If you’ve been following this blog and read Installment #7, you’ll know, as does Bittersweet, that the little girl Hardu inadvertently kidnapped is her granddaughter, Lisa. In Installment #8—which is also the beginning of new chapter—Bittersweet is now filled with mixed emotions and conflicting thoughts. She takes a walk by the river to calm herself. Upon returning home and continuing to read Hardu’s letter, she learns that in order to safeguard both himself and little Lisa, now that the Red Armies are on the verge of capturing Shanghai (and soon the rest of the country), he enlists the help of the Man of a Thousand Faces in a daring scheme. (The characters in Installment #8 remain the same as in #7. In the interests of time and space, please refer to Installment #7 if you would like to refresh your memory as to who’s-who).
Image: Scholar’s Rock. Courtesy of Leslie Li
CHAPTER 2: THE CONFESSION—1974
Lisa is alive. The words swam and bleared before Bittersweet’s eyes. When she looked up from the page, the room swam and bleared as well. She hadn’t felt the tears that had welled up in her eyes, tears that refused to fall. She rose from her chair, scattering the loose pages on her lap onto the floor. She couldn’t feel the floor under her feet. She grabbed the back of the chair to steady herself, to give her ballast, an anchor. A sob rose to her throat and released her tears, copious tears that she’d withheld for twenty-five years. Lisa was alive. Such glorious, joyful news! But at the same time, such terrible, painful news! What right did he have to rekindle hope when it had taken her a quarter of a century to extinguish it? He had stolen a life to save a life—and all for nothing. For less than nothing. For the loss of two lives: Lisa’s and Mei-mei’s. Three lives. He had stolen a child and he had stolen her birthright—a double theft. A petty criminal, but also a man who was intelligent, articulate, sensitive, and remorseful had raised Lisa to womanhood. What kind of life could he have given her? What kind of woman had the two-year-old Lisa become? Bittersweet’s thoughts ran on relentlessly, chaotically. And what if Lisa wasn’t alive? What if the letter was a cruel joke, the ravings of a madman? Days, even weeks, following Lisa’s disappearance, Bittersweet and her family had received anonymous tips, heard rumors, followed clues regarding the child’s whereabouts—all of them that led to nothing, that merely compounded their heartbreak.
Bittersweet bent down and picked up the loose pages that had fallen on the floor. She put all the pages back into the playing card box, which she interred in the recesses of her dressing table drawer. Before she left her room, she composed herself as best she could, nearly forgetting to lock the door behind her.
“Where are you going?” Tanmin sat on her haunches in the backyard, shoving the silk batting back into an eviscerated quilt.
“Just across the street,” Bittersweet replied, averting her eyes. “To sit by the river.”
“I’ll join you,” the younger woman said, coming to her feet and setting one hand to the small of her back. “I could use a little break from this work. You shouldn’t have let Dr. Hwang stay so long. I can see by your puffy eyes that his visit has tired you.”
The Li River was lined with benches where people could sit and admire the “green gauze belt” that flowed through their city and enjoy looking at the karst peaks that rose along its banks. One of them—Folded Brocade Mountain—lay almost directly across from Bittersweet’s house. It was the first sight that greeted her every morning when she opened her bedroom window. Not only was the mountain’s proximity an aesthetic consideration at the time she considered building her house, it was a practical one as well: during the Sino-Japanese War, when the early warning system sirens announced the approach of Japanese bombers, she had only to scurry one block to reach the safety of the caves deep within. But today Bittersweet was in search of solace, not safety. The two women found an empty bench facing the river and sat down with a deep sigh, though for distinctly different reasons.
“The years must be catching up with me,” Tanmin said. “It’s taking me twice as long to air the family’s quilts and I’m still not done.”
“Let me help you with the rest —“ Bittersweet offered.
“No, no. Such is my lot in life and I must bear it bravely.”
Across from them was a grizzled old derelict dressed in tatters, his arms flung out along the back of the bench, his deeply wrinkled face lifted towards the late afternoon sun. A young woman with a long plait sat down on the bench adjacent to the one occupied by the old man. She took a handkerchief from her skirt pocket and dabbed at her eyes. The derelict swiveled sideways, lay down on the bench to his full length, placed his worker’s cap over his face, and folded his arms contentedly across his chest. At this impropriety, Tanmin clucked her tongue in disapproval. The young woman began to sniffle into her handkerchief, then began sobbing into it. The derelict swung his legs off his bench, sat up, and looked at her. Tanmin leaned forward, keen to witness the drama unfolding before her eyes.
“May I ask why you’re so unhappy?”
The young woman removed the handkerchief from her face and looked at him.
“What is it that’s made you so unhappy?” he repeated.
“Whatever it is, it’s no concern of yours,” she said, frowning.
Tanmin nodded her head in agreement.
The tearful woman folded the limp handkerchief in half and blew her nose into it, loudly, as if that should end the matter. The old man swung his legs back up onto his bench, reclined comfortably, and set his cap over his forehead to just above his eyes.
“You’re right, xiaojie. It is no concern of mine. But it’s of major concern to you. What could it possibly be that you should shed so many tears?”
Feeling tears start to well up in her eyes, Bittersweet blinked them back down.
The young woman shot him a disdainful glance and slid to the far end of her bench—as far away from him as she could go without falling off.
“I know, xiaojie. I know,” he said. “I’m just a tiresome old codger who should mind his own business. But I was sound asleep before you woke me up, and I was having the most beautiful dream.”
“I’m sorry,” the young woman stammered. “I didn’t mean to wake you. It’s just that… that…” She began to weep, sniffling softly.
Bittersweet pressed her lips together to keep them from trembling.
“There, there,” he said, still supine. “Let me see if I can guess.” He twiddled his fingers upon his chest. “You didn’t get the dress you had your heart set on.”
She shook her head.
“No? A good friend lied to you or, worse, about you.”
She shook her head, more forcefully this time.
“Not either?” he said, not in a position to have seen her replies but confident that his assumption was correct. “Your boyfriend left you.”
She stiffened before collapsing in fit of sobbing, which stopped as soon as she heard him snoring—loud, long, and rumbling. She stared at him, stunned that he had the ability—the audacity—to sleep through her very vocal torment. The snoring stopped.
“Forgive him, the poor fool,” he murmured from under his cap. “Or you’ll think your world has been turned upside down, and never will you be able to right it again.”
Within seconds he was snoring again—this time deep, low, sonorous. She continued to stare at him until she unfurled her fist holding the handkerchief—the exact moment that Bittersweet felt her heart unclench and soften. Slipping the sodden handkerchief into her skirt pocket, the woman smiled crookedly to herself. Bittersweet watched her calmly walk away until she disappeared behind a cluster of osmanthus trees.
She turned to Tanmin and said, “Shall we go home now?”
“Our stroll to the river has done you a world of good,” Tanmin remarked during their short walk home. “There’s color in your cheeks where before there were ashes. And there’s a lightness to your step instead of a weight in your shoe.”
Bittersweet looked over her shoulder, but the old derelict was no longer lying on the bench. His words, however, remained with her: Forgive him, the poor fool, or you will think your world has been turned upside down, and never will you be able to right it again. Wise words that the young woman must have taken to heart, so serene was she when she left. Words that I, older and wiser, would also do well to heed, Bittersweet told herself. Hardu’s crime had turned his world upside down. She would not let it do the same to hers.
After dinner that evening, Bittersweet retired to her room and read the next several chapters.
I couldn’t leave Lisa in the alleyway. Nor could I return her to the dock and to her parents bound for Hong Kong. The Bund would be swarming with police, gendarmes, militia. One look at me carrying the missing granddaughter of Li Zongren in my arms, and with the physical state Lisa was in, I would have been shot on the spot. No, it was too great a risk for me to take. That meant that Lisa would have to be left behind in Shanghai. That posed another risk, this time for her, and presented another dilemma for me. What if the Communists won the civil war, which they showed every sign of doing, racking up one victory after another against the Nationalists? What would they do to Lisa, granddaughter of War Criminal Number Two on the Chinese Communist Party’s most wanted list? Had I not admired your husband, I’m sure I would have made the decision easiest and most efficacious for me—one which might have allowed me to reach Mei-mei in time to save her life.
I heard the chiming of Big Bertie. Two hours had passed since I’d kidnapped Lisa. The ship would have sailed. The dock would be cordoned off anew—this time, the scene of a kidnapping as well as of a riot. And Mei-mei was waiting for me to return with the precious penicillin.
I stripped Lisa of her fine clothes, buried them deep in one of the trash cans, and dressed her in some of the filthy, threadbare rags I found in another bin. We were now a matching pair. Anyone seeing an impoverished father carrying his dozing daughter wouldn’t have given us a second thought, or glance—not us, part of the indistinguishable substratum of abject humanity that filled this pitiable section of Nantao.
Indistinguishable. That was it, the solution to one of my problems: Lisa Li was not only distinguishable, she was distinguished, distinctive. But not Lisa as she was now. Dressed as she was, battered as she was, she was indistinguishable from any of Shanghai’s miserable street children. And she could be made even more so.
When I rapped at the door of the man of a thousand faces, his eyes greeted me with an expression of delighted surprise. But when he saw the bundle of rags I carried in my arms, the light in them was snuffed out, replaced by somber concern. He ushered me quickly into his lane house and shut and locked the door. The radio was on, and through the crackling static a newscaster had interrupted whatever program was being broadcast to announce the disappearance of Li Zongren’s granddaughter.
“Don’t say it,” Thousand Faces said gravely. “Don’t tell me the name of the child. I don’t want to know who she is—for my own protection.” He studied my face, no doubt a portrait in fear and desperation, and gestured for me to put the girl down on the couch. Not once did he look at her. “I don’t want to know anything about her. Just tell me how I can help you.”
I nearly dropped to my knees and wept with relief. I reached inside my pochette and drew out the empty gold locket. I had destroyed the photos. The initials on the front cover I’d erased by rubbing it against a brick wall.
“I need you to change her features,” I told him, handing him the locket, “so that she’s unrecognizable for who she is. That is, for who she was.”
He hesitated before peering into her face. When he saw the abrasions on her neck, he winced. Gently he put his ear to her chest to check for her heartbeat. Then he looked at me as if I were a madman, a monster, as well as the most pathetic man on earth.
“I can do it,” he said in a stark monotone. “I’ll want to attend to the wound on her neck first, so that it doesn’t get infected. You’re sure nothing’s broken?”
“Not that I know of.”
I told him about Mei-mei, that I needed several vials of penicillin, and that I wanted to barter the chain that complemented the locket for the life-saving drug. Thousand Faces wrote down the name and address of a black marketeer on a piece of paper, jabbed it into my hand, and nudged me towards the door. When I looked back at the girl, he assured me:
“When you return, you’ll find a stranger in her place. I promise you—you will not recognize her. No one, not even her family, will be able to guess who she is.”
I ran all the way to the black marketeer and arrived at his doorstep within twenty minutes. When I left him, instead of the heavy gold chain, my pochette now contained three vials of penicillin, two vials of morphine, four syringes, and ten needles. It took me another half-hour to reach Madam Tan’s maison tolerée. You already know the conclusion of that particular episode. I raced back to the lane house of Thousand Faces. He guessed by my demeanor what the outcome was and offered me some maotai, which I drank in a single gulp.
“More,” I said, holding out my glass, my hand quivering.
He shook his head and capped the bottle. “You need your wits about you. That was just to take the edge off of your pain, not obliterate your mind.”
He led me into the bedroom where Lisa was either sleeping peacefully or merely still unconscious. The vial of ether I’d left with him lay on the bedside table. By the looks of it, he’d used more than half of what was left. And by the looks of the girl, he had kept his promise.
“What have you done to her?” I blurted.
She looked not one iota like Lisa Li. In fact she looked barely human. In place of her face was a shallow dome of swollen, mangled flesh practically devoid of features. Her former luxuriant, long hair was gone, her scalp a mismatched patchwork of bald spots and close-cropped fuzz. She looked as if she was suffering from ringworm, which was perhaps what Thousand Faces had intended. Her nose looked flatter, now that the wings of her nostrils had been made wider. And her closed eyes—splotches of mottled green and purple—were discernible only by the line where the swollen upper and lower lids met.
“A simple surgical procedure I’ve performed many times in the past on young women with single eyelids who want double ones. They believe that having double eyelids and the impression of a rounder eye they give is more attractive, more Western. Only this time, I performed the operation in reverse. Exactly as I did on you after I got out of jail.” The only difference, he said, between eyes that have double lids and those that don’t is the levator muscle, which controls the opening and closing of the eyelid. Everyone has the muscle, but Westerners and some Orientals have an extension of the muscle, which causes a crease to form above the eye when it’s open—the desirable double lid. Instead of this extension, most Orientals have an extra layer of fat. During the procedure, the extra fat is removed, and the eyelid is stitched to the levator muscle. This extraction produces the crease that creates the so-called round eye. The procedure, he told me, takes about an hour, and it’s usually performed under local anesthesia. After about a week, the stitches are removed. The swelling goes down in two. “Sometimes it can take a couple of months before the eyelids heal completely.”
He picked up a tray on the dresser; on it were the implements he’d used for Lisa’s transformation. Not a scalpel but a syringe. No incision but the tip of the needle inserted carefully into the eyelid at points along the levator muscle, the plunger of the syringe given the barest squeeze. No stitches but liquified fat filling and thereby eradicating the crease that formed the second lid, thereby creating a single one.
“The swelling you see now will go down, but the greater the ‘swelling’ produced by the liquid fat, the more single the eyelid, the better her disfigurement…her disguise,” he corrected. “If anything can change a face, if any feature can transform one’s physical identity and make someone unrecognizable, it’s the eyes. But just for good measure, I added a little of the liquified fat to fill out her cheeks a bit more, so her cheekbones would be less prominent, and her face will look flatter. I also snipped the wings of her nostrils—a millimeter or two, no more—and stitched them down so they would lie flatter against the apple of her cheeks. In other words, she will look completely Chinese, no longer Eurasian.”
I stared at the girl’s neck swaddled in gauze, then at her hands bound to the bed.
“So she won’t scratch at her face when she wakes up. She’ll be in pain.”
From my pockets I took out the vials of morphine and penicillin that were to have been used on Mei-mei and placed them on the tray, along with the needles and syringes. He nodded and looked deeply into my blue single-lidded eyes.
“She woke up when you were gone, before I anesthetized her. When she started to scream, I put my hand over her mouth. But no sound came out. Nothing. She’s lost her voice.” Thousand Faces thought her larynx was probably damaged from the trauma to her neck. Or maybe the emotional shock of being wrenched out of her mother’s arms and thrust into mayhem was enough to render her mute. That would be, of course, a great loss for the child. Her voice. Her ability to speak. To communicate with others. But it was one less worry for me. For both him and me, since he invited us to stay with him until her face healed. “Two or three weeks should be enough. There’s a citywide manhunt going on for Li Zongren’s granddaughter. Under normal circumstances, the city would be under lockdown. But the Communists are knocking at our gates. People are fleeing Shanghai in droves—by car, by cart, on foot. The city’s one mass exodus. The police have their hands full. The manhunt won’t last long.”