The Casket of Ah Kee
WILBUR S. PEACOCK
AH KEE had no age. Each year etched new lines in his face, until the flesh began to draw like the skin of a wind-sere apple, but always he moved with the same smooth grace and dignity of the year before. He was old-world, his queue neatly plaited in the five strands prescribed by custom, and his nails, while not close-clipped, were not the length of those of an idler.
He laughed often, slanted dark eyes alight with amusement, and spanked the Willard children with an impartiality almost planned. He was emperor of his kitchen, and, so Mr. Willard claimed, of the house; but he ruled benevolently, padding about in felt slippers with crimson soles, and singing quaint songs in Cantonese as he went quietly about his duties, so there were few complaints against his gentle tyranny.
Of course he had his secret; but since the Willards were convinced all Chinese had deep dark wells of spirit, no one probed at him to discover it, and he nursed it through two generations of the family he served, watching it slowly come to fruition.
The secret wouldn’t have seemed important to many people, except in a vague physical way, for it had to do with Ah Kee’s death. He knew he would die someday, and of that he was not afraid. It was the manner of his burial which worried him.
Five Willards he had mourned: Grandmother
and Grandfather, Tom and two of Tom’s children. Since he had not married, the Willards became his family, and when each passed on slow silent tears had welled from his heart, and he had worn white around the house for the period of mourning.
Tom Willard had once said, while Amantha, his wife, nodded in agreement: “Ah Kee, you are part of the family; all of us love you. We’d like you to have part of our family burial plot for your own.”
Ah Kee had bowed, embarrassed, not because his employer spoke of dying, but because these people should want him, an alien, to lie with their revered dead.
“You are kind to an old man,” he murmured in Cantonese, a language spoken by all in the house. “I am undeserving of such glory.”
No more had been said then, the family believing him to be satisfied. He, not wishing to hurt them with his thoughts, kept his own counsel. But his plans for death lay not in Canada but back in the small village of Kantong, where he had first breathed and cried and suckled at his mother’s breast.
He had chosen his casket, a lovely creation of hand-rubbed mahogany and silver trim, with piled satin and a pillow edged with delicate lace. It was a beautiful thing, worthy of a red button mandarin, ar.d his brother’s children and grandchildren would wail in great grief and pride when he came home in such great state.
This was not strange, for his countrymen thought the same thoughts, carrying the wish with them throughout the years of self-exile in the great country they had adopted. But few of them could save the necessary money with which to further their dream.
Ah Kee’s living had been a frugal one, although he was not miserly. He had earned much over a period of years. His savings had slowly grown, hidden in the green-and-red silk wallet within his trunk, until he knew that never would he need to worry about the stateliness of his funeral.
Of course he had spent much during the war years in contributions to Chinese Relief and direct money orders to his family and friends. But he still had enough left to give himself the ending he so desired—for which he thanked his gods.
The joss of Kwan Tai, God of War, glared balefully at him from the corner of the room, but incense glowed there seldom now, for the monkey invaders had been crushed at last. But good fragrant incense
continued to curl blue smoke into the air before the josses of Choi Sun, Goddess of Finance, and Quan Yin, the Joss of Good Fortune, for Ah Kee believed in the gods of his people.
He stood now in his large airy room at the rear of the old house, and bowed in the manner of the Thousand Rituals, first at Quan Yin, then at Choi Sun, and less formally at the God of War.
“I shall die soon,” he said aloud, humbly, “and a thousand graces to you for what you have done. I am an old man with no sons left to mourn me, but there is no bitterness in my heart.” He spread the contents of the silk wallet on the low table. “There is enough here now for what must be done. I am undeserving.”
Bowing, he straightened and gathered up the thick sheaf of money and replaced it in the wallet. Turning, he hid the wallet again, in his waist below his coat, and left the room as quietly as he had come.
He walked more slowly today, for the ache was at his heart again, and rapid movement drew beads of perspiration to his lean cheeks and almost sucked away his consciousness for brief moments. He went along the upper hall and down the back stairs to the kitchen.
Lonesomeness struck at his heart, for his mind lay long in the past, 30, 40, even 50, years before, when children had raced the halls and stairs and stolen sweet nutcakes and cinnamon sticks from his kitchen. The house had been full then, worthy of a man’s work; but now it was empty and slightly forbidding, old-fashioned beds and furniture sheetcovered, lying dormant, all life sleeping.
Only Amantha and he lived in the rambling house now, and they in the right wing, which Ah Kee kept spotless. They had grown old with the house, which was like a friend slowly dying but with a heart which remembered many laughs and fewer tears.
Ah Kee came to the bottom of the stairs now, and watched Amantha in the kitchen. Years before, he would have rushed her from its sacred precincts with well-chosen words; but now he watched, and sympathy for his mistress lay like a shadow over his mind.
She was tiny, smaller than he, and her hair was the white of the best china in his cupboard. Her hands were veined but still firm, and she walked with a pride which was both shield and buckler against a changing world.
Now she poured boiling water into the teapot, taking care as Ah Kee had taught her. She sang softly as she moved, humming a fragment of a forgotten waltz; and Ah Kee remembered how she and Tom had danced to the music at their gay wedding when gas lights had painted small shadows over the guests, long before the house had been wired for electricity. She was still beautiful, but now there was the patina of years smudging the sharpness of her beauty, softening and sinking it deep into her.
She caught sight of Ah Kee in the doorway, and a slow smile lifted the corners of her lips.
“You work too hard,” she said in Cantonese. “There is no need to dust the house each day.”
“It is your home,” Ah Kee said stiffly. “Dust is for lower people.” Always they spoke thus, always was the same old argument coming between them; but it meant nothing. They were not servant and mistress but two old friends, and the stubbornness of both kept the argument alive, as it had lived for more years than either wished to remember.
“The water is too cold,” Ah Kee said, and came and took the kettle from her hand. “I will bring tea in presently. You will read.”
He could speak English, for his education had begun years before when the children had read their lessons to him. By any standard he was an educated
man; but he preferred the role he played, and Mrs. Willard played it with him.
In Cantonese, she said, “You are a pirate, a tyrant; I shall let you go at the end of the month.” Ah Kee nodded imperturbably. “I will not stay a day longer,” he agreed.
He poured the steaming water back into the kettle, replaced it on the stove. He was smiling, but he turned his head that she might not see.
Amantha’s gaze flicked about the gleaming floors and walls. Nowhere was there dust or stains, and the copper pans gleamed like mirrors beside the range. “It has always been yours, Ah Kee,” she finished. “No one shall take your place.”
“Go and read,” Ah Kee commanded. “I will bring tea.”
“And rice cakes,” Amantha begged. “Mr. Thompkins will be calling shortly.”
“And rice cakes,” Ah Kee ugreed, and watched
Ah Kee would have approved everything about his funeral but the dust on his mistress' carpet. Dust was for lower persons ... like himself
her go through the kitchen door to the front of the house.
He found cakes in the cupboard, laid them in neat order on a fragile plate, and then sat to wait until the visitor arrived. He was patient and small, and sat with hands folded in his lap, running slim fingers along the edge of his thin quilted house coat.
So Mr. Thompkins was calling. He came more often these days, now that Mrs. Willard’s children had moved so far away and left her alone. Once he had been a freckle-faced boy whom Ah Kee had spanked for stealing jam; but now he was a famous lawyer with grey salting his dark hair. He was a friend, as well as the man who controlled the estate Tom Willard had left his wife. He laughed often, and his cigar left fragrant rich smoke hanging in the air when he visited.
The doorbell rang, and Ah Kee heard Amantha’s voice giving greetings and the heavier voice of Thompkins answering. Steps moved down the hall and into the small living room.
Ah Kee filled the pot, taking time, for his chest was hurting again. He covered the pot with a quilted cosy, then lifted the tea tray and went from the kitchen. His slippered feet made no noise upon the flooring, and his face was placid.
“—wiped out,” he heard Mr. Thompkins say, and then a startled catch of breath from Mrs. Willard. “I salvaged what I could, but the income will be less than you need to live.”
“But Tom told me—” Mrs. Willard began, and the stunned incredulity in her voice wrenched at Ah Kee’s heart.
He stood and listened, shamelessly, as he had done before, for this was his family and he had the right. His hands shook slightly and he stilled them, and waited in the shadow beside the door.
“How much is left?” Amantha asked.
Mr. Thompkins told her, and Ah Kee knew he had spoken the truth. She could not live on such an income. Sickness came to him then, as though he himself had been betrayed.
“What can I do?” Amantha asked quietly, and the rush of fear was gone from her tone.
Mr. Thompkins coughed, and he didn’t laugh now. “You still refuse to live with your children?” he said.
“It would not be fair to them; they have problems enough without being troubled with me.”
Ah Kee could not understand that attitude, despite his years in Canada. Children should venerate and care for their parents—there was nothing else to do, for the parents had sacrificed to rear them. Pride was a fine Continued on page 37
Continued from page 17
thing to have, but false pride could choke a person to death.
“You have the house,” Mr. Thompkins said. “By selling it and investing the money in an annuity, which would be rather high because of your age, you could get by. That and your other income would provide for you.”
“And what of Ah Kee?”
Mr. Thompkins coughed. “I don’t know,” he admitted. “There won’t be enough for two of you. Perhaps I can find him a place somewhere else.”
“No!” Amantha’s voice was shocked. “Ah Kee is part of the family; Tom always meant to provide for him. He is old and could not work for other people.”
Ah Kee swallowed and blinked. His shoulders straightened.
“Well, you might get by, with scrimping,” Mr. Thompkins said slowly. “But you could pay no wages.” His voice stopped for a moment, then continued. “I could mortgage the house,” he finished, “except that the payments would eat up what money you received.”
“Sell the house,” Amantha said firmly. “Ah Kee and I will find another place.”
“Very well, but—”
“Sell the house. And the children are not to know.”
Ah Kee coughed softly, then went into the living room. He nodded politely at Mr. Thompkins’ greeting, and poured tea. Amantha watched him, and he smiled gently at her. Slowly some of the fear went from her eyes and tension from her fingers. Her tone was even as she spoke to Thompkins when Ah Kee left the room.
Ah Kee returned to the kitchen, sat tiredly on the stool before the window. The garden was lovely, earth brown and clean beneath the flowers, the grass bright green where he had clipped it short. It rested him to watch it.
He heard Mr. Thompkins saying good-by at the door, and a bit later Mrs. Willard appeared, carrying the tea tray. She set it on the table, absently running a slender finger along the spout.
“We shall be taking a smaller house or apartment shortly, Ah Kee,” she said. “This house is too large and is too much work for us. We shall be much happier in a smaller place.”
Ah Kee waited, for he knew she had more to say. He looked very old there, the grey of his queue almost white, and his seamed features shrunken and drawn.
“There is one more thing,” Mrs. Willard said, “and I am sorry to have to say it. There is a £>it of trouble about money now, and so I cannot pay any wages for some time.” Her eyes flicked to his. “I am sorry, Ah Kee.”
Ah Kee nodded. “The house is too large,” he admitted, “and I grow too old to spend money.” He smiled. “Do not worry,” he finished.
She was watching him steadily, and knowledge came to her eyes.
“You listened?” she asked.
“I listened,” Ah Kee admitted.
She cried then, turning away, and he made no move to stop her. It was not his right, for she was his mistress; but the soft sobbing cut him deeper than any weapon could. And after she had gone through the door he sat silently for a long time, staring through the window, seeing nothing.
This then was the end. With him gone Amantha could live adequately, if not too well. Now was the time for him to bring about the final act of his life.
He thought of the years which had flowed about him, and the memories were good. The family had grown and prospered, and the sons had brought credit to the family name. Even the girls who, of course, weren’t very important, had done nothing to disgrace their parents.
He took pride in that, for he had heard their lessons and their prayers, had fed and diapered them when babies and had stood silently watching in later years when they married. It was his family, although not his blood, and he would have had it no other way.
HE CAME from the stool and dialled a number on the kitchen phone. “Greetings, Honored One,” he said gently. “This is the worthless Ah Kee, and I would speak of my casket . . .
May I see it again? ... A thousand blessings.”
He pronged the receiver, and retrieved his straw hat from the pantry shelf. Setting it squarely atop his round head, he left the house and shuffled down the alley. Hands cupped in the loose sleeves of his house coat, crimsonsoled slippers padding softly beneath the shapeless legs of his cotton trousers, he hustled along, face impassive.
Boarding a bus two blocks away, he thumbed a nickel into the change machine and paced to the rear. A child laughed at him, and he sat, head bowed, humble as his position demanded.
Thirty minutes later he alighted and walked the streets where his countrymen lived. Here were the shops and people and homes of his friends, and he gave greetings as he went along, replying courteously, apologizing because he could not stop for gossip and a cup of tea.
He stopped before a grey-stuccoed building, then climbed the steps to the second floor. He was gasping, and his weak heart thudded dangerously as he rested in the upper hall. But at last, quieted a bit, he palmed the knob of an office and entered.
“Greetings, learned one,” he said to the young Chinese. “Have you time for me?”
The doctor smiled and nodded. “Sit down, Ah Kee,” he ordered, and keen eyes studied the visitor. “What is on your mind?”
Ah Kee perched on the edge of a chair, and his tone was patient and knowledgeable as he asked his question: “When shall I die?”
“Well—” The doctor hesitated, then shrugged, for this man was of his race, although of another generation. “Ah Kee,” he said, “I do not know. Your heart is bad, yet you may live years. On the other hand, you might die today.”
“And which is the better chance?”
Ah Kee nodded, satisfied, and drew money from his pocket. “I will pay you now,” he said, “for fear that I may not be able to do so next time we meet.”
“I will pay now.”
Twenty minutes later Ah Kee pushed open the door of the casket seller’s store. Lum Kai bowed in the manner of the Thousand Rituals and beckoned him to the rear.
“I am honored, Ancient One,” he said. “The casket is laid out and waiting for your inspection again.”
Ah Kee smiled. “I am unworthy of your graciousness,” he murmured.
“Not so. I am the favored one.”
They went through the showroom and into a rear room where Ah Kee’s casket lay on trestles. Lum Kai bowed himself out and closed the door, and Ah Kee was alone with his destiny.
The copper gleamed with the soft lustre of polished gold, and the silver trim was carved with delicate traceries of design. The handles were solid silver, strong enough to bear the weight which would stagger eight strong men at the funeral. The mahogany was satin-brown, and he touched it with gentle fingers, strangely contented.
This was the casket Ah Kee had chosen from all the others. It was not his yet by right of purchase; but his mind had claimed it, and he knew he wanted no other. Expensive it was, so costly that no one he knew could consider buying such magnificence, and the money it would cost was fully half of Ah Kee’s life savings. But this was the final resting place he had chosen, and the thought of eternally sleeping elsewhere brought sickness to his stomach.
He toed the slippers from his feet and climbed into the casket, stretching out,
adjusting his body on the luxurious padding. The odor was good to his nostrils, and the casket was large enough so that he would not be cramped. He lay for a long moment, eyes closed, imagining an infinity of nothingness, and a splendor touched his heart.
Then he clambered from the casket, straightening the satin lining, closing the double lids. Fitting on the slippers again, he touched the casket good-by and left the room.
“I cannot take the casket,” he said to Lum Kai. “I have misled you badly, and my shame is a bad odor in my nostrils.”
Lum Kai shook his head from side to side. “That is bad,” he agreed, “for I know your wish. Would you care to explain to my worthless mind?”
Ah Kee nodded. “My family needs my money,” he said slowly. “It will do better, serving the living, than to be wasted upon my poor body. But I will take a pine box; and when I die you will bury me in my family’s plot here.”
Lum Kai turned his eyes away that he might not see the tears in Ah Kee’s. Pity stirred in his face, then subsided. Ah Kee was old, but he was intelligent; it was his life and his death and his money.
“I will do what you say,” he said.
Ah Kee nodded. “I will pay now for the pine box,” he said, and counted bills into Lum Kai’s hand. And when he was through he smiled at the casket seller. “You are a good friend,” he said. “May your sons have many sons.” He turned to leave.
“I am sorry, Ah Kee,” he heard the casket seller say, and then he was in the street, shuffling toward a bus stop.
The ride to Mr. Thompkins’ office was long and tiresome, and Ah Kee could feel the ache of his chest spreading throughout his body. He held himself erect in the caned seat, watching the traffic flow past, and thought of China.
He loved China and Canada. The old country had given him life, and the new had given him the means with which to enjoy that life. He owed much to both.
It would not be too bad to be buried in this country which had been so good to him, he thought, and defeat was softened momentarily.
He climbed from the bus at the building where Mr. Thompkins had his office, and took an elevator to the 9th floor. People stared amusedly at his aged padding figure as he went along the hall and entered the office.
“Mis’ Thompkin, please?” he said to the reception girl. “Ah Kee to see him.”
“Well, I’ll see if he’s in,” the girl said sceptically, and talked into her communicator.
“Thank you,” Ah Kee said, when she gestured wordlessly. He paced across the room and turned the knob.
“What is it, Ah Kee?” Mr. Thompkins said. “Is Mrs. Willard—I mean—”
“Everything is fine, sir,” Ah Kee said, and he spoke in English, the language he had learned while listening to school lessons years before.
Mr. Thompkins smiled in relief and indicated a nearby chair.
“Sit down, my friend,” he invited. “Now what’s on your mind?”
Ah Kee sank tiredly to the chair and drew the silk wallet from its hiding place at his waist.
“I want you to buy an annuity for Mrs. Willard,” he explained. “You will say that is a newly discovered part of her husband’s estate.”
He was a little man, but the words gave him stature, and his dark eyes smiled as they once had while cooking delicacies for Tom Willard.
Mr. Thompkins listened blankly.
Presently he reached for the wallet. He drew crisp bills from their hiding place and fingered them.
“Whose money is this?”
Mr. Thompkins shook his head. “Do you know what you’re doing?” he asked. “Why, this must be your life savings!”
“It is,” Ah Kee said placidly, and stroked the queue hanging over his shoulder. “Now will you do as I ask?” “Look, Ah Kee,” Mr. Thompkins said gently, “this sacrifice is unnecessary. Mrs. Willard can live with her children; she has a very small income. There is no need for her foolish pride to rob you of your savings.”
Ah Kee bent forward. “That is my money,” he said quietly. “I shall do with it as I wish.”
“I won’t do it.”
“You will,” Ah Kee said flatly. “Mrs. Willard is my family; I have watched over her since she was a little girl. I shall not live long, and I will not have the money wasted on a box for my bones.”
He hadn’t meant to mention the casket—the words had slipped out.
There was pleading in his wrinkled face then; and for the moment the lawyer saw deep into the heart of the little unobtrusive man.
“So you were saving it for that,” Mr. Thompkins said softly.
“Please?” Ah Kee begged. “You will do as I ask?”
Mr. Thompkins nodded. “I’ll handle it,” he said.
“Good!” Ah Kee smiled for the first time. “This way she will not lose her home, and will have enough to live on the rest of her life.”
“But how about you?” Mr. Thompkins asked.
“Me!” Ah Kee laughed aloud. “There is no need for worry; my life is arranged.” He rose. “Good-by, sir.” “Good-by, Ah Kee.”
Bobbing his head the Chinese lifted his flattened wallet and went toward the door. He was strangely glad now that the decision was made and matters out of his hands. He had done that
which any member of a family would do, and the pride in him was a tangible thing which gave him strength.
LUM KAI brought the casket to the i house and saw to the preparations of Ah Kee’s body. He whispered Chinese prayers and did everything according to the Five Laws. There was to be a Christian service, out of respect to Mrs. Willard; but Lum Kai knew that his old friend wanted the words of the old country. So he said them in a soft whisper, and then called in the family for the main services.
Ah Kee still had no age. He might have been young, for his face was almost smooth. His lips smiled gently, and his gentle hands were crossed on his chest. He wore the quilted robe and garments he had selected years before, and his braid lay over his left shoulder.
There were no tears at the service, for he would not have liked that. There was only a short sermon spoken, and then a single hymn. After that the coffin was closed, and then placed in the heavy wooden box in which it would ride to China for final burial.
Ah Kee would have many mourners at his funeral, and his family would wail in grief and awe at the splendor of his fine casket. It was copper and polished mahogany and dully gleaming silver, and eight men would stagger beneath its weight.
Yet he might have liked the funeral services he had in Canada the better, for the Willards were there, Tommy and Dick and Clarice and Agnes and their families, and over all the frail figure of Amantha Willard. For Mr. Thompkins could not keep the secret. He called on Lum Kai, then told the family, and among them they bought the fine casket with the silver handles; and so it was that Ah Kee had the wish of his life fulfilled and would be going back to China to rest.
Ah Kee would have liked everything but the dust tracked into the Willards’ home. That was not right.
Dust was for lower people. Common persons like himself.