In Taichung with Man-ling, Jade Phoenix cried incessantly. Rivulets of pent-up pain flowed down her cheeks with each night of terror relived.
They sat together on the futon, legs crossed. Man-ling temporized. “Marry a chicken, you follow a chicken. Marry a dog and you follow a dog,” she said, repeating the saying that had passed from mothers to daughters for centuries.
“But I married a beast who beats me for no reason at all,” moaned Jade Phoenix.
“Yuan fen. Fate. Next life will be better.”
“I can’t go back there.”
Man-ling took Jade Phoenix in her arms and cradled her. “But you must. It’s your duty.”
“So he can kill me?”
“Impossible. Ask po-po how to make her son happy.”
Jade Phoenix wailed. A villager passing by stopped to snoop at the tiny window in the cement wall abutting the alley.
“Why are you so distant now?” Jade asked. “Po-po won’t tell her son to treat me like a human being. She probably was treated the same way.”
Man-ling groped in her own cavern of despair for some way to help. She whispered so softly it was hardly more than a light breeze in Jade’s ear. “Give him nei-ge la. If you give him what he wants it will get better.”
“I’ll run away or die.”
“If you leave him what’s your future? Gung gung tse suo. Public toilet. Used by everybody. Go back before he comes after you.”
Two weeks of enforced New Year’s revelry came to an end with the Lantern Festival. Mother-in-law Tao opened the drawer where she had stuffed all the hung bao, red envelopes that family members brought her during the holiday. She carefully counted the money inside each envelope and calculated the result of all the visits.
The obligatory exchanges between relatives were her measure of happiness in the New Year. She had been parsimonious, limiting her gift giving to a single blue New Taiwan fifty-dollar note, two at most for her favorite grandchildren. Her hope was to celebrate red $100 NT notes in return, since her age and matriarchal status mandated that she receive generous gifts. She had waited long enough to attain her station, and it was her turn to reap some reward.
When she made the final tab, it all amounted to less spending money than she wanted. A few days afterwards, she dispatched her daughter to summon Jade Phoenix.
Jade came quickly and bowed. “You called, po-po.”
Mrs. Tao poured two cups of tea and offered one to Jade. “Do sit at the table so we can talk.”
“You know that military pay is almost nothing. Your husband never brings home any money.”
Jade Phoenix looked down at the bare cement floor. Mrs. Tao tapped her cane. “I’m sure you don’t want to be a burden to the family,” she said. “A cousin is opening a new restaurant in Tainan city. You can help out. I’ll take care of the baby.”
Jade nodded. “Yes po-po. If you wish.” Underneath the complaisant facade, bitterness had become a brittle shield for feeling nothing at all.
In a moment of false tranquility, Jade stared at a blank piece of rice paper in her room, ink brush in hand, seeking solace in writing poetry as she had since childhood.
She prayed for an image, a feeling, a rhyme, anything to emerge from the void. Hand trembling, brush over paper, she waited for a Chinese ideograph to bear meaning. Her hand moved, aimlessly it seemed, from behind eyelids shut tight against intrusion. The ink brush grazed the rice paper for some indeterminate time, revealing an unfamiliar but recognizable pattern when she opened her eyes. Swirled in calligraphic mastery were the letters: N - I - C - K. When the rice paper was saturated with her tears, she folded it carefully, tore out the part she had written on, and swallowed it.
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