Story: The Better Place
By: Lucille Bellucci
Once upon a time….
My wanderings over a distant time begin with that phrase, a cipher that unlocks a landscape biding in the storehouse behind my eyes. It is almost always the same picture that unreels over what was a short life, yet covers so much terrain and mocks all else afterward as no more than tiny iterations of the same themes.
…..the rickshaw puller didn’t always realize he had an extra passenger at the rear. I held onto the back of it, the rider’s unsuspecting head near my clutching hands, as the coolie’s rubber-tire sandals slap the road, always too slow for me until I peeled away slick as a bird on my single roller skate. I thought of attaching to the back of a bus once but the smell from its pipe burned my eyes. So mostly I coasted Tifeng Lu to look at Maggie’s house imagining she was still there and would look out the window and wave.
Maggie owned the other roller skate, and she took it away with her to Denmark. We held hands as we skated and we went to the same school until her Japanese mother and Danish father decided they had to leave Shanghai. I went crying to our Ahmah about it but she said there were too many foreigners in China and it was a good thing Maggie was gone. Her round peasant’s face made smirking lines. I said, What about me, then. I’m a foreigner. And she answered You are different because your father pays my salary. But you can go away if you like!
She knew I couldn’t say anything to him because if I did she would tell him what I did away from school. We kept secrets about each other, Ahmah and I. She had a son about 10 years old who came every night to eat and sleep. Dad didn’t know about him. But I saw him hanging around the apartment often and one night, when I searched for the big star from my bedroom window because our fourth-grade teacher Sister Maureen told us to do it, I saw him come into the building and then heard him in the kitchen. He called her oomah and that’s how I knew he was her son. I didn’t care. And I knew dad wouldn’t.
I didn’t tell her about something else I saw one day after school but thought hard about it afterward. Why did that shopkeeper chase his wife out to the street with a knife? He was shouting ugly words that I knew but not the meaning of – about the baby not being his – and stabbing her until she died. There was so much blood on the street the rickshaws swerved around it but kept going. People shouted at the shopkeeper to stop without making him because he had a knife. He left her there, and everyone stood around talking, not doing anything. I asked a man “She’s still bleeding. Can’t you help her?”
The man, dressed in a suit, looked down at me. “A foreign girl who speaks good Shanghai! You are very clever, but you should go home now.” All the others started noticing and talking about me until I felt uncomfortable and turned around and left. I looked back from the corner and they were all still standing around, some drifting away. That night I couldn’t read in bed as I always did and instead thought about the shopkeeper, the woman, and those people standing there and watching.
Dad always came home late at night. I think he didn’t want to come home, actually. When mama died he started staying later and later at the office, and then when he was home he would sit for hours on the couch facing the window and sometimes put his hand over his face. He said mama’s name softly while I sat on the floor leaning against his legs. I was quiet and afraid to breathe, not that he noticed I was there, anyway.
I didn’t come home right away from school, either. There was a beggar girl a lot younger than me working on Yu Yuan Street. Her mother sat on the sidewalk against a wall and every time a foreigner passed she cried and wailed with her hand out. But people gave her girl the money if they were going to give anything. I’d sit on the curb near them and try to guess how much they collected. It made me laugh to see the puzzlement on the foreigners’ faces because I was a foreigner myself and there I was sitting with beggars. Sometimes I’d save some of my school lunch to give the girl and it was funny when she didn’t know what to do with an apple. She was cute, trying to bite into it.
Once a foreign man and woman stopped on the sidewalk. He stared at me, but she glared and said “Do you parents know what you are doing? You are disgusting, consorting with beggars!”
I smiled my sweetest smile and answered, “If you don’t mind your own business I will bite your fat ass!”
At that, the man laughed and told her, “She has you there, Betty. I think she can take care of herself.” Then he took her by the arm and moved off while she looked backward at me glaring until her eyeballs almost fell out.
I spotted Ahmah’s boy watching from the corner and I knew she was going to know about what happened as soon as he sneaked into the house tonight. He was so dirty, and getting worse every day. At least he wasn’t sleeping in the street like the beggars.
Some of the beggars were awful to look at and I walked wide around them. There was one, a man with no nose and chin and he didn’t have a tongue because he gargled when he asked for money with his hand out. The hand was terrible too, some of the fingers just bone. A leper, Ahmah said. Dying slowly, bit by bit. Do they have them in America? China shouldn’t be the only country so lucky.
Again, when I stood at the window looking at Venus I wondered if mama could see what I was doing. If she did I didn’t think she would mind. Maybe she loved me anyway. I talked softly to her, taking care to be quiet so dad in the next room couldn’t hear.
….Here, I always sigh with the child I had been. The long-ago shadow image had learned some things in life that, at last taken in hand and civilized in the process of growing up, may have lost the grit imbued by circumstance. Or is it all still in me? Do I face alien perplexities with valor and grace? I have done so, I think, at least I try.
Maggie’s one letter to me lives pressed in a photo album.
“Dear Celia, It is very different here in Denmark, you can imagine.
We live in a small house in a town called Glostrup near Copenhagen
and there are a lot of things I have to get used to. Mama has more
changes to think about, and I know she misses having an Ahmah, but
she doesn’t like going out in the streets to shop because people
look at her like they never saw a Japanese person before. They
are not really being rude, just curious, and I think she is very homesick.
I am homesick too. First day at school was hard. All the kids were
talking so fast in their language I couldn’t catch up, but daddy says
I will soon, that this is a better place than Shanghai, that it’s safe.
I miss you. Write me. Love, Maggie.”
….In class, Sister Grace Clair called me to her desk and gave me that letter addressed to me at the school “care of Sister Grace Claire.” Maggie didn’t know the address of my home! but then I realized I didn’t know hers, either, only that it was that apartment on Tifeng Lu. Sister told me not to open it until free period. It was terrible having to wait.
It was a strange day. Half our class was absent, the rest of us looking at each other across the empty desks and making faces like What’s going on at each other. Sister rapped on her desk to call us to order and told us something had happened in the night, and that was why so many students weren’t here.
At this we glanced around at each other some more. I was a bit scared and held my breath.
“There has been a bombing,” Sister said. “Japanese planes bombed shipping on the Whangpo River. The families of the absent students are keeping them home today, and some of them have decided to leave China.” She added, “Many people near the wharves have been killed.” She bowed her head. “Let us say the Lord’s Prayer for those souls.”
We began reciting “Our Father, Who art in heaven….” As I said the words automatically I thought Will dad and I leave China too? He didn’t say anything this morning about a bombing — maybe he didn’t know — drank his coffee and left for the office like always.
When we finished the prayer, Sister said, “Those souls are in a better place.”
Now I started getting restless because Maggie’s letter was still in my pocket and the bell seemed like it was a million years away. When I finally read it, and again, then again, and there wasn’t any more to it, I wondered what I expected from her. Maybe, I remember all the fun we had, that time I bought some tucks from the street vendor on Si Fung Lu and when I shared them with you we found a gold tooth in the bag. Or, Wasn’t it fun when we raced that car on our skates and almost piled up on the back of another car?
Not a word about any of the things we did together.
I walked home feeling sad, but then I thought Maggie was having a bad time over there and I was being selfish wanting more from her.
I hurried to catch the beggar and her little girl before it was too late for them to be out. It wasn’t four o’clock yet but it got dark earlier and earlier every day.
They were there, but as I went to the little girl with some candy I saved for her, a long shiny car drew up next to them and the driver got out. He was a foreigner, maybe Russian because lots of Russians worked as drivers of big cars. Ahmah said they worked for important Chinese men. The driver went over to the beggar girl, picked her up and put her in the front. She didn’t make a noise, just looked back at her mother who looked back at her. The mother didn’t cry. She said something, I thought it was Good luck or maybe it was Be good. I had a funny thought. The girl wore pants like all kids did on the streets and in the shops, with a slit in the back so she could pee or poop by herself whenever she wanted to. The driver didn’t put a towel on the seat first, and he was going to be sorry! Then he opened the back door of the car and leaned in and lifted out a little boy much smaller than the girl. The pants on him were stained and wet, as if he had peed on himself instead of the way he was supposed to. The man carried the little boy over to the beggar and put him in her arms. She laughed. This one is good, she said. The driver got back into the car and drove away.
Ahmah told me long ago, when I asked why all the small kids I saw outside wore those split pants, that it was because their mothers didn’t have servants to help them go to the bathroom. Then she banged my teapot on the table, hard.
As soon as I got home I went into the kitchen to tell Ahmah about the big car and the little boy. She was cooking pork chops, American food, she called it, and the onion smell went right up into my head.
She stirred the onions frying in the pan, scooped some up and licked it off the spatula. “Horrible, the garbage foreigners are always eating,” she said, but she grinned, and I couldn’t tell if she liked it or didn’t. “The beggar child was getting too old. You want to know what is going to happen to her? Good things! She is going to a big house with many women living in it and she is going to work in the kitchen and clean the rooms. And she will serve whiskey and vodka to the men who come to the house. Then,” – she added salt to the pork chops – “when she grows up she is going wear nice clothes and do nothing all day but be nice to the men, rich men. Lucky girl.”
I walked slowly to my room feeling glad for her. She wasn’t going to be killed after all, or sent into the countryside to work in the fields. Ahmah was always saying girls with big feet had to work and girls from rich families had their feet tied up so they couldn’t walk very well. Tied up? So that was what had happened to those women I sometimes saw walking like there were needles in their tiny pointed shoes. Yes, Ahmah said. Bound up tight so the feet got squeezed like rice buns until the girls couldn’t walk right and couldn’t work, so rich boys from other good families would marry them. That’s the upper class! Then she laughed in a nasty way and shook her head. Such a shame they don’t do it anymore or I could have married a rich man!
Before bed that night I thought about big feet and small feet and getting more and more confused while I looked up at Venus and thought at least mama didn’t have her feet tied up.
Dad came home early, surprising me at my homework. He touched my cheek, which felt good because it was a long time since he last did it. “Come to the living room, Celia. I want to tell you something.”
I don’t know why that scared me. Was it going to be a bad something or a nice something? Things were going to change, that was sure. He sat me next to him on the couch and looked at me, really looked, and that was nice no matter what he was going to tell me.
“There’ve been a few things happening downtown,” he said, his eyes a very dark blue.
I interrupted, “The bombing, you mean? Lots of people killed?”
He blinked. “How–? Well, yes. It’s war, baby. The Japanese army is approaching, has been fighting China for months. We’re going to have to leave Shanghai.”
The moment he said that I had a feeling of fright, a thought that chased every other out of my head. “Can we….take mama with us?”
Dad looked away then back at me. “I’m sorry, baby. It isn’t going to be possible. But we will bring her lots of flowers next time we visit and tell her what we have to do. She’ll come with us in her way, she’ll always be with us wherever we go. And you can be sure we are going to—“
“…..a better place,” I blurted.
He looked relieved, and nodded and hugged me and I hugged him back. He said he had things to do to prepare for our move and for me to go to bed. He forgot about dinner and I didn’t remind him but I went to the kitchen and got my dinner there. Ahmah put a pork chop and onions on the table for me and made up another plate and set it aside on the counter. I knew that was for her son to eat later when he came in. I wondered, for a moment, what would happen to them. I thought, I can’t worry about that too, and ate my pork chop and drank the tea she gave me.
….I continue my search for Maggie. I wrote her back but never got another letter from her, nor did she respond when I wrote her after we left China. An investigator in Denmark reports she had moved to England shortly after finishing school. I sent searches to every country she might have moved to all the while mourning the unfledged adult fellowship we had started together as children in China.
And Ahmah surfaces in my mind at odd times when I see a slice of human discord. I think the word ahmah and laugh a little to myself. Would my real mother have taught me so much? Did her son live to grow up? On clear nights when the stars throw their incandescence across the firmament I speak to one in particular: Does Maggie remember Shanghai the way I do? I saw my fierce truths alone as unfinished histories and I think I want to know in what forms she found hers. I want to say to her, All of it is a fairy tale, you know, no better, no worse, and always indifferent to your witness. Did you learn grace, that elegance, comeliness of temperament healing instead of wounding? Is it grace or fire but never in between, a coward’s diminishment? Have you found it, Maggie? Did it reach you early, or late, or at all? Tell me, Maggie, that I may learn or compare. Or, a final sad thought, Did you die in the war, Maggie?
I put my Penny to bed and begin reading, “Once upon a time…..”