Authors: Donna Jo Napoli
Tags: #Juvenile Fiction, #General
The things Stepmother told them held both girls spellbound. Emperor Hung Wu wanted all of China to be united. As the son of heaven, he was China's leader both morally and politically. He was the one and only person who could mediate between heaven and earth, and he had decided that customs that varied from province to province interfered with the harmonious functioning of the cosmos. Instead, all festivals, from the local to the national, should be similar and follow new ceremonial regulations that would ensure the unity of China.
"Our local cave festival will be very different this year," said Stepmother. "Much more elaborate."
"In what ways?" asked Wei Ping. "Tell us."
"There will be dancing and acrobatics and, well, I don't know everything," said Stepmother. "But one thing is sure: People will come from far away to take part. Men. Who knows, maybe even the local prince will come. He hasn't taken one single wife yet. All the unmarried women are going to dress up beautifully. This is our opportunity, at last."
Wei Ping laughed with the joy of anticipation.
But Xing Xing felt like crying. If all the girls were supposed to dress up beautifully, she couldn't possibly go to the festival, for her clothes were nothing more than tatters.
"And the furniture you're having made?" said Wei Ping. "Tell us about it, Mother. What is it?"
"I'll do better. I'll show you. He assembled it instantly." Stepmother went outside and came back a few moments later saying, "A one-wheeled cart." She pushed it into the room.
Wei Ping scrunched up her nose. "That's a barrow. What will we do with an ugly barrow?"
"You'll sit in it and be pushed to the edge of the festival."
"What? I don't want to arrive in a barrow, like a bunch of radishes."
"No one will see. We'll go through the woods. That's why I wanted the cart to have but a single wheel, which can be easily maneuvered. Xing Xing can grease the wheel with bear fat so that it makes no noise at all. When we get there, we'll stash the cart behind a bush, and you'll come out, as fresh and happy as any girl with bound feet who is carried by a servant."
"That's a good idea, Mother. A very good idea. And will you get Master Tang's slave boy to push the barrow?"
"We don't need him."
Stepmother looked at Xing Xing.
"Of course," said Wei Ping. "Xing Xing is so strong."
Half of Xing Xing wanted to object. She couldn't face the shame of being in rags when everyone else was in their best finery. The other half of her grasped at any chance to see the dancing and acrobatics Stepmother had talked about. And, after all, shame wasn't called for. Instead, what she should feel is humility. It was good for anyone to feel humility. She met Stepmother's eyes and held them, almost proudly. "I'll scrub my dress and darn the holes," she said.
"No, you won't," said Stepmother. "I'm going in my mourning sackcloth, of course. So you could certainly go in your tatters. But you won't." She went over to her sewing basket and took out the dress she'd finished the night before. "You'll wear this."
"Haven't you worked hard? You deserve it."
Tears of gratitude sprang to Xing Xing's eyes.
"But what about me?" said Wei Ping. "What will I wear?"
"I'll make you something splendid," said Stepmother. "I'll go into the village tomorrow and buy red silk and gold embroidery thread. And I'll make matching slippers for your feet, so they look like perfect lilies."
"Yes," said Wei Ping. "You're full of good ideas today, Mother."
Stepmother tilted her head toward Xing Xing. "Come here."
Xing Xing ran to Stepmother, who held the dress up to her.
"Try it on."
Xing Xing turned her back for modesty's sake. She took off her rags and pulled the new dress on.
"It's large," said Stepmother. "That will allow you to dance better. Decent women should never be in tight dresses."
Xing Xing ran her hands down the front of the dress. The yellow was as beautiful as sunlight. Her fingers touched each claw of the dragon Stepmother had embroidered on the bodice. She was perfectly happy.
"Time to get back to work," said Stepmother.
Xing Xing turned and started to pull the dress off.
Stepmother's hand stopped her. "You have a very different job tonight. Wear your dress and go to the spring behind the temple near the village. Drink deeply of its water and bring a pail of it back to us. But don't hurry. Instead, sit there and compose until dinnertime."
"Compose?" said Xing Xing.
"There will be poetry recitations at the cave festival. Everyone is supposed to compose
verse, with tonal patterns modeled after folk tunes. Master Tang's wife told me you are good at poetry, and surely you know many folk tunes. You can represent our family."
"But what should my poem be about?" asked Xing Xing.
"Unloved wild geese, with broken hearts. Rain cooling the earth. Suffering. You know the sort of thing that goes into these poems. You can do this."
Xing Xing had thought she was perfectly happy just a moment ago, but now she was so much happier. Her breath was as light as a hummingbird's.
The spring burbled
quietly. Besides the river, there were not many sources of fresh water in this area—the pool near Xing Xing's cave and this spring were notable in a dry land. To one side of the spring was the temple, but in the other three directions spread a well-manicured garden of flowering trees and bushes, with stone statues of monkeys here and there and a pool full of pink lotus blossoms. An artificial stone mountain rose from the center of the pool, covered with thick green moss. Duckweed floated on the surface. Xing Xing dipped her hand in under the tiny leaves; the water below was cool.
A sudden longing closed around her. She wanted to be with Father, to put this cool water on his face as he worked, to dig the clay for his pots, to eat with him and sing with him and rest in the crook of his arm. Her eyes hurt with held-back tears. How foolish of her to feel this way at this very moment. Hadn't Stepmother just given her a dress more beautiful than any she'd ever hoped to wear? Stepmother had made the dress herself—and she'd chosen Xing Xing to wear it. Her life was changing. The certainty of that should open her to sweetness now, not to sorrow. She should regain the joy she felt as she left the cave to come here. She looked around and willed her eyes to welcome the goodness of this garden.
Her eyes didn't disappoint her. As the sun waned and the air cooled a bit now, too, birds came from their hiding places in the tree canopy and hopped or walked along the water's edge. Black-throated robins and white-throated redstarts. Tiny yellow-streaked warblers and large red-billed starlings. Xing Xing delighted most in the blue-rumped pitta, with its black hood, white collar, yellow belly, and greenish blue back. She sat very still for a long, long time.
The happiness she'd felt at Stepmother's unexpected announcements had made her giddy, and in that giddiness she'd forgotten to bring paper, brush, and ink. That was just as well, though, because a
should be composed with the most attention to its sound rather than to the appearance of the characters on the paper. Indeed, most of the people who would compose
for the cave festival probably didn't know how to write; instead, they'd simply memorize their poems. So, as Xing Xing finally began the poem, she spoke aloud and played with the sounds of words until she was satisfied.
Feathers flutter and brush and slice through the air
Claws scrape and grasp what they dare
Beaks poke and dig and scoop and click
Songs brag and flatter and flick
There's nothing quiet about birds among flowers
Aren't we glad, aren't we lucky, to witness these powers.
Xing-Xing got up and drank deeply of the spring, as Stepmother had told her to do. She filled the pail with springwater, as Stepmother had told her to do. Then she walked quickly. Stepmother had told her not to hurry, but she felt she should, because she wasn't going directly back to the cave. Instead, she headed to Master Tang's home. She wanted to try out her
on Mei Zi, to see if her teacher would recognize the folk tune it was based on and to read the reaction in the old woman's expressive face.
But when she got to Master Tang's home, the old man stopped her in the courtyard. "Mei Zi is too busy to be bothered right now," he said gently, after hearing why she'd come. "Show your poem to me." He settled on the bench with a bowl of rice wine in one hand.
"I haven't actually written it down," said Xing Xing. "It's meant to be told aloud."
"Then I'll listen." Master Tang stretched out his legs and leaned back on the bench.
So Xing Xing half spoke, half sang her
Master Tang smiled. "Can you run in that fine dress?"*
"I think so."
"Then run in a circle for me. Many times."
Xing Xing ran around the courtyard. Finally, she dropped onto the bench beside Master Tang.
"Do you feel better now?" said Master Tang. "You needed a good run."
"I guess I do," said Xing Xing. "But how did you know I needed a run?"
"You must have sat quiet a long time before you composed this poem. Birds among flowers aren't noisy if people are."
Xing Xing laughed.
"You have grown into a very attractive young woman, Xing Xing. That new dress does you justice". Where did you get it?"
"Stepmother made it for me." Xing Xing couldn't keep the pride out of her voice.
"She's generous to all of us these days, it seems," said Master Tang. "Aren't we lucky? Like in your poem."
"Has she been generous to you?" asked Xing Xing in surprise.
"Indeed. That's why Mei Zi has no time to talk with you now. Your stepmother brought us so much food this afternoon, Mei Zi is working with the cook, preparing a meal for all our relatives."
"I'm so glad," said Xing Xing, though a high-pitched hum had started in her eardrums and her stomach felt unsettled. "You've been generous to us so many times, lending us the help of your slave boy."
"It's not just us. Your stepmother had our boy deliver fish to most of the families on this side of the hill." He finished his wine. "Extraordinary, she is."
The hum in Xing Xing's ears turned to a drum that accented every word Master Tang said.
"Come back tomorrow," said the old man. "I'm sure Mei Zi will want to hear your poem. The artistry of it reveals your soul. You are a fine maiden, Xing Xing. As the saying goes, 'When accomplishments and character are equally matched, we then have a person of virtue.'"
Xing Xing bowed her thanks for the kind words, then walked carefully along the path toward the cave, holding the pail of springwater in front of her like an offering. She could smell dinner before she got inside. Delicious fermented soybeans. And other things. Things she knew very well. The drumming in her ears was so loud, she could hardly hear anything else. She entered the cave feeling strangely dissociated from her body, as though she were two people at once: Xing Xing and the spirit of Xing Xing, one walking, the other floating.
She took the new dress off without turning her back to the others. Modesty meant nothing in this moment. She draped the dress across the back of a chair. Her old dress was folded neatly on her bed. She put it on. The hem stuck to her legs. It was wet. She peeled it from her skin and held the hem to her nose. It smelled of nothing new, just all the old familiar things. She pressed it to her cheek, then let it fall.
They ate at the
Stepmother had prepared a stew of many ingredients, all cut up tiny.
Xing Xing studied the bowl. "Why is everything cut so small?" she asked with a new boldness. Perhaps this was her spirit self, speaking with the voice of a drum.
—cutting—is equivalent to cooking," said Stepmother. "And small pieces cook faster and save fuel, so girls like you don't have to gather so much firewood." She picked up her spoon and ate a big bite. Then she yawned. "These days all the best cooks chop food finely, but it's certainly exhausting." She looked over at Xing Xing. "Eat," she said.
"I taste millet and mallow and reeds and bamboo shoots," said Xing Xing slowly, as though talking in a trance.
"And fish, of course," said Wei Ping. "This stew is twice as good as usual, Mother."
In the morning Xing Xing squeezed rice and peas into a ball with her hands and nibbled at it before anyone else had woken. She hadn't eaten but a spoonful of the stew the night before, so she was hungry. Still, she saved an extra-large portion of her breakfast and hurried down the hill with the water bucket and carrying pole.
Her beautiful fish mother did not come to the bank.
Xing Xing knew the fish wouldn't come, but at the same time she wouldn't allow it to be true. All night long she had fought off the unspeakable idea. She would keep fighting.
She called out, "Beautiful fish, mother fish, come to me." She walked around the edge of the pool and called and called and called. She called till her throat was hoarse.
Then she got on her knees and searched. She checked every blade of grass, every stone. No blood. No telltale blood. Indeed, the stones were shiny clean, as though they'd been washed. Every trace washed away.
Xing Xing ran. Over dirt and grass and pebbles and sticks. She ran as fast as she could. When she couldn't run anymore, she threw herself to the ground in an alfalfa field and howled with grief.
The sun burned across the entire sky, and still Xing Xing lay prostrate in the field, as though lifeless. But by the time night came, her ears were doing strange things again. Not drumming anymore. Instead, a voice whispered unintelligible things, like an insistent mosquito, buzzing buzzing buzzing, louder and louder. She sat up and looked around and saw something shaggy leaping away in the distance. Could it be a man? He seemed familiar. Oh, very familiar. The buzzing had stopped.
Xing Xing stood up and brushed herself off. She wouldn't run away. Not yet, at least. She could never bear not knowing for sure.
She had run far; it took a long time to walk home. She woke a doe and two fawns with her steady, thumping feet. A huge spot-bellied eagle owl followed her half the way, and still she didn't stop and hide.
Even when she passed Father's grave, even knowing that she hadn't visited it that day to pay her respects to his spirit, she didn't stop. Father's spirit wouldn't want her to stop. She was almost sure the mysterious voice that whispered in her ear in the alfalfa field was that very spirit, urging her on.
The squeak of the cave door as she opened it woke Stepmother. "Is that you?" the woman called groggily.
Xing Xing went to the foot of Stepmother's bed. She didn't tremble or quake. She was as solid as the ground in the alfalfa field. "My dress was wet when I came back from the temple," she said.
Stepmother raised her head but kept the rest of herself as still as a log. "You must have splashed when you filled the pail."
"Not that dress. My old dress."
"Summer is hot and humid, especially in a cave. Mold grows. Dresses get damp."
"It was wet, not damp. Wet."
"All right," said Stepmother in exasperation. "It was wet. Go to sleep."
"Did you wear it when you went down to the pool?"
"Me wear your tattered dress? What nonsense is this?"
Xing Xing was unstoppable now. "Did you fool the fish into thinking you were me?"
"Hush, child. You'll wake Wei Ping. You'll wake your sister."
"What knife did you use? The cleaver?"
"Have you gone mad?"
"It must have been hard to kill such a large fish, to cut up all that flesh. And then the task of getting rid of it must have exhausted you. You had to carry it all the way to Master Tang's. The whole hillside ate that flesh. Can you hear their lips smacking? Can you hear them?"
Stepmother gasped and went silent. Her head dropped back onto the pillow.
Xing Xing walked to the side of the bed.
Stepmother's hand shot out and grabbed her wrist. "Don't ever say such wicked things in front of my daughter. Ever. Or you'll be sorry you were born."
Xing Xing wanted to shout the whole story. She wanted Wei Ping to wake up and hear it all and scream words of hate at her mother. She wanted Stepmother to lose the love of the person she cared about more than anything else. She wanted Stepmother to feel a loss like the one Xing Xing felt now.
But she wouldn't do that. Not for Stepmother's sake. For Wei Ping's sake.
Xing Xing sank to her knees. Then she curled up on the floor. Stepmother's grip on her wrist finally loosened, and Xing Xing hugged herself into the tightest ball she could make.
In her head she went over the exchange she and Stepmother had just had. She examined every word. There was no clear confession here.
What was the truth?
Stepmother was a smart woman, but Xing Xing would be relentless. If the worst had truly happened, Xing Xing would find the evidence.