The passage

The passage

29 August 2014

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Cuifen hurried on. It was getting dark and her mother, Chow, had so often warned her against the dangers of the streets at night for a girl that now her footsteps were almost desperate.  She wondered how she could have lost so much time between the rotten old Ming-Hoa at the post office and her daydreaming in front of Eu-meh’s pastry shop.

Ming-Hoa spoke only a version of ancient Mandarin that no one spoke anymore and you really had to concentrate to understand his sentences so complicated was the Mandarin. Besides the old fool was an absurd megalomaniac who still “lived in his head” as some of the old women said cackling – a not completely normal head if you wanted the opinion of Cuifen – in the time of his youth and expected utmost respect from youngsters due to his past rank of notable. He recounted how he had played golf with the British ambassador and how the ambassador complimented him on his outstanding technique, how many poets thronged on his doorstep to be able to recite poems and odes composed glorifying him at Banquets he gave.

He seemed to forget that since the revolution, nothing was the same for decades and that all the ceremonials formerly dedicated to his glory had no place to be today. Besides these days, nobody wrote poetry anymore neither in honor of a notable nor even to sing the praise of porcelain skinned young girls whose praises were sung once in a thousand sonnets.

These days the old titles no longer meant anything and she did not understand why her mother always forced her to kneel to speak to Ming-Hoa and never turn her back but made her come out backwards instead of walking out normally . He was no longer significant and had a poorly paid function as a clerk in a small post office in the neighbourhood. That being said, without his help, it is true that nothing bulky could be sent because he had to personally sign on any bulky item for it to be sent. So if she and her mother wanted to sell their embroidery to rich clients in town, his help was necessary to send the bulky packages to their aunt who later dealt with the individual sales to the clients. Most of the time Cuifen and her mother worked and went to deposit the package together but today her mother had a lot to do and had put her in charge of the mailing.

Cuifen hated going alone to the small cramped post office because Ming-Hoa had, despite his old age, keen and searching eyes with a light she did not like at all. She had already seen this craving in the eyes of young boys who were trying to get her attention when she was walking around without her mother but in this old man, the light took on an intensity that made her feel particularly uncomfortable. This was even more the case because the rotten old man kept scrutinizing her face even when she caught his look instead of looking away as the youngsters did when she caught them gazing at her.

Going to meet Ming-Hoa was such an ordeal – with that horrible olden times green tea he forced her to drink with her mother – that she always needed a small consolation after and what better than the pastries of Eu-meh indeed. Usually she drank in one gulp the horrible green brew all the while glaring at the old man before giving him his cup back with a murderous look so he would not be tempted to offer her yet another cup of it. After that, there was always the consolation of a sweet treat at Eu-meh’s pastry shop. Today though, she had lost too much time to choose a delicacy – a little dry rice flour cake with powdered sugar and small sesame seeds on top – and was therefore going home at this late hour. Most of the road was lit but there was a dark passage she had to cross to get home. It was not far from home and only extended over a distance of 800 meters, but she had never dared to take it during the night because it took on a sinister aspect when all the shops were closed with only a few shutters banging in the wind. She swallowed, raised her chin up and walked into the passage praying Buddha that nothing would happen to her.

Ming-Hoa, sitting in a hollow space behind one of the pillars of the passage, watched the slight figure of the girl who approached silhouetted against the glow of the street lamps behind. She had grown up a lot and became a true beauty now. He remembered how he had been struck by her porcelain complexion and large eyes that glowed dark green spangled with small specks of light making them look like a raw malachite. Her beauty did not need any artificial enhancer and although he kept thinking to himself that her skin would be even more translucent with the rice powder that geishas of olden times knew so well to apply, it was already such a delight for him to observe her.

It seemed to him that the feelings he had kept to himself for so long had found some resonance in the girl’s heart because she recently insistently held his gaze as if to encourage him to go further. Besides, he had watched as she drank the tea he served him. Normally a shy girl barely dips her lips into it but not Cuifen! She drank with gusto and sensuality the whole cup and when she gave him back the cup, her eyes seemed to challenge him to offer her something else.

Enough procrastination, he thought to himself. Today, he would declare his love, shielded by the darkness of this passage which complicity would help bridge the gulf of years that separated him from the girl. This thought gave him hope and he leaped out of his hiding place.

Cuifen, lips pressed into a silent prayer, was accelerating her pace to finish crossing the distance which separated her from the ending of the passage when a figure jumped in front of her from behind a pillar. She let out a muffled cry and panic seized her for a moment before she calmed down recognizing – by the smell more than anything else as she could barely see his features in the dark – the old Ming-Hoa. She took a few quick steps towards him to ask him to accompany her home but something made ​​her slow down. She noticed a difference with the old man behind his desk. His step when coming out from behind the pillar was rather quick and ill-attuned to his wizened old face. It looked more like a feline stalking its prey. She stopped in her tracks. Ming-Hoa’s teeth, alit by the glow of a few stray streetlights lining the entrance to the passage gleamed in the darkness with a surreal glow.

Chow looked with glazed eyes at the platform where the coffin of her daughter lay. Cuifen was so beautiful that it seemed impossible that she was lying there dead. She remembered the fateful moment when the neighbor accompanied by Eu-meh had come to give her the horrible news. Cuifen was found dead in the passage next to the house. Chow, a strong woman with shoulders lowered by years of manual labor, looked nothing like her daughter. Her skin was weathered by the sun and her dark eyes were as expressionless as her daughter’s had been animated. She looked at her daughter lying down and for the first time felt a tightening in her chest as she thought about how she had never told her how much she meant to her. Suddenly, all her legendary toughness vanished and her neighbours were surprised to see tears rolling down her cheeks.

Apparently she was not the only one suffering because by her side Ming-Hoa also seemed subject to a distress that was painful to witness. He was muttering something under his breath over and over like a mantra and his feverish eyes were filled with tears. Chow put her hand on the old man’s wrinkled old hand in an attempt to calm him down.

He had been so generous in wanting to bury with great pomp Cuifen in a dragon-shaped platform with a coffin made of marble, as if she was the daughter of a notable. Chow regretted the times she had cursed inwardly against the old man when he had begun to ramble on about the splendors of the past and thought to herself that one sometimes really tended to judge badly people.

She had never realized how big his heart was and how much he too loved Cuifen as if she were his own daughter. To reward his generous gesture, she had wanted him to be the only one to talk about Cuifen during the funeral oration that was usually reserved for relatives of the deceased. She was initially surprised that he refused but attributed the refusal to his big heart that wanted no reward for his generosity so she insisted and Ming-Hoa accepted although keeping enough good taste to seem to do so with contrition.

It was now the time for the oration. Ming-Hoa gave her a strange look as if he wanted to tell her something but thought the better of it and went to the platform to begin his oration. He straightened his frame and cleared his throat.

 

Read the next chapter: Ming-Hoa’s oration

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