Pretty China GirlbyRabbitrunner91©
What I was doing was certainly illegal back home, and yet no other option appeared available. My thoughts were raging and I had to consciously force them down, to subdue their warnings as they raised their ugly heads. I shuddered briefly. Circumstances were forcing me to do things; things I didn't want, things that were wrong, and things that concerned this woman.
I caught the flicker of a smile as she averted her eyes; her fingers playing with the folds in her dress. She knew what was happening. It almost seemed that she welcomed this turn of events.
As the airplane droned onwards, drawing nearer to my home, my gaze shifted and I observed the billowing clouds through the circular window behind her. How would I explain this? What could I do? My life had become enormously complex since yesterday when I'd acquired her. I thought back over several months.
Willard Wilson had his head down examining my application. He appeared large, behind the cherry desk, which contained enough scratches, dents and cigarettes burns to make it look like it had come from a Salvation Army thrift shop.
"Humph," he said.
I waited, keeping my hands in my lap and sitting straight. I refrained from allowing my eyes to wander.
"Are you married, Mr. Petriani?" he asked without raising his head.
He hesitated; then looked up, eyeing me from over the top of his wire rimmed glasses. His unspoken question was obvious.
"An accident. A truck dumped its load. She and the kids . . ." The recollections were too fresh and my voice broke. My mind screamed for him to stay out of my personal affairs but I bit my tongue and held my voice. I could not run from my memories.
Wilson pursed his lips, studied my face, and then resumed reading while drumming his fingers. This irritated me and I wondered if he knew it.
"There is a gap in your work history. What have you been doing for the past year or so, since June of '47?"
"I'd rather not say. And it is immaterial to the position I'm applying for."
His head remained down but I sensed that he'd stopped reading to contemplate my answer. "You are a bit headstrong," he volunteered.
"Maybe, but I also follow directions well." We were verbally sparing but I certainly wouldn't let him push me around. I wondered if my youthful appearance at twenty-six would belie the experience indicated on the application.
He eased back in his chair, which squeaked under the shifting weight, and then he put his hands together in a steeple, resting them on his rotund belly and tapping his fingers together.
"This says you are well traveled. Have you negotiated contracts to a conclusion?"
"Yes, several times." After a brief pause, "If you are questioning my . . ."
He held up his hand. "Don't take offense, Ray. I've decided to hire you. I want to put your experience to the best use."
That was my introduction to Wilson's World Wide Tours. For half a year, I worked under his tutelage and the man was a marvel at reading people and in anticipating market trends.
"You once told me that you follow instructions," he commented one morning after calling me into his office.
"Yes sir, I do."
"Good," he said handing me a thick brown folder. "Tickets, passport, travel money, instructions and a file on Shen Yee are inside. He is the autocratic ruler of a small province and you have been booked on a flight to Hong Kong with a couple of puddle jumpers into the interior. I need you to negotiate the enclosed contract. He will be expecting you." Then he looked me straight in the eyes. "And don't come back without it!"
Wu Chung met me after I'd arrived. He wore a long Mandarin gown, completely black except for the large yellow dragon blazoned across the front. His appearance blended with the décor of the hotel lobby where bamboo tapestries, decorative lanterns, and drawings of the Chinese Zodiac dressed the walls.
"Welcome, Mr. Petriani. Shen Yee asked me to escort you and to see that you are settled comfortably." His smile was quite infectious, his eyes had a twinkle and I found myself quickly drawn to this man. He appeared to be in his early forties and carried himself erect, which made me wonder about a former military career.
"Thank you, Mr. Chung. These accommodations will be more than adequate," I said while bowing. He was friendly and affable and his eyes didn't miss a thing.
"You have been invited to attend the annual Yang Zhou Banquet tomorrow evening. It is customary for an exchange of gifts. I trust that you will have something for Mr. Yee?"
What caught my attention, as I gestured towards the present perched atop my luggage, was his excellent command of the English language. He had pronounced my surname flawlessly and without hesitation. This was surprising because many folks back home have difficulty pronouncing it and for an Asian to maneuver their tongue over the syllables, it impressed me.
He must have sensed my thoughts for he had a tight smile. "I am Shen Yee's Chief Security Officer and I make it my responsibility to understand his guests. I studied English in your country. One should always understand one's adversaries, wouldn't you agree?"
I politely nodded my ascent but made a mental note not to take this friendly man for granted.
"Come," he motioned. "Leave your luggage for the boy; we must discuss the protocol for tomorrow's function." His warm smile touched his eyes.
He led the way to an adjoining area and courteously bid me take a seat in a chair, one which appeared very delicate, but proved to be quite sturdy. I had a view of the front lobby and observed the guests as they arrived and as the hotel staff assisted them.
Through a window to my left, a wide panoramic vista with people working in the countryside was visible. Along the other side I viewed the crowded streets lined with busy shops.
Wu smiled, "You seem to like our country?"
"This area 'is' beautiful and the people are so industrious."
His smile broadened and he asked about my trip. From there our conversation moved to discussing our respective countries. It was evident that he easily understood the nuances of our two cultures. I warmed to his polite and friendly demeanor and before long we both were laughing and joking like two old friends over a cup of tea.
"Tomorrow evening you should dress in our style," he suggested. "You will be better received if you follow our customs."
His helpful hint was most welcome. "I want to respect your traditions. Is there a shop where I can buy some things?"
He indicated one a short distance from the hotel and I made a note of the location.
"So what is Shen Yee like?" I asked, moving the conversation to the reason for my visit.
"He is the ruler of this. . ." he paused, gesturing broadly, ". . . province and no one dare oppose him. Some like him, others do not. But our region has become prosperous under his rule and for that, many are grateful." Then he added, "I have seen him do strange things, but never in jest."
That would bear watching. "So how does one approach him?"
He smiled. "Be courteous and follow protocol. One must always give him honor."
Time slipped away while we conversed. He explained about the customs that I would follow for the next evening. I asked copious questions, attempting to absorb as much of the culture as possible.
When we had finished talking and as I was leaving to go to my room, he said, "I will be your companion for the banquet. Shen Yee has requested that I translate for such an honored guest." Then he bowed towards me. "Rest for now. I will come later and we can talk more."
I smiled my appreciation and nodded my head in acceptance.
Through the hospitality which I had received, I understood why Mr. Wilson wanted to secure a contract in this region. It was easy to like the people and the countryside was beautiful.
Other dignitaries were present as I looked about the banquet hall. Pagoda style decorations were above each window, covered in colorful paper. These were interspersed with tapestries, which (I assumed) were about historic events plus drawings of mythical creatures.
Shen Yee sat on an elevated platform, dressed in a single silk robe bedecked with shimmering dragons. I watched as Wu performed his duties, busy instructing the guards and discussing things with the court officials.
There was a great deal of debating among the guests as they took their places in a half circle on the main level. Because seating always goes by importance, Wu told me later, they were arguing over who were the most important guests. I was the only Westerner and had to take one of the least honorable seats near the serving door. The other guests afforded me some deference but my presence drew an aloof atmosphere; they treated me cordially but as an outsider.
Finishing with his responsibilities, Wu Chung joined me and guided me through the evening. For this I was grateful. The ceremony of the banquet was quite different from what I could recall. The only thing similar was the clatter of bowls and utensils, small conversations among the guests, numerous toasts made with rice wine, and the movement of female servants providing the various courses.
A large variety of side dishes were provided, some very elaborate. I figured that this gathering allowed Shen Yee to demonstrate his wealth and extravagance to the visiting dignitaries. Wu also mentioned that security was tighter and I noticed that he directed his men with various hand signals.
When the meal was over, Mr. Yee stood and addressed the group for a few moments. At the close of his remarks, I detected activity among the guests. A few stood, exited and then returned. "It is time for the gift exchange," Wu whispered. "You should get yours."
Quickly I retrieved my item and then resumed my place. "Watch the others," Wu suggested. "Remember always be courteous: take small steps, stay low, feet together when you stand before him, don't look him in the eye, and bow to the ground."
Wu pointed out some errors that others were committing as they offered their items. I sensed an air of displeasure when one guest, who was quite drunk, failed to follow protocol. Wu had done the coaching; now I hoped that my two left feet would not betray me.
With words of encouragement from Wu, I stepped forward carrying a crystal figurine within a mirrored case, encrusted with semi-precious stones. Averting my eyes, I made the presentation and was later amazed when Wu told me that Mr. Yee had smiled.
Several women entered bearing small gifts for each guest and placed them before the dignitaries; then they withdrew. At a gesture from Shen Yee, the room became quiet and a single servant entered.
She was bearing an Oriental music box with dancing figurines; the tune was playing as she moved. It was gold plated and the blown-glass dancers twirled about on a rotating stage. I had never seen anything so exquisite and the melody it played sounded like it was floating on air. The woman moved towards the dais but stopped near me.
"To my guest, Mr. Petriani," Wu translated, "who has come a large distance to hold business in our humble part of the world. He is willing to be a part of our culture and to follow our customs and I have presented to him a symbol of honor. Will you accept my gift as a token of my kindness?"
Bowing, "Shen Yee, I graciously accept it in the spirit which it was offered."
Murmuring broke out in the hall and when I turned to receive the gift, Wu's hand held me in place.
I turned; "Wu did you . . ." he was no longer smiling. "What's the problem, my friend?"
He sat in silence, which was puzzling. "Wu, what is happening?"
A few moments later Mr. Yee dismissed the guests with an elaborate toast and then some of them gathered around. Everyone was talking and I was frustrated at not understanding. A few congratulated me (I thought) and I could only smile and bow.
Eventually, Wu touched my arm. "It is time to go," he said. He spoke and the girl hurried off, one guard following her. He said a few words to those near us, two security personnel fell in behind us, and then we departed.
Riding along the street to the hotel, I considered the banquet. To me it had gone well. However, something had taken place that I didn't understand. Wu's face was indistinct in the dark and he remained silent despite my repeated attempts to engage him in conversation.
Reaching my destination, he spoke. "You will meet with Shen tomorrow to discuss your business. Then we will go our separate ways." A puzzled frown furrowed my brow as he left me standing in front of my room. I shook my head to clear the confusion.
The night's rest had given me a chance to consider the possibilities about the previous evening but when Wu met me in the morning, his stoic appearance warned me to not ask the questions which were screaming to be voiced. We spoke in small talk as we rode to the meeting.
I was torn between last evening's event and today's appointment. The whole purpose of my trip was to secure the contract for Mr. Wilson, and yet, I could not tear the thoughts of the banquet from my mind. I fought to clear my head and to focus on the negotiations. If things went well, I could fly out tomorrow.
Within a few minutes, a servant ushered us inside meeting room of the imperial residence. Standing, waiting, several people were busy about the room carrying papers, arranging furniture or whispering in quiet corners. As Shen Yee entered, the atmosphere became charged and people's attention focused on their ruler. He nodded to an aid that made an announcement (which I didn't understand) but everyone snapped to attention. I followed Wu's lead and we moved forward, stopping before the dais.
I wasn't familiar with this type of negotiations. Wu introduced me; I gave a short greeting and then presented the contract in detail. Mr. Wilson must have sent a copy because I saw an advisor with the document and he conferred with Mr. Yee. They talked and their conversation became extended.
Wu and I stood at attention, not daring to move. A fly buzzed near us and I resisted the temptation to swat at it. My back was aching from lack of movement. Occasionally Shen asked a question and I replied, otherwise all activity in the room had come to a standstill as everyone waited on their ruler.
Later (I lost track of time) Wu spoke. "He agrees to the terms. Your trip was successful."
Strange, but I did not feel elated.
The advisor took the documents and left the room. Shen Yee turned. "Tell Mr. Wilson that I agree with his offer. You will have the signed papers before you leave."
I bowed in honor to this local ruler.
He signaled to someone behind me, and then continued speaking to me. "Your presence last evening was a pleasure. The gift you gave to me was truly a joy. I trust that you were pleased with what I offered in return."
The same woman appeared by my elbow holding the ornate music box.
Speaking through Wu, "It is lovely and will be treasured."
There was a brief exchange between Mr. Yee and Wu for a moment. He turned to me. "Shen Yee said the gift is for Mr. Wilson. Mei Ling is to stay with you."
"Wha...wha...what?" I whispered. My mind raced to remember last evening.
"You cannot refuse, Ray. It would be an insult and jeopardize the contract," Wu commented.
"The woman? The music box is what... She's not..."
"They go together. They are as one. You gave your acceptance."
Wu placed his hand on my arm while speaking to Shen Yee. I felt as if he had signed away my life. Surely there was some terrible mistake. Something had to be wrong. Events were evolving so fast and I had no control over them, my thoughts were confused.
Time stood still and I saw people as in a fog, doing things and speaking, but I had no recollection as to what they said.
Mei Ling remained nearby, following me wherever I moved. Leave me, woman, I wanted to say but she had accepted it, she knew what was happening. My thoughts were blaring in opposition yet my mouth remained silent, all in deference to Shen Yee.
Vaguely I realized the meeting had concluded and Wu was escorting us towards the exit. He stopped short, signaling Mei Ling and me to enter into a side doorway. The crisp snap of his arms and the steel look in his eyes told me that this was not a polite request.
This woman, whom I'd first seen last evening, drew close to my left elbow as we entered the room. Her beautiful dark and liquid eyes were wide, casting furtive glances between Wu and me. Under other circumstances, I could find myself swimming in them, but now I wanted to ditch this girl, this albatross around my neck.
Fear surged through me as the door slammed shut, sounding like an empty iron drum. Wu strode towards us and the bare room seemed to turn cold.
"Wu, what's happened?" I implored.
He didn't reply and kept his eyes centered on Mei who quickly stepped behind me, her hands gripping my belt. Uncertainty was added to my already confused thoughts. He turned and his eyes locked on to mine; the sound of his voice carried authority.
"This girl is yours; she belongs to you. Do NOT abandon her. I will not allow you to insult Shen Yee."
Surely, he couldn't know my thoughts, "What gave you that idea . . ."
"You English people do not own servants. My culture allows it. Mei Ling is your gift and you accepted her. If you do not treat her right it would be a . . ." He paused, searching for a word. ". . . a sin." His lips drew tight against his teeth as he spat out the last word.
"Wu, you don't understand . . ." I said trying to explain with more courage than I was feeling.
"She belongs to you. You can not say 'no'."
Now I was perplexed. "What . . ."
He raised his hand to hold my silence. This was not a discussion. He turned and moved to the door, reaching for the latch. He then lowered his voice and spoke in the vernacular. I didn't understand, but at his words Mei Ling's grip tightened perceptibly on my waist.
Wu's again became the courteous host, holding the door and ushering us back outside. However, my knees felt like rubber and Mei edged alongside gripping my arm, opposite from Wu. He had ordered me to own this slave girl and that idea was abhorrent to me.
Within a few moments, Mei and I were alone. She was sitting beside me in the rickshaw, tense with fear. I was trying to make sense of it all as we moved back to the hotel. For the first time I observed Mei Ling. She had lowered her head and kept her gaze averted in submission. Her arms cradled the gift, the one I would be presenting to Willard Wilson. I wished I could give him this beautiful girl too, but Wu's warning rang fresh in my mind.
She was short, maybe 5' 2", with thick black hair flowing down her back; she wore no shoes and was dressed in a bright red matching set with flowered prints. I guessed that she was in her early twenties. I studied her face as she sat beside me. It was oval, with pronounced cheekbones and a petit nose. She was indeed beautiful.
"Do you speak English?"
She nodded slightly but kept her attention focused on the activities of the people as they moved about their daily activities. Her lips were tight, almost pinched together, and I wondered if she were holding back tears. I felt sorry for her.
She altered her gaze, shifted in the seat, but did not answer.
When we arrived at the hotel, she followed me inside, her feet padding softly behind me and together we moved to my room. Mei refused to take a seat and I wondered if she would ever let go of that music box.
"Mei Ling, can we talk?"
She nodded but refused to look up and she appeared tense. This must be new to her. Shoot, it was new to me, too.