The Porcelain Moon
"Europeans are able to understand the logics of matter using the logics of the human spirit and thus are able to transform a pitch-dark battlefield to a clear morning sky. Suppose they tried to reach the logics of Heaven through the logics of matter, now that would be real civilisation."
-- Sun Gan, student worker with the Chinese Labour Corps, after seeing flares light up the night sky over No Man’s Land
Saturday, November 2, 1918
BUT I DON’T want to get married, she thought.
The letter fell from her hand and fluttered to the floor of the study, the neat precision of her uncle’s brushstroked Chinese writing at odds with the chaos that churned her insides. Pauline didn’t reach down to retrieve it, just stared at the sheet of paper as though it were some malevolent creature, a serpent or venomous spider lying on the wooden parquet.
Her uncle’s first wife was now in control of her fate.
First Wife, who had never wanted her in their household. First Wife, whose expression visibly curdled whenever she looked at Pauline.
Her uncle had murmured occasionally about writing to First Wife in Shanghai about arranging a match for Pauline, but in his absentminded way he’d never followed through. Not until now. Now, because he was back in China for Grandfather Deng’s funeral. Now, because while he was there he had remembered to ask First Wife to hire a matchmaker for Pauline, his dead brother’s illegitimate daughter.
Pauline’s gaze fell on a tall vase in the corner, its glazed surface painted with a folktale she knew well: the Lady Ch’ang O escaping from a cruel husband, her robes streaming in the wind as she ascends the night sky toward a full moon. Her right hand is raised, pointing to her destination. A porcelain woman reaching for a porcelain moon.
The air in Pauline’s lungs felt chokingly thick. She threw open the study window, oblivious to the frigid November wind that slashed at her throat and swept papers off the desk. She leaned out as far as the wrought-iron window guards allowed and let the familiar noises of life on the Rue de Lisbonne seep into her consciousness. Impatient delivery trucks sounding their horns, two women laughing as they strolled together, their children trailing behind them, chattering like sparrows. The streetlamps that gave Paris its nickname, the City of Light, glimmered brightly as the sun sank lower. When Pauline finally took a deep breath, she drew in aromas of baking, the bistro on the corner preparing its evening menu.
She retreated to the chair, ran one fingertip over the polished surface of the rosewood desk, and rearranged her uncle’s writing brushes on the lacquered stand. She waited for her heartbeat to calm. Then she gathered up the papers the wind had blown about on the floor and stacked them under a marble paperweight.
There had to be a way to avoid the fate outlined for her in that letter.
Her dowry was meager, her prospects equally so. She knew what sort of match to expect. She might end up a shopkeeper’s second wife, worked to death and at the mercy of a resentful first wife. Or First Wife might pair her with an elderly widower who wanted an unpaid nursemaid.
But worse than anything, whatever future First Wife was arranging for her right now, it would send Pauline back to China, far away from everything she loved. She didn’t want to leave Paris. Not this apartment with its tall French doors and high ceilings, or the neighbors along the Rue de Lisbonne. Not La Pagode, the store her uncle owned and all its beautiful antiques.
She hurried down to the ground floor and along the corridor that led to the back of La Pagode. The store was closed most of the time now; few wanted to buy antiques while a war was going on. Once inside, she looked around as if to assure herself everything was as she’d left it that morning.
There wasn’t a single object in this store Pauline hadn’t cleaned and polished, no display she hadn’t arranged, composing pieces into enticing vignettes. She paused by an elmwood table where she had placed ivory statuettes between bright porcelain vases. On another table, densely patterned cloisonné enamelware contrasted with austere celadon bowls. After all these years at La Pagode, she could tell the difference between an ancient jade disc from the Han dynasty and an imitation one carved only three hundred years ago. She knew what every antique cost her uncle and how to price it.
If only Theo were here. Theo, her cousin who was like a brother to her. His Chinese name, Deng Taoling, made foreign tongues stumble, so it didn’t take long for their Parisian neighbors to call him Theo instead. Just as she became Pauline Deng instead of Deng Baoling. Just as her uncle gave himself a French name when he printed up La Pagode’s business cards: Louis Deng, Proprietor.
At twenty-three, Pauline was housekeeper and cook, bookkeeper and clerk. It was an agreeable little household: Pauline and Theo, her uncle and his mistress. If Louis was prepared to disrupt this harmonious arrangement it meant other factors were at play, undercurrents of family politics to which she was not privy.
She pulled a square of chamois from the bottom drawer of a display cabinet and sighed upon catching her reflection in the cabinet’s glass door. If she weren’t so short and didn’t look so young, her uncle might treat her like an adult. It was also her own fault, she had to admit, in that she was careless about her appearance. She had worn her hair in plaits since she was small and her blouses with their rounded flat collars made her look like a schoolgirl. There was nothing she could do about her features: her small nose, the full upper lip that gave her mouth a childish pout despite the determined lines of her jaw, the dark curve of her eyebrows. She removed a jade horse from its shelf and began polishing. All the while, possibilities and consequences clicked through her mind like beads on an abacus.
Uncle Louis depended on Pauline’s skills, a convenience that spared him the extra cost of hiring an outsider. If he was willing to send her back to Shanghai and marry her off, then who would do her work here?
The abacus beads fell into place. Theo’s bride.
There could be no other explanation. Louis—or rather, the family—had set a date for Theo’s wedding. And this time Theo wouldn’t be wriggling out of it.
FIRST WIFE HAD ARRANGED THEO’S marriage years ago, while they were all still in Shanghai. At the time there had been no hurry to set a wedding date since Theo and his prospective bride were not even fifteen years old. The girl’s family mailed them a photograph each year, which Louis put in a silver frame, replacing the previous. Each time his father handed it to him, Theo dutifully studied the sepia-toned image that gazed out from the picture, his future bride and her unsmiling features, eyes solemn beneath long, blunt-cut bangs. Her pose varied, sometimes standing, sometimes sitting. One year she sat with ankles crossed, her feet in their elaborately embroidered slippers prominent, almost thrust forward, to show they were not bound.
“I told your mother to choose someone from a more progressive family,” Louis said, taking the frame back from Theo. “I said to her, the girl must be able to wear European-style shoes and boots, walk on European streets. She’ll be living in Paris, after all.”
After Theo graduated from lycée, Louis would take him home to Shanghai for the wedding.
But when Theo turned eighteen and as his wedding date neared, he enrolled at the Sorbonne. He refused to get married until he’d finished university. Louis telegrammed Grandfather Deng for a postponement and Grandfather agreed.
In his final semester of university Theo refused to marry again, this time because of the war, which was in its third year. The Allies needed to free up more workingmen to fight, and to do this, they were bringing thousands of Chinese laborers to England and France. Theo heard that they didn’t have anywhere near enough translators.
“China is a neutral country,” his father said, “there’s no need to put yourself in danger.”
“I would be a translator, Father, that’s not dangerous.”
“Your first duty is to your family,” Louis said, “to help me run the store. To live where it’s safe. Paris is safe, the Germans haven’t bombed us in over a year.”
“I doubt they’ve given up”—Theo’s voice betrayed his frustration—“ and in the meantime, half my classmates have enlisted. I must do something.”
As soon as Theo graduated, he signed up with the British Army’s Chinese Labour Corps. “The French contract is for five years, Father,” Theo said, “but the British one is only for three. I took the shorter option.”
On the day Theo left for the train station, Louis didn’t go with him. They hadn’t spoken in days, not since Louis sent a telegram to Shanghai apologizing for this latest delay to Theo’s wedding.
Pauline was allowed to walk with Theo but only as far as the end of the Rue de Lisbonne. She was more than a little angry with Theo, and their parting had been stilted and rather formal.
“There’s no need to scold me further in writing,” he said, a smile crinkling up his eyes. “I know you’re upset with me but never fear. Just seeing your letters will make me miss Paris.”
“I’m angry with both you and Henri,” she replied. “I blame him for encouraging you to join the Chinese Labour Corps.”
“Don’t blame Henri,” Theo said, a grin breaking across his face. “Please give me some credit for making bad decisions all on my own.”
His smile dared her to stay angry, so of course she couldn’t and laughed. They rarely showed affection with hugs or kisses, as the French did, but now she lifted a hand to his cheek and he put his arms around her for a brief embrace. Then he picked up his valise and crossed the street, each hurrying step evidence of his impatience to get to the Gare du Nord and the train bound for Noyelles-sur- Mer. He turned briefly to look over his shoulder and said something she couldn’t hear over the rattle of a passing wagon, then flashed his easy, confident smile and continued walking away. Theo, tall and straight in the early summer sunlight, in a suit of blue serge, so handsome with the brim of his straw boater tilted just so.
HE HAD BEEN GONE FOR eighteen months. But now Grandfather Deng was dead, and Uncle Louis’s older brother was family patriarch. Unlike Grandfather, he wouldn’t indulge Theo’s whims.
Pauline sighed and gave the jade horse a final rub with the chamois, picked up a jade rabbit and began buffing its rounded haunches. She didn’t doubt that as soon as Theo’s contract ended, his father would have him on a steamship back to Shanghai. Then Theo would bring his wife back to Paris to help run the store.
As for her, if all went according to the plans in her uncle’s letter, she would be in Shanghai by springtime, shackled to a total stranger. Her future husband wasn’t the only concern. If her in-laws were difficult to please, every day would be a misery, especially if she didn’t manage to bear sons. She had witnessed this for herself when still in Shanghai.
“I could never live in China again,” Pauline once told Denise. “The women in our family aren’t allowed to speak to men who aren’t relatives, and they only go outside the walls of our home to pray at a temple or visit relatives.”
“Surely not all families are like yours,” her uncle’s French mistress had said, lifting an eyebrow.
Denise was right. The Dengs were exceptionally old-fashioned, which meant that when it came to marriages, they preferred in-laws of similar outlook. Pauline was sure that First Wife would go out of her way to pick her an extremely traditional husband.
She couldn’t go back to China. She just couldn’t. Not when she was free to stroll anywhere in Paris, shop at the markets, or wander through museums. Free to drink coffee and chat with Theo and his classmates. Compared to Paris, the restricted life of the inner courtyard was as good as live burial.
How could her uncle not understand that? How could he not care?
He didn’t have to care, she reminded herself. It was her duty to obey because she owed him her life. After her parents died, Louis had brought Pauline into his household when he could’ve discarded her at an orphanage. She couldn’t refuse her uncle’s wishes. But perhaps she could find a way to change his mind, to let her stay in Paris and keep working at the store.
She locked the jade animals back inside the display cabinet, then trudged up the back staircase, past their apartment and up the next flight of steps to Denise’s flat.
Louis would be home soon, his ship docking at Marseilles after a monthlong journey from Shanghai. Then another day on the train to Paris. His letter said that First Wife and the matchmaker hoped to send news of a suitable match shortly after he returned to Paris, a telegram confirming that all the negotiations were complete and a marriage contract signed for Pauline.
She stopped and sat down heavily on the stairs.
The Dengs prided themselves on always meeting their obligations. As merchants, their reputation depended on it. To revoke a contract of any sort was unimaginable. Once the marriage contract was in place, there was no going back. Her uncle would lose face with the family, not to mention her prospective in-laws, if she refused to obey. Gossip would get out to the Dengs’ friends and business associates. She couldn’t do that to him. Her uncle could put a stop to the matchmaking, but only before the arrangements were final. If only she could persuade him to change his mind. But Louis wouldn’t listen to her pleas, she knew that. She was only a girl and an illegitimate one at that.
Theo, however, was a different story.
Louis indulged Theo as much as Grandfather Deng had, treating him almost as an equal, the son who would inherit La Pagode. If only Theo were here. If only she knew where to send him a letter. Normally he wrote every month. His last note mentioned his unit would be moving to a new location and not to write back until she heard from him again, which she would as soon as he was at the new camp. But it had been more than a month now. Theo would speak to his father on her behalf, she knew he would.
All she had to do was go to the Westen Front and find him.
CAMILLE PEEPED THROUGH the bedroom curtain, the clenching tightness in her shoulders not easing even after her husband walked out the door. The clank of rusty hinges carried through the still morning air as Jean-Paul yanked open the garden gate. His gait was slightly bowlegged, a legacy of rickets and malnourishment, a poverty-stricken childhood. He turned south, where the road forked toward the village of Noyelles-sur- Mer. A cloud obscured the horizon, dimming the early sunlight, and for a moment all Camille could make out was Jean-Paul’s silhouette, the canvas knapsack turning him into a hunchbacked monster.
A slight injury early in the war and his stated occupation of railway worker, essential to the war effort, had allowed him to avoid further military duty. Jean-Paul used to come home between shifts, but as the tolls of war mounted and more men enlisted, the railway put their remaining crew on longer and longer shifts, sometimes for seventy-two hours at a time. But even those absences weren’t long enough for Camille.
Moments later a small donkey cart came over the rise, their neighbor the farmer Fournier with a load of winter cabbages. Old Fournier was easy to recognize, his broad figure draped in an indigo-blue smock and driving a red cart, bright slabs of color against the dull yellows and browns of harvested fields. The scene could’ve been painted by Cézanne.
The cart stopped and Jean-Paul climbed on beside the farmer. It was market day in St. Valery-sur- Somme, across the canal beyond Noyelles, undoubtedly Fournier’s destination. Jean-Paul would jump off at the Noyelles train station for another long shift on the Nord, the northern railway line. Camille didn’t know what else her husband might be doing and she didn’t want to know. What mattered was that he would be away.
She lay on the bed and gave in to a moment of weariness, waited until her churning insides calmed, nausea subsiding as her body un- derstood it was safe for her muscles to loosen and breathing to slow. She turned over so that she faced the window, not wanting to smell Jean-Paul’s hair oil on the pillow, the sour sweat of his body on the sheets. She’d change the bed when she came home from work. If he was away overnight, then she could sleep alone in luxury, her limbs sliding under clean linens scented with lavender, her body longing for . . . no. She wouldn’t think about him. Or about what she had to do on her own.
At the mirror, she pressed more powder above her left cheekbone. The bruise beside her hairline had faded since the previous evening and as long as she stayed indoors, away from bright sunlight, it wouldn’t be obvious. She tied a kerchief around her head and tugged a stray lock to fall across the yellowing mark.
In the kitchen, she boiled some water and dropped a few dried mint leaves in a mug. Their coffee, carefully meted out each morning, was reserved for Jean-Paul. She didn’t mind going without coffee, but of all the rationed foods, she missed sugar the most. After a slice of last night’s baguette with some cheese, it was time to go. She rolled up a clean calico smock and stuffed it in her satchel for the ride into town.
AS CAMILLE CYCLED TO THE post office, the sun finally broke free of the cloud bank, casting an amber glow across the horizon beyond Crécy Forest. For a moment she thought she heard cannon fire, then reminded herself that fighting in their region had ceased. The rumbling noises more likely came from the reverberation of trucks carrying soldiers to the front. After years of war, her ears were attuned to real or imagined sounds of artillery. Thankfully, since the fighting near Cambrai ended in October, the front lines had been moving steadily east, away from the Somme Valley.
The tide had turned against Germany and its allies, or so the news- papers declared. There were rumors of peace negotiations and news of civilian unrest in Germany, where the kaiser was being pressured by his own government to abdicate. There was talk of an armistice but until then, the fighting continued. But the end was in sight, everyone said. And then their armies would demobilize, their men return from the front.
And she would give up her job at the post office.
Brightening skies promised a clear day, a rare thing this time of year. The walk to Noyelles didn’t take long, less than an hour, but after work she wanted to drop by the château in case there was some sewing work to pick up, so she had taken her bicycle and attached the small, homemade trailer to the back. She pedaled slowly through familiar farmland, the shrubbery along the road brown and soggy, bereft of summer’s lush foliage. She passed the château and barely gave it a glance. It held too many memories, not all of them pleasant.
Another ten minutes and she reached the fence surrounding the Chinese Labour Corps camp. The yard was already busy, smoke and steam rising from the kitchens, men queueing up outside the mess hall. The camp had been built more than a year ago but Camille still couldn’t get used to the sight of its ugly barbed wire fencing. It resembled a stockade more than a camp.
At the post office, she tied on the calico smock and began her half day of work. She started by sorting through mail that had come in the previous afternoon. Her heart clenched briefly at the sight of French Army stationery. In the days and weeks after Rossignol, after Verdun, after the Somme, it seemed as though tragedy cascaded through her hands with every piece of mail. Families destroyed, lives maimed and forever changed. There were only two such envelopes today, thank goodness, but it was still too many.
She paused to look at a postcard addressed to Marie-France Fournier, Old Fournier’s youngest girl, from her cousin Thérèse. Thérèse, bolder than most, had left Noyelles to take a factory job in Paris. Camille knew Marie-France had wanted to follow her cousin, work at a factory and earn money of her own, but both her brothers had enlisted and now only she and her mother were there to help work the fields.
Camille read the untidy handwriting.
Ma chère cousine, I spend all day filling artillery shells and the evenings strolling past store windows filled with elegant things. What fun we could have, if only you could come to Paris. Your loving Thérèse who misses you.
If only you could come to Paris. Those scribbled words seemed meant for Camille. She longed to see Paris again. If she had taken a factory job there, she could’ve spent her days off visiting museums and galleries—the ones still open—to stand in front of paintings that changed how she saw the world. But, of course, it was impossible since she was a married woman. And Jean-Paul was scornful of women who worked in factories.
“No respectable female would leave their husbands and homes,” he said, “only low-class women. Unmarried and willing to work alongside dirty foreigners. Whores.”
But when the postal service began hiring women to replace men who had gone to war, it was all right with Jean-Paul for his wife to work at the post office. It was a respectable job in town with modest but welcome wages. Camille suspected the real reason Jean-Paul agreed was that it gave him a chance to get friendlier with the Dumonts, the postmaster and his wife, who were prominent citizens of Noyelles.
Before the Nord railway line got so busy and Jean-Paul was away all the time, he liked to visit the post office around closing time, when Camille was tidying the back rooms, ostensibly to walk her home, but really because he wanted to socialize with the Dumonts. Jean-Paul and M. Dumont talked about the war, the price of food, and often as not, the disruptions caused by foreigners in their little town. British, Canadian, and Australian soldiers were stationed there. And there were also Chinese workers. On principle, Jean-Paul didn’t like foreigners, not even refugees from neighboring Belgium, and the Chinese were decidedly foreign. He grumbled at newspaper photographs of brigades arriving in Marseilles from Indochina, at accounts of British troops and Indian Sikhs marching through France on their way to the front. But at least they were soldiers.
“It’s one thing to bring soldiers from our colonies to help us fight, even if they’re only short little Orientals,” he said, “but these Chinois aren’t going into battle for us. Digging and carrying. That’s all they’re doing.”
“Digging trenches, loading fuel for tanks and vehicles, repairing roads and railway tracks after aerial attacks. The machinery of war has many parts, Jean-Paul,” M. Dumont said. “Napoleon was a brilliant tactician because he understood the logistics of supplying his armies. He could’ve run a modern postal system.” M. Dumont liked pointing to the postal service as a model of efficiency.
He droned on a little longer, reminding his audience that using Chinese labor for the manual work of the war freed up more French and British to fight. That the Allies wouldn’t have brought in workers from so far away, at such expense, unless they desperately needed the manpower. Manpower to unload and load cargo at the docks and supply depots, plow and plant fields so that farms still grew wheat for bread, work in armaments factories so that tanks and guns didn’t run out of ammunition
But while Jean-Paul didn’t like the Chinese, he didn’t mind making money off them. When he heard that the workers liked buying West- ern clothing, Jean-Paul ransacked the armoire in Camille’s father’s bedroom, then went to the camp on a payday with a sack full of her dead father’s clothes.
“They paid me what I asked for, the stupid chintoks,” he boasted. “So many of them all wanting these old clothes so much they barely haggled.”
A few days later, Camille saw a tall Chinese strolling along the main street in Noyelles, one hand straightening the lapels of a familiar waistcoat. Her annoyance faded when she saw how gently the man touched the garment’s brocade front and brass buttons, pride and pleasure evident in his face. Jean-Paul shrugged when she pointed at the man, wearing the waistcoat he had sold behind her back.
“They’re like children,” he said contemptuously. “Dressing up in our clothes, putting everything on the wrong way. He’s got it buttoned over that ridiculous tunic.”
“But you’re the one who sold it to him,” she said, her voice just above a whisper. She winced as his fingers tightened on her arm. Then he loosened his grip to make a slight bow as an elderly couple walked past. The mayor, M. Etienne Gourlin, and Mme Gourlin.
CAMILLE SHOOK HER HEAD AT the memory.
She finished sorting the mail into four bags and set them down by the back door for Emil to pick up. She put a dried-out carrot from her cellar on top of the bags, a small treat for the donkey that pulled Emil’s mail delivery cart.
No, she thought, Jean-Paul didn’t have a problem taking money from the Chinese.
And he’d kill her if he ever found out she was in love with one.