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Guangdong Province, China
Before opening the door, Mei Ling turned back for one last look at her family. Swallowing hard, she studied them, burning the tableau of faces into the folds of her memory. Soon they would be separated, perhaps forever.
Jah Jeh, Mei Ling’s nineteen-year-old sister, perched like a prized bird between their parents. A fancy comb pulled back her shiny black hair. The bit of red in her pale cheeks was the only hint of turmoil on her smooth, calm face. Fuchan’s weary dark eyes told of defeat, while Mah-ma’s held a steely pride.
A single glance around this room told how far her family had fallen. Their glossy black lacquered table sat on the old, dusty floor like a jewel in a pig barn. Elegant scrolls hung on roughly finished wood walls. As with countless other families in Guangdong Province, the triple devastation of war, famine, and disease had chipped away their family’s fortune until all they were left with was this, surrendering their beloved Jah Jeh to a stranger.
Years ago, Mah-ma had set a foundation for a different path for her daughters. She faced the contempt of her neighbors by leaving their feet unbound, allowing the girls—born so close to one another they were mistaken for twins—to run freely through childhood.
She insisted that her daughters be educated as well as her sons, going so far as to send them to school when they lived in the city. That had been a radical choice too. They didn’t know if that long-ago decision would increase or decrease their chances for fortuitous marriages.
As their fortune fell over the last two years, the questions in their family mirrored the battle in their land: Keep the old ways or adapt to the new? Fuchan, a scholar and teacher, fell back to the Confucian practices of his childhood, believing his ancestors would intervene if he held true. With each setback he burned more incense and gave more offerings. But ghosts were no match for the gunpowder of the power-hungry warlords or the greedy foreign invaders who carved up China for profit. All her father’s petitions to their ancestors were nothing in the face of a singular devotion to the wealth that came from controlling the import and export of goods.
So it had come to this: Fuchan would go through the charade of negotiations with the matchmaker waiting behind the door. But when you are out of options, there is no debate, only the opportunity to accept the terms offered to you.
Mei Ling thought she’d already lost all hope, but a single silk strand of it still danced in her soul. This moment held the possibility Jah Jeh would stay in their lives, that she would marry into a family that lived nearby and would permit her to visit them.
Ahma, Fuchan’s mother, stared at Mei Ling. Her white hair was pulled back into a tight bun and her dark eyes were surrounded by wrinkles. They took one breath in unison, and then Ahma nodded. It was time for Mei Ling to open the door.