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Winged a novella (of two.., p.9
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       Winged: A Novella (Of Two Girls), p.9

           Joyce Chng
 
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  Lee Hsu’s day started early too, with his nanny fussing about him and making him wear a new set of clothes purposely bought for the occasion. It was made of fine brocade and silk, to show off his family’s wealth. She even brought in new shoes too. He squirmed uncomfortably, sensitive to the crinkly texture of the jifu and pants. When his nanny was finally satisfied at his overall appearance, he made a quick relieved dash to his study room where he found much solace in his ship.

  All he needed now was more gunpowder. He carefully lifted out the little box in which he had studiously and meticulously collected all the gunpowder he needed. Most of the sharp-smelling black stuff came from firecracker tubes secretly brought in during the many New Year celebrations. He could get more firecracker tubes but the strings of the fiery-red cylinders were all kept in a protected area, destined to be used at the end of Yuan Xiao. Getting them would prove to be a challenge. Old Liu won’t allow it. The old man would end up chasing him around with a stick, no matter how much he loved his master’s inquisitive son. The Yuan Xiao celebrations were the highlight of the year, next to the Mid-Autumn Festival.

  Lee Hsu frowned. Perhaps he had to make do with the current batch of gunpowder. It was enough for a brief flight. Ah, his ship. Fashioned after a Chinese junk, about twice the length of his arm (which was quite small, because he was still a growing boy), lovingly and painstakingly lacquered vermilion red. He added in the tiny sails as well, for the sake of authenticity. But the pride of the project would be in the eventual lift-off and flight.

  He could hear sporadic laughter as the guests had awakened and were dining on freshly made soup dumplings and fragrant Pu Er tea. His family was generous when it came to food. When the hairy crabs were in season, the family and invited guests would be treated to platters of steamed crustaceans rich in milt and rose, topped off with a sweet ginger tea brew to mitigate the effects of excess ‘heat’.

  He tinkered a little more on his ship and realized, in his heart, that he was a privileged boy, born into a wealthy family. An aristocratic family, a voice reminded him firmly. His family had provided generations of court officials. His father was currently a senior magistrate and had hoped that his only son would follow his footsteps.

  But Lee Hsu had resisted that path from day one. He wanted more. He had heard so much about the lands beyond the Middle Kingdom. He had heard about the Enlightenment and how it was so powerful. Barbarians or not, he wanted to visit those lands of the Enlightenment and see for himself how great they were. There were many scientists and engineers, people who worked with their minds and their hands to come up with new designs. The Middle Kingdom had many great and influential thinkers. But surely, the barbarians had their own gifted men and women too. Even at the tender age of nine, he wanted to interact, to exchange ideas. It was a special dream of his but kept secretly inside his heart.

  Lee Hsu went back to his ship, feeling its shape under his hands. It was ready to fly.

  ~*~

  Yuan Xiao arrived with the explosion of firecrackers peppering the courtyard and turning the ground red with pieces of red paper. The smell of burning gunpowder filled the air, at once sharp and acrid. The thick smoke hung around for a while, before being dispersed by a light breeze. It was also chilly; even the servants were wearing a few layers of clothing to keep themselves warm.

  Lee Hsu had to wear yet another set of new clothes and he grumbled while his nanny, an middle-aged woman with a cheerful disposition, combed his hair (an act he found deeply embarrassing – he could do it himself) and braided it deftly. This time, it was a blue brocade top with a well-made pair of pants, lined with wool to provide warmth. His nanny adored him, more than his real mother who was by now playing her precious mahjong and nagging at his sisters. They would of course be dressed in beautiful silk garments. His mother minced when she walked. She had bound feet and her shoes were tiny and exquisitely made. His sisters were made to go through the pain when they were little girls. They couldn’t run and jump like the other girls he had seen outside his family home.

  As it was an important family gathering, Lee Hsu had to greet the guests together with his family. The salutations were all done in a staid and polite manner, perfectly detached and even dispassionate. The guests were mostly relatives from both sides of the family and there were many familial terms used as signs of respect. By the time he reached Thirteenth Maternal Aunt, Lee Hsu had become so bored he had to control his urge not to run out of the room and back to his ship.

  Then it was the lunch banquet, served early so that dinner would be a punctual affair. Lee Hsu slipped away after the second course had been served, thankful that in the general cacophony of chatter, nobody noticed him leaving the table. He sneaked back into his study and admired his ship. He had not given a name to the ship yet, though he was half inclined to call it “Lee’s Ship”.

  Someone coughed at the door and Lee Hsu started, seeing the familiar silhouette of Old Liu. He swallowed, preparing himself for a tongue-lashing.

  Old Liu was holding a bowl of noodles in his gnarled hands. From the smell and look of it, it was still piping hot and fragrant with sesame oil and shallots.

  “You need to eat, young master,” Old Liu said and handed him the bowl (still warm) and a pair of ivory chopsticks. “I noticed you leaving the table.”

  Lee Hsu accepted the bowl of noodles mutely and nodded. Old Liu normally left him alone to his own devices and did not say anything about his countless projects. With a small smile and a nod, Old Liu bowed and walked down the corridor to help out with the festivities. The boy watched him leave, suddenly feeling a pang of regret.

  He finished the noodles, savoring the smoothness of the buckwheat strands. The cooks made them by hand and they were exquisite fresh. He placed the empty bowl and oily chopsticks on the floor, sighed to himself and went back to put the finishing touches on the ship. As he worked quietly and diligently, he could hear Chinese traditional opera – his family had invited a well-known troupe to perform. It was Butterfly Lovers, probably his mother’s choice.

  With steady hands, Lee Hsu poured the gunpowder in using an impromptu ‘funnel’, a cone shaped out of paper. He had the matches ready. His project was going to take flight later in the evening. He patted his ship, feeling proud of himself. He wanted so much to be one of the illustrious great thinkers.

  Lee Hsu straightened and drew himself to his full height. From where he was standing, he could see out into the courtyard, being on the second floor of his family house. He would be launching his ship from this particular angle. He crept to the parapet and peered out. The servants were clearing the dishes and cleaning the tables for the banquet later in the evening. Most of his relatives had retired into their chambers to rest and prepare themselves for more festivities. The Chinese opera singers had already finished their act and were removing their make-up. As he watched, the hua dan – the young maiden – was removing the vivid pink from her cheeks – and a young man emerged. A couple of them were lounging around, gossiping and smoking pipe.

  His ship was ready. Lee Hsu checked it again until he was fully satisfied. Smiling to himself, he washed his face and his hands in the basin provided in his study. The water was cool on his skin.

  ~*~

  Lee Hsu always loved watching the crowds thronging outside his family house. It was evening and the streets were packed with strollers and vendors. They jostled for space, the sellers advertising their wares amongst the gaily-dressed couples and groups out to admire the rising full moon and the brightly lit lanterns. He inhaled in the diverse aromas of food: the savory tang of soup dumplings, the freshly steamed buns and even the sweetness of melted sugar. Somewhere in the crowd was an artist making fragile animal shapes out of melted sugar or malt. His mouth watered; he loved this particular sweet confection. There were also other sweet treats: tanghulu, caramel-coated hawthorn or crabapple on skewers.

  Yuan Xiao was slowly reaching its peak. The moon had risen and was a large round jade plate in
the sky. He basked in its brightness, hearing more laughter and conversation coming from his family courtyard. Quickly, he readied his ship before trooping down the stairs to join his family and relatives for the dinner banquet.

  Once again, the cooks had outdone themselves with the food. There were consommés, cold dishes artistically decorated with carved radishes and laden with thinly sliced goose and other kinds of roast meat. Plates of steamed carp drenched in soya sauce and liberally covered with shredded spring onions warred for attention with prawns broiled in white cooking wine. The main dish – the roast pig- waited in the kitchen, ready to be carried out by the cooks themselves. It was a grand culinary event, eagerly awaited by the whole family.

  His sisters wore their new silk garments, mincing along on their tiny feet. They followed his mother who, as the family matriarch, took center-stage, welcoming the guests personally. His father emerged from his large study room, dressed in his finery and mingled around the tables. As the banquet proceeded, good wine was passed around and salutations were made, albeit a little drunkenly and with great aplomb. There would be some sore heads next morning.

  Lee Hsu could hardly keep down his food, no matter how delicious it was. He washed down the fresh carp meat with tea and wolfed down the rice cake slices before excusing himself. He made his way up the stairs alone, not knowing that Old Liu was watching him intently with intense eyes.

  He realized, with a start, that his ship was heavy. He heaved it into his arms and carried it, as if it was a little puppy, next to the parapet. The dinner banquet was still in progress, the new course having been served – fresh river clams swimming in their own juices. There were sounds of appreciation as the guests tucked in immediately, sucking at the juices and the sweet meat.

  He waited until the clams were all eaten, their empty shells opened up like butterfly wings and cluttered on the tables, before deciding to launch his ship. His heart began to thump like a drum. He took the matches out and lit one. It sparkled into life and he fed it into the gunpowder. His ship started to make crackling sounds – it buckled and appeared as if it was about to take off.

  There was a burst of laughter and applause from the courtyard: the roast pig, regal on a large palanquin fashioned out of a rectangular plank, festooned with yellow chrysanthemum, was finally carried out by the grinning cooks.

  It was then the ship decided to give off really vivid sparks before leaping off the parapet like some live red fish. Lee Hsu’s heart plunged as his ship plunged, lifted as it lifted and soared above the astonished guests and family members who gasped at the amount of dark smoke issued by the strange contraption flying above their heads. He saw his sisters fanning the smoke away with their silk handkerchiefs frantically. His mother looked as if she was about to faint and rightly so. And his father was furious, his face turning as black as the smoke itself.

  The ship exploded in mid-air.

  It was a frightful sound, as loud as a cannon going off, perhaps even louder. Soot and gunpowder cascaded down and coated everyone with it. As everybody watched, stunned and petrified, the halved body of the ship fell and crashed into the roast pig which in turn went up in smoke as well.

  The shocked silence erupted into shouting. Old Liu came charging at him, his crinkled face covered with the black soot and terrible as Kuan Kong himself. The retainer grabbed him roughly by the arms and Lee Hsu started crying because of the harsh treatment and the shock. Old Liu shouted and screamed at him, dragging him down the stairs where his father waited, his visage as frightening as the god of hell himself.

  “Idiot!” His father roared and yanked Lee Hsu by his ear. The pain worsened and the boy cried even louder. His ship had failed. He had failed. And now, his family was disgraced, because of him. “Imbecile!”

  In front of the assembled guests, still coated with black soot, and a ruined roast pig, the magistrate dragged Lee Hsu into his study room where he gave his son a sound beating with a willow stick.

  ~*~

  The sting smarted and lingered. Lee Hsu sniffed and rubbed his tender nose swollen from the sobbing. He sat gingerly in his study, thankful of the relative darkness. He was hungry; his father had refused to give him dinner. Before him was the design of his ship and he touched it, for some reassurance.

  Outside, he knew, life went on. The servants were tittering away while they removed the tables and scrubbed the courtyard of any traces of food and black soot. After a few days, the soot would be gone and his exploding ship would just be a memory. The rest of his relatives, after recovering from their shock and cleaning themselves, went off to enjoy the fireworks, the lanterns and to gaze at the moon. His father was fuming, his mother despondent. His sisters simply shook their heads at him; they were much older than him and he was a little child in their eyes.

  A familiar cough, a scrape of shoes before the footsteps faded away. Lee Hsu winced as he got up from the floor. The willow stick had done its job well. He opened the door, only to find a bowl of dessert – gingko nuts and two tiny hardboiled quail eggs in a clear syrup.

  For a moment, he stood, staring at the bowl. Old Liu. He stooped down and retrieved the bowl. The dessert was sweet, the soft gingko nuts and eggs a welcome respite to a hungry stomach.

  Yet, for all the pleasure in eating, he grew bitter and angry. He wanted to yell and kick things. Most of all, he wanted to leave his family home and go elsewhere. His father won’t understand, nor his genteel mother. His sisters? They were more concerned with their embroidery and the newest trends in clothes. He suddenly felt alone and lonely.

  Fresh hot tears brimmed in his eyes. He wiped them away, annoyed at their appearance. His heart burned in his chest. Once he reached sixteen, he would leave.

  Meanwhile, a stray dragonfly, gossamer wings opalescent under the moonlight, rested unnoticed on one of the wooden pillars.

  Phoenix With A Purpose

 
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