Authors: Donna Jo Napoli
Tags: #Juvenile Fiction, #General
Xing Xing ran up the hill toward her cave. She was alone again. The boat had docked at night, and when the crew punted the boat away from the embankment in the morning, Yao Wang, Sheng, and the medicine cart were long gone. Xing Xing had had to spend the entire day following the captain around, because the looks the crew gave her once she was all alone frightened her more than whatever form of madness the captain was seeking. The noisy surging of the river, which had seemed exciting the day before, now seemed almost brutal, the sloughing of the wind almost ominous.
It was now early evening. Travel by boat against the current was easier than walking, but unfortunately just as slow. She'd been gone so long. The closer Xing Xing got to the cave, the faster she ran.
She opened the squeaking door. Though the summer light still shone outside, the cave was dark inside. The air was stale.
"Go away, demon!" screeched Stepmother from behind the bamboo screen around the
"It's me—Xing Xing," said the girl. She left the door open, and in the dim light it afforded, she made her way through the bamboo corridor and turned into the small area surrounding the
A thick stench stopped her as firmly as though she'd met a stone wall. Her eyes slowly adjusted to the darkness.
Stepmother sat with her arms wrapped protectively around Wei Ping on the
Their hair hung down stringy. Their eyes burned at her out of haggard faces.
"Is that truly you?" asked Stepmother in a thin voice.
Stepmother got unsteadily to her feet. "Where's the
"He wouldn't come," said Xing Xing. "He said that he'd already been this way and that people in other villages need him now."
"And the dates?" Stepmother hobbled around Xing Xing, touching her here and there. Her breath reeked so badly that Xing Xing had to fight to keep her nose from wrinkling. "You gave him the dates anyway?" the woman shrieked.
Wasn't that what she was supposed to do? Xing Xing looked down at her feet in confusion.
girl!" Stepmother smacked Xing Xing on the top of her head. It was not a hard blow, but Xing Xing hadn't braced herself against it, so it knocked her to the floor. "You took all these days for nothing!"
Xing Xing pulled the small sack of powder Yao Wang had given her from inside the bodice of her dress. "Medicine," she said, holding it up.
Stepmother narrowed her eyes and put her face close to the sack. Then she snatched it. She sat on the
and her trembling hands fumbled with the knot.
"Hurry," said Wei Ping. She leaned sideways, putting her weight on one hand; with the other, she clutched Stepmother's arm. "Hurry."
Stepmother picked at the knot ineffectually. Sweat beads formed at her hairline, catching what little light there was. They dripped into her eyes. A brittle note of frustration whistled from between her teeth. Wei Ping poked her finger into Stepmother's arm as the woman worked. Poke poke poke poke— never taking her eyes from the little sack. The two of them seemed demented.
From her position on the floor, Xing Xing looked around. The chamber pot in the corner of the screened area had overflowed. Pits and cleanly gnawed bones had been shoved into a small pile. The water bucket was empty. The stove fire had gone out.
She got to her feet and took the sack of powder from Stepmother, who looked at her passive and dumb now, as though the woman were somewhere else, beyond the present, beyond reaction. Wei Ping was still poking her mother, but aimlessly, without a goal. She didn't even glance at her half sister.
Xing Xing walked outside. She climbed the little steps carved into the side of the cave and rolled the rock from the window, letting the mix of weak sun and moon cascade inside. She went back into the enclosure around the
and took the bucket and went down to the pool and brought back fresh water. She undressed her half sister and her stepmother, discreetly averting her eyes, grateful to find them both cool to the touch, though noticeably thinner. She washed them thoroughly, but she didn't yet touch Wei Ping's bandages. She dressed them in clean clothes. She scoured their teeth with river sand. She scrubbed the
She swept the floor and emptied the chamber pot and washed every surface with rice vinegar. She gathered wood and fanned a fire with the big bamboo fan and got the stove going and made a gruel from rice powder, which she ladled into bowls, then fed them, spoonful by spoonful.
She washed their filthy clothes and strung them just outside the door to dry. She went down the hill in what was now the deep of night and picked early wild chrysanthemums and brought them back and boiled them in water. Then she handed Stepmother and Wei Ping bowls full of the yellow chrysanthemum broth and told them to drink.
Through all this, Stepmother and Wei Ping obeyed Xing Xing as though they were small children. They now rested docilely on the
stretched out side by side, propped on pillows that Xing Xing had taken from Stepmother's bed. Moonlight made them appear ghostly.
Xing Xing lit enough candles so that she could see well. She poured soy oil into a small bowl and mixed in some of the powder from the sack Yao Wang had given her. She lay clean cloth on the
at the ready. And, finally, she sat at Wei Ping's feet and unwrapped the bandages from one, bracing herself against what she might find.
The white, distorted foot dripped no blood. The bone ends were as exposed as when the raccoon had first bitten the toes off, but they were no longer ragged. They'd been cut straight with the cleaver. Xing Xing washed the foot and rubbed off the fine slough of dead skin. She gently smeared a thin coat of the balm over the entire foot. Then she put a dollop on the spots where the toes were missing. She worked quickly, remembering what Stepmother had said about blood returning to the foot if the bandages were off too long. She folded the foot under, as she'd watched Stepmother do so many times, and bound it tightly in a clean cloth. Then she tended the other foot the same way. Again the two biggest toes were missing, cut cleanly off.
Wei Ping made no noise as Xing Xing tended her feet. Not even a whimper.
Xing Xing took the half-empty bowls of chrysanthemum broth from the hands of Stepmother and Wei Ping and told them to sleep now.
They shut their eyes.
Xing Xing stood watching them breathe. Until this point she had worked automatically with an unflagging energy. Now it left her. She blew out all the candles but one, which she used to light her way down the hill to the pool. She got on her knees, weary and drained, and leaned forward. She dipped her whole face into the cool water.
Mother's lips brushed her forehead.
Xing Xing lifted her head out of the water and opened her eyes. The white fish glowed soothing moonlight. So the beautiful fish hadn't come down the river after all. She had been safe here in the pool all along. Xing Xing let her clothes drop to the ground. She slipped into the pool and held tight to the side. The fish swam under her, smooth and cold, cold and smooth, like what she'd felt under her feet in the river when she escaped from the man in the oxcart. She knew the fish would never let her drown. She let go of the side and went under, then came up and found that if she moved her arms and legs slowly, she could go wherever she wanted—she could swim— and what a wonderful, effortless joy swimming was.
The two of them circled around each other like white ribbons, making the water swirl behind them. They slid past each other, touching wholly, like mother and child. And at last Xing Xing understood. Oh, she should have known all along: The beautiful fish was the reincarnation of Mother. They were together again, at last.
They swam till Xing Xing found she was almost falling asleep in the water. Still, she didn't want to leave her fish mother. She never wanted to leave her fish mother. She never wanted this joy to end. She climbed out and slept on the bank. Night air patted her dry. The fingers of one hand dangled in the water, twitching now and then as the fish glided by.
Yao Wang was no charlatan and the spirit of Sun Si Miao must have guided Xing Xing's hand in mixing the medicine, for by the end of a month, scar tissue had formed on both of Wei Ping's feet and she no longer moaned in pain. The girl hobbled like her mother now, going around and around the cave. She had the bamboo screen put outside, she was so sure there were no demons plaguing her anymore. She woke early and she stayed up late, and her energy increased by the day.
Stepmother, likewise, grew optimistic. She looked with satisfaction at the shrinking size of Wei Ping's feet, and she pulled out the dress she had started making for her months before and worked at finishing it up. She took to going into the village again, to chat with friends and hope for news of a suitable son-in-law.
One morning when the girls woke, Stepmother was standing in the center of the main room rubbing her elbows in excitement. "I'm going to the furniture maker at the edge of the village," she announced.
"What for?" said Wei Ping. "I like it better this way. The cave is spacious." She moved her hands around, indicating the spots that used to have furniture. Stepmother had sold anything extra. "Clutter only provides things for me to stumble over."
"This won't be clutter. We need it."
"If we truly need it, don't go to that furniture maker. He's a poor craftsman. Go to the better one in the center of the village."
"The one I'm going to is cheaper, and what we need made can be crude, so long as it's functional."
"What do we need made?" asked Wei Ping.
"You'll see," said Stepmother with a sly smile. "The annual cave festival is coming up soon. We have to be ready."
Xing Xing had practically forgotten about the cave festival. It was a wonderful event. The whole village celebrated it together, not just the people who lived in the cave homes. It took place in Xing Xing's favorite park.
They ate a breakfast of rice toasted to a crunchy golden brown. Then Stepmother left in a hurry.
When Xing Xing picked up the water bucket and prepared to go to the pool, Wei Ping called out, "Take me with you."
Though Wei Ping was thin, she was much larger than Xing Xing and therefore weighed more. This reality, however, was not something to point out. "I could never manage you and the water bucket at the same time. I'd spill every drop," said Xing Xing diplomatically.
"I'll walk, of course," said Wei Ping. "We just have to go slowly."
"The hill is steep," said Xing Xing.
"Take me with you," pleaded Wei Ping. "I have to practice walking so that I can have fun at the cave festival too. Please take me with you, Sister."
Xing Xing knew Wei Ping was manipulating her by calling her "Sister." But she couldn't help her reaction. She smiled, and the girls slowly made their way together down to the pool.
As Xing Xing approached the water, her beautiful fish mother surfaced and rested her head on the bank. Xing Xing knelt and fed the fish leftovers from breakfast, as she did every morning.
"What a remarkable fish," said Wei Ping, coming up behind her.
The fish quickly dove and disappeared.
"Didn't you recognize her?"
Wei Ping looked at Xing Xing, then her eyes widened. "But you can't mean that's the same fish that used to swim in the bowl on the
"The very same," said Xing Xing.
"But that's delightful," said Wei Ping. "Our fish! , And she's grown miraculously. She's longer than an adult man."
The girl was right. Xing Xing's fish mother had grown enormous, and her beauty had increased accordingly. Xing Xing smiled.
"I want to see her again," said Wei Ping. "You fed her, didn't you? I saw you. I want to feed her too. I think she's lovely too."
"I don't have any food left," said Xing Xing. "And she's gone off. You can feed her the next time you come down to the pool with me."
"I don't want to wait till the next time," said Wei Ping. "I want to see her now." She sat down at the pool's edge. "Come, dear fish," she called. "Come back and let me see you."
But the fish didn't come.
After awhile Xing Xing filled the bucket, and with many rests along the way, the girls returned to the cave.
When Stepmother came in later, Wei Ping couldn't wait to tell her about the fish. "She's huge, Mother. You should see. And she's even prettier than she was before."
"Are you sure this is the same fish?" asked Stepmother.
"Xing Xing feeds her every day," said Wei Ping, nodding. "She feeds her with her
the forefinger she uses to feed herself. Just as though the fish was a family member. The fish comes right up to her and sticks her head out on the bank."
Stepmother looked at Xing Xing so suspiciously, the girl's lips went cold. "I have to see this for myself," she said. She went back out the door.
"Talk to us first," cried out Wei Ping. "Tell us about this mysterious furniture you're having made."
"That can wait," said Stepmother brusquely. She limped down the hill.
It was a long time before she managed to make it back. She dropped onto the
completely tuckered out.
"Isn't she all that I said?" exclaimed Wei Ping, clasping her hands under her chin. "Isn't she just the most wonderful fish ever?"
"Silly girls make up silly stories," said Stepmother. "But it isn't a laughing matter when it costs me so much toil to go down to the pool and back."
"We didn't make anything up," said Wei Ping. "We're not children. Maybe you frightened the fish.
I must have frightened her too, because she wouldn't come for me, either. But she comes out for Xing Xing. I saw her. And tomorrow I'm going to see her again, and I'll be the one to feed her."
"Is this true, Xing Xing?" asked Stepmother. "Is there really a fish? And does it come out for you?"
Xing Xing was surprised that Stepmother used her real name. Maybe the woman had sensed the presence of Father's spirit. Or maybe she was merely trying to manipulate the girl, like Wei Ping had done this morning. Fingers of dread twined around her throat. She couldn't even swallow the saliva that gathered at the back of her tongue.
But, really, she shouldn't have such a reaction. There was no reason for Stepmother to manipulate Xing Xing. The woman could get anything she wanted from the girl by simply ordering her around.
"Yes," answered Xing Xing, forcing herself to move beyond the unreasonable dread.
"Well, maybe someday you'll show her to me," said Stepmother lightly, as though it were of little importance after all. "In the meantime, if you're still curious ..." She looked teasingly at Wei Ping. "I have things to tell you."