(The Golden Ratio)
With dragging steps, I entered our shop’s darkened door. A rush of air hit me. It was heavy with smoke, yet everywhere clung traces of her perfume: orange, plum, clove, jasmine, peach, and vetiver. Eager to find Māmā inside, I tripped over an overturned clothing rack, and my knees slammed into the floorboards. Come morning I was going to be a solid bruise. Crawling on hands and knees over the wreckage that had been a successful dress shop hours ago, I made my way behind the counter.
I brushed against an assortment of scissors, bobbins of thread, and stacks of price tags before locating a zhǐ xīng jí. The paper crinkled between my fingers. I prayed it was one to light the oil lamp, but couldn’t see my hand in front of my face let alone the number written on the delicately folded paper. It took most of my strength to heft the oil lamp off the counter. I managed to bang it against the counter with a metallic clunk. The inky black of the shop pressed down around me.
The world shrank until all it contained was the hand that held the zhǐ xīng jí and the oil lamp. Even my steady breathing had ceased to exist inside an endless night. I snapped my eyes closed and squeezed them tight, sucking a quick breath and holding it, I lifted the thick glass shade and gave the wick raiser a quarter turn. I sent a quick prayer to Māmā and our ancestors for luck.
I gripped the very edge of the zhǐ xīng jí and said, “Flame!”
A small burst of light shone pink through my closed eyelids as the paper caught immediately. I smiled and held the dancing flame to the wick, a warm glow greeted me like an old friend. I replaced the shade and yanked the lamp back onto the counter. Shadows remained in the corners. The upended mannequins resembled bodies, causing me to shiver violently.
I had to use both hands to carry the lamp up the stairs to the apartment above the shop where Māmā and I lived. If the dress shop looked like a storm had passed through, the upstairs resembled a dragon whirl. Broken chairs — their wicker seats torn to shreds — and shards of dishes glinted in the lamplight forming haphazard piles on torn rugs. Māmā’s office, her desk drawers busted and open, was littered with papers like newly fallen snow. The only things that had escaped the chaos were the glass globes on the shelf above the window. Each held a different species of preserved butterfly.
A voice floated up from downstairs, “Zhēn-Zī? Jin tàitai? Hello? Is anyone here?”
“I’m upstairs!” I shouted back. “The shop’s a disaster. I’ll be right down.”
I took the steps two at a time, mindful not to step in the puddles of spilled ink or drop the oil lamp. In the middle of the shop, hands outstretched and eyes wide, stood my best friend Sūn Měi-Líng.
“Something terrible.” A lump formed in the back of my throat, and tears pricked the corners of my eyes. I couldn’t hold Měi-Líng’s questioning gaze. I managed to say, “Māmā” before putting down the lamp. I tucked my face into the crook of my elbow, surprised I had any tears left.
Měi-Lín wrapped her arms around me and let me snot and hiccup against her shoulder. She smoothed my hair and patted my back. It didn’t bring Māmā back, but somehow it made it easier to breathe. More out of habit than necessity, I fumbled for the samovar — an exotic wedding gift from my father’s family to my mother — and found it dented and kicked into a corner. Měi-Lín took over. In seconds she had righted the large metal pot and was carrying it into the back room to fill with water. While she was gone, I poked the discarded invoices that littered the ground with my toe.
Nothing made any sense. Māmā was a dressmaker. She had many friends and no enemies. She paid her taxes to the emperor and pined for my bà, who was fighting the emperor’s war. The Jin House was an honorable one. We sometimes discussed the latest gossip from Wheat Row behind closed doors. Nothing more salacious than the news that Huáng tàitai had hired a new delivery boy, and all the ladies thought he was delicious-looking.
Měi-Lín returned and made the tea. We sat and sipped Phoenix Flower blend while I told her what had happened at the stallion outpost. Her eyes had shimmered with tears until that point. Past the steam of her teacup, the hint of a smile. The ground opened up beneath me. I fell a hundred feet with that one gesture. She covered it with a sneeze, but an uneasiness permeated the space between us. I opened my mouth to comment. The words got stuck in my throat, strangely accusing of my best friend.
She took my teacup and placed it on the counter’s second shelf. Her small hand tugged on my sleeve until I gave her my own hand. She squeezed it, glanced quickly around the room, then leaned in close.
“Your mother’s alive,” she whispered in the secret tongue.
I tore my hand out of her grasp. “How do you know that?”
She waved her hands frantically for me to keep my voice down. Dawn’s pale fingers crept across the floor behind her. I’d been awake for twenty-four hours, and for the first time in my life, I didn’t want to sleep. The tea and Měi-Líng’s — Confession? Secret? — pushed adrenaline through my veins until my hands shook and thoughts bounced like polecats around my head.
Our knees pressed against each other, Měi-Líng whispered, soft enough to be confused with paper rustling, “It’s an old legend Sūn nǎinai told me years ago before she died. Soldiers coming home from long campaigns would send their wives to be judged by the Stallion god. Those found guilty of unfaithfulness would be crushed to dust.”
At that, I pulled away from her. My heart pulsed beneath my chest, hammering fast enough to cause my shirt to vibrate across my skin. The stallion had judged Māmā and found her guilty? I couldn’t have dreamed that colossal statue crashing down, nor the way the earth trembled beneath me. Rubbing circles across my eyelids, I prayed.
“My mother has never been unfaithful.”
“No, she hasn’t,” Měi-Líng said. “There’s more to the story. Sūn nǎinai said that the judging part of the story was meant for cruel men to hear. When the stallion fell they would believe justice was served. Any woman that wanted to be released of such a man would turn a dial inside the statue and use a special zhǐ xīng jí to whisk her away to safety.”
I shook my head, the hope her words brought felt false. “If that were true, why didn’t she come home? And we don’t have any special zhǐ xīng jí. Māmā barely makes enough to cover our expenses.”
“This place is watched, Zhēn-Zī. Your mother had something they wanted. Don’t you think they’d be watching to see if somehow she miraculously returned?” She sighed. “I’m sure you don’t know all her secrets.”
I shook my head. “We didn’t keep secrets from each other.” We didn’t.
Měi-Líng digs out a fistful of zhǐ xīng jí from the basket under the counter. She shoved them at my hard enough that her sharp knucklebones dug into breastbone before she dropped them in my lap. I picked up the crinkled star shapes — several were red and marked with a number two for fire, a few were blue and marked with a zero for water, and one was marked with a one for wood. I tucked them into my apron’s pocket, thankful for a distraction.
“Let’s go before someone asks too many questions.”
“Where are we going?”
“To the stallion outpost,” Měi-Líng reached down and grabbed another fistful of zhǐ xīng jí. A number of hers are marked with a three and green for earth. We didn’t need magic for food, but I suddenly worried we’d be confronted by those men from yesterday. I ducked behind the counter for another generous handful of zhǐ xīng jí and a couple of tallow sticks.
The stallion loomed sinister against the cheerfulness of morning. Sharp sunlight evaporated the morning dew that covered the ground. Black-crested bulbuls filled sang to each other in the branches above us. My shoulders sagged as we approached the base of the outpost. Měi-Líng allowed me to lead the way, choosing instead to busy herself by weaving a crown of osmanthus flowers that filled the air with a pleasant fragrance.
She placed the crown on my head, the petals tickled against my forehead. “Want me to go check?”
I shook my head, and the crown settled above my ears. “Just hold my hand?” She slipped her fingers between mine, and we walked solemnly toward the huge base.
I continued to breathe. The world continued on its axis. I ran my free hand along the warming stone. No sign that my mother had been here greeted us. No blood. No bits of bone or strands of her hair. I sighed with relief, found the edge of the door and pulled. It swung easily, as if oiled, and instinctually I closed my eyes.
“Can you see anything?” I asked.
Beside me, I sensed her shaking her head before she said, “No. It’s dark inside.” We both stepped into the shade the stallion made.
“This is stupid,” I said, releasing her hand and digging into my pockets. “We shouldn’t both be in here. Stay outside and make sure no one followed us.” We a fear I didn’t know I harbored, I added, “And keep the door from shutting me in here.”
Měi-Líng shuddered but did as I asked. Her shadow lengthened with every step she took away from me. Something echoed in the space around me. I jumped until I realized it was my own breathing, ragged and harsh.
I retrieved a red star and spoke, “Flame!” until it sparked into fiery life in my hand. I lit the tallow stick and held it aloft. The light flickered against smooth, unblemished stone, as I walked around in a circle against the inside wall. There were no dials or levers at eye-level, so I crouched down and made another circuit. Nothing. A thin layer of dust covered the stone floor, and I could make out my own footprints and those of Měi-Líng’s. Then the tallow stick revealed a set of prints that could only belong to my mother.
She had been inside. Māmā stood half a hand taller than I did. I edged up on the tips of my toes and made one last circuit. Again, nothing met my careful scrutiny. Aside from the footsteps, I almost convinced myself she’d never been here. She’d not been killed. Without any physical evidence to prove otherwise, it looked like there was truth in the legend. I rejoined Měi-Líng outside.
“I can’t find anything inside,” I said, shading my eyes with a hand.
She pulled on her ear. “Are you sure she was in there? It rained hard yesterday. The mist could’ve played tricks on your eyes.”
“Her footprints inside can’t deceive me. I don’t know how she escaped, but I do know she was forcibly thrown in. The story your nǎinai told you must be true, or it would’ve been covered in her blood.”
“Maybe they washed it away.”
I thought about it for half a second. “There’s no way. Water would have washed the dust away. She’s alive! My mother’s alive!”
Měi-Líng squeezed my shoulder. A small flicker of hope warmed my heart and lightened my steps. I didn’t know how I would avenge what those men thought they’d done to Māmā — not yet — and I didn’t know why they had targeted her in the first place. All I knew was that she was alive somewhere. I whistled the bulbuls’s song and thanked the sun for outdoing the night before.
The flower crown fell to pieces beneath my racing feet.
… to be continued over on Wattpad!
Stay tuned for Julie’s No Rules Friday next week.