Authors: Donna Jo Napoli
Tags: #Juvenile Fiction, #General
The smell of incense was making Xing Xing woozy. She had entered the temple to pray because she was too miserable to think straight on her own. There were several altars: to heaven, to the mountains, to the rivers, to the moon, to the earth, to the sun, to the soil, and to Kong Fu Zi. She'd gone from one to another, praying. Stepmother would be furious that she'd come home without Yao Wang after taking all this time. The willow switch would get a good workout. And, worst of all, if Xing Xing applied the balm to Wei Ping too thickly or too thinly or without the right amount of oil mixed with the powder, something awful could happen to her half sister. She had been praying for guidance for a long time now. But maybe the dense fog of incense from the large pewter burners was confusing her too much, because she still had no answers.
She couldn't afford to stay here any longer. It was already afternoon. If she started out right now and kept up a good pace and nothing bad happened, it would take the rest of the day and part of the next to get home. Maybe longer, actually, since she would duck down to the riverbank whenever she heard the clatter of wheels on the road. She would take no more chances with passing oxcarts, no matter how many hours they might shorten her journey.
She went to the doorway of the temple and shielded her eyes from the bright sunlight. An old man sat on the steps eating a bowl of ox intestines. She recognized him by the ringworm on his head—he was one of Yao Wang's patients. When he saw her, he lifted a string of Buddha beads tucked in his waist sash, shook them at her, and pointed into the square. He was pointing at a crowd pressed around Yao Wang and his cart. But, oh, this was not the usual type of crowd. There were two men in uniform, and people were talking angrily. Sheng showed his teeth and growled at a man who held him at bay with a bamboo stick.
Xing Xing ran to Sheng and threw her arms around the dog's neck. She looked back defiantly at the man with the stick.
The man withdrew his stick. "He's not a real doctor—a real
he said loudly. "If he were a real
he would send his patients to a state run pharmacy for their medicine. He's nothing but a
He costs little," said the man, looking around with a challenge in his eyes, "because he's a quack. A wandering quack. A real doctor is thin because he works hard. This man is a load of blubber who hasn't done an honest day's work in his life. Look!" He picked up one of Yao Wang's medicine jars and held it under the nose of one of the officials. "See? There's no national stamp on this jar. No trademark. These are unregulated drugs—phony drugs. How is an honorable man like me supposed to run a decent pharmacy if charlatans are allowed to sell their junk on the streets? I've already lost a week's worth of business because of him."
The crowd of onlookers didn't say anything. Xing Xing recognized several of them as having been patients of Yao Wang that very day.
The official took the jar from the pharmacist's hand and examined it. He rubbed his cheek as he turned the jar this way and that.
The second official leaned over Yao Wang's cart and touched jar after jar. "Some of these jars have different labeling from others," he said. He picked up one of the jars that Xing Xing had written on and tapped on the character Xing Xing had added to each jar in place of the awkward tiger character that had been there before. It was the character that Xing Xing had seen on all the jars in Master Tang's house. "And here's the national trademark."
The pharmacist shut his lips tight, and his cheeks puffed out so big, he looked like he would pop. "He put that trademark on himself! It's not under the glaze; it's on top. You can tell! He did it himself! This is even worse than being a charlatan. This is a crime. According to the Code, he should be beaten with bamboo. Many blows. At least sixty. No, seventy! I'll bare his buttocks myself and hold him down for you."
Men could die from infections in bloodied bottoms, everyone knew that.
"It's my fault, not Yao Wang's." The words burst from Xing Xing in a high squeak.
Everyone looked at her. They whispered to one another. Some of them giggled.
Xing Xing felt the blood drain from her face. She thought she might faint. She leaned on Sheng for support.
"Yao Wang?" said the second official, raising an eyebrow. "That's your name?"
'"Yao Wang' is her pet name for me," said Yao Wang with a sheepish look. "You know how foolish things can start with a child."
"Well," said the first official, rubbing hard at his cheek, "speak up, girl."
"I scraped off the words and wrote them again. I was trying to make them pretty. I didn't know about the trademark."
"Are you claiming a pitiful little girl like you knows calligraphy?" asked the second official.
Yao Wang's eyes instantly brightened. "She's been learning—but slowly. Compare the lettering." He held out two jars, one with the ugly lettering and one with Xing Xing's writing. "Which is that of a state representative and which is that of a mere girl?"
The second official, the one who had tapped his finger on the trademark, nodded vigorously. "This is a girl's work." He pointed at the jar with the ugly lettering. "When she copied, she failed to copy the trademark. Just as you would expect from a girl."
"We must not be too harsh on her," said Yao Wang. He shot Xing Xing a hard look that made her feel like she'd been slapped. Then he looked at the officials and smiled sweetly. "Kong Fu Zi is the master teacher of us all," he said humbly. "And Kong Fu Zi says that lack of talent in a woman is a virtue."
The words bit like ants in Xing Xing's ears.
"That's right," said the first official, still rubbing his cheek. "Common sense should guide us in this, as in all social matters—common sense and the teachings of Kong Fu Zi. Mistakes by females shouldn't come under the Code. This is a matter properly between a father and his errant daughter. Not a matter for us."
"Even if the daughter wrote the ugly letters," said the pharmacist quickly, "the jars with the other letters and the stamp are counterfeit. They're not under the glaze. The father is culpable."
"I admit my guilt," said Yao Wang.
Everyone looked at him now. And again the crowd whispered.
"When a jar is empty," said Yao Wang in a voice so soft that everyone had to strain to hear, "a poor man reuses it for whatever suits his needs. A label on top of the glaze can be changed to match the new contents, one under the glaze cannot." He bowed deeply. "Poverty. This is the crime I am guilty of."
"Poverty has never been a crime in China," said the second official, "and our new emperor would be aghast at the idea. He was a peasant himself as a boy. And a beggar, at that. Everything's different now. Government officials are chosen by merit these days, not birth or wealth. I took a civil service examination to get this post." He puffed out his chest.
"But listen to this
accent," said the pharmacist. "He isn't from around here. He's probably not even from this province. He's a wanderer, for sure."
The first official put the jar he was still holding back into the cart. He rubbed his cheek. "This is a new dynasty. The reign of Hung Wu values national unity over all else. There's no place for pride in one's native locality over pride in the empire. Besides, the man has clearly lived here a long time—his daughter talks just like you or me."
Yao Wang took a small metal tube out of the cart. "Would you like me to help with that toothache?" he asked the first official.
The man stopped rubbing his cheek and smiled. "A good diagnostician," he said. "But this is a large town; we have three
in fact. My whole family goes to Master Si Ma whenever we have problems."
"No charge," said Yao Wang.
"Well, in that case . . ."
"Wait,"-said the pharmacist. "He's nothing but a
He doesn't know anything. He should at least have to pay in copper coins to get out of his punishment."
"Being a wandering doctor is no crime," said the second official, "so long as he sells state-regulated drugs, which this doctor does. Punishing a man for what he has not been prohibited from doing is inhumane. The matter is settled." Then he turned to Yao Wang. "It seems some people don't want you in town. My advice to you is to leave, the sooner the better. Small villages will be more welcoming."
Yao Wang bowed. "Wise counsel," he said.
The crowd watched as Yao Wang set in place the acupuncture needles that would control the pain and then neatly extracted the first official's rotten tooth. Only the pharmacist didn't stay for the show.
"Where do you think you're going?" whispered Yao Wang out of the side of his mouth. He caught Xing Xing by the elbow.
"Home, of course," said Xing Xing.
"Your home is my home," said Yao Wang. "Have you forgotten that you're my daughter? So long as anyone in this town is watching, we must stay together."
"Then you have to come back to my cave," said Xing Xing, "because that's where I'm going. Wei Ping has been waiting long enough." She pulled herself free and took a few steps in the direction of the road out of town.
Yao Wang muttered angry words Xing Xing was forbidden to say. Then he called out, "Okay, but not that way. To the docks." He took the long handles of the cart in each hand and pulled it behind him; it jingled as it bumped over stones. Sheng walked at his left side. Xing Xing fell into step on the other side.
Yao Wang stopped at the first boat they came to. "Are you heading upriver or down?" he called to the captain.
"Then this girl's coming with you."
"No," said Xing Xing in Yao Wang's ear. "I've never been on a boat. I can't even swim."
"Quiet," Yao Wang whispered back. "You'll take this boat upriver, I'll take another downriver. It's the best way to travel."
Before Xing Xing could protest more, the captain spoke, "Not so fast," he said. "We don't generally carry passengers. How much have you got to pay?"
"Think how striking your sails would be with some fine words beautifully painted on them. This girl is a scribe. She won't disappoint you."
"Is that so?" The captain tilted his head at Xing Xing. "How did you come to learn such a thing?"
"My father taught me," said Xing Xing.
"Well, I see you're taking my advice," came a voice from behind them. The second official stood on the dock.
"Wise counsel should never be ignored," said Yao Wang to the official.
"Take good care of them," said the official to the captain.
The captain looked confused. "Them?"
"Captain," said Yao Wang quickly, "tell your men to be specially careful as they load my cart onto the boat, so nothing spills."
"You're coming too?" said the captain. "What about your fare?"
"I can cure skin blemishes." Yao Wang pointed to a boat worker with open sores on his arms. "And clouding of the eye." He pointed to another worker who looked back blankly from two whitened eyes. "And I can expel worms." He pointed at all the men and laughed. "None of these problems are grave yet. But if you let them continue, it will be far harder to cure them."
"Is the dog friendly?" asked the captain.
"Except to those who mean harm to me or the girl," said Yao Wang.
"I mean to cats," said the captain. "We have our share of ratters on board."
"He's a well-mannered dog," said Yao Wang. "When do we set sail?"
So Xing Xing found herself going on her first boat ride, not on a
for passengers, but on the deck of a cargo boat, beside an ill-tempered Yao Wang. While Yao Wang treated his patients, who did, indeed, turn out to be all the men on the boat, Xing Xing breathed deep of the river air, invoking its wetness to guide her hand, then painted her calligraphy on an extra sail.
But it wasn't merchant words, announcing what the boat carried. Not at all. It was a poem. The captain turned out to be a man of letters. When Yao Wang showed his surprise at that, the captain looked offended. "The Mongols have been driven out of China, don't you know that?" he said. "Hung Wu's huge military keeps them outside our borders, so men like you and me can turn our attentions to the finer matters of life."
He recited to Xing Xing several poems that he had composed. Together they chose the one that she painted onto the sail.
Wood slipping through waters
Wind in passion with sails
Many-layered mountains hold red trees
Some are gone
Some have returned
I grow used to the search for madness
Though it had no rhyme, Xing Xing liked this poem because it started with such familiar thoughts and ended in such a surprising way. She spent much of the voyage watching for signs of madness in the captain.
At one point the captain smiled down at her work. He squatted beside her and said, "If you fall into water, you may still be saved. But if you fall down in literary matters, there is no life left for you." She thought this might be a sign of madness, but maybe Mei Zi would be sympathetic to such a thought-poetry was so dear to her. It was possible, at least.
At another point the captain actually sat on the deck beside her. He held a small bundle wrapped in lotus leaves. She breathed in the clean smell as he peeled away the leaves and offered her some of the salted meat inside. Then he showed her a mirror that he kept in a wooden box. Its frame was carved with all kinds of sea creatures. He made faces at himself in the mirror. Xing Xing laughed. But the captain wasn't satisfied. He wanted Xing Xing to make faces in the mirror too. She showed her teeth. The captain wasn't satisfied. She showed her teeth and pushed her nose to one side with her finger. He still wasn't satisfied. She showed her teeth and pushed her nose to one side and wrinkled her brow and stuck out her tongue. The captain slapped her on the back in congratulations and left her alone to continue with her work. Perhaps that episode was a sign of madness. But then Xing Xing remembered the slave boy in the oxcart making faces at the hen. Who knew what true madness really was?
The boat tacked back and forth across the river. Whenever there was too long a lull in the breeze, the men took to the oars. And whenever the breeze was steady, the men drank rice ale till they stumbled. When Xing Xing watched them in alarm, Yao Wang told her they were right to drink so much; alcohol kept down gum disease and other illnesses.
Xing Xing worked hour after hour to make her calligraphy as fine as a poem deserved. It was hard, because she'd never had to make such large lettering before. As she worked she refused to think about the pharmacist's words—the way he had accused Yao Wang of being a charlatan. The balm Yao Wang had given her had to work. There was no other possibility she could bear considering. And she avoided looking at the water, for the fear of drowning clutched her throat. But every now and then she had to peek. A few times she was sure she saw a shadow of translucent silvery white just below the surface.