Maria Jumped Over the Wall

Maria lived in our neighborhood.  Her pa’s herbal-tea shop faced my pa’s funeral-wreathes shop.  Maria’s surname was Lee and her family was Chiuchow by descent.  Her pa did nothing much in the shop except study the horse-racing tips, watch Redifusion and sometimes eat a tofu-skin stuffed roll, sharing it with his little son.  Her mom stayed at the back of the shop and worked with the three daughters when they came home from school, brewing a herbal-tea called “twenty-four-flavors” and steaming small bowls of blackish “tortoise-and-fuling jelly” for the customers, and also doing the cooking, the washing and the ironing.

If I were a girl I would have been sent to Maria’s secondary school long ago, but my pa wanted me to work in the shop and be his apprentice.  I had no problem with that.  With a little instruction I easily learnt how to make all styles of wreathes and baskets.  I knew all the species of flowers.  I even knew how to make wedding bouquets for brides.  But when it came to writing captions for the wreathes my brush-and-ink calligraphy wasn’t that presentable.  The name of the deceased and how he was related to those sending the wreathes – that kind of personal addresses must never go wrong.  And then, I really hated delivering wreathes to the funeral parlors – ghosts scared me.  Pa made me practice calligraphy every day.  He said the hardest test for calligraphy was when it was hung up.  One day if my calligraphy was hung up and still looked okay he would let me write the long strips of captions for the wreathes.  I really looked forward to that day coming.  Better still if I could finish my apprenticeship before Maria graduated from secondary school.

Today I was hanging around at the herbal-tea shop as usual.  Maria was standing in front of their little burner sauteeing slices of turnip-pudding for the customers.  Her younger sister was squeezing sugarcane through a big juicer to make juice.  Her pa was seated in a booth-seat, quietly enjoying a stuffed roll.  I slotted a dollar-coin into the shiny jukebox and picked the Bee Gees’ First of May.  My heart followed the song as I watched Maria from a distance.  No wonder my younger sister told me they called Maria “Holy Madonna” in school.  She looked exactly like the white porcelain Guanyin statuettes in Chinese emporium stores.  Amid the oily vapors produced by the cooking her eyes and brows were gentle and calm, simply comfortable to look at.

I hadn’t spoken to “Madonna” today yet, so I went up and said,

“We just got a big delivery of Easter lilies.  Want some?”

She was transferring some freshly sauteed turnip-pudding on to a plate and was just about to look my way and answer when her pa suddenly bolted up and took rapid steps towards us and jumped up and down before the burner.  A customer said, Lee Loban got choked.  They scrambled over and hastily pulled him up from the floor.  A man called the ambulance.  A woman ran off to the wet-market and told Maria’s mom to hurry back.

He stopped breathing before the ambulance arrived, choked by the stuffed roll, the kind with tiny bits of dried shrimp-roe inside.

Because we were old neighbors, my pa helped Mrs Lee with a lot of decisions, like how to choose a coffin, how to bargain with the boss of the funeral-parlor, how to fix up the ceremony for chanting prayers and incinerating paper offerings, and where to find a good yet inexpensive burial-plot.  The Lees were Chiuchow people and the males on that side were unusually fastidious.  Maria’s pa had two elder brothers whom she called “uncle”, and they interfered with everything almost to the point of taking over the herbal-tea shop.  My pa told Mrs Lee on the side: Don’t pay attention to them, the important thing is get the funeral done properly.

I forgot how I spent the next few days — perhaps I didn’t dare go to their shop.  They closed for three days.  Then on the fourth day pa gave me a good errand.

“Go and find a team that can do funeral ceremonies Chiuchow-style.  Get the best.  It’ll be on me, my condolences to Lee’s family.”

Surprising even myself, I quickly found this Taoist temple far out in Tsuen Wan.  It was actually inside an old building with several floors without fixed partitioning in the units.  In the sitting area of this unit, a mahjong-game was going on, the players at the table being the team-captain and three other oldish men, one of whom was wrapped in a Taoist robe.  I sat down and before they finished one game had fixed the time and the price and which prayers to chant.  I took the cross-harbor ferry to go home.  Sitting on the lower-class deck with coils of rope running all over the floor and hot vapors blowing into the passengers’ faces, I felt in my heart that I was truly beginning to miss Maria. 

I got home and gave pa the good news and he told me to tell Mrs Lee about it, and also to ask her what kind of things she wanted for the incineration ceremony so we could give her the whole set for free. 

The herbal-shop had opened again for business, as I could see, but Maria was not back from school yet and her mom was now in charge of the cashier.  The little son was sitting in a booth-seat, his eyes on the television just like his old pa who was dead and gone.  His school work was laid open on the table, some flies were making circles over his head, and the electric-fan was whirling left and right, flapping the pages of his work-book.  The Big Uncle was in the shop too, sitting there like a lord and not doing anything in particular.  I was disgusted with this Big Uncle, so I ignored him and went round the other side and whispered to Mrs Lee about the ceremony arrangements.  Then I strutted over to the jukebox and right in front of Big Uncle got to play three very loud Beatles songs in a row to make sure the noise would blast the soul out of him.

But after that I had to go home for dinner and in the evening I had to go to the airport to pick up a delivery of flowers from Holland, so I did not see “Madonna”.

After I had taken the tulips home and got them refrigerated it was already past eleven o’clock.  We were lowering our shop’s metal grille for the night when out there I saw Maria walking back and forth in front of the herbal-tea shop.  Their grille was already rolled down and she couldn’t open it.

Pa also saw her and he said maybe that Big Uncle had changed the lock and wouldn’t let anyone in after roll-down time.  That man even slept in the shop, to keep a strict eye on the family.

I was in my shorts and slippers but went straight out to offer help.

She was carrying lots of things and documents.  I said well what’ll you do now?  Maybe come to our flower-shop and stay the night.  She said no there’s no need, but I could go to the back-alley with her and give her some help.  She would climb over the wall and get in.  

The wall was actually a wire mesh fence standing at the back, about the height of two people.  I found a kerosene tank by the roadside and brought it over.  Then I carried the things for her and she stepped on to the tank, swung over, and got in.  I climbed in after her, put the things down safely, then climbed out again.  It took only a few minutes.  A brown dog which was passing by gave a few barks, to show that he was doing his job too.

After I had climbed out again I felt I should say something, so I asked her through the wire mesh, my pa wants to know, the boiled pig’s head that goes on the altar table — would this be big enough? and showed her the size with my hands.  “Madonna” she smiled and said yes, and gathered up her things and went in.  I was plain stupid.  Plenty of fresh tulips and instead of bringing some over I just talked about a pig’s head.     

On the day of the wake I arrived at the funeral hall at noon.  I put the prayer-chanters from Tsuen Wan where they belonged and fixed up the altar.  At two o’clock sharp the prayer-chanting started, the men alternating in groups of two.  They chanted in Chiuchow dialect and I couldn’t understand a word, but it turned out that their murmuring was very soothing and their vocal skills were no worse than any pop group’s.  When evening fell I assisted pa and helped Maria’s family bring out the paper sculptures – a house with garden, a limo, a king-class shop-space and all the rest.  Everything was loaded into the big fiery furnace and burned, and everyone watched the rising smoke go up and take everything away.  I had thought of using red and white roses to personally make a basket for Maria the bereaved daughter, but pa said we should let the veteran master do it.

It didn’t take me too long to know, since learning this trade, that rich people and government people aside, the funeral hall was usually quite empty if the deceased was a mere ordinary person.  Like Maria’s pa tonight – apart from a dozen or more neighbors who came to bow and pay respects, and the Big Uncle and Second Uncle and their wives and sons who kept coming around to eye the condolence money and the offerings, there weren’t that many cousins and relatives, and apparently no friends at all.  So my pa truly had great wisdom.  He used to say, after I die, as I eventually would, don’t bother to do anything, just wrap me up in a hemp mattress and tell the government people to take me away, and that’ll be all.

Today “Madonna” was dressed in a white hemp-cloth mourning outfit.  When the chanting was at its noisiest pa sent me over to ask Maria’s mom: In a while, when the soul is due to cross the Bridge of Reluctant Oblivion, who will carry the Soul-Hailing Flag and the Bucket for Bathing the Dead?  She said, go ask Big Uncle, and Big Uncle said, go ask Second Uncle, and Second Uncle said, his own son of course, as is the custom.  Then, unable to restrain myself, I knelt down beside Maria and asked her in a whisper, Is your Big Uncle forcing your family to give the shop to him?  Fumbling some silver coins to be used for crossing the Bridge of Reluctant Oblivion, she said calmly, I’m not afraid, pa will watch over us.  I asked next, Big Uncle said tomorrow you girls can only follow the procession up the hill to the graveyard, but you won’t be allowed to step off the coach and profane the burial ground.  She heard me, paused a moment in thought, and said, is that so?

It took a long time to reach half-past-ten and the end of the ceremonies and the chanting.  The chanting-men put away their musical instruments and cleared the altar.  Suddenly Big Uncle and Second Uncle charged forward, puffing with anger, and said they wanted to talk to my pa.

“According to the customs of our village, the offerings used for the wake cannot be used again for the ceremony tomorrow.  Tomorrow morning you must replace them with new things.”  Pa said yes we can talk about that, but there are only seven or eight hours left and it won’t be easy to get a new pig’s head this late not to say get it boiled in the marinade pot, but the other things like the Big Fortune Cake and the Candy Pagoda are not a problem and can be made in what’s left of the night.  As he spoke he was already signaling me to call the pastry man.  But all of a sudden without indicating any reason that Big Uncle flew into a rage and banged his palm on the altar-table.

“So will you change the things or not?”  With that bang the skyward-looking pig’s head made a startled jump on the table. 

That was the moment when “Madonna” came out and said, “Change the Candy Pagoda and the cake, don’t change the pig’s head.”  After saying that she went in again to arrange her pa’s funeral clothes and the embroidered coffin blanket.

The funeral ceremony went very well the next day, ending with the closing of the coffin.  The weather was surprisingly good.  The entire family went up the hill to the graveyard, all males and females got off the coach, everyone had their feet on the burial-ground and watched the lowering and interment of the coffin.  The dead was buried, and the living went down the hill to carry on with their lives.

That year when the school was having summer break Maria and her mom and younger brother and sisters flew to Toronto to live with their maternal aunt.  No kidding, her Big Uncle did get the herbal-tea shop for himself.  But it turned out that the shop was just a rented property, and Big Uncle was no good at selling herbal-tea and soon lost so much money he had to sell the business.  The day the shop closed down, thank heavens, I was handling some champagne roses and shaping them into a gorgeous bridal bouquet.  As I looked across the street and saw Big Uncle hand over the keys to the new owner, I couldn’t suppress my excitement and exclaimed: Ave Maria!                                              

(August 2010)

 Translated from Chinese by Diana Yue