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By Eileen Goudge, Zhang Qing
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1990 Eileen Goudge
All rights reserved.
My Dear One,
The house on the mountaintop has lost its soul. It is nothing but a palace with empty windows. I go upon the terrace and look over the valley where the sun sinks a golden red ball, casting long purple shadows on the plain. Then I remember that you are not coming from the city to me, and I say to myself that there can be no dawn that I can see, and no sunset to gladden my eyes, unless I share it with you.
But do not think that I am unhappy. I do everything the same as if you were here, and in everything I say, "Would this please my Master?" Meh-ki wished to put your long chair away, as she said it was too big; but I did not permit it. It must rest where I can look at it and imagine I see you lying in it, smoking your water pipe; and the small table is always nearby, where you can reach out your hand for your papers and the drink you love. Meh-ki also brought out the dwarf pine tree and put it on the terrace, but I remembered you said it looked like an old man who had been beaten in his childhood, and I gave it to her for one of the inner courtyards. She thinks it very beautiful, and so I did once; but I have learned to see with your eyes, and I know that a tree made straight and beautiful and tall by the gods is more to be regarded than one that has been bent and twisted by man.
Such a long letter I am writing you. I am so glad that you made me promise to write you every seventh day, and to tell you all that passes within my household and my heart. Your Honorable Mother says it is not seemly to send communication from my hand to yours. She says it was a thing unheard of in her girlhood, and that we younger generations have passed the limits of all modesty and womanliness. She wishes me to have the writer or your brother send you the news of your household; but that I will not permit. It must come from me, your wife. Each one of these strokes will come to you bearing my message. You will not tear the covering roughly as you did those great official letters; nor will you crush the papers quickly in your hand, because it is the written word of Kwei-li, who sends with each stroke of her brush a part of her heart.CHAPTER 2
My Dear One,
My first letter to you was full of sadness and longing because you were newly gone from me. Now a week has passed, the sadness is still in my heart, but it is buried deep for only me to know. I have my duties that must be done, my daily tasks that only I can do since your Honorable Mother handed me the keys to the rice bin. I realize the great honor she does me, and that at last she trusts me and believes me no child as she did when I first entered her household.
Can I ever forget that day when I first came to my husband's people? I had the one great consolation of a bride, my parents had not sent me away empty-handed. The procession was almost a li [half mile] in length, and I watched with a swelling heart the many tens of coolies carrying my household goods. There were silken coverlets for the beds, and they were folded to show their richness and carried on red lacquered tables of great value. There were the household utensils of many kinds, the vegetable dishes, the baskets, the camphor wood baskets containing my clothing, tens upon tens of them; and I said within my heart as they passed me by, "Enter my new home before me. Help me to find a loving welcome." Then at the end of the chanting procession I came in my red chair of marriage, so closely covered I could barely breathe. My trembling feet could scarce support me as they helped me from the chair, and my hand shook with fear as I was being led into my new household. She stood bravely before you, that little girl dressed in red and gold, her hair twined with pearls and jade, her arms heavy with bracelets and with rings on each tiny finger, but with all her bravery she was frightened—frightened. She was away from her parents for the first time, away from all who loved her, and she knew if she did not meet with approval in her new home her rice bowl would be full of bitterness for many moons to come.
After the obeisance to the ancestral tablet and after we had fallen upon our knees before your Honorable Parent, I then saw for the first time the face of my husband. Do you remember when first you raised my veil and looked long into my eyes? I was thinking, "Will he find me beautiful?" and in fear I could look but for a moment, then my eyes fell and I would not raise them to yours again. But in that moment I saw that you were tall and beautiful, that your skin was clear and your teeth like pearls. I was secretly glad within my heart, because I have known of brides who, when they saw their husbands for the first time, wished to scream in terror, as they were old and ugly. I thought to myself that I could be happy with this tall, strong young man if I found favor in his sight, and I said a little prayer to Kwan- yin. Because she has answered that prayer, each day I place a candle at her feet to show my gratitude.
I think your Honorable Mother has passed me the keys of the household to take my mind from my loss. She says that a heart that is busy cannot mourn, and my days are full of duties. I arise in the morning early, and after seeing that my hair is tidy, I take a cup of tea to the Aged One and make my obeisance; then I place the rice and water in their dishes before the God of the Kitchen, and light a tiny stick of incense for his altar, so that our day may begin auspiciously. After the morning meal I consult with the cook and steward. The vegetables must be checked carefully and the fish inspected, and I must ask the price that has been paid, because often a hireling is hurried and forgets that a bargain is not made with a breath.
I carry the great keys and feel much pride when I open the door of the storeroom. Why, I do not know, unless it is because of the realization that I am the head of this large household. If the servants or their children are ill, they come to me instead of to your Honorable Mother, as in former times. I settle all difficulties, unless they are too rare or heavy for one of my mind and experience.
Then I go with the gardener to the terrace and help him arrange the flowers for the day. I love the stone-flagged terrace, with its low marble balustrade, resting close against the mountain to which it seems to cling.
I always stop a moment and look over the valley, because it was from here I watched you when you went to the city in the morning and here I waited your return. Because of my love for it and the rope of remembrance with which it binds me, I keep it beautiful with rugs and flowers.
It speaks to me of happiness and brings back memories of summer days spent idling in a quiet so still that we could hear the rustle of the bamboo grasses on the hillside down below; or, still more dear, the evenings passed close by your side, watching the lingering moon's soft touch, which brightened each door and archway into jade as it passed.
I long for you, I love you, I am yours.
Your WifeCHAPTER 3
My Dear One,
The hours of one day are as like each other as are twin blossoms from the pear tree. There is no news to tell you. The mornings are passed in the duties that come to all women who have the care of a household, and in the afternoons I am on the terrace with your sister. But first of all, your August Mother must be made comfortable for her sleep, and then the peace is indeed wonderful.
Mah-li and I take our embroidery and sit upon the terrace, where we pass long hours watching the people in the valley below. The faint blue smoke curls from a thousand dwellings, and we try to imagine the lives of those who dwell beneath the rooftrees. We see the peasants in their rice fields; watch them dragging the rich mud from the bottoms of the canal for fertilizing; hear the shrill whistle of the duck man as, with long bamboo, he drives the great flock of ducks homeward or sends them over the fields to search for insects. We see the wedding procession far below, and can but faintly follow the great covered chair of the bride and the train of servants carrying the possessions to the new home. Often the wailing of the mourners in a funeral comes to our ears, and we lean far over the balcony to watch the coolies scatter the spirit money that will pay the dead man's way to the land of the gods. But yesterday we saw the procession carrying the merchant Wong to his resting place of the dead. There were many thousands of cycee spent upon his funeral. Your brother tells me his sons made great boast that no man has been buried with such pomp in all the province. But it only brings more clearly the remembrance that he began this life a sampan coolie and ended it with many millions. But his millions did not bring him happiness. He labored without ceasing, and then, without living to enjoy the fruit, worn out, departed, one knows not where.
Yesterday we heard the clang-clang of a gong and saw the Taotai [magistrate] pass by, his men carrying the boards and banners with his official rank and virtues written upon them, and we counted the red umbrellas and wondered if some poor peasant was in deep trouble.
It is beautiful here now. The hillside is purple with the autumn bloom and the air is filled with a golden haze. The red leaves drift slowly down the canal and tell me that soon the winter winds will come. Outside the walls the insects sing sleepily in the grass, seeming to know that their southward flight carries my thoughts to you. All is sad, and sad as the clouded moon my longing face, and my eyes are filled with tears. Not at twilight nor at gray of dawn can I find happiness without you, my lord, mine own, and "endless are the days as trailing creepers."
Your WifeCHAPTER 4
My Dear One,
I have much to tell you. My last letter was unhappy, and these little slips of paper must bring you joy, not sorrow, else why the written word?
First, I must tell you that your brother Chih-peh will soon be married. You know he has long been betrothed to Li-ti, the daughter of the Governor of Chih-li, and soon the bride will be here. We have been arranging her apartments. We do not know how many home servants she will bring, and we are praying the gods to grant her discretion, because with servants from a different province there are sure to be jealousies and the retelling of small tales that disturb the harmony of a household.
Many tales have been brought us of her great beauty, and we hear she has much education. Your August Mother is much disturbed over the latter, for as she says—and justly too—overlearning is not good for women. It is not meet to give them books in which to store their embroidery silks. But I—I am secretly delighted, and Mah-li, your sister, is transported with joy. I think, within our hearts, although we would not even whisper it to the night wind, we are glad that there will be three instead of two to bear the burden of the discourses of your Honorable Mother. Not that she talks too much, you understand, nor that her speech is not stored full of wisdom, but—she talks—and we must listen.
We have other news. A new slave girl has come into our household. As you know, there has been a great famine to the north of us, and the boats, who follow all disaster, full of hungry people, have been anchored in our canal. I do not know why the August One desired to add one more to take of rice beneath our rooftree; but she is here. Ho-tai was brought before me, a little peasant girl, dressed in faded blue trousers and a jacket that had been many times to the washing pool. Her black hair was coiled in the girlhood knot at the side of the head, and in it she had stuck a pumpkin blossom. She was such a pretty little country flower, and looked so helpless, I drew her to me and questioned her. She told me there were many within their compound wall: grandmother, father, mother, brothers, sisters, uncles, and cousins. The rice was gone, the heavy clothing and everything of value in the pawnshop. Death was all around them, and they watched each day as he drew nearer—nearer. Then came the buyers of girls. They had money that would buy rice for the winter and mean life to all. But the mother would not listen. She was told over and over that the price of one would save the many. But she would not sell her daughter. Her nights were spent in weeping and her days in fearful watching. At last, worn out, despairing, she went to a far-off temple to ask Kwan-yin, the Mother of Mercies, for help in her great trouble. While she was gone, Ho-tai was taken to the women in the boat at the water gate, and many pieces of silver were paid the father. When the stomach is empty, pride is not strong, and there were many small bodies crying for rice that could only be bought with the sacrifice of one. That night, as they started down the canal, they saw on the towpath a peasant woman, her dress open far below her throat, her hair loose and flying, her eyes swollen and dry from over-weeping, moaning pitifully, stumbling on in the darkness, searching for the boat that had anchored at the water gate; but it was gone. Poor little Ho-tai! She said, "It was my mother!" and as she told me, her face was wet with the bitter rain. I soothed her and told her we would make her happy, and I made a little vow in my heart that I would find that mother and bring peace to her heart again.
The summer wanes and the autumn is upon us with all its mists and shadows of purple and gray. The camphor trees look from the distance like great balls of fire, and the eucalyptus tree, in its dress of brilliant yellow, is a gaily painted court lady. If one short glimpse of you could gladden my heart, then all my soul would be filled with the beauty of this time, these days of red and gold. But now I seek you the long night through, and turn to make my arm your pillow—but you are gone.
I am your wife who longs for you.CHAPTER 5
My Dear One,
We have a daughter-in-law. Not only have we a daughter-in-law, but we have servants and household furnishings and clothing—and clothing—and clothing. I am sure that if her gowns could be laid side by side, they would reach around the world. She is as fair as the spring blossoms, and of as little use. An army encamped upon us could not have so upset our household as the advent of this one maiden. She brought with her rugs to cover the floors, embroideries and hangings for the walls, scrolls and sayings of Confucius and Mecius to hang over the seats of honor—to show us that she is an admirer of the classics—screens for the doorways, even a huge bed all carved and gilded and with hangings and tassels of gay silk.
Your Honorable Mother, after viewing the goods piled in the courtyards, called her bearers and told us she was taking tea with a friend in the village of Sung-dong. I think she chose this friend because she lives the farthest from our compound walls. I alone was left to direct the placing of this furniture. Li-ti was like a butterfly, flitting hither and thither, doing nothing, talking much. The bed must be placed so that the Spirits of Evil passing over it in the nighttime could not take the souls of the sleepers away with them. The screens must stand at the proper angle guarding the doorways from the spirits who, in their straight, swift flight through the air, fall against these screens instead of entering the house. She gravely explained to me that the souls who dwell in the darkness like to take up their abode in newly organized households, and many precautions must be made against them. She even seriously considered the roof, to see if all the points curved upward, so that the spirits lighting upon them would be carried high above the open courtyards. I do not know what would have happened to your ancestral rooftree if it had not met with her approval. I was many heartsful glad that your August Mother was taking tea in a far-off village, as Li-ti even wanted to install a new god in the kitchen. This I would not permit. Can you imagine your Mother's face if a god from a stranger family was in the niche above the kitchen stove? Happily all was over when your Honorable Mother returned. She is not pleased with this, her newest, daughter-in-law, and she talks—and talks—and talks. She says the days will pass most slowly until she sees the father of Li-ti. She yearns to tell him that a man knows how to spend a million pieces of money in marrying off his daughter, but knows not about how to spend a hundred thousand in bringing up his child. If this great Governor of Chih-li has much wisdom, he wall stay long within his province. I have just heard for the hundredth time the saying of Confucius, "Birth is not a beginning, nor is death an end." In my despair I said deep down within my breast, "I am sure it will not be an end for you, O Mother-in-law. You will go to the River of Souls talking, talking, always talking—but the gods will be good to me. You must pass before me, and I will not hasten so as to overtake you on the way." I beg your pardon, dear one. I lack respect to your Most Honorable Parent, but my soul is sore and tried and I can find no quiet.
I am, Your Wife
Excerpted from Golden Lilies by Eileen Goudge, Zhang Qing. Copyright © 1990 Eileen Goudge. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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