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Scraping Hot Ashes

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Illustrious readers, I put brush to paper several dozen days after the fact, hangover permitting, to chronicle the long-awaited and riotously celebrated occasion of Master Li’s wedding.  The bride, our beloved Grief of Dawn, spent her week’s bride’s retreat before the wedding in the Pavilion of Increasing Perfection, hosted by the Captain of Prostitutes.  Her companions in the Cock Loft[1] were her best friends, all fellow ladies of negotiable virtue, under the delightedly sinister leadership of Moon Boy.

As the groom's only family of any cordiality, let alone any condition, it fell to your humble author to go forth with the sedan chair and open more or less joking negotiations with the bride’s doting family to secure her release to our own.  You who know so much more about the world than Number Ten Ox will immediately understand why I loaded the chair with red-painted jars of Haining Mountain Dew wine as well as the traditional ang pau, red packets of “wedding-bribe’ money.  It took exhausting my supplies of both to win Grief of Dawn, and had it not been for the oddly doubled growls of both the bride-to-be (from behind a curtain) and, to my embarrassment, Moon Boy, I might myself have been too exhausted for the ceremony.

It was only once the haggling was finished and the curtain being drawn back by a square, strong-fingered hand that I thought to wonder who the Captain of Prostitutes might have found to stand as the Lucky Woman, to pass on her good fortune by dressing the bride’s hair, giving advice and carrying her from bride-threshold to sedan chair. Perhaps it was callous of me, but Master Li and I certainly knew very few women with happy marriages to a living spouse and a house full of healthy children; surely the ladies’ profession was equally prohibitive?

But then the curtain was swept aside, and the bells of Grief of Dawn’s beaded wedding veil were tingling, and I found myself staring directly into a blazing grin I could never forget and never thought to see again, no matter how many times I went around the Wheel of Transmigrations.

“Hello, Boopsie,” said Lotus Cloud.

Those readers kind enough to have set the scroll aside rather than watch my embarrassment will perhaps be reassured by the reminder that Lotus Cloud’s true name is Jade Pearl, and that complete bewilderment is only to be expected when suddenly faced with a goddess.

Especially when that goddess is one’s first great love, and a grin to beat all grins is spreading even more widely across her face.

“Your mother-in-law is wonderful, Boopsie,” Lotus Cloud was saying. “We’ve had so much to talk about, and I’ve just been giving her some advice about you….” She giggled. “And Master Li.”

I couldn’t see Grief of Dawn’s face through her beaded veil, but the sleeve going up to hide the smile I couldn’t find said it all for her anyway.

Complete bewilderment—indeed, a vertigo-inducing sense of forboding!-- is only to be expected when one is suddenly faced with a goddess and one’s honored mother-in-law, who have been trading  juicy stories about you.

While I was busy contemplating the awe-inspiring horror of this situation, the Princess of Birds demonstrated her strength and her practicality by sweeping Grief of Dawn up into her arms. “We’ll be out in the chair when you’re ready, Boopsie,” she said cheerfully, and began to saunter out.

I raced to hold the door.

My recurring readers may have noticed that while Master Li’s friends and acquaintances (including, I must admit, my humble self) are probably most politely described as unusual, he and they are all quite inclined to the practice of tradition, particularly when it gives them some benefit—and when it comes to the shared values of the friends of Master Li humour most definitely counts.

To that end, and for the good luck of the bride, Fat Fu had veiled the sedan chair so thickly that the bride would be in complete darkness, and then hung the back curtains with a thousand mirrors, to reflect away evil sights. From the front poles hung two sieves with fine silver mesh to filter out evil influences, so brightly polished they shone.

Grief of Dawn nearly laughed herself out of Lotus Cloud’s arms.

“But Ox,” she giggled through her veil, “what good is it hiding me from evil influences when I’m marrying Master Li?”

 

The writing is obscured in this section, first in a great smudge as by a dropped brush and upset ink. A note in shorthand accompanies this section, but little is legible aside from ‘bed,’ ‘spilled wine,’ and ‘the moon’s enthusiasm.’  The translator hesitates to guess the possible causes, but the damage has been further spread by what appears from the marks of corrosion and erasure to be Kao-liang wine.

There is also a more legible note that the details of the groom’s preparations were to be rewritten on another scroll, as well as the Princess of Birds’ explanation of Her appearance and the details of the ceremony itself, but that, alas, has never been found. 

 

 


[1] In preparation for her impending departure, the bride-to-be retreated from the ordinary routine and lived in seclusion in a separate part of the house with her closest friends. During this period, the young women sang laments, mourning the bride’s separation from her family and cursing the go-between, as well as the groom’s family and even the girl’s own parents. Since this extended ‘sleep over’ often took place in the cock loft, the bride’s emergence on her wedding day was sometimes referred to as "coming out of the cock loft." http://www.chcp.org/wedding.html#history

Chapter Text

It had been the decided delight of the Alley, by which I refer to those friends in Peking who tended to congregate at the Wineshop of One-Eyed Wong, to discover Master Li's impending nuptials. It was therefore their determined delight to celebrate it for him--indeed, nobody could stop them, and we were not inclined to try, particularly when One-Eyed Wong promised to provide wine not of his own manufacture. No, he had what he called a better idea: eighty-eight casks of kao-liang wine, one each for eighty-eight people.

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While it is the traditional practice of wedding banquets, particularly that provided by the groom's family directly after the ceremony as a means of announcing the happy event, to be segregated by gender, there were too many dear friends and amused acquaintances on all sides--and far too little family on either--to attempt to truck with such separation. While the Pavilion would be pleased later to give its own little party, it was more or less certain that it would have all the same guests. 

So it was that we improvised: a great table was set up, running the length of the alley off the Street of Eyes. (We were blessed by Heaven with good weather for the day; Lotus Cloud smiled mysteriously and said that Her husband was very glad to see me making a family.)  On one side of the long table sat all the men; on the other side, directly facing them, sat the women, and when the feast of lucky delights was done, the plates were shoved aside to make room for the má jiàng[1] boards... and the jars of wine. 

The guests joked and laughed, the ladies of my favourite Yuan Pen troupe displayed their new arrangement of 'Hot Ashes,' and as my new mother-in-law and her grinning other self sneaked us away, I could hear Master Li organizing the party into a combined má jiàng tournament and drinking contest.

While strong drink and wild fun make a jigsaw of even the mightiest memory, I have pieced together a few pertinent details of the event.  The tournament, it’s said, lasted three days, and at the end only two combatants survived: the bridegroom, to no-one’s surprise, and an enormous barbarian comparable in size only to the King of Chou--indeed, I had at first thought he was him, which made for an interesting few moments when I panicked while carrying the whole roast pig to the table. It was only when I set down the platter and took a closer look that I realized that, while heavily built, this was a man who utterly hated exertion.  Nevertheless, it was this barbarian who managed to not only match the great man in hefted wine jars but actually win at má jiàng by drawing the legendary Pure Nine Gates.[2]

What Master Li and this mountain of a man may have said to each other, no-one can tell me; even Master Li is no use. “Interesting enough, but no ambition,” he shrugged when I asked him. “All inertia.  I really didn’t even expect him to take the invitation.”

While I have researched a little, the only name I can find for this indolent scholar makes no sense at all: why should any learned man name himself after a house?

 


[1] This is more familiarly transliterated as ‘mahjong.’

[2] Pure Nine Gates: The player must have a fully concealed (i.e. all self-drawn, no called discards) hand of 1112345678999 in any suit. He can then win on any numerical tile of the suit. http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/Mahjong

Chapter Text

The common morning sounds of the Alley woke me, as natural and familiar as the soft breaths on my right side. Grief of Dawn stirred, mumbled, and crawled back into me, hiding her head from the light.

On my left, a warm lump and a light hum told me that our bed had once again acquired a visitor.  Moon Boy, I’d come to realize, was less like a rabbit than a cat; he went as he pleased, came when he wanted, and (while he always liked to begin the night by surrounding Grief of Dawn) had the most amazing ability to migrate across beds and bodies without ever making the least disturbance... unless, of course, he chose to. Moon Boy’s arm stretched across my belly to meet Grief of Dawn’s, and hands entwined, they embraced me.  I snuggled down into their arms and the blankets, and wondered when I'd gotten used to it.

I drifted off into the indolent dreams of reclaimed sleep, and found myself in a gentle maze of soft skin and gentle kisses, with the Song of the Stone for a lullabye.

I could have drowsed there in the warmth for hours, but for my beloved mother-in-law’s gentle poke in the solar plexus.

“Breakfast,” she prompted with a little smile. Moon Boy hummed agreement.

It was all so natural, even a week after the honeymoon, that I had to smile. Sometimes life is a gift. “And what would you like?”

Grief of Dawn sniffed, took a longer breath, and smiled. “Actually… I think I’d like some chicken congee.”

Behind me, Moon Boy chuckled. I paid it no mind; he’d share when he was ready.

“I think we can manage that,” I said, and then we heard the sound:

creeeeeeeeeeeeeeekSPANG!SPLORPGLABBBLERUMBLECRUMBLEgoooosh.

The sound shook us out of bed, and I continued out the window, just in time to watch a great swell of yellowish, grainy goop flow past the mouth of the Alley, carrying with it numerous bits of decorative architecture I recognized from the great houses on the Street of Eyes.

I sniffed suspiciously. Was that…?

“This wasn’t quite what I meant,” mused Grief of Dawn, snuggling under my arm.

It was indeed a… not quickly, no, but certainly steadily-expanding lake of chicken congee.

“Did you mean something, wife?” Master Li said cheerfully, waving from the roof. “Good morning, Ox, Moon Boy. Come up and join me, all of you… though you might try putting on some clothes. Thatch can give you the worst itch.”

Alas, I must confess that I was the only one to blush as we trooped inside.

“And bring up the—ah, you’ve brought it already, good girl,” Master Li said happily, taking the wine jar Grief of Dawn offered him as she stepped off my shoulders. I handed up the sack of extra jars to Moon Boy and clambered after, and we settled ourselves in the straw to watch as the curious flood washed around our hut. I took a moment to thank Heaven the shack was on something of a rise.

“Venerable Sir, can you shed any light on how it is Peking has come to be flooded by congee?” I wondered innocently.

Moon Boy and Master Li raised their voices in a terrifyingly harmonious unison cackle.

Grief of Dawn giggled.  “And just what do you have to do with it, most wicked and mischievous of husbands?”

“Well,” Master Li drawled, “It might be that a certain blubber-bloated bighead up the road decided that he wanted to find a new way to show off.”

“And it might be,” Moon Boy mused, “That he set up a cauldron the size of a house just up the block, with the idea of having a truly giant feast.”

“And it definitely is,” Master Li growled, “That he’s been skinning harmless old idiots of everything—“

I frowned, This seemed a little out of character for Master Li, who it must be admitted has run a confidence game… or fifteen… of his own in a good cause, though he does prefer to pick reprobates for the skinning.

“—without even a hint of style to show for it,” he finished.  Ah. That made more sense.

“And he can’t wise his way out of a box made of soggy ricepaper,” Moon Boy shrugged.

“So we did a little something to the struts of the cauldron,” Master Li said cheerfully. “Hot breakfast for the entire neighborhood, just add Fire Drug.”

“Except that everyone’s been swimming in it,” sighed Grief of Dawn. “I’ll stick to wine this morning.”

We were to run out of wine long before we ran out of congee.

Dating and the timeline indicate that this may branch into the equally apocryphal account of Master Li’s encounter with Son Goku and his non-fellows in ‘the disOrganization of tricksters, chaos gods and lunatic shape-shifting confusionists,’ sometimes mistranslated as the Enchanters of Entropy. Accounts exist of the Great Porridge Flood of Peking lasting for four days, four hours, four minutes and forty-four seconds, as well as sightings of a flying cloud solid enough to bear passengers through the streets, a mysterious abundance of rabbits and ravens in the streets of Peking, the kidnapping of Ox by a lustful barbarian love goddess and a love concert from ‘the children of the Stone’ dedicated to Number Ten Ox in the direct service of saving the world, but all of these are fragmentary and second-hand at best.