Ayaou and Robert started to live again in March. His Chinese language teacher triggered the change. He started working the schedule he had used with Master Tee Lee Ping over the summer. To keep the guilt brought on by Shao-mei’s death from eating him, he worked harder to understand the way the Chinese people thought. Keeping busy saved him.
He learned how to talk in circles and never hit the center of any message he was trying to give. Communication in China was like an indirect art form that flew in circles and never landed. In the West, it was more like shooting a bullet into the center of a target. The better he became at getting his meaning across indirectly, the easier it was for the Chinese to accept him.
“I’m marrying,” Tee Lee Ping said at the end of one session. It was in the evening. They were at Robert’s house in the first-floor sitting room where the lessons took place. Ping handed him a bag of candy. “You’re invited to my wedding, which takes place in two weeks. If you want to bring Ayaou, that will be fine with me.”
At first, he found it strange that the Chinese didn’t invite people as a couple but only through the man of the house. It was up to him to decide. He guessed that since most affluent Chinese men had more than one concubine or wife, and no one knew which concubine or wife the man might bring, trouble was avoided by leaving the decision to the man.
He’d seen men come by themselves. Bringing one concubine or wife could cause jealousy from the others, which Robert now understood thanks to the battle for his love that had once raged between Shao-mei and Ayaou.
“How long have you been engaged?” he asked. “You’ve never mentioned it before.” Though he knew Master Ping’s private life was not his business, he was curious. The man had been his teacher for more than a year.
“I just turned twenty-six. I have been engaged for thirteen years.”
“That was a long engagement, Master Ping,” he said. He poured red wine into his teacher’s glass to congratulate him. “Why so long?”
“Well, I didn’t have sufficient money to fix a good home for the woman that will be my wife,” Ping replied. “My friends and family have given me gifts. They were worried that the engagement might fall apart.”
“Did you worry?”
“Terribly,” Tee Lee Ping said. “My parents-in-law wanted specific things for their daughter. I finally gained their permission with heaven’s help. In China, the girl listens to her parents more than her lover or husband. She suffers but doesn’t rebel.”
After his teacher left, he asked Ayaou to purchase gifts before the wedding. Two days later, to his surprise, she bought a pair of hens.
He frowned. “What kind of gift is this?”
“It’s the Chinese style. These are egg-bearing hens—the best gift one can give.”
* * * *
On the day of the wedding, it was raining in torrents. The narrow streets were awash with streams of water cleansing the city of its filth and its sins. The wedding and the rain also relieved some of the mental anguish Robert and Ayaou had lived with since Shao-mei’s death.
Ayaou rented a sedan chair. They arrived with the hens in baskets decorated with red ribbons. Tee Lee Ping met them at the entrance to his parents’ house wearing a knee-length blue silk gown with a giant red silk flower tied with a ribbon across his chest. He led them to a hall inside the house. Ping was pleased with the gifts and thanked Robert repeatedly. Robert saw that the other guests had brought ducks, fish, marinated pig heads and thighs. He was happy with Ayaou’s choice.
The walls of the hall were gaily decorated with pictures and scrolls. The ceiling supported an army of red lanterns. Every chair and table was covered with red paper painted with the symbols of love and harmony. The people crowding the room were dressed in their best.
On one side of the hall, a band played a song of greeting every time a new guest arrived. Robert approached Tee Lee Ping’s parents and older relatives and did what Ayaou had instructed. He clasped his hands, brought them to his chin and bowed deeply. A little startled, they returned the bow.
One old man, probably in his nineties, half-blind, who Robert assumed had never seen a foreigner in his life, pointed at him, and said, “What’s wrong with his hair? So yellow! Tell him to eat more black sesame seeds, so he can get his color back.”
Robert chuckled at the humor in the old man’s statement that eating black sesame seeds changed hair color. Ayaou was dressed in a peach-colored, satin Chinese robe. The other women wore similar robes but in different colors with different patterns. He had on a black, English suit with a cravat. Two pocket watches with fobs were displayed hanging from his front waistcoat pockets.
Ayaou was a bit concerned about the locals response to him—a barbarian. Her worries were soon put to rest. Everyone was polite. Some greeted him with questions about his health. Ayaou had told him that the state of his health was no one’s concern. It was only a formality—a way to say hello. That’s why his answers were not specific. He also discovered that his weekly visits and conversations at the bath and teahouse helped.
A shout caught everyone’s attention. “The flower chair has arrived.”
The chair was brought into the reception room where water from the rain dripped onto the floor. The four men carrying the chair set it down and removed the poles. Next they removed the little patchwork quilt of ornamental wood that made up the door. Two bridesmaids stood on either side of the now opened door.
A slight figure dressed in a beautiful bright-red dress stepped out of the chair. The bride’s head was covered with a piece of red cloth and her face was hidden beneath it. Taking small steps, she was guided into the hall. She had the smallest feet Robert had seen on a woman. Since most of his time was spent with men, he had never seen a woman with bound feet before. None of the women among the boat people had bound feet. Ayaou and Shao-mei had regular sized feet.
“It is customary to wait five hours.” Ayaou whispered. “You should thank Master Tee Lee Ping for telling you to come right before the bride arrived.”
The servants started to replace the candles on the tables with larger candles. On the sides of each candle, good wishes were carved into the wax. Each candle had a different scent symbolizing separate elements and aspects of life. One scent was particularly strong. Robert started to wheeze and his eyes itched. He discovered that candle had opium mixed in the wax. He moved to the far side of the room. It took a few minutes before he recovered.
The elaborate ceremony went on. Nobody seemed to care about time. Finally, the Bye Tiendee, begging for heaven’s blessing, began. Ayaou watched with interest when the couple started what Robert called the endless ‘pecking’. They bowed to the altars, the spirits of their ancestors five generations back, to great-uncles and aunts, to grandparents, and to both sets of parents. He felt sorry for their poor necks going up and down.
Ayaou hid behind the crowd while they watched. When he attempted to put an arm around her, she moved away from him as if she didn’t want anyone to know they were together. She smiled carefully to people who greeted her. Robert remembered that belonging to him caused her to lose faceto other Chinese. Understanding her behavior didn’t stop him from resenting it. At the same time, he felt as if he were a hypocrite.
There was envy in Ayaou’s eyes. Although she didn’t express it, he knew she would have loved to have the same ceremony for herself. On the other hand, she knew that she’d never get the respect Tee Lee Ping and his bride received. She belonged to Robert, a foreigner. She was an outcast in her community. The Chinese had unspoken moral rules, which ran like a vein through the body of their society. Master Ping had invited Robert, not out of respect for Ayaou but for his student. To the Chinese, Ayaou had no status—she didn’t exist and was as good as dead.
Robert could offer Ayaou no comfort. If he married her, he’d be considered decadent to the Western community. The missionaries, except William Martin, would sentence him to hell and eternal damnation. They would say he’d gone native—that the heathens had enticed him away from the one true God.
Robert knew that William would attempt to convince him to convert Ayaou to Christianity. William had tried once before. Robert had ignored him. He had his reasons for not wanting Ayaou to become a Christian.
In addition, his family would turn their backs on him if they discovered he was living with a woman considered property. His family belonged to a Methodist religion founded by John Wesley, who preached that women were equal to men and not chattel.
Robert had been avoiding this problem. He wanted to be accepted by his kind. After all, his upbringing influenced the choices he was making in life. He wanted to earn respect from his employers and colleagues, so he would continue to have a future in his diplomatic career. He believed that if he married Ayaou, his career in the British consular service would become frozen. He’d never advance. It was expected that he marry a woman from Ireland—someone his family knew.
Before they departed, Robert wished the bride and groom great luck and plenty of children. Tee Lee Ping seriously accepted the wish and again thanked him for the hens.
The rain had let up, so he dismissed the sedan chair. He checked his coat pocket to make sure the revolver was still there. “Do you have your weapon?” he asked.
Ayaou lifted the cloth bag she had brought with her so he could see her revolver.
Robert nodded. “Good,” he said. “Be alert.” They walked down the narrow street toward their house. She was unusually quiet. He thought she was worried like he was. He hated living in fear—not knowing when another blow was coming.
He tried to get her to talk. “They certainly had to wait a long time to be married. The poor bugger had to save his money for thirteen years to put that on in proper style. It must be horribly expensive.”
Ayaou didn’t respond. She appeared deep in thought.
Until that night, their lovemaking had been frantic as if they might not live another hour. Once home, Ayaou was tender. Robert responded the same. While they were making love, he smelled the sun and the ocean in her hair—something he cherished.
“I fear the future,” Ayaou said.
He knew what she meant, but what could he say. One part of him wanted to make a marriage proposal right then, but his other half, the British half, feared becoming an outcast without a career or future in England. He sighed.
He slipped his arms around her. She nestled again him. “No matter what happens,” he said, “you must know that I love you.” He felt a twinge of guilt. Sleep wasn’t going to come easy.
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Honorable Mention in General Fiction