Who would have thought that day would be any different?
Many times after that moment, whether it was at night, when she would stand still while dimming the tung oil lamp,
or when it was dawn, when she would stare at the pale paper lining the windows while tossing and turning in bed, and she would always lose her concentration for a long time.
It was the Spring of 1944. The fog was thick that morning. The small town had melted inside the fog, the thick layer of white covered up the shape of everything.
Meihua tiptoed inside the kitchen with her black shoes in one hand and the other hand nudging open the door. She had long calculated this time as when the chef was in the bathroom.
The principal and the teachers always lectured to everyone that they should help each other during times of hardship, since there was a war.
But more than once, the female students have seen the principal wife’s sneaking out the back door, her rickshaw stuffed full of government-issued money and goods.
Spring was when they levied the food. All the girls’ stomachs rumbled before it was even two am; the sounds loudly beckoning the foods that were deducted. It was much more dramatic than all the school lectures and rules.
She had repressed the urge all day long, but it reared up at down. She held her breath, afraid that the hot aroma of the sweet potatoes would overwhelm her.
She was not greedy. Her little fabric tote held just six sweet potatoes. Three for her, three for Ah-Jing. The two good friends would be able to enjoy this for days.
The fog outside was as thick as milk. She seemed to hear the chef coughing nearby. Meihua hurriedly ran. She did not know the way, nor did she have time to put on her shoes, but she was afraid to stop.
She did not know when the flute started playing. The song was almost half over when she heard it.
The winding sounds of the flute seemed to follow her heart. They followed the road quietly.
She stood still. It was quiet, so quiet as if she did not exist. There were only the sounds of flute in the whole world; the sound so innocent and drawn-out that she could have cried. A drop of dew fell from a bamboo leaf onto her forehead.
Meihua did not blink, she did not move, she was terrified the sounds of the flute would disappear and be gone.
An unknown amount of time passed.
Light footsteps echoed in the valley. A white figure appeared in the bamboo forest. The flute had stopped playing. She watched the man walk closer to her, and closer still, she felt powerless and unable to move.
The young man wore a white tunic, he was holding a black flute.
She wanted to hide but the fog had thinned. She had no choice but to stand in front of him. Her head was lowered, her braids made messy by the branches, her school uniform was in a rough green fabric.
She stood barefoot; one hand was holding the shoes and other holding a fabric tote of mystery.
“You are here?” She heard his voice, the sound warm and soft. She was so busy trying to catch the sound she forgot what he actually said.
She looked up, her gaze powerless. The man in white smiled, he thought a moment, and smiled again.
He lightly brushed past her shoulders and walked away, his footsteps soft on the grass.
A fresh scent lingered in the forest. She was sure he left it behind. His white tunic swayed in the field, shiny in the green meadow, as if it was not real.
Another drop of dew fell. She shook; it was so cold.
No one knew where Yun Yichuan came from, just like no one knew where an overhead cloud came from.
Lost people were everywhere during wartime. It did not surprise anyone at the Ziyang School for Girls that there is another new teacher with an accent every month. Yun Yichuan was different.
He did not look down and out. No matter when you saw him, he was always in white. His shirts, tunics, and suits were all snow white.
The color so bright it made one feel unclean and the need to step back in embarrassment.
He was mysterious, living in a small house on the mountain left behind by the Guilin militia. He never visited anyone nor invited anyone to his home.
He walked by himself; his face always showing a light smile. The wind would pick up the hem of his top, and before you know it, he would be standing at the podium.
Ah-Jing was writing a love letter. She was hot and heavy with a military aide stationed in their area.
It was not enough to meet daily, she had to fill up all her remaining time with words too.
When the teacher arrived, Ah-Jing tucked the letter under her textbook in a hurry.
She was a bit upset Meihua did not alert her, then she realized Meihua was staring down behind a propped-up book, her cheeks stained in red.
Then Ah-Jing understood what happened. She had thought her friend was acting oddly.
Meihua had insisted on studying in the mountains behind the school several mornings in a row, and always came in first to clean the blackboard.
And she was quieter these days, she was even more subdued than usual.
She looked at Meihua, and the elegant Mr. Yun, and she smiled to herself. She kept a straight face, however.
After class, several students gathered around Mr. Yun to talk, but Meihua still sat far away. Ah-Jing called her, but she just replied that she needed to do more reviews.
When everyone had left and the classroom was quiet, she was still sitting there.
Meihua felt warm and melancholy looking at Mr. Yun’s class notes, which covered the whole blackboard.
She wanted to blame her slow brain. When so many sights and sounds of him crowded in at once, she was flustered and out of sorts.
She had to wait until now to organize her feelings, bit by bit, to savor and remember them.
Meihua walked to the podium, walking on the same tiles where he just stood, picking up the same chalk he used; she tiptoed and slowly traced his writing.
Suddenly, crisp laughter rang out, it was Ah-Jing, whose face was pressed to the window. “Little Mei, you’re boy-crazy too!”
Meihua was so shocked and embarrassed, she threw a box of chalk in her anger.
But Ah-Jing had dodged the hit; the chalks landed on the window sill, leaving behind a cluster of white dots. Meihua cried.
She was still mad at Ah-Jing by that evening and refused to answer her. Ah-Jing was sly though; she delivered some peanuts, a gift from her boyfriend, to her bedside.
“I’ll help you deliver letters to Mr. Yun, okay? Please don’t be mad anymore.”
“Why write to him?”
“If you like him, write and tell him. Just like me and Aide Yu.”
“I won’t write to him.”
“Right, what good is an intellectual? Real men fight wars and protect our country!”
Ah-Jing sounded as if she was about to brag about her Aide Yu again. Meihua turned over and ignored her.
“Fine, Mr. Yun is great too. But if you married him, you’d have to wash his clothes every day. Those white clothes would be so hard to wash, your hands would turn rough.”
Meihua could only laugh; she pushed Ah-Jing to make her leave.
Ah-Jing was still on a roll. “Why can’t he wear black clothes, he won’t need the washboard and soap anymore. You just have to soak and dry them and he’d think they were washed.”
“Such nonsense!” Meihua couldn’t resist patting Ah-Jing.
She would not let Ah-Jing know just how much she adored his white clothes. There was no other man in the world who could wear white so well.
Summer soon arrived. She woke up early everyday.
The faint daylight and birds’ chirping reminded her that there was a Mr. Yun in this world, and that Mr. Yun was in her life today, how wonderful it was.
When she was very lucky, she could sometimes hear Mr. Yun’s flute in the bamboo forest behind the mountain.
Meihua would look for a dense patch of bamboo to squat in and listen to the song until the end.
More often, the only sound came from the birds and insects. If she felt too overwhelmed, she would sneak off to the building where he lived.
As long as she could look at the white clothes he hung on the balcony, she was happy.
She had a secret, which made her so happy too.
Her second aunt gave her an almost-new indanthrene qipao, her fourth sister gave her a white silk scarf, and there was the gift from Ah-Jing, a brooch woven out of bamboo.
She would dress up tomorrow and wear two bows on her braids, just like those city girls.
She would say something to Mr. Yun tomorrow. Tomorrow was different, tomorrow was her 17th birthday.
That morning though, she saw a pink gown next to the white tunics on the balcony.
She wanted to get a closer look, but was afraid, she was still depressed when she came back to class.
Mr. Yun was lecturing on Chinese in his class. His tunics were still so elegant and his attitude so confident, yet she still felt a little distressed.
When class ended, she stayed behind as usual. Just as she felt defenseless, Mr. Yun turned back. He had forgotten a book on the podium.
“You’re still here?” He smiled.
Meihua remembered nodding. She had no idea how red her face had become.
“Your essays are great.” He said politely and patiently. “Can you transcribe another copy of the essay I returned today? I want to send it to my editor friend in Shanghai.”
Meihua kept nodding. She could only keep nodding even though her heart was bursting.
He walked away. When she looked out the window, his white silhouette could be seen weaving through the banyan trees.
Meihua pinched herself. She would say something tomorrow, she swore to herself.
She came in late the next day. She had to tear up multiple copies of her essay last night, finding her handwriting inadequate, so she got up late this morning.
Perfect hair bows were hard to make, plus the indanthrene qipao was hard to walk in.
When she walked, she kept looking down at the brooch at her lapel, thinking it was not quite straight.
The teaching instructor was at the podium. She ran to her seat, her heart sinking.
“There is no class?” She whispered to Ah-Jing.
“Mr. Yun resigned.”
“How would I know?”
“How would I know?”
She felt her heart dropping to the floor, and the floor was made of ice.
Ah-Jing wanted to cheer up Meihua, she insisted on bringing her on dates with Aide Yu.
Aide Yu was tall and big, yet also shy like a child. Ah-Jing looked like a vivacious sparrow in comparison, she flitted back and forth and also teased him.
Aide Yu had trouble keeping up and could only smile indulgently in resignation.
Whether they all took walks or went to restaurants, they had meant to keep Meihua company but always forgot her.
Two people so lost in love had no room for anyone else.
Meihua watched them in her daze. Their happiness was so distant, it was as if they were from another country.
Mr. Yun had been gone for almost six months. There was no word of him at all.
For a whole month, she checked the train station near the dock, she even tried to ask the principal. She would tap on the principal’s door, hoping for any news.
She would ask and search for any clues at all. A shy girl who couldn’t speak without blushing was brazenly showing her concern about a man. The small town began to have rumors about her.
The gossip did not just target her but Ah-Jing as well. Even their hometown relatives knew about Ah-Jing and Aide Yu.
Her dad was a country gentleman with a reputation to protect. He wanted to take Ah-Jing home and marry her off.
Ah-Jing stopped smiling, she was worried sick and constantly chewing on her braid.
The night before Winter’s arrival, Ah-Jing crawled onto Meihua’s bed and whispered, “I have news about Mr. Yun.”
Meihua almost shouted in excitement.
Ah-Jing covered her mouth. “Yu has a friend in army school who saw Mr. Yun in Chongqing. I have to ask you, what do you want to do?”
“I’m going to Chongqing!” Meihua’s heart beat rapidly.
“If you really want to go, we can go together. The ship leaves tomorrow morning.”
“You and --?”
“We have to get out of here as fast as we can.” Ah-Jing lowered her voice. “Yu is not going to be an army aide anymore, he’ll look for a job with relatives in Chongqing. I want to make sure you’re okay.”
“Don’t overthink it. Your step-mom could not care less about you. When was the last time you smiled in the past six months? Aren’t you always missing him?”
“I’ll go with you.” Meihua answered. Her heart felt lighter.
She had very few things to pack. The only two silver coins came from her mom before she died. She remembered to bring the essay she copied for Mr. Yun.
She carefully rolled up the papers, wrapped them inside two layers of waterproof paper and then put the whole thing into a bamboo tube strapped to her waist.
The wind was brisk the next morning, the ship rolled around violently like it was sick with the flu.
Ah-Jing threw up so much her face was white as a sheet. Aide Yu busied himself cleaning up after her.
An elderly woman on the ship comforted them, “It’s always like this early in the pregnancy, it’ll get better.”
Meihua was shocked, she turned to looked at Ah-Jing, who grew even more pale.
Meihua woke up from noises in the night again. She was afraid to turn over; the bamboo bed was so old even a loud moan would make it screech. She didn’t want them to know she had heard them.
They were in Chongqing, in a thatched cottage on the hills, just two miles from the Jialing River. Whenever Ah-Jing and Aide Yu quarrelled, Ah-Jing would threaten to go jump in the river.
Even if she ran, it was still far, maybe her courage would evaporate by the time she got there.
Times were rough in Chongqing. There were endless bombings every day; you knew your country was besieged.
Aide Yu’s relatives had long moved away. The war made jobs scarce, prices were sky-high. The little money they had was just enough for a few months’ rent.
Meihua had a job writing letters for people at the postal office. The pay was pitiful but better than nothing.
At least she wasn’t stuck inside the house. When you had nothing to do and was in a foul mood, that was when fights happened.
She was terrified of them fighting. Ah-Jing’s belly grew like her temper, even meals weren’t free of spats.
“How can we eat bok choy like this? Would it kill you to use more oil?”
“We’re almost out of cooking oil!” Aide Yu looked crestfallen.
“Oh, so you do know we’re almost out, can’t you make some money and buy more? What’s a man doing stuck inside the house all-day?”
“I’m doing all of this for you.”
“If you can’t make it, just admit it.”
“If I didn’t have you, I’d have left with the army and getting medals already, I could have been a regiment commander by now.”
“If I didn’t have you, I’d been someone’s lady of the house now. Would I be stuck here eating rubbish?”
Fights like this went on every day, and every night too. Meihua was worried their love from before was wearing away.
She remembered seeing Aide Yu cooking the other day. Such a tall and strapping man crouching down to gingerly measure a drop of oil from the bottle.
Dressed in an old grey sweater, standing in the dim kitchen, he had none of his glamour from the old days.
Her first thought was, if there was a future, she would never allow her Mr. Yun to stoop to this level, to lose his light in such a tedious life until he withered and died.
She would never let it happen.
But where was Mr. Yun? Chongqing was a bigger city than she ever imagined. Ah-Jing and Aide Yu were always depressed and she was afraid to ask.
Finally, there was some news. One day, Aide Yu came home in a good mood. He shouted, “I found a job!”
Apparently he ran into an old army school buddy and heard the police was looking for security guards. He applied and got in easily. He would be paid next month. Things would be okay now.
Meihua whispered, “Is it the same friend who saw Mr. Yun?”
“Mr. Yun? How would he know Mr. Yun?”
Ah-Jing spoke in a rush, “We’ll celebrate, we’re going out tonight for some spicy wontons!”
Meihua looked at Ah-Jing, she seemed uncomfortable.
“I lied, okay? I was looking out for you. When you see how many other men there are in this big world, and not just one Yun Yichuan, you’d know it’s not worth it.
Yu’s friend is not bad either, we can introduce you--”
Ah-Jing stopped talking when Meihua slammed the door and left.
There was a boy, Sun Lichao, who often came to the post office to send letters. He got to know Meihua.
A Political Science freshman at National Central University, he liked to submit opinion pieces to papers.
He always wore the grey cotton military suit the government issued all men.
Whenever he talked, he would raise his chin and wave his hands as if he was mapping out the world.
He was doing the same thing when he first met her. He kept gesturing at the letter Meihua was transcribing.
“This sentence is extra, this one too, you can take it out --“
Meihua looked at him, his comments sometimes made sense and sometimes not.
A migrant woman wanted her letter written; she kept asking Meihua to write her family to not sell the “bamboo forest.”
Meihua was lost in thought for a minute when she wrote the words. She remembered standing in the forest, looking at that flowing white tunic.
Her heart squeezed again in pain. Her love had nowhere to go.
Sometimes she wished Ah-Jing had kept lying to her, and she would still think Mr. Yun was in Chongqing.
When she ran out of the house that night, she ran alongside Jialing River.
Glimmers of light shone from fishermen’s boats, stars dotted the sky, and there were endless flickering lamps across the street.
She used to believe that at least one light belonged to Mr. Yun. Her hope made her happy, but now, she had no direction and no place to anchor.
It was that night that Ah-Jing went into labor early and gave birth to a girl.
The new life brought magic and made things frenetic too. They seamlessly reconciled.
Since Aide Yu worked every day, Meihua was the only one who could help Ah-Jing and her baby daughter.
She hadn’t gone to the post office to write letters for almost a month.
She didn’t foresee Sun Lichao coming to look for her. Still wearing the same grey cotton suit, he rode his bicycle up the hill. His face was covered in sweat.
Meihua was washing cloth diapers in front of the cottage. She only wore a thin blouse and kept sneezing.
Lichao took off his suit jacket and handed it to her. “You can have it!”
He added quietly, “The girls at my school love to wear indanthrene blouses under a man’s jacket, they think it’s the best.“
He was afraid to add that if a college girl wore someone’s jacket, they would know she had a boyfriend.
Meihua glanced at the jacket collar. It was covered in grease, obviously dirty from being unwashed. She shook her head.
Lichao was a bit embarrassed. He flipped the jacket over his shoulder and took out some newspapers.
“My opinion piece got published. I wanted to show you so you could learn some strategies too.”
He opened the paper before she finished drying her hands. She took a look. “Which article?” Suddenly, her gaze stopped on something.
She saw the words “Yun Yichuan.” The editorial on the front page was signed Yun Yichuan!
“Can I have this?” Meihua wiped her hands and held the paper as if in worship.
“Sure, if you love my writing, I have more drafts for you.” Lichao was elated.
“Anything else by Yun Yichuan?” Meihua sounded hopeful.
“I don’t know.“ Lichao was disappointed.
“Does he write a lot?”
“Well, he’s the editor-in-chief, so he can publish his own articles anytime.“ Lichao was not impressed.
Meihua was so excited looking at the paper. This was Minqiang Daily, Mr. Yun was the editor-in-chief, and he worked in Shanghai!
Whenever she thought of this, Meihua would smile, her eyes curved in happiness.
Noises came from the next room again, whether from the baby crying making them fight, or fights making the baby cry, she was not sure.
The noises slowly died down.
Her trip to Shanghai kept getting postponed; she not only had to save for a boat ticket but also needed to stay for Ah-Jing.
Meihua held the baby girl and whispered, “Grow up, little one.“
Maybe when the kid was older, she would feel more confident in leaving.
Aide Yu left home early and came back late, sometimes not at all.
Supposedly the baby’s cries kept him up and made him groggy the next day, so he preferred to stay overnight at work.
Ah-Jing gritted her teeth. “Who know if he’s at work or sleeping with some skank.”
Meihua thought she was being paranoid.
Ah-Jing looked bitter. “Men are all lazy and selfish, they’re no good!”
When Meihua didn’t seem to agree, she continued. “Don’t think your Mr. Yun is some saint either. I never told you this, but everybody in town said--”
“I don’t need to know.” Meihua spoke quickly. Her heart thudded so fast it hurt in her chest.
“Ah-Jing, I need to leave soon.” Meihua said after a long pause. “I’m going to Shanghai.”
“Is it because Yun Yichuan’s there? You’re crazy. Shanghai’s full of Japanese soldiers!”
“I just want to be closer to him.”
“Then go, go now!”
Meihua knew that Ah-Jing was only mean in her words. Just a few days later, Ah-Jing asked Aide Yu to find her passage.
Someone in the security regiment had a private ship going to Shanghai, a favor was asked, and Meihua could leave.
The ship left at night. Meihua went to Ah-Jing’s room to say goodbye.
Ah-Jing sat with a stony face. Meihua played with the baby while tucking her two silver coins into the baby’s pocket.
“Ah-Jing, I’ll head out now.” She put down the baby and turned to leave.
Ah-Jing rushed toward her, grabbing a gold earring from the left ear and stuffing it into her hand. Her words were still stern,
“Hold onto this. No money is worth more than gold right now. You keep one and I keep one. If I can’t live with him anymore, I can always swallow gold to kill myself!”
Meihua whispered through her tears. “Ah-Jing, promise me to live your life.”
Ah-Jing’s head was down.
“How? I should have never picked him. If I married some rich businessman and never saw him again, he’d always be my handsome officer, and I’d always be his cute girl!”
Meihua held onto Ah-Jing and cried.
Meihua’s heart was still heavy a long time after the ship has departed. She gripped the small gold earring in her hand until her palm grew sweaty.
Taking out the bamboo tube holding Mr. Yun’s essay and stuffing the earring inside, she wore the tube on her waist, where she can guard it like her closest companion.
The ship was going downstream; miles went past. Every ripple took her closer to Mr. Yun. She felt better when she realized this.
When the ship reached the port of Hankou, American warplanes were bombing the nearby Japanese army. The dock was in chaos and the ship fell apart.
Meihua and other passengers scrambled to crawl onto a small wooden boat. A bullet whipped past her waist, luckily, her bamboo tube protected her.
Her dangerous journey was just starting.
Their little refugee boat was stopped by Japanese soldiers in Nanjing, who threw them onto the shore;
all their belongings slashed by the Japanese's muskets.
No one dared to pick anything up. They just wanted to get away.
Nanjing was besieged, the stubby rocks on the city walls looked especially desolate in the dusk.
Ah-Jing’s gold earring bought Meihua a train ticket to Shanghai. Before she even knew what was happening, the crowds carried her onto the train.
No one could move inside the packed train and people were still trying to squeeze on.
Meihua watched a woman climb onto the train roof, she wore her hair in a neat chignon and looked relieved.
But when they reached Zhabei station in Shanghai, the woman was nowhere to be seen. There was a long tunnel before the station. Meihua shivered.
She was in Shanghai.
The neon lights shone so bright she grew anxious. Meihua had memorized the address, and she asked everyone on the street for directions.
She had never wanted to see him so much. She was tired, hungry, and scared. The big city was so strange and made her weak.
He was the only person she knew and the only one she could rely on. She missed his white tunic. To her, it meant warmth, light, clean, and home.
His newspaper office was on a quiet block. When she looked up and saw the lights were still on, she felt comforted.
While she re-braided her hair, a man in a newsboy cap came downstairs and smiled at her.
“Hi young lady, can I help you with anything?”
“I’m looking for Mr. Yun Yichuan, do you know him?”
“Yun Yichuan? Of course I do, he’s a good friend. You must have come a long way, are you looking for him?” The man was very helpful.
She was in such a rush she forgot to be careful.
Maybe she loved his name so much she assumed everything related to him must be correct, wonderful and dear.
The newsboy cap man walked ahead and she followed. The lights grew dimmer and the alleys narrower. carefully.
She hardly noticed, her only concern was what her first words to Mr. Yun should be. She could never talk properly when she saw him; she had to prepare
She only grew alarmed when they got to a door painted all black. Wasn’t Mr. Yun home? Why was his house so dark?
The man in the cap was a little impatient; he grabbed her and was shoving her inside; he hurt her hand.
Meihua suddenly realized her situation and started to struggle. She ran away as fast she could.
She collided with a bicycle at the intersection. The two men on the bicycle fell together with her.
She only scraped her hand.
One of the men had glasses, he called himself Big Lin. The younger Lin wore a jacket and was grouchy as he stood up. “Are you okay?”
When he saw his own clothes, he shouted. “My new shirt is ruined!” Big Lin was unhappy too. “My glasses broke, now I can’t see.”
She picked up their scattered newspapers as an apology. She could see the words, Minqiang Daily, on the paper.
It was a fortunate collision. Both Lins worked at Minqiang Daily. Big Lin worked in printing and the younger Lin worked in proofreading.
The newspaper was moving and they were coming back to pick up more stuff.
Stars lined the sky on their way home. The stars were as tiny as grains of rice. She laughed, so exhausted but happy.
She has been in Shanghai for two weeks and still hasn’t seen Mr. Yun.
Yun Yichuan went back home to Qingdao to visit his mom. Japan surrendered.
People celebrated with fireworks; the light and colors bloomed over the bund.
Meihua went onto the street with the two Lins and cheered with the crowd.
They got along pretty well. The Lins were brothers; they stayed on the same block with three other printing factory workers.
She lived in the attic, didi laundry, cooked and transcribed articles for them; she also waited for Mr. Lin to come back.
The wait felt peaceful. She could sense his white tunic nearby, maybe he would cross the street soon.
Or maybe he’d show up around the corner one day. She knew he would be there soon.
They rarely mentioned Mr. Yun in front of her and she didn’t ask.
She washed their clothes outside the house; whenever she heard the name in their conversations, she would tense.
She wanted to hear his name but was afraid to hear it too. The endless love songs on the radio filled her ears with tender sounds.
Washing clothes by hand was a hard job. She never knew how dirty men’s clothes could get. Clean water turned black after just one soak.
One day she couldn’t help complaining. “Mr. Liang, why is your top always so dirty?”
Mr. Liang chuckled. “I’m no Yun Yichuan, I work with printing ink all-day!”
The younger Lin walked by and blurted. “Where is my white tunic?”
Meihua had to think. “You left me a white tunic to wash?”
He grew nervous and digged in the wooden laundry bucket. “Don’t lose it. I need to wear it tomorrow. Is this it?”
Meihua almost laughed. “This is a yellow tunic!”
“It’s white, it used to be anyway. Well, it’s at least whiter than Mr. Liang’s top.”
Mr. Liang shook his head. “I don’t like white clothes, they have to be babied or look so dirty. Shanghai is too dusty, you try wearing white for a day!”
Meihua wanted to try; she worked hard on the yellowing white top.
She soaked it in a lot of detergent powder, scrubbed with a brush, tried a washboard. She even went and got some bleach.
Her fingers were rubbed raw, they stung whenever she washed vegetables.
The top, though, stayed yellow. She hung it on the bamboo laundry rack and gave up.
By evening, Big Lin brought her some shocking news. The paper was shut down. Yun Yichuan was arrested as soon as he came back to Shanghai.
Big Lin said this was a misunderstanding.
As soon as the Japanese was defeated, the government started cleaning up pro-Japanese factions. Minqiang Daily had always stayed neutral.
But one of the top editors Yun had used was a hidden Japanese supporter who secretly swapped in a pro-Japan article earlier that year.
The man was fired but the damage was done, which was why Yun got arrested.
Everyone was indignant but stayed silent when it came time to rescue Yun.
Meihua asked everyone for ideas.
The younger Lin said everyone at the paper had scattered, anyway, the rescue wasn’t up to him, he was just a minion.
Mr. Liang said, we’re just worker bees, we have so many mouths to feed.
Big Lin shook his head. “Things are so different now, who’d be stupid enough to get involved?”
Mobster Zhang Xiaolin ran the town yesterday, but it’s rival mobster Du Yuesheng’s turf now.
The younger Lin teased her. “Talk to Du Yuesheng, he can save Mr. Yun!”
Big Lin yelled. “Stop it, she’s just a kid, what can she do?”
She only remembered a lot of things later. Her courage may have been unintentional, or maybe it came from ignorance, or maybe love.
Mobster Du Yuesheng was not in his prime in October of 1945. He hid inside the House of Dexing, far away from power struggles and politics.
He liked to warm up some rice wine and drink slowly, savoring the solitude of old age.
No one knew how this young woman found her way there. The fact that she dared to come, that she even knew where to go was astounding.
She was quite brazen, asking him to save someone as soon as she opened her mouth.
He looked her over. She was dressed plainly, but her eyes had a resolve few other women had.
She seemed pure, with an almost naive sort of innocence that gave her a glow.
Maybe he was feeling charitable that day. “I run casinos, so let’s gamble. If you beat me, I’ll do you the favor.”
She agreed without hesitation. She has never even touched dice in her life, but she agreed.
“Got any money? What are you betting with?”
“Just my life.”
Du was shocked at her words. He once was this fearless, back when he was young and still building his turf.
He had someone bring the dice. The girl’s face was red, she shook the dice-shaker hard, but dropped it so quickly the dice scattered everywhere.
She kneeled to pick up the dice; she was devastated.
“You don’t even know how to play. And you bet your life?”
“I don’t know how else to help him.”
“Who is he to you? Is he worth your life?”
There was no answer. He could see her shaking; her lashes were covered by tears, and the fat drops were falling off.
He was known for being cruel and ruthless all his life, but he showed mercy at that moment.
He softened, maybe he thought of his daughter of the same age, or maybe he grew kinder as he got older.
He sighed. “Alright.”
Meihua hummed on her way back. The younger Lin demanded, “Where were you all-day? There’s a lot of clothes to wash.”
She smiled. “I asked mobster Du Yuesheng and he agreed to save Mr. Lin.”
He stared at her hard, trying to see if she was kidding. Then he ran all the way home. “She went to see Du Yuesheng! She went to see Du Yuesheng!”
Yun Yichuan was released three days later, the police car drove him home.
This was worthy of a celebration. Yun set up a dinner and invited all of his friends and colleagues from the paper.
She was invited too.
The snow white paper showed his elegant handwriting. She blushed as she read his words --
Hope to see you.
Mr. Yun lived on a busy block.
The younger Lin walked briskly in front of Meihua, she tried to catch up, but a moment of hesitation left her behind.
She stopped for passing traffic: Rumbling buses, Jeeps carrying American soldiers;
and yellow taxicabs carrying young women with permed hair.
She could already see Mr. Yun’s balcony. His white tunic hung on a clothesline.
The wind blew and the sun shone; the white cloth fluttered like wings of a big bird.
She was across the road from him, wasn’t she always across the road? Her body was suspended between joy and sadness.
His white tunic was as bright and white as snow, the lightness almost hurting her eyes.
All the sounds and motions in the world seemed to have gone quiet in that perfect shade of white.
Always the same.
She stood still. No more. She told herself.
The younger Lin thought she was afraid to cross the street, he ran back and tried to help her. “C’mon, the party is starting soon.”
“I’m not going.” She smiled and shook head.
“Why not? Mr. Yun was going to thank you. Everyone‘s waiting to see the hero who stared down Du Yuesheng!”
“I’m not going.” She kept shaking her head as she took out a letter from a pocket.
“Give this to him for me.”
She needed to give him the essay he asked her to do. The paper edges were yellow from the bullet burns in Hankou.
The writing had faded too. She had wanted to rewrite the essay but couldn’t make herself feel the same way.
She turned around. She was unsure about her decision so she walked faster, and faster still.
Tears fell anyway.
A year went by.
She saw Sun Lichao at the Nanjing train station. His university had moved back to the city.
A group of male students were busy moving luggage.
She frowned as she saw him.
He wore white too, but the dark sweat streaks on his back looked jarring, even worse, his shirt collar had old food stains.
He noticed her and ran over, all the while shouting, “Meihua, I can’t believe I get to see you again!”
Of course it was Sun Lichao.
Staring at his white shirt, before saying a real greeting, she blurted, “You should take off your shirt.”
She meant to say, you should stop wearing white, you can’t do it justice.
Lichao blushed and whispered, “Not here, I have nothing underneath.”
Life went on. She had gone through most of it.
It was 1995. She lived in an ordinary apartment building in Nanjing. Meihua put on her reading glasses for a courier delivery.
She could hear Lichao and her grandson talking in loud voices.
“Of course she chased grandpa back then. The first thing she said to me was to take off my shirt.”
“Wow, you guys were so forward!”
“I didn’t do it obviously, we were at a crowded train station!”
Meihua almost laughed. She was too busy to defend herself.
She had received an express package from Hong Kong. The only person she knew there was Ah-Jing’s daughter. The little girl from back then had a grandson in college now.
The package was indeed from her. Another envelope lay inside with one line,
“Aunt Meihua, That man in white, Mr. Yun, wrote an autobiography. I’m sending it asap so you can relive the memories.”
A book in white was inside the envelope. It wasn’t very thick; did it cover his whole life?
She held the book and sat on the balcony, feeling content. The Autumn sun was warm.
The book’s title: The Man in White. The cover showed a blurry figure, and the person wore white.
The color was as pure as the moon and as bright as snow; nothing from life could taint it.
How great it was.
She smiled. The wrinkles on her face were as fine as tendrils of a chrysanthemum flower.
Her hand lay on the cover. She thought for that moment, as she had thought for a lifetime.
To open, or not to open.