The Virtual Studio
The interview with the young woman reporter from Shanghai did not come as a surprise to Mrs. Jin, the proprietress of the general store across the street from the county jail. It was not the first time a reporter had asked to talk to her since she had taken in Susu and hidden her from the world of curious strangers; but this story was for a famous women’s magazine, and Shanghai was different, a much bigger place than the provincial capital or the county seat, let alone Clear Water Town, which, apart from the jail, had nothing to offer as attraction for out-of-towners. Mrs. Jin imagined people in Shanghai reading about her and her store, even though she was not the reason the reporter had come.
The bus that carried the reporter into town arrived at three o’clock. Two hours before that, Mrs. Jin had closed her store. She’d wiped all the shelves, dusted every corner, and washed the cement floor twice. The silk blouse and pants she had put on for the day were new; so were the leather shoes, imported from Italy according to the words printed on the box. A clear-headed businesswoman, Mrs. Jin did not believe the shoe box, but they were nice shoes, better than anyone in town wore, and worth showing off.
The shoes and the outfit were gifts from Mrs. Jin’s son, who was a rather successful construction contractor in the provincial capital. When Mrs. Jin had become a widow, two years earlier, her son had asked her to join his family in the city for more comfortable circumstances, rather than wasting her time in the small store, which made as much money in a month or two as he did in a day. Mrs. Jin refused. Despite her age of sixty-eight, she was still strong enough to lift a thirty-kilo box to the store’s highest shelf; there was no need for her to live as a dependent of anyone, her son included. Besides, over those two years she had collected several women who now relied on her for their welfare. She would not give them up for a boring life under the reign of her daughter-in-law, whom she had not liked in the first place.
When she finished cleaning, Mrs. Jin sat down with a cup of tea behind the counter. She had put up a sign that said the store would be closed for the rest of the day, but she knew the townspeople would knock on her back door when they needed her. The sign was only for those who came from out of town; so were the price tags. Mrs. Jin believed the old saying that the smartest hare would not eat the grass at the entrance of its own hole, and she charged her townspeople much less, barely enough to make a profit.
She had lived all her life in Clear Water Town and had watched its young children grow up, some leaving like her son, others staying and marrying to produce the next generation for her to watch; she herself had been watched by older people, though the number of those who remembered her as a young girl with two pigtails, or as a new wife with a plump and desirable body, was dwindling now. In a few years the memory of her youth would be gone with the oldsters, and nobody would contradict her even if she told the wildest lies about her life. Mrs. Jin sighed. She stood up and checked herself in the mirror. Her hair neatly tucked into a tight bun and her eyebrows newly plucked, she examined her face as if studying a stranger; after a while she decided that she was still a presentable woman. Not many women could age as beautifully and regally as she did, a fact that Mrs. Jin was proud of, though there was no one to whom she could boast.
The reporter from Shanghai was less beautiful than Mrs. Jin had imagined—fashionable for sure, but dresses and jewels and makeup would not help her at Mrs. Jin’s age. Her eyes were wide apart, which gave her a distracted look; her hair was not thick enough, and by fifty she would have to consider a wig.
“Some women were born with fewer gifts from heaven,” Mrs. Jin said with a smile. “Susu is just one such woman.”
“Someone from the courthouse told me she lives with you now,” the reporter said. “Can I meet her?”
“She’s not ready to meet strangers yet,” Mrs. Jin said.
“I won’t bother her for long. I’ll just ask her a few questions,” the reporter said.
Mrs. Jin shook her head. Since the execution of Susu’s husband, Mrs. Jin had fended off several reporters for Susu. “She’s like a daughter to me, so if you have questions, I can answer them for you.”
“What does she think of the court’s decision to deny her a baby?” the reporter asked.
“It doesn’t matter what she thinks,” Mrs. Jin said. It had been a crazy idea on Susu’s part from the beginning. Who would have thought of asking to have a baby with a husband about to be executed? “The judge said no, so she’d better stop thinking about it.”
This seemed to take the reporter by surprise. “What do you think of it, Mrs. Jin?”
“I couldn’t have been happier,” Mrs. Jin said. These reporters all came with the same despicable ambitions, to witness Susu’s grief over her dead husband and to analyze her mad notion of bearing his child. Sometimes they talked about the significance of Susu’s case—no one had ever made such a request, they said; she raised the question of whether a man on death row had reproductive rights. But such talk was nonsense. For ordinary people like Susu, there was nothing glorious about occupying a page or two in a history book. “Think about it, what would it make a jail look like if every wife asked to have a baby by a husband inside?” Mrs. Jin said. “A mating station it would be, no?”
The reporter smiled. “I think what Susu asked for was artificial insemination,” she said, and explained the procedure.
“What a horrible invention,” Mrs. Jin said. “There’re enough men in this world who will jump at the first opportunity to offer the real thing.”
The reporter smiled again. Mrs. Jin savored her wittiness, making a young woman from Shanghai laugh, and supposed that she might like the reporter more than she had thought. Perhaps she could reconsider her decision and let the woman see Susu for five minutes—it all depended on how the woman behaved.
“Trust me, Susu won’t remain a widow for long,” Mrs. Jin said. “She’ll get a chance to have a baby. I’ll see to it personally.”
“You said she was like a daughter to you,” the reporter said. “Are you a relative?”
“No. She came through this door one day to tell me her story. I liked her, so I said, ‘Susu, it’s a cruel world. Why don’t you stay with me for some time until you’re ready to go out there again?’ She stayed.”
Mrs. Jin observed the reporter. People in this world belonged to two groups: those who were curious about others’ stories, and those who were not. Mrs. Jin decided that if the reporter did not show a genuine interest in Mrs. Jin herself, she would finish the interview in a few minutes and make the trip from Shanghai worthless.
The young woman raised her eyebrows. “You just took her in like that, without even knowing her?”
Feeling the reporter’s eyes probe her own for answers and stories, Mrs. Jin was satisfied. “Why? How much more does one need to know to lend a hand to a drowning life?” she said. “It’s not the first time for me, anyway. You don’t close the door to those who need you.”
It was true that Susu was not the first woman Mrs. Jin had picked up from the street, nor would she be the last one. These women lived with Mrs. Jin now in the big house she once shared with her husband. She had been married to him for forty-three years. There was nothing about him to complain of—in fact, if anyone asked Mrs. Jin, she would say that her husband was the best man she could ever have imagined. Unlike many other men in town, who drank and beat their wives and children, Mrs. Jin’s husband was strictly obedient; she had always been the one to make decisions and he the one to follow them, from the color of the curtains to the naming of their only son.
It had been her idea, too, to buy the almost defunct general store from the township twenty years before, when small private businesses ceased to be illegal. What if there came another round of the Cultural Revolution and the cutting of capitalist tails, her husband said—their business would be the biggest tail in town. Mrs. Jin told her husband one could worry himself to death even in bed; and if he would choose to hide from life like a tortoise, he’d better remember that she would not remain a tortoise’s wife. It was the harshest thing she had ever said to him, but it shut him up. She bribed officials of all ranks in the jail so that her husband could go inside twice a week to sell, at high prices, cigarettes, matches, toothpaste, towels, poker cards, and other goods to those who did not have visitors. The store blossomed under the couple’s hard labor.
The idea of gathering women companions first occurred to Mrs. Jin not because she felt lonely or abandoned after her husband’s death. Rather, she saw this as a new stage of her life. She had taken good care of her husband for four decades—her son, too, before he went out and made a man of himself—and now it was time for other responsibilities. It was not difficult to find such women—once a week, female visitors were allowed in the jail to see their men. Some stopped by Mrs. Jin’s store for last-minute purchases of articles they had forgotten; more came in after the visiting hour for Mrs. Jin’s hospitality, the hot tea and freshly baked buns she offered them for free. Sooner or later they started to talk about their men—fathers, sons, brothers, husbands—similar stories in which the women either believed in the innocence of their loved ones or were readier than the rest of the world to forgive them. Mrs. Jin listened, pouring tea and handing them tissues, reminding herself what a lucky woman she was. She shed tears with them, too, and because of the hours she spent sympathizing, she charged these women extra for any purchases. They left with gratitude; some returned for more tea and talk; others, whose men were sentenced and either transferred or executed, would be replaced by new women with the same stories.
The reporter, who had come for Susu, decided to write a story about Mrs. Jin instead. An impressive story it would be, she told Mrs. Jin, an important one about sisterhood that would reach all the female readers of the magazine. The reporter’s talk was like her big-city clothes, fancy but laughable. She called Mrs. Jin’s house a “commune,” and praised Mrs. Jin’s charity as “revolutionary.” Such words reminded Mrs. Jin of a past era: her own father had been the leader of Clear Water People’s Commune, when the town had been a village, before the surrounding farmland was sold for mining. Yet, regardless of the reporter’s inanities, Mrs. Jin decided that she herself was indeed extraordinary and worth a story, so when the reporter asked to see Mrs. Jin’s commune, she agreed.
The reporter took a picture of Mrs. Jin across the street from the jail. The enclosed compound had been the home of a big landlord, she told the reporter, who found this interesting and snapped more pictures and wrote in her notebook. A few townspeople stopped by to watch and congratulated Mrs. Jin when she told them the news of her being featured in the women’s magazine.
She smiled and nodded, already feeling important. She led the reporter across town to her house, a good brick one with a big yard. Upon entering the gate, they bumped into a pair of children who were running wild. The reporter dropped her pen. The two girls, identical twins dressed in the same clothes, stopped immediately. One picked up the pen while the other chirped an apology. Mrs. Jin frowned. Many times she had told the twins to behave properly in her home, but the two girls just did not have the brains for any useful lessons. “These are my youngest girls,” she said without introducing them. As she sometimes confused the two, she never used their names.
The twins studied the reporter and smiled simultaneously. “Auntie, I like your bag,” one said, touching the reporter’s leather handbag. The other handed the pen to the reporter and said, “Auntie, are you an actress? You’re the prettiest woman I’ve ever seen.”
“What sweet girls,” the reporter said. “How old are you?”
Mrs. Jin watched the twins put on their best charming expressions. Their eyes, too big for their small, heart-shaped faces, gave them a look of helpless innocence. Mrs. Jin smiled tolerantly and said to the twins, “Don’t bother the guest.”
The girls stepped back, still bearing their matching smiles.
“Their father was sentenced to thirty years,” Mrs. Jin said to the reporter, “for robbing an old woman and making her die of a heart attack. Their parents of course did not get married before the girls were born, so they had to hide them from the Household Registrar.”
The two girls followed Mrs. Jin and the reporter to the living room and sat by the foot of the couch, as if the discussion had nothing to do with them.
“Are they in school now?” the reporter asked.
“I got them legalized after they came to live here so they could go to school. You just have to pay a price,” Mrs. Jin said, rubbing two fingers together. The girls listened to Mrs. Jin and the reporter, their eyes moving from one person to the other, not blinking.
“Where is their mother?” the reporter asked.
“I found her a job at a county hospital washing laundry,” Mrs. Jin said. “She comes home once a week.”
With great interest the two girls watched the reporter take notes. Mrs. Jin stood up and left for the kitchen, knowing the reporter would have questions for the girls. Mrs. Jin thought that it would look better if she were not present when the twins sang praise for her, which she trusted they would do to the best effect.
The girls’ mother had come to Mrs. Jin just as many other women had, with a story of a hard life and an unfair fate. She and the father of her children had been so poor they lacked the application fee for a marriage certificate, and had no money to pay the fine for being pregnant without permission from the county’s birth control office.
“Their father was optimistic,” the twins’ mother had said. “He thought when we had more money, we would pay the fine or the bribery. But nobody gets rich selling pickled pigs’ ears, and the girls could not go to school unless they were registered soon. So he robbed the old woman. Silly man! I would’ve never let him. I would’ve gone to the street to become a whore myself had I known his plan. He thought he could solve the problem by himself, but now who knows when he’ll be released.”
Mrs. Jin had no hope for the husband, even though he had not set out to kill the old woman. In fact, he had called for help when she had become motionless, but that, as Mrs. Jin had suspected, did not help him much in the courthouse.
She did not intend to take in the woman and her children at first. The woman’s circumstances were hard indeed, but she was a mother, and a mother should never be defeated by circumstances. The second time they came into the store, however, Mrs. Jin caught the twins stealing candies when she stood up to fetch tissues for their sobbing mother. Mrs. Jin pretended not to notice, but when the three of them were about to leave, she brought out some snacks and insisted on putting them into the two girls’ pockets herself. She pinched them and made sure the girls knew that she had seen them take what did not belong to them. But they showed no signs of panic. Instead, they gave Mrs. Jin the most candid smiles, as if they knew she would not have the heart to reveal their crime to their mother, who was by the store entrance, sighing and dabbing her eyes with a corner of her blouse. Where did the girls get such shameless courage? Mrs. Jin studied their mother again—she was a dull woman, foolish looking; the twins were much prettier, their eyes too smart for children their age. Perhaps they had inherited this from their father. The possibility that they would grow more like him, wasting their gifts on the wrong ideas, troubled Mrs. Jin. His sentence was long, so his influence on the two girls could be minimized; but she worried about the mother’s inability to raise them properly.
She decided to take over their upbringing. The mother was overjoyed that someone with power and wealth would think of her own children’s welfare; it was not hard to persuade her to accept a job away from them. She talked about saving every penny to pay back Mrs. Jin, but Mrs. Jin made it clear that she had no need for the money. “Save for the future,” she told the mother, who was in grateful tears. “I won’t always be around to take care of them for you.”
When Mrs. Jin returned to the living room with a cup of tea for the reporter, the twins were leaning on the young woman, who was showing them her small tape recorder. Given an opportunity, the girls would try to charm anyone, Mrs. Jin thought with frustration. Six months they had been living under her roof now, and she had been unable to wipe away that smartness from their eyes. Sometimes she wondered if she had enough time to change them into what she wanted them to be, girls with fear and reverence for what was beyond their control in life; what a shame it would be to admit defeat by a pair of six-year-olds. Mrs. Jin placed the tea in front of the reporter, and right away, both girls looked up.
“Nana,” one of them said. “Auntie said she is going to write a story about you so everybody will know what a good person you are.”
“And she’ll take our picture so everybody can see how lucky we are,” the other girl said.
Mrs. Jin smiled tightly, annoyed by the mock she always perceived in their eyes when they sweet-mouthed her. “Did you both finish your homework?” she said.
“Then go practice knitting in your room.” She turned to the reporter and said, “There’s so much for them to learn. I want them to be prepared as best they can.”
The girls left but a minute later returned with their knitting needles and yarn and sat down by the couch. The reporter watched them knit and took a few pictures; in the flash of light, the girls looked serious and engrossed in what they were doing, though they would never have remembered to pick up their knitting needles if Mrs. Jin had not told them to. She sighed. If not for the reporter, she would have told them in a sharp tongue not to put up a show. More and more now she talked to the girls harshly, which seemed to work only for a minute or two before they became their old selves, smiling at her and talking as if they were her beloved grandchildren. Mrs. Jin was happy they had not come from her blood.
When the reporter put away the camera, Mrs. Jin suggested a tour of the house; and before the girls could make the move, she told them not to follow.
The house, two-storied, had two bedrooms on the first floor and three more on the second. Mrs. Jin led the reporter upstairs and showed her the two small rooms at the end of the hallway. Standing in each was a single bed, neatly made by Mrs. Jin herself. “These belong to the two older girls,” she said. “They come home only on weekends, like the twins’ mother.” Strictly speaking, it was not a lie, as Mrs. Jin still hoped for the girls to return to her house. They had come at different times but left together. The older one, twenty-one and slightly beautiful, had no place to live after her boyfriend, a small-scale drug dealer, got a sentence of seventeen years. The younger one was nineteen and told Mrs. Jin stories about her stepfather, who had repeatedly raped an eight-year-old girl, and her mother, who had helped to bait the young girl into their house. Mrs. Jin did not know if she believed the girls’ tales, but both would certainly benefit from her supervision.
For a while both girls worked in Mrs. Jin’s store, though she could handle the business herself perfectly. She thought she would teach them how to make a living with their hands before sending them out to the real world, but one day they left a note for her, explaining they had borrowed her money to go to Shanghai. They promised to come back to see her and return the money when they found good manual jobs, but Mrs. Jin was certain they would fall into the hands of drug dealers and pimps. It was upsetting that they had left without Mrs. Jin’s assent, but she knew that soon she would find two more girls to fill the vacancies; the next time she would have to choose carefully so she would not be disappointed.
Returning downstairs, Mrs. Jin entered the hallway and knocked on the first door before pushing it ajar and saying, “Granny, it’s me.”
There was no answer in the room, as she expected. Granny, who’d lived in the house for over a year, was eighty-one and suffered from dementia; as was common, she was not alone—sitting beside her on the single bed was a slender young woman, her hand grasped tightly by Granny’s thin, chicken-claw fingers.
“Granny is telling me stories about her husband,” the woman said with an apologetic look, and wiggled her hand out of Granny’s clasp.
Mrs. Jin nodded. All that Granny remembered and talked about was her dead husband. “I’ve told you not to waste your time with Granny,” Mrs. Jin said. “You’ve heard enough of her stories.”
The woman looked down at the tips of her shoes. “I don’t mind,” she said. “Granny likes to tell the stories.”
“We have a guest in the house,” Mrs. Jin said.
“I’ll get dinner ready,” the woman said. She nodded to the reporter and left the room without making a sound. The reporter watched her close the door.
“Who is she?” she asked.
Mrs. Jin hesitated and replied, “Susu.”
“She’s beautiful,” the reporter said.
“Indeed,” Mrs. Jin said. They were silent, as if still entranced by her beauty. It was not healthy for Susu to listen to the old woman’s tales about a husband executed fifty years before, but Mrs. Jin had not wanted to remind Susu of this in front of the reporter.
After a moment, Mrs. Jin pointed to Granny, who looked lost now that nobody was listening to her stories. “Remember I told you that the jail used to be the landlord’s compound? The landlord was Granny’s husband. She was his fifth wife.” Then, grabbing Granny’s hand, Mrs. Jin raised her voice and said, “Granny, tell us about your Mister.”
“Mister liked to eat duck gizzards with mustard,” Granny said. This was new for Mrs. Jin. On other days she heard the same stories repeatedly about Mister, how before he settled down he had made enough money traveling with an acrobatic troupe to become the biggest landowner in the region.
“Where is he now? What happened to him?” Mrs. Jin said.
Granny thought for a moment and twitched her mouth as if she were crying, though her eyes remained dry. “They took him away,” she said.
“Where did they take him?” Mrs. Jin said.
“To the river. Do you know where the river is? They took him there and drowned him, my poor Mister,” Granny said, slapping the blanket on her knees, like a wife newly bereft.
Mrs. Jin waited for a moment and said, “Granny, I heard you were his favorite wife.”
Granny calmed down. “Mister says I’m the most beautiful woman in the world,” she said, her wrinkled face blushing like a bashful young girl’s.
Mrs. Jin stepped back and said to the reporter, not lowering her voice, “What a sad thing for her to live for a man who’s been dead fifty years.”
“Was he really drowned?”
“Executed beside the river in ’51,” Mrs. Jin said. “He was thirty years older than she.”
The reporter looked at Granny and did not speak for a while. Mrs. Jin walked to the window to straighten the curtain and to give the reporter a moment to absorb the story of Granny. Mrs. Jin did not usually take in old women—their fates were already written out for them, and there was no room for her to make a difference. Granny was an exception. She had come when the last of her husband’s other four wives died; the five wives had all refused to remarry and had remained a close family until their passings.
“How long has she stayed here?” the reporter asked.
“Since her last relative died,” Mrs. Jin said. “About a year now.”
“Did you know her before that?”
“Yes,” Mrs. Jin said. “I’ve known her almost all my life.” It was not a lie—she had first seen Granny as a bride sixty years before. Mrs. Jin was eight years old then, a poor peasant’s daughter standing in the wedding crowd to witness Granny being married off to the richest man in the village. The new wife was so beautiful that Mrs. Jin, young as she was, wished she could become part of the woman’s life one day; but when she asked to be sold to the landlord’s family as a handmaid, her father said it was the stupidest idea she’d ever had.
Not long after, however, their lives intersected when Granny’s husband was sentenced in a public meeting as an enemy of the new proletarian regime: Mrs. Jin’s father was one of the two militiamen who pushed the convict down to the riverbank and put a bullet into his head. Nobody remembered such old stories except Mrs. Jin. She had waited all these years to become part of Granny’s life; heaven had its own wills. Mrs. Jin’s lifelong loyalty went unnoticed by Granny, who never recognized her as the eight-year-old admirer, or the daughter of the poor peasant who became a power figure after the Revolution.
“Are Susu and Granny friends?” the reporter asked.
“I wish they weren’t,” Mrs. Jin said. Granny was a bad influence, a woman who let the memory of a short marriage become the only life she knew. Who would be around to take care of Susu if she let herself grow old like that?
“Do you think I can ask Susu a few questions?” the reporter said.
It was hard to refuse someone who had promised to write a story about her, Mrs. Jin thought. Besides, she felt a little tired. She had worked so hard to make a haven for Susu, who still refused to open her eyes to the future. All those reports about her request to the court for a baby must have made her believe she was justified in her grief, but it was wrong to mourn for any man like that, her husband especially, a useless, replaceable person.
Mrs. Jin had read about the case in the newspapers. The young man, twenty-three and newly wedded to his childhood sweetheart, was in an argument with his woman boss. He confessed to the police that she slapped him a couple of times, and that made him lose his temper; she was found strangled to death in her office and he weeping under her desk, unable to move when they ordered him to come out.
Mrs. Jin did not connect Susu with the man in the newspapers when she first came into the store. Unlike the other women, Susu did not talk about what had brought her to the jail, even when Mrs. Jin asked. Mrs. Jin studied Susu; her accent was not local but from the next province, her hips narrow and her eyes clear, still like a maiden. She was beautiful in an unhealthy way, her skin bloodless, almost transparent. Mrs. Jin imagined caring for Susu as her own daughter, filling her bony frame with more flesh and putting color in her cheeks. The more Mrs. Jin thought about it, the less willing she was to let the girl slip away. She offered Susu a free room in her house, so that the young wife would not have to rent cheap accommodations in town while waiting for the trial. Mrs. Jin cooked homemade sausages for Susu to bring to the jail on visiting days and did not ask whom they were for. Eventually, Susu started to talk. She showed her wedding album to Mrs. Jin; in the pictures the husband, slim and tall in a boyish way, did not look like a murderer.
He got a death sentence; when the appeal failed, Mrs. Jin thought the worst was over and it was time to reconstruct the young woman. Her sadness did not bother Mrs. Jin, and when Susu mentioned her hope to have a baby with her husband before his execution, Mrs. Jin was only slightly alert. Susu would come to her senses, Mrs. Jin decided; it was only a whim of a young woman struck by grief. But when Susu asked to borrow money from Mrs. Jin to hire a lawyer for the request, Mrs. Jin became scared. She had not anticipated the determination and fight in that frail body. Susu was wrong to bet all her future, and the future of a child, on the love of a man who had made the stupidest mistake in life. Mrs. Jin would do anything to prevent that. In the end, however, she gave the money to Susu, not ready to oppose the girl’s wish in any way and thus lose her.
Mrs. Jin was relieved when the request was denied; without a child binding Susu to her dead husband, her future was a blank sheet again, full of possibilities. Mrs. Jin persuaded Susu to continue living in the house—she needed some time to recover, after all. The money Mrs. Jin had lent Susu was, in retrospect, a smart move; Susu was not a person who could ever say no to a generous and sympathetic soul.
Mrs. Jin showed the reporter the rest of the house before they came to the kitchen. Susu looked up from the cutting board, where she was chopping vegetables for dumpling fillings. “Susu, this reporter wants to talk to you,” Mrs. Jin said.
“Dead is dead. There’s nothing to talk about now,” Susu said without acknowledging the reporter.
“She came all the way from Shanghai for you, so maybe we’ll just answer a few questions for her?” Mrs. Jin said.
Susu glanced at the reporter. “I’ve never been to Shanghai,” she said.
“When you feel better, we’ll take a trip to Shanghai together,” Mrs. Jin said.
Susu looked at the chopper in her hand for a moment and said, “We thought of going there for our honeymoon, but it was too expensive.”
Mrs. Jin watched Susu, whose mind was elsewhere. It was the first time she had mentioned her life with her husband since his execution a month before. Mrs. Jin wondered if Susu would, like Granny, start to tell stories so she could remember him—Mrs. Jin considered what she would have to do to battle against another dead man.
“I’m sorry about your husband,” the reporter said. When Susu did not reply, the reporter smiled apologetically at Mrs. Jin and then said, “Your request to have a baby with someone on death row—have you realized that it has sparked a national discussion about the legal as well as the moral and social significance of your case? Can you talk a little about what you think of the discussion?”
Susu looked up at the reporter. “I don’t understand your questions,” she said.
“Some picture you as a challenger to the present judicial system; some think of you as a victim of the old patriarchal society in which a wife’s foremost responsibility is to ensure the continuity of the husband’s blood; and some—pardon me—think you were using the petition to draw undue attention to your husband’s case—”
“He’s dead, isn’t he?” Susu said.
“Of course I’m not saying I agree with some, or any, of these views,” the reporter said. “I’m curious what you think of these reactions.”
Susu looked at the chopper in her hand. “I have nothing to say,” she said. “I’m sorry.”
The reporter nodded and thanked her. Mrs. Jin was relieved. After all, Susu would remain a minor character in the reporter’s story; Mrs. Jin herself would be the heroine.
The twins sneaked into the kitchen like two kittens drawn by the warmth of the hearth. One of them picked up the teapot and poured tea in two cups, and the other brought them for Mrs. Jin and the reporter. “Auntie, are you going to take our picture?” the girls asked.
“Ah, yes,” the reporter said.
“Will you send us our picture when you go back to Shanghai?” one of the twins begged, and the other added, “We want to show the picture to our dad so he knows he doesn’t have to worry about us.”
The reporter promised that she would, and Mrs. Jin watched the two girls clap as if they did not doubt the woman’s sincerity at all. They would never miss a chance to put up such a show, to make their presence known to the world. Mrs. Jin looked at them and then at Susu, who watched the girls with hazy eyes. None of the women had reformed for her, and Mrs. Jin wondered how long it would take her to make that happen, and whether she still had time. The thought exhausted her, and she turned to the reporter and asked brusquely if she would like to stay in the house for the night, as the last bus was leaving town in less than an hour.
The reporter hesitated and said she would rather catch the bus. Could she take a picture of them all in the yard? she asked.
The twins were the first ones to get ready. They put on the princess outfits and patent-leather shoes that Mrs. Jin had bought for their first performance in school. After a while, Granny walked out of the house, supported by Susu. Granny was dressed in a black satin blouse and pants embroidered with golden chrysanthemums, the outfit that she had ordered long before for her own burial. Mrs. Jin frowned. She did not know if it was an unintentional mistake, but regardless it was a bad omen. She patted some rouge on Granny’s hollow cheeks, adding color for good luck and hoping no harm would be done to her. She led Granny to a cushioned chair in the middle of the yard and then directed Susu to stand behind the old woman. The twins stood close to Susu, each clinging to an arm. Mrs. Jin studied the group, young and old; all their sufferings came from the men they had been wrongly assigned by heaven. She herself could have been one of them if fate had not been lenient and given her an easier life: a father who, though born into a peasant’s family, had risen to the right position through revolution; a husband who had never made a stupid mistake; and a good son who would not leave her to die in the hands of unsympathetic nurses in the old people’s home.
The reporter looked through the camera and asked Mrs. Jin to join the group. She walked over and stood straight, an arm’s length away from the rest. The light from the setting sun blinded her, but she tried not to squint. She imagined, in twenty years, the twins, Susu, and all the other women who were not in the picture but who had or would come to this house at one time or another—she imagined them looking at the picture in an old magazine and telling each other how Mrs. Jin had changed their lives. She would be happily watching over them from the other world then, where Granny would finally recognize her as the most loyal soul in the world.
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