The Hidden Blade
July 18, 2014
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The twelfth year of the reign of Tong Zhi Emperor (1873)
The foreign devil stared at Ying-ying.
He was the size of her thumb, yet she had trouble holding his insolent gaze. She looked away from his eyes. In the fading photograph, his strangely tight-fitting garments were the brown of eggs cooked in soy sauce; his white skin the color of weathered bamboo. His nose protruded proudly, like the prow of a foreign-devil warship. Thin, colorless lips twisted into a half-sneer.
His hair was a darkish shade, cut short, parted on the side, and combed slick. He had neither beard nor mustache, but the same hair that grew on his head extended down the sides of his face almost right to the corners of his lips, like a forest throwing out two spurs of itself down the slope of a mountain.
He did not stand straight, but rather leaned to one side, his left foot propped on a stool, one black shoe gleaming. To the other side of the stool, a woman sat with her profile to Ying-ying, head bent, a large book open on her lap. She wore a ridiculous contraption: her sleeves the size of rice sacks, her skirts a tent large enough to sleep two.
What stupid, impractical things the foreign devil women wore.
Ying-ying’s breath caught in her throat. She leaned in closer. She had been distracted by the clothes, but the woman was no foreign devil.
It was Mother.
In her shock Ying-ying almost didn’t hear the footsteps coming into the courtyard. She tossed the photograph into its redwood box and shoved the box under Mother’s fox fur-lined winter cape.
Dropping the lid of the great trunk, she dashed out to the study and climbed onto her chair just as Mother’s maid came through the doors of the front room. The rooms were stretched against the wall of the courtyard like cubes of lamb on a shish kebob, in one straight row.
Ying-ying grabbed the writing brush she had left resting on the ink stone and pretended to smooth out excess drops of ink against the rim of the little depression that held the ink.
“Bai Gu-niang studying so hard?” The maid, Little Plum, teased her gently as she went past. Bai was Ying-ying’s family name, gu-niang the respectful address for a young lady. “Little girls as pretty as you don’t need to know the classics.”
“Has Boss Wu left already?” The silk merchant had arrived only half an incense stick ago.
“They are still drinking tea, he hasn’t even had his apprentice bring in the wares yet. Fu-ren has sent me to fetch her new fan. She wants to see if Boss Wu has something that will go with it.” The servants referred to Mother as fu-ren, her ladyship. Little Plum paused as she located the desired fan. “But she did say to tell you she will expect at least five sheets done when she returns.”
Ying-ying moaned. “My wrist will hurt all night.”
“Amah will give you some herbal compress.” Little Plum laughed as she sauntered out.
Ying-ying was back in the bedroom in a second, digging through the trunk again.
Nosing through Mother’s rooms had become a clandestine hobby of late. It had started when she had been tasked to find a supply of paper, for Mother’s ink paintings. In the study cabinet where she found the paper, she also found a collection of curious ink stones, some big as a plate, others small enough to fit into her palm. Her delight in the ink stones led her to discover troves of vermilion-stained seals, packets of incense from Ceylon, and a dozen tiny spoons used for ladling water onto the ink stone to facilitate the grinding of the ink stick.
It had been most natural, after she had exhausted the study, to move on to Mother’s inner rooms. There she peeked at Mother’s jewels of jade and pearls and sniffed her tiny pots of rouge and powder.
But she had never unearthed anything like the contents of the redwood box.
There were other items inside: an oval ivory bauble that did not seem to go readily on the coiffure, a flexible jewel-encrusted band of gold, a small booklet that had been cut and sewn by hand, with each page devoted to two strange symbols, sometimes identical, sometimes not.
It was the photograph, however, that drew her, like a toddler to the deep well.
Mother was concubine to a very important Manchu. Everyone addressed him simply as Da-ren—great personage. He was a prince, an uncle to the current Emperor, but he was not Ying-ying’s father.
Who her father was she did not know, and did not ask. Harsh rebukes, received during the earliest years of her childhood, barely remembered but deeply ingrained, forbore her from ever raising that unwelcome question.
Yet she had always pondered, in times when she had nothing else to distract her.
And now here was this man, by whose side Mother sat, all trussed up in a foreign devil costume, as meek as an oft-fed rabbit.
But he was a foreign devil. A foreign devil! She shuddered. Greedy, blood-thirsty creatures they were, coming from their savage lands with their blazing cannons and their ill manners. She had even heard whispered that they ate babies.
No, whoever this man was, he was no more blood relation to her than Da-ren.
However, as she raised her head, she saw her own eyes reflected in a small standing mirror on mother’s vanity table. They were not black, or even brown. Rather, they were a deep, opaque grey-blue, the color of a desolate sky about to unleash a great storm.
She gasped. There was another face in the mirror.
“Put everything back,” remonstrated her Amah.
How did Amah come right up to her without her detecting anything? A curtain of ceramic beads hung in the doorway. The beads clinked—mineral raindrops—whenever anyone passed though. And Ying-ying had keen ears, rabbit ears. She could hear a door open and close three courtyards away.
“I was just looking for a handkerchief,” she lied as she buried the redwood box in the depth of the trunk.
She was pulled up by the shoulder. Amah pointed to her chest. “What’s that?”
It was her handkerchief, snugly tucked at the closure of her blouse, one corner artfully peeking out.
“Don’t go poking where you have no business,” Amah warned. “Now go practice your calligraphy.”
Mother was not entirely pleased with Ying-ying’s output. She frowned as she examined Ying-ying’s copy of a great, ancient calligrapher’s work. Ying-ying resigned herself to the criticism to come. Her characters always looked somewhat undernourished.
Mother, on the other hand, could do marvelous things with a brush. The couplet on either side of the study doorway she had written herself: The lamp shines gently in the quiet mountain room; Steady rain falls upon the cold chrysanthemum bloom. Each character on the gold-speckled rose paper was manifest elegance, the strokes measured and meticulous, the balance immaculate—flawlessly, decorously beautiful, just like Mother.
In fact, the entirety of her suite was a reflection of her. In paintings, a beautiful woman was never surrounded by too many things, a few choice blossoms and a dancing willow branch set her off perfectly. And so it was with Mother. Her objets, though lovely, were diminutive and few in number. The furnishings, graceful and well-made, were only the most necessary pieces. They formed a comely, but muted backdrop for Mother, whose exquisiteness reigned unrivaled.
To Ying-ying’s surprise, Mother didn’t say anything as she handed the calligraphy sheets back. Only then did Ying-ying notice that she looked wan despite the rouge on her cheeks.
“Little Plum,” Mother called, “help me to bed.”
“Tell your Amah to make some more of that cough potion for me,” she ordered Ying-ying as Little Plum arrived from the front room to help her up.
Mother’s tiny feet made it difficult for her to walk, but she managed to turn her wobbly progress into something almost like a dance, a sprig of peach blossom swaying in the wind. Ying-ying always liked to watch her walk away.
But as soon Little Plum reached her chair, Mother began coughing. She twisted her torso to one side, dropped her head delicately, unfurled her handkerchief as if it were a flower bud come to bloom, and made almost no noise at all. Her handkerchiefs were once pink or yellow, but since the coughing started, she only carried those of deep red, so the droplets of blood wouldn’t show.
One of Little Plum’s cousins had died the year before. First he coughed, then he coughed up bits of blood and mucus, then he coughed up rivers of blood, soon there was nothing any doctor could do for him. Ying-ying had heard it all in the kitchen, between visits of Little Plum’s relatives.
She hurried out to find Amah.
In the next courtyard, along the north-facing side, Amah had taken a small room expressly for the purpose of brewing medicinal potions. The far end of the room was taken up by a kang, a raised brick platform so arranged with flues that a small brazier placed inside could warm the whole of it. There were kangs in a great many rooms of the dwelling. Ying-ying slept on one. Mother thought them ugly and had those in her rooms dismantled. But Mother was a southerner. According to Cook, southerners valued appearance above comfort, even health.
The rest of the room was arranged almost like an apothecary’s. Ceramic jars of dried herbs and flowers crowded the shelves that lined the walls. A bench next to the kang held clay pots and lidded bowls. Amah sat in the center of the room, before a tiny, potbellied stove, already making the requested potion, by the bitter aroma of it.
“How do you know she needs it?” Ying-ying took a stool and sat down next to her.
Amah gave Ying-ying a woven straw fan so she could make herself useful. As Ying-ying fanned the flames, Amah stirred the bubbling brown stew of licorice and ginger. “It’s the fourteenth. Da-ren comes in two days. She always wants to dampen that cough before he comes.”
They settled into a busy silence as Ying-ying found a suitable rhythm to her fanning. Like Mother, Amah was from the South. But unlike Mother, who quite intimidated Ying-ying with her great beauty and great talents, Amah posed no discomfort. She was as plain as a common moth, though she kept herself trim and neat. And her talents Ying-ying simply adored.
Amah could capture any insect. In spring she gathered butterflies. In summer she caught fireflies and crickets, and made sure Ying-ying’s room was free of mosquitoes. Her hands, rough and round-fingered, were nevertheless extraordinarily skilled. She wove animal figures out of reed, sculpted human figures with tiny eyes and lips from bits of colored dough, and from old sticks of candle she carved mock seals for Ying-ying, with titles such as Princess of the Fragrant Garden, or Muse by the Pomegranate Blossom.
But what the grownups most appreciated was her knowledge of medicinal herbs. She knew a remedy for every common ailment: tree peony for Cook’s female problems, fenugreek for Little Plum’s stomach pains, cloves and camphor for Mother’s backaches. When Cook’s water-carrier brothers visited in the kitchen she’d give them a formula of angelica and ephedrine for their joints. Should Little Plum’s aunt drop by, she had just the thing—red peony—for her patchy skin.
In addition, she maintained a greenhouse of sorts, a crude contrivance half dug into the ground, with a low mud wall, and slanting frames covered with Korean paper. In the dead winter months, with the addition of a tiny smudge stove, she was able to produce fresh flowers for Mother’s coiffure and green herbs for Cook.
“It’s almost done,” Amah said, giving the brew one last stir.
Ying-ying fetched a bowl. Amah poured nearly to the rim and covered the bowl tightly.
Ying-ying ventured to speak something of what had transpired earlier in the afternoon. “You won’t tell Mother, right?”
“No,” Amah answered without looking at her. “But what you did was still stupid.”
Ying-ying blushed. “I wasn’t stealing anything. I just wanted to see what interesting things she had.”
“Don’t go around digging in other people’s things,” Amah said darkly. “Dig long enough and you’ll always find things you wish you hadn’t.”
On her way to Mother’s rooms with the potion, Ying-ying chewed over Amah’s words. Amah had seen the photograph—how could she not, materializing directly behind Ying-ying? If so, did what she said just now confirm the worst of Ying-ying’s suspicions?
Was the foreign devil her father?
Copyright © 2014 by Sherry Thomas. All rights reserved.