Short Story: Drought

Written in 2016 Winter

 

The white lady drew blood from the blue girl. The blood was hot, boiling, steam rising. The white lady’s hand shook as she touched the girl’s cold smooth arm, her slender fingers shambling down the thin verdant veins. Those veins resembled small streams of water, buried under rocks, visible under gleams of daylights. Tuanshan village had many creeks and rivers. The white lady and the blue girl grown up there like wild weeds. She called out the blue girl’s name, “Li. Li. ” Tongue touched upper gum lightly, flicking off, letting out a leveling sound. Short. Tender.

The village was a faint memory. Tuanshan, meaning surrounded by mountains, was an obscure borough in Yunnan, a southwest region riddled with mists, elephants hidden behind layers of banana leaves and virgins with Shamanic power. If the white lady took time to map out, she would measure two thousand miles of roads and waterways towards imperial capital, Nanjing. The first image came to the white lady’s mind was unbroken ridges of lush mountains veiled beneath milky fog. Her father carrying glinting fishing nets on his slouching shoulder appeared, like in all the landscape paintings, such minuscule figure against a colossal backdrop. Then, she saw his mouth, dried with small white flakes, dangled a long burnt reed. He would say, “Two copper pieces.” He smiled and pointed one finger up, “For one strand of salted fish.”

The white lady was quite a small child then. She repeated his words like rhymes, bundled up many strands of salted fishes, put them in a willow basket and tied the basket to her back with grass ropes. The blue girl jumped up and down about her, clapped hands, singsonging, “Two cober pises! Two pises for one stand of fishe.” The white lady frowned at the smaller girl: that high decibel scratched her eardrums, like a stray cat clawing the metal bowl. The blue girl was not yet called the blue. She was an orphan drifted from the upper river in a wicker basket, face scathed with crimson rashes, screaming, thrashing in the swaddling clothes. The white lady’s mother picked her up from the river, named her “Li” –– the dawn, the blue hours when she found her in a morning fog and fed her porridge stewed with seasoned teeny fish flakes. Li grew up subsisting on porridge and fishes. She wanted to follow the white lady all day. Even when she was still a howling animal in the cradle, she would open her arms to the white lady, who was stumbling around the bed to feel her own first few walks.

The white lady had sought any chances to avoid Li: pretending she didn’t hear when Li was talking to her, staying out late in the mountains, volunteering to sell fish in the village market at slow season. All the efforts were fertile. Li was a tenacious girl. She always found ways to resolve the obstacles. Such as now, she persuaded their mother to let her company the white lady to the market. She dangled on the white lady’s arm, nuzzled her head into the white lady’s clothes. The white lady sighed and looked at the slippery pebbles on the riverbed with a newly found curiosity: if they slip, and fall into the water, will this girl go away, disappear?

The white lady kneeled on the quartzite-lined stone floor. She could still feel that clammy grip of Li constricting the blood flow in her arm, her warm breath damping her sleeves. Ahead of her, a stone Buddha sat on the lotus seat. The monks and shamans had left the holy temple empty ten days ago. The four doors of the main temple were kept open by large wooden slabs, red paint glistening under the bright sky. The cloister was half shaded with dangled rain amulets, yellow papers stilled in the air, there was no wind. The garden surrounding the temple was turned over with mud pocks on once immaculate lawn. Wilted cedars and pines hovered near the front gate, shading stagnant shadows. The front gate of temple was barred from the outside.

She stared down at the blue girl lying beside her, lashes flickering. The blue’s cheeks hollowed out; eye sockets deepened in ten days, two blackened dry wells; lips flaked with dry blood. The white lady touched the blue’s broken lips gently, as if hurt by the actual flesh, quickly retrieved her finger. Li had a habit of biting her lips when they were dry, later wetting the lip with her tongue, peeling the flaked skin with teeth as the lips cracked again. On and off, she played with them until they bled.

The white lady waited the last few drops of blood dripped from the blue’s veins into a porcelain bottle. She had been drawing the blue’s blood three times now. She stared at the liquid, studying its colour and form: oxidized red, sluggish, and thick. Sweat dripped down her back, evaporated in the stuffy air. She could smell that particular scent of honeyed overripe tartness she had tried to ignore for days. The white lady held her breath, closed eyes for a moment.

“Yin.” A small voice shook her. She opened her eyes. It’s the red woman.

The red woman’s bosoms were renowned sight in the imperial capital. Her voluptuous body used to fill up the thin underclothes, flesh spurting underneath the pink chiffon. When she laughed, her head was thrown back to show her long neck. Her throat gurgled with wine, chuckled at the men who attempted to impress her with their know-hows and obscene remarks. The memory of the past conflicted with the current sight of the red woman. She stooped down beside the white lady, one hand fidgeting with her sagging robe, the other hand touching the white lady’s arm. She avoided the sight of the blue girl, determined to focus her eyes on the porcelain bottle in the white lady’s hand. “Yin.” The red woman called out the white lady’s long-forgotten name once more. Yin shuddered at that voice, wet knife on a whetstone, one draw, two delays, three slashes, fish on a cutting board gashed open, repeat.

The white lady thought about last night.

Last night, the sky was a black and smooth canvas. After days of tearing, begging, dancing, she had felt a rare sleepiness overcome her. She used to boast to all the other girls that she would never sleep, not when the lights blazed, drinks overflew, and the men came in to have all the fun they could grab in a women’s house. The white lady’s eyelids started drooping, arms and legs sank towards the ground. She crawled onto the cradle formed by stone Buddha’s crossed legs. Every motion was a push against tides. When the white lady sat in the cradle, she mused on a type of position she loved to practice in her routines with men: Buddha on a Lotus Seat.

She sat vis-à-vis with her last men twelve nights ago, one of several princes. He was a regular in this courtesan’s loft in the imperial capital. Her legs crossed behind his hip, undressed his gold embroidered robe, let him trace her naked back with silk tassel on his skirt. Their bodies joined in an embrace: twin Siddhartha twisted into one, the fusion of beginnings and ends, till infinitude. He was one of her favorite: a love of reciting poems instead of bureaucratic intrigues was present. He wrote long passages of prose on the way her hair untangled, the manner her body stretched on top of the satin bedding, the sight of her constant bath in fragrant oil infused tub. It had been three months without rain. She wasn’t affected: water was supplied when she wanted it. That day, he was shuddering in the after bath. She asked, “What’s wrong?”

The lamp was flickering, flames jumping. She could hear occasional fuzzed sounds of thinning wick. She asked again, “Is something bothering you, your highness?”

As she thought about that day in the cradle of the stone Buddha: his slim body in a tub of warm water, shaking, looked smaller than before, a black tide rushed over that last image, dimmed in an exponential velocity. She drifted into a slumber. A light flashed in the darkness. A damp fragrance smoked through burning incense. She roused in the heavy air. Shallow breathings surged and dropped around her. The stone Buddha moved, wrapped his arms around her waist, whispering, “Two copper pieces for one strand of fish.” The white lady floated to the ceiling, passing the dark shapes of women and girls amalgamated on the temple ground. The latched metal gate melted as she slipped through. Outside of the holy temple, She couldn’t see any guards. She looked around. The shadows of cedars twisted under the moonlight. A dry haze with scents of burnt wood cut through her muddled brain.

At southside, a square of sky was lit like a white mirror, reflecting inferno that was climbing upwards. The white lady felt a pull, her body dragged through arid atmosphere, scorching, emitting white steams. A long held scream pulsed outwards from her body. She saw it: wooden slabs in those low-rise houses at the ridge of the capital were ablaze. People heaved their hollowed bodies on the street, lost in the midst of hot air. The air was so hot. The sweats and tears evaporated in a thousandth of a second. She stared at a woman tumbling towards her: the woman’s taut skin cracked in the heat, a saturated orange appeared to grow darker as the flame approached and engulfed the woman’s torso. The white lady realized she was looking at the face of the yellow girl. The yellow girl was the first one to leave them. The guard found her when she snuck out from the back door. Now, the yellow girl fell onto the ground, robe ripped open by the gusts, revealing the flogged marks left after they left her in the garden. Soon the yellow’s face morphed into that of the purple lady. Through the smoke, the white lady recognized the features of the purple crumpled into the green girl, then, the orange woman. The white lady woke, panting. Her underclothes were damp, sticky, and moldy. A breeze drifted in the temple, she quivered as if in a cold shower.

“Yin.” The red woman said. The image of last night receded. Yin turned her head. She glanced at the red’s face, streaked by dried tears, marked with mucus. Twelve days ago, the prince had told her the head of Shaman decided the rain ritual needed seven unchaste women. He had recommended her to the Emperor. He said her presence would amplify the power of the ritual through her lineage in Shamanic Yunnan.

Since then, she and other selected women had been singing, “The land of droughts is in need of sweet water from the heaven.” So long, the heaven hadn’t heard their rallying cries. Their throats were scarred because of overused falsetto. For the first three days, the guard would send food and drinks to the hall of holy temple. The sweltering heat deepened the scents of roasted beef and Persian wine. It was a mercy bestowed by the men who had been in their beds: princes, dukes and chancellors. Slowly, the food and drinks had been reduced, till none. That was a mercy too. The body should be a holy medium, transparent and pure. Food from earth would contaminate this purity.

HUNGERHUNGERHUNGER!

Yin pictured herself digging a finger into her stomach: the imagined sensation of filling up the empty chamber in her body was ecstatic. Her mouth watered as she envisioned her fingers were gobbled up, bone melting in the flesh.

The red’s face looked attenuated and emaciated: her usual peachy blush had vanished. Yin entertained a thought: they looked alike now. They could be sisters too. Before, the red woman had always teased Yin and Li, “Two little sisters from countryside. Work on the same bed. One suck, the other taste––” The red woman liked to boast about her lineage, an aristocracy from previous dynasty. Though beheaded by the current emperor’s father, the red woman insisted, a noble was still higher than a country girl. Yin looked on with satisfaction, the noble woman pointed one finger to her throat. She begged, “Thirsty.” Her eyes were glued to the bottle.

The mutt stood tall on top of a little yellowing slope on the day of Yin and Li left the village. The animal howled, like a wolf. He was drooling: pale green eyes fixated on two girls. Yin shivered at the thought of that stare, overlapping with the red’s eyes.

The white lady twisted her arm out of the red’s grip, “No!” Her face wrinkled in disgust, “No.”

 

 

The blue girl had been sick since the orange woman died of a swift fever two days ago. The blue vomited green liquids and couldn’t intake any roots they excavated from the back garden. The white lady collected sparse dews in late night and dabbled the blue’s lips to keep her breathing. She had learned from a doctor: when one was sick like this, the blood should be drawn out to clear the internal organs. The white lady not only enjoyed corporeal pleasure with men, but also sought the knowledge from them, variety of masteries: poetry, landscape painting, political prose, medicine and Confucian philosophizing. Her craving for knowing had proved serviceable till this moment.

It had been the third time she had drawn the blue’s blood. The blue girl had fallen deeper into a murmuring state. When Yin put her hand in front of Li’s nostril, it took a long time –– quite long that her heart seemed to sink without the hold of gravity –– to feel a light breathe. Yin pressed down her upper torso, nuzzled her face into Li’s clothes, and stroked those twigs-like arms. She waited. Li didn’t jump up or pounced on her. Yin could only hear her own infrequent heartbeats. She felt dizzy. Yin looked at the floor. Its snaky cracks resembled the meander they had walked, on the way to Nanjing, when they left Tuanshan. Two of them rode a donkey in Guilin, stirring mist of dirt as the ride kicked and hiked. Two of them boarded a boat in a waterway between Nanchang and Nanjing. There were no more banana trees or deep forests.

Yin let go of the blue.

The bodies of the yellow, the purple, the green and the orange piled on the floor. She knew their remains would stink. But she didn’t expect the scent were going to be piercing. It attracted two bony rodents in the garden. Two tiny skeletons crawled towards the body pile.

 

 

The red woman was stunned that Yin would pull away. Her pupils, two ink drops on a sheet of white paper, expanded. Her throat gurgled with sounds of wailings, interrupted by heavy wheezing. She couldn’t tear up. There was no water left in the system. It’s only broken voices that made no sense. The red woman curled up into a ball. Yin was alarmed by this crying, tensed up the body. In an abrupt motion, the red sprung up towards her.

Yin held the bottle to her chest. She turned her back towards the red to hide the bottle from the red. The red kicked Yin, yanked a bunch of her hair: blood dropped from Yin’s skull. Yin held onto the bottle. She closed her eyes in this endurance of pain. This particular image emerged in the murkiness behind her eyelids: a fish gulped air rapidly, flopping on a chopping board. She could smell the salted fishy reek, not sure from the body of hers, the red’s or the other women’s disposed remains.

The red was a big woman. Even in her malnourished state, she appeared to contain a menacing bone structure and wide frame. She started scratching Yin’s face, pried Yin’s enclosing arms, gouged into her back. A pained shriek locked in her throat: Yin piled all her physique intensity into her hands, burying the bottle deep into her body. Though the red’s strength was loosing, she clung tightly onto Yin’s body. They remained in that position for a long while. Silence had a distinct loudness: leaves shuffling laboriously, the incense ashes falling, rain amulets flipping in the wind.

The red loosened her grip and flopped down on the floor, gasping for air. Yin slumped beside her. The porcelain bottle fell from Yin’s hands, rolling on the floor. No one touched it. The lid slid open. The blue’s blood trickled down onto the temple ground, filling up the pores and cracks of quartzite.

There would be life again. As blood was water, water was life. Like in spring, new leaves grew on old trees, silver finned fishes leaped in the river. Yin didn’t know one day she would miss the odor of fish and the gooey porridge. When Yin and Li left their village behind and reached the imperial capital, they swore they would only devour the most exquisite meat and wines for the rest of their lives. Yin laying on the cold ground, gazed over at the smiling Buddha, there was an uncertainty in that stretch of lips: a smirk or a grin, on the possibility of a rain shower that would come or wait for a bit longer.

 

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