Perfect Wisdom Berry Blast
by Joseph McKinley
Table of Contents, parts:|
1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7
You don’t get rich picking tea.
This would seem to be obvious; it would seem to be something that would have occurred to someone in the Fu clan of Yongzhou — as opposed to the Fu of nearby Shaoyang, who are rich industrialists and no relation, unfortunately — sometime in the last three hundred years. Yet it hadn’t, and that is why Xiaoxiao (literally, “little smile”), officially Fu Xiao, is trailing behind her arthritic grandmother, feeling the overly warm sun roasting her and gradually turning her a more burnt shade of orange.
Three hundred years of assholes and elbows and nothing more to show for it than truckloads of dancing fairy tea. These were lives of sorrow. Xiaoxiao will be the first to break free, she hopes. But not yet: there are still leaves to pick, and graduation is still two years away.
The old woman stands up, her problematic back making it none the easier, and turns. “Oh! Little Xiao, you’re here. Where’s your father?”
How to break this to her... “He died, grandmother, before I was born.”
The old woman looks through Xiaoxiao as though she weren’t there at all, back into a hazy past. “Oh, yes,” the sadness tinges her voice. “Yes, he did.”
Xiaoxiao averts her eyes, waiting for the old woman to absorb the loss, for the hope in her heart to die, again. Then Xiaoxiao sees them. At first, she mistakes them for dewdrops hanging from weedy branches beneath the carefully trimmed tea bushes, but they can’t be; the mountain air is perfectly dry.
She reaches down and plucks one: a perfectly clear orb with cool, rubbery skin. It prisms the sunlight, casting a rainbow on the ground. “What is this, grandmother?”
The old woman’s eyes grow wide: Memories return. “It’s monk’s berry. It’s... It’s very tart.”
“What do you do with it?” Xiaoxiao rolls the fruit between her fingers, and the rainbow bends and warps, dancing across her face.
“I...” The old lady’s cataracted eyes glaze over again. “Oh! Little Xiao, you’re here. Where’s your father?”
“He...” Xiaoxiao sees the happiness in old eyes. She pauses, imagining it as an eggshell in her hands. “He’s in the city, grandmother. He’ll be back in a few days.”
Sweet and Sour
The Americans on television were one thing: cheerful, energetic, good-looking, though promiscuous, and fit. Even the old ones seemed young, and the young ones were positively bursting with life. These people happily conquered the world, and no wonder: being a capitalist pig seemed to be the quickest route to outright glee.
Judas Wailmoore — Teacher Wailmoore — is something entirely different.
Sallow-skinned and thin, yet puffy, Wailmoore looks old for his age, so much so that his students are firmly convinced that he is in his late forties, despite his passport’s establishing for all fair and legal purposes that he is barely twenty-six.
His drinking doesn’t help, but it does at least dull the anger that flares up in the form of an occasional cruel comment from a man otherwise impossibly sweet in a codgerish, chain-smoking, liquor-addled sort of way.
The only hint of youth left in this husk of a man: a love of candy. Perhaps this is an American thing, this insatiable love of sugar. Or maybe it’s just Wailmoore.
Chewy candy, milk candy, candy bars, fruit candy, candy from America, candy from China every Chinese province, candy ordered direct from Japan and Switzerland. A bag of candy, and the mournfulness and defeat fall away from Wailmoore like a snake sloughing off old skin, if only to slide back into it a few minutes later.
Xiaoxiao has never seen anything closer to a supernatural transformation, never witnessed anything closer to real-life magic. Who wouldn’t want to see such a thing?
She stirs the pot in the smoke-filled kitchen, trying to turn a basketful of monk’s berries into jam, which she’ll smear between layers of hawthorn berry flakes to make little candy sandwiches. Xiaoxiao keeps dumping in sugar, keeping a running tab of the quantity and cost.
She’s up to a two-to-one ratio now: two kilograms of sugar and one of berries. She stirs the pot again, and removes the spoon, putting a drop of the syrup to her lips. That should be enough sugar to...
Ahhh! She shudders. The sheer, awful sourness hits her, and she nearly jumps out of her shoes. Xiaoxiao can feel her lips pucker, and they’re stuck, possibly to remain that way for the remainder of the week. This is not an attractive look. She’ll need another kilogram or three of sugar. She starts to dump in another bag, and... Poof!
The jam is now jelly, and better than glasslike: It’s perfectly adamantine, like a giant cubic zirconia. A ray of late evening light peeks through the unglazed window, landing dead center in the kettle. Every imaginable color fills the squat wooden room.
The beast approaches at a gallop, haloed in a golden light. Xiaoxiao sees the teeth — dagger-sharp and awful things — and panics, tries to run, but she’s stuck. The cold stone wall presses against her back. She looks around: stone as far as the eyes can see, and in all directions. There’s nowhere for her to go, and no one to help. She screams. Hard echo, no one to hear her. No one to help. She clinches her eyes shut. Please let it end quickly. Oh God, don’t let me suffer. Oh God...
She waits for the bite, waits to feel the tearing away of her flesh. Waiting... waiting... waiting... This could take a while.
Her lungs are about to burst; she must breathe. Okay, last breath, one more... Gasp!
And she smells... sunshine?
Open eyes! The creature is closer now, and the fierce, lean body doesn’t look all that fierce anymore. It’s roly-poly, and the gallop-waddle makes its tail shake like that of a good-natured old dog. It plops down in front of Xiaoxiao, dropping a bag from its mouth onto the polished obsidian floor.
The beast offers her a smile, a pleasant, patient smile. Xiaoxiao is still squinting. The animal looks around, baffled for a second. Then it makes a guess as to the problem: “Too bright, my dear?”
It speaks! And it sounds like a scholar, a really literate scholar at that. Xiaoxiao is confused. It waits, and offers an even warmer smile than it did before.
“Well, sir” — Is that how I address him (her? it?)? — and she squeaks out, “a little.”
It adjusts the glow down to a tolerable incandescence. Its fur is apparently fiber optic.
“Sir? Why so formal? I’m a friend, you know.” It looks disappointed but, just for a moment, the smile returns. “And I’ve come bearing gifts!”
“Oh! I’m sorry.” Xiaoxiao glances at the floor, sees the old coins that spilled from the bag. Gold, so much gold. “Uh, thank you?”
“Those?” He glances at the coins as though they’re an afterthought. “Those are one of two gifts. The other is better, I think.”
“What’s the other one?”
The beast stretches out a hind leg and gives its ear a leisurely scratch. “Excuse me?” Now it looks slightly befuddled.
“The other gift?”
“Oh!” Something clicks in the massive skull. “Of course! A word of warning: Be careful with the berries. They’ll bring you as much grief as money, and they’ll bring you money aplenty.”
“Clarity is a terrible thing, and...” It looks down at its watch. It has a watch? “Oh! Got to go! More deliveries! No time to explain.”
“Is that it, uh, sir?”
It chuckles with an infectious warmth and scratches its ears again. “Yes, dear, that’s it. And call me Bixie.” He pauses. “Or you can call me Charlie. That’s what the foreigners do. Always at your service!”
“But, Charlie, how do I—”
“Yes. About that...” Charlie smiles, light radiating from him. The light grows brighter, as does the heat.
Xiaoxiao starts to sweat and burn. “Charlie, I’m too hot! Please...” and all she sees is the inferno of a smile.
“Sorry, dear, no way around it. Can’t have you stuck here forever.”
There’s nothing left but light and the roar of photons.
* * *
Xiaoxiao feels water. Did Charlie just shake his fur?
“Wake up, Little Xiao!”
Xiaoxiao opens her eyes. The old woman is hunched over her, dripping cool water on her head. They’re in the field; tea and berries surround them. The sun is high overhead.
“Grandmother?” Xiaoxiao can hear the weakness in her voice. What happened? “Where’s Charlie?” She says “Charlie” in English.
“Char? Char... who?”
“My friend... with the money and the glowing fur.”
Recognition flashes across the old woman’s face, but it disappears just as quickly. “Poor Xiaoxiao. Let’s get you home. I wish your father... your father...”
Everything comes back to Xiaoxiao in a flash. She stands up on wobbly legs and brushes the dust off herself. “It’s okay, Grandmother,” Xiaoxiao wobbles before righting herself. “We’ll manage for the day.”
And the old woman smiles again with an infectious warmth.
Where have I seen that smile before?
Copyright © 2017 by Joseph McKinley