Mrs. Pratt was standing at the side of the classroom, next to the huge picture window that overlooked the manicured lawn and the ocean beyond. Sunbathed in all its glory, the bright blue water looked entirely too inviting. The red maple leaf on the schoolís flag blew gently back and forth in the warm summer breeze.
"Now class, I know this is the last day of school but I wanted to do a short review of the material weíve covered this year. As you recall, Canada was founded by..."
I looked over to see what Adam was doing. He was bending down to pick up a note lying at his feet. Vanessa, who was sitting on the opposite side of Adam, had a big smile on her suntanned face.
"Can anyone tell me who the first Prime Minister of Canada was?" asked Mrs. Pratt. "Adam, how about you?"
"Oh. I, err, excuse me Mrs. Pratt, what did you say?" Adam was obviously trying to buy some time.
"Sir John A. Macdonald," I said under my breath to him.
"What was that...?" he whispered back. "Uh, Johnny Mackenzie King," Adam quickly answered.
Poor Adam, heís my best friend but you could tell he hadnít been paying attention. Vanessa, with her long blond hair and designer clothes, must have really distracted him. What had she written, I wondered?
"John A. Macdonald," I called out glaring at Adam.
"Thank-you Autumn," Mrs. Pratt said and continued on with her lecture.
Iím pretty good at Canadian history, but I would have preferred to hear about Shanghai in the 1930s. Over seventy years ago Shanghai had been called a city of mystery and intrigue, the Paris of the Orient. It was also the city where I had been abandoned when I was only one day old. I pulled out my notebook and my favourite pen. Iíd recently been having a pretty vivid dream about Shanghai and I wanted to write it down instead of listening to Mrs. Prattís dreary monologue...
* * *
The early morning mist rolled gently off of the Whangpoo River, and up onto The Bund, the main street of Shanghaiís International Settlement. Ming found it amazing that clean, white mist could come off a river that was so yellow and filthy. People said that if you watched long enough, you would eventually see a body floating by.
There was a constant, bewildering sound of music in the air. The carrier coolies chanting to lighten their heavy loads and regulate their breathing, the subdued singing of men and women poling their sampans across the river. Ming had no song in her heart today.
Liang Ming had come to Shanghai with several other women from her village. They had bananas, small and green, and ripe pomelos to sell at the market. Ming had another reason to be in the city. She carried a tiny, hidden bundle that she held close to her breast. The baby girl was only a day old. Ming hadnít thought she could feel so much love for such a little creature. Yet she had fed the infant with the milk of her body, and she felt the bond strengthen with every beat of her daughterís heart.
She could still remember the marriage ceremony ten months earlier. The Chen clan had consulted fortune-tellers for months in order to find a bride who would produce a boy for their eldest son. She had been the girl they had chosen. She had never been so happy as she was on her wedding day.
The marriage feast had been lavish and all the customs had been followed. She had been fetched from her parentís home, dressed in the finest red and gold cloth, her hair entwined with pearls and jade, bracelets on her arms and rings on each tiny finger. There were kowtows made to the images of the ancestors and five pigs were killed for the banquet. The guests ate glutinous rice cakes in abundance and the rice wine flowed. Everyone seemed to be already celebrating the birth of a new baby boy.
Mingís new husband and his family were most gentle with the new bride. The birth of a baby boy was the highest priority and she was told not to go into the fields or labour too hard.
Soon after the marriage, the pulse of a new life was beating through Mingís veins. It was the time for praying. All the women of the village lit candles and incense and on bent knees, chanted prayers to Kwan-Yin, Goddess of Compassion, for the blessing of a son. The months passed quickly and soon it was time for the birth.
With her husband at her side and family members waiting nearby, the birth of the new baby went smoothly. Ming was unprepared for the elation she felt, the exhilaration of having carried a perfectly beautiful and healthy child to term. Even the dreary hut, the cold bed, and the impersonal midwife couldnít dim her happiness. Ming looked closely at the new baby, tracing the tiny ears, delicate nose, and smiling mouth with her finger. She had created a child, a real child. Life was beginning for a new person, separate and marvelous.
Perhaps the fortune had been poorly told, or perhaps she had encountered a peach ghost during her pregnancy. The nightmare began when her husbandís mother entered the room and saw the naked child.
"How could you do this to us! It is a girl baby, we have no need for girls, she will have to be killed," her husbandís Honourable Mother had shouted at her.
Her husbandís younger brother threatened to beat the luckless soothsayer and also to beat Ming.
Old Auntie said, "Send Liang Ming back to her own family, she has brought us much disgrace."
Other Chen family clan members spoke of revenge as well. Through it all, her husband refused to look at his wife or the infant.
Then, quietly, the family resolved the problem between themselves.
"We will say that the baby disappeared during the night, taken away by the same ghosts who entered Ming and robbed her of the boy that was hers by right." Everyone agreed.
Ming was told to leave for Shanghai in the early hours of the morning with the other family members who were going to sell their fruit. She was to abandon the baby girl somewhere along the way. Death would be swift for a child left out in the open. With the whole family against her and with her husband refusing to even look at her, Ming had no choice but to agree.
Before Ming had traveled very far though, she had changed her mind. She had decided to disobey the family and when the time came she only pretended to leave her baby in a farmerís rice field. Frightened and desperate, she was now in the city with her daughter still tucked away under her clothing, hidden from the others. She had resolved to abandon her baby somewhere public enough that she would be quickly found, but private enough that no one would see Ming do it. Now that Ming was in Shanghai, she realized it might not be so easy.
Ming knew that only a foreigner or wealthy Chinese might save her child. But the British Consulate had guards at the gate and the foreign hotels were too crowded. She was scared sick. Her heart was beating too fast and there was a huge knot in her belly. She was worried now that her trembling might wake the child and then she would be caught.
There were tales about a place with a Ďbaby-drawerí, a small wooden panel in a high brick wall where the child could be left. Chinese amahs under the supervision of Roman Catholic nuns raised the children. Ming didnít know where this building was and she didnít have the time to look for it.
Ahead of her, Ming could see a tall building with an enormous clock on the tower. The sign said Customs Building and there were foreigners of all kinds in sight. Large packing crates and stacks of burlap wrapped bundles provided cover, yet would soon be moved to their exotic destinations. This looked like it might be the place. It had to be the place. They were almost at the market and she was running out of time.
"I have to stop for a moment," Ming said to the others. "I will catch up."
"Are you okay?" asked her sister-in-law Chen Hua. "I can wait for you."
"No, keep on going, I will catch up shortly," Ming said, pointing at her bladder. Everyone nodded and they continued on without her.
Safely secluded, Ming whispered quietly to herself, "Ancestors, please give me strength."
"Mamaís taking you out now, my precious child. Shh, shh, shh, donít cry. Donít cry now. Iím laying you softly on the ground where you will be found. Please donít hate me for this, I was given no choice."
Ming removed a pendant from around her neck. The teardrop-shaped piece of rare, purple jade had an intricate carving of an Imperial dragon on one side.
"This jade pendant comes from my mother and her mother before her. I place it around your neck hoping it brings you a happier life than mine."
Mingís bitter tears splashed onto her daughterís rosy cheek.
"Zaijian, my little one. Your mama will always love you, no matter where you are. Together we were whole, now I will be an empty shell. I promise that not a day will go by that I wonít think about the daughter I had to give away."
It was too late to change her mind, she could hear footsteps approaching. Ming wiped her eyes and took several deep, sobbing breaths. Then she quickly turned and hurried to catch up with the others.