“The Star of Jingdezhen” by Robert Bagnall

“The Star of Jingdezhen” by Robert Bagnall

Once upon a time…

Every fairytale should begin like that.

Once upon a time there was a man, Shao Tsai-Jung. He lived in Nantong and was a good man: resourceful, inventive, but headstrong. Together with his brother Ching he made things and fixed things that others couldn’t.

When a steam launch carrying a minor royal, the Princess Jiang, was stranded, they repaired it so that she could continue on her journey up the Yangtze River. Shao watched the vessel, shaped like a swan, surge out into the vast river with each beat of its steam-powered heart, and thought that that was an end to the matter.

But when news arrived in Nantong that the princess had been kidnapped and held for ransom it was Shao who set off on horseback with his sword drawn, despite the protestations of his brother. Ching tended to laziness, to waiting for others to do what he could if only he applied himself.

Shao Tsai-Jung wasn’t the only one who set off to rescue the princess, of course. There were others, greedy with the possibility of reward. Some turned back when they realized how bloodthirsty the gang holding the princess was. Others were slain in their attempts. It was Shao who at last freed the princess, but not without cost: a finger, an eye, and an ear.

Despite his injuries he accompanied and protected the princess on the remainder of her journey.

When he was presented to the princess’ father, the warlord Shih, as invariably happens in fairy tales, he was offered anything he wished for in recognition of his safe delivery of Shih’s daughter. Shao turned, not to the princess, but to her handmaiden, and asked for her — the handmaiden’s — hand in marriage. The Star of Jingdezhen, Shao Tsai-Jung called her.

“And,” my mother used to conclude — and this is where the tale diverts from the usual stories parents tell their offspring at bedtime — “that man was your father.”

And my mother was the handmaiden.

Sometimes in the story my father returned with riches, gifts of Shih, as well as my mother the handmaiden.

That was virtually all I knew of my father, and even then I couldn’t be sure. One day, not long after my father left and Ching, my uncle, became my stepfather as well, my mother stopped telling me that story and said my father was nothing but a simple engineer, and that she was just an orphan from Jiangxi Province.

I could only just remember him, his gentle voice, him looming over five-year old me. I could remember the other children finding his appearance frightening: the glass eye that he would tap, his missing finger and ear.

But not me. He was my father.

* * *

I was forging a new magnetron block in the basement. It was all cinders and smoke in my eyes and darkness and not enough room to move. The constant chunk chunk chunk as the steam bellows blew the coals from red to white and with it the metal from solid to liquid.

The magnetron is what causes the ionized water in front of an ion vessel to rise and tip, allowing the ship to constantly surf downhill, a seemingly impossible trick, but one enabling the Shanghai freighters to make San Francisco in two days.

Every workshop had its own preferred design for the magnetron: ours was vaguely star-shaped, or like a flower with petals with concave edges; its own closely guarded recipe for the metal alloy; and its own ceremonies. My uncle added a bag of herbs to our molten mix, although I suspected it was empty superstition. I had heard tell of a forge in Hunan Province that added a dead rat to its mixture: one rat for every ten kilograms of molten alloy. So what did I know?

My uncle stood by me and at the allotted moment threw the bag of herbs into the crucible. Shielding my eyes I watched it float on the surface of the molten metal, the canvas bag charring from the bottom up, before it burst into flame. One moment it was blackening, the next it was engulfed; there was no in-between. And then it was gone, little more than a scum on the surface of the metal, then lost entirely.

Thick-gloved, I poured the metal into the hole in the sand that hid the mold.

“Ours are the best magnetrons in Shanghai. And there’s nothing in Jiangsu or Zhejiang that can touch us.” I said it as a simple statement of fact, not a boast.

My uncle nodded. We both watched the steam rise from the sand.

“But we only have space to make blocks for the river boats. We should be making them for the San Francisco ships.” It was something that had been on my mind for some time. “We ought to find bigger premises.” And not taking three months over each, I thought, with every part made by the hands of my uncle or me, and, at my uncle’s eccentric insistence, nobody else. Eighteen years old, I felt I ought to have a greater say in the running of the business.

“No,” was all he said and stalked off.

We lived in a square colonial brick-built workshop alongside Suzhou Creek, junks tied up outside six abreast, five-story slab-sided warehouses on either side. Living quarters on the upper floor; workshop at ground level; in the basement the forge. A trap door in the floor of the workshop allowed the newly forged components to be hauled up by block and tackle for assembly and finishing. I thought we ought to be doing well enough to afford a separate house and factory, to take on staff. But my uncle seemed strangely attached to the old place and, at the same time, so unhappy with it that he wanted to change it wholesale. There was barely a floorboard he had not pulled up at some point, a wall that hadn’t been stripped and re-plastered.

A day later as I exposed the cast metal, still throwing off a dull heat, I brooded about how we could create more space. Even a few more feet would allow bigger blocks to be cast. Sweating under my leathers I was struck with a strange thought. I stood below the trap doors and paced out the distance to the far wall. Six and a half paces.

Upstairs I repeated the experiment in the workshop. Eight steps before the toe-end of my boot hit the brickwork. There could be no doubt. The cellar wall was a good stride and a half in front of the corresponding wall above it. Why?

Some possibilities offered themselves up. Perhaps the house had been built with the cellar walls considerably thicker for structural reasons. Or perhaps our cellar was narrower for the simple reason that the baker’s behind was wider?

Mr. Yeung’s bakery was popular with Americans. I think he thought I was some kind of industrial baked goods spy and he took some convincing that I only wanted to see where his basement walls finished. He laughed and shook his head, disbelieving my story, and then shrugged and led me downstairs. Some simple pacings, watched by Mr. Yeung and his laughing paper-hatted staff, convinced me that the wall of his cellar was in perfect alignment with the walls of the building above.

The mystery of our short cellar deepened, as it were.

* * *

My uncle seemed to be in a good mood, levering chopsticks of rice and chicken to his mouth. I broached the issue of the cellar.

“If we remove the wall,” I said between mouthfuls, “we could extend the forge.”

My uncle fell silent. His eyes seemed vacant, staring into the middle distance. “We don’t need more space.”

“Why don’t you want to build the magnetrons for the ocean-goers? All it would take is a sledgehammer. I don’t think that wall is holding anything up. It’s just been added to the cellar at a later date. It’s nothing to do with the bakery: I’ve measured it; I’ve spoken to Mr. Yeung.”

At those last words his eyes, narrow and angry, shot up and met mine. I realized that I had taken the issue beyond a mere topic of conversation and into something practical, something real.

“You had no right,” he spat, enunciating each word individually.

“The boy was only trying to help,” my mother protested.

He slammed his fist down on the table, making the bowls rattle. “No. I forbid it.” And with that he stood up and stormed out of the room, out of the house, wooden heels clattering on the wooden steps.

If I found his reaction strange, I found my mother’s more bizarre. She did not get up to go after him, did not break down in tears, did not utter a comment. But her face was animated, her brow furrowed, her mouth moving as though trying to find a word on the tip of her tongue. I made to speak but she held up a hand to silence me. And then she was gone too, her bowl left half-finished as well.

I finished my meal slowly, numbed at the consequences of my simple suggestion. I had no idea of the nerve I had touched in my uncle. Or what greater truth I had caused my mother to hit upon.

* * *

I was woken by the sound of breaking glass, a jagged, sharp-edged noise. For a second I was lost completely, confused. I crawled out of bed.

Standing in the doorway of my room I heard my uncle shout, “I’ve waited long enough.” Beneath his rage I could hear my mother whimpering. A strip of light showed underneath their door. “Where are they?”

A crack sounded, followed by a dull noise I could not place. I first feared that he was hurting her, but quickly realized that he was going through the drawers of the dresser. The crack was the sound of the each drawer being wrenched open. My mother was pleading with him, seemingly to no effect.

I thought I could hear him breathing heavily, but it was my own lungs I heard. A shadow shifted against the strip of light and I heard him hit her. “Now tell me where it is!” he slurred. He’d been drinking again.

Her reply was lost in sobs.

“I’ve looked for years. I’ve had this house apart.” There was a solid, heavy crash. It rang out against the blackness of the night. I reckoned the dresser had probably been turned over.

Then my mother said something in a low voice, something I did not catch, but I sensed that its effect had been electric. I drew closer to their door, fearing the moment at which he would truly explode.

It came. The sound of a succession of blows. Three, four, five. I’m not sure how many. I heard him grunt each time he pulled his arm back, and wheeze as he let his fists fly. I heard her muffled gasps and cries as he struck. They came in a slow burst, like artillery fire.

And then the door flew open and he stood framed in the doorway. The light dazzled me, but I had an impression of my mother lying inert on the floor in amongst a mess of clothes and papers, overturned furniture and broken glass.

I had no time to turn before he threw me backwards against the wall. My face hit floorboards and I felt his knees slam into my back, knocking the breath out of me. Strong hands pulled my arms up, almost out of their sockets. The end of his belt whipped against the loops on his trousers as he ripped it free with his other hand.

“Do you have them? Did your father leave them all with you?”

“What?” I gasped. “What are you talking about?”

I could feel him wrapping the buckle end of the belt around his hand and raising his shoulder to strike. I clenched every muscle in my body to take the blow. It came stinging, red hot across my ear and cheek. I twisted my head away and a second blow came across the other side of my head leaving it ringing. There was no way for me to turn my head, no way to protect myself.

“The jewels. The jewels Shih gave him when he took your mother from the Princess Jiang.”

“That’s a story,” I screamed, “A children’s story.”

“It’s true. It happened. And after your father left you she would have been cast into the street if I hadn’t married her. And you with her. Now I want the jewels that Shih gave my brother.”

I had begun to scream again that there were no jewels, that he was mad, when the belt came cracking down on my face again. I screwed my eyes tight and squirmed, fighting, twisting hither and thither. Sometimes I guessed right and the belt slapped painfully against the top of my head. Sometimes it bit into my cheek or seared against my ear or caught the side of my lip. My whole face was aflame.

And then the blows stopped as suddenly as they started. I felt the weight of my uncle teeter on top of me and fall. The belt hit the carpet like a dead snake by my face as he crashed down. I spun on to my back, my guard up like a boxer’s, twitching, unsure what to expect next. Silhouetted by the light from her room, my mother stood above me. In her hand the poker from the bedroom fire. My uncle lay on his back at her feet; the only thing moving was a trickle of blood down his shaved head.

* * *

In the light of an oil lamp my mother applied ointment to my wounds. I could see the cuts and bruises that she had received at my uncle’s hand but she ignored them as she attended to me. My face stung as her fingers worked the thick cream into the wounds.

“I don’t know why I had been so stupid, so blind,” she said. I assumed that she meant in marrying my uncle. And then she screwed the top back on the jar and said, seemingly apropos of nothing at all, “Get a sledgehammer.”

After five blows the first brick moved and then, under a succession of strikes, sweat streaming down my face into the cuts on my face, fell ringing into an empty space behind. A rush of stale, stinking air hit my face. My mother gripped me by the shoulder and implored, “Keep going, keep going.”

When I had made a hole big enough to look through, I took an oil lamp and leaned towards the gap. The face of a corpse leered back, hair still black above crumpled gray powdery skin and, catching the lamplight, a perfect glass eye.

My father.

“I understand now why he spent however many years pulling the house apart. He was looking for the jewel. If Shao really had left us then he would have taken it with him. There would have been nothing for Ching to look for.”

This was too much for me. “There are jewels, then?” I asked, disbelieving.

“A jewel.”

“But if Uncle never found it…”

My mother did not reply.

My mind turned to more practical matters. “What will we do with the bodies?”

“The forge,” she said simply. “But we will say prayers for your father.”

I found it first odd, and then laughable, that I actually cared about my uncle’s head cracking against each step as I dragged him by his feet down the stairs. His eyes, flat like bracken water, remained open. His mouth, through lips now pale, retained its fixed grin. And each and every jarring step did not change those features.

I laid him on the floor, spread-eagled. With a shiver I noticed that my father, propped up amongst the broken bricks, had lost his glass eye. Where it had sat before, glinting in the thin light from the lamp, there was now a deep black cavity. I worked out what that meant; that my mother had gone over to the body; had touched it; had seen what unworldly state it was in. And had prized the glass eye from the rotted flesh with her fingers.

I felt sick. I felt dizzy.

I think she saw me reeling. “You are too young, far too young for this. But you have done well. And I love you.”

I sat down. The nausea was passing.

“I want to show you something. After all, it’s yours.” And with that she produced a small black cloth pouch, the size of a large marble, expertly sewn up at its mouth. I held it. It was heavy. I looked to her for an answer.

“Tear it open,” she said.

I did so and a cut diamond, spherical, with miniscule facets beyond number, as wide as my thumb, fell into my palm. I stood at the bottom of the stairs and held it up to the moonlight. It danced and glittered, blue and yellow.

“It is called the Star of Jingdezhen. He called me that too, but after this. He hid it behind his eye, in the socket,” my mother, the handmaiden of the Princess Jiang, said by way of explanation. “There was nowhere else he felt he could keep it safe.” She held me close. “It’s yours. It’s your legacy.”

Robert Bagnall is a British writer with short fiction recently appearing in Crimson Fog and Potomac, and in anthologies from Pill Hill Press and Kazka Press. His science-fiction novel 2084: The Meschera Bandwidth is currently being serialised by Jukepop Serials, where he would appreciate your votes. He’s allergic to cats and doesn’t like dogs.