Read an Excerpt
This person speaking is Jade Virtue, and Old Liang, the late chief magistrate of the city, was my father. He was important in life, and may still be so, out there among the dead. In the empire of China, in the red-earth province of Hunan, in the ancient walled city of Changsha, his mansion stood as one of the finest of the great houses. The manor flaunted its shiny green-tiled roofs, its carefully tended wisteria vines, like a proud woman in fine clothes. The outer walls were painted a fresh bright red every new year. Sunlight reflected from a hundred glass windows, while the windows in the other houses of the city were made of oiled paper. The great red-painted front gates were studded with brass, polished every day to shine like the gold rings on the fingers of my mother and of my father's concubines. A hundred servants scurried through the dozen courtyards, cooking live shrimp in boiling rice whiskey, pouring fine wine, steaming the crinkles out of silk garments, planting flowers, all for the pleasure of Old Liang and his women and children.
I was born in the year 4588, or 1890 by Western counting. The first ten years of my childhood were passed entirely within the walls of that house. I knew the great rooms, whose floors were wiped every day with soft cloths by the maids on their hands and knees, and the crowded servants' courtyards, where they would boil tea and spit into the gutters. Rich and poor, fat and thin, old and young -- all lived under our roof, walking to and fro as men do on the face of the earth. But I knew, too, those parts of the house that were like the depths of the sea, or the caves in the mountains. I knew the four blue tiles in the corner of the bathhouse floor whose cracks, traced by my small finger, formed a perfect spider's web. I played with the dusty old birdcages lined up in a row on a windowsill in the grain storage room. I watched the slow tide of tarnish spread from one corner of the copper mirror that hung forgotten in an unused room, watched as over the years it seeped across the surface of the metal and slowly blinded it. And I knew the alley between the kitchen courtyard and the banquet hall, which was always damp and muddy, even on the hottest day. When it rained, a pool of water would form, resting lightly on the dark red mud, the footprints of the servants protruding from under the edges of the reflected silver sky and early moon and black tree branches, an entire planet drawn upside down into the heel mark of a serving girl.
We had frequent guests, visiting officials and imperial soldiers with messages, all of whom were lavishly entertained by my father with banquets and gifts; but unlike those of us who lived there, they entered our walls and left again when their business was finished, and being temporary, they seemed somehow not quite real. Of our entire household, only my father ever went outside the walls regularly, to preside over the criminal court or to attend council meetings at the governor's palace. My mother and the concubines rarely ventured out. Guei Xiang, the First Concubine, passed for a scholar among women, and would sometimes read us stories when she became bored. Xiao Zhuang, the Second Concubine, must have been very young herself, for she liked best to play dolls with us, and even cut up her own silk scarves to make doll clothes. I don't know how they occupied themselves otherwise, since only my mother, the Big Wife, ran the household. She held all the money, and ordered all the food, and when the concubines gave the servants any but the most insignificant kind of orders, the servants would always ask my mother first if they might obey. Guei Xiang and Xiao Zhuang were always very excited on the few occasions when they left the house to go outside, either to accompany my mother on a formal visit or, following a few steps behind my father and mother on feast days, when they went to venerate my father's ancestors. Sometimes my father would take Guei Xiang to a poetry-writing party, and then she made a great production out of leaving, clutching her inkstone and brushes importantly. As far as I was concerned, they simply mysteriously disappeared and then reappeared. I could not understand why they were so eager to go outside, since going outside the walls was like dropping out of the world.
But the very beginning of this new Western century, the Western year 1900, was marked by many strange portents. The Boxers, the heaven-sent rebels, with their black headbands and clenched fists, killed many in the great cities of the north, and were killed in their turn by the foreign armies that marched into Beijing and Shanghai. Stars fell; distant waters flooded their banks and spread out over the defenseless fields. In Changsha, frogs clambered out of the Xiang River by the thousands, to be eaten by peasants and degree candidates, who are always hungry. Strange flocks of black birds roosted in the trees. And that summer, my father fell mysteriously ill and lay in his bedchamber, sweating through many layers of silken bedding.
In our family at that point in time there were only three children remaining. My elder brother Li Shi, aged thirteen. Myself, personal name Jade Virtue, aged ten years. And my younger sister Graceful Virtue, aged seven. All of us, as far as we knew, the children of our mother. Before and behind and between us had come eleven other children that my father had sired, but the spirits of infants were more fickle in those days, and fled this earth easily, and all of them now lay under the rough red earth along the eastern wall of the city cemetery. For fear that our spirits might be just as unreliable, we children were kept strictly away from our sick father, and after a while his illness ceased to fascinate us and became merely a part of our life in the house. Li Shi continued to take lessons every morning with his tutors, preparing for the day when he would sit for the imperial examinations, and Graceful Virtue and I simply played together, or with the servants' children. But my mother and the concubines took turns nursing my father, one of them always present in his bedroom. Guei Xiang was there most often, because she answered all his letters for him as she always did, kneeling on the floor by his bed to take dictation, brushing the characters very quickly onto the rice paper spread out in front of her. Indeed, my father often joked that there were several officials in the capital who thought Guei Xiang's excellent calligraphy was his own. Sometimes if my father awoke and found my mother or Xiao Zhuang there, he would send them to fetch Guei Xiang, because she was the only one who could read to him. Then Xiao Zhuang would weep quietly outside his door, whispering to my mother that the Old Master did not care for her. My mother listened to her, nodding, but the serene expression she always wore on her face did not change.
That year, autumn came early and harshly to Hunan. It grew unusually cold, and then it seemed to me as if my father became worse. There were no more letters sent out, or reading aloud; my mother began sitting up all night at his bedside. Curtains were draped over the lattices of the doors and windows, and we could no longer see inside to where he lay. A long column of doctors, including the governor's own physician, came to my father's bedroom. The door would open slightly to admit them and shut behind them again immediately. They always left with serious faces, plucking at their long sagacious gray beards with their pale fingers, the skirts of their dark silk gowns rustling amongst the brown leaves lying on the stones of the courtyard.
Ever since my feet were bound the year before, the pain sometimes woke me in the middle of the night. Usually, I simply lay quietly so as not to disturb Graceful Virtue, who had a tendency to get sick when she hadn't slept. I would gnaw my fingers, or rub my temples, or count my breaths until light showed at the window. But one night, as the knife edge of winter began to show, with windless chill and frost on the roof tiles, I could not keep still, and finally got up and wincingly pulled my shoes on over my foot bindings. Cold air sometimes relieved the excruciating throb in my ankles, so I wrapped myself in my quilted coat and opened the door of the room and looked out into the central courtyard.
Across the open space, under the unmoving bare branches of the ginkgo trees, I could see the dull glow of the lamps from my father's bedroom. I could see my mother's shadow inside, moving against the white curtains. I thought about the shadow puppets in a play that a traveling puppeteer had put on for the entire household last summer, waving his little paper figures behind a white screen lit from behind by lanterns, while my father and his women laughed and clapped along with the servants. But there was something about my mother's shadow just then that disturbed me -- there was an awkward, frantic quality that was alien to her usually graceful, restrained manner. If I hadn't clearly recognized my mother's profile, I would have thought that some strange woman was in my father's room. Then I saw her shadow drop a bowl, and I heard it crack into pieces on the stone floor, and watched as she put her hands to her head in despair, and heard her low groan float across to me on the night air. The sound of the crash drew me across the icy courtyard toward the light behind the curtains. I found the door ajar and slipped inside, shutting it behind me.
All the lamps were burning, and I blinked a moment in the sudden glare. My father's bed was at the far end of the room, and the curtains were mostly drawn -- I could see only his bare forearm lying on the mattress. My mother had her back to me, crouching on the floor and picking up the pieces of the bowl. There was no one else in the room. Without thinking, I walked up to my father's bed and took his hand as I normally did, for my father was affectionate with us. But his arm flopped back unresistingly, his fingers did not close on mine, and his skin was oddly cool. I drew back in surprise, and when I turned I saw my mother staring at me, her mouth open. Her upper lip was covered with perspiration, even in the chilly air of the room. It was the fearful look on her face -- her eyes staring in panic in a way I had never seen before -- that frightened me, and I opened my mouth to cry out, but before I could make a sound she had rushed forward and put her hand over the lower half of my face.
"Hush," she whispered, and held my head very tightly in her hands for a moment. Then she leaned back and looked at me. The panicked look had gone from her face, and she had instantly put her usual calm expression back on. But I saw that the rabbit fur of her collar was quivering in the still air and her hands were burning hot, and then for the first time in my life I saw my mother's serene face as a mask, now not quite firmly fixed at the edges, and I was even more frightened by the sharp new thought that I did not know her at all, and perhaps had been tricked all along.
"Be a good girl, and don't make a sound, or you'll disturb Baba." She took her hand away from my mouth.
"Baba isn't here," I said immediately, for reasons that remain unclear to me to this day.
My mother straightened and looked down on me, her eyes moving about in the stillness of her face as her gaze flickered over me. She seemed to reach a decision, for then her eyes came to rest in mine. "No, that's right. Baba has gone now, gone forever. But we can't tell anyone yet."
"Why?" I asked, too astonished to think about what it meant for my father to be gone forever.
My mother crouched down again and took my shoulders in her hands. "Listen, Jade Virtue. You are old enough now to understand things. Your father has gone to his ancestors. But for certain reasons, we cannot let anyone know he has departed. We must keep this between ourselves for a few days. Do not tell your brother and sister. Do not tell Second Aunt and Third Aunt -- especially do not tell them. Do not tell any of the servants. You must promise Mama and help her in this matter."
No one had ever asked me to keep anything secret before, and I was so troubled my chest felt tight, as if my mother had introduced something sinister into the life of the house.
"Do you promise?" she demanded, in the same hoarse whisper.
"Yes," I said tremblingly, afraid of the new shadows in the world.
She said nothing further, but stood up and went over to the bed and, half clambering onto it, turned my father's body over onto its side under the quilts, so that his back was toward the door. Then she moved the charcoal brazier to the far end of the room from the bed and opened two glass windows, letting in the freezing night air.
"It's cold, Mama," I said, going to her. "This month has never been so cold before." She rubbed my hands between hers. Her hands were damp with perspiration, the moisture turning cool on my fingers when she let them go.
"The gods are helping us," she murmured. "It's late. Go back to bed."
In the courtyard, the night was more frigid than ever, and the frost crunched beneath my steps. I paused for a moment to let the anesthetizing cold of the tiles seep through the cloth of my shoes into my feet, which burned and ached so much that I felt the pain all the way to my teeth. Waiting for my nerve endings to deaden, I looked up at the gallery that ran the length of the second story right above me, and realized that someone had to be standing there in the darkness, because I could see a puff of breath curling out into the cold air. I peered more closely, and an elderly man, wearing a long white beard and a somber silk robe like the other doctors who attended my father, emerged from the darkness of the gallery and looked down at me. I bit my lip. I had just been sworn to secrecy by my mother, yet now I was lingering foolishly in the courtyard and one of my father's doctors had seen me, and might call down to ask questions about my father's condition. The old doctor put his hands on the railing of the gallery, and I saw for a moment in the glint of moon and stars and the faint lamplight behind me that he was wearing a thick gold ring with a large green stone carved to look like a bird. I glanced quickly over my shoulder, but I could not see my mother's silhouette in the window. When I looked back up at the gallery, the old gentleman was gone. I ran back to bed quickly to avoid meeting him, and lay there all night, unable to sleep for the chill that had settled into my bones.
"He hasn't asked for either of you," my mother told the two concubines at the door of my father's room the next day. "In fact, the noisiness of the household and your quarrelsomeness disturbs him and makes him sicker. So everyone should stay away just now." She shut the door firmly, and the two younger women looked at each other, Guei Xiang with anger in her face. But my mother was the Big Wife, and they had no choice but to obey. During the day, servants brought food on trays to the door and my mother took them inside. That night, I left my bed again and went to my father's room, where I found her eating a little from each of the dishes. I sat with her awhile, but she was afraid I would become sick, with the windows open as they were, and she sent me back to bed.
On the second day, my mother leaned out the door and told the cooks that my father wished to eat salt fish and thousand-year-old eggs. They protested -- such stinking fare was too strong for the stomach of an invalid. But she shook her head, and said, "I don't dare disobey the Old Master, especially when he is ill and cannot have his wishes crossed in anything." The dishes came, and the fish and pickled eggs could be smelled through the windows into the courtyard.
Very early the next morning, the morning of the third day, there was a tremendous bustle at the front gates of the house, and the sounds of many excited voices in the front courtyards. A manservant ran into the central courtyard, where I was trying to amuse a small puppy, and crouched by the door to my father's room, whispering, "Madame! Madame!" My mother emerged, her face utterly expressionless, but I was afraid of her fingers, which were twisting in each other like eels, brought up in baskets from the bottom of the sea.
"The Emperor's messengers," the manservant gasped, his whole body quaking with excitement.
"Bring them," my mother said. The man ran off. My mother looked at me and beckoned with a secretive gesture, her fingers uncoiling and coiling back again. I left the puppy and ran to her, and she drew me inside.
"Jade Virtue, I need your help now. Imperial messengers have come with a gift from the Emperor for your father. I have been expecting them every day. But they must leave here thinking that your father was alive when they delivered the gift, or they will take it back. Do you understand?"
I didn't, but I nodded anyway.
"We must have this gift, because we will need it in the years to come. So you must get underneath your father's bed and when I bring the messenger to the doorway, you must groan as if you are in pain, in as deep a voice as you can. Can you do this?"
I climbed under the bed, and my mother pulled the quilt down over the edge to hide me. But I could just see past the corner of the bedding, to the door beyond. I cleared my throat.
I heard the clang of spurs outside as the messengers arrived in the central courtyard. I heard a rising din of voices; word had spread so quickly that the entire household had gathered to look at them. I saw my mother prostrating herself just outside the door, touching her forehead to the floor. Then a strange creature like a giant hard-shelled beetle emerged from the glare in the doorway and stepped into the room, its antennae waving. I started in my hiding place, before I saw that it was a man in armor, his joints encased in leather, bamboo and steel mail, small pennants whipping above his head at the end of long, thin sticks fastened to his back.
The messenger carried a small box wrapped in silk, which he presented on one knee, holding the box in front of him. My mother stood to one side, looking at the direction of the bed.
"Chief Magistrate," the man said. "His Imperial Majesty has deigned to grant you an inscription, written with the Vermilion Brush itself, together with a trifling gift, in token of your most recent services to the realm."
I sat in terrified silence under the bed.
"Don't approach; the doctor says he is contagious," my mother said softly, moving toward the bed. "As you can see, he is very ill." At that moment, I managed to groan, faintly but audibly. The messenger looked up at my mother, who simply knelt at the edge of the bed and began whispering into my father's cold ear. I groaned again.
"I'm sorry he cannot greet you properly," my mother said, turning back to the messenger, "but he has been ill for so long. He can barely speak, even to me. Only the thought that the Emperor was sending him a personal message kept him alive."
The messenger came to his feet with a clang of armor, his hand on the hilt of his long sword. He gave the box to my mother, who pressed her hands together and bowed before taking it.
"Chief Magistrate Liang expresses his humblest gratitude to His August Majesty," she murmured. "He remains, as always, the loyal and devoted slave of the Emperor, and the Empress Dowager."
The messenger nodded with approval, and turned to leave. My mother set the box on the table and with hardly a backward glance at it followed him outside, closing the door behind her. I ran to the window and looked out carefully through a slit in the cloth drapery, watching as the imperial messengers strode away out of the courtyard, the entire household of a hundred persons or more bowing to the ground as they passed. Then I ran to the box and slid open the carved wooden cover. Inside was a strip of calligraphy on rice paper, which I lifted impatiently. Underneath were four gold ingots, each with the imperial seal set into the middle. I had seen gold before, in the form of jewelry, and I recognized it in this incarnation as well, and for the first time it occurred to me that the substance might be valuable.
My father was said to have died that very afternoon. My mother emerged from his room at sundown, her hair pulled out of its golden hairpins and falling about her face, crying out for Guei Xiang and Xiao Zhuang. They came running, and collapsed onto each other's shoulders when they saw he was dead. Frightened by the hysteria, and perhaps finally realizing that my father was never to return, I wept too and had to be taken away to my room. At the news of his death, the servants set up a great cry that went on all night, wailing and sobbing and tearing their clothes in every corner of every courtyard -- it felt as if the entire house were being shaken to its foundations by these gathering storms of interruption. Lying in my bed in the dark listening to them, I wondered that my father should have been so beloved that the lowest stable hand should spill tears for him. But I was a child then, and I did not understand that with every death, many different things are mourned at once. For with every death, we are at the end of time.
Copyright © 2000 by Lisa Fleischman