Set in the Forbidden City during a time where the only certainty is change, this story tells of the one thing uniting the past and present for one of the most important characters in Chinese history as he concludes his journey in finding freedom.
One of the most vivid memories I have from my childhood is grandma smiling, revealing kind lines etched in her face as she remarked that the Forbidden City was at its full glory in the autumn, and no colour suited the palace walls better than the fiery red hue of the autumn leaves.
I tucked my hands in my pockets as the now-yellow leaves pirouetted down the tree bark in the chilly Beijing breeze. Glancing down at my worn-out gardening shoes, I felt relieved as it dawned on me I looked no different to a regular citizen.
The small golden key in my pocket seemed to weigh heavier as I fidget restlessly with it. I have finally mustered up the courage to seek answers to this key that I’ve kept since I left the Forbidden City three decades ago and had forgotten its use in the voyage of time. The only clue to the key’s origin are the characters “Wu Ge” engraved intricately in the lusterless gold.
I gripped the entrance ticket to this museum that I once called home tightly in my hands, as if it might disintegrate into dust. The imposing walls of the palace greeted me with a familiar hostility that made me shiver in my jacket.
The years spent in prison have weakened my tolerance of the cold weather.
Gritting my teeth with whatever was left of my strength, I took a tentative step over the threshold to the Dragon Throne Room. As I gaped around the room with the awe of a stranger and the caution of an old acquaintance, a peculiar-looking object on the table next to the Dragon Throne caught my eye. I picked the object up in my hands and examined it. It was an exquisite bamboo replica of the Forbidden City structure transformed into a cricket cage. Even the pale paint on the cage betrayed what would have once been a vibrant coat of daffodil yellow. Yellow reserved for the Emperor.
I peered between the bamboo sticks forming pillars of the cage and recoiled at what I saw inside. In the cage lay the brown, rotting body of a cricket; its wings punctured with holes. The memory burst in my mind like an old wound festering.
~ December, 1908 ~
“Please, please, he’s just a baby! He doesn’t belong in the palace!” An elderly woman’s clenched fists hang defiantly at her sides as her high-pitched wails reverberated around the room.
“Please don’t take him away from me!” Her lips trembled. The almost undetectable tremor of defeat in my grandmother’s voice shattered my heart into fragments.
“I’m sorry, Lady Lingiya, but Empress Cixi has given me instructions on her deathbed to bring Pu Yi to the Forbidden City immediately. I’m afraid she does not have long left. She has chosen your grandson to ascend to the throne as the new Emperor of the Qing Dynasty.”
The general parroted as he seized control of me, and a guard held back my grandmother. I was howling with a sadness as deep as the ocean and kicking like only a four-year-old knew how to.
“Wait!” My grandmother shouted as she broke out of the guard’s hold. She grabbed a bamboo cricket cage from the kitchen along with a glistening golden key and thrust them into the general’s hands.
The loud protesting chirps from the cricket rang in my ears like rich music.
“Make sure my grandson is in possession of this cricket cage and key when he arrives at the palace.” My grandmother ordered as she fixed a fierce glare on the general. Her face then melted into a fond expression as she clutched my tiny hands in hers.
“Take care of the cricket, Wu Ge. Be its friend. Listen to the songs it sings. Don’t ever lose this golden key, my boy. Set the cricket free, and you will be free too.” She kissed my tear-stained cheek one last time and watched, suppressing her sobs, as men with braids took me away forever.
My eyes opened. The cage was still in my hands. My nickname was still carved into the golden key, now a staggering weight in my pocket. The cricket of my childhood that once upon a time sung songs of burning desire fading into subdued yearning for a life that wasn’t confined within the wires of the cage still remained silent.
I swallowed, took the key from my pocket and opened the cage with shaking fingers. My heart squeezed painfully at the decayed sight of my beloved cricket, a gift I wasted from my grandmother. I looked away with shame.
A boy with wide, curious eyes gazed at the Dragon Throne with a terrified wonder, and something in his expression reminded me of the way I used to stare at the throne; like it was a magical burden. Impulse drove me as I turned to the boy and carefully handed the cricket resting peacefully in my palm and my golden key to him. His eyes lit up in a childish delight.
“This is a very special cricket. Bury it somewhere beautiful with the key.” I said to the boy.
“Is it special because you found it on the Dragon Throne?” He asked.
“No. The last Qing Emperor kept this cricket as his pet. He loved it very much.”
We sat down on the palace grounds and I told him the story of the boy and the cricket. A tiny, powerful feeling blossomed in my chest. Hope. Hope that one day I would no longer hear the cricket sing songs of melancholy, but songs of freedom in heaven.
I worked tirelessly in my garden, tending to the flowers that bloomed in a mélange of forms and sizes ranging from elfin to brandishing giants. They were my desperate attempt at repainting the grey canvas of my life with a little colour.
The cricket cage was already embedded in layers of soil, occupying its place as the abandoned past. New flowers would soon spring up on the spot. Suddenly, a sound intruded my tranquil afternoon thoughts like a profanity. I pause to listen, like I used to do as a child. I dropped down to my knees and sprawled on the grassy earth, closing my eyes.
I hope somewhere, my grandmother is listening too.
Time became irrelevant as I drowned myself in the enchanting sound of the cricket crooning a song of freedom. Its voice drifted down from the sky in a cascade of light. In this moment, I was not The Last Emperor, whose story was immortalized in history textbooks. I was just Pu Yi, a boy whose story was immortalised in the songs sung by crickets. I was finally free.