There wasn’t much time to lose. She could hear the watchmen’s lonely dual in the dark of the night. One would sound the hours with wooden rattles that made crisp clicking noise, and the other would echo with a gong that had brassy and lingering noise. Five sounds indicated daybreak. Was it two she just heard? She was so tired she wasn’t sure anymore.
A messenger who carried a letter written by her was sent to where Hoi was doing business to fetch him home. The trip would be doubly hard on him with the speed he must travel to come back in time, and with the heartbreaking news in the letter.
His mother, Suey’s mother-in-law of seven years, had just passed away. She wasn’t fifty yet.
For the past seven years she had taught Suey everything she needed to know about housework. Suey started out clumsily as a daughter of an affluent family, but she bit her lips and carried on. After some cuts and bruises she managed most of the work, and gradually took over running most of the household. At times she resented the fact that she had to work so hard, while daughters from similar background had it easy. She didn’t understand why they had to do everything themselves and rejected the maids included in her dowry.
Gradually though, she could somehow see their logic. A farming family was not used to luxury, and being served by maids was unheard of. Secondly, her mother-in-law came from a poor family, so she wasn’t going to let her daughter-in-law be spoiled that way. In her mind she was doing this for Suey’s own good.
Hoi was patient when she complained. After venting, she felt better going back to the manual labor that was waiting for her. There was fun in eating the food you cooked yourself, or the vegetables you planted yourself, or wearing clothes made from the cloths you wove yourself. A strange kind of fun that she didn’t know existed before her marriage.
Slowly, Suey began to think of them as her real family.
She grew stronger - both physically and mentally. She missed reading and writing as she used to do a lot before marriage, but they seemed to be very impractical now. Confucius said: “A gentleman should stay away from the kitchen.” It was considered a lowly profession to be a cook. Now she thought to herself: “A gentleman is all fluff if he didn’t realize all the hard work that went into the delectable meal he enjoyed so much. Not only it is hypocritical, his writing would have nothing to do with real life either.”
There was noise coming from the front room, and her smile disappeared. Her father-in-law had been sitting there with the coffin that had his wife’s body, and had never left since she was put in there. He hardly ate anything all day. She went to the kitchen and boiled some water, then carried the kettle to the front room. He looked up with red and puffy eyes:
“How are the mourning clothes coming along? You should get some sleep…” his voice trailed off without realizing the two statements contradicted each other. She filled his cup with hot water and replied softly: “They will be ready tomorrow. Have some tea, father.” The coffin didn’t have enough layers of paint, as they were not prepared for her premature death. Everything had to be ready overnight.
“Who is going to take care of Fucheng?” He murmured to himself and appeared to be at a complete loss. Fucheng was her youngest brother-in-law, who was just five years old.
“I will, father.” She reassured him.
“And who will take care of the books?” He continued.
“I will, father.” Her ability of reading and writing were not valued before, but would be relied on now.
“Ah…” He nodded his head: “I will show you how to do it.”
“Yes, father. I will learn. We will manage.” She could feel a tear coming up and left after saying: “Try and rest a bit. It will be a busy day tomorrow.”
The lamp was flickering while she settled down by the table. She looked at the darkness around her with a daze. Could she do it? Would they manage without her mother-in-law’s directions day to day? She felt alone and a little scared.
She didn’t know it yet with the overwhelming loads thrust upon her. With great responsibilities, great liberation was also coming her way.