Below is a seven-page excerpt from Chapter Six of my novel, The Lacquered Talisman. This is about one-third of the way into the story.
Background note: Zhu Yuanzhang had several names during his life, and here I have translated his childhood name, 朱重八, as “Fortune.” His parents are known as “Little Chen” and “Fifty-four” (number names were common in this era), and the siblings who appear in this excerpt consist of his eldest brother, “Cattail” (married to “Sao Sao,” and father of a boy known as “Precious”), and his second brother, “Radish” (married into the Tang family).
Chapter Six: The rat flea picks its victims
Fortune was not in the village when the plague descended on his family. His mother had sent him with a basket and a trowel up into the hills and told him not to return until he had gathered some roots to relieve everyone’s hunger. He walked through the cool shade of the mountainside trees with his neighbor, the second son of Old Mother Wang, who was skilled at foraging. Other villagers were bent on the same task, but the two young men ran ahead up a steep hillside along Cloud Mother Mountain. There they found mushrooms and leeks and a few other edibles. Second Cao captured a cricket in his hands and dared his friend to eat it. Fortune popped the struggling insect in his mouth and crunched cheerfully.
“You eat that like you’ve done it before,” said Second Cao, laughing.
Fortune grimaced at the aftertaste. “I think once was enough.”
In all, it was a pleasant, carefree day.
When the evening bell tolled the two young men headed back to the ferry. Recognizing Fortune, the ferryman drew back in fright and told the pair to stand at the far side of his boat.
“What’s this all about?” Second Cao asked. The ferryman would not speak, but poled through the water with all his might.
Second Cao glanced at Fortune and shrugged. “Crazy old man,” he said. The two laughed together. A fish splashed nearby. On the village bank, a kingfisher was perched in a dead tree at water’s edge, its blue-green feathers reflecting clearly in the rippling waves.
The peaceful vista of Lone Hamlet before them, the two friends moved forward to disembark. Baskets in hand, they stepped to the shore. The ferryman shrank away again as they passed. This was the last moment of unsuspecting contentment for Fortune. This was when the ferryman released the nine dagger words that changed everything:
“Run home, son. The plague has struck your house.”
When Little Chen saw her youngest son enter the doorway, she uttered a cry of relief that he had not come staggering in like his father. The two embraced. Little Chen allowed herself to hang on the shoulders of her healthy, strong son and weep into his chest. She allowed herself this moment of weakness, releasing some of the terror gripping her heart. Then she opened her eyes and turned back, still shuddering from her tears, to nurse her stricken husband and grandson.
The plague turned from Precious and Fifty-four to claim a third Zhu victim. But while the first two fell into a pitiful, moaning state of unconsciousness, Cattail was struck with a violent delirium. He kept rushing out into the yard, gasping for air and screaming gibberish warnings. Fortune chased after him again and again, calming him with ladles of water and dragging him back into the cottage.
Little Chen stayed at her husband’s side, feeling his pulse and murmuring prayers. Sao Sao held Precious in her arms rocking and singing to him.
On his last night, Fifty-four’s eyelids flickered briefly and then opened. He turned toward the candlelight. Little Chen sat up and nudged Fortune, who was sleeping at her feet. The two leaned over Fifty-four, smiling down at him.
“Baba,” Fortune said, “we are here with you.”
Fifty-four’s vision cleared and he reached for Fortune, making a sound like a cough, or perhaps a sigh.
“Stay with us,” Fortune begged him, grabbing onto his outreached hand, but Little Chen knew better.
“Rest now, husband,” she said, placing her palm gently over her son’s. “You can rest now.”
Fifty-four died on the same day as his grandson – the child took a last sweet breath at dawn; Fifty-four’s rasping ended at dusk. Cattail’s agonies continued for another three days and then abruptly ceased. The women washed the bodies and arranged them side by side, three generations of Zhu males.
“Wait,” said Little Chen when Sao Sao picked up the coarse shroud cloth.
As Sao Sao stood expectantly with the cloth in her hands, Little Chen went to the corner of the room that contained her bedding and pulled out a small bundle of rose-colored silk. Kneeling down beside the bodies, Little Chen gently placed the bundle into her husband’s hands, taking a few moments to arrange the material to her satisfaction. Her own hand lingered over her husband’s cool fingers and she kept it there, unwilling to let go, gazing wistfully at her husband, tears dripping onto his sleeves.
Behind her, Sao Sao worriedly gestured to Fortune to intervene. He stepped forward and put his arm around his mother’s shoulders. Little Chen let him help her to her feet. She turned away as Sao Sao spread the cloth cover.
Only a small piece of sackcloth remained. Little Chen ripped it into two strips, tying one to her forehead and handing the other to Sao Sao. The white marks of mourning. White, the pallid color that is left when you drain out the vivid red, the color of life.
The fields, which continued to bake in the heat, had been surrendered to the locusts. The millet crop was a complete loss. Little Chen boiled one of their last handfuls of grain together with some bark chips and leaves and one of the mushrooms Fortune had dug with Second Cao. She stared down at this pathetic meal and tried to focus on it. She struggled to see anything through her thoughts and memories of the family members she had just lost. They were all she wanted to think about, and she kept whispering her grandson’s name aloud and calling out feebly for Cattail and her husband, unable to accept that they were gone and would not be eating this food she had just prepared. “The dead are dead,” she said to herself, speaking firmly. “I need to think about those who are still living.” Little Chen forced herself to pack up her loom, the wedding gift made by her father’s own hands, and told Fortune to carry it for her down Flagstone Avenue. They sold it to the squire’s clerk in exchange for seeds of the 50-day variety of millet, used in times of severe drought.
Little Chen placed the seeds in Fortune’s hands. “The rains will come soon enough,” she said.
Little Chen also consulted the ancestral spirits. Kneeling before the family altar, the corpses at her left, she sought guidance. She stared, blinking now and then, breathing in and out in short puffs. Though she tried, she could not fill her lungs or sink into slow, meditative breathing. Her chest remained tight, her lips clenched, as she trained her eyes on the figurine of the Metal Mother, her patron goddess. “Queen Mother of the West,” she prayed, using the goddess’s more formal name, “You preside over life and death, disease and healing, and you determine the life span of all beings. We beg you to let us survive as a family.” After some time elapsed, Little Chen stood up. She walked out of the yard and down the lane and over the rope bridge toward the Tang Family Settlement. She returned holding onto Radish’s arm. His wife trailed closely behind with their baby boy tied to her back. The three adults halted briefly before the village shrine to the Earth God.
“I am bringing my second son home,” Little Chen told the clay image inside the waist-high shrine near the well and memorial arch on Flagstone Avenue. “Because of unforeseen calamities we can no longer allow him to continue as a Tang. He and his son are now responsible for carrying on the Zhu line.”
Behind his mother’s kneeling form, Radish raised his eyebrows and looked in surprise at his wife. Then the two hurriedly bowed to the image. They followed Little Chen down Mulberry Lane and into the Zhu yard. There, they joined the ritual wailing for the dead.
Back in the Tang Family Settlement, among all the five households, only an old man and his daughter-in-law remained. The rest had either died or fled. The old man, a brother of Old Wolf, sent his daughter-in-law back to her parents. He wandered out into the Tang graveyard, picked the spot among the burial mounds with the best fengshui, lay down, and died.
At first, it seemed that Little Chen had succeeded in grabbing her eldest remaining son back into the Zhu lineage and flouting the elaborate rules of heredity. Old Wolf had died thinking he had set a healthy grandson in place to continue the sacred duties of ritual worship before the Tang ancestral tablets. His last order had been to lock up his daughter and grandson. No one was to enter their room until the plague had passed, to keep the child safe. Radish had broken through the lock while his father-in-law’s corpse was still cooling.
Little Chen took this baby, her blood grandson promised to the Tangs, even though the Zhus still had intact lines of heredity through Fortune and through Sao Sao’s surviving son. Little Chen recognized that calamity presented an opening, a brief chance at circumventing the iron laws that favored wealthier men like Old Wolf. There are no Tangs remaining to point out that our marriage contract promises three sons to Old Wolf. She wanted to snatch up for her family all the lines of continuity available. You could never have too many.
Even though Little Chen knew she had fooled the world of mortals, she realized there were other forces to consider. That is why she had promptly informed the Earth God of her intentions. She had hoped he would understand her situation. Still, in her heart she expected retribution. She was not surprised when she felt the fevers and chills come on shortly after retrieving Radish.
She was able to disguise her symptoms for an entire day. This gave her time to accept her fate. But as she was suffering on her sleeping mat at the dawn of a second feverish morning, she worried that she would soon slip into the plague delirium. She needed to hurry and say her goodbyes. Little Chen sat up and looked down at the peacefully sleeping form of her youngest child. He is already a man. She gazed into his pockmarked, unusual face, and through the dizziness and nausea, she reminded herself of her blessing in having been allowed to keep him at her side for so long.
Fortune opened his eyes and saw the wet streaks down her face, her tears the first thing illuminated by the weak light of daybreak. “Niang,” he whispered.
She took his hand and he jerked upright, fully awakened by the chill of fear he felt at the unnatural warmth and clamminess of her skin. “I have the plague,” she stated softly, her voice gentle and peaceful. “There’s no use in making a fuss.”
They sat side-by-side holding hands for some time, the dawn stars succumbing to the light flooding gently into the yard. They were sleeping outside, across the doorframe to guard the entrance to their cottage from evil spirits. Inside Radish, now the eldest son, slept closest to the corpses. Sao Sao was next door with her two remaining children, under the care of Old Mother Wang.
“I won’t have time to make any more funeral arrangements. You’ll have to find a place to bury us. Maybe you can ask the landlord…”
“Niang,” Fortune said again.
“Don’t be afraid,” she said. “Do you know that once, when you were still an infant, you slipped out of my hands when I was giving you a bath? Yes, I dropped you – it was terrible. But you grabbed hold of me with your juicy little baby hands, gripping my fingers so tight, dangling in the air. I couldn’t believe it! I grabbed your slippery body back up into my arms.”
Little Chen folded those same arms now, rocking gently and remembering, a weak smile on her starving, sick face. She clung to the memory of holding her small baby tight to her chest, their hearts beating together, so forcefully alive. “I knew then that you had within you a special kind of will to survive,” she continued. “Many times after that I’ve seen signs that you are different. My father knew it too, but he refused to share his thoughts about you. Still, I could tell that you surprised him, almost frightened him. He promised me once that your future held marvelous things in it.” Little Chen reached over to take her son’s face in her hands. She smiled again. “You have the iron chin and the hawk eyes of a true Chen,” she whispered, repeating the line her own father had said upon first seeing this last son of hers.
Her tears were finished, but now Fortune began to cry. His lips trembled and his vision swam.
Little Chen caressed his shoulder, thinking it was a pity, such a pity, to have to leave him in the midst of all these other deaths. She reached around her neck and took off the leather thong holding its talisman. “This was not much help to me, but I think that’s because it was never intended for me – my father’s talisman was meant for you,” she said, placing the necklace over her son’s head. She held up the chop box in her palm, studying it fondly. Then she looked firmly into Fortune’s eyes. “My son, you will survive this terrible plague. You have a special fate and you will find out what that is soon enough. You are stronger than all the rest of us. I am trusting you to take care of our family.” She leaned against his shoulder and said no more.
Fortune helped her gently back onto her sleeping mat. He rose to get Sao Sao and begin the ordeal of nursing his dying mother.