Hua at the Fabric MarketMei waits until Hua has almost finished. She has not touched her own drink. “Shall we size the fabric?” Then clicks her heels back to the measuring table. She spreads the silk. The gold thread weaves Lilies, masses of them swirling about the silk. Lilies, lilies, lilies.
The color drains from Hua’s face. Fate, she thinks. Her hands tremble.
“Uh, yes. Please. I need three meters” The words come out a whisper and she wonders if she’s said them at all when there is another kick, harder this time. Hua reaches up to greet her baby.
Mei pretends she doesn’t notice. Intent on her task of measuring, she cuts a swift, clean line. The silk glides across the table. “Perfect I think, don’t you agree?”
Hua decides not to bargain today. She has revealed too much, the lilies are an omen. Her mother is waiting. She will spend every yuan that she has earned this year for this blanket if necessary.
“100 yuan.” Mei smiles. “It is on sale today, bargain price.” Hua is stunned. The fabric is worth three times that amount. She did not see a sales sticker. “You must be mistaken.”
“No, my dear. I am sure I am correct in my thinking.” Mei wraps the fabric in thick brown paper. “To protect it.”
Hua takes the package with both hands. It is much heavier than she expected. “Thank you.” She lowers her head and bites her lip. Tears burn the corners of her eyes.
“Good luck to you both.” Hua hears Mei’s well wishes as she opens the door and steps into the icy afternoon. The words float out among the hawkers selling, horns beeping, and babies crying along the fabric market avenue.
The sun is already low, though the afternoon is still early. Jia’s breath comes out in short puffs of white. In her hands she holds a glass jar with green tea leaves swirling around the bottom, hot water from the teacart. The flags lining the stalls are flapping but there is no way to hear them for the commotion in the market. Motorbikes chug past carrying large boxes of winter melons, piles of laundry, children, a skinned chow tied to the handlebars, black tongue dangling. She doesn’t recognize her daughter at first, Hua’s face is puffy but radiant, her eyes wise and determined. The pregnancy is visible to Jia for the first time. Has Hua aged in the half hour since Jia left for her errand? Only a few more weeks, and then they will be past this hurdle. It will be Jia who secrets the infant back to this market. Jia who will, in the black hours between night and morning, place the tiny bundle among the salted cod, rutabagas, and bean curd stall of the vendor who’s agreed to look the other way. The one who, for a price, will make sure these babies get taken straight to the police, no questions asked. In this way she will try to spare her daughter the worst of it. As for the mark this baby will leave, that will be up to Hua. These are the moments that define you. Jia knows this.
She watches Hua come toward her carrying brown wrapping as if it were a Ming dynasty vase, so precious. Too precious. She thinks about her brothers, her mother’s robe worn just that once and then buried deep into the wooden chest at the end of her marriage bed. These things can eat you like a worm devours an apple. A tiny entrance hole on the surface, but the inside is eaten away, hollow. Hua is a strong girl, a practical child. She has her art, the university. There will be other boys, a husband, and of course another child.
Hua looks past her mother. She steps cautiously into the street and weaves between the cars, bikes, and pedestrians. The alley in front of her is narrow, clogged with piles of empty crates; littered with rotting produce. A woman sits on an overturned bucket, noodles dangling from the chopsticks raised to her toothless mouth. Hua looks up to a swath of cobalt blue. Wisps of clouds drift across the expanding sky. She cradles the package as if it contains a living thing. But, of course, it is only thread, silk dyed red.