Sitting on a stone bench in the park, Xiao-Mei noticed that the flowers in the botanical garden were turning brown and withering; their fragile stems scarcely supporting the remnants of their once brilliant blossoms. The only remaining hint of the past summer‘s splendor was a few green leaves on the trees in the arboretum, tenaciously clinging to branches as if defiantly refusing to become part of the cyclical phases of the seasons.
Cracking dry soil was counter-intuitive to the perpetually moist climate of the island which more than likely meant that the park maintenance crews had failed to properly water the flora. She wondered how many other parks out the many in Taipei were suffering from the same neglect.
The people in the park were bustling about her in contrast to her motionless state caused by hesitance to carry out a previously conceived plan that she knew was the only viable option to save her husband. She felt like she was frozen in time and the world was passing before her eyes. But the changing of her shadow cast by the sun on the flagstone path, caused by the rotation of the earth, was a reminder that time was indeed passing for her as well and that she should continue on with her mission.
The unusually brisk and nippy November winds prompted her to pull her knitted jacket around her neck as tightly as possible. But this did little to comfort her physically and certainly had no effect on her disconsolate emotional state. She was snapped back to reality from her melancholy when she was approached by a young boy sparsely dressed in dirty ragged clothing.
“Auntie, give me some money!”
Xiao-Mei’s initial pity for an unfortunate 10 year old boy turned to resentment when she realized he was just a beggar.
“Auntie, please can you give me a little money? My mother and I haven’t eaten for several days and are weak from hunger.”
He pointed to his mother shamefully hiding behind a nearby tree. Her clothing was also dirty and stained. Her white shirt and black dress were nearly the same color of drab grey and her sallow complexion was evidence of a prolonged sparse existence.
They had obviously slept in the park overnight, most likely as an alternative to the more dangerous streets. They were cold and hungry and in desperate need of food if they were to ward off hypothermia and subsequent death. Yet the mother’s pride and self esteem prevented her from obtrusively begging for money from strangers. However, her son had no such compunction.
She felt empathy for the mother because in some ways their situations paralleled each other. She too, was in fear for the well being of her loved ones and would need to depend on the generosity of others to extricate her family from the looming predicament.
Her compassion compelled her to reach into her purse for a donation but, she was stopped by a thought before she could extract the money. Who is not short of money? I might as well be a beggar in the park with the insurmountable debt I am about to incur.
When she hesitated, the boy returned to his mother. In that instant, Xiao-Mei had a change of heart at the thought of finding two frozen bodies in the park tomorrow. The guilt of refusing to alleviate the suffering of the less fortunate and causing their death would only increase her already heavy burden. Besides, she thought, a couple hundred dollars is insignificant compared to what she needed to raise for her husband’s defense.
She walked over to the woman and pressed two 100 NTD bills into her palm. “My resources are limited. I wish I could give you more. Be careful tonight.” The woman choked back tears, thanked her and left.
Deciding to follow the lawyer’s advice and raise enough money to enable him to transact the bribes required to free Xue-Heng, she had set out to raise funds from every source she could think of. So far she had secured a second mortgage against their house, liquidated their stocks and bonds, withdrew their savings and requested advances against future salary from her employer.
Still, altogether, she had only accumulated one half of the amount specified by the lawyer. For the remaining half, she would have to rely on friends, family and acquaintances. She was not very confidant that this would be enough because one never really knows how good a friendship is until asking to borrow money.
She felt that her family would be the most likely persons to willingly lend her money but, ironically, they had the least resources of any of the potential lenders on her list. They grew up in a poor household and lived hand to mouth as her father was not employed by a company but instead relied on odd jobs and handyman work for income. Although their existence was a constant struggle financially, they relied on each other for support and bonded into a close knit family.
Her father’s early death severely impacted her mother. The early onset of Alzheimer’s was closely followed by diabetes and related complications requiring frequent operations and extended stays at the hospital. By the time she died at the age of 58, the entire family had nearly hit bottom financially. None of her siblings had particularly lucrative businesses or occupations but still surprised her when they managed to scrape together 100,000 NTD for Xue-Heng’s defense.
Some of her former teaching colleagues started a money pool from which she could borrow money at a very low interest rate. Those were some of her closest friends. Others, whom she considered to be friends, distanced themselves upon finding out about her husband’s poor fortune and suspecting that Xiao-Mei would be asking them for a loan.
In the time of crisis, there can be many surprises in the way friends and family respond to pleas for financial help. In the end, money is the great yardstick that will measure to what degree a friend values your relationship. She reckoned that she had very few if the old proverb “Friends lend money to each other” was true.
Her only remaining option, and the reason for her procrastination, was to seek help from her husband’s family. She had spent a great deal of time contemplating her chances for success with each member of the family and concluded that Xue-Heng’s father was her best option. She was here waiting to meet him, inwardly dreading that his Alzheimer’s would cause him to forget his appointment.
He was a civil servant with an average salary but lived frugally and managed to save enough to buy a 2 story house and provide amply for his family. He believed strongly that one could only succeed in life through diligent study which became a deep seated belief in his second son Xue-Heng; a belief which he later attempted to instill in his own sons.
Although Xue-Heng was the second born son, he was treated as if he were the oldest in terms of Chinese tradition. He studied very hard at school by contrast to his older brother who disliked studying intensely. The praise lavished on Xue-Heng incensed his older brother and the resentment spawned a perpetual competition and a split between them that never healed. Xiao-Mei couldn’t help but draw a similar parallel between her own sons Mo-Qian and Mo-Xiu.
But the main reason she eliminated Xue-Heng’s older brother as a potential source of help was the hostility directed toward them by his older brother and his wife. Even though the intent of the father was to give one floor to each of his sons, the brother’s wife constantly urged him to force Xue-Heng to relinquish his claim so they could occupy both floors.
The tensions eased a bit after Xue-Heng passed his civil service exam and secured a job with the customs bureau in Taoyuan. The distance from the customs bureau to the family homestead negated the possibility of a daily commute so they bought a new house near his office.
Even though the father often mentioned his desire to see the family altogether under one roof, the older brother and his wife slowly managed to occupy the second floor meant for Xue-Heng. That was not objectionable to Xiao-Mei at the time because she had no desire to live in the same house as her vituperative sister-in-law.
Now that she was in desperate need of funds, she would have liked to have sold that part of the house rightfully owned by her husband. But she knew that the level of greed demonstrated by her in-laws in the past would make it impossible to get any cooperation from them or for that matter any contribution to Xue-Heng’s defense. Inwardly, she regretted not having aggressively defended their right of ownership in the past.
She knew that Xue-Heng’s sister, Xue-Ying, would be of no help since they had not communicated after the day she left their house. She had come to them in desperation after catching her husband having an affair with the widow in the shop adjacent to their clothing store.
She claimed her husband had beaten her and she was in fear for her life if she remained with him. And, to complicate matters, she was pregnant and didn’t know how she could have his child now that she knew he was cheating on her. Xiao-Mei located a doctor that would perform an abortion and set up an appointment. But, she left without keeping the appointment because she started worrying about her husband taking all of her money and spending it on his affair.
The reason they had not spoken is that after returning to her husband and reconciling, they relocated their business away from the affair and shifted all the blame for their marital difficulties on to Xiao-Mei. She told her husband that Xiao-Mei had tried to get her to abort their child and also advised her to get divorced. Xue-Heng never forgave his sister for directing such ludicrous aspersions against his wife.
As for Xue-Heng’s uncles and cousins, the chances of getting help from any of them were even less than from his own brother and sister. Hardly worth the effort to even give it any consideration, she had thought to herself.
Having reaffirmed her initial conclusion that her father-in-law was her only hope, her thoughts turned his deteriorating condition since his wife’s death. His memory was erratic and his pastime consisted sitting in the park near his house, enjoying the warmth of the sun and the gentle breezes, carrying the fragrant scents of the grass and flowers into his nostrils. An uneasiness crept into her emotion for fear his dementia would prevent him from remembering their appointment.
She also felt uneasy about their meeting because she had been warned by Xue-Heng’s brother and sister not to cause their father stress by involving him in her husband’s crucial predicament. But considering that they would not contribute any money to help him out, she surmised that their motive was greed; fearing that that their father would squander their future inheritance on a hopeless cause. She would deal with their wrath after the fact considering that her only chance to help her husband rested in the hands of his father.
Relief flooded over her as she recognized the slouched figure slowly approaching her. She quickly walked toward him and whispered affectionately, “DAD!” It took 5 minutes of explanation before he comprehended who she was.
A pleasant smile spread slowly across his lips. “Ah, Xiao-Mei, It has been so long since I have seen you. Tell me, how is everyone doing? How are my grandsons and Xue-Heng?”
She was nervous that they would be spotted by her Xue-Heng’s brother or sister and hurriedly explained the situation in as brief a manner as possible. She only revealed that her husband was having a legal problem and she needed money to defend him; stressing that he would most certainly be found innocent and that the borrowed money could be repaid quickly.
Even though she tried very hard to minimize the predicament, her father-in-law sensed the gravity of the situation and raised his eyebrows, wrinkling his furrowed forehead in deep concern. “How bad is it? How much money do you need?”
“We need as much money as you can spare without jeopardizing your living expenses.”
“Does his brother and sister know how serious the situation is?”
“Yes, I told them and also asked them to help and they refused.”
Hearing this, Xian-De (Sheean-Duh) erupted in anger. “How could they keep such an important thing from me?”
“Don’t be angry. They were only trying to spare their beloved father any grief. I too have the same desire and apologize for any actions that may seem unfilial. But, I had no other alternative than to ask you for help.”
“Xue-Heng is my son! Nothing I do can be too great. Here, come with me.” He took Xiao-Mei’s hand and started walking.
“Where are we going?”
“To my house so I can give you my bank book and signature stamp.”
Startled, she pulled away from him. “If we go to your house, your son and daughter will know that I told you about Xue-Heng and this will cause them to be angry with me.”
“That should not be an issue for God’s sake. He is my son and their brother.”
“You know that they have hard feelings between them and when my husband is freed from this entrapment, it would be impossible to ever have any kind of civil contact with them. If you can help us, please do it in secret to avoid any suspicion from the siblings.”
Xian-De understood and respected her concerns and later wired the all the funds he could spare directly into the Yin family account.
Although his donation was more than she expected, it still left Xiao-Mei $200,000 short of the lawyer’s requested funding requirement and a daunting unfinished task.