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In Hongkou, you could meet someone one day and find yourself living with him the next. Even if you disliked him. We rented a room in the three-story house where Gabriel Eber lived, number 54, Ward Road. Gabriel made me feel like a bad person, not religious enough, too quick to dance with Chinese strangers, unhelpful. I feared his judgment. Taube and Mr. Michener moved in, too. And the Lipners. I had no power except to call 54 Ward by its proper name, 54 Ward, never mistake it for home. It was one house in a line of identical houses, overflowing with sad families lucky to be alive. Even being alive was now a lucky mercy.
We moved our suitcase, cotton bag, and three selves into a single room on the first floor. It was off the front entrance, a brick archway over an iron gate hung with laundry we had to move out of the way each time we opened the door. There was just enough space at the foot of my cot to hang my head upside down in the mornings, to shift onto my hands and try to hold her handstand, to count, thirty days, forty days, fifty. Our first month in the new room, its walls blurred, my body drained to empty, blood filled my head. Papa must have seen me doing her exercises, calling her name, but he never asked.
For all of August, hot air and dust blasted through slivers in our cracked windows, and the walls and sills swelled. But old people and children crowded the alley behind us no matter how hot, chatting, laughing, playing. Those with pet crickets compared their singing. Some people squatted over an open stream of sewage. Others spread newspapers out and sold sweaters to be unraveled and reknitted, pieces of cloth, wood, brick, matches, nails, cigarettes, food. Every alley felt like its own tiny, busy city.
At night, Papa listened to Gabriel’s illegal radio in the basement. Germany lost an air war with Britain and the men cheered; Italy invaded Greece and they wept and worried. In the mornings, while I tried to hold myself upside down, while I lifted my sister to keep my arms strong, Papa read news of Shanghai, of our own life although it seemed like someone else’s. He told me stories of cities in China, one called Chongqing, bombed to ash by the Japanese. He said others had already been bombed, or were still being bombed, and more cities would be bombed later. I was too afraid to ask how to tell which ones.
Starving for breakfast, Papa left each day to look for work, and I watched Naomi, washed us from a bucket we all shared, cleaned, picked bugs and glass from rice before cooking it over a pot of coal. I tried to coax Naomi into speaking so I wouldn’t be so alone. By September, I could hold a handstand for twenty-five seconds, whispering Mama, but I was afraid of becoming crazy, so I took Naomi up to Taube’s room. I hoped for food, or a needle with which I might fix our mouse, even conversation. Anything not to be in our room forever, so hungry, always waiting for Papa.
Taube came to the door in a navy-blue dress and pulled us in as if from a storm. I looked around: a lit lamp, a handmade quilt over a chair, a table. She saw me looking, and asked, “Would you like help making your room more comfortable? Why don’t we sew a pillow?”
“Can we sew this?” I asked. I held out the toy mouse, its stomach still open.
She reached behind a bed propped against the wall and got a box. Inside were three needles, two spools of thread, some fabric, and a burst of stuffing. Just enough for mouse repair and one skinny pillow. Taube helped me, fixing my accidental knots, adding stitches between those I’d sewn too far apart. Naomi played at my feet, trying to prop herself up on her arms but falling, trying to climb my legs but falling. We listened to the sounds of our neighbors, six families in a house meant for one or two. Mrs. Lipner moved like a ghost in the room next door. Mr. Lipner was always out, trying to start a business printing news for Jewish people. No one, not even Mr. Lipner, could bear to be under the drenching cloud of Mrs. Lipner’s sorrow. If her boys had come, she might have been energetic, like Taube. Or if she had never had children, she might have been happier, too. Might Papa? He would have stayed behind to save our mother if not for Naomi and me, I was certain.
There was the cheerful noise of the Song family, who owned the house and lived on its top floor: grandparents, Mr. and Mrs. Song; their children; and two grandchildren—Mei-Mei and Xiao Su, six and four. The girls ran by and peeked into the door, giggling, saying, “Nihao, nihao!” Hello, hello! Naomi was riveted. When they ran away, still laughing, Naomi stared at the door hopefully.
“Your father says you’re nervous about school,” Taube said. “But the Kadoorie School will be wonderful. I can help watch your sister. We all have to work together now.”
My right hand slipped and pierced my left thumb with the needle. “I want to work, not study.” A bead of blood rose to the surface of my skin, and I popped my thumb in my mouth.
“Well, you’ll get better work eventually if you study first.”
Then why did Mr. Michener carry scissors everywhere? And Taube, a teacher, sew pillows? I picked Naomi up, and she began patting me. Had she seen me stick my thumb?
“Come,” Taube said, “Let’s go out for some noodles. We can watch the boats.”
“Oh, we don’t have—” I said, my face hot, but she interrupted.
“I’ll buy the noodles, of course. Please don’t worry.”
I was too embarrassed to thank her and too hungry to refuse. We walked into the late afternoon, as if on a regular outing, a mother and her daughters. Except I was carrying Naomi, and we had no mother. At the mouth of Chusan Road, a man stood wearing a flour sack. He had tied pieces of cloth to his feet in place of shoes, no tire rubber straps even. Taube went to him and touched his shoulder. He turned, wild-eyed, and she handed him five CN, five dollars of Chinese National Currency, enough to buy five meals, ten sausages from a cart we’d passed, fifteen days worth of noodles or soup on the street, weeks of the rice we made at 54 Ward.
His eyes revived, as if holding enough money for food, or even shoes, had transformed him. He nodded thank you, bowed slightly. “Things will get better,” Taube told him. But he fled, perhaps fearful she might change her mind. “That was so much,” I said, worried.
“I still have five CN left.” She smiled. “Enough for something hot for us today and tomorrow and the next day. We’ll be okay, and your father will find a job.”
The noodle stand closest to us had no chairs, just a cauldron over which a Chinese woman was bent, furiously stirring. Her hair was tied on top of her head, and she wore so many layers of clothing she resembled the cauldron, round and gray. She fished out noodles, before ladling broth into bowls. Taube bought two portions, one for herself and one for Naomi and me. I tried to eat slowly, feeding Naomi a bite for every one I took. Gabriel had warned us never to eat what he called Chinese street food, but Taube apparently didn’t agree. And the shockingly hot broth was so delicious that we finished instantly. Naomi shouted, “Ah, ah, ah!” Taube responded, “Yes, yes, yes! Delicious!” We could take ah and make it mean whatever we wanted. We handed our bowls back to the noodle woman, who dropped them in a bucket of dark water.
Taube walked us to the Garden Bridge, fearless, as if she either belonged in Shanghai or didn’t mind not belonging. Ships, sampans, and fishermen left, arrived, docked, scattered. The river roiled and waved out to the horizon. Taube pointed across. “Pudong,” she said. “We can take a ferry someday and see the wharf. It’s apparently very beautiful.”
I couldn’t speak, because my chest and throat felt full of mud. I was too sad to know what to do or say, had no place in me big enough for the sorrow. I closed my eyes and rocked, and Taube said softly, “One day soon, a ship will carry your mother here, and Shanghai will feel more like home.”
We walked back to 54 Ward. And over the next two long weeks in September, while we tried to find work, boil water, and eat enough not to starve in Shanghai, the Canadian, Soviet, and British governments collected men between the ages of twenty-one and thirty-five—boys, Papa called them—and forced them into the war. Italy, Germany, and Japan pledged that any enemy to one ally was an enemy to all allies. The American radio Papa and Gabriel loved was suddenly blocked. We heard only Japanese reports, full of hatred for America. Japan prevented an American ship full of missionaries from docking in Shanghai, sending everyone back onto the ocean. What if they had turned our ship away? On what safe ship might my mother arrive now, and to what sort of city? Maybe she had been on the one they’d forbidden entry, and was now at sea forever, like the woman who’d leapt over the Conte Rosso’s railing.
Maybe nowhere would ever be home for any of us again.