Breaking Free

 

Another poor attempt of mine at short story writing:

My period came when I was eleven, I ran out of the toilet screaming for Mother. Mother chided me and told me to hush. “What a stupid little girl, Lee Choo, don’t you know what has happened?” she asked. I cried all day; several hours later my aunt came to look for me and told me what to do, she gave me a wad of papers and a cloth-sewn menstrual belt and told me to get used to it. “You’ll be menstruating for the next 40 years,” she declared gleefully.

When I was fourteen, an entourage arrived from a village in Quanzhou. Just before they reached our door, Mother chased me into the kitchen and told me not to show my face. Nothing to stop me from peeping though; at that time I had no idea that so much had already taken place prior to this event. A month before, a match maker has asked for the date and hour of my birth and the information was placed on the ancestral altar of my potential husband for three days and three nights and when nothing bad happened during that period, an astrologer was consulted to confirm that the birth dates of both my potential husband and mine had no celestial conflicts. Next came the formal meeting which was taking place right now.

I peeped and found him so cute, he must be 16 or 17 at the very most; fat and chubby like a little piglet with a huge zit on his nose, a nose that looked like the upturned nose of a pig and oh what ruddy cheeks – clearly the son of a rich man who had no need to toil in the sun.

I was then brought out and presented, shy and blushing for I knew everyone in the room was scrutinizing me and Pig Nose was looking at me with his mouth open. I wasn’t sure but I thought he was actually salivating! The match maker assured everyone that I was pure and that my maidenhead was intact. Pig Nose’s parents seemed pleased. Father was nodding his head and beaming.

The next few weeks saw our families exchanging gifts; then bridal cakes arrived from Pig Nose’s family and my parents distributed them to friends and relatives. No one asked my opinion the entire time and I made an effort not to show too much interest.

Next my family sent porters with an inventoried dowry to Pig Nose’s house. The dowry consisted of practical items, including a chamber pot, filled for the occasion with fruit and strings of coins. This procession gave my family the opportunity to display both our social status and their love for their daughter.

At last came the scary day. At dawn on my wedding day I was bathed in water infused with pomegranate leaves to cleanse me of evil influences. Mother spoke auspicious words while dressing my hair in the style of a married woman. I started crying and so did Mother whose silent sobs slowly became loud and mournful lamentations that sounded rather creepy.

I was dressed in red right down to my silk shoes. My face was covered with a red silk veil or a “curtain” of tassels or beads that hung from the bridal phoenix crown. Oh I felt like a princess. I was sure I would learn to love Pig Nose; he looked so stupid but cute!

The din of firecrackers, loud gongs and drums marked the start of the procession to Pig Nose’s home. The groom led the procession accompanied by a little boy, believing that this would guarantee future sons, and the bridal sedan chair was preceded by attendants with lanterns and banners, musicians, and a “dancing” lion. I felt woozy. Suddenly I was so afraid, and I cried non stop, this would be the first time I was leaving home. There was a slight breeze as we trekked; as I surveyed the landscape I suddenly realized I was on a journey of transition from one stage of my life to a very unknown future.

I stepped over a lit stove to cross the threshold into Pig Nose’s home. Not a familiar face was in sight; I was among strangers and couldn’t stop crying; Pig Nose’s mother told me to shut up and not to be stupid for this was a happy occasion. I had to kneel and serve tea to Pig Nose’s parents and all the elders. The banquet that followed was such a feast but I was told only to nibble and not to appear greedy; boy was I hungry!

My cousins had tried to scare me with ribald tales of what would happen on the wedding night; weirdly I felt ticklish down there with expectations as Pig Nose climbed into bed with me but nothing happened; the moment he hit the bed Pig Nose snored till morning. He looked stupid, sleeping with his mouth open, drooling at the side of his mouth like an idiot. I tossed and turned, staying awake and cried all night.

Three days after the wedding, Pig Nose and I paid a visit to my parents’ home, and for the first time I felt like an adult because I was received by my parents as a guest. I cried again and Mother told me to stop the childish behavior. She advised that I must learn to accept the fact that, with my marriage, our ties are broken forever and that I now belong to another family. “Focus on being a good wife and a mother and stop being childish,” admonished Mother.

I thought Pig Nose was even more childish stopping so many times along the way to catch crickets.

In fact, I thought Pig Nose was more interested in crickets than me. He played all day and played all night; he was occasionally petulant, throwing childish tantrums when he didn’t get his way but most of the times he was rather insipid. Each night as we climbed into bed, he would be comatose within minutes.

I missed my parents and my cousins, and the only one other than Pig Nose who was our age was Pig Nose’s 5th uncle who was about a year older than Pig Nose. But compared to Pig Nose, Choon Guan seemed more mature, especially when he opened his mouth to speak. Also Choon Guan loved books and he lent me some; when we had the opportunities we would discuss what we read while Pig Nose would amuse himself with his crickets. Pig Nose’s four other uncles have settled in other provinces so in the extended household here it was only Pig Nose, his parents, Choon Guan and me.

“Lee Choo, I’m fucking hungry, cook me something,” whined Pig Nose.

“Here, here, what do you like to eat?” I asked him as I mentally did a stock take of what we had in the kitchen. “Do you want some noodles with sesame oil and soy sauce?” I asked, but Pig Nose shook his head.

“Alright, how about some fried eggs with dried shrimps?”

“Whatever,” he said, “But it better be nice.”

“Oh, it’ll be nice alright,” I replied, and sighed, as I dropped a handful of dried shrimps into a bowl of cold water to soften them.

I heated up the wok, “Big Brother how’s your appetite? Two or three eggs?” I asked as I reached for the mortar and pestle; I squeezed the shrimps dry, dropped them in to the pestle and started pounding.

Then I chopped scallions while looking at Pig Nose, who was dreaming away, staring into space, not answering. “Oh well, I guess two eggs then,” I said and cracked two eggs into a bowl, beating the eggs with a pair of chopsticks. I poured a little spoonful of coagulated lard into the sizzling wok, fried the pounded shrimps and then poured in the egg.

“Wah I can smell it, it smells yummy!” exclaimed Pig Nose grinning and jumping. I turned off the fire, scattered chopped scallions all over the fried egg, scooped my creation into a plate and served it to my child-husband with both hands as a sign of respect. He reached for a pair of chopsticks, sprinkled some soy sauce on the dish and started stuffing his face.

“You’re a wonderful cook, Lee Choo,” belched Pig Nose. I just stood there and shook my head sadly. Fortunately Pig Nose didn’t ask for treasures of the mountains and flavors from the sea. Thankfully, he was rather easy to satisfy.

That was all he knew what to do, eat and play. By now I’ve come to realize that Pig Nose was not just childish, characterless and colorless, but he was actually several years behind his age and certainly mentally deficient. Once at the market, I heard two women whispering to each other while shooting us strange looks. I caught snippets of their conversation and I heard “village retard” and “such a pretty lass wasted on him, he wouldn’t know what to do” followed by a series of giggles.

Indeed I didn’t feel that Pig Nose was my husband in any sense of the word. We hardly talked and any conversation we had was rather inconsequential and unimportant. He didn’t show me any love, didn’t shower me with affection and certainly didn’t take care of me in any way. In fact, I was the one taking care of him. Is this what it means to be a wife? I didn’t feel “wifely” at all. What does he think I am? His companion as he catches crickets in the field, his surrogate mother, his washer woman?

Yes I had to wash the family’s clothes every day. Not a big deal since I’ve been washing clothes since I was nine.

It was in the washing room when I got into big trouble.

One morning, I was doing the family laundry when I became conscious of the fact that there was another presence there. I became aware that someone else was in the room staring at me.

“Oh,” I gasped as my Pig Nose’s father coughed. “Sorry I startled you,” he said. “Ah Pah, it’s alright,” I said suddenly realizing that we were the only two persons in the room, making me feel rather tense and uneasy for some strange reason.

“Lee Choo, your legs are so fair,” Ah Pah said in his phlegmy voice, staring at my legs. I turned red. “That’s because my clothes cover them all the time,” I responded meekly. I felt my cheeks burning, this was the first time any man has commented on my body.

“But tell me Lee Choo,” asked Ah Pah, “how is it some parts of my body are always covered but they are still dark?”

Before I could even begin to think of an answer, out of the blue there was this, this – what could only be described as a monstrosity between Ah Pah’s legs – staring at my face, oh my god, I could die.

“Stroke it,” commanded Ah Pah, who was suddenly breathing funny – heavy breathing accompanied with a perverted look on his face, “take it in your mouth and love it,” he whispered urgently and pushed the huge gutter-smelling thing into my throat. Before I knew it, a hot thick milky liquid exploded into my mouth, I gagged and threw up my breakfast.

“Tell this to anyone and I will have you strangled,” warned Ah Pah as he pulled up his pants.

That night, Ah Pah came for me; while Pig Nose was asleep, Ah Pah entered our bedchamber, told me not to make noise, took off my clothes and had his way with me. My crying seemed only to excite him further; I was bleeding and I couldn’t even walk properly after that. All this happened with Pig Nose sleeping and snoring away in the same bed.

I was in a stupor all day the next day; the pain was unbearable, what was even more unbearable was the shock and shame – I felt so dirty. What happened the night before played continuously in my mind, like pictures from a book. When Choo Guan came with more books I could not look him in the eye.

“What’s wrong Ah Choo?” he wanted to know. I could only shake my head. I turned away so that he couldn’t see my tears.

Ah Pah increased the frequency of his assaults. Almost every night I had to smell his icky kaoliang-infused breathed as he slobbered all over me; almost every night I seethed with anger but shook with fear. “Oh, you drained the marrow from my bones, you little bitch” he would groan after each episode, collapsing on me, the full weight of his spent body on my chest. An ape of a man, with a hairy chest and food fragments still stuck between the gaps of his teeth he was disgusting to the core and he confused my young, chaste mind. Ah Pah taught me how to please him and during those infrequent lightning flashes when I actually felt slight tinges of forbidden pleasure they were followed by guilt so deep I wanted to rip my heart out and kill myself.

I thought of complaining to Ah Bu but I was held back by fear and trepidation – what would make her believe me? What happened was so outrageous it seemed unbelievable. Daughters-in-law fear their husband’s mothers. Moreover, it’ll be my word against Ah Pah’s and everyone knows how precious little the words of a daughter-in-law are, compared to that of anyone else in the household.

The spring of year two was when Choon Guan’s turn to get married. It was a happy, festive occasion; Choon Guan’s bride Khia  Mui hailed from Jieyang, the daughter of a rich family. Khia Mui has actually attended school and not only could she read, she could actually write! She quickly became my newest friend and confidante. We did our household chores together and whatever spare time we had we would read to each other and talked about literature. With Choon Guan, Khia Mui and I, the romance of the three kingdoms, the warring states, Sung Dynasty’s scoundrel Hsi-men Ching and his pursuit of Chin Ping Mei came alive as we regaled each other with such tales for amusement.

Because Ching Ping Mei was considered a “salty” book we were careful not to let Ah Pah and Ah Bu see us reading it – not that they were literate enough to know what we were reading anyway. Pig Nose showed no interest whatsoever in books; his days were spent with other village kids – crickets, fishing, chasing dogs and generally just having fun.

One day, I became very depressed when I grasped that fact that I’ve not had my period! It threw me into a state of frenzy; what if Ah Pah has gotten me pregnant? I was worried sick. I looked out of our window, the leaves were rustling, there was a slight breeze, and I could hear Pig Nose and his play mates as they played by the meadow. It was somewhat idyllic and life in a rural Chinese village was simple and uneventful but I was anything but calm. I look at the Mandarin ducks on our little lake, looking so serene and unruffled, who would know they were actually frantically paddling under the water?

I’ve never been so relieved when my cycles settled into a recognizable pattern again.

But I wasn’t the only one with problems.

“What happened?” I asked Khia Mui when I saw her crying near the bamboo grove.

“I’m so ashamed,” she wailed.

Between sobs the truth slowly emerged: when Choon Guan was working at the tea plantations, Ah Pah would rape her.

I did a double take, sickened by the thought.

I felt an intense push to share my woes too but instead I kept quiet. Now I understood why the frequency of Ah Pah’s night visits to my bedchamber has decreased somewhat. I certainly wasn’t complaining but it was heart-rending to see Choon Guan’s young bride being ravaged by his own elder brother.

Khia Mui, being educated, seemed to manifest a rage more intense than that which I felt. Her righteous indignation of being robbed of something which rightly belonged to her husband devastated her. She too was afraid to speak with Ah Bu and like me she would not confide in her own husband. So she turned to me for comfort. Little did she know that I was able to be so sympathetic only because I too was a victim of these acts of shame perpetuated by the same brute.

Being a fragile, delicate sio chia, dainty daughter from a good family, Khia Mui’s suffering caused by Ah Pah started to take a toll on her. She could not eat, became even thinner than her already filmsy self; she was distraught, distracted and extremely miserable.

Ah Bu and Choon Guan thought that the stress of being separated from her parents was causing Khia Mui to lose weight and to be so unhappy.

“Choo ah, I can’t take this anymore,” Khia Mui confided in me one evening as we strolled by the little stream at the back of the house.

The setting sun cast an eerie shade of orange on the land. In the distance, I could see tea pickers making their way home, their day’s work done. Soon another day will come, but what was troubling my sister-in-law?

Khia Mui’s predicament planted in me a sense of wickedness, a wickedness that suggested to me that I could take advantage of her plight to end my own state of wretchedness.

“Ah Mui ah,” I said, “I’ve never finished school, I’m not educated, like you, but no man is allowed to do this to you, can you imagine – he’s your very own father-in-law, and the brother of your husband.”

“You’re right. He’s a monster.”

“You are from a noble family, your parents are not illiterate like mine, if your dalliances with Ah Pah continue,” I rubbed it in, “it’s a matter of time before word leaks out, and you’re going to tarnish your family’s honor.”

“Dalliances with Ah Pah!” protested Khia Mui, “look, I didn’t start this; he was the one who raped me!”

“Nobody’s going to believe you,” I argued, “who would accept as true what you say? Don’t forget we are just women. People will say that it takes two to clap, so what are you going to do about this? Do you want to let this go on forever? Do you want to be taunted the rest of your life?”

“I don’t know,” Khia Mui continued to weep.

“You can’t let this continue, not only are you being robbed,” I added, “by allowing this heinous sin go on unstopped, by having a revolving door to your bedchamber, indirectly you’re also not being right with your husband,” I twisted the knife a bit more.

Khia Mui wept even more; her emaciated body heaving with sobs.

“Maybe he will suffer retribution, heaven has eyes they say,” she said between sobs.

“If heaven has eyes, this would not have happened,” I blew here away, “This man is a scourge for women like us. You must give this keem siu, this beast, no chance to redeem himself.”

“Oh dear, what shall I do, Ah Choo,” wailed Khia Mui. She was pulling at her hair now.

“There are two kinds of people in this world, those who lose and those who get even,” I provoked Khia Mui.

“If I were you, I would cut if off,” I said, “with a pair of scissors and feed it to the pigs.” I placed a huge pair of scissors in Khia Mui’s hands and turned away.

I wasn’t sure if I was doing the right thing; I was ashamed of my own dilemma and my lack of courage to do something about it myself, except using my quandary my sister-in-law was in as a leverage to get me out of my own living hell.

Before I had much time to think about it, tragedy struck.

They found their bodies one late afternoon, just before time for dinner preparation. Both were buck naked in Khia Mui’s bed; both have bled profusely. The bed was soaked and dripping with blood. My pair of scissors was stuck in her chest; Ah Pah’s manhood has been severed. He either bled to death or suffered a heart attack after being brutally and crudely castrated but not before he managed to plunge the scissors right into Khia Mui’s heart.

The ensuing days were like a blur; some relatives I’ve never met before came out of the woodwork and helped with the funeral. It was a hush hush event as word has gotten out and the shame over the incident cast a dark cloud over the household. Ah Pah had died in disgrace. Ah Bu was inconsolable; she became like a different person after that, moving about as if in a daze…with that thousand yard stare in her eyes.

Pig Nose seemed oblivious to the entire episode; I don’t recall him shedding a tear at his father’s death.

Choon Guan moved away to Shantou, a town situated at the mouth of the main branch of the river Han and found a job working as a junior clerk at the port. He vowed never to return to our part of the world; the scandal too much to bear. He wrote to me occasionally; soon his letters arrived more frequently and our friendship blossomed.

One morning Pig Nose and I woke up to see Ah Bu hanging from the beam in the kitchen. The same relatives who came out of the woodwork for Ah Pah’s funeral reappeared and soon Ah Bu’ death became another yet event in the past.

Pig Nose bawled his eyes out for three days after we discovered Ah Bu’s suicide but he soon lapsed back in to his routine and life seemed to return to normal.

It had indeed.

At least on the surface.

Choon Guan and I had fallen in love and we devised a plan for me to join him in Shantou. Now that it was only Pig Nose and me left, it was easy to carry it out.

“Let’s go fishing tomorrow,” I suggested to Pig Nose one morning, “but let’s do it at the lake behind Uncle Yong’s farm.” The lake was forbidden territory full of water hyacinths; it was declared off-limits because of its depth. Few people ventured out there but those who did talked about the gigantic sliver carps lurking there.

We set out early the next day bringing with us some buns for lunch. The walk was pleasant; we stopped to chase dragon flies along the way. When we sat at the pontoon, with our legs in the lake, we could hear the birds warbling overhead. Pig Nose was singing on top of his voice, happy as a lark.

I looked at him. This little boy who could not grow up, he was like an albatross round my neck. Sure it is a wife’s duty to follow her husband but is this child able to be a husband? I was the one who was the adult here. Should I stay and spend the rest of my life here living a hopeless future, picking tea leaves and keeping home for a husband who seemed to live on a different plane?

“He’s not that bad a person”, I reasoned with myself, “He’s cute, and rather happy-go- lucky. If only he acts his age and behaves like a man he’s supposed to be.”

The tears started to fall as I contemplated my future; if I stay, before long, I would become another un-attractive, thick-waisted village woman, with dirt in her nails and wrinkles on her face. In the twinkling of an eye, ten, twenty, thirty years would pass and I would have wasted my entire youth, my entire life. If I go to Choon Guan, I would be going to a different environment, it would be an escape to a world where happiness is genuinely possible, where a man and a woman would love each other and thrive on that love, where living would not be a daily struggle, a daily confrontation with the void in my heart, where hurts, if any would be soothed by care and concern.

I looked at Pig Nose one more time. That look seemed to touch a raw nerve. This boy had just lost his parents; maybe I should take care of him. But I told myself not to be sentimental and to do what I must do.

I edged closer to my husband.

Then with all the strength I could muster together I pushed him into the lake.

Splash!

I stood up and walked away. I could hear him thrashing about in the water. I could hear his blood curling screams. I could hear him gurgling away. But Pig Nose could not swim, that plus the water hyacinths trapping him, holding him down, Pig Nose hadn’t got a chance of making it.

Finally from a distance I heard what I thought was a weak final struggle for breath, followed by a deadly silence.

I continued walking; I never looked back.

I took my own sweet time to walk leisurely to the village chief’s house scheming what to say when I got there. I told everyone there that Pig Nose had fallen into the lake, I put up a convincing act, screaming like a mad woman, my tears intermingled with mucous from my nose. After two days and two nights of searching they could not find anything. Those two days and two nights were the toughest times for me, putting on an act, behaving like a catatonic young victim of multiple tragedies ought to behave.

On the third day, his bloated body floated up, badly eaten by the carps and the ferocious snake heads infesting the lake. It was a horrendous sight to behold; he looked three times his size; the ugliness of it all further strengthening my resolve to get the hell out of this desolate life.

Three weeks later. I walked off the gangway from the boat taking me to the southern port of Shantou. Choon Guan was waiting for me. My heart missed a beat as I spotted him standing tall by the dock – a real man, someone who would be my protector and comforter. He has put on a bit of weight; his complexion seemed lighter – must be due to his working indoors. He heaved up my heavy bundle of belongings with a strong hand – I could see the bulging veins – and put out his other hand to reach me.

The moment our fingers intertwined, I knew things would be okay.

We walked hand in hand into the sunset…

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