Authors: Donna Jo Napoli
Tags: #Juvenile Fiction, #General
Wei Ping sat on the
rocking back and forth in the pain that seemed to keep increasing. She droned a tuneless hum. Xing Xing wanted to hug her but feared hurting her more. So she gave her half sister's hand a light squeeze to say good-bye, and the unnatural heat of Wei Ping's skin scared her. She walked to the small opening in the four bamboo walls that now surrounded the
That opening led to a little corridor of bamboo on both sides that made a sharp turn before opening into the main cavern room.
Only the day before, under Stepmother's guidance, Master Tang's slave boy and Xing Xing had built the square screen around the
and that little, crooked corridor. Demons cannot turn corners. Any demon who entered the corridor would be stopped short at that sharp turn. Wei Ping was safe so long as she stayed at the
She had even slept there the night before and she would sleep there for the foreseeable future.
Her bed was not empty, however. In the center was a plate of fatty pork. Demons were greedy, and once they got busy eating, they'd forget about their original prey. For good measure here and there around the cave Stepmother had placed boxes with crickets and hard-shelled beetles that glowed in the dark, all of which she'd ordered Xing Xing to catch for her. Demons loved to play with such things.
Xing Xing was glad for all of Stepmother's precautions, for she wanted Wei Ping to be safe in her absence. She picked up the sack of green jujube dates. It was heavy, but not so heavy as to slow her down terribly. Stepmother had been careful in that regard.
will leave the neighboring village soon," said Stepmother. "So you must hurry. If he has already gone by the time you get there, follow him to the village beyond."
Xing Xing had never gone beyond the neighboring village. "How will I know the way?"
"Ask, Lazy One," barked Stepmother. Then she seemed to relent a little. Her face softened. "No one will try to stop you when they see that all you have is a sack of unripe dates. And you are of such a small frame that within your loose dress, no one will guess you are anything but a child. You will pass unmolested. Your ancestors will protect you. You understand what you are to do?"
Xing Xing nodded. Stepmother had repeated the instructions too many times. Xing Xing could never forget them.
"You must succeed," said Stepmother. "You must. And in the meantime, I will allow no demons to come near my daughter. I will fight with my very life."
Xing Xing stepped out into the haze that precedes the morning of what will be a hot, hot day. She walked down the hill, feeling Stepmother's eyes on her back. When she was sure she was out of sight, she took off the sack and hid it in some bushes. Then she snuck back to the spring-fed pool.
"Beautiful fish," she called.
The fish came to the surface of the water, as she had done every morning and every evening since Xing Xing had returned her to the pool. Usually, Xing Xing offered the fish a bit of her meal, which she would lovingly save. But now she had nothing. In fact, she didn't even have a piece of fruit for her own future meal. Stepmother had wanted her to go empty-handed, hoping that hunger would spur her to do her errand as quickly as she could.
"I'm going to the neighboring village," said Xing Xing. "I wish I could explain to you, so you wouldn't wonder where I was." The day before when she had visited Father's grave, she'd made the same announcement. That hadn't been so worrisome, though, since Father's spirit understood everything. Her brow furrowed. But then she smiled. "At least you won't be hungry, that's obvious. Look how much larger you've grown already. This pool must be full of good fish food." Indeed, the fish was as long as Xing Xing's arm. "I bet I'll miss you more than you'll miss me. Don't forget me, please. I'll return to you, I promise."
Xing Xing scurried back to the bushes and picked up the sack of dates. "Mother," she sang out, "come with me. Stay with me." She followed the road along the river valley toward the neighboring village.
She passed a furniture maker and his two slave boys tapping a lacquer tree in the predawn light. The furniture maker moved swiftly, applying dozens of layers of lacquer to a wooden screen before the air could harden the sap beyond usefulness. His engraving knife flickered here and there in the first rays of sun. There used to be a lacquer screen like that in the cave. They stood it behind the oven, since lacquer is resistant to cooking steam and heat. Father had said it would outlive them all. Xing Xing didn't know who owned it now.
The early summer sun flooded the land in an instant. Already it baked the back of Xing Xing's shoulders. She thought briefly of the cool of the cave. But she had to hurry to the village—hurry for Wei Ping's sake.
When she was younger, she used to go to this village a couple of times a month with Father. Other girls stayed with their mothers, but Father liked to take Xing Xing and Wei Ping out to see a bit of the world. After he died, there was no one to take her anywhere. These days the only time she even visited their own village was on an errand for Stepmother. So a flush of excitement went up her arms and chest as she finally came to the first store.
Outside some men had set up a low fence of sticks. They surrounded it and shouted at whatever was in the center. Xing Xing wiggled through the crowd and peeked. Two huge cockroaches attacked each other. Near the fence were small cages, some with more roaches, others with crickets and grasshoppers. She understood immediately: These men were betting on the fight. And once they were through with the roaches, they would bet on cricket fights and grasshopper races. Father had bet sometimes too. Xing Xing always hated it when he bet, because if he lost too much money, Stepmother would go into a screaming fit. Any extra money should have gone for Wei Ping's dowry, after all. Xing Xing watched as the smaller roach bit the head off the other. A cry of triumph went up from some of the men.
Xing Xing backed away. She went into the store, where folds of material for making clothing were arranged on tables everywhere. But this store also sold signs with sayings on them to hang in homes or in places of business. She read,
Dragon and phoenix manifest good fortune. Marriage celebrations arrive at the house.
Wouldn't Wei Ping love a sign like that? She read,
Business flourishing as far as the four seas. Riches in abundance reaching the four rivers.
Xing Xing wished she had the money to buy that one and bring it home to read to Stepmother; Stepmother would love it.
She approached the shopkeeper with optimism. To her utter dismay, she learned that the
true to his name, had already wandered off to a town downriver, a much larger town than this village, to offer his medicinal services. That town was half a day's walk away for a full-grown man. Poor Stepmother would have to fight the demons alone for longer than either she or Xing Xing had anticipated.
Without hesitation, Xing Xing started on the road the merchant pointed to. The sun was at its highest point. Sweat soaked through her dress. But she wouldn't give in and rest in the shade of a tree; she had to hurry. A girl couldn't sleep out in the open on her own. Wolves prowled at night. And what if there were tigers in the forest on the other side of the river? Tigers swim. Xing Xing had to reach the
Boats sailed past on the nearby river, heavy with boxes, some sheltered by woven bamboo canopies and some out in the open. Xing Xing wished she were a bird—maybe a kingfisher or something dramatic like a painted stork. Then she could fly to a boat mast and perch up high, where the air was undoubtedly cooler.
The cicadas kept up a high-pitched scream from the tall trees—the elms and yellow-leaved poplars and hardwood nanmus. White strings of sesame flowers lined the busy road.
After a couple of hours Xing Xing stopped briefly to rub her tired feet. An ox-drawn cart rolled by with a boy running beside it. A rope around the boy's waist tied him to the ox's horns. That's how cruel owners kept their slave boys from running off. The cart slowed to a halt, and the driver waved for her to catch up. "Climb in," said the man, smiling with the few teeth he had left and patting the bench beside him. Despite his mouth, though, he wasn't old enough to be harmless. His bare arms were thick, like Stepmother's. And he looked at her in that way men looked at unmarried women in the village.
"Thank you for your kindness," said Xing Xing. "I'll ride in back."
"With the smelly birds?" said the man in surprise.
"I like them," said Xing Xing, and she threw her sack in among the crates of birds, then had an instant of panic when she realized that if the man wanted, he could take off before she climbed up, and she and her sack would have been parted just like that. She practically threw herself into the cart, knocking askew a stack of crates and making the birds inside squawk furiously, which sent up a din from all the other crates as well.
"What's inside the sack that you value so much?" asked the man.
Xing Xing knew he wouldn't believe her words. So she opened the sack and took out a date.
The corner of the man's mouth twitched upward. "Green dates are of no use to anyone."
"My stepmother likes their bitterness," said Xing Xing. It wasn't a lie, not really. And it offered an irrefutable explanation.
The man shrugged and slapped the back of the ox with his switch. They rolled down the road.
The crates Xing Xing had knocked into held hens, and one held a cock with a crimson comb. But other crates held ducks and geese and swans and quails, the less fortunate headed eventually for people's ovens and the more fortunate for people's private pools, which, like bamboo groves, were abundant the farther south you went. Still others held songbirds, for almost every home Xing Xing had ever visited had a songbird or two in a cage. Her own home had always had songbirds and often mynas. But somehow when the last one died, Stepmother hadn't gotten around to replacing it. Xing Xing had been grateful for that when she'd brought home the blind raccoon kit. How mistaken she'd been. That cage would never house another songbird, for Stepmother had smashed it to pieces and thrown it in the dung heap.
Xing Xing snuggled herself down among the lowest crates. It was stiflingly hot there, nothing like the windblown perch she'd longed for on a riverboat, but at least she was out of the sun.
A hen clucked, and an egg rolled from her onto the bottom of the crate. Xing Xing stared at it. Fresh raw eggs were delicious, and she hadn't eaten since early morning. This bird merchant clearly didn't sell eggs, for there were no boxes of eggs in the cart. And the hen was certainly destined for someone's cooking pot, so she'd never get a chance to raise the chick. That meant no one in the world would miss that egg if she ate it. And Stepmother was wrong—Xing Xing would hurry in her errand no matter what; she didn't need hunger to rush her along. On the other hand, that egg belonged to the man, and surely he would eat it if he knew it was there.
The cart must have hit a gully in the road, for it bumped extra hard. The egg smacked against the side of the crate and cracked. All its goodness slowly oozed out, enjoyed by no one.
After awhile another hen clucked and another egg settled on the bottom of the crate.
Xing Xing worked at the knotted string that held the crate door closed. The bird merchant was smart—he'd wet down the knots. These strings were meant to hold tight until they were cut. But Xing Xing's hands, like her feet, were small, with thin, agile fingers. After a long while she managed to open the crate door. She reached in and grabbed the egg.
A hen pecked her hard and screeched, then the whole crate was screeching.
"What's the problem back there?" called the man.
"No problem," answered Xing Xing, hiding the egg under her cocked knees.
The man stopped the cart. She heard him say, "Get in the back." The next thing Xing Xing knew, the slave boy had climbed in beside her. The rope around his waist was now tied to a side support on the cart.
The boy looked at her. He was as skinny as she was, and his clothes were as tattered. Plus, he was younger. And then there was the matter of that rope. Xing Xing decided it wasn't much of a risk to take. She put the egg in her lap and tapped a hole in one end with her thumbnail. She sucked out half the inside. Then she passed the egg to the slave boy. He finished it and threw the shell out the back of the cart.
That egg was good. And now her stomach woke up and called for more food. She looked around at the other crates. The boy looked too. They shared a duck egg, then another hen egg. Then the boy looked in Xing Xing's sack. He took out a green date and ate it. "Won't you vomit from eating green fruit?" whispered Xing Xing. The boy grinned and ate another. Xing Xing grinned back. After all, she'd seen the size of the medicine jars in Master Tang's house; there were way more than enough dates in her sack to fill as many jars as the wandering doctor might have.
The boy seemed spurred on by Xing Xing's grin. He picked up a hemp stalk that was lying on the floor of the cart. "Want to make a bet? Do you think bad sounds or bad sights frighten chickens the most?"
Xing Xing never made bets, of course. Besides, she knew nothing about chickens. They'd never owned them because Father didn't like their smell. "I have nothing to bet with."
"Come on, you have to have something more than green dates."
"Nothing. I swear."
"All right, then. I'll just put on a show for you." The boy got on all fours with his face very close to a crate. He made a terrible monster face at a hen.
The hen ignored him. He flapped his hands on both sides of his head as he made the face a second time. Still, she ignored him. The boy smiled at Xing Xing. Then he looked back at the hen and chewed noisily on the hemp stalk.
Crack crack crack.
Xing Xing laughed in amazement: It sounded just like a cat eating a chicken, cracking its bones. The chickens in the crate went wild, clucking like crazy things.
"No more of that," shouted the driver.
The slave boy took a small box out of his pocket. He opened it and held it before Xing Xing's face. Translucent rice-colored insects crawled over one another, their short forelegs and long hindlegs intertwining. The boy popped a few in his mouth and raised his brows at Xing Xing. She had never eaten anything live before; she shook her head no. He put the box away, settled back, and closed his eyes, a grin still on his face.
After several hours Xing Xing heard singing.
She got to her knees and looked out at a rice paddy, where men worked naked in the waning sun, their backs glistening with sweat. A water buffalo dragged a platform that the men stacked rice stalks on. They were harvesting already. At this rate, maybe they'd even get three plantings in this season.
At the edge of the paddy black-necked cranes walked on stilt legs. They were a common sight at rice paddies; they came to feed on frogs. But Xing Xing spied an uncommon sight too: a cream-colored head, then two neck collars—one green, the other tan, and both with black stripes. It was a golden pheasant. She stood, steadying herself by holding on to a crate. She smiled as she watched the bird poke along, trailing that black tail with gold speckles, until it was out of sight. Then she sat, happy. A pheasant was a good omen for a rice harvest. And maybe that one was a good omen for Xing Xing, too; maybe this journey would end well.
Soon after they passed the paddy, the oxcart turned off the main road onto a country path. What was going on? Xing Xing felt sure that this wasn't the way to the town.
She got to her feet "again and unsteadily looked out over an orchard of apple trees as the cart bumped along. "I have to get off," she called to the driver. "I'm going to the town on the main road."
"We're practically there," he called back. "But a man can't sell fowl in the evening. There's a place up here where I like to spend the night, so I can wake early and get into town as the market opens. A girl like you shouldn't be out on your own at this hour, anyway. Your stepmother must not care too much for you." He laughed. "But you're in luck—we'll stop up here a little ways and share a meal. And you can spend the night with me."
"Thank you," said Xing Xing, and she squatted, out of his sight. Her fingers worried the cloth of the date sack. People were basically good, despite the pirates on the seas and the brigands in the mountains. Kong Fu Zi's teachings were clear on that. And what would happen would happen; fate ruled the cosmos. Xing Xing knew all this. But Father had told her that some people were fated to use their heads. And wasn't a fish fated to hide under a lily pad when a shadow crossed her path?
When Xing Xing was sure the driver had turned his attention back to driving, she crawled past the slave boy to the back of the cart. He made no move to stop her. She wished she had something to give him to show her gratitude, but all she had were dates, and he'd already eaten his fill of them. She bowed deep to him. Then she threw her sack over and jumped after it.
She hit the uneven ground hard, bruising both knees and reopening the gash in her arm she'd gotten when she fell from the jujube tree that day the raccoon had attacked Wei Ping. She looked over her shoulder at the cart, expecting that the thud of her fall would have made the driver stop. But the cart kept going. She grabbed the sack and ran back along the path. On both sides now were fields with alternating rows of turnips and cabbages. If she heard the cart slow down, there would be nowhere for her to hide. She ran as fast as she could toward the apple trees, looking back often, as the sound of the wheels grew fainter.
The cart was practically even with another field now, one high with wheat. It was far off, but the path was so straight that if the driver looked back, he'd surely see her.
Xing ran, panting. She came to the apple trees, and at that very moment a cry went up from the slave boy. He pointed out into the wheat field that the cart was now passing by, shouting, "She jumped out and ran that way!"
The man stopped the cart and stood on his seat to get a better look. But he didn't look into the wheat field; he looked back up the path, right at Xing Xing. She ducked into the apple orchard and dashed from tree to tree in the direction of the main road. Branches tore at her skin and clothes.