Christine Johnson

NSW Writers' Centre and Society of Women Writers




Mei-Si sat in a sunny spot, stitching. The task was patterned labour. Slim fingers manipulated needle and thread with nimble precision. Her thoughts danced free, embroidering their own design. The opportunity to reflect was rare at this productive time of year. In the courtyard, fresh blossoms and grasses sprouted. Besides, mother of a newborn, it wasn’t often Mei-Si’s mind ever wandered far from home.

She recalled her fear as the bridal sedan-chair carried her here. Matchmakers had completed all arrangements, agreeing terms. Where was her husband Chun now, she wondered? Directing a guilty glance at the courtyard gate, the empty track beyond, she quickly put the thought aside. Time, and an exacting Mother-in-law, had schooled her to suppress girlhood spontaneity.

‘Woman’s life is working and waiting,’ Mother-in-law said.

Mei-Si listened for the reassuring sound of delicate breathing. First-son, not yet seen by his father, slept soundly. He’d arrived seven months after Chun left for the New Gold Mountain.

Still in the unclean period after birth, Mei-Si hadn’t bathed or been seen in public. It wouldn’t do, to offend the gods.

‘An honourable birth, requiring proper observation,’ Mother-in-law reminded her. Confined for another two weeks, Mei-Si must perform daily tasks. Embellish clothes for the infant to keep him safe.

‘A fine piece of jade to treasure,’ Mother-in-law hailed the boy-child. ‘Avoiding one reason why a man might abandon his wife – barrenness.’

The blunt endorsement meant Mei-Si’s place in this household was secure.

Snapping off thread, she looked with satisfaction at a completed butterfly. Brilliant colours fashioned outstretched wings. Mei-Si’s fingertips traced minute white stitches walking along azure blue outlining their outermost tips.

Mother-in-law saw only a worker able to accept discipline. Mei-Si liked sheer beauty. Pictures worked in thread. A medium she understood. Dragons and phoenixes, flowers and insects, all surrounded her since childhood.

These stitches were a gift of longevity and protection for the one who’d wear them. An embroidered border for the red hood her son would wear, once he ventured out-of-doors. Mei-Si stroked the surface of silken threads.

‘Nothing in my life has ever mattered to me as he matters now,’ she murmured.

Turning her gaze again towards the child something infinitesimal caught her eye. The sight was miniscule and yet alluring as light catching a silken sleeve. There, in the middle of nearby foliage. A tiny insect settled on an emerald blade of grass, caught inside a crystal bead of fluid. A stray dewdrop shot through with sunshine.

Contained in its bubble the insect seemed enormous, stretching to touch magnifying walls of water. Perhaps it had struggled at first, seeking escape, but now it occupied the entire dome – inhabitant of a diminutive moon. The black specks of its trapped stare seemed to tremble.

Impulsively Mei-Si reached out. Let one tender finger drift lightly along the pathway of green sheen. Her flesh met the water’s edge. Fluid elongated and quivered. Breaking, it fell. The insect turned, turned again, steadying itself on thread-thin legs.

Ready, it took wing.