The Sea Palaces

—Vanessa Hua

The pimpled driver was not much older than me, although he tried to hide his youth behind dark glasses and a scowl. When I climbed into the jeep, he gave me a handkerchief, instructing me to tie it around my mouth to protect against the clouds of dust and gasoline fumes. A week ago, I’d been selected for duty in the capital. As we left, the rear view mirror reflected Ma chasing after us, until Ba held her back, her arms beating against his chest. I did not turn around. The change I sought had arrived, and in my ignorance – and in my cruelty – I thought I had to leave behind that life.

The morning sun was already searing and I wished I’d packed my straw hat. The Chairman’s portrait hung from the mirror – a chiseled young soldier, wearing a green uniform, his head tilted up and arm raised in salute. He had been handsome. I stared at his large head and broad torso, and imagined the rest, the notches in his narrow waist and the powerful curve of his thighs. Heat pricked my belly and my cheeks.

Corn and wheat fields ran along the northern edge of the village and a muddy river flowed along the southern border. To the west, the county seat and the nearest medical clinic were a day’s walk. We headed east, descending into the plain. Villages whipped by, along with oxen, fields, haystacks, and families like mine. Chickens pecking, perpetually kicked aside. An acacia tree under which the men congregated on the hottest parts of the day. The stink of the common trash heap. Inside each home, a straw-burning stove, blackened ceilings, and a portrait of the Chairman.

The ceaseless rattling drilled into the base of my skull, and the brisk wind stung my eyes. Jolts from the rutted road numbed my thighs and tingled between my legs, and sweat trickled between my breasts, like a finger tracing my body. After we hit a pothole, the Chairman’s picture swung from the mirror. The taunts from my sisters circled in my head — they said I’d serve the Party by lying down with strange men. I forced back the fear that clawed in my chest like a rat drowning in a well.

The distance between villages shrank until a continuous stretch of shops and buildings began at the outskirts of the capital. I wondered if we would pass the Sea Palaces, home of the Chairman. I knew the name, and not much more. Before Liberation, emperors had idled there, among pleasure grounds of lakes and pavilions, and it was said you couldn’t look directly into its gates or your vision would blur.

The air was heavy and suffocating, wet as new laundry. Workers smoked outside a factory whose double row of shattered windows gave it a ghoul’s grin. Bicycles crowded the roads, along with hand-carts crammed with cabbages and chickens. A woman cooking on the street stirred her ladle, until her son pointed at me and tugged her hand. She sat him on her hip. Though she loved him, in that moment she wanted to leave him behind for a chance to ride high. I knew, because I recognized such a desire in myself.

I removed the bandanna from my face.

We passed under soaring trees arched like the clasped hands of giants, and turned onto a broad boulevard. To my left was a vast plaza. To my right was a massive red gate, upon which hung a portrait of the Chairman – three times my height, maybe more. I could have sat in his ear. He stared straight at me, filling my mind: the curve of his full lips, his luminous eyes, and the pink dawn of the background shading into an infinite blue. Not until the portrait fell out of sight did I feel the grit in my eyes and the ache from craning my neck.

We cruised along the endless walls of the Sea Palaces. I blinked and their deep red glowed behind my eyelids, as if I had stared into the sun. The jeep pulled into a sentry gate, a soldier nodded at us and I gasped, realizing that we were going in, down a road that curved around two broad lakes. The pavilions and gardens, arched bridges and pagodas seemed like sights from my father’s ancient tales of heroes. Even the sunshine seemed different in here, dappled and refreshing. Two men under straw hats watered paving stones that shimmered and steamed. The jeep tires crunched onto the gravel drive that led to a red brick building. A woman emerged, in high heels and a wispy blouse that reminded me of dense fog. She had a thin nose, pointy chin, and jutting elbows: the sharp corners of a heron, and as poised too, capable of a burst of flight – or rage.

The driver helped me down and I wobbled on my feet after the long ride. Beside the woman, I felt clumsy and unworthy in my straw sandals, coarse tunic, and pants. I saw how peasants must appear to the people in the capital: humble and ugly.

I met her gaze. She might think me less than her, but I would not let her shame me.

“You’re late,” the woman said to the driver. Although she didn’t shout, her tone revealed her displeasure.

The Party official had picked me. Out of everyone in the village! Yet to her, I was nothing, weightless and aggravating as chaff.

“We have to go farther and farther to find new recruits,” the driver said.

“Get them here on time.” Her eyes lingered on my greasy forehead, my patched knees, and dusty face. She couldn’t see the tiny plum blossoms that Ma embroidered on the hem of my tunic or on the dowry bead at the end of my braid, gestures towards beauty and a notch above necessity.

“We have to get her cleaned up,” she said, not only rejecting me, but also Ma, my family and my village.

“I took a bath this morning!” I said.

“That’s not clean enough.” She spun around and disappeared inside the building.

*

I stood with three dozen recruits in front of a mirror in which we could watch our missteps. Teacher Lin, the woman who met me at the back entrance, was our dance instructor. A slender recruit yelped when I trod on her foot. I stepped right when others went left, stepped forward when everyone stepped back, as the record player crackled with wild wails and thumps.

Record player, lights, electricity, stairs. I would learn their uses now, their names later. Encountering these marvels for the first time, I felt my confidence flee. It didn’t matter if I was the brightest student in the village. Here I knew nothing. I wouldn’t be able to find my way out of the building, the biggest I had ever entered. Even walking was difficult, for the polished wood floor was slippery as ice. As perspiration pooled on my back and in my armpits, I lurched, trying to re-arrange my feet. I asked the recruits around me for help. One ignored me, and the other told me to put my left foot forward – out of position, I realized too late.

The dance lessons confused me. I felt as if I’d been tricked, told to report for a duty I was bound to fail, but I didn’t dare question what everyone else seemed to accept.

“Get back in line!” Teacher Lin snapped at me. “The cadre deserve better tonight.”

The cadre – tonight? I wouldn’t be ready by tonight, my first day in the capital. I wouldn’t be ready in a week. If only I could show what I knew, spin wool, uncover healing herbs, or recite the Chairman’s teachings, instead of being forced like a dog onto its hind legs.

Teacher Lin didn’t address me by name; she probably didn’t know my name. Because I had no history with these recruits, I could be anyone, no longer Third Daughter, no longer the youngest daughter of a scorned family. I raised my eyes from the floor and smiled in the mirror at the recruit to my left. She smiled back. The others called her “Fei Yu,” or flying fish, perhaps because she glided through the steps, perhaps for her sleek, narrow-faced beauty. The recruits whispered about us – the new ones – their eyes hard and appraising as a bargaining granny’s.

During the break, I positioned myself under the breeze from the ceiling fan. Despite the humiliating scrubbing that Teacher Lin had ordered – at the hands of two attendants who brushed out my mother’s braids and doused me with a burning shampoo to rid me of fleas and lice – I was stickier than when I first arrived at the Sea Palaces. I brushed my hand against the pocket of my blouse, where I kept my mother’s dowry bead, saving it from the attendants who tossed out my peasant clothes. After a recruit clipped my heel – on purpose, I could tell from her smirk – I staggered. When I squatted, resting as we did in the village, Teacher Lin jerked me up. “You’ll ruin the shape of your calves!”

I tried to keep still when my skin itched beneath my scratchy checkered skirt and tight white blouse, as though I’d fallen into nettles. As I tugged at the neckline and at the hem of my skirt, my terror took the shape of a man’s rough hands and hoarse curses, everything my sisters had hissed at me.

“You! Pay attention!” Teacher Lin said as the music started.

Everyone had paired off except for me.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

My wide feet throbbed. I swayed on my heels, the relief momentary before fiery spikes plunged back in, the pain the kind maidens with bound feet must have suffered.

“You’re like a gourd with its mouth sawed off,” Teacher Lin said. “Answer me.”

The recruits tittered. I wouldn’t let her send me home cowering, a failure before the day ended. I wouldn’t let her insult me again. When I took her hand without asking for permission, the other recruits gasped. She nodded and began to lead. Up close, her skin was translucent and delicate as the wings of a dragonfly.

I kept time to the beat, gliding along a ribbon of air, as she turned my stumbles into spins and my tottering into steps. She brushed her mouth against my ear, her breath warm and moist. “We’re from the same province. I’m the youngest in my family too.”

I reddened with pleasure, knowing that she found me worthy of comparison. Leaning into her arms, I stared at my feet, mesmerized by the tight circles they traveled, seemingly beyond my control.

“Stop that!” Teacher Lin said, slapping the top of my head. The class halted. “When you’re dancing, look at your partner. Looking down throws him off. Don’t follow. You must anticipate.”

She pulled away from me. “When the Chairman arrives, no gaping, no staring, no crying.”

The Chairman! This duty was far more important than I had realized. At this mention of him, the recruits twitched. “Every little movement he makes seems like it’s for you,” a recruit behind me whispered. A flush spread across her cheeks, the same heat that burned in mine.

“It didn’t hit me, not until I saw him,” another said.

Their murmurs turned into shouts. To my astonishment, a pig-tailed recruit sobbed, digging a fist into her mouth to silence her tears. Others closed their eyes, arms wrapped around themselves, as if a wind threatened to blow them away.

The shrieks grew louder. The force of this communal outburst frightened and thrilled me, and I wanted the dance party to start immediately. A trip to the capital, being selected for the troupe – none of that mattered, now that I had a chance to meet the Chairman. Teacher Lin clapped her hands, shouting for silence. “Do that again, and you’ll be dismissed,” she said. As the gulps and sobs faded, the steel in her softened into wax. “You must do your best.”

I would be a hero. Iron Girl and Sister Yu would not have cried, if they met the Chairman. Neither would I.

Late that afternoon, rain fell in heavy bursts that rattled the windows and streaked grime across the glass. After our dance lesson, Teacher Lin led us to a classroom bigger and brighter than our village school, with a smooth chalkboard and individual desks we didn’t have to cram behind. The back window overlooked a brick building, a row of glazed dragons perched on the eaves of a pavilion, and a sliver of the gardens, dense with cypress. She told us we had an important role to play, even if we weren’t guarding borders, toiling in the fields, or working in factories. The officials would work until collapsing, unless the recruits entertained them. “How many of you were part of a production brigade?” she asked.

We raised our hands, straight and tall as stalks of wheat shining in the sun. We had more to eat now, organized under the brigades, the village divided into teams, our progress accounted for and lauded. There were instances of cheating – stolen crops or lazy neighbors– but I had been told the system was much improved, compared to the days before the Chairman.

“That proposal came after a dance party,” Teacher Lin said, her fist clenched to her heart, passion making her implacable face come alive.

Pride jolted through me. We shouted the Chairman’s words along with Teacher Lin. “Young heroes, what is work? Work is struggle. Our difficulties can be overcome because we are a new and rising force and have a bright future.”

When I was nine, our homemade furnaces lit up the night like torches, like hope. The Great Leap Forward. To surpass and smash our enemies, we melted my father’s hoe, my mother’s pot. The iron we smelted was useless, dull and cracked, like dried clay. We beat drums night and day, to keep the swallows from stealing our grain, until the frightened birds fell exhausted. The seeds we planted closely together sprouted, but never grew. Like the plants, we starved, hollow and unable to stand against the wind as our bellies and legs swelled. Half of my village died in those years.

Did that suffering also result from these dance parties? Stomach growling, I worked up saliva in my mouth and swallowed a clot of stickiness to ease my hunger.

The Party official who selected me strode into the classroom. Introduced as Secretary Sun, he announced that he would compensate our families with a month’s worth of rations because of the hardship our absence caused. He didn’t know that I was far more valuable to my family in the Sea Palaces than in the village. They had less help in the fields, but also less competition at meals and for the blankets.

They wouldn’t miss what they never had. “My father will donate what he receives to the commune,” I said. If I shined among the recruits now, my family’s reward would be greater in the future.

Teacher Lin stiffened, annoyed that I’d spoken out of turn, and then asked for more volunteers. The recruits looked among themselves, knowing they should follow my example but unwilling to force out the words. They eyed me jealously, resentfully, and one by one, they pledged selflessly to their communes too.

*

At dinner, we plunged our chopsticks into the serving dishes. Stir-fried greens. Chicken and bell peppers. Scallion pancakes. Plenty, though nothing tasted better than what we took from someone else. The slivers of pork were the first I had eaten since the Spring Festival, the only time of year we ate meat in the village, and my mouth watered so much at first I tasted nothing. With each bite, the taste magnified, sparkling as if under dew. We sat at long wooden tables under bare bulbs that stole our shadows and turned us pale and flat. The canteen, lacquered with old grease, could have seated my entire village, but we were the only diners. I savored the meat, wishing I could have served Ba a bite of this feast, greater than on his wedding day, greater than any in his life.

“Stop hogging the pork! You’ll turn into a pig yourself!” Fei Yu told the girl beside her, which drew much laughter. The recruits began to gossip about tonight’s dance party.

“Avoid the cadre with the big ears, if you can. He stinks of garlic.”

“The one with the limp always steps on my foot.”

If I failed in my duties tonight and returned home after a single day, the neighbors would gloat. Failures from childhood followed people until the end of their days. Big Mouth (a greedy boy), Little Dog Fart (a smelly girl), and Turtle (a boy who craned his neck to spy). The more people tried to escape their nicknames, the more they grew into them, taking on their shape until they forgot they had any other title.

The headman would punish me, force me to tote night soil, the buckets stinking and dripping, or order me to work in the steepest fields of stony earth. Worse yet would be Ba’s realization that I met his expectations, no hidden greatness to be uncovered.

He never spoke of his youthful trip to the provincial capital, and no longer seemed like a man capable of leaving. How humiliating it must have been, to return to the life he never intended. I would carry on his defeat. The city and its wonders would recede, and I would plunge into the well of my village – worse to have seen the sky, than never to have known what existed. I scrutinized the recruits. This one, her pimples weeping on her forehead. That one, graceful as the teacher. To the rest, I was the latest threat. They would try to edge me out, like piglets at their mother’s swollen teats. I decided if what my sisters claimed was true, I would comply. In the village, lying beneath a man I was not married to would have made me an outcast, but in this new life, I had to accept these duties. I thrust my chopsticks into the center of the dish, snatching morsels until I dropped an oily red chili on my sleeve. The stain, raw and red as a wound.

“Rub porridge on it,” Fei Yu said.

We were about the same age, younger than the others, and I wanted to trust her. The sleeve, made of a strange, slippery material, became a sticky mess after I followed her advice. I wiped my hand on the table and a splinter drove deep into my palm.

*

After dinner, we marched in double rows into the Spring Lotus Chamber, where the white lights strung from the high rafters dazzled me. Like hovering fireflies, the lights were clear and bright, not the smoky glow of a cooking fire. A recruit shoved me and shouted “Keep moving!” I stumbled, wincing from a blister on my foot.

The elder officials smoked in the back of the dance hall, blurring the air above them. A lifetime of labor and sacrifice had thickened their bodies and turned their skin to leather. The younger officers, with their slicked short hair and stiff collars, seemed vain as roosters.

The crowd parted, recruits began to push, and someone shrieked that the Chairman had arrived. The Chairman! I would reach him first. The recruit in front of me waved her hand, trying to catch his eye, while another wheezed and leaned on me for support. I shrugged her off.

With my head down, I wedged myself into gaps, into the suffocating heat, until I emerged into the center of the pavilion.

The full cheeks. The fleshy ears. The huge mole at the center of his chin. The Chairman!

Although I’d been instructed to wait for his invitation, I held out my hand and he gripped my wrist, pulling me into his arms. I had seen his giant portrait hours earlier, and now he stood before me. He seemed unreal, denser than flesh, filling the space definitively.

I was a shadow beside him.

The music throbbed, the horns racing – following, then leading, leaping from high to low – while drums pounded. He carried a scent that hinted at the dark and the bitter, like black tea, soy sauce, stagnant pond water, and night soil ripening. Although my nose twitched at the reek, I wanted his scent to permeate me. “What do you think of the capital?” he asked.

“It’s big,” I said, stupidly.

He spun me under his arm and the room whirled around us. “You never stop feeling that way,” the Chairman said.

Reeling me towards him, we ended up side-by-side, rocking back and forth. I gazed into the pavilion: a pale palm flung into the air, the blur of a twirl, a ponytail gone stiff with speed. The floor vibrated beneath us, loud as raindrops in a storm. Fei Yu stared at me over the shoulder of her partner, unable to hide her stunned disappointment. I clasped tighter. The longer I kept the Chairman with me, the longer no one else would have him. In unison, every couple rock-stepped, then flew into different directions before they returned to the beginning – together.

The Chairman was a terrible dancer, worse than me. Every few beats, our pelvises knocked together. He stepped on my foot, crushing my toes, and I forced my grimace into a smile. I scrambled to mirror his missteps and held on when his moves jerked us apart. I imagined my sisters mocking us: First Daughter as the stumbling Chairman, Second Daughter lurching like me. The recruits swiveled their heads to follow us, but their partners kept a respectful distance. After four songs, we were winded. Gasping and sweating, he defaced the portrait I held of him in my head. Perfection couldn’t survive the messiness of life. A life, I could hardly grasp, he shared, with aches and exhaustion too. He belonged on the wall of a plaza or on the cover of the little red book and not in my arms.

“Let’s take a rest,” the Chairman said. His damp hand at my waist guided me to a doorway at the edge of the pavilion, opposite the main entrance. With each step, my legs became heavier with the weight of what was to come. The Chairman parted dark red velvet curtains to reveal a brightly-lit room, where a bed filled most of the space. Before Liberation, landlords had homes of many rooms. For cooking, for sleeping, for defecating, for uses I could not imagine. This room, I knew at once. The Chairman protects, the Chairman provides. I saw my mother’s chant now for what it was: superstition. Useless against what the world demanded.

He poured me a glass of water, which I downed in one gulp. He poured me another, and we sat on the edge of the bed, where books were piled at the foot and along the wall. The frame dug into my thighs and I shifted, trying to find a comfortable position. He stretched his arms above his head and tilted his neck with a crack that made us both laugh. Cupping my chin in his hand, he raised my head. My breath caught. Though wrinkles creased his face and sweat plastered his hair, I glimpsed the young revolutionary in him.

That version of the Chairman, of all the Chairmen I gazed upon, stirred me the most. A rebel with piercing eyes and full lips, the only softness in an angular face. I had to seek out the rebel in the Chairman before me now.

A pair of wooden chopsticks, stained an oily red, perched on an open crock of pickled chilies. He must have an iron tongue, to snack on chilies straight from the jar. When he shook out a cigarette from a pack, offering it to me, I shook my head. Only men smoked in our village and the one time I tried a pipe, I fell into a fit of coughing. I didn’t want to be ridiculous now. The Chairman tilted his head up and blew thick smoke rings, pursing his plump lips. I clapped at his performance and thrust my fist through the rings that traveled up my arm like bracelets. In the dance pavilion, a folk opera had replaced the Western music with the wailing song of a concubine longing for a son. Alone in her chamber, she prayed for the pains that heralded a pregnancy.

“Don’t pity her,” he said, seeing my frown. He explained she was plotting against another imperial concubine who became pregnant before her, by replacing the baby with a leopard cub. “She’ll tell everyone her rival gave birth to a monster.”

The plot was familiar. Ma had told me a story like this one, and hearing the concubine’s sorrow in song made me shiver. He stubbed out his cigarette into a small porcelain dish. His knuckles knobby, the skin gnarled with veins. An old man’s hands, but powerful all the same and like the cigarette, I’d disintegrate under his grip.

The song ended, and we listened to murmured conversation until a harsh scratch marked the return of the foreign dance music, its beat rapid and persistent. The Chairman swayed, snapping his fingers, off-beat, the stutter step sound of my heart skipping in my chest.

“It’s not like our songs,” I said, then wished I kept silent when he asked how it made me feel. “It’s like – I’m being chased by an ox that will trample me if I don’t run fast enough.”

The Chairman laughed. “Seize the reins!”

“Like Brother Rat,” I said. No one expected much of rats, but in the great race to heaven, Brother Rat had persuaded the ox to give him a ride across the river. Perched on the ox’s back, the rat promised to watch for enemies sneaking up from behind. As they reached the opposite shore, the rat leaped across the finish line.

The Chairman’s smile widened. “Enemies forever.”

“Without Brother Rat, the race would have been forgotten,” I said. The race determined the order of animal signs in the zodiac calendar. “No one remembers a story, if what happens is what they expect.”

The Chairman studied me. He didn’t expect me to have an opinion besides his own that I repeated back to him. I froze. The hand that penned “The world belongs to you. The country’s future belongs to you” stroked my head. The touch, lighter than I thought possible. The touch not of an eager young man, but one in control, with the power of a withheld punch.

After reciting the Chairman’s teachings, doctors had re-attached a severed hand, workers raised a sinking city, and villagers harvested their crop within an hour. I too wanted to transform under his fingertips. He unfastened the hair-bands and loose strands fell to my shoulders. Only girls in my village wore their hair down. Only girls – and whores. No man but my father had seen my hair unbraided. No man but my husband was supposed to touch my braids, for the first time on our wedding night. The women of our village crowned themselves with braids, our beauty, our strength, our pride, now gathered in the Chairman’s hands. As I reached towards his face, he pushed me onto the bed, groped beneath my skirt, and ripped apart my underwear.

He fumbled with the buttons of his pants, and I squeezed my eyes shut, convinced that if I saw his sex, it would curse me. He gripped my wrists, parted my legs, and pushed against me. My skirt was bunched around my waist, digging into my stomach, and his loose shirt hung like a shroud, like a veil over my face. He spit and when he rubbed the warm stickiness into me, I shuddered. He got onto his knees, forced my legs apart, and thrust into me. I exploded – blown apart, and then clenched together. A howl pushed up my throat. His breaths, acrid with tobacco, were so choked that I feared he might collapse on me. I forced myself to open my eyes. He grimaced, his eyes shuttered. I never pictured the Chairman this way, because he was supposed to remain vigilant for the people. Though I willed him to look at me, he did not. A god as blind and deaf as the ones he destroyed, but prayers, in his own words, might bring this stone to life.

“A good comrade is one who is more eager to go where the difficulties are greater,” I gasped.

The Chairman’s dark eyes bored into me. From the moment he had taken my hand on the dance floor, from the moment I threatened to expose the headman, from the moment I wanted a hero’s greatness for my own, maybe from the moment I was born, this submission had been the only possible outcome.

*

I stared at a crack in the ceiling that started razor thin in the corner, then widened as it zigzagged, the flight path of a bat, that led to a missing chunk of plaster. I wanted the dance pavilion to split along that crack. The beams wrenched apart, the walls falling until the earth itself ripped open.

The Chairman stood and buttoned his pants. Clothed, he returned to the Chairman I knew, the shining figure printed on posters, beaming from buttons, except for the bandage around the index finger on his right hand. He followed my eyes. I had missed seeing the bandage while dancing, but now remembered something lightly pressing against my fingers and rubbing my wrist.

“I cut myself shaving. My doctor injected me, applied an ointment, and bandaged my finger,” the Chairman said. “As if I lost it to an axe!”

He winced as he flexed his hand, his fingers stubby and the nails bitten down. His hand trembled, and without thinking, I put mine on his. I rubbed my thumb over his hand until the quaking stilled. I would always remember the first time I consoled him, my hand steadying his, a touch more obscene than sex. Even though I was young, I knew the shaking was not a consequence of age, but a sign of a deeper ill. I held my breath, waiting for him to push me away for daring to think we shared a common flesh.

“My hand,” the Chairman said in the first of his confidences to me, acknowledging the shaking disease that slowed his step and convulsed his body. The weight of his years descended, turning him from a hearty man in his forties to an elder in his seventies. He didn’t shrivel into dust, but the lines in his plump face deepened, lengthened, and the shadows beneath his eyes darkened, like a wooden puppet smudged with charcoal. His complexion turned mottled and grey as shed snake skin.

I sensed, but could not know for certain, that no one touched his shaking hand. No recruit, no advisors, not even his doctor, and this act would keep me in the Chairman’s thoughts.

My thighs rubbed together, and I became aware of the wetness, the scent of sweat, semen, and blood. His frailty reminded me of mine, and I fought an urge to retch.

“I bleed,” he said. The Chairman dropped my hand and straightened. Next he would transform into a fox, a hawk, a fish – the fleetest of air, land, and sea. I would be left behind, alone in my sole body.

“What’s your name?” he asked.

I told him.

“He stroked my cheek. “Stay as you are.”

I swallowed, my mouth parched and bitter. “I’ll try.”

“I’ll know.”

Nodding, unable to speak, I watched him disappear into the drapes over the door, his body slipping into the narrow opening. A birth in reverse.

Only then could I cry, shaking with silent sobs. It was how I preferred my sorrow, even then. The wailing and keening that accompanied funeral processions, the beating of the chest, the tearing of the hair, the firecrackers, were to impress the living. So much wasted pain, flaming up like kindling, not the long burning coal that the dead deserve. And after tonight, I belonged to the dead.

Curling into a ball, I ran my hands over my arms, my legs, my face, checking the wholeness of my body. I am I am I am I am. I clenched and unclenched my numb fingers until sensation returned. I stroked my thighs and a dark smear of blood ran across my palms, the color of rust, of freshly turned clay. Later, bruises would bloom on my wrists and the inside of my thighs, marked like mud churned up by pig’s hooves.

I drank a glass of water, lukewarm with a sour, metallic tang, and plunged my hands into the pitcher and cleaned myself with my torn underwear. I dumped the rest of the pitcher into an empty porcelain chamber pot, and tried to urinate, but the knot between my legs became concentrated, consuming, and I stumbled into bed.

The pain, I had expected. The pain, I could quantify, rank and make my own. The pain, familiar. As a child, falling, flailing from the top of a walnut tree and landing between my legs on a thick branch. Clinging, crying, until Ba pried me off and carried me home. Ma, wiping the blood off my thighs. Of sex, I had hoped for what had passed between the headman and the musician, their bodies straining against each other, or at least the gentle rocking of my parents.

Music flared in the dance hall. In a prelude to these chambers, the Chairman might twirl Fei Yu, and behind them, more recruits would line up. I had nothing to regret. Except. A whimper escaped my lips. I felt something pressing into my back and in the sheets, I found a heavy book bound in brown leather. Inside I discovered foreign words, the characters swimming like tadpoles, and I sniffed the pages, musty and fermented. Crawling to the end of the bed, I found more stacked books, and flipped through a slim red volume, with more of the odd characters, on pages shiny as ice-slicked fields, and pictures of round-eyed foreigners, their noses long and sharp as knives. I peeked inside a battered black book, bound in red string, with translucent pages, and my hands against them were rough and of the earth.

The books must hold more wisdom than every generation in my village combined. The words blurred as I choked back another sob. The Chairman had been the first and last face I looked upon each day, a face around which spun the seasons, a face which dictated sunrise and sunset and the waxing and waning of the moon. His face, more familiar than my own, had turned unbearably strange tonight – and so too the world around it.

Teacher Lin stood beside the curtains, not a wrinkle on her blouse, not a hair loose from her bun, while I was a sweaty mess, twisted in the sheets and glittering with pain. I wanted her to shed a little of her perfection on me. She must have seen me dancing with the Chairman, counting my steps, ready to intercede with a substitute. She had not interrupted us and that meant I would stay and my family would eat meat. Teacher Lin took a hair-band from her wrist, readjusted my pigtail and smoothed my hair, her touch so reminiscent of Ma’s, my eyes grew wet.

I had fulfilled her instructions: no staring, no gaping, no crying before the Chairman. Teacher Lin steadied me, then knelt and readjusted the buckles on my ankles. She led me through the curtains, the velvet brushing against my cheek, into the moist darkness and towards the exit of the dance pavilion. I burned between my legs, the deepest, most tender part of me aflame, and beneath my skirt, I was exposed, no underclothes, nothing between me and the floor.

When the swirl of air hit me there, my knees buckled. Naked there, naked everywhere. In the village, where the sound of a neighbor’s fart could be mistaken for your own, we had few secrets, but for as long as I could remember, Ma taught me and my sisters to cover ourselves below. To protect the only value we had. I halted and searched for the Chairman. If I saw him, I would be made whole again, my sacrifice made real and worthy.

When Teacher Lin tugged me towards the exit, I slid away, into the arms of a silver-haired officer. I wouldn’t let her take me away. He held me lightly, as if I were still the kind of girl who deserved such consideration. Passed from cadre to cadre, I caught glimpses of the Chairman’s balding head. An official with sesame-seed eyes and baby eggplant nose dragged me across the floor. He cursed when our bodies slammed together, so hard I bit my tongue and tasted blood. When I squirmed, his hold tightened, with the brute force of a man who punches a hole in the wall to kill a mosquito.

At last I realized the Chairman had disappeared. He knew when to exit the stage, leaving his audience – his people, the nation – to pine for him. I blurred my gaze, unable to smile or look anyone in the eye. The floor was sticky with spilled fruit juice and tea, the air humid with sweat, thick as steamed egg custard. By midnight, the recruits were exhausted, their pigtails lank against their cheeks and their shoulders sagging. Only Fei Yu remained candle bright, studying me. She would repeat my performance, down to the last step, to win the Chairman’s attentions.

The dance must have ended, I must have thanked my partner and boarded the bus to our dormitory, but what I remembered next was shivering in the top bunk, the lights out. Never before had I slept alone and the bed seemed immense, the mattress swallowing me. Darkness pressed down and I reached up to assure myself of the limits of this endless black. For a few terrible seconds, my hand grasped at nothing until I touched the cool cement ceiling. I stretched my arms, one hand against the wall, the other on the metal bed frame. If I stayed still, I would not disappear. I listened to the steady breathing of my roommates, but I could not fall asleep without Ma’s soft snores, the heat of Second Daughter’s back pressed against my fingers and my chin. Ba’s loud farts. First Daughter, tossing and restless, kicking up the blankets.

The moon rose outside the high window, golden and unblinking as a cat’s eye. Within a day or two it would be full. On the night of the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival, the village would hike up the hill to eat cakes stamped with the design of flowers, pray for blessings, and recite the legends. It would also be my sixteenth birthday.

As a child, I pretended the stories and celebrations of that day were for me. In the story Ba told, long ago nine suns rose into the sky. At first the people rejoiced at this new dawn, until the extra suns scorched the earth. Hou Yi, a divine archer, raised his bow and shot down eight suns. Ba pulled back his arm, flicking his forefinger to imitate the archer.

To reward Hou Yi, the Queen Mother of the West gave him two doses of an elixir of immortality. He wanted to surprise his wife, Chang-E, and he hid the bottle before he left to hunt for their dinner. Finding the bottle, she uncorked the stopper and inhaled the heavy scent of peaches. A breeze rustled her robes and fluttered her hair. She drained the bottle in a single gulp and began to rise off the floor. She shrieked and tried to hold on, knocking over a table and spilling his books before she gusted through the window. Hou Yi spotted her above the poplars, aimed to shoot her down, but did not fire, for he loved her too much to risk hurting her. She floated to the moon. In this version, women were punished for their cunning.

As Ba’s friends nodded and exclaimed, Ma would begin the story I preferred. In her telling, Hou Yi was a tyrannical king, desperate to discover the secret of immortality. He ate crane eggs, tortoise soup, and elixirs of cypress and pine, drank the blood of newborns, nursed from their mothers, and sucked the last breath from the dying. He traded jade, gold, and rubies for lilies picked in a double-moon month, the tail feather of a phoenix, and the squeak of a mountain monkey. A fool’s cures that drained the imperial treasury. When his wife begged him to stop, he slapped her into silence. One day his runners arrived with a magical peach, plucked from a tree that ripened every two millennia. Despite its long journey, the peach remained fragrant and golden with fuzz, Ma said, and every time, my mouth watered at her description. She cupped both hands to convey its size.

Hou Yi sent for his advisors to admire the peach. Chang-E poured them cup after cup of liquor, her smile enticing them to drink until they were drowsy and near-senseless. She scooped up the peach and consumed it in three bites, the juice dripping down her chin. When Hou Yi lunged at her, she jumped out the window and floated to the moon. In Ma’s tale, women sacrificed to become heroes.

It was one of the few instances in which my mother openly disputed Ba, but such was the power of this story. I held onto these tales, an accidental gift at my birth. None of them were true; all of them were, and the stories comforted me now. I clutched my mother’s dowry bead, hard against my palm.

*

At first I prayed for blood. Recruits found pregnant were sent away, and some years ago, a girl had died trying to get rid of the baby, by throwing herself down the stairs or poking a knife deep within her. The stories kept changing, and in the uncertainty in the weeks that followed the dance party, I pondered the tale so often the ghost girl slipped into my dreams and took my face for her own.

It was said she would tap you on the shoulder at night, trick you into turning around and helping her steal into the Sea Palaces. Built as imperial fishing grounds seven hundred years ago, the Sea Palaces were now the country’s seat of power and home of the Chairman. The orders that our headmen issued on revolution, on planting, and our lives began in this complex. Most people would never venture past its high red walls, and never see the vast lakes that were the source of its name, and the ghost girl did not want to leave the only place she’d ever been significant.

She did not claim me as a victim. My woman’s sickness was not yet regular, and finally it arrived along with a confusing sorrow. How relieved, how disappointed Ma must have felt each time she discovered she was not pregnant with another child, the contradiction overwhelming and never-ending. Although I would remain at the Sea Palaces, I had also longed for something of the Chairman growing within me.

Though I’d just begun my time in the troupe, I asked what ended our services. By knowing, I might delay my fate. In general, the Chairman paid special attention to three or four recruits for a few weeks. After several months, he might take renewed interest in a recruit; eventually all were transferred to duties elsewhere. There were rumors of darker fates: a recruit who hung herself, another whose husband strangled her, another who plunged a chopstick deep into her ear after leaving the troupe. Like the ghost girl, they could not return to a life outside of the Chairman, after their status had been stripped away, surrounded by people who would never understand them and what they lost.

Serving the Chairman had its own perils. Most worked for a one-year term, but a recruit who argued with him – who flung a cup of tea at his feet! – had been executed, and her family tortured, it was whispered. A clumsy one, who spilled ink on his books, was sent to an icebound northern outpost. Most frightening was the rumor about a prized recruit, graceful and dimpled, who knew more than a hundred revolutionary songs, yet had disappeared for no seeming cause.

Obedient or disobedient: no matter how I acted, I could end up missing too. Over lunch in the canteen, Fei Yu asked, “What were you thinking when the Chairman picked you?” She wanted his attentions, and I had been the last to have him.

“I’ve told you what I know,” I said. I no longer labored under the sun and kneeled in the dirt, but the village was never as tiring as the Sea Palaces, where every moment seemed a test and the recruits held knives in their smiles.

“I’ll help you remember.” She’d twist my arm behind my back and force my nose the table, if I didn’t comply.

“Spoiled,” I said. Spoiled, if she knew too much before she met him. “He wants to meet us as if he were to journey to our villages, to our factories himself.”

That silenced her.

A young server set down a platter of braised bean curd, flecked with a mouth-numbing chili. I served Fei Yu, careful to heap squiggles of chilies on top. Ever since I revealed the Chairman snacked on pickled chilies, she forced down fiery dishes. After the first bite, she coughed, her eyes watering, but she continued to eat. Easier to entice her with fried dishes, golden strips of dough in her breakfast porridge, spring rolls at lunch, crunchy duck skin cut with savory-sweet plum sauce and green onions at dinner. Away from home, away from our parents, no one stopped us from binging on the greasy and spicy foods that could lead to nose bleeds, chapped lips, aching throats, or sores around your mouth. Yang foods stoked internal fires, while yin foods dampened your energies. If you didn’t keep yin-yang in balance, you sickened. This balance defined the universe: light and dark, sun and moon, water and fire, mountain and valley, male and female. According to Ma, a greedy granny in our village used up her family’s weekly oil ration in a meal for herself. Afterward, she bled to death, drained like a pig on a hook.

I wanted Fei Yu nauseated, blemished. Above her lip, a red patch was turning into a pimple, a wilted petal on her blossom skin. The conversation resumed, returning to the rumors about the Chairman. After my first night in the capital, the dance parties had been cancelled and the Chairmen gone missing. He was traveling. He had another troupe to entertain him. He was ill.

“I wish he’d come back,” sighed my bunkmate, Tian Song, who had given me the extra blanket on my first night in the capital.

“That’s not for you to decide,” Fei Yu said.

Tian Song pushed her bowl away. “Maybe the Chairman’s dying.”

Fei Yu slapped her. As the dark red mark throbbed on her cheek, Tian Song hiccoughed, holding back tears. Some recruits gasped, a few laughed nervously, and must have been relieved that Fei Yu’s wrath had been directed away from them. I led Tian Song to the bathroom where I splashed water on her face, and warned her to stay away from Fei Yu. “She’ll find someone else.”

Fei Yu was emerging as a leader, and so was I. I coaxed out confessions from the recruits, easing their burdens. Despite their mistakes, dozing during lectures, despite their longing for boyfriends back home, they were worthy revolutionaries, I told them. Their secrets might help me win back the Chairman someday. Secrets that I could use to my advantage, that I might later threaten to reveal.

Fei Yu had a talent with a needle and scissors and her issued clothing became fitted, tight around her bust, blouses nipped in at her waist, and skirts hemmed to reveal her shapely calves. Although she instructed her followers how to tailor their clothing, often their outfits became ill-fitting, frayed and baggy. She berated them for their mistakes, slapping between their shoulders if they slouched and scrubbing their hands if she deemed them dirty.

She was the only child of a factory unit leader. After her mother died in labor, her father had raised her alone. He never remarried. When she mentioned him, the imperious tilt to her jaw softened and her gaze turned bright. How this meal or that piece of clothing could not compare to what he had given her, she’d say. We both had loved our fathers best. But unlike mine, her father had never denied her. Certain of his pride, she seemed certain in all.

That night, Fei Yu’s bullying continued. In our dormitory, perching like birds on the triple stacked bunks, we listened to the radio debut of the latest revolutionary hero. The speakers crackled when I turned up the volume, and the voices, broadcast from cities around the country, were thin and flat. What thrilled me most was not each new hero, but the unseen crowd, murmuring and cheering. Without them, the sacrifice of heroes would be lost. To win an audience was to win a hero’s legacy.

When a recruit dropped the Chairman’s little red book, the cover ripped. An accident, but Fei Yu beat her with a broom.

“Our comrades’ minds and our Party’s work collect dust, and also need sweeping and washing,” Fei Yu cried, gripping the handle with both hands, the broom’s smack like the sound of wheat being threshed. The recruit crouched, shielding her face with her hands. Our rage over the Chairman’s disappearance fell upon her.

“You ripped out a page to blow your nose!”

“You used the pages to wipe yourself!”

The struggle sessions had long been a part of the country’s revolution. When my parents were children, a local landlord was paraded naked, forced to crawl on his hands and knees through several villages. When I was a baby, there were more denunciations, and the guilty – a corrupt headman, a thieving miller – were punished by living among us, spat and cursed at years later.

The broomstick snapped in half. Fei Yu bent at the waist, winded, and tossed aside the broken remains. We were flushed, dazed as though we’d just stepped off the dance floor. As though we’d just left the Chairman.

“You strayed,” Fei Yu said.

“I strayed,” the fallen recruit said. “I’ll never stray again.”

The self-criticism sessions were frequent, several times a week, and lasted as little as a few minutes or up to several hours. A recruit would start the accusations, and we joined in or else risked the same fury. Ripping a book, using too much hot water to bathe or leaving food uneaten: nothing too small for our collective scrutiny. Here we learned to lie and how to satisfy the passions of a crowd.

Near dawn, I climbed out of my bunk. I wanted to feel the damp earth beneath my feet, to remind myself of the world outside our lessons, even if I could go no farther than the front door. In the common room, Fei Yu was reciting a passage from our lessons. Every time she forgot, she slapped her own cheek, splotched red and white, above her new pimple. Rubbing her eyes with the back of her hand, she started over. Her hands were as callused as mine, tough enough to scratch a match on. She slapped herself again, alone and terrified, same as the rest of us, and I could have offered to help. We could have sworn an oath, like the ones my sisters and I made to each other, born from the youth, fears, and dreams we shared. Instead I crept back upstairs.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vanessa Hua is an award-winning writer and journalist. Her work has appeared in the Atlantic, ZYZZVA, The New York Times, Newsweek, The San Francisco Chronicle, and elsewhere. She will be a Steinbeck Fellow in Creative Writing, works and teaches out of the Writers Grotto in San Francisco, and blogs at threeunderone.blogspot.com. “The Sea Palaces” is an excerpt from her novel-in-progress.