A mouse scurried along the thick wooden beams and Chen Mu’s gaze followed its silhouette until it disappeared behind the bunches of onions and garlic hanging from the ceiling. Beside him his mother slept, and the anger that had been festering in his belly ignited into hate. In the pre-dawn grey he could make out the shape of her cheekbones, the pale skin stretched dry and tight over bone before it darkened in the hollows beneath her eyes. She snored, her mouth open, and her stale breath sickened him. He wanted to kick her. Shake her awake and demand to know why she was sending him away to live amongst the barbarians. He was only seven, had never even been outside his village, and now she was sending him to the other side of the world.
She mumbled and turned, moaning and clutching her belly protectively even in sleep. A strand of saliva slid out of the corner of her mouth onto her hair, and pity replaced Chen Mu’s anger as he remembered the blood and putrid mucus he’d seen in their shit-pot, and the way she moved, bent almost double, when she thought him asleep. Gently, he pulled up the quilt and tucked it snug over her shoulders.[read more=”Read more” less=”Read less”]
In the main front room the silkworms’ munching sounded like the pattering of rain on a roof. A papier-mâché box stood in a corner, on top of which lay the quilt his mother was making for his journey. She’d ripped open her own winter clothes to use the wadding within, and this worried Chen Mu – he knew wadding was expensive and he’d seen how each spring, when she unpicked their padded winter clothes in search of lice, she always painstakingly gathered every scrap of it after it had aired. He mulled over this as he watched the fat white bodies of the silkworms sway like tiny ghost-snakes in their trays. What would she use this winter if all her wadding went into his quilt?
He sighed. The silkworms needed more leaves and Chen Mu decided he’d go to the mulberry tree to pick some, even though this was women’s work. It would be a small favour – he’d even make her a bowl of hot water on his return, in which he’d float a few slivers of garlic to help ease the pain in her belly.
A rooster crowed and a dog barked an answer, and he knew he must hurry if he didn’t want the villagers to see him gathering the leaves. He rekindled the fire in the mouth of the oven, re-plaited his hair into a long queue then went to the back of the house to relieve himself.
Outside the whole village was so cloaked in mist that even stone walls seemed no more than shadows. He heard the throbbing of wings over the river and the soft lowing of the village buffalo. As he squatted over the pit he thought of the events that had brought him to this day.
He’d been barely four when his father and older brothers had followed the great Tso Tsung-t’ang to the northwest provinces to help fight the Nien Fei. They hadn’t returned, and in the drought and famine that followed, during months so hot and dry that men killed animals to drink their blood, his mother had sold his eldest sister to a brothel, and the younger ones as slaves to a rich landlord, even as they cried and begged for this not to happen. Chen Mu had been sent to work in the fields, and for three years now his mother had awakened him at dawn and he’d worked till sunset every single day, and though just a boy he worked as hard as a full-grown man so that the rice and small coins he was paid, together with the money his mother earned from the silk, enabled them to survive. And though his life had not been easy, still he’d been happy, secretly proud to now be the man of the household, to know that his mother didn’t have to remarry, thanks to his contributions.
Then last winter everything changed – a teacher called Yung Wing had come to his village to tell the people of the golden prospects the Imperial Government was offering their sons. He’d reminded them of China’s defeat in the two Opium Wars, a defeat caused not from of lack of courage, but because of the superior power of the foreigners’ weapons. But now their sons could learn the secrets of that power; the government was willing to send them to a place called Connecticut, and for the next twenty years they’d be given a stipend to study and be dressed in the satin gowns of scholars, and on their return they’d receive the same official rank and prestige as those who had entered the Imperial Service.
But none believed him. They didn’t want their sons to go to America, even if what Teacher Yung said was true. They were all simple villagers – had been for generations – and they didn’t care for their sons to leave the village. No one had even heard of this place called Connecticut, so they’d listened politely and nodded in agreement to all he’d said, until he asked who would be the first to send his son. No one had stepped forward, but as each villager returned to his work his mother had lingered and asked the teacher for permission to speak. When Chen Mu returned from the rice fields that evening, he already knew that the Widow Chen had pledged her son.
She was sending him away, knowing he wouldn’t return until fully-grown, and since that evening the thought that she could not love him had festered like a cancer in his belly.
He heard the squeak of the shit-collector’s barrow and pulled up his cotton trousers. Back in the kitchen he added a few more twigs to the fire and picked up the bamboo basket for the mulberry leaves.
The sun was barely up and the mist had not started to evaporate when Chen Mu returned home, his basket full of fresh leaves glistening with dew. He was proud of having thought of this surprise for his mother, of starting the day’s routine before her. It would be a small gift, something she may remember when he was no longer here – maybe even something that would make her miss him. He ripped the leaves into pieces and scattered them on the trays of silkworms.
Chen Mu carefully carried the small bowl of hot water and garlic to the bedroom. ‘Ma?’ His mother opened her eyes and looked around, confused. She sat up and brushed her hair out her eyes. ‘Here. For you. I fed the silkworms as well, so you won’t—’
‘You did what?’ She thrust the bowl back into his hands and struggled out of bed. She slipped her bound feet into shoes and, clutching her gown around her thin body, tottered to the front room. Puzzled, Chen Mu followed.
She was frantically picking each piece of leaf out of the trays, brushing each silkworm off. Her long hair hung down the side of her face, and as she stumbled around the frame her whole body shook.
‘Help me!’ she snapped, but Chen Mu could only stare. ‘You stupid boy, help me. How often have I told you to wait until the sun has dried the leaves? You know they’ll die if they eat damp leaves. You stupid, stupid boy! Did you want to kill them all?’
Chen Mu let the bowl drop out of his hand and ran out of the house. Out past the beans climbing the bamboo poles, down the slippery cobbled street leading to the river. Of course he knew about the leaves – his mother had explained it again and again – yet he’d forgotten it all in order to make himself more important in her eyes. On the other side of the river a dog darted out of a courtyard and snapped at his heels, and he thought this fitting for it showed how unworthy he was – he didn’t even deserve the respect of a dog. He knew now why he was the only boy out of the whole village to be sent to America – why his mother was sending him away. It was because he was stupid. Too stupid even for women’s work. [/read]
He pushed his way through the throng that crowded the footpaths, ignoring the leper showing his sores, the group of professional beggars. He saw a woman up ahead that he thought was Ming Li, but she turned and he saw he was mistaken. The bitter yet sweet pungent smell of opium in the air suddenly sickened him, its soft musky sharpness no longer sensuous as it became one with the smoke from the fires and the smell of frightened, sweating bodies. The wretched humanity around him, the babble of tongues, suddenly provoked nothing in him but annoyance. Nanking Road was but a couple of blocks away and he considered for a moment stopping at the Cathay to drown his frustrations.
The woman he’d mistaken for Ming Li passed him and he realised the only similarity was the hairstyle. Ming Li. LiLi, as he privately thought of her. Since first meeting her and Xueliang at the Cercle Sportif Français, he’d sought out functions where she too was invited – easy to do in a place like Shanghai. And the more he saw of her, the more he wanted her.[read more=”Read more” less=”Read less”]
They had spoken, of course – polite, meaningless social talk that was, for him, just an excuse to stay close to her. He’d become so attuned to her that he could feel her physically when she entered the room, even though his back may be turned. He constantly sought her presence. Hungered for her. And he was sure she felt the same, that she purposely sought out his company, if only for a moment before her husband joined them. He wanted some time alone with her – just a moment away from the prying eyes of the Shanghailanders, a moment without her husband hovering in the background.
And if he was granted that moment, what then?
A car backfired and Edward started, and as he turned towards the sound he accidentally elbowed an old woman in the face. Her nose bled but she bowed low.
‘Please pardon my clumsiness,’ she said, and before Edward could apologise – could offer to help – she tottered off on bound feet. Never had he felt so guilty. He walked on, more anxious than before to reach the sanctuary of his building.
‘Mr Billings? You shouldn’t be out here.’
‘Ming Li! I was just— Never mind. What are you doing out in this?’
‘Aren’t I allowed in the streets of my own city?’ she teased. ‘I have my amah to protect me.’
Edward nodded to the amah. ‘I didn’t mean—’
‘I know. I’m sorry, you’re right. We should all be at home safe. But I’ve just been to a concert at MeiMei’s school – I couldn’t miss that.’
‘You’re on your way home? Would you have time for a drink? A cup of tea?’
Ming Li hesitated. Whilst talking to a Western man may be acceptable to the progressive Chinese of Shanghai when her husband was present, it was a totally different matter when he was not. She knew she shouldn’t even have approached Edward.
‘Just walk with me then,’ he said, guessing the reason for her discomfort.
They walked in silence, side by side, with Ming Li’s amah following a few steps behind. No part of their bodies touched but both were aware of the heat emanating from the other. They slowed their pace – an unspoken agreement to prolong the moment. It wasn’t so crowded here, but the air smelt stale, of roasting meats and rancid fat, and the fusty stench of damp unwashed bodies. It overflowed with shrill voices and hoarse cries, the staccato beat of native music and the constant tinkle of bicycle bells. But Edward no longer noticed any of it. He was only aware of Ming Li.
‘Does she understand English?’ he asked, glancing back at Ming Li’s amah.
They walked on. The tension between them grew. Edward wanted to make love to her right here, right now, but he knew that to simply touch her, no matter how innocently, would be frowned upon. The Westerners of Shanghai may well flaunt their feelings in public, but not so the Chinese.
They turned into Nanking Road and Edward knew that any moment now she would say her goodbyes and leave. He was sick of only seeing her in the company of others, of never being alone with her.
And never being alone was suddenly unacceptable.
‘When you enter a room,’ he said at last, ‘I can actually feel you – even before I see you.’
‘You feel it too.’
Ming Li walked on, silent.
‘Tell me! You do feel it too, don’t you?’
Ming Li nodded.
‘I have to see you. Somewhere private.’
‘I can’t. Xueliang—’
‘I don’t care about Xueliang. When can I see you?’
Ming Li walked on.
‘Why?’ she asked at last.
‘I want to hold you. Feel your skin beneath my hands.’
Ming Li slowed her pace, her gaze lowered.
‘Answer me, Ming Li. You want me too. I know you do…’
‘To feel your hands on me now…’
‘Stroking your neck, your shoulder…’
‘I can feel you…’
‘Cupping your breasts…’
Ming Li blushed. Looked away to the other side of the street.
‘Can you feel my hand on your breast? Can you?’
She nodded but did not look at him.
‘My tongue licking your skin … tasting you … exploring …’
‘Please – no more …’
‘Feel my lips on your belly.’
The horrifyingly human wail of the bomb barely registered before the shock wave picked Edward up and threw him breathless to the ground. The second shook the ground causing more bricks and masonry to crash down, knocking his head to the pavement. Glass fell and shattered around him. He saw another shockwave sweep down the street towards him – fractions of seconds stretched to hours. Then, as if from the bellows of hell, it swirled and swept back the way it had come. The ground beneath him shuddered a third time and he watched an electrical line slowly fall in a graceful curve before resting on a car, fizzling and crackling in a display of blue and white sparks. The air turned brown, choking. Bits of burning cloth floated into the swirling smoke. Disorientated, Edward looked around, unable to remember anything except this very moment. Around him people ran, obviously screaming, but though he could see their mouths moving he could hear no sound. Blood trickled down his forehead into his eyes. Beside him a man on fire mimed a macabre dance. Edward shut his eyes, creating a small dark cocoon of sanity in the bedlam surrounding him. From the wall of the building next to him came the silent shudder of a smaller explosion. Smoke bellowed out and the temperature increased rapidly, the air dry and searing. Edward opened his eyes and rose to his hands and knees. The exertion made him vomit but with vomit came back sound and with sound memory. Ming Li. He had to find Ming Li.
Insane screams, the roar of flames. Inhuman howls. Crawling on all fours Edward pushed his way through the bodies around him, turning each over as he came to them. A woman, her face blown away. An old man, naked, his clothing ripped off by the blast. He pushed aside what he thought was the remains of a burning piece of wood, then realised it was a small child, its human form only identifiable by a small hand still to burn. Cars aflame, their occupants charred to cinders. Black smoke billowed around him. People stood about, dazed and helpless. Bodiless limbs. The sickly smell of burning flesh mingled with the stink of burning rubber.
He saw a body he thought was Ming Li, but when he turned her over he realised it was a pregnant woman, her body shredded by shrapnel. Her eyes stared lifelessly at him and he saw a small movement between her legs. Half out of her body, surrounded by a sticky pool of blood and amniotic fluid the child, hairless and covered in greasy vernix, its eyes sealed shut, opened and shut its mouth like a small fish out of water. It shuddered once, twice, then lay still. Edward vomited once more.
He found her lying beneath the arch of a twisted girder. She was unconscious, the top half of her dress half torn off, half burnt. A large blister already tight with fluid spread from her shoulder to her breast. The side of her breast was burnt deeper – blood and serous fluid oozed and mingled with soot and flakes of burnt cloth. Flies already feeding on the wound.
He pulled her from beneath the girder then stood. For a moment he lurched on the edge of unconsciousness. Retched but forced himself to swallow the bile in his throat and breathe deep. He picked up Ming Li and the pain in his back nearly made him drop her but he fought through the pain. He walked towards The Bund, pushing through the panicked crowd, stumbling over bodies, not conscious of where he was going, only aware that he had to get them away from the insanity surrounding him. Twice he nearly dropped her, his arms now weak with shock, his knees feeling disjointed. The crowd was even thicker now as people ran out of buildings, the air almost impenetrable with the call of thousands to their loved ones, the scream of sirens, the honk of car horns. But still he pushed on.
‘Give her to me.’
Edward stared at Xueliang, covered with smoke and ash but apparently unhurt, with little snail trails of clean skin formed by the sweat running down his face. Somewhere in the back of his mind he knew he should do as Xueliang asked, but he couldn’t move.
‘Give her to me,’ Xueliang said once more.
‘Mr Billings, give me my wife.’[/read] #MustRead #China #histfic #histnovel