I was pregnant when Yu-ming went missing. And though I longed for a dream that would lead me to him, night after night the white tigers meant for the child I carried entered my dreams instead.
Tails swishing and eyes flashing, they led me through the forest, past a monk’s fire pit and up to a clearing with white pillars at its center.
As the sun rose and my dream began to fade, the tigers flicked their ears and growled one last time. I shivered and opened my eyes. Enough with the tiger dreams!
Shaking the dampness from my hair, I dangled my feet over the side of the bed. Surely, I told myself, Yu-ming was still alive. All I had to do was wait for him. I fluffed the quilt, freshening equally the sweaty and the unused sides of the bed. I’d assumed when Yu-ming went to work for Siemens that the powerful German company would protect him from China’s sorrows. Now I wasn’t so sure. After all, why would bandits care whether the throat they slit belonged to a Siemens engineer? And the bow-legged invaders? I stuffed my fingers in my hair and yanked at it as I padded across the cool tile. It was ludicrous to think the Japanese would ask the affiliation of a Chinese before shooting him between the eyes.
Blinking the thought away, I opened the French doors and stepped onto the balcony. Below me a rice straw broom whispered on the paving stones. A rooster crowed. And in the distance, a rumbling boom and then another. I leaned out over the railing and looked for lightning. The booming sounded more like bombs, though, than thunder.
No, I thought, it can’t be bombs. The Japanese are still in the north, and these sounds are coming from the south.
“Po-ping,” I called to the amah. “Come out here.”
She shuffled onto the balcony, my daughter’s head resting on her shoulder.
“What do you hear?”
She squinted into the rising sun. “Thunder,” she said.
“No, listen once more.”
“I hear thunder, Young Mistress,” she said again, impatiently bouncing Ah Mei on her hip. “May I go now?”
Before long the distant booms were drowned out by the sounds of shouting and laughter, chickens and birds. A crow swooped down and scattered a flock of chickadees. A vendor selling sweetened soymilk and crispy fried ghosts called at the gate. And once again, it seemed that everything was back to normal on the charmed little island of my birth.
Everything, except that my husband was missing and the Japanese invaders had within the past three months captured Shanghai to the north of us and the capital at Nanking.
Now, I wondered, were they also bombarding cities to the south? I dressed and went downstairs, intending to ask one of the maids for a poached egg. As I turned a corner, Su-lee nearly ran me down. Only her legs showed as she hobbled toward me carrying a potted Japanese bamboo.
“Oh, Young Mistress,” she said through the foliage. “Look at these flowers. They bloomed during the night.” The small white flowers bursting from a center point in each cluster looked like miniature fireworks. “I want to put them outside,” she said. “Very bad luck. When the bamboo flowers, someone is sure to die.”
I held the door for her, and she staggered, half-running, through the laundry area and across the yard to the far side of the fishpond. As far from our house as possible, I thought as I followed her outside.