|Second Sister stared into her soup bowl then glanced at Little Fish, who was equally entranced by his bowl. ‘I wonder if it is safe to eat’ she thought to herself. Xing Ren and the woman joined the children with soups of their own.|
“It is good” Xing Ren intoned into his soup and lifted a spoonful to his lips. Little Fish and Second Sister lowered their spoons into their respective soups. Soup, which was a world unto itself, topped with five fresh, floating, flowers, the middle layer riddled with loosely waving seaweed and the bottom thick with primordial sludge. Second Sister knew from the smell that the stock of this soup had been slaved over, prayed over and pampered like a newborn horse. Her mother made the same such stock to keep her husband and children strong. Eating a flower Little Fish felt his head unfold, a surprise to him as he hadn’t been aware that it was folded. A strand of seaweed unclenched Second Sister’s solar plexus. A single tear made it’s way down Xing Ren’s nose as a spoonful of soup sludge filled his bones. Only soup sounds could be heard for many, many heartbeats.
After soup Second Sister felt quite herself again and asked, “Can we go home now that Little Fish is cured?”
Xing Ren rubbed his nose where the teardrop had traveled and looked sad.
“Actually, no, you can’t.”
“What! Why not?” Second Sister was alarmed and suspicious. Had they been kidnapped? The woman with the green eyes and the scar cleared the bowls and spoons as Xing Ren settled back in his chair and spoke.
“For twenty years I lived in a little hut on an auspicious site on the side of a mountain. Two years ago a messenger arrived with a letter from my teacher, the Head Priest of this Monastery. The letter informed me that a divination using the I Ching, Astronomic and Astrological calculations and a series of portents seemingly sent from the gods had been made. At the heart of it was the forecast of much sickness in the Winter and Spring four years from the date of the letter. Surrounding the heart was war and unrest in a number of provinces. My teacher asked me to collect enough herbs to supply the Monastery in the time of need. He gave me a list of the symptoms, garnered from the dinvination, so that I might tailor the formula to the approaching evil wind; relentless fever, sore throat, cough, difficulty breathing, extreme fatigue, green phlegm and boils. These were the main symptoms. I did not want to leave my mountain, but loyalty to my teacher and the place I received my training was stronger than my personal desires. For two years I have traveled arranging the collection of enough herbs to serve the monastery and the surrounding countryside. Some of the herbs are to be delivered in a year, some will be picked up by myself or one of the monks.”
“So why can’t we go home?” Second Sister interrupted.
“If I let you go home your parents might not grow enough Jin Yin Hua, the amount I require is more than their usual harvest, they will have to put forth special effort.”
Little Fish squirmed; he couldn’t let Second Sister do all the talking now that he was better. “Then, then…we are hostages?”
Second Sister chimed in “And what about my family, are we to die when the evil wind comes because you have taken all the Jin Yin Hua?”
Xing Ren laughed.
“What? What? What?” demanded Second Sister.
“I find it infinitely amusing to be found fiendishly horrible. But how could you know? I had not gotten far enough in my story. You see the Jin Yin Hua alone would not quell this evil wind, nor would the herbs in the countryside surrounding your farm. Only the formula I arranged from nine provinces over two years will quell it. I will have enough of all the herbs left at your farm to take care of your family and nearby inhabitants. You will stay here for one year, you might even like it. I wish I could send you home, but my first loyalty is with the welfare of the monastery.”
Unappeased Second Sister asked “And do you get to go home to your mountain?”
Xing Ren slowly shook his head “Alas, no, I must stay here and write, the people need something good to read in times of trouble.”