She found the dead child in the gutter, covered in the black, sludgy runoff of the hundreds of grimy food stalls in the market. When the woman pushing the cart of rags picked up the baby her head lolled over, her neck broken; the rag woman didn’t seem surprised or alarmed. She tucked the baby into the cart and pushed it calmly down the aisle towards the main street.
The baby’s name was Mei, or at least, it had been; her mother had named her after the plum blossoms of lore, the blossoms that the ancient poets said hung heavy on the branches of the plum trees during the spring.
Mei had seen only two springs, and would never see a third
Perhaps in another time, or another place, Mei’s mother would have been frantic, would have noticed her daughter’s absence earlier, or perhaps early enough to change the course of fate. As it was, she had only just noticed that her youngest was no longer tugging at the hem of her jacket.
“Mei?” She called into the market, squinting through the heavy air. “Mei, where are you, child?”
There was no answer, and the mother felt a twinge of something like worry or fear in her stomach.
“Mei?” This time it was louder, and the people around her looked at her with tired eyes. No one cared that her baby was gone; they had their own worries, their own children. In a world of survival there is no kinship. Love thy neighbor, it is written, but in this world, there is not enough love to pass around. It must be rationed.
“Mei!” It was no longer a question, and she could hear the panic creeping into her voice.
A motorbike whirred by, then a small van; too fast for the market, too fast for the close-set stalls; Mei’s mother’s breath caught fast in her chest. She was running now, ducking between the food stalls, around the vendors, pushing past the murmuring, single-minded crowd.
The crowd was angry, angry at the intrusion, but it wasn’t the anger of an individual; it was the anger of a mob, a mob pushing back against her. She couldn’t move fast enough, couldn’t find her daughter.
“Mei!” The cry was a sob now. “Chen Mei Hua!” She pulled her daughter’s name from her lungs like a drowning woman gasping for salvation, or a magician shouting one last desperate incantation against evil.
She dropped to her knees in the aisle, unable to move.
“My baby,” she sobbed, “Where is my baby? My baby, my baby!”
“I found your baby,” the rag woman said softly. “We have to go now, we have to go to the hospital.”
Mei’s mother could not move.
“Show me my baby,” she sobbed, tears running down her cheeks. “Show me Mei.”
“I can’t do that, Little Sister,” the rag woman’s voice was kind, but firm. “We have to go to the police now. The hospital.”
“I want to see my Mei.”
“I can’t show you, Sister. It is for your own good.” The rag woman gestured to the bundle in her cart. “Waiting here is wasting time, Sister.”
But Mei’s mother was fixated now, fixated on the small, unmoving bundle in the cart, fixated on the stillness, looking so hard for the rise and fall of a little chest where a tiny heart beat so reliably only hours before.
“My Mei,” her voice was quiet now, her eyes trained on the rags. “My Mei.”
“Come, Sister, let’s go.”
Mei’s mother allowed herself to be led to the police station. It was close by, but she did not remember walking there. She could not see anything except the cart, could not hear anything but the rattle of the wheels against the uneven paving stones, the rustle of the bundle as it moved against the rags.
She wasn’t crying anymore, but she wasn’t sure she was breathing either; her head was light and in the clouds, floating somewhere high above. She thought she might be looking down at herself from above, as though her soul had left her body and was flirting with a disappearance into the ether.
The police were not kind. They pulled her away from the rag woman, away from the bundle she knew contained Mei; into a gray, windowless room, where she sat on a chair, cold and motionless. She knew the police, she knew what they were doing-- nothing-- and she knew that any action on her part would be useless. So she sat, listless and limp, listening for the sounds of footsteps down the hall.
When they came, it was a man in a uniform, chubby and red-faced.
“Why did you kill your daughter, Sister Chen?” His voice was bored and accusatory. “Why would you kill a child? Children are our future, you know this. Everyone knows this, Sister Chen. You have done an awful thing.”
“I did not kill my daughter!” Mei’s mother cried pitifully. “My daughter is dead? My Mei is dead?”
The officer ignored her question. “If not you, then who killed her?”
“I don’t know! She was there, then she was gone! I don’t know! Ask anyone! I was at the dumpling stall.”
“You are guilty,” the officer said, shaking his head, “You killed your daughter.”
Before she could say anything, he stood and walked out.
She did not know how long she sat there, for there were no windows in the room. She stared at the gray cinder block of the wall until her vision swam and blurred. Finally, she heard the footsteps again.
“Sister Chen, we have video,” the officer said, his voice kinder this time. “We have video of what happened.”
“What happened to my daughter, Big Brother? What happened to Mei?”
“She was hit by a van. It was an accident. Nothing more than an accident.”
“How could it be an accident? She’s dead! I want to see someone pay!”
“It was an accident, Sister Chen. The governor’s son was driving through the market and she ran into the aisle. You should have paid more attention.”
He stood and left the room.
This time Mei’s mother pulled herself up from the chair and stood. She paced around the room in tight circles, unable to comprehend the loss of her daughter. Before long the footsteps returned, and she whirled to face the door.
“Sister Chen,” the officer had brought another man with him this time; gold medallions glinted against his chest and tassels draped along his shoulders. He stood quietly by the door, an imposing, ghostly presence.
Mei’s mother looked up at the officer, tear-streaked face pale and moon-like.
“Sister Chen, you are under arrest,” the officer said to her in the same bored voice. “You are under arrest for murder; your inattentiveness to your daughter led directly to her death at the hands of the governor’s son. The police commissioner,” he gestured to the man behind him, “has found you guilty, and sentenced you to death.”
Mei’s mother sank to her knees and let out a wail.