Cicadas

Short-listed Entry: Fiction Category

By: Lucille Bellucci

It was not so much that they were unsightly, Sybil told her husband. Their simply being under her nose all day long made her uncomfortable as if she ought to go out and do something. But if she did, then they’d be underfoot forever, on her hands.

Hugh laughed. “Dear Sybil, they cannot be both underfoot and on one’s hands. But to address your problem,” (saying ‘problem’ with an indulgence that diminished it in importance against the vaster problems he faced everyday), “why don’t you pretend not to see them? It’s not as if the whole of China wasn’t full of people in that situation. Even before the war, there were beggars enough to go around. You have got to see the thing in perspective, if you are going to look at it at all.”

I must lack perspective then, Sybil thought, peering from behind the white shutters of her bedroom window at the little encampment on the sidewalk. Why did their house have to be the only one on Amherst Road without a high wall? The iron railings with their handsome bronzed tips exposed them to everything that went on in the street. Alone, the beggar woman had been distressing. Then, two weeks ago, a child appeared, as if acquired overnight from the woman’s rummagings in the piles of reeking garbage you had to negotiate everywhere you went these days. Shanghai, all the foreign businessmen said over their nightly gin-and-tonics, had gone thoroughly to the dogs since the first shots had been fired on July 7, 1937. Let the Japanese and the Chinese fight, why drag us into it? Last year–already being referred to as the Old Days–the Shanghai Municipal Police and their Chinese and Sikh aides kept good addresses like Amherst Road clear of beggars; certain streets had even been swept each night by coolies with wetted brooms.

There was that noise again. The woman had no nose–nothing but a purplish cavity–and apparently something was wrong with her throat. As if she could see Sybil hiding behind the shutters, she held out her dirty palm toward the house and increased the volume of that demented gurgling. The concerted drone of cicadas that filled the air every summer could not quite cover that sound but for once Sybil was glad of the beasts, insects she regarded as cousins to cockroaches. The child, a boy of about six (perhaps older, who could tell with the Chinese, and such a stunted one at that?), stood by the trunk of one of Amherst Road’s handsome sycamores. He was listlessly throwing a stone, the same stone over and over, upward into the foliage. A game, thought Sybil. Where in that rag-draped skeleton did he find the energy for play? The boy pounced, picked up a brown object as long as his thumb, and popped it in his mouth.

Sybil recoiled from the shutter, her hand clapped over her own mouth. The next minute, she fled to her bathroom and ran water over her face and wrists. When she was sure the faintness had passed, she went downstairs to the kitchen. Shelling fat green fava beans, Amah glanced at her, and then again for a sidelong instant. She did not comment upon Sybil’s unusual pallor, but then Amah seldom made any personal overtures. Sybil knew she had good servants. Wong-nee was a careful driver and kept the grounds clean and the flower beds nourished. The Ningpo cook made English roast beef and Yorkshire pudding exactly as Hugh liked them. About the private thoughts of the three Chinese in her household or their feelings toward her, she knew absolutely nothing.

She took the loaf of bread delivered by Kiesling’s Bakery that morning and sliced and buttered the slices. In the refrigerator she found some leftover pieces of roast chicken.

“Takee bread and chicken outside,” she told Amah. Her pidgin failing her for the word beggar, she gestured toward the front of the house. “Give people on street.”

Of course Amah understood. “You finish half bled now. No more come today.”

“Never mind. We don’t need a whole loaf. Just take it out,” said Sybil with a wan firmness and went back upstairs to lie down.

At three o’clock, her two girls came home from school, scrambling from the leather seats of the polished black Sparrow as soon as Wong-nee had driven it through the gate. They chattered about the day’s big event as they had their tea. Midway through class, Mrs. Meecham had looked up from the text they were all reading from and suddenly announced she was leaving Shanghai in a week. She was crying, the girls reported with wonder, their pale eyes clear as glass. Soon after that, the headmaster came in to tell the class that the British School was cutting back to a half-day as six teachers were leaving. Were they afraid China was going to become Japanese? asked the girls.

“The sinking ship,” said Sybil, “semaphores to the unheeding horizon. Have another cherry tart. Cook made them fresh just this afternoon. See, they are still warm.”

She had felt queasy (ever since she saw the boy eat a live cicada), uncertain of her balance as though on the tilting deck of a ship. He must have been eating them all the time, she realized. At the root of her tongue phantom legs wiggled; she coughed, then swallowed in a flood of saliva.

Next afternoon, preparing for her twice monthly bridge club, she told Wong-nee to place the table on the side veranda. Her roses were not so luxuriant on the west side of the house, and the kitchen was nearer, along with the Ningpo cook’s resounding conversations with Amah, but she would not have her guests sit in full view of the uncollected garbage, which now also stank of urine and–other things. Especially not while the beggar woman and boy gawked through the fence, for after yesterday’s meal they turned on their bed of rags and squatted facing the house.

“Tell her to be quiet,” Sybil told Amah when dispatching another plate of food. This morning’s rations were bread and butter and an advance on the evening’s dinner of lamb chops. Was the menu too rich for their stomachs? Should she omit meat and add fruit? A tremor of uneasy mirth got away from her yet she had a sense of complicity with the beggar woman, who remained silent. As long as they stayed quiet as she had asked, Sybil would continue to feed them, but if those awful gurglings started again, was she capable of withholding food?

Her bridge game suffered; a headache crept slowly over her skull as her friends talked about the bombings they heard during the night. (Sybil heard nothing; a sleeping pill blacked out the explosions). The women repeated rumors that Japanese warships had been sighted coming up the Whangpo River. Worst of all, the men at the Shanghai Club were talking about pulling up and leaving for Home (Sylvia heard the capital H whenever her compatriots pronounced the word).

Speaking to the fan of her bridge hand, she said, “Perhaps it’s time for us to pull out. We foreigners have had a pretty nice life of it for a hundred years, as far as I know. The Japanese want to take away what we got out of China, but they don’t have any mercy for the Chinese, do they?” She could not imagine saying such a thing before the war, or before those terrible people had taken up camp on her sidewalk.

A silence met this remark, and she was aware of glances being exchanged. Not surprisingly, it was Clara Norton who spoke first. Clara was the wife of a sergeant who had retired and gotten a minor post in the British Chartered Bank; her relentless eagerness to prove how well she fitted into Shanghai society embarrassed them all. Sybil’s other bridge partners had been her friends for years. Clara’s tone, not quite indignant, nonetheless contained a certainty she was speaking for everyone. “What we got? Quite a lot of Chinese built businesses on what we started, you know. Of course I feel sorry for them. When the Japanese get into Shanghai they’ll be killed like all the others, but we foreigners are going to lose, too.” She laid her cards on the table and tapped on them with lacquered fingernails, manicured twice a week at Madame Ruben’s Beauty Shop on Avenue Joffre. For a long moment of silence, the others stared, mesmerized, at Clara’s large fingers drumming their ox-blood tips.

Sybil said, “I believe you were leading with clubs, Doris.”

Clara flushed. Sybil didn’t mean to put her down, but Clara always talked as though no one else could think. She didn’t care. She was too busy keeping her Perspective, sorting out the cicadas from the politics. At the left edge of her cards, she saw a small face. It was a face that had not been washed in a long time, if ever. She stared at the boy and black eyes stared back at her. Their lashes were straight and thick; she had heard that Chinese from the province of Fukien were known for their vivid eyes. Amah herself was Fukienese and had heavy brows and lashes. None of the ladies had yet noticed him. Well, she was not going to make a fuss. If he had crept under the gate or between the bars–he was skinny enough to have done it–he could go back out the same way. She raised her cards and behind their shield shook her head at him. He did not move.

She made a flirting go away gesture, in the same motion spreading her hand and pretending to examine and adjust her rings. If he didn’t leave, she would have to get up and summon Wong-nee. But he was gone. She nodded at her cards. So now they understood each other, after a fashion.

As days passed, Sybil thought she could detect new flesh on the boy’s bones. The woman, given a reprieve from her vocal labors, slept through the hot afternoons. She seldom moved, except to turn upon her filthy cotton quilt from side to back. Sybil preferred a rear view of her shoulder; that way, the ruined nose and the crusted eyes were kept out of sight. Leprosy was widespread among the poor in China; one learned not to look at the stumps and cavities among the human remains on sidewalks. These were her beggars, though, and she couldn’t help them any more than she could change the path of the approaching Japanese army.

The situation was worse downtown, Hugh reminded her. All of the interior’s refugees seemed to have collected on the sidewalks of Nanking Road, near the big office buildings on the Bund.

From the tenth floor of his office in Customs House, Hugh told about witnessing a disaster. Chinese aviators attempting to destroy the Japanese battleship Izumo dropped instead two bombs on Nanking Road. One went straight down the middle of the old-fashioned 10-story Palace Hotel, which was filled to capacity with guests. Hundreds died, among them 20 foreigners. Lucky as ever, the 20-story Sassoon House took the second bomb on its doorstep. The tallest building on the Bund that a fortune from opium could build was also known as the Cathay Hotel. Its finest suites had marble baths with silver taps. Sir Victor Sassoon had been knighted for his contribution to the coffers of the British Empire. The aviators continued their disastrous maneuvers: two more bombs fell on the busy intersection of Avenue Edward VII and Thibet Road. In all, two thousand Chinese were killed.

The war was getting a bit close, the foreigners said nervously, and the Chinese are hitting themselves.

Sybil stopped sending her girls to school altogether.

Fed daily by Sybil, the boy played idly with a pile of stones and left the cicadas alone. One day their song abruptly halted and brown husks littered the ground. She shuddered when she thought of his mouth crunching on those chitinous skins; the insides were probably still moist, gluey, perhaps like the cream she put on her face twice a day.

She spied on him. Measured from a distance, through the iron posts of the fence, he definitely seemed to be filling out. In October she sent her daughters’ outgrown jerseys for him to wear. The beggar woman donned one of Hugh’s old Tartan bathrobes over her ragged tunic and trousers. Until Sybil got used to it, the familiar, dark blue pattern in such an unaccustomed place sometimes jarred her, as though Hugh himself had taken up residence on the sidewalk. The woman had not uttered a sound for weeks. Stolidly, exhibiting not the slightest flicker of an opinion, Amah performed these relays of food and clothing for her mistress.

On Sybil’s passages through the gate, seated behind the navy blue-uniformed Wong-nee, she got a closer look at the boy. He always stared back; once she thought he smiled, and she smiled back. She still avoided looking at the woman.

The tensions of battle raging on the edges of Greater Shanghai, outside the neutral enclave of the International Settlement, stretched out her hours of idleness. Keeping the children at their lessons helped tap the energy of her anxieties. She could not read nor play cards nor take walks on Amherst Road. She did her own hair and nails, the Jewish refugee Madame Ruben having shut down her shop and disappeared who knew where. Cannonades of artillery fire rumbled continually, night and day. Hugh said the blasts were visible from his office window. There were food shortages; Amah had difficulty finding fresh meat, either at the outdoor markets or at the few butcher shops that catered to foreigners. Eggs and a form of dark, gritty bread were still available. Sybil’s family ate the same rations as the woman and the boy on the sidewalk.

She entertained Hugh’s business friends for drinks; she had plenty of liquor if not food. She listened to them talk and longed to barge into their sacred Shanghai Club downtown and stand on a table and scream, like a mad prophet: GENTLEMEN, THE END IS AT HAND. THERE IS NO HOPE OF OLD TIMES COMING BACK.

On the last day of November, Hugh told her to start a list of essential belongings in case the family had to leave on short notice. Instead of being upset, Sybil felt her spirits rise like helium balloons from the tether of her depression. The weather had turned rainy; she was worried about the two out on the open sidewalk. She told herself that if she brought them into the shelter of the veranda, Hugh would think she had gone insane and throw them out again. In the cold, rain-driven nights, the truth haunted her: her charity had met its own ignoble limits. She could not bear to allow the two filthy bodies inside her fence where she might touch or smell them. And of course wouldn’t they steal? Didn’t people who lived on the streets always take whatever they could get their hands on?

For this flaw in her nature, for her un-Christian lack of charity, she was willing to chastize herself for the rest of her life with every sip of hot tea, every bite of good food, every warm garment on her back. Therefore, a sudden departure while an escape, was respectable, for didn’t she have her own family to think of?

On December 12th, airplanes roared low over Amherst Road. Sybil ran out to her garden. Standing (all in a row like ducks, she thought, startled) with Wong-nee, Amah, and the Ningpo cook, they stared upward at big red Japanese suns flashing past on olive-drab wings. On the other side of the iron palings, the boy’s raised face followed their passage, his mouth open. He did not seem frightened, but just in case he was, Sybil waved to him in reassurance. Then she felt foolish; what on earth could she have done for him if he had been?

She telephoned Hugh. Someone answered, perhaps his Eurasian secretary, and almost immediately afterward thumped the phone down upon a hard surface. She heard voices exclaiming, a distant man’s voice repeating there, over there. Hugh came on the line. He sounded calm, though knowing him, Sylvia knew that was his style, no matter what he was feeling. A bombing, he said, visible from the northeast. Someone said it might have been on the Yangtze River.

A ship had gone down on the Yangtze, he confirmed that evening. The American gunboat Panay had been sunk by Japanese bombers near Nanking. There were reports that two sailors had been killed and more than 40 wounded.

“And that’s torn it,” Hugh said. “The Japanese never hit foreigners before. Looks like our magic shield has finally come down. I had a talk with Thornton about a place for me in the home office. He said he’d talk to London about it. I’ll have to be satisfied with that for the time being, because we don’t want to be around to see what happens next. The Rajputana is putting in day after tomorrow. Can we be ready in three days?”

“Yes,” replied Sybil, fervently.

Strapped overhead with suitcases and loaded with some last-minute luggage, with the children, and Hugh (their trunks had gone ahead to be put aboard ship) the Sparrow was driven through the gate for the last time. Sybil had not gotten in after the others; she told Wong-nee to wait at the curb for her.

She had never stood this close to the boy. He had indeed grown; soon her daughters’ castoff jerseys would become too small for him. His chapped, weather-exposed face was almost chubby; a lengthening in the head suggested bone building for an approaching adolescence. Those dark Fukien eyes were glaring at her; she could not fathom their message. He held one hand behind his back.

“I hope you grow up to be a man,” she said, in English, for in her ten years in China she had never learned to speak Shanghai or any other Chinese dialect.

The hidden hand whipped into view and flung something. The object hit her coat softly and before it plopped to the ground, the boy bolted. Head turned, she watched him run away down the street. In a few seconds he had disappeared around a corner. A cawing laugh came from the recumbent form of the beggar woman.

Hugh left the car, slamming the door, and strode to her side. He said angrily, “The little bastard. They don’t understand kindness. And a lot they know about what’s happening to us foreigners, either. See what all your decency has gotten you!” Pointing at the ground, “Filthy….” He took out his handkerchief and bent to wipe her coat. Abruptly, hanky unsullied, he straightened up in distaste. “Take it off, why don’t you? You can’t ride with human dung all over you.”

Sybil said in a faint voice, “It’s not too bad, really,” but obediently she stripped off her coat and folded it, lining outside.

“Come on, then. What now? Oh, not again.”

She approached the beggar woman, whose face, all suppurating hollows, still stretched wide in amusement.

“I was going to give him this, but it’s all the same, isn’t it?” Sybil dropped, on the woman’s quilt, the money she had been holding in her hand and turned away. All day, she had been saying goodbye to the servants she never really got to know, giving them money, wishing them luck. Before she climbed into the car, she caught a glimpse of Wong-nee’s expression. What was it? Cynical, sad, resigned? The girls wrinkled their noses (Mummy, how disgusting) and drew away from the coat folded on her lap and from her. In front, Hugh rolled down his window and, either oblivious or punishing, allowed the chilly air to stream back onto Sybil’s face.

In the forefront of the family’s silence, Wong-nee drove through the French Concession and downtown Nanking Road. The girls gasped and pointed when they passed the block of buildings that had taken the direct hit. Raw concrete slabs teetered above the road; sheltering inside the ruined buildings from the cold, on the jagged flooring, sat or knelt or roamed a hundred replicas of Sybil’s sidewalk family. After the first look she blanked her gaze (oh, belatedly clever, Sybil!), while Hugh shook his head and muttered, “It’ll be good to be home again.”

It was not much farther to the upper Bund where the Rajputana was moored. Her appearance, stodgy and rust-streaked after years of hauling freight on the China-India route, seemed to embody the dismal finality of the good life Sybil and her family had enjoyed in Shanghai.

Quite a turnabout, thought Sybil, from the British warship that sailed in, flags flying and guns blazing, one hundred years ago to start a colony for England. It was not a whimsy Hugh was capable of appreciating at this moment, and she stood silent as he directed Wong-nee and a ship’s steward in carrying aboard the suitcases, hat boxes, and odd bits of clothing that could not be crammed into the suitcases. She did not hand over her coat, and he did not ask her for it. Hugh’s spirits had perked up; he was smiling and patting Wong-nee on the shoulder in farewell. He put a fat envelope of money in Wong-nee’s hand and repeated his instructions to deliver the Sparrow to the company’s boss in the Customs House. The automobile was to be a gift; “Well worth the price of leaving him flat,” he said to Sybil. “Anything to get back to civilization, where our poor sods at least can find shelter.”

She nodded, and shook Wong-nee’s hand warmly. “Goodbye and thank you for everything.”

By now, the boy would have returned to his foster mother. What Sybil had been about to say, just before he threw the thing at her, was Please don’t hate us too much. What had she expected? Kowtows of gratitude?

That night, she made her way, alone under the aloof stars, to the rail of the ship and tossed her coat overboard into the East China Sea. She could not see if the dark material sank at once or rushed to the foaming propeller wash at the stern. Nevertheless she stared, for minutes or perhaps an hour, at the water. Perhaps the coat would wash up somewhere on China’s shore, which she would never see again. From now on, when she learnt of the events happening in this part of the world, it would be from the safe shores of England.

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