SHE REACHED OUT and took the cup, her eyes closing, shutting the world out. She would not see the edge as it touched her lips and made bitter the sweetened rice brew that sealed this pact. Her red veil was raised, but her heart was far from the moment. As the acrid cooling brew washed bitter over her tongue, she recalled her childhood—a recollection that had ended with that brutal cup and this heartless pact.
“Ch’i-lin,” came the voice. “Are you here Ch’i-lin?”
She was here. She felt the gentle breeze of the kitchen on her cheek, although she stood in the parlor surrounded by guests. She had left her father at the door with the many gifts for Master K’ung—gifts that matched the family’s expectations. She had left her mother down the road, peering over the wall, tears of mixed-joy standing in eyes like water bags on a mule’s back, stubborn to flood her arroyo cheeks. Ch’i-lin was content behind her father’s walls, content to be just a girl, flowering and useful to mother’s chores, her sister’s games and her father’s doting. Life for those who have the misfortune to be born bereft of testicles are distracted by those who had them; and those that had them had cash and good connections.
Ch’i-lin felt the kitchen’s breeze and she knew that her new mother stood in the portal planning the life of her new charge. Life for a childless woman was set, even at the age of thirteen; and childless Ch’i-lin would be. They all knew that. She heard that voice again—Ch’i-lin, but instead she heard the call of the kettles and woks, the buckets and the carry-poles. She had a strong back—her gift to the union as no issue would be coming. She shuddered and for a moment she wanted to answer the voice.
“I am not here. I am in my father’s gardens sewing daisies to my mother’s skirts. I am singing to the willow and making my erh-hu sigh to the west wind. I am watching the rain kiss the bean fields and praying to the radishes as they quake from the soil. I am there, but never here. Never here.”
The kitchen breeze and her new mother’s voice cawed. “Drink and make it so.”
Ch’i-lin opened her eyes and swallowed. It was a hollow choke—a bitter vision. Beyond the toil of her new life, her husband sat slumped in a muddle beside his mother. The rice wine slurped to his chapped, blackening lips; the drops beading down his sallow cheeks like grease from a roasting duck.
The corpse wore crimson raiment, silks much finer than its skin. Soon it would wear white funeral robes hosting another ceremonial. But first—this one; the one bonding two properties in peace and civility. Ch’i-lin shuddered and her childhood and maidenhood passed along with the cup—the cup that made her the widow K’ung and a mule to her new mother.
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