Authors: Donna Jo Napoli
Tags: #Juvenile Fiction, #General
There is an order to guidance. A ruler guides a subject. A father guides a son. A husband guides a wife. An elder guides a younger. A friend guides a friend.
Xing Xing pressed her cheek into the mud of the riverbank, saying these things to herself in a silent litany inside her head. She couldn't actually speak, because her teeth were clamped down hard on the strings of the date sack that was hanging over her shoulder. She was in water from her chest down, but her hands clung to bits of bramble that allowed her to hug the bank. She heard a cart pass on the road. If she lifted herself up, she would be able to see the road easily, because it ran parallel to the riverbank just a little ways uphill from her, and she could check to see if it was the same oxcart she'd just run away from. But she didn't lift herself up. She didn't dare move. She hardly dared breathe. Xing Xing didn't know how to swim. And her grip on the brambles was weakening. At any moment she could get washed away and drown in the Han River. Who knew the river would be so deep even at the edges?
She stared at a bramble leaf just a breath away from her. At this distance she could study every detail of the leaf. A principle of order guided the pattern of veins in that leaf. In every leaf. In everything on earth. And had not Stepmother said her ancestors would protect her? Certainly, it was Xing Xing's job to protect Father, not vice versa. But her other ancestors should be looking after her, guiding her. Somehow they had guided her to this very spot. She must trust in their wisdom.
The mud crumpled from her weight, and the bramble in her right hand came loose. Xing Xing slid downward. But before her face went underwater, there was something cold and smooth under her feet. Had she hit a rock ledge?
She sidled along whatever was underfoot till she came to another, larger bramble, sticking out of the bank. She grabbed it with both hands and pulled herself out, sopping, onto the riverbank. She lay there for several minutes, the date sack at her side now, letting the fact that she had escaped, that she was still alive, become real for her.
There was no one on the road as far as she could see in either direction. She took off her dress—curling to hide her nakedness in case anyone should appear on the road—wrung it out as hard as she could, then put it back on. In this heat it would dry on her back. She walked along the water's edge toward the town.
A plumed egret alighted on a boulder in midstream. Of all the birds, the plumed egret was Xing Xing's favorite. She often mimicked its walk just for fun. It stood tall and white, its black legs straight, its head tilted. The yellow beak moved slowly from one side to the other, but it couldn't be searching for fish, up high on the boulder like that. Egrets are waders. A breeze came up, ruffling the bird's feathers. It turned and faced into the wind. Its feathers lay flat again. Perhaps the bird was a messenger from her ancestors, who she was quite sure now were guiding her. Maybe they were warning her to pay attention to the prevailing winds.
Xing Xing ran to the point on the bank closest to the egret. She was going to call out her thanks when she saw the big fish. Her beautiful fish. It had to be. There were no other fish white as snow, white as pear blossoms. Like in Mei Zi's poem. And in her own poem. She wished she had something to feed it. The fish swam three times around the egret's boulder, each time returning to the bank near Xing Xing. Then she disappeared.
Could she have been a dream? Though the river near Xing Xing's home emptied eventually into the upper regions of the Han River, there was no direct connection between the spring-fed pool and the river. Xing Xing hoped the fish was a dream, for she wasn't sure that a real fish would be able to swim back upstream when Xing Xing returned home. And she was very sure that any fisherman who saw the beautiful fish would go after her with zeal. She loved that fish. She wanted her to live forever.
But these thoughts somehow did not really worry her. Rather, she realized she felt calm again. Things were happening just as they were supposed to happen. She would stay alert and face the wind. "Thank you, Mother," she called. "Thank you, kind ancestors." She walked along the bank, breathing her thanks.
The man in the oxcart had been right; the town was in sight the very next moment. Xing Xing climbed back up to the road and went toward the buildings. It was early evening, but because of the late sun, everyone was still out and about. Children helped women pull laundry down from bamboo poles. The smells of dinner wafted from windows. People rushed around in their last chance to finish chores before evening.
The road transformed quickly into a cobblestone market street. Much of the merchandise resembled common things sold in her own village—vegetables, eggs, meats, fish—as well as newer things she recognized for special health purposes, such as shark fins and bird nests and the claws of nocturnal birds. All were sold by weight—a certain amount of money for each
But here she also passed tables laden with paws—thick, black pads on the underside and long, curving claws: bear paws. And paws like hands with amazingly long fingers and fur halfway down the back, from orangutans. She saw shining tiger eyes, and antelope and rhinoceros horns. Toads and river salamanders and all kinds of marine creatures were strung on cords like beads.
Outside a door were stacked cages of puppies and cats and so many kinds of monkeys. Two golden monkeys in adjacent cages hugged each other through the bars. The door had long strips of yellow silk attached to the sides, so Xing Xing knew this was a restaurant, though she'd never entered one. Could the monkeys have possibly known? Xing Xing's eyes stung.
She bowed before each merchant and asked the whereabouts of the
Always the fingers pointed her ahead along the main road. She came to an open square with a temple on one end, its rooftop adorned with statues of turtles and fish and snakes and benevolent dragons. Farmers sold animals in the center of the square. Children climbed on the backs of pigs and fell off, laughing. Xing Xing couldn't help but smile. And the man in the oxcart had lied; many people were still selling fowl in cages at this hour.
A dried spotted serpent coiled like a rope around the neck of one very fat man who was shaking a ring-shaped hollow rattle. Beside him lay a big black dog, asleep on its side in the dust. Behind him was a cart with little bells hanging from the corners, filled with piles of small cloth sacks and rows of porcelain jars like the ones she'd seen in Master Tang's house. His face was wide, with a square chin.'This was a lucky face.
Xing Xing bowed low before him. "Honorable Doctor," she said, deeply impressed by how much wisdom must be stored in his huge belly.
gave her a quick glance. "You're not sick," he said with a strange accent. "So what's the message, Wet Girl?"
His directness surprised Xing Xing. But then, an important man like him must know the right way to talk about these things. So she answered in kind: "In my sack are goods that will help you, Most Honorable Doctor. In return, I beg you to come to my home and tend to my sister."
"I take it these 'goods that will help me' do not include coins?" said the man.
Xing Xing shook her head. Stepmother had given her no coins so that she couldn't be robbed. After burning all that paper money, Stepmother needed to be superbly careful.
"Doctors have honorable motives," said the
at last. "We are accountable to a higher power, a supernatural power. Money does not rule us. Nevertheless," he said, "we must eat."
Xing Xing was hungry herself. The eggs had been few and hours before. She licked her bottom lip.
A woman came up and asked the doctor's help for a rash on her arm. He took out a small jade figurine of a feathered creature, mostly bird but part reptilian, and touched it all over. He had the woman touch it too. Then he poured dried leaves from a jar into a square of paper, which he folded securely and handed to her. He told her to burn the leaves and breathe deeply of the smoke. He took her money and sent her on her way.
A man came up next, limping. He described the aches in his bones. The doctor inserted acupuncture needles at strategic points, talking the whole while. The man had brought his own empty jar; clearly, he was used to going to doctors. He got a refill of the elixir he sought and limped off.
And now, as the sun grew weak and the square emptied, it seemed everyone remembered their ailments. A small crowd formed around the doctor. He took the pulse of a woman who complained of depression, and her pulse seemed to give a clear diagnosis. He sold her an amulet with a picture of a man in fighting gear holding a thick club. The words beside the picture said,
If you want a beating, just come.
He told her to wear it around her neck to ward off the sadness demons. Several men, some with mud caked on their calves from working in the rice paddies, lamented flagging sexual desire. The doctor sent them away with various powders to dissolve in rice wine in a small tortoiseshell and drink an hour before making love. A man wanted the ends of his arms to be longer, a woman the ends of her legs to be shorter. The doctor said spells over them and prescribed physical exercises and gave them small white pills. For some patients he read cards as part of the diagnosis; for others he played a fish-shaped drum as part of the cure. He dispensed elixirs, pills, powders, ointments.
Xing Xing squatted on the ground beside the black dog, who had woken and was now sitting patiently, as though studying the sick people. After awhile Xing Xing dared to touch his floppy ear. He licked her hand. So she petted him constantly while she waited for the last sick person to receive his medicine and leave.
At last she stood. "Honorable Doctor," she said, "could—?"
"Call me Yao Wang," he interrupted.
The word meant "medicine king." It seemed an immodest name, even for the very wisest doctor. Xing Xing looked down at her feet in embarrassment for this
"Have you heard of Sun Si Miao?" he asked.
Xing Xing shook her head.
"He lived seven hundred years ago and was the best doctor of all time. The people called him 'Yao Wang.' I use his name to honor him, in the hopes that he will guide my hands at work." Yao Wang held both hands out. "Sun Si Miao is responsible for whatever skills these hands have. He traveled with a black dog and"—he leaned down toward Xing Xing—"and with a tiger and a dragon."
Xing Xing jumped backward.
Yao Wang laughed. "I have no tiger or dragon. Only Sheng."
The dog looked at his master when he heard his name. His tail thumped happily on the ground.
"Sheng was the last of a litter when I entered the restaurant. Instead of eating him, I took him home."
Xing Xing smiled. The name Sheng meant "leftover." "Lucky dog," she said quietly.
"Lucky me," said Yao Wang, "for Sheng has many talents."
Xing Xing squatted and wrote the character for the dog's name in the dirt, making it as beautiful as she could.
Yao Wang leaned so far forward, he had to put his hands on his knees to steady himself. He studied the character, then he straightened up. "You're very skilled."
Xing Xing looked down in shame, for she knew she had drawn in the dirt to show off that she, like the dog, had skills.
"Sheng's hungry," said Yao Wang. "It's time to eat."
Yao Wang and Xing Xing lay stretched out on the ground behind a house at the very edge of town. The dry rice stalks that Yao Wang had bought from a farmer cushioned their bones. Yao Wang snored in his sleep. Two ropes went around the cart that held his medicines. The end of one was tied around Yao Wang's wrist. The end of the other was tied around Sheng's neck. If anyone should try to disturb the cart in the night, Yao Wang and Sheng would jump up and defend it. That's why the man slept with his worn hemp shoes on.
It was midmonth, and the bright moon lit up everything. The house was surrounded by cassia trees, the shadows of which spread in a fine pattern. Cassia trees can have golden red blooms or moonlight white blooms—Xing Xing knew this. But in the almost cool of night light, these blooms appeared the gray-pink of wet tongues. A wind rose and the shadows stirred.
Xing Xing reached out and rubbed Sheng's side. The dog, too, was still awake, his eyes glistening in the night. He gave a contented grunt in acknowledgement of her hand.
Yao Wang normally stayed at inns or patients' homes. But no patient today had offered lodging in return for services. And when the innkeeper had requested extra money for Xing Xing, the girl had told the doctor that she didn't want him to pay for her and that she'd gladly sleep outdoors, especially if she could take Sheng with her. After all, being beholden to a man in an inn room was a situation any girl should avoid, no matter how honorable the man might appear.
Yao Wang had responded that sleeping outdoors would be a refreshing change, and Sheng needed that now and then. So they wound up here.
Xing Xing's stomach was fuller than it had been since the funeral feast after Father's death. The three of them—man, girl, and dog—had shared a whole roast duck, feet and head included, and finished it all off with steaming, glutinous rice cakes. Every time she went to open her sack to show Yao Wang the green dates and to explain Wei Ping's problem, the doctor had hushed her. He said that a good meal, a good night's sleep, and time would lead her to tell him the whole truth. He didn't want to waste his time listening to partial truths that would result in nonsense. Though Xing Xing felt the pressure of time passing, she had no choice but to practice patience. So she had lain down in silence, listening to the drums of evening that came from the town and then the croaks of the frogs in the rice paddies.
She watched the cassia patterns for hours. Every joint, every muscle of her body was tired. Even her skin was exhausted. She had traveled a long way, but she'd found the
This much of her journey had been successful. She closed her eyes and yielded to sleep.
In early morning the bells from town woke them. The air was clear. Down in this river valley, summer morning didn't come in the guise of fog. Xing Xing looked around and felt the lack of dragon spruce and azaleas and of cuckoos overhead. The difference in altitude made it feel like she was in a very different world, much farther from home than she knew she really was.
Yao Wang told Xing Xing to guard his cart while he washed himself in the river. He didn't just splash his arms and legs from the bank. He stripped off his clothes right in front of her and jumped in. He swam and went under the water and floated on his back, his great belly shining in the dawn sun. Sheng paddled around him, joyously.
People passed on the street, singing folk songs. They laughed with wonder at the sight in the water, for neither dog nor man had any fear, even when a boat came, bearing boxes for the market. Xing Xing marveled that one who weighed so much as Yao Wang could be lifted so easily by the water, when a small child could disappear below and never be seen again. She walked up and down the bank looking into the water, hoping to see the beautiful fish while she waited for her companions.
When Yao Wang was ready, they wandered over to a side street, where people sold food they cooked outside—boiled or steamed or fried—in wide curved pans that people in Xing Xing's village used only for drying grains. They stood up eating bowls of rice floating in bean curd whey—white rice of the quality Xing Xing had only on holidays. They ate fried dumplings filled with pork liver. They ate fried bread with sugar sprinkled on top. Sheng ate everything Yao Wang ate, just as though the dog were a person.
Then they walked to the square where Xing Xing had found Yao Wang the day before. Patients came quickly, spluttering loudly about their health problems. While Yao Wang tended to them, Xing Xing took a jar from his cart and looked it over. Unlike the jars in Master Tang's house, the name of the medicine was not fired under the glaze of the vessel. Instead, it was written on top in ink. The writing on this jar was unpleasing; in fact, even ugly. The writing on the other jars was just as bad. At the end of every label was the character for
which was supposed to ward off misfortune. But the character was so awkward, Xing Xing was sure it had no power at all.
She searched around in the cart for paintbrush and ink. She found a crude brush, a jar of ink powder, and a bowl meant for mixing up the ink. She didn't want to leave Yao Wang for the time it would take to go down to the river for water. So she spit in the bowl and mixed in some powder to make a small amount of ink. She painstakingly scratched away every bit of the lettering on the jar in her hand. She wrote the name of the contents again in her most beautiful calligraphy. She did the same to a second jar, and a third, all the while keeping her activity a secret from Yao Wang. She couldn't wait to see his reaction when he came upon them later.
The rest of the day passed in this way, as did the following three days. While Yao Wang cured patients,
Xing Xing lettered the medicine jars and combed Sheng's long hair with her fingers. They slept on rice stalks each night, and every time Xing Xing tried to talk, Yao Wang hushed her.
On the morning of their fifth day together, Yao Wang said, "Talk today. But only when I can listen." So whenever Yao Wang had a lull in business, Xing Xing talked. She explained that the spirit of Stepmother's mother had told Stepmother that the green dates made good medicine, though Xing Xing confessed that the spirit hadn't told her for which ailments. She revealed that Stepmother wanted Yao Wang to tell everyone that it was Wei Ping who had recognized the medicinal value of the dates, so that she could find a husband. And despite Stepmother's order never to tell anyone, she told him about Wei Ping's feet and about the demon raccoon that she had so grievously erred in bringing home and about the cleaver in Stepmother's hands.
In her whole life Xing Xing had never said so many words to anyone. Yao Wang had been right about the effects of food and sleep and time: Xing Xing told the whole truth. And she loved telling it. The telling made her feel energized and strong, ready for anything.
Yao Wang made no comment as Xing Xing talked. When it came time for the midday meal, Yao Wang bought them fried fish and seaweed. Then they sat in the shade of a jujube tree and munched on the first apples of the season. Yao Wang turned his face to the sky and spit the apple pips in a high arc, like a small child.
"I am a fat man," he said.
There was nothing to say in response to that.
"I wander from village to town to village, as a
must. But I cannot walk on my own, like a skinny man. Instead, I take whatever rides offer themselves. It is not a simple thing with a dog and a medicine cart." Yao Wang finished his apple and wiped his mouth with the back of his wrist. "People need my services. A girl your age understands that surely."
Xing Xing was not sure where this line of thought was leading, but it made her stomach tumble in worry. "My sister needs your services."
"I use alchemy for longevity. I call on male and female spirits to protect inner organs of humans. I exorcise demons by saying spells in two different Indian languages. I draw on astrological calculations so that I can use acupuncture to its greatest efficacy.
My patients need me, pretty Xing Xing. I am cheap, effective, and convenient. What would they do without me?"
"Maybe exorcism would help Wei Ping," said Xing Xing.
"You will make someone a persistent wife." Yao Wang gave a close-lipped smile as he shook his head. "There are always more patients in the next village. I've already passed your way. I cannot return so soon. It would be too hard for me to get there and back here again. The most I can do is give you a balm and teach you how to apply it."
"I'd be afraid of doing it wrong," said Xing Xing.
"That's exactly how I feel each time I meet a new illness," said Yao Wang. "But I will ask the spirit of Sun Si Miao to guide your hand, as he does mine."
Xing Xing worked to keep the disappointment from her face and voice. "May the dates be beneficial for something," she said, tucking the sack into Yao Wang's cart.
"Thank you. I will experiment with them," he said. "If they turn out to be useful as drugs, I will tell everyone that they came to me from a woman and two girls who live in a cave home outside your village. That's the best I can do." He handed Xing Xing a small cloth sack from his cart. "Take the entire bag. Mix a little with soy oil. Rub it all over both of Wei Ping's feet. Then put a dab right on the open wounds. Do this every other day until scar tissue has formed over the missing toes. And hide this sack well—to keep it safe from pickpockets."
Xing Xing kept her head down so that Yao Wang wouldn't notice her dripping nose. She took the sack of powder, bowed, and left.