Monthly Archives: April 2016

A Familiar’s Tale – Part XVI

Image by Dave Scelfo. Used under Creative Commons license 2.0I awoke to the light of a candle and the smell of cooked meat. I hoped there was rice being served with it – I was hungry! At some point I had been transferred from the traveling tube to my clay jar. Probing Hui’s mind, I discovered that we were at a small inn for the night and the room she was sharing with Tian was larger than the house from which she had just departed. The food being placed before her was more than she was accustomed to eating all day. She was in awe.

The lid to my jar was lifted and a lump of boiled rice was placed next to my water dish. Tian’s voice quietly said, “Never fear, little cricket. I know what you are and will ensure Hui takes good care of you until such time as she also recognizes you.”

The lid was replaced and I settled in to eat. I knew Hui was still young and I had a few years before her magic would manifest. We would learn of her new life together.

Shortly after leaving the inn the following morning, we were taken aboard a barge on the Grand Canal and ushered into a small room with no windows. It was explained that it would be warmer inside than even staying in the palanquin during our short voyage – it was a particularly harsh winter. So, there we stayed – I slept – for the better part of the day.

I was awakened once again by the smell of food. This time it wasn’t just meat sizzling but spices! I looked out a hole in my jar to see an opulent room – silks lined the walls, the tables were highly polished wood and the cushions on which Hui and Tian sat were as exquisitely embroidered as Tian’s dress. While I did not know Tian’s profession, whatever it was, it was a preferable alternative than the hut Hui had come from.

Hui shared a room with Tian for the first several years. We were in a household with four other women all around the same age as Tian, and all witches with crickets as familiars. They all had male patrons who would visit on a regular basis, hosted parties for the men and the people they wanted to impress or, on occasion, the ladies would be called to the patron’s home or to accompany him to the theater or elsewhere it was necessary to have a lovely lady on your arm.

While Tian was her main teacher, all five women helped with the instruction of “Younger Daughter.” Hui learned to play music (she couldn’t carry a tune to sing), to compose poetry, was taught table manners, how to read, how to discuss important matters of the day without actually putting forth an opinion, and how to comport herself around important men. However, much to my relief, she was not taught how to please those men in bed. She was being trained to be a Yiji – what you would consider to be a companion but nothing more.

Because the other crickets were familiars, I was able to quickly learn what went on in this particular household. At the time, China’s official religion was Taoism. As such, the ladies were trained in its ethics. They also learned the I-Ching, a form of divination. They were considered by many of their patrons to be spiritual advisors. Ya-Fen, whose element was Air, was quite adept at calming her patrons when something didn’t go their way.

Hui’s magic erupted at age fourteen. As a trainee, it was her duty to observe (through a hidden hole in a wall) how the women entertained – and advised – their patrons. After pouring tea and playing her dizi, a kind of flute, Tian’s patron still had not calmed from whatever had transpired during the day. He demanded she cast the stalks for him to find out why his transaction had not gone in his favor. She did and determined that his manner made him seem untrustworthy.

“I am trustworthy,” he roared. “I would never do anything to imply otherwise. You must be mistaken!”

“I am sorry, my lord,” Tian said quietly while bowing her head. “I only repeat what I see in the hexagram.”

He howled again and this time, struck Tian so hard she flew across the room. Hui, unnerved by such a violent temper, wanted only to revenge the hurt done to her gentle mentor. As I watched, the polished ebony table rose and smacked the patron in the head.

Tian’s eyes widened (as much as they could with the bruise forming next to her left eye) as she witnessed the magic. At the same time, Hong, the house guard, entered the room to see what all the noise was about.

“My lady, is there something wrong?” Hong asked as he helped Tian to her feet.

“I believe I can take care of the situation,” Tian replied. “Please escort Ho-Xiansheng to the door. See that he does not ever return.” Hong nodded and, grabbing the patron by the arm, hauled him to his feet and out the door. Tian face the wall with the hidden hole.

“Younger Daughter, I know you are watching. Please come in here so I may speak with you.”

Hui rushed from one room to the other, nearly dislodging my tube from her dress. “Honored Sister, how may I help heal your face?”

“It is of no importance right now. The bruise will fade shortly. Do you know what you did?”

Hui felt confused. “I did nothing. But I did see the table rise of its own accord and hit Ho-Xiansheng.”

“I believe you caused the table to rise. Did you feel anger when I was struck?”

“Yes, Honored Sister. I did not like to see you treated that way. He was wrong to hit you.”

“Yes, he was wrong. But that is not your concern at the moment. I would like you to try to raise the table again. This time, just off the floor – do not throw it anywhere.”

Hui was the one to widen her eyes. “How would I do that?”

“Concentrate. You know what polished ebony feels like to your hands. Find that feeling in your mind and then just as if you would use your hands to lift the table, do it with your thoughts.”

At last! I could finally work. I helped Hui to locate the table with her magic and then, slowly, lift the table a few inches off the floor. As the table rose, so did Hui’s astonishment and the table fell back to the floor with a thud.

“I did that?” Hui cried.

“Yes, Younger Daughter, you did. We, the five of us women and now you, possess magic. I felt no air stirring so I believe your ability is with Wood, as is mine. It is a skill that few possess.”

[Wait. Wood is an element? Amy]

Yes. In Chinese astrology, Wood is one of the five elements, along with Water, Fire, Earth and Metal. They do not recognize Air but most Air witches are considered to be of the Fire element. You know, they can use air to fan flames. As you have discovered, Earth witches can also easily manipulate wood and metal. Do not ask me to explain Chinese philosophy to you. We would be here for the rest of our lives. Now, back to my story.

To be continued…

A Familiar’s Tale – Part XV

Image by Dave Scelfo. Used under Creative Commons license 2.0I next opened my eyes to find a humongous eye staring down at me. “This one will do,” said a voice coming from the direction of that eye. I was unceremoniously picked up and deposited into a dark something with small holes. The eye observed me through one of those holes.

I tested my new body. I was obviously quite small, with large hind legs, smaller front ones, two sets of wings, and feelers jutting from my forehead. As I moved the outer wings to test for flight, I made a noise. Curious, I tried it again. A slightly different noise emanated from my back. The eye staring at me, with its epicanthal fold, crinkled in delight.

If you are not familiar with insects, especially the Gryllidae family, I am describing a cricket. Not to put too fine a point on it, I was a bug. I had always thought my superiors infallible. How could they make such a huge mistake, putting the conscious of a familiar into an insect’s body?

I felt yet another metaphysical slap. “We do not make such errors. Learn, youngling!” My mind was filled with images, memories of others, I gathered. In five minutes, I had centuries’ worth of history and knowledge crammed into my brain.

In less than five minutes, I can tell you that I was in China and that singing crickets were favored pets by not only the common people but nobility, as well. I believe they still are. The fact that I had been placed in a clay container rather than something fancier such as a small, gilded cage, told me my human was not even close to being upper class.

My body knew all the right moves but my brain had some adjusting to do. In my previous three lives, I had been an animal that could easily adjust to human circadian rhythms. Crickets are nocturnal. I slept during the day when my human was active and was awake during the night. My jar was on the floor next to her sleeping pallet. I presume my ‘singing’ lulled Hui, my human, to sleep.

Hui was a small child. Initially, I thought a toddler but her language was more advanced. I later learned she was almost ten years old. Born under the sign of the Earth Rat (I will not go into detail but you can certainly look it up on that thing you call the internet), she was a clever girl, confounding the adults with her ability to problem-solve…and get into trouble with the older children.

Initially, my life was rather boring. Sometime during the day, I was taken from my jar and placed into a small tube with air holes, which Hui partially tucked into a fold of her robe. It was warm there and I almost immediately fell back asleep, until I was disturbed long enough to be put back into my jar. Once I fully awoke at nightfall, I observed that my jar had been cleaned, with new food (grains of boiled rice) and water put down for me. As I rubbed my wings together, singing her to sleep, I listened in on her thoughts of the day. They were concerned with what she had learned from her elders (mostly grain farming), the latest indignation perpetrated by one of her older brothers, and wondering what it would be like to live in the Emperor’s palace.

When autumn came, the crickets held by the other household occupants grew gradually quieter until there was no sound from them at all. Like all mundane crickets, they died when their season was done. I, on the other hand, continued my nightly song at full volume.

Apparently, that was taken as a sign because with the first snowfall arrived a lady dressed in rich silks. Her hair was elaborately coiffed and she wore cosmetics. Hui’s parents were very deferential to her and hustled the children out of the main room into the sleeping quarters. All ten crowded the doorway, attempting to listen to the hushed conversation in the other room. The lady’s head turned toward the children several times during the conversation, her eyes eventually settling on Hui. She rose and approached my human, squatting down so they could look each other in the eye.

“Hui, my name is Tian. Your parents are offering you a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. You would come to live with me and my sisters in our house. There you will learn skills taught to few. You would dress as I do, eat food so rich it will take your tastebuds time to adjust, and meet wealthy and powerful people. Would you like that?”

Hui looked to her mother for guidance. The mother turned her head away. So, Hui thought. She had dreamed of living in the Emperor’s palace, it was true. As a girl child, she really had no value to her parents. As a small girl child, she had even less. She was unable to do some things in the fields that her brother, just two years younger, could do. And the lady’s clothes! She looked at her homespun robe. It held no comparison. Slowly and shyly with her eyes downcast, she nodded her head yes.

Tian smiled. “I had hoped you would say yes.” She rose and went back to Hui’s parents.

The mother told Hui to gather her things, including the cricket, and be ready to leave. As Hui turned to her pallet, she caught the exchange of a jingling pouch out of the corner of her eye. Hui straightened her shoulders, thinking she was off on an adventure none of her siblings would ever have.

I was put into the tube and tucked into my usual spot in Hui’s robe. Through her eyes, I watched her bundle her extra clothing and my jar together into a small lump she could carry. An animal skin was thrown over her shoulders and she tucked her feet into what could generously be called shoes, also made of animal skin. She marched into the main room and declared herself ready to go.

Peeking through one of my air holes, I watched as Tian ushered Hui into a palanquin. Furs were thrown over the women for warmth, the curtains closed and I felt us being lifted. It was not a smooth ride! While we were being jounced around, Tian quietly prepared Hui for her new life.

“We are approximately two days from our home,” she began. “What do you know of geography?”

Hui shook her head. “I do not know this word.”

Tian sighed. “I can see there will be more to your schooling than just our duties. We will begin. First, geography means to study the land and all its features. That includes not only your parents’ fields and where you lived but where things are, like landmarks and cities, and what they are called.

“Our country, Zhongguo, or the Middle Kingdom is the greatest on earth. It is so large it would take us a lifetime and more to walk its borders. We live in a large, prosperous city called Yangzhou. It is near the Great Canal and has people from many countries living and trading there.”

She continued at length, describing the scenery beyond the curtains, allowing Hui the occasional peek which let in a lot of cold air. I snuggled farther down into my tube where, against Hui’s skin, it was much warmer and slept.

To be continued…