by Sze-Leng Tan
The almost-dusk sky is bright and promising, still, as it was half a lifetime ago on the day I saved her from all the sufferings. The plump clouds floating above the majestic skyline of Shanghai are still as innocent and cuddly as ever, so innocent that hardly anyone would expect the slightest stir in the tranquility. The autumn sky is still the same as it was on that day…
“Keep… keep… push harder! Go on! Yes, that’s right.”
The blood. Yes.
“Congratulations. Finally, it’s here… It’s…”
Silence befallen as I heaved my chest and head, releasing the deepest breath I had drawn in, along with the weight I had been carrying. I exhaled.
“Is it a boy or a girl?” Its destiny, and mine, had to be known.
Another bout of silence followed my question, the longest, quietest silence. I waited, not minding another few moments after a nine-month wait.
Guang came in and broke the tension of the stillness. Hastily, my husband asked, “How? With or without the chiguding?” Chiguding is the beak-like tip on an arrowhead tuber for sprouting, resembling a baby boy’s reproduction organ.
“It’s a…” said Gerna in a trembling voice, “… nuer…”
What? Another one of those? A… daughter?!
One of the girls burst out in tears. And then followed by another one. And then another. Each outbreak was more explosive than the last. Each numbed my hollow senses and nothing could hide my guilty disillusionment. With the last of strength I could muster, I whispered, “Let me have a look at her.” Gerna ordered for the baby to be brought to me. Guang sighed and left without a word.
“Ahhhh… pei pei pei…” Niang barked, jumped up from the rattan chair she glued to since I came in for labour two hours ago, unmoving, statue-like. “Another one of those! Choi! Bad luck is all you brought into this house. One after another! Tsk!” My mother-in-law spitted, waving her hand up and down like a fan chasing away the nuisance of relentless flies and shaking her head like a pendulum giving way to the persistent gravity, as she was mincing out of the room that was full of hope and anticipation just minutes ago.
I held the dark creased little creature in my arms, her countenance calm and eyes closed, sleeping contentedly, leaving the uproar and sadness of the world into which she just entered with total oblivion. Monster!
“Well, it’s not THAT bad.” Hwang Ma’s hesitant voice was quivering in, “she may turn out to be the next Princess Pingyang…” A muffled chuckle interrupted her and then she continued, “… and make something out of herself. Big big fame and save her family from enemies and harm!” And from the curse she brought?
No one responded to her courageous attempt to break the gloomy spell. All heads bowed in desolate despair, hands clasped in grave reticence, feet rooted in apologetic fearfulness on the clay round in my stuffy room filled with the smell of sweat, blood and sinking dusts.
“Pei! A warrior?! Looks like she has to fight really hard in this world.” Gerlian said bitterly, followed by a sorrowful sigh. “It’s time to welcome the Little Daughter-In-Law!”
There was a stir in the bundle. I looked at the grinning lump of flesh. Poor thing! She seemed to be hearing but not listening, not knowing her fate. “You’ll be fine.” I rocked her in my motherly arms. She’s going to have the same destiny as mine. History is going to repeat itself.
Yes, it will. Unless I stopped it.
Still standing around me — the five of them, by the bed — were Gerna and Gerlian, my sisters; Hwangma, my old aunt; and finally, Xiaomei and Meimei, my daughters. Generations kept us apart but we had one thing in common. We were nuren, the people of the nu from a big household fed by the mercy from a small farm.
Since last year, Guang had sold off most the farmhouse furniture and half of the land, worked on the measly farm with no helping hand, no harvest at all for most of the autumn and spring due to the dry seasons. And now, with more and more mouths to feed and no one to bear the family name, no young hands sent from the God of the Earth into this farmer’s household. With the exception of his uncles, father and Niang, fifteen of us in this house had been surviving on only small bowls of thin gruel a day with some occasional sweet melon served as treats throughout the prolonged deadly months of winter. If It wasn’t for the famine, Guang would have taken in a xiaoshifu from a rich family in the village, a nubile sixteen year-old slave on whom he had been eyeing to be his parents’ little daughter-in-law, all for the more promising prospect of producing an heir.
We were nuren. Women. We knew our places and positions in our small world. It was our Ming, Destined Life, as we were told again and again. All written and unchangeable.
The hope for a twist of fate were now replaced by thick stifling air likened to that in a funeral. The sky outside the window was clear-blue and transparent with tints of the chrysanthemum exuberance and the spring-soil grounding, reminding the fluttering birds’ daily ritual of flying homewards as if this was just another day. The spongy clouds were plump, lined with deadly greyness, awakened by the penetrating rays of waning golden sunlight, falling upon my tightened face, seeing right through me.
“Enough is enough!” My voice found its outlet. There was a bereavement of silence, again. “First thing in the morning at the break of dawn. I’ll be going there…” I said with gritted teeth. “Alone.”
I woke up before dawn and grabbed the bundle, headed out of the dark house into the open cold morning air. It was still pitch dark and I tried to take advantage of the secrecy of the obscurity to get it done, swiftly. I hastened my footstep and climbed the hill behind the house. The towering cedar trees filtered the accumulated strength of the new-born sunlight, obscuring the penetrating light from the rising sun. The bundle stirred and I rocked it gently.
The climb became trying. I panted with exhaustion. The dense bush gradually gave way to a clearing. The cool air dried my budding perspiration and when I finally reached the edge of the clearing, I released the bundle down onto the earth with a thud and the poor thing started crying, as I dived into digging the soil with a dagger I brought from the house. Each stab strengthened the resistance of the small limbs, and each plough fertilised the seeds of determination in that fragile life.
The deeper and deeper I went and the louder and louder she came, with the resolution of that of a rebellion. I tried to ignore the resonance of complaint, blotting out the pain she felt for I felt it too, may be even more. I tried to wipe out the anger I had for her, hating the disgust I felt for her for I was disgusted with myself too, may be ever more! The deeper and deeper I went and the dryer and dryer were my eyes. No tears. Not in my eyes.
My hands stopped, all of a sudden. I held up my head and looked at the sky, all calm and placid as if it was all a dream. The creased dark face was staring at me with the look of a fighter ready to give her all.
A stir in the undergrowth brought me back to the awareness that I was holding a cold steely weapon in my hand which was soiled by the dirt I stirred from the sacred earth. A hare was bustling around frantically looking for food and I smiled as drops of tear trickling down my hot trembling cheeks.
Before long. Half an hour later. Things were all settled. Done.
The hole that I dug deep was now a mound filled with the buried ghost of my past. The blood stained the edges of my long sleeves and all over my coat. “This is your destiny!” I whispered and then headed to town and never return to the site of burial ever again.
Sitting here on my bed now, I am holding on to the only life who has been the one fighting for mine, for she’s a warrior, the keeper of a tradition of graceful survivors whose untold stories buried the secrets of the people of the Nu.
As the only witness of my turning of the Ming of my little poor thing around, the cherubic clouds are still sailing with their ever-knowing equanimity. The iron-will of the dying late afternoon beams pouring in like silk arrows through the window. The fire I found then I found it in her and now I see it in Princess Pingyang’s eyes.
Editors Note on Saving Princess Pingyang:
Saving Princess Pingyang was previously published in The Anthill.