I swear, all I did was turn aside to answer a call of nature. One instant we were walking together along the river, along the broad flat top of the levee that was all that separated the flowing green of the Fujiang from the orderly rice paddies, talking over all we had to do when we reached Chengdu. The next, Master Li was gone.
When I say that he was gone, I mean he was just gone, as if he had never been there, as if I had hallucinated carrying him on my back for most of the two thousand li we'd put between us and Xi'an. I rushed to the river's edge, skidding down the embankment half on my feet and half on my backside and stood there thighs-deep in the Fujiang scanning the water and shouting "Li Kao! Li Kao!" for several minutes before it dawned on me that I had not heard a splash. Hoisting myself back up to the top of the levee, I scanned the paddies. There were no footprints in the mud, no figures hustling away across the fields toward the hills. In the drizzly distance I could see some peasants bent over amongst the shoots, tending the plants, but there was no sign of Master Li anywhere.
Two, three, four times I clambered up and down both sides of the levee, looking for any sign, any track, anything at all. Finally, breathless, confused, and afraid, I sat down on the levee top, legs dangling down toward the river. Reviewing the events that lead up to Master Li's disappearance was no help. He was simply gone, and I had not the slightest clue where. I got to my knees and bowed toward the river, clapping my hands three times.
"O great and mighty Hei Bo," I prayed, "God of the Yangtze and all the waters that flow into it, please help me. My friend Li Kao has disappeared. He is very old, and very wise, and very small, and there is, I admit, a small flaw in his character. It is of the utmost importance that I travel with him to Chengdu. If you have any knowledge of his whereabouts, I beg you, most generous of watery benefactors, to tell me so that I may find him again."
I kowtowed thrice, patting my pockets for something suitable to throw into the river as a tribute. There wasn't much. Li Kao had been carrying almost all the money for our journey, and other important items besides, in the compartments of his smuggler's belt. I couldn't really see what use the river god would have for the handful of coins I carried. They'd only end up in the mud. I did, however, find a package of steamed pork buns, wrapped in banana leaves and somewhat the worse for wear for all the banging and jostling I'd given it with all my clambering about. I'd bought them that morning and had stowed away for our lunch. I unfolded the leaves and sighed softly -- pork buns are my favorite -- then consigned the delicacies to the opaque greeny-gray Fujiang. Then I clapped my hands three times more, bowed again, and got to my feet.
What to do now? Which way to go? I looked upstream, then down. Upstream lay Jiangyu, where we had spent a few pleasant nights paying our respects to the parents of Master Li's poet friend Li Po. Downstream, of course, was Chengdu, the beehive, or perhaps, if it was anything like Master Li said it was, the hornet's nest of Sichuan. Perhaps if I went back to the Li's they would be able to help me find Li Kao. But if Li Kao were as completely and utterly and inexplicably gone as he seemed to be, there would be nothing for me to do but go to Chengdu and see if I could find a way to convince Du Fu to try to help us... or, as it looked now, to help me. The thought brought tears to my eyes. I wiped them on my tunic sleeve and looked up to the heavens. If this was the way it had to be, then so be it. I had given my word to Master Li, but he had given his word to Madame Yang. His promise had become mine. And I could not rest until I had fulfilled it.
The first thing to do was to go to the Li's and see if they could help me find Li Kao. I could not rest until I had fulfilled Master Li's promise to Madame Yang, no, but neither would I be able to sleep, or forgive myself, if I didn't at least try to find out what had become of my friend and mentor. With a decisive grunt, I sighted back up along the levee-tops the way we had come, and set off at a trot.
I had not gone far before I heard a voice call out "Hey, up there! Stop! Yeah, you, you big lug! I'm talking to you!"
This was enough to freeze me mid-stride. I looked down toward the fields, worried that some farmer had mistaken me for a thief and was about to let his dogs go after me. But there was no one. My forehead furrowing, I looked down the other side of the levee.
I was on my knees in an instant, hands clapped tightly over my eyes. Every Chinese knows that catching sight of a baiji is something to be dreaded, for the sleek gray river spirits are the reincarnations of women who drowned themselves rather than be married off to odious men they could not love, and some are vengeful.
"O, lovely baiji," I said when I had found my voice, "please take mercy on this humble one! What do you want of me?" If the baiji had stolen Master Li, I was in big trouble.
"Oh, by Grandfather Catfish's nine-li whiskers," it said, as if to itself, "another superstitious peasant." Then the baiji gave a whistle, and cackled, a bright sound like the clapping of wooden blocks. A chorus of similar whistles and cackles drew closer in answer, squeaking and splashing and slapping the water.
Cautiously, I peered out between two fingers. Seven long pointy grayish-white noses poked out of the water at me, sleek round heads bobbing with the motion of the water, blowholes flexing and pursing. Their long sleek bodies gleamed a soft pearly gray beneath the surface of, and each of them had a lavish, long, and toothy smile.
"Don't be such a turtle!" one of them laughed. I could not tell if it was the same one. "We aren't going to hurt you, Number Ten Ox."
I gave up any attempt to shield my gaze. "How do you know my name?"
"How do you think?" another chuckled.
"Someone told us!" a third put in, flipping a minnow into the air with the tip of her beak, then catching it neatly and swallowing it.
I looked at them and blinked, feeling just as stupid as I am sure I looked. "Who?"
"That would be telling!" The seven baiji laughed and looked at each other and flipped their heads and laughed some more. The laughter led to splashing one another with their noses and dorsal fins, and then with their strong, muscular flukes, raising such a tempest that even I, sitting up at the top of the bank, got wet. The baiji hardly noticed. Wiping river water from my eyes I watched them break into a wild game of tag, chasing one another across the river at top speed. Their darting, shooting, zig-zagging dance through the waters was a riveting sight, conducted at breakneck speed and with the utmost of confidence, as if it were the merest of games. Had you asked me before I met the baiji I would have said that no creature but a dragon could combine such power and such grace, and several times I sucked in my breath when one of them launched into the air, apparently for the sheer fun of it, gleaming streamlined bulk seeming to hang several feet above the water for a moment before splashing gleefully back down into the Fujian. The show was so wonderful it almost -- but only almost -- let me stop worrying about Li Kao.
Done with their play, the baiji drifted back over toward the place where I sat, grinning ear to ear. I fear that I was not doing the same.
"Why so glum, chum?" one of the seven chirruped with a little wriggle of flank.
The next dolphin over gave it a light whack with its beak. "You know perfectly well!"
"Oh yeah," the first said. "Sorry, I forgot, but now I remember. You're looking for someone, right?"
"Of course he is, little sister!" I was fairly sure this voice, now, was the one that belonged to the first baiji who had called to me. It had a certain authority.
Then the dolphin turned her head and spoke to me. "You're looking for your friend Li Kao. Well, we know where he is. He's fine, don't worry about him."
I gasped. Had the baiji taken him after all? "Are you sure? He's all right? Oh, thank the gods. We're on a very important mission, you know. For Madame Yang. We must get to Chengdu before the full moon or... well, never mind that. Where is he? When can I see him?"
The head baiji's tail flipped in an offhanded way. It seemed to shrug. "He's... occupied. You can see him when you come back."
"Come back? Come back? Come back from what?"
"Come back from going to the Fire Temple in Deyang, of course!" the dolphin answered gleefully. "And bring us twenty of those excellent dumplings made by those two wonderful old sisters there."
"That's twenty each," another baiji interrupted.
"With sauce!" demanded a third. "You have no idea how boring an all-fish diet gets without sauce." The other dolphins smacked their tails against the river's surface in agreement.
"All right! All right! I get it. I don't get to see Master Li until I bring you one hundred forty dumplings from the two sisters at the Fire Temple," I agreed to a general chorus of happy whistles and clacks. Deyang was the next city along the river, I knew. With some luck it wouldn't take me more than a few hours to reach it, if I ran fast. I hoped the two old sisters would be there. I hoped they'd have a hundred forty dumplings to sell me. I especially hoped that I had enough money to pay for them.
I got to my feet and had almost begun to jog away when a thought struck me, and I turned again toward the river. "I beg your pardon," I said, bowing deeply, "but I realize that in all the excitement I have forgotten my manners. My name is Lu and my personal name is Yu, but as you already know, you can call me Number Ten Ox. Whom do I have the honor of fetching a hundred and forty delicious dumplings?"
All at once the baiji erupted in a chorus of shouts and squeals and whistles, accompanied by vigorous splashing. When the spirited bickering finally subsided I was giggling in spite of myself.
"We are the Seven Daughters of the Fujiang," the leader announced. "Our family name is Bo, for our father is Hei Bo. I am the oldest, Mei-Zhen. Then comes Mei-Xing, after that the twins, Mei-Lien and Mei-Hua. After them is Mei-Chun, and then comes Mei-Yu, and finally little Bao." Seeing them all side by side made it easier to see that one was only about half the size of the others, not yet grown.
Bao was unable to contain herself. "I found the pork buns you threw in the river! I found them and I chased them down the current and I ate them all up. All by myself! And they were so yummy!"
Two of little Bao's siblings rolled in on either side, squashing her underwater. She bobbed back up to the surface like a cork an instant later, slightly chastened. I tried not to laugh, but I fear the corners of my mouth may have betrayed me.
I bowed again. "Very well then, Beautiful and Honorable Daughters of Hei Bo. I will return as soon as I can with your dumplings."
"And sauce," Mei-Hua reminded.
Once again I took sight along the levee-tops, downstream this time, and set off. Seven sporting sisters followed right along, escorting me with whistles and leaps, down the river toward Deyang, and left me only when the city walls came into sight. Waving fondly, I turned away from the river and slowed my pace, abandoning the proud shoulders-back stance of the athlete and donning the stooped, weary peasant shuffle I knew would draw little notice. I fell in behind a trio of night-soil-carts as I neared the gates, tagging just behind the trailing cluster of men with their trusty shit-shovels slung over their shoulders. The gate guard pinched his nose and waved us on.
* * * * *
The Fire Temple was not difficult to find. There must have been one enormous fire in Deyang back in misty memory, or perhaps a truly epic flood, to have occasioned such a monumental tribute to Zhu Rong. For streets around there were stalls hawking firecrackers, candles, incense, and all manner of mementoes, from jawdroppingly beautiful Tibetan tiger-skin prayer rugs to crude clay figurines showing Zhu Rong riding his tiger into battle. Vendors without stalls wound through the streets pushing carts or toting their wares on shoulder-poles. Although Deyang is smaller by far than Chengdu, which is in turn less than half as large as Xi'an, which itself would fit into the city walls of Beijing several times over, the district around the Fire Temple could have held its own with any similar district anywhere. A riot of color and noise pulsed through the narrow alleys, and not knowing quite where I was going, I let myself be carried along with it while I kept my eyes open for something that looked like a dumpling stall.
Eeeeee-yai! Eeeeeee-yai! Try my flower tofu, best in town! Smooth, soft and sweet all the way down!
Scents of fo-ti, dong quai, huang qui and ginseng filled my sinuses as I passed a pharmacist's. A cluster of ragged children stood enviously watching a candymaker pulling infinite strands of dragon's beard out of his copper pot, swirling the sweet filaments for a rich little boy and his nanny who watched approvingly as the candy-man stroked and pulled the sugar threads into the shape of a pony, complete with candied melon seeds for eyes and a long flowing tail.
Ear-cleaning! Ear-cleaning! Ten minutes and you'll be a new man! Come relax in my chair! Any fool can buy a woman for a night, but she can't make love to your ears! Ear-cleaning! Ear-cleaning!
That was when I smelled the dumplings. It was uncanny, really. You might think that I had smelled hundreds, maybe thousands, of dumplings in my time, made with all manner of delicious things, so how is it that I would have known so immediately that what I was smelling were the dumplings I sought? You would be right to wonder, but if you had ever had the good fortune to smell, or better yet, taste, the dumplings of the two sisters in Deyang, you would not have to ask. They smelled of black mushroom and ginger and wine and pepper and something else, something I could not quite put my finger on but which set my mouth to watering so badly that I am afraid I almost drooled, down my own front. What was more, the scent was nearly solid, like a rope that you could lay hands on and follow, hand-over-hand, to its source.
This was more or less what I did, sniffing the air like a hunting dog. I jogged left, then turned sharply right between a fruit stall and a vendor of auspicious banners.
Mind your manners, you big oaf!
I lurched eastward to avoid having to stop for a servant carrying heavy water buckets on either end of a shoulder-pole.
Ow! Merciful Buddha, my toe! That rhinoceros over there just stepped on my toe!
Running, now, I snorted through my nose as I followed the scent deeper and deeper into the maze, stopping short for an instant when I almost knocked over a languid lady leaning against a door-frame, whose thick eyelids and slow tongue betrayed more than a passing acquaintance with Thunderballs.
Oh! Hello, handsome, haven't we... haven't we met somewhere before?
I disentangled myself, apologizing as I departed, and dashed across the alley and barged down a set of stone steps lined with yet more, even tinier, stalls. At the bottom of the steps, at the far end of an arc of shacks built against part of the foundation-stones of the Fire Temple itself, my nose led me to my target.
There was, of course, a queue. As good as those dumplings smelled, it was a surprise it wasn't longer. Eventually I got to the front of it. In the meantime I watched the sisters, two pale-skinned, long-nosed women of late middle years, tall but thickly built, with forearms like oarsmen's and legs like the porters who carry blocks of ice or stone down from the mountains. Each wore her hair in an enormous cone on top of her head, wound out of a long thick braid. Probably they could walk on their own hair when they let it down, I thought. Eventually I reached the front of the line.
"One hundred forty? You should have put in a special order. I'm afraid you're much too late. This is all we have left." The sister who sat on a stool at the front of the stall gestured at a single steaming stack of five bamboo trays. There were dozens of empty steamers stacked against the wall behind where the other sister stood pounding rice into flour in a pestle the size of a wash-basin. The sister at the pestle gave me an apologetic smile.
"No chance that I could convince you to make some up fresh? I have money!" With such a humble stall in such a humble location, I reasoned, the dumplings had to be inexpensive. I had been counting the coins in my pockets with my fingers, sorting them by size and shape, while I stood in line. I had three silver, and nineteen bronze at least, not counting the coppers.
The first sister gave me a steely look and held out her hand. "How much?"
I emptied the contents of my pocket into her outstretched hand. She looked at my triumphant smile, made a face as if she had just tasted something sour, and shook her head. "This will get you fifty, no more. Maybe fifty-five if my sister is feeling generous."
I looked down at the pile of coins. It was hardly a princely sum, but I knew full well that if I were careful, the sum that lay in the sister's hand would feed me and put a roof over my head for several days, more if I wasn't picky. After all, they were only dumplings.
The first sister picked up the lid of the top steamer rack and peered into the mists. "I'm not even sure we have fifty-five left."
"I really do need a hundred forty," I pleaded, wishing Li Kao were with me. He always knew what to say in these situations. "If you can tell me how much, I'm sure can come up with the money while you make them? They're for a very important party. Seven noble sisters, great connoisseurs. They sent me here especially. They said your dumplings were the best in Deyang."
"In the world," the other sister said, sidling up behind her sibling. "You said seven noble sisters, did you?"
I nodded, and the two dumpling-makers traded a glance that would have terrified me if I hadn't already been so panicked at the thought of losing Li Kao forever for a lack of dumplings.
Without making a fuss about it, the first sister quietly pocketed my cash. "Where, pray tell, do these seven noble sisters come from? I'm sure I would have heard of them if they were here in Deyang."
I blanched. I am a terrible liar. No matter how Master Li has tried to coach me, I always give myself away. With the two sisters giving me looks that said young man, we know you're up to something, we just want to know if the thing you're up to is the thing you think you're up to I didn't even dare think about it. "Er, upriver?"
"I see," said the second sister, wiping her hands on her floury apron. "Mei-Zhen sent you, then?"
I could only nod.
The sisters looked at one another again, and then the second sister stepped around her sibling and the steamers and took me by the elbow. "You look like a strong young man. Come back here and help me pound this rice. We'll sort something out. But my sister and I are going to need to have a talk with you."
I did as I was told, a little confused but grateful, as I brought the heavy wooden mallet down into the rice grains again and again, that here at least was something simple that a peasant like me could both do and understand.
* * * * *
If I thought I were betraying any confidence here, I would not be able to write the following words down, of course. But since it is almost certainly of no moment to the two sisters any more, I shall tell you how to make the world's best dumplings.
First, obtain a strong broad-shouldered young peasant man, preferably desperate. Pour ten pounds glutinous rice into the biggest pestle you can find and have him pound it into flour, sieving it thrice to be certain it is of a uniform smoothness. While he is pounding the rice, close up your dumpling stall so that you may devote your entire energies to interrogating him as to his background, his manner of meeting the Seven Daughters of the Fujiang, and his motives for supplying him with dumplings. If you are Jun, the younger sister, periodically pinch him and make salacious comments about his physique. If you are Yen, the older sister, swear him to secrecy and then explain that you too were a baiji once, and swam the Yangtze along with your sister, but that because of a curse you were stuck forever on land, yet unable to set foot upon bare earth lest you suffer agony beyond imagining. Only on the stone-paved streets of cities, or else in a sedan-chair or carriage, have you been able to survive.
When the flour is ready, produce ten pounds of fine pork shoulder, and hand the strong broad-shouldered young peasant man a pair of cleavers with which to reduce it to a smooth paste. As he works, sprinkle the meat with the finest wulian-gye wine from Yibin, the kind they call "golden needles," a little salt, some shoyu, and small amounts of minced ginger and garlic. If you are Jun, explain that you have been longing for decades to return to the river, but that neither you or your sister have been able to find a way to do it without touching at least the mud of the riverbanks. If you are Yen, roll up your trouser-leg to show the thick corded scars you still have from the one time you tried and your skin scorched and burned as if thrust in a furnace the instant it touched the soil.
Once all of the pork and seasonings have been rendered smooth and silky, set them aside, covered, and produce three large baskets of black mushrooms. Once the broad-shouldered young peasant man has cleaned them, stemmed them, and slivered them, light a fire beneath the largest wok you own. Make sure it is a bright, sturdy fire that puts out plenty of heat, using rice straw by preference, over a base of well-dried dung. Accept the young strong peasant's commiserations and explain to him that you will help him, but only if he will help you. When he promises to do so, tell him that in exchange for your dumplings, you want him to find a way to get you back into the river without your feet touching bare earth. Try your best to look very stern when he agrees.
Place three handfuls minced leaf lard into the wok and render it. If you are Yen, stay at the wok and stir the fat and keep watch. If you are Jun, have the strong young peasant man help move your stacks and stacks of steamer trays, your piles of pots and woks, your water barrel, and your grindstone. Only then, very carefully, have him assist you in grasping the corners of one of the smaller foundation-stones of the Fire Temple and pull it from its slot. Then crawl into the hole, holding a knife in your teeth, and return with a handful of dry black shavings that smell of the sea, if the sea had currents within it that smelled -- please forgive me, I am only trying to be accurate -- like the nape of the neck of a woman who has just made very passionate love with someone who smells of opium, crushed orchids, and woodsmoke.
Next, if you are Yen, fry the shavings to capture their aroma in the freshly-rendered fat. If you are Jun, explain to the young strong peasant, as you wedge the stone back into place and cover it thoroughly with piles of assorted belongings, that the reason the Fire Temple is so large, and the reason it was built here, is that this was the place where Kung-Kung, the rebellious black dragon who was one of Zhu Rong's sons, fell to earth after he dashed himself to death on the Pillars of Heaven in shame following his attempt to overthrow his father. His coiled and mummified body, you further explain, occupies the center of the foundation, which was built first as a memorial to him, and only afterward became a monument to his father. If you are the strong broad-shouldered young peasant, goggle like a goldfish at the thought, and then, when it dawns on you that the secret ingredient in the best dumplings in the world is nothing more or less than shreds of mummified dragon, goggle some more.
Once the fat has been prepared, give a large paddle to the strong young peasant and have him mix it into the meat, stirring slowly and in only one direction until all is combined. If you are Jun, notice that he is perilously close to slavering right into the uncooked dumpling filling, and giggle like a schoolgirl as you feed him some of the leftover dumplings gone cool. If you are Yen, ignore the helpless murmurs of pleasure he makes, and ignore twice as hard the renewed giggling this produces on the part of your sister, instead filling the big wok with water and putting it on to boil.
Finally, if you are Jun, steer the broad-shouldered peasant man over to the vat of rice flour. As you add water, direct him in his kneading until the whole ten pounds of flour has turned into a stiff and puttylike, but pliable and smooth, dough.
Only then, your assistant watching in exhausted amazement, do you remove the bone pins from your tall conical coils of braided hair. Shaking your heads and running your fingers through the voluminous black swaths of it, you whistle a little tune together, a simple melody that sounds like swimming through cool water under hot sunshine feels. Taking turns, you bow to one another, exposing the blowholes you still have in the tops of your heads. Gently and precisely, you each pluck the single golden hair that grows from the edge of the other's blowhole, then drop them both into a tiny brass pestle and grind them into powder. Sprinkle the powder over the dumpling filling, and wind your hair back up hastily, for the water in the wok is almost at the boil.
Now time is of the essence. Deftly pinch off walnuts of dough, flatten it between your palms, and fill each circle with a spoonful of filling. Pleat and pinch the dumplings shut so that they are shaped like chestnuts, each with eleven pleats (no more, no less), and place in a bamboo steamer. Steam, covered, until the dough is translucent and the dumplings are cooked.
Serve hot or cold, dipped in vinegared apricot sauce seasoned with a little hujiao and ground white pepper. If you find you have made more than are immediately required, eat them yourselves, sharing with your strong broad-shouldered young peasant. You will find him immensely grateful.
* * * * *
I know full well that I am but a humble peasant, have seen little of the world, and have only the most ragged scraps of an education. Nonetheless it is surely one of the world's great truths that very little compares to the delight of standing on the banks of a beautiful river on a warm spring night, feeding the world's best dumplings to a sleek shoal of beautiful baiji, and I am unutterably fortunate to have experienced it. It is also one of the world's great truths that if anything can eclipse the joy of feeding dumplings to dolphins while bathed by the light of an almost-full moon, it is the delight of being borne at breakneck speed along the river's surface, holding on to the pectoral fins of two of the Seven Sisters of the Fujiang, the other five swimming alongside as escort as they take you far upstream before diving deep and depositing you in the comfortable confines of one of Hei Bo's underwater castles. (The wonder of discovering that you can, through some baiji magic, breathe normally below the surface is a surprise of comparable size.) But an even more supreme and surpassing joy than these is the rejoicing and relief when one is so fortunate as to rediscover a great friend one feared had been lost for good.
Master Li was, as the baiji had promised, absolutely fine, and as delighted to see me as I was to see him. He was, he said, well-fed and well-treated, and I could believe him, for he looked twenty years younger and had a gleam in his eye. But he was also thrilled that I had come for him, and smiled a proud, fatherly smile when I told him about all that had transpired with the dolphins, the sisters, and the dragon-flavored dumplings. I was so happy to have earned his approval that my smile almost knocked my ears off my head, and I could scarcely wait to have him on my back once more, his feet in my pockets, so that we could charge on to our errand in Chengdu.
There was only one problem. His hostess, Lin Ling, Queen of the Fujiang and fourth wife of Hei Bo himself, was unwilling to give up his company.
"You see," she explained after she had offered me a seat, "it is so rare that I am able to find... how shall we put it? ...intellectually stimulating company."
I stared at her as she gently stroked the pet octopus that curled next to her on the settee like a cat. Master Li sat opposite her. He nodded respectfully, but said nothing, so I did the same.
"I know this may sound strange to you, Ox" she said, "so please allow me to explain. My father was not a scholar, but a general in the Emperor's army, and a very skilled one too. He came from a long line of wealthy warriors who had been awarded much excellent land and many estimable governorships for their valiant service to the Emperor, and my father had always been keen that any son he should happen to father would have the one thing he didn't ever have himself, namely, the opportunity to become a scholar if he wished. So when he married, he informed my mother that any son of his would be educated as well for the Forest of Culture Academy as he would be for the field of battle."
"Very forward-thinking of him, too, Ox," Master Li chimed in. "This was almost four hundred years ago, you understand, and the lines between scholar and officer were not so easily blurred then as now."
I looked upon my hostess with a renewed interest. She didn't look a day over thirty-five. With her willowy physique and elegant limbs, her fine complexion, and her peerlessly eloquent brow, it was hard to even imagine her as a scholar rather than a society beauty. She met my gaze with a pleased half-smile, perceiving my admiration, and continued.
"For five years my parents waited to have a child, and when my oldest brother was finally born, it was a day of great rejoicing. Alas, their joy was soon replaced by sorrow, as he died of a sudden fever one summer's night when he was scarcely old enough to walk. My mother was so grief-stricken she miscarried the infant she had only just learned she was carrying, so my parents' misery was doubled. Another seven years passed before my mother became pregnant again, and she was so ill for so much of the pregnancy that the doctors feared she might die. She survived, but when the time came and the midwives gathered to help her through her trial, the baby proved to be merely a girl, and a small and puny girl at that."
Master Li sat back and chewed some sweetmeats from a nearby dish, nodding intently at what was clearly already a familiar tale. I tried a few myself. They were oddly crisp, considering that the bowl in which they sat, and indeed the table that supported the bowl, and everything else as well, was under dozens of feet of water.
"My father was not daunted," Lin Ling went on. "If the gods were not going to give him a son, far be it from him to complain. I was raised, an only child, just as my father had promised. Instead of sisters, I had tutors from the ranks of the best scholars in Sichuan. Instead of brothers, I drilled for two hours each morning with my father's best and most trusted men-at-arms. I learned to fight and hunt, stab and parry, charge and lead on horseback and on foot. I learned everything I could from every kind of teacher my father could find to teach me, and before I had even turned 13 my father had to send away to Hanlin and Beijing for masters to teach me, for I had exhausted all the other tutors. I learned mathematics, geography, geology, astronomy, myths and legends, truths and falsehoods, histories and fictions, and studied Kung Fu with and without weapons, horseback riding, and martial strategy into the bargain. There was only one thing my father had forgotten when he set out to offer me the best education in the world, and that was that I was a girl."
Lin Ling looked off into the distance. Tiny lines at the corners of her mouth bore testament to a pain she had yet to forget. A few moments passed before Master Li leaned forward and offered to pick up where she had left off. The Queen nodded.
Master Li gestured around the room. "Ox, take a look around you, and then tell me: have you ever heard the story of the Maid of Mianyang?"
I shook my head no.
"I thought not," Li Kao nodded. "You see, my Lady, my young assistant here is from a background far too rustic to have any use for education, let alone the education of females. But he is a great one for figuring things out. All right, Ox, you can see here before you the woman who used to be the educated warrior maiden of Mianyang, and you can see where she ended up. Tell me, Number Ten Ox, how did she get here?"
I thought for a minute, gazing around the room at the scrolls and objects in the crystal-fronted cabinets. "The only thing her father had forgotten when he set out to have the best-educated child in China was that she was, of course, a girl. And girls grow up into women, and women must marry. But no one would dare to marry the Maiden of Mianyang. Brilliantly educated scions of wealthy houses came to meet her and hated her instantly. They did not care that she knew the fighting arts -- those were for subhuman brutes anyhow, so what did it matter if some woman decided to learn them? -- but she was smarter than they were and she knew just as much if not more. 'How intolerable a thing is a prattling woman,' they would complain to her father, 'and worse still, one who does not know her place, and insists that she has just as much capability as a man for participating in rational and manly affairs of the intellect, even though any village idiot knows the soft and watery yin can never approach the firm and sturdy qualities of yang?' The strong young warriors were no better. They had little use for bookworms, of course, or niceties of art or culture. That was all basically effeminate stuff anyhow, so if a woman knew it, who cared? What they found intolerant was that she knew how to fight. How unladylike! How rough!"
The Queen made a face and clenched her fist on the arm of the settee. "And even worse, if a woman could fight as well as they, or better, then what did it make them? No better than a woman!"
"Intolerable!" I cried, puffing out my chest and shaking my fist, my other hand on the hilt of a pantomime sword. "She is no woman, she is a monster! She probably has to shave three times a day! To think that anyone would marry such a creature! Better to be a eunuch bending over ten times a day for some courtly catamite than marry a woman with balls as big as your own!"
"Precisely, Ox." Master Li's nod was tight and grim. "So then what happened?"
Without pausing to think about it, the words flowed out. "Her father was, after all, a military man, and although he bore up under these humiliations for months and months, eventually he snapped. Foul words were spoken, as cruel as any lash. He blamed her for her unmarriageable state, scorned her for her genius, berated her for being all the things he had raised her so carefully to be. At length, heartbroken, the Maiden of Mianyang left a note for her mother, apologizing for her deed, then mounted her horse in the dead of night and rode like a demon toward Red Cloud Gorge. She did not think twice, she did not stop. Commending the soul of her poor loyal steed to the Yama Kings, she dug in her heels and they leapt together over the brink, falling, screaming, through the air. But as it happened, Hei Bo was bathing in the falls in the center of the gorge that night. Unwilling to let any young maiden so fearless and fine go to waste as mincemeat on the rocks, he snatched her out of the air and, in due time, made her his wife."
At this, a low rumble shook the room. "Very good, Number Ten Ox," Hei Bo said, swirling through the doors that opened onto the courtyard. "Except I believe it was her father's favorite horse, not her own, that she sent to its death in Red Cloud Gorge."
I confess that I trembled at the sight of Hei Bo. In the normal order of things with Master Li I had seen many remarkable things, and indeed I should not be altogether surprised if one day I were to encounter the great Jade Emperor himself in Master Li's company, but this was my first experience of being in the presence of a dragon and I was awestruck. Hei Bo was vast, yet somehow he fit into the room with us as cozily as you please, draping himself across the other half of the settee on which Lin Ling sat, much to the distress of the octopus. His muscular coils shimmered green and blue, with ripples of yellow playing, now-you-see-it-now-you-don't, along the tips of his fins and whiskers.
"So you see I did marry in the end," the Queen smiled, nuzzling her husband on the side of his great fanged muzzle. "And you have, of course, met our daughters."
"But there are some things even I cannot give my beautiful wife," Hei Bo said, gleaming with pride and contentment. "And one of them is human companionship. Particularly the kind she likes best, the kind that lets her astonishing brain stretch its legs. So when I saw the legendary Li Kao was walking along the banks of the Fujiang, I could not resist bringing him to her as a present. Forgive me, Li Kao, but surely you understand what it is to be in love."
Li Kao nodded decorously, and rose from his chair. When he gestured, I followed, and was grateful for the opportunity, for Hei Bo and Lin Liang were very much in love indeed, and I could not help but blush to see how erotically the Queen shivered into her husband's arms. We walked together around the courtyard in silence, enjoying the curious buoyant effortlessness of moving underwater. While Master Li admired the pretty blue fish that swam to and fro and the lush beds of water plants that softened the hard lines of paving stones, I gently experimented with leaps that would have been impossible on land and even turned a somersault in what would, under normal circumstances, have been thin air before landing back on my feet. From the other side of the courtyard, rumblings, sighs, and giggles increased.
By the time I pulled myself together and started acting like a grownup again, I found Master Li scratching a big friendly orange cichlid. It had been swimming around behind him from the instant we entered the courtyard, and now, like a dog, it had rolled over so that he could stroke its belly.
"Ox, I don't mind admitting that I like Lin Liang. She is brilliant and the things she knows about military history... well! But you were right to come get me. I can't bear to be a household pet. It's never suited me before, and I'm much too advanced in years to consider changing my ways."
"There's poor Madame Yang to think of, too," I said, more relieved than I dared let on. "We did make a promise. But what on earth can we do? It seems that we are both the Queen's guests until such time as she decides to let us leave. I don't like to think what would become of us if she decided that we were no longer worth whatever it is that lets us breathe while we're here."
Li Kao poked at a cluster of crystals that jutted up alongside the path, deep in thought. Then he scooped up a handful of what I thought was gravel, only to realize as he let them drift back down that they were freshwater pearls. A sudden wave of bubbles burst out of the open doors of the room where Hei Bo and Queen Liang were disporting themselves. I imagined grabbing Master Li, then grabbing hold of a bubble and riding it up, up, up to the surface, where we could be free again. But that was just fantasy. If Hei Bo himself didn't fetch us back to the Queen, the Seven Sisters would have no trouble.
Master Li tugged at my sleeve. "Things seem to have quieted down," he said. "Let's go talk to our honorable hosts while they're relaxed and in a good mood. I have an offer to make them."
"An offer? Do you really suppose we're in any position to bargain?"
"Of course we are," Li Kao replied. "After all, Hei Bo can't possibly be expected to know where to find a great scholar who would live out his life in an underwater castle willingly."
* * * * *
The rest, as Li Kao said later, was simplicity itself. We had no trouble at all, the next morning, convincing Jun and Yen to assist us. In fact, when we explained our plan, they conferred for a minute or two and then made another trip through the wall into the bowels of the Fire Temple, returning with a substantial sack of gold coins.
"Here, take them," Jun said, thrusting the bag at Master Li. "We have been saving for years against the day that someone would find a way to help us get back to the river, and now the day has come."
Some hours later, after rather a lot of scheming and giggling and several trips down into the busy market streets below, we all departed from the quiet pair of expensively anonymous rooms we had briefly rented and went out to acquire Master Li's replacement.
We arrived at the home of Wei Zhigou as an affronted bundle of bluster, dressed as three members of a family of genteel but provincial aristocrats and their aged but formidable solicitor. Master Li, in the role of legal advisor, pounded the door with his fists. A half-starved servant appeared, cringing, almost as if the blows had fallen upon his head.
"Fetch your dishonorable dog of a master, you poor son-of-a-sow!" Li Kao bellowed as he swept into the foyer of the large and well-decorated home, trailing the rest of us in his wake. "Tell Wei Zhigou that after twenty-seven years, justice has come for him!"
The servant looked as if he might faint dead away, but instead he scurried toward the door.
"Not so fast," Master Li snapped, "you might as well take him this writ." He handed a bound scroll to the servant, who fled. Then he slapped his hands together thrice, surveying the room with a severely arched eyebrow.
"Gaudy, Lady Yen, isn't it? One would think someone of Wei's acumen would know better than to buy forgeries of Han Gan. The greatest painter in China, to be sure, but the hardest to fake! It would be laughable if only Wei hadn't in all probability spent a catty of gold coins for it."
Lady Yen, her formidable physique cloaked by a long flowing robe of fine linen lightly embroidered with fish and dragonflies, nodded sadly.
"And look at that ghastly pair of inlaid bronze urns! Hideous! Gigantic! Repulsive!" Lady Jun cried loudly, grabbing her sister by the arm. "To think of all the years you spent in ignominy and poverty because this toadstool of a man refused to keep his promises. Just so he could fill his house with lurid tat! Why, just looking at it makes me sick to my stomach."
Lady Yen sniffled slightly, an expression of longsuffering betrayal on her face. I took her hand and patted it.
"Don't cry, Mother dear," I comforted, in a voice I was sure would be well audible, "I am sure that my father will prove honorable in the end."
Just then a small cyclone burst into the room, shrieking at the tops of its lungs. "Forgeries, you say? Hideous? Repulsive? Who are you impudent flea-bitten vagrants, who come in unbidden and insult my home, and what do you want with my husband?"
Ssu-Ling, the wife of Wei Zhigou, was notorious throughout Deyang and indeed, all of Sichuan. Having made a virtual prisoner of her almost ridiculously well-learned husband for the twenty-five years since he became crippled in a tragic fall from a library ladder, she was legendary for the amounts she would extort, as his self-appointed manager, from every client who walked through the door. She had an uncanny aptitude for gauging exactly how much an information-seeker could be induced to pay, a temper like five wet cats in a sack, and a voice to match, which she used freely to motivate those slow to empty their purses. She used precisely the same techniques to badger and torment merchants and artisans, the better to line the walls and halls of her home with a thousand enviable objects so that everyone who entered would know how rich she had become. As a gouger and a cheat, a fishwife and a sadist, and she was certainly not above living up to her reputation.
"Ayiiiiiiiiiii, Ayiiiiiiii!" Lady Yen wailed, bursting into enormous tears and clinging to my arm as if for dear life. "Ayiiiiii, Great Mother of the West, hear my cry, for now my shame is complete! The man I loved abandoned me, and now I must abase myself before his wife! Ayiiiiiii!"
"Oh, isn't she horrible!" Lady Jun said, glaring daggers at Ssu-Ling while simultaneously soothing her distraught sister with the tenderest of touches. "That any woman could walk the earth with such a black and shriveled heart, such a constipation of the soul, as to be so rude! So cruel! So heartless! To treat you so without even hearing of your plight!"
"Stop your idiotic shrieking! Cease at once your slanderous gabblings!" Ssu-Ling stood rigid and white with rage. "I will not have you stand here and insult me, you pig-faced whores! Shut those hideous holes you use for mouths before I fall dead of the stench!"
While Lady Yen shrilled and wailed even louder, Lady Jun lit into Ssu-Ling with language even more vivid than Madame Wei's own. The din was tremendous. I was impressed.
Master Li stepped between them, Lady Yen and Lady Jun still respectively wailing and railing away in the background. Calmly, he unfurled a large, extremely formal-looking scroll, complete with several official-looking red seals at top and bottom.
"Temper, temper, Madame Wei. We are bringing a case against your husband, for twenty-seven years ago, while in the Yunnan mountains on a mission to chart the stars of the Winnowing Basket of the Great Azure Dragon of the East, he met and fell in love with my client, and left her pregnant with his son, having vowed in two letters he left behind that he would return to marry her. He never returned, and so now my client seeks damages so that she may afford to send their son, this very fine young man here, to be educated in Beijing so that at least he can provide for her in her old age. The letters have been deposited as evidence and the case is to be heard by the Governor in Chengdu tomorrow. Wei Zhigou can either come with us, or the Governor will send his men to fetch him, which will of course result in a fine due to delay and obstruction, fee for commission of a warrant, bailiff's fee, horses and other transportation costs..."
"Nonsense! Wei Zhigou would never do such a thing! I will rip that claim of yours into nine million pieces!" Madame Wei snatched at the scroll.
"Oh my son, my dearest, my only son," Lady Yen howled, "I should better have left you to the wolves than let you live to see your mother face such humiliation!"
Master Li calmly slid the rolled-up scroll into his sleeve. "...filing fees for the delay measures, filing fees for the fine for the delay measures, fees for the receipt for the fine, the Governor's staff accountancy fee..."
"Please don't cry, Mother," I pleaded fervently. "Pay that she-hyena no mind at all, she obviously knows nothing of the saintly compassion and patience with which you reared me! Oh, Mother dearest, I would gladly face a thousand fearful foes for you, if only it would dry your tears!"
"What kind of pox-tainted trollops would have the gall to file a paternity suit against an impotent cripple? And what solicitor has so much pigshit for brains that he would take the case? Everyone knows that my husband never even gave me so much as a single daughter! Besides, that boy over there doesn't even look like Wei Zhigou! That suit isn't worth a moth's piss in a tidal wave! These lying, filthy whores could probably smuggle whole durians in their flabby, calloused vaginas and never feel the pricks!"
Jun regarded Ssu-Ling with the utmost horror. "Such a mouth! Such a mind! So much purulence in one body? She must have been a mass murderer in her last life, to think that this incarnation could be considered an improvement! My poor sweet sister, Wei Zhigou must have gone stark raving mad after he left you! He married a cesspit! A reeking dunghill with legs!"
"...fee for the Recorder of Writs, fee for the Writ of Recording, oh, and don't forget, the penalties for misusing the Governor's allotted time for hearings above the level of the third degree, which are scheduled only every third full moon as recommended in the Classic of Ordering Underlings, are twenty-five gold cash for the first fifteen minutes, and thirty-seven gold cash for each five minute period thereafter, compounded at four and three-elevenths percent daily, all as measured by the Soochow Water Clock as outlined in section seventeen, paragraph four, sub-paragraph twenty-two, of the Imperial Tables And Limitations For Provincial Legislative Assembly version nine, revision two..."
"Ayiiiii, the humiliation! I should have taken poison! I should have jumped from the roof! Ayiiiii, the shame! Oh, that I were never born!"
Into this tumult wobbled the sage Wei Zhigou, crutches under both arms, dragging his all-but-useless feet behind him. He was slight of build, almost bald of head, and although he had clearly once been quite tall, injury and long disability had stooped him badly. With the half-starved servant following a few terrified feet behind, he made his way into the room until he caught sight of me. I saw him too, and wondered what he might do. Master LiÕs scroll shouldÕve prepared him for the scene, but only the gods knew what role he might decide to play. In any event it seemed that only Master Li and I noticed him come in, for Ssu-Ling, Lady Jun, and Lady Yen kept snarling, declaiming, and weeping right up until the instant the man people called "The Great Library of Sichuan" let out a whoop, flung out both his arms, and yelled "My son! My son! My one and only son!"
Diving across the polished wooden floor, I caught Wei Zhigou as he fell, cushioning his priceless learned bones with a solid layer of filial piety. In seconds we were arrayed in the most touching of tableaux, a reunion of father, son, and long-lost lovers that would have brought a tear to all but the most hardened of hearts. The half-starved servant stood bawling by the door. Madame Wei stood in the middle of the room shrieking imprecations that should've singed her lips and burnt all our eyebrows off, but no one could be bothered to listen.
In short order we were all on our feet again, me cradling Wei Zhigou in my arms. Madame Wei could not stop screaming, and stood fixed to the spot, her face positively vermilion with outrage, gulping down breaths only to screech again, hysterical and disregarded.
"Do try to calm yourself, my turtledove," Sage Wei told her as I began to carry him out to our waiting carriage. "You know that it always disturbs your digestion when you get upset. And don't wait supper. I may be gone some time."
* * * * *
The late-afternoon countryside unfurled like a long painted scroll as we rolled southwest along the river. We left our hired carriage at the Chengdu gate and immediately purchased another, much humbler one, plus a pair of sturdy old mares to draw it. As I drove us down the Leshan road, Master Li and Wei Zhigou continued to renew their acquaintance, companionably asking questions of Yen and Jun, for after all it was not every day a pair of scholars of their caliber had the opportunity to interview a pair of baiji who had been living as humans. Their chatter soothed me as I let it flow past, paying little attention. It was a fine day with a light breeze, the promise of summer just beginning to make itself felt in the way afternoon's clear light stretched and reached toward evening.
On a lonely stretch of road where a thick cover of young willows screened the river from the road and vice versa, I pulled the carriage over. A quick survey of the riverbank soon revealed a place where there was an easy slow sandy slope that led from the grass to the water. I checked it twice, walking down and then up, to make sure there was not an exposed tree root or loose stone to be found, for the cargo I would soon be carrying into the river was far too precious and delicate to drop. I even waded several yards out into the water, just to make certain the water would be deep enough for the baiji to swim. Finally I knelt at the water's edge and bowed three times to the river.
"O, great and mighty Hei Bo, your humble servant Number Ten Ox brings you an honored visitor! Sisters of the Fujiang, come and welcome your long-lost cousins!"
With that, I clapped my hands thrice, bowed thrice more, and went back up to the carriage.
I have no words to describe what I saw that evening, no way to express to you the unutterable bliss on the faces of Yen and Jun as I lowered each of them gently into the river and they felt the living water caress them for the first time in so many long dry years. Up to my breastbone in the river, I felt their bodies changing under my hands as I struggled to free them from their robes. Legs turned to strong sleek tails, arms turned to agile pectoral fins, their heads stretched and dimpled and grew toothy and smooth, their long coiled braids unwinding slowly as the current caught them and took them away to the sea. They stretched their new, old bodies, flexed their flukes and forefins, nuzzling one another with their long toothy snouts. Catching sight of the Seven Sisters of the Fujiang coming toward us through the water, they whistled in greeting, the same pretty tune I'd heard them whistle before, the one that sounded like swimming in the sun. I left the baiji to their reunion and returned to the carriage, trying to pretend that I only had something in my eye.
I held out my hand. "Are you ready, Master Wei?"
He took my hand in both of his. "More than you can imagine. I may be trading one cage for another, in the end, but ah well, Ox, such is life."
I lifted Wei Zhigou from the carriage, carrying him like a child or a bride or a baiji who could not touch the earth. Master Li followed us down to the waterline, then waited at the river's edge as I walked out into the stream. The current pulled at Master Wei's limp legs as if they were made of cloth, but his face shone with anticipation.
"Are you the new sage?" Mei-Zhen asked, swimming up alongside us.
"I am," he said, as delighted as I had been to be spoken to by a dolphin. "My family name is Wei and my personal name is Zhigou, but you may call me Zhi, if you like."
"I like," she nodded. "Have you got a strong grip, Zhi?"
Master Wei made a muscle and winked. He was not a large man, nor a muscular one, but I had no doubt at all of his ability to hang on tight for this adventure.
"Grab hold of my right flipper with one hand, then. And grab Mei-Xing's left -- yes, that's it -- with the other. The others will swim beside and behind us. Don't worry, we won't let you drown! Yen, Jun, you come too. Father will want to meet you as well, I'm sure of it."
Floating on the backs of two big baiji, Wei Zhigou looked back toward the bank where Li Kao stood. "Don't forget that you promised to visit, you old scoundrel."
"I promise!" Li Kao called. "Remember me to the Queen!"
Then Master Zhigou turned his head to me and lightly touched my arm, his inkstained fingers warm in the cool water. "Thank you for everything, Ox. You have been a most excellent son."
A moment later, the convoy of baiji were swimming upstream, whoops and giggles drifting back toward us as the delighted Wei Zhigou discovered the pleasures of traveling by dolphin-back. A moment after that, they rounded a gentle bend of the great gray-green Fujiang, on their way to Hei Bo's castle. I waded back to the bank, water pouring from my clothes, sandals squelching.
"All in all, a tidy solution, Ox, quite satisfactory," Master Li said, patting me on the back. "Tomorrow, Chengdu."