He pushes into her, he lifts her long hair in his fist, and he whispers onto the back of her neck. “Where. Where are you?”
And then it is only a matter of days before he is gone again. Back to the safety of his men, unable to reconcile the love of the body and the love of the soul.
She is pregnant when he returns. He is offended to find her walking in their garden, not properly confined to the house, languid and sickly. He steers her by the arm and hurries her inside. Why didn’t you send word? he asks.
She has no answer.
When night comes, she eyes him meanly across the dinner table, steam from the neat, white bowls of rice making his face waver as if through tears. He bows his head, his reflection in the fish soup. His bows his head, but not in prayer. In boredom, sorrow, bitter regret, but not in devotion.She stabs her chopsticks upright into the sticky white mass. She says into their silence, “If it is a boy, we should name him Ping. Eh? Or perhaps even if it is not.”
Her forehead bounces dully off the table, bowls rattling, the clacking sound is her chopsticks rolling onto the table, onto the floor. Grains of rice swimming in spilt liquid; she flops uselessly. His fingers dig into her, pinch the blood from her brain, and everything is white, white. He shouts, as if from far away, “Don’t you ever speak his name in my house.” As if they were two different people. As if she were dead to him.
When she wakes, he is a heavy block at her bedside, shoulders wide, headless. He is weeping into his hands: a newborn sound, a helplessness in him that sickens her. If he has forbidden one half of her to live, then he shall have none of her.She vows not to speak, neither her name, nor his, nor the name of any thing or thought or feeling. She will show him what silence is. If she must be dead to him, she will offer up a rotting carcass, she will show him the loneliness of obedience.
“Mulan, my flower, I didn’t mean it.”
He kneels and presses the back of her hand to his cool, cool forehead, demanding the forgiveness she owes him. He throws words of love at her, but they bounce unheeded off her belly.
Her silence begins to anger him. He pleads first, he cajoles. He yells at her, he strikes her, and finally he leaves her.
She imagines taking his arm, turning his fist aside, only after he has gone. Lying in bed with the taste of blood, she imagines cutting her hair, cutting her losses, raising her child as father, mother, traveler, beggar. She could fight back. She could even be the one to leave. But Ping is dead now, and he was the one who had taught her how.