Welcome back to the serialized blog of my novel DOUBLE THUNDER, sequel to BITTERSWEET (Tuttle Publishing). If you read the first installment, you were (re)introduced to Bittersweet who, in airing a siming blanket, discovers an epistolary book concealed inside it. The second installment, below, introduces you to the contents of that letter and to the man who wrote it—a blue-eyed Shanghainese who personifies both “a Chinaman’s luck” and “a Chinaman’s chance” and who will play a singular part in Bittersweet’s life. (Woodcut of the Bund, Shanghai, by Emma Bormann)
In the following excerpt, Bittersweet recalls her first—and only—meeting with him.
THE SIMING BLANKET (continued)—1974
“Tell me. Do you air your siming blankets?” he had asked.
It had been a particularly damp, foggy day soon after she’d flown home to Guilin from Beijing. There, she’d been met by Deng Yingchao, Zhou Enlai’s wife—just as her husband Delin had been met by Premier Zhou himself when he, Delin, had returned to China in 1965, eight years earlier. In Beijing she had attended a banquet in her honor at the Great Hall of the People in Tiananmen Square. She’d been given a private tour of the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace, and the Great Wall. She’d been taken to the bleak, windswept hill of Babaoshan, site of the Cemetery of Revolutionary Martyrs north of Beijing, where she had carried ugly plastic flowers (real flowers were considered capitalistic; artificial ones could be reused) and bowed her head before Delin’s funerary box.
“Every spring,” Bittersweet had answered the stranger on her doorstep. “I air them every spring, like everyone else in Guilin.”
The fog had been as thick as hot and sour soup, and because he was dressed completely in khaki gray, even to his billed cap, her interlocutor seemed to disappear into it, or rather rise out of it, like a ghost.
“Like many Guilinese,” she had continued when he inquired about her method, “I open the quilt, pull out the batting, and spread it out in the sun to dry.”
Bittersweet opened her dressing table drawer and took out the pack of playing cards she kept there, a memento from her flight home from Beijing. She slid the cards out of the box and inserted the silk pages in their place. A good fit. She withdrew the voile-like pages, set them on her dressing table, and gazed at her image in the mirror in front of her. Though her eyes focused on the image of her face, her mind again wandered back to that day the previous autumn when the blue-eyed Shanghainese had knocked on her front gate.
As she did every day, Bittersweet had closed it after Tanmin crossed the threshold on her way to do the day’s marketing. She was about to lock the great red wooden door when she heard three raps on it. Assuming it was her nephew’s wife who’d forgotten something, Bittersweet had opened it to find a stranger, barely visible, standing there.
“Honorable Madam Li,” he said, “I apologize for arriving on your doorstep unannounced, but I will take only a moment of your time if you will kindly grant it to me.”
His tone of voice and manner of speaking—cultivated and world-weary—and his bearing—more his presence than his bearing, for he was of average height, and his posture was stooped, that of a man advanced in years—had caused her to open the door even wider, disregarding Tanmin’s explicit instructions never to open the door at all when she was home alone, as she was now. Tanmin’s husband Jiaqiu was at work, as was their son, Lizi. So was Nannan, Lizi’s wife, and their five year-old son, Liqi, was at school. These five people comprising four generations were Bittersweet’s family now. Her American family—her son, Youlin, his wife, Madeleine, and their son, Andrew—lived in suburban New York City. Bittersweet had lived with them for fifteen years before returning to China, Delin’s last wish for himself and for her.
“Do I know you?” she asked. “Please let me see your face.”
“I’ve come from Shanghai,” he said, “to give you this.”
From under his arm he withdrew a package wrapped in heavy brown paper and tied with twine. Before he extended it to her, he removed his worker’s cap, whose bill had cast his face in even deeper shadow than that caused by the fog, and raised his head slightly so that she might see his face. Even in the miasmic gray of the day, Bittersweet saw that his eyes were blue, a celestial blue similar to her grandson Andrew’s eyes, but even more transparent. Bittersweet took the package he held out to her and pressed it to her chest with both hands.
“Shanghai. You’ve come such a long way. And the weather is so inclement. Please come inside and drink some tea.”
Ignoring Tanmin’s warning, she opened the door wider.
“I am unworthy,” he said, lowering his head. He turned to go.
“Wait,” Bittersweet called out, understanding at last. “I’m old now, and there are few household chores that I can do myself. But if this is a siming blanket, I want you to know that I will personally air this quilt when spring comes to Guilin.”
The man nodded, thanked her, and started to walk away.
“But please tell me who you are, and why you’re giving me this gift,” Bittersweet implored.
The man had taken no more than three steps when he disappeared into the fog, just as he had emerged out of it only minutes before.
Bittersweet refocused her eyes on her reflection in the dressing table mirror, terminating her reverie. With her nail scissors, she snipped the single thread that bound the first eight pages together and picked up the large magnifying glass on her writing desk. She pulled her desk chair into the trapezoid of sunlight that had settled on the floor, sat down, and began to read.
Most Honored and Venerable Li Tai-tai,
If you are reading these words, then I am the grateful beneficiary of a second “meeting” with you which, if my supposition is correct, comes approximately six months after our first meeting in the autumn of 1973. At that time I had come to Guilin from Shanghai to give you a simple and unworthy gift—a siming blanket. I hope it has been of practical use to you, though its real purpose was to serve, literally, as an envelope in which you would find this letter you are now reading, the preface to a story I believe will interest you, perhaps even find of primary importance.
Bittersweet slipped the first page behind the other seven and took a deep breath. She realized that she had been holding it from its first word to last.
Forgive me. I should re-introduce myself and in so doing refresh your memory. My name, which you had asked on the occasion of our first meeting but which I failed to tell you, is Hardu. I was not always called Hardu. At birth and for several years afterwards, I was nameless, indicated by a cock of a head, summoned by a whistle, a bellow or an epithet, and called a number of appellations which are either irrelevant or unfit for your ears. In other words, I was an orphan. I was born in Shanghai around 1915, by all accounts the issue of a French sailor and a Chinese prostitute. At the age of eight, I was adopted, along with nine other parentless children, by Silas Hardoon (from whose surname I fashioned my given name), an Iraqi Jew and one of the wealthiest men in Shanghai. His Eurasian wife, Luo Jialing, was herself an orphan, daughter of a French gendarme and a Chinese from Fujian. A devout Buddhist, she opened their palatial home to former eunuchs from the Imperial Palace displaced by Sun Yat-sen’s 1911 revolution as well as to a Buddhist scholar, who spent his time editing thousands of sutras. We orphans were brought up imbued with Confucian and Buddhist ethics, eating a Buddhist vegetarian diet, and speaking English, French, Hebrew, and Mandarin.
The patch of sunlight on her bedroom floor had shifted. Bittersweet rose and moved her chair to the spot where it had settled before she began to read the third page of Hardu’s letter.