By Marilyn Peake
The baby was cute. The Zhou family found her, naked and shivering, in a thicket of bushes next to the stream winding its way like a singing ribbon across their farm. That night, they named her Ming Yue, meaning “Bright Moon”, as the cool white illumination of a full moon rained down from the heavens and filled their home with light. Observing her bright blue eyes, they later nicknamed her “Ming”, meaning simply “shining, bright, clear”. At the time of her discovery, they assumed that she had been left by parents too afraid to transgress the one-child Planned Birth Policy.
Cheng-Gong, their toddler son, had been the first to find her. Wearing coveralls more stained with mud than their original beige dye, he had been digging in the soil for worms as his parents worked their tiny farm. Aware of both butterflies and faeries flitting to and fro upon the wind, his hearing and other senses keen and developing every day, he heard a baby's cry and wandered off to find its source. Running as quickly as his little legs would carry him, he ignored his parents' shouts warning him to stop and come back. Following after Cheng-Gong, they eventually came upon the tiny baby, kicking her legs and wailing within the deep grasses of the thicket.
Jia Li, the mother, picked up the fretting infant, cheeks red and slick with tears, and held her close. To her husband, Quon, she spoke furtively, “Someone left her, probably hoping we would find her. We should keep her. The government allows us only one child without penalties, but we didn't have this baby ourselves. We should be allowed to keep her, don't you think?”
As Quon smiled, the leathery, sun-baked skin of his thin cheeks and around his glittering black eyes gathered into wrinkles. “Yes, yes, we should keep her. Last night, I dreamed that a dragon had climbed down from the mountain caves above our farm, carrying a golden cup in its mouth. Then I woke. That must have been a message from the gods that this infant was on her way. She is a very special gift.”
For a moment, Jia Li's wizened face softened and filled with a soft radiant glow. Then, remembering her responsibilities of motherhood, she realized the baby needed clothes soon and Cheng-Gong needed an introduction first. Kneeling down, Jia Li showed the infant, now happily cooing, to her son.
Cheng-Gong reached out a chubby little hand and patted the newcomer on her shiny golden head.
"Momma, her hair is gold.”
Quon thought back to his dream of the dragon carrying a golden cup in its mouth. Jia Li wondered if there had been male visitors from abroad, perhaps Europe or the United States, within the past year. She tried to remember, wondering if the baby might be the result of an illicit union between a local Chinese woman and some blonde-haired man. So much the better if that were true, she decided, because it was less likely that the woman would ever try to reclaim her child, especially if she already had one, as the Chinese government would never allow two children without fines and other penalties. Briefly, she remembered a local man hung from a tree for failing to pay the fine after the birth of his second child, a fine as large as one year's earnings; but she tossed the thought from her mind, feeling certain the child's golden hair would somehow protect them.
After gazing into the dark glimmering eyes of her new brother, Ming Yue was carried into the small farmhouse of the Zhou family and swaddled in brightly colored, tattered blankets. That night, she drank sweetened goat's milk, waved her arms and babbled incessantly while her older brother danced rings around her with entertaining antics.
As the full moon rose high in the sky, stars twinkled and winked and planets sparkled like diamonds, Mr. And Mrs. Zhou rose repeatedly from their dreams to feed their crying infant. The next day, Jia Li stayed inside the house with her children, too tired to handle the risk of being sighted by nosy neighbors or government authorities.
Three months after Ming Yue's arrival, as his mother was changing his little sister's clothes, Cheng-Gong pointed to her back. There sprouted tiny, sparkling, light blue feathers. Suddenly released from the confinement of the tiny undershirt, they fluttered and flapped, completely out of sync with each other. The baby giggled and smiled at her mother.
Jia Li stared at the feathers that had suddenly sprouted; then wrapped her daughter in an undershirt, a heavier flannel shirt and dark green coveralls.
Later that day, as the family worked their small plot of land, the baby, confined to a handmade baby seat, cooed and waved her arms as though communicating with unseen forces. Wrestling with his own mixed feelings of delight and envy toward the intruder, Cheng-Gong carried on negotiations. He tickled his new sister's belly, rolled on the ground, danced all round her, made funny faces and sang songs. He approved her reaction, increasing his animation as the baby's face shifted into a myriad of expressions in observing him: baby blue eyes widening in fascination, narrowing in concentration, happiness filling her face as she burst into fits of laughter.
After lunch, Cheng-Gong returned to one of his favorite activities: digging in the soil for earthworms. Finding a particularly long, fat, and wriggling one, he carried it over to show Ming Yue. Her eyes squinty, lips pursed and chubby cheeks tightened in concentration, she studied the creature intensely. Disappointed that she didn't smile, Cheng-Gong carried the squirming annelid away from her, placing it on a long, thick piece of grass, trekking after it as it crawled away, putting his hands on his hips and addressing it, “Go, worm, go;” then squatting on his muscular little legs to examine the looping invertebrate whenever it stopped to rest.
Ming Yue stared. She caught the essence of her older brother's glee around the periphery of her vision, but she zoomed in mostly on the worm that had been taken away from her. She furrowed her sparse blonde eyebrows to watch the worm glide from the succulent leaf onto the dirt, then slither away through forests of grass and wheat.
Jia Li looked up from her work, tending the cabbages. “Cheng-Gong, mind your sister!” Not used to the responsibilities of older brothers or the tone of alarm in his mother's voice, the young boy kicked dirt on the worm; then stomped over to where Ming Yue sat and stared. “What are you looking at?”
In response, Ming Yue pointed a chubby finger toward the fields.
As Cheng-Gong turned around, he witnessed worms poking up everywhere from loosely crumbling ground. Beneath the surface, worms glistening with slippery hues of red and brown shimmied and zigzagged their way through mud, leaving a vast network of tunnels in their wake.
Before the toddler could run to grasp the emerging treasures, his father screamed from across the fields, “Jia Li, take the children inside!”
The woman ran across the field, tripping over cabbages at the plot's edge, scooping up Ming Yue and pulling Cheng-Gong along by the hand, dragging them to safety inside their home. Resisting the strong tug of his mother, the toddler yanked back at one point, fell down, and surreptitiously strong-fisted two clammy worms into his pants pocket.
That evening, while his mother cooked dinner, clouds of smoke obscuring the fat river rat roasting in the pan with cabbage and other vegetables, Cheng-Gong pulled the worms from his pocket and dangled them in front of his sister. Alarmed that they appeared shriveled and lifeless, he looked to his sister's face for her reaction. When she pouted and quivered her lower lip, Cheng-Gong snuck over to the front door, opened it a crack, and tossed the worms outside.
Looking up briefly from her work, his mother admonished him, “Cheng-Gong, close that door. I don't want your little sister going outside.”
Sensing a change in air pressure, cooking smoke swirling and leaving through the front door, and a cool evening wind entering like a welcome guest, Ming Yue cooed and babbled. As her glistening blue eyes studied the sliver of outdoors visible through the opening between door and frame, three large monarch butterflies flitted inside, flapping their lightweight gauzy wings painted with dazzling stained-glass partitions of brilliant orange, black, gold and white.
In the morning, the Zhou family discovered that their cabbage plot held twice as many cabbages as the night before. Quon told his wife that they had simply miscounted.
That spring, the Zhou farm blossomed in explosions of brilliant colors and dewy greens, tendrils crawling across the ground and looping over wooden fences, petals popping wide to reveal their fertile centers.
Ming Yue learned to walk. Her wings grew long and luxurious feathers, changing from sparkling light blue to shimmering violet. Inside the home, her mother let her wear clothes in which her feathers protruded through holes in the back. When she tried to flap her wings while walking, Ming Yue invariably fell over, disintegrating into screams of rage and disappointment.
While her parents reached out their arms and encouraged Ming Yue to walk to them, Cheng-Gong liked to hop up and down, telling his sister, “Fly! Fly!” His parents always made him stop.
As Ming Yue moved from babyhood to toddlerhood and her brother became a young child steady on his legs and inquisitive about the world around him, sweeping changes came to China. Bitten by the capitalist bug, large groups of people moved to cities, seeking and then demanding better lifestyles. No longer growing their own food and wanting more meat now that they could afford it on their city wages, they happily paid farmers for diets rich in variety.
The Zhou family planted more cabbages and wheat, and began raising pigs for slaughter. All around them, farms began to flourish, mysteriously more fertile. The improvement in growth and production spread in large semicircular rings around the Zhou farm, with their land at exact center.
Across the stream from where Ming was found as a baby, however, the rice paddies filled with mysterious red-tinged water, and the crops failed. The owners, riddled with rashes and stomach ailments and feeling haunted by starvation, contacted the government authorities for help.
They arrived in the form of one tall, muscular military man in full uniform. After witnessing the pustules, lesions, and skeletal bodies of the owners, he backed away from them, saying that he would inspect their property and the land surrounding them.
Sitting on a small hill overlooking the rice paddies, he noticed a definite red tinge, darker in some squares than others. Green stalks of rice poked their heads above water, some now as pocked with disease and withered as the farmers who tended them. Sunshine splashed down on the flooded fields, bringing out glints of copper, orange, and red in places where only greens, mud and translucent water had once glimmered.
Resting his chin in the palm of his calloused right hand, the man studied the puzzle before him, his thoughts jumping back and forth between the dying land and his girlfriend back home, with her thick, long, glistening black hair. He hoped to solve the problem quickly so as to return home as soon as possible.
When the sun disappeared behind a cloud, the water suddenly took on a more menacing, deeper shade of red- -the color of blood. The man jumped quickly to conclusions, hypotheses leaping into his brain in rapid-fire succession. What if the skeletal family had been murdering people and burying them in their rice paddies? Would that eventually turn the water red? He decided to write a report requesting an investigation.
The following week, a small group of soldiers descended on the wooden hut where the rice farmers lived. By then, the grandfather had died from a lethal combination of starvation and old age. As the family members prepared to bury him on their land, the military accused them of murder.
The next day, father, mother and two children dangled by ropes wrapped tightly around their necks from a huge, leafless tree, deep black branches spread out against a light blue sky. When the wind flared up, the ropes squealed and the feet of the dead kicked up to dance to their own funeral march.
Sighting the bodies swaying in the breeze as she worked her cabbage patch, Jia Li dropped her farming tools, snatched up her children and ran through the whispering green fields to her house. When Quon followed after her, she told him to shut the door.
“They had two children in that family over there.” Pointing at the wall in the direction of the rice farm, her face contorted by terror, specks of morbid imaginings flitting across her mind, she continued in a crazed voice, “One was a niece, but the government didn't know that.”
Looking over at her children's wide eyes, she turned her back to them and whispered to Quon, “We need to keep the children indoors from now on, at least until we're sure the government's lost interest in how many children families have around here.”
One month later, the remains of the bodies not pecked apart by birds or devoured by insects and wild beasts were ripped from the ropes and thrown into the stream. The government left the nooses in the tree as both reminder and warning. At sunrise and sunset, they dangled ominously- -dark circles of eternity, set ablaze by the burning sun in shrieking shades of red and orange.
After the soldiers disappeared and did not return for a full week, Jia Li allowed her children to play outdoors, but only under very close supervision.
Two weeks later, the stream turned red.
It started slowly, as it had in the rice paddies. Metallic tinges of copper, orange, and red reflected back the sun, flashes resembling tiny robotic fish tumbling along with the babbling brook. But then the water thickened, turning into viscous red-brown muck.
Quon kept his fears to himself that perhaps genocide was taking place upstream, nasty by-products of blood and excrement traveling down through the waterways. He rationalized that perhaps this would serve as potent fertilizer, rather than a source of illness and threat to their livelihood.
Afraid that the water itself had turned to blood, Jia Li pulled a wooden box from a secret hiding place in a hole in one of the walls of her home. Lifting the lid, she grasped a statue of Baosheng Dadi, a gift from her grandmother who had long ago practiced Chinese folk religion. Baosheng Dadi, Life-Protecting Emperor and divine being, had great power over life and health.
“Ming Yue and Cheng-Gong, help me set up an altar to Baosheng Dadi.”
Cheng-Gong reached for the tiny statue, rolling it around in his hands to inspect every angle. “Was he a great soldier?”
“No, he wasn't. He was a great doctor, a wonderful healer. Now he's a god who watches over health and life. We should make a pretty altar for him and say some prayers.”
Setting down the statue and grabbing a broom, Cheng-Gong pretended to be a brave soldier, shooting imaginary bullets from the cleaning tool.
Ming Yue picked up the statue, studied its well-worn edges; then helped her mother place it on an upturned wooden crate and surround it with fruits, vegetables and flowers from their farm. Then Jia Li and her children prayed for protection from the blood-red water passing through their farm.
A few weeks later, Ming Yue appeared deathly ill: limp, unable to move, barely able to speak and white as snow. After saying a brief prayer to Baosheng Dadi, Jia Li ran to find Quon working in the fields. She begged him to fetch Shan Wu, a local woman and mystic healer.
“I can't do that, Jia Li. If anyone finds out, it will put our family in grave danger.”
Jia Li placed her hands on her hips and felt her face grow hot. “It will be much more dangerous to let an approved doctor know that we have two children.”
Quon studied the ground, oblivious to the plants slowly shriveling and turning rust-colored as far as the eye could see.
“How sick is she?”
“I'm not sure she'll make it through the night.”
With pounding heart and sweaty fists, Quon went to find the healer.
The old woman, thin and gaunt of face, wiry hair tied back into a bun, eyes sparkling with intensity, passed her hands over the angelic girl with pale blue eyes and golden hair, trying to restore balance to her chi or life energy. Rolling the girl over and pressing her fingertips across her back, she became alarmed and pulled off her sweater. There, poking through two holes in the back of her undershirt, were two lavender wings streaked with dingy lines of rust, flimsy and dropping feathers.
Shan Wu looked at the mother with wide eyes. “This child is a faerie. How could you not tell me that? Had I used acupuncture needles on her, I would have killed her.”
Jia Li ran her hands through her hair. “What do you mean?”
“I mean, this girl is one of the faeries, and metal is toxic to them. Her body and feathers have absorbed too much metal. You can see by the rust in her wings that she now has metallic feathers.”
As Jia Li wept, the mystic healer rolled Ming Yue onto her back. She covered her with a blanket, then sat down next to her mother and grasped her trembling hands. “I'll do what I can. The water around here is saturated with metal particles. I'm sure that's what's making Ming Yue ill. I'm only human; I don't have power to heal fae.” Looking into Jia Li's confused eyes, she explained, “It looks like there's blood in the water around your home, but it's not blood. It's a mixture of metals and other poisons.”
For a brief moment, Jai Li's eyes filled with blank, uncomprehending stare.
As the sky turned jet-black and stars flickered like diamonds against it, Shan Wu and Jia Li took turns ministering to Ming Yue. Quon and Cheng-Gong slept fitfully.
When the morning sun crawled up into the sky and splashed the heavens with pink and gold, Ming-Yue's spirit left her body. The child lay dead; her soul returned to the chaos that long ago gave rise to faeries.
Miles upstream, the owner of an iron-ore mine puffed on an expensive cigar and overlooked his enterprise. He admired the deep red soil from which he made a living.