Authors: Donna Jo Napoli
Tags: #Juvenile Fiction, #General
"Wake up and drink." Stepmother stood over Xing Xing, who was still lying on the floor where she'd fallen asleep. She held out a bowl.
"What. . . ?"
"Don't speak!" barked Stepmother. "Think. Yesterday you disappeared. Then last night you came home raving. You're obviously ill. Don't say any more things that you'll regret. Drink."
Xing Xing smelled the potion and recognized it: wild tea leaves mixed with shallot, ginger, and dogwood. It was known to calm the
—the life forces that make up the spirit.
Nothing could calm Xing Xing's
but the truth. Still, she drank, so that Stepmother might be calmed. And she lowered her eyes demurely.
"That's better," said Stepmother. "Your sister is still asleep. When she wakes, we want her to have a good day, right? We both want that. And we want a good tomorrow. And a good week. You agree, don't you?"
Xing Xing bowed her head.
"Exactly. There will be no more devils to plague us. It's my job to make sure of that. Do you understand?"
Xing Xing bowed her head.
"After the cave festival, after your sister has found a husband, then you and I can talk about your future, I realize you must worry about it. But first thing's first. Your sister comes first. Do you understand?"
Xing Xing bowed her head.
"Then show me you understand. Go about your tasks."
Xing Xing got to her feet and went to do the task Stepmother found most loathsome: emptying the chamber pot. It was important that Stepmother believe she was her old, obedient self. That way, Stepmother would let down her guard and Xing Xing could discover the truth.
"No," said Stepmother quickly. "You're still not totally well. I wouldn't want you to get dizzy and fall into the dung heap. For the next few days I'll do that task. You go fetch the water. Fetch it before Wei Ping wakes."
Xing Xing slowly picked up the water bucket. She slowly picked up the pole.
"Wei Ping will be disappointed when she finds you went to get the water without her. She wanted so much to see the fish. What will you tell her?" Stepmother looked at Xing Xing closely, curious.
"I'll tell her the fish wasn't there," Xing Xing said slowly.
"Yes, that's good. And when she asks where it is, what will you tell her?"
"I'll tell her I don't know," Xing Xing said even more slowly.
"Good. And then stop talking about it. You two spend too much time talking these days." Stepmother was still watching her closely. "All right, then, go. Hurry."
Xing Xing found she couldn't hurry. Her movements were deliberate but slow. She knew Stepmother was still watching her. She saw Stepmother's expression change from curious to satisfied.
Stepmother must have added something else to that potion, something that weighed Xing Xing down.
But it worked only on her body, for her mind jumped from one pinnacle to another on a huge mountain of thought. She watched Stepmother's nose wrinkle as she picked up the chamber pot. The woman was taking over the task she hated most. The woman was afraid Xing Xing might get dizzy and fall into the dung heap. But she wasn't afraid Xing Xing would fall into the pool. It wasn't logical. And what had the woman done with the birdcage that held the raccoon kit? She'd thrown it in the dung heap.
Xing Xing knew what she had to do.
Learning is not the accumulation of knowledge, but rather, one thing only: understanding. Father had taught Xing Xing that. To truly learn, you listened first with your ears, then with your heart, then with your
Father had taught her that, too. Xing Xing understood—her
had helped her understand—that her beautiful fish mother was dead. There was no longer any need for evidence.
What was needed was reverence.
So while Stepmother and Wei Ping napped in the heat of the afternoon, Xing Xing went to the dung heap. She felt no disgust as she sank in both arms up to the elbow. Almost immediately sharp bones jabbed her fingers. She pulled out the long spine of her beautiful fish mother. The ribs still held to it firmly. She carried it down to the pool and washed it thoroughly. Then she separated each bone from the others. She washed them a second time—in her tears.
The pile of bones fit neatly in the scoop of her dress.
Xing Xing carried the bones back home and crawled into the storeroom with the last of Father's pots and bowls. She would keep the bones in the corner. No one else ever entered this room, anyway, so it could become a shrine to her mother. But as she crawled awkwardly across the floor, cradling the bones against her middle, she realized that one of the stones in the floor was loose. Xing Xing dug around the stone with her fingers. When it wouldn't come free, she tried prying with a fish rib.
Under the stone was a hole. In the darkness of the storeroom, Xing Xing couldn't see what was in the hole. But she could feel.
She felt a piece of paper, folded and sealed: a letter. Under it she felt silk and feathers and hard little balls on a string.
Xing Xing moved everything in the hole to one side. She carefully laid in the fish bones. Then she took the letter in her teeth, replaced the stone over the hole, and crawled to the opening of the storeroom. She could hear Stepmother talking to Wei Ping in the main cavern room. So she hid the letter in the bodice of her dress and came out of the storeroom.
"What were you doing in there?" said Stepmother.
Xing Xing looked down at her feet.
"Don't go thinking of selling a pot on your own," said Stepmother. "That would be theft."
"I'd never do that," said Xing Xing.
"It wouldn't take you very far, anyway," said Stepmother. "However much you could carry wouldn't sell for enough coins to make a dowry."
"I don't want a dowry," said Xing Xing.
"Of course not," said Stepmother. She stepped close and whispered in Xing Xing's ear, "I forgot. You already had a husband. You were married to your father."
Xing Xing gasped.
"What did you say to her, Mother?" asked Wei Ping.
Stepmother glared at Xing Xing. "Why did you go into the storeroom?"
"Because I'm sad. The storeroom makes me feel better."
"Are you sad because the fish went away?" asked Wei Ping. "Mother told me you couldn't find her. I am sad about that too. But I'm too big to go crawling around in that storeroom. Besides, it's dark in there. Aren't you afraid?"
Xing Xing shook her head.
"When you're sad, come sit with me on the
said Wei Ping. "We can play the new game Mother bought me—the chess game. And we can talk and cheer each other up."
"If the storeroom makes Xing Xing feel better, then that's where she should go when she's sad," said Stepmother with a sudden change of heart. "I'll keep you company, Wei Ping. I'm good at games." She nodded at Xing Xing. "Go into the storeroom as often as you like." And with that, Stepmother turned her attention to making the evening meal.
Xing Xing didn't get a chance to look at the letter till she went to the pool to fill the water bucket again. Amazingly, the letter was addressed to her. Her mouth went dry. As far as she knew, the only people who had ever gone in that storeroom during Xing Xing's lifetime were herself and Mother. Father and Stepmother were too big. And when Wei Ping was smaller, she was always-afraid of it.
Mother had put that letter there. And now that Xing Xing looked closely at the calligraphy, she knew Father had been the scribe.
She opened it and read:
Dear Xing Xing, My Sparkling One, My Darling,
If you are reading this, then your father has just died, for he promised to tell you of this letter upon his deathbed. Console yourself, dearest: His spirit is joyful now, as it joins me.
Your father wrote this letter for me when I realized I was truly dying. He wrote it so I could talk to you now in this difficult moment.
In this hole are my best things—my cloak and dress and pearls and little things. If you are an adult woman, then the things in this hole are to add to the treasures of your life. If you are still a child, then these things are to be used in whatever way you need. Ornament yourself, if that makes sense. Sell these things, if that makes sense.
My spirit will always be with you.
True to her word, Stepmother made Wei Ping a fancy dress. She finished it the evening before the cave festival. When the girl tried it on, her happy face looked almost pretty. "What do you think, Sister?" asked Wei Ping, hobbling back and forth in front of Xing Xing.
Xing Xing smiled. "You will catch everyone's eye," she said. Then she doubled over and moaned.
"What's the matter?" Wei Ping rested her hand on Xing Xing's back. "Are you ill?"
Xing Xing curled on the floor, clasping her knees to her chest. She breathed hard, feigning pain.
"What nonsense is this?" asked Stepmother, standing over her.
Xing Xing didn't answer, and she didn't look up.
"She's in pain," said Wei Ping. "Anyone can see that."
"It's probably just the monthly cramps," said Stepmother. "I'll make a chrysanthemum brew."
Xing Xing stayed on the floor and watched as Stepmother used the bamboo tongs to pick up the rocks they always kept hot in the bottom of the stove. The woman dropped the preheated stones into the cooking pot and added a bit of water.
When the brew was ready, Wei Ping carried it over to Xing Xing. "What bad timing," she said, putting the bowl on the floor beside Xing Xing. "But with luck, you'll feel fine in the morning."
In the morning, however, Xing Xing resumed her deception; she groaned louder than ever. It was quickly decided that she couldn't go to the cave festival after all. Stepmother went to Master Tang's house to borrow the slave boy so that he could deliver Wei Ping in the barrow to the festival. While she was gone, Xing Xing sat on the
and picked lice from Wei Ping's hair and wax from her ears. She groaned regularly.
"Maybe I'll position myself by the fountain," said Wei Ping. "There are benches over there. And a fountain would set off my dress nicely. The red would seem that much redder."
Xing Xing worked pork fat into Wei Ping's hair.
"And I'll smile a lot. I have a good smile. I'll plant my feet on the ground, close together in my new silk slippers, and sit there as still as the Buddha.
Maybe a man with a belly as large as the Buddha's will notice me." Wei Ping giggled.
Xing Xing formed Wei Ping's hair into curlicues that plastered the sides of her face and her neck.
"You're so quiet," said Wei Ping. "You've been quiet all week. And you've spent too much time in that dark storeroom. Talk."
"What is there to say?"
"Ah, you're jealous. Don't act nasty. It's not my fault you can't go to the festival. Write down your
and I'll memorize it and recite it for you. And I'll take note of everything. I'll describe every last detail to you when we get home tonight."
"Thank you," murmured Xing Xing. She formed a spectacularly fine curlicue on the top of Wei Ping's head. After all, Wei Ping was right—none of this was her fault.
Once Wei Ping was sitting securely in the barrow with her legs folded under her and the three of them—Stepmother, Wei Ping, and the slave boy— had set out, Xing Xing crawled into the storeroom. „
She removed the stone from the hole. "Mother, sweet Mother, at last I'll get to see these things you've left me, these wonderful things that touched your body and that I've been caressing in the dark all week." She combed her mother's bones through the tips of her hair. Then she bundled the other contents of the hole together and carried them into the light of the main cavern room.
The luster of Mother's pearls, the fine gold embroidery on her green silk dress, the kingfisher-feathered cloak—all of that stunned Xing Xing. But what Mother hadn't mentioned in the letter was the very thing that drew her the most: a pair of gold shoes. Mother's feet had been bound when she was a very young girl, of course. But even after they were adults, women kept their bound feet covered in beautiful cloths within their shoes. So the shoes were larger than their bare feet, though still quite small.
Xing Xing raced down the hill and plunged into the spring-fed pool and scrubbed herself from head to foot. Then she came back to the cave and slowly, reverently, slipped on the dress and the pearls and the cloak, which practically floated on her shoulders. The feathers tickled her neck, soft ghost fingers. She smoothed her hair and put it up in a bun with the ivory picks she'd found in the hole. Finally, she cradled the gold shoes in her hands.
Shoes were such odd things, really. Feet could do just fine without them under most circumstances. At least, her feet could. So why should her hands tremble so now? Why should her lips part with such fierce need?
Mother had not walked gracefully. No woman with bound feet walked gracefully, no matter how sexy that irregular swing of the hips was thought to look. Yet the shoes seemed to exude grace, as though anyone who wore them could walk through fear, through cruelty, and come out standing strong. Mother was trying to help Xing Xing stand strong by saving these shoes for her. That was it, of course.
If only these perfect shoes would fit.
Her breath suspended, Xing Xing gingerly tried one foot in a shoe. It nestled there like a chick under her mother's wing, not at all strange, though it had been more than a year since she'd worn even loose hemp shoes. She put the other one on and walked softly around the cavern room. Then she went more quickly. Then she danced. With her feathered cloak, she felt ready to take flight. She twirled and laughed, gratitude practically breaking her heart. "Mother, sweet Mother."
She went down the hill toward the park, where the cave festival was taking place. On the way she passed a peony bush that was still in bloom. That was fitting, after all. Xing Xing picked a huge white flower and tucked it over one ear, confident that Mother's spirit was with her.