Susie Gordon is a writer and editor whose first poetry collection, Peckham Blue, was published in London by Penned in the Margins in 2006; her second collection, Harbouring, came out in November 2015 under Math Paper Press in Singapore. Her poetry, fiction and non-fiction have also been published in anthologies such as United Verses (2014), Unsavory Elements (Earnshaw, 2013), Middle Kingdom Underground (HAL, 2011), Unshod Quills (2011), Junoesq (2015), and The May Anthologies 10th Anniversary edition (2003). As a literary editor, she has worked on the English translation of S. P. Tao’s memoir, as well as Fan Wen’s ‘Land of Mercy’ for Rinchen Books.
The Pearl from her Mouth
‘This again,’ Shelagh said.
I looked up from the newspaper.
She was standing at the dresser, holding the wooden box that contained every letter and card she had given me since we’d met in 1950: two decades of birthdays and Christmases and nameless occasions, remembered in her jagged handwriting. Sitting in her palm was my carved jade grasshopper.
‘What about it?’ I turned a page of the newspaper so my voice wouldn’t be the only sound. We’d almost finished packing up the house. The walls and floors were bare and loud with echoes, filling the space we’d cleared.
Shelagh eyed the grasshopper carefully, as she had when she had first seen it twelve years before, on the day we moved here, to the George Street townhouse from her rooms in the teaching quarters. That was the year my brother died. I suspected Shelagh had held off buying a house until Wei had passed, in case he insisted on living with us. I never asked her. I knew she would deny it.
‘It’s from the old days,’ I said. ‘Put it away.’
The words quelled her curiosity. They always did. The old days were only revisited late at night, in bed in the dark, when we couldn’t see each other’s faces, when the wine we’d drunk was enough to guarantee a fresh pretence in the morning.
Now, once again, I cringed at the sight of the grasshopper – death-green and obnoxious – in the hand of the woman who had unknowingly allowed me to forgive myself for how I’d come to own it.
‘We’re bringing it with us, I suppose,’ she said.
I was annoyed at her dogged insistence on our still being we, in spite of everything I’d done over the years to threaten it. Just as quickly I was hit by the breath-stopping possibility of leaving the grasshopper behind – of tucking it into a bag with all the other things we didn’t need: books we would never read (or had read too many times), photographs we didn’t remember taking, a porcelain dog with a shadow where its ears had been. But I couldn’t imagine doing it. I couldn’t let myself off the hook.
Shelagh was turning the jade between her thumb and middle finger.
‘Yes, we ought to keep it,’ I said. ‘It might be worth something.’
‘Oh, Lovey, you kept all this rubbish as well.’ She put the grasshopper down and began sifting almost reverently through the cards and letters in the wooden box, as if they were relics.
‘It isn’t rubbish,’ I said.
She looked at me, and it was as if all the sour, ruined parts of our life had fallen away. Her hopeless faith in me had lasted too long now to be dashed. It was part of us, a fact of us, like the strands of her hair twined with mine between the tines of our combs.
We were set to move house the next day. The boxes and bags were lined up like messy monoliths in the hallway. All that remained on our bed were two bare pillows, flattened and stained; the summer duvet without its cover, and the clothes we planned to wear for the invasion of removal men.
I was dreading it. If the decision had been mine we’d have stayed in George Street til we died, but Shelagh’s tenure at Wadham was over and her heart was set on retiring to the country. She was almost seventy years old, which surprised us every time it was mentioned. The years had thickened her but her eyes were still quick behind her purple-rimmed spectacles.
With no help at all from me, she had found and bought a cottage in a village called Alkerton. It was fifteen minutes by car out of town: far enough to make a point but close enough that her friends could visit whenever they liked. I was dreading that, as well.
Those same friends – Christine and Jenny – would join us later for a final supper at the townhouse. I shored myself up for the onslaught as I watched Shelagh put the letters away. She closed the lid of the wooden box and picked up the jade grasshopper again.
‘Promise you’ll tell me where it came from one day,’ she said.
‘You’d think badly of me.’
She gave a blithe laugh that startled me. It didn’t suit her. She was usually so staunch.
‘I’ve known you twenty years, Lovey,’ she said. ‘I’ve thought badly of you for at least ten of them, non-contiguously.’
Lovey. No one knew except for us that it was my name – my birth name – that she was saying, blurred, in those syllables: Lanfang.
I had been Kuo Lanfang until 1950, when my brother and I arrived in England. I changed my name to ‘Pamela’, inspired by a colleague in Hong Kong. My brother took to calling himself ‘Wayne’ after an actor, but he couldn’t pronounce it properly and it still came out as Wei. It didn’t matter. He rarely left the boarding house. He didn’t need a name.
I wondered, as I often did, what Shelagh thought of me now, two decades on from the day she’d approached me at a market in Summertown. She had addressed me in Mandarin. I had scowled in return.
‘Why do you presume I understand you?’ I had said, in English. I was bold back then, and brave. ‘Maybe I’m Cantonese.’
‘Maybe you are,’ she said with a narrow smile, in Cantonese.
‘Or Fujianese,’ I said.
‘Yes, maybe,’ she said, in Hokkien. ‘It’s hard to tell.’
And then I returned her smile, but warily. Although I was proud and forthright – thirty-eight years old, displaced and defensive – I was still shell-shocked by my surroundings and my new life. The grim boarding house lay down a backstreet in Jericho where the city touched the boggy meadow. For work I cleaned toilets at Worcester College. My wages went towards rent and Wei’s liquor. I’d worn the same clothes since we arrived five months earlier. Even still, I caught the eye of Dr Shelagh Murray, research fellow in Sinology at the Department of Oriental Studies. It was either fate or wholly random. Maybe both.
I soon forgot how it was to be that version of Pamela Kuo: fierce and determined – an animal that had just missed the trap when the two sides snapped shut. These days I’m weak and bloated by anger turned in on itself and left to fester. It’s shameful, really, what I’ve become.
It was dark by the time Jenny and Christine arrived. From my old armchair beached in the middle of the empty living room I watched them bustle around Shelagh in the kitchen. When Christine embraced her from behind, the swath of her dreadlocked grey hair swayed against her wide back. Shelagh’s bare feet spread comfortably on the lino. The three of them were made of the same stuff, with their strident minds and grammar-school accents.
‘You won’t forget us, will you?’ Christine laid a long kiss on Shelagh’s cheek.
‘Of course she won’t,’ Jenny blustered. ‘It’s lonely out in the sticks. She’ll be back.’
Shelagh shifted and began to toss salad in a dented old pan we were leaving behind. I couldn’t read the expression on her face.
‘Doesn’t it look strange with everything taken down and packed away?’ Jenny gazed around as she came through into the living room. She stopped when she saw me. She stiffened, as if she wanted to turn back. Courtesy made her pause.
‘Supper’s ready, I think,’ she said to me without a smile. ‘If you’re joining us.’
I had known Jenny and Christine for as long as I’d known Shelagh. The first few years, before a double toll of death took my brother and Shelagh’s teenaged son, we’d all rubbed along quite well. Later, when I withdrew into my guilt, they treated me as an irritating afterthought: a curious case study that now served only to take up shelf space. And, of course, under everything ran a dirty thread of blame: I’d been with Nicky when he died. The sailing trip was my idea. I had watched as he was dragged lifeless, heavy and grey onto the sand.
When I joined them in the kitchen they were talking about a Women’s Lib rally in London.
‘I’ll go if we’re all set up at the new place.’ Shelagh laid the pan down on the table. Jenny and Christine were holding chopsticks instead of knives and forks, now wrapped and packed away. Christine caught my eye and snapped her chopsticks together. I granted her a small smile.
‘I don’t suppose you’ll be going, will you, Pam?’ Jenny said.
Christine sat up straighter. ‘Why not?’ The flicker of camaraderie had disappeared from her eyes.
‘I’ve better things to do.’
Jenny darkened. ‘Better than joining the cause?’
I looked at Shelagh, who raised her eyebrows, waiting for me to speak.
‘I’m not sure what help I can be,’ I said.
‘The more of us who march, the better,’ said Christine. ‘You won’t start a revolution sitting at home.’
I shook my head. ‘I’ve had enough of revolutions.’
‘What do you mean?’ Jenny said.
I willed Shelagh to wade in and help me but she didn’t.
‘What I mean is that I’m tired of them,’ I said.
‘How can you be tired of revolution?’ Christine said. ‘That makes no sense to me, as a concept.’
I looked her straight in the eye. ‘If it weren’t just a concept, perhaps you’d understand.’
‘If you’d been born in a revolution,’ I said. ‘Named after one. Fought in one. Escaped from one.’
Christine chewed and swallowed, then wiped the corner of her mouth with her thumb.
‘Gosh, Pam. I think that’s the most I’ve ever heard you say.’
‘Tell us more,’ Jenny said with an amiable hint of challenge that annoyed me.
‘I’d rather not.’
‘Come on,’ said Christine. ‘We’re old friends, aren’t we?’
Shelagh touched my foot with hers under the table. I kicked it away.
‘It’ll do you good to get out,’ Jenny said to me. ‘You need some focus.’
‘Do you think?’
‘You’re withering away.’
‘You are, Pam.’
‘How do you know what I need?’
For once I didn’t care about offending them. I was too angry at Shelagh for not stepping in.
Jenny laid her hand on my wrist in a show of concern.
‘I know you suffer with your moods,’ she said. ‘It can’t be easy, but shutting yourself away won’t help in the long run.’
I hardened with embarrassment. Shelagh had talked with them about me – about my failings and inadequacies: how I held her back, how I made her life a misery. She’d complained to them. I’d been grist to their mill, fodder for their analyses. I had been tested and found wanting. Surely they’d advised Shelagh: Leave her. Move on. Make a fresh start. It’s not too late.
I stood up and turned to go.
‘Love –’ Shelagh said.
I shook my head. Without looking at any of them I went into the hallway and made for the stairs.
‘Who’s that?’ Commander T’an barked.
‘My brother,’ Wei said.
‘Is he part of the squadron?’
‘Then why is he here?’
I stepped out from Wei’s shadow. ‘I’m loyal to Sun Tienying, Sir.’
My brother elbowed me but I stood firm.
In the blue beam of the flashlight, Commander T’an looked me up and down. I tensed but I needn’t have worried. With my inch-long hair and overalls I passed easily for a boy. The commander gave a nod.
As we lined up to march, the stutter of an engine grew louder and louder until it passed us.
‘It’s Sun!’ Wei whispered to me.
I strained for a glimpse of the general. It was close to midnight but the summer moon was high and bright. There, standing tall in the back of the truck, was Sun Tienying, staring straight ahead at the stone gates of the mausoleum. The truck guttered to a stop.
‘Han Tanpao!’ he yelled.
Brigade Commander Han stood to attention. His men bristled in preparation.
‘Take Yüling,’ Sun barked. ‘T’an Wenchiang! Take your troop to P’u-hsiangyu.’
‘Sir!’ T’an saluted.
And then there was a rattle of mortar that set the ground rumbling. Wei cowered behind me. I seized his wrist.
We took off running after Commander T’an and the others. The engineering corps had blown the stone gates open. Four trucks sat squat at either side, ready to speed away with the loot.
As we clambered over the rubble I saw Brigade Commander Han lead his troop off towards the dark path that led to Yüling. His torch beam lit a row of stone animals stretching off into the distance to the emperors’ tombs.
‘This way!’ Commander T’an cried.
We set off after him in the opposite direction.
In the moonlight it was just possible to see an open courtyard of low red-roofed pavilions as we crossed the bridge into the P’u-hsiangyu compound.
T’an pointed to one of the buildings.
‘The Dowager’s tomb,’ he said. ‘Commanders Liu, T’ao, Huang – take what you want. The rest of you, hold back. You can have what’s left.’
I was about to follow the others when my brother tugged my arm. I pulled away.
‘This isn’t the time to be scared,’ I hissed at him. The others were already ten paces ahead.
‘I’m not scared,’ he hissed back. ‘I have a better plan.’
‘We don’t want the dregs,’ he said, dragging me across the courtyard. ‘We didn’t come all the way out here for second dibs.’
I thought about the journey – hours in the back of a truck, sweltering and sweating, all the way from Peking.
‘There’s another tomb here,’ Wei said. ‘I saw it on T’an’s map.’
‘Whose tomb? The emperor’s?’
‘No. The Eastern Empress.’
He nodded. ‘There’ll be more loot in Tzu-Hsi’s for the others, but there’s bound to be something in here as well. And it’s all ours, if we can get to it.’
We had arrived at the wooden door. Wei pulled his gun from the holster and began to drive the butt into the door. It was strange to see him armed. He was too bold and obvious, as if he were only playing at being a soldier.
I looked back. Liu and his men were long gone. The door to Tzu-Hsi’s tomb was a black gap where they’d stormed it.
I pushed my brother out of the way and seized my own gun. Bracing myself, I fired three shots at close range around the lock, ignoring the burn of the backfire at my wrist.
I looked at Wei, who glared at me. I pushed past him and went into the mausoleum.
Inside the air was thick with the stink of old scrolls and incense.
Wei flashed his torch around. The beam threw its bluish light onto a doorway. The burial chamber.
‘Go and look,’ he said.
‘Come as well.’
‘No. I’ll stay here.’
The torch beam was giddy; Wei’s hand was shaking.
‘Are you afraid?’ I said.
‘Stop wasting time. Go and look.’
‘This was your idea. Why should I do the dirty work?’
‘It was your idea as much as mine,’ he said. ‘Don’t you want something to show for it?’
‘Who can we show? We can’t go back home after this.’
His face was ghoulish in the torchlight. He was clenching his jaw.
Then, he lifted his chin in the direction of the burial chamber.
‘Get in there and look. I’ll stand guard in case we’re disturbed.’
He had always been a coward. The only reason he joined Sun’s ragged band of fighters was to aggravate our father. He only conceded to me tagging along when I promised to act as his shield. As it turned out, I relished the warlord life. The liberties it gave me were the sort Wei had never needed to seek.
I walked into the dense purple air. The catafalque was too long for me to see where it ended, despite the torch beam. I knelt and looked at the grave goods lined up around its skirting.
Wei directed me from the doorway: ‘Take whatever you can carry.’
I reached for a tumble of jade carvings, gathered like a floret of grapes. My hand slowed above them and I was mesmerised, imagining the Empress at court in her jangling headdress, draped with brocade, surrounded by simpering eunuchs, the deep, metallic hum of the palace gongs.
I took up the closest piece of jade: a mottled grasshopper with long, sheathed legs carved close to its body, like leaves on an ear of corn. I slid it into my pocket.
‘Is there gold?’ Wei asked. He was growing agitated.
‘No. Only stones.’
‘Look on the corpse. There’s sure to be something.’
‘Shine the beam further, then. I can’t see.’
He lifted the torch. Light feathered out across the catafalque, showing the rounded shape of a body. I inched closer, caught between curiosity and unease.
Just as I was nearing the rise of the Empress’s head I heard a fast rally of footsteps approaching, echoing on the stone. As I turned I saw one of our troop-mates, Ning Hsieh, barrelling into the chamber. When he caught his breath he cried out:
‘There’s a pearl!’
‘Where?’ Wei said.
‘In her mouth! There has to be! They found one in Tzu-hsi’s. A black pearl! Commander Liu has taken it, but I want this one.’
‘No!’ My brother seized Ning’s arm to hold him back. ‘It’s mine.’
The older boy yanked himself free and loped over to the catafalque. His face was covered in dust except for a pale smudge where he had wiped his brow.
Suddenly I heard more footsteps. Heavier this time. More dangerous. A wash of panic sent me over to Wei. I pulled him along with me into the anteroom. Before the torch fell from his hand I saw Ning Hsieh crouching on the Empress’s body as if she were carrion, prying her jaws apart and pulling the pearl from her mouth.
I pushed Wei down into a corner just as the commanders came crashing through, shouting, scoring the darkness with their flashlights.
They fell upon Ning Hsieh, roaring Traitor! Thief!
The boy screeched and tried to twist out of their grip but they held him fast. They carried him out, still twisting madly, like an animal, through the passageway.
The flashlight fell upon me and my brother where we crouched. A white shard of fear shot through me. I could smell the bright reek of our sweat.
Commander Huang hauled us out to the mausoleum steps.
‘It wasn’t me!’ Wei was frantic with terror. ‘I promise, Sir. It was Ning Hsieh! Only Ning Hsieh!’
‘And you?’ Commander Huang knocked my shoulder with his rifle.
I stood firm. ‘You saw who it was, Sir.’
The commander narrowed his eyes. Before he could speak, Commanders Liu and T’ao came up with their men. All of them were laden with canvas sacks of loot.
‘What’s going on?’ T’ao barked.
‘This lot were thieving,’ Huang said. ‘They stormed the other tomb without our say-so.’
The moon was brighter than the flashlights but T’ao trained his beam on the three of us nevertheless. With a yelp, Ning Hsieh made to dash away. Commander Liu launched himself onto the boy, wrestled him to the ground, then stood up and drove his boot into his throat to hold him down. He reached for his holster.
In an instant, the odd injustice of it reared up at me. Before I could stop myself I stepped forward.
‘We’re all thieving, aren’t we?’ I said.
Liu looked up. Huang and T’ao bristled to attention. Behind them, the men fell to silence.
‘There’s no difference,’ I said, spurred by the shock of my own boldness. ‘We’re all taking what doesn’t belong to us.’
Liu’s brow creased with the onset of fury. Behind me I heard my brother whimpering. Under Liu’s boot, Ning Hsieh was weeping – fast, toothless breaths.
‘Who are you, anyway?’ Liu said to me.
As I pressed my hands to my sides to brace myself I felt the imprint of the jade grasshopper against my hip, lurking in the pocket where I’d hidden it.
‘I’m a thief like the rest of you,’ I said. ‘If you’re going to shoot Ning, you’d better shoot us all.’
‘Very well,’ Liu said sharply. ‘You can help me. Take out your gun. You have one, don’t you? Come on. You can see Ning off first. Then that snivelling pig over there.’
He jutted his chin in my brother’s direction. Wei was stock-still, shivering, face lined with tears. Commanders T’ao and Huang glanced at each other. Their men – five altogether – were shifting in various stances of confusion and dismay.
‘I refuse,’ I said.
‘Then I’ll do it myself,’ he sneered. ‘I’ll save you for last, so you can watch.’
Liu unhitched his gun from its holster. He looked down at Ning Hsieh.
In the same dreadful moment, he cocked it and took aim at the boy, and I pulled out my own pistol and held it up. There were two fierce cracks. As the dull agony of backfire shuddered up my arm I saw Commander Liu fall backwards, stricken; below him Ning Hsieh’s chest plumped out and burst in a muddle of blood.
All I remember from the fracas that followed was the smoke and the noise and my own roaring pulse as I ran to the wilderness beyond. I ran and I ran, stopping only when I was sure there was nobody behind me. I rested, bent double with my palms on my knees, hauling my breath up in big gasps to calm myself.
I looked back at the red gabled roofs of the gravesite. A figure was approaching. I tensed and made to take off, but as it came closer I saw it was Wei. I waited for him to catch me up then set to running again. I put my hand in my pocket and circled the little jade grasshopper with my fingers.
Get rid of it, I said to myself. Get rid of it, I said with each thud my feet made on the ground. Throw it away. It isn’t yours. It will haunt you.
But a smaller, more persistent voice said: Keep it.
The jade grew warm in my hand.
The voices skirmished in my head, and I thought of the Empress’s face giving way as Ning Hsieh pulled the pearl from her mouth.
Keep it. It will haunt you.
Just before dawn on our first day at the cottage in Alkerton, I dreamed of Nick. Over the years he had come back to me in different forms, changing in synchronicity with the reshaping of my guilt and grief. In the weeks directly following his death I dreamed about his body. I dreamed I was holding him, shaking him, sucking the sedge from his lungs to revive him. I never could. As time passed he grew distant, and I would dream of seeing him on the other side of a room, across a river, in a car driving off in the other direction. And then, for a long while, I didn’t dream of him at all.
That morning in Alkerton I brought him back to life. In the dream we were on the seashore. I had pulled him up from the shallows. His head was in my lap. I slid the slime-jewelled seaweed from his brow and hooked my thumb into his mouth to dig out the black sand that was choking him. He opened his eyes and began to breathe.
I woke up wet and dappled with gooseflesh.
Shelagh shifted beside me, turned, and settled again.
The warm light was unfamiliar. I got out of bed and went to the window. I put my face into the gap where the curtains met. At the end of the garden was a border full of daffodils. Behind it, silver birches tossed like streamers in the wind.
And there, crouching on the sill – Shelagh must have put it there – was the grasshopper. The sunlight struggled through the dense storm-cloud patterns of the stone. I followed the line of its carapace with the edge of my finger. My instinct was to clasp it in my hand so I wouldn’t have to see it, then drop it into the back of a drawer. But then, as I looked at it, I thought of something Shelagh used to say to Nicky when he wanted a bandage for a grazed knee or a cut: Let the air at it. It’ll molder otherwise.
But it hurts, Nick would whine, and Shelagh would brush his brown hair from his forehead and say Yes, it hurts.
I heard her yawn.
‘Is it morning?’ she said. ‘What time is it?’
‘It isn’t too late.’
‘Come and sleep a while longer, then,’ she said, lifting the covers up for me.
‘Are you well, Lovey?’ She pushed her head into the crook of my neck.
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Yes – I think so.’