Sunday, September 30, 2007

This Is Me. Lillie.

Two eternities ago, two eternities ago, my father's mother was born by a fishing boat near the sea. My father's mother's father was the local doctor, trained in both Western and Chinese medicine. He had just set the broken arm of a young boy who had been working on the boat when a boom had slammed into it, and he had fallen on the rocks that the sand held together like mortar. My mother, his assistant, came with him of course, and her time came and took her while she was there. Her water broke, her fever climbed. She was dead before her baby was born. My father's mother's father had to reach in and pull his new child out into the world.

That night he burned his wife's body, and sent the ashes home to her family, keeping only the ashes of her heart, which he cremated separately. He called her ai-ren at a time when such things were not done. Since in the dialect of Beijing, which you call Mandarin, "ai," pronounced with the falling tone, can be love, but it can also be a gasp of regret, or it can mean to hide, he from that year forward marked that day of the lunar calendar as "the hidden day."

I am not sure how much of this is true, but it is true in spirit, if not exactly in flesh.

My father's mother became a doctor, because there was need of them. She went to England to study medicine, and so learned English. She stayed in Hong Kong for a few years when she was young. She met my father's father there. He too was a doctor, he came from the north, and his face was strange and wondrous to her eyes. His father had been a warlord.

That warlord father had gone riding out into the country side after an inconclusive battle made him lose enough face to be sent from the north capital. He rode through his smaller holdings, in the places where there is no rice, only wheat, and the people even eat cheese made from goats milk and wrap it into their dumplings. He came one day on a low slung hou-tong. It was better kept up, the family had had mandarins in it for dynasties without counting, and had seen the mandate of heaven wheel through all the animals of the zodiac. Still in all they were poor, but had ambition. But for two generations disaster had befallen them: they had many daughters, and in the first one son, and in the second no sons at all. The little bit of silver that they had stored up through the centuries was depleted by the 6 daughters of the first generation. And totally cast to ruin by the 5 of the next.

And in this even worse still, the oldest daughter was a tragedy of tragedies. Though fair of face, though skilled of fingers, though able to write with bright and skilled brushstrokes in the styles of six different schools of calligraphy, the foot binding did not take. They could not marry her to court, upon which all their hopes of remaining comfortable rested. They had tried to hide her in the garden of the hou-tong, leaving her to tend the cherry trees and flowers. It was against custom to marry others before her, and no important family would take her unfoot-bound, nor risk the bad luck of taking the second while the first was unmarried.

He came riding that day, three horses in tow behind him, his packs loaded with his supplies. His body guards rode behind him, and behind them walked three archers and a pike man. This was his whole army at that moment.

They stopped by the well there, and pounded on the door, hoping to ask permission to water their horses. The retired mandarin, then too blind to do anything but carve figures on grains of rice and tell stories, did not move. His wife did not move. His concubine did not move. And so on down to the two servants and the girl who scrubbed the pots.

But heedless the hidden girl sang brightly, and walked to the gate and opened its heavy oak, bought from Russian caravan traders in the dynasty of the Ming, before the hated Qing had over run the civilized world, and bound with heavy iron which had magic casting in it. She looked brightly at the on comers. She was not afraid, and had a willow switch in her hand that she used to herd pork. Before anyone could say a word she had reached out to switch the hand of one of the archers who was undoing his trousers to piss at the wall.

"This is not the back alleys of a brothel or a house of spirits, go piss in the fields where it will help the wheat."

The archer was stung and amazed, no woman had ever spoken to him thus since he was a child. And he slunk to the fields to piss and shit, and stirred it into the ground as his parents, themselves peasants, had done when he was a boy, before he had run away to be a great warrior.

The warlord father laughed and laughed. He laughed and laughed. He bent backwards and looked up as he laughed, he bent forwards and looked down. And then he saw an amazing sight. He feet, while dainty and tiny, and bare of any shoes, were perfectly formed. She could stand, and walk. He realized he had noticed this, and missed it by noticing it. He had thought her a servant girl. But her finely cut cheek bones and willowy figure, her delicate hands, stained with ink. Stained with ink! Her long finger nails, the small diamond in her pierced nose. These all screamed that she was a lady of quality. And though she had a pig switch, the embroidery on her blue jacket must have taken a month to do with fine hands.

She was a lady. A lady, he thought, who might be of use to me.

"I would see your father. For I have business to speak with him."

She drew herself up to her fair height, as tall as the average peasant man and said.

"My father is old and tired, and what business you have with him, you can have with me. If you need water and feed for your horses, we can give that, I see the ring on your finger and the sword at your side and the teeth of your horses, and I know you to be some general or warlord. I am sure that you have others out of sight who could take what you want if you call them. So be it, my sisters are in the third floor and the servants will die to protect their honor. But my mother is still young enough, and you can all rape both of us if you like. Because that would be a fortune, since I am unmarriageable."

She set a cold eye on him, and almost defied the company of warriors to do what reputation has such men to do in these places. She was not wrong, if they had raped her, it would have been a good excuse to sell her as a concubine, and thus open the way for her sisters, the oldest of which was still, just, in the right age.

Warlord father looked upon her, and looked upon her. He had thought to buy her as a concubine, his wife having died in childbirth to give him a sun who had lasted only six days before departing this world to chase his mother. He did not laugh.

"The business I have, is that I would marry you. I would make you mistress of my fields and paddies, I would make you the counter of my coins, and the voice to my servants. I have many wars to fight, and my citadel must needs be taken well care of while I am away. A woman who is slave to a pillow, however silken it may be, is of no use to me as a wife. I will buy five of them, I think, when I have won the world. But I need a wife now who can ride to my holdings, and fire a bow in defense of them."

"I can do these things."

"I need a wife who can read and write, as well as a mandarin, to whom I can send secret instructions to, who can read the law, and find the clever ways to evade it, who can dazzle a court with her wit. I see by the ink stains that you tend characters as well as pigs. I need a wife whose mind is as agile as her feet."

"I can do these things."

And he looked at her, and for the first time in his whole life, his desire was hot for more than a woman's loins. And she looked back and him, and felt a flush across her face. For here, finally, was a man.

"So you see, your father must give assent to this business."

"He does through me. Provided you pay the dowry." Even in her heat and yearning, she was shrewd. She saw he needed her, while she only wanted him.

"I will do this thing."

And so, the story told in my family goes, they were married. I do not believe a word of it, even though I wish and wish and wish every single day, that it happened just as that.

And so from them came my father's father, and he was the agun, the leader, of his family name. He gave this title, in turn, not to my father, but to a cousin who was clever with people and wanted it more. My father's father would prove in many ways how wise he was, especially after Liberation. But this is not yet that eternity in my history.

My father carried only for the deft movements of his hands and the talents of his quick mind with money, and did not care for pomp or title and respect. This was clear even as a boy when he would cheat at cards or dice, and while everyone knew, no one could prove it. He won the coins, but lost the respect, and he smiled as he ate the moon cakes he could buy.

An eternity ago, an eternity ago, my father was born, beside a boat. And he was hurried trundled on to it. The place is Qingdao, and the people who had remained in the twisted roads of the old concession, hiding from the new government, were pouring on to this, one of the last of the European boats. The day was sunny I am told, and the wind gently rocked the long needed pine trees that grow like twisted claws up from the earth. The breeze was heavy with salt, and my father's mother, crying, gave her son to a cousin to raise, until, she hoped, she would see him. It would be many years. And her face was always creased with tears after that. She never would stray from the sea again, both because the salt kissed air reminded her of her perpetual sorrow, and because she hoped that every boat that came in would bring him back, or leave with her upon it.

In that same eternity my mother was born, and lived her child hood on the mainland. Her life gathering secrets around it, secrets that I only later learned. She too was seen to be quick and clever, and her hands nimble. She shocked the family when at ten she announced that she would be a surgeon. When asked why, she said because she could already cut the leg off a frog and sew it back on. She produced a frog which she had done this too, over a week before, and it was able to hop, and no infect festered.

They smuggled her out, because even then cultural revolution was gathering on the horizon, and such a light would surely be put out.

This I know to be true in every detail.

It is strange in this world, how two people, gathered up from the strains of Han from north to south of China, should meet at 11 in Taibei, in a wooden floored dance room, and awkwardly entwine their fingers at the instruction of their teachers, and slip in stuttered steps on a dance that continues in its strange way, even unto this day.

My father does not tell the story well, his version is short. My mother could spend a day and a night over every glance and every word, reliving the touches and the sounds, petting every frill of her dress, and remembering the place of every lock of his hair. The truth, I know, lies somewhere between her novel of the highest happiness of her life, the day she knew she had met the man she was going to marry, and his obvious embarrassment at knowing that he had met the woman who was going to obsess him even as he pumped his cock into half a dozen other women during their marriage.

It would be, and always would be, that shining face, in that shining moment, that he would awaken to. I know this, because every paper from his hand that I have ever seen, is covered with two things. Endless writing of her name, and a sketch of a child becoming woman's face, with two luminous eyes that glow out from it, like stars that break the night.

From that first shy smile of his, and her unyielding gaze, came the passion that would, just before the beginning of my eternity, make me.

This is me. Lillie.


  1. Lillie: first tell the story of the warlord and the woman who became his wife.

    That's a book right there.

    (Then go on to the other generations.)

  2. A romantic epic tale of old china would be fun, it would also take a great deal of research, since I don't know the ground, and a great deal of time, since it begs to be one of those thick page turners.

  3. What a wonderful story Lillie, and what a wonderful culture. You are deep indeed.