TaoCoverSmall

Daughter of the Tao by Lisa Mason
I
Dragon

Sing Lin skips down Fish Alley, seeking fresh shrimp for Master’s supper.

She swings her wicker shopping basket with a frivolous hand, her young heart bobbing with innocent joy. The city air is ripe with the odors of raw sea creatures and sandalwood incense, of the mouthwatering scent of peanut oil smoking in someone’s hot wok.

A mooie jai just doesn’t skip down the streets of Tangrenbu, not on most days. Certainly not on a day as fresh and crisp as this, with sunlight sparkling high above and a cool west wind from the sea. A day which Cook would have gladly savored for himself.

A lucky day.

But Cook has injured himself. His ankle has swollen up like a bundle of newspapers left out in a night rain. Cook took a wrong step into a pothole on Jasmine Avenue, and now he cannot step at all.

Cook had seized her skinny arm as Sing Lin had knelt over the wash basin, scrubbing the sheets for Master’s bed. He flung her to her feet and said, “Here, you lazy girl, go get two pounds shrimp for Master’s supper, and make quick.”

“Yes, Cook,” she murmured.

Sing Lin had washed her hands and face, and retied her queue, and smoothed the wrinkles from her black cotton sahm. And she set out with Cook’s coins and her wicker shopping basket, her young heart bobbing with innocent joy. Shrimp is double good luck because, first, here she is, out of the house in such a long time. And because, second, Master will let Cook give her one spicy fried shrimp with her usual supper of boiled rice and greens. “You the shrimp girl, anyway,” Cook joked in his dour way. “Master bought you for ten pieces of gold, plus five pounds shrimp.”

Two more skips and a hop and a jump, and Sing Lin finds herself among the peddlers of Fish Alley. They are, one and all, clad in blue-denim sahms. Yet all are not alike in the throng of blue tunics and trousers, a truth that even Sing Lin’s eyes can discern. The ones wearing jaunty felt fedoras have taken to the new ways of the city. The ones in embroidered satin caps have not. And the ones who cannot escape their lot in life no matter where they flee to wear the flat straw cone of peasantry. They are, one and all, men. There is not a woman in sight, unless Sing Lin peeks at her own reflection in a shop window, and even she’s not a woman, not yet.

Master employs many men just like the fish peddlers in his drayage business along the waterfront. Once she overheard him talking to Cook. They are not, of course, human beings, Master had said. They are oxen to be led by a ring through the nose. Later, lying on her straw pallet in the pantry, Sing Lin had wondered for a long time what Master must think of her.

Now she glimpses the longing and the bitterness in the fish peddlers’ eyes and something else, something strange and disturbing. Anxiety casts a shadow on her happiness, and she is only too aware she does not belong here. After all, a mooie jai just doesn’t skip down the streets of Tangrenbu. It’s not a proper thing. Not on any day.

Fish Alley is not really much of an alley, and certainly not at all an actual street on which horses and wagons travel as they do on other city streets. It is only a mean, narrow passage permitting pedestrian traffic from east to west and back again. Ancient shacks line its gutters, tenements abandoned long ago by fortune-seekers, their claims staked out now by landlords and merchants like Master. Within these shacks dwell the peddlers and the draymen of Tangrenbu, men tripled up to a room, drifting in and out of the city with the fickle tides of bust or boom.

The clapboard walls are covered over with bulletins, strips of red rice paper announcing the news near and far in bold, black slashes of calligraphy. Sing Lin spies a t’ai chi adorning a lintel, a little circle comprised of two teardrops, one red, one black, with a spot of each color in the opposite drop. The t’ai chi is triple good luck, that’s what Cook says. First, for the red, which is yang, thus fiery and excitable, and, second, for the black, which is yin, thus cool and restful. And third for the spots, which rouse restfulness into excitement, and calm excitement into rest.

Oh! A t’ai chi!

Sing Lin is positively glowing with good luck.

She strolls among straw baskets bulging with the sea’s bounty. There are speckled black oysters tossed on handfuls of dank seaweed. Mottled green crabs with their slow, pinching claws. And shrimp, of course, translucent blue and sooty like ill-made glass before they spill into the wok and cook up clean and deliciously pink. She pauses before a basket of salmon, lovely lithe creatures paved in silvery scales. Some of the fish are still flopping. The air is tainted with their brackishness and the smell of their blood. Sing Lin’s heart catches at the sight of the salmon struggling in their death throes.

“Hey, you little girl. Why such a sad face?”

Sing Lin turns, startled. A girl? A girl! Another girl! Whoever sees a girl in Tangrenbu? Yet it’s true, another girl stands beside her. In a black cotton sahm just like hers, a wicker shopping basket slung over her arm, ‘her queue wound around her head in an ebony crown. She is taller than Sing Lin by a handspan and very skinny. Her face is as round as the moon, her eyes almond-shaped slivers of mischief, her skin as flawless as a piece of polished ivory. Her laughing mouth quirks to the left as if she would tell you things you didn’t especially want to hear, but she’ll insist on telling you anyway. Around her neck she’s strung a black silk cord which holds, on the end of it, a tiny t’ai chi. Little shadows pool beneath the high bones of her flat cheeks.

The fish peddlers stare at her—Sing Lin can’t help but notice–as if she is a two-headed, five-legged pig.

“Well? I’m waiting for your answer,” she says. Ah. A little empress she is.

“I’m . . . I’m sorry the pretty fishes must die.”

The girl mimics weeping and a face full of sorrow, then grins. “Your heart is too soft, little girl. Salmon is delicious! It will put some meat on those matchsticks you call your arms and legs.” She widens her eyes and drops her mouth, the very picture of scandalized disbelief. “Don’t tell me your master is so cruel he never lets a little girl like you ever taste salmon.”

Sing Lin stares down, ashamed. Her big bony toes bulge out of her straw sandals. Peasant toes. She is not someone who tastes salmon, but then–she lifts her chin–she doesn’t want to admit that to this bossy girl. “Sometimes Master gives me spicy fried shrimp with my rice and greens.”

“You mean one little shrimp, don’t you?” At Sing Lin’s abashed nod, the girl throws back her head and laughs, a sound like the tinkling of a silver bell.

The fish peddlers murmur. Sing Lin is only too aware of their eyes. “Don’t laugh like that,” she mutters. “They’re all looking.”

“Ho! Let them look. Come over here into the shade with me, if you’re so worried.”

The girl takes her arm and draws her into the shadows beneath a balcony. The balcony has a great curved railing painted the rich velvety yellow of an egg yolk. “I am Kwai Yin.”

“I am Sing Lin.”

“You are mooie jai?”

“Yes.”

“Me, too.”

The language they once spoke in the old country is as vast as the ancient land from which it had sprung. There are so many dialects that Sing Lin, a girl from the north, would have trouble understanding Kwai Yin, a girl from the south, if they spoke in their mother tongues. So they twist their tongues around another language altogether. The pigeon language of the new country. Of Tangrenbu.

“Where’s your master’s cook, anyway?” Kwai Yin says, looking her up and down. “What’s a girl like you doing, gadding about Fish Alley?”

“Cook stepped into a pothole. Now he can’t take a step!” Sing Lin suppresses a giggle, nervous and not a little awed. This bossy girl, a mooie jai, too? And her master lets her taste salmon? What else does her master let her do? “What’re you doing, gadding about Fish Alley?”

“Shopping, of course.” As if such a pastime for a mooie jai is nothing.

Which it is not. Not in Tangrenbu.

Sing Lin is bursting with questions, but her throat clenches. The balcony may shield them from the sun and from the fish peddlers’ eyes, but affords no relief from the stink of a bin filled with offal. She spies fish heads and fish fins and husked shrimp shells, the flat little mitt of a manta that wandered into some fisherman’s net. Sing Lin wrinkles her nose, presses fingers to her throat. “Oh, let’s go someplace else!”

But Kwai Yin peers into the bin, avid with curiosity. “Wait, wait. Look there!”

And there, next to the manta, lies another dead little creature, speckled gray, serpentine like an eel. But it is not an eel. It has four fragile legs, each tipped with a foot, and stubby toes, and claws as thick as darning needles. In the way that a sea horse resembles a horse, the tiny head resembles that of an ox. There are bovine ears and round eyes, a broad snout with flaring nostrils. The jaws hang slack, baring fangs that would have given your finger a nasty bite.

“Poor thing,” Sing Lin murmurs. “What is it?”

“Your heart is way too soft,” Kwai Yin says. “That is lung.”

“What is lung?”

“It’s a dragon. Did you ever see such a lousy little dragon?”

“A dragon! That’s a dragon?”

“I know, it was so tiny and weak. Thrown away with the fish heads. The sea must be awfully full of poisons these days.”

Sing Lin eyes the creature. “But there’s no such thing as a dragon. Not really.”

Kwai Yin whips around, her eyes flashing. “Then what is that, I ask you? It is lung, the dragon, I’m telling you, one of the four Fabulous Creatures. Usually he’s bigger and stronger than ten oxen. And his roar! Usually his roar shakes the rooftops off castles. Usually he’s handsome and powerful and brave. Ignorant girl, don’t you know anything about the four Fabulous Creatures?”

Sing Lin shakes her head. Yet she will not stare at her toes, not now. She’s eager to learn. “Please tell me.”

“They are the Dragon, the Phoenix, the Unicorn, and the Tortoise,” Kwai Yin says in her imperious way, counting out the creatures on her fingers. “My Teacher taught me this, and many other things.” She adds in a voice not quite so proud, “I had a Teacher once, you know.”

She pulls Sing Lin away from the vile bin. Angling down from the balcony is buttress of iron scrollwork, which reaches halfway to the street. Kwai Yin slings her basket handles over her head, and leaps up, and seizes the scrollwork in her fist. She walks her feet up the wall, hooks her leg over the buttress, and straddles it, flushed and triumphant. Mounted on her perch, she leans down and holds out her hand. “Come on up. Let’s get some fresh air.”

Sing Lin slings her basket handles over her head, too, and leaps up, and seizes Kwai Yin’s hand. She walks up the wall, too. Kwai Yin pulls her onto the buttress, and they climb up onto the cool stone floor of the balcony. They sit with their legs sticking out beneath the egg-yolk yellow railing and dangle their feet, gazing down at Fish Alley.

Sing Lin is tingling with excitement and also with anxiety. She’s never done such a bold thing, climbing up on a stranger’s balcony. She glances over her shoulder. “What if the man who lives here comes home and finds us?”

“What if, you silly girl? Do you think he’s an ogre who will eat us?” She grabs Sing Lin’s arm and pretends she’s chewing on it, which makes Sing Lin laugh. “Stop being afraid of things that don’t matter. Now, listen. My Teacher said, the four Fabulous Creatures are manifestations of the Tao. Just loaded with so much luck you can’t even believe it.”

Sing Lin peers down at the little dead dragon. How could that could be lucky?

“They are rare and flighty things, the four Fabulous Creatures. You just don’t see a Fabulous Creature every day of the week.”

“I’ve never seen a dragon in my whole life. Not even a little one like that.”

Kwai Yin bobs her head. “Me, neither. My Teacher said, if ever you see a Fabulous Creature in the world, it means that the Tao is near. That the magic of the Tao will touch you.”

Sing Lin shivers with delight. “Magic!”

“Yes, but just look at that lousy little dragon. I see no Tao in Tangrenbu. I see no magic for mooie jai like you and me.”

Sing Lin does not want to be so easily discouraged. “But maybe magic will come!”

“Maybe.” Kwai Yin shrugs. “When did you come to Tangrenbu?”

“In the Year of the Tiger. The Swallow brought me here.”

There was a time when Sing Lin could not speak of that time at all. Of how her father sold her to a slaver in the seaport. Who sold her to the master of a clipper-ship named for a quick-winged bird. It didn’t seem right that a ship with a lovely name like the Swallow was a notorious slave ship, but so it was, carrying illegal human cargo from the old country to the new.

How grateful she’d been when they dragged her out of steerage and off the hellish ship into the cold sunlight of Tangrenbu. Grateful when they stripped off the filthy rags she’d worn for weeks. Grateful still when they stood her up, naked, on an auction block, and an auctioneer displayed her to a crowd of merchants. Grateful at last to go to Master for ten pieces of gold, plus five pounds shrimp. She is mooie jai, fated to serve at Master’s beck and call. She is grateful for one spicy fried shrimp with her boiled rice and greens.

She can say no more about the Swallow. What’s done is done.

“Oh ho, in the Year of the Tiger,” Kwai Yin is saying, her tone as tart as green oranges. “And how many celestial creatures did you count before the Tiger?”

Now Sing Lin grins. She likes this game of recounting the celestial creatures. She may not know anything about the four Fabulous Creatures, but the twelve celestial creatures, the creatures each of whom who rules over each year, these she knows well. Cook often asks her to recount the celestial creatures, too, and suddenly she realizes he has asked her this so she will remember how old she is. “I remember the Year of the Dog, but only a little because I was little.”

“Go on.”

“Then came the Boar, the Rat, and the Ox. Then the Tiger.”

“So you were five years old when your father sold you?”

Sing Lin says nothing. She cannot even say “yes,” though it’s true. “What about you?”

“Well, I can recount two more celestial creatures than you,” Kwai Yin says in her haughty way. “I saw the Monkey and the Rooster come and go long before the Year of the Dog.”

“Oh!” Sing Lin is delighted. Kwai Yin is two years older than her. Like a sister!

But Kwai Yin is stern, quizzing her further. “And after the Year of the Tiger?”

Sing Lin thinks carefully. “After the Tiger came the Hare.”

“Yes.”

“After the Hare came the Dragon.” She doesn’t want to look at the little dead dragon. “After the Dragon came the Snake. Oh, I’m afraid of snakes.”

“Now that is something to be afraid of. Once I picked up a sack of rice shipped in from the old country. And there, coiled underneath the sack, was the prettiest little piece of string, the color of a shining emerald. And do you know what that pretty little string was? It was a bamboo viper, the most deadliest snake in the whole world! If my master himself hadn’t pulled me away and killed it, I wouldn’t be here at all, talking to you.” She smiles at Sing Lin’s wide eyes. “Go on.”

“After the Snake came the Year of the Horse,” Sing Lin says cautiously. “Now it is the Year of the Ram.”

“Correct. And the new year coming?”

“The new year coming is the Year of the Monkey. I like the Monkey. He’s the Trickster. He likes to play games.” She improvises. “He’s the protector of bossy girls.”

“Yes, yes, very good.” Kwai Yin rewards her with a squeeze of her hand. “I was born in the Year of Monkey.”

“Then the new year coming will be your best lucky year!”

“Ho! Lots of luck, but who knows what kind.” A door suddenly bangs behind them. Kwai Yin cocks her head. “Oops, I hear the ogre. We better go!”

She swings herself over the railing, slides down the scrollwork, and leaps to the street–very much like a monkey. Sing Lin follows, clumsy with panic, banging her elbow hard on a strut of iron. There will be a bruise she will have to explain to Cook.

“Come on!” Kwai Yin says.

The girls dash away from the ogre, who is only a withered old man leaning over the yellow railing of his balcony with a perplexed look. They come to a breathless halt where the alley empties out onto Jasmine Avenue. A horse and hansom clatter by, and people stride by, too, clad in denim sahms or in the grand sweeping robes of merchants. Men, all of them men.

Men who stare at two mooie jai.

The girls press themselves against the wall of a dry goods shop, both alarmed, both trying to become invisible.

“I have seen twelve celestial animals come and go,” Kwai Yin says, shrinking from the traffic, her manner no longer so bold. “That’s why my master makes me eat salmon.”

Makes you!”

“Yes. Till my belly can hold no more, and sometimes I feel a little sick.”

Sing Lin cannot picture this tall, skinny girl eating so much salmon. For one thing, such rich meals have added no meat to the matchsticks she calls her arms and legs. Sing Lin should be glad Kwai Yin can feast so well on rich food her master insists that she eat. But her heart catches, like when she saw the salmon fishes dying. “Why does your master make you eat salmon till you’re sick?”

Kwai Yin says, cold and grim, “Because I must grow fat before I go to meet my fate.”

To read more of this novelette, please go to Daughter of the Tao on US Kindle, Canada Kindle, UK Kindle, BarnesandNoble, Apple, Kobo, and Smashwords. Also on Kindle in AustraliaFrance, Germany, Italy, Spain, Brazil, Japan, India, Mexico, and Netherlands.

From the author of Summer Of Love, A Time Travel (a Philip K. Dick Award Finalist and San Francisco Chronicle Recommended Book). On BarnesandNoble, US Kindle, Canada Kindle, UK Kindle, Smashwords, Apple, and Kobo. On Kindle in Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Brazil, Japan, India, Mexico, and Netherlands.

The Gilded Age, A Time Travel (a New York Times Notable Book and New York Public Library Recommended Book). On BarnesandNoble, US Kindle, Canada Kindle, UK Kindle, Apple, Kobo, and Smashwords. On Kindle in Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Brazil, Japan, India, Mexico, and Netherlands.

Time Travels to San Francisco (boxed set of Summer of Love and The Gilded Age). On US Kindle, UK Kindle, Canada Kindle, Barnes and Noble, Smashwords, Apple, and Kobo. On Kindle in Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Spain, Brazil, Mexico, India, and Japan.

Arachne (a Locus Hardover Bestseller). On US Kindle, UK Kindle, Canada Kindle, Australia Kindle, Barnes and Noble, Apple, Kobo, and Smashwords. On Kindle in France Kindle, Germany Kindle, Italy Kindle, Netherlands Kindle, Spain Kindle, Mexico Kindle, Brazil Kindle, India Kindle, and Japan Kindle.

Cyberweb (sequel to Arachne). is on US Kindle, BarnesandNoble, Apple, Kobo, and Smashwords. Also on UK Kindle, Canada Kindle, Australia Kindle, Brazil Kindle, France Kindle, Germany Kindle, India Kindle, Italy Kindle, Japan Kindle, Mexico Kindle, Netherlands Kindle, and Spain Kindle.

Strange Ladies: 7 Stories (“A must-read collection—The San Francisco Review of Books). On Nook, US Kindle, Canada Kindle, UK Kindle, Smashwords, Apple, and Kobo. On Kindle in Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Brazil, Japan, India, Mexico, and Netherlands.

The Garden of Abracadabra (“Fun and enjoyable urban fantasy . . . I want to read more!) On BarnesandNoble, US Kindle, Canada Kindle, UK Kindle, Apple, Kobo, and Smashwords. On Kindle in Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Brazil, Japan, India, Mexico, and Netherlands.

Celestial Girl, A Lily Modjeska Mystery (Five stars) On Nook, US Kindle, Canada Kindle, UK Kindle, Smashwords, Apple, and Kobo. On Kindle in Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Brazil, Japan, India, Mexico, and Netherlands.

Shaken On BarnesandNoble, US Kindle, Canada Kindle, UK Kindle, Apple, Kobo, and Smashwords. Also on Kindle in Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Brazil, Japan, India, Mexico, and Netherlands.

Hummers On BarnesandNoble, US Kindle, Canada Kindle, UK Kindle, Apple, Kobo, and Smashwords. Also on Kindle in Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Brazil, Japan, Mexico, Netherlands, and India.

Daughter of the Tao On US Kindle, Canada Kindle, UK Kindle, BarnesandNoble, Apple, Kobo, and Smashwords. Also on Kindle in AustraliaFrance, Germany, Italy, Spain, Brazil, Japan, India, Mexico, and Netherlands.

Every Mystery Unexplained On BarnesandNoble, US Kindle, Canada Kindle, UK Kindle, Apple, Kobo, and Smashwords. Also on Kindle in Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Brazil, Japan, Mexico, Netherlands, and India.

Tomorrow’s Child On BarnesandNoble, US Kindle, Canada Kindle, UK Kindle, Apple, Kobo, and Smashwords. Also on Kindle in Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Brazil, Japan, India, Mexico, and Netherlands.

The Sixty-third Anniversary of Hysteria On BarnesandNoble, US Kindle, Canada Kindle, UK Kindle, Apple, Kobo, and Smashwords. Also on Kindle in Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Brazil, Japan, Mexico, Netherlands, and India.

U F uh-O On BarnesandNoble, US Kindle, Canada Kindle, UK Kindle, Apple, Kobo, and Smashwords. Also on Kindle in Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Brazil, Japan, Mexico, Netherlands, and India.

Tesla, A Screenplay On US Kindle, Canada Kindle, UK Kindle, BarnesandNoble, Apple, Kobo, and Smashwords. Also on Kindle in Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Brazil, Japan, Mexico, Netherlands, and India.

My Charlotte: Patty’s Story On Barnes and Noble, US Kindle, UK Kindle, Canada Kindle, Australia Kindle, Smashwords, Apple, and Kobo. On Kindle in France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Brazil, Japan, Netherlands, and Mexico.

“Illyria, My Love” is on US Kindle, Barnes and Noble, Apple, Kobo, and Smashwords. Also on UK Kindle, Canada Kindle, Australia Kindle, Germany Kindle, France Kindle, Spain Kindle, Italy Kindle, Netherlands Kindle, Japan Kindle, Brazil Kindle, Mexico Kindle, and India Kindle.

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