About The Book
To the east of Lake Danao sits the home of porter Huang Haijiao and his daughter Huang Qiaoyun. Porters in China usually had the last name Huang, and Haijiao was a younger male cousin to Hailong, hence his name. And boy, was he a great porter back in the day, being the best high jumper around. The round granary huts he worked were called ‘nest stores’ in these parts, and their matted walls of long reeds stood ten or so meters high. Haijiao’s job was to load grain up into them via a precariously steep and narrow flexing board; and the slightest hesitation on his spring to the top would likely end in injury. Those passing by, be it a refined lady or an older man, would be amazed at how he and the other porters loaded up the huts – at ground level, they would grab a carrying pole loaded with some 75 kg of rice, and then skip on up like an arrow, dump out their baskets with one powerful throw, and be back on the ground in a mere a step or two.
A bit too honest and dedicated to his job, Haijiao had still not married despite being twenty-five years old. But that year, as he helped load the granaries over at Cheluo Town, a young girl asked him for directions. She had long bangs that swept into a Suzhou bun, and had an anxious, almost flustered look behind her bit of rouge. And the places she asked for were either worlds away or didn’t exist – Haijiao could tell right away that she was a wealthy family’s escaped house maid. Her name was Lianzi, and after talking for a bit, she agreed to follow him. Really though, all the maids and servant girls in these parts had her name, which meant ‘lotus seed’.
Lianzi and Haijiao were together for a year before having a daughter. And they decided to name her Qiaoyun, as she was born in July (‘qi’) under a sky filled with colorful clouds (‘yun’).
Lianzi had nimble, hard-working hands, and she would often sit about in her jacquard pants eating sunflower seeds or other snacks. She loved to sing as well, especially folk tunes like Da Ya Pai (Ivory Plaques) which didn’t fit in with the local style. “A frigid moon on the eaves, stretching and yawns with ease, and then the sleepies set in. Oh no, oh no, the sleepies set in…”
But by the time Qiaoyun was three, Lianzi met a Beijing opera performer from a passing theatre troupe and thought it was about time to run off again. Huang Haijiao was over in Stable Bay at the time, so Lianzi took her time to properly starch and fold his and Qiaoyun’s clothes, simmer up a stew, and buy him a pint of liquor. Then she asked their neighbor to look after her daughter, mumbling some excuse about having to fetch something, and with a turn of the key she was gone.
Her sudden disappearance didn’t bother him any, though – this sort of thing happened all around Lake Danao! And let’s be honest, if a grown bird needs to spread its wings and fly, what’s holding a person back from doing the same? The child she left behind was really what worried him the most. He couldn’t stand the thought of Qiaoyun living under the despising stare of a stepmother, so he swore right then and there to never remarry – he’d be Qiaoyun’s mother and father, and that’s exactly how things went for the next ten years or so. He also forbade her from being a porter like himself, so she started learning how to make nets and reed mats when she was fourteen.
By the time she was fifteen, Qiaoyun had blossomed into a spitting image of her mother – beautiful, with a delicate oval face and a prominent dimple on one side. Her eyebrows were like crow’s wings, darting black and sharp to her temples, and her eyes like those of a phoenix, angling down at the corners. Her eyelashes were long, giving her the look of always having her eyes narrowed, but they would open bright and focused with the turn of a head, as if someone were calling for her from afar.
She would make her nets and mats beside the lake, sitting under the fork of the two trees, and young men would come and go under the pretenses of work. And when she’d go shopping on the main road, vendors would always treat her best; whether she needed foodstuffs, hair products, vanishing cremes, or even soda ash, she would always receive more and better-quality goods than others. It also wasn’t long before all the aunts and nannies had her go shopping for them – she’d have bamboo baskets brimming with goods up and down her arms, which would be bruised by the time she came back. But she never had to lift a finger when she’d go see performances over at Taishan Temple – though everybody else had to take a chair to sit on, there’d always be a chair in a great spot waiting for her. And nobody would ever cheer, even during the exciting parts, because they were all watching her, not the play, of course.
At age sixteen, she had to start thinking about her own affairs. Who was going to take this beautiful flower home with them? Would it be the owner of the kiln, or the plaster worker, or the fresh foods vendor? They all had their eyes set on her – Huang Haijiao and Qiaoyun couldn’t be clearer about that. Why else would they make such a big loop over to East Danao? In any case, Qiaoyun didn’t find them the least bit interesting.
But when she turned seventeen, their lives – hers especially – took a turn for the worse. Haijiao missed a step out working one day, breaking his back after falling ten meters down.
They thought things would be alright if he rested for a while. But Haijiao wouldn’t have all those medicinal liquors, settling for some casts that ultimately didn’t seem to work. And with that, Qiaoyun’s dad was virtually paralyzed, being unable to stand up straight anymore. The most movement you’d see from him were the few steps he’d make after getting out of bed; he’d clasp desperately for the tall barber’s stool they had in their house before half-lying on a pile of blankets.
No longer could he earn enough money to buy her new clothes, or even flowers. He lamented on how Qiaoyun would have to provide for herself, and how at fifty years old, he’d been reduced to doing old hag’s work: twisting bundle after bundle of twine for her to make net with.
One thing was clear though: Qiaoyun would not abandon her poor, honest father. And at this point, she’d let anyone come marry her, as long as they’d settle down in their house instead of her going along to live with the groom’s parents. But who would do that, especially when all they owned was a house with two rooms and a small hall? The kiln owner, plaster worker, and food vendor would still come by, admiring her slender body obscured behind the newest net, or as she sat out on her snow-white mats. Their affections never wavered, but the haste in their eyes seemed to have disappeared.
Shiyizi apprenticed under the town’s tinsmith, but even though the old man would tell him not to go around seeing Qiaoyun, he would always pay her house a visit. First off, all the East Danao ladies absolutely loved him, waiting with kettles in hand that needed refurnishing; second, the alleyway he took between the lake and main road passed right by Qiaoyun’s house, and the shaded patch in front of it was always a great spot to find customers.
One would often see them working side by side, Qiaoyun weaving her mats while Shiyizi hammered his tin – they were really a perfect match. And sometimes, she would set down her work and help him blow the bellows. Or when she’d come home to check up on her father, she’d offer Shiyizi a cigarette; he’d shut off his fire and help her with the mats. And when the sharp reed leaves would cut her fingers, Shiyizi would swiftly kiss them for her.
Shiyizi told her a bit about his family. He was an only child and his mother had been a widow for some time. His mother’s sight was also going with all the needlework she did, so he was worried she’d be blind soon.
Any well-meaning person could see that these two loved each other, yet they still weren’t a good match. One wanted a man to come take care of her family; the other wanted a housewife to take care of his. So, they were just happy to sit down and talk. They certainly still had emotions for their age, but the feelings between them were like a thin, floating cloud that never came down.
One night when a full moon was out, Qiaoyun went down to the lake to wash her clothes out on the boat that was docked there. She was leaning there on the bow, using all her might to rinse a large dress when a mischievous boy snuck over and tried to tickle her, but Qiaoyun was so taken off-guard that she fell into the water face-first, dazed to the point where she forgot how to swim. Also, the stream flowing through the lake was very rough and fast these days, so after struggling for a minute or two, she accidentally inhaled some water and was swept off by the current!
Shiyizi was outside his furnace throwing a few punches when he saw a person being washed down the stream. Without the slightest hesitation, he tore off his shoes and dove into the water, pulling Qiaoyun up onto the bank. He tried resuscitating her, but she still wouldn’t come to, so he took her into his arms and ran off back to his house. Her body felt like a sopping-wet ragdoll, piping-hot to the touch. He could feel her grabbing for him, tighter and tighter; his heart was pounding like a drum.
Qiaoyun finally came to when he sat her down on the bed inside (though she’d really been awake much longer than that!). Afterwards, when she went to change her clothes while he made her a warm brew of ginger syrup, he just so happened to see her beautiful shape silhouetted against the moonlight. Too honest to let his mind wander, he left as soon as she took a few sips.
Qiaoyun closed the door and laid back down. She could almost imagine how she looked laying there, radiant under the full moon’s beauty. “Oh, you fool” she said aloud, a smile coming to her face as she thought of Shiyizi. And before long, she had drifted into dreamland.
But little did she know that the hands of another man would come to defile her dream…