I 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…