I 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…