|Una Macchia, Irvin Almonte|
Jewel used to be just like any other maid before she became a flower girl: a girl men liked to make laugh by sharing inappropriate jokes with. The pleasure house where she worked was called Clouds and Rain, a thinly veiled attempt to conceal the relations there between men and women; relations she had known nothing of until Henry F. came.
Nobody at Clouds and Rain went by their real name. Madame Wu, the house mistress, rechristened everyone, even the patrons. She studied each new flower girl and first-time customer facetiously, her small, dark eyes twinkling as she clucked her tongue against the roof of her mouth before she pronounced the name you would go by. Jewel, Madame Wu decided suited her for she was most like that soy bean variety: small with rounded features, shiny yellow skin and black top-knotted hair. The jewel of soy beans. And she aspired to be that jewel. She would not be farmed out to just anybody.
Jewel learned quickly how to flatter the men, tease them and stroke their egos. She knew how to appear interested enough to avoid their caresses and still grow in popularity. She became the girl most requested to entertain tables of men or provide singular attention. Older, well-read clients joked she was an Asian Lolita: desired, but out of bounds. Jewel didn't realise that, despite her high regard, she'd just been lucky. Madame Wu had been saving her.
When Henry F. came, her position at Clouds and Rain changed. A wealthy landowner, he'd been told of Jewel by Madame Wu and promised her. If he liked her, for the right fee, she would be his exclusively. And Henry F did, he thought Jewel's earthiness was beautiful; she was more natural than his first, second and third wife, and she reminded him of his father's hard days of farm labour. To him, Jewel was an icon of tender nurturing.
Jewel too was quite besotted with this Oriental man, who Madame Wu had playfully named as if he were an English gentleman because his manners were old-fashioned and impeccable. There was none of Jewel's usual pigheadedness, she consented to be Henry F's, and with him experienced her first clouds and rain. She couldn't say she enjoyed it, it was an act to be gotten through, but she sensed the power that clouds and rain gave her and grew discontented at Madame Wu's. Being a privileged, but an unacknowledged concubine was not enough, she would be his fourth wife.
Jewel had no trouble convincing him she was young and could bear him a son. A son to replace the ones he and his second and third wives had lost. They had not done their duty by him and after months of influencing she won and was installed in the women's quarters. True to her word she bore him a plump and healthy son and this being so, she displaced the second and third wife in his affections. Uprooted them from their more spacious quarters, but even as the second wife she still felt like a shadow; a wife in name, but not mistress of everything.
Clouds and rain would not remove the first wife for although Henry F. now didn't visit her bed, he still adored her. Everybody did as she bid and she'd given him a trio of fine sons and a daughter. She was confided in and consulted, and this made Jewel ruthless with ambition: she would befriend, belittle and finally usurp this sovereign wife. She was the rightful jewel of the house, not this ageing spouse!
Nothing worked however, not her tactics to undermine nor her attempts to flatter, which left murder. When the first wife was fatigued by a sudden fever, Jewel ordered the kitchen to make her mother's cure, a hot and sour soup, which she insisted only she could administer, taking hold of the steaming bowl and stirring in a toxic fungi powder. She hadn't expected to be intercepted by the other wives and made to drink the soup herself.*A tale inspired by Pearl S Buck and Lisa See