Authors: Donna Jo Napoli
Tags: #Juvenile Fiction, #General
Xing Xing's first thought was to free the polliwogs Master Tang had given her into the spring-fed pool near her home, but then she thought of the beautiful fish in that pool. A mature frog could eat a fish that size.
She changed directions and went instead to the j river rushes, where she opened the small sack and watched the polliwogs gleefully escape. They had four legs already, but their tails still remained—frog, but not yet fully frog.
Then she headed for the woods. If she was lucky, she'd pass Master Tang's slave boy and beg him to catch her at least a few quails. The boy was clearly sweet on her. He gaped whenever she passed. Xing Xing did nothing to encourage his attentions. Her life was far too busy with obeying Stepmother and caring for Father's spirit to think about such things yet. Whenever the boy did her a favor, she always made sure she did him a favor in return, so as never to be beholden to him. But she didn't expect to be lucky enough to pass him in the woods now. One of the reasons the boy was such a good hunter was that he could move so silently and swiftly that the animals didn't realize he was near. It wasn't likely that Xing Xing would be able to detect him.
She walked quietly herself, but in order to be that quiet, she had to move very slowly.
Faint squeals came from somewhere close off to the right. Xing Xing held her breath and followed the sounds.
In a clearing at the foot of a large pine was a raccoon kit. Another came squealing behind it. And a third scrabbled out from under a scrub bush.
Xing Xing looked around quickly. Kits this young would undoubtedly still be under the care of a mother, and mother raccoons were fierce. She stooped and picked up a rock, more for protection than anything else. No sensible hunter would kill a mother before her young could survive on their own.
The mother didn't come, however. And soon enough Xing Xing realized things were amiss. The kits stumbled around, but not in the fashion of babes just learning to walk. Rather, they walked fine, but they tripped over rocks and knocked into the trunk of the pine. The girl came closer, checking over her shoulder for the mother.
The kits stopped, their noses twitching. They'd caught her scent. Now they ran in panic in three directions, falling and slamming into things as they went. Why, they were blind!
The poor things. They'd never survive on their own. And that's why the mother was nowhere around, of course. She must have realized something was wrong and simply left them to their fate.
Xing Xing stopped moving.
Within minutes, the kits squealed again. After all, if the strange scent had been a mortal threat, it t would have attacked by now. They grouped together, linked by sound and scent.
If she abandoned them, as the mother had done, they'd be dead by evening. Sooner, probably. They were meat to any passing carnivore no matter what Xing Xing did.
Wei Ping needed meat.
Xing Xing untied the hunting cloth from around her waist. She put the rock in it and slung it hard at a kit. The little thing didn't even let out a cry. But the thump of the rock scared the other two. They screamed and ran in circles.
Xing Xing wiped at her nose, which always ran when she was sad. It was unnatural to kill babies, but it made no sense not to kill these. In fact, a swift death with a stone was more humane then letting them be ripped limb from limb by a wolf. She took the rock and slung it hard at another kit. It missed the mark. She fetched it before she lost her resolve and slung it again. The kit fell dead.
Xing Xing picked up a dead kit in each hand. Then she sank to her knees, her arms as limp by her sides as the small bodies in her hands. "Mother," she called out. "Stay with me, Mother."
The spirit of her mother brushed her cheeks. The girl closed her eyes and let the spirit brush her eyelids, her ears, her temples, her lips.
Now the spirit brushed the back of her right hand. It took a nip. Ouch.
Xing Xing opened her eyes. The third kit had gone from testing her hand to nosing his dead brother. If she didn't stop him fast, he'd turn cannibal.
Xing Xing let herself fall onto the live kit, so that he was caught under her pelvis. She quickly closed her skirts around him, trapping him there with one hand, while she gathered up the hunting cloth and the two dead kits with the other.
Stepmother's eyebrows, which always arched high in the thinnest of pencil lines, arched
even higher at the sight of the dead kits. But when she realized the live kit was blind, she nodded in silent accord. She opened an old birdcage on the floor, and Xing Xing guided the kit into it.
"We'll feed him, and when he's big and plump, we'll eat hearty," said Stepmother.
"No, no. It's better that he should be a pet," said Wei Ping. "I can play with him."
"Wild creatures make poor pets," said Stepmother, but she spoke hesitantly. Xing Xing watched the conflict in her face. Pain rendered her daughter practically a prisoner these days; indeed, the girl was still sitting on the
where she'd been since she woke. She needed amusement—anyone could hear that in the strain of her voice. Stepmother got the knife and set to cleaning the two dead raccoon kits.
Without being told, Xing Xing went outside for fresh water, this time taking only the medium-size pail. She made a quick diversion to Father's grave first, so that she could tell his spirit about the raccoon kits—about how hard it was to kill them and how small the remaining one was, how very dear. As she talked, she tenderly brushed away leaves that had fallen on the grave and creepers that were starting to grow across it. Sparrows twittered, magpies raucously clamored, thrushes warbled. The birds let her know that Father understood.
She scooted back to the path and hurried down to the pool. She dipped the pail in the water and, oh, what on earth had happened? She stared. The beautiful fish swam in the pail. Xing Xing laughed. "You're so lovely," she said. "White as a peony." The peony was Xing Xing's favorite flower, because it had been Mother's favorite flower.
She splashed a little water on the dirt at her feet and picked up a stick to draw with. She wrote her own poem:
Fins like red clouds at sunset
Eyes like gold tears of joy, sparkling wet
White fish in cold water, happily met
Then she tipped the pail till it emptied, for who could catch such loveliness? But when she refilled the pail, the fish swam into it again. She emptied it and refilled. Once more the fish swam into the pail.
It would be unwise to ignore such insistence. So Xing Xing carried home the pail. But before she entered the cave, she hid the pail behind a boulder and went straight into the back of the cave to the small room with a ceiling so low that you had to crawl within it. That's where Stepmother stored the few bowls and pots remaining from Father's working days. Every now and then she sold one. That was their sole source of income. Stepmother said that Wei Ping would be married before the storeroom was empty, though, so they had no cause for fear. Wei Ping's husband would take care of all of them. And if by some mistake of chance the storeroom emptied prematurely, there were other solutions.
Xing Xing fervently hoped a husband would come for her half sister soon, for she knew of the most likely other solution: Stepmother would sell her, and with the money, she could buy a younger girl to help around the cave and still have enough left over to wait for a husband for Wei Ping. Though Xing Xing's life had been reduced to hardly more than that of a slave girl since Father's death, she feared being sold. She was clearly a young woman, and at her age slavery could mean the very worst fate for a female.
So Xing Xing moved within the black air of the storeroom with the utmost care. It would never do to break a bowl. Her blood banged in her temples. She shouldn't be taking such a risk for a fish. Yet memory urged her on. Her fingers played on every object till she found exactly the bowl she sought, the one with the scalloped edges.
She backed out of the storeroom, clutching the bowl to her chest. When she emerged, Stepmother was there, waiting.
"What could this mean?" she asked in anger. "Am I to change your name from 'Lazy One' to 'Wicked One'?"
Xing Xing bowed. "Amusement for my sister," she said. She ran past Stepmother and brought back the pail. Then she filled the bowl with water and scooped the fish from the pail into the bowl.
"What nonsense is this?" asked Stepmother.
"Let me see," called Wei Ping.
Xing Xing carried over the bowl and set it on the
beside her half sister.
Sunlight danced on the bowl's enamel, where brilliant yellows and greens and reds played out the legendary story of the carp at Dragon Gate. The yellow carp fight their way upstream in spring. Some of them try to leap Dragon Gate. According to common belief, a tremendous storm follows this fight and sets afire the tails of those bravest fish that succeed, turning them into dragons. The outside of the bowl pictured a frenzy of jumping fish; the inside, the blaze of a single dragon. And in the very center of the inside was one word, which Xing Xing herself had written:
Saying that syllable with the tone of the voice dipping and then rising in pitch, it meant "carp"; saying that same syllable with the tone of the voice falling from a high to a low pitch, it meant "advantage." The spoken word was a pun about the story illustrated on the bowl, and Xing Xing had thought of it herself, much to the delight of Father, who was a master of puns.
"Look at the fins on this fish," said Wei Ping. "They're red already. This fish wants to become a dragon." She smiled.
Xing Xing could hardly remember the last time Wei Ping had smiled.
"Struggle has its rewards," said Stepmother. And she looked at Xing Xing with approval.
Xing Xing could not remember Stepmother ever having looked at her with approval. Inside her head she thanked the lovely fish.
Xing Xing sat in the dark under the stars. Father used to say this habit cleansed the mind and formed a base for the understanding of things. She was in need of understanding.
Stepmother's look this afternoon had unnerved her. She wanted to see that look again. It had been a long time since Xing Xing had felt anyone cared for her.
She missed that terribly, for her parents had been devoted to her, despite the fact that she was born a girl. Her mother used to say that Xing Xing was precious and dazzling, her "Sparkling One." That's why she had named her Xing Xing, meaning "stars." And her father had taken great pride in her cleverness.
When Xing Xing's mother lay dying of the illness that twisted her insides and made her cough blood, she said that her
her spirit, would always protect Xing Xing. And she had asked her daughter for one promise, one promise only: that Xing Xing would take care of her father's needs better than anyone else for the rest of his life and that she would be the one to eventually listen to her father's final words.
Stepmother heard the request and sucked in her breath loudly in disapproval. Such bald talk of feelings between parent and child was not traditional. The whole thing was shameful, scandalous.
Father heard as well, but he didn't care one bit about scandal. He insisted that the deathbed wish be respected. From that point on, Xing Xing alone served Father his meals and washed his hair and feet and sang to him in moments of sadness.
This was the start of Stepmother's distaste for Xing Xing—at least, so far as the girl could tell. With each passing year, Stepmother's jealousy of her grew until, in the end, the woman hardly looked at her without curling her lip. Xing Xing was never certain why Mother had made her deathbed wish. Surely she had to know that it would gall Stepmother to see Xing Xing taking on these wifely duties. Maybe Mother had feared that after she was no longer around to protect her daughter, Xing Xing would become as unimportant as she actually did become after Father died—especially if Stepmother had gone on to have a son. Xing Xing could never know.
But at least one very good thing for Stepmother came out of the strengthened bond between Father and Xing Xing: She grew closer to her own daughter. She had not treasured Wei Ping before. Indeed, the girl used to be called "First Child," nothing more. Stepmother was fond of repeating the popular saving "Better one deformed son than many daughters wise as Buddha." In both cities and villages, newborn girls were often thrown away, their bodies eaten by dogs and rats. Xing Xing's mother had been fragile and vulnerable, whereas Stepmother was always strong and large. So no one had expected Xing Xing's mother to be a good breeder—no one was surprised or disappointed that she had only one child, and a girl, at that—but everyone had expected Stepmother to be an exceptional breeder. The woman simply assumed she'd have son after son. It was fortunate that Stepmother had not thrown away her daughter like others had done, for though she worshipped the White-Robed Guan Yin all her married life, the goddess brought her no son. In fact, no other children at all. When Xing Xing's mother died and left her in charge of Father, Stepmother turned to her daughter for comfort and finally gave her a real name.
Xing Xing understood all of that. And she was sincerely happy to see Wei Ping cherished at last.
But, oh, how she wanted to be cherished too, cherished like she used to be.
And how she wanted to laugh with someone. Father used to tell jokes. She laughed with him all the time. But Stepmother had no sense of humor, nor did Wei Ping.
Still, she should be grateful. After all, Father was unfortunate enough to be the last of his family, and Mother's family would never take in a girl relative. Xing Xing was lucky Stepmother had not turned her out. Maybe with time, Xing Xing's obedience would impress her and the woman would come to care a little for her stepdaughter.
From a jujube tree nearby came the sound of scratching. The kit was clawing noisily at the spokes of the birdcage that kept it both safe and imprisoned. When Wei Ping had gone to bed, Xing Xing had hung the cage there on the chance that the raccoon, a naturally nocturnal animal, would recognize night even in his blindness and make so much noise inside that he'd wake everyone up. Her mouth opened softly in interest at his activity now. The kit couldn't be hungry, for Wei Ping had fed him continually whenever he woke all afternoon. The little creature turned out to be a glutton for boiled soybeans.
Xing Xing fingered the hole that the kit had made in her skirt as she'd carried it home today. What terrible thing could a person do in one life to make it come back in the next as a blind raccoon kit?
She shivered, alone on the rock ledge, in the black.
But then she dipped a hand in the bowl of cool water beside her. The beautiful fish sucked at her fingertips. She knew it would. Carp are funny like that. And it wasn't hunger that made the carp do that either, for Wei Ping had also fed the fish all afternoon—bits of dried apple and wine-saturated dates. What wonderful thing could a person do in one life to make it come back in the next as a marvelous white fish with red fins destined to become a dragon?
She waved her wet fingers in the air, painting on the night. Master Tang always said painting that didn't ask for calligraphy was silent poetry, expressing feelings that couldn't be put into words. Xing Xing filled the sky with her fluttering fingers.