Thursday, October 17, 2013
Thursday's Opening Scene - All Our Yesterdays, China by Janet Lane Walters
All Our Yesterdays - China
Xing-Xing could hardly contain her excitement. Today her silk merchant father, Huang Yu, returned from his travels. Two days ago, his messenger had arrived. Since then, the women and servants of the household had prepared for his home-coming. The house had been cleaned and her father's favorite dishes prepared.
She hurried to the garden to gather flowers. What gift would he bring his lowly daughter? He always found something special for her.
She had another reason for eager anticipation. Her oldest brother had taken Chu Hua, the youngest daughter of a city merchant, as his wife. The bride was Xing-Xing's age and she hoped they could be friends. For all her life, her days had been bound by noisy brothers who had no interest in the things she liked. Of the household women, only Ah Lam, youngest of the concubines, matched Xing-Xing's age. Between them lay an animosity with no reason to exist.
Xing-Xing straightened. Her second brother, Huang Hsia, slipped through the garden. His furtive glances caught her attention. He ran into the mulberry grove. Where once he'd been a happy and fun companion, since the departure of their father and elder brother, he had turned secretive and surly.
Before she had a chance to follow, Ah Lam crept from the house and hurried toward the trees.
As silently as possible, Xing-Xing followed. She moved from tree to tree until she heard their voices. Then, she edged closer and peered around a trunk. With a hand, she muffled a gasp.
Ah Lam grasped Huang Hsia's arms. "You must come to me as you have every night this lunar. My lotus craves your jade stem. How can you desert me? I need your vigor."
Huang Hsia jerked away. "Ah Lam, I love you. I want to be with you, but I can't. Father returns today. I must regain my honor."
"He is old. He is fat. His stem is a withered reed. Give me a child and he will leave me alone."
Huang Hsia evaded her grasping hands. "I will ask him to give you to me."
She scratched his face. "He won't. If he was dead--"
"Then my elder brother would rule the house. I cannot do what you ask. All I can do is ask my father for you."
"He will punish me. Would you see me beaten and cast out? Don't you desire me? What happened to your eagerness for my lotus? Even now your jade stem strains to pleasure me." She turned away. "I will find another man, one who is young and handsome, to pleasure me."
Xing-Xing heard the gate gong. She turned to run. Her brother grabbed her arm. "What are you doing here?"
His voice menaced. His gaze threatened. "Walking."
"If you say a word to anyone, I'll make you sorry."
She looked at him. "Why Ah Lam? There are women in the village."
"None so eager and as skilled."
"She belongs to father."
He nodded. "He gave her to me for one night so I could learn the ways of love. That wasn't enough. My heart yearns for her and hers for me."
Xing-Xing shook her head. "You may love Ah Lam, but she seeks to make mischief."
"You don't understand. You're only a girl."
She shook her head. "I'm a woman. Father seeks a husband for me." She broke free, ran to the garden for the basket of flowers she had picked. She reached the gate in time to see the procession. First came the palanquin bearing her elder brother and his bride. Her father rode in the second with a stranger. Xing-Xing sucked in a breath. Was the young and handsome man to be her husband?
Her father's wives and concubines gathered around him. Xing-Xing glanced at the women. Ah Lam stared at the stranger. A cat's smile bowed her lips. Xing-Xing wanted to slap the concubine.
After her father greeted the women, he called Xing-Xing to his side. "Star of my future happiness, I have a gift for you."
Her heart thudded. She kept her head bowed. Instead of presenting his companion, he drew a carved jade pendant from its silk wrappings. The chain was ivory, each link intertwined with the next. She couldn't see how they'd been joined.
"This unworthy girl thanks you. Such beauty brightens the day made radiant by your return."
She looked up. Her gaze locked with the stranger's. His heated stare stole her breath, her thoughts, her heart. He was no older than her eldest brother. Surely, he would be hers.
Her father grasped her arm. "Come and bid your Chu Hua welcome. Take her to the rooms prepared for them so she can see to her belongings."
Xing-Xing bowed. "I will gladly do this."
As they walked away, she felt the stranger's heated gaze on her back. She hugged the knowledge inside. He desired her, not Ah Lam. Why hadn't her father named him? Was the man observing her before he asked for her as his bride?
She took Chu Hua to the rooms on the other side of the sprawling compound. The other woman had a merry smile. When she entered the room, her eyes sparkled with delight. "How fortunate you are not to live in the city. My honored father's house there is crowded and our garden small."
Xing-Xing smiled. "The house and land came to my father when he married my mother. She was the only child of her house. The mulberry groves and silk worms were part of her dowry."
"Have you sisters?"
"Seven brothers. Fortunate is my father for he has many sons to care for his bones and venerate him when he dies."
"How fortunate you are. I have two brothers and four sisters. I'm but the second daughter to find a husband." Chu Hua pulled up her sleeve to reveal a line of scratches. "One of my sisters did this when she learned the honorable Huang Yu chose me for his son. What are the household's women like?"
"My mother is strict, but kind. All of the women except Ah Lam, my father's youngest concubine, are nice. She's greedy. Steals the presents my honorable father brings me and says I gave them to her. Stares at all the men like a cat sizing a mouse."
"I will watch for her."
"She hasn't given my father a son. The herb woman says Ah Lam knows ways to rid herself of an unwanted child."
Chu Hua nodded. "I have heard there are ways. How can she deny your father a son?" She smiled. "I think I'm with child. Your brother is a lusty lover. He comes to me every night, sometimes twice."
"Does it hurt?"
"One time. Then it's all pleasure."
Servants carried boxes into the room. Xing-Xing's oldest brother followed. He embraced Chu Hua and caressed her back. Xing-Xing hurried away. Would a man ever touch her with fire and tenderness? An odd feeling throbbed in her lotus. She closed her eyes and imagined the stranger's hands moving on her body.
"Xing-Xing, come. Time to serve the meal," her mother said. "There is no time for dreaming."
"Yes, Mother." Xing-Xing followed the maid who carried the soup tureen into the room where the men and boys had gathered at the large table. She ladled soup into the bowls. Other women brought the many dishes of food and heaping bowls of rice. Her brother and Chu Hua arrived. Her flushed cheeks brought teasing remarks from the women.
Xing-Xing barely ate. The stranger held her attention. How wonderful his scent. How melodious his voice.
"Wu Ping, do you think you can make scholars of these rowdy boys?" Huang Yu asked.
"I can but try. Not all boys have the knack of learning, but they can master enough skills to make them assets for the house of Huang."
Xing-Xing hid her disappointment. Not her husband-to-be. Only a tutor. Yet his clothes were fine and he looked more like a soldier than a scholar.
"Xing-Xing, would you show the teacher to his rooms," Huang Yu said. "See that he has all he needs."
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