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Dragons can shrink small as silkworms or grow large as the sky; their breath can become cooling waters or fiery licks of flame; their roar is louder than that of a big wind; and they can make themselves visible or invisible. But no woman, man, or child has ever seen a dragon grasp the moon pearl. Nevertheless, people hope to succeed where powerful dragons fail.
Look at Sun Duk. A district in the Pearl River Delta, it is laced with silver ribbons of water that rise and fall because of changing ocean tides. Jade-green rice paddies and shimmering fish ponds lie between windbreaks of bamboo, stands of fruit trees, fields with vegetables, mulberry shrubs, freshly ploughed furrows. Here and there, small hills rise. Some are rounded. Others slope steeply, with large outcroppings of rock. Most are wooded or terraced with plantings of tea. All are speckled with tombstones that look like fallen half-moons. Islands and small boats dot the rivers; and along the banks, rows of slate-gray houses with reddish tile roofs snake under weeping willows, banyans, and golden acacias like scaled dragons seeking shade.
In the east, the silver ribbons of water are finer because gentry built embankments across these rivers, then threw large stones and iron pieces into the water around the embankments to block the current so that silt gradually piled up, making new land for growing more mulberry. In the west, most of the rivers still flow freely, and there is less land, fewer fields of mulberry, fewer silkworms that can be raised. But make no mistake, the inhabitants of Twin Hills Village in the westpursue the moon pearl as fervently as those of Strongworm Village in the east.
Yun Yun's good friend, Lucky, had started passing her nights at one of the many girls' houses in Twin Hills. And, listening to Lucky's excited chatter about the games they played before going to sleep, Yun Yun was eager to join in the fun. But Yun Yun's father had taught her, "Overcrowding is not good for silkworms or people." He'd also shown her what happened to worms heaped in a space too small: the strong fed at the expense of the weak; then the strong and the weak became heated and perspired, fell sick, and often died. So Yun Yun was afraid. As she told her parents, "The girls' house that Lucky belongs to already has thirteen members. Yet it isn't any bigger than our house. There are just two sleeping rooms." She counted off the people in their family on her fingers: her father and mother and the new baby brother she was nursing; the two little brothers playing in the courtyard under their grandparents' watchful eyes; herself. "We're only eight. Maybe I should stay at home."
"You silly melon," her mother said over the baby's loud sucking. "Men don't go into girls' houses, so the members can set up beds everywhere—in the common room as well as the sleeping rooms."
Yun Yun's father set down the basket he was weaving, rested his hands lightly on her shoulders, ducked his head so they were eye-to-eye. "Don't worry. I'm sure there's plenty of space for you."
"Anyway, you're nine," her mother continued. "It's time you went to a girls' house."
Yun Yun's father squeezed her shoulders reassuringly. "Otherwise you might see or hear things you shouldn't."
Frowning, her mother plucked her father's sleeve, and he dropped his arms, fell silent.
Yun Yun leaned against her father. "What things?"
He raised his eyebrows, quizzing her mother.
"Things that are of no concern to girls," her mother answered firmly.
Once her mother's voice turned hard, she was like iron. Even Yun Yun's brothers couldn't move her. So Yun Yun ran next door to ask Lucky. Of course Lucky, although a year older, might not know either, but she had two easygoing sisters-in-law that they could consult if necessary.
Lucky cocked her head at the odorous honey bucket kept indoors for the family's convenience and to prevent theft. "You might see your father or grandfather taking a piss."
Yun Yun laughed. "I see my brothers piss all the time. I even have to help them!"
"Your brothers are babies. I'm talking about men. And not just about their pissing either." Lucky dropped her voice to a whisper. "Men take pleasure in their wives at night, and if you continue to sleep at home, you might see or hear your father or grandfather taking pleasure in your mother and grandmother."
"What do you mean?"
"You'll understand after you've had a few lessons from Old Granny. She comes five, six times a month to the girls' house to teach us."
Except for the three large four-poster beds crowded into the common room, the inside of the girls' house initially seemed the same to Yun Yun as any other house in Twin Hills Village. The slate-gray brick walls were unpainted, and at the far end of the common room, there was a small altar. Then Yun Yun realized there were no spirit tablets for dead ancestors on the altar, and the statue on it wasn't Gwan Gung, the red-faced God of War, but Gwoon Yum, the smiling Goddess of Mercy, seated on a pink lotus. Furthermore, when she and Lucky joined in a game of hide-and-seek, Yun Yun suddenly noticed there was no stone mortar embedded into the earth floor, no farm tools propped against the walls.
"Where can we hide?" she asked Lucky.
"Under the bed."
They'd not crawled in very far when someone called out, "Old Granny's here," setting off a chorus of greetings.
"Game's over," Lucky said, backing out.
Yun Yun, coughing from the dust their hands and knees were scuffing up, scurried after Lucky. Emerging, they hurriedly scrambled to their feet, brushed off their palms and pants, straightened their side-fastened tunics' wide sleeves and high collars, picked bits of dirt from each other's pigtails and bangs.
Across the room, the rest of the members—their pigtails, loose-fitting pants, and knee-length tunics similarly tidied —waited. The older girls were spread out on the two beds pushed against the wall, most of them sitting cross-legged on the straw bedmats, a few perched on the edge. The younger girls were settled on low stools in front of them. Dashing over, Yun Yun and Lucky dropped onto the last empty stools.
Old Granny, as befitted a respected elder, was in the seat of honor, a carved blackwood chair that faced everyone. And since Old Granny was a friendly neighbor Yun Yun had known all her life, she smiled up at the face ploughed with wrinkles, half-expecting the gnarled hands to reach out, as they usually did, with a gift of rock sugar or roasted peanuts. Instead, they gripped the arms of the chair, and beneath her black headband, Old Granny's shaggy eyebrows crossed in a frown so stern that Yun Yun, although seated beside Lucky, shrank within herself, bewildered and afraid.
Hawking loudly into the spittoon by her feet, Old Granny began, "No bride goes to her husband willingly. That is why she weeps and why she must be shut up in the attic for three days and nights before her wedding—to keep her from running away."
One by one she spelled out the losses that a bride suffered. "She has to leave her family, her friends, all those who cherish her, every familiar person and place and thing, to go and live among strangers."
At each new loss, Yun Yun shuddered. Her skin prickled as eerily as if she were listening to a ghost story, and she sought comfort in the statue of Gwoon Yum. But fragrant smoke from the incense and candles on the altar wreathed the Goddess so that she, too, seemed distant and strange, a ghost. Sucking in her breath, Yun Yun turned back to Old Granny.
"Do you understand?" Old Granny demanded, impaling Yun Yun, every one of the six younger girls, with a fierce stare. Even after Old Granny fixed her gaze on the eight older girls, Yun Yun felt its sting.
"A bride is like a dead person about to cross the Yellow River into Hell," Old Granny continued. "Her coffin is the sedan chair that carries her to her husband and her father-in-law, the King of Hell. If she couldn't unleash her feelings in weeping songs, how could she bear it?"
As if in answer, the older girls leaped to their feet. Beating their chests with their fists like mourners at a funeral, they cried:
My death maker,
I am dying."
Yun Yun swallowed hard. She had, of course, heard many a bride lament. Since they'd been in their houses or wedding sedans, however, Yun Yun had never seen their faces, never paid any mind to the words they chanted. Now, clutching Lucky's arm, she gaped at the singers, listened closely.
"My foot steps into the Yellow River,
My heart beats sore at each further step ..."
"Louder," Old Granny ordered. "Don't hold back."
Immediately the girls shrilled higher. They not only beat their chests but raked their fingers through their hair, pulling loose their tightly bound pigtails. Yun Yun, caught up in their terrible keening, felt her nose and throat close as if she were being sucked into the dreaded Yellow River. Desperately she gulped air. She reminded herself that Lucky had earned her nickname because she had fallen into the river that wound through Twin Hills Village but had been saved from drowning by her father. Still Yun Yun could not breathe.
Shutting out the girls by squeezing her eyes closed and clamping her hands over her ears, Yun Yun told herself that her father would also come to her rescue. But thinking of her father only made Yun Yun wish she were home with him, her mother and grandparents and little brothers, and she let loose a wail, a rush of tears.
Beside her, Lucky began to sob. Long before the song's end, all the girls were openly weeping.
|A Bird Snared in a Trap||27|
|Dreams of Happiness||38|
|Wily as a Fox||50|
|A Dead, Stinking Fate||61|
|A Matchmaker's Claims||75|
|A Red Affair||84|
|Insides Turned Upside Down||106|
|The Big Wind||126|
|The Best Thing||137|
|Vows of Spinsterhood||146|
|Gwoon Yum's Song||156|
|Only One Heaven||175|
|A Lick of Hope||183|
|Magpies Cry and Caw||239|
|Tongues as Swords||257|
|Tipping the Scales||269|
Posted January 26, 2002
I picked out this book as I thought my book club might enjoy it. I will be recommending enthusiastically for their list next year. I truly enjoyed the novel and in the process learned a lot about a what it was like to live in the mid-1800s in a region of rural China. There are quite a few issues presented while doing so in an easy to read story. I don't normally enjoy these types of books, and was really surprised at how much I enjoyed this book.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.