Swinging down her sack, Qiezi dumped out the bloodstained rags and began washing them. She worked with practiced speed, but the current would move many li downstream before all were restored to their pristine gray, rinsed out and stacked on the old slab of rock beside her. Squatting, she then loosened her pants’ cotton sash and pulled them down. Gently, ever so gently in thumb and forefinger she took from between her legs a protruding stem and extracted a sodden tube tied with a string at the end. She opened the tube and pressed out a compacted mass of blood and ash into the stream and watched as the red explosion was washed away, before tossing in the tube’s remaining shell.
Her ear held a flower, long, white and tubular, which she now took in her fingers. Pressing the splayed petals together, she moistened them in her mouth, twisting them into a point so that the flower held firm as she gently, again ever so gently, guided it in all the way up to the stem.
Qiezi gathered up the stack of rags and carried them further along the creek’s edge. She was parting some bushes along the way when she turned and listened: a rustling in the bushes beyond the path, a crunching of the soil beneath departing footsteps. Frowning, she returned to her task and emerged into a sun-filled cavity where more rags hung on a string. She bundled the dried rags into the sack and strung up the wet ones. Returning to the path, she bounded up the bank and headed home to the village.
Back at the house, Li Er slapped the opium bed. “Whaddya think, Yan Xian? This nanmu wood is pretty solid, eh?”
Yan Xian checked the flagon of yellow wine heating on the brazier and poked at the charcoal with the fire tongs before sitting back down at the square table. “Who said it’s nanmu?”
“The dealer did.”
“It has about as much chance of being nanmu as this wine of yours is the elixir of immortality. I hate to disappoint you, but it’s pine.”
“It’s not pine!”
“Li Er, how much do you know about wood? Can you identify nanmu?”
“Can you? Look at the swirls in the grain.”
“That’s what he told you? All wood has wavy patterns like that. You could never afford nanmu. Only rich families can. You were cheated.”
“I told you. It was stolen from an abandoned house that was flooded. That’s why it was so cheap.”
“Why are there no water stains?”
“Of course, they repaired it.”
Yan Xian jabbed his finger at Li Er. “If this were real nanmu and word got out, crooks would rob us in our sleep and steal the bed to sell it. You would get us killed! That’s why it’s not nanmu.”
Li Er stood up red-faced. “I was not cheated!” he yelled.
“All right, all right, calm down you two,” said Lai Xinru. “Sit back down, Li Er.”
“Okay, I will sell it and buy a new house with the money. And I’ll take Li San with me as well.”
Yan Xian laughed off this suggestion. He refilled their wine cups and the four of them toasted. “What do you think of that idea, Li San?”
“He’d come running right back, bed or no. He’s still afraid to admit he wants to fuck me,” said Xinru, holding a bowl of melon seeds. “Now move that kang table out of the way so I can sit there. But where do we put these?”
“Put it on the floor,” said Li Er. “I’ll hold the seeds.”
Xinru slipped in between Li Er and Li San and pulled their arms around her shoulders. “C’mon, Li San, don’t be shy,” she said, pressing his hand down on her chest.
“These beds are designed for two people,” said Yan Xian.
“Two opium smokers,” said Li San. “The kang table is for putting the opium implements on.”
“That’s an idea. Any money left over after buying that jug of Shaoxing wine? How expensive is opium?” asked Yan Xian.
“I don’t know anything about that.”
“Wouldn’t Qiezi know? She’s the expert on drugs,” said Li Er.
“She wouldn’t know anything about opium. She’s never mentioned it,” said Xinru.
“Why does she have such an unusual nickname?” said Li San. “Eggplant.”
“She was always bringing in eggplant flowers as a child, sticking them in her hair. We teased her with the name and it stuck.”
“They were mandala flowers,” said Qiezi, who had just entered with her sack. “I told you that many times.”
“Yes, they look similar. But you brought eggplants home too, dear,” said Xinru.
“How did she learn so much about plants?” said Li San.
“She was very curious as a child. Always hanging out at the apothecary’s shop. He had these big books on plants — what do you call them? Botanicals, herbals, or whatever.”
“He taught her to read and write,” said Yan Xian.
“I taught myself,” said Qiezi, emerging from the bedroom.
“They were asking about opium, Qiezi. Have you ever seen any opium plants?”
“Doesn’t it grow in China?”
“I haven’t seen any around here.”
“Qiezi, can you tell what kind of wood this is?” inquired Li Er. “Your dad thinks it’s only pine. But it’s much better than that. It’s nanmu.”
“I know trees but I don’t know wood. Isn’t nanmu from Zhejiang Province? That’s pretty far away.”
“She can identify any kind of plants?” said Li San.
“Oh, can she ever,” said Xinru. “One time, we were at the Taoist temple. There was a scroll painting on the wall. A landscape painting, with a teahouse scene. She was staring at it and the priest came up and started explaining it to her, all about the figures in the painting, the men drinking tea. And what does she do, she starts explaining it all to him, about the trees and foliage in the painting! They were talking right past each other and it was the funniest thing you ever saw. But her knowledge is very useful. She gathers all the medicinal herbs we need. We don’t need to rely on quacks.”
“How old is she?” asked Li San.
“Why isn’t she married off yet? Is it her unbound feet?”
“We’re from the hills, you know.”
Qiezi was sweeping the floor and bent down with a rag.
“She’s a real beauty, isn’t she, Li San?” said Li Er. “She’s got your full hips.”
“You keep saying that,” said Xinru, sticking her finger in his face. “Don’t start putting ideas into your brother’s head.”
“You know there’s a market for her type. There are actually connoisseurs of unbound feet. She must attract some attention at the town fair.”
“That reminds me, when is the next fair?” said Yan Xian. “The one that all the girls attend — the Seven Sisters Festival. Isn’t that coming up soon? You’ll see more hips there than at any other time of the year.”
“It’s the seventh day of this month, papa.”
“That’s the day after tomorrow. Are you and Xinru going?”
“We can’t,” said Xinru. “It’s the bad time of the month. For both of us.”
“So? What does that have to do with anything?”
“We’re unclean. You know the rules.”
“Bah! Whoever pays attention to that? Anyway, you don’t have to go inside the temple. All the fun is outside.”
“It’s a woman’s festival. It’s important to them,” said Li Er.
“It’s important to the gods,” said Xinru.
“Nobody cares about that anymore,” said Yan Xian. “You think there’s not a single woman at the festival during her unlucky week? They must be slipping on the temple steps from all the blood leaking out of them.”
Li Er’s wine cup smashed against the wall behind Yan Xian. “Don’t insult the women!”
“Oh, you broke one of the wine cups! That’s it, no more wine for you, Li Er,” said Xinru. “Control yourself.”
“Careful with property that’s not yours, Li Er!” said Yan Xian.
“Careful with how you insult your women, Yan Xian!”
The two men were circling each other around the table.
“Cut it out, both of you! Li Er, now sit back down here. Yan Xian is just provoking you,” said Xinru.
“He knows that. I can see that grin of yours behind your phony mask of rage, Li Er,” taunted Yan Xian.
“Fuck your mother!”
“Show some respect for the man of the house, elder brother,” said Li San.
“Yep, there it comes, that big smile of yours. No need to get so worked up about this temple business, Li Er. If the women want to go or not, it’s their business. In this house, we talk about things freely. You’d better get used to that.”
“And what do you think the temple priest would say if he heard you talk like that?”
“I wouldn’t be talking to him like that in the first place. What would he say about a grown man hurling his wine cup across the room? C’mon, let’s have another toast.”
“You two have to share Li San’s cup now,” said Xinru.
The brothers resumed their position on the opium bed, Xinru entangled between them. Yan Xian filled their two remaining cups. Qiezi, sitting at the table, covered her mouth and giggled as they tried to work out whose cup was whose.
“I really can’t believe all the women at the temple fairs are not on their unlucky days,” said Yan Xian. “And how would the priests even know? They can’t exactly ask them. But I’m sure they’d love to check!” He burst out laughing at this. “Xinru, are you really sure anyone cares about that anymore? It’s just an old prejudice that died out a long time ago and you women just haven’t realized it yet. Has anyone ever warned you about it?”
“All of us know of it. It’s a tradition.”
“Oh, we could ask Old Zhao,” said Yan Xian. “He would know. He’s a Taoist.”
“And if he says it’s still followed strictly, as I’m sure he will, then that takes care of that. You three can go to the festival regardless.”
“We don’t want to be gawkers, with no women accompanying us. And if he says it’s not, then all of us can go. I’ll go get him now. He’s just a few minutes away.”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea, with Li Er and Li San here,” said Xinru.
“We’ve known him for years. He’ll understand. The two brothers helped set up our new opium bed and we’ll tell him they’re just staying for dinner.”
“And if he asks how we got it?”
“What’s wrong with an opium bed? It’s just a new piece of furniture. It’s for guests. Fix some tea and snacks for him, Xinru.”
“I’m in no shape. I think I’ve had too much to drink,” she said, clasping her cheeks.
“He’ll just be staying for a short time. Put the wine away and get the place straightened up. I’ll be right back.”
“You two sit at the table,” Xinru said to the brothers. “Qiezi, clean up the broken cup. I’ll prepare the snacks. Oh, heavens, I’m so flushed.”
“Mama, your naizi are hanging out. You’d better button up and fix your hair. They’ll be right back.”
“How fresh her language is,” said Li Er. “You’ve been corrupting her.”
“You’re the one who took them out. It’s you who’s corrupting her,” said Xinru. “Qiezi, you don’t have any rags drying outside, do you?”
“You know I take care of that down at the creek now. But Rui Mian was spying on me again today.”
“You saw him?”
“I heard him.”
“How do you know it was him?”
“I know it’s him.”
“Who’s spying on her?” said Li Er.
“The neighbor here, right across from us.”
“With the outhouse facing your door and the bad smell?”
“Why is he spying on her?”
“He’s a pervert,” said Qiezi. “He hides out hoping I’ll be heading down to bathe, so I stopped bathing there.”
“What gives him the right to put his outhouse there?” said Li Er.
“Tell me about it!” exclaimed Xinru. “It sits right over his latrine pit. Its door used to face inside his house but he recently rebuilt it so it faces outside — directly in front of our entrance! And with such a narrow lane, it really gets in the way.”
“I was going to ask you about that,” said Li San. “The smell is pretty intense.”
“We told him and he ignored us. He claimed it’s his own property and he can do as he pleases.”
“Can’t you bring it to the yamen’s attention?”
“They won’t take any action. They could lash out at us for wasting their time on such petty business. Oh, they’re back.”
“What’s that bad smell outside your door?” Old Zhao asked Yan Xian as they entered.
“Old Zhao, so nice to see you again!” said Xinru, bowing energetically. “Please come in. Come in and sit down.”
“Lai Xinru, how are you? And Yan Zhengzai.”
Qiezi bowed to Old Zhao. “Hello, teacher.”
“We’d be honored if you could sit over here on our new opium bed,” implored Yan Xian.
“Please don’t stand on ceremony with me. I’ll just sit at the table.”
“These stools are too shabby. Please try the opium bed. Here, let me put the kang table back on it. Xinru, bring Old Zhao some tea. And some wheat cakes with onion sauce.”
Old Zhao remained at the table, while the others remained standing. Yan Xian proceeded to introduce Li Er and Li San, hired, he explained, from a distant village to do some carpentry work on the house.
“I see. So you built this opium bed?” Old Zhao asked them.
“They’re expert carpenters. Even if it is only made of pine,” said Yan Xian, sitting down at the table.
“Made of pine?” said Old Zhao. “Who makes heavy furniture with pine? Pine is for tables and cabinets. It looks to me like elmwood.”
“See, Yan Xian, you didn’t believe us.”
“You said it was nanmu.”
“I was only joking! It’s elmwood.”
“And where are you two staying, may I ask? At the inn?” asked Old Zhao.
“We’re putting them up here. The inn is too far away,” said Xinru.
“Now you be careful, Yan Xian. You know it’s illegal for strangers to stay with villagers without registering at the yamen.”
“People do it all the time, Old Zhao. You know that. And it’s just for a few days. This is a guest bed, after all. But we wanted to ask you something, about that old proscription against women visiting the temple during their unlucky days. We all wanted to attend the upcoming Seven Sisters Festival together and show these two handsome chaps around town.”
“It’s their unlucky days? Of course, they shouldn’t go.”
“I see. I just can’t believe that all the women observe it.”
“Yan Xian, we don’t have to go,” said Xinru. “There’s no need to make a fuss about it, now that you have it straight from Old Zhao.”
“The festivities are the same every year,” said Qiezi. “I don’t care if I miss it.”
“Old Zhao, can we ask a favor of you?” said Xinru. “You noticed the bad smell outside our door when you arrived. It’s Rui Mian’s outhouse, which he rebuilt with the door facing outward. It’s a real nuisance. Could you have a word with him about it? He ignores us.”
“He rebuilt it facing the street? What gave him the right to do that! Have you been feuding with him?”
“Not at all. He just did it. Without consulting us.”
“That’s not reasonable. Yan Xian, let’s go have a word with him now.”
Led by Old Zhao the men headed out into the lane, followed by the women. They had to go around the outhouse to reach the entrance to Rui Mian’s house. Rui Mian happened to be in the outhouse and at that very moment, the door swung open right in Old Zhao’s face, knocking him down.
“Watch what you’re doing, Rui Mian!” said Yan Xian. “Look what you’ve done! We were just coming to confront you about this.”
“I didn’t see you coming. I’m sorry but it was an accident.”
Yan Xian helped Old Zhao up. “Are you okay, Old Zhao?”
“This outhouse is a hazard for just this reason. You need to remove it!” said Li Er, kicking the outhouse.
“Rui Mian, you have the right to your outhouse but not when it opens onto the lane, and right in front of your neighbor’s entrance!” said Old Zhao.
“It’s my property. If Yan Xian wants to build his own outhouse here too, he’s welcome to. It is none of my business and mine is none of his business.”
“We’re decent enough to have our outhouse behind the house.”
“Yes, the same place where you dry your women’s polluted rags. Is that decent? Do you know how offensive that is? Aren’t you aware they can only be dried in the women’s chamber?”
“What rags? There are no rags there,” said Xinru.
“That was until your miss started drying them down by the creek.”
“How do you know that? Were you spying on her?”
“Everyone has a right to go to the creek, and I know where she tries to hide your pollution.”
“It’s out of the way and nobody would know about it unless you’re deliberately seeking it out!” said Xinru.
“You’re missing the point,” said Rui Mian. “It doesn’t matter if no one sees it. It’s not just outrageous and disgusting to display women’s pollution in public, it offends the heavens! I’m warning you, Lai Xinru and Yan Zhengzai, you will bring bad luck to us all. And by the way, I know what goes on in your family inside that house of yours. The whole village knows it.”
“This outhouse is far more offensive. It’s a danger to people passing by. Kowtow and apologize to Old Zhao for knocking him down, before we report you to the yamen!” said Li Er.
“Don’t push things, stranger. You wouldn’t dare do that, for you know what the consequences are of unlawful cohabitation and illicit sex on top of it!”
“What evidence do you have for these unfounded allegations?” said Yan Xian.
“How dare you insult Yan Xian’s wife! Let’s just take care of this matter right now.” Li Er threw himself against the outhouse in an attempt to topple it. As Rui Mian pushed Li Er away he was punched in the face.
“Stop fighting!” said Old Zhao.
With gusto and as if for sport, Li San launched a flying kick and dislodged the outhouse, which collapsed in a pile of planks and beams.
“Watch out, Li Er!” shouted Yan Xian as Rui Mian picked up a wooden beam and swung it at him. Li Er caught the beam in his hands and swung it around the other way, hitting Rui Mian in the head. He crumpled to the ground. By this time other neighbors had emerged into the lane.
“Oh, no. It’s come to this!” said Old Zhao, as he bent over Rui Mian. “Are you okay, Rui Mian?”
“You flat knocked him out, Li Er,” said Yan Xian. “Let’s sit him up.”
They slapped Rui Mian on the face to try to rouse him.
“He’s breathing and his pulse is still there,” said Old Zhao.
They carried Rui Mian, who lived alone, into his house and lay him on his bed.
“Qiezi, can you tell if he’s okay?” said Xinru. “Or do we have to go get help?”
“If he doesn’t revive soon we’ll have to get help.”
By the time Old Zhao returned with the doctor and two constables from the walled town ten li away, Rui Mian was dead.
One constable held the Li brothers under guard in Rui Mian’s house. The witnesses including the Yan family were ordered to stay put. The other constable went back to fetch the district magistrate. He had to be called from home to perform the inquest — it was already early evening — and upon arriving at the crime scene on horseback with several yamen runners interviewed the witnesses in turn. The doctor, who also served as the town coroner, confirmed the cause of death to be a blow to the crown and right temporal lobe of the forehead. The two brothers were arrested and escorted to the yamen along with Rui Mian’s corpse.
The next day the witnesses including the Yan family were summoned to the yamen for formal depositions. Li Er was saved for last. Bound by his hands and feet, his face glassy from the sweat pouring off, he was brought into the courtroom and pushed down on his knees before the magistrate, who sat at a high desk, surrounded by a secretary, a court scribe, and wardens. The trial functioned simultaneously as an interrogation. “If you want to avoid the instruments of torture, testify the whole truth!” said the magistrate, pointing to a tray of unfamiliar tools. “Name?”
Li Er identified himself, his home village and occupation, and his purpose in traveling to the present township.
“You have been staying with the Yan family for three days now but your brother only arrived last night. Why did you come at different times?”
“He had to arrange transport of the platform bed we brought. As he must have explained, I arrived several days earlier to acquaint myself with the route to the village and the Yan family home. Then I went back to meet my brother at the furniture market and we arranged for the bed to be brought here by mule cart.”
“What is the purpose of the bed?”
“A gift to show our appreciation to the Yan family for hiring us. And also so that we have a place to sleep while building their new room.”
“Was such an expensive and elaborate gift appropriate given your humble circumstances?”
“We got a very good price on it — only 4,000 cash.”
“Why did they hire you to build a new room?”
“They don’t have a proper inner-outer division in their house. Especially now that their daughter is of woman’s age.”
“Did you have any prior acquaintance with the deceased, Rui Mian, before today?”
“Yet you attacked him unprovoked, kicking his outhouse and punching him in the face in a drunken rage.”
“I lost my temper when he knocked Old Zhao down.”
The magistrate took his time calmly taking meticulous notes. After each response from Li Er, he seemed more absorbed in his calligraphy than in the deposition, at least until the next question. “What Rui Mian did or did not do is irrelevant. I asked you why you physically attacked him unprovoked! Is that what a normal person would do?”
“Sir, I momentarily lost my temper and I regret my actions. I am not normally a violent person.”
“And with that one blow of the wooden post, you hit him exactly on the head’s lethal spot. It seems obvious you intended to kill him. How can you explain this?”
“Really, sir, it all happened so fast. I was only thinking about protecting myself, as he might have done the same to me! I wasn’t trying to kill him. I didn’t know I would hit him on the lethal spot. That is the truth.”
“Do you know what the punishment is for intentional homicide?”
“I beg you to be lenient!”
“Li Er,” the magistrate announced, “I have found your testimony to be consistent with that of Old Zhao and the other witnesses. Given that you acted in the heat of the moment and in self-defense, you are being spared immediate beheading. But you must suffer the penalty for homicide with mitigating circumstances. I hereby sentence you to strangulation after the autumn assizes. Warden, escort him back to his jail cell.”
Li Er stared ahead dumbfounded as he was led away.
The next day, Qing Da, a yamen runner well known to the village, paid the Yan family a visit to apprise them of Li Er’s case.
“And what’s going to happen to Li San?” they asked him.
“He has been sentenced to 100 blows of the heavy bamboo.”
“By inciting Rui Mian and physically destroying his outhouse, he is an accessory to the murder. They are both lucky, however, as they still have a realistic chance of having their sentences commuted by a degree or two after the assizes, which can usually be expected if no new incriminating evidence turns up. Remember, though, as this is a homicide case, it will be reviewed successively by the prefectural court, the provincial court, and finally the imperial court. Now, the prefectural and provincial magistrates almost always agree with the district magistrate’s verdict unless any glaring inconsistencies turn up, and there will be no need to launch a higher-level investigation. By the time it reaches the Capital, it’s all just a matter of formality to be signed off on, and time is on your side.”
“So what sentences might they finally receive?”
“Li San, maybe forty strokes of the heavy bamboo, or 100 strokes of the light bamboo. Li Er, 100 strokes of the heavy bamboo instead of execution, followed by a month in the cangue, and probable exile to a distance of 3,000 li. If he survives the heavy bamboo, that is, and some don’t.”
“How long would the exile last?”
“It’s really hard to say. It could be for several years. It could be for life.”
“Is there anything we can do to influence the outcome in their favor?” asked Yan Xian.
“No, I’m afraid not. But it is possible to worsen the outcome — for all of you.”
“How do you mean?”
Qing Da set his teacup down on the square table and stood up to examine the opium bed. A big, strong man, he easily lifted the bed’s frame off the floor. “Elmwood or walnut?”
They followed him into the rear bedroom. It was the same size as the front room and held two beds at either end, separated by a wooden screen.
“Who sleeps in this bed?”
“I do,” said Yan Xian.
“And in that bed?”
“My wife and daughter.”
“You are aware that a mere screen is insufficient to set off the women’s inner chamber?”
“Yes, that’s why we hired the Li brothers to build a proper wall. Anyway, who cares about that?” said Yan Xian. “Many poor people live in just one-room hovels. How can they afford to be morally proper?”
“Oh, but you can afford to be morally proper,” said Qing Da as he sat back down at the table. “Your family is moving up in the world, Yan Xian. After all, you hired not one but two skilled carpenters. A lot of us are a bit curious, though, as to how a mere farmer like yourself is able to afford them. On top of putting them up and feeding them, where did you get the money? And even more perplexing, this opium bed, which one would naturally suppose you provided for their comfort, turns out to be a gift they provided you. How convenient.”
“What are you getting at? It’s our own affair how we work out our arrangements,” said Xinru.
“Exactly. The only explanation I can think of is that these two strapping young men you hired had more than a financial incentive. Guess which household they chose: the one with the two village beauties! Now, Yan Xian, let’s stop beating around the bush. We all know about this zhao fu yang fu business — supporting one’s husband by enlisting another. There are always a few families in the area rumored to be discreetly engaging in it, and we all look the other way since it’s in no one’s interest to stir up trouble where none exists. I personally would prefer to look the other way.”
“What evidence do you have that we are engaging in — ”
“Illicit sex? Rumors, gossip. Gossip often has a basis in fact, which can be ascertained under interrogation. As the magistrate is a busy man I’m sure he would just as soon not want to dirty his hands unnecessarily while the murder is still under review. At least not yet. I don’t know. Maybe his suspicions are already aroused. Yesterday he interviewed several witnesses who are your neighbors. Who knows what ideas they put into his head — and what headache they might be creating for him in muddying the proceedings. It would certainly be simple enough for him to extract more information from the brothers about the goings-on in your family. And you do not want that to happen. Oh, my goodness, no. You do not want to be called in for further questioning.”
“Qing Da,” said Yan Xian, “the trial is finished and the verdict is being sent for approval, as you explained. That’s the end of the matter. Now would you please state exactly what it is you’re getting at or leave us in peace?”
“Please be charitable with me. I am after all on your side. You’re quite right, I have very little role to play in all of this. However, I need to warn you of what might happen if you are investigated for illicit sex at the same time your family is involved in a murder. If this blew up, don’t worry about the two brothers — worry about yourselves! Yan Xian, I don’t even want to think about the consequences to your family. Lai Xinru, provided you survived the blows of the heavy rod, you would be forcibly divorced from Yan Xian and sent back to your natal family with your daughter.”
“There is no evidence we have done anything!” said Xinru.
“I’m afraid you don’t understand!” yelled Qing Da, slamming the table and splashing his tea. “We are not joking around here. Evidence can be created. Evidence can be extracted. In fact, I’m surprised the authorities’ suspicions aren’t already aroused. Your fates are hanging by a thread.”
“So what do you want us to do?” said Yan Xian.
“Once the process starts, I am, as you can understand, powerless. What I can do is vouch in your favor. If it comes up, I can vouch, at the outset, that I am not aware of any rumors that your family is engaged in zhao fu yang fu. And it might be enough to forestall further investigation,” said Qing Da, who had been staring at Xinru.
“You know we have no money that would help settle this,” she said.
“Yes. You are — or were — being supported by the two brothers. Well, that source of funding has now been cut off.”
“So you want to sleep with me? Is that it?”
With a weary expression, Qing Da reached over and yanked up Xinru’s skirt. “Those are some colorful underclothes you have on, Lai Xinru. Red underthings and brightly patterned leggings. Is this how you normally dress for your husband around the house? Or are they rather for entertaining guests?”
“How dare you treat a woman like that, Qing Da! What is it you are asking for?” said Yan Xian, standing up.
“You don’t need to be violent with me, Qing Da. We can take care of this business in a more amiable manner,” said Xinru.
“Having seen your frilly underthings, I’ve seen enough. I’ve seen exactly what the Li brothers were meant to see — or already saw. If you were to strip naked before me right now I would be unmoved. All of your desire is wrapped up in the Li brothers, and I just can’t reconcile myself to that. Especially when there is a worthier prize to be had.”
“Oh, no, please, no.”
“Qing Da, she’s only seventeen and you will ruin her,” said Yan Xian. “Please give us an alternative proposal!”
“Please, Qing Da, I’ll do anything you ask. Please leave my daughter alone. It will spell disaster!”
“How exactly will it spell disaster? The loss of her virginity? But is she really a virgin? I think I would like to find out. If she isn’t, there’s no loss. If she is, there’s also no loss. You know as well as I do that with her unbound feet she has no marriage prospects. So what ‘disaster’ are you referring to? Please explain.”
“I can’t explain but you mustn’t,” implored Xinru in tears. She unbuttoned her shirt. “Here, please satisfy yourself with my body. More than one man in this village would trade anything for it — Qiezi, where are you going?”
“I’m just stepping outside to the outhouse. I’ll be right back.”
“Please reconsider, Qing Da,” said Yan Xian. “As much as I would protest against the violation of my wife, have her if you must, but I beg you not to ruin my daughter. You have to trust us that it will bring disaster.”
“Why are you both being so intractable? You are in no position to bargain. If your family’s honor is on the line, it’s not my doing but your own. Once I have satisfied myself with Yan Zhengzai, the matter will be settled. I give you my word you will be safe from further investigation, and you will never see me appear at your house again.”
When Qiezi returned, she sat down on the opium bed and began taking off her clothes. “It’s okay. Let me take of this.”
“Qiezi, dear, don’t! Qing Da, do you just want to see her naked? Is that it? Then enjoy her body that way and then come to me. But don’t violate her!”
“Mama, stop!” snapped Qiezi. “Let me deal with it.”
She was fully naked now, sitting upright in the middle of the opium bed in clear-eyed expectation. Qing Da set his conical hat with its official red-tasseled braids down on the square table and pulled off his shoes and pantaloons, while Xinru and Yan Xian stared. He looked up in annoyance. “What are you two doing here! Have you no shame? Go into your bedroom, shut the door and wait.”
“You’re telling us that we have no shame?” responded Xinru wide-eyed.
“Don’t ruin things now.”
Xinru and Yan Xian retreated behind the bedroom door ajar. Qing Da mounted the opium bed. Qiezi adjusted her body to receive him, holding him steady in her gaze: she knew cooperating would get it over with faster than resisting, and though only the most ferocious resistance — followed by her own suicide — could conceivably have spared her from implicating herself in the rape, it would hardly matter in the end.
“Don’t think that bit of blood coming out of you fooled me,” said Qing Da as he put his clothes back on. “As I expected, you were not a virgin. You’d better hope I don’t catch some disease from you, you little whore.”
He slammed their front door shut upon exiting. Xinru rushed in and burst into tears as she wrapped her arms around Qiezi. “Oh, baby, you have to flee from us, and fast, now!”
“I know,” said Qiezi, sobbing. “Don’t worry about me, mama. I know how to take care of myself.”
“We have to flee as well, Xinru. Immediately.”
“How much time does he have left?” they asked Qiezi.
“A day or two at most. He will start feeling it soon enough.”
“Let’s plan to meet up with some relatives of ours in Bao County, just across the eastern border of Sichuan Province. And I have another address of a relative in Ankang, Shaanxi Province, which is on the way, who can tell you if we’ve left any word,” Xinru instructed her daughter. “Memorize their names and addresses as if your life depended on it!”
Staggering into the walled town’s gate raving and incoherent, Qing Da didn’t make it to the district yamen of his own accord. By the time he was brought there, he was in a coma.
* * *