The Joy Luck Club (10 page)

BOOK: The Joy Luck Club
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Standing perfectly still like that, I discovered my shadow. At first it was just a dark spot on the bamboo mats that covered the courtyard bricks. It had short legs and long arms, a dark coiled braid just like mine. When I shook my head, it shook its head. We flapped our arms. We raised one leg. I turned to walk away and it followed me. I turned back around quickly and it faced me. I lifted the bamboo mat to see if I could peel off my shadow, but it was under the mat, on the brick. I shrieked with delight at my shadow's own cleverness. I ran to the shade under the tree, watching my shadow chase me. It disappeared. I loved my shadow, this dark side of me that had my same restless nature.
And then I heard Amah calling me again. "Ying-ying! It is time. Are you ready to go to the lake?" I nodded my head and began to run toward her, my self running ahead. "Slowly, go slowly," admonished Amah.
Our entire family was already standing outside, chatting excitedly. Everybody was dressed in important-looking clothes. Baba was in a new brown-colored gown, which while plain was of an obviously fine-quality silk weave and workmanship. Mama had on a jacket and skirt with colors that were the reverse of mine: black silk with yellow bands. My half-sisters wore rose-colored tunics and so did their mothers, my father's concubines. My older brother had on a blue jacket embroidered with shapes resembling Buddha scepters for long life. Even the old ladies had put on their best clothes to celebrate: Mama's aunt, Baba's mother and her cousin, and Great-uncle's fat wife, who still plucked her forehead bald and always walked as if she were crossing a slippery stream, two tiny steps and then a scared look.
The servants had already packed and loaded a rickshaw with the day's basic provisions: a woven hamper filled with
zong zi
—the sticky rice wrapped in lotus leaves, some filled with roasted ham, some with sweet lotus seeds; a small stove for boiling water for hot tea; another hamper containing cups and bowls and chopsticks; a cotton sack of apples, pomegranates, and pears; sweaty earthen jars of preserved meats and vegetables; stacks of red boxes lined with four mooncakes each; and of course, sleeping mats for our afternoon nap.
Then everybody climbed into rickshaws, the younger children sitting next to their amahs. At the last moment, before we all set off, I wriggled out of Amah's grasp and jumped out of the rickshaw. I climbed into the rickshaw with my mother in it, which displeased Amah, because this was presumptuous behavior on my part and also because Amah loved me better than her own. She had given up her own child, a baby son, when her husband had died and she had come to our house to be my nursemaid. But I was very spoiled because of her; she had never taught me to think about her feelings. So I thought of Amah only as someone for my comfort, the way you might think of a fan in the summer or a heater in the winter, a blessing you appreciate and love only when it is no longer there.
When we arrived at the lake, I was disappointed to feel no cooling breezes. Our rickshaw pullers were soaked with sweat and their mouths were open and panting like horses. At the dock, I watched as the old ladies and men started climbing aboard a large boat our family had rented. The boat looked like a floating teahouse, with an open-air pavilion larger than the one in our courtyard. It had many red columns and a peaked tile roof, and behind that what looked like a garden house with round windows.
When it was our turn, Amah grasped my hand tightly and we bounced across the plank. But as soon as my feet touched the deck, I sprang free and, together with Number Two and Number Three, I pushed my way past people's legs enclosed in billows of dark and bright silk clothes—trying to see who would be the first to run the length of the boat.
I loved the unsteady feeling of almost falling one way then another. Red lanterns hanging from the roof and railings swayed, as if pushed by a breeze. My half-sisters and I ran our fingers over benches and small tables in the pavilion. We traced our fingers over the patterns of the ornamental wood railings and poked our faces through openings to see the water below. And then there were more things to find!
I opened a heavy door leading into the garden house and ran past a room that looked like a large sitting area. My sisters followed behind laughing. Through another door, I saw people in a kitchen. A man holding a big cleaver turned and saw us, then called to us, as we shyly smiled and backed away.
At the rear of the boat we saw poor-looking people: a man feeding sticks into a tall chimney stove, a woman chopping vegetables, and two rough-looking boys squatting close to the edge of the boat, holding what looked to be a piece of string attached to a wire-mesh cage lying just below the surface of the water. They gave us not even a glance.
We returned to the front of the boat, just in time to see the dock moving away from us. Mama and the other ladies were already seated on benches around the pavilion, fanning themselves furiously and slapping the sides of each other's heads when mosquitoes lighted. Baba and Uncle were leaning over a rail, talking in deep, serious voices. My brother and some of his boy cousins had found a long bamboo stick and were poking the water as if they could make the boat go faster. The servants were seated in a cluster at the front, heating water for tea, shelling roasted gingko nuts, and emptying out hampers of food for a noonday meal of cold dishes.
Even though Tai Lake is one of the largest in all of China, that day it seemed crowded with boats: rowboats, pedal boats, sailboats, fishing boats, and floating pavilions like ours. So we often passed other people leaning out to trail their hands in the cool water, some drifting by asleep beneath a cloth canopy or oil-coated umbrella.
Suddenly I heard people crying, "Ahh! Ahh! Ahh!" and I thought, At last, the day has begun! I raced to the pavilion and found aunts and uncles laughing as they used chopsticks to pick up dancing shrimp, still squirming in their shells, their tiny legs bristling. So this was what the mesh cage beneath the water had contained, freshwater shrimp, which my father was now dipping into a spicy bean-curd sauce and popping into his mouth with two bites and a swallow.
But the excitement soon waned, and the afternoon seemed to pass like any other at home. The same listlessness after the meal. A little drowsy gossip with hot tea. Amah telling me to lie down on my mat. The quiet as everyone slept through the hottest part of the day.
I sat up and saw Amah was still asleep, lying askew on her sleeping mat. I wandered to the back of the boat. The rough-looking boys were removing a large, squawking long-necked bird from a bamboo cage. The bird had a metal ring around its neck. One boy held onto the bird, wrapping his arms around the bird's wings. The other tied a thick rope to a loop on the metal neck ring. Then they released the bird and it swooped with a flurry of white wings, hovered over the edge of the boat, then sat on top of the shiny water. I walked over to the edge and looked at the bird. He looked back at me warily with one eye. Then the bird dove under the water and disappeared.
One of the boys threw a raft made of hollow reed flutes into the water and then dove in and emerged on top of the raft. In a few seconds, the bird also emerged, its head struggling to hold onto a large fish. The bird jumped onto the raft and then tried to swallow the fish, but of course, with the ring around its neck, it could not. In one motion, the boy on the raft snatched the fish from the bird's mouth and threw it to the other boy on the boat. I clapped my hands and the bird dove under water again.
For the next hour, while Amah and everybody else slept, I watched like a hungry cat waiting its turn, as fish after fish appeared in the bird's beak only to land in a wooden pail on the boat. Then the boy in the water cried to the other, "Enough!" and the boy on the boat shouted to someone high atop the part of the boat I could not see. And loud clanks and hissing sounds erupted as once again the boat began to move. Then the boy next to me dove into the water. Both boys got on the raft and crouched in the middle like two birds perched on a branch. I waved to them, envying their carefree ways, and soon they were far away, a little yellow spot bobbing on the water.
It would have been enough to see this one adventure. But I stayed, as if caught in a good dream. And sure enough, I turned around and a sullen woman was now squatting in front of the bucket of fish. I watched as she took out a sharp, thin knife and began to slice open the fish bellies, pulling out the red slippery insides and throwing them over her shoulder into the lake. I saw her scrape off the fish scales, which flew in the air like shards of glass. And then there were two chickens that no longer gurgled after their heads were chopped off. And a big snapping turtle that stretched out its neck to bite a stick, and—whuck!—off fell its head. And dark masses of thin freshwater eels, swimming furiously in a pot. Then the woman carried everything, without a word, into the kitchen. And there was nothing else to see.
It was not until then, too late, that I saw my new clothes—and the spots of bloods, flecks of fish scales, bits of feather and mud. What a strange mind I had! In my panic, in hearing waking voices toward the front of the boat, I quickly dipped my hands in the bowl of turtle's blood and smeared this on my sleeves, and on the front of my pants and jacket. And this is what I truly thought: that I could cover these spots by painting all my clothes crimson red, and that if I stood perfectly still no one would notice this change.
That is how Amah found me: an apparition covered with blood. I can still hear her voice, screaming in terror, running over to see what pieces of my body were missing, what leaky holes had appeared. And when she found nothing, after inspecting my ears and my nose and counting my fingers, she called me names, using words I had never heard before. But they sounded evil, the way she hurled and spat the words out. She yanked off my jacket, pulled off my pants. She said I smelled like "something evil this" and I looked like "something evil that." Her voice was trembling not so much with anger as with fear. "Your mother, now she will be glad to wash her hands of you," Amah said with great remorse. "She will banish us both to Kunming." And then I was truly frightened, because I had heard that Kunming was so far away nobody ever came to visit, and that it was a wild place surrounded by a stone forest ruled by monkeys. Amah left me crying on the back of the boat, standing in my white cotton undergarments and tiger slippers.
I had truly expected my mother to come soon. I imagined her seeing my soiled clothes, the little flowers she had worked so hard to make. I thought she would come to the back of the boat and scold me in her gentle way. But she did not come. Oh, once I heard some footsteps, but I saw only the faces of my half-sisters pressed to the door window. They looked at me wide-eyed, pointed to me, and then laughed and scampered off.
The water had turned a deep golden color, and then red, purple, and finally black. The sky had darkened and red lantern lights started to glow all over the lake. I could hear people talking and laughing, some voices from the front of our boat, some from other boats next to us. And then I heard the wooden kitchen door banging open and shut and the air filled with good rich smells. The voices from the pavilion cried in happy disbelief, "Ai! Look at this! And this!" I was hungry to be there.
I listened to their banquet while dangling my legs over the back. And although it was night, it was bright outside. I could see my reflection, my legs, my hands leaning on the edge, and my face. And above my head, I saw why it was so bright. In the dark water, I could see the full moon, a moon so warm and big it looked like the sun. And I turned around so I could find the Moon Lady and tell her my secret wish. But right at that moment, everybody else must have seen her too. Because firecrackers exploded, and I fell into the water not even hearing my own splash.
I was surprised by the cool comfort of the water, so that at first I was not frightened. It was like weightless sleep. And I expected Amah to come immediately and pick me up. But in the instant that I began to choke, I knew she would not come. I thrashed my arms and legs under the water. The sharp water had swum up my nose, into my throat and eyes, and this made me thrash even harder. "Amah!" I tried to cry and I was so angry at her for abandoning me, for making me wait and suffer unnecessarily. And then a dark shape brushed by me and I knew it was one of the Five Evils, a swimming snake.
It wrapped around me and squeezed my body like a sponge, then tossed me into the choking air—and I fell headlong into a rope net filled with writhing fish. Water gushed out of my throat, so that now I was choking and wailing.
When I turned my head, I saw four shadows, with the moon in back of them. A dripping figure was climbing into the boat. "Is it too small? Should we throw it back? Or is it worth some money?" said the dripping man, panting. And the others laughed. I became quiet. I knew who these people were. When Amah and I passed people like these in the streets, she would put her hands over my eyes and ears.
"Stop now," scolded the woman in the boat, "you've frightened her. She thinks we're brigands who are going to sell her for a slave." And then she said in a gentle voice, "Where are you from, little sister?"
The dripping man bent down and looked at me. "Oh, a little girl. Not a fish!"
BOOK: The Joy Luck Club
6.58Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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