Authors: Dominique Wilson
Copyright Â© Dominique Wilson 2014
First Published 2014
Transit Lounge Publishing
This book is copyright. Apart from any fair dealing for the purpose of private study, research, criticism or review, as permitted under the Copyright Act, no part may be reproduced by any process without written permission. Inquiries should be made to the publisher.
Front cover image: Lowe Art Museum/Bridgeman Art Library Cover and book design: Peter Lo
Printed in China by Everbest
This project has been assisted by the Australian government through the Australia Council for the Arts, its arts funding and advisory body.
A cataloguing-in-publication entry is available from the
National Library of Australia:
A mouse scurried along the thick wooden beams and Chen Mu's gaze followed its silhouette until it disappeared behind the bunches of onions and garlic hanging from the ceiling. Beside him his mother slept, and the anger that had been festering in his belly ignited into hate. In the pre-dawn grey he could make out the shape of her cheekbones, the pale skin stretched dry and tight over bone before it darkened in the hollows beneath her eyes. She snored, her mouth open, and her stale breath sickened him. He wanted to kick her. Shake her awake and demand to know why she was sending him away to live amongst the barbarians. He was only seven, had never even been outside his village, and now she was sending him to the other side of the world.
She mumbled and turned, moaning and clutching her belly protectively even in sleep. A strand of saliva slid out of the corner of her mouth onto her hair, and pity replaced Chen Mu's anger as he remembered the blood and putrid mucus he'd seen in their shit-pot, and the way she moved, bent almost double, when she thought him asleep. Gently, he pulled up the quilt and tucked it snug over her shoulders.
In the main front room the silkworms' munching sounded like the pattering of rain on a roof. A papier-mÃ¢chÃ© box stood in a corner, on top of which lay the quilt his mother was making for his journey. She'd ripped open her own winter clothes to use the wadding within, and this worried Chen Mu â he knew wadding was expensive and he'd seen how each spring, when she unpicked their padded winter clothes in search of lice, she always painstakingly gathered every scrap of it after it had aired. He mulled over this as he watched the fat white bodies of the silkworms sway like tiny ghost-snakes in their trays. What would she use this winter if all her wadding went into his quilt?
He sighed. The silkworms needed more leaves and Chen Mu decided he'd go to the mulberry tree to pick some, even though this was women's work. It would be a small favour â he'd even make her a bowl of hot water on his return, in which he'd float a few slivers of garlic to help ease the pain in her belly.
A rooster crowed and a dog barked an answer, and he knew he must hurry if he didn't want the villagers to see him gathering the leaves. He rekindled the fire in the mouth of the oven, re-plaited his hair into a long queue then went to the back of the house to relieve himself.
Outside the whole village was so cloaked in mist that even stone walls seemed no more than shadows. He heard the throbbing of wings over the river and the soft lowing of the village buffalo. As he squatted over the pit he thought of the events that had brought him to this day.
He'd been barely four when his father and older brothers had followed the great Tso Tsung-t'ang to the northwest provinces to help fight the Nien Fei. They hadn't returned, and in the drought and famine that followed, during months so hot and dry that men killed animals to drink their blood, his mother had sold his eldest sister to a brothel, and the younger ones as slaves to a rich landlord, even as they cried and begged for this not to happen. Chen Mu had been sent to work in the fields, and for three years now his mother had awakened him at dawn and he'd worked till sunset every single day, and though just a boy he worked as hard as a full-grown man so that the rice and small coins he was paid, together with the money his mother earned from the silk, enabled them to survive. And though his life had not been easy, still he'd been happy, secretly proud to now be the man of the household, to know that his mother didn't have to remarry, thanks to his contributions.
Then last winter everything changed â a teacher called Yung Wing had come to his village to tell the people of the golden prospects the Imperial Government was offering their sons. He'd reminded them of China's defeat in the two Opium Wars, a defeat caused not from of lack of courage, but because of the superior power of the foreigners' weapons. But now their sons could learn the secrets of that power; the government was willing to send them to a place called Connecticut, and for the next twenty years they'd be given a stipend to study and be dressed in the satin gowns of scholars, and on their return they'd receive the same official rank and prestige as those who had entered the Imperial Service.
But none believed him. They didn't want their sons to go to America, even if what Teacher Yung said was true. They were all simple villagers â had been for generations â and they didn't care for their sons to leave the village. No one had even heard of this place called Connecticut, so they'd listened politely and nodded in agreement to all he'd said, until he asked who would be the first to send his son. No one had stepped forward, but as each villager returned to his work his mother had lingered and asked the teacher for permission to speak. When Chen Mu returned from the rice fields that evening, he already knew that the Widow Chen had pledged her son.
She was sending him away, knowing he wouldn't return until fully-grown, and since that evening the thought that she could not love him had festered like a cancer in his belly.
He heard the squeak of the shit-collector's barrow and pulled up his cotton trousers. Back in the kitchen he added a few more twigs to the fire and picked up the bamboo basket for the mulberry leaves.