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Authors: Janie Chang

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BOOK: Three Souls
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“Father, I don’t consider teaching a pastime.”

“Leiyin, you will be a wife and mother. You won’t need to earn a living.”

His tone was mild, but he had used my name. There would be no further discussion.

I just had to convince Father that university wasn’t a frivolous whim. Then I looked at the table, the stacks of paper, and the old abacus with ivory beads that had once belonged to my grandfather. I looked at Father. He had so much on his mind. But there had to be a way.

“Now go see your stepmother,” he said. “She wants a word before the party.”

I was dismissed.

***

Stepmother sat at one of the three round tables in the small dining room. Lu, the head house servant, stood beside her, as upright as a general on horseback, the pleats of his trousers as sharp as bayonet blades. He gave me the slightest of bows and continued addressing the house servants lined up along the wall. They stood at attention, shoulders stiff and straight, hands crossed behind their backs.

“Finally, if a guest asks for something and you don’t know where it is or what it is, just bow and say ‘Right away.’ Then come and get me immediately. I’ll be at the side entrance of the dining hall. Now go wash up and put on your best uniforms. Girls, remember to pin up your pigtails.”

They filed out under Head Servant Lu’s critical gaze. I counted sixteen. Stepmother had borrowed staff from other houses for the party. Lu made his bow to Stepmother and another, deeper one to me and then joined the end of the departing troop.

Stepmother was thirty-three, only six years older than Changyin. From a distance, however, her old-fashioned gowns and matronly hairstyle gave the impression that she was a generation older. Her looks were comfortably plain, her smooth flat features serene as a Buddha’s and just as impenetrable. Her eyes were remarkable, large and deep-set. Hers was a demeanour that soothed tempers and quieted arguments.

If we hadn’t been so fond of Stepmother, we would have called her by the lesser family title of Yi Niang, for she was only Father’s concubine and not eligible to be addressed as Stepmother. If she had given birth to a boy instead of little Fei-Fei, Father might have married her and she would be his first wife now. I knew that Stepmother, who was from a family of cloth merchants, had never expected to be made a wife, even after our mother died. If Father married again, it would be to a woman of our own class, but I hoped he wouldn’t. I’d hate it if a new wife proved unkind to Stepmother and little Fei-Fei.

“You wished to see me, Stepmother?”

“Yes, Third Stepdaughter. Once your second sister is married, you’ll be the only daughter of the house. You’ll have to take on hostess duties, so you could begin tonight if you’re willing.”

“Of course, Stepmother. Tell me what I have to do.” I sighed. I’d have to stay for the entire party. When would I find time to finish
Anna Karenina?

“Leiyin. Your father expects it of you.” Her amused smile said she knew I wasn’t enthusiastic. “Just take this list and study it before you come downstairs to the party.”

I glanced at the list, then over at the door. The scent of Shalimar
announced Gaoyin’s entrance.

“Stepmother? Ah, Third Sister, you’re here too.” For a moment, Gaoyin looked strangely shy. “It’s not important. I just wanted a few minutes with Stepmother.”

I stayed in my chair. Gaoyin indicated the door with the slightest tilt of her head.

I rose reluctantly. “Well, I’d better go upstairs and bathe before Nanny gets upset with me again.”

***

The party didn’t need my attention. I doubted the servants needed any supervision, given how thoroughly they had been drilled by Stepmother and Head Servant Lu. I scanned the drawing room anyway, just to be sure.

Three crystal chandeliers, their prisms and beads polished to dazzling clarity, formed the centrepiece of the drawing room. Porcelain vases filled with flowers from the garden decorated every alcove. Framed by potted palms, a string quartet churned out popular tunes. They sounded rather dispirited, so I smiled to show I was paying attention, and the tempo picked up.

A maid moved through the crowd, emptying ashtrays almost as soon as they were dirtied. So silent and unobtrusive that they were nearly invisible, servants in cloth-soled shoes padded over the shining parquet floors carrying trays of shrimp toasts, tiny blintzes topped with caviar, and devilled quail eggs. The dinner itself would be Chinese, of course. It was fashionable to serve Western-style appetizers, but we couldn’t inflict an entire meal of foreign food on our guests.

Gaoyin wore a cocktail dress of dark grey silk that would have looked matronly on anyone else. I knew she wanted to be sure Sueyin wouldn’t be upstaged, but really, there was no need to worry. Sueyin looked like a heavenly handmaiden from the court of the Jade Emperor. Her fiancé hardly took his eyes away from her. Liu Tienzhen wasn’t as tall as my brothers, but he was very handsome. He had smooth skin and the sleek features of a matinee idol. He inclined his head toward her with a gentle but slightly possessive air. The soft, dreamy look in his eyes when he gazed at her pleased me. Of course he adored her already, how could anyone not? They made an impossibly beautiful couple.

Tienzhen didn’t quite take her hand, but he did touch her elbow as Sueyin led him outside to walk in the garden. The sky had turned cobalt blue, now dark enough for the moon to be seen, a shy crescent of silver. The evening air was heavy, it would rain before morning; but the peonies and early summer roses were in bloom, and the garden would be steeped in fragrance.

If the loud drone of conversation indoors was any indication, the guests were mingling very well. Father and Changyin had included several poets and writers on the guest list, regular attendees of Father’s renowned weekly salons. Father always said one could rely on passionate literary types to liven up conversation. The party was going so well I wondered if I could slip away to finish
Anna Karenina.
I had to return it soon to Nanmei, for there was a long queue of girls waiting their turn to read this scandalous book.

Circling the room, I caught fragments of conversation. On the banquette, my father and Judge Liu were deep in a discussion about the legal system of the Song Dynasty.

“I put it to you, honoured Judge, that despite the turbulence of the era, the Song legal code was essentially the same as the legal code of the Tang Dynasty.”

“Both were based on the Northern Zhou codes, I agree, but you must admit the Tang adhered more strictly to the Confucian rules of social order.”

Next I passed by Changyin and Gaoyin’s husband, Zhao Shen, who were with a group of men engrossed in a loud debate about the conflict between the Communists and the Nationalist government.

“The Communists are recruiting college students as activists. Pay their tuition, let them finish school, then send them out to the countryside as teachers to spread Marxism.”

“After the Nationalists carried out that purge last April, rounding up members of the Communist party and executing them like that, you can bet the Communists will never trust them again.”

“The Reds are calling it the Shanghai Massacre, you know. I’d be nervous if I was a member of the left-wing faction of the Nationalist party. They’re next in Chiang’s line of fire, for sure.”

“That coalition of three factions was never going to hold together. Now they’re each claiming a different capital city. Peking, Nanking, Wuhan—how do you think that makes us look to the rest of the world?”

It made my head hurt keeping track of our politics, but I did try. After all, I was born the year the Nationalists overthrew the Qing Dynasty and we became a republic. For a decade, Nationalists and Communists had been united, and some of the Communists had even joined the Nationalist party to form a left-wing faction. Then Sun Yat-sen died, the alliance fell apart, and I still wasn’t sure why each side accused the other of betraying Sun’s Three Principles of the People.

The one thing I did understand was that I had to do my part to bring our young nation into the twentieth century. Our class had studied an essay written by Madame Sun Yat-sen about women taking an equal role in building China. Ever since then, Nanmei and I had been determined to become teachers. I just had to make Father understand.

If I had a hard time keeping up with politics, Tongyin didn’t even try. Outside, a handful of young men lounged on the terrace, slouched in the wicker chairs, their fashionable shoes propped up on the coffee table. One of them flicked a cigarette butt into the peony shrubs. Half-finished drinks cluttered the marble paving. In the mild evening air their laughter rang noisy and raucous. Tongyin was the loudest of the lot, and even though his back was to me and I couldn’t hear his words, I knew he was telling a smutty story.

The scent of Shalimar
told me that Gaoyin had come to my side. She swept her gaze across the terrace. The young men facing us noticed her scrutiny, and there were a few wolf whistles, quickly hushed. One of them bowed in exaggerated courtesy.

“Let’s go inside.” She pulled me around. “Come meet my friends.”

It was evident from the bursts of laughter and shocked gasps we heard as we approached that the women gathered in the corner were catching up on gossip.

“My goodness, is that Yen Hanchin?” A woman I knew only slightly, dressed head to toe in pink, asked the question, avid interest evident in both her tone and the gleam of her eyes as she gazed across the room. “That
is
him, isn’t it, Gaoyin? Over there, beside your brother? I’d heard he was back from Russia.”

Yen Hanchin. His name was on my copy of
Anna Karenina,
he was the translator
.
I stared in the same direction. Across the room a stout, slightly balding man leaned in confidingly toward my brother, cigarette ash dropping on the Persian carpet as he spoke. So that was the translator of the forbidden novel. How disappointing. I had imagined someone more haggard, a starving writer and political activist. The Chinese version of Levin’s brother Nikolai. I’d heard Yen Hanchin harboured leftist sympathies, another reason why his book was banned from our library.

“Yes, Changyin knows Yen Hanchin slightly,” Gaoyin said. “They met at a poetry reading. Yen’s a very fine poet, apparently. But he’s only become famous since he translated
Anna Karenina.

“I suppose that’s better than being infamous for other things,” said the woman in pink.

It had been a mistake to stare for so long. Gaoyin noticed my curiosity. “Would you like to discuss
Anna Karenina
with Yen Hanchin, Third Sister?”

“No, Eldest Sister. Anyway I haven’t finished reading the book.”

I didn’t want to get trapped talking to some middle-aged scholar, infamous or not. He might drone on about pre-revolutionary Russia and its depiction in the modern novel. Our headmistress had tortured us once with a lecture by just such an academic and Nanmei had had to pinch me every five minutes to keep my head from nodding onto my chest.

“Come.” Gaoyin took my arm. Her eyes glittered and her cheeks were flushed. When she drank wine, no amount of face powder could hide the effects.

“Oh, Eldest Sister, I’m supposed to be supervising the servants.”

But she pulled me across the room, her high heels giving her more purchase on the Persian carpet than I had with my slippery flat soles.

“Yen Hanchin, here is someone you should meet.”

One of the men turned around at her greeting. It was all I could do not to gasp.

Not the stout balding man. Not a Nikolai.

A Vronsky.

Tall, with hair just a bit too long. He was in his late twenties, perhaps as old as thirty. His shabby linen jacket made all the other men, in their tailored suits and silk ties, look merely ornamental. He was lean and lightly tanned. Beneath intense brown eyes his cheekbones were sharp, angled escarpments. He was both beautiful and intoxicatingly masculine. He was a poet. For several moments I couldn’t take my eyes away from him. Was this the feeling that swept over Anna each time she beheld Vronsky?

He smiled down at me, the smile of a man accustomed to the admiration of women.

***

As soon as the flow of memories reveals Hanchin’s face to me, my souls rustle in agitation, and somehow we know he’s the reason I remain trapped between worlds. We don’t know why, not yet, only that he’s important to my escape from this inadequate spirit world.

Say nothing,
I command my souls.
I don’t want your commentary right now. Just carry on with the memories.

To my surprise, they stop rustling and although I can almost hear them protest, they settle down quietly in the roof beams of the temple and the evening continues.

***

“Mr. Yen, this is my youngest sister, Song Leiyin. She’s a great admirer of your latest work although she isn’t supposed to be reading it.”

“So now I’ve met the youngest of the Three Beauties.” He gave me the slightest of bows.

Gaoyin beckoned us to follow her to some chairs by the French doors. She reached over to the low table and opened an enamelled cigarette case.

“This little beauty has been neglecting her hostess duties and needs to compensate by entertaining you with clever conversation. She’s by far the cleverest of us all.”

“Not when it comes to conversation.” Under the high collar of my silk
qipao,
my neck was hot, and I badly wanted an iced drink. I also wanted very badly to keep this man’s attention.

“The secret to good conversation, Third Sister, is to ask lots of questions.” My sister leaned over, immaculately posed, so that Yen Hanchin could light her cigarette. “Thank you, Mr. Yen. Then the other person answers your questions, does all the talking, and thinks you’re fascinating. Now, I must return to my friends.”

We watched Gaoyin walk away, slim hips swaying. She was so elegant. Why had I instructed Nanny Qiu to dress my hair in a single long braid down my back? I looked like a child, a high school student.

Yen Hanchin didn’t seem at all uncomfortable in the silence. He gave me a slow, slightly amused smile that made me press my hands against my stomach. My mind groped for something to start a conversation. “I hear you’ve just returned from Russia. What’s Moscow like?”

BOOK: Three Souls
11.2Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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