Though I have always thought myself altruistic, it was hard to love at times.
My father’s wife was a woman who insisted I call her “mom,” who sent me away to private school mere days after a mother’s death.
I admit I resented her at times. But I digress.
A bird fell from the roof.
Chandler was sure of it. He scrambled out of bed and wrenched open the window, staring down at the sidewalk. Nothing. He glanced up at the window eaves, looking for a nest, a dropping, anything. He rubbed his face, wiping the sleep from his eyes. It was gone. Maybe he had been dreaming. But he had seen it—a big, white flurry of feathers struggling to fly… and then it just dropped. The back of his neck prickled and he shut the window slowly, chewing on his lip. He didn’t want to think it. But he had seen that bird before.
He shivered as he remembered that night, half drunk on cheap wine and beer, when he and Ella had walked, laughing and tripping over themselves, from the sorority house to his. She’d given him everything that night. At least that’s what he’d thought. Until now.
He remembered lying in bed, running his fingers through her hair, asking her to come home with him—and trying to play off the nervous pit he felt in his stomach. He would never admit it to her, but he’d been nervous she might laugh at him.
And he remembered seeing that dove, landing for just a moment on a light post outside, and Ella’s little kisses on his nose as she murmured, “We are going to live long lives, my Chinese Chandler.”
And she had told him that she wanted to come back as a dove in the next life. “To be totally free,” she had said wistfully.
Ella was never more beautiful than when she felt free. Chandler stood, staring out the window and trying to ignore the sense of dread creeping through his stomach. He took slow steps to the phone, breathing shakily. Ella didn’t answer, but he should expect that, shouldn’t he? He tried Mr. Butler. The phone only rang once.
“Is she okay?”
Mr. Butler was quiet on the line. Chandler didn’t wait long for a response.
“Mr. Butler, what’s going on? It’s been hours. I can’t sleep.”
“She—she’s going to be fine, Mr. Chandler.”
He paced. “Why did you send me home?”
“Because her labor is going to be long and she felt your tension. I am sorry, but you were making it harder on her. I could feel it too.”
“Quite frankly, Mr. Chandler, that is because tension has become a way of life for you.”
Chandler stopped pacing and took a deep breath. “I’d like to talk to her.”
“She is asleep. If you would like to come to the hospital, she may deliver soon.”
“I cannot tell.”
Can’t tell or won’t tell? Chandler had never felt so frustrated with Mr. Butler. As the man who had all but raised Chandler, couldn’t he have a little more heart? This was his first child, the day he would become a father. And Mr. Butler hadn’t even let him stay at the hospital. Ella had been too overwhelmed, with ten different doctors speaking to her in a language she didn’t understand, to give much of an opinion.
Chandler sighed. “Alright, well I’m on my way. But if she wakes up will you tell her I’m coming? I’m… worried about her.”
Mr. Butler didn’t say anything at first. Then he murmured, “Yes, of course,” and the phone clicked abruptly. Chandler blinked.
“Fine,” he said to the silence on the other end. “Goodbye.”
He threw down the phone and went for his coat. It was February—early firecrackers popped outside for Chinese New Year. He wished he felt like celebrating too, but he only felt afraid. It was an odd, foreign sensation. He glanced at the window one last time, as if he could bring the bird back.
You can’t bring back what’s gone, he thought. He shivered and pulled his coat tighter, calling down for a driving service to the hospital. Even in the middle of the night, he had a feeling he wasn’t going to make it in time.
Ella’s contraction woke her with a start. She didn’t know how long she had been asleep. She tried to breathe the way women in the movies do—hee hee hoo, hee hee hoo—but what she really wished she could get were some drugs. Or that she had gone into labor on time—her mom wouldn’t be here for another two weeks.
She moaned quietly and looked up at Mr. Butler. So calm, relaxing in his chair at the foot of her bed. He had a newspaper in his lap, but she had come to realize that he never read it. Sometimes he even held his papers upside down. She knew that the truth was that he was always watching. And his favorite sport was her and Chandler’s relationship.
“I don’t trust you,” she said.
Mr. Butler looked up, as if—as if!—he hadn’t noticed her watching him.
“Nor I you,” he replied. “But Mr. Chandler has chosen to remain with you—inexplicably—and I am charged with his care. For the time being, that responsibility would extend to you.”
“You’re just all warm and fuzzy, aren’t you?”
Mr. Butler raised an eyebrow at her. “I cannot pretend to agree with Mr. Chandler’s choice to bring you here to Shanghai. He has thrown the destiny of the entire Wang empire into uncertainty.”
Ella moaned as another contraction hit her and she gritted her teeth. “A little dramatic, Mr. Butler!” she said over the pain.
“On the contrary,” he said. “I am allowing myself—and you—the hope of uncertainty over the dismay of what I feel is an unavoidable upheaval. My personal opinion is that you simply are not good for Mr. Chandler. I worry about his ability to carry through with his responsibilities. Sometimes he seems to think he is normal. He even seems to think he is American.”
Ella waited for her contraction to stop. Then she relaxed a little, breathing heavily. “What’s so bad about that?”
“Many people count on him. Jobs, families, even lives depend on his ability to maintain the tradition of his father’s business.”
Ella rolled her eyes. “Lives?”
Mr. Butler looked at her and she thought she saw a sympathetic smile playing on his face. “I do not expect you to understand. Your knowledge is limited.”
“I guess,” she said. “But maybe you’re underestimating me. Do you have any clue how hard it is to talk normal like this with a baby trying to kill me inside out?”
Mr. Butler frowned. He looked at his watch and muttered something in Chinese. Ella gave him a questioning look.
“Your doctor was called ten minutes ago,” he said.
Ella’s stomach dropped. “Am I going to have to start… really doing this?”
“We shall see.”
He gave her a curt nod and left the room. The door opened to a gaggle of nurses, a couple snapping pictures. Ella couldn’t help but smile a little, her mood lightening at the prospect that at least someone was excited to see her—even if it was only for her blonde hair. She sighed. She had gone into labor at the mall six—maybe seven hours ago. Felt more like forever. It was well past midnight. She supposed she wanted it to all be over soon. She closed her eyes and tried to rest.
Mr. Butler sighed as he closed the door. He took a deep breath to calm his nerves and straightened his posture. It was hard to believe sometimes that no one could see his seams about to burst. There was so much they did not know.
They all called him Mr. Butler but he did have a name. He preferred his western name to his Chinese name. His Chinese name had been chosen for him, based on the date and time of his birth, like other Chinese children. They had named him Wen Hui – “Culture, Wise.” The name was meant to invoke judiciousness, shrewdness, and thorough refinement. Indeed, his name had dictated so much of his life—his responsibilities, his education, even his very personality.
But at the British Butler Institute the other students had called him William. He had chosen the name after reading Shakespeare’s great works and digging for information on the author. He discovered holes that looped around and in on themselves. No one had Shakespeare’s original manuscripts, and no one knew what happened to them. There were theories that he hadn’t even written all his own work. Rumors flew around his name and his legend. Was he a genius or a fraud? Was he a true playwright or a mere poacher? Was he an instigator or a scapegoat?
Sometimes Mr. Butler asked himself the same questions.
So he had adopted the name William and worn it with pride. It had fit him like an old glove—like a friend. It wasn’t long before he felt more himself as William than he ever had as Wen Hui, and certainly more than he ever would as Mr. Butler. His time at the Institute had been some of the most liberating of his life. Which was why he could never begrudge Chandler his time spent at UCLA, his longing to be free. He understood more than Chandler would ever know.
He sighed and reminded himself of where he was going—had to find that doctor.
The hallway was silent but for William’s shoes tapping on the tile. The facilities here really were the best in the country—soundproof walls, state-of-the-art equipment, even soft lighting to help guests feel more comfortable. William smiled. The Wang family’s investment had really turned this place around. He was glad to see the good they had done here. It was as if Master Wang himself had chosen each lighting fixture, each plush sofa.
There were some families that William felt didn’t deserve their wealth and influence. Perhaps there had been a time when the Wang family had been so, but time had a way of healing wounds and fading scars. Master Wang—Chandler’s father—had experienced a sort of change of heart just a few years before his passing.
William remembered the day well, when he had learned that the Wangs had been involved in a fatal car accident on Highway 1. He remembered the crushing guilt of knowing that he could have stopped Master Wang from taking that visit to California. They had been going to look at colleges for their son, and William had been dubious about so many things—why now? Why so early? Why America? But he had kept his peace. He was, after all, only a servant of the family.
Chandler had begged and begged to go with them, but they had insisted that he shouldn’t miss school—they could go again over the summer. They had visited UCLA, taken a campus tour, and called home to admit that the campus was truly beautiful, in its own eclectic sort of way. Master Wang had particularly enjoyed the palm trees, and Mrs. Wang had been fascinated, if a bit disturbed, by the public affection she saw all around her. Only a mere few hours later the call had come from the hospital. Master Wang had died in the crash, Mrs. Wang in the hospital an hour later.
Chandler had only been fourteen.
That was the last time William had cried. He holed himself up in his quarters, turned off all the lights, and wept like a child. For everything that should have separated them, for all their differences in personality, in status, and in responsibilities, Master Wang was a brother to him. They had played together as children. They had grown up in the same house. They had gone to school in Britain at the same time and traveled home together for holidays. And when William had taken his place as head butler of the Wang family—at only 23—Master Wang had never stopped treating him as an equal.
Though William had never been willing to call Master Wang by his first name, he treasured the fact that he had wanted him to do so. William had taken care of him as though his very life depended on it, for in a way, he felt that it did. He knew that Master Wang would carry on the family tradition and legacy, yes, and William had spent his entire life with the Wang household, yes, but there was more. He sighed. There was always another secret. And there was always a missed opportunity.
But life in the Wang house had been content, even happy. And when Master Wang had passed, William’s fierce loyalty had turned to Chandler who, heir as he was, educated and pampered and foolhardy as he was, would someday have to become everything that his father was. Everything that William could never be.
But he could help. He could make the way clear for Chandler to be as genius, as determined, as duty-driven as his father had been.
That was why William tapped through these silent halls, his head held high though his heart raced. He was resolute. He knew what must be done. Ella didn’t understand—Chandler didn’t even fully comprehend the gravity of what was happening.
But William did. And sometimes the weight of it was all that he could bear.
The door ahead was locked, but William had a key card. He could enter any room in this hospital, though he was sure most people had no idea. This room had muted lights and glowing black and white prints hung on the far wall. A small group of doctors huddled around them, murmuring quietly amongst themselves.
“Dr. Wu, were you not paged?”
The doctors straightened, jumping slightly at his voice, and one of them stepped toward William, his face a little flushed.
“I’ve brought in the perinatologist and another obstetrician, even a radiologist, and we’ve been going over these scans, Mr. Butler.”
“Then you see what I was telling you about. You must have confirmed my suspicions.”
Dr. Wu paused, frowning. He looked threatened. William understood why.
“I can’t justify this,” he said quietly. The other doctors turned their faces, pretending not to hear. “Everything looks normal to me. We’ve chased down every avenue—”
“I was just informed that she felt unusually strong stomach pains,” William said, looking pointedly at Dr. Wu. “I have no doubt that something is wrong.”
Dr. Wu shifted. He looked like a caged animal. “I could lose my license,” he whispered tensely.
William laughed. “That is entirely implausible,” he said. “Caesarean sections are about as ordinary as the common cold. Many doctors perform them as a mere ‘insurance policy’ against possible complications.”
Dr. Wu’s eyes dropped to the floor. William wondered how much he had told the other doctors. The room felt colder than a mortuary. He took a breath, preparing himself, and quickly reminded himself that this was for the best.
He ushered the young man out the door. The hallway was deserted.
“Doctor,” he said quietly. “Do not doubt the influence that the head of a powerful family’s household can have. I can promise you unequivocally that your license is safe. Your reputation, your job, however… I cannot be so sure.”
Dr. Wu’s eyes shot up and his brow furrowed. “You can’t—“
“Do you know who owns this hospital, Dr. Wu? Who owns half the hospitals in Shanghai? Who has members on the board of medicine and in hospital administrations throughout the country?” William noticed his voice was sharpening and he muted his tone considerably. “You cannot know how important this is to the family that provides your very livelihood and those of countless people in this city.”
Dr. Wu looked over his shoulder at the closed door. He shook his head. “A boy…” he murmured. “And the mother is a mistress…. I know why you think this is so important. But I don’t subscribe to those antiquated customs, Mr. Butler. I’m surprised that you would.”
William ignored the tinge that traveled up his spine. There were few things he hated more than being forced to share sensitive information with a person he did not trust. But some things were unavoidable.
“You do know that the mother is American, do you not?”
William’s voice was so quiet Dr. Wu had to lean in close to hear. He nodded.
“The child will be heir—the sole heir—to the entire Wang empire. And his mother knows nothing of the family or the business. I fear that Mr. Wang is all but convinced to take them back to America and live out their days there. I cannot pretend to understand the breadth of the consequences that could result, but I will allow you to use your imagination.”
“Imagine if the Wang company went out of business—the hundreds of thousands of jobs that would be lost. The people who would be forced to emigrate to feed their families, or to beg on the streets if they have no other choice. Imagine the Wang company parceled out, each part bought by the highest bidder, wages tumbling to historic lows, buyers coming from overseas to take our jobs, our living, our hospitals, our way of life. Or imagine the corruption that could result from a foreign man who knows nothing of China being expected to run such an empire. It could cause an economic recession unlike any we’ve seen in many years. And it could cause a cultural upheaval unlike any we ever want to see if the most powerful man in Shanghai is, in fact, not Chinese at all and has no will nor desire to uphold the way of life that we hold not only in high regard, but sacred.” He paused. “I think you can see as well as I how much of a liability this child and his mother are. I will let you consider whether you find this procedure justifiable, Dr. Wu.”
William turned to go, leaving Dr. Wu staring after him. The poor man was a young doctor, eager to establish his reputation and create a legacy. Which was exactly why William had chosen him. He sighed. Get used to being a pawn in the game, he thought. I certainly have.
With his back to the doctors, he said, “She’ll be ready for the procedure in 10 minutes. Please do not be late.”
As the door closed behind him he heard the murmuring start up again, this time in full force. He thought he heard someone mutter, “There must be another way.”
He sighed. How he wished there were.
Ella was contracting again when Mr. Butler finally came back.
“Thank God!” she said. “These people have no idea what I’m saying. Can I please get something? I’m dying.”
“You want a pain killer?” Mr. Butler said.
“Oh dear Lord please,” she said.
“I recently read a study,” Mr. Butler said, “on the effects of medicines during labor on infant development. It found that most of these drugs were not given approval through the necessary human trials.”
Ella moaned, ignoring most of what he said. Not the time, she thought.
“Pain is often a necessary element of growth,” Mr. Butler said thoughtfully. She was pretty sure he was crazy.
“I’m not so worried about growth,” she said spitefully. “Can we just get this baby out of me?”
“But if you are concerned at all about the baby’s health I would not put it in the hands of an untested and unapproved”—
“Just give me something!”
Mr. Butler considered her, a frown creeping onto his face. He said something to a nurse nearby and Ella breathed a sigh of relief as they stuck a needle into her hand and taped it in place.
“Thank you,” she said, half to the nurse and half to Mr. Butler.
He gave her a dismissive smile and nodded, then said something to the nurse, who rubbed Ella’s hand and nodded, smiling. Ella sighed. It wasn’t so bad being alone in a hospital where the only English speaker seemed to barely tolerate her. The nurses seemed ecstatic to meet her—they all practiced their English with her and offered her menus from about every restaurant in town. She was pretty sure she wouldn’t get this kind of royal treatment in Orange County.
And hopefully it would all be over soon—if only Chandler would show up. She wasn’t sure how much Mr. Butler knew about childbirth anyway, but Chandler seemed to trust him, so he had left as soon as Mr. Butler suggested his nerves were aggravating the situation. She supposed Mr. Butler must know something—he had been through every birth in the Wang family since his own. And the only birth she’d ever seen was in health class, and most of that through her fingers. She sighed, thinking she felt the pain ease a little. She felt a little more generous towards Mr. Butler now.
“So Mr. Butler, what’s going to happen, you know, when this is all over?”
He was holding his paper again. “I suppose that will be up to you.”
“No, really,” she pressed.
He was still for a moment, then put down his paper and looked at her thoughtfully. “Ms. Ella, I can only tell you what has happened in the past.” She waited and he continued. “Babies in the Wang family are given a name, corresponding with their time and date of birth.” He looked at his watch. “If we have any luck, your baby should be matched with a fine name. You will have a one-month zuo yuezi, a time during which you will rest and avoid labor of any kind.”
“Zuo yuezi? Chandler never said anything”—
“It is an ancient and strict tradition. You are not to cook, clean, or exert yourself physically. You need to build up strength and prevent disease. I would advise maintaining this tradition, if you do not want trouble for yourself. Besides, you will be given an ayi to care for your child and help around the house, and a yue sao to feed your baby while you rest at night. You will be given warm meals and will not be asked to lift a finger. Anyway, you should consider yourself lucky…” She thought she saw a sideways smile on his face. “Zuo Yuezi used to forbid showering.”
She snorted, but the look on his face told her he wasn’t making this up.
“Okay…” she said. “So that gets me through the first month….”
Mr. Butler nodded. “Wang babies are nursed by their mothers for six months, after which time they are placed in the care of a nurse. They are schooled from age three in history, arts, mathematics, science, and several languages. If your baby is a boy, he will be trained from a young age to uphold the family name and someday become heir to the fortune, the business, and every responsibility entailed therein. If it is a girl… you may not want to broadcast that fact. You will be approached by every wealth-seeking, middle-class family who can get your number for her hand. And Chandler will be pressed harder to marry in order to have a son. He may or may not choose you.”
Ella gasped. She blinked a few times and her eyes burned. She wanted to ask Mr. Butler what his problem was.
“Did you have to bring Chandler into it?” she said, feeling vulnerable.
“Despite what you think, Ms. Ella, I do not say these things to hurt your feelings.”
“Then is that all really true?” she said, her throat constricting.
His eyes softened a little. “It has been in the past.”
She paused. “But I had this vision, though…. When we found out I was pregnant… I knew I wanted to go back to California. I was so excited. We were going to move up north and buy a big ranch somewhere, and just… live.”
“Mr. Chandler agreed to that?”
Ella looked down and nodded, swallowing.
“He has not told you of the Wang tradition,” he said softly, almost to himself.
“No. I guess not.”
“Perhaps he feels his time away has emancipated him of his responsibilities.”
“You say that like they’re a punishment.”
His face was sober. “That is one thing you may actually understand,” he said. “If he allows himself to, he can certainly feel imprisoned.”
Ella squinted at Mr. Butler, who looked tired.
“Is that how you feel?” she asked.
He tilted his head, frowning. “We are sometimes asked—expected—to do things we may not want to, Ms. Ella. Sometimes we may disagree with them completely. But we are to love the whole more than the parts. We cannot always think of ourselves. I say this for myself, for Mr. Chandler, and certainly for you as well. Do you feel you can make that commitment?”
“I didn’t know I was being asked to,” she said.
He looked at her for a moment. Then he shrugged. “You have no contract binding you to the Wang family,” he said. “You are technically and legally free to leave at any moment.”
“Oh, I get it,” she said, smiling slightly. “You’re trying to get rid of me!”
He smiled back, but it didn’t reach his eyes. “I simply feel you do not know what you are getting into. Perhaps Chandler should have been more open with you.”
“Perhaps,” she lilted, “he didn’t think it all mattered.” She paused. “Chandler loves me,” she said quietly. “He wouldn’t do anything to hurt me. Whatever you think.”
Mr. Butler was quiet for a while. Then he took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. He thought for a minute, then glanced around and leaned in toward her ear. “Perhaps you are right, Ms. Ella,” he whispered. “Just because life has taken one course in the past that does not mean it took the right one. Our traditions must not necessarily dictate our fates.” He paused. “I hope someday you will understand.”
He pulled back up, sat back on his chair, and pulled his newspaper onto his lap. She furrowed her brow. What?
But the drugs were starting to take effect and her mind was going fuzzy.
She thought for a moment and couldn’t remember what they were just talking about. Was she supposed to be feeling this way? What did they give her? The lights went blurry overhead and she felt her eyes droop.
Mr. Butler stood up from his chair and his hazy figure came to her side. She knew he was saying something but couldn’t make it out. She couldn’t even tell what language it was in. Her head was so heavy…. Her body felt numb. She heard a loud slamming noise and felt a soft, warm weight on her hand.
Then everything went black.