Read Crane Online

Authors: Jeff Stone

Tags: #General, #Speculative Fiction, #Action & Adventure, #Juvenile Fiction, #Animals

Crane (5 page)

BOOK: Crane
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Hok opened her eyes, then slammed them shut again. This couldn't be happening.

She took a deep breath and opened her eyes once more. Hok felt the remaining color drain from her pale face. She decided she must be dead. A ghost was standing over her in broad daylight.

“Xy you need vmxp?”

Hok blinked several times. The ghost was still there. It looked like it was waiting for her to say something. Was the ghost trying to communicate with her?

Hok stared at it. Alive, the ghost would have been a teenage boy. His face would have been pleasant
enough, but now it was creamy white and covered with red dots. Its eyes were as blue as deep river water, and its hair was the color of dirty straw.

The ghost looked frustrated. It mumbled again, this time very slowly.

“Do … you … need … help?”

Hok's eyes widened. This wasn't a ghost. It was a boy! A
guai lo.
A ghost man. A white person. The boy was speaking Mandarin, but with a very thick accent. Hok could barely understand him. She nodded.

“I am going to pick you up,” the boy said slowly. “Don't be afraid.”

Hok nodded again.

The boy lifted Hok off the muddy stream bank and crossed the bridge. Hok noticed that he was very strong. His broad shoulders stretched his gray peasant's robe to its limits. She glanced down and saw that her dress and much of her body were streaked with mud and soaking wet, but the boy didn't seem to mind.

The boy shifted Hok in his arms, cradling her, and her broken arm pressed against something rigid beneath his robe, across his chest. It felt like a metal pipe. She winced.

“Sorry,” the boy said, glancing at her arm. “Is it broken?”

“Yes,” Hok whispered in a weak voice.

“Don't worry,” the boy said. “I know someone who can fix you up. She's Chinese, but she won't treat you any differently. She understands people like you and
me because her husband is one of us … fair-skinned, I mean.”

Hok felt her heart begin to beat a little faster. She couldn't help but think about her father, even though she remembered almost nothing about him.

“My name is Charles,” the boy said. “I come from a faraway place called Holland. I usually live on a ship, but recently I've been spending time helping my captain's wife here on land. Have you ever seen the sea?”

Hok's head began to spin. “I … I …”

Charles frowned. “I'm sorry. I shouldn't ask you to talk right now.”

Hok nodded weakly.

“Try and rest,” Charles said. “I'll take care of you. I promise. Pale people like us need to stick together!” He smiled.

Hok smiled back and closed her eyes. Perhaps what Tsung had said about Dream Dust was true. She seemed to be able to see into this boy's heart, and she saw he spoke the truth. Exhausted and comfortable in Charles’ arms, Hok drifted off to sleep.

Images of a tall white man with a thick brown beard and green eyes filled Hok's head. It was her father. In her dream, he held one of her hands, and a tall, beautiful Chinese woman held the other. The woman had high cheekbones and tiny piercing eyes. Hok could never forget her mother's face. Hok looked up to ask her mother a question, but her dream was cut short by a high-pitched squeal and a young girl's demanding voice.

“What happened to
her?”

Hok opened her eyes and found she was on a narrow trail, still in Charles’ arms. She was also nose to nose with a fair-skinned little girl who spoke perfect Mandarin. The girl's eyes were Chinese, but her hair was long and brown.

“She looks like a drowned rat,” the little girl said to Charles. “And what happened to her hair? Does she
want
to look like a boy?”

“She does not look like a boy,” Charles replied.

The little girl scoffed. “Yes, she does, especially with those bruises. Where did you find her?”

“There is a bridge up the trail,” Charles said. “She was lying next to it.”

“You're not thinking of having her stay with us, are you?” the girl asked. “Mother is going to be sooooo angry with you.”

Charles laughed. “She's not my mother.”

The little girl stamped her foot. “You are going to be in so much trouble. We can't afford another mouth to feed.”

“We can't afford another mouth to feed,”
Charles mocked. “What kind of six-year-old says things like that?”

“A smart one,” the little girl said. “And one that's very mature for her age.” She stuck out her tongue and ran up the trail, around a bend.

Charles chuckled and looked at Hok. “That's GongJee, which means
Princess
in Cantonese. It's not her real name, but that's what she demands everyone call her. She can be a pest sometimes, but you'll get
used to her. She's very smart. She can speak Mandarin and Cantonese, and she even learned Dutch from listening to me talk with her father.”

Hok felt a chill trickle down her spine. The word
Dutch
sounded familiar.

“Look,” Charles said, pointing down the trail.

GongJee appeared around the bend, walking next to a tall Chinese woman who was pulling a small cart. The woman wore a snow-white turban on her head, pulled low across her brow so that it obscured her features. To Hok, it made no difference. She would never forget those high cheekbones and tiny piercing eyes.

Hok watched in disbelief as her mother, Bing, let go of the cart and began to jog up the trail with long, graceful strides. GongJee tried to keep pace at Bing's side, a confused look on her face. “MaMa, what's wrong?”

Charles glanced up. “Bing? Is everything okay?”

Hok's mother glided to a stop in front of Charles. “Nothing is wrong,” she whispered. “Everything is better now. Absolutely everything.” She gently swept Hok out of Charles’ arms, into her own.

Hok locked eyes with Bing, and suddenly felt three years old again. They held each other's gaze, and nine years passed in a single heartbeat.

“What's going on!” GongJee demanded.

Charles glanced at Bing's face, and then at Hok's. A huge smile spread across his lips. “GongJee,” he said, “you know how your mother sometimes gets sad when she thinks about your ‘secret’ big sister? Well, I don't think she's going to be sad anymore.”

T
he next several weeks were a whirlwind for Hok. She spent nearly every waking moment with Bing, and felt more like she was getting reacquainted with an old friend than reuniting with a parent. Bing didn't talk much, but Hok felt a level of comfort around her that she'd never experienced with anyone else. That made her feel good. Emotionally at least.

Physically things were different. Everything was taking longer to heal than Hok would have liked. Her facial bruising was still quite evident, and it took a long time for the effects of the Dream Dust to wear off. She experienced a couple of difficult nights where she lay trembling and sweating uncontrollably. At least that was now behind her.

Hok kept her broken right arm wrapped tight against her body in a silk sling that matched the white silk robe and turban Bing had given her. Her arm remained swollen for days on end, but it eventually shrank back to its normal size after regular treatments with liniments she created using herbs like willow and feverfew. Bing had these items and more in various-sized jars in the cart they traveled with. As Hok was beginning to remember, her mother was an accomplished healer, too.

Little by little, Hok began to use her injured arm again, keeping it in the sling when she wasn't carefully rehabilitating it. She found the best exercise for it was practicing her basic crane-style kung fu. Using her arms to mimic wings provided an excellent range of movements for reconditioning her elbow. She only practiced under the cover of darkness, though, so as to not draw attention to herself or the others as they traveled along the trail. As Hok had come to learn, they were a secretive bunch.

Getting specific information out of her mother was sometimes difficult, and Hok often had to ask the same question several times before getting an answer. They stayed at inns along the trail and all four of them usually shared a single room, so most of Hok's information came late at night, after Charles and GongJee had gone to sleep.

Hok had learned that her mother was still on the run after all these years. Her father was, too. Hok wasn't sure where her father was right now, but
wherever it was, it was less dangerous than the region they were currently in. Charles was her father's cabin boy and her father had asked him to spend this summer with Bing and GongJee because of the trouble brewing in this region. Bing was going to get involved firsthand, and Charles was there to help.

Hok had also discovered that the four of them were currently headed to the region's capital city of Kaifeng to attend the annual Dragon Boat Festival. During the festival, Bing was supposed to meet with some of her “contacts.” Hok wasn't exactly sure what that meant, but it sounded potentially dangerous. Her mother had said that she was somewhat concerned about GongJee being with them, but she also said that she had no choice. Apparently, Bing had tried to have other people care for GongJee much like Grandmaster had taken Hok under his wing, but GongJee had always run away. If Bing ever had to do something alone for several days at a time, Charles was the only one who was able to keep GongJee from running off. Though Charles and GongJee argued often, Hok could tell that they actually enjoyed each other's company.

One night, Charles and GongJee had an entire argument in Dutch, and Hok was surprised that she understood some of the words. The word that stood out most was
Henrik,
which Hok remembered was her father's name. After Charles and GongJee had drifted off to sleep that night, Hok was eager to ask her mother questions about her father. However, Bing wasn't interested in talking. She said that she had
planned something for them the following morning, and a good night's rest would be a more logical thing to do than sit up talking late into the night.

Hok gave up and went to bed.

The next morning, Hok woke to an empty room. It seemed Bing really did have something planned. Hok dressed quickly, tied a white turban over her brown spiky hair, and stepped outside. She found her mother, Charles, and GongJee unloading the small cart.

“What are you doing?” Hok asked.

Charles grinned. “Bing decided she wants to practice today. You're in for a real treat!”

“Practice?” Hok asked.

Bing nodded. “Yes. You are going to practice, too. Is your arm still sore?”

Hok felt her right arm through the sling. “Yes.”

“How are your legs?” Bing asked.

“Fine,” Hok replied. “Why?”

“Did Grandmaster ever teach you how to foot-juggle?” Bing asked.

“Yes,” Hok said. “It was part of my balance training. What is going on?”

“Let's see how well you've learned,” Bing said. “Lie down on your back.”

“What?” Hok said. “Here? Now?”

Bing nodded.

GongJee giggled, and Bing looked at the little girl. “Go inside and see if the innkeeper will let you borrow a stool.”

GongJee clapped her hands excitedly and ran inside.

Hok had no idea what was going on. She stared at Bing.

Bing stared back, unblinking. “Well?” Bing said. “Are you going to lie down or not?”

Hok looked at Charles, and Charles nodded back approvingly. Hok adjusted her turban and lay down on her back at the edge of the dirt trail.

GongJee came running out of the inn with a wooden stool in her arms and handed it to Bing. The three-legged stool was about knee-height, and Hok expected Bing to set it down and stand on it in order to reach something inside the cart. Instead, Bing hurled the stool at Hok.

Hok instinctively raised her legs and caught the stool with the soles of her feet. Bing had thrown it seat-first, providing Hok with a wide, flat platform. Hok bent her legs to absorb the impact, and she rotated her hips up and pressed her legs skyward, sending the chair spinning into the air.

From that point forward, everything was second nature to Hok. She had nearly forgotten about stool juggling. It was something she'd first learned when she was GongJee's age. More recently, she'd juggled much heavier items like blocks of stone to increase her leg strength as well as to improve her balance.

“Hey, you're good!” Charles said as Hok spun the stool end over end with her feet.

“Grandmaster taught you well,” Bing said. “Can you juggle any other common objects?”

“Yes,” Hok said. “Besides stone weights, I've
practiced with balls, small tables, chairs, paper umbrellas—”

“Paper umbrellas!” GongJee said. “Those are difficult!”

Charles laughed. “Yeah, GongJee always breaks them. She's not the most delicate person, if you haven't noticed.”

“Hmpf!” GongJee said. “I'd like to see you do better.”

“Me?” Charles said. “Foot juggling is for girls. Watch this!”

Hok stopped spinning the stool and caught it with her free hand. She sat up and watched Charles bend over into a perfect handstand. He started walking around on his hands, never faltering. “Let's see you do this, GongJee!” Charles said.

GongJee pouted.

Hok looked at GongJee, then glanced at her arm in the sling. “Hey, GongJee. Once my arm heals, I can teach you how to do that. It's not as difficult as it looks.” She winked, and GongJee smiled back.

BOOK: Crane
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