Saturday, October 22, 2005

Don't Read While You Eat: Part XII

Second Sister sat in the kitchen with Ma Huang, Second Sister had been unable to speak with Little Fish alone at length since she had seen his hand disappear and reappear. It had been three days now, they were very, very closely watched she realized. However a plan had been spawned between the siblings in quick whispers. There was a time every week when Ma Huang brought the Master the specially prepared Dinner of Immortality. Usually during this time Second Sister and Little Fish were in a Martial Arts practice session, but Second Sister had faked an ankle injury, so she sat in the kitchen chatting idly with the scar faced Ma Huang, waiting to see if Little Fish would show up. Whether it was nerves or anticipation of Little Fish’s conversation about the mysterious hand, Second Sister became bold, even insolent.
“Tell me, how did you get the scar on your face?”
Ma Huang kept smoothly chopping the vegetables to go in the bone broth.
“Once upon a time I was a very beautiful girl.”
Second Sister stared hard at her and looking past the scar she could see it, Ma Huang was still extraordinarily beautiful. “Many men hounded my father for my hand in marriage. Wanting to make the most advantageous match for family prestige and his pocket book, he allowed the process to extend for three years. During that time a wandering Taoist Monk came through our town. My brother became interested in his teachings ad he stayed at our house for the summer months when it was too hot to travel. He taught my brother and I many Taoist internal alchemical practices, and I felt I had found my path in life. I felt I had found my true home. Soon after Xing Ren, for it was he, left our house my father found the best possible match for me and insisted I marry the man. I thought him an oaf and he thought me a treasure to be kept wrapped in silk and displayed. Resolutely, one morning I stole my brother’s sword and cut my face. My betrothed retracted his offer and my father disowned me as mad. And I was free to practice internal alchemy and other Taoist arts.”
Ma Huang spun around, kicked high over the soup cauldron and dropped a handful of vegetables into the savory broth.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Don't Read While You Eat: Part XI

It seemed that Second Sister and Little Fish could do anything they like. Sometimes they stayed in the kitchen with the green-eyed, scar-faced woman. Here they helped prepare the food for the hundreds of monks staying at the Temple. Often they joined in a Martial Arts practice. Little Fish learned several moves of Tai Chi Chuan, which he would practice for hours on end in one of the innumerable courtyard that punctuated the temple buildings. Second Sister took advantage of the scrolls in the Temple buildings, though she was only allowed in with Xing Ren and then only at certain times. Life seemed to have settled after a couple or three weeks. One day they were in the kitchen and Ma Huang, for that was the green-eyed woman’s name, had just stepped out to gather a few things from the kitchen garden. Little Fish glanced furtively around and whispered to Second Sister, “Have you noticed we are never alone?” And she realized this was true.
“What so you think is going on?” she whispered to the beet she was cutting.
“Come with me to practice in the North Courtyard just before dinner”.
Second Sister had always found Little Fish’s obsession with the slow moving and, in her opinion, boring Tai Chi worthy of ignoring, but this time she nodded just as Ma Huang returned with an armful of greens. That afternoon the two children arrived at the North Courtyard and Little Fish showed Second Sister the opening moves of the Tai Chi set. A monk had certainly followed them albeit from afar. After an hour another monk took the first monk’s place. Second Sister wondered how she could have failed to notice the monkish tails….

The dinner bell rang and Little Fish made off to the dining hall, Second Sister following. The monk on their case passed them, satisfied of their destination. However Little Fish circled around and they returned to the courtyard, this time unobserved.
“Watch, quickly we haven’t much time.” He settled himself, breathed and moved into a stance called Single Whip. Second Sister gasped as his foremost hand disappeared.
“So” intoned Little Fish as he retrieved his hand from invisibility, “we have to go to dinner not or they’ll come looking.”

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Don't Read While You Eat: Part X

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.”