by Anchee Min
When asked his reason for coming to China, Absalom replied that he was here to save our souls.
People laughed. “What is a soul?”
Absalom let us know that the world was coming to an end, and that we would all die if we failed to follow God.
“What evidence do you have?” Papa asked.
“That is what the Bible is for.” Absalom winked an eye and smiled. “The Lord explains the one and only truth.”
Papa said that he was rather disappointed by Absalom’s description of the Western hell. Chinese hell was much more terrifying. Papa loved to challenge Absalom in teahouses and bars. He reveled in the gathering crowd and his growing popularity. Behind Absalom’s back, Papa admitted that he followed Absalom around for the food, especially the cookies baked by Absalom’s wife, Carie.
Compared to NaiNai, Carie was a big woman. She had light brown eyes and a wrinkled, soft, white round face. She wore a funny-shaped hat, which she called a “bonnet.” Stuffed inside this hat was her brown curly hair. Carie wore the same dark dress all year long. It was the color of seaweed. Her skirt was so long that it swept the ground.
Carie had been warning her husband about Papa. She didn’t trust Papa. But Absalom continued to treat Papa like a good friend, although Papa refused to attend his Sunday church on a regular basis.
Like a true artist, Papa fooled Absalom by pretending that he was interested. He was giving me an opportunity to steal. The day after I took the church’s doormat, I heard Carie cry, “There is no need for housekeeping because everything is gone!”
When Absalom held up his Bible-story drawings, I asked about the beard-men who had golden rings on their heads. “Why are they walking in the desert with sheets draped around them?”
Absalom didn’t know that I only asked questions to distract him, so I could carry on with my stealing.
It was hard for Absalom to concentrate. He was interrupted by people’s cries. “When can we have food, Master Absalom? Would you ask God to bring food for us now?”
As Absalom went on with his speech, children pulled his arms and pushed him around. “Who is Virgin? Who is Mary?”
“Who is Madonna?” I asked loudly, attaching myself to Absalom like a leech. My hands were inside his pockets.
By the time Absalom blessed me with a “Jesus loves you,” I had his wallet.
Slipping the wallet into my pocket, I hurried down a side street and made my way out of town. I sensed that I was being followed and cut a jagged path. Still I felt the pair of blue eyes at my back. They belonged to a cream-skinned white girl wearing a black knitted cap. She was a little younger than me. She always sat in the corner of the church room with a black leather-bound book in her hands. Her eyes seemed to say, “I saw you.”
By now I knew who she was. She was the daughter of Absalom and Carie. Her family servant had called her Pearl. She spoke to the servant in the Chin-kiang dialect. Her mother and father never seemed to need her. She was always by herself and was always reading.
To get rid of her, I ran as fast as I could toward the hills. I passed the wheat and cotton fields. After a couple of miles, I stopped. I looked around and was glad that she was no longer in sight. I took a deep breath and sat down. I was excited about my harvest.
As I began to open the wallet, I heard a noise.
Someone was approaching.
I froze and held my breath.
Slowly, I turned my head.
Behind me, in the bushes, was that pair of blue eyes.
“You stole my father’s wallet!” Pearl yelled.
“No, I didn’t.” I imagined the food the money in the wallet could buy.
“Yes, you did.”
“It’s in your pocket.” She put down her book and tried to reach into my pocket.
I knocked her aside with an elbow.
I held tight to the wallet.
She rose. Anger made her pink lips quiver.
We stood face-to-face. I could see sweat beaded on her forehead. Her skin was white, as if bleached. Her nose had a pointed tip. Like her father’s fake queue, her black knitted cap hid her blonde curly hair. She wore a Chinese tunic embroidered with indigo flowers.
“Last chance to give the wallet, or you’ll get hurt,” she threatened.
I worked up a mouthful of saliva and spit.
While her hands went up to protect her face, I ran.
She followed me through the fields and up and down a hill. By the time she caught me, I had already hidden the wallet. I raised both of my arms and said, “Come and search me.”
She came and didn’t find the wallet.
She gasped, taking off her knitted cap. Golden curls fell across her face.
From then on she followed me everywhere. I was unable to steal. I spent day and night thinking about how to get rid of her. I learned that she had one living sibling, a younger sister, Grace. The Chinese servant who took care of the girls, Wang Ah-ma, had been with the family for a long time.
“Pearl and Grace want so much to look like the Chinese girls,” Wang Ah-ma chatted to her knitting friends. They sat outside the house under the sun. Wang Ah-ma was making new caps for Pearl and Grace. The caps would cover their blonde hair so that they could look like Chinese girls. Wang Ah-ma said that she had to knit fast because the girls were wearing the old ones out. “Poor Pearl, every day she begs me to find a way to help her grow black hair.”
The women laughed. “What did you tell her?”
“I told her to eat black sesame seeds, and she went crazy eating them. Her mother thought that she was eating ants.”
Before the spring planting season, farmers came to town to purchase their supplies for the year. While men bought manure and had tools fixed and sharpened, women inspected the livestock. Going in and out of food stalls and supply shops, I hunted for stealing opportunities. It had been weeks since I’d had a full meal.
Papa had pawned nearly every piece of furniture we owned. The table and benches and my own bed were all gone. I now slept on a straw mat on the packed-earth floor. Centipedes crawled over my face in the middle of the night. NaiNai suffered from an infection that wouldn’t heal. She could barely move from the one bed we still owned. Papa spent more time with Absalom, trying to get hired.
“Absalom needs my help,” Papa said every day. “Absalom doesn’t know how to tell stories. He puts people to sleep. I ought to be the one to tell his Bible stories. I could turn Absalom’s business around.”
But Absalom was only interested in saving Papa’s soul.
One night I heard Papa whisper to NaiNai, “The dowry would be handsome.” It took me a while to figure out what he meant. One of his friends had made an offer to purchase me as his concubine.
“You are not selling Willow!” NaiNai hammered her chest with her fist. “She is just a child.”
“It takes money to make money,” Papa argued. “Besides, you need to buy medicine. The doctor said that you are getting worse . . .”
“As long as I am breathing, don’t even think about it!” NaiNai broke down.
What if NaiNai died? I became scared. For the first time I looked forward to Sunday, when I could attend the church, where Absalom would talk about heaven and Carie would serve meals. Papa and NaiNai wanted to join me, but they were embarrassed to show their despair in front of foreigners.
Absalom’s church was a room with benches. The walls were mud-colored. Absalom said that his God was a humble god, one who cared more about his followers than about the appearance of his temple. Absalom said that he was in the middle of raising funds to build a proper church.
I wanted to tell Absalom that people were not interested in his God or his church. Food was the reason we came. We waited for Absalom to finish preaching. We had to endure. I cried joyfully when it was time to clap our hands together and say “Ah-men.”
After the meal we felt good. We sang
songs to thank Absalom’s God. Carie taught us Hymns and Oratorio. The first song Carie sang to us was called “Amazing Grace.” Her big voice surprised everyone. It was deep like a Chinese gong. The room vibrated. The sound was like a spring waterfall pouring down from the mountains. Carie’s soft round face melted into a sweet expression. She sent her notes up through the ceiling effortlessly.
I fell in love with “Amazing Grace.” The song moved me in a strange way. I grew up with Chinese operas, but it was Carie’s song that made me think of my own mother. Never before had I been able to imagine what my mother looked like. The song brought her to me, vivid and clear. Mother was as beautiful as a Chinese goddess. I could almost smell her fragrance. Her face was egg-shaped and her eyes gentle and bright. She was petite but had a full figure. “Come, my child,” I could hear her say. “I have been longing to see you.”
Tears filled my eyes. I noticed that I was not the only one who was falling in love with “Amazing Grace.” NaiNai wanted me to learn the song so that I could sing it at her funeral.
Carie had a monstrous instrument she called a “piano.” She often played it to accompany her singing. Her fingers danced over the keys as she sat on a stool with the bottom of her dress covering the ground. We spent many Sunday afternoons together. Word by word, Carie taught me “Amazing Grace.” I went home and practiced in front of NaiNai and Papa.
How sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me.
I sang the same way I would sing a Chinese opera. My voice was charged and loud.
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind but now I see.
Papa and NaiNai enjoyed the song and waited eagerly for me to go on. I had to tell them that this was all I had managed to learn so far.
Papa went quiet for a while and then said, “Although ‘Amazing Grace’ is a foreign song, it is about us, because we are lost, confused, and scared.” NaiNai agreed. “Willow,” she said, turning to me, “make sure you learn the full piece from Carie, because I could go at any time.”
I asked NaiNai if she was going to heaven and if so whether she and my mother would meet. NaiNai nodded. “Your mother would love to hear you sing ‘Amazing Grace.’”
I went to Carie and begged her to teach me the rest of the song. She was delighted. She sat me next to her by the piano and began.
The Lord has promised good to me,
His word my hope secures;
He will my shield and portion be,
As long as life endures.
Carie’s voice changed. The tone became tender, reminding me of a gentle creek flowing through a meadow.
And mortal life shall cease;
I shall possess within the veil,
A life of joy and peace.
From Wang Ah-ma, we learned that Carie had lost four of her children after arriving in China. “I don’t know any woman who has experienced worse, four male children,” Wang Ah-ma sighed, putting up her four fingers.
According to Wang Ah-ma, Carie had her dead sons’ names carved on her bed board. “The Mistress speaks to their spirits every night before sleep.”
People wondered what kind of food Absalom’s family ate and what it tasted like.
“Cheese and butter,” Wang Ah-ma said. She stuck a finger in her throat and bent over to imitate retching. “It tastes like spoiled tofu.”
“What about Pearl?” I asked.
“Pearl is different. She has a Chinese stomach.” Wang Ah-ma smiled with approval. “Pearl eats what I eat. She is strong as an ox.”
“Do you mean she won’t die like her brothers?” I asked.
Wang Ah-ma lowered her voice to a whisper. “It doesn’t make sense to me that four of Carie’s children had to die. It was the same disease. I mean, the boys suffered the same as the Chinese children. Why did the Chinese children survive? Pearl’s body has learned to fight the disease like a Chinese. For Buddha’s sake, she has been successful!”
The listeners nodded in admiration. “You did well for your mistress, Wang Ah-ma!”
Wang Ah-ma’s face bloomed like a summer lotus. “Pearl eats double meals. One in the kitchen with the servants, and the other with her parents. The child has an incredible appetite. She loves soy nuts, lotus seeds, and roasted seaweed. Pearl’s favorite is scallion pancakes, which I buy every week especially for her.”
I should have seen it coming when Pearl caught me. My mouth was stuffed with pancake, which I had stolen from Wang Ah-ma. Pearl waited for the moment. She made sure that she had a witness. My hand was in Wang Ah-ma’s basket, although Wang Ah-ma hadn’t realized what was happening.
Pearl dragged me to Carie, who was sitting in front of her piano.
The town followed.
Papa and NaiNai were called.
“A rat naturally knows how to dig a hole,” children cheered. “What do you expect, the father sets an example?”
“I caught her in the act,” Pearl announced.
Carie didn’t look at her daughter. She turned to me.
“You didn’t do it, did you, Willow?” Carie asked, closing the piano lid.
Fearing that Papa and NaiNai would lose face in front of the town, I boldly lied. “No, I did not do it.”
Carie rose to greet Papa and NaiNai. In a gentle voice she said to them, “I’m sorry, my daughter made a mistake.”
“But Mother!” Pearl interrupted. “I caught Willow in the middle of her act!” She turned to Wang Ah-ma. “Please, Ah-ma, tell Mother the truth . . .”
“Mistress,” Wang Ah-ma said, stepping up. “Pearl made no mistake . . .”
Carie signaled a stop with her right hand and said, “Ah-ma, the soup on the stove is boiling.”
“It is not boiling, Mistress. I have just checked.”
“Go and check again,” said Carie.
“Yes,” Wang Ah-ma said, nodding, “I’ll go now. But Mistress, Pearl was right about the pancake. Willow did steal it.”
“No, Willow did not,” Carie repeated without looking at anyone.
NaiNai and Papa exchanged relieved glances.
“Mother!” Pearl’s tears streamed down her cheeks. “If you check Willow’s breath, you will smell the scallions!”
“That’s enough, Pearl.” Carie waved a hand.
“I swear to God.” Pearl began to weep.
“Go and help set the dinner table,” Carie said. “Your father is on his way home.”
“Mother, I’m not the one who lied!”
“I didn’t say you lied, Pearl.”
I had a hard time that afternoon. My neck felt stiff , as if pressed under a stone grinder. I went up into the hills and sat alone. I didn’t move until the sun set and the boatmen returned. Mist began to spread along the riverbank. The moisture was thick in my lungs. I lost sleep that evening. I was deeply ashamed. Pearl’s tearful face hovered before me all night long. I got up and admitted to Papa and NaiNai that I had taken the pancake.
They were not surprised.
The teahouses celebrated spring by hosting parties. “Men of words” gathered around blossoming camellias and peach and plum trees and composed poems. Papa loved the parties, while I loved the blooming peach flowers that looked like pink clouds. Then came the April wet season. The southern China rain didn’t come in showers. It came like a spreading thick fog. When I stuck out an arm, I could feel no drops. But once I stepped outside, wetness would wrap me. In ten minutes of walking, moisture would soak through my clothes. If I wiped my face with a hand, water would come off. Very slowly, my hair would droop. Strands of hair would paste against my skull.
In a month, the river would rise a few inches. Water and sky would become one gray color. Toads, eels, earthworms, and leeches would be found everywhere. The dirt path would become sluggish. Bamboo would thrive. By the time summer arrived, it would cover the southern slopes of the hills.
My teeth were green from chewing milkweeds. I had just turned nine. It bec
ame harder to resist the urge to steal. I had been thinking about a boy who had visited us during the past Chinese New Year. He was a distant relative and seventeen years old. His name was San-bao. He was an apprentice working for the local blacksmith. What I really had been thinking about were the soy nuts San-bao had promised me. I wondered when he would deliver his gift.
My legs carried me to San-bao’s shop. I wished that I had nicer clothes. San-bao was surprised to see me. He wore a dirty apron and was bare-shouldered. He was a strong and cheerful man who had a horse’s jaw. I could see wormlike thick veins under his skin. Putting down his sledgehammer, he asked what had brought me to visit.
I couldn’t tell him the truth. I couldn’t say that I had come for the soy nuts. I said that I was just passing by. He smiled gleefully.
“Have you eaten?” he asked after a moment.
“No.” I was embarrassed for replying too quickly.
“What would you like me to get you?”
Before I could stop myself, my tongue went, “Soy nuts would be nice.”
“Oh, right, soy nuts.” He remembered his promise. He told me to wait and went inside the shop. When he came out, he said, “We’ll take a walk, and I’ll get you the soy nuts.”
As soon as San-bao paid for the soy nuts, I reached for the bag.
“No, not yet.” San-bao took it away. “I don’t want the beggar children to jump on you. We must find a quiet place to sit.”
I followed San-bao. We arrived at the back of the old churchyard where the weeds were waist-high. Black crows shot into the sky. Field mice ran through the wild berry bushes. We sat down. San-bao watched me eating the soy nuts. As soon as I finished, he put his arm around my shoulders.
“I am good to you, aren’t I?” he asked.
I nodded, feeling a little awkward.
“Do me a favor,” he said, pulling my hand over and placing it on top of his crotch.
I was shocked.
“You don’t have to be so serious.” He grinned.