Hua at the Fabric MarketA single silkworm spins enough raw silk to stretch up to 900 meters long. The fibers are lustrous, thin as a strand of hair. The thread from just ten unraveled cocoons extend vertically to the height of Mount Everest. 70 billion miles of silk filament is produced across the world annually, a distance that unravels to well over 300 round trips to the sun.
Her name is Hua. People say it is fitting she is called flower, so beautiful, but she thinks weak and fleeting. JinHai praised her eyes for being round as jasmine pearls and her skin the creamy flesh of a Taro root. A prize he called her, so she felt like one. Now she thinks that with a name like Golden Sea she should have suspected he’d leave her in splinters like an old junk tossed against the shore after a monsoon. Hua never expected to be traveling to the fabric market, hiding a bulging stomach under a thick down jacket. This coat, she thinks, one of the only practical gifts JinHai ever gave her. At least it is winter. Everyone plumps up this time of year.
In her dreams, Hua sees a female. Smiling through the thick, murky waters of her body. A girl, she is sure of it. Hua’s, mother, Jia, teaches her tricks to look small, to hide the pregnancy from her father, the village, the people at school. Hua knows that this baby cannot be kept. A child like this one will have no town, no official name; no future. Mother and daughter agree that this is the only choice. There is no debate, no tears. This is how it is: one child, one family—two if the first is a girl. If you were unmarried and young, you’d be a fool. Too much shame on a family. Her father must never know. Jia has spent many months convincing him to let Hua go to school in the city. He said no to the University: “A husband won’t want a smart girl like that.” “She lives in a different time.” Jia had said, “Now she can earn money so you won’t have to work until your bones break from brittleness.” He could see the logic there. A farm with no sons can only produce so much.
Today they are taking the bus into the city like Hua has every day for the past four years. If they are asked, they will say that they are buying cloth for a cousin’s baby; the people here do not know them well enough to suspect. Jia nudges her daughter, “Hua, we should get fabric for a new coat, next fall at the University may be chilly for you, wool I think, maybe a furry hood.” Her voice is loud, and she looks around at the other passengers while she waits for an answer.
Hua answers with a wan smile and a shoulder shrug. She doesn’t feel like showing off her education at the moment. She stares out the window at the water buffalo, losing fat from summer, chomping on dry, dead grass. The fields give way to grey cement. The streets are lined with naked cherry trees, slivers of ice cling to bare branches from the early morning frost. Hua reaches beneath her coat and can feel the heel of the baby’s foot. She thinks the blanket will need to say something important, be soft, nothing coarse. Her breath clouds the glass; she closes her eyes.
JinHai was her tutor. He taught her Cao Shu, free- style, calligraphy from his studio in the alley. She was an exceptional student and quickly mastered Yong, the character of permanence, having all eight strokes to unlock the secrets of calligraphy art. Soon after, she noticed his brush was making strong sweeping lines as he demonstrated. That his skin was damp when it met hers, and his breath smelled of apple when he spoke near her ear. One afternoon he stood behind her and gripped her hand, guiding the strokes on the paper. That’s when it began.
Those days, after her lessons, she’d slip his prized sandalwood brush with the tiger hair bristles up her sleeve and tuck some paper into her pocket. At home, on a wooden board by the stream, Hua practiced the characters for love. Over and over, her movements as fluid as the water flowing around rocks and twigs, forming eddies, as effortless as the bamboo leaves that swirled in patterns past her feet. When it was finally perfect, she rolled it carefully and bound it with woven wild clematis. The day she left this gift for him, he took his family and moved away. During the spring thaw. When the river swelled and spilled over the banks. Today its edges are frozen. Soon fishermen will drop their lines deep into the water through perfectly carved ice circles. In this morning’s bright sun, there hangs a crescent moon; she’ll be here before it’s full. Yong. Nothing is permanent; there is no forever. Now, the smell of an ink stick makes her retch.
When the bus jerks to a stop, the women gather their bags and Hua is careful not to place her hands over her swollen belly—a dead-give-away her mother has told her. Hua’s been coming to this market with her mother since she was a fat baby with arms and legs like sausages sticking out of the Mei Tai wrapped tightly across her mother’s back and chest. The stalls and shops beckon with colors and patterns, the sounds of haggling customers, the street vendors selling zongzi: lotus leaf bundles of barbequed pork, black mushrooms, bamboo shoots, ginger and rice. Hua wriggles her fingers into her jacket pockets, where she can touch her baby unseen. The foot has disappeared. The women walk toward the first stall.
“Ladies, warm wool for a frigid winter!” A vendor shouts, “Best Prices! Silk! Never too early to plan for Spring Festival.” “Cotton, so practical; tough and sturdy,” others join in. Hua opens a glass door into an enclosed silk and cashmere shop where a bright yellow swatch has caught her eye.
Jia scurries in behind her. Silly girl, she thinks. This shop is for cadres, military officers, not farmers. Forgets her place that one.
The sales clerk holds out a bolt of saffron yellow. “The best quality, finest silk this one, how much would you like? A dress perhaps? Our tailor can size you right now. Ready in a week.”
Hua strokes the silk. Baby skin.
Jia cannot contain her anger. Slap! Hua’s hand flushes pink, and her face burns red. “My daughter, she’s senseless,” Jia says. She is disgusted by the high-pitched tremor of her voice. “We are in the wrong shop. Thank you for your time.” She drags Hua out the door by the arm, a bell rings over their heads. Outside the frigid air stings their cheeks.
Jia’s hair is pulled back severely from her round face. Hua used to think her mother beautiful, those full lips and fleshy cheeks. Now, she finds her ugly and dumb—with a look that has long since gone out of vogue.
“What were you thinking with that emperor color? Who do you think this child is? Your baby is a bastard don’t forget. A shame on our family. Pick out something warm and be done with it.”
Hua lowers her eyes. “Sorry Mama. I’ve lost my head.” She cannot afford to anger her mother. Should her father discover the pregnancy, Hua will spend the rest of her life at his service. In an instant, Jia can change her daughter’s fate.
“I’m hungry,” Hua says as they pass a dim sum café. The very one she’d eaten at with JinHai when they would skip her class, and he’d take her for the morning treat across the city. It had thrilled her to sit and imagine that an auntie, or even her mother might walk past on an errand. Though she knew they only went to the fabric market on Friday, and she and JinHai only snuck out on Mondays. Tea and turnip cakes. Tiny bamboo baskets opened to perfectly shaped steamed buns stuffed with shrimp and scallions, dipped in hot chili oil. “May we eat?” Hua had earned some money this year with commissioned calligraphy pieces and by doing some minor sewing for city girls who wanted to impress future in-laws but lacked the skills. “Dim sum, my treat?”
“Save your money,” Jia says, “Go sit down. I’ll get some soup from Fong’s cart.”
Jia hands a steaming bowl to Hua who sits waiting on a cold, quiet curb. The two eat in silence. Hua has named her child, BaiHe. Lily, the flower with a presence that lingers long after it’s gone. Chicken stock and noodles warm Hua’s hands, throat, her stomach, nourishing.
Sometimes she thinks she sees him, dashing into a building, entering a classroom. But it is invariably not him, square vs. round glasses, thinning hair rather than the thick heavy mass that always hung long, that he tied back in a ponytail like the artist he is or the ancient Confucius scholar he was not.
Late at night when everyone is asleep, Hua stands at the mirror and examines her changing body. Her height helps hide her additional weight, but naked her stomach protrudes round as a pomelo. She wears her thick, black hair down, always, and it drapes over her shoulders like a cloak. Her mother has given up insisting she pull it off her face, and now it serves as a distraction from the rest of her body. He loved her hair, would wrap strands of it around his fingers, tying her to him. She wonders if he still thinks of her. Imagines him returning for her. Together they’d move to a distant part of the country, up north perhaps, where no one would know their story. She dreams of a studio by a brook engulfed in wild azaleas abundant with bold white flowers and green leathery leaves. A gnarled jade plant on the windowsill. The finest rice paper, pebble weights, and brushes stemming from cinnabar vases. She would have this baby; they would make art together and why couldn’t that happen?
The sun should be warm, but the air is so bitter. A few leaves still cling to the ginkgo tree they lean against as they eat. Through her layers, Jia can feel the frozen sidewalk reddening her legs. She worries her daughter is growing too conspicuous.
“Enough of this Hua,” she says, “Look over there, thick cotton. Practical and warm.” Jia thinks, that child doesn’t know the trouble I’ve gone to. For what reward? This trip was foolhardy. Too much caring about a baby that they will never know.
Hua stands and takes her mother’s bowl. “Can you give me just a few minutes Mama,” she says, “Alone. Please.”
Light streams between the buildings along the alley. Lines illuminate Jia’s cheeks and hair. Her chopsticks cast a long shadow over the sidewalk, into the street like dark swords.
Jia considers this and says, “I have to check on a dress for Auntie Tang. I’ll meet you at this corner in exactly one half hour.”
As Jia shuffles down a narrow alley, disappearing between bolts of cloth, Hua wonders when her mother had become so baggy, so wrinkled? She used to carry herself like the matron she was born to be, not the humble village woman she’s become. Jia taught her to read simple characters. She’d whisper to Hua at night, “A book holds a house of gold.”
Her father had been a successful merchant from Shanghai. There was a beautiful house near the Bund, an English tutor. When Jia was six, the liberation claimed her family. Her oldest brother denounced their father and an angry mob torched the house; their father still in it. Afterwards, Jia’s mother arranged her youngest son’s escape to Taiwan with a friend who could only take one. Jia was sent down to an aunt who lived in the countryside of the Jiangsi province. With her family accounted for, Jia’s mother poisoned herself, discovered by a neighbor along the charred remains of their family home.
When Jia turned eighteen she was married off to Hua’s father, Zhu Li. The Zhu family had a small farm an hour west of Nanjing. Twelve years and eight unsuccessful pregnancies passed before Hua was born.
Hua has never met her Taiwan uncle. Her mother speaks of him with a mixture of reverence and disappointment; they lost contact decades ago. Once, Hua remembers, the other, communist party, brother tracked them down. He wore the dull green ripcord uniform of the People’s Liberation Army. Red and yellow braided bands across his shoulders, and brass identity tag on his chest. His boots scuffed up the dirt floor of their home where he praised his little sister for the un-bourgeoisies life she was living. Jia spat in his face and yelled out, “Traitor!” Zhu Li slapped her from her chair onto the ground. Hua watched him scrub his hands with alcohol and a brush before stepping into his shiny black car and driving off. The kicked up dust stung her eyes.
That night the coyotes screamed, wolves howled into the windows, and Hua waited for men with guns to burst through the front door. The next morning, congee steamed from the clay pot, but only her father sat at the table. In the distance, on the hill by the willow tree whose limbs hung like witch’s hair, stood her mother wearing a silk robe, one Hua had never seen. The colors of a peacock—teal blue, black, and bright purple swirled in patterns and sweeping circles. The bell sleeves rippled in the breeze, silk entangled Jia’s legs. Hua started out the door to reclaim the beautiful stranger as her mother. “Leave her.” Her father said, “Let her rot in her mother’s gown.” The rice porridge clung to the back of Hua’s throat while out the window streaks of bright color flashed against the sky like a mirage that would disappear when touched.
Hua fancies a different life. One where her rich, foreign uncle comes to claim her. When this is over, and she has an education, that chance may still come. She will travel then, maybe to Taiwan and recover what belongs to her mother. A glimmer of gold within bright red in a storefront window wakens her back to task. She opens the door.
The woman behind the counter looks up and dabs her lips with a white napkin, leaving a crimson stain behind. She lifts a slender hand to cover her pale face while she runs her tongue across the front of her teeth. “How may I help you?” she says.
“I’m looking for some cloth, silk I think.” Hua cannot resist stroking the bolt in the window. Gold thread is woven in the glossy red silk. She thinks about her baby and how only fabric this soft should caress her newborn cheek. She does not let herself think about her child cloaked and left alone in the bone cold of a January dawn.
“You like that, do you?” The woman comes out from behind the counter. Her name is Mei and she wears a long, black qipao embroidered with tiny purple plum blossoms. Her face is powdered and her hair pulled back into a tight bun. Her features are perfectly proportioned, a sharp nose with a slight flair, kohl rimmed eyes, lips almost as full as they are wide. An excellent judge of character, Mei’s skill in assessing her customers has helped her become the most exclusive and successful silk purveyor in all of the Nanjing’s fabric market.
“Yes, may I see it?” Hua has already decided. She must have this fabric. No price is too great.
Mei walks as if she’s balancing a book atop her head. Crossing the floor her heels make sharp, but satisfying click, click, click sounds. As Mei brushes past, Hua breathes sandalwood and peonies. She lifts the cylinder from the window and carries it to the measuring table. In the backroom Hua hears the whirr of the sewing machine, the pump of the pedal as the unseen tailor works the thread through. Then silence. The room feels heavy to Hua. In the quiet she believes she hears BaiHe’s heart, though it is her own. Hua looks at Mei and glances toward the backroom.
“Oh, don’t mind him. Our tailor, he takes his lunch break now. Would you care for some tea?” Mei says.
“Yes, tea would be lovely. Thank you.” Hua says hoping that their words, the tea preparation will mask the sound of her daughter’s heartbeat.
“Please, let me take your coat.” Mei extends her long fingers toward Hua.
“No! I mean, no, thank you, I’m fine thank you.” Hua wraps her arms tightly around her stomach.
“Ah, I see. Very well then. Tea. I think I have an herbal blend that will be nice for you.” Mei smiles and reaches for jade-colored porcelain square pot. From a glass jar under the counter she scoops a mix of ginger, red-raspberry leaves and peppermint into the sieve, sets the pot on a slated tea tray, and pulls out two white cups.
Hua sips her tea and eyes the fabric. The heartbeat. Out the back window, she catches a glimpse of her mother in the corner of the market table across the way. Grey potatoes, baskets of dull white turnips, only root vegetables this time of year. She is talking to the grocer, slips something into his open hand. He puts it in his pocket and pulls on his long silver beard. Jia walks away with nothing. A kick to the inside of her stomach. Takes another drink, the liquid wets her dry mouth. Her mother is right; she doesn’t belong here.