TUESDAY: The Opium Addict


This is a novel excerpt. Copyright is held by the author.

Colour and perfume vanish away.
What can be lasting in this world?
Today disappears in the abyss of nothingness;
It is but the passing image of a dream,
And causes only a slight trouble.

— A nineteenth century Japanese poem recited by school children.

Chapter One
The anchor set, and the Shenandoah swung around in the stiff April wind, her starboard side facing Yokohama. Nelson Van Dorn, standing on deck, grasped the gunnel, bracing himself against the heaving of the ship, as white caps bucked up against the bow. His beaver hat was a warm comfort. From his deerskin duster flowed rivulets of water, and in his thick brown beard the water lay like a dew.

“You ought to go below,” the captain said, “until the seas settle down.” The captain, standing beside Nelson, was also looking across the white-capped bay at Yokohama. He was Scottish, nearing sixty, walked with a limp, and had a white beard. His face was pale, save for crowns of red on his cheekbones. He had spent most of his life at sea, and his pink, wind-burned face showed it. Tucked into a corner of his mouth was a meerschaum pipe.

“I’ll stay,” Nelson said.

“Not such an unusual blow for this time of year,” the captain said. “It will be unfortunate if a wind like this comes up during hanami.”

Nelson turned, expecting the captain to provide an explanation.

“Cherry blossom viewing,” the captain said.

Nelson nodded. But he wasn’t thinking about cherry blossoms. He was eager to go ashore. Moreover, these waves were mere ripples compared to those the Shenandoah had plunged through on its way around the Cape of Good Hope. It had been a long voyage, more than two months, and had begun, unceremoniously, in Brooklyn. The Shenandoah was a steamer, carrying cargo, mostly coal, but also several hundred barrels of that newly discovered resource in Pennsylvania, oil, a necessary commodity for Nippon’s industrialization after two hundred and fifty years of self-imposed isolation during the Edo period, which came to an end when Commodore Perry sailed into Tokyo Bay with his fleet of black ships in 1853 and opened the country to foreign trade under the threat of a naval bombardment. The current Meiji emperor had the idea that his country should modernize and catch up with the West, perhaps even surpass it.

Nelson’s younger brother, Warren, had been waiting months for his arrival. Warren, once a harpooner on a whaler, had been to places in the Pacific that Nelson had only read about. On one of their rare meetings in a tavern in Brooklyn, he had convinced Nelson that by going into the business of exporting Japanese silk together they could make a fortune. They had to take advantage of the opportunity before someone else did. Already there was a demand for Japanese wood prints and lacquer-ware, and a demand for silk was sure to follow.

“These seas won’t keep the sailors from going ashore,” the captain said. “I can assure you of that. Sailors are sailors. Their needs are few and pleasurable.”

As a former detective in the New York City police department, Nelson knew exactly what the captain meant. They were in need of women, alcohol, and, as the captain had told him, a drug smuggled in from China, opium. Accompanying the drinking there would certainly be fistfights and stabbings, accusations of cheating at gambling halls, and perhaps murders, as sailors fought over the favours of a particularly talented girl.

Nelson was all too familiar with this. He had been the victim of a German sailor who had gone mad in a Canal Street brothel, strangling to death one of the girls. When Nelson and another policeman cornered him in a dark alley, the man had thrown a dagger at Nelson that had stuck in his right kneecap. On cold days like this his knee ached. He feared that one day he would start to limp as the captain did and be forced to use a cane to get around. But he was too proud to surrender to the pain for now, when it came.

“Aye. Japanese women are accommodating,” the captain said. He puffed on his meerschaum. “Aye, they are. But they don’t cause no trouble. Tis the men that always cause the trouble, they do.”

Thinking of his wife, Elizabeth, who had recently died of typhus, Nelson wondered if one day desire would once again take hold of him and he would seek the company of a woman. Elizabeth was still with him in spirit, but for now a future with a woman was less important to him than a silk business.

A spray of water doused the captain’s pipe. He knocked out the bowl of tobacco on the gunnel and repacked his pipe with a wad of fresh tobacco that he had bought in Canton, where the Shenandoah had set at anchor for a few days. Turning from the wind, the captain struck a match, to light his pipe; he puffed on it a few times until the tobacco glowed red. He turned back to Nelson and said, “Men are in need of carnal pleasures from time to time. It’s not normal to be away from women. It breeds indecent acts. But opium is far worse. I don’t approve of it, I don’t. It robs a man of his soul.”

Nelson knew all too well what the captain meant. He had seen the gaunt faces of sailors and veterans of the war wasting away in squalid opium dens on the Bowery. Opium, recently refined into morphine, was called by many “God’s Own Medicine,” a cure for all maladies. Women used it to treat menstrual cramps.

The captain drew on his pipe, and when he released the smoke the wind swept it away. He took the pipe from his mouth and, using the stem to point at something, said, “Look there, Mr. Van Dorn.”

Nelson squinted into the sun. He was always amazed at the captain’s eyesight. Age had not affected it. His eyes were still as sharp as a hawk’s. What the captain was pointing at came into focus. At anchor was a Chinese junk.

“Opium,” the captain said. “I’d lay a wager on it. Smugglers.”

“And the Japanese allow it?” Nelson asked.

“They profit from it, those in power, but the Japanese are not enslaved by it. It’s for the Chinese and foreign sailors who frequent Chinatown opium dens. The Japanese won’t have anything to do with opium, for moral reasons, I think, but also legal ones, too. They could  face a death sentence if they’re caught with it, a persuasive deterrent, I say. Japanese politicians must be receiving a bribe, something under the table. That’s how things are done in the East, so much is out of sight. Things might appear to be normal, but . . . You’ll learn.”

Nelson and the captain had talked about many things on the voyage — the Japanese people, their religion and culture, their diet, police work in New York, America’s Civil War, President Lincoln’s assassination, the challenges of reconstructing the former Confederacy, the life of a captain of a cargo ship, even death and the hereafter — but never once had Nelson heard the captain mention opium smuggling or that there was a Chinatown in Yokohama. The captain’s mentioning of a Chinatown reminded Nelson of his time in Canton. He had gone ashore and been appalled at the wretched life of so many Chinese who eked out a living as coolies, carrying cargo from the holds of ships onto the quay. In the evenings they lay in the streets, as prostrate and lifeless as corpses, after having spent all of their earnings in an opium den or brothel. The British and their East India Company were responsible for it all.

“Give the Japanese fifty years and they’ll have a navy,” the captain said. “Aye. Fifty years. Perhaps less. They’ll have their own steel mills, competing with our best, they will.”

In their conversations the captain had told Nelson how the Japanese were industrious, orderly, refined, and civilized. They were learning from engineers and teachers who had come from England, Germany, and the United States. Rather than risk being colonized by European powers, which was what was happening to the Chinese, the Japanese were going to modernize and  become a world power, perhaps even become a colonizer themselves. Korea, insular and feudal, ruled by a corrupt aristocracy, was there for their taking before the Russians did so.

Nelson looked out over the windswept bay at Yokohama. In one direction there were some American, British, and French gunboats at anchor. In another was the city of Yokohama. Nelson had to admit to himself that he had expected the city to be more colourful, as Canton had been, where red and yellow banners were on display and crimson temples sat like magistrates on hills that overlooked the bustling city. Yokohama appeared to be a thumb of land on which clusters of weather-beaten grey and brown wooden buildings stood. He could just make out the green tile and weathered copper roofs of homes and temples, and, between these, footpaths and wider thoroughfares; on these tiny figures hurriedly moved about. Surrounding the city were verdant hills, thick with pines. He strained to see Mount Fuji, which he knew was to the southwest, but, to his disappointment, a bank of grey rain clouds concealed it, appearing to him like curtains on the stage of a theatre, ready to be drawn open to signal that his new life had begun.

Just then a Japanese fishing boat, similar in shape and rigging as a Chinese junk, but smaller, appeared off the bow of the Shenandoah, cutting across its anchor line. The boat’s white sails were full, and it was heeled over precariously to its starboard side. Its gunnels occasionally dipped under an oncoming wave. A fisherman,  bare to his waist, a flimsy loincloth girded around his privates, sat lotus-style on the bow. Covering his right shoulder was the shiny red and green tattoo of a Chinese dragon. His stoicism in the face of the bitter cold amazed Nelson.

The man made a gesture, bringing a hand to his lips, and yelled something up to Nelson, but Nelson, still captivated by the man’s indifference to the cold, was too dumbfounded to respond. Other fishermen, also dressed in scraps of loincloth, their skin as brown as leather, appeared on the deck, shouting up to Nelson what could have been obscenities, for all Nelson knew.

“Tobacco,” the captain said. “Aye. That’s what they want.”

The fishing boat passed. Nelson had much to learn about the Japanese.

On the deck of the Shenandoah, three sailors in blue wool coats untied some lines from a davit, preparing to lower a dinghy.

“They’re not going ashore for your benefit,” the captain said. “But I wish them well, and that they return safely. Some men don’t. They’re good men, these, but with desires.” He knocked the bowl of his pipe against the gunnel, and a wad of tobacco flew down the deck. He put the pipe away in a coat pocket.

“It was a pleasure to have you onboard, sir,” he said to Nelson, extending a hand.

“And it was a pleasure to know you, sir.”

The two men shook hands.

“May your business thrive,” the captain said.

The dinghy settled onto the sea, its small bow now and then plunging into an oncoming swell. The helmsman, holding his hat to his head,  shouted into the wind, “If you please, Mr. Van Dorn!”

Nelson walked down the deck and grasped a rope ladder and felt his way down to the dinghy, his knee aching ever so slightly with each step as the ladder banged up against the Shenandoah’s hull. A spray of cold seawater stung Nelson’s eyes. But rather than being put off by this, he found it to be a prelude to his new life, a thrilling adventure.

“A few more rungs,” a sailor cautioned.

Nelson felt the hand of a sailor on his back; he lowered his good leg down to another rung and found the deck with his boot.

“Welcome aboard!” the sailors chimed.

One, holding an oar, used it to push the dinghy away from the Shenandoah, as another raised a small mainsail, which snapped open when it caught the wind. The dinghy then shot out across the waves.

Japanese fishing boats tacked back and forth off the dinghy’s bow as it sailed in the direction of a distant breakwater on which waves were slapping up against its stones. Just beyond the breakwater, in the calmer water, was a wharf covered by a green tile roof. Some fishing boats were moored there, and lines of little men, baskets on their heads, were walking to and from the boats and the wharf. Anchored in the protected waters were other fishing boats. Unlike the port of Canton, where confusion had reigned, one boat cutting across the anchor line of another, the captains of these boats waited their turns to unload their catch.

The dinghy passed by a light at the end of the breakwater and entered the protected waters, and now Nelson saw that the Japanese were also different from the Chinese in appearance as well. None of the men had shaved foreheads and pigtails. Rather, they wore straw hats with chin straps. A few, like the sailor he had seen on the fishing boat, were bare-chested. Their shoulders and backs bristled with tattoos. Others wore black or grey baggy trousers, bloused above their ankles, which resembled jodhpurs. The ones who chose to cover their chests did so with a short-waisted coat and a sash. All of the men were hard at work, putting the fish in baskets or carrying the baskets to a market under the green tile roof of the wharf.

Now that the rush of wind was no longer in his ears, Nelson heard the sailors talking about women, gambling, and a place called the Red Dragon, where they intended to go to smoke a bowl or two of opium. Nelson felt a sense of sorrow for them, but he knew better than to warn them about the drug’s insidiousness. They certainly knew of it but had decided to take their chances and smoke a few bowls.

When the dinghy was only a hundred yards or so from the wharf, one of the sailors shouted, “Look, sir, Mount Fuji! It’s your lucky day.”

Nelson turned and saw that the clouds had opened. The mountain was as colourful as the chips in a kaleidoscope. Its summit was blanketed with snow; sunshine sparkled on the snow. This sight was a harbinger. His decision to come to Yokohama had been the right one and all that he imagined about his future life would certainly be realized. He saw himself in a warehouse stacked with the finest Japanese silks, workers busily filling orders from San Francisco, Philadelphia, Boston, and New York, perhaps even Paris and London.

He had needed this harbinger. The past few years had tested his faith. His two sons, Ethan and Franklin, had died in the war, and his only daughter and her child had died in childbirth. Nelson suspected that his son-in-law, a drunken Wall Street banker, had had something to do with their deaths. He had been an irresponsible husband who had continued on with his drinking, gambling, and visits to Lower East Side brothels after the marriage. He was from a rich family and had been spoiled by money early on in his life. Nelson’s wife had cautioned their daughter about marrying him, but adolescent love had blinded her. She had dreams of leading a privileged life on Park Avenue and escaping the monetary and social confines of being the daughter of a police detective and his wife. Then, soon after her marriage, she had confronted a painful truth about her husband. On too many occasions Nelson’s daughter had concealed her face behind a veil when she left her townhouse.

The months following the death of Nelson’s wife had been dark ones. So when his brother Warren had proposed that they go into business together in an exotic country, Nippon, he knew that this was a chance for a new beginning. All Nelson had known was detective work. Warren, ten years younger, had spent years at sea. He was the prodigal son, often giving in to temptations. He frequented brothels and drank too much. He visited Brooklyn and Manhattan opium dens. But Nelson had chosen to overlook these flaws of his brother’s. Warren did have his talents. He was quick to make friends and put people at ease, necessary qualities for someone going into business. Maybe all this was because of his artistic sensibilities. Women were willing to pose nude for him, and he was able to sell these erotic paintings to wealthy merchants. The paintings captured every line of a woman’s body, but neither his paintings nor his drawings could be displayed in galleries. They were too bawdy. He remembered Warren speaking once about the Greeks’ admiration for the human body, but Nelson, in light of the war and carnage at Gettysburg, Antietam, and Appomattox, and the deaths of his wife and children, had by then become cynical about life and rarely saw beauty around him, as Warren did. It was only when he saw Mount Fuji glowing in the distance like a guiding light that he felt the weights of his past drop from his shoulders.

He heard someone shout, “Mr. Van Dorn! Mr. Van Dorn!”

“Sir,” one of the sailors said, “that gentleman there is calling you.”

Standing on the wharf among the fishmongers was a tall, dignified man, perhaps an American, dressed in blue trousers, a blue overcoat, and a military officer’s peaked cap. He was at least half a foot taller than most of the Japanese, and his military cap emphasized this difference. And then, just as suddenly, Nelson wondered if he would stand out so dramatically once he was ashore, for the two men were not that different in height, though this man was of a slender build and had a military presence. His back was as straight as a fence post.

A Japanese man on the wharf caught a line that a sailor on the bow of the dingy had thrown to him. He tied off the dinghy. Nelson climbed up a ladder onto the wharf and came face-to-face with the stranger.

“You need to go through immigration to have your papers processed,” the man told Nelson. “Over there.” He pointed down a line of bars, like those in a jail, to a counter where two men in black uniforms with epaulets, and caps with shiny bills, stood as sentinels.

“This way, Mr. Van Dorn,” one of the sailors said. He escorted Nelson to the counter.

Nelson wondered where Warren was. He had expected him to be there, waiting for him. He must have known that the Shenandoah had arrived.

“Your papers, please,” one of the men in uniform said. He grinned, revealing a set of tangled, tobacco-stained teeth.

Nelson took an envelope from a vest pocket and opened it and, from it, removed a sheet of paper that had the seal of the United States embossed on it.

The Japanese official smiled and said, “You have pleasant voyage?”

“Very pleasant,” Nelson assured him.

“Welcome to Nippon,” the official said. “This month cherry blossom festival. You know?”

“Yes, I’ve heard.”

“Very beautiful. Maybe we become friends? You teach to me English?”

“Perhaps,” Nelson said.

“They’re always talking that way,” the sailor standing at his side said. “Don’t mean nothing, sir.”

“You have no baggage?”

“I’m having it brought ashore later.”

Wakarimashita!” the official said.

The man looked at Nelson’s papers, studying them carefully. It seemed to Nelson that the man was doing this more to play the role of someone who had authority rather than someone who actually did. Then the man stamped the document with a rubber stamp laden in red ink. “Please,” he said, gesturing for Nelson to enter Nippon.

Nelson passed behind the counter and was met by the stranger in the blue uniform. “Major Jerome Stratford,” the man said, “consul general of the American consulate here in Yokohama. Pleased to make your acquaintance, sir.” He extended a hand.

Nelson said, “Pleased to meet you. Where is Warren?”

“He is engaged.”

“In business?” Nelson asked.

“I’ll explain later,” Mr. Stratford said.

“I’d like to hear your explanation now, if you don’t mind.”

Major Stratford said, “Here is not the place.”

At that moment a Japanese man carrying a basket of octopus bumped up against Nelson. He vanished into a crowd of other men who were also carrying baskets on their shoulders, ones filled with fish, crab, squid, prawns, and sea creatures that Nelson didn’t recognize.

“Let’s seek refuge from this smelly place,” Major Stratford said. “A carriage is at your disposal on the street. This way.”

Nelson followed Major Stratford through the crowd of Japanese. He was suddenly overwhelmed with such a sense of alienation that he forgot all about Warren. He felt like a helpless child. He could not understand anyone, and the signboards were written in a script that was as unfamiliar to him as Egyptian hieroglyphics. He was drawn back in time, again, when he had passed through New York’s Lower East Side and how unfamiliar it had been–signboards in languages that he did not understand, people who wore unfamiliar clothes, the smells of strange foods.

The two men came out onto a crowded street and crossed it, maneuvering between Japanese who were shoulder to shoulder, heading toward the carriage. Many of the women were carrying bags of rice or baskets of fish. Men, evidently their husbands, were walking a few steps ahead of them, unhindered by the weight of any bags or baskets.

They came to the shiny black carriage. Two small American flags were positioned on each side of the driver, a Japanese man wearing a black tophat and a heavy black wool seaman’s coat. He was grasping a whip. Major Stratford opened a door.

Nelson removed his hat and stepped into the carriage. The seats were black leather trimmed in gold. Red silk hung from the doors and ceiling. Nelson then felt as if he were in a coffin. He looked out a window. Many of the Japanese men wore those trousers that resembled jodhpurs, cut high above their ankles, held up around their waists by a sash. They were wearing a peculiar kind of wooden clog, similar to a sandal, but elevated from the street by two slats of wood. They held it to their feet by slipping their toes, which were covered in a sort of mitten for feet, through a thong. Other men were dressed in fine Western clothes — grey wool trousers, vests, white cotton shirts, and silk cravats.

A rickshaw then passed by. Riding in it was a young woman in a peach-coloured kimono on whose head sat a heavy black wig adorned with combs made from tortoise shells. Nelson couldn’t have been more spellbound if he had been a child visiting a carnival for the first time.

The unfamiliarity of all this had momentarily distracted him. He turned and faced Major Stratford. “Where is Warren?” he asked. “He was supposed to meet me.”

“Please,” Major Stratford said.

“Where is Warren?” Nelson demanded.

Major Stratford said nothing. He was perhaps thirty-five or forty and had a prematurely grey mustache. His face was thin and aristocratic, a Boston blue blood, Nelson thought. His back was unnaturally rigid.

“Mr. Van Dorn,” Major Stratford said.

Nelson, surprised, turned to face Major Stratford.

“Go on,” Nelson insisted.

“Sir. It is my duty to inform you that your brother, Warren Van Dorn, has met with an unfortunate death.” He avoided Nelson’s stare and said, “Driver!” He tapped the side of the carriage with a knuckle. The carriage lurched forward.


Image of James Roth, smiling, in ball cap and sunglasses, outside in front of a"Golf, Bowls, & Tennis Club" sign.

James Roth is a writer of fiction and nonfiction. His fiction has appeared, or is forthcoming, in several international magazines and journals, including New Contrast (South Africa), The Wise Owl (India), Mystery Quarterly (The U.S.), and Litro (The U.K.), and he has published essays and CNF in other magazines. His first novel, The Opium Addict, is set in Meiji era Japan and is also forthcoming. He has travelled widely in Southeast Asia and has lived in Japan, China, Jordan, South Africa, and Zimbabwe and likes to say he was “Made in Japan.” His parents lived there during the American occupation but he was, to his and his mother’s lasting regret, born in the U.S. Go to his website—www.jamesroth.org, or his blog, for a list of his published works and to read about his life and opinions of writing and publishing.

  1. Really enjoyed this and would like to read more. Reminded me a bit of Wilbur Smith’s novels.

  2. Thanks. I wrote the first few drafts back before 2017, revised quite a lot of it during the pandemic, mostly style. Then revised the style again this winter when it was edited. It’s important to have a strong plot. Otherwise, the rewriting can be basically writing a another novel, “A Prayer for My Daughter,” set in contemporary Tokyo, has characters that are more reflective. Most of my work takes place in Japan or Zimbabwe.

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