Welcome to the sixth installment of DOUBLE THUNDER. Thanks to a comment from an avid reader, from now on I will be including a simple “family tree”—the names of the characters together with thumbnail descriptions—to help you keep track of who’s-who in the novel. Here are the primary and secondary characters mentioned so far:
Bittersweet: protagonist of the novel BITTERSWEET (Tuttle Publishing) who has recently returned to her hometown of Guilin after a long sojourn in United States; widow of Li Zongren, former vice president of Nationalist China.
Tanmin: married to Jiaqiu, Bittersweet’s nephew; the “domestic engineer” who manages Bittersweet’s household and daily routine.
Youlin: Bittersweet’s son with whom she lived, together with his family, in suburban New York City for fifteen years.
Madeleine: Bittersweet’s Eurasian daughter-in-law; married to Youlin.
Andrew: Bittersweet’s grandson; son of Youlin and Madeleine.
Lisa: Bittersweet’s granddaughter and Andrew’s fraternal twin who at two years old disappeared from Shanghai’s Bund in 1949 and has gone missing ever since.
Hardu: multilingual biracial ricksha boy, petty thief, counterfeiter, and drug runner; author of the life-altering letter he delivers to Bittersweet concealed inside a silk quilt.
Man of a Thousand Faces: thief, robber, master of disguise, and Hardu’s prison cellmate in Shanghai.
Dr. Hwang: Bittersweet’s physician; adopted son of Bittersweet’s closest friend and confidante, Hwang Tai-tai.
Mei-Mei: aspiring actress and Hardu’s doomed love interest.
Madam Tan: Shanghai brothel keeper
Image: Vertical scroll of Chinese landscape. Courtesy of Leslie Li
In the following excerpt from DOUBLE THUNDER, Bittersweet returns to her room after Dr. Hwang’s visit and notices unmistakable changes in her siming blanket. She continues to read Hardu’s letter and learns that he desperately needed money to buy penicillin to save Mei-mei’s life. What better place to pick a prosperous pocket than the Bund, where a passenger ship is set to sail for Hong Kong just as Mao Zedong’s Red Army threatens to encircle Shanghai.
THE SIMING BLANKET (continued)—1974
After clearing away the tea service in the living room, Tanmin busied herself in the backyard fluffing the silk batting of the siming blankets she’d spread out to dry.
“Some are ready to be restuffed and restitched,” she told Bittersweet, whose offer of help she declined with a dismissive wave of her hand. “The thicker ones will need another two hours before they’re completely dry. You should finish your nap that Dr. Hwang’s visit cut short. Isn’t that a coincidence that he’s the son of your old friend!”
In her bedroom, Bittersweet knelt down before the rosewood chest at the foot of her bed and withdrew the quilt that Hardu had made for her. She cradled it in her arms as though it were a living thing. It was still warm from the sun. The wall opposite her bedroom terrace was the perfect spot to hang it. The walls were soft, and the quilt was thin enough that the several push-pins she found in her desk drawer did the job. Bittersweet carefully stepped down from her desk chair, which she had unwisely but without mishap used as a step ladder, and surveyed her new wall hanging.
Were her eyes again deceiving her? Or had the quilt’s blue background continued to fade even while it lay in her chest, out of the sun? It had gone from a royal- to a sky- to practically a baby-blue, while the plum tree had practically dissolved into the background, the leaves and branches bare outlines. By contrast, the two rain clouds were darker, more opaque, threatening to emit thunder and lightning and unleash a terrible storm.
I’m eighty-four years old, Bittersweet thought. An old woman. Old people’s minds sometimes play tricks. Then again, all her medical tests had suggested otherwise: her mind was as sharp as a tack, sharper than many people half her age. And there was a witness to the quilt’s first mutation—Tanmin. This second transformation Bittersweet thought best to keep to herself. She went to her dressing table and tentatively slid open the drawer. Had Hardu’s letter, like the quilt, also undergone a change? Perhaps it had disappeared entirely. No, there was the box of playing cards, and inside the box, the miniature book, just as she had left it. Unlike the quilt, the ideograms written on its pages hadn’t faded. She cocked her head at the sound of Tanmin climbing the stairs. She glanced at the door—yes, she’d locked it—and heard the woman’s footfall grow louder, then fainter as Tanmin passed her door on her way to her bedroom.
Another three raps. Louder this time.
“Madam Tan?” Mei-mei said in a small, wavering voice.
She tumbled off her bed and pulled her kimono tightly over her breasts. Her heart was racing. Goose feathers clung to her hair, her kimono, her face bathed in sweat. She caught sight of her image in her dresser mirror. White goose down. White kimono. White. The color worn at funerals.
“Gyokurin,” came the muffled reply. “Open the door. I have a surprise for you…”
The Mad Mongol, as Madam Tan affectionately and her girls fearfully called him, was capable of demolishing the door, let alone breaking the lock, with a single blow. It was hearsay, but Mei-mei had no intention of putting it to the test. She unlocked and opened the door, then backed away.
“…a nice furry surprise.”
He held a large tabby cat so tightly that the feline looked like it was being extruded from his left armpit. With his right hand he stroked its head and back, exerting more and more pressure until the once purring animal was miauling and writhing in pain. Only after it swatted ineffectually at its captor did Mei-mei see the burlap sack draped over the Mad Mongol’s forearm. Gyokurin shook the cat by the ruff of its neck. The animal, its claws sprung, tore at him, at the air. Three thin red lines appeared above Gyokurin’s wrist and began oozing droplets of blood.
“Look at that,” he hissed in exaggerated pain. “And all for trying to be nice to her. Just for that…” He snapped open the burlap bag with a flick of his bleeding wrist and dropped the cat inside. “…in you go.”
He spun the sack shut and gave his prisoner a few swift kicks. The tabby yowled in agony and tore around wildly inside. Mei-mei stared mesmerized at the thrashing sack.
“You’d better take off those nice silk stockings,” Gyokurin suggested. “You wouldn’t want them to get torn to shreds, would you?”
For a week I’d been trying to pick enough pockets to buy Mei-mei her dream medicine. The deep pockets had already fled Shanghai, so I had to make do with many more of the shallower ones. Even when I’d made off with a bundle, inflation had made the bills practically worthless. When I finally had enough to buy a few pellets, I went to Madam Tan’s. That was three days after Gyokurin’s visit to Mei-mei. I tried to get her to smoke her pipe. But she was too weak, and she was delirious. Her legs were ribbons of raw flesh oozing pus. At the ankle, the bone showed clear through. When I tried to clean her wounds, she gnashed her teeth and screamed, her face, her whole body, contorted in pain. I broke down.
“Why didn’t you send for me? Why didn’t you have one of the girls try to find me? Why did I stay away so long? If I’d been here earlier, this would never have happened. I would have gotten you the money…immediately, not three days too…” I checked myself.
“Why? Because I wanted it to be too late. It is too late, isn’t it, Hardu? My legs. They were the one thing I still had that I could be proud of.”
I promised her penicillin. I promised to bring the police, to press charges against Madam Tan and the Mad Mongol.
“Oh, Hardu! You’re so naive. Bring the police! For what? So they can put a cat in jail for assault and battery? Gyokurin will deny he ever came near me, and Madam Tan will back him up. They’ll say I provoked the cat. It will be my word against theirs. There’s not a single mark on my body from human hands.” She winced in pain, or irony. “You might say I don’t have a leg to stand on.”
“You’ll be fine. Everything will be fine.”
“It’s too late,” she said, tears welling up in her eyes. “It’s too late to save my legs. They’ll want to cut them off. Better cut out my heart! I can’t live without my legs. An old cripple? I’d rather die!”
“Don’t say such things.”
I placed a finger lightly to her parched lips. She grasped my hand in both of hers and kissed the tips of my fingers with such tenderness, yet so sensually, that I felt that the love that I had for her, never directly expressed, had finally been reciprocated, but at such a cost. I pushed myself stiffly to me feet.
“I’ll be back with penicillin.”
“You’re a fool,” she chided gently. “And never more than now. Don’t you know there’s a civil war going on? The hospitals don’t have nearly enough for the sick and wounded—and you’d find penicillin for me.”
“There’s the black market.”
“When you can find it on the black market. And even if you could, it will cost…” She smiled wanly. “…an arm and a leg.”
“I’ll get it. Even if I have to kill for it, I’ll get if for you. I swear I will.”
You’re probably shuddering at the thought that I would contemplate murder, Li Tai-tai. But rest assured, that is one activity missing from my criminal record. I did, however, commit another, perhaps similar, crime in that the result was the same. A life was taken. A life was lost. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
I was telling you about Mei-mei and the penicillin I swore I would obtain. I was successful. I was able to steal not Shanghai dollars but 23-carat gold, which I then bartered for several vials of precious penicillin. I ran all the way back to Madam Tan’s with my black market goods. I flung open the door of Mei-Mei’s unlit room to find her bed empty. The feather-strewn sheets formed a blood-soaked, twisted path to the open window, their glass panes reflecting the whirling red lights—like carnival lights—of an ambulance in the courtyard below. The sound of voices drifted up into the room.
“Wrap it up, guys. Just another suicide.”
“A horrible thing,” I heard Madam Tan say. “A terrible shame. How could I know how distraught the girl was? Am I a mind reader? I’m so upset. I have a good mind to close down my boarding house and take up a different career, one that’s less stressful.”
Someone had started to sing in a high-pitched, wavering voice, like that of a child:
My opium addict father sold me to a brothel when he had no cash for the pretty pink pill. / “Two years,” he promised me. “Just two. Then I’ll buy you back, I will…
I stumbled down the stairs, the plaintive voice following me, step for step:
Two years came and went. Then three, then four. / All my beauty—spent! All my youth—no more!
“You can keep most of what you make. / Just the rent is all I’ll take.” So the brothel keeper promised. But I always end up owing, / and my contract just keeps growing.
Six years came and went. Now seven. Now eight. / All my beauty—spent! All my hopes—too late!…
I had reached the side entrance of the maison tolérée, the one I usually took to come and go largely unnoticed, and slumped against the doorjamb. The song clung to me like a shadow:
If ever we refuse a single man—so what we’ve had ten that night?/—Gyokurin beats us bloody. You can imagine the terrible sight!
The police, they turn their eyes away. They’re promised one free night / to do with us just as they please. What does it matter, our sorry plight?
When our clients stop coming, or when we can take no more, / we’re simply thrown out of the house, and not by way of the door….
I ran down Fourth Street, the sorrowful song chasing me, gaining on me. I could feel her soft breathing on the back of my neck, her hot tears running under my collar:
Our hasty exit is from the topmost floor high above cruel Fourth Street. / Partings are nothing but sorrow. Who ever said partings are sweet!
“Suicide,” the madam insists. “Of course,” the policemen agree. / Then she checks who’s left on her list, and the gendarmes have their one night for free.
The song repeated itself, over and over again, until I finally arrived in Nantao, where I’d left her—the life I’d stolen so that Mei-mei’s could be saved—in the lane house of the man of a thousand faces, the man I’d met years ago when I’d been jailed for counterfeit currency. I’d kept in touch with him after we both rejoined civil society. And he gave me what he’d promised me after he was released from prison: single-lidded eyes instead of double-lidded ones. My appearance was only partially transformed. I was still recognizable. As for him, I never knew who would greet me whenever I knocked on his door, so often did he change his features. On this day he wore the face of my savior—one of the two people besides myself who know of my crime. Now you will know of it too.
But for me to continue my story, I must backtrack four hours before I returned to Madam Tan’s—to how I obtained the vials of penicillin.
A riot is a terrible thing. It starts out harmlessly enough: a few innocuous hecklers letting off steam, having their say. A few more jokers joining in, adding more gripes, building more steam instead of easing the mounting pressure. Someone decides he doesn’t like the wording of a certain comment, or being the butt of it. He responds with a remark or gesture of his own. Push comes to shove. The shove is returned. In a split second a fist is thrown and finds its mark. Brute force is set in motion. To this movement is added momentum. The initial impetus is forgotten, the former inertia irretrievable. A once peaceful assembly becomes a raging mob, and no one knows how to stop it or even what set it off. It’s like a thunderstorm which is over only after all the electrical energy has been discharged.
The day was perfect for picking pockets. I’d picked many pockets before to keep Mei-mei in opium, but this time it was for penicillin, which was in very short supply, even in the hospitals. Because of the civil war, it was reserved for the worst cases of infection or the highest circles of guanxi. It was available on the black market, of course—at black market prices. Big Bertie chimed the hour just then, underscoring my predicament. An hour had passed since I’d left Mei-mei, and I found myself standing on the quay at precisely three o’clock on a Friday, fondling the silk stocking, the cotton bandana in my pocket with one hand, the vial of ether in the pochette around my neck with the other. End of a banker’s day and the beginning of a banker’s weekend, which required money for a sumptuous night out on the town, lavish gifts for his current mistress, and placing bets at the racetrack. The unusual weather—clear blue sky, bright sunshine, gentle breeze—had thronged not only the Bund and Nanking Road but every street with Shanghainese and Shanghailander alike out for a casual stroll or eager to get to the next business meeting or romantic assignation. Many of the pedestrians who crossed my path were precisely the type of person I wanted to see: top-hatted guailous with bulging waistlines, briefcases, and especially wallets.
The Bund, which I now approached from Nanking Road, was even more crowded than usual, thanks not only to the benign weather but also to the passenger ship docked there, access to it blocked by a cordon of policemen. What luck, I thought. What better place and circumstance to pick a pocket. I didn’t even have to rely on the tricks of my trade but, for safety’s sake and from professional habit, I pulled the silk stocking over my head and set my worker’s cap low on my brow—the better to conceal my eyes whose color, unusual in a Chinaman, was a damning clue to my identity. Even with the epicanthic fold that Thousand Faces gave me after he was released from jail to make me look more Chinese, nothing could disguise the blueness of my eyes. I sauntered nonchalantly towards the jostling crowd and insinuated myself into it.
“First class passengers only! This way, please!” a man cried into a megaphone in English, then French and, finally, Mandarin. “All other ticketed passengers except those traveling in steerage, please step to the right, where my colleague will be happy to assist you. Passengers in steerage, proceed to the far end of the ship. Passengers only, please, in the cordoned-off area of the dock. Those remaining ashore, move back. Move back, please, or we’ll have to clear the dock.”