The Second presses the petals of the dog eye flower to Bei Bei’s lips. The Second loves this: picture baby, sleeping, not sick, just sleeping. She can grow old in this moment, with Bei Bei sleeping (not sick: sleeping).
As soon as she thinks it, Bei Bei whimpers and opens her eyes. Bei Bei sees a friendly shade-shape covering her from the light. The shade extends, firm and soft, to shift her up, all the while humming like a bird.
“Jie!” she cries, suddenly remembering. The Second had shown her birds: sparrows, blackbirds, brown tits, silly flocks of ma que birds that scatter at a falling leaf.
September. Bei Bei toddled to the door, bottom dropping like a clumsy anchor. The Second had laughed at her, and then picked her up to point out the lines of grey geese going south.
“The geese can write,” the Second said as the flock spread in a great line, straight as the horizon. “See! They’re writing the word for ‘one’. Watch! Watch! There they go, curving and that’s the word for ‘people.’ ‘One’ again. ‘People.’ ” Bei Bei clutched at the air, then turned to the Second and chuckled wetly into her ear.
But they never stood in the courtyard for very long, because, as the Second said, you never knew whether Mother would see you. Mother disliked the sight of Bei Bei almost as much as she disliked the sight of the Second. Mother grew up in a cloistered mansion, where old nurses and pining sisters made her distrust women. Besides, the Second had bad luck.
The Second should have been born a boy, but she wasn’t. “Don’t let her live,” Mother told the midwife, looking at anything except the baby, “we don’t need a second girl.” But midwife was sly. She held the infant, saying, “I think I see something of a boy, mistress.” Mother groped to look, and saw the lie, but by then she had seen her.
The Second appeared in stray corners, stepped in the room as bad news was delivered, tripped shadows before her feet. She was ugly too, dark skinned with dark eyes that never looked away. One night, Mother lost a particularly large hand gambling, and drunkenly recalled the word “book” was a homonym for the word “losing.” The sounds of words were important; bad sounds invited devils and black luck. Mother threw the Second out of bed, scattered her bad luck books, and beat her unconscious.
Bei Bei had come into the Second’s care as a matter of necessity. There was no money left to wet-nurse her, and at eight, the Second could pull her own. And the Second loved Bei Bei with the tight, desperate love of the lonely.
“Jie!” Bei Bei cried again. “Birds!” The Second lifted the girl as easily as if she were only husk and bones and carried her to the doorway.
~ ~ ~
When we were little, my Nai tells me, in a dream of mine, we used to walk along the lake, two hours by cart outside Shanghai. You can see us, there, the Eldest and me.
She holds an old photograph of her and her oldest sister. It’s a tiny 2 by 3 window into one particular second in 1918, when my Nai was nine in a pale qi pao, buttoned up and neat.
You were pretty.
Eh? Not pretty. Ugly waif, only a Second. But look at my sister.
The Eldest is beautiful. In the picture, her lips break your heart, half parted and knowing. She is a study in black and white; old enough to be lovely, young enough to look brave. Hazily, I remember that she hanged herself later, for some reason or another.
My grandma goes on: father directed the Post Office for our entire district. They used to keep mail in the back room, wrapped in canvas bags and piled over our heads. One day, we decided we’d climb them, the Eldest and me and our three brothers, pulling ourselves up the tower of mail and jumping down.
We crumpled bills and death notices, love letters, letters asking for money or mischief, scribbled notes; we crunched them underfoot and under knees and went tumbling down with them when the sacks broke loose and everything scattered like the birds my little sister (we called her Bei Bei) used to love watching before she died. Oh father beat us bad when he came back. But I wanted to do it again.
But the two girls with their arms around each other seem incapable of mischief, or joy. They stare through the lens and the falling air. My Nai’s words float like dust in the late light. Did I ever tell you, she asks, tucking her bobbed hair behind her ear, I was a champion long jumper? Back in missionary school, where the nuns called me Susanna, instead of Su.
Never, I say, even though she tells me the same stories over and over. I say never because this is a dream, and time is not of the essence in dreams. My Nai has begun to exaggerate things: she is old, my mother says, and old people act like children. They brag, or make difficult demands, or hide their false teeth when they need cleaning. They repeat the past. Maybe, I tell my mother, maybe she sees them as historical scenes played by different actors. Or alternatively, different scenes performed by the same troupe. Maybe, my mother says, or maybe nothing changes but the audience.
Point of fact though: my Nai might or might not have been a champion long jumper. She says she cleared the sand pit on her first try:
Pah! jumped right over.
~ ~ ~
Shanghai Missionary School
(manger to be played by someone who does not escape death – NB: girl from second form, gorgeous as California – call her Susanna, not Su, which is curt, alien)
Susanna, said the nun, take care with the baby Jesus.
The wise men came over the hill.
Susanna, lift the baby Jesus up.
They knelt in front of the manger, loving the baby Jesus, who was born a boy, like he should have been.
The Second opened her mouth wide, blissful and pleading.
This is from a different play. Same actors.
Boy meets girl. They fall in love.
Girl’s family protests.
Boy and girl run away to join a revolution.
Boy and girl make love; are happy.
Boy is beheaded by the enemy.
The enemy wears a jaunty rabbit fur cap.
Girl hangs herself.
Girl’s sister gets a rifle, knowing she never escapes death.
Girl’s sister finds rabbit cap.
Girl’s sister points her rifle at his chest.
She remembers the baby. Not Bei Bei (who still stings her, sometimes) but her own child, borne out of a secret marriage. Her husband wrote to her before they ever met: Dear Comrade Su, I am twenty-eight and an earnest member of the Revolution. She laughed because it sounded like a bad resume. But he never said anything about being stubborn.
It was the baby that caused the trouble. She tried to prevent it, took precautions, but there it was, the faint swell on her stomach as their troop moved north.
“We’re keeping the baby.” His glasses slipping down his nose.
“We’re in a war.”
“Our baby,” he corrected himself. “We’ll find a safe place away from all this.”
“And let the Japs burn village after village?”
“Yes,” he set his jaw and pushed his glasses up.
“Coward,” she lied.
“Don’t you hurt it.”
“Why don’t you lock me up and bind my feet too then?”
He looked away, “You are unfair.”
The fight dragged on, interminable. She pummeled her belly with her fists but there was no miscarriage. Her mother bore so well. She dreamed the child was a suckling pig, tiny teeth clamping onto her breasts. She cut its fat neck.
It won’t do, she said to herself, to the lump, the truth is we all end up like our mothers. I’ll kill you now, so I don’t hurt you later.
The abortion was easy enough, though when it was over, she felt heavier instead of lighter. Her husband let her leave. He pretended to be reluctant, but he wouldn’t stop her after that. So she went to find the Eldest. Fatality, she thought now. Bad luck.
And the heaviness came back: go away, ghost baby, she told it. But it stayed, even after she had taken the rifle and slunk over the hills to kill the man in the rabbit fur cap.