From the Banks of Suzhou

Explosions in the distance send smoke rising into a sea of black, bombs’ fires flicker gold and red, and war planes cut hard sharp angles overhead.  From where my sisters and I stand upon the banks of Suzhou Creek, we watch as Shanghai, and our childhoods, fall to the Japanese in the winter of 1932. 

In preparing to leave, Mother tells us we can each bring one thing.  I choose a box containing all of my baby teeth.  Younger Sister tucks a bird’s nest she had found last spring into her purse.  Baby Sister totes a small, fraying silk pillow.  We flee the city clinging to each other, pushing forward in the confusion.  Mister Chu, our servant, hauls a cart piled with a trunk of clothes, Father’s law books, and Mother’s scrolls which detail her lineage through the last three imperial dynasties.  We reach the train destined for Nanjing and hastily load our belongings into the rear, luggage car.  Mother hesitates on the platform, slowly taking in the smoke and dirtiness clamoring all around, before joining us in our fight for space aboard the front passenger car.  

As the train presses westward in the dark, Mother fingers the embroidery on her silk jacket which, like ours, bulges with gold coins sewn into the lining.  When the train takes a particularly sharp curve, she will press her palm against the glass and close her eyes, imagining our belongings jostling violently in the rear car. My sisters and I are seated on the floor with chins resting upon our knees.  Baby Sister, who is five, is too terrified to sleep and sits clutching her treasured pillow.  Younger Sister cradles the bird’s nest and blinks back tears.  But I smile drowsily, secretly excited to be nestling so closely with my sisters since at home we sleep in separate rooms.  I close my eyes.  The box of baby teeth rattling softly inside my jacket pocket is the last sound that I hear before falling asleep.  I dream about our home in Shanghai.  I can see the acres and acres of fields that we lease out to tenement farmers who pay us in gold every month, even when there are big frosts and none of their crops can grow.  I feel sorry for the farmers’ children who do not have enough to eat.  But even then, Mother says, they must pay. 

A jolt pitches me forward and I awaken to shouting and smoke pinching my nose.  With a great screech and sigh, the train shudders to a stop.  With one glance out the window, Mother leaps over us, the farmers’ gold jangling loudly in her jacket, and joins the hoards pushing their way outside.  Father bounds after her and is immediately lost in the rush.  Mister Chu stands protectively over us facing the window and says in undisguised wonder that the rear of the train is on fire.  I climb up on my knees, press my nose against the dirty glass, and watch as yellow flames snap angrily at the gathering crowd.  I know that under this fiery nightmare of twisted wood and glass, is our clothes and Father’s books and Mother’s scrolls.  I cannot see Mother, but can picture her with both hands cradling her face, unable to bear the sight of her family’s grand imperial lineage, recorded on scrolls which had survived centuries of war, now lying smoldering at her feet. 

When she returns, her face is streaked with soot.  I almost laugh because I have never seen her with a dirty face before.  Dazed, she remains standing, but Father edges past her and collapses in his seat, his hair gray with ash.  Mother blinks slowly then looks at us as if to say, What do we do now?  We have lost everything.  Father meets her gaze but says nothing.  A chill crawls up my neck.   I drop my eyes and study the ashes, the charred remnants of our life in Shanghai, fanning across the floorboards.  The undamaged portion of the train where the passengers are, coughs and grumbles as it starts up again.  My teeth chatter from the vibrations.  No one sleeps for the rest of the journey.  I wonder how many others are like Mother, foreheads pressed against the windows and eyes scanning the sky or searching the horizon for lights or anything else that might indicate an enemy presence.  Since there is nothing left of the train to bomb except the passenger cars that we are crammed into, I am certain that no one will take their eyes off the sky.  We reach Nanjing with nothing but the gold in our jackets, smoke in our hair, a box of old teeth, a bird’s nest, and a pillow.  Situated in the shadows of Purple Gold Mountain is our new home, contained within the boundaries of an International Settlement protected by French missionaries. When I see the house, small and plain and just like everyone else’s, I think, We will never find our way back to Shanghai.

In the first few days, Mister Chu, who is well-grounded in the art of survival, begins reinforcing the windows and doors with wood shutters complete with iron bolts that we keep locked at night.  Unlike Mr. Chu, Mother seems more preoccupied with furnishing our new house than with the war encroaching around our Settlement.  She trades her gold with furniture-builders to have simple yet elegant pieces made for our home.  The rural artisans cannot replicate the grandeur of what we once had, but they are as meticulous in their workmanship as Mother is in overseeing every aspect of their design.  The only time that I see her cry during the war is when our new table is delivered.  I do not know why she is crying, but I imagine that when she saw her new table, still soft and sweet smelling from being newly cut and carved and oiled, that it reminded her of the one that we left behind, centuries old, inherited from the ghosts of our imperial relatives.  Maybe, she thinks, it survived the bombings in Shanghai.  It must be all she can do to stop from getting in Father’s horse carriage and driving back.  I do not know how to make her stop crying, so I go outside to tell my sisters.  Yet when I return, Mother is dry-eyed and busy telling Mister Chu where to place the rest of the new furniture. 

Father, a Chinese government official, is away during the day, overseeing the organization of neighboring Settlements.  The moon is slung low over Purple Gold Mountain by the time he returns.  Each day he must make the fearsome journey between Settlements, dodging warlords or soldiers.  I am terrified of him not returning home, so every morning I wake, no matter how early, just to say goodbye.  It is important that when I lock up after him, that I only do so after I’ve watched him walk down the path until I can no longer see him, because I know if I do not, Father will not be protected by my magic and might never come back.  I have always had powers like this, even when I was small.  I remember when Father was very sick, that I had used my powers then to heal him.  I remember circling his bed, touching the corners with each turn, counting my steps, and making sure that I reach my powerful number, ninety-nine, before leaving the room.  So, like I have always done, I will use my magic to protect Father here, in our new home in Nanjing.        

Father selected our home under Purple Gold Mountain because it serves as a natural boundary for our side of the Settlement; nevertheless, he spends his free days building his own wall.  Mother’s gold bought us a sizeable lot, so it takes Father close to one year to gather enough saplings from the mountain to encircle it.  Each morning, Mister Chu digs a few feet of trench to sink the trees into, and in the crumbly soil I bury a magical treasure, either a fruit pit or hair clipping or blossom from Mother’s garden.  Younger Sister gives me her bird’s nest to bury and I include my box of baby teeth.  I mark their locations on the bark of the saplings placed over them, with etchings of Mother’s surname, Su-Fay.  I know that our treasures will make the wall more powerful and keep us safe from harm.

The slender trunks, tied together with rope and reinforced with bamboo, reach over fifteen feet high.  An iron door purchased with more of Mother’s gold is the only entrance through the completed wall, and it stays bolted day and night.  Every day, with my sisters following at a trot, I circle the wall.   When I push against it to test its strength, they do the same.  I touch the etchings in the wood.  So long as they are there, the ugliness and ruin and pain on the other side cannot harm us.  I often wonder whether the fruit pits that I buried will fuse with the trunks placed over them and turn into fruit trees, or if the hair clippings and blossoms will turn into grass and wild flowers.  Perhaps the bird’s nest will turn into baby birds, and my teeth will become rocks; and then our wall will merge back into the mountain, our home becoming part of the forest, where we will be forever hidden and safe.  I believe that Father’s wall is his attempt to offer us the solitude, security, and stability that we lost when the first bombs fell, just as I know that my buried treasures will protect us.

~

In the six harrowing years that follow, I learn that the walls are not tall enough to keep the rank haze of war from drifting in.  Outside, death is the only respite for the thousands of baby girls, women, and even the elderly being tortured or raped by soldiers and feuding warlords.  The stench of corpses is as thick as our fear, and our lives feel inextricably bound by death and desperation. My magic has long since lost its power, and I have learned to sit and wait out the war, restless and uncertain, just like everyone else.

When the Japanese eventually retreat out of Nanjing in 1938, the boundaries of our Settlement are dismantled and we begin to rebuild our lives.  For the first time in six years, my sisters and I are able to leave home to attend a girl’s school run by French missionaries.  Mother is as meticulous in overseeing our homework as she was with the design of the table that had once made her cry.  She knows the value of education, particularly because so few girls in her generation were given the same opportunity.  Father is more lenient about our studies and never punishes us for sloppy work.  He spends more time at home and is grateful for the solitude that comes from us being out of the house, and grateful that we now have somewhere outside that is safe to play.  We, too, are grateful that we can go to school, make friends, and no longer have to hide in fear behind Father’s wall.

In the summer of 1940 I turn eighteen, and to celebrate, Father and Mother take my sisters and I to the top of Purple Gold Mountain in the carriage loaded with food and bicycles.  We picnic beneath pine, cypress and gingko.  We talk about our great escape from Shanghai on that first terrifying night, about how dirty Mother’s face was after the train was bombed, and how Father’s wall is the only one left standing since the Japanese abandoned Nanjing two years ago.  Our soft chatter lingers in the humid, summer air and we look at one another, our eyes just a little sad, because although we have survived, we will never forget what we have seen and all that we have lost.  Mother stares up into the trees, watching the leaves gently sway back and forth when a warm wind picks up.  She takes this as a cue to leave, so she and Father pack up and drive down alone.  My sisters and I rise, stiff legged and full from our long lunch, climb onto our bicycles and push off.  Our heads are bowed low over the handlebars as we gain speed, faces glistening with sweat beneath the violent midday sun, mouths gulping heat that scorches our lungs, eyes fixed in narrow slits, and tears burning our cheeks—the trees and rocks leap out of our way as we race towards home.


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