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The Hunger Bride


May 15, 2013

“Go home and pray to be forgiven,” she cried. “If you don’t pray now, you know what waits for you.”

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Image from Flickr via Kevin Poh

Guangdong Province, China, 1900

On the ninth day cocoons began to wither. Mulberries pattered on the ground and left dark streaks like welts. Leaf tips yellowed and curled. The silver strands broke.

On the tenth day all the women were ordered from the shed. Manager’s wife stood before us, silent and hot, sweat beading. Mist floated ghostlike over the fields, draining color from the landscape. The berries turned gray as mold crept over them. Gray like the cocoons, gray like the worms shifting inside, gray like the faces blanched and drawn in the heat.

“Which of you is wet?” she asked, from the crack between her lips.

I saw my death standing by the side of the road, among the sick trees. All around us were clots of earth, steaming air, and empty bellies.

Rustling among the girls, but no answer. Her eyes stabbed each one in turn.

“Go home and pray to be forgiven,” she cried. “If you don’t pray now, you know what waits for you.”

We stood frozen, though sweat poured from us.

“Go—all of you!”

In the pit of my stomach was a rock, pressing and pressing. I saw my death standing by the side of the road, among the sick trees. All around us were clots of earth, steaming air, and empty bellies.

“Be merciful, Madam,” said a voice that trailed away.

Her voice was shrill. “One unclean girl has killed us all!”

We walked down the road. On either side the fields ended in cloud, like a lowering blindness. The road was so damp our feet, wrapped in sticky cloth, grew to monstrous lumps of clay. The tramping girls sounded like a hundred hungry mouths: suck, gulp, suck, gulp, suck, gulp. I could hear my friend Tien breathing beside me, feel the effort she was making not to burst into tears. I thought of the illness in her house and felt sick with pity, but even that feeling was swallowed up in fear.

Then out of the whiteness came a buffalo’s head and rolling eyes, straining sinews and bony haunches. Our Xiu-Xiu, pulling a rattling plough with creaking harness. My mother’s husband walked behind him, knee-deep in mud, night soil, and manure. He turned his head as I walked by, and I saw his rod hit the beast’s flank.

Just before the village, mud began to patter down. First a splash that might have been kicked by chance, then hard splatters on necks and shoulders. I turned to the field. There stood a line of fathers, brothers, farmers; hands filled with dirt and mouths pressed tight in anger. And then the air was filled with flying mud and the clamor of voices, the curses and yells of “shame.”

Clods hit my chest and the side of my head. Bright spots floated before my eyes and turned greenish. Over the pounding in my ears I could hear Tien crying and breathing in gasps. We hurried into the north shed, followed by an occasional blob of mud. We waited, but the men did not come after us. The musty scent of worms in the close hut made the green lights dance again and more than one girl ran retching into the courtyard. Then we had to go on.

One by one the girls turned off toward their own houses, not knowing what they would find when they came to the end of the footpath. A starving family? An angry farmer with a stick?

Guanyin’s temple loomed out of the mist, the red paper scrolls faded to pale pink and curling in the moisture. Even here, we must pass by quickly. There was no time to stop and ask for mercy and protection. We could smell the hot scent of incense and hear the hollow clop-clop of fortune shells. My mouth watered and my stomach burned as we passed the meager bowls of rice left for the goddess. They were hard from being left there since dawn, and flies rested on the surface like unhulled grains.

One by one the girls turned off toward their own houses, not knowing what they would find when they came to the end of the footpath. A starving family? An angry farmer with a stick? Tien whispered goodbye in a high voice and went running off alone. I watched as her slim dark shape was swallowed by whiteness.

When I reached our doorstep I stamped my feet and shook off some of the dirt. Once the ground around the door had been so thick with chicken droppings that we had to pick our steps, and had kept a barrel to turn the richness in the fields. Now, my second brother crawled in the doorway instead of chickens. The bare patches on his head, surrounded by wiry tufts, made it look as if he too were molting. His eyes ran as the birds’ once did, and the dark roughened skin on his legs was tough as theirs. I removed my shoes and sidled past him into the house.

Mother was bent over the iron pot, and my heart seemed to leave my body. Mother and food. Silhouetted against the fire, the bindings on her back bulged like a hump. Between layers of swaddling, her last child considered me with dark eyes. She struggled to keep her balance against his wriggling; her hands were scattered with burns from falling into the ashes. The sweet scent of boiled grass mixed with the smell of smoke.

She turned to me, and her breath caught in her throat. “Aie,” she whispered. “Your face.”

I felt the mud on my cheeks, then got slowly to the floor—knees, forearms, forehead.

“Mother,” I whispered. “Taitai told us not to come back. She says a girl must have come wet.” In her eyes I saw what had sat in my stomach all day. A wail rose from the lump on her back. She sank next to me on the floor and reached around to untie the knot with shaking fingers. Slowly, she lifted and bared herself to him. The knobs on her collarbone were larger than the breast in his mouth.

“No more silk,” she said, her voice hoarse.

Her hand trembled under the baby’s head, and the room filled with the sound of his determined sucking. He stopped, burst into furious tears, and yanked again at her tiny breast.

How fiercely I loved her! The hollow under her arm, that warm nest she made for me, was the only safe place I had ever known.

Her eyes held mine, and I knew she could see what I was thinking. She shook her head, then leaned over and reached for me. I crawled to her lap, laid my head beneath her arm like a young bird under the hen’s wing. My arms twined around her waist as they had in my earliest memory. I inhaled her smoke and sweat and bitterness. Under her other arm, against her skin, the insatiable mouth gulped and swallowed.

How fiercely I loved her! The hollow under her arm, that warm nest she made for me, was the only safe place I had ever known. I loved her sad eyes, her rare flashes of anger, her lips in my hair. She was the only creature that loved me, and I would let myself be torn into a hundred pieces for her sake. And yet at every chance I could I crept away from her. Almost every night my selfish need put her in danger. Someday, those who might punish me would say she was the one I had shamed.

Her baby cried again, and she was forced to rise and leave me. If Wei had been a girl, I could guess what his fate would have been. I was old enough now to understand the whispers in the village. Also, I had made a discovery.

I had been crossing a field at night, returning from an errand at Third Aunt’s. Only my footsteps in the silence. The moon glittering on a black pond. A hole lined by rushes. A lashed eye gazing ceaselessly at an unresponsive sky.

A baby tangled in the reeds. I crept closer with a beating heart. The body was wrapped in a blanket; an amulet was tied around its neck to keep it from returning. A girl. An unwanted mouth. I had heard of this. I remembered the villagers’ stories. The magic charm was necessary—it was so hard even in death to cast a baby out, so strong was its desire to find home.

The answer, said the wise women, was for the mother to make an amulet to keep that baby in the swamp and keep her thoughts from returning to it. She should tie it tight—as tight as lotus feet, as tight as a reel of silk. And then the girl, mouth open to the brackish water and eyes frozen in milky slits, would lie in the ground till her bones made water and she rose in the rice paddies, food for us all. And her mother could nurse her sons and keep her house alive.

I watched my own mother as she crouched again by the fire; weary and drawn, her eyes closed above the round head cradled in her arm. A streak of ash lay on her cheek like a scar.

Every day I lusted, thirsted, hungered for what would come at night. In the shed, I had gazed unseeing at the gray worms as they writhed on the screen. At home I shared in my mother’s misery. But I found my consolation in the abandoned barn.

Her husband, my uncle, called gruffly from the next room, and I set out bowls of food and cups of hot water for him and my brothers. I kept my head down, allowing him to see the dried mud on my cheek, wondering if he had thrown it. My mother had flinched at the sound of his voice, but, as usual, he gave no sign that he noticed my presence. Then I crouched beside my mother on the kitchen floor. The hot, tasteless mass of grass filled my mouth and enabled me to raise my head.

It was almost time.

Every day I lusted, thirsted, hungered for what would come at night. In the shed, I had gazed unseeing at the gray worms as they writhed on the screen. At home I shared in my mother’s misery. But I found my consolation in the abandoned barn.

My mother knew my secret and gloried with me, but I hardly dared whisper about it, even to her. Nothing in her life had been like this. When she was young the girls couldn’t even dream.

I thought, each afternoon: If I die tonight I will have had a few hours of joy. The barn, my daydreams, the words I muttered under my breath as I worked—they were my real life. Without them, I was nothing.

There were some in the village who would kill me for what I was doing, as my mother and I knew well. But she said better to have it now than never have it. Taste what you can before they force you to chop wood and serve a mother-in-law. Have something to think about during the years spent over your pots and loom. Something to bloom against the ceiling in the dark.

And every afternoon my palms would sweat and my knees turn to water. I did my best to hide my feelings. But I tingled with anticipation of the thing I desired most.

Soon it would be night. She would come. We would be alone. She would whisper to me in a strange tongue and trace her mystic symbols on the ground with a forked stick. A circle bisected like a cow’s eyeball. Diameter equals radius times two.

I am. I was. I will be.

Thirty days hath September, April, June, and November.

Jesus loves me, this I know.

Atlantic, Pacific, Indian, Mediterranean, Caribbean, Arctic.

I before E, except after C.

Brush hair one hundred strokes at bedtime, and wash hands before eating.

For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever and ever. Amen.

*                      *                     *

In the evening the Jesus woman came. I saw her from the doorway, a dark bell-shaped smudge on the horizon, and then closer and closer, walking slowly and struggling with the muck on the road. A farmer passed her without acknowledgement, and she stared straight before her, looking neither to the left nor to the right. Closer and closer, and then her face pale and beaded with the heat, small hairs straggling around her cheeks but twisted tight behind.

My heart began to hammer as she drew near. She nodded her head as she reached the doorway, and I saw how shaky she was. Circles of sweat beneath her arm reached to her waist.

In the barn the mist coiled like ghosts, and I lit the lantern. She reached to touch a mark on my face, but I ducked my head. I didn’t like her pale yellow fingers or her sharp nose so close to me, or her smell of harsh foreign soap. All I wanted was her mind opened to mine. She sat on a crate and stared at me.

“What’s happening, Mei Lin? I heard there was trouble in the sheds.” She looked straight at me, her voice brusque. I couldn’t meet her eyes.

“We were told not to come back.” I stared at my feet because I wanted to cry and would never shame myself by doing so in front of her.

“All the girls let go? I thought the silk was girls’ work.”

It was very hard to talk, and I spoke softer and softer.

“The worms are dying.”

“But why?”

I saw her face—the hollows of her cheeks, blackened to shadows by the faint lantern light, the bone at the top of her nose, her small spectacles—and I whispered, “Madam thinks a girl must have been wet.”

“Wet?”

I burst into my own language.

“English,” she said sharply.

I struggled. “They came to the shed at the time they should have stayed home. Women can only touch the worms when they’re dry. A woman at her monthly time kills them.”

She was quiet for a long time. My jaw ached and my teeth felt like they would splinter, biting each other so I wouldn’t cry. I heard her fingers rustling in the little bag she carried by her side.

I leaned in and did my best to tell Miss Flossie of what awaited in the other world. Her face flushed and her heavy brows climbed up her forehead.

“Let me try to understand this, Mei Lin. Your mistress believes that one of the girls came to the shed at the wrong time of the month and that damaged the worms?”

“Yes.”

“How could that hurt the worms?”

How could I tell her, even if I knew the English words? I remembered walking through the fields of angry men and hearing Tien’s gasps. She would die, I would die, Mother and the baby would die, and our bodies would be eaten by the black earth. Each girl, accompanied by the curses of the whole village, would sink down in the mud, planted like bloated grains of rice, then down forever to the underworld. Already I could taste the blood on my lips. We would float among the fearful things that came from women’s bodies—the dark clots and the fluids and mucus and the afterbirth. All the horrors of our bodies filling a cesspool dug in eternity—waiting for us.

I remembered, dimly, my uncle saying prayers to release my grandmother from the bloody pit. My mother had three sons, and if they lived they could pray her out. They could light the incense, arrange dishes of food and waft her soul to paradise on smoke and promises of fidelity. But what would happen to me, if I died childless and alone?

I leaned in and did my best to tell Miss Flossie of what awaited in the other world. Her face flushed and her heavy brows climbed up her forehead.

“Poppycock!”

“I don’t understand,” I said.

“No.” She coughed sharply and reached into her bag.

“I have something for you, Mei Lin.”

It was a white box with a bearded man on the front.

“Is that Jesus?”

Her eyes lit up and her lips twitched into a half smile.

“That’s a fisherman. See his boat and hat.”

“Fisher of men?”

“These are ship’s biscuits. Huntley and Palmers. From the station’s storehouse.”

“Biscuits?”

“Dry bread.”

She opened the box and put a disc into my hand. I stared at it.

“Go ahead and eat.”

My mother in the house.

“Mei Lin?”

“My mother,” I whispered.

“I’ll give you some to take back to her. But you must keep your strength up. You have a duty to yourself. And someday, to others.”

“You must not be seduced by pride. You didn’t make yourself. But there isn’t another in a thousand capable of learning what you have in these few months.”

I could not raise my hand to my mouth.

“Do you know that I’m alone at the mission station? Reverend and Mrs. Clyde have gone to see their son at his school in Chefoo. They asked me to go with them. But I would not.”

I could only nod my head.

“It’s a long afternoon’s walk to your village, Mei Lin. And there are girls closer to the station that cannot read the Bible, and yet I come here. Do you know why?”

“No, teacher,” I mumbled.

“You have a gift, Mei Lin.”

I bowed my head further.

“You must not be seduced by pride. You didn’t make yourself. But there isn’t another in a thousand capable of learning what you have in these few months.”

I pressed my lips to her cold hand.

“I have written to our headquarters in London about you. I was ordered not to sacrifice the good of the many to teach a single girl, and yet I disobeyed. I will be justified only if you live to be a soldier for Christ.”

I gazed at her.

“Let me see you eat, Mei Lin.”

I saw the mouth glued to my mother’s breast, and I could not raise the biscuit to my lips.

“You won’t eat until the elders do, eh? You’re just a girl and your life is worth nothing, is that it?”

A hand struck my cheek. My eyes filled with tears and my pulse pounded, but more from surprise than pain. I heard her breathing rapidly. Then she pried open her purse to reveal an inside of scarlet like a bleeding mouth. Black dress, shoes, hat, gray skin, dead hair, but within the drawstring—a vivid patch of color. And in that silken scarlet, her black book.

“I don’t want suffering or a mansion in the skies,” I said.

When I could glance up, I saw the moisture beading on her lashes and her lips pressed into a thin line. The hands that held the book trembled as they turned the pages, but her voice was hard.

“This is the Word that tells me I shall be happy someday, Mei Lin. Will you be?”

I bowed my head. “Teacher. Excuse my stupidity.”

“I won’t excuse it. Eat your biscuits.”

I bowed lower, with no reply.

“What awaits you in the other world?”

“In the other world?”

“Yes. After you starve here. After you starve and die where do you go?”

“To the pit.”

“Well, as a believer, I go to a mansion in the skies.”

“What do I do to go there also?”

“Believe that Jesus loves you.”

“How?”

“Jesus loves women. Jesus loves every good.”

“And if he loves us why do we suffer?’

“Everyone suffers. He suffered too. Our suffering brings us closer to Him.”

“Then what good is he?”

Her brows drew close together. “Because only through Him can our souls be saved.”

“I don’t want suffering or a mansion in the skies,” I said.

“What do you want?”

My words came in a whisper. “I want to study. And I want to bring bread to my mother.”

*                      *                     *

Miss Flossie left by dying lantern-light, after slipping the black book back into the silken mouth. She went alone into the wet dark, alive with the crying of insects. She was angry at me and I seldom saw her alone during the terrible month that followed.

In the barnyard, Miss Flossie whispered the greatest sin. “Women have power in Christ,” she said.

In the houses women began eating bricks—scraping the mud of their walls into pots to cure their hunger. Children’s faces bloomed with red spots and their bellies filled with air and clay. Some drank the blood of their oxen. Old men nattered that when women eat the walls, it’s time for them to go. And still Miss Flossie came, grimly, waylaying girls in the fields or behind latrines with her white boxes. “He giveth bread, not a stone. Take this and eat in God’s name.”

The men said that the priests and Jesus women used bread to seduce the daughters. Others said they killed and ate the girls in their church by the river, and cast the bones out the window into the stream.

In the barnyard, Miss Flossie whispered the greatest sin. “Women have power in Christ,” she said. “Magdalene and Martha were the most beloved. Men run depraved without women’s authority. Most men harbor a beast. In the new century God will call women to lead the church. The young will bring China to Christ. God loves the meek… ”

More and more girls came secretly at night, or in wide detours with water on their shoulders or babies on their backs. They told stories among themselves—that Flossie ground tofu with the pretty ones; that she fucked them with her nose, fucked them with her Bible. Most said they’d do anything for her bread and for her whispers.

The men claimed she didn’t want them. They said the Jesus ladies cared nothing for men—that the only Father they honored was in the sky. They would pull families apart. They stopped the women from worshipping ancestors. They stopped the women from worshipping Guanyin. They stopped the women from praying that their blood would not contaminate the earth. They stopped the women from begging their sons to pray them out of hell. They told the women the meek would enter heaven. They told the women the meek would inherit the earth. They told the women they were children of God.

The trough outside the city wall was filled with crying girl-babies. And Miss Flossie mumbled the catechism and ran out of biscuits. Some girls sat with her singing hymns in the light. Many more stopped coming once the bread was gone. Proclamations appeared on the walls, urging the people against foreign devils. Groups of men talked of warrior societies forming in the north. And one day Miss Flossie disappeared without farewell, murdered or smuggled out on a steamer bound for England. Either way, lost to me.

*                      *                     *

In my house we scraped clay and watched the children swell. At night we retched and spat. One day a man on a shiny carriage drove through the village and we marveled to see a horse. That night, I woke suddenly to find my mother crying over me in the dark. She wept soundlessly, her shoulders shaking. All I could hear was the boy’s mouth on her breast—swallowing, gasping, inexorable.

In the morning the dew lay like pearls on every strand of grass when I went for water. I can still see the dripping bucket made of dark wood, the slime spinning slowly near the bottom.

“Mei Lin.” Since I was grown he had hardly ever addressed me. Now he stood in the kitchen and spoke. “Mei Lin, it is time for you to marry. The groom comes the day after tomorrow.”

Then there was my house with its door ajar and a sick child on the floor and there was my mother’s husband dressed in new clothes and smiling. It was years since I’d had his full attention. Now, with a jump, I saw his eyes on me.

“Mei Lin.” Since I was grown he had hardly ever addressed me. Now he stood in the kitchen and spoke. “Mei Lin, it is time for you to marry. The groom comes the day after tomorrow.”

I was shocked, and bowed my head. “He’ll take you on a ship to Gold Mountain. He’s a merchant there. Your duty is to feed your family. Today he brought a coop of white chickens.”

My mother was nowhere—the kitchen empty, clean, fireless. My eyes darted to each corner in an attempt to find her. I built the fire, cooked grass soup with the burnt scrapings of rice from yesterday’s pot. I spoke to my younger brothers, “Have you seen Mama today? Did she go to Third Aunt’s?” The first stared blankly without an answer and the little one started to cry. I hushed the round black head on my shoulder, wiped the bubbling nose and tears.

All day I did her work and dashed frantically into outbuildings. The flux. Crushed by a cart. Drowned in the well. Raped and murdered by a bandit. Killed in the fields by a mob that knew of my meetings.

I never saw my mother again.

G

Author Image

Julie Ries is a graduate of Yale and the MFA program at NYU, where she taught expository and creative writing. Her first novel, The Hunger Bride, follows the stories of two women—a Chinese peasant girl sold into prostitution and a scandalous American missionary—in early twentieth-century San Francisco. She can be reached at JulieRiesWriter.com.

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6 comments for The Hunger Bride

  1. Comment by Judy Mintz on May 16, 2013 at 3:02 pm

    This was a beautifully written piece. I immediately fell in love with Mei Lin and my heart aches for her. I desperately want to read the rest of The Hunger Bride, but I can’t find it online. If this author hasn’t sold the book yet, then posting the beginning was a cruel trick! I do hope, Guernica, that when the book is available you’ll make a lot of noise and let us know.

  2. Comment by Cathleen on May 20, 2013 at 10:49 pm

    The Hunger Bride is wonderfully engaging from the start. Ries allows the reader to come to know the pain and the suffering of her characters with such perfect pacing. It’s seems rare to find writing so wonderfully simple and clean and vivid that the reader is permitted to loose him/herself in the words. Where and when can I find more?

  3. Comment by Adrienne Wienir on May 22, 2013 at 2:08 am

    The cocoons established the momentum and the Hunger Bride had me hooked with the very first sentence. With the second sentence I was there inside Guangdong Province, China 1900, with all my senses engaged and on high alert as I found they needed to be as I continued to read on. With such spartan yet descriptive language the author has conveyed so much about life for a Chinese girl at that time and place. It was painful to come to the end and leave Mei Lin behind with all her passion and all her sadness.

    Ever since spending a year in Korea some decades ago before the country entered the modern high tech era, I have had a fascination with that part of the world. I have read a lot of fiction as well as non fiction and thought about the culture I had the privilege to experience for a period of time. Bravo to Julie Ries for her amazing and authentic sensitivity. And for her beautiful writing! More!

  4. Comment by Gini on May 22, 2013 at 4:00 pm

    What powerful imagery and what a compelling narrative. It left me with chills…

  5. Comment by Cindy on June 2, 2013 at 8:03 pm

    I thought this first chapter compelling in its language and plot. It was poetry in prose. I originally thought the girls were meeting men, and to find the actual reason was surprising. I want to read more.

  6. Comment by Judy Bardugo on June 5, 2013 at 12:41 pm

    What beautiful, compelling writing. I could not stop reading. Please post more chapters.
    Wonderful and utterly terrifying. Congratulations, Julie. You are a major talent.

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