Chapter 4

Image by mattia barbotti
      Jiang Hong stared out the window throughout the journey in a rickety old car, and Leng Xiang hardly spoke on the ride. Madam Bai focused on driving, humming a soft melody to herself that sounded quite exotic to Jiang Hong. After a while, the young girl fell asleep, and woke up only as they turned from the main trunk road into a bumpy side road.

      The full name of the valley, carved into a boulder at the entrance, was Celestial Valley of Ten Thousand Butterflies, but Madam Bai laughed when Jiang Hong pointed it out.

      “There are no deities here,” she said, “and the number of butterflies has been greatly reduced since my spouse passed away.”

      They drove up a slope, passing through a dusty little village with about five or six grass-thatched houses and into a narrow path walled in on either side by a thick bamboo forest. After another hour or so, Madam Bai stopped the car in front of an elegant house constructed from stone and brick, a bubbling brook running nearby leading away from the house. Around the building were many flowering shrubs that Jiang Hong did not recognize, and dozens of butterflies were fluttering among the colorful blooms. In the late afternoon sun, it was a warm and welcoming sight.

      A young man with a white bandage over his eyes was waiting at the door. He was tall, in his mid-twenties, clad in a pale linen robe thrown over dark trousers, and quite thin, with a bamboo stick in his left hand. From what Jiang Hong could see, he looked quite handsome, like some of the more popular performers of the opera troupe back in town.

      “Since it’s late,” said Madam Bai to Jiang Hong as she parked the car, “I’ll show you around tomorrow.”

      The young man turned and smiled in their direction when Jiang Hong got out and shut the door of the vehicle. “Master Bai. We have another newcomer?”

      While his tone was friendly and his demeanor relaxed, for some reason Jiang Hong felt the hairs on the back of her neck rise and her throat closing with panic. She backed away, colliding with Madam Bai, who put a hand on her right shoulder gently. A rush of warmth spread through Jiang Hong and out of her, like she was radiating heat, and to her surprise she could breathe more easily.

      “Kuang, restrain your killing qi,” said Madam Bai. “She’s not a pugilist.”

      “Oh, sorry. I wasn’t aware…”

      A slight frown creased the young man’s brow, but he took a deep breath and exhaled. When Madam Bai removed her hand, the suffocating fear Jiang Hong had felt moments ago was gone.

      Du Kuang waited until everyone had stepped into the house before he shut the door. “I was wondering when you’d return.”

      “Now is your turn to work,” said Leng Xiang, and hooked the bag of groceries over his right forearm. “Help me put the groceries away.”

      He reached in and picked out a persimmon. “You’re so bossy, Xiang. Your future husband won't appreciate that.”

      The older girl swatted him until Du Kuang laughed and headed to the back of the house.

      Jiang Hong pretended to be disinterested, but the young man fascinated and scared her. She had heard of ‘killing qi’ before, of course; the storytellers liked to dramatize encounters between master pugilists who battled not with fist or sword, but with their killing qi. It had sounded ludicrous, but now she was not sure if there had been that much exaggeration.

      “This is the main hall,” said Madam Bai, “and my study and bedroom are down this hallway. Xiang-er has her bedroom down that way, the first door to your left, and you can pick the one opposite hers or the one further inside.” She removed her gloves and literally lit up the room as she breathed in, the soft moon-white glowing lines in her skin dimming only as she exhaled. Then she turned and smiled at Jiang Hong. "I'm going to make dinner. While Xiang-er doesn't take meat or fish, I do occasionally cook chicken or duck. Is there anything you don't eat?"

      Though she probably had seventy million questions vying to be asked, Jiang Hong kept quiet and shook her head. Wu Liuqi had passed her his little pouch of all the money he had begged and stolen that day, which she kept tucked against the bare skin at her waist. She would never spend the money unless she was running away, so she would have to find a place to stow it.

      Sensing that the girl was feeling out of her depth, Madam Bai nodded to Leng Xiang. The older girl nodded to Jiang Hong. “Come on. You need to choose a room, and then I’ll show you where the bathroom and toilet are.”

      “I don’t have…” It was embarrassing to admit aloud, particularly with the blind Du Kuang present, but Jiang Hong cleared her throat and continued, “I don’t have any clean clothes.”

      “I do,” said Leng Xiang. “You can have my old clothes for now, if you don’t mind.”

      As Jiang Hong stammered her thanks, Leng Xiang led her down the hallway and had her choose a room. Jiang Hong chose the one opposite the older girl's. The furnishings were simple and sturdy, mostly made from bamboo, nothing like the ornately carved rosewood furniture that Jiang Hong grew up with. After that, Leng Xiang pointed out the facilities, noting that the hot spring pool for soaking was meant for everyone and to keep it clean. Then, after Jiang Hong went to relieve herself, she led the younger girl to her room to pick out five sets of clothes, from underthings to a thick coat, from a chest smelling of cedar. Most of the tunics and belts were various shades of blue and pink. Jiang Hong preferred brighter and more intense hues of yellows and reds, but as Wu Liuqi always said, beggars couldn't be choosers.

      It was only when Leng Xiang shrugged off her cloak and hung it up that Jiang Hong noticed something about the older girl’s back.

      “You’ve got wings!” she exclaimed.

      Leng Xiang peered over her left shoulder, as if she had forgotten their existence. “Oh, yes. I was born with them.” Here in her room, Leng Xiang seemed less aloof; there was even a hint of a smile around her faceted eyes.

      “You mean, your parents also have them?” Jiang Hong wanted to touch them, but they appeared very fragile.

When the older girl extended her wings fully, Jiang Hong could not suppress her awe and delight. Carefully, Leng Xiang folded them with a shrug, the wings crinkling up to a third of their original size to lay flat against her back.

      “Teacher says I am the last of the Yi clan. Yi, as in wings,” she explained. A faint, distant sadness colored her voice. “I don’t remember my parents much. It’s been twelve years. But I remember big, translucent wings, glinting ruby red and emerald green. I think the red belonged to my mother and the green to my father.”

      Jiang Hong felt a strange tightness around her heart. “I’m sorry. I’m glad you’re here, though.”

      For the first time since their meeting, Leng Xiang smiled. She was very pretty, and would probably grow up to be even prettier; Jiang Hong felt a pang of something close to envy. She herself would never be that attractive, she was certain of it.

      “Thank you for saying that. Now, let’s get these put away.”

      “By the way, who is Du Kuang? Is he a student of Madam Bai too?” asked Jiang Hong as they placed the clothes in the drawers and opened the windows to air out the room.

      Though she smiled and shook her head, Leng Xiang did not give any details on the young man. Jiang Hong decided not to probe further for now. She would find out eventually, if she stayed long enough.

      What she really wanted right then was to be clean, to scrub herself thoroughly free of dust and grit from top to toe. Living on the streets as a street urchin was alright, but she missed bathing in hot water. The bathroom that Leng Xiang showed her earlier was larger than the one in her old home, with a deep pool on the far end, fed continuously with steaming hot spring water, and a stone-tiled platform with a hand shower for proper cleaning.

      She felt like she was shedding an entire layer of skin as the grime of the past few months washed off. The water went from brown to clear. The bruises had long healed, but the scars from scrapes down her shins and cuts on her forearms were still a dull brownish-red. Her throat closed up briefly as she looked at the fading wounds, and then poured another bucket of water over her head. Shampoo – a luxury she had not had since she was thrown out – and then soap, and another rinse, before she stepped into the hot spring.

      Aches and tense muscles she had not even been aware of relaxed in the heat. It was quiet here, and there was no roof over the soaking pool, so she could gaze up at the clouds. Now and again a butterfly or two would flit erratically across the square of open sky. Only when she noticed that her fingertips had thoroughly pruned up did she climb out of the hot spring, feeling like a brand-new person.

      Leng Xiang’s clothes were soft on her skin, the long skirt flaring out prettily when she twirled. There were slits along the back of the shirt, however, which Jiang Hong supposed were meant to accommodate Leng Xiang’s wings.

      They’re so pretty, she mused. I bet they’ll glitter in full sunlight, like the wings of dragonflies and mayflies.

      As she headed back to her room, not knowing what to do with her old rags, she could feel her apprehension rising again. What did Madam Bai’s teachings entail? What if Wu Liuqi was lying to her? What if this was all a ploy to get Jiang Hong to relax her guard?

      Nervously, she peeked out of the hallway. No one was there, though a delectable and savory aroma perfumed the air. She had not eaten all day, and now her hunger decided to make itself known vociferously.

As if summoned by Jiang Hong’s hunger, Madam Bai appeared in another doorway and beamed. “Come on, dinner is ready.”

      Dinner was a simple affair of grilled tofu cubes, stir-fried greens, a thick paste made out of beans and garlic, and a soup of radishes and mushrooms. Jiang Hong ate steadily, forcing herself not to gobble in case she made herself sick, and tried not to be self-conscious about asking for a second serving of rice. Other than stuffing her face, however, she also observed the three others.

      Leng Xiang did not eat much, though she took a little of everything. Before the start of the meal, she tapped the side of each plate, and Du Kuang cocked his head to listen. He was quite good at serving himself too, except for the bean paste; Madam Bai scooped a hefty spoonful onto his rice and accepted his compliments. Madam Bai herself ate leisurely, telling Du Kuang and Leng Xiang about the tasks that needed doing the next day and sharing a little with Jiang Hong about the village they passed earlier, where, apparently, one of the finest physicians in the region lived.

      “He has been tending to Du Kuang over the past ten years,” she said.

      Jiang Hong paused in the middle of chewing on a bit of mushroom. A whole decade. That was as long as Jiang Hong had been alive. “Ten years? What happened to you?”

      Du Kuang smiled wryly, his mouth twisting to the left. “I lost control of my qi. Master Bai saved me.”

      “Doctor Song has done more for you than I have,” said Madam Bai.

      “He’s not the one who stopped me,” said Du Kuang.

      Jiang Hong’s eyes grew big and round. “Stopped you?”

      Du Kuang sighed and tapped his fingers against the table, near his chopsticks. “I was… I did some terrible things.”

      “It wasn’t entirely your fault,” Leng Xiang interrupted. She stood up and cleared away the used bowls and utensils. “Shall we have some persimmons? I’ll go get them.”

      Du Kuang rose as well. “Let me help you with them.”

      As the two walked away, Jiang Hong frowned and bent her head to finish the last few mouthfuls of rice. Madam Bai sighed and muttered under her breath, “Someday he will forgive himself.”

      The cryptic remark was not meant for Jiang Hong, so she concentrated on her food. Nonetheless, she now wanted to know what Du Kuang had done. If he had been here a decade, that meant that whatever he had done was committed in his teenage years.

      “He was led astray by someone he should have been able to trust,” said Madam Bai, correctly interpreting the look on Jiang Hong’s face as curiosity. “His qi was beyond his own control and his body reacted to the internal stress instinctively.”

      “So, if I don’t learn how to use qi properly,” said Jiang Hong, “I would end up like… like him?”

      “No.” Madam Bai smiled, and the lines of light under her skin shone a little brighter. “You would end up feeling ill, of course, if you channel it wrongly, but the techniques I developed are not aggressive nor forceful; your qi will flow steadily and smoothly.”

      “Huh?”

      “It’s like water,” Madam Bai explained. “Right now, you have some innate qi, but it is scattered and pooled in different parts of you. With my instruction, you will – hopefully – build up your reservoir, and at the same time, gather your qi, and slowly allow it to find its path around your body, like a river carving its route over land.”

      Jiang Hong tried to visualize what the old woman said and failed. “So, for Du Kuang, what happened to his qi?”

      “Some qi masters believe in forcing qi flow.” Madam Bai did not hide her disapproval. “Imagine forcing a barrel of water through a narrow reed. It creates a stronger and more destructive impact, of course, but at the expense of the one whose body has to channel it.”

      It was all too much for Jiang Hong to absorb. “So, you are going to take me in as a student?”

      “Yes, I am, if you are willing to accept me as a teacher.”

      “What do I have to do?”

      Madam Bai shrugged. “You offer me a cup of tea, I drink it, and you start addressing me as Teacher. That's all. I will impart my skills – or what I feel are useful and relevant skills – to you.” She cocked her head and studied the girl. “Before that, though, I would like you to speak with Doctor Song.”

      Jiang Hong tensed up with suspicion. “Why? I’m not sick.”

      “No, you’re not,” Madam Bai agreed. “But in a year or two, maybe earlier, your body will start to change. I don’t know if you want nature to take its course, or to suppress it.”

      She reached across the table and covered Jiang Hong’s narrow hand; the girl was so surprised that she almost jerked her hand away, but relaxed fractionally.

      With a gentle smile, Madam Bai said, “Speak with Doctor Song, learn what paths are open to you, and make your own decision.”

      The assurance in Madam Bai’s voice unraveled a tension around Jiang Hong’s ribs. “You’re not… you’re not going to force me to be a boy?”

      “Why in the world would I do that?” Madam Bai seemed genuinely puzzled. "You are who you are."

      “Because-” Jiang Hong suddenly found it hard to breathe. How to explain that her own mother had made her wear only boy’s clothes, tied her hair into a boy’s style, watched silently when she was punished for the crime of putting flowers in her hair? She realized belatedly that she was crying, her tears dropping onto the bamboo table and seeping through the gaps, and swiped the back of her hand over her eyes hurriedly.

      Leng Xiang and Du Kuang returned with persimmons, cut into quarters. Jiang Hong made herself smile. “They look delicious,” she said, and pretended that her voice did not wobble.

      “They are,” Du Kuang said, and sat down next to her. “Madam Bai, stop scaring the kid. You’ve upset her.”

      “I’ve done nothing of that sort,” Madam Bai protested lightly, and swatted the young man, who pretended to clutch his arm and groan in pain.

      The by-play cheered Jiang Hong up and she grinned at them. Setting the platter down in the middle of the table, Leng Xiang said, “Have some fruit. Kuang is not to have any more.”

      “What? Why?” Du Kuang sounded outraged.

      “You ate a whole persimmon before dinner, remember?” Leng Xiang retorted primly, a hint of a smile around her faceted eyes. “It’s time the rest of us enjoyed the fruits of our labor.”

      Amid Du Kuang’s protests and Madam Bai’s laughter, Jiang Hong found herself relaxing. It was not quite home yet, but it was beginning to feel like she might enjoy the stay.