When the Sea Turned to Silver Page 32

The woman laughed. “I am just a servant in the House of Wu,” she said. “Of no importance, I assure you.”

“Your masters must be very kind,” Lady Meng said.

The woman laughed again. “Oh no,” she said. “They are quite the opposite, in fact.”

“Then…” Pinmei said. “Won’t you get in trouble?”

“Most probably,” the woman said, nodding.

“But…” Pinmei hesitated as Yishan gave her a pointed look. She didn’t want to be cast out, but she needed to understand. “Why are you helping us?”

The woman looked at Pinmei, smiled sadly, and lifted the lantern up to her face.

“Do you know what kind of scars these are?” the woman asked her.

With the light on them, Pinmei could see they were all shaped like small, sharp slivers.

“Are they…” Pinmei said slowly, almost in disbelief, “Scars of Stingy Rice?”

“Yes,” the old woman said, nodding. “You know the story.”

“What is the story?” Lady Meng said, looking from Pinmei to the woman.

“Ah, I’m no good at storytelling,” the old woman said. She looked at Pinmei. “You tell it.”

 

 

There was once a rich lord who had always been wealthy. Perhaps one reason he had so much money was because he never gave to the poor. During times of famine or drought, he never gave one spoonful of rice to a starving child, even though his jars were overflowing with grains. In fact, he flaunted his fortune. Every day, equally wealthy friends were invited to dine on Jade Tree Chicken and Silk Squash Noodles while the hungry stood outside on the street by his house.

When the rich lord turned sixty, he decided he would throw his most lavish banquet.

“I have seen the Year of the Monkey five times!” the lord said with pride. “I shall have a celebration to match such an auspicious event!”

So he ordered the slaughter of a half-dozen pigs and a flock of ducks and arranged for the most luxurious long-life robe to be made for himself. As he inspected the fabrics, a blue silk pleased him so much he decided not only to have a robe made of it, but also to use it to line the road to his house. It will be a fitting pathway to my home, he thought.

However, the road outside the house was not in good condition, and the delicate silk wrinkled over the many cracks and holes in the street.

“This will not do!” the lord roared, and he commanded his servants to even out the road by filling the gaps with uncooked rice.

“But won’t people try to take the rice?” a servant protested.

“Have anyone who tries arrested,” the lord growled. “No beggar is to steal even a single grain!”

So the servants did as they were told, to the horrified awe of the people on the street. More than once, hungry beggars attempted to grab a handful of rice. But the lord’s servants promptly had them thrown in jail.

When the servants finished their work and the silk lay smoothly on the road, an old man came walking down it, leaning on a stick. As he walked, the grains of rice made a crunching noise under his feet. He stopped in front of the lord’s house, raising his head to breathe in the delicious smells of the upcoming banquet.

“Eight Treasure Duck,” the old man murmured to himself, licking his lips as is if he were tasting the savory flavors. “Lion Head Pork Meatballs…”

“Away from here!” a servant cried. “Away!”

“Please,” the old man said, stretching out an arm, “your master is having a grand feast. Surely you can spare a small bit for me?”

“Go!” the servant yelled, waving a stick.

“Perhaps,” the old man said, “I could just take a few grains of this rice, then?”

And the old man reached down and plucked some rice from underneath the silk.

“Thief!” the servants bellowed, calling for the others. “Thief!”

With the other servants came the lord of the house, who was furious to be called away from his party.

“You worthless body,” the lord screeched. “How dare you try to steal from me!”

He turned to his servants. “Beat him until every part of him is bruised and broken!”

The servants lifted their sticks, but instead of cowering, the old man stood calmly. The servants hesitated, but the lord snapped angrily, “Do as I say! Now!”

They began striking him. The old man remained unmoved, but after the first few blows, the lord began to howl with pain. “Stop!” he cried. “Stop!” For each time they hit the old man, it was the lord who felt it. He collapsed, whimpering, on the ground.

The old man continued to stand. “Goodbye,” he said to the stunned crowds. “I cannot say I enjoyed your company, but I shall leave you something to remember me by.”

He walked down the silk pathway. When he reached the end of the silk, he turned to look at the staring servants and the sniveling lord and bent down. Then, as if breathing out a cloud, he blew.

The silk lifted and waved, and the hundreds of thousands of grains of rice rose into the air. They whipped up into the sky and flew toward the lord and his servants like a swarm of mosquitoes. They cringed, but the rice fell upon them without mercy, melting into their skin. Immediately, their faces and bodies were covered with hundreds of white scars—all shaped like the grains of rice that had rained upon them. They shouted in dismay and shock and looked for the old man. But the old man was nowhere in sight. Unlike the scars, he had faded away and was never seen again.

 

“Yes, yes,” the woman said. “It was just like that. The old story had been whispered down through the House of Wu for generations, but none believed it happened or, if it did, that it could happen again. But it did, and almost exactly the same way—except it was my mistress and she had a silk the green color of jade.” She shook her head. “How they love their jade.”

“Then, did you… you…” Pinmei faltered.

The scarred woman sat down heavily and looked at her empty hands, her bell-shaped figure an iron shadow in the light of the lantern.

“I was named after a great hero, you know?” she said softly. “And I always wanted to be the same. And back then, it seemed like I was. For I was as mighty as any man and just as proud.”

The fire in the cookstove flickered and wavered, making noises like the opening of a crumpled paper. Outside, the black sky began to thin.

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