Shungtau, South China, May 1933
Explosions peppered the hot summer air. “Firecrackers!” shouted Elsa Meier.
Perched high in a chestnut tree near the wall of the mission compound, she could see the road leading up from the South Han River. Could it be a parade? She loved the huge paper dragons, tossing their bearded heads and prancing with many human feet, the funny men on stilts, the dancers in ferocious lion masks.
Instead, she saw a peasant woman running barefoot, her carrying pole across one shoulder. At one end a water pail jiggled and sloshed; at the other, a toddler clung to a swinging basket. The woman darted off toward a cluster of huts and disappeared, leaving a curling trail of drops in the afternoon dust.
In the rice paddies beyond the huts, the coolies straightened their bare backs, slogged out of the mud, and fled down the path away from the river, their cone-shaped bamboo hats bobbing.
Puzzled, Elsa peered toward the nearby city of Shungtau. Maybe it was a wedding, the bride hidden in her red-curtained sedan chair carried by bamboo poles on the shoulders of coolies. Elsa waited to hear the wailing two-stringed pipa, the gongs and cymbals of the nuptial band, the taunts of children hoping for a shower of dates and candies. But all she heard were more strung-out pops, zooming whistles, and dull thuds. And now shouts in the distance.
The noise seemed to come from across the river, in the lush green mountains where pilgrims climbed the dirt trail to worship the feng-shui, the spirits of wind and water. But there, too, the trail to the cave temples was deserted. Except . . . what were those puffs of smoke? And now, she could make out a man darting among the bushes. Then another and another.
Suddenly, Elsa knew. She felt it in her fast-beating heart, in her lurching stomach. Those were gunshots! This was what Papa and Mama had whispered about when they thought she wasn’t listening. Red soldiers. Fighting. War. The Reds want to drive all foreigners from China—especially missionaries.
Elsa hadn’t believed them. This was her home! She belonged here. Tucking her dress into her bloomers, she started down the tree to tell Papa.
Then she remembered: two days ago, he’d left to visit an outstation. He usually rode his bicycle, but this time he was headed up into the mountains so he’d walked, his ivory-tipped cane in one hand and his Chinese Bible under the other arm.
Fear sent a cold chill up Elsa’s neck. Would those soldiers find him? What would they do to him?
Mama was nearby, teaching at the girls’ school at the north end of the compound. At first, Elsa had wished she could study with the Chinese girls instead of alone with Mama after school hours, but now she was glad she didn’t—Mama ruled her class like a Mandarin at court. And she had a strict rule: her lessons must never be disturbed.
Elsa glanced toward the gatehouse where Huang spent his days deciding who could enter the mission compound. He’d know what to do.
But the gateman wasn’t in his usual place this time of the afternoon, squatting on his haunches and rolling dice with the houseboy. Instead, he stood outside on the dusty road—and with him were three men in uniform.
Were they Red soldiers, this close to the compound? Would Huang allow them in? Elsa inched around out of sight behind the trunk of the tree and considered the distance to the wide arched veranda of her home. Would it be safe to run there?
A movement behind the red-tiled house caught her eye, and she jerked back, catching her loose sleeve on a twig. There, down in the vegetable garden, among the glistening leaves— But it was only Ho Fen, the cook, hands full of spinach picked for this evening’s supper, hurrying back to the house. Squawking, the ducks scrambled out of the nearby pond and waddled single file to their pen. A flock of chattering sparrows rushed by, not stopping for their usual snack.
Something hit Elsa on the arm. She caught her breath and frantically ripped her sleeve free. Glancing down, she saw it was only three-year-old Jasper under the tree, throwing bristly pods at her. His rompers were crumpled from his nap, and he clutched his brown teddy bear.
“What you doing?” he asked.
“Sh-h-h,” she said, and looked around. The soldiers hadn’t come through the gate, so she climbed down the branches and jumped to the ground. “Come with me.” Grabbing her little brother’s hand, she started running with him across the lawn toward the house.
But Jasper pulled loose and ran the other way, to Mama’s school. Tugging open the door, he squeezed through without even politely scratching on the wood for admittance. Dreading the sure punishment, Elsa followed and peeked into the classroom. Rows of Chinese girls sat straight as bamboo stalks, each with a black braid hanging down the back of her white shirt. Their shrill voices chanted loudly in unison, “Go-go, Dee-dee, shiang shan, siah shan—big brother, little brother, go up the mountain, come down the mountain.”
Had Mama heard the shots? Would it be all right to break the rules and ask her?
From the house came the wailing voice of her nursemaid, the amah, calling in Shungtau dialect, “Hoo, hoo! Little Tiger, Eternal Virtue!” She came running, wide black trousers flapping. “Buh, buh! No! No! Do not enter,” she shouted, “or I skin you alive!”
Tsao Po-Po scolded a lot, but never punished them. Ignoring her, Elsa looked back into the classroom, then clapped her fist over her mouth.
Jasper had gone all the way across the room to the front desk! No matter what, Mama would blame her for this.
Mama sat stern and dignified in a dark blue skirt and white blouse. Her brown hair was pulled up into a smooth coil at her neck, and her dark eyes swept the classroom from behind horn-rimmed glasses. Peeking out from under the desk were her Chinese-style flat black satin shoes trimmed with red and gold embroidered butterflies. Mama loved pretty shoes.
Little Tiger climbed up into his mother’s lap, threw his chubby arms around her neck, and burrowed his mop of golden hair into her bosom.
Elsa waited for his scolding, but without missing a beat in the recitation or taking her eyes off the class, Mama gave Jasper a hug and gently set him down, then glanced toward Elsa.
Elsa wondered: did she dare run and whisper the news to her mother? She lifted her foot to tiptoe in, but Mama’s lips twitched. The twitch usually meant Mama was upset with her, and Elsa’s moment of courage faltered.
Then she thought again of the soldiers and of Papa out in the mountains. “But Mama!” she blurted. “The shots! Didn’t you—”
Mama’s eyes darted to the class, then back at Elsa. Her expression was stern, and she flicked her head in the direction of the door. Swatting Jasper’s bottom lightly, she pushed him toward Elsa. The class droned on in unison as though nothing had happened, their eyes fixed on the chalkboard, their backs erect.
Jasper scampered back to the door, grinning like he’d been handed a piece of sesame candy.
Didn’t Mama care? Elsa felt tightness in her chest, as if her heart were being squeezed by a vise, and she backed out of the door after Jasper, still wondering what to do.
Hands gripped her shoulders, and she spun around. But it was only Tsao Po-Po whispering, “Go to the house. Kwai, kwai, hurry, hurry!”
As they ran, her amah grumbled, “Ai-yah, I have looked for you everywhere! Eternal Virtue,” she clucked, “you are an untamed goat. You should be called Eternal Mischief.” She rushed them past the cosmos bed and the climbing nasturtiums that Elsa loved to taste, up the steps of the veranda, through the parlor, and into the dining room.
Ho Fen came from the kitchen with a plate of ginger cookies. He smelled of dried salt fish, and his white apron was spotted with reminders of breakfast and lunch.
Just as Elsa reached for a cookie, another string of shots crackled through the air, this time much closer. Ho Fen’s hand jerked, and the cookies jumped straight up from the plate, then settled back down. He pushed the plate at the amah, and ran back to the kitchen.
Tsao Po-Po froze, clutching the plate to her chest, her free hand covering her mouth. Worry wrinkles creased her eyes.
“What’s happening?” whispered Elsa, her heart racing.
Tsao Po-Po bent and picked up two cookies that had fallen to the floor, blew off the dust, and put them back on the plate. When she looked back at Elsa, her eyes had turned clear and calm again. “It is nothing. Target practice in the hills.”
Unconvinced, Elsa studied Tsao Po-Po’s face. If that was target practice, why was everyone afraid?
“You stay inside now,” said the amah. “Understand, Yung-det?” She reached for the teapot waiting on its dish of coals, poured them each a cup of pale green tea, and sat down on a low stool. Taking her small, bamboo shoe-making frame off a shelf, she began pasting scraps of fabric onto a coarse cotton base to be cut and stitched into soles for whoever needed the next pair of shoes. “And never, never, leave the compound alone. Ai-yah, what mafang you always make. Such trouble.”
Elsa sat on the floor with Jasper, the cookie plate on her lap. She chewed slowly, remembering. Last week, from up in the tree, she’d seen a group of Chinese children walking along the riverbank. Thoughtlessly, she had slipped out the front gate, followed them home, and stayed to play.
When Elsa had returned to the compound, Mama had spanked her. But it wasn’t the spanking that kept her from sneaking out again. On the way back, she’d noticed a dark round object set on a high stake. A real human head with matted hair, empty black eye sockets, and a mouth twisted in a silent scream.
One of Papa’s books had pictures of the terrible Boxer Rebellion—missionaries fleeing, hiding behind rocks, half naked and bloody—and stories about the Chinese who had helped them and who had been executed for their kindness.
It all fit, she realized. The soldiers, the shooting, the gruesome head. It must hurt an awful lot to die. If Papa died, he would go to heaven. But she wasn’t good enough for heaven. Would she ever see Papa again?
Elsa watched as her amah dabbed more flour paste onto a sole. Over that, she smoothed another scrap of material. Tsao Po-Po’s high cheekbones tapered down to a pointed mouth, her lips barely covering her large, protruding teeth. Mama had said the woman’s jaw was deformed, but Elsa thought it was an elegant face, like that of an imperial princess. Sometimes she sucked in her own cheeks to make her mouth tiny like that.
More than anyone in the world except for Papa, Elsa loved Tsao Po-Po. She couldn’t remember a time when her amah hadn’t been there, keeping her warm and safe, protecting her from harm while her parents did the work of the Lord. But could her amah protect them from this new danger? Her stomach ached, and she slid the plate across the floor to Tsao Po-Po’s feet.
The amah set aside the shoe frame, picked up the plate, and set it on the table. She pulled out a needle tucked into her white tunic, threaded it, and squatted down. Holding Elsa tight, she mended the torn sleeve.
Elsa looked past her and through the window, watching for Mama’s class to march outside for calisthenics. They would count, chanting: “Yi, er, san, sih, wu, liu, chi, ba,” arms up, arms down, turn left, turn right. Always to the count of eight, a magic number, or so Tsao Po-Po had said. Elsa had believed that when she turned eight she would become beautiful and good and deserve the name Eternal Virtue. And then Mama would be proud of her.
But last Tuesday had been her eighth birthday. Papa had given her a beautiful doll ordered from the “Monkey Ward” catalog, and she’d named it Glory after the angels in the highest.
Mama had scolded Papa. “Porcelain? That’s much too expensive a gift for a tomboy. It’ll be broken before the week is over.” And Elsa had realized the magic number hadn’t turned her into Eternal Virtue after all.
Now she heard a noise and turned, startled to see Mama coming up the veranda steps and through the parlor door.
Mama said, “I’ve sent the class home.”
Elsa stared at her. School had never been dismissed early before. Something was terribly wrong. Silently, she prayed: Please, God, bring Papa safely home.
Then she heard Mama whisper to Tsao Po-Po, “Bolt the doors.”