“You’re it!” one of the kids yelled as she caught sight of Lihua.
Lihua squealed with laughter as she stood up from her hiding place and looked for the other children. She easily found two other girls who couldn’t stop laughing. They jumped up and playfully fought over who would actually be it. The girl who had found Lihua joined the fray, and soon the four of them were fighting and laughing at the same time.
“I think everyone is it!” Lihua said. There was a momentary pause before all of the children burst into screams and they all ran in different directions through the forest looking for whoever had not yet been found.
After a moment, Lihua stopped to catch her breath and found herself completely alone. She turned around and took in the sight of the tall bamboo trees that creaked as they slowly swayed in the breeze. The bamboo forest was so thick, it was nearly dark here, even though it was only mid-afternoon.
She heard a rustling to her left. She took a cautious step toward it.
“Hello?” she called. “Who’s there? I won’t hurt you.” She hoped it was a panda. She had spent her whole life at the edge of a bamboo forest, west of the Dayong Mountains in eastern Bashu. Her grandmother had told her many stories about the fat, fluffy bears that roamed all over the mountains in her girlhood, but Lihua had never seen one.
“The black-footed ghost of the forest,” her grandmother called them. They were said to roam the woods, eating anything they could find, even iron pots or bamboo chopsticks. If anything went missing, a panda was surely to blame.
But their pelts were said to be a thing of beauty and even good fortune. So, if a panda were seen, people would kill it and use its fur, bones, and bile as medicine. In recent years, warlords hunted them in large numbers, selling the hides to rich people in the east of the country or even to foreigners.
“When I was a child,” her grandmother said. “I would sit in my room on the second floor of our house and watch from my window as the pandas would sneak out of the forest and peek into the village. They would steal our clothes or food. Whatever they could get their wicked paws on.”
But Lihua wasn’t afraid. At twelve years old, not much scared her.
“Come out,” she said as she crept closer to whatever was rutting about in the brush.
She gasped and then sighed in disappointment as a monkey leaped from the ground, scurried up a tree, and joined its many dozens of friends above her. She should have known. It was never a panda.
“Lihua!” Her mother’s voice rang through the forest, that shrill, annoyed voice she knew so well.
“Coming!” she called back. She took one last look at the overgrown forest and prayed for just a glimpse of a panda, but her mother’s incessant calls did not allow for much hesitation on her part. She finally turned and ran back toward their village.
“Lihua!” her mother scolded as soon as she arrived back home. “Where were you? Lazy girl!”
“It was rest time, but I wasn’t tired,” Lihua said. “The other children and I—”
“Other children?” her mother interrupted. “All wasteful brats. Each one, so spoiled. Never helping when needed.”
“I’m here now, Mama,” Lihua said as she pulled on an apron and immediately went to work stoking the fire under the large pot of spicy broth that they used as a base in almost all of the bowls of noodles they served out of their small restaurant.
“Leave the girl alone, Shushu,” Lihua’s grandmother chastised as she hobbled into the room on her cane. She pulled out a chair and sat down, her face wincing. She then thumbed the bodhi-seed bracelet she always wore as she mumbled to herself.
“How are you feeling, Nainai?” Lihua asked her grandmother.
“Better now that you are here, my pearl,” Nainai cooed, but Lihua could always see the pain etched permanently behind her grandmother’s eyes.
When Nainai had been a young girl, her feet had been bound, as was tradition for most families. Broken, molded into the desired lotus shape, and then healed in their disfigured form, the girls were unable to walk on their own for very long. But after the death of the Manchu empress, many people—especially the warlords—called for an end to some of the old ways. Nainai’s feet were then unbound, but the damage had already been done. The arches of her feet were completely flat, and her toes still curled under. She had once told Lihua that unbinding her feet had been a more painful process than binding them in the first place. She still walked with a limp, when she walked at all.
“Lihua,” her mother said, still with her typical sharpness, but with less volume than before now that her mother-in-law was present. “Go check the huajiao and bring them in if they are ready.”
“Yes, Mama,” Lihua said, and she bounded up the stairs to the roof. The family lived in two rooms above the noodle shop, and they used the roof to store or dry the various fruits, meats, and vegetables they used. Today, they were drying the most recent crop of huajiao—flower peppers, the spicy peppercorns that grew native in their area and gave their food its unique flavor.
The huajiao had been spread out on a large white sheet to dry in the sun. Lihua picked up a huajiao and ran it through her fingers. The hull cracked easily, revealing the sharp-flavored seed inside. She popped the huajiao in her mouth and crushed it between her teeth, letting the spice send its tingling, numbing sensation over her tongue and down her throat. Many people, especially people who were not from Bashu, could not handle the flavor of the huajiao, but Lihua loved it. She was considered a “spicy girl,” an affectionate term for girls from Bashu who had built up an immunity to the flavor that could send even the strongest man to his knees, begging for water.
Lihua took a bamboo log and ran it over the dried huajiao. Then she picked up the sheet and poured the huajiao into a finely-woven basket. She stepped to the edge of the roof and shook the basket, letting the chaff separate from the peppercorns and drift away on the breeze. She then put the peppercorns into a jar and went back downstairs.
Without needing to be told, she added more water to the pot of broth, along with garlic, ginger, salt, and some of the freshly-cracked peppercorns. She sipped the broth and added a bit more salt until the flavor was just right. It wasn’t quite spicy enough for her taste. If she had her way, she would have added another fistful of peppercorns, but she had learned from experience that if she made it too spicy, the family ended up with unhappy customers. And unhappy customers don’t pay. And customers who don’t pay created an unhappy Mama. And the last thing Lihua wanted was to make her mother unhappy.
But Mama was always unhappy, it seemed to Lihua. She was older, much older than the mothers of all her friends. She was thin and pale. But she worked hard. She was always working. She was up before dawn and usually the last to lay down for the evening. She worried constantly. Worried about money. Worried about the restaurant. Worried about the warlords. Worried about the future.
Lihua did her best to not cause her mother trouble, but she knew there was little she could do since she had been born a daughter. Eventually, she would marry out and never see her family again. She assumed this was why her mother and father treated her with a coldness, more like an employee than a daughter. They didn’t want to become too attached. She knew other girls who were also treated harshly by their families for the same reason. Though, she also knew families who loved and doted on their daughters as well. Sometimes she wished she had a family like that, but she was grateful her parents didn’t beat her or treat her cruelly. And she had Nainai. Nainai’s love was warm and ever-ready, and more than made up for the lack of affection from Mama.
“Lihua,” Nainai called once Lihua was done seasoning the broth. “Come.”
She waved Lihua over to her, joss sticks in hand. They walked to the front of the shop and got down on their knees. Nainai handed some of the joss sticks to Lihua and then struck a match, lighting the joss sticks on fire with a spark and sputter. The flame quickly went out, but the sticks continued to burn slowly, releasing its fragrant smoke.
Lihua and Nainai then looked up at the kitchen god over the doorway and kowtowed three times. Then they held their joss sticks in their hands as they closed their eyes and prayed.
Lihua did not know what Nainai prayed for, but Lihua prayed for the same thing she always did: a little brother. Even though the family was rather poor, and a new baby would be a burden for Mama, a boy would help alleviate many of Mama’s worries. A boy would never leave them, and eventually, he would bring a daughter-in-law to help Mama run the shop when she was too old.
“Praying again, laoma?” a man said to Nainai with a laugh as he entered the shop, referring to her with the familiar term for an older woman.
“Some reverence from a little pig like you would not go amiss,” Nainai said as Lihua helped her stand. Nainai’s superstitious nature was almost legendary in their village. Nainai knew every ancestral rite ever imagined, and she practiced all of them.
With the arrival of the first evening patron, the signal for the dinner rush had been given. Lihua helped her grandmother climb the stairs to the room they shared where she could sit out of the way while the rest of the family worked. Lihua then returned to the bowl of broth and put on some noodles to cook in another pot.
Her father arrived soon after with a stack of bamboo logs, each one as thick as a man’s arm. He spent much time in the forest, felling and splitting the logs to use for the family’s other main dish—rice cooked in bamboo tubes. Her father put rice, meat, huajiao, and other spices into the tubes and sealed them with banana leaves. He then put them on a grill outside and let them cook.
For the rest of the evening, like every other evening of Lihua’s life, the family served bowls of noodles and bamboo tubes of rice to countless people who stopped into the shop. Some of the patrons lingered long into the night, drinking baijiu and playing dice. It wasn’t until the last of the village’s lanterns had burned out that the family finally climbed up the stairs to their rooms and collapsed onto their beds.
Lihua lay by the window and looked up at the stars and moon as she drifted off.
“Lihua…” she heard her grandmother’s voice croak from her pallet on the other side of the room.
Lihua sighed as she sat up and folded her hands in front of her to say one last prayer.
“Dear Guanyin,” she said, invoking the name of the Goddess of Mercy. “Please send my mother a son.”
She was too tired to elaborate or use more fanciful language, but she thought that the goddess must be powerful enough to read the sincerity in her heart. She laid back down and was asleep before her head hit the pillow.
“And then Ling pushed Zhuang, and he fell back into a mud puddle!” Lihua said with a laugh as she pulled dough into long noodle strands and told her mother about the trouble some of her friends got into that afternoon. “He was so mad! But Ling is much faster, so even though he chased her, she got home before he could reach her, and her dad came outside and threatened to kick Zhuang if he ever—”
“Lihua!” her mother interrupted. “Please…” She didn’t finish her request.
Lihua turned and grew concerned when she saw her mother rubbing her forehead. But she was even more surprised to see her mother sitting down! Her mother never took a break. She always just pushed through. Sick, tired, worried. Her mother was always on her feet doing something. To see her mother sitting idle, if even for a moment, caused alarm bells to ring in Lihua’s head. She went to her mother’s side.
“Are you all right, Mama?” Lihua asked.
Her mother pressed her lips but didn’t look at her. “No,” she said. “I’m going to have a baby.”
It took a moment for the words to sink in, but then Lihua nearly jumped out of her skin in excitement. She tugged on her mother’s sleeve.
“Oh, Mama!” she said. “I’m so happy! I prayed for this every day! I know the baby will be a boy!”
Her mother looked at her, her eyes watering. Another first! Her mother never cried.
“You…prayed for us to have a child?” she asked in surprise.
“It is the only thing I ever prayed for,” Lihua said, her face beaming.
Her mother looked away and put her hand to her mouth, pinching her eyes shut.
“Mama?” Lihua asked. “What is wrong?”
“What is happening?” Nainai asked as she slowly descended the stairs. Lihua ran to her side and helped her down the last few steps.
“Mama is going to have a baby!” Lihua exclaimed. “My prayers have been answered.”
Nainai’s face fell as she shot a look at her daughter-in-law. “Is this true?” she asked. The woman nodded. Nainai slowly walked over to a stool and sat down. Lihua then heard the quiet, incessant clanking of her grandmother’s bodhi-seed bracelet.
Lihua looked from her grandmother to her mother. She did not understand why the family was not happy. She kneeled by her mother’s knee.
“Everything will be fine, Mama,” she said. “Guanyin will send you a son. I am sure she will not let him go hungry. The goddess will provide!”
Her mother slapped her hand on the table and sighed in exasperation as she stood up and went back to work wiping the tables down. “More ridiculous superstitions.”
“Does my son know?” Nainai asked.
“Yes,” Mama said. “He is…looking at options.”
“What do you mean, Mama?” Lihua asked.
“Never you mind,” Mama said. “It doesn’t matter. Maybe the baby won’t come at all. Then nothing will change.”
“Oh, Mama!” Lihua said. “Don’t worry. I’m sure the goddess will protect him.”
“Lihua! Please!” her mother cried, her voice shaking, along with her hands.
Lihua was shocked into silence. What was wrong? Why was her mother so…scared? Angry? Sad? Lihua didn’t understand it. Well, she knew her family would worry about money; they always did. But many poor families had lots of children and they survived. Besides, she was already twelve years old. She could marry in only a couple of years. They could scrape by until then, couldn’t they?
“Please,” her mother said after taking a few deep breaths. She went to the back of the room and looked under a shelf. She pulled out a little jar of money and pulled out some small coins. “Please, go to the market. We need one jin of pork for tonight. Make sure you bargain.”
“Of course, Mama,” Lihua said, taking the coins and a cloth to wrap the meat in. She also took some joss sticks from their box and put them in her pocket. “Can I stop at the temple on the way back? I will pray for the health of the new baby.”
Her mother looked at her with wide eyes. She nodded without a word and then quickly looked away.
As she passed her grandmother, the old woman reached out and grabbed her sleeve.
“Say a prayer for yourself as well, my pearl,” she said.
Lihua gave her a smile and then ran out of the shop toward the market. Why would she say a prayer for herself? Every bit of luck she could muster would need to go to Mama and the baby! She knew that many women died in childbirth, so she would say a prayer for Mama too.
The market was down a narrow alley in the middle of the village. The rank smells infiltrated her nose, but she barely grimaced, she was so used to coming here at least once a day. Filthy ducks and chickens honked and squawked from their wicker baskets. Wriggling fish were lifted from buckets and gutted all along the street. The blood from fresh kills snaked down the road, mixing with the water from the tubs of live frogs and eels. Two dogs barked at each other as they fought over the legbone of a pig someone had carelessly dropped. That bone could have made a good soup, Lihua thought. Stalls of fresh vegetables with bright orange carrots, green lettuce, and purple eggplants made her mouth water.
She finally came to a stall with fresh meat where she knew the vendor would give her the best price.
“Hey, laoban!” she called to the man who ran the stall.
“Little pearl,” he said with a smile. Everyone knew her grandmother called her pearl, so other people sometimes called her that as well. “Your cheeks look red. You have been in the sun too much.”
“The summer is too hot,” she said. “I need to go swim in the river like a fish.”
“You’ll have to be careful,” the man replied. “The river can be very dangerous.”
“Do you have good meat for sale today?” she asked, eyeing the bright pink slabs of pork on the table in front of her.
“Of course!” he said. “What? You think I serve garbage?”
“If it will bring you money, I think you might try!” she said jokingly. Friendly insults were always part of the bargaining process.
“You think so?” he asked as he shook a finger at her and then pointed to a fatty piece at the end of the table. “Just to show you how good my pigs are, I will sell you this very high-quality piece right here.”
It was a nice piece, but she wrinkled her nose anyway. “Are you trying to sell me last week’s rotten meat?”
“What?” he asked, feigning insult. “This is from my best pig! I slaughtered him just for you! I even blessed him before I did it because I knew it would please your grandmother.”
Lihua did her best to stifle a laugh. “How much for this old rotten piece?” she asked.
“For you, a very good price.” He rattled off a number that was fair, but Lihua didn’t want to spend all the money her mother had given her on the meat, even though she was supposed to.
“Why are you trying to rip me off?” she asked, her hands on her hips. “Who else is going to buy this ugly thing from you?”
“Come on, Lihua,” he said. “Don’t make me beg a little girl for money. I have children to feed.”
“I’ll tell you a secret if you give me a better price,” she said, leaning in. He cocked his head toward her. “My mama is finally going to have a baby!”
“Congratulations!” the man said. “Okay, okay. Just for today, to celebrate your good news, I can give you a special discount. But don’t try to haggle with me for the rest of the week, okay?”
“It’s a deal!” Lihua said, excitedly handing him only three of the four coins her mother had given her in exchange for the slab of meat. The vendor wrapped the meat up in the piece of cloth she had brought and gave it to her.
“Give your mother my best wishes for a healthy son,” he said.
“I will,” she said. She ran down the rest of the market street, toward the temple at the end.
She flew past the fortune tellers, the incense sellers, the man who carved ancestor stones, and the people selling paper money. It was as if her last coin may vanish if she dared to even look at any of the vendors.
She ran through the gate and up the steps to the main temple hall. It was a small, simple building that had been painted yellow many years ago, but most of the paint had faded or peeled away. There was one small statue of Guanyin in the temple room, and only cushions for two people to pray on at a time, but more than that was only needed on festival days. She approached a monk and handed him the coin and her joss sticks.
“I know it isn’t much,” she said. “But it is all I have. Please pray for my mother so she will have a healthy son.”
The monk smiled and took the coin. Then he lit her joss sticks and led her to the statue of Guanyin in the middle of the room.
Lihua placed the joss sticks into a long trough of ash that ran the length of the statue, then she kneeled on a red pillow in front of the display. The monk sat on a pillow next to her and recited a blessing as the two of them kowtowed to Guanyin three times. The monk gave her a smile and then went to help another petitioner. But Lihua lingered a little longer. She folded her hands in front of her and prayed as hard as she could for her mother and her little brother.
The thunder cracked and the wind howled as Lihua’s mother labored with the baby through the night. The pregnancy had been difficult, with Mama always exhausted or ill. But that was over, and the baby would be here soon.
Lihua’s father paced back and forth, and Nainai ran her fingers over the bodhi seeds of her bracelet at a furious pace. Lihua could not go outside and pray to the kitchen god over the doorway in the rain, so she kneeled just inside the open door and rocked nervously on her heels. All any of them could do was wait as two of their neighbors helped Mama bring her baby into the world.
“Lihua,” Nainai called, waving her over. Nainai gripped Lihua’s hands so tightly it was almost painful. “Whatever happens, you must be strong.”
“I am sure Mama won’t die,” Lihua said.
“No, no,” Nainai said, shaking her head.
“I’ll be a good daughter,” Lihua said. “And a good big sister.”
“I know you will,” Nainai said, her voice cracking. “I have never worried about you being good and doing the right thing. It’s your mother—”
“Ma!” Lihua’s father cut in. She looked at him and saw him sending a warning look to Nainai.
“What is it?” Lihua asked. “What about Mama?”
“Nothing,” her father said. “Just…wait. It still might all be for nothing.”
Lihua’s brow furrowed. She didn’t understand. In the months leading up to tonight, it was as if the family wanted the baby to die. In a way, she understood their fears. Many babies never arrived at all, and some were born sleeping. Many did not live to see their first year. Not to mention that they were already barely scraping by. It was best to not get attached should the worst happen.
But Lihua couldn’t think that way. She knew the goddess would protect the baby. Somehow, they would all find a way to survive—together.
The lightning struck and the wind blew the rain through the noodle shop. Lihua ran to the door to close it, but then she heard a voice behind her.
“The baby,” the neighbor woman said, coming down the stairs.
Lihua, her father, and her grandmother all turned to the woman expectantly, holding their breaths.
“The baby has arrived alive,” the woman said. “It is a boy.”
Lihua exhaled with relief and a smile spread across her face. She looked to her father and grandmother, but they did not look at her, nor did they smile. They only looked at each other with grim faces.
“I warned you many years ago,” her grandmother said to her father. “But you didn’t listen.” She spit on the ground, and Lihua gasped. Why would her grandmother be cursing her father on this joyous occasion?
Her father didn’t reply. He only pressed his lips and then stomped upstairs, pushing past the neighbor woman. The other neighbor came down the stairs as well, holding a basin of bloody water and rags. She went to the door and tossed the water out into the street for the rain to wash away. Both of the women left the shop without a word to Lihua or Nainai.
“What is happening?” Lihua asked. “Why is no one happy?”
Nainai stood and cupped Lihua’s chin in her hand. She opened her mouth a few times to speak, but always shut it again. She finally shook her head and carefully climbed the stairs to her own room.
The doors banged open again. Lihua ran to push them closed, but as she looked out into the street, she gasped. A black and white shape quickly darted behind a house on the other side of the road and disappeared. She rubbed her eyes and looked again, but nothing was there.
She pondered over what it could have been. A dog? A spirit? A panda? A wisp of smoke? She almost laughed to herself. It was surely only her eyes playing tricks on her in the late, stormy night.