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The Beijing Taxi Driver

Susan Barker



Sixteen Concubines

A fledgling not yet fifteen years old. Borne through the Western Gate of the Forbidden City in a sedan chair. The chair-bearers lower poles, the curtain divides and you emerge. Satin-robed girl, hair drawn tight in two small buns. Three-inch lotus feet, bound tight as buds. Wincing, broken, arched, toenails like claws dug in your soles. We see through your eyes the magnificence anew. The 

acres of grand halls. The endless armada of yellow-tiled roofs. 

We watch through peepholes poked in the wax-paper windows of the Palace of Earthly Tranquillity. Whispers Imperial Consort Luminous Moon, ‘She has an inauspicious face. A widow’s peak. A bad sign. The harem physiognomist must
be sleeping on the job.’

Elsewhere in the chamber, tea is sipped, ivory mah-jong pieces shuffled about. A eunuch appears at the door. The emperor requests twelve bedmates for tonight. Names named in falsetto. Blood drains from faces, fingernails dig crescent moons in palms. The teacup soothes me with a breath of steam, the kang warms my backside.   


* * *


The Imperial Gardens on a mid-winter day. On a chair of deer antlers in the Belvedere of Crimson Snow, the seat polished wood, the chair-back entangled horns curved to embrace the sitter, or threatening to stab the sitter in retaliation for any false move. My fingers, numb and mortuary-slab cold, fiddle with my embroidery, fumble with
the needle. 

The tapping of wooden-heeled slippers on the stone path disturbs my thoughts. Every so often the wooden heels cease tapping as one of the twenty pavilions is peered into: the Pavilion of Floating Jade, Pavilion of Auspicious Clarity, Pavilion of This That and the Other. Why are you outdoors? The other harem ladies keep to the stove-heated chambers, to the kangs with coal blazing beneath. I scowl as the wooden heels reach the Belvedere of Crimson Snow. Why have you come to disrupt my peace? I risk influenza for these solitary hours, to flee the idle gossip and the stifling unhappiness of concubines. I abhor needlework, would like to read stories instead. But none of us harem creatures can read, are kept illiterate as she-goats.

Weeks have passed since you came to the gilded cage but no words have passed between us. In a palace of nine hundred and ninety nine rooms connected by a maze of passages, our paths have not crossed. Your cheeks are flushed, a shawl of winter mink thrown over your dress. Acknowledgement in wary glances. 

You bow deep and low, ‘Boundless Happiness to my Elder Sister Concubine Swallow.’ 

I murmur, ‘Boundless Happiness to you, Concubine Bamboo.’ 

Needle and thread jerk up. You peer curiously at my embroidery, tufty feathered mandarin ducks on little slippers for maimed feet. On your own gilded lilies flutter curly winged longevity bats. You stand respectfully, but within pace restlessly to and fro.

‘Concubine Swallow, I saw a girl dash out her own brains last week.’

Your voice is tight and high. The thread slips from the eye of the needle. Saliva glistens on the tongue-dampened thread as I poke it through again. 

‘Ah yes, Imperial Consort Virtuous Purity.’

‘Yes. Her. Aged only twenty. She charged into a lacquered pillar of the Gate of Divine Prowess. Staved her own skull. I saw her brains splashed scarlet in the snow.’ 

I tut. ‘I know. I saw. A dreadful mess.’

‘Ethereal Dawn scraped the gold paint from her jewellery box. Swallowed it and died from poisoning.’ 

‘So I hear.’

‘Pale Sapphire slit her wrists with a jade-handled letter opener. From wrist to elbow-crook, lengthwise along the blue vein. She survives nursed by eunuchs in the infirmary. When she recovers she will be executed for betraying the emperor. Two deaths back to back.’ 

Eloquent with fear you turn your eyes to me. ‘Beloved elder sister. Why do so many girls in the harem want to kill themselves?’

Needle tugs thread taut. The second webbed duck foot nearly complete: a yellow-beaked duck with feathery tufts of green and blue. The winter sun shining between the bare branches of crab-apple trees alights on your face. The apple blossoms drop in springtime like blazing snow. 

‘Brain fever.’ 

A glare. Another tug of cotton thread. 

You whisper, ‘I hear things about the Emperor. They tell me he is cruel. That he has dispatched nearly two hundred palace girls early to the grave. That he tortures concubines in the Leopard Room. They have scars. They have parts missing ... bits ... cut out ...’ 

Chin quivers. Tears fall. Oh why did you come here, foolish child? I had come to be alone. A swift glare. One of the gardeners, Hunchback Guo, is creeping near, cowering beneath his craggy hump of spine, sweeping the already swept pebble
mosaic path.  

‘What do you want from me?’ I ask.

Silence. More tears. Sprinkling tear ducts that rouse disgust.

‘Listen to me, Concubine Bamboo. To be born a woman is to be born into suffering. Our feet are mutilated claws. Our cunts bleed. Wombs suffer cramps, childbirth. Sex too brings pain, but a night with the Son of Heaven is an honour worthy of the Death of a Thousand Cuts. Pray to the Goddess of Mercy if you must. Grow a spine. Endure.’

Gathering up embroidery, leaving the deer antler embrace. Out of the Belvedere of Crimson Snow. Spitting at the feet of smirking Hunchback Guo hissing, ‘You crooked teapot with a broken spout, repeat a word of what you just heard and I’ll cut out your tongue and boil it for soup.’ 

Without a backward glance at Imperial Consort Bamboo, I seek out another pavilion, the Pavilion of A Thousand Autumns. Sit on a stone bench by a statue of the Lord Buddha. Embroidery hoop on lap glaring at the arched doorway. Pull the thread so hard it snaps. 


* * *


Evening in the bathhouse, concubines wallow in bronze tubs of petal-bestrewn water. Drum beat in Drum Tower summons the fall of night, the beginning of First Watch. ‘Draw the Bolts! Mind the Lanterns!’ cry the eunuchs as the Forbidden City shuts its gates.

Maidservants pour water from pretty cloisonné jugs over the crouching bodies of their mistresses. Cascades over breasts and hips and velvety deltas. Smiling without teeth the maidservants massage shoulders, lather soap in hair. Steam rises, softens skin. Servants of the Department of Bathhouses carry in more scalding water cauldrons. Skin pinkens to the shade of boiled prawns. The elder concubines wag their tongues. The younger apprentices are silent and respectful. 

Toilet, I call before I bath. A chamber pot appears. A maidservant kneels before me, a silken sheet manufactured by the Department of Toilet Paper on a velvet pillow. I crouch over the pot and they shroud me with screens. When I am finished they whisk away the pot and my leavings for the eunuch scribe to record in the Ledger of Bowel Movements and Menstrual Cycles of the Concubines. 

I slip into the water, sliding in chilled skin by the inch. Slip into the circling conversation. We say what we please in the bathhouse. No Hunchback Guo to eavesdrop. The maidservants won’t tell on us. He has hurt them too, hovered over them with an erection and knives. In our baths we steep pink as poaching salmon and talk of the famine.   

‘The Gods disapprove of the Emperor Jiajing. They punish his subjects with drought and locusts. Crop failure. Poor harvests. Starvation. Millions have died.’

You, recent arrival from the outside world, pipe up. ‘I saw, I saw! The peasants wander from countryside to town, begging for work, a mouthful of food. They clutter the roadside with their heaped corpses. Flies buzz around them.’ 

‘Who spoke? Apprentice concubines should not speak. Someone ought to spank that saucy bitch.’

Daggers fly and silence you.

‘The Department of Astrology has charted many ill omens, many portents and signs. They observed with astrological instruments on the Terrace of Spirits a star crash from the sky. Portent of famine. They saw the lakes merge on the moon, portent of flooding and rains. The Gods communicate their disapproval.’

‘Japanese pirates attack the east coast of China. The Mongols, Altan and his army, loot and raid us from the north. The Gods are angry indeed.’ 

‘The Stone Lions weep at the palace gates. Tears of stone weep down their lion cheeks and catch in their manes. They weep over the ruination of the empire.’

‘The reign of Jiajing is inauspicious indeed.’ 

‘Indeed, indeed.’ 

Ponderous silence. Gently maidservants scrub between shoulder blades. Twenty bronze tubs of naked concubines. Forty knees above water. Forty submerged three-quarter moon breasts. 

‘At least he is preoccupied now with his Daoist ceremonies. With his lust for immortality and elixirs of mercury, arsenic and silver.’ 

‘The elixirs turn his skin yellow, his breath like that of a corpse.’ 

‘Turn him bad-tempered, choleric.’ 

‘He disappears for days in the dark temple, the smoke of incense burners and the chanting of Daoist monks. Sets fire to immortality spells on paper, swallows the ashes in water. He dreams of eternal life. He neglects his imperial duties. He has no interest in the official business of the empire. Scrolls of imperial decrees await his acknowledgement gathering dust on his desk.’ 

‘I hear he has invited a hermit sage Filthy Zhang to his quarters. A hermit truly filthy having not bathed since the time he swam in the fluids of his mother’s womb. His hair is a knotted rat’s nest that reaches his knee crooks. The pills of filth collected by Zhang as he rubs his skin are said to cure disease and lengthen life. I believe Emperor Jiajing has imbibed a few of these.’ 

Peals of laughter. The maidservants’ smiles show teeth, which they hastily conceal. I lean over the edge of the tub and spit in a silver spittoon. The night drum signals second watch. Bathtime is over. Bodies rise from water into kang-warmed towels. The elder concubines are like cats that have fought too many nocturnal brawls. Scratched and battle-scarred, a missing nipple here, a missing labia there. Those who are ruined entirely are lucky, for thereafter he discards them like a child who mutilates a doll, declares it unsightly and never plays with it again. Your body is pure and white and virginal, and you shudder at the sight of what awaits. 

A whisper,  ‘They are building his tomb in the valley of Mount Tianshou.’  

‘Pray he outlives us. Pray he doesn’t die. For we’ll all be immolated with him to accompany him in the afterlife. Pray we’ll go to Hell for he will torment us with knives should we meet in Heaven.’  


* * *


A knock on my bedchamber door in the Palace of All Sunshine. A bedchamber not shared with others now I am three decades old and have borne Emperor Jiajing three children. Three daughters whisked away at birth to be cared for by wet nurses. Daughters aged two, five and eleven. Princesses who squirm out of mother’s arms and cry when I visit their quarters.

 I am awake in my bedchamber drinking a cup of wine, smoking an opium pipe, thinking of the daughters and how it is time to request permission to visit them again when the knocking comes. Swaying inebriated in the doorway I think you are my eldest Lily. Stunned moments of silence but for the trickling of the clepsydra clock. Then I see it is not my daughter but you, Concubine Bamboo. Winter mink over your shoulders, you shiver in the courtyard. 

‘Beloved elder sister Concubine Swallow. Forgive my grave insolence, but may I speak with you?’

Surly hostess swings wider the door. ‘Come in.’

‘The emperor has summoned me to his private chambers tomorrow night. To the Leopard Room.’


Drifting to the dresser my back to you dragging the gem-studded comb down my knotted tresses. 

Stammering you go on, ‘I hear he carved out Concubine Jasmine’s belly button. Used the flesh for a magic soup. She won’t come out of her chambers. The eunuch physicians attend to the ... the cavity he made.’ 

Stammering you go on, ‘I have heard the Jiajing Emperor likes you. Pardons you from such activities. I hear you have lunch with him on the twelfth day of the first lunar month. Tomorrow. Honourable elder sister Concubine Swallow, would it be possible for you to ask him to spare me? Please? I am only fourteen. I am too young, not ready.’

You fall to your knees. I look down on you. Untying my sash, I disrobe. The stitches sewn lengthways along my limbs are like puckered seams holding my skin together. 

‘Do these scars count as evidence that he favours me?’ 

Mesmerised, not appalled by my scars, you murmur, ‘But these days he never calls you to the Leopard Room. The emperor has left you alone for years.’

‘To speak on your behalf is to endanger myself. I may provoke his violence, his rage. Concubine Bamboo, what will you give me in return?’

As we both know there is only one thing you have to give, and having done your research into my predilections you give it. I fondle you. I taste you and bury my teeth in you without breaking the skin. Without prompting you tongue the cleft between my legs until I am sated and permit you to stop. By the time it is over it is daybreak. You peel yourself away from me, sticky with my fluids, my sweat. Can’t look me in the eye. 

‘Why so humiliated, Concubine Bamboo? I am not a man. I did not pierce you with my thing. I did not touch you there. I know the folly of depriving you of the trickle of blood that must stain his sheets. Why are you crying Concubine Bamboo? You miss your mother? Forget her. She’s to blame you are here in the first place.’ 

Naked you sit and stare into emptiness, knees hugged to chest. I scrape my fingernails through your scalp. Clutch a fistful of hair. I promise to speak to the emperor for you. I promise to do my best.  


* * *


The drum bangs to signal dawn. The winter day is cold. Eunuchs from the Department of Fire and Water scurry about lighting fires beneath the bronze cauldrons of water frozen overnight. Emperor Jiajing rises. Lanterns are lit all across the Palace of Heavenly Purity. ‘Ten Thousand Blessings to His Majesty!’ cry the eunuchs and they bath him and comb and trim his beard and clean the wax from his ears. They dress him in a padded blue silk, fox fur-trimmed robe, yellow belt with coral pouch, heavy brocade leggings and sheepskin lined boots. Recorded by a eunuch scribe in the ledger for the Department of Wardrobes. All across the Forbidden City brooms swish back and forth sweeping clean the immense courtyards. The Go-Betweens of the emperor and the Grand Secretaries bring to the emperor trays of decrees, edicts, proclamations, notes to be read and approved. Emperor Jiajing waves the triple-kow-towing Go-Betweens away. He has a meeting with a Daoist sage who has journeyed from Yunnan province with the waters of a legendary stream said to add years to a lifespan.

The Hall of Literary Brilliance is the lunch venue for the twelfth day of the first lunar month. One hundred serving eunuchs march in holding silver platters aloft. They cry, ‘Transmitting the Viands! Transmitting the Viands!’ 

After lowering the one hundred silver platters the eunuchs withdraw to the edges of the room. Six tables: two of main dishes, three of rice and porridge, one of salted vegetables. Porcelain bowls of hot water heat the dishes from beneath. Heavy lidded in his throne Emperor Jiajing scarcely stirs as the serving eunuchs whirl around him pouring his much-loved elk horn and deer penis brew into a porcelain cup. He scarcely acknowledges Concubine What’s-Her-Name, mother of two (three?) of his daughters, genuflecting before him, pressing her forehead to the cold stone floor. 

I say, ‘Ten thousand blessings to Your Majesty. There is no greater honour than to be invited to dine with Your Majesty today!’ 

Emperor Jiajing scowls. Wretched bitch Concubine What’s-Her-Name with defective girl-bearing uterus. Spoiling his imperial seed, her man-hating womb castrating his foetal sons so only daughters are born. Arising from my knees all humility and trepidation I go to stand at his shoulder. His rage passes in a flash. The emperor is hungry, his stomach growls with impatience. ‘Remove the Covers!’ commands the Chief Serving Eunuch 

One hundred serving eunuchs scurry from the peripheries of the Hall of Literary Brilliance and lift the silver-domed platter lids by the engraved handles. Scamper away again taking away the silver-domed lids, crafted by the Bureau of Silverware. What a feast! The emperor licks his lips. Yellow porcelain chopsticks inscribed with Ten Thousand Long Lives Without Limits pincer dangling threads of noodles concocted by the Bureau of Wine, Vinegar and Noodles. The Eunuch Food-Taster nibbles some noodles, nods that they are unpoisoned and the emperor proceeds to eat. 

Concubine What’s-Her-Name hovers out of eyeshot behind the shoulder of his padded blue silk, fox fur-trimmed robes. I see how meek and timid she is and I am ashamed. To dine with the emperor is not to eat oneself, but to stand besides him encouraging him, praising him for every mouthful he takes. 

A sip of elk horn and deer penis brewed tea necessitates a cry of, ‘Oh how this revives the blood, enhances potency, oh Emperor of Ten Thousand Years, Your Excellency!’ 

(The Hall of Literary Brilliance is a curious venue for luncheon.) 

‘Your Excellency how light your appetite is today. Do take some squirrel and roasted nuts!’

(The Emperor Jiajing does not possess a scholarly bent, never reads the ...)

‘Your Majesty why not have some steamed one hundred-year-old turtle in ginseng soup? Ginseng strengthens cardiac function and will keep your heart beating vigorous and strong!’  

(... accumulated works of Chinese civilization crowding the shelves. The five-thousand volume scientific encyclopaedia, six-hundred-year-old first-edition Tang Dynasty poetry, scrolls of Song Dynasty paintings.)

‘Your Majesty may I be so bold as to suggest some wolfberries and snow peas to aid digestion? Though I must say Your Majesty’s selection thus far has been exemplary...’ 

(The emperor does not care to compose verse or practise calligraphy. Never touches the onyx paper-weighted paper ink-stone and brush-pen. Ignores the jade and ivory-bound history volumes, he does not care to know his ancestors or the historical records of the empire. Does not care to know the geography of his kingdom or the cultures of the lands beyond.) 

‘Eight Treasure Rice. What a marvellous choice for dessert, Your Majesty!’ 

(Emperor Jiajing’s solipsism discourages pursuit of knowledge beyond mortality cures.) 

‘I see now that Your Majesty is sated. I must compliment Your Majesty on the judicious array of delicacies of earth and sea selected this luncheon.’

Toothpicking from his canines shreds of pork, flicking them aside. A eunuch gathers the sacred toothpicked shreds, intending to stow them in a locket around his neck thus bringing this mere castrato closer to Heaven’s Son. Emperor Jiajing speaks to me for the first time in the thirty-minute luncheon, his back to me as I stand behind his throne.  

‘Imperial Consort, you do not dine. You have my permission to do so now.’

‘Your Majesty, it is impossible to dine when you are near. When you are near all corporeal need flees my body. My heart flutters like a caged turtle dove. All thoughts leave my head.’ 

‘As one expects. Women’s brains are anatomically very tiny. I expect scant few thoughts rattle about the confines of your skull to begin with. Thoughts of dressmaking and other silly frivolities.’

‘Your Excellency is correct. I am dim-witted and unintelligent. It is a shame, but there is nothing to be done.’ 

‘How are my daughters?’

‘Your daughters fare well. Azalea has recently been weaned from the breast, Chrysanthemum had her feet bound last week, and everyone is of the opinion that Lily’s embroidery is the finest of all the princesses.’ 

The emperor yawns wide his rotting molars, gum pits and stinking breath. Skin jaundiced with the immortality elixir poisons that clog his liver. 

‘Imperial Consort you bore me tremendously. Do you have anything of interest to say to me at all?’

Armpits sweating, straining the underarm seams of my sapphire silk gown. Sweat beads forehead and my breathing resists my attempts to reduce its speed to make breath inconspicuous.

‘Actually Your Majesty, I do have one suggestion. If Your Majesty will be so kind as to lend his much-revered ears for a moment. My humble lowly opinion concerns Imperial Consort Bamboo. The new girl, the fourteen-year-old apprentice. I think she is unworthy to serve the emperor. A filthy low-breed bitch. Your Majesty deserves much better than her. I would like for you to demote her to a maidservant.’

The emperor strokes his beard then lifts his porcelain cup and drains the last of his elk horn deer penis beverage. 

‘Is that all?’

‘That is all, Your Majesty.’

A wave of the hand and Emperor Jiajing gestures that luncheon is over. He stands and trailed by servants moves to the doorway where the sedan-chair bearers await, does not glance backwards at Concubine Swallow nervously wringing her hands. Servants part the curtains and the emperor climbs up into the silk-veiled carriage. He murmurs his destination – The Palace of Heavenly Purity – and the bearers lift the poles carrying him away across the courtyards of the yellow-roofed palaces of the Forbidden City.  


* * *


In my room in the afternoon I seek solace in the opium pipe and cups of wine. I strum upon some zither strings a fearful melody called ‘The Calamitous Golden Eel’. Afternoon passes in an opium haze, my mouth dry and temples aching. Suppertime comes and goes and I do not notice. I think of Concubine Bamboo, her slender limbs and fragile frame weighed down by even the finest woven silks. I doze with thoughts of her and wake to my fingers fiddling under my skirts, fingers masquerading as her tongue. 

A knock at the door and I glance in the mirror, smooth my crumpled dress and go and see. Dusk has cloaked the Palace of All Sunshine. Eunuch Li of the Bureau of Affairs of the Bedchamber stands at the door. 

‘Concubine Swallow, the Emperor Jiajing requests your attendance tonight in the Leopard Room.’ 

Heart stops, breath caught in throat. ‘Shall I go to the bath house and have the maidservants prepare me?’ 

‘He has requested you as you are.’

‘Then the emperor’s wish shall be granted.’ 

I slip out of my dress and the eunuch averts his eyes. Legs shaking so much I can barely stand, I rinse my stale mouth with water and splash a handful on my face. Naked but for slippered feet, body shrouded by a feather duvet I climb on the back of Eunuch Li and we proceed thus to the Leopard Room.  


* * *


In the vermillion-pillared Leopard Room magical cranes fly across the lapis lazuli ceiling panels, bearing gifts of longevity in their beaks. Blazing lanterns dangling silk tassels hang from ceiling hooks. A golden five-clawed dragon statue roars, claws seizing the Flaming Pearl of knowledge and power. A rack with leather straps lies mute. 

Concubine Bamboo sits in the middle of the four-poster imperial bed. Naked, her skin is pale and unsullied but for some slight discolourations where I feasted too keenly on her flesh the night before. Her eyes are soulless blanks. 

Eunuch Li steals my feathered duvet and backs out of the room. His conscience is besmirched by what occurs in the Leopard Room, the concubines he carries out to be stitched up hours later by surgeons, the concubines that pass away. But what is to be done? The emperor’s wish must be granted, his every desire fulfilled. 

Nine dragon bolts slide across the Leopard Room door and as I stand shaking with fear Emperor Jiajing emerges from an annex with silk rope. Ordering me to stand with my back against a vermillion pillar, tying my hands around the pillar behind my back.

Chin trembling I plead for mercy. ‘O your Excellency, I beg you to forgive me. I sincerely regret having spoken this afternoon. Please be compassionate to the mother of your three daughters...’


He turns to Concubine Bamboo on the bed. The maidservants had bathed her, prepared her toilette before bringing her to the Leopard Room. She is scented with perfume, her lips blood-red, her many-tiered tiara sparkling with ornamental jewels. Emperor Jiajing directs a question to the pale mask of her face.  

‘Concubine Bamboo, your elder sister Concubine Swallow is envious of you. Do you know why?’

She shakes her head, her eyes dull and vacant. Jewels on her headpiece shake and jangle on silver prongs. 

Emperor Jiajing laughs. ‘Sweet Bamboo, how innocent you are! Now let us take a look at your elder sister. Do you know she has given birth to three babies? You are too young perhaps, not yet ready to bear children yourself. Do you know what childbearing does to a woman’s body? The teats sag like cow’s udders, the stomach flops and folds over. As for her cunt, well ...’ 

His Majesty chuckles, ‘... if the barbarians invade Beijing, we have a vacant storehouse for the imperial jewels! I have not lusted for her for years, but it appears she still lusts for me. So much so she has tried to warn me away from you, my dear sweet Concubine Bamboo. We’ll teach her a lesson,
shall we?’

Concubine Bamboo nods, barely perceptibly. He loosens the sash of his robe, lets it fall away, proceeds toward Concubine Bamboo. 

Emperor Jiajing is underweight, sickly weak and asthmatic since the age of twenty, but after smearing his erection with verdigris and snake dung and snorting powdery aphrodisiacs up the nose, he is invincible. The only man in the Forbidden City with his genitals intact, he is virility itself. He climbs atop Concubine Bamboo on the bed. She is quiet, she winces trembles beneath him as he parts her legs. Concubine Bamboo is perfectly still, her headpiece dishevelled slightly, as yet another member of the imperial household makes use of her body. Despite my fear of what post-coital punishment awaits, the sound of him sliding up and down inside her, the gasps and moans, her compliant lips parting to let him put his thing in her mouth, arouses me, makes me want her too. 

After the snake has spat he collapses on top of her as though his heart has arrested, as though a corpse. Beneath him she lies still. She turns her head to the side and we catch each other’s eyes. Her eyes still blank. Let this be it, I plead in my thoughts. Let this be my only punishment; to watch him writhe above another. Let his ego imagine that my jealousy is torture enough. 

Emperor Jiajing slowly revives and lies on the bed a while with his new love, whispering sweet nothings, touching her there and dabbing his bloody fingerprints on her collarbone. For a quarter of an hour he attends to Concubine Bamboo with tender caresses, then he calls to me across the room. 

‘See. You don’t compare to sweet young Bamboo. Confronted with your haggard body, my cock dies a whimpering death. I can no more get it up for you than a hairy hog or wildebeest.’

I hang my head as though tormented and the emperor quotes from the Book of Songs:


Women with long tongues
Are harbingers of evil 
Disasters are not sent down from Heaven 
But originate in the female of the species


‘See how pale she is, my sweet Bamboo? The awful pallor of her lips and cheeks. I think we ought to rouge them for her, don’t you?’

He whispers in Concubine Bamboo’s ear and she giggles. The newly deflowered concubine slides from the bed and the emperor smacks her bare bottom. She scampers over to me and after touching her finger to the bleeding palette between her legs she reaches up and smears a streak of blood across my lips and then with careful circular motions on my cheeks. I stare into her traitorous eyes. She is blank as ever, though she turns to the emperor to giggle every so often. The emperor stands, walks away from the bed. 

‘What do you think Concubine Bamboo? Do you think her complexion has improved?’

The treacherous bitch shakes her head – no. Emperor Jiajing walks to the dresser and opens a jewellery box, a velvet-lined case that I have not seen for years. He removes from the jewellery box a silver scalpel. Before I can stop myself I vomit acrid wine-tasting vomit down my chest. 

The emperor laments, ‘Oh dear, she is paler than ever now! What do you think Concubine Bamboo?’

He hands to her the silver scalpel. She turns to me and looks at my chest. The traitor utters, ‘More rouge.’