Authors: Donna Jo Napoli
Tags: #Juvenile Fiction, #General
Xing Xing squatted by the pool, with her right arm tight around her calves and her left hand dangling in the water. Her forehead pressed on her knees. "Mother, Mother, what can I do? Where can I go?"
The beautiful fish sucked at the tip of her thumb.
She turned her head and rested her cheek, instead, on her knees, so that she could look at the fish while she talked to the spirit of her mother. "I didn't mean to bring a demon into the house. I thought I was simply having pity on an unfortunate creature."
The fish now moved to the tip of Xing Xing's index finger.
"But I should have guessed, of course. The wretched spirit of that raccoon was responsible for his misfortune. How could I have trusted him?"
The fish sucked on the tip of Xing Xing's middle finger.
"And I didn't trust him, not really. After all, I brought the beautiful fish with me out to the jujube trees so he wouldn't eat her."
The fish sucked on the tip of Xing Xing's next finger. Then it moved on to suck at the tip of her pinky. The fish's white scales were without blemish, pure white brightness, like the positive energies of the universe. Father had taught Xing Xing that there were two kinds of energies: the negative
and the positive
All things needed both: the stillness, darkness, and cold of
as well as the movement, brightness, and heat of
Without one, the other could not be, for what is brightness without dark? Harmony resulted from a balance of the two.
Xing Xing had always felt more affinity to the
within her than to the
even though she was a girl, because her own name evoked a sense of brightness. Now she thought about how the animal that most embodied
was the tiger and the animal that most embodied
was the dragon. And this beautiful white fish wanted to become a dragon, so she, too, was more drawn
Xing Xing and the fish shared a bond.
"I'm glad he didn't eat you," said Xing Xing, moving her face closer to the fish. She sniffled. "But I'm so sad for poor Wei Ping."
A crow cawed, unluckiest of birds. Then another, then the whole flock, out of sight beyond the trees, as though announcing the ill fortune of Xing Xing's family.
Xing Xing looked down at her own naturally small feet. She had always taken pride in them, a pride she kept secret, of course. But now she would have given anything if she could have traded her small strong feet for Wei Ping's big feet before the girl had had them bound. At least with small feet to start with, Wei Ping's ordeal would have been reduced, and maybe her feet wouldn't have given off the stink that drew the demon raccoon to them. Poor, poor Wei Ping.
And, oh, poor, poor Xing Xing, cast out from her family. "Where will I go now? What will I do?" she sobbed.
Xing Xing rested her cheek on her knees again. A girl alone in the world had few choices. Everyone said Xing Xing was pretty. She realized in this moment that she'd secretly harbored the hope that someday Stepmother would decide to find her a husband too. Now that would never happen, and her prettiness could well condemn her to a life without virtue.
She closed her eyes and let the tears slip out sideways, rolling across the bridge of her nose, across her temple, into her hair. In her sadness she imagined many things. Her head became the carp bowl that sat on the ground beside her feet. She was a frog trapped in the bowl, scrabbling at the slick sides. And now the bowl cracked, and a white wave of water washed her out and away, and it was not the pool she was in, but their great, wide river, which in a flash turned wild and swift and carried her into the upper regions of the Han River, then down down down southward into the giant Yangzi River, with its incessant winds, and out to sea, where no frog could survive. Her skin dried in the salt. Her eyes split. Her fingers curled till they disappeared. She heard screaming.
Xing Xing opened her eyes. Was it her own scream she'd heard?
The afternoon sun was already moving toward evening.
"Get up, Lazy One." Stepmother leaned on a cane. Her cheeks were drawn, but the blood that had covered her face and arms had been washed away and she wore fresh clothing. And, most important of all, there was no knife in her hand, nothing to carry out the threat she'd made in the cave. She didn't even hold a willow switch for beatings.
Xing Xing got to her feet with difficulty. She'd been squatting so long, her legs had cramped into position.
"Go get Master Tang's slave boy. The two of you can carry Wei Ping together. We are going to Master Wu's grave."
Had Stepmother truly forgiven her and accepted her back into the family? And going to Father's grave—that was wonderful. Indeed, nothing could be better at this moment than honoring the spirit of Father. Xing Xing stood stupid, afraid to believe her good fortune.
"Has talking to that evil fish turned you into an idiot?" Stepmother stomped the cane in the dirt. "Hurry, Lazy One."
Xing Xing ran, with spikes shooting up her legs from her still sleeping feet.
"Stop!" shouted Stepmother.
Alas, this fortune had been too good to be true. Xing Xing turned in dismay to Stepmother.
"Come back and take this bowl." She pointed to the carp bowl on the bank of the pool. "Sell it to Master Tang. No, no, sell it to his wife instead. She has a softer heart. She'll lose it in the clutter of her house, and I'll never have to see it again. Get a good price."
The beautiful fish was too large for that bowl now anyway. The fish would be much happier free in the spring-fed pool. Xing Xing came back, bowed once before Stepmother, then picked up the bowl.
"Walk," said Stepmother. "You mustn't break the bowl. But walk as fast as you can. And"—she pointed her cane at Xing Xing—"never say a word to anyone about what happened today. Once Wei Ping is married, we will find a way to explain to her husband. A way that doesn't mention devils."
Master Tang's wife, Mei Zi, ran her gnarled finger over the character in the center of the bowl. "Was this your clever idea?"
Xing Xing didn't speak, for to answer would be immodest. Her cheeks went hot. Besides, she didn't want to start a conversation. She had to hurry, for Wei Ping's sake.
"I recognize your calligraphy, of course." Mei Zi looked thoughtfully at the bowl. "It is, indeed, a marvelous bowl." She set it down on the fine bamboo table. "But I have little use for it myself."
Xing Xing pressed her lips together and looked down.
"It would make the perfect gift for my daughter-in-law, however," added Mei Zi after a pause.
Xing Xing looked up with gratitude into the smiling eyes of Mei Zi.
"Let's see how much I can afford for it." Mei Zi went through an inner door, leaving Xing Xing alone in the central room.
The abundance of superb things—rosewood furniture and elaborately carved jade statuettes and lacquer-ware in reds and blacks and an engraved walrus tusk— made her stand very straight and tall, her arms pinned to her sides. She knew that breathing alone never broke things, but still, she breathed shallowly. She would move as little as possible, except for her eyes.
In the cave they had good-quality furniture too, though Stepmother had sold anything not absolutely necessary. But even when Father was alive, their belongings had been in nowhere near the abundance found in. Master Tang's house. Father liked simplicity—a taste Xing Xing had inherited. And Master Tang was wealthy—something the Wu family was not.
Her eyes moved past the more showy items and slowly took in the line of blue-and-white porcelain bottles on the shelf beyond the table. They were decorated with lines that made pleasing patterns on the rounded sides and at the neck. The fronts were flat, however, and though she couldn't see the backs, she guessed they were as well. On the fronts were ovals with words written from top to bottom. She read,
Asparagus. For the treatment of painful illnesses in the joints and lower back.
The next jar said,
and the next,
Some of the bottles merely said what the cure was, without the ingredient:
Eye remedy; Intestinal calming lotion; Elixir of eight precious ingredients for rescue from danger.
One bottle had no words, but an erotic scene instead, and Xing Xing knew it was one of the aphrodisiacs that she'd overheard women gossip about as they stood in little gaggles around the cart of the occasional visiting doctor. Stepmother never talked about them. But Father had told her that erotic scenes were nothing to be shamed by; rather, they were talismans for good luck, and this was a moment when Xing Xing's family needed all the luck they could get. She stared for several minutes.
On the shelf against the adjoining wall were more bottles, their flat fronts in the shape of octagons, sitting on stands and with little necks that held paper and cork stoppers. These had the
symbol in the center with a series of three lines going out to the sides at intervals, like spokes. There were so many bottles and they were lined up so precisely straight that Xing Xing had that same sensation she felt when looking at the endless horizon of the sea in so many of Master Tang's paintings—that sensation of being as tiny as a dust mote. All the bottles, on both shelves, had a funny little character at the top that Xing Xing had never seen before.
"We bought them when a state pharmacy in the big city closed," said Mei Zi. She had come back without Xing Xing noticing, the girl had been so absorbed in studying the bottles.
"Do you have anything for pain in the feet?" asked Xing Xing.
Mei Zi laughed. "Oh, they're not full. We know nothing about the practice of medicine, dear girl. Master Tang and I enjoy them just as objects of beauty. Here, come take a look at these." She led Xing Xing to a small table in a corner that held a low, wide bowl.
Xing Xing immediately recognized the bowl as one her father had made. In it was a pile of something she was familiar with—pottery shards. Their jagged edges brought back the image of Wei Ping's bone ends. She had to hurry.
Mei Zi held up a shard with a frog pattern on it. "This is old. I don't know how old, but hundreds and hundreds of years. Perhaps even thousands. It was found way down south, in the Dongting Lake area of the Yangzi River. The artistry is crude, but it may have been sacred to the people who used it."
The frog had a round back with two stripes down the center and dots on either side in perfect reflection. Despite the urgency of the moment, Xing Xing couldn't help but feel delight. She imagined the frog hopping at the muddy edge of the river. "It's lovely," she said.
Mei Zi opened her hand. It was full of small coins of cast copper. She looked Xing Xing over, then she reached into the folds of her bodice and took out a cloth purse. "Help me open this, please, for my fingers cannot work the clasp anymore." Xing Xing opened the purse, and Mei Zi poured the coins into it.
Xing Xing was embarrassed that in Stepmother's and her haste, she'd forgotten to bring a purse. "I will return the purse quickly," she said.
"I have others. You can keep it. And you'll need something to fill it after you've given your stepmother this money." Mei Zi's eyes discreetly went toward the bowl of pottery pieces, then back to Xing Xing's face. "Pick the one that pleases you best."
Xing Xing shook her head. "I couldn't. Something so old and fine. Never."
"But that's exactly why you should have one," said Mei Zi, and her face spoke plainly her sincerity.
"Many people consider this junk, but you value it properly. Choose one."
Xing Xing didn't dare put her hand in the bowl; she let her eyes do the searching. And there it was—a small part from the fluted mouth of what had clearly once been a large jar. It must have been a water jar, for this one piece held two animal images: a frog, like the one on the shard Mei Zi had shown her, and a beautiful carp.
The three of them gathered before the shrine in the innermost cavern. Stepmother solemnly read off the names of their recent ancestors painted on the wooden tablets. Then she uncovered the bowl of rice that Xing Xing had prepared. Xing Xing straightened in surprise, for Stepmother had added the delicate white flesh of a snake, arranged in a graceful swirl on top of the grains. This was a hearty meal, for sure. The ancestors should feel well cared for.
"Most worthy ancestors," said Stepmother, "may you do the favor of listening to my meager voice. Other beliefs are popular today even here in the north— Buddhism and Daoism. But we are still followers of Kong Fu Zi, and we never forget that. We revere antiquity and the sages. We place family above all."
Wei Ping appeared not to hear anything. It wasn't clear she knew what was going on. She rolled her head from side to side. She clasped her arms across her chest, and her fingers dug into the flesh of her upper arms.
But Xing Xing listened closely. Though she'd neard this invocation many times, the gravity of adult voices when they approached the ancestral shrine always impressed her.
"We seek your assistance," said Stepmother. "We long for your protection. Only with it may we avoid misfortune." She bowed her head. "Bless the children of Master Wu. Though they be girls and essentially worthless, they are the only descendants of this family. You are such generous and wise ancestors that you look after even the most unworthy of us. For this we, thank you. Every good thing that happens to us happens because of you."
Stepmother left the room. She came back a few moments later followed by Master Tang's slave boy. She draped one of Wei Ping's arms around the boy's neck and the other around Xing Xing's. Wei Ping still gave no indication of knowing what was going on. But when the boy and Xing Xing each took one of her legs, she let out a hair-raising yowl and her face twisted in such excruciating pain that they almost dropped her.
"We must go as fast as you can manage," said Stepmother, picking up a sack and hobbling on her heels behind them. "To Master Wu's grave. Hurry."
Father's grave was at the edge of a group of graves, all of the Wu family. Xing Xing and the slave boy set Wei Ping on the ground beside the grave. The girl immediately cried out, "Stop this pain, Father, I beg you. I beg all my ancestors," and she collapsed in sobs.
Stepmother sank to her knees, then sat back with her feet tucked to the side and arranged her sackcloth around her knees demurely. "Forgive the girl for speaking so bluntly. Physical misery makes children forget to show proper respect." She reached into the sack and took out candles. "Help me, Xing Xing," she said.
Being addressed by her right name was a privilege Stepmother afforded Xing Xing only when they performed the rituals of ancestor worship. Xing Xing wondered if perhaps Stepmother believed that if she acted kind at these times, Father's ghost wouldn't know how she treated her stepdaughter at other times. Such a belief would be absurdly naive—spirits could be anywhere, at any time. You had but to call out to a spirit of a close ancestor and it would come to you if it knew where you were. That's why it was so important to speak to the spirits and let them know when you went anywhere unexpected.
Together Stepmother and Xing Xing stood the candles in the trough of river sand dug at the foot of the grave for just that purpose. Then Stepmother handed Xing Xing sticks of incense. Xing Xing placed these in the stoneware bowl of sand right on the center of the grave.
Stepmother nodded to Master Tang's slave boy. The boy struck the flints and lit a long stick, which he used to light the candles and the incense. The incense smoke rose in spirals, inviting ghosts and spirits.
"When our daughter spoke today of remarriage, she was terribly mistaken," said Stepmother in a wavering voice. "I would commit suicide before I'd enter another man's bed. See how I wear the sackcloth of mourning? See how mine is unhemmed and ugly? I will wear it a full three years, I promise." Then she added more forcefully, "When you died, we did a proper ceremony. We said the right words to help you find your way to your ancestral home. We burned maple and white spruce. We wrapped an ox's horns in bamboo wreaths and sacrificed it. We did everything right, everything." She shook her head. "See? There's no cause for any spirit to hide under our roof and haunt us. All I wanted then, all I want now, is to give you pleasure. I know that not producing a male heir was a terrible blow for you. But if you will help Wei Ping find a husband, I will take her second son and raise him as though he were yours. He will be accepted as a legitimate heir to your household. I will get her husband to agree to this somehow. I promise you, my dearest husband." Her voice was as humble as that of an orphaned child, and Xing Xing felt like crying for her, who had lost her husband, for Wei Ping, who would lose her second son, for all of them. She wiped at her running nose.
Now Stepmother stood. She picked up the sack from the ground and turned it upside down, shaking hard. Paper money fluttered onto the grave.
Xing Xing swallowed her surprise.
But Wei Ping didn't. "Can we afford all that?" Her broken voice trembled in fear.
"Hush," said Stepmother. She took a lit candle and set the paper money on fire.
Xing Xing shielded her eyes from the smoke. It was better that Stepmother burned paper money than left copper coins, she knew, for there were bandits who stooped so low as to rob money left on graves. But while burned money might prove how much Stepmother revered the Wu ancestors, Xing Xing couldn't understand how it would give pleasure to Father's spirit. Xing Xing knew what pleasured Father better than anyone. She'd been thoughtless not to bring a flower or a feather or a colored pebble—for Father enjoyed little objects of beauty, the simpler the better. It was still Xing Xing's job to care for Father; Mother had entrusted her with that sacred job. Alas, she had nothing to give him. She was letting him down again, just as she had let him down the day he died. He had fallen into a deep ravine when a boulder gave way under him. He died instantly. Certainly, he had no dying words, so Xing Xing had no chance to listen to them as Mother had asked her. Nevertheless, something inside her had failed, for a person who is about to die gives off an aura that those who love him should be able to sense. Xing Xing had not noticed the aura of death around Father that morning. She had noticed only that the one gray hair she'd spotted on his head before then now had a partner. How sad to let him down again—to have empty hands.
But, oh, she did have something after all. She pulled on the string that went down the inside of the front of her bodice and surreptitiously fished out the purse Mei Zi had given her. She untied it from the string and caressed the pottery shard with the frog and fish through the silk of the purse. Stepmother and Wei Ping were absorbed in their own thoughts and didn't notice her actions. The slave boy kept sneaking looks at her, but he was no threat, she was sure. She buried the purse in the sand trough.
She had owned the lovely shard of pottery for only a matter of hours. But at least she'd always know that Father was enjoying it. Besides, she had the real carp as her friend, and that was better by far than any number of carp images.
Xing Xing warmed at the thought of the fish being her friend. She had never had real friends other than Wei Ping. Girls her age distrusted her because of her education. It seemed they were confused and almost embarrassed by the way her life had taken a turn so different from theirs. She understood, and so she never lingered—hurrying past them as though intent on important errands. She used to think wistfully of them. But now she had the fish.
She bowed one more time. Then, before she left, she tilted her cheek toward Mother's grave, as if to give and receive a tender touch. That's all Mother's grave really needed, for Xing Xing knew that Mother's spirit didn't stay in her grave much. Mother's spirit liked to follow Xing Xing about.