Ming Kai still had no idea what Elijah was saying but hoped it was something along the lines of, "I have a lot of money and I want to buy this silk from you, and your life will become better, and your family healthy and happy." In a sense, Elijah was saying that. But in reality it was the preface to a plan that unfolded like so: Elijah invited Ming Kai aboard the ship and took him down to its bowels, and there he lopped him on the head with a piece of wood pulled from the side of an orange crate. He tied Ming Kai's hands and feet with twine and stuffed a bandanna in his mouth and stowed him behind a stack of salted pork. He took great pains to hide him, but it wasn't really necessary; sailors brought Chinese men and women back home with them all the time.
But Ming Kai stayed quiet. At night, every night, he cried himself to sleep. Elijah had never heard a Chinese man cry; their tears seemed sadder, purer, and more beautiful than the tears of a white man, and after a thousand tears like this Elijah's heart opened for him, and as they watered their horses in a stream one day Elijah put his arm around Ming Kai's shoulder.
"You," he said, "are my friend. I know it doesn't look that way. We started off badly. I hit you too much. I feel bad about that. But I want to make amends. Tell me what it is you want—anything—and I will see what I can do to get it for you. And perhaps in return for that you will tell me the secret of silk."
"Set me free," Ming Kai said. "Let me return to my home and my family. Wash out my skull and every memory I have in it of you and this great tragedy that has become my life."
Elijah brought Ming Kai closer, and hugged him harder.
"I can't do that," Elijah said. "I would like to. I mean, if I were different, if the world were different, if this story of ours weren't already written down somewhere, I would like to do this. That's the thing, Ming Kai. This story—our story—is fated. We're in this together. I'm nothing without you, and without me you'd be pulling that rickety cart around a crowded square that smelled of piss and rotten vegetables. You and I are part of something big. Do you think it was chance that brought us together? That I just happened to be sitting there, at a table at one of the smaller towns in China, when you walked by?
"This is no accident, Ming Kai. You will tell me how to make silk. We will make silk together and become great men. You will thank me. You will love me. This will happen regardless. But now, what I'm doing now is offering you something more. What can I do for you, Ming Kai, that will make your life that much better? " And he held up his fingers just the smallest width apart.
Ming Kai was silent. Then he said, "I want my family. My wife Sing Loo and my two little boys. I want you to bring them here, to America. Then I will tell you the secret of silk."
"Done!" Elijah said. "At the next town I'll telegraph a man I know. He's in the British Navy. He will do this for me. We'll have them all brought over and you will be happy and together we will make silk! You and me!"
"Yes," Ming Kai said, hugging his old captor, his new friend.
And then, looking into his eyes, he said the word that would change Elijah's life.
"Mulberry?" Elijah said.
"This is what we need. Mulberry trees. To make the silk. Let us find this tree, and I will tell you more when my family arrives."
"Yes!" Elijah said. "You drive a hard bargain, but yes!"
But I will also tell you this," Ming Kai said, narrowing his eyes so they might burn into Elijah's soul. "No good will come from what we do. No flower grows in poisoned field. We may not see it now, but our children will, and our children's children. They will be the ones who finally suffer. They always are."