Authors: Donna Jo Napoli
Tags: #Juvenile Fiction, #General
The next month in the cave passed in a new balance, almost a harmony. Both the raccoon and the fish grew so steadily that Stepmother named the first Zhang Yi—Growth One—and the second Zhang Er. She threatened continually to kill them for a feast, but it was said in teasing, for heij eyes betrayed her satisfaction at Wei Ping's vigorous objections—finally the girl was taking an interest in something again. Xing Xing never entered the fray, but stood behind her half sister in silent support. Both girls had grown terribly fond of the kit and the fish.
In their union against Stepmother's threats the girls found a comradeship they'd never known before. Wei Ping was no longer jealous of Xing Xing for being loved by Father, given that now she was the only loved one in the cave. And Xing Xing couldn't harbor jealousy toward Wei Ping because her foot pain was so pitiable, though Stepmother still allowed no one to talk about that.
Stepmother spent a lot of time away from home these days, renewing friendships with women she hadn't visited for years. During Father's lifetime her friends had shunned her: They accused her of aspiring to a higher social class. Now she made every effort to show them that she was still the same woman she used to be and that her daughter, Wei Ping, would make a suitable wife for a man of the social class a potter's daughter belonged to rightfully. She painted her face red and white, penciled in her eyebrows, anointed her hair with pork fat to make it stand in peaks on the back of her neck, shook bells out the window to scare demons away from the home in her absence, and headed to the village. Xing Xing watched her slow progress, her round body formless within the loose pants and long sackcloth of mourning that came well below her knees. Her gait was unsteady as she hobbled on the heels of those small feet.
Once as the girls watched Stepmother leave, Wei Ping said, "See the swing of her hips, see how sexy it is. I'll walk like that soon."
But that gait tired Stepmother out, and sometimes she came home carried on the back of a peasant man whom she'd reward with a slip of paper money.
Twice she had brought home old women who made a profession of being go-betweens for marriage—they found husbands for young girls. But both had taken one look at Wei Ping's long feet and declared her not marriageable to a man of their social class, so they'd been dismissed. Stepmother continued her visits to friends, hoping she'd come across a more amenable go-between in the process.
The half sisters therefore had long hours alone together. In that time Xing Xing scrubbed the stone wall behind the stove till it shone. She swept the floor. She straightened all the bowls and jars on the tables against the far wall. She cleaned the picture over Wei Ping's bed that had the characters saying,
Fine beauty and great wealth,
meant to invite luck. She gathered firewood. She emptied the chamber pot onto the dung heap behind the cave. She did all the chores she'd always done. But still there was time, and since Wei Ping was alone, Xing Xing stayed at home rather than going to tend to Father's grave. The half sisters soon came to confide in each other.
"Maybe you should sleep with your feet raised on a pillow," whispered Xing Xing as the girls sat on the
one morning feeding the beautiful fish from their hands, while Stepmother was outside examining the jujube trees, which were now thick with green dates. "When my feet hurt, it helps to raise them. Instead, you hang yours over the bed, which seems the very worst thing to do."
"No, no," said Wei Ping. "I hang my legs over the bed so that the pressure of the bedstead behind my knees will dull the pain. You have no idea how bad it is." She clenched her teeth, and saliva made them shine like pearls. She clutched the calves of her legs, stretched out on the warm
"But I think it's working. They look smaller, don't they?"
"Yes, smaller." Xing Xing said this without conviction, however, for the bandages on her half sister's feet were large and unrevealing. They also were stinking and seeping—it was time for their periodic soaking in hot water and cleaning in the river. To hide the doubt in her eyes, Xing Xing looked down into the bowl on her lap. The beautiful fish had grown so much, it could barely turn around. She'd have to crawl into the storeroom and find something bigger—a pot for holding large plants, perhaps.
"And my nose," said Wei Ping, lifting her chin and turning her head so Xing Xing could see a full profile. "My nose is small, don't you think?"
"Very small," said Xing Xing. "And you are as slender as a man's dream."
"I am, aren't I? Even wearing our loose dresses, anyone can tell I have a fine form. I'm going to get married. I'm going to have sons." Wei Ping's eyes glistened. "So it's worth it." She gently petted the tummy of the sleeping raccoon that lay on her upper legs, stretched from her crotch to her knees, on its back, all four legs in the air. Since the kit had grown to full size, its position seemed that much more comical. Its mouth hung open in sleep, and its strong, pointed teeth formed a satisfied smile. Wei Ping and Xing Xing both smiled too. "Yes, it's worth it," said
Wei Ping again with quiet determination.
"What's worth it?" said Stepmother, coming into the coolness of the cave.
"Are the jujube trees productive this year?" asked Wei Ping, steadfastly ignoring her mother's question.
"Very." She handed a hard green nugget to Wei Ping.
"But why did you pick one so soon?" asked Wei Ping. "They don't taste good till they turn red."
"I'm going to sell them," said Stepmother.
Wei Ping's forehead pinched in alarm. "We never sell our dates. Are we already desperate? Do you think I won't find a husband before Father's pottery runs out?"
"Of course you'll find a husband."
"No. You're afraid I won't." Wei Ping's voice rose to a thin shiver. "You could marry again, Mother. You're still attractive, and your feet are so small." Her words came with a frenzied speed. "And since Father has no other family left, your second husband would have to allow us to accompany you into the new marriage. Then we'd have more time for my feet to grow small—more time to find a husband for me."
"Hush!" Stepmother looked stricken. "How can you talk to your mother like that? Your father, even with all his crazy ideas, wouldn't have stood such insubordination. Hush!"
"Please, Mother." Wei Ping's voice got very quiet. The hysteria was gone now. "Marry again," she breathed.
"Widows of decent families do not remarry. You know that. It is a small matter to starve to death but a large matter to lose one's virtue."
"I don't want to starve to death," said Wei Ping.
"And you won't," said Stepmother. "You'll never know that kind of hunger. Nor will I lose my virtue." She twisted her neck, looking this way and that in worry. "I would never abandon the Wu family ghosts," she said loudly.
"Then what will we do?"
"That's what I've come to tell you. You will have a husband soon. The dates will ensure that." Stepmother sat down on the
between the girls. "You know the benefits of red dates, of course."
"They invigorate one's spleen and benefit the kidneys," said Wei Ping.
"Yes, and that's when they are ripe. Think how much more beneficial they must be when green. All that goodness is concentrated in the bitterness, before the sugars of maturity."
"How do you know that?" asked Wei Ping.
"The spirit of my mother told me."
Xing Xing touched Stepmother's wrist involuntarily in awe. The woman recoiled. Xing Xing blinked her apology. Mother spirits never lie. And Stepmother's mother had understood much about medicine. Xing Xing looked with new appreciation at the green date in Wei Ping's hand. The tiny fruits on their jujube trees were as valuable as agates.
Stepmother stood up. "Xing Xing will pick them and sell them to a
jiang hu lang zhong,
a barefoot wandering doctor, who will use them to cure all kinds of illness. I heard last night that there is one visiting the village beyond ours, down the river valley."
"And how will that help get me a husband?" asked Wei Ping.
"Xing Xing will tell the
to let all his healed patients know that you were the source of their recovery, that you are the one who understands the virtues of plants. Every man values a woman with such gifts. He'll advertise you over the whole province. Word-of-mouth propaganda is the most useful."
"But I know nothing of plants," said Wei Ping.
"What flowed from my mother to me should naturally flow to you."
"It doesn't seem to have done so," said Wei Ping.
"It will, soon enough. Besides, once you're married, will it matter?" Stepmother didn't wait for an answer. She pulled the large basket from the corner. "Time for work, Lazy One."
Xing Xing put the bowl holding the fish on the
grateful for the opportunity to bow her head so Stepmother couldn't see the shock on her face at what she'd just said: "will it matter?" Stepmother had never before expressed explicitly such crass acceptance of deceit. Was Wei Ping also hiding her face?
As Xing Xing leaned over the bowl she looked sideways at the sleeping raccoon. Whenever it woke, it was immediately hungry. And if she wasn't there to keep guard, its sense of smell could lead it to the beautiful fish. Just at that moment, as though the raccoon was responding to Xing Xing's thoughts, the skin above his nose wrinkled and he sniffed without waking. So she set the bowl inside the basket and carried it outside with her to the jujube trees, singing little comfort songs to the beautiful fish as she walked.
Xing Xing sat high in a jujube tree and stuck her fingers in her mouth to soothe them. She'd gathered the dates last autumn, but the job had been much easier then. She'd simply strung nets under the trees and beaten the branches with a stick. The ripe fruit dropped easily. But these green fruits had to be wrested individually from their stems. Her fingers were sore already, and she was only on the second tree of five.
It was hard to find a comfortable perch in the thorny branches. Last year Xing Xing's body had still been childlike. Now her sensitive chest and soft thighs kept getting jabbed. This was a more unpleasant task than she'd expected.
A scream sheared the air. It was like none she'd ever heard before, and it came from the cave. In her haste to get down, she fell from the tree, opening a wide gash on her forearm.
The air was filled with multiple screaming voices now—Wei Ping and Stepmother together, as well as inhuman screams that Xing Xing realized must be coming from the raccoon. She ran as fast as she could, straight into the cave, and slipped in blood slime. At first she thought it was the blood that dripped from her own elbow, but then she saw brains and lungs and intestine and fur—all that remained of the blind raccoon kit. The stick he'd been bashed to death with lay in the midst, bits of innards clinging to it. Stepmother's blood-spattered face looked crazed as she ripped at the shredded bandages on Wei Ping's left foot. The girl had both hands in her hair and howled at the ceiling, throwing herself around.
"Hold her tight," shouted Stepmother to Xing Xing.
Xing Xing grabbed Wei Ping from behind and looked over her half sister's shoulder in horror as the bandages came away. The unnaturally arched foot that Xing Xing had seen before was now missing the two biggest toes.
"Devil raccoon," spat Stepmother. "Teeth like knives. At least he died in pieces, so his spirit will never be whole. Go for fresh water, Lazy One. Run."
Xing Xing grabbed the bucket and pole and practically flew down the hill to the pool. She was back, panting, faster than she'd ever moved before.
Stepmother washed Wei Ping's feet—the mutilated one and the whole one—rubbing off the dead skin and kneading them more fully into the desired shape. With her thumbs, she worked in pulverized alum. "My baby," she murmured as she pressed, "my sweet baby." There was no blood from the holes where exposed bone showed. Xing Xing stared at the ragged bone ends.
"You'll be fine," said Stepmother. "You'll be fine." Her voice changed the second time she said those words. It sounded weak and strangely without emotion. "We have to hurry and bandage your feet before your blood has a chance to circulate there again," she said. "If we dawdle, you will bleed badly and the pain will be more terrible than you've ever dreamed. It will be savage. You'll wish you were dead."
Why was Stepmother saying such things? Xing Xing wanted to put her hands over Wei Ping's ears.
Wei Ping said nothing. She merely wept softly, her head heavy on her own chest. She breathed with difficulty.
"Your left foot will be smaller than your right now," said Stepmother.
Wei Ping still said nothing.
"So if you want me to act properly, I must do it fast," said Stepmother. "Remember the old saying: 'The eagle swoops down when the hare stirs.' You are not the first girl in China to lose a toe on a bound foot. Even without raccoon devils, it happens. And smart girls look at it as an opportunity. Let's be smart, Wei Ping; now your feet will be much smaller than we'd dared to hope."
Wei Ping gave no reaction. She seemed not to understand.
But Xing Xing understood perfectly. Stepmother's face appeared transformed into a monster face twisted with this monstrous idea.
Stepmother turned to Xing Xing. "Get me the cleaver."
Wei Ping still gave no reaction.
Xing Xing knew for sure now that Wei Ping didn't ti understand. If she had understood, she'd have screamed no. Xing Xing didn't move.
"Get it, Lazy One," hissed Stepmother. "It's your fault we had the demon raccoon in the house. And that fish must be a demon too. Get me that cleaver or I'll use it on your face, so everyone will know you invite demons into decent homes."
Xing Xing ran outside. She grabbed the bowl with the beautiful fish that was still waiting at the foot of the jujube tree. She ran with it to the pool, her eyes and nose streaming, and dumped the fish in the water at the very moment she heard Wei Ping's shriek.