From his black-windowed sedan roaring to the airport, Gao Yideng looked out on Beijing. Steel-and-glass skyscrapers, banks, hotels, international corporations and consulting groups flashed by. Ads and billboards blinked against the sky. The future was here. That which was irrecoverable the past had come to seem more desired, more priceless than ever. And Gao had a piece of it to sell.
The right buyer would give almost anything to possess it. The trick was making it happen.
He watched the Jichang Expressway, hands tight in concentration. Now one of the foreign porcelain experts had fallen ill on the plane and the other, the woman, was arriving alone. Perhaps she’d be more malleable by herself than the two of them would have been together. Not that Gao would lie to her. But there were many facets of this situation, those that were exposed, those kept from view. The bottom line was the art, and thank the gods, that was straight from heaven. It was extraordinary and spoke for itself.
He winced away from the part of his insides that grieved him. It was a dull knife scraping, the same place, familiar, like a well-worn knob of bone. He didn’t have enough. He never would. Not the blocks of real estate in Shanghai and Beijing; not the shares of computer companies. Every day of his life was a maw that needed more. He laid his hand across his stomach. And he’d had the dream once more last night.
In the dream he was always back in the famine of 1961. He was in the place he grew up, a Yangtze town, in a maze of alleys, with trailing trees and decrepit stone buildings.
And he was with Peng, his best boyhood friend. Out of everyone in his life, all those whom he’d known, Peng was the one person for whom he would have died. What he had with Peng was deeper than friendship. Not love, but something like it.
Peng and Yideng had foraged for food together. Most of their days and nights were devoted to scavenging whatever scraps they could. They were a team. What they found they split scrupulously. Their trust in each other was supreme.
On this day they went along the stone wall that ran behind the slop stream, staying close in, light and fast-moving. There were people back here who still managed to keep a few animals. There was a man named Chu up this way who still had a starving, ornery pig. What every child in the District dreamed of was that on the day old Chu decided to kill that pig, they’d be close enough to get so much as a hair, or a drop of blood, or a whiff of the life-giving skin.
But it was only sometimes, on some days, that this raging pig was fed. And it was fed that day. Destiny smiled on them. As they came close to the rear of the Chu property, the door clattered open. The lugging breaths of old Chu could be heard over the wonderful sound, heaven itself, the wet, nutritious slosh of his bucket.
“I’ll go,” whispered Peng, and before Yideng could say a word his quicker, smaller friend was gone over the wall.
The pig whuffed and turned around.
“Old bonehead!” Chu called. “Over here!” and he swung the bucket, pulled it back, even Yideng, perched on a ledge now, looking over the wall, could hear the bumpy promise in that soup as it rearranged itself in the bucket, back, further, and then Chu flung it forward and water, offal, bits of food flew in a divine arc across the tiny yard. Peng swung at the same moment, diving out from behind the gardenias and catching, in midair, part of a stale steamed bun. The pig turned on him in a fury, snorting. It stood its ground for only a second before commencing its charge, but that was enough for Peng to gain the foot of the wall. As he scooted up, pulling on vines with one hand and cradling the precious bun in the other, the pig hurled itself the last few feet to the wall and smashed its teeth against the fitted stone, with Peng’s bare foot then, just that second, out of reach.
Oh, it had been excellently done. They had run, the two of them, full of youth. They climbed down behind Dongping Lu to a culvert beneath the footbridge. This was a special place of theirs. There was a not-too-fetid stream, trickling through the pipe. No one could see them.
Down below the street, their backs curved to the concrete culvert, they divided the bun in half. No surgery ever received greater attention. Fair was fair between them.
And that moment, at the end of the dream, when Peng handed him his wet, old piece of bun, an offering as luminous as a handful of diamonds, Gao Yideng felt as close as he ever would again to another person.
Thirty million people died of hunger in the famine. But he and Peng lived.
And now he was in this sleek, faintly humming car, alone, always alone. Yes, he was married and his days and nights were filled with people, but that didn’t change anything. He and Peng had long since lost touch. Now all he had was what he acquired, the world he built by adding.
The pain eased a little. He was about to add more, much more, by selling this porcelain. He’d have cash, liquid, against uncertainties. Somehow he felt if this succeeded, he’d never have the dream again.
Strange. Survival, in the famine, had hinged on a ragtag assortment of gifts from heaven like scraps of discarded wheat bun. Now it was the myriad opportunities and fallback plans he conceived and concealed where he needed them. Like this one.
They pulled into the airport. The driver crunched to a halt at a special gate, showed a card to the sentry, and turned down a small side road to a private rear entry.
They stopped behind the terminal. He leapt out, Italian shoes spattering in the puddles left from the afternoon’s rain, opened the door into the glaring corridor. He strode between the concrete walls to Systems Management. He checked his watch; she’d be deplaning. “Ni hao,” he greeted the computer operator. “If I may trouble you, I need someone flagged.”
“Of course,” the man said, recognizing him. “Nationality?”
The clerk tapped a few keys.
“Eh.” The clerk frowned. “That flight’s landed. The passenger is not to Customs yet. I’ll put it through right now.”
“Thank you.” Gao Yideng turned and was out the door before the man looked up.
The plane howled down in Beijing with a scream of engines and a clattering roar of overhead bins. It was dark outside, nothing but scattered lights and runways. Five hours had gone by since she’d left David Hong at a Tokyo hospital, safe in the care of their local staff. He’d needed an emergency appendectomy. It was routine as such things went. She was sure he’d be all right.
But it didn’t look like he was going to be here with her. And she was taxiing directly toward what looked, from the photos, like some of the finest pots she might ever see in her career.
People like her always went out in pairs. Dr. Zheng would certainly have someone over here in a few days. Still . . . here she was, alone.
Had she remembered everything? With a transient tremor her feet squeezed each side of her brown leather tool case, pushed under the seat in front of her. Lia couldn’t work without her objects. She needed her loupe to dial up the texture of a glaze, the heap-and-pile of a cobalt border, the wear marks too faint for the naked eye. The camera was critical with its Micro-Nikkor lens and tripod, and the silver umbrella to absorb the camera’s flash. Hard measuring tape, calipers, cloths, contact-lens solution . . . the snuff-bottle light, with its long flexible wire, that let her see deep down inside the longest and narrowest ceramic neck. She sensed the shapes with her ankles, through the thin fabric of her socks; there was one, there another. She wished she could take them out and hold them. Not now. The plane was landing.
If the pictures she had seen in New York told the truth, there were twenty amazing pots waiting for her here. They were imperial pieces from the Ming and Qing. She remembered the blinding, almost physical impact of first seeing the images in New York.
“Are they good?” Dr. Zheng asked her with a grin in his voice.
“Completely hoi moon.” This was one of the few phrases that people like her always, reflexively, uttered in Cantonese even when speaking Mandarin or English. Maybe it was because the term was Hong Kong porcelain slang; or maybe because the Cantonese just had more sing and sinew. Hoi moon geen san. Let the door open on a view of mountains. See beauty. See authenticity. She’d flipped through the photos. One never found twenty imperial pots together. It was rare to find even two. “We have a buyer for this?” she asked, feeling as if every cell in her body were singing.
“We have,” he said.
Big spender, she thought, instantly placing the value of these works, assuming, of course, they were authentic, at fifteen, twenty million dollars. “One person?”
“Where’s the collection?”
“Beijing!” This stopped her. Fine porcelains almost never came up for sale from the Mainland. No porcelain manufactured before the twentieth year of the Qianlong reign, 1756, and no porcelain of any era from the imperial kilns could leave China. Something like this would have to be arranged or at least sanctioned by the government. Then they issued a special permit. “Is there a visa?”
“Yes. Though I only have the faxed copy.” He pulled a page from another file.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from A Cup of Light by Nicole Mones. Copyright © 2002 by Nicole Mones. Excerpted by permission of Delta, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.