“Dynamite?” Cheng Tao turned to his sister, puzzled. He knew the sound from his agonising months of backbreaking labour after he’d arrived from China, when he’d worked on a railroad gang in the mountains. There was a louder blast, and San Li’s hands trembled as she clutched an ivory statue of Quan Yin, the Chinese goddess of mercy.
There were two large baskets beside her that she and her brother had stacked with cooking pots, heaps of food and blankets. Tucked carefully in the folds of a silk shawl was an exquisitely painted lacquer box.
Emily felt her throat catch, guessing what a precious heirloom it must be and longing for her own keepsakes. But then she saw tears begin to stream down San Li’s cheeks and the stricken look on her brother’s face as he talked gently to her.
He turned to Emily.
“I will take you and San Li to safety, and then I will search for your people, and our friends and relatives.” His voice nearly broke. “It will be very bad for the Chinese.”
Emily remembered one afternoon when she had ridden in the carriage with Lady Florence, and they’d passed the outskirts of Chinatown. Florence had looked away, appalled that the driver had chosen that particular route, with its horrible smells and disease, but Emily had craned her neck, looking down the bustling streets with fascination. Vendors carrying long poles with huge baskets balanced on either end shuffled and weaved through the swarms of people. Brightly coloured lanterns and pennants fluttered like exotic birds between lines of laundry strung across the narrow streets. She had never seen such rickety buildings and such a sea of people compressed into a small area.
Emily was humbled and shamed by Cheng Tao’s selflessness.
“Cheng Tao, if you go, then I will come with you.”
“No, miss, please stay with San Li.”
Cheng Tao, with his quiet and practical ways, had already found out that people planned to make their way to the safety of Golden Gate Park and the Presidio, the army medical centre at the tip of the peninsula. Others had made their way to the bay where ferries would take them across to Oakland and Berkeley. Some people had hung doggedly on, refusing to leave their neighbourhoods until the sheets of flame had forced them out.
Emily had hastily dressed beneath the cover of a blanket, and then, with hundreds of others, the three began the long westward trudge, Emily with her unwieldy bundle, San Li and Cheng Tao with their baskets, and another pack on his back.
If it hadn’t been for the ruins all around them, the procession might have been an almost comical sight. In their stunned stupor, some people had chosen to rescue an odd assortment of possessions. Emily saw a broken plaster bust and ostrich feather hat perched awkwardly on top of a treadle sewing machine on wheels. In spite of everything, she found herself faintly smiling at the sight of the array of pet birds, so popular amongst the city dwellers. They were all squawking and singing their hearts out, though one lady carried her parrot on her shoulder while her four kittens rode in its cage.
But with every step there was fear and sorrow. Emily’s eyes smarted as she squinted into the distance to the city. It now looked entirely engulfed in black smoke and angry red flame, and she prayed for the Farringtons, for James, and for every member of the doomed city. Her head ached with the constant “boom! boom!” of the mysterious dynamite blasts, and the harsh grating of trunks scraping against the cobbles.
She turned and looked back at the house, saw its roof jutting up at an angle between the trees. Of all the places she’d lived in since coming to America, it had been her favourite. If she had to leave behind her box of memories, then perhaps it was fitting that it should be there.
“Miss . . . Emily.” San Li’s voice was tentative as she tried to form the sounds, so different from those of the Chinese language. From one of the baskets she took an apple and held it out.
A little ahead of them, Emily heard a child crying. His mother was trying to soothe him, but Emily could see that there was a deep graze on the little boy’s forehead. Yet she, Emily, was miraculously unharmed, and lucky to be alive. It was for her to be strong, and to do everything she could to help. She looked at San Li, and knew at once that their thoughts had been the same as together they hurried to the mother’s side.