Fox Spirit 1: Escape
Huli jing (Mandarin Chinese): Fox spirit. Literally, “exquisite fox.” Also a modern colloquial term for a dangerous seductress.
You traveled a ten thousand mile road
To fulfill my long waiting.
Hence from the stagnant night
Burst forth a million stars
-Chen Li Qiang (1998)
“I thought sure the corpse would be bleedin’.”
Sara was certain she was meant to overhear the half-whispered remark. She stiffened her back, sitting as straight as possible, and willed herself not to turn her head. She could feel the tell-tale flush rising, knew her cheeks would be splotched with red, but if she didn’t turn her head, they would not see. The mortuary chapel was quiet, the moments between the soft organ music and when her brother Jasper would step forward and begin the memorial service. She was the widow, she was not expected to speak, she would not have to face the whisperer. At the end of the service she would be in a receiving line with her son Mark, his wife Rennie, Jasper and his wife Carol. Everyone would walk past and take her hand. She would not try to identify the whisperer, not look for shifty eyes, ironic voice tones. They would be there, in more than one face, more than one voice.
If she had known the consequences, would she have acted differently?
“A young woman like you, with your husband so ill for so long. If there is anything I can do…” and Dr. Reiver’s hand had lingered too long on her shoulder, while John’s labored breathing could be heard clearly from the sickroom. If Sara had been more tactful. If she hadn’t lost her temper and threatened to report his unprofessional conduct. Of course, he bore a grudge. And refused to sign the death certificate.
Dr. Reiver at the inquest. His voice so earnest, so regretful. “If Mrs. Miller had followed my advice, I’m sure her husband could have lived longer. But when I made a house call, I saw that the pills I had sent home with him were on the bedside table unopened. I have to think there was, if not criminal intent, at least neglect.” And just that one triumphant glance toward Sara at the end. The verdict, death from natural causes, and no charges filed, but the damage done.
Her neighbor, Helen Roberts, her vicious gossip working its poison up and down the street. People she’d known for years, not speaking. And Rennie, her own daughter-in-law after the inquest. Her tear-streaked face, her contorted mouth when she cried out “You let him die!”
“He wanted to die. He said he wanted to die.”
“He couldn’t have meant that! He wanted to see his grandson grow up. He told me so. And he could have lived longer – that doctor said so! You killed him!”
Sara had heard Richie, her grandson, wakened by the angry voices, starting to whimper. She turned her head to see her son Mark, standing frozen by the door, caught between the two opposing forces of his mother and his wife. She felt immensely tired.
“I think I’m done here.” She brushed past her son, picked up her handbag from the table next to the front door, and left the house. When she set her handbag on the seat of the car next to her, it gaped open. The white rectangle caught her eye – Jerry Wang’s letter, offering her a job in China. She had meant to send him an email, thanking him politely, but no thanks, her family needed her. She thought of the whisperer, the half-hearted condolences at the reception, Rennie’s face. She would send a different answer now.
Storm strode the length of the small conference room, and then turned on his heel to glare at his colleague.
“How can you be such a turtle-man? It’s your department, your abilities being challenged! This American Face, this foreigner, is coming to replace you, and you are not angry? You’ll do good work, she’ll take credit. She makes a bad decision, you’ll be blamed. How can you be accepting this, sitting like a stone? You…”
“Hush,” interrupted Trueheart Zhang. “It’s for the good of the company. Boss Wang believes an American Face for our accounting department will go down well with investors. Many companies are hiring an American Face to represent them – this is no strange idea.”
“It’s shameful!” exploded Storm. “You have all the knowledge, all the skills required to manage our affairs! You’ve worked in Hong Kong, worked in California. This American woman comes just to put a fake veneer on our business. This is a waste of your talent and our money!”
“It’s good of you to be so concerned about waste,” Trueheart said, an edge to his tone betraying his irritation as the time being wasted in calming Storm’s outburst. “You must make allowances. Sara Miller worked with me in America when we needed temporary assistance to help set up our new office. She tried to understand our ways. She studied Chinese. And of course…” Trueheart paused to give weight to his next words. “… she was very friendly with Boss Wang. It’s natural he should want to work with her again.”
“Ha!” Storm stopped his pacing and scowled at Trueheart. “Boss Wang didn’t have his wife with him in California, right? I have no time or respect for a woman who mixes private life with business.”
“I didn’t say that anything happened,” Trueheart said quickly.
“No? But even if there were nothing between them, I don’t agree that a western face will help us. She’ll be no more than a drag, an extra cost. I won’t play the hypocrite at a welcoming party. And this week I have business in Suzhou.”
He turned on his heel and banged out of the conference room. The interloper, though she might be the boss’s pet, would not find an ally in Storm.
“I don’t want you to go, Mom.” Mark stood with her at the boarding gate, holding onto the handle of Sara’s carry-on as if holding it hostage. Passengers eager to board pushed past them as if they were boulders in a stream.
“It’s for the best, Mark.” She pushed her unruly hair back, shifting her tote bag on her shoulder, checking her boarding pass once more, looking everywhere but into her son’s eyes.
Mark put his hand on her shoulder and forced her to look at him. “Whose best? Not mine! I’ll miss you every day. And not Richie’s – who will look after him like you could? And not you! Going half around the world to a place where no one knows you…”
“But that’s the point – no one will know me, except for a couple of people I met in the Los Angeles office. And to them I’ll just be the American colleague, the accountant. I notice you don’t mention Rennie.”
“Oh Mom. I’m sorry. She does that – gets upset and then blows up. When it’s over, it’s over. Don’t let one quarrel…”
Sara straightened and stared at her son. “It was more than a quarrel. She called me a murderer. And it’s not just Rennie. You know what people are saying about me since your Dad died, and the inquest. I can’t stay around here, Mark. I need a place like you said, where no one knows me, or anything about me. In China, I’ll just be Sara Miller, that American. Now give me a hug, there’s my final boarding call.”
She let herself relax into his hug for a moment, reached up to stroke his cheek, and turned with her suitcase to the waiting gate.
Fox Spirit will continue on Mondays and Fridays. To follow Sara and Storm, scroll down to the blue bar on the right side of the screen which invites you to “Follow Chinese Puzzle Box”. Follow instructions, and you’ll get a notice for every new post.
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Poems by Chen Li Qiang are offered with permission of the poet. Translations are my own.