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In the hustle and bustle of the Beijing Airport arrival lobby, hundreds of people are behind the red fence waiting to meet their homecoming relatives, friends or guests. A tall, gray-haired gentleman in a black overcoat seems to draw the floating crowd of passengers around him. He holds a medium sized suitcase in his right hand and a stamped entrance pass in the name of Dr. Chau in the opposite hand. With steady steps, the gentleman pauses for a moment in the center of the marble floor lobby. Meanwhile, people behind the red fence are shouting the names of their loved ones in clamorous confusion.
"Wu-Ping... Wu-Ping," a pale, silver-haired woman in a gray Chinese traditional dress shouts ecstatically, with tears running down her hollow cheeks. Dr. Chau jerks abruptly and turns to face the woman who is standing to the far right behind the red fence. A man, in his early thirties, wearing black-framed glasses, is supporting the pale woman on his arm.
Clenching his bags tightly, Dr. Chau proceeds nervously toward the pale woman and the man whom he does not recognize. For forty-two years he has not stepped on this imperial territory of China since he had left in 1949. The last time he had cast a look on Silver was in Beijing on December 14, 1948. Now he returns, and he recognizes Silver from a distance of ten yards. Memories are flooding his mind as he approaches the woman in gray and the man next to her.
Along the banks of Yangtze River in Kweilin are giant limestone mountains that stretch for sixty miles. The Yangtze flows through China's history, through the lives of ancient scholars, warriors, emperors and millions of hard-working peasant families. In a secluded village, protected by the walls of limestone mountains near the river, lived a Chinese literature scholar whose second son was born in 1930. The scholar proudly named his son Wu-Ping Chau. After two years the Chau family added a girl, an adopted infant. Madame Chau renamed the orphan "Silver," for her perpetual paleness. Ever since Wu-Ping could remember, he and Silver had skipped under the bell-shaped limestone peaks, sung in misty open air in the valley and fished in the shallow water of the Yangtze. Before his unexpected death of tetanus in 1939, the Chinese scholar feebly whispered, "the sons of Chau family should become scholars like their ancestors." In order to fulfill his father's will, the oldest son of the Chau family returned to Kweilin from Beijing University, one year after the scholar's funeral.
Because the first son was the oldest male in the household and the second man to attend a university in the village after his deceased father, he decided to educate Wu-Ping to be a scholar in Beijing. At the age of ten, Wu-Ping departed Kweilin under the mourning of limestone bell mountains along the Yangtze.
After he had left, Wu-Ping never revisited Kweilin, yet he had written home regularly. On a raw, blustery December afternoon, Madame Chau reunited with her second son in Beijing. Standing meekly behind her was a pale lady whom Wu-Ping could not recognize at first sight.
"Silver...Silver, is that you?" Wu-Ping exclaimed with wonder. What he recalled of Silver was a pale, bony country girl who blended vaguely with his childhood memories. Now in front of him was this exquisite beauty. Her silky black hair glittered in the reflection of the falling snow, and her pale skin was as immaculate as those famous mistresses of the ancient imperial emperors.
"My son Wu-Ping, our country has been fighting the Communists interminably since 1945. Silver is seventeen and you are nineteen. Girls of her age are mothers already at Kweilin. I don't want Silver to remain unwed during wartime. For her womanly reputation, I want you to wed her before anything happens." Madame Chau spoke with her usual poise. As a stern widow, she carried on the responsibility of raising three children with the five acres of ancestral rice paddies along the Yangtze River for nine years.
"Yes, Mother, I will marry Silver. I have had an impression that she would be my bride since childhood. But, I have just begun my study at the university in September. I cannot bring my bride to sleep in the men's dormitory," Wu-Ping paused and continued.
"I will go home to wed Silver in Kweilin during the New Year in February. When I have settled and rented a house near the school, Silver will come to live under my roof, I promise." He saw Silver smiling shyly. Satisfied with her son, Madame Chau departed for Kweilin with Silver to prepare for the wedding in February.
On a frigid January morning of 1949, air sirens frantically penetrated Beijing followed by the Communist's ominous victory in mainland China. Wu-Ping retreated with the Nationalist government across the Formosa Strait to a subtropical island - Taiwan. Orphaned by an excruciating civil war in modern Chinese history, Wu-Ping survived. Fortunately, he obtained a scholarship to study medicine at Yale University, where he attempted to forget his wounded past. In 1960, he became a medical scholar and married a Chinese professor who was ten years younger than he. Together they had a son.
Arriving at his doorstep a month ago, an unexpected letter written by Wu-Ping's older brother from China brought the news of Madame Chau and Silver. Believing that her second son had died in the civil war, Madame Chau persuaded Silver to wed another young man after the war. Yet, Silver flatly refused, "I am the wife of Wu-Ping Chau. I will wait until he comes home to wed me because he promised." She never married. But, she adopted a son for Wu-Ping, and she remembered to make him a scholar.
Now standing in front of Dr. Chau was his unwed wife, Silver and his adopted son who shared his family name. Staring at each other with mouths agape, the unwed couple freezes in reality. Although pale as ever, Silver has permanent wrinkles engraved on her face. Similarly, Dr. Chau, now a widower, is an old gentleman in whose forehead runs many rail tracks. Youth is an agonizing word to both of them, for they relinquished their youth forty-two years ago. Today, he has returned to see her before they are buried under the limestone tombs. He will not be the victim of war again. Once is enough. Suddenly awakening from his thoughts, the old man embraces the old woman and whispers, "I promised that I would come home to marry you." n