Welcome to the seventh installment of DOUBLE THUNDER and the conclusion of Chapter 1, The Siming Blanket. As promised, it is preceded by the names of the characters introduced so far (with thumbnail descriptions) to help you keep track of who’s-who:
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: Dragon motif, Chinese imperial robe.
In the following excerpt, Bittersweet continues to read Hardu’s letter. In it, he describes the crowd gathered on Shanghai’s Bund where first-class passengers are boarding a ship bound for Hong Kong. The year is 1949. With the intention of picking a deep pocket, Hardu has his eyes focused on a likely candidate when a murderous riot breaks out. In the mélée that ensues, he makes off with not only a gold locket and chain but also its wearer, the consequences of which will haunt him for the next 25 years.
THE SIMING BLANKET (continued)—1974
I should have suspected then that something terrible was about to happen. There were too many people, and of all stripes. But I chose to ignore my instincts, and so I walked brazenly into the crowd of well-wishers, straight to a beefy English general. When I squinted down into my hand, I sniggered to see the denominations of the bills I’d just extracted from his trouser pocket. I should have known better than to choose a military man, no matter what his rank.
“First-class passengers, this way. Step lively!” the megaphone voice reverberated.
That’s the kind of pocket I want, I thought. The kind inside a custom-made cashmere topcoat such as I saw worn by a handsome young Chinese wearing glasses with light tortoise shell frames atop his high-bridged nose. A veritable princeling, my mind ran on, repository of a 22-carat money clip, its wide serrated jaws clutching a fat wad of pounds sterling, American dollars, or French franc notes. What stood between me and my regal prey was a barricade of grim-faced, truncheon-bearing policemen, their interlocking arms separating the passengers from well-wishers and curious onlookers, forming an impenetrable human wall—that is, until a small group of working-class Shanghainese started heckling the first-class passengers.
“Why should foreign devils and their Chinese lackeys escape the Communists?” someone demanded to know. “Why should we be left behind to be shot as traitors?”
“First, they enslave us,” someone else yelled, “then they rob our country blind, then they take the spoils with them to Hong Kong, or England, or America!”
“They’re not going to get away with it! They’re not leaving us behind holding the bag—a bag filled with nothing!”
It took me a split second to recognize and accept these events as enacted by more and more of the people around me. It was as if I had divined them, even willed the events into being, as if I had somehow transformed the rash remark of an irate laborer into bloody mayhem. It was as if every person milling around the passenger ship had been wound up with a key, like a mechanical doll, and set down there, only to be sprung loose into predetermined action at precisely that moment for a specific but unknowable end by a master but random hand. It was more feeling than thought, more intuition than feeling, the barest awareness that I had lived all my life up till now for just this moment, that all of my life up to this point in time was merely preparation for this one single moment, which contained the seed of the rest of my life.
I shut my eyes, having felt an unrelenting, increasing pressure against my ribcage, which I feared would crack and splinter if the pressure didn’t abate. When I opened my eyes again, I was looking into the face of fear, perhaps the reflection of my own. It belonged to one of the policemen forming the cordon. I looked down the line of blue uniforms, the grim fearful faces in which some of the mouths were twisted by the words they screamed to repel the crowd, which surged forward in a wave only to be repulsed, taking me with it. On the crowd’s next advance, the chain of police gave way right in front of me. A truncheon rose in the air above me. The next thing I knew, I grabbed my smarting shoulder. The truncheon rose a second time. This time I grabbed it out of my assailant’s hands. It was I who now wielded it, who bore down with it, beating back anyone in my path as I advanced, my flailing arms shoving aside both police and passenger.
In the din, in the frenzy, I vaguely remember a woman, a child balanced against one hip, battling against the mob that threatened to board the ship, her frantic eyes darting around, searching for and finding the handsome young man in the cashmere topcoat.
Bittersweet’s mouth went dry.
She didn’t see me advance on her, on the child she held fast, on the golden ray of hope that was the answer to my prayers. A large gold locket was suspended from a thick gold chain around the toddler’s neck, a chain which meant money, black market penicillin, Mei-mei’s salvation. My free hand shot out, grabbed, pulled. The child’s slender neck snapped back in reaction. I tugged on the chain again, harder. The links were too strong and thick to break. Still I pulled out of frustration and obstinacy. Her head snapped back a second time, a third. The chain held fast.
Bittersweet gripped the page, which was trembling.
“No! No!” the woman screamed. She pulled the little girl in one direction while I yanked in the other, the chain around the little girl’s neck now taut enough to strangle her, now slack enough to slide over her head. It was life or death. It was this anonymous guailou child or my Mei-mei. I raised the truncheon over my head and brought it down hard. I brought it down again. The woman’s active resistance to my struggle for the chain lessened, replaced by the passive weight of the small body dangling from it. I brought the truncheon down again. The woman sank down and disappeared beneath the mob.
Madeleine, Bittersweet mouthed silently.
But before the little girl could be swallowed up with her, I hauled her up by the glittering noose. Some of the links were already tarnished with her blood. I hadn’t wanted her. I hadn’t wanted to harm her. I’d only wanted the locket and the chain. But she had come along with it. An appendage. Now that I had what I needed—and more than what I wanted—I turned and began battling against the tide of rioters surging towards the ship. I heard a woman cry, heartbreakingly, over and over again, “Lisa!” The terrible sound of it was finally drowned out by several bursts of gunfire. At the first shots, the human tide turned, sweeping me away from the ship, bearing me along. There were more staccato bursts of gunfire that competed with the shrill cries and terrified screams all around me. When the rioters had scattered in all directions, I took off, the girl in my arms, towards Nanking Road, and disappeared into the maze of deserted alleyways of Nantao, a labyrinth I knew as well as the lines in my face.
I ducked into a foul-smelling cul-de-sac, deserted except for rats, which froze and then scattered at my approach. I laid the senseless child on the cobblestones, stuffed the locket and chain into the pochette I wore around my neck, and tied my handkerchief around the girl’s bleeding neck—less a tender gesture than an aesthetic one. The chain, and the whiplash it had produced, had unintentionally substituted for the ether. Her head drooped on her slender neck like a full-blown flower upon a wilted stalk. A thought occurred to me that sent a chill up my spine and a surge of heat into my face. Bloody neck? Or broken neck? Not till then did I think, almost simultaneously, that I’d stolen a child. All I’d wanted was the locket and chain. I was a pickpocket, not a kidnapper of a child—a Eurasian child at that, from what I could determine when I took a closer look at her.
I untied the handkerchief around her neck to evaluate the damage done. I winced at the sight of the ring of macerated flesh encircling it. But what I saw in my mind’s eye was even more horrible: Mei-mei’s mutilated legs lying on bedsheets far bloodier than the handkerchief in my hand. The child stirred under my fingers, relieving me of the fear that she was dead but also burdening me with the problem of what to do with her. My common sense, my instinct for self-preservation, the tick of the relentless clock, told me to leave her in the dark alley and let the rats deal with her. Paradoxically, these same self-serving impulses and urges also summoned up what little reserve of compassion I had left: why not finish off the job I’d unwittingly started by using the vial of ether in my pochette? A swift, simple, and painless death administered while the girl was still unconscious, like those ignorant sleepers inside the iron house of Lu Xun’s tale. A child that age—what, two or three years old? It wouldn’t take that much. A few drops. Far less than what remained in the vial.
It was a terrible solution to my problem. But what alternative did I have? If I left her in the alleyway, if the rats didn’t do away with her first, chances were that someone would find her—someone with less to live for and even fewer scruples than me. Someone who in a drunken or drug-addled stupor wouldn’t let her two or three years stop him from having his way with her, or who would sell her for the price of his next pipe or pint. I rummaged in my pochette for the vial of ether, convinced that I was doing the child a favor.
Mistakenly, I pulled out the locket. It had slid off its chain. All I had to do was put it back into my pochette, withdraw the vial that had previously evaded my grasp, break the seal, unstopper the tiny bottle, and finish the job. But my curiosity was piqued by the shape of it: a book on the cover of which were three initials—LXW—incised in flowing Palmer script. The three letters meant nothing to me. But ever since hearing Lu Xun’s lecture and frequenting Uchiyama’s bookshop, I knew that books were repositories of precious knowledge and treasures of human experience, if only one looked inside. And so I did. What I found on the few “pages” undid me. They were my cause notoire and my undoing ever since. Had I never set eyes on them, my life would not have been what it is today, what it was during the quarter century between the “then” that has never ceased to be and the “now” which is its fruition.
How quickly and easily the clasp had sprung—at the merest touch of my thumbnail—presenting me with six tiny black and white photographs, each in its own miniature picture frame. The first was a portrait of your granddaughter, a bow in her dark hair, her wide round eyes wider and rounder still to be looking straight into the camera lens or startled by the flash. The next photo was of a boy about the same age but whose hair was blonde and whose light-colored eyes bore the epicanthic fold that indicated his Chinese ancestry. The third picture was of an exquisite Eurasian woman with delicate features and a gentle smile. I recognized her as the woman on the dock with whom I’d struggled for possession of the locket and chain. The man in the fourth photograph was also someone I recognized: the Chinese man on the dock wearing the cashmere topcoat, no doubt the young woman’s husband, only in the photo he wore a chalk-striped double-breasted jacket and a Windsor-knotted tie. A portrait of a woman of a certain age with wise, sloe eyes and a wide, sensual mouth gazed out from the fifth picture frame opposite the sixth and final one, which contained, I suspected, a photo of her marital counterpart wearing a Nationalist Army uniform befitting a high-ranking officer and sporting four stars. Few men were four-star generals and only one man—the Generalissimo—was accorded five.
I stared at the photo in the sixth picture frame, that of the four-star general. The man was indeed Li Zongren, hero of the battle of Taierzhuang—a turning point of the Sino-Japanese War—and now vice president of Nationalist China under siege by Communist forces. I felt a gnawing sensation in the pit of my stomach and tasted the bitter bile that had risen to my throat. I snapped the locket shut and looked at the initials on the cover: LXW. For Li Xuewen, Li Zongren’s wife, the mother of the man in the cashmere top coat, the mother-in-law of the woman I’d clubbed with the police baton, the grandmother of the little girl I’d kidnapped. I shut my eyes in disbelief and horror. When I opened them again and looked at the battered child out of the corner of my eye, I half-expected, half-hoped that she had vanished, that I’d only dreamed I’d absconded with Li Zongren’s granddaughter, that this was just a nightmare, like the dreams I’d have every so often of the iron house, that I would wake up in my bed and that the child I’d carried away was in her mother’s arms and on her way to safety out of China rather than lying on the cobble-stones of a putrid back alley in the most squalid section of Nantao.
The moment I opened the locket, Li Tai-tai, and saw your photograph and that of your husband, I knew that the little girl whose life I’d stolen together with the gold locket and chain was your granddaughter. Having identified the child, I knew I couldn’t leave her in the back alley, though that had been my intention. Out of the question. But time was of the essence. First I had to go to see the man of a thousand faces, who would put me in touch with a black marketeer so that I could finally return to Madam Tan’s with the precious vials of penicillin. Take the child along with me to the home of the man of a thousand faces? What if someone saw me carrying the child and recognized her as the granddaughter of Li Zongren? It was a small risk, and one I decided to take. Her face was bruised from the scuffling during the riot, her eyelids swollen shut, and her face so puffy and abraded, to say nothing of the macerated flesh around her neck, that no one—not even you—would have recognized her. No one would have suspected—even noticed let alone stopped—a drunken ricksha puller carrying the tattered and abused child unfortunate enough to have him as a father—the role I have assumed for over two decades—to be the abductor of the vice president’s granddaughter. But before I continue my story, I want you to know that your granddaughter Lisa is alive.