XIANG THE BEARD (4)
Wen was not a beggar at all when he met her the very first time on the street. Wen’s father was a country gentleman as well, the whole family fled the Red Army from their hometown one night two years ago. Since then they had been wandering from villages to towns, countryside to cities. When they came to Xiang’s place, the father had caught acute pneumonia and died in a small ragged inn. They only carried little with them when they escaped home in a hurry, and had spent all, so Wen’s mother decided to sell Wen for a coffin to bury her husband as well as find a place for her daughter to survive. Xiang was just to help them out when he happened to pass by them on the street. But the mother came to his office after her husband was buried, declaring that she was selling her daughter and the money Xiang had paid much more than the price she placed down and saved their lives, so her daughter ought to be his. Thinking of wanting a girl to give him more sons anyway, Xiang Lan accepted Wen as the last of his concubines.
Wen had been pregnant three times, unfortunately only had Yiner left alive. Xiang took Yiner his precious bring her to wherever he went until divorced; then he had to send Yiner back to River Pond to live with BigMom. He even afraid Wen would come to steal Yiner away, so he warned her not to be too close to his daughter. Though he had seen his little girl missing her mother so much that she often sat on the bench by the gate staring at the path awaiting Wen appear in surprise; also he knew probably Wen was hiding somewhere in the corner watching Yiner sometimes. He would spent as much time as he could to stay with Yiner to fill Wen’s absence rather than letting Wen to visit her, because he would never forgive Wen for what she had done hurt his man-pride.
“Why shan’t I let Yiner go to her mother?” It flashed through his mind in a sudden as his thoughts roaming wildly. Yet where was Wen? He had not heard of her recently, they said she left Changsha with her husband back to his village far away from here. As a poor peasant, her husband could legitimately share some lands or fields that were plundered from the landlords by the new government. Xiang Lan could find her if he wanted anyway.
But if Yiner went to her mother, what about Dai, his aged wife who always wobbled on her three inch feet and eyes nearly blinded?
Dai’s grievance he could see, obvious since they had married. They held wedding in front of the deathbed of his father who required it before dead since the marriage was arranged by him. Then he took leave of her during their honeymoon to attend the Jiangnan Military Pre-Officer School. She was almost home alone raising their children and running household matters when he was on his revolutionary business. He could not dine with her, warm her bed and share her joy or sadness but left her miss and worry of him all the same. When he and his concubine hand in hand stepped into the house, BigMom was so upset she could not give a glance at the new comer --“the seductive little fox” as she called them. She went to her buddha room praying to cease her anger; when she came out again, she had been calm and accepted her husband’s little fox. She told the maids to make a bedroom comfortable with brand new beddings and cook best food they had for her husband and his bride. Despite they would live together peaceful and friendly, she could not cheat her heart that she was enjoying such a life style; later, as more concubines brought in, her face eventually became as dead as wearing a mask. Yet she was the back-bone of this family, tough and capable and powerful, as a flourishing tree as the sturdy camphor in their yard that bore the birds laying their nests and brooding their descendants and sheltered them against winds and rains—she had become “BigMom” who had the high respect.
He esteemed her more than loved her, he admitted to himself. She gave him senses of safety and warmth and devoted herself to the family, he took that a wife’s rights and responsibilities and was accustomed to it. Yet what had he have done for her? He had traveled on most of the cities and towns in this country, from the North to the South, from the West to the East, and could not remember even he had accompanied her to any place once. He bought her favourites home to make her happy: jewelries, silks, foods; indeed she was happy, but more because of he was back safely. In their 50 years of marriage, he did one thing for her, that was in the WWII, the Japanese Army came to their hometown a few years ago, he went back home, hired four young men seating her in a litter to flee since she was not able to go on her own three inch feet; that was the only one time she had left the house for a few months. Lucky, the Japanese did not cross the Miluo to River Pond nor their bombers came to burn down their house, so they could come back after they were gone, avoided the suffering of the Tan House on the opposite bank of the Miluo.
Since he retired back to home last year, Xiang could feel BigMom's gladness even though she seldom spoke out. They thought finally they could live together for the rest days of their life at the tranquil place, if not the letter from Beijing yesterday…