Read Inheritance Online

Authors: Lan Samantha Chang

Inheritance

ALSO BY LAN SAMANTHA CHANG

Hunger: A Novella and Stories

For my sisters

Prologue

Hangzhou 1925

WHEN SHE WAS THIRTY-FOUR, NO LONGER A YOUNG WOMAN
, my grandmother Chanyi crossed West Lake to see a fortune-teller. She didn’t tell my grandfather; she wished to keep her fate a secret. Perhaps her years of married life had deepened her need for privacy.

“You come along, Junan,” she told my mother. “She’ll predict your husband.” At twelve, my mother had no interest in a husband, but she welcomed every chance to see the world. She took her sister by the hand and together they followed Chanyi to the waiting cab.

Soon it would be summer. Warm rains had rinsed the coal dust off the gray house walls, forming puddles in the streets where insects bred. The cabbie pedaled slowly, cursing as his front wheel dipped and sloshed the mud over his feet. His three passengers paid scant attention. Chanyi sat lost in thought. Little Yinan gave the man one frightened, curious glance and looked away. My mother maintained the cool poise that she would have throughout her life. As usual, she kept her questions to herself. Why weren’t they taking their own horse and cart? Why was the trip a secret? They had never been out alone before. She didn’t let herself relax until they reached the famous lake, where the sweet air and tranquil beauty soothed her. Deep clouds suffused the lake and sky with violet tones, making a vivid backdrop for the crumbled Thunder Peak Pagoda.

“Look over there,” she said to Yinan. “The old pagoda’s fallen.”

“Is it dead?”

“No, silly, it’s made of stone.”

Yinan covered her eyes. Certain objects frightened her and she wouldn’t go near them. She refused to touch the carved goose handle on an old water bucket. She claimed the rose on a silk cushion had made a face at her.

Junan appealed to their mother. “Mama, see how silly she is.”

But Chanyi didn’t respond. She sat clutching a package with the fortune-teller’s payment, her eyes bright with resolve and fear.

Junan turned her gaze back to the fallen tower. Not even her mother’s mood could lessen her interest in the pagoda, which she had read about in a history book. The structure dated back a thousand years to when Hangzhou had been the capital of China and poets had praised the city in their songs. It had been standing when Marco Polo declared Hangzhou the most beautiful city in the world: a city built around a lake deep and serene, a city of holy places marked with palaces and temples. The pagoda had stood through the fall of the last emperor. Junan could remember it, mysterious and beckoning across the lake. But now it had crumbled. There was just the ruined stub fringed with weeds, nested by swallows.

Sometimes, when Junan looked at an object that had frightened Yinan, she would try to imagine what her sister had seen. She rarely could. But as she studied the pagoda, she believed she knew. Like every child, Yinan had heard the legend of the pagoda. There was a female spirit trapped in the hillock underneath as punishment for her excessive love. Perhaps Yinan imagined the spirit, blackened and battered after centuries’ exposure to the water and stones, still loving and still trapped. This was the punishment of a wife who tried to hold on to a wandering man. It would be the fate of any wife who resorted to tricks or magic. There was only one way to keep a man: to give birth to his son.

Riding the ferry to the temple where the fortune-teller lived, Junan kept her gaze trained on the remains of the pagoda. This curious errand had led her to understand that she would someday be a wife. In only a few years, she would leave her mother behind and go to live with strangers. She kept her face impassive, helping Chanyi to the dock. Chanyi moved slowly. She had spent six years in binding cloths before the fashion ended. Her feet had taken on the spiral shape of shells, with the big toe pointed forward and the small toes curled beneath. She leaned on Junan, wavering. Yinan reached for Chanyi’s other hand.

THE FIGURE AT
the temple door could have been either a man or a woman dressed in a thick, brown wool robe and cloth sandals. The clipped gray hair was barely visible on the ivory scalp. But when Junan peered again, she recognized a woman’s face: hidden and dark, folded into herself over the years.

“Shitai,” said Chanyi, bobbing her head, using the most respectable form of address. She gestured with the package in her hands. “I am Wang Taitai. I have—brought a gift for the temple.”

The woman bowed and led them through the door.

In the courtyard, they could smell the scent of thawed earth. The camphor trees were sprayed with green, and the vegetable garden along the side displayed a few lines of pale green points. In the tiny cottage wall, one shaded window closed its eye upon the garden.

Chanyi said, “Your garden has come up.”

“It is in a shambles,” the old woman answered properly.

Junan knew her mother was encouraged by this show of manners. “This is my older daughter,” Chanyi said. “And my younger daughter.”

The woman nodded.

“My older daughter was born the year after the Revolution, and her meimei was born in the sixth year.” This time the nun did not reply. To her, it seemed, the Revolution did not matter.

Inside, the floor was soft underfoot, covered in layers of matting. There were two more windows shaded with rice paper, and the resulting still air and lack of sunlight made a damp smell as if the cottage had been built over water. There was nothing in the room except a bowl and chopsticks on a shelf and a blanket on the bed. But Junan could sense a shadow somewhere in the room. She felt a sudden desire to turn and leave. She reached for Yinan, who hung behind. The door closed and the light vanished.

Yinan whispered, “Why is it so dark?”

“Hush,” Chanyi said.

The woman answered easily enough. “It is better for my eyes,” she said. Her voice was pleasant, but Yinan held fast to Junan’s elbow. “Two girls. The tall one is first. You come here.”

Junan had no shame about her height; she knew the worth of her beauty. She stood straight and still, defiant as the dim eyes studied each part of her face: the shape of her brow, her jaw, her forehead.

“Hold out your left hand.” The nun took Junan’s hand in her two old, dry ones. For a long moment she peered at Junan’s hand, and then she let it go.

“Strong,” she said. “A strong, fierce girl.”

Junan was pleased by the words. She turned to her mother and saw written on her face a dull relief. “Her marriage?” Chanyi asked.

“She will marry a soldier.”

“That’s impossible.”

The woman shrugged.

“But she’ll have a generous dowry. And look at her,” Chanyi protested. “Surely she’s worth more.”

“She will decide herself. She will let him in.”

“What do you mean?”

For a brief moment the nun caught Junan’s gaze. “We are entering a new time,” she said. “A new world with its own ideas of love and power.”

Junan wished to ask the woman what she meant. But Chanyi shook her head. “There is Yinan,” she insisted. “You haven’t spoken of her.”

“But the meimei does not want me to speak of her.”

They all turned to the girl, who had bowed her head to hide her face behind her shining hair. Gently, Chanyi touched her cheek. “Meimei, go to the woman and let her tell your fortune.”

Yinan didn’t budge.

The nun examined Yinan, but she didn’t soften at the sight of her face, as Chanyi had. She watched impassively, as if she weren’t looking at a child.

“Meimei,” Chanyi repeated, “don’t you want to know whom you will marry?”

Yinan whispered, “I don’t want to marry.”

Chanyi looked down. “Maybe it’s better that way.” Then she straightened as if gathering her courage. “She is young for her age. Now I need to talk to the shitai alone. Go, children—go outside and wait for me.”

Junan hesitated. The urge to stay was strong. She had begun, years earlier, to protect her mother from situations that might threaten her vulnerable heart. But in this case it would only make things worse to disobey. She took Yinan’s hand and left the room. Outside the cottage, she immediately took off her shoes. Yinan, puzzled, did the same. Junan led her barefoot around the cottage, to the window on the other side. Standing in the soft earth of the fortune-teller’s garden, the sisters watched and listened as their mother faced the fortune-teller and began to speak.

CHANYI WAS NO
longer the lovely woman she had once been. She had kept her delicate bones and long, deep eyes, but her face had worn away like sand, sharpening the nose and leaving hollows at the mouth. Now the dim light cast deep shadows under her eyes. Her lips closed in a rueful line, as if at her unluckiness. Other women in their thirties grew full-breasted and contented. But she had reached her beauty in her youth and now she dwindled.

“For years,” she said, “since Yinan, I have not been with child. I have tried all the usual methods. There is one thing I haven’t tried. A drug from an apothecary.” She paused, and swallowed hard. “I’m no longer a young woman,” she said. “I turn thirty-five at the new year. But others my age have not yet finished bearing children. I want you to tell me—if I will have a son.”

“You are afraid that your husband will take another wife.” The nun spoke judiciously, each dry word like a doctor’s hand examining a wound. “But there is a reason you need to know. A more important reason.”

Chanyi closed her eyes.

“You have something of an illness,” the old voice said. “I can see it in the lines around your mouth. You lie awake at night. You lie awake because you want to know what will happen. Let me tell you something I have learned. There is no point in knowing what will happen. Do you understand?”

The voice floated like a dry leaf. There was detachment in the voice; it carried no resonance or weight, and Junan knew that this disinterest showed she spoke the truth. She felt her body flinch as if the nape of her neck had been stroked by a bony finger. “Please,” her mother whispered. “I will pay you.” She reached toward her purse. “Silver dollars. One hundred dollars.”

“Some women, Taitai, have only daughters.”

“One thousand dollars.”

“I have taken a vow against untruths.”

“Anything,” Chanyi whispered. “Anything.”

“Other women learn to share their men, Taitai.”

Chanyi cried out as if she had been struck. She wrapped her arms around the package and turned, dragging her feet like stones toward the door.

Junan stepped out of the garden. She wiped her feet in the wet grass and told Yinan to do the same.

“No, we have to hurry!”

“Wipe your feet,” Junan insisted. She thought their mother wouldn’t get far. But panic had brought urgency into Chanyi’s stride. In her effort to move quickly she surrendered every particle of grace, and by the time the girls had caught up with her she’d almost reached the lake.

“Mama,” Yinan called.

Chanyi didn’t seem to hear. She stood facing the water as if searching its depths.

YEARS LATER, JUNAN
would let herself remember the trip across the lake. She would see the pagoda, fallen on the low hill scattered with the bruised petals of fruit tree blossoms. She would think of the old woman who predicted she would marry a soldier, and she would remember that Yinan said she didn’t want to marry. Finally, Junan would envision Chanyi’s slender figure outlined against the clouds, and she would try to imagine what her mother had been thinking.

Perhaps Chanyi had been remembering an afternoon when she and her young husband had visited that very shore and sat with blithe and careless happiness under the falling flower petals. They had hired a boat and drifted on the surface of the lake, sharing their hopes and wishes for a family, for sons.

Or perhaps Chanyi had been looking into the future. It was surprising how bad news could make things clear. If she went on without a son, she would have to learn to live as one who’d fallen out of favor. Sharing a man, sharing his house, she would twist toward survival as so many others did. She knew the stories. Her desires and motives would grow crippled and deformed, and she would learn to hate this other, younger wife. As she became skimpy and gray, she would learn to speak with hidden knives, keeping things off-balance. She would fight ruthlessly for small concessions. When the younger woman finally triumphed and gave birth to a son, Chanyi would learn to hate that child, try to stunt it, thwart it, ruin it.

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