About the Author
Also from Lisa See
Also by Lisa See
Praise for The Interior
For my mother,
who’s taught me a lot about
courage, persistence, and loyalty
TODAY PROMISED TO BE ONE OF THE HOTTEST OF THE LONG summer in the interior of China. Here, the heat and humidity baked the earth and all upon it, so that by the time Ling Suchee reached the patch of ground where she grew her home vegetables, her clothes had already begun to stick to her skin. Suchee selected a turnip and two green onions, and pulled them gently from the red earth. Straightening up, she looked around. The fields stretched out before her, and the air shimmered in undulating waves. There were no trees to provide shade or a place to hide.
Where was her daughter?
Suchee glanced over to the rubble wall that served as the primary barrier between the fields and the pigsty. Last night she had seen Miaoshan lingering there as if it held some secret. But she wasn’t there now, and Suchee went back inside. She sliced open the buns, tucked an onion and a piece of turnip in each, and squeezed the bread closed. No point in waiting for Miaoshan, Suchee decided, taking her first pungent bite of breakfast. Miaoshan must have gone to see her fiancé Tsai Bing. They had talked last night and probably met again this morning to make plans. Suchee took another bite of the bun and tried to push the embarrassment of her daughter’s pregnancy from her mind, knowing she should focus instead on the joy that lay ahead of them. A wedding. A baby. All this to come so soon.
But it was not so easy to put away fear. During the night Suchee’s dreams had been uneasy, disturbing, and now, sweating not just from the summer heat but from deep anxiety, she was reminded of the old saying: Fifteen buckets drawing water from the well—seven moving up, eight moving down. Last night she had lost more buckets of sleep than she had gained. Suchee shook away this unpleasant memory. She gathered the crumbs from the table, took them outside, and scattered them on the ground for the chickens. She walked around to the back of her one-room cottage, silently chastising herself for letting her night dreams become her daytime worries. Nevertheless she couldn’t help but survey her surroundings, taking inventory of her property as she crossed the hard-packed earth. She counted her wealth—three chickens in the front, six ducks out back—all healthy, all here. She saw the pig—fine, alive. But where was that girl?
Suchee stared out again across her fields, this time looking at the white-hot sky. There were no clouds, so there would not be any rain to bring relief from the heat. This was as it should be. Most peasants knew when a big storm was coming, for when it did the rain would pour out of the sky in sheets for days and days, sometimes washing away an entire crop, an entire farm, an entire village. Did this day hold a dust storm in its minutes and hours? Is that what she sensed? Dust storms were common in spring, and Suchee and Miaoshan had watched many times as the soil was lifted up and carried out of sight to some other farmer’s tract in a neighboring district. Could this be what she felt? Some tragedy that had stirred itself in the wrong season and would ruin her crops by day’s end? Suchee held her hand to her forehead to shield her eyes from the sun and searched the sky, but it was perfectly blue and clear.
But as Suchee approached the shed, she was once again flooded with the sense that something was not right. She saw her tools propped against the mud siding. Someone had rearranged them. She was not stupid like the lowest barefoot peasant, and so she took care of her tools. They were the means by which she had kept herself and her daughter alive all these years. Had Miaoshan moved them? That couldn’t be right, because mother had taught daughter the value of care and neatness. Just then Suchee realized that her ladder was missing. Hooligans must have come in the night and stolen it! If they had taken the ladder, could they have pirated away her ox too?
Suchee hurried to the shed, lifted the latch, and pushed open the door. Before her eyes could adjust to the dim interior, she stepped into the little room and gasped as she stumbled to the ground. She tried to sit up, but found herself tangled in the rungs of the ladder. Extricating herself, she sat there, rubbing first her shin, then an elbow, wondering what the ladder was doing here, right inside the door where anyone could fall.
As she peered into the darkness, she saw two feet swinging back and forth ever so slowly. With growing dread Suchee’s eyes followed those feet up to the knees, then thighs, then hips, then torso, and finally to the neck and head of her daughter. A scream started to form in Suchee’s throat as she saw Miaoshan’s head tilted at an inhuman angle. Part of a rope necklace was buried in the swollen flesh of her neck; the other end was slip-tied to a rough-hewn support beam. Her tongue—purple and grossly swollen—protruded from her mouth. Her eyes bulged as though someone were pushing them from the inside. They were open, bloodshot, unseeing. “No-o-o-o,” Suchee wailed as she saw one of the flies that already buzzed around her daughter’s head break away from the swarm, dive down, and land at the corner of Miaoshan’s unmoving right eye.
Suchee tried to scramble to her feet, once again tripping in the rungs of the ladder. Regaining her balance, she reached for her daughter. With a swoop Suchee wrapped her powerful arms around Miaoshan’s thighs and lifted her body to take the weight off her neck. Standing there—her head against the small, hard mound of her daughter’s stomach—Suchee knew it was too late. Miaoshan was dead, as was the grandchild that lay inside her.
The three generations stood this way together for a long time. Finally, Suchee gently released her daughter’s legs and went back outside to get the scythe, feeling an emptiness that stretched beyond the distant horizon.
Those first moments after finding Miaoshan would be indelibly printed on Suchee’s mind: cutting down the body, laying it out on the dirt floor of the shed, then running along the raised pathways between the fields to the land of her closest neighbors. The Tsai family—mother, father, and only son—were already working, bent over as they pulled weeds from around their crop plants. At the sound of Suchee’s screams they looked up simultaneously, almost as a small herd of deer startled by a predator. Then they too were screaming and running back to the Ling farm.
Faced with this crisis, Tsai Bing, Miaoshan’s betrothed, finally put his head to use. With promises that he would be back, he took off, jogging down the red dirt road that led first to the highway and then to the village of Da Shui. An hour later he returned with policemen from the local Public Security Bureau. By this time some other neighbors had gathered around to watch the unfolding catastrophe. The man in charge introduced himself formally as Captain Woo, although they had known him all of their lives. He firmly insisted that the neighbors return to their own farms. As they shuffled past, a few murmured their condolences. Tang Dan, the wealthiest of Suchee’s neighbors, stopped before her and addressed her formally, “We are so sorry, Ling Taitai. If you need anything, remember to come to me. I will help you in any
way I can.” Then he too left, so that the only people remaining were the police, Suchee, and the Tsais.
“Auntie Tsai, Uncle Tsai,” Woo said, using the polite honorific, “you have much work to do. We will take care of things here. And you, Tsai Bing, help your parents. We will come for you if we need you.”
Madame Tsai looked questioningly from Suchee to Captain Woo and back again. But all of them knew one thing: The Tsais were insignificant people. They could not disobey a policeman. And so the Tsais padded away, with Tsai Bing occasionally glancing back over his shoulder.
Each time he looked back, Suchee was rocked by memories of the young couple together. She recalled how Miaoshan and Tsai Bing had liked to walk out across the raised pathways that divided the fields. Their laughter had drifted on the air, so sweet in the early spring months. Recently they had looked as happy as when they had been small children, not the usual wariness they had shown to each other during the early period of their betrothal.
Once Tsai Bing was out of sight, Suchee stood there dumbly as the policemen, sweating in their wrinkled khaki uniforms, walked around the shed and poked at Miaoshan’s bruised neck with their rough fingers. When they said that suicide was a terrible thing, she insisted they were wrong, that Miaoshan would never take her own life; nor was she foolish enough to have caused her own death by accident. She told them again and again, but they would not hear her. “Girls,” Captain Woo said, “they can be temperamental. They are too emotional. And Miaoshan…I have known her since she was a little girl. I am sorry, but she was a wild one. You never could control her.”
Then the police put away their notepads and got into their cars. Just before driving down the rutted red dirt road, Captain Woo rolled down his window. He was not a man without sympathy, and he called out politely, “Ling Taitai, you don’t need me to tell you this is hot weather. There is little time to waste. Miaoshan needs to be taken care of and soon. We are going back to the village. Would you like to ride with us?”
But Suchee shook her head, went back inside the shed, sat down again next to her daughter’s body, and lifted the girl gently into her arms. She looked at Miaoshan’s lifeless face and thought of her stubbornness. As a caring mother, Suchee should have made her daughter marry Tsai Bing long ago, but Miaoshan had resisted, saying, “An arranged marriage is old-fashioned. Besides, I do not love Tsai Bing. He is too much like a brother to me.” Still, the mothers had persevered, and two years ago the parties had settled the terms of the bride price even though the two children were below marriage-certificate age.
Despite the engagement, Miaoshan had begged her mother again and again to be allowed to work at the new American toy factory that had opened in the area. “I can make more money as a worker, and I’ll be less of a burden to you,” Miaoshan had said. This had been only partly true. She could indeed make more money, but Suchee always needed Miaoshan’s help watering and working the land. Still, Miaoshan had persisted with the same willfulness that she had shown since the age of three, when all Chinese children begin to show their true personalities. “The local ginger is not spicy enough for Miaoshan,” neighbors often said, meaning that she always had her eyes on the horizon, thinking that things were better beyond its unseen edge. So when Miaoshan repeated her request to go to the factory, Suchee, despite her regret at losing her daughter as a helper and companion, had let her leave six months ago in the darkest month of winter. Never, never, never should she have let this happen.
When Miaoshan came home for her first visit, she had changed. Underneath her same old jacket she wore a store-bought sweater and American nu zai ku—what were called “cow boy pants.” But what really shocked Suchee was her daughter’s face. Miaoshan had always been considered plain. When other mothers had seen her as a baby, they had shaken their heads in sympathy, which was one reason that Suchee was so relieved when Tsai Bing’s mother had sent the matchmaker. But upon her return from the factory, Miaoshan’s cheekbones, which had always looked angular and pale next to the perfect round faces of the neighbor girls, were tinted pink. Her lips were painted a rich ruby color. Her eyes were outlined with black, and her lids were heavy with a deep gray. She looked like the famous movie star Gong Li. No, she looked like an American movie star. Suchee saw that even in death her daughter looked beautiful, Western, absolutely foreign.
Every time that Miaoshan came home, Suchee grew increasingly disturbed by the changes in her daughter. But during her last visit she had said something that made Suchee go cold inside. Miaoshan had been talking about a meeting she’d had at the factory with some of the other girls. “The right information is better than a bullet,” she had said. “With it, you can’t lose. Without it, you won’t survive.” Then she’d laughed lightly and changed the subject, but the memory of those words stayed with Suchee, because she could remember back many years to when people who recited slogans like that were punished. And now Miaoshan had been…destroyed.
She smoothed the hair away from Miaoshan’s face, feeling how the warmth of the day was seeping into her skin instead of out. Captain Woo was right. Suchee could not let her daughter rot here in the summer heat. Suchee put aside her grief and temporarily covered the private hard purpose that was already growing inside her like a seed after a fresh spring rain, and began to plan her daughter’s burial. She was a poor woman, this was true. But she was also a widow, and during the ten years since her husband’s death she had conserved a little here, a little there, always thinking that the future was uncertain. One could never tell when there might be a drought, an illness, a political upheaval, a funeral.
She carefully set Miaoshan’s body back on the ground, stood, stared for a moment at the motionless form, then went outside for a shovel. She walked along the route that she alone had memorized. Suchee found her spot and dug until the shovel hit the metal chest where she kept her savings and her important papers. After taking the money and once again burying the box, Suchee was sweaty and dirty, but she did not stop to splash water on her face or clean her arms and legs. Instead she simply replaced the shovel and set off down the dirt road.
Her first stop in town was with the local feng shui man. The diviner promised he would weigh, as thousands of years of custom dictated, the attributes of feng shui—wind and water—to find the burial location that was most propitious for the new spirit. To that end he would also examine Miaoshan’s horoscope and contemplate the political backgrounds of her parents. After that he would go to the cemetery and consult with the spirits who already resided there. All of this he explained to Suchee, but when she placed a larger number of bills in his hand than was usual he finalized his decision. Miaoshan would be buried on a slight rise in the cemetery where she might face the warmth of the south for all eternity.
Leaving the feng shui man, Suchee hurriedly did her other errands. But how difficult it was for her now to walk down the main street of this village. She saw the familiar faces—the woman who sold dishes decorated with gaily painted enamel flowers, the man who filled gallon cans with kerosene for lanterns, the old man who fixed broken bicycles. News traveled quickly in Da Shui Village. As she walked past these people, their faces darkened with sympathy and they bowed their heads in respect, but Suchee registered none of it.
Instead her mind filled again with images of Miaoshan in life. As a toddler in split pants. As a girl dressed in a faded blue padded jacket who was devoted to her studies, diligently practicing her Chinese ideograms and reciting her English. As the young woman she had recently become who sometimes seemed such a stranger. “One day I will earn enough money that we will leave this place,” she had often said with such conviction that Suchee had believed her. “We will go to Shenzhen, maybe even America….” Silently Suchee pulled at her hair, trying to drive away her dream-ghost daughter. Silently she screamed, How could this have happened?
From the dry-goods store, Suchee purchased paper in assorted colors so that tonight she might cut them into offerings, which would be burned at the grave. In this way Miao
shan, who was so poor in life, would be accompanied to the afterworld with clothes, a car, a house, friends. To distract Hungry Ghosts from Miaoshan’s funeral belongings, Suchee would cook up a pot of rice to sprinkle on the bonfire. When the flames died down, her daughter would truly be gone forever.
Suchee had one more purchase to make—a coffin. Undertaker Wang, knowing that Suchee was almost as poor as he, suggested that the girl be cremated. But Suchee shook her head. “I want a coffin, a good one,” she insisted.
“I can make you something nice,” Wang said. “See this wood over here? This will be perfect for you.”
But when Suchee ran her fingertips over the rough grain, she shook her head again. She looked about her until her eyes rested on a crimson lacquer coffin with hand-wrought hardware. “That one there,” she said, pointing. “That is the one for Miaoshan.”
“Oh, too expensive! My nephew buys that one in Beijing and sends it here to me. At first I’m thinking, my nephew has put me out of business! That kind of coffin is for a Red Prince, not someone in our poor village. But these days…” The undertaker rubbed his chin. “We have some prosperity in our village now. I am keeping it for one of the village elders. They are all old men, and they can’t live forever.”
But Suchee didn’t appear to be listening. She crossed the small, hot room and placed her hands on the crimson surface of the coffin. After a moment she turned and said, “I will take it.” Before Wang could voice his objections, Suchee reached into a pocket, pulled out a wad of old bills, and began counting them. She was not prepared to bargain with him as she might have under other circumstances, and, to his honor, he did not cheat her but accepted a fair price with a solid profit. Undertaker Wang considered that if a peasant woman like Ling Suchee was willing to buy a coffin like this for a no-account daughter, then perhaps that nephew of his should send a few more lacquer coffins to the village.
Her business with Wang completed, Suchee stepped back outside into the harsh sunlight. With each of these stops her determination grew. She would make Captain Woo hear her. She crossed the street to the building that housed the Public Security Bureau, then waited while a secretary went into one of the offices to speak with the captain. When she came out, her face was set in a disapproving grimace. “The captain is busy,” the woman said. “He says you should go back home. Be a proper mother. You have a duty, you know. Take care of your daughter.” The woman’s voice softened just a little. “You have things you need to do for her. Go on.”