Illustration by unknown artist. Caption: 'Central Pacific Railroad–Chinese Laborers at Work.' Harper's Weekly, Vol. XI, No. 571, p. 772.

by Winston Bribach

The bosses told us Chinese to stay away from the photographer. Most didn’t need to be told. They didn’t want to lose their souls. I, too, couldn’t deny the magic captured by a single flash, but the magic wasn’t death—it was immortality.

I leaned against my shovel. I marveled at the men before the camera. They posed like they were hammering stakes into the track already laid, pretending to build the railroad without us. Their white bodies were firm, solid. I couldn’t see through them. I rolled up my sleeve. My forearm felt right, the muscles strong from digging into the desert ground. Looking at it, however, was like looking through a sheer cloth. Light passed through me with little resistance. When the foreman passed, I hid my arm—a reflex action—not that he would have noticed. They never looked at us.

The first time I noticed my skin fading, turning invisible, we were in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. To clear a way for the track, Ling and Ah Fong, two men from villages neighboring mine back home across the ocean, were lowered off a cliff carrying dynamite. The blast came before we could pull them up to safety, burying them underneath immovable rock. Their bodies wouldn’t be recovered, wouldn’t be returned home to their families. Nothing they left behind showed they had ever existed. I pictured their souls in the mountains forever wandering, watching us, then watching nothing but the path they helped create and the trains roaring past long after we were gone.

But the bosses interrupted our mourning and told us to get back to work. When I grabbed my pickaxe, I saw that my hand was not the same—not transparent but not the solid color it had always been. Each accident, each unacknowledged loss, further thinned the color, making my body easier and easier to see through. I started covering every part of myself and not because the mountains were too cold nor the sun too intense once our eastward labor brought us to the desert over a year later. Others did the same. Even when we slept, our bodies were covered. The bosses complimented us for always being ready and used us as examples for the blacks and Mexicans. No one knew we were trying to hide.

The photographer continued going about his business, failing to recognize my gaze. He placed the camera at an angle that caught the men, who tried to look weary, and the conquered mountains behind them. An emptiness settled in my stomach. I didn’t exist to him, didn’t have an essence to capture.

His last picture—flash—completed my transformation. Where there should have been a darkish tan, where only moments ago remained the faintest color, there was nothing. If I stripped off all my clothes, they wouldn’t see my nakedness. They would see a shovel digging into the earth and think nothing was wrong.

Winston Bribach is an Asian American writer and a graduate student in the English PhD program at Texas A&M University. When he’s not reading or writing, he is constantly bemoaning the state of soccer in America. Find him on Twitter @WinBribach.

Illustration by unknown artist. Caption: ‘Central Pacific Railroad–Chinese Laborers at Work.’ Harper’s Weekly, Vol. XI, No. 571, p. 772.