Mui Tsai, Part two
“How come you took so long?” asked her mistress. “Are you seeing some boy? Better not be. Give me the money and then you clean up the kitchen.” She counted out the coins on the kitchen table, then scolded, “You paid too much again.”
Yuk Fah didn’t answer as she unwrapped the fish. Her mistress insisted on checking their eyes before putting them next to the slowly melting 100-pound block of ice that cooled the wooden icebox. At least Mistress Lee didn’t complain that the fish was not fresh enough.
She got out a straw broom and swept the kitchen. Then she filled a bucket one third full with water and sloshed it on the cement floor before using a rag mop on it.
Mistress Lee inspected afterwards. “You do such a careless job. There are still some dirty spots by the stove.”
“The floor’s always been a different color there,” protested Yuk Fah.
“Then you didn’t do a good job before. Mop the floor again. We saved you from starving and you don’t act at all grateful.“
It was time to prepare lunch when she finished mopping. Master Lee ate at the store so she served Mistress Lee who sat regally alone at the dining table.
After lunch Mistress Lee said, “My friends are coming to play mah jong at two. I want you to set up the table with refreshments and serve us tea. Then stay out of sight and what ever work you have to do, do it quietly.”
That was washing the laundry by hand and then hanging it up to dry.
Yuk Fah had an hour to herself before she prepared dinner and she went to her small room that had been the pantry, next to the kitchen. A narrow iron bed with straw mattress and cotton batting pillow, two pictures of Chinese scenery, cut from old calendars and tacked to the wall, a small pile of her clothes on a wood plank held off the floor by bricks, were the furnishings. She sat on the bed and slowly read yesterday’s Honolulu Star-Bulletin by the light of the small window set high on the wall, practicing the skill she had been taught in school. The words she did not know she laboriously looked up in a dictionary she had bought. She remembered how Mistress Lee hooted when she saw it, “What do you need that for? You waste your money.”
I wish I had been taught to read and write Chinese too, she thought. Maybe someday if—no–when—I get out of here, I can have my own home or business and then I will need to know how to write and do arithmetic.
But soon it was time to fix dinner and she put away her studies. She boiled the daikon in chicken broth, stir fried the bitter melon with fermented black bean sauce, and poached the mullet. She served the family before getting a bowl of rice for herself and went back to the kitchen to eat alone at a small table next to the stove. Her mistress always checked to make sure she wasn’t taking too much rice for herself. Cold leftover tofu and meat on chicken bones left from the soup went with the rice. And a little Tahitian salted fish from the Lee’s breakfast that she had stashed away in the back of the icebox.
As she ate, she faintly heard Master and Mistress Lee talking in the adjacent dining room. Master Lee had always been fair to Yuk Fah ever since he had bought her to help his wife, though he wasn’t around much, being busy seven days a week with the store. But now it sounded like they were talking about her. She laid her chopsticks down to listen intently. Trying to catch every word.
“She is seventeen now, and I think it is time,” Master Lee was saying. “A man approached me at the store this afternoon who wants to marry her. He offered a dowry of one hundred fifty dollars plus a roast pig and wedding cakes, and will pay for any other wedding costs.”
“He actually wants to marry her, not just have her live with him? Very strange. Is he a Christian?” asked the Mistress. “But I still will need somebody to help me. I taught her how to cook and keep a nice house. She is healthy and not bad looking. So why only one-fifty? She should be worth a lot more.”
A hundred and fifty dollars, Yuk Fah thought. At least I’m worth more than when I was eight–three times as much. And now she thinks I’m ‘not bad looking’ – ha.
“Well, he said he wants to marry her. That’s his business. Anyway I only paid fifty dollars for her plus ten dollars to the broker and she has worked for us for nine years,” said Master Lee. “So we will make money. Besides, if we wait too long, we don’t know who else might want to marry her and when. I think we should take the offer.”
“As long as you get me someone else to replace her. She is getting to an age when she will be thinking about men, and who knows what will happen then. And I’ve seen how you’ve been looking at her recently when you didn’t think I was watching,” Mistress Lee added in an accusatory tone. “So, yes this is a good time. But don’t you dare think of having first rights to her before the wedding.”
“No, no, you know I wouldn’t do that. He’s willing to pay all this because she’s a virgin.”
“Well, you’d better not forget.”
I was lucky up to now, she thought. I’ve sensed him eyeing me. I’ve heard of other girls forced to go to bed with their masters. Their mistresses took hard revenge on them afterwards even if the girls hadn’t wanted to.
“Yuk Fah, come here,” she heard him call. She entered the dining room keeping her expression blank, eyes averted, pretending she had heard nothing.
“Yuk Fah, there’s a man who wants to marry you,” he said without a preamble.
Her heart leaped. She had heard right! An actual marriage, a husband. To become a wife and not a concubine. She could really escape this life! She could have a home of her own. And maybe a family! The hope and joy that suddenly flooded her entire being rushed to her cheeks.
Master Lee thought she blushed from modesty and he said kindly, “ I leave it up to you. He is thiry-six years old and you are only seventeen. He said his wife died and he has two children. I have heard he is a hard worker, so you will always have enough to eat. One more thing, he is not Punti but Sai Yup. I told your father when you left, that I would try to marry you to another Punti. But his is the first offer. I don’t know when there might be another.”
Yuk Fah was surprised by Master Lee’s generosity when he said, “You want some time to think it over? I don’t need to tell him until the day after tomorrow.”
Her thoughts tumbled across each other. Thirty-six years old. And he has children. But if I don’t take this chance, who knows how long it will be before I get another? Suppose it never comes? Or suppose the next offer is from a sixty-year old, toothless lecher? Wai Fat noticed me today. But he only wants to fool around and he drinks and gambles. He’s not going to settle down. No use dreaming. Athough he is really handsome. Never mind. Better be smart and take freedom when I can. To actually be married. And to a Christian, whatever that means. Thirty-six. Twice as old as me. And what’s he look like? Probably no Wai Fat. But he cares enough to want to marry me. And Master Lee said he is a hard worker. So I won’t have to eat table scraps anymore.
“No need to wait,” she said decisively. “Tell him, yes, I will marry him.”