He hangs it by the ankles, its blue hands splayed, the small kidney-shape of its body crowned with my blood. I open my arms, but the yīshēng shakes his head.
“Look away, you hear? Look away.” He plunges my baby head first into a waiting bucket of water.
Pain roars in my haunches. I push hard, my womb emptying like a blanket thrown into the air. Between my legs…so much blood.
“Stop pushing, another one’s coming,” he bawls and discards the limp newborn beside the bucket. He pulls at the second head – half in, half out – and it slips from me, screaming.
He grabs a knife from his work block and hacks at the knotty cord that binds her to me. I snatch her. Rock, rock, rock…
“Sshhh, little one.”
Her lips quiver. Birth has rippled the puddle of her features; a child that has lived ten lives already.
“Here, take her as well.” He picks my firstborn from the mat and thrusts her onto me. She seems almost to be choking. I tap her back and she spews up water. Her chest heaves with life. How neatly she is packed in skin!
But the yīshēng returns. In his hand, a syringe. “Straight to the brain. They won’t feel a thing,” he says.
My heels dig into the mat. “Get away from us!” I seize some rags and the envelope containing Manager He’s money. “I’ll kill you, I swear. Get away from my babies.”
His laugh is sour. “Women here never keep their babies.”
I smell his empty breath and gag. I scramble to my feet and stagger towards the door, the cord still swinging from inside.
He catches me by the shoulder, ripping my birth gown and pins me to the wall. The liquid in his syringe drips over my babies. I try to push him off.
“What the hell was He-Chuan thinking? Sending me a mad woman? Those little maggots don’t stand a chance. The placenta’s still inside. It has double qi. I must have it! Now give me the money. Give me – the killing money.” He squeezes my wrists until I drop the envelope.
I knee him with all my strength and the yīshēng crumples, spewing the bucket across the floor.
“Come back,” he groans.
But I am already half way down the wooden staircase that leads to the back door. Outside, the clinic’s sign clacks on its hinges, rain runs down the alley.
“You’ll never survive,” he cries from an upstairs window. “You’ll all be dead by dawn.” His pallid, scale-marked face is yellow in the streetlight; a gloating man in the moon.
I swaddle my babies and lurch into the rain. A few of the streetlights blink and flicker out. The night sky grumbles.
I claw my way to the end of the alley where a flooded street opens out in front of me – Shengli Road. The rain bites my face. My firstborn gnaws at the night air, wailing. She is pale, barely there. I put my face to hers. Maybe he is right, maybe we won’t survive?
Be brave, little ones. For Mama.
Then suddenly I see him up ahead, in the deserted street. A solitary figure. His head is cocked low, shoulders hunched, collar up. He runs and walks, stops, then runs again. He peers at me through the rain as if looking at the ghost of some long-dead relative. I turn tail. He lopes after me, with a briefcase for a makeshift umbrella.
The water’s pull is magnetic. Got to hold on tight, got to protect… The pain is searing, far worse than my period cramps. Suddenly a doorway. I slump onto its hard ledge. Rock, rock, rock my babies.
Ching ching ting…
Shui shang ching ching ting…
Feel drowsy. Singing or dreaming or drowning, it is all the same. The man with the briefcase is pulling on my arm.
“Get up, get up!” He shouts something about a hospital. Hospital. Hospital. Hospital? The whites of his eyes are like halos.
“Leave me alone,” I mutter.
“I’ll not leave you,” he says. Then that word hospital again.
I cannot fight.
“It’s Yifan. Don’t you recognise me?”
“What do you want from me?”
He hunkers in the doorway. The rain hisses and dances along the guttering, slanting into rivulets across his back, his hair, his face. His fingers press against my neck. He stares at the crimson puddle on the doorstep.
“We don’t have long. Can you make it to the square?”
In the distance, lasers jitter over the Uprising Monument. As the colours change, so do my thoughts – as mechanical as the factory line. I expect to hear the klaxon. The sooty rain tastes bitter. Blue neon shop signs blink. My bare feet slap through the wet.
“I want to tell you a story,” Yifan garbles, “about double happiness – do you remember it? The student gets sick on the way to his finals. A herbalist and his daughter look after him. The girl’s beautiful – they fall in love. She writes down half a couplet…”
Yifan clutches my arm to steady me. My mind wanders around his story, only half understanding what he is saying.
“The student comes top in the exam. The Emperor is delighted and sets a greater challenge. He writes down half a couplet for the student to complete. Straight away, he knows what to write: the words of his true love.”
Yifan’s voice is in the faraway. I hear the beginnings and ends of his sentences. I glimpse two babies wrapped in a bundle and wonder who they belong to? Where am I going with this man? He is telling me about his marriage. He is a student, a minister in the Emperor’s court. Or is that the student?
“…And that’s why we put ‘happiness’ couplets on the door at Spring Festival,” says Yifan.
I double over in pain. “Why?”
It is the last thing I remember saying to the man with halo eyes.
Copyright © 2015 Victoria Delderfield