I waited for Mr. Overindulgent and his son to return. Until a cool wind blew. And the sky grew dark. Then a large drop of rain splattered on my arm. Little chance of the man coming back now, so late in the afternoon, such unfavorable weather.
"I know a place to wait out the rain," Madame Paper Cutter said, folding up the letter I'd written for her daughter, sticking it underneath the waistband of her pants. "If you want to wait."
"Thanks, no," I said. I thought of our new neighbor the zealot and his stones. As Father always said, the man was missing a piano string or two. Would he and Father have started arguing already?
I helped Madame Paper Cutter gather her cuttings into a plastic bag. I'd much rather stay with her. I'd much rather wait.
Why had New Neighbor chosen to build his house in front of ours, I thought for the hundredth time. He and his wife used to live further down the road. Nice and far away. Then their son had been killed. They claimed that bad spirits flowing from a grave near their old house had pushed the son's truck over a bridge, dropping him like a boulder into the cold waters below. Other, less superstitious people, suggested the boy had fallen asleep at the wheel. Mother said it wasn't right to pass judgment on what people believed or didn't. Father said he wouldn't if they would just keep to themselves. Which they never did. Especially when it rained.
"I should get home." I handed the bag of cuttings to Madame Paper Cutter. "When it rains, it's best if I'm at home."
Madame Paper Cutter's features relaxed into a smile. She looked in the bag, took out one of her lucky paper cranes, and handed it to me. Perhaps she'd worried that Mr. Overindulgent and the little Emperor would come back, that I would work for them.
"Tomorrow," she said and squeezed my hand.
* * *
On the bus home, I stood in the aisle and gripped my umbrella. Rain poured down against the windows in sheets of white. Why had I waited so long for Mr. Overindulgent? Why hadn't he returned?
The bus turned down the hill towards our village. Rice and vegetable fields filled my vision. At least the crops must be singing with delight at this gift from the clouds.
The small beep of a motorcycle's horn sounded. Our bus honked in reply, the sound echoing throughout the bus. I peered out over the shoulder of the man in front of me. The motorcyclist continued to beep as he zoomed around and in front of our bus. He had no head covering–not even a bamboo helmet. He held a white plastic bag around his shoulders with one hand, as protection from the rain. No wonder he was in such a hurry.
We passed the eel farm. Workers fumbled with black plastic sheets, covering the eels that had been put out to dry. The rain showered over the pungent odor that normally filled the air. For once I didn't have to hold my breath.
A couple of high school children walked by the side of the road. A girl and boy. The boy held up an umbrella to protect them both. They walked so close their uniforms touched. A first love? At such a young age?
The motorcycle toot-tooted past them, shooting up water. Our bus would certainly do the same. The girl shrank from the side of the road and brushed water from her uniform. The boy, incensed, handed her the umbrella and pulled something from his pocket. Aimed. A slingshot?
I felt as if the boy had missed the motorcycle and hit me. A cold numbing sensation spread across my heart. I squeezed my purse. The purse which held Madame Paper Cutter's lucky crane, a symbol of happiness and love.
Father had always warned me to focus on my studies. To not be misled by the foolish meanderings of my heart. I had ignored the stares of many boys, including intelligent Classmate Zhang who sat near me in English class at university. I had focused. I had never felt the protection of a boy's umbrella over my head, his slingshot at the ready. Now it was too late according to Madame Matchmaker.
Madame Matchmaker had been one of the first people to visit upon my return from university. To tell Mother that a match for me would be difficult. Very difficult. Not many bachelors remained in our village. And who wanted a bride with an education?
She returned for a visit every few days. She enjoyed chewing on this sorrowful situation, like a cow grinding on a tasty mouthful of grass. Why was I so old and useless?
Madame Paper Cutter had said to learn patience. But I thought I needed to learn to act faster. Today, I should have run after Mr. Overindulgent. At least then I would have had a job.
Our bus passed a large plot of land filled with graves. I was almost home. The gravestones looked shiny— silver— in the rain. All this rain. Would Father hold back his unkind thoughts of New Neighbor this time? Would Mother remember what Mei Ling had taught us?
I glanced out the back of the bus. The boy had his slingshot aimed at us now. His pants were soaked from the spray our tires splashed. Some things even he couldn't protect the girl from.
A car honked. I looked up again, out the front window. Now the impatient motorcyclist had driven into the lane of oncoming traffic to pass a slow-moving bicyclist in the middle of our lane. The honking car headed straight for Mr. Motorcycle. The car honked and honked for Mr. Motorcycle to return to our lane. Mr. Motorcycle just beeped back.
They stubbornly raced towards one another, like two cocks fighting. Would the car slow down? Would Mr. Motorcycle move out of the way? How would this game end? Especially in this weather?
"Patience." I heard Madame Paper Cutter's voice in my head.
Sometimes it was hard to be patient. Especially with the rain falling in your face and wetting your trousers.
At the last minute, Mr. Motorcycle swerved back towards our lane. But his tires skidded. He lost control and went sliding off into the fields.
Oh, Gods. I gripped so tight to the seat back my fingers hurt. A chill ran down my spine.
The other cock didn't even slow. Would Mr. Motorcycle be all right? Or would we all soon be standing along the street saying "farewell" as relatives carried his coffin up the road for burial? What would happen to his family? I leaned forward, my nose pressed against the window glass. But the only thing I saw was a white plastic bag sailing away.
Then I spotted the pink turrets of Millionaire Huang's castle up ahead. My stop. At last.
"Xia che," I called, squeezing past wet people and umbrellas.
I jumped off as soon as the bus pulled to a stop. I ran past Millionaire Huang's six-floor castle. He wasn't outside today. Perhaps he exercised in his great hall. Past the high school. Children clustered under mango tree in the yard despite the rain, drinking soy milk and sneaking cigarettes. Past Uncle's unfinished house. Dark clouds hovered over the empty windows. Past the gravestone maker. My stomach felt tight. Please let me be home before Father and New Neighbor started fighting like cocks.
I rushed past Zi Mei's store. Don Don stood out in the road, his face up to the sky, his mouth open.
"Delicious," he said, sticking his tongue out. "Delicious."
"Go inside." I patted him on the shoulder. "Go inside now."
I ran up the stairs next to the store. Water cascaded around my shoes. I heard Father and New Neighbor shouting. I was too late.
Father, New Neighbor and Mother all stood out at the edge of our courtyard. Mother held a bucket. She had forgotten Mei Lings advice.
"You turtle egg," Father shouted above the rain. He was not as tall as New Neighbor, but his voice was deeper, stronger. "You can't do this."
We all had our houses facing south to allow for maximum light and life. Everyone in the village believed in geomancy to a certain degree. Many of us had the eight trigrams symbol above the door, like the Christian cross. But New Neighbor made us look like non-believers. The man was maniacal about feng shui.
He had painted his front door red to bring in good luck. He complained that the peach tree in our back yard obstructed his "entry of wealth." And, every time it rained, he built a mountain of rocks to block the water rushing down the hill from our house to his. That water, he claimed, carried away his health and prosperity.
The dam he built each time it rained to stop the water rushing past however threatened our health and survival. All that diverted rain water flowed into our courtyard and seeped under our front door. My nose twitched imagining the mildew that would linger for days in this humidity. The rice at the bottom of our bin—what little we had—would become drenched, infested. My mouth tasted sour. My stomach already felt pangs of hunger.
Mother had already imagined the same. For she bent to fill a bucket of rainwater from our courtyard. Then she stood up and stepped forward to toss it over onto the neighbor's property. Oh, Mother. This wasn't the scenario we'd talked about.
"Don't throw that water over here," New Neighbor moved close to Mother. He towered over her in his black shorts and stained undershirt.
Mother pretended not to hear. She pressed her lips together in a thin line. Her eyes stared at the ground as she continued moving forward.
"I said, don't do that!" New Neighbor growled, using the flat of his hand and pushing Mother in the chest. Water from her bucket slopped over onto her flowered shirt making dark patches on the cloth, like bruises. New Neighbor had gone too far.
"I'm back," I called running over and standing between them.
New Neighbor stared right through me, as if I didn't exist. That was expected. I was bad luck, worse than all the rain flowing past his house carrying his good fortune away. Still, I hoped my presence—a child—would have a calming influence on Mother and Father. Perhaps now Mother would remember Mei Ling's advice about the winding dragon.
Father grabbed my umbrella. As protection from the rain or from the neighbor? Soaked Mother leaned down and scooped another bucketful of rainwater. She tossed it past New Neighbor's outstretched arm onto his property. She wasn't going to give up.
"Stop it–" the desperate man screeched. "Or else."
He searched the ground. What was he hoping to find? He reached down to the bottom of the rock pile. He picked up a jagged piece of metal. I thought of Mr. Motorcycle and that oncoming car. Of two people so stubborn that only one could win.
"Mother." I latched onto her arms, looking her in the face. "The winding dragon. Did you try the winding dragon?"
She blinked. Cocked her head. Set the bucket down.
"Go inside, Li Hui," Father said, nudging me with the side of the umbrella. He handed the bucket back to Mother. "It's wet out here."
"Li Hui studied feng shui while at university," Mother said.
"What a farce." Father laughed. "She doesn't–"
"She took a special course." Mother stepped forward in front of Father, as if to block any words that might come forth from his scowling lips. "Yes, a special course on water flow." She leaned down over the rock pile.
"Don't touch that," New Neighbor hissed.
Cold rain pelted my face. Drops of sweat rolled down my armpits. Would he use that metal piece?
"The water, according to the Professor of Feng Shui, would be luckier for you if you created a winding dragon here." Mother made an "s" figure with her finger. "The way it is now, all the water backs up into our house and creates bad qi for us. You don't want a neighbor with bad qi, do you?"
"That's what the mirror is for," he said, pointing to a large mirror on the back of his house. "To deflect your bad qi."
His dark eyes were intense. He'd thought of everything. He waved that jagged piece of metal at us as he stepped forward. Mother looked to me.
"Yes," I said. "But the Professor cited several cases in which evil spirits had bypassed the mirror–especially just one mirror."
The water in our courtyard was ankle deep. Talking wasn't working with this man. Perhaps I should have stayed out of it. Let Father fight him off with the umbrella.
New Neighbor looked towards the mirror. It was a large octagonal-shaped mirror, one of the most expensive. Who was I to question the quality of this precious piece? Doubt moved across his face.
"Because, even with such a good mirror," Mother continued. "Sometimes those spirits are smarter than you think. And, once one of those tricky evil spirits gets in your house . . ."
He stepped back. He bit his bottom lip as he glanced up at the mirror, then down at the rock pile. Was he calculating the risk of following his neighbor's beliefs?
Before he changed his mind, Mother knelt down. She and I positioned the rocks so that, instead of creating a dam that flooded our hall and ruined our food supply, the stones allowed rainwater to curve slowly past the neighbor's house. Not straight and evil. Not fast and life-sucking. Meandering just as "Professor" Mei Ling would have suggested.
New Neighbor watched the slow-moving water. Then he turned and went inside his house, the red door slamming behind him like a clap of thunder. Mother and I both slumped with relief. We could have lost our rice supply. Now our food was safe. Delicious, I thought.
"You should have come earlier," Father said, turning to go inside.
"I'm sorry." I took a deep breath, picked up the bucket, and followed Mother into the house.
* * *
We stood in our great hall, staring at the water that had seeped in. Father scooted his wooden chair close to the open door to watch the neighbor and the winding dragon. Mother went upstairs to replace the rain soaked rag in the broken window in the hall.
I took a broom to sweep out the thin layer of water that had accumulated by the door. The broom made a pleasant whisk-whisk sound against the cement floor. My heart felt surrounded by a warmth, as if Mei Ling had been there with me, helping me to deflect this volatile situation. I would send her a letter and tell her how Mother had called her a "Professor."
I would thank Mei Ling for masterminding the first peaceful ending to the rain at our house in a year. I would even include the lucky paper crane that Madame Paper Cutter had given me. Mei Ling would like that.
Father pulled his chair closer to the door. He had removed his soaked shirt and sat bare-chested. He chewed on sunflower seeds, in deep thought. Father had always loved the rain.
"Nice, isn't it?" I asked. Rain pounding on the cement courtyard sounded peaceful. The air felt cool.
"Real nice," Father said. His voice lacked sincerity.
He stood up and went back into the rain, just like he used to do when I was a little girl. Before he started gambling. He would walk in the rain until his clothes were soaked through, saying it was a meditation, a cleansing of the soul. He hadn't done that in a long time.
I leaned on my broom and watched. But Father didn't head for the road, where he could walk and walk without any obstruction. Instead, he went over to the back of the neighbor's house. He leaned down, picked up a rock and threw it at New Neighbor's eight-trigram mirror. He hit the man's roof. What was he doing?
A ping sounded as this time the rock hit the edge of the mirror. If he wasn't careful, he'd break the man's mirror. Then we'd really have trouble.
"All this time, that stupid turtle egg has been deflecting bad luck on us," he said, picking up a larger stone. "No wonder you didn't get a good teaching position."
"Oh, Father." I rushed over and put my arm on his. Perhaps he felt guilty about the university gamble. Perhaps he was desperate to find a reason. I didn't want him to feel too badly. I was still grateful for my university experience. For that knowledge. Even if my brain deflected potential suitors as if I had a trigram mirror on my forehead. Father shook my arm off. He took aim.
"But I do have a good job," I lied. "As of today."
"You do?" Father's hand relaxed. He let the stone fall to the ground. "Why didn't you say something?"
I thought of Mr. Overindulgent. His card still heated the bottom of my purse like an egg fresh from the nest. When the rains subsided a bit, I would go down to Zi Mei's and call the number on his business card.
* * *
I gathered up the dried pieces of laundry from the top of our rice bin, the stair banister, the table. Mother sat down on a stool, ready to fold. Like Waipo used to do, Mother's hand smoothed the cloth like an iron, taking out the creases over and over. When she finished, the clothes looked as if they had just been taken from the package at the store. Waipo had patience. Mother had patience. Why did my blood always itch?
"Knock knock," a woman's voice called. A familiar voice. Madame Matchmaker? No, not again.
Father snorted once, shifted in his chair and continued to snore. Lucky man. Able to not only ignore the unpleasant encounter but snort at her besides. I covered his bare chest with a dry shirt.
Madame Matchmaker stepped inside. She wasn't a big woman. In fact, she was shorter than all of us. Yet, she took up so much space–both emotional and physical. She wore a bright yellow rain slicker, like a giant "caution" light in the city.
"Zi Mei heard shouting," Madame Matchmaker said, her eyes glinting with this news.
She unsnapped her slicker and left it dripping on my freshly-swept floor. She squeaked on wet black pumps over to a stool near sleeping Father. Had her motorcycle broken? Had she walked in the rain to get here? And for what important purpose?
"I just thought I'd stop in." She inclined her head towards our neighbor's house and raised her eyebrows. "And see that everything's all right."
Mother didn't say anything. Mother didn't believe in too much talking, good or bad, as either way you might arouse the gods. They would either be jealous that your life was going too well or angry you complained about your poor circumstances.
"Some tea," I offered.
"I've had already," Madame Matchmaker said.
I didn't argue, but hurried outside to the kitchen attached to the front of the house to make a fresh pot of tea anyway. I didn't want to listen to her grinding on my tasty failures. My lack of a husband, my lack of a job, my ridiculous education.
I lit a fire beneath the wok. We were almost out of matches. Four sticks left. I would fry some broad beans, a modest snack. We always had so little.
The rain on the tin roof grated on my nerves. I needed that job. If I could just start tomorrow. I would go down and call, rain or no rain, as soon as I finished making this treat.
* * *
When I returned to the main hall, Father had donned his shirt. He, Madame Matchmaker and Mother sat huddled next to one another. Each of them raced to speak first.
"Three thousand dollars a month." Father whistled. "That's about fifteen thousand yuan. A month!"
"And a house," Mother added. She shook her head from side to side in disbelief.
"Don't forget the car which seats four people," Madame Matchmaker said.
I put the beans down on the table. I poured tea for all of us. Father took a loud slurp. What were they talking about? News from a relative overseas? A potential job opportunity?
"It sounds too good," Mother said. She banged her hand on the table for emphasis.
"Nonsense," Father and Madame Matchmaker said together.
Father popped a hot bean in his mouth. He spread his legs wide. Puffed his chest out.
"Then again," he stopped chewing. "Do universities really pay that much money?"
I leaned over Mother. A letter lay in front of them. The calligraphy was uneducated. I spotted the line about the car.
"What is it?" I asked.
"It is a rich country," Madame Matchmaker said, grabbing onto Mother's hand and shaking her clenched fingers.
"Fifteen thousand yuan a month." Father's eyes sparkled.
"I've never heard of so much money," Mother said, holding onto his arm.
"Ba?" I asked.
Was this a job opportunity? Who had sent the information? Was it legitimate?
Madame Matchmaker and Mother looked to Father. He leaned back in his chair and gazed out at the winding dragon of rocks where the bad buildup of qi now curved nicely past the neighbor's house. He pulled a cigarette from his pocket.
"Madame Liang," Father said, reaching over and clapping his hand over mine, "from the other side of the village is writing about her 32-year-old son, Guo Qiang."
"The name is lovely," Mother said, pointing to the letter. "The characters mean 'prosperous country'."
"So noble," Madame Matchmaker added.
"He's a professor now at the University of Singapore," Father said. "He's in search of a wife."
"I see." I fingered the rim of my tea cup. "What do you know about their family?"
"Mr. Liang has already passed," Mother said. "According to Madame Matchmaker."
"But his death was a fluke," Father added. "They have strong, healthy genes."
"According to Madame Matchmaker's sources," Mother said, handing me the letter, "Guo Qiang is prosperous, intelligent and kind."
Madame Liang wrote that she was old now, and the only unfinished business in her life was to close that last open circle, to find a suitable wife for her son. She gave the basic particulars of Guo Qiang, including his blood type and his date and hour of birth, so we could consult the astrologers. She asked Madame Matchmaker to please respond as soon as possible.
Madame Liang's note was short and straight. Maybe her command of characters was limited. Ah, but her son sounded perfect. Educated. Successful. Much older than I—ten years, in fact—but that would just mean maturity.
My hands held that letter as if it were a lucky crane that might fly away if we breathed. I had gone to college thinking that was how I would find the way to take care of my parents. But perhaps Madame Matchmaker had the answer.
* * *
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