– a Songhan story –
Version for “Tales of the Veils” website.
Not for reproduction on other websites or in any other publishing format without author’s permission.
Maimun is standing in front of the bathroom mirror in her underwear combing her hair when the door unexpectedly is opened. She is filled with fear by seeing her husband enter, staring at her for some seconds and then saying “We are both getting older Maimun. I have waken earlier than usual needing to pee, and you have lost the beauty I married, I see.”
Maimun is of course trained to show a nice accommodative expression no matter what goes on around her and how she feels herself, and she shows the appropriate expression and makes the correct bow to acknowledge her husband is with her and has spoken to her before moving up against the wall to let him use the bathroom as if she was not there. But in her mind Maimun is shocked like having being deadly stabbed. Her husband has just said the words that is going to end her current life. Beauty is the single most important quality of a Songhan wife, and her husband no longer seeing her as beautiful means she can no longer be his wife. Some men stay with their wife until death do them apart, but a man of her husband’s status has to have a young beautiful face at his side to illustrate that his business is vigourous and sell beautiful products. But as the husband simply continues in the bathroom instead of knocking her down, choking her or drowning her, she gradually calms down and manages to wrap and tie a small towel over her hair and a large one around her body, not to look as if it was just before going to bed, while reflecting her situation. This moment would have come in the foreseeable future anyway. It is undeniable that she no longer looks like when she married almost fifteen years ago, but until now always showing herself to her husband oiled, perfumed with well manicured nails and a thoroughly made up face, all the lotions and paints have been able to conceal that her beauty has faded. Then suddenly him seeing her without makeup her age shows clearly, even to a man. Maimun bows and faces the floor as her husband is passing her on his way out of the bathroom. But just as he is about to open the door he stops and says
“As makeup has worked to hide your ageing so far I guess it will do for another month or two while I find a new young wife and a wedding is arranged. Until then you are still my wife and should look and behave as you have done so far without letting anyone know about the change to come. But the years has also added to my wealth and I can now afford to have two concubines. This means you have some days to consider and decide if you would like to spend the rest of your life in a convent, an asylum for widows and divorced, or accept the offer to become my second concubine which means staying in the house you know and still having your needs satisfied by me. But you can only become second. Ah-pei has served both of us well, is able to serve for many more years and as such should not be degraded because of you. In theory you could of course also become the first concubine of some other man, but nobody wants someone at your age neither schooled nor having worked as concubine to practically run his household. No matter what you choose you have to set your mind for that soon your face is always completely hidden and you’ll only see the world through tiny meshes.”
Her husband leaves and Maimun goes on with her morning toilette. She spends a quarter of an hour more than usual with her makeup trying to get a younger look, and when leaving thinks she has succeeded, but is aware of that it is only a younger looking unmade-up face that would make her husband change his mind. After dressing she again checks her now tudong framed face thoroughly to find that she looks at least as beautiful as yesterday. Leaving the bedroom she finds out that her husband has left without her seeing him out, something which has never happened before unless she was ill. Ah-pei is ready to serve her breakfast and right after pouring her tea, without gesturing for permission to address her, she says that she has been informed, and then she leaves. Maimun won’t punish her for speaking to her without permission of course. From now on Maimun is only mistress to Ah-pei in relation to people outside the house, and if she chooses to become second concubine Ah-pei is going to be her superior, which means that if she behaves strict to Ah-pei from now on that could very well be revenged later on and make her life much worse for years to come. But fortunately she thinks she has always treated Ah-pei fair and Ah-pei seems to be a kind person who would not take advantage of being in command.
Actually nothing unusual happens the rest of the day or in the days to come, although Maimun of course all the time speculates if people are treating her differently, and she thinks much more about how she behaves herself. But her husband keeps taking her with him as usual to show to his colleagues and friends, and she keeps conversing with their wives as usual and meeting with family, neighbours and female friends to talk about the usual subjects. It seems to be only her that, while behaving normally, is now inspecting wives at her own age more thoroughly to look for signs that their beauty has faded. But as they are all women she has met regularly there are no distinct changes to observe.
Even Ah-pei treats her like always contributing to her decision to stay. She has never been especially religious, and besides finds herself unworthy of becoming a nun after having lived with a man for so long. And asylums are said to be much stricter than convents with the women never leaving or having any outside contacts and in addition allowed very little contact with each other and having to work hard for long to produce items for the asylum, said to make much more money than needed for running the facility. But most important staying with her husband as master she is going to be able to see their son when he a couple of times a year is home from boarding school, and even more important being able to keep seeing him after he graduates and hopefully establish a family of his own. So when her husband finds it’s time to ask her she is going to accept his offer of becoming his second concubine, although all she knows about it is that she has to do most of the house chores that Ah-pei do now and she has to wear trousers and full veil. She thinks quite many of the homes she visits has second concubines, but they are to stay away from visitors, who are always served by the first concubine, and it would be inappropriate for a visiting wife to take contact to the second concubine having no reason to do so.
After a month things really change. Her husband comes home one night to summon both her and Ah-pei just before dinner is served to say “I come right from the marriage mediator where I saw a woman of extraordinary beauty, especially considering she is twenty seven, who has just been widowed. She is just what I had hoped to find, not wanting too large an age difference, and not wanting a young inexperienced woman where Ah-pei would in reality be commanding her. She and her parents were extremely relieved that I was interested in her, for her to remain a wife despite her misfortune and age, and her father, the mediator and I quickly reached an agreement. It being the second wedding for both of us we agreed on a small scale close family wedding, which because of this can be arranged quickly to be held in three weeks. As all this is going to be publicly announced tomorrow the first thing I’m going to do tomorrow is to go and officially divorce from you Maimun. This of course means I can no longer have you at my side when going out and you are no longer allowed to go out representing my family. Have you made a decision about your future?”
Maimun says “Master, I hope your offer to take me as your second concubine is still valid.”
Her husband and master says “It is, and I’m happy with your decision and wish to give you a good future life. But there will be no ceremony for you. In fact your decision right now means I can get you registered as my second concubine at the same time as reporting the divorce tomorrow morning. We’ll have dinner and sleep together tonight still as spouses, and not to make it complicated you wait start serving under Ah-pei until I have left tomorrow after breakfast. It means there are no changes in Ah-pei’s responsibilities until after breakfast, and then she has the entire day to teach you about your new position. From now on until the wedding Ah-pei is the only one to answer the door, and she is to dismiss everyone coming to see you telling them they are welcome again after the wedding. Let’s go and have dinner wife.”
The dinner and the evening go as on most nights he is home in recent years. He tells about what he has accomplished during the day, but stops before the meeting at the marriage mediator. All Maimun does is as usual to nod at the right places. He then talks about some appointments for the days to come where Maimun would normally have accompanied him at a number of them, but now this is only to remind himself. Despite this Maimun keeps nodding as always. After dinner they go to the coffee table to sit next to each other and watch television. Here, as always, the function of Maimun is only to keep him company, to see to his needs and look beautiful. She is not expected to comment on the news, sports or whatever he chooses to watch. They go to bed at the usual time and do as always in bed.
Maimun gets up before the master as usual and bathe as usual, but then she can’t as usual do her face and can’t put on her usual clothing. As she is supposed to cover completely from now on she decides to wrap a large towel around her waist that reaches the floor, wrap another around her shoulders to cover her torso and finally use a third to cover her head completely. Like this she walks into the bedroom to kneel at the end of the bed facing the floor. In half an hour her master gets up and goes to the bathroom. After the usual time he returns and puts his clothes on. Just as Maimun expects to hear him leave he says
“I’m happy you are still with me Maimun. You are a good woman, has been a good wife and is going to be a good concubine I’m sure. Hopefully we can both have many good years in this house. We both know that no humans are to blame that the forces of nature quickly fades the attributes that make a woman a wife, and thus makes this position last only a short span of years for a man in my job. If you fulfil your duties you can in my house be sure to be treated fair in your new position by both me, Ah-pei and your new mistress. Just wait until Ah-pei comes.”
It takes much longer than Maimun has expected before she hears the front door, but then it only takes a short while before the bedroom door is opened and the voice of Ah-pei, although muffled a little by her veil, is commanding her, immediately showing that their positions have been reversed “Get up Maimun. Remove that towel over your head. I want to see your face without makeup like the master did.”
Maimun gets up to see Ah-pei in front of her carrying a pile of clothes and her eyes starring at her above the edge of her veiled lower face. Her voice is much softer as she after a while continues “Of course the master is right that your age clearly shows, but that doesn’t change that you have a basically beautiful face that many men would enjoy to kiss. You are just unlucky that to many businessmen the looks of their wife is even more important than their own clothing and appearance in signalling quality products from a successful business, and young beauty is the ideal for such wives. No longer showing it the master can’t have you representing him. But now you are probably one of the most beautiful concubines in Songhan, no matter age. We are similarly aged, look!”
Ah-pei puts the pile down on the bed and removes her veil for Maimun to see her entire face. It’s long since Maimun has seen Ah-pei unveiled, and her not being a wife she has never taken any particular notice of her looks. She is of average beauty and the ageing of her face corresponds well with her actual age. Maimun has always been and is still much prettier, but that doesn’t matter anymore as Ah-pei clearly points out after veiling herself again and pointing to the pile of clothes while saying
“From now on this is your attire, covering you completely except your hands, and in a month the softness and smoothness there of the skin of a wife has been removed by doing house work. But your face if shown is going to stick out for decades, and as the second concubine is supposed to be the most unobtrusive member of a household, it means you’re not allowed to show your face under any circumstances unless explicitly ordered by the master, his new wife or me. You always have to eat and drink without lifting the veil so much that any skin is showing. The veil may only be removed when alone in your chamber or a bathroom. This pile contains everything you’ll wear, all made of simple plain cotton. We share clothes from now on except for the veils, and just to be sure you have been told, you are of course not allowed to wear any items from your wardrobe up till now. Get dressed and start your new life by tidying up in here and in the bathroom making a pile of items for washing. Then we’ll have tea where you can have a late breakfast as well, and I’ll go on teaching you from there. The master has been most generous allowing you a week where you won’t be punished for errors in your work and a full month for learning to cook to his taste.”
Ah-pei leaves. Maimun has often heard that she loves to chat when in company of other concubines. Ah-pei is surely going to enjoy speaking to Maimun knowing she is only going to break her off if absolutely necessary.
The clothes is wrapped around a pair of black slippers. The simple white bra and black underpants are unsexy but not unpleasant to wear. Then she puts on the white socks and the black wide harem-style pants, which clearly differentiates concubines from wives if one doesn’t see the face. Maimun immediately stretches her legs in all directions for herself to feel that they are not confined in anyway as with the long skirt of a wife. On the other hand she can’t hold her legs tight together and there is no airflow around her legs because of the tight ankles. The non-fitting white blouse is, except for a more plain quality, like she is used to. Likewise with the black tudong, but it feels different as she first has to put on a black underscarf to cover the forehead. With that Maimun gets the first impression of having the skin of her face out of direct contact with the air. But there is one more item to put on in addition to what she is used to – a black veil, a second concubine black veil. Maimun thinks she might have tried the veil of her father’s concubine for some minutes as a girl, but she has of course never worn a veil as a wife, and she has never even touched a full veil of a second concubine until now. Maimun lifts it to her face where it is simply aligned correctly when she is able to see through the mesh covered eye openings. Then the fastening string along its upper edge goes across her forehead to be tied at the back of the head. Of course Maimun first notices her slightly darker vision and the mesh adds a slight blur as well, but quickly she finds out that the worst is the small size of the eye openings almost totally removing her peripheral sight. And then her breathing feels warm and slightly restricted, and her face starts feeling like the rest of her head and neck which has always been covered by the fabric of the tudong.
Maimun starts feeling hungry but there is more than one hour until tea time if set when Maimun used to order tea, which Ah-pei then made for herself as well although they drank separately. On the other hand it means she is in no hurry as it takes Ah-pei about half an hour tidying here and in the bathroom. Maimun walks in front of the full length mirror to start thinking about what she was about to do next, because the reflection just shows an anonymous second concubine which her brain is accustomed to ignore, as they rarely directly interact with wives. But the reflection moving parallel to herself quickly brings her back to reality. Looking down is like seeing Ah-pei or one of the other concubines serving her when she was out visiting. But looking straight forward, seeing the face, she neither sees Ah-pei nor any other individual first concubine, them all identifiable in most cases even if only their eyes are showing. She simply sees a second concubine, any second concubine, although some are small and some are tall, and some are slim and some are fat. But the loose garments to a large extent conceal the build of the individual and just seeing one person there is no direct size reference. Always having been proud of her looks this is perhaps the worst about her new position. But as nuns and asylum residents are fully veiled as well this was unavoidable. She can only try to forget about it by avoid looking at mirrors where not allowed to unveil and then start working to get something else to think about.
Nearly an hour later she leaves the bedroom quite hot after having struggled with the sheets and wiped, brushed and polished in the bathroom. She finds Ah-pei vacuuming in the living room and bows until she addresses her. “It looks as if the new second has started out working hard. Go and make tea and something for yourself to eat. I’ll be with you when finished here and after having inspected if your hard work got the job done right as well.”
On her way to the kitchen Ah-pei’s words makes Maimun aware of that her clothes has wet stains of sweat at several places, and knowing it will take some minutes before Ah-pei is with her she after start heating the water lifts her veil high, dubs her face with a moist cloth and waves the veil out from her face for half a minute before looking at what food is available. When Ah-pei arrives she directly seats herself for Maimun to serve her, and they don’t talk to each other like when the positions were reversed. After twenty minutes Ah-pei with her hand stops Maimun from giving her one more refill and says
“As we won’t have visitors and you are not allowed to go out until after the wedding there is no need to change your clothes until just before the master returns, but then it has to be changed. I’ll go out shopping shortly. If there is someone at the door you ignore it to let them believe we are all out. While I’m away you wash the floors. You may take a break in about an hour to look at the chamber now yours – in the store room.”
Maimun is not too sure Ah-pei is actually out shopping for so long and work for an entire hour without flipping her veil back. Then she goes to the store room to see that the corner just inside the door has been screened off with some shelves to make an area twice the size of the mattress placed in the corner. On the shelves are a large pile containing about a dozen veils and from three to five pieces of every other item she wears. On the mattress is a thin folded blanket. That is all. Both the master and herself, when she was a wife, occasionally went into the store room to decide if an item in there should be taken into use again, and of course Ah-pei does regularly, which means she’ll have no privacy in here. It’s only for sleeping and changing. Maimun doesn’t really own anything because all the presents she got was clothing, and if given to her by guests was in reality to be on good terms with the master. But she has to get some boxes to have some place to put items that she would like to keep without the others directly being able to see what she has collected. She goes to the kitchen and drinks a large glass of water and then goes back to washing floors.
She has only worked for about a quarter of an hour when the now familiar slightly muffled voice of Ah-pei says without sounding really harsh “Enough of this for today. You have done better than I would have expected. Let’s go to the kitchen and have tea.”
Of course it means Maimun is going to make tea and slice the fresh bread Ah-pei has brought. The rest of her shopping is still in the bags simply placed at the middle of the floor. While the tea draws Maimun is to empty the bags to start learning where the different items are stored. They eat and drink in silence but after Maimun has refilled Ah-pei’s cup she is not allowed to refill her own. They start preparing the dinner which is done by Ah-pei step for step telling Maimun what to do while she stays seated sipping tea. Only after all the basic cleaning and cutting has been done Ah-pei leaves her chair a couple of times to visually judge how much of each ingredient has to be used to get the right taste. She assumes Maimun has forgot most of the little cooking she learned as a teenage girl, and she is right. When everything is about ready Ah-pei says
“The master is most likely home within half an hour. As I’m going to serve him I go and freshen up and change first. You change as well. Especially as long as you are new in your position and a new household routine is to be found it is very likely the master may ask to our work and take interest in you. But you stay away from the living room while he is at home unless being summoned by him.”
When Ah-pei returns to the kitchen her clothes is impeccable as she was going to a party but it is of course because she is going to get much more attention by the master now that there isn’t a wife between them to pass on his wishes. On the way to her chamber the purpose of Maimun coming there makes her aware of how sweaty she is. But the veil stays down until inside the washroom, still unsure if Ah-pei is going to watch her every move to ensure she behaves correctly at any time and anywhere, staying veiled despite she is practically alone. Despite realising it probably is herself who is going to wash the clothes, she has taken a fresh piece of every item she is wearing. And removing everything she can wash all over at the sink not daring to take a real bath as Ah-pei didn’t. Freshen up is much faster than she is used to not having to spend time on makeup, and there is just a bottle of hand lotion and a single bottle with a rather ordinary perfume in here. Despite again just seeing an anonymous second concubine outfit in the mirror Maimun feels good she is looking at neat clean clothing.
Back in the kitchen she gets an approving nod to her appearance and then gets some instructions about how to handle the various dishes while waiting for the master. Following Ah-pei walks in and out to lay the table for the master. Having told Maimun not to go where the master resides she has to do this simple task herself just like serving and clearing. Maimun realises Ah-pei probably is very happy doing this as it means she frequently is going to be close up to the master for short intervals and thus she can imagine she has become a wife. When Maimun was wife Ah-pei rarely got closer to the master than the doorway.
When the master arrives Maimun practically gets the kitchen to herself. It takes a long while before the master wants his dinner, but from then on Ah-pei appears in the kitchen doorway frequently to give orders about how to make the dishes ready for serving and taking one of them with her when she leaves. Her first order is to strongly emphasise to Maimun that she is not going to eat of any dish before Ah-pei brings out the leftovers and place them on the small table. But then Maimun has plenty of time to eat despite having to get up every time Ah-pei comes back. Ah-pei on the other hand is only able to quickly fill her mouth a couple of times before she has to get back to the master. But Maimun also has time to be disappointed and feel sorry for herself and Ah-pei. While cooking she has smelled and seen some tasteful dishes emerging looking forward to enjoying them, but the leftovers of a hot dish coming back after ten to fifteen minutes at the master’s table are far from what she remembers from getting them hot and fresh right after the master as wife.
When the meal is over Maimun has plenty of time for dishing and clearing the kitchen. Ah-pei is away to await if the master has any wishes. If she is standing in the doorway as usual or permitted to stand almost where Maimun used to sit as a wife Maimun doesn’t know and doesn’t care. Just waiting in the kitchen for so long it’s actually nice when ordered to make tea. But after that Maimun gets bored and then tired, longing for bedtime. At some point she realises that in a situation like this sewing wouldn’t feel like work but be a nice pastime, even fun if it would be possible to make new clothes, perhaps even colourful wedding dresses. But first she has to learn sewing, where her skills are comparable to cooking – that means no better than a child.
Suddenly she is taken out of her half dozing by Ah-pei arriving, knocking the open door to get her attention, and at the same time saying a little excited “The master wants to speak to both of us!”
Maimun immediately gets up and looks down herself to give her clothing a glance, but of course Ah-pei would tell if she had any clearly visible stains. The master is seated in his usual easy chair turning towards them as they approach. Ah-pei stops about three meters from him and faces the floor. Maimun places herself next to her, one step back and faces down as well. It makes her veil fall out from the face to make it look like if she is facing him, but her posture clearly shows she isn’t.
“It’s good to see you in my household Second. It’s more prestigious to have all the allowed women than only one concubine, although you are of course aware of that you won’t go out nearly as often as a wife. And because of your face I very likely have to restrict that further than normal so you won’t get into situations where it’s customary to lift the veil. In fact I think you have to be veiled always unless alone in your chamber or in a bathroom or given permission to lift the veil. But until the marriage there is something else. I have an urge that I think both of you are going to like. As you know from the few times my former wife was ill I like to have a woman by my side in bed every night, and that means from today until the wedding you two are going to sleep with me on alternating nights. As my Second did that as part of her former position last night it’s First tonight. And I’ve already made up my mind about fulfilling your needs after the marriage. I’ll do that on every second Monday as usual, but as you are now two it means each of you is only going to be with me every four weeks. Follow me to the bedroom First.”
Walking behind the master Ai-pei gestures to Maimun that she is allowed to go to bed as well. Concubines have no clothes other than what they wear during the day and Maimun simply removes everything except her bra and pants, lies down and unfolds the blanket to cover her body. She falls asleep immediately.
The rest of the days up to the wedding pass much like the first day except Maimun is gradually getting used to working hard much of the day fully covered, which means she doesn’t get as hot and doesn’t really notice her veil anymore, even when having to lift it for eating or drinking. Every second night she follows the master to the bedroom where she is to unveil and undress in his presence to wear a night gown in bed. Thus these nights are just like when she was a wife, because the master wants it as he has been used to for many years, not wanting to change his nights because he is formally without a wife for some weeks. Despite it reminds her of what she has now lost forever Maimun can’t stop her feelings that enjoy a man to sleep with. For Ah-pei it’s probably close to heaven only having slept full nights with a man about the one dozen days Maimun has been ill in the last fifteen years.
Then comes the wedding preparations and the wedding itself. It’s all practically managed by the bride’s mother. Ah-pei goes to some preparation meetings, but Maimun still isn’t allowed to leave the house. Her contribution before the day is to wash and iron bundles of clothes that Ai-pei brings home. On the day of the wedding the two of them leave quite early, long before the master, to do the final preparations in the hall of the temple where the wedding reception is to take place. Despite her veiling Maimun enjoys just to leave the house after all these weeks indoors and seeing no one but Ai-pei and the master. But it’s the closest local temple and the walk is less than ten minutes. She just get a short glimpse of the dining hall, to notice that there are only about half the seats of her own wedding, before being taken to the kitchen where she is to stay during the entire event. But despite being nothing more than an anonymous pair of hands not allowed to lift her veil or engage in any form of conversation she enjoys being among other people again and now has so much routine in a kitchen that she is able to carry out all her assignments just like the other concubines. She first sees the bride, her new mistress, when they leave the hall to go home late in the evening. But she hardly gives her a glance, because with her and the master is her son. Of course she generally has to keep her head low but getting just a few glimpses makes her heart full of joy seeing a healthy and very handsome young man, who with that looks and his family background in a few years will be able to marry the young woman he finds most attractive. Ah-pei pulls a rickshaw with the master and his new wife home, while Maimun is extremely proud to pull another rickshaw with her son behind them. At home her son doesn’t contact her in any way, but she guesses it’s because of his presence that she is allowed to stand in the doorway with Ai-pei while the newly married couple and her son have a nightcap, the men doing all the talking of course. Although watching her son closely she now also has time to observe the bride. Not surprisingly she on this day looks much younger than her age, probably being made up by some professional. But Maimun also has to admit that she seems to look both younger and more pretty than herself behind the makeup, the first to be expected as she is about ten years younger. The wedding night to Maimun is just like any other night she has slept on her own mattress, and from now on it’s going to be every night.
Not unexpectedly, but nonetheless sad the next morning not long after breakfast she is informed by Ah-pei that her son has left.
In the next days Maimun still doesn’t get out of the house. But now it’s because they are busy from late morning until late afternoon, and sometimes during the evenings as well, making food and drinking for the many people coming to visit the master to see his new bride, and sometimes, especially in the mornings, women alone coming to be acquainted with her. Often Ah-pei has to go shopping first thing in the morning because the supplies have got low the day before, and frequently when those visiting bring a concubine, Ah-pei asks her to serve those in the living room to be able to do more shopping. In reality Maimun is now in charge of the kitchen much of the time, and she is proud being able to handle it. She also enjoys meeting other women, although it’s mostly first concubines bringing orders to her, but often their eyes reveal that they appreciate her work, and on rare occasions if she has been able to fulfil a special request of their mistress they even bow showing gratitude. But even if she is able to handle the kitchen the days are really hard. Both her and Ai-pei spending most of their days serving guests they have to clean the house and wash when there are no guests, which means Ah-pei often wakes her hours before they would normally get up or they keep on working long after the master and mistress has gone to bed. But Maimun doesn’t complain as Ah-pei works just as hard and as long as herself. They both know that they could be seriously punished if the house isn’t clean every morning, there isn’t fresh clothes for the master and mistress, they don’t appear impeccable themselves and of course most important that the guests are not able to be served what is expected.
After about two weeks of everyone coming to them the master starts taking his wife out and she starts going out visiting on her own, which brings the household back to like when Maimun was the wife, but now they are two to do the house chores, making it more relaxed for Ah-pei.
Some days into ‘normal’ life it’s the mistress hosting four of the neighbouring wives for afternoon tea. Ah-pei has just served the tea and roti prata and of course stays in the living room doorway to be immediately available for service, but also because she likes to listen to the conversation. The wives having what they can eat and drink for a while Maimun seats herself at the kitchen table with a cup of tea and a couple of roti prata for herself expecting a quiet half an hour or more. But then suddenly a familiar voice says “Oh, it’s the wrong door. I thought this was the bathroom.”
Maimun looks up to be confirmed it’s Hui Mei standing in the doorway, a neighbouring wife that she regarded as a friend until her position was changed. Hui Mei in an unusually unsure voice continues “No, it was not a mistake, I’ve been here frequently and knows the house. You are Maimun, aren’t you? Do you recognise me?”
Maimun stands and nods clearly with a very polite bow like a concubine should when being addressed by a mistress not her own. Hui Mei continues now almost like whispering “I know this is highly inappropriate and I excuse if I offend you, but I simply has to know. I’ve always considered you more beautiful than myself and I know you are about one year younger, so why did your master decide to take a new wife when you even have given him a son?”
They have slowly approached each other to now be so close they could touch, but despite being veiled Maimun has bowed her face not to directly look at Hui Mei as she whispers “I was surprised in the bathroom one morning, him seeing me without makeup. That I don’t look like ten years ago has become so clear that even he could see it. His business requires a wife that looks young.”
Hui Mei whispers “Oh! Thank you for telling me. My husband can’t have a too old wife either. And just like you he hasn’t seen me without makeup for years, and I also style myself to look as young as possible. You may have saved years of my life Maimun. I wish I could do something for you in return.”
Maimun whispers “I felt like that myself when it happened, but I’m not dead and it’s not hell being a second concubine. The worst is to sleep alone without a man at your side, but that goes for all concubines, and I just have to be happy with all those nights I got. The second worst is almost no talking and little contact with other women. I know if you make an agreement with my mistress of visiting you she at most is going to bring First, but if you ‘coincidentally’ meet her in the street, while all three of us where out shopping, and directly invited her to your house she wouldn’t send me home and I would enjoy an hour in new surroundings. When, hopefully in many years, your husband dies or he wants a new wife then try to become a second concubine. It’s after all not that bad getting older like this, and you even learn new skills like cooking and sewing. Then perhaps we can even meet occasionally and become friends again”
Hui Mei stretches her right hand down towards Maimun’s correctly folded hands and while Maimun separates her hands to accept the handshake Hui Mei leans forward to directly whisper into her ear “Thank you. You have been most accommodating and sincere to me. We are still friends Maimun, although we can’t stay in contact. You being so open I would like to ask one final question. What scares me most about becoming a second concubine is having to be totally veiled. How does it feel?”
Maimun whispers “I don’t like looking at myself I have to admit. It also feels hot, makes you feel confined, affects your breathing and removes your peripheral vision, but all that I have more or less got used to. But remember there is no alternative. You either wear the full veil or you won’t learn about the fate of your children in the years to come.”
Hui Mei’s standard friendly accommodating expression crackles and she turns to compose herself before leaving the room.
Copyright © 2011, Bo_Emp ; bo_emp ‘at’ yahoo ‘dot’ com