Wednesday, March 5, 2014
I am already a singing flower
Upon your breast
Stirred by the breeze of your breath
As the moonlit fields are stirred.
Cover me, please
With your wide palm
For the time being.
My first cousin came from the countryside to live with us when she was seven years old. She was not truly my first cousin by blood. We were not supposed to say that, openly. But it was known. And the adults, clearly, showed even less affection or attention to her than they did to us, their real children.
But the children in the family were told always to refer to her by that title. Her story was unusual but hardly unique in our county. During the years of the great famine from 1958 to 1962, which the government called The Great Leap Forward, as many as 40 million people died of hunger – most of them peasants living in the countryside, the very people that the Revolution was supposed to serve. Families with too many mouths to feed turned to horrific ways to make their numbers more manageable. Children were abandoned by the roadside. They were taken into the city and left on the street or in public buildings. In some cases parents reduced the number of mouths to fee by killing newborns, especially but not exclusively girls. There were stories that peasants traded children, killed their new ones and ate them. Several instances of this cannibalism were reported and it was spoken about on the street. Or parents sought to sell their children, their girls primarily, at markets on the street.
My cousin from the countryside had been purchased by my aunt and uncle at a market in a village in the countryside. It was said, later, that they thought she was a cute little girl and that she just might grow up to be a beauty and at that stage she might make a strategic marriage that would benefit the entire family. She was a kind of investment in a better future, even though it was difficult in the short run to find enough food to feed her and the other members of the family. She was always the last to eat, she worked the hardest, she was most ignored.
The child was purchased for only a few yuan in order to provide a wife for the son in the family that bought her. She was purchased by a peasant family to become the wife of their son. Her fiance was four years younger than she. So they raised their daughter in law to make her a good servant in the future. She was on my mother’s side, very remote. When my grandmother needed help in the household, she came, and she was very pretty, with almost fully grown. Very pretty. She had the hairdo of the forties, a country girl in the 1940s. Long braid with threads weaved in it, with red silk threads, very neat and tight, like the thread extended beyond the braid, there was another ribbon at the end. Very much like we wore in the dance called ‘White Haired Girl,” it looked to me more like a costume than everyday clothing. The clothing she wore she had made herself on a loom. She dyed the material cloth, and made the clothes for herself, a deep navy blue and pants, top and pants, with bright red piping on the jacket, and the same red cloth bottoms. It was very pretty to me. I was fascinated by her the first time I saw her. She was I remember at one point, she was singing.
She was illiterate and she listened to me sing. Later I heard her singing my song. She caught on very fast. All of a sudden she was doing house chores and all of a sudden she was singing the songs that I had been singing on the previous day. It made me sort of angry, since she was a very fast learned and was very bright and had this lovely voice. I was jealous. So I dashed into the room when I heard her singing, jumped on her, she was like my mother’s size, and pinched her cheeks hard, and demanded, You have to tell me what the words mean, tell me exactly what you are singing or you are not allowed to sing them. You are not entitled to sing words you do not understand. She was frightened since she was the maid of the family. She begged me to teach her, she said you are very luck to know so many words when you are still so young. And I replied, No, I am not going to teach you anything. Why should I?
Before she came we learned that she had suffered from TB. Pretty soon she was red in cheeks and filled out and gained some weight. But my grandma still said, Don't touch her, she has germs. Don’t play cards with her. The only game she knew how to play was a very simple card game. And she had to play with one other person. And sometimes I would take the other side. But she had a habit of licking her finger before picking up a card. My grandma was very worried, and she saw this, and said, you can’t play cards with her because she gets saliva on the cards. So I would scold her and tell her to stop that, you have to drop this otherwise I won’t play cards with you. I called her La Jie, December sister. And around the house, she was a very much underpaid maid. Because she needed some place with living conditions better than at home, for her to recover from her TB. She also needed to be up. The custom was that before you were married you had to go away for a while from your husband to be, or fiance. To get married, the new bride, the brand new bride cannot stay in the household all the time and the next day you are husband and wife so for her to go away is more proper at that time.
Her father in law, is party secretary of the commune where she lived in a mountain area along the coast of Jiangsu. It was a very backward place, we could tell, by the way she dressed. It was a very backward countryside area. So she needed to get away before she reached 16, the marriage age for girls at the time. But when she came, she kind of had a fantasy that she could get away for good, and leave the countryside. She started to cut, my mother always had materials from my aunt who left behind from my aunt who had fled to Taiwan. So mother sometimes would cut material for a dress. But there was always some left over. So she made clothes for herself, in city style, but in her own dimensions, but with several different kinds of materials. This made it very oddly beautiful and colorful. And she divided her braid into two, and in three months she was transformed into a very pretty city girl. So she and its like one night I remember she was sleeping in a little bed, which was made of bamboo, with the mosquito net over it. And she called me. Do you want to hear some good stories from the countryside. Yes, of course I do. And she had her own space, in part of the kitchen where her bed was. But it was kind of strange for her to ask this, since she always avoided me in the past. She tried not to have anything to do with me, as much as possible, since I always mistreated her. So she called me, and I was very surprised and happy and said, OK, and I went to her bed and she pulled open the mosquito netting and I got in next to her.
But I could see in the darkness that she was nearly naked and was wearing only a very thin home made set of pajamas, like a camisole and shorts. And she was in very funny stage. I thought. Her cheeks were red and moist. She said, she touched me on the arm, and I was a child and wasn’t that sensitive to someone touching me. She said, OK, now I’ve touched you, do you want to touch me? And I said, yeah, and I didn’t think much of that. I touched her shoulder and she like moved my finger gradually down to her breasts and her nipple. Then she said, you feel different. I said, yes you are different, you are like my mother. She said, Do you want to see it. And I said, OK, I was kind of, felt the same heat, hot and nervous and curious. So she turned on the light. And she closed the door leading to my grandma’s bedroom. Very lightly in her bare feet crossed the floor. Then she was kneeling on the bed, and she pulled off her shirt and let me see her chest. It was very unusual to me. She said, touch it again, you can touch it harder this time, and this will make it change. She placed my hands on her breasts again and she held them against her nipples and I felt them grow bigger and tighter and harder and the nipples were standing up. I was seven at the time so I didn’t know anything. But I felt excited, but I didn’t know why. I touched her and she was getting more and more sweaty and her skin was red and I could feel her body getting hotter. She said, you know there is a very comfortable thing to do to touch some other parts, she said. I said, where. She said, do you want to try it. She was whispering. I said, yeah. So she touched me, between my legs. And I felt so, nervous and excited and I could hardly explain, I didn’t know what to say. I suddenly said, no I want to touch you. Like I wanted to get back at her. And she was, I could see lit up. Very warm. She plotted to touch me first, as a child would say, you beat me and I beat you back. I touched her and she said, do you want to watch it too. And I said, yeah. And she pulled down her shorts and dropped them at the foot of the bed, and I saw lots of hair, like my mothers. Not like mind at all. And it was so strange to see so much hair. And she said, you can see more clearly from behind. She turned her back on me and and was on her knees and lowered her head to the bed. The she told me where to touch and guided my hand around between her legs, through the layers and the like flower petals between her legs, and she manipulated my hands. She was so excited. Now I recall how excited she was. And the next morning, when I went back to my grandmas, at about 2 we were so excited we couldn’t get any sleep, and my grandmother said, what are you up too. You are moving around so much you’ll push the mosquito netting off. So I returned to my grandmother’s place. In the morning I awakened from a nightmare. I said to grandma, La Jia wanted me to touch her last night and I touched her. She said, What did she want you to touch? I told her what I touched and what it felt like. And my grandma just jumped up immediately and rushed into the kitchen where she was sound asleep and slapped her hard across the face. How could you teach a child to do such a filthy thing, she asked. You put filth into this little pure child. How can you do this.
She cowered and said, I didn’t do anything. What are you talking about. That is her imagining. She was dreaming. She cried very loud, and howled as grandmother struck her. But I thought I was wrong, that I must have dreamed that. But I wasn’t sure. I had so much knowledge now about women, not about girls my age, but about women. And how they respond and get excited and get hard, and I wondered how I know this. It must have happened, it must be true, that is how I got that knowledge. I said, you are lying. She shot back, you are lying, I never did this to you. She said, well it’s a very funny feeling, I thought, we were from this point on we were most hostile to each other and at the same time much more intimate with each other. I hated her, but in secret depths of my heart, I loved her too. There was something her I could not explain. So I liked to take her out with me. Take her with me, sometimes I said, let’s go somewhere to buy some cloth, I want to make a selection, do you want to go with me, and she would say yes, and i’d have her select the material or fabric for me. And when she did, I laughed at her and said, this is a peasants’ taste or something. But it is funny that I wanted to get closer to her than before, although I still teased her. This kind of feeling was lasting for a couple of months. And until, she was treating me better, always protecting me, when dinner was ready, she would come out and call me back, when I was playing with the other children. She served me larger portions.
One afternoon when I was in the first grade, that was my first year of schooling. After that it was the cultural revolution and the schools closed. So I just had one year of education. It was raining very hard, and a storm came. And I was expecting my grandfather to come and bring me an umbrella. Other children had relatives bring them umbrellas and give them to the teacher. But my grandpa didn’t come, and this was unusual. The rain turned harder and harder and I began to wonder who was coming to bring me home. At this point, I saw her face outside the window of the glass door. She was utterly fascinated by the class room. She had never gone to school and never had seen a classroom before. She was fascinated and envious, her expression was one of utter fascination. I could tell she had forgotten what she came here for, she was lost in listening to our lessons. She was watching us. I made a gesture for her to come in and give me the umbrella and leave. I sensed it was a shame for us to have such a young and beautiful maid at home. No one else had a maid like that. But she missed my gesture, and she was enchanted by the classroom. She kept looking at us. And I sighed and was angry. Then the teacher turned and saw her and went into the hall. Are you the maid or the sister of any of our students? She asked. She said yes, I am here to bring an umbrella to someone. And I thought, Oh, come on, don’t bring any ugly umbrella, big and thick and made of oil cloth, people will make fun of me. I know how many ugly umbrellas my grandpa owned. Every time I left I told him to send a specific umbrella. The others had lovely umbrellas and I didn’t want to have an ugly one. If she told the teacher she was my maid, and she handed her that ugly umbrella, I will kill her after school. And she looked at me and sensed my impatience and seemed to understand and she had the ugly umbrella, but she didn’t say who it was for. She said, I was told to give this to one of your students and she will recognize the umbrella. But it was the most beautiful umbrella in our home. I was so grateful.
The relationship changed gradually into a close sisterly relationship. Until the next May, when the swimming suits started to appear in the market. I wanted a swimming suit. So much. Which was scarlet with white polka dots on it. It was expensive, by our living standards, so each day I went to the department store to see if anyone bought it yet. I didn’t know if they had many of them, which they did. I save up all my money that my grandparents gave me for popsicles on the street, but I still as very far from buying it. Then I found where La Jie kept her money. She kept it in a little purse she made under her pillow. All of her belongings were made into her pillow and beneath the pillow was a small bag where she kept her money. My grandparents paid her 5 Yuan per month, less than one dollar. I found the purse and removed a 5 Yuan note from it and went to the store and bought the swimming suit. When she found it missing she came to see me. She waited outside the house for me. I returned from shopping and saw her standing outside the house. But she was odd, as though she had done somethng wrong and not me. She said, Did you by mistake take any of my money. I said, are you out of your mind, La Jie, I would take your money. But I was just returning from swimming, with my friends, my hair was dripping with water, and I was holding this new swimming suit. I had been admired by all of my friends in the class who went swimming with me. And when I got back she was waiting for me and said, Where did you get the money to buy that swimming suit. It’s not your business, I told her. I have money of my own. She said, You know, I saved this money I have a younger brother who wants to go to school so badly. And in my lifetime, I don’t have hope to go to school. But I want him to go to school. I said she never talked about her brother and I didn’t believe her. She said he still lived in the countryside. He is the only other living member of my family. My parents died. And I want a good life for him. I went to your cousins daughter in law because I wanted my brother to live like a city person. I want him to be an accountant or some kind of a good job. To her that was the best job she could think of. It was a white collar job, and the only profession she could name was an accountant. And I saved up and I don’t spend any money here. So please, she begged me, give me back that money. If you can’t give me the money now, why don’t you give me a little money every day. We can make it a loan or something. I told her, you are out of your mind. I would never take any of your money, get that through your thick peasant head, OK?
So she gave up and went back to her bed and cried. And that made me feel bad when I listened to her, and I felt guilty. But I could not admit that I had stolen her money, and I didn’t want to have to return my swimming suit, and I didn’t want my grandmother to find out, so I said, stop crying, maybe you just didn’t have that 5 yuan note. She said, I know I do. I count my money every night. Each month they paid her 5 yuan, her salary. So she said she could not be wrong. I said, again, well, I don’t steal money. To hell with you. So she gave up. Then it was a new year came. And when it was national day, and all the friends, all the people went to a celebration. In the big theater in the city. And I saw there a beautiful actress who was the number one actress in Anhui province. She had made movies, and her picture was everywhere, and she had the same last name as me, Yan. She was very nice to me and she had no children of her own. On one occasion she said to my father, I really want your daughter to be my real daughter. Everyone would like to be her daughter or to be her husband. That kind of woman. Her way of smoking a cigarette was so elegant and beautiful and very flirtatious. That kind of provocative posture she had. She came out with a long gown, and a cigarette, smoking, a qipao, and her way of walking was so sensual. She came to me and said, Oh, Geling, you never told me that you have such a beautiful sister. My maid was with me, next to me. And she was dressed in a city girls dress she’d made for herself. I didn’t realize until this point that she was totally a city girl now, very pretty and in her prime, she was 16, and much more fuller in her figure than this actress, and she, the actress said, is this your sister. You know you do look a little bit like each other. And I was jut about to answer and I glanced at La Jia and saw her face, she was blushing brightly, and she couldn’t speak. She said, Oh, ah, nice to meet you. I’ve seen your movies. I see your posters everywhere. And the actress, said, you have such a beautiful voice. Can you sing, and La Jie turned to look at me, and she was afraid that I was going to say something like she’s illiterate, and I didn’t say anything. And she said, yes I can sing. And the actress said, why don’t you come to visit me. Do you want to become an actress? Do you want to become a high school student. Only the illiterate want to be an actress like me. She said that. And La Jie was so nervous, she looked at me, and said, I want to see you if you can take me as your understudy I would like that very much. And the actress said, you little ghost to hide such a beautiful sister from me for so long. Why did you hide this treasure from me. You are a naughty girl. I was on the edge of tellinge her that this was my maid. But I saw La Jie sweating, and I thought her life would be ruined if I said that. I said, she’s not my sister. I sensed La Jie hold her breath when I said that an grow every tense. I paused for a moment and said, She’s my cousin.
Ah, she breathed a sigh of relief. The actress said, someday, when you have time, you come to see me. But she was just flirting with male and female admirers. But she was genuinely struck by the presence of such a beautiful young girl in the audience. But she wasn’t serious about taking an understudy. But La Jie was very serious. She asked, when can I see you. The Actress aid, Oh yes, when you have time and I have time, I can call you and we can talk then. And she moved on through the crowd, flirting with others. And then she was gone.
And La Jie from that time on was very serious about becoming an actress. She got up at 4 the next morning and disappeared. Then she came back and, I asked where did you go. And she said, oh nowhere, I was just out checking the chickens and this and that. But after several days, one of our neighbors asked my grandma, what is wrong with your maid. She was in the public bathroom at 4 in the morning, in the public toilets making these screaming sounds every moening. Is she insane? She sounds like a female cat in heat in the morning. We were shocked by this. But the neighbors said they were awakened by her and they wanted grandma to say something to her.
She was practicing her singing in the public bathrooms, improving her voice before she went to see the actress, trying to sing the scales and strengthen her voice, she did it in the public bathroom because it was the only place, in the morning at 4, where she could practice and not be seen. But people were living very close to each other and they heard this strange and odd noise in the morning, and they said you have got to discipline your maid, she is really annoying and she is waking us up. But at first they said we didn’t know what that terrible noise was, but when we went to check, we saw she was facing the wall and doing that with her voice, and she was screeching so high, she scared us and woke up the animals.
And grandma said, what is in your mind to do something like that. What do you want to do, become an actress? Actresses are whores, didn’t you know that? You have better start thinking of getting back to your father in law’s house and becoming a serious wife to your future husband. Actresses are no good, they are whores, and you should know that.
She wasn’t listening. She was lost in her dreams. She was tensed up and was getting herself dignified, watching the way she walked, and my grandmother became worried. So she sent a telegram to the countryside, to the father in law, and I don’t know how she got the message to him, but she said, if you don’t come to claim her, she is going to fly away. She is going to go wild and I will not be able to control her.
So one day several weeks later, I came home and here was this red-faced peasant sitting on our chair. And grandma said, this is La Jie’s father in law. He has come here to take her home to marry her off to his son. He has raised her. She will leave with him tomorrow.
Oh, I immediately, I just, she was sitting there very docile and making no sound. She was very Chinese in accepting her fate now. And I immediately burst into tears and realized that I was crying, involuntarily, and I said to grandma, I cannot live without her now. She said, don’t be silly. She doesn’t have a city residence card, she can’t stay here any longer. She is ready to get married, she is 16. That is what she was sent here for and that is why they took her in and bought her. And I became wild and shrieked, no you cannot do that, you can’t let her go, I can’t live my life without her. Why did you first call her in, now I can’t live without her and I don’t know what to do with myself, my brother is so far away, and I don’t have a playmate and she is my playmate, and now she is going, are you trying to kill me. And in the back of my mind was, I had sympathy and compassion for this girl. I know that she was gradually realizing her dream of becoming a city person and an actress, and this was just finished, now, her dream. And I realized how sad it would be for her. So I just made this noise, I knew I could live without her. So and my grandmother said, that’s the way it is. Don’t make it any harder for her. She is leaving tomorrow morning before 5. That night, she changed back, into her peasant clothes and braided her hair in one braid again. She put on the clothes she had worn to the city. She was accepting her fate already. I said to her, well,you can still go to the actresses house, tonight, if you want. I can help you escape. Do you want to, I whispered. She said, you told me she wasn’t serious. I said, but she is serious. I lied to you, La Jie. I know I was lying, but something had changed, I wanted to change her fate, give a twist to her fate. I said, you know you can run there, I know where she loves, and tomorrow morning you can be somebody else. You don’t have to go back to the countryside to marry this man. I said to you even like him. She said, I think of all the people I hate the worst, it is him. I hate him. I said, see, I know you don’t like him, then run away. Become an actress. She said, it’s too late, I think I was born to this fate. I can’t do otherwise. I said, OK. Now I see her with tears on her face, just two tears running down her cheeks, and running down her face. I wiped them away with my finger and then left her. I returned to my bed, and was tossing back and forth and was restless. And I told my grandmother, can I have a 5 yuan. She said, why. I said, I forgot that the tuition at school, it isn’t 5 yuan, it is 10 yuan. And the teacher asked me to bring the rest tomorrow and I have to make it up. And grandma said, that’s odd. You don’t know your tuition and half a year has passed. I said, I really need it tonight for the morning. So she got into a purse and gave me the 5 yuan. She said, you must have spent your tuition on something else. But i’ll help you this time. You must have bought treats for all your friends. I said, well, whatever. I need the 5 yuan now. She was sorry for me because I felt so bad for La Jie. Then I returned to La Jie’s bed, it was very dark. I pulled back the mosquito net. She was sound asleep now. I reached under the pillow carefully without waking her, and slipped the 5 yuan note into it. Then I looked at her in the moonlight. I touched her hair and then kissed her on the forehead. She still didn’t awaken. I returned to my bed and cried for her the rest of the night. Finally I fell asleep and when I awakened in the morning she was gone.
Later on when the red guard movement became really wild, we heard that La Jie cut her braid off, and by then she was already a married woman. She wore her hair in a bun instead of a braid. She cut it off and made her hair red guard style, and ran away to the city to join the red guards. Weeks later she returned to her village as head of a group of red guards. She called out her father in law and husband and accused them of being feudal in their ideas. She had them taken in front of their house. She was so angry, crying as she accused them of misusing her. She slapped each of them across the face. Then she poured a bucket of glue, the kind used to put up posters, poured it over their heads. When she was finished with them she left for the city again with the red guards, waving little red books above their heads and singing patriotic songs. We never heard of her again.
"The heart may be tiny
but the world's enormous"
I have thought of her often. And when I am in China, I look for her, but I never saw her again. She used the revolutionary movement to liberate herself. This young woman stayed in my mind, even though she was only with us a little more than a year. There were no more sexual encounters. Now I realize, that as a young woman she had this need, this passion, but she was too ignorant to know what to do. It was like she was on fire, she had strange feelings and had no idea how to deal with them.