Look after the lichee trees

Kitty Ah Chang

‘Here daughter, taste this one.’ The father offered the plumpest, just-picked lichee.
‘Mmm. It’s so big Baba. Do you think there’ll be a big stone inside?’
‘Of course not! These trees are famous for bearing fruit with small stones. Eat it and see.’
Mei-lin peeled back the shell, holding it above her face. Juice spurted, and she opened her mouth wide to catch it. Her father watched proudly, as she relished the succulent fruit. His own father had planted the lichee trees and every summer, he harvested the fruit and sold it at the market. His fruit was renowned in the district.  
The girl shadowed her father and watched everything he did. She liked working in the cool shade of the trees and enjoyed the outdoors.
‘Stay! Help me sweep the floors and wash the clothes,’ Mei-lin’s mother had called as she ran from the house.
‘I’m going with Ba to pick the lichees,’ she called back.
‘Let her be,’ said her father. ‘Tomorrow she can stay home.’
‘How will she ever grow up to be a good wife? She runs outside all the time. How brown she has become this summer. Nobody will want to marry her,’ muttered the mother.

Father and daughter worked together, filling the woven baskets with the luscious fruit to take to the market.
‘Eeh, this basket is heavy. Uncle Poi can help me carry these to the cart. I’ll just move them over to the shade so the sun does not spoil them.’
He hoisted the pole onto his shoulders and tried to straighten up. He tottered unsteadily with the load. The baskets dropped as he fell, spilling the lichees.
‘Baba, get up! Are you hurt? I’ll put the fruit back into the baskets.’
Mei-lin gathered armfuls of the scattered lichees. Turning, she saw her father lying still on the ground and ran to him.
‘Help! Uncle Poi, Uncle Kerng,’ she called to the men in the distance. ‘Father can’t get up. Come and help him.’
The men came running, lifted the father up, and between them carried him back to the house.
‘Ma! Ma!’ Mei-lin shouted as they approached the house. ‘Baba fell over and he can’t move.’
‘What? What is the matter? Bring him inside. Quick, over here on the bed. Oh what shall I do?’ her mother cried in panic.
‘Ah jie, older sister, it is no use. Ah Wing is dead,’ said Poi.
The mother wailed then, tears streaming down her face.
‘What will become of us? Ah Wing, how could you leave me like this? Have I not been a good wife to you? Oh, I am the most unfortunate of women.’
Mei-lin watched silently, and as the neighbours came to see what the commotion was, she realised she would never again gather lichees with her father.

Money that the father had been saving to send Mei-lin to school paid for the funeral. Mei-lin and her mother moved in with the grandparents and Mei-lin had to help with chores and other piecemeal work to make some money to subsist. The days passed and people carried out their tasks as they had done for centuries. There was talk of the Japanese invading China in the north and fights between the Communist army and Chiang Kai Shek’s soldiers. But in their peaceful village, days consisted of waking up, feeding the chickens and pigs, tilling the soil, gathering the produce, cooking, cleaning, and gossiping with neighbours before falling into bed, to sleep dreamlessly.

The visits of men who had returned from abroad were the highlights then. Some had gone to find gold. A few had come home to marry and start families before returning to Sun Gum Sarn, the New Gold Mountain, to set up businesses. Their relatives enjoyed the interest from loans they had given to pay the poll tax and passage to the new country. It was always exciting when someone came back to the village to marry – usually a bride his parents had chosen. The ceremonies were colourful, noisy affairs with lots of food and the ever-present lichees; fresh and juicy in season, or dried and chewy in the winter. One by one, other girls were betrothed, married, and moved away. The girl never questioned her duty to support her mother and never wondered why the matchmaker avoided her house.
‘She’s a good enough worker, but she has a widowed mother,’ the gossips whispered. ‘If anyone were to marry her, they would have responsibility for her mother and grandparents. Too much trouble. No, better to find another girl.’

The village seemed quiet when the young people left. But the villagers went on with their lives, waiting for letters to arrive with money gained through toil in the countries of the white ghosts. Photographs sent back were put in a prominent place inside the house. Families and friends pored over letters.
‘What does he say? When is he coming back? Is there any news of cousin Bing or Uncle Kwok? Can he help my son to emigrate?’

One day a man returned to take his mother to New Zealand, but she said she was too frail to make the month long voyage. He needed to find someone to look after his ageing mother.  Word went around the village for a suitable person. The go-between saw her chance and approached the man.

‘I have just the girl for you,’ the matchmaker crowed. ‘Her mother is widowed; she’s no beauty, but she is strong and good-natured. Let me bring her to you.’

‘So what do you think?’ asked Mei-lin’s mother. ‘You will only be the second wife, but you will be looking after his interests here. He is wealthy, and eventually you can go to Sun Gum Sarn too.’
Mei-lin thought about it. An absent husband was better than no husband at all. She agreed then, as a dutiful daughter should. It would not be a lavish wedding. She was not the principal wife.

After a simple ceremony, Mei-lin’s husband prepared to leave her in charge. ‘Take care of the houses and the lichee trees, Mei-lin. We will be back to visit often. Be obedient to my mother. I will send money back.’
She watched as Ah Tong strode down the dust road to the city and wondered how long it would be before he returned.  His mother stood beside her.
‘My son thinks I am too old and sick to travel, but I don’t fancy going to the land of ghosts. I have heard you get seasick. If you can’t speak English, how can you manage? His first wife works hard. She can’t speak the language, so she stays in the shop all day. That is like being in jail!’ cackled the old woman.
‘You have the better deal, my girl. Just hope that she doesn’t come back and make you go there in her place! Be smart, keep quiet, and keep me happy in my old age. My son is generous and he will make sure that we don’t starve.’

Mei-lin dutifully tended the old lady and even wrote letters to her husband in childish characters. Although she had never gone to school, she had peeked over the shoulders of the village children and listened to them chanting their lessons. She learned to match the characters with the sounds and her hungry mind devoured opportunities to practise the basic skills. She put the letters in the envelopes that had been addressed by her husband before he left. She tried to decipher the squiggles but gave up and thought how lucky she was that she didn’t have to learn English.

Parcels arriving from her husband always contained news about life in New Zealand and money sewn into an inner pocket or tucked to wadding in a garment. Occasionally Mei-lin and her mother-in-law went into Guangzhou and changed the foreign money at the banks. When the old lady found the trip into town too tiring, she went alone. She would look around the city shops and sometimes go to a restaurant. Yes, really, I have the better life of the two wives, she thought.

Later, the letters and photographs brought news of children born to the first wife. She looked on these children, as her own, close family. Sometimes a childish letter scrawled by one would arrive. Mei-lin would smooth out the creases and put the letter in a drawer for safekeeping. When they were old enough, her husband promised, the children would come to China to pay their respects.  Mei-lin made sure the money sent back was put to good use and that all her trasnactions were profitable.
‘You are a good manager,’ her mother-in-law told her. ‘My son made a wise choice taking you for a second wife.’

Other members of their clan left the village. Each time one came back, they convinced another to go and try their luck. Some brought news and money from Ah Tong but the visit of the children to see their grandmother never eventuated. People came and went, and told their stories. Sometimes, as Mei-lin listened to the banter, she wished she could go too. Her mother -in-law laughed.
‘If you went, you would be an embarrassment to your husband because the Gwei-Lo only recognise the first wife. Besides, who will look after me? I am not ready to die yet, and you promised to care for me. Come and massage my old bones. The damp heat is making me uncomfortable. Later you can go.’

In those days, the village people looked up to Mei-lin. She could always get people to work the plots and maintain the houses. Each year, the relatives wrote to say they would come back when they could, so she made sure that the graves were tended and the rituals observed.

After the war, the Japanese left, and the Communists took over the country. Then, in the year of the best lichee harvest, Mei-lin’s mother-in-law died. Mei-lin sent a letter to Ah Tong.
He replied, ‘I will return to China soon and bring you to New Zealand. In the meantime, look after the lichee trees. My cousin is coming back next month with his family. They will bring you more money.’

However, when cousin Ah Ching came, he came alone.
‘I can only spend a few days and then I must leave again. The Communists suspect anyone with overseas connections. You must be careful, or you may be persecuted. Your husband said to tell you to hide this money and to not send any more letters to him. He will send money through relatives in Hong Kong, but take care, as a landowner you are in danger.’
‘My husband is concerned for me. I must obey his instructions,’ she thought. ‘He will send for me when he is ready I am sure.’

But how would she convince people that she was not of the landlord class? She had heard stories of people with relatives overseas being paraded in the streets as capitalist pigs. People returned from the cities and told horrific stories of persecution and beatings. Students accused their teachers. Children informed on their parents. Mei-lin formulated a plan. Ah Ching had asked her to keep an eye on his house. She would move out of her family home. If the brigades came to the village, she would say that she owned no property and was squatting in a disused house, as she had nowhere else to go.
‘I am only Ah Tong’s second wife and he has abandoned me. I have nowhere to go now, but his cousin said I could live in his house. They have all gone and left me here alone. How shall I live? I am like a widow; no children, no property, no money,’ she planned to say.

Mei-lin eked out an existence; growing a few vegetables, gathering some eggs, eating a few lichees and drying more for snacks in the winter. All the while, she imagined her husband sending for her. The money came spasmodically when somebody could smuggle in small amounts, but she managed to exist on what she had.  Living unobtrusively, she carried out the tasks she had dutifully agreed to do. She tended the graves and watered the trees. She watched generations of village children grow as she looked after her trees. The letters became infrequent but still she pressed them flat and kept them in the drawer.

One day, a distant relative came running down the road with a letter in her hand.
‘Old Aunty, a letter has come for you from overseas,’ she panted.
‘Let me see,’ Mei-lin said, reaching for the letter. ‘It must be from my husband, although it doesn’t look like his writing. Maybe he is sending for me to go to live with him overseas.’
‘Oh, what does it say, Aunty? Open it.’
‘Why are you so impatient?’ she laughed. ‘I have waited forty years for this letter.’
She went into her house, found a sharp knife, opened the envelope, unfolded the letter and began to read as her young relative peered expectantly over her shoulder.
‘What does it say, Aunty? Why are you crying?’
Silently, she handed the letter to the girl who read aloud,
Second Wife Mei-lin, your husband Ah Tong, died last week. He asked us to let you know if anything happened to him and to thank you for looking after his mother and his property in China. Please continue to live in the house and look after it for his sons who will one day come and pay their respects. They will send money to you. I send you my regards. Cousin Ah Ching

‘Oh, Aunty, what bad news. You won’t be going to New Zealand then?’
‘Of course not, you silly girl. How can an old lady like me go? The first wife is still alive. The children are all grown up and have children of their own. They won’t want me there. Well, perhaps it is for the best. I can’t speak their language and they tell me that the grandchildren cannot speak Chinese now. They have turned into ghosts, and what can I say to ghosts? I will live out my life here.’

The seasons rolled by divided by festivals, weddings and funerals. The young men and women left the village each day to work in the city factories, making jeans for export. The chickens and ducks, the dogs and the cats kept the children and old people company during the day.

Lately, Mei-lin had had visits from the overseas relatives. Some of the older ones she vaguely recognised when they reminded her of the times they had come home to visit before Liberation. The younger ones came in large tour groups. They didn’t know how they were related to her. They found it difficult to fit her into their idea of family. They were strangers, but they came to pay their respects and to visit their great-grandparents’ graves.

On such occasions, Mei-lin would haul out the ladder and climb up to the ledge where the photos of the grandparents hung. She would bring them down, along with the incense burner, the paper money, and the joss sticks. They would go to the graves, bai their ancestors, then have a cup of tea and be on their way. They called her ‘Aunty’ or ‘Second Grandmother’. Afterwards, she couldn’t remember their names. They didn’t stay long but she enjoyed the distraction. Best of all, they brought food for the offering, and she was able to eat well for the rest of the week. When they left, they would press money into her hand as they embraced her, their consciences relieved.

The visits were the same every time, except for this last one. ‘Oh well,’ she had thought, ‘let’s do it again and give them what they want. At least they are paying respects to their ancestors.’ Mei-lin went to the trunk and unfolded her best apron; washed and pressed since the last visit. She sharpened her cleaver, ready to chop the chicken that they would bring, and boiled some water ready for the tea. Were there enough joss sticks? What about matches? She heard noises and saw people walking down the alley toward her, the sun at their backs. She peered as they came forward, and gasped as her hand flew to her mouth.
‘Here is your grandson, Aunty, all the way from New Zealand.’
‘Wa! You are so like Ah Tong!’ Mei-lin exclaimed, allowing the young man to clasp her free hand. How strong he was, just as Ah Tong had been when he left, never to return.
The voices seemed to reverberate in her head. He was there again, promising that he would take her to New Zealand one day. She smiled and remembered. The people watching saw the years fall from Mei-lin’s face as she glowed like a young bride. Her eyes never left the man’s face. Here was the grandson she never had. She looked deep into his eyes and saw respect, but no kinship, no understanding of her circumstances. She had to have her words translated.

Then she realised her waiting and hoping had been in vain.
‘Aiya, you all went away and left me here,’ she scolded.
‘Come’, she had said, ‘come and bai your great-grandparents.’

Mei-lin watched intently as Ah Tong’s grandson went through the rituals in the graveyard. They walked past the lichee trees on the way back to the house.
‘When will the lichees be ready to eat?’ the grandson had asked.
‘You must come back in July to taste the fruit. It’s the pride of the village, no, of the whole district. Your grandfather sent money back and I bought and planted many lichee trees in our family plot.’

As they walked past the plot, the late autumn wind blew the leaves off the lichee tree she had planted, the one she had on the day she received Ah Ching’s letter telling her of Ah Tong’s death. It was the last tree she ever planted.


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