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Stories

By Jim Weitz

A Home In The Clouds

Just before her suicide, Quiongmei whispers her last words to a child, who promises not to tell.

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Relationships/Family, Satire

Story Details

  • Title : A Home In The Clouds
  • Author : Jim Weitz
  • Word-Count : 9902
  • Genre : Relationships/Family, Humour

About The Author

Author

Jim Weitz is from the USA where he used to work in international law. He has lived in Asia for 12 years, including several years in Shanghai. He writes satire and has a novel coming out in May, The NAFTA Report, a satire of globalisation in which Mexican tap water is exported to the United States and sold as a laxative.

“I have some great news!” said Jingfei as she barged into Dai-tai’s office and sat on the edge of her colleague’s desk. “I think you’re really going to like it.” Dai-tai put down the fashion magazine she was reading and glared at Jingfei.

“Oh? Are you getting off my desk?” she asked. Jingfei seemed not to hear.

“A good friend of mine is looking for a wife. He’s rich, a multimillionaire, and I want to introduce you because I think the two of you would really hit it off.”

Dai-tai laughed. “Oh, that is good news! Stay here on my desk and tell me about him.”

Jingfei flung out her arms. “He owns more apartments than I can keep track of.”

“Wow! What kind of business is he in?” asked Dai-tai.

Jingfei sat back up straight and folded her arms. “He’s a real estate developer.” “That’s a great business!” Dai-tai smiled.

“Yes it is! But…” Jingfei rubbed her gold necklace between her thumb and forefinger, then lowered her voice and leaned in close, “…he has a wife now. But she won’t be in the picture long.” She cut the air with her hand.

“What! Since when do you introduce your friends to married men?”

“She’ll be gone soon,” Jingfei said flatly.

“A divorce? Why is he getting divorced? That’s always a red flag.” Dai-tai began to turn back to her work.

“No, no, no, don’t worry. It’s not like that,” said Jingfei keeping her voice low. “The situation is pretty straightforward. His wife is in the hospital now. She’s got cancer. And she’s not going to make it.”

Dai-Tai became still and stared at nothing for a moment. “How old is she?”

“She’s thirty-five.”

“How horrible.”

“Yes, it is horrible,” Jingfei agreed.

“So young. So many people are getting cancer these days. What a shame.”

“Yes, it is a shame,” Jingfei agreed again.

“Did she smoke?”

“No, I don’t think she smoked. Just bad luck.”

“What a pity.”

“Yes, it is a pity,” Jingfei agreed once more.

Dai-tai rested her elbows on her desk and leaned towards Jingfei. “How long do you think she has left?” she whispered.

Jingfei lowered her voice again. “Weeks, maybe days. She’s already gone through chemotherapy and it hasn’t worked. My friend says the doctors are more than 99% certain about it. He says his wife looks horrible, has to wear a wig.”

“Do they have any children?”

“No, none.”

“Oh, that’s good… I mean it would be terrible to leave some young child without a mother.”

“That’s true. And thankfully she’s an only child, her parents have passed away.”

“Are you sure your friend wants to marry again?”

“Oh yes, don’t worry about that. Life goes on, you know.” Jingfei causally threw out her hands. “He asked me if I knew a suitable woman under thirty who’s available now. They’re lots of women I know who’d love to meet him, but I want you to know, Dai-tai,” Jingfei pointed directly at her friend and smiled, “that you are the first candidate!”

Dai-tai smiled back. “Thanks so much, Jingfei.” Then she paused for a moment. “Isn’t it strange though, that a man like that doesn’t already have someone in mind.”

“He doesn’t want someone from his own circle, you see. He needs a woman who has poise, who can make a good impression, but who can also make a comfortable home.”

“Well, that does sound like me. I can make a comfortable home.”

“I think so too. And it’s hard to meet people these days. We’re all so busy. So I thought I could do you two a favor. He’ll be at a dinner tonight with some friends. If you have time, I can introduce you. Though, of course his wife is still…” Jingfei broke off in mid-sentence. “You know, my friend always told to me how clingy she was. Some women just love too much.”

“That’s true,” Dai-tai, agreed. “So he’s in real estate you say?”

“Yes, he’s helped finance many buildings, including the Zhongshan building, and he has two more underway.”

“Oh you mean the building over by Zhongshan Park?” Dai-tai pointed out the window.“That got a lot of publicity when it was built.”

“That’s the one. And he’s sometimes mentioned in the Shanghai Post. You can look him up by his name, Wang Fu. There are pictures of him online.”

“I don’t judge people by their looks,” Dai-tai said.

“Oh, I had better get going,” said Jingfei looking at her watch. “I’ll keep you posted about tonight, Dai-tai.”

“Thanks, Jingfei.” Dai-tai smiled.

“My pleasure,” said Jingfei, smiling back.

###

“I have some great news!” the doctor told Wang Qiongmei that morning as he walked into her room. He sat on the edge of her bed, leaned in close and smiled. “You have a rare case of spontaneous tumor remission.” The doctor explained that the tumors must have been shrinking for several weeks. He said now all she needed were weekly follow-ups. In fact, if she felt able, it was safe for her to check out that afternoon and go home. That had been several hours ago. Since then she had been sitting up in bed staring blankly at the white hospital wall. She thought she should be happy, but her mind was uncharacteristically confused. She didn’t know what she was feeling. She loved her husband, even foregoing a career to make a home and social life for him, and she wanted him to be the first to know… but he had not visited in more than a week. And at the same time that he had stopped visiting, so had all her friends. Now she didn’t know when they planned to see her again. A whispered conversation she had overheard through the fog of chemotherapy began to bubble to the surface of her consciousness… two friends outside her door… something about her husband and another woman… She slowly reached down and put on a wig. Sometimes a visitor came on Monday, a five-year-old girl who stopped by to talk for a few minutes in the afternoon. She was one of the nurses’ daughters and was dropped off at the hospital from school just before her mother finished her shift. Qiongmei loved children and looked forward to the visits. Sure enough, a few minutes later, the little girl came skipping into her room.

“Hello!” the girl almost shouted.

Qiongmei smiled. “Hi Chenguang! What are you up to today?”

“I ate a sweet potato!” she said.

“Oh, I love sweet potatoes! Did it taste good?”

“It was delicious!” Chenguang was always emphatic about her opinions. She started looking at something outside the twelfth story window. “What are those?” she asked, pointing through the glass. High in the sky were many kites of different colors flying over Fuxing Park. Some held steady in one position; one would dip down quickly for a second or two, then gradually float back up in repeating loops. Another was tracing a kind of figure eight in the air.

“Oh, people are flying kites. Do you like them?” asked Qiongmei, still smiling.

“They’re beautiful! And they’re different colors.”

“I know! Which one do you like?”

Chenguang hopped once. “I like the pink one!”

“I like it too!”

Chenguang looked at Qiongmei. “Can I get a kite?”

“I bet your mom would get you one, if you asked her.”

“Really?” Chenguang’s eyes widened as she looked back out the window. “Do you think she’d get me a pink one?”

“I think she would.”

“I don’t know how to fly a kite.”

“It’s easy.”

“How?”

“You just need to know a couple secrets,” Qiongmei stopped smiling, gave Chenguang a side look and raised her eyebrows a little.

“What secrets?” Chenguang stared at Qiongmei with her mouth a bit open.

“You promise not to tell?”

“I promise!”

“You need to make friends with the birds in the park. First you call them. And when they come, you give them some seeds. Then they’ll grab your kite with their little feet and take it up as high as they can.”

“Really?” asked Chenguang.

“Really. But they work very hard, so when they get tired they go back up to their homes in the clouds.”

Chenguang looked out the window again. “They have homes in the clouds?”

“Yes, they do, and they keep very good care of them.”

“I don’t see any birds,” she said.

“They’re very small.”

“Are you sure?” Chenguang sounded doubtful.

“Of course, otherwise people wouldn’t be able to fly kites,” Qiongmei smiled again and winked at Chenguang who seemed to be considering the point. “And then there’s the second secret, it’s the most important of all.” Qiongmei leaned down and whispered something in Chenguang’s ear for several seconds. “Will you remember that, Chenguang?”

Chenguang looked Qiongmei in the eyes. “Yes,” she said.

“And you can tell your mom when you’re at the park.”

The two of them silently looked at the kites as they dipped and fluttered in the sky. Qiongmei ran her fingers through Chenguang’s hair. It grew down just past her shoulders. It had probably been brushed before she went to school, but by now it fell haphazardly at different angles. Qiongmei told Chenguang to hold still as she picked up a brush and ran it through her hair. After a minute it looked shiny and beautiful. Qiongmei turned Chenguang around and leaned down towards her.

“Listen, Chenguang, I’m not going to be here next time you come. So let’s say goodbye now, OK?”

“Where are you going?”

“I have to go home.”

Chenguang looked confused. “I thought this was your home.”

Qiongmei laughed. “No, it isn’t. My home is somewhere else.”

“If my mother gets me a kite, will you come to the park to help me to fly it?”

“Great idea! I’ll be there, Chenguang!”

“Bye bye!” Chenguang waved as she ran out of the room.

“Bye bye!” said Qiongmei waving back.

Qiongmei sat in silence for a minute thinking about how young children live in a world of innocent simplicity while adults are expert in creating complications. Then she roused herself out of bed, and pulled a small suitcase from underneath it. It contained two or three changes of clothes that she wore for visitors instead of her billowy green hospital gown. She packed her make-up into it, along with some books and magazines she was reading. Then she threw away some empty cups and arranged everything on the bedside table as it had been when she arrived. She always liked to leave things tidy. After she finished, she walked across the room, opened the window, sat high up on the sill, swung her legs around to the outside, faced the sky full of kites, and pushed herself out towards the clouds.

###

At first, Chenguang’s mother, Nurse Yue Ling, did not understand what the commotion in the eleventh  floor hallway was all about. Then she overheard someone say: Somebody fell out the window in room 1202!  Yue knew that Chenguang sometimes went to that room to talk to Mrs. Wang because it was right next to the nurse’s lounge. Yue had always told Chenguang to wait for her in the lounge after being accompanied there by one of the hospital staff. It was only a few minutes. But she knew Chenguang often didn’t listen. Her heart raced, the floor felt uneven, she quickened her pace, ran past the eleventh floor elevator to the stairwell and bounded up the flight of stairs. When she got to the twelfth floor, she came upon several hospital staff outside room 1202.

Where’s my daughter?” she yelled. Without even waiting for an answer, she rushed into the room where a security guard and a doctor were standing. “Where’s my daughter?”  Yue demanded again almost out of breath.

“Your daughter’s not here,” said the guard. “There’s just been a suicide, or a death. A patient fell out the window.” Yue walked quickly of out the room. The guard and the doctor exchanged looks. “Maybe I’ll go see what that’s about,” said the guard. Yue rushed into the lounge so quickly that Chenguang gave a start. When Yue saw her daughter sitting there she heaved a sigh of relief, sat down next to her and tried to relax.

“What’s wrong?” asked Chenguang.

“Nothing, honey. Mommy’s just in a hurry today. How are you?”

“I’m fine.”

“What did you do today?”

“I talked with the lady.”

“What lady?”

“The lady next door.”

“You did?” Yue tried to suppress another wave of anxiety. “When?”

“A few minutes ago.”

“What did you talk about?”

Chenguang looked a little uncomfortable. “I can’t tell you.”

“Why not?”

“Because I promised.”

“You promised what?”

“The lady told me secrets. I promised not to tell.”

Yue looked at her daughter and for the first time ever did not know what to say to her. She glanced up and saw the security guard standing at the door looking back at them. The guard excused himself and left.

“Honey, let’s go home.”

“Mommy, can I have a pink kite?”

“What?”

“A pink kite, like the one outside.” She pointed to one of the kites outside.

Yue thought for a moment. “Is this the secret you talked about with the lady?”

“Not really.”

“Honey, we’ll talk about this at home. Let’s go.” Yue didn’t want to take Chenguang past the growing crowd of people outside room 1202, so she walked the other way to the service elevator. Once on the ground floor they walked across the lobby. They had just exited the hospital when a voice called out to Yue from behind. It was the same guard that had been watching her in the lounge. He was coming towards her with a police officer in tow.

“Nurse Ling, this is Officer Zhou,” said the guard.

The police officer greeted Yue. “Good afternoon Nurse Ling, Could I speak to you briefly in private?”

“Yes, what about?”

“I’ll explain in a moment, could we just step inside for just a minute?” Yue went with the officer inside while the guard watched Chenguang. They sat down on a sofa in the lobby.

“As you may know,” said the officer, “there’s been a tragedy. A patient, Wang Qiongmei, jumped or fell out of a window. I’ve been told that a young girl was with the patient when that happened. Would that be your daughter?”

“Actually, I don’t know,” Yue realized the guard must have spoken with Officer Zhou and somehow she felt the need to equivocate. “She often visited Mrs. Wang. I’m not sure whether she was with the patient this time or not. Why? Is it important?”

“We should find out if she was there. Just a couple of basic questions to complete our report.”

“With all due respect officer, she’s five years old, I’m not sure what she could tell you and I don’t want to upset her.”

“Oh, I don’t want to upset her either,” said Officer Zhou holding up a reassuring hand. “We’ll go step by step. It’s really just procedural. Is that OK?”

“May I ask what questions you need to ask?”

“Just whether she was there, and if so, what she remembers. You can be there with us. It shouldn’t take long at all.”

Yue paused. “If you insist. But I need to tell you, she’s, well, how can I say, a little headstrong.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” said Officer Zhou smiling. “Don’t worry, I’ve interviewed children before.”

Yue exhaled. “Alright.”

They got Chenguang, brought her back inside and sat her between them on the sofa. “Honey, Officer Zhou just wants to ask you a couple of quick questions, OK?”

“OK.”

“Hi Chenguang, my name is Boqin,” Officer Zhou smiled.

“Hello,” said Chenguang.

“Hey, I like your shoes! What’s that cat’s name? ‘Hello-Kitty’? My daughter likes Hello Kitty.”

“I like Hello Kitty too!” said Chenguang loudly.

“That’s great. Listen, my little friend, can I ask you something?”

“OK.”

“Today, did you visit a lady in one of the rooms here?”

“Yes,” Chenguang said. “Was it next to where you met your mom?”

“Yes.”

“What did she look like?”

“She had on a green dress.”

“Was she nice?”

“Yes.”

“Did you talk to her?”

“Yes.”

“Did you talk about anything interesting?”

Chenguang seemed to think a little. Yue said: “Honey, can you tell Boqin if you talked about anything interesting?”

“Yes, we did.”

“What did you talk about?” asked Officer Zhou.

Chenguang looked up at the ceiling, put her hands under her knees and started swinging her legs back and forth over the edge of the sofa. “Chenguang, you can tell Boqin what you talked about.”

“I can’t  tell,” said Chenguang.

“Why not?” asked Yue.

“Mommy, I already told you. She told me two secrets, and I promised not to tell!” Chenguang stared at the floor.

Yue’s eyes made contact with Officer Zhou’s. Her polite smile seemed to ask, “Isn’t that enough?”

Officer Zhou returned a blank look, then turned back to Chenguang smiling and continued his questions. “Wow! I love secrets! It’s OK to tell me, Chenguang, because you see, the lady and I are friends.”

Chenguang furrowed her little brow and asked: “If she’s your friend, why don’t you ask her to tell you the secrets yourself?”

Officer Zhou’s smile dropped for the briefest moment but it was just long enough for Yue to interrupt and thank him for his work and explain that she and Chenguang had to get home for dinner.

###

Walking home down Ruijin Road, Chenguang was very quiet. Yue wondered whether her daughter had seen or heard something terrible. What secrets would a thirty-five-year-old woman about to commit suicide possibly want to share with a girl of five years? Should she even try to find out? Chenguang seemed fine…. but did quiet mean not fine? Yue knew that most Chinese parents wouldn’t worry, but she had studied child psychology at university, and all those western theories of childhood trauma came rushing back to her now. At home Chenguang went right to writing her characters at the living room table as usual while Yue made dinner. Soon Chenguang’s father, Liang, got home and while the family ate he talked about the stock market. Yue normally wasn’t that interested in investments, but just then she was thankful for the distraction. The only other topic that came up was when Chenguang asked again about flying a pink kite. It wasn’t until after they put her to bed that Yue had time to tell Liang everything that had happened. They decided on two things: they would ask Chenguang’s teachers to watch for any changes in her behavior, and they would consult the school psychologist for any advice she might have. It was the new thing for schools to have a psychologist on hand. Children might be resilient, but nervous parents needed soothing.

###

Sitting at his desk that evening, Officer Zhou fidgeted nervously. An hour earlier he had filed a suicide report that included a summary of a conversation with a five-year-old girl who had refused to tell him “secrets”. All reports had to be reviewed by at least one colleague for clarity. Would people make jokes? If he lost face would it damage his chances at promotion? He could have left it out, but her mother had witnessed the conversation. Then there was another issue. The deceased woman’s husband had just come to identify the body at the police morgue. What was driving that guy? He had been so unemotional about his wife’s death, even after he saw the body. But he suddenly showed signs of life after reading Officer Zhou’s report, which included Chenguang’s statement about two secrets from Mrs. Wang, who she “often visited”, whereupon he became bizarrely suspicious, demanding a detailed account of Zhou’s questions and Chenguang’s answers – the whole series of events. And when this did not satisfy him, Officer Zhou felt embarrassed and put upon to have to defend the words of a such a young child – which was difficult to do without in fact sounding like a young child.

Averting eye contact, he finally repeated Chengaung’s words: “Mr. Wang, please understand, she promised not to tell.”

The two men fell silent as the innocent words echoed off the cold morgue walls around Qiongmei’s silent corpse, as if coming from beyond the grave in mocking rebuttal to Wang Fu’s mad interrogation. And then it was that Officer Zhou sensed an upside to his frustrations. He had learned in his ten years on the force how to rise above adversity, to go above and beyond… and to make a little extra on the side. He and Mr. Wang came to an agreement, and Officer Zhou set out to make further attempts to uncover the intrigue of secrets between Qiongmei and little Chenguang.

###

The sky was letting fall a heavy rain when Dai-tai returned home late that night. She hurried from the taxi to the front door of the apartment, where she lived with her parents, and tried to enter quietly to avoid waking them. She didn’t want to have to explain everything to her mother, who was always nagging her to get married. Dai-tai was not so sure she was interested in Wang Fu, after all.  She needn’t have worried about waking her mother, though. She was waiting up for her on the sofa with a cup of green tea.

“Where have you been, Dai-tai? You went out on a Wednesday?” her mother asked.

Dai-tai walked over to sit down on the sofa and used this short interval to try to come up with a reason that would satisfy her mother. But she was too tired to think of a good excuse, and the truth would probably do the trick. “Yes, well, tonight a friend wanted to introduce me to a man.”

“Oh, I see.” Dai-tai’s mother smiled. “That’s nice. What’s he like?”

“He’s a real estate developer.”

“Real estate? He must be rich.”

“Yes, he is.”

“Oh, that’s good! Did you laugh at his jokes like I always tell you to do with men?”

Dai-tai rolled her eyes. “Yes, mom.”

“And I’m sure you told him how smart he is. Flattering the intellect always works with men. Did he fall for that?”

While her mother laughed a little, Dai-tai waited a moment or two before responding. “I didn’t tell him how smart he was. Mom, even if he is rich, Wang Fu might not be the right man for me.”

“Is he an ex-felon?”

“No…”

“Then he’s right for you. You’re twenty-eight, Dai-tai, you’re not getting any younger. And you know, between your father’s diabetes and my back problems a little more money in the family would certainly help with the bills.”

“Yes, I know…” Dai-tai paused again. “Mom, I heard his wife just died of cancer. Today, in fact. And he seemed so unmoved by the news.”

“Oh, I see….” Dai-tai’s mother hesitated for a moment, then sounded upbeat. “Well, I’m sure he had planned this dinner for some time and didn’t want to disappoint his guests. He’s a gracious host. That’s a good sign!”

“It just seemed so inappropriate. Doesn’t Confucius say that grief adds value to our lives?”

“If Confucius were alive today, he would want you to marry Wang Fu.”

“Why?”

“Because that is what I want you to do. And Confucius taught that children should obey their parents.” Dai-tai’s mother suddenly stopped and looked beyond her daughter for a moment. Perhaps she was considering whether her persistence was a little graceless. Or perhaps she remembered from Confucius’ teachings that he was not someone to be relied on in support of marrying for money. “Honey, I know you know money is important. It forms the basis of human relationships. With money you can do want you want, including helping other people.” She smiled warmly and patted her daughter on the knee. Then she got up and started walking to her bedroom. “I have to sleep now. Good to know you’ve met a nice, rich man.” Before closing her bedroom door, Dai-tai’s mother absent-mindedly flicked down the living-room light switch behind her, leaving her daughter in the dark.

Another quote or two from Confucius ran through Dai-tai’s mind: “The chase of gain is rich in hate… Love makes a spot beautiful. Does she who chooses not to dwell in love have wisdom?” Dai-tai felt exhausted. She sat on the sofa for a minute and listened to the sound of the raindrops smashing against the ground outside. Then she wrapped herself in a blanket, closed her eyes, and fell asleep.

###

The next day was Yue’s day off. Right away, she and Liang made an appointment with the school psychologist to meet that same morning. They walked Chenguang to her school on the 500 block of Fuxing Middle Road. Dr. Xue was a young woman about thirty years old and full of energy. She stood up smiling and made her way around the side of the desk to greet Chengaung’s parents.

“Nice to meet you,” she said shaking their hands. “Please have a seat,” she motioned to two chairs in front of her desk.

Yue and Liang sat down. “Thank you for being available at a moment’s notice, like this,” said Yue. “I hope it didn’t cause any inconvenience.”

“Not at all. That’s why I’m here. What can I help you with?” Dr. Xue sat back down behind her desk. Yue described the previous day’s events, then explained that they were concerned about how the experience might affect Chenguang’s schoolwork. Dr. Xue listened closely without interrupting or asking questions. She was, in fact, very interested. Nine out of ten of her meetings were with parents concerned about why their seven-year-old wasn’t doing four hours of homework a night, or how to prepare their six-year-old for the Zhongkao Middle School entrance exam, or whether an after-school-course in logical thinking would raise their preschooler’s IQ…. A case like Chenguang’s did not come along all that often.

When Yue finished, Dr. Xue was ready with some advice. Her voice was calming and sympathetic. “Sometimes when a child experiences something traumatic that they can’t understand, their mind represses memories of the experience. This can be healthy, though it might cause problems later. Other times the child remembers everything but doesn’t know how to talk about it. To find out about Chenguang, I suggest taking following approach: Make a game of it. You can each take turns telling secrets about something funny or about a subject she likes. See how she responds, maybe ask her if she has a secret to share. But if she doesn’t talk about what this lady told her or if she becomes upset, don’t push her. And if we see changes in her behavior at school, we can consider other possibilities. I’m very happy to talk to her, as well.”

Yue and Liang looked relieved to have some professional advice from someone who seemed genuinely concerned. They thanked Dr. Xue, agreed that it sounded like a sensible plan and said they would give it a try. Then they left to go about the day.

###

That same morning, Wang Fu went to meet with his lawyer, Liwei, in a nondescript building on Puxi Road in Xujiahui District. The door opened into a very small gloomy lobby with a perfunctory guard sitting at a desk next to a perfunctory sign-in sheet. The lighting was minimal, the walls were lined with faux-marble grey panels and the floor was just a slightly lighter shade of grey. Ignoring the sign-in sheet, Wang Fu quickly crossed the lobby just in time to squeeze into an elevator with eight others. On the tenth floor Wang Fu got off and went to the law office of Datuba.

A receptionist greeted him cordially. “Good morning, Mr. Wang.”

Wang Fu walked by without making eye contact and headed down the hall. He knocked on the third door on the left then let himself in. Liwei’s office was on the small side. He sat behind a dark wooden desk that, given the dimensions of the room, seemed larger than it was. There were a few vinyl-cushioned wood chairs arranged around a particle-board coffee table. A large three-quarters full bookcase stood against one wall, and a couple of mass-produced copies of Kun Chan paintings of rural China from the 17th century hung opposite. Wang Fu thought of how the lawyers’ offices he had seen on business trips to United States were located in upscale buildings and impressively decorated with expensive artwork and fine furnishings, while the interiors of most law firms in Shanghai were comparatively understated, largely to avoid giving clients the impression that their bills were being used to finance frivolous luxury. That impression would have been correct, of course, but personally Wang Fu preferred the luxury. Wang Fu sat down. He and Liwei had known each other since their university days. After a little catching up, Wang Fu explained his business.

“Yesterday my wife passed away,” he said.

“I’m very sorry to hear that,” said Liwei.

“Liwei, my main concern is that she may have some assets somewhere, in particular some real estate that I don’t know about. She was an only child. When her parents passed away, it didn’t make sense that they would leave her nothing,” Wang Fu threw out his hands, tipped his head to one side and rolled his eyes. “Though that’s what she claimed. She and her family lived in the area of the Jing’an Temple neighborhood, east of Jiangning Road. But I don’t have an address.”

“I could see if a will was probated. What were her parents’ names?”

Wang Fu rubbed his forehead. “I really don’t remember their given names. They passed away many years ago.”

Liwei seemed to think for a moment. “Well, I have a contact in the government records office. I’ll see if he can help us out.”

“That’s great, Liwei! There’s one more thing, though. Just before my wife died she apparently told some secrets to a young girl who had become a regular visitor in her hospital room, a kind of confidant to her.”

“How young?”

“Five years old. Too young to understand anything I’m sure. But what I’m not sure of is my wife’s state of mind at that time. You see, unfortunately she committed suicide just after recovering from a near fatal illness. No one knows why, but obviously she couldn’t have been thinking clearly. It’s conceivable she told this girl something of interest.”

“Such as?”

“Anything related to her property.”

“I see.” Liwei paused for a moment. “Were there any witnesses?”

“I’m not really sure. The police didn’t know. Why?”

“Well, courts will recognize oral wills. And they are susceptible to fraud.” Liwei flipped through a book and read aloud the following: “Where a testator by reason of imminent danger of death or other exceptional circumstances is unable to make a will in any other form, he may… designate two or more witnesses, state orally his testamentary wishes; one of the witnesses must set down these wishes correctly in writing, state the year, month and day, and sign together with the other witnesses…” Liwei looked up. “Witnesses or not,” he continued, “the girl might blab something to some people who then could claim they were there acting as witnesses.” He paused. “But I don’t understand something. Why not just ask the girl about the secrets?”

One corner of Wang Fu’s mouth twitched in annoyance as he turned up his palms. “She’s not talking,” he said.

“The girl’s not talking?”

“That’s right,” said Wang Fu, feeling as though he were being asked to confirm his impotence.

“Has anyone asked her?” said Liwei.

Instead of responding Wang Fu shifted uncomfortably in his chair. He was encountering the same embarrassing problem that Officer Zhou had had with him. How to explain the mind of a five-year-old girl without sounding like a five-year-old girl?

“I mean, we might clear this up with a quick chat with her parents, right?” said Liwei.

“Liwei, the problem is,” Wang Fu hesitated. He sunk a little in his seat and averted his gaze as he tried to find the right words. What in the world! He built skyscrapers! He could handle this! He sat back up, made eye contact with Liwei, touched his thumb and his forefinger to jab at a point in the air while announcing in a commanding tone: “She promised not to tell!”

Liwei’s face showed no expression. He seemed to be assessing the weight of this revelation. Then gradually a look of confusion spread across his face. Or was it mild amusement? Wang Fu couldn’t tell. Liwei’s expressions were always inscrutable when doing business, and now his old friend was doing a good job of… suddenly a very odd sound emitted from around Liwei’s mouth. At first Wang Fu wasn’t sure whether… but yes it was… Wang Fu could not believe it… It was a snort! An ungodly snort!! Wang Fu searched for a dignified response, but before he could find one Liwei’s lips parted and from between them a guffaw blew forth accompanied by a large dollop of spit that launched itself off his tongue and over the desk towards Wang Fu’s face where it landed on the tip of his nose. Wang Fu pretended not to notice. Or maybe he didn’t let himself notice. Instead he quickly raised a finger and again in the same strong tone said, “You know me, Liwei, I have an eagle eye for all things real estate!” The glistening dollop vibrated with the force of his voice.

“That you do, Fu!” said Liwei looking down and shuffling some papers on his desk. “I can start with probate records tomorrow if you give me a copy of your wife’s identification.”

As Wang Fu’s finger came down it wiped across his nose before reaching into the opposite pocket and pulling out his wife’s I.D. “Right here,” he said. Fu handed it across the desk to Liwei. “The police are following up about what my wife told the girl. I’ll let you know if they get any useful information from her.”

“Excellent. And I’ll keep you updated on what I find,” said Liwei. He held the I.D. at eye level to make a show of inspecting it, which was the polite custom in China upon receiving any document of importance. As he did so, he noticed a certain dampness spreading across his fingers….

###

The police station where Officer Zhou worked made even a Shanghai law office look ornate. Most of the rooms and offices were sparsely furnished with simple metal desks, a few filing cabinets and old wooden chairs, many of which needed new finishes. Aside from some public notices, nothing but blue and white paint hung on the concrete walls. Not all the rooms had doors. In one of the doorless rooms, Officer Zhou sat at a desk he shared with several of his colleagues. In front of him lay a copy of the previous day’s suicide report which he seemed to be not so much reading as regarding. On the left side of the desk his hand was resting on a landline office telephone. After several moments, he picked it up and dialed a number.

A voice on the other end answered: “Hello?”

“Good afternoon Nurse Ling, this is Officer Zhou from yesterday afternoon.”

“Oh… yes,” said Yue flatly.

“I got your number from the hospital. I hope you don’t mind. Something’s come up. Do you have a minute?”

“Yes, but just one.”

“After I finished my report, an unfortunate situation arose.” Officer Zhou’s voice oozed solicitude. “I met the husband of the deceased patient and explained what had happened. He became very upset. Apparently he and his wife were very close. He begged me to try to find out what his wife’s last words were. I told him I would try. Of course, they seem to have been spoken to your daughter. I wonder if she might have mentioned anything more to you about what Mrs. Wang said?”

Yue did not want conflict with a police officer. She tried to adopt a polite but firm tone. “No, she hasn’t. And Officer Zhou, I’ve already spoken to the child psychologist at Chenguang’s school about this. She doesn’t want us to push her to remember something that might cause her stress. We think that’s good advice and we’re going to follow it.”

“I perfectly understand. If anything does come up, could I leave you my phone number? I’m sure it would make her husband feel better.”

“That’s fine Officer Zhou, I’ll let you know if she tells us anything important.”

After the call was finished, he put down the receiver and looked up. Two of his colleagues were standing at the open doorway looking on. How long had they been there? What had they heard?

“Anguo and Changpu, how are things?” said Officer Zhou with a broad smile.

“It’s been a hell of a day,” said Anguo appearing exhausted.

“I hear you. What’s up?”

“I was hoping you could give me some advice on something.”

“Sure. Talk to me,” Officer Zhou smiled.

“I just finished a brutal interrogation.”

“What happened?”

“Couldn’t get a word out of a remorseless five-year-old.” Changpu burst out laughing.

“What did she do?” he asked with wide eyes and mouth agape.

“Rode for free on a merry-go-round!” said Anguo.

“Did you offer a lollipop exchange?” asked Changpu.

Before the razzing went any further, Officer Zhou tried to whip up a little sympathy for his predicament. “Come on guys, how often do you get a young child as the sole witness to a possible crime scene? These only children are so spoiled – and this little empress wouldn’t even listen to her own mother! But we’ll get the information. You can count on it.”

“Just kidding, Officer Zhou, don’t take it the wrong way,” said Anguo. “Have a good one.”

“You too,” said Officer Zhou.

The two officers walked down the hallway. After a few seconds there was another burst of laughter. It was the end of Officer Zhou’s shift. He sighed and got ready to punch out. Though he felt like he already had been.

###

Meanwhile, at the Ling house, Yue and Liang tried to put Dr. Xue’s advice to use. They decided to be especially indulgent with Chenguang that evening as they all sat down to a dinner of mapo tofu, stir fried spinach, broccoli and steamed rice. Half-way through dinner, Liang started talking about a conversation he had had at work with a colleague who had told him a secret. Yue asked what the secret was. It turned out that his boss had an unusual pastime. He liked to go dancing in discos. Liang got up from the table and gave a demonstration of how his boss danced, which looked something like a Spanish Flamenco. Yue and Chenguang laughed hysterically. Then Yue said she also had a secret. One of her friends was going to quit her job and get married to a man she had only met two months before. They had fallen in love at first sight and had already bought an apartment together.

Chenguang seemed to pay close attention. When her mother finished, she sat up straight in her chair and nodded her head: “have secrets too!”

“Wow! Really? What secrets?” asked Yue.

“I can’t tell you,” said Chenguang shaking her head with her eyes closed.

“Hmmm. Can you give us a hint?”

Chenguang sat silent for a moment. “Maybe I can give you a hint.”

“What is it?” asked Yue.

“It’s about a home.”

“Hmmm, a home, that’s interesting isn’t it, Liang? Let me think.” Yue and Liang stayed quiet for a while.

When Chenguang didn’t say anything more Liang said, “We can’t guess the secret, Chenguang. Is there anything else?”

Chenguang thought again. “Maybe I can tell the secrets.”

“Wow! I can’t wait!” said Liang.

“But not here,” Chenguang said as she filled her mouth with a bite of food and began to chew. Yue could not hide a look of exasperation as Chenguang continued chewing.

“Well, honey, where do you think you can tell us?”

“I think I can tell you at the park,” Chenguang said through a mouthful of food.

“Why at the park?”

“Because that’s where the secrets are.”

“The secrets are at the park?” asked Liang.

“Yes, that’s where they’re hiding,” said Chenguang, as if there was nothing unusual about such a situation.

Yue and Liang shared a look. “Well,” Yue said to Liang, “Chenguang and I can go to the park tomorrow afternoon, after work. Can you make it then?”

“I can take off work a little early,” he said.

“I want to fly a pink kite,” said Chenguang.

“Why’s that?” asked Yue. “Because the lady told me I could only tell the secret when I fly a kite – a pink kite.”

Yue exhaled. “OK, then. A pink kite it is.”

###

The next morning, Yue called Dr. Xue to ask her what she thought. She said flying a kite was just the kind of relaxing activity that might help Chengaung feel comfortable talking about something stressful. Dr. Xue really didn’t think she was needed anymore, but just before she was about to hang up her curiosity got the better of her professional judgment. “You know, Mrs. Ling, I should add that there is always the possibility, when stirring up unpleasant memories, of causing some upset to a child. I’d be happy to join you at the park just in case… as an observer – so to speak.”

“Oh, that’s very kind of you, Dr. Xue. Maybe we’ll take you up on that. And my husband and I think it’s a beautiful park,”  said Yue.

“It’s no problem at all. What time will you be there?”

“I get off work at 4:00, so I think we’ll be at Fuxing Park around 4:20. In the field on the south end.”

The two women agreed to meet then. Nothing was particularly clear yet, but it did seem that Mrs. Wang’s last words were something about her home, which caused Yue’s earlier annoyance with Officer Zhou’s persistence to give way to sympathy for Mr. Wang’s “grief”. After all, perhaps Mrs. Wang, though she might have been delirious, had said something that could comfort Mr. Wang.

She took out her cell phone and dialed Officer Zhou’s number. “Officer Zhou, I just wanted to let you and Mr. Wang know that our daughter said Mrs. Wang mentioned something about her home. But Chenguang, for some reason, will only tell us more when we take her to the park to fly a kite. She says that’s where the secrets are.”

“What an imagination! And clever too,” said Officer Zhou chuckling.

“And you might add stubborn. Anyway, tomorrow after work my husband and I will take her to Fuxing Park near the hospital. And I’ll let you know what she says.”

“Thank you, I’m sure Mr. Wang will appreciate that.”

“You’re welcome, Officer Zhou. Goodbye.”

“Goodbye.” Officer Zhou hung up and immediately called Wang Fu. “Mr. Wang I wanted to let you know that the girl, Chenguang, has agreed to reveal what your wife told her.”

“She agreed? What, is she setting conditions?”

“Well, yes, apparently there are some conditions. For reasons I don’t quite understand, she will only tell the secrets at Fuxing Park. Her parents plan to take her there tomorrow to fly a kite when her mother gets off work.”

“What time?”

“I think it should be soon after 4:00, which is when the girl’s mother finished work when I was at the hospital.”

“Has the girl said anything at all?”

“I think so. You may be interested. She said the secrets are in the park, and something about a home.”

“That makes sense.”

“Why’s that?”

“Everything in Shanghai is about real estate these days,” mumbled Wang Fu.

Officer Zhou paused to process the comment and put it in context. Wang Fu’s obsession was starting to make some sense to him. “I’ll let you know what I find out after I talk with Nurse Ling tomorrow,” he said.

“Good, good, that’ll be fine. Talk to you then,” said Mr. Wang.

Officer Zhou hung up and began turning the situation over in his mind. If the secrets actually did concern Shanghai real estate, it might not be so easy to get Nurse Ling to relate them to him if she realized the value of the information and wanted something in return. Ultimately, to ensure that the secrets wound up in his report so as to avoid losing more face at work and maybe even a promotion, as well as to receive full payment from Wang Fu, he had best take the initiative and be there when Chenguang finally spoke. He had to think. It would have to be done covertly. There wasn’t any harm in eavesdropping. Not eavesdropping really, the park was a public space after all, just listening. And at the Police Academy, he had received some training in espionage….

###

Liwei decided to go to the government records office himself. He knew it would not be easy to persuade the clerks to look up the property bequests of two nameless people. He might not even ask. He was hoping any real property would be under ‘Wang Qiongmei’ and not her parents’ names. Liwei knew his old friend had a sixth sense for real estate. He never missed a profit. Still he wondered if Fu might not have a screw loose. It wasn’t unheard of for people to reveal secrets on their deathbed or before a suicide, but even then, they were almost always told to family members, not some kindergarten kid. The Jing’an District records office was a dreary brown color with green diamonds framed by small boxes of green trim above the windows. The front door opened onto a lobby with a guard to the left and an information desk to the right. Passing the guard, Liwei walked up a flight of French style stairs with a baroque banister that curved 190 degrees around to the second floor where a line of ten staff sat waiting behind computers.

Liwei walked up to one of the desks where he knew the clerk. “Hi, Chuanli, how are you doing these days?” he asked with a friendly smile.

“Hi, Liwei, Good. Yourself?”

“I can’t complain.”

“What brings you all the way out to Jing’an?”

“A woman passed away a couple of days ago. I’m trying to find out whether she registered a will. Here’s a copy of her identification.”

“She lived in Shanghai?”

“Yes.”

“No problem.” Chuanli typed the I.D. number into his computer and began running some searches. Just then Liwei’s cell phone buzzed inside his pocket. He took it out and opened a text message from ‘WANG FU’.

‘GIRLS PARENTS CONFIRM MY WIFE TALKED ABOUT A HOUSE BEFORE HER DEATH.’

The scent of easy money!! Liwei’s pupils dilated with a sudden rush of dopamine that surged through his cerebrum’s Seeking System, travelling from his midbrain through his hypothalamus on into his ventral striatum “reptilian brain”. He was transformed into that state of enhanced focus that money-addicted lawyers feel when there is loose change laying around or that reptiles get when anticipating a kill. Thank heavens Fu’s sixth sense was right again! A relaxed and confident smile spread across his face. Now he wouldn’t have any problem asking about Qiongmei’s parents’ will.

“There isn’t any will registered under this name,” said Chuanli.

“Her parents might have processed a will. They passed away some time ago.”

“What were their names?”

“I’m afraid I don’t have them.”

“This doesn’t seem like your usual testament record request,” Chuanli said with a quizzical smile.

Liwei smiled. “No, no it isn’t. It’s unclear just what she owned. But something she said just before she passed away clued us into the fact that she must have had some valuable Shanghai property.”

“Sounds like something out of a movie.”

“Ha! That’s right. In this case she confided in a five-year-old girl. Can you believe it? But the girl won’t tell us the secrets.” Liwei chuckled.

“Hmmm. Let me see.” Chuanli started clicking around on his computer for a few of minutes. Then he looked back up. “I can’t find anything,” he said.

Liwei looked as though he had just been informed that the government was re-imposing Mao-era property seizures. “But,” he said, “if her parents died more than ten years ago, then those records might not be in the computer. Are there any paper records? Can you find them? And wills from other family members?” Liwei asked.

“Well…. it would take some time.”

Liwei wondered if perhaps Chuanli was hinting at a little quid pro quo for the extra work this would involve.

“I understand,” said Liwei. “Unfortunately, if she has any property to contest, we want to find out before any attempted transfer to another person takes place.” As he said this, Liwei took out a coin from his pocket and tapped it on the desk. “I’ll make it worth your time, Chuanli.”

Chuanli looked away. “Very well,” he said letting out his breath. “I’ll take a look during my lunch break.”

“Good man! You know, my firm stays on top of every aspect of the real-estate business in Shanghai. One day, I’ll teach you the ropes, kid,” Liwei the lawyer gave Chuanli the clerk a magnanimous wink.

After Liwei left, Chuanli turned to his colleague at the next desk. “Hey Gan, get this. This guy’s convinced a dead woman’s dead family has some hidden real-estate because of some secrets she told to a five-year-old girl just before she died. But the database shows that none of them ever owned a bathroom stall!” Chuanli shook his head and laughed.

“Did you tell him?” asked Gan.

“No, I didn’t want to make the poor guy lose face,” said Chuanli.

Back outside, Liwei called Wang Fu on his phone as he swaggered down the sidewalk. “Fu, so far nothing’s come up under your wife’s name, but I’ve got a friend at the records office looking through some old paper files that were never scanned. I’m optimistic. What’s happening on your end?”

“Just what I sent you in my text. And the girl says ‘the secrets are in the park’. Apparently, the girl’s going to tell all when her parents take her there.”

“What does ‘the secrets are in the park’ mean?”

“I’m sure it means the property is in the high rent area bordering the park.”

“Right! Can you be there with them?”

“Why?”

“It’s better to hear that sort of thing first hand. And bring someone to witness it, if you can.”

“Good thinking. I’ll see what I can figure out.”

Wang Fu didn’t know exactly how Officer Zhou was handling contact with the Ling family. Even if they were to agree to his being there, he didn’t think there was time enough to set up a meeting at the park, especially if he was to bring another person. Who knows, so many people might even make their kid clam up for another couple of days, and he couldn’t afford to lose any more time making a claim to the property. He figured he might go to the park around 4:00 so he could position himself close enough to hear what Chenguang said after she and her parents arrived. But a witness? Who could he bring with him at such short notice? Ah, yes! That girl he met at dinner the night before last. What was her name? Dai-tai, that was it. She would probably come. She seemed very taken with him. He wasn’t sure whether she already knew what a good marriage prospect he really was, but regardless, wouldn’t she be impressed when she found out he was about to own even more valuable Shanghai property….

###

Chenguang and her family arrived at Fuxing Park, ten hectares of artful landscaping, featuring an arched garden trestle supporting wisteria vines dangling chains of purple flowers along a fifty meter footpath, a small lake filled with red and white water lilies and a rose garden. They walked through bamboo groves, past pines, sycamores, dogwoods and plane trees towards a field about fifty by seventy meters where people were flying kites. Chenguang, her parents and Dr. Xue had found a place on the northeast corner of the field where they were preparing a kite to catch the northeasterly wind.

Chenguang had insisted on bringing some seeds to give to the birds. It was yet another capricious demand that she decided not to fully explain but that her parents accommodated all the same. As she and Dr. Xue scattered the seeds about, Chengaung looked up and noticed a man taking a seat a few meters away on one of the benches that lined the field. He wore a beard, a baseball cap, sunglasses, ripped blue jeans, unlaced sneakers and carried a cup with a few coins in it. For a moment, she was puzzled by his appearance. But then, of course! It occurred to her exactly who the man was. He raised his cup in front of his face as she started walking in his direction. That was strange, she thought, he was hiding.… Before her parents could possibly know what she was doing, she came up to the bench and was reaching her hand straight up towards the man’s sunglasses. The man leaned back and stretched out his legs. Chenguang stood on the tips of her toes and extended her hand even further! The man’s whole body visibly stiffened!! Two one kuai coins that Chenguang’s parents let her keep from the birdseed purchase clinked into the bottom of Officer Zhou’s cup. Chenguang hesitated a moment as she looked at this man who just a few moments before had flopped on the bench like a rag doll but was now frozen stiff as a statue with one arm and one leg splayed out at different angles.

She turned around to see her parents staring back with looks of surprise on their faces and decided to clarify the situation. “He’s a beggar!” she said loudly. Then she walked back to help Dr. Xue with the seeds.

Chenguang’s mother smiled awkwardly at Officer Zhou. “Isn’t it odd how that man seems to be frozen in place.” Yue whispered to Dr. Xue.

“Poor soul must be catatonic,” said Dr. Xue.

“Chenguang, the kite’s ready!” called out Liang.

Chenguang rushed over. “Can we fly it?” she asked.

“Sure, are you ready?”

“Ready!” Liang kneeled down behind Chenguang and showed her how to hold the spool and let the cord out. His hands covered hers as the kite started to gain altitude. Meanwhile, a man and a woman started walking towards them as soon as Chenguang’s kite caught the wind. They continued closingin until they were just three or four meters away. Then they began hooking up a kite. It was Wang Fu and Dai-tai.

“It’s getting crowded,” said Yue.

But the four of them had already settled in, and a generous wind was lifting the kite surprisingly quickly. Liang was kneeling down behind Chenguang, helping her manage the spool. For several minutes, they all admired the pink kite rising into the blue Shanghai sky with white clouds drifting by. Chenguang was very quiet and seemed to focus especially intently on it. After a while, Yue and Liang looked at each other, and then at Dr. Xue, who gave a nod.

Yue sat down next to her daughter. “Chenguang, do you remember what we talked about before? About the secrets? And a home?” Wang Fu moved in a step closer.

“Yes!”

“Can you tell us now?”

“Yes!”

“What are they?”

“The first one is up there!” Chenguang exclaimed pointing towards the kite as six adults heads looked up in tandem.

“What’s up there?” asked Liang.

“The birds in the clouds. The lady told me the birds help fly the kite up to the clouds. That’s where they live.”

“What birds, honey? I don’t see any birds,” said Yue.

“Up there,” Chenguang pointed to the sky where a flock of sparrows flew back and forth in the sky.

“Well, so there are! And they live in the clouds?” asked Yue.

“Yes, in the clouds. That’s their home.”

“Oh, now I see!” Yue said, appearing relieved.“Yes, what an interesting secret, Chenguang. I didn’t know it.”

“Now you do!” said Chenguang proudly.

“And what about the second secret?” asked Liang.

“The lady told me the second secret is the most important,” Chenguang announced. Wang Fu moved another step closer and Officer Zhou leaned forward as Chenguang drew in a breath. “If you want to fly a kite you have to be with someone you love! And that person has to love you back!”

“What do you mean, honey?” asked Yue. But Chenguang didn’t answer. Instead she was staring silently over at Wang Fu and Dai-tai. Her parents followed her gaze. The wind did not seem to favor Wang Fu’s and Dai-tai’s kite the way it did her own. Several times a strong gust lifted the kite a couple meters into the air then whipped it upside down and nose dived it back into the ground. Chenguang did not understand why two people who did not love each other would come all the way to the park to fly a kite together.

Yue and Liang turned back to Chenguang looking a bit nonplussed. “Well, we love you, Chenguang,” said Yue.

“I love you, too,” said Chenguang.

Wang Fu snatched up his kite to examine it. Turning to Dai-tai he launched into a confused explanation about a design flaw it had that he knew how to fix. Dai-tai let out a long “ahhh”. He was very smart, she told him, but she remembered just then she had an appointment at the hairdresser’s. On the other side of Chenguang, Officer Zhou diligently wrote down Qiongmei’s last words to add to his report. Dr. Xue smiled at Yue and Liang and said that, in her professional opinion, Chenguang was going to be just fine.

###

The wind blew a gentle breeze that rustled the leaves of the plane trees and helped the sparrows lift Chenguang’s kite higher into the sky. Below it, mother nature’s annual miracle of spring unfolded in the middle of the busy, bustling, money-mad city: Birds sang from the tree tops, bees buzzed around the wisteria blossoms, giant blooms of red and white water lilies fanned across the lake where fish were jumping, the rose garden was so beautiful it seemed to be bursting with song, while children chased each other through forested paths. And Chenguang, her mother and father were there too, alive to it all.  

END  

Jim Weitz asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work.

1 review for A Home In The Clouds

  1. 4 out of 5

    :

    A lovely short. Good technical skills, for example the simple but revealing way the various offices are compared and contrasted throughout.

    Repetition was also used to great effect, with the derision shown to towards the efforts of the various characters to explain the actions of a five year old to others and then finding themselves similarly floored shortly later being of particular note.

    Most importantly the essence of the characters and their motivations come across very clearly, and by the end I was rooting for Wang Fu to end up with the inevitable egg on his face.

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