Women of the Silk
By Gail Tsukiyama
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 1991 Gail Tsukiyama
All rights reserved.
Her first memory of pain was an image of her mother. Pei was three or four the first time, and the same thing that had happened then was happening now. Her mother's moans almost woke her from this daydream, but she squeezed her eyes shut, and could see her mother's silk painting with the five white birds on it. Three of them were perched upon branches of white blossoms, the other two in flight. It was the only beautiful thing in their house, and Pei could see it even in her darkness. When she asked too many questions about it, or about anything else, Pei's parents became angry. Her father made a clicking sound with his tongue, and her mother would say her mind wandered too far from home. So Pei tried hard to keep very quiet like her sister, Li.
Her mother's moans grew louder. When Pei opened her eyes she could see, in the light of the flickering candle, her father sitting by the door. His long legs were spread out, one crossed over the other, as he stroked the thin hairs on his upper lip. She glanced at Li, who sat quietly in the corner mending some tattered clothing, as she always did in the evenings.
Pei's mother was in the next room, separated from them by a heavy, dark curtain she had had up for as long as Pei could remember. The midwife, Ching, was with her. The moaning and heavy breathing continued, as Ching whispered words of encouragement. The last time this had happened, her mother had become thin again, and they had a new baby sister.
That little sister cried and cried. No matter what Pei's mother did, the baby would not take her milk. For days her mother cradled the baby in her arms, walking from one end of the room to the other, until she formed a narrow path in their dirt floor. Her father bought herbs for a broth from an old woman in the village. It smelled of burning leaves as it boiled, but the baby refused to take it down. Soon Little Sister lost all strength to cry and simply lay stonelike in her mother's arms. Not long after that, Pei's father took Baby Sister out of the house, and when he returned looking sad, like a defeated animal, it was without her.
"Where is Baby Sister?" Pei asked.
"She has died of sickness like the other one," her father answered. "It would have been different if they had been sons."
Pei's mother stood swaying slightly back and forth. Her clothes were unkempt and her hair strangely out of place. There was something cruel about the fine lines that moved from her lips as she pressed them tightly together. Never once did her mother cry, but Pei knew something was wrong, that she was in great pain, even when her mother nodded her head in agreement with her father.
Her mother's moans grew more desperate. Pei knew that that meant another baby would soon come. It was only a few steps from the table to the curtain, and Pei moved quietly so she wouldn't disturb her father. When the last baby sister came, they were not allowed to enter her mother's room for a month. This was so they would not anger the gods. But she couldn't see the gods being angry at her for taking a small peek.
Pei lifted the curtain. Candles shone from each side of her mother's bed. The tiny space seemed suffocating with the smell of sweat and burning wax. There were candles close by Ching, who bent over, telling her mother to push. "Push now, Yu-sung, push, yes, yes and now breathe." Her mother was on the bed, a large wooden board covered with a thin mat, half-lying, half-sitting against the wall, her knees pushed up, her legs spread open. Underneath her legs was a large piece of brown paper, which Ching constantly straightened as her mother pushed against it. Her mother moaned louder and let out a small cry when she pushed down as Ching instructed her. When she let her head drop back down, she breathed in rapid pants as Pei had heard dogs do when they were thirsty for water. She wondered if her mother might want some water, but even as Pei tried to speak, no voice would come from her opened mouth. Pei was frightened by her pain. Her mother looked so tired and sick, her fingers tearing at the cotton netting which hung down to keep the mosquitoes away. Then once more her mother raised herself, and pushed with a renewed strength. She let out a small cry and pushed again.
"Yes, Yu-sung," said Ching. "There is the head, the baby comes, the baby comes!"
And there between her mother's legs Pei could see the baby's head emerge. It was a dark, wet, ugly thing, sliding out so slowly with each push. She wanted to step forward and see more, but her legs felt weak. When Pei turned around to share this with Li, she saw that Li had her eyes closed tight, even as her hands continued mending the cotton trousers.
"The baby comes face up," Ching said, in a worried whisper.
In the next moment the baby's entire head appeared, with tiny dark lines for its eyes and mouth, and a flat, small nose. Ching cupped the back of its head, and with another push, the rest of the baby's body quickly followed, along with a lot of blood and water.
"It is a girl, Yu-sung," Ghing said softly, examining the baby. The new baby sister let out a loud, clear cry. Ching clipped the cord attached to the baby with a small, sharp knife, and tied it. "She appears well." Ching wiped the baby and placed her in Pei's mother's arms. Her mother looked exhausted, and so sad, but she accepted her fifth daughter with a tired smile.
Then before she could move, Pei felt the strong grip of her father's hand, taking her arm and pushing her to the side. At first she was terrified that he would punish her for looking, but then Pei saw that he really didn't even notice her. With him, he brought the heavy scent of smoke and sweat into the thick heat of the small room.
"Is it a son?" he demanded.
No one answered. Pei turned to Li, who was looking down at the dirt floor. Ching busied herself with cleaning up the remains of the birth, wrapping it all in the brown paper to be buried in the earth as Pei had seen her do before.
"Why?" she had asked Ching the last time.
"Because it is dirty," Ching answered, placing the bundle gently into the hole she had dug.
"Why is it dirty?"
"Because it is," Ching said. "And we must spare the gods the sight of it. Someday you will understand."
When her father looked down at the baby and saw that it was healthy, he removed the blanket she was wrapped in. But when he saw that the baby hadn't the requirements of a son, he made that clicking sound he always made when he was displeased, and left the room. Pei quickly moved to one side so he wouldn't see her.
Her mother rewrapped the baby and kissed her lightly on the cheek.
"The next one will be a son, Yu-sung, you just wait and see," said Ching.
"There will not be a next time," her mother answered.
For a month after giving birth, Yu-sung stayed with the baby in the confines of their house. During this unclean period she did not bathe or wash her hair. This was done to spare the highest god, T'ien Kung, the sight of them: From the village herbalist, Ching bought herbs for soup, and Yu-sung ingested an array of strengthening tonics.
As always, her third daughter, Pei, asked too many questions. All during the month Pei wondered why Yu-sung could not go outside anymore, and what would happen if she did. It was always Pei, with all her curious ways, whom Yu-sung worried about most.
"But why would the gods not want to see a baby?" Pei asked.
"Because we are unclean," she answered.
"And you will be clean after a month?"
"Was I unclean as a baby?"
"But why is everything dirty?" Pei insisted.
"Because everything to do with the birth is unclean, even for the month afterwards. Now go!" she said, pointing toward the door so Pei would go outside. "And you must help Ba Ba during this time and not ask so many questions!" Yu-sung reminded Pei again and again, as Pei lingered at the table, her finger tracing small circles on its surface.
The month Yu-sung spent in the house felt very long. After the births of her other daughters, she was always occupied with their dispositions. Even the two who had since gone on to the other world had kept her busy. But this girl child they named Yu-ling spent so much of the time sleeping.
After the first week, Yu-sung scrubbed everything from top to bottom. Then she grew restless and disturbed that she could not be outside helping her husband, Pao, pick the mulberry leaves, then pack them in the baskets for him to take to the market. She knew how difficult it was for him, even if he said nothing. On a sheet of paper she made crosses to count the days. There were only two days remaining, and then she would be released from the confinement.
Other things never changed. Every morning Yu-sung rose while the rest of the house slept. The first thing she did was start the fire to make jook, the rice porridge that would carry them through the day until their evening meal. Then she boiled the water for their tea. With the soft murmur of the water boiling, and the steam filling the cold spaces, it was the time Yu-sung heard her thoughts most clearly.
Sometimes she was reminded of having once been very pretty. It struck her at the oddest times — when she was stirring the jook or stripping the leaves from the mulberry trees. It was always when she was working. Yu-sung was still startled by the thought of once being pretty. It seemed so long ago. Unlike her husband, she was fair-skinned, with delicate features that had hardened over the years from working, both inside and out. She had a small frame, which made childbearing very difficult. The last child had been no easier than the first, though Yu-sung prayed to the gods that it would be.
In the far corner of the room slept her daughters, Li and Pei, huddled together on a makeshift bed her husband had put together for them. It was a strange thing, the way they had always taken care of each other, even with all their differences. She and Pao were partly the cause, since they were as silent with the girls as with one another. Pao hardly took notice of his daughters, and she had given them little affection in the last few years. To show them anything more would just make things more difficult when the time came for them to leave. With Li, there were fewer problems. She was quiet and kept to herself. But with Pei, who touched and hugged, and who always sought answers to the questions she asked, it was less simple. Yu-sung had to quiet her spirit with scoldings, so that life would be easier for her later. It was hard enough to find a husband of worth, because a girl with such spirit was not wanted by most families. How often Yu-sung had wished one of them were a boy, something Pao could be proud of, something of value.
Yu-sung looked up when the curtain stirred. Pao stepped out from behind it. He had had a restless night, lying awake, while she pretended to be asleep. Neither of them said a word as her tall, weatherbeaten husband came toward her and sat down at the table. In all the years they had been married, they'd spoken only when it was necessary. Pao never had any need for more.
Pao Chung and Yu-sung had been promised to one another by their families. They were still children, brought together by a fortune-teller because of the date and year of their births. Yu-sung came to Pao and his family when she was barely sixteen. She left the warmth of her family near Nan-hai, not far from Pao's family in Kwangtung province, expecting to find the same kind of warmth and happiness. She did not know then that her new home might as well have been a million miles away. No longer was she to have those evening meals filled with laughter and voices. From the moment Yu-sung married into Pao's family, she was no longer a member of her own.
Pao was the tallest man she had ever seen, standing at least a head taller than her own father. He was much taller than most of the fishermen in their village. He had told Yu-sung it was because they were descendents of the Hakkas, the guest people, who migrated from the north. Pao's grandfather had migrated south, with the last migration of the Hakkas at the end of the Taiping rising. Pao had heard many stories growing up, and told some of them to Yu-sung in those early days of their marriage. His grandfather had been a born fighter; he lost two fingers on his left hand, chopped off by a disgruntled villager who did not like Hakkas. With blood pouring from the open wounds, his grandfather beat the man to a bloody mess. He then picked up his two fingers and walked calmly away. One of the private things Pao revealed to her was that his grandfather kept the two shriveled fingers in a pouch around his neck, forever proud of his Hakka strength. The Hakkas were different from those of the south. They were taller, with bigger bones and wider, flatter features. And they did not speak the same language as in the south. Her husband was very Hakka, though his mother was a Cantonese. Her daughters, Lin and Pei, were taller than most of the other children they knew. At eight years old, Pei was already as tall as Li, who was two years older.
His family had been so different from hers. They were without even the most natural comforts of life. Her family was no wealthier than Pao's family, but she had been accustomed to certain luxuries. Yu-sung still remembered how smooth the silk comforter felt against her skin when she was a child, and the wonderful vivid colors of red and green on the paintings that graced the walls of her parents' modest house. Unlike other girls, Yu-sung was also taught to read and write the simplest characters by her mother, as her mother's mother did. But nothing could have prepared her for the sight of Pao's own house. At first she thought it such a luxury to be living apart from his family. It was a rarity — and a blessing, since she could not understand his father's Hakka dialect. His mother had died shortly before she came, so Yu-sung did not have a mother-in-law to guide her.
At first Yu-sung thought the reason for Pao's unkempt appearance was that there was no female to wash and clean. But what she was to encounter was the most unbearable filth she could have ever imagined. Pao lived like an animal, the stench almost unbearable when she walked through the door. Night soil was left in clay pots by the bed, and spider webs grew thick with dirt in every possible crevice. Yu-sung could hardly keep down her vomit when she saw the rotting food, thick with growth, scattered on a table. On his bed was a dirty, coarse blanket, which was all he slept with. Pao showed all this to her without the least bit of shame, only the same measured-out words he was always to use. Pao had grown to manhood surviving on the barest necessities, while everything was given to the mulberry groves and fish ponds, and what they produced. It did not take Yu-sung long to realize that stripping the mulberry trees of their flat green leaves and packing them into straw baskets would be her life's work. These groves, along with the fish Pao cultivated in the ponds, would always be of greatest importance.
Little changed after their marriage, except that gradually, the filth and stench disappeared. Even then, Pao never said a word, nor did he seem to notice the difference. For the first few months life was unbearable. Yu-sung cleaned endlessly during the day and submitted to her husband's desires after dark. And how it had hurt. The pain of his entering her terrified her so much, she could not even cry out. But Yu-sung could never refuse her husband; it would have angered the gods and brought shame to her family. There was nothing more she could do but to tire herself out completely during the day and hope that Pao had done the same. She did this with such efficiency that even the bedbugs sucking on her legs, and the bugs' foul odor, ceased to bother her. Only when Yu-sung was with child, and during the month after, did Pao leave her alone. Now there would be no more children; her body had delivered its last child. Yu-sung was certain. She could feel the emptiness. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Women of the Silk by Gail Tsukiyama. Copyright © 1991 Gail Tsukiyama. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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