Fiction, Vol. 6.4, Dec. 2012
Hong Mei served tea to the leaders of the Revive China Society, each of whom nodded his thanks so as not to interrupt Master Lu. They called themselves revolutionaries, but seemed quite ordinary, except for Dr. Sun whose courtly appearance made her anxious. She had sought refuge with the Lu family nearly thirty years ago and had grown accustomed to the ways of the educated. But Dr. Sun was different. He floated in and out of the Lu family home like a ghost and spoke of impossible changes as if they had already occurred. The image of her father-in-law, too sick to protect her from the village elder’s advances, flickered in her mind. She wondered if the elder was still resting, headless, at the bottom of his own well. She wondered, too, what had become of her husband, Hum Loy, from whom she had received the mysterious box some eight years ago and then nothing more.
Night shadows fell upon the mud-brick farmhouse. The men would soon be hungry. Hong Mei finished refilling their teacups and retired to the familiar darkness of the adjacent kitchen. She stoked the fire with two lumps of charcoal. As she prepared dinner, fragments of their discussion merged with the shrill buzzing of the cicadas and the piercing chweeps of the nightjars. They were planning to capture Canton. Dr. Sun had joined in these final preparations, adding weight to their mood.
“Little Lu, show us your design,” she heard Dr. Sun say.
A muffled whimper disturbed the night sounds. Hong Mei knelt near the open basket and strummed her granddaughter’s stomach. Her large head flopped to its side, lips gently suckling the air, some dark thought quickly forgotten.
“Auntie Hong,” called Master Lu.
He showed her a hand-drawn picture of a white circle centered on a blue rectangle, surrounded by twelve triangles. “Twelve rays of the sun, twelve months of the year, twelve hours of the day,” Master Lu explained while the others nodded. “Please stitch them to this cloth as you see in the picture.”
“What about dinner?” she asked.
Master Lu smiled. “This is the first flag of a new China,” he said. “You do nothing more important than this.”
Once again, Hong Mei retired to the kitchen. She retrieved a spool of thread, a leather thimble, and a needle from the box in the cabinet, pausing to touch the items Hum Loy had sent her: a silver half-ring with two leather straps and a sharp wheel that spun freely about an axle; a round silver object that looked like a coin with a large hole in the middle; a beaded leather pouch and a scroll tied with string, depicting a picture she had puzzled over many times, that of a foreigner with long grey hair and a beard sitting on a horse, holding the brim of a large round hat at his side. The box had arrived without explanation. What had made Hum Loy act in such haste? She both treasured and loathed him for the wonder these objects caused her.
Hong Mei sharpened a short stick, seared the point black in the fire, and used it to mark the blue cloth with the pattern depicted on the paper. Then, with a practiced hand, she sewed the white circle and twelve triangles in place. When finished, she inverted the cloth to check her stitches. The reverse side was blank. She would suggest to Master Lu that a flag of such importance must be seen from all directions.
The men had agreed and had given her more white cloth to stitch to the back of the flag. Dr. Sun and Master Lu stretched it tightly for all to admire.
“Well, sir. What else can I do for you?” said Hong Mei, her confidence rising with their silent approval.
“Pack our things,” said Master Lu. “We travel to Canton in the morning. And then, pointing to his wife, who had appeared from an adjacent sitting room, “Leave your granddaughter with Madame.”
Hong Mei sensed only vaguely her crossing of some invisible line.