“In the darkness of a thousand
withered souls, it was Er Lang’s hand that I
sought, and his voice that I longed to hear. Perhaps
it is selfish of me, but an uncertain future
with him, in all its laughter and quarrels, is better
than being left behind.”
“The Chinese considered the moon to be yin, feminine and full of negative energy, as opposed to the sun that was yang and exemplified masculinity. I liked the moon, with its soft silver beams. It was at once elusive and filled with trickery, so that lost objects that had rolled into the crevices of a room were rarely found, and books read in its light seemed to contain all sorts of fanciful stories that were never there the next morning.”
“I don't keep mistresses; it's far too much trouble. I'm offering to marry you, although I might regret it. And if you think the Lim family disapproved of your marriage, wait until you meet mine.”
“When Er Lang comes for his answer, I will tell him that I’ve always thought he was a monster. And that I want to be his bride.”
“Was this love? It was like a consuming flame, licking through my defenses at a slow burn.”
“It seemed to me that in this confluence of cultures we had acquired one another's superstitions without necessarily any of their comforts.”
“The problem with the dead was that they all wanted someone to listen to them.”
“Er Lang examined his shoes in dismay. “You should have told me there was mud down here.”
“Is that all you can say?” But I was glad, so glad to see him that I hugged him tightly. Despite his concern about his shoes, he didn’t seem to mind as I pressed my grimy face against his shoulder.
“Last time it was a cemetery, and now the bottom of a well,” he remarked. “What were you doing anyway?”
As I explained, his tone became icy. “So, you saved a murderer and let yourself be abandoned. Do you have some sort of death wish?”
“Why are you so angry?” Pushing back his hat, I searched his face. It was a mistake, for faced with his unnerving good looks, I could only drop my eyes.
“You might have broken your neck. Why can’t you leave these things to the proper authorities?”
“I didn’t do it on purpose.” Incredibly, we were arguing again. “And where were you all this time? You could have sent me a message!”
“How was I supposed to do that when you never left the house alone?”
“But you could have come at any time. I was waiting for you!”
Er Lang was incensed. “Is this the thanks I get?”
If I had thought it through, I would never have done it. But I grasped the collar of his rope and pulled his face to mine. “Thank you,” I said, and kissed him.
I meant to break away at once, but he caught me, his hand behind my head.
“Are you going to complain about this?” he demanded.
Wordlessly, I shook my head. My face reddened, remembering my awkward remarks about tongues last time. He must have recalled them as well, for he gave me an inscrutable look.
“Open your mouth then.”
“I’m going to put my tongue in.”
That he could joke at a time like this was really unbelievable. Despite my outrage, however, I flung myself into his arms. Half laughing, half furious, I pressed my mouth fiercely against his. He pinned me against the well shaft. The stone chilled my back through my wet clothes, but my skin burned where he held my wrists. Gasping, I could feel the heat of him as his tongue slipped inside. My pulse raced; my body trembled uncontrollably. There was only the hard pressure of his mouth, the slick thrust of his tongue. I wanted to cry, but no tears came. A river was melting in me, my core dissolving like wax in his arms. My ears hummed, I could only hear the rasping of our breaths, the hammering of my heart. A stifled moan escaped my lips. He gave a long sigh and broke away.”
“I’ve done you a disservice,” he said at last. “It’s only fair to let you know, but you won’t have a normal life span.”
I bit my lip. “Have you come to take my soul, then?”
“I told you that’s not my jurisdiction. But you’re not going to die soon. In fact, you won’t die for a long time, far longer than I initially thought, I’m afraid. Nor will you age normally.”
“Because I took your qi?”
He inclined his head. “I should have stopped you sooner.”
I thought of the empty years that stretched ahead of me, years of solitude long after everyone I loved had died. Though I might have children or grandchildren. But perhaps they might comment on my strange youthfulness and shun me as unnatural. Whisper of sorcery, like those Javanese women who inserted gold needles in their faces and ate children. In the Chinese tradition, nothing was better than dying old and full of years, a treasure in the bosom of one’s family. To outlive descendants and endure a long span of widowhood could hardly be construed as lucky. Tears filled my eyes, and for some reason this seemed to agitate Er Lang, for he turned away. In profile, he was even more handsome, if that was possible, though I was quite sure he was aware of it.
“It isn’t necessarily a good thing, but you’ll see all of the next century, and I think it will be an interesting one.”
“That’s what Tian Bai said,” I said bitterly. “How long will I outlive him?”
“Long enough,” he said. Then more gently, “You may have a happy marriage, though.”
“I wasn’t thinking about him,” I said. “I was thinking about my mother. By the time I die, she’ll have long since gone on to the courts for reincarnation. I shall never see her again.” I burst into sobs, realizing how much I’d clung to that hope, despite the fact that it might be better for my mother to leave the Plains of the Dead. But then we would never meet in this lifetime. Her memories would be erased and her spirit lost to me in this form.
“Don’t cry.” I felt his arms around me, and I buried my face in his chest. The rain began to fall again, so dense it was like a curtain around us. Yet I did not get wet.
“Listen,” he said. “When everyone around you has died and it becomes too hard to go on pretending, I shall come for you.”
“Do you mean that?” A strange happiness was beginning to grow, twining and tightening around my heart.
“I’ve never lied to you.”
“Can’t I go with you now?”
He shook his head. “Aren’t you getting married? Besides, I’ve always preferred older women. In about fifty years’ time, you should be just right.”
I glared at him. “What if I’d rather not wait?”
He narrowed his eyes. “Do you mean that you don’t want to marry Tian Bai?”
I dropped my gaze.
“If you go with me, it won’t be easy for you,” he said warningly. “It will bring you closer to the spirit world and you won’t be able to lead a normal life. My work is incognito, so I can’t keep you in style. It will be a little house in some strange town. I shan’t be available most of the time, and you’d have to be ready to move at a moment’s notice.”
I listened with increasing bewilderment. “Are you asking me to be your mistress or an indentured servant?”
His mouth twitched. “I don’t keep mistresses; it’s far too much trouble. I’m offering to marry you, although I might regret it. And if you think the Lim family disapproved of your marriage, wait until you meet mine.”
I tightened my arms around him.
“Speechless at last,” Er Lang said. “Think about your options. Frankly, if I were a woman, I’d take the first one. I wouldn’t underestimate the importance of family.”
“But what would you do for fifty years?”
He was about to speak when I heard a faint call, and through the heavy downpour, saw Yan Hong’s blurred figure emerge between the trees, Tian Bai running beside her. “Give me your answer in a fortnight,” said Er Lang. Then he was gone.”
“I liked the moon, with its soft silver beams. It was at once elusive and filled with trickery, so that lost objects that had rolled into the crevices of a room were rarely found, and books read in its light seemed to contain all sorts of fanciful stories that were never there the next morning.”
“And take that stupid hat off! It’s cutting into my neck.”
He began to laugh weakly. “What a harridan you are. How could I let you be devoured when there’s still so much scolding left in you?”
“How dare you say that!” But I was secretly relieved that he could speak again. “Now take that hat off.”
“If I remove it, you will never treat me the same way again.”
“Then Er Lang was looking at me ruefully. “You have taken at least fifty years of my life!”
I was stricken. “Take it back!”
“I can’t. But fortunately, my life span is many times yours.”
“How long can a dragon live?”
“A thousand years, if he is lucky. Not all of us are, of course.” He raised an eyebrow.
“I’m sorry.” I couldn’t look him in the eye. Instead, my gaze was drawn to the strong line of his throat. If he had given me blood, I would surely have killed him. But Er Lang was struggling to sit up.
“I should have stopped you sooner. Though I now understand why men succumb to ghosts.” He spoke lightly, but my ears blazed with mortification.
“You were the one who put your tongue in my mouth!” I blurted out, regretting it instantly. To talk about other people’s tongues was the worst, revealing the depths of my inexperience. And yet, the memory of his made me shiver and burn, as though I had a fever. It hadn’t been like this with Tian Bai; it was easy to understand where I stood with him. But he had been courting me, whereas Er Lang was an entirely different commodity. We did not have that sort of relationship, I reminded myself.
But he merely gave me a wry glance. “I was a little carried away.”
“Thank you,” I said at last. I realized it was the first time I had thanked him formally.”
“We Chinese did not like to give or receive certain gifts for superstitious reasons: knives, because they could sever a relationship; handkerchiefs, for they portended weeping; and clocks, as they were thought to measure out the days of your life.”
“The hours, days, and years that had bled away in his opium haze demanded a payment from my future.”
“For when the cycle of violence escapes its confines in hell, it causes earthquakes, floods, and other calamities.”
“Confucius, who had said it was better not to know about ghosts and gods, but rather to focus on the world we lived in.”
“Amah was always wary of voicing misfortunes, fearing that to do so would only make them come true.”
“If I had known how easy it is to lose your life, I would have treasured mine better".”
“Qing Ming, the festival of the dead,”
“This practice of arranging the marriage of a dead person was uncommon, usually held in order to placate a spirit. A deceased concubine who had produced a son might be officially married to elevate her status to a wife. Or two lovers who died tragically might be united after death. That much I knew. But to marry the living to the dead was a rare and, indeed, dreadful occurrence.”
“It was strange to think that power in this world belonged to old men and young women.”
“You want promises of success, assurances that all will be well? I don’t do that. Ask your amah here. That’s why I’m the real deal.”
“Women had little security other than jewelry, so even the poorest among us sported gold chains, earrings, and rings as their insurance.”
“The contrast between the realization of his neglect and the fondness I had for my father was painful".”
“Our journey back was subdued. I could see that Amah wanted to ask me what the medium had whispered, but she was too proud to speak of our private affairs in front of the rickshaw”
“His case has certain indicators of bribery and coercion, part of a pattern that has surfaced recently. In other words, one of the Nine Judges of Hell is probably corrupt. Oh, they all are, to some degree,” he added. “But it would be well to discover how serious it is, who is raising money and recruiting soldiers. For when the cycle of violence escapes its confines in hell, it causes earthquakes, floods, and other calamities. Don’t you remember the eruption of Krakatau?”
“Oak and iron, guard me well, or else I'm dead, and doomed to hell.”
“Go and see whether the Doctor is about,’ said Jack, ‘and if he is, ask him to look in, when he has a moment.’
Which he is in the fish-market, turning over some old-fashioned lobsters. No. I tell a lie. That is him, falling down the companion-way and cursing in foreign.”
“Why did you get involved? That’s not a Seal thing to do.’ ‘I … what Brand was doing to Krista-belle … she was scared … like when the warden gave me the obedience strip.’ ‘You had a pain strip? Fross! How did you leave the compound then?’ Retra gave him a small, anxious smile. ‘I practised. The pain.’ Rollo’s expression changed. His eyes widened in a kind of admiration and he enveloped her in a comforting hug. But Retra didn’t want comfort right now. She wanted to leave. As she tried to edge out his grip he held on. ‘There’s something I’m going to tell you. The real reason that I came here,’ he said.”
“On one occasion she had spoken heatedly about the French Revolution, saying it had been little better than the Nazis. Her great-aunt responded by saying that she, being a Jew, had no right to talk about the French Revolution in that way, because had there been no French Revolution the Jews would still be living in ghettos today. After this rebuke from the great-aunt, so my wife remembered, she had not spoken a word at home for days or maybe even weeks. She had felt that she herself no longer existed, that she had no right at all to lay claim to her own feelings or thoughts, that solely because she had been born a Jew she could have only Jewish feelings and Jewish thoughts.”
“Even in the production of wool, cruelty is a feature. To reduce problems with flies that infest the folds in the skin of Merino sheep (the most highly prized wool breed), producers practice “mulesing.” Strips of flesh are literally cut off the backs of the animals’ legs and hind region to create smooth skin without anesthesia or pain relievers. Sheep also commonly have their tails cut off to control fly problems.”
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