Nan, at her washstand, examined the size of her egg-shaped eyes. They weren’t quite so round, but she had to admit: A certain pleasing aspect in the greenness of their sheen and the sloping of their lids set her heart soaring skyward. She gave her reflection a cursory wink and shot down the balustrade for tea, where she halted her movements and sniffed to the samovar: No sylph could compare with a paramour as she. For Nan had never been one to smear thick slabs of kohl on her eyes’ undersides, nor one to defile them with sticky-side jewels (and as any mama-san could tell you, she made the right decision). Nan was a lady, and one of grave consequence, if she did say so herself. But was there not something shapelessly vitiated about her, her depravity-seeking habitués wondered as they took their tea in the sitting room, holding up their saucers salaciously. Nan sat politely, but was in no humour to honor the lascivious intentions of her fellows, sitting rigid on their settee, exchanging shifty glances, sniffing silently to themselves: Congratulations, fair gentlepeople! She’s been lead baton twirler for three solid years in the Royal Shanghai Army. A marching majorette so expert: No sylph could compare with a paramour as she! What a catch! We’ve really done ourselves proud this time! What would Father think if he could see us now! Oh, Father…
           
And with that, the interlopers slipped into fantastical reveries of a childhood unknown, of spots of blitheful laughter, visions of twirling batons, holy father and mysterious mother holding forth in the distance while the young ones pranced and played. Someday, somehow, we too shall consort with ladies of consequence in a manner so much like the Elysium of this, out golden juvenescence…
           
Sensing an exit as the tea-takers mused, Nan moved imperceptibly from the sitting room to the billiard salon, where she poured herself a gin and it from the cellarette and leaned against a grandfather clock to brood. The scene outside the bay window was dispiriting. It was an especially hazy day. Nan hadn’t seen air so thick and grey since the day she’d run from that hand grenade in Yangshuo. Of course, this grey light was gentler, smoother. It perfectly offset her turquoise satin cheongsam and Nan liked to skip back and forth by the large, open window, admiring the combined effect of the matte grey and shiny turquoise in the full-length mirror. Nan wasn’t vain, but she did have exacting taste. It had taken her two hours to get her hair to curl, and it came through in fine style. The glossy black ringlets bounced when she bounded, gleamed when she twirled her storied baton.
           
CRASH! The china in the sitting room shattered. Nan heard the noise with a sickening intake of breath and moved closer to the action to appease the wild brutes: The menfolk, in waiting, had turned to brutality over Nan’s stealth departure for solitude and angrily, forsakenly, they made their discontent manifest in the smashing of innocent earthenware. Nan’s cheongsam shimmered as she passed through the mirrored halfway rooms en route for the scene of collapse. Miss Qingzhao, superior, burst out from her bedchamber in curlers and night-robe to reprimand poor Nan for negligence and allay the injured gentlemen. Thusly was Nan cruelly cast to the streets, where she was licensed to deal in lemons and sweetmeats and all methods of confectionery to earn her daily room and board. It was a far less lucrative enterprise than her principal occupation, but Nan was in no humour to cast her fortune hellward.

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© 2009

Lissome Courtesans in Cheongsams,
Or, Trying Times for the Cortigiana

Rebecca Katherine Hirsch