It’s 1944 and the Japanese are losing the war, but Shanghai is more dangerous than ever, particularly for the Adler family. After fleeing Nazi Europe, Dr. Franz Adler and his teenage daughter, Hannah, have adjusted to life in their strange adopted city, but they are now imprisoned in the Shanghai Ghetto for refugee Jews.
The epic final chapter in Daniel Kalla’s wartime trilogy, for the first time in many war-riven years, the Adlers now face the challenge of re-envisioning their lives, and the prospect of forging a hopeful path forward for the future—if they can first survive. Please enjoy this excerpt from Nightfall Over Shanghai.
April 15, 1944, Shanghai
Soon Yi “Sunny” Adler found the quiet disconcerting. Normally, the tiny apartment was a hive of activity. But Sunny’s stepdaughter, Hannah, was in school while her husband, Franz, was busy tending to patients at the refugee hospital, where Sunny also spent most of her time. And her sister-in-law, Esther, had taken her one-year-old, Jakob, to scour the local grocers, looking for anything to accompany the mouldy rice in the pot. There was no money, so perhaps Esther planned to barter the pair of socks that she had knitted earlier in the afternoon?
Sunny tidied up the cramped sitting room that doubled as Esther and Jakob’s bedroom at night. She pushed the chairs in under the wobbly table where the family spent most of their evenings. She picked up the worn wooden blocks that Jakob loved to bang for hours at a time off the couch. The ratty sofa, which Sunny had reclaimed from the dump and recovered with an old blanket, was one of the few pieces of furniture inside the dingy flat. And yet, Sunny was acutely aware of how lucky her family was compared with many of the Jewish refugees who had been forced by the Japanese to reside inside the Shanghai ghetto. Some twenty thousand of them lived among a hundred thousand native Chinese, all crammed into one square mile of rundown apartments set in a confusing network of narrow alleys known as longtangs. The Adlers’ indoor plumbing alone was an extravagance that was viewed by many of the other refugees with open envy.
Still, in her low moments, like this one, Sunny found it hard to feel grateful for their relative good fortune. Her past year had been defined by loss. So many loved ones had either been killed or were interned in the squalid prison camps scattered across the city. Over the past fifteen months, the Japanese had incarcerated tens of thousands of American and British Shanghailanders, several of her friends included. But she missed her old amah, Yang, the most, and in some ways felt responsible for the woman’s fate. Yang had been caught sheltering fugitive friends of Sunny’s and was now rotting away inside one of the worst of the camps.
Sunny appreciated that Shanghai could be even more dangerous for those living outside the camps than inside. With each military setback in the Pacific Theatre—as the radio announcers referred to it on the banned Voice of America broadcasts that still found a way into several of the refugees’ homes—the Japanese grew more unpredictable. Every day seemed to bring new waves of unprovoked roundups and disappearances among the Chinese and the refugee Jews. Lately, the Japanese hadn’t even bothered with public floggings, opting usually just to execute the accused on sight.
The rattling of the door drew Sunny’s attention. It flew open and Hannah stood at the threshold with an arm draped over the shoulders of a young Chinese girl, hunched forward and clutching at her belly.
A month shy of her fourteenth birthday, Hannah had sprouted over the previous winter. She shared her father’s hazel eyes and dimpled chin, but Sunny knew from old photographs that Franz had brought with him from Austria that her stepdaughter had inherited her mother’s fair complexion and oval face. Despite her physical self-consciousness—Hannah’s left arm and leg had been weakened and mildly disfigured since birth—she was developing into a beautiful young woman.
“Where’s Papa?” Hannah demanded.
“At the hospital.” Sunny rushed over to meet them. “What’s going on?”
“Feng Wei.” Hannah nodded to the bent-over girl. “Something is wrong with her stomach.”
Sunny hadn’t even recognized Feng Wei, whose features were contorted in agony. The shy young girl was no more than a year or two older than Hannah and lived with her large family in one of the neighbouring longtangs.
Sunny slipped in between the two girls and ushered Feng Wei toward the couch. Even before she ran her hand over her tense belly, Sunny could tell what was happening from Feng Wei’s stilted breathing and not-fully-concealed bulge. “How many months?” she demanded in Shanghainese.
“Wie viele Monate?” Frowning, Hannah echoed the question in German. “Months? This only happened today.”
But Feng Wei understood. “Last summer,” she whimpered. “Before monsoon season.”
Hannah whipped her head in her friend’s direction. “Feng Wei, you are not with child?”
Grimacing, Feng Wei looked away, embarrassment only compounding her pain.
Sunny helped Feng Wei onto the couch. The girl’s face relaxed as the discomfort appeared to pass. “And the contractions—these painful spasms—when did they begin?”
“I have had the pains for the past month,” Feng Wei said, still avoiding eye contact. “This morning, they were so much stronger.”
“And do the pains come regularly now, every few minutes or so?” Sunny asked, and Feng Wei nodded slightly. “Do you feel the urge to bear down? As if you have to go the bathroom?”
Feng Wei nodded more vigorously. “Yes, dear lady. I have such strong—” Another contraction seized her. She lurched forward and grabbed hold of her belly with both hands, crunching herself into the shape of a bean. Her mouth opened but no sound emerged.
Sunny turned to her stepdaughter. “Hannah, get me a pail of water. And bring me some cloths and sheets, please. Strip the bed, if need be. Oh, and bring me your aunt’s thread and the scissors from her knitting kit.”
Feng Wei’s head fell back onto the couch and her breathing eased. This was familiar territory for Sunny, who had delivered countless babies over the past few years. Despite all the mentoring her father, an eminent doctor, had provided, Sunny had begun the war as a ward nurse. Even after she met Franz at the refugee hospital and fell in love with him, she would never have dreamed that her future husband would train her to become a surgeon almost as capable as he was. It still astounded her to think of the medical responsibilities she had since assumed and the complex surgeries she had performed. But she also knew too well that war changes everything and everyone, very occasionally and only inadvertently for the better.
Sunny reached for the hem of Feng Wei’s traditional grey dress. “I need to check you. From below. You understand, little one?”
The girl’s cheeks flushed deeply, but she nodded her consent. Kneeling at the foot of the couch, Sunny lifted the hem up past Feng Wei’s waist and then wriggled her cotton bloomers down her legs. The ammonia-tinged odour of urine intermingled with amniotic fluid drifted to Sunny’s nose as she gently bent the girl’s knees and positioned her bare feet on the couch so that the ankles were touching. Sunny attempted to push her thighs apart, but Feng Wei resisted, keeping her knees clamped tightly together.
Sunny relaxed the pressure. “It’s time, little Wei,” she said in a soft but firm tone.
Feng Wei hesitated and then slowly separated her legs until they were partway open. Sunny could see dark hair beneath Feng Wei’s dress and, looking carefully, spotted another source of black hair protruding between the girl’s legs. “The baby is crowning,” she said. “He’s ready to come out.”
“I … I don’t know how,” Feng Wei whispered.
Sunny squeezed the girl’s calf reassuringly. “When the contraction comes, you just have to push. Let your body guide you. It will not take long.”
“I brought the …” Hannah stopped midsentence.
Sunny glanced over her shoulder to see her stepdaughter standing behind her with mouth open and eyes wide, a pail of water dangling from one hand and a stack of folded sheets and cloths supporting a spool of thread and pair of scissors balanced on the other. Hannah closed her mouth and made her way over to the couch, her eyes fixed with new-found determination.
Sunny fought back a smile, proud of her stepdaughter’s show of bravery. “Pass me the water and a cloth, Hannah. And one of the sheets, please.”
Sunny ran the sheet under Feng Wei’s legs and slipped it up underneath her buttocks. Then she rested her hands against the inside of Feng Wei’s knees and pushed. This time, Feng Wei allowed her legs to part wider so Sunny could gently swab between the girl’s legs with a damp cloth. Just as she began the second stroke, Feng Wei tensed her neck and panted through another contraction.
“Push, Feng Wei,” Sunny encouraged. “Push.”
Hannah squeezed Feng Wei’s hand and chanted, “Push, push, push.”
Sunny watched the baby’s head emerge a few inches further. “Good,” Sunny said. “Keep pushing!”
“Keep going, Feng Wei, you are doing so well,” Hannah urged in nearly accent-free Chinese.
The contraction passed and Feng Wei’s head flopped back once more onto the couch. Sunny ran her fingers over the baby’s wet, spongy scalp. “You must push through the pain, little Wei,” Sunny instructed. “The baby will come with the next contraction with one big push. Do you understand?”
“A baby,” Hannah sang. “Only one more big push and you will have a baby!”
Except for her laboured breathing, Feng Wei remained silent and still. After another minute or two, she tensed her hips and thrust her head up again. “Push hard, Feng Wei,” Sunny commanded. “Now.”
Suddenly, the baby’s entire head was free. Sunny gently held it with her fingers placed over each ear, then slowly guided it downward until the shoulders cleared Feng Wei’s pelvis and the rest of the body slipped out. Holding him under the armpits, Sunny lifted the baby clear of the dangling umbilical cord. She studied his colour, relieved by the healthy pinkish hue. She could feel his heart beating, and she felt her own pulse pound in exhilaration. The baby opened his eyes, grunted and then uttered more of a mew than a cry.
Unexpectedly moved, Sunny laughed. “Look at him. The little angel.”
“A boy,” Hannah cried excitedly, still holding Feng Wei’s hand. “It’s a beautiful boy. A friend for Jakob.”
Feng Wei squeezed her eyes shut. Her shoulders trembled and she began to sob silently.
Sunny folded a sheet and used it to swaddle the baby before lowering him onto the couch next to his mother. She reached for the scissors, cut off a long piece of thread and then wrapped it three times around the umbilical cord close to the baby’s belly. She tied it off with multiple knots and then repeated the step three times, leaving a small gap between the two sets of ties. She looked over at Hannah, who was watching with rapt attention. “Would my able assistant like to cut the cord?” Sunny asked.
Hannah’s eyes brimmed with eagerness. “Could I?”
Sunny held out the scissors for her. Hannah tucked her mildly contracted left hand against her side, and accepted the tool with her right. The scissors shook slightly as she moved the open blades toward the cord. She turned uncertainly to Sunny. “Will this hurt him?”
“No, not at all.” Sunny grinned.
Hannah hesitated, then squeezed the blades together. She had to cut three or four times before the cord was sliced through. Once it fell away, Sunny lifted the baby and brought him close to her own face. The distinct smell of new life almost brought tears to her eyes. “It must be time to feed you, gorgeous,” she murmured close to his cheek.
Sunny lowered him toward Feng Wei, but the girl recoiled, turning her head and rolling onto her side. Taken aback, Sunny brought the baby to her own chest and nestled him there. “Is there someone we should notify, Feng Wei? Your parents, perhaps?”
With her back still turned, Feng Wei shook her head. “Not a soul. Please, dear lady.”
“Do your parents not know?” Hannah asked.
“No one can know,” Feng Wei whimpered.
“And the baby’s father?” Sunny asked.
“No! Especially not him.” Feng Wei’s shoulders trembled again, and this time her sobs were audible. “I do not even know his name.”
A chill ran down Sunny’s spine. With her free hand, she reached out and touched the girl’s shoulder. “The father—is he Japanese? A soldier?”
Feng Wei shot her hands up to cover her face, and her sobs grew louder. Finally, she nodded.
Sunny’s mind flashed back to an evening five years before, the night she had been forced up against a shop window by a knife-wielding, drunken Japanese sailor, her blouse ripped open and her legs spread apart by the pressure of his knee. She had willed him to plunge the blade into her throat, preferring that over another moment of pain or debasement. That was when her father had intervened, sacrificing his life to save hers or, at least, preventing her from knowing the terrible dilemma that Feng Wei now faced—giving birth to a baby that was also the child of the man who had raped her.
“Sunny, may I?” Hannah asked, easing the baby out of Sunny’s arms.
Feng Wei still wouldn’t look at either of them. “Father will never allow it,” she muttered.
Sunny caressed Feng Wei’s shoulder again. “Perhaps with time—”
“To lose face in such a way?” Feng Wei cried. “Never, ever. Not until the end of time. I could never bring such shame to the family.”
The baby stirred in Hannah’s arms and uttered another croaky cry.
“We will figure something out,” Sunny said emptily. “Meantime, your baby is hungry.”
But Feng Wei remained on her side. “Are there no bottles?”
“He needs his mother’s milk,” Sunny said, squeezing her shoulder more firmly.
Reluctantly, Feng Wei rolled onto her back. She still didn’t reach for the child, but instead, with a blank expression and no sign of her previous modesty, raised her dress to expose her breasts. Sunny took the baby from Hannah and lowered him to the closest breast and repositioned his head until he rooted around and found a nipple. “That’s it, little darling,” she said with satisfaction as she watched him latch.
Feng Wei made no move to embrace her son. She kept her arms at her side and stared up at the ceiling while the baby nursed. Sunny was alarmed at the sight of a mother neglecting her newborn. Finally, she lifted up Feng Wei’s arm and positioned it to support the baby. The girl held her son to her chest but kept her eyes fixed on the ceiling.
The door opened again and Esther stepped in, holding Jakob in her arms. In Vienna, Esther had been married to Franz’s younger brother, who had been murdered on Kristallnacht. Even though she had since remarried, Franz still considered her to be his sister-in-law. Sunny thought of her as one too. Esther had always been skinny, but after a year of forced separation from her second husband, Simon, she had lost so much weight that she swam in her simple grey dress. Her narrow features and deep-set eyes were more sunken than ever, making her look older than her thirty-eight years.
As soon as Jakob saw Sunny and Hannah, the toddler struggled free of his mother’s grip and tottered over to greet them. Hannah swept him up in her arms. “Look, Jakob, you’re not the youngest anymore.”
“Baby, baby,” Jakob repeated.
Esther turned to Sunny with a look of quiet concern.
“I was as surprised as you.” Sunny went on to explain what had just happened, safe in the knowledge that Feng Wei couldn’t understand German. “Look at her, Essie. I’ve never seen anything like this. She is resisting the maternal instinct.”
Esther nodded in an understanding way. “Under the circumstances, I don’t think the girl has much choice.”
“So what will become of him?”
Esther sighed. “An orphanage?”
Sunny had no idea which, if any, of the orphanages in the city were still operating since the Japanese occupation had begun. She thought, with a shudder, of those little packages wrapped in bamboo that she had passed on the streets over the years—babies who died at birth or were abandoned soon after. Never, she vowed to herself. She would never let that happen to this precious one.
“What then?” Esther eyed her quizzically. “Sunny, you’re not suggesting …”
Esther studied the nursing baby for a long moment without comment. Finally, she nodded to herself. “I’m still feeding Jakob. I have plenty of milk to share.”
Copyright © 2015 by Daniel Kalla