An extract from Melissa Fu’s debut novel, Peach Blossom Spring, published by Wildfire on 17 March 2022.
Tell us, they say, tell us where you’re from.
He is from walking and walking and walking. He is from shoes filled with holes, blistered toes and calloused heels that know the roughness of gravel roads and the relief in straw, in grass. He is from staying each night in a different place, sometimes city, sometimes country. From roads that wrap around mountains and dip through valleys. From waterways shrouded in fog and mist.
He is from walking across China.
Tell us your memories, they say.
He remembers kerosene lamps burning low, the smell of woodsmoke, cold stone floors under his bare feet. Urgent voices, the rasping of coins, carts creaking at night. He remembers a sandalwood puzzle picture. One way up, there were one hundred monkeys. Turn it over, there were ninety-nine. How did that monkey appear and disappear? He is from this mystery.
Tell us more, they say as they nestle by his side. How did you come here?
He crossed rivers. He crossed oceans.
He carried a watch bought from a sailor, a letter to open doors. A suitcase, a packet of light blue aerogrammes, a single pair of wool socks.
He went towards the call of a beautiful country, a beckoning dream, a promise made of air. Towards wingbeats of birds, kaleidoscopes of seasons he’d never imagined before.
And now, they say, their eyes clear and voices playful, tell us a story.
To know a story is to stroke the silken surfaces of loss, to feel the weight of beauty in his hands.
To know a story is to carry it always, etched in his bones, even if dormant for decades.
Tell us, they insist.
To tell a story, he realises, is to plant a seed and let it grow.
Changsha, Hunan Province, China, March 1938
Dao Hongtse had three wives. Their names are not important.
The first wife had the first son, Dao Zhiwen. This boy was too wild. He grabbed his first-son privileges with one hand and cast away his first-son duties with the other. He changed his name to Longwei and swaggered out of the house and into the streets. He gambled and won, then gambled and lost. Longwei loves tobacco, whiskey and women.
The first wife had two more children: a girl who grew into a sallow, thin woman whom no one wanted to marry, and a son who died at five months. With a heart bound by grief and feet bound by the old traditions, the first wife is now little more than a wraith lost in folds of opium smoke. She only ventures out of her chamber to refill her pipe and condemn the rest of the household.
Hongtse’s second wife works hard. Her back is broad and her hands are rough. She lives in fear of the shrieks and howls of first wife. Hongtse doesn’t love her, but he depends on her. Yet the second wife bore only daughters. Their names are not important. They married young and produced sons for other families.
His third wife was the favourite. Hongtse even loved her. She will be forever beautiful because she died in childbirth, bringing Hongtse his youngest son, Dao Xiaowen.
Dao Hongtse’s business, Heavenly Light Kerosene and Antiques, has been passed down from father to son for generations. Kerosene is a good business: everyone needs heat, everyone needs light. Hongtse’s customers are Nationalists, Communists, merchants, peasants, farmers. One day, Longwei will inherit the business and its responsibilities.
Up a narrow staircase, in a room above the kerosene shop, Dao Hongtse also trades gold coins, jade, antique carvings and hand scrolls. Easy to move, hard to trace, always valuable. He has trained Xiaowen in the art of discerning between that which is of lasting value and that which is of momentary delight.
Between his eldest and his youngest sons, Hongtse covers all possibilities. Where Longwei is street-smart, Xiaowen is book-wise. If Longwei offers bluster, Xiaowen articulates with a fine brush. What Longwei settles by force, Xiaowen negotiates. As the years pass, Longwei has only daughters, but Xiaowen has a son.
Xiaowen’s son is called Dao Renshu – renshu meaning benevolence, kindness, not renshu meaning to concede, to admit defeat. Dao Hongtse makes sure his grandson knows the difference. Renshu is Hongtse’s only grandchild who is the son of a son. The boy carries the family name. Above all, he must be protected.
It is a late afternoon in early spring. The air tingles with freshness, shaking off the last chill of winter and hinting at blossoms to come. Tiny leaves are opening on the trees, and each day the sun offers a bit more light. Inside Dao Hongtse’s kerosene shop, the wooden floorboards are swept clean, the counter is clear. Dao Hongtse can be seen speaking to a young woman who wears a simple, dark green tunic. Her hair is pulled back in a bun. Though it is clear he is her superior, both in age and position, there is an air of mutual respect. Their relaxed postures suggest familiarity, even affection. He delivers news that illuminates her face. Although she doesn’t embrace him, her elation is clear in her wide smile.
Then he hands her a small silk bag and says something as she looks inside. She listens carefully, then responds. He considers her answer before replying. They nod in agreement. She offers a half-bow and turns to leave the room.
A light goes on in the room above the kerosene shop.
Soon, the profile of the woman can be seen in the upstairs window.
Shui Meilin records the new inventory in her ledgers, her slim, quick fingers working the abacus. Lately, many of her father-in-law’s customers have been trading gold and jade for kerosene. Everywhere, cash is scarce and prices have been rising. Dao Hongtse instructed that these particular jewels are to be put in hock. The tearful customer who traded them for a week’s supply of fuel pleaded with Old Dao not to sell them to anyone else, hoping to soon be able to buy back his heirlooms. Both Meilin and Hongtse were perturbed by this deal, yet another sign of the encroaching war with the Japanese, but Hongtse accepted the treasures for payment, of course. He is, after all, a businessman.
Meilin rises to put the valuables away, moving through the room as if by memory. After closing and locking the glass display cabinet, she looks out the window. The sun is setting, her work is done for the day, and she can’t help smiling. Dao Hongtse has just told her of the Chinese army’s triumph at Taierzhuang. Both Dao Hongtse’s sons are expected home soon, given leave after a bloody but victorious rotation.
Meilin last saw her husband, Dao Xiaowen, and his brother Longwei nine months ago. After the Luguoqiao incident up north, the brothers had left home to join the fight. Meilin and her sister-in-law, Xue Wenling, had been proud their husbands were protecting the future of the Republic. The family awaited news from the faraway frontline, but weeks passed, then months, and none came. Though disappointing, this was understandable; the post was sporadic and troops were constantly on the move.
Yet waves from the war began to push into the city of Changsha. At first it was just a trickle: hotels and guesthouses filled with wealthier people retreating from the turbulent east. Wenling remarked that at least she could see the Shanghai styles sooner. Then more refugees arrived. Shops were busier than ever, as disrupted supply lines along the rivers and railways drove prices up. The streets and markets clamoured with rallies against the Japanese aggressors. But despite these gallant displays of patriotism, the Japanese advance continued. It wasn’t long before Shanghai fell, and by December, the Imperial Japanese Army had overtaken Nanjing. With Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist government relocated to nearby Wuhan, a steady stream of evacuees is now pouring into Changsha.
Hongtse’s news of the victory at Taierzhuang is most welcome. The resistance was strong, the Japanese were humiliated. This, everyone is certain, will be a turning point. Best of all, Meilin can count on one hand the days until she will be able to hold her dear Xiaowen again.
Meilin’s thoughts are interrupted by shrieking and giggling, followed by the sound of footsteps running across the courtyard. They thump up the stairs and down the corridor. Renshu and his cousin Liling burst into the room. Breathless and laughing, with messy hair, the two demand snacks. Renshu is three and a half, and Liling is five. Renshu’s legs, still chubby, struggle to keep up with his adored cousin. Liling’s face is so full of warmth and cheer that Meilin finds it hard not to smile when seeing her. When Renshu smiles, his solemn, round eyes crinkle into crescents, and the dimple in his left cheek reveals itself. Both children are flushed from racing around the compound. They have barrelled through the house, knocking on the doors of the scary nainai, the ugly nainai and the dead nainai, running away before anyone could catch them. After chasing the cats into corners, up the walls and out into the streets, they’d teased Yeye’s goldfish in the pond by making shadows on the water and tapping the surface with sticks.
Now, they dig through Meilin’s sewing basket, looking for the sweet lotus seeds she hides for them in the folds of cloth. Once the treats are devoured, Liling roars at Renshu. She chases him around the room, past the display cabinet, until he crouches behind a carved rosewood folding screen. When she holds her arms out, fingers wiggling to tickle him, he runs to the bedroom and hides under the bedclothes, knocking a pile of neatly folded laundry to the floor.
A sharp and impatient knock comes at the door. Liling dashes under the bed and Renshu pretends to sleep.
As usual, Wenling is cross. Without bothering to acknowledge Meilin, she shouts for Liling to come out now, to stop playing, it’s time for her bath.
Liling and Renshu stifle their laughter.
Wenling storms into the bedroom and stoops to look under the bed. She pulls Liling out by the ankle. When Liling stands, Wenling fusses about the line of dust on the front of her dress, glaring at Meilin. As Wenling drags her daughter downstairs, scolding her, Liling looks back and makes faces at Renshu.
Meilin motions for Renshu to tidy the mess. He tries his best, but soon tires of wrestling with the bedclothes and wanders back out to the front room to sit by his ma’s side.
‘Time to calm down now. You and your cousin are too naughty!’ she scolds, shaking her head, but there’s a lightness in her voice that suggests amusement more than reproach.
After Renshu’s dinner and bath, Meilin readies him for bed. Since his birth, Meilin’s days and heart have been full. She loves Renshu, not because his birth raises her place in the family, to the mother of a son of a son of Hongtse, and not just because his eyes and nose remind her of Xiaowen. She loves him because his laugh sounds like the wind playing temple bells in spring. She loves him because he fills her with a joy she hadn’t known existed before he gave her his first smile. Having married late, at twenty-one, there were times she wondered if she would ever be a mother. She sings him to sleep with the ‘Song of the Fishermen’. His eyes flutter closed; rest smooths his brow.
She will do anything for this child.