he were lucky enough to utter the words “I’m afraid to stay in China,” he would probably be allowed to remain in the United States.
If there really were a Veronique, she would likely remain in the shadows. She would have to rely on the people that housed her. If her identity were to become known by Immigration officials she would not be welcome.
© 2005 -Jeff Smith