Starry River of the Sky
Little, Brown Books for Young ReadersCopyright © 2012 Lin, Grace
All right reserved.ISBN: 9780316125956
Rendi was not sure how long the moon had been missing. He knew only that for weeks, the wind seemed to be whimpering as if the sky were suffering. At first, he had thought the moans were his own because his whole body ached from hiding in the merchant’s moving cart. However, it was when the cart had stopped for the evening, when the bumping and knocking had ended, that the groans began.
The sky had moaned and cried for many nights before Rendi finally dared to peek out. When he heard the donkey being led away and the nighttime wails beginning again, Rendi crawled from behind the gangs of wine—huge pottery vessels as big as he was—and poked out his head from the covered cart. Yet when he looked up into the sky, he saw nothing. The stars had dimmed to little more than faded shadows, and the mournful noises echoed in the blackness. It was then that Rendi realized the moon was missing.
He thought it would appear the next night, or the night after. Rendi was sure the moon would return, as it always had—glowing as if it were cut from the sky with a pair of sharp scissors. But it did not. Every evening, after the merchant had left, Rendi crept from the stifling, sticky cart into the fresh night air and peeked up. And every time, the Starry River of the Sky was empty.
“You must have wine,” a voice said. The merchant! In the cart, Rendi froze. Another moonless night had passed, and the darkness inside the covered cart had thinned with the morning’s arrival. The hitching of the donkey had jerked Rendi awake, his head knocking against one of the clay vats, but it was the sound of voices that alarmed him. “It is the Day of Five Poisons. I can sell you a gang,” the smooth voice of the merchant said.
“I own an inn, not a tavern,” another voice replied. “I don’t need a gang of wine. That is too much.”
“Ah, but having some wine stocked does not make your place a tavern,” the merchant replied. “You offer tea and food in the dining room of your inn, do you not? Offer wine as well, and your guests will gladly pay.”
“I just need enough wine to protect us from the Noxious Animals,” the innkeeper said. “For me to drink and to write the wang symbol on my daughter’s forehead. One jug will be fine.”
“But it is the famous Son Wine,” the merchant said. “And I can give you a very good deal.”
“Son Wine?” the innkeeper said. Rendi could hear the hesitation. Don’t buy any! Rendi begged silently, trying to quiet his thumping heart. Don’t open the cart!
“I can sell it in the city for a high price, but it has been so hot that I’m afraid the wine may spoil before I get there,” the merchant continued. “You can see I’ve even had to cover my cart. It’s better for me to sell you some now. We can include my last night’s lodging in the cost.”
As noiselessly as possible, Rendi scrambled to the back of the cart while the men outside agreed on a price. Rendi squeezed between the two gangs farthest from the opening, the huge clay containers compressing him like meat in a dumpling. The cart opened, and Rendi clasped his bag close to him, feeling the hardness of his rice bowl through the cloth.
The merchant and the innkeeper struggled to remove a gang, rocking the cart back and forth. Rendi scarcely breathed, and the men grunted as they pushed and shoved. Neither noticed the small figure well hidden in the shadows of the remaining gangs.
With a rude curse from the merchant, the vat finally dropped safely to the ground with a thud. Both men leaned against the cart, and the sun glinted from the back of the merchant’s bald, perspiring head. As the innkeeper sighed from the exertion, Rendi slowly let out his breath. Safe, Rendi thought as he listened to the men finish their deal. He closed his eyes in relief.
“What’s that?” the innkeeper said.
Rendi’s eyes flew open. Hands and arms reached toward him, grabbing and pulling. He squirmed and struggled, but there was no escape. Rendi was roughly dragged out of the cart, and soon he was staggering and squinting in the bright daylight.
“A stowaway!” the merchant growled, his friendly manner disappearing. The merchant was wiry and sun-brown, and his hands were as strong as iron chains. One hand clamped the back of Rendi’s neck in a relentless grip while the other rose to strike him with a vicious blow.
Rendi cringed, but the innkeeper grabbed the merchant’s arm before it struck. “He’s just a boy,” said the innkeeper, who was shaped a bit like a jug of wine himself. “He doesn’t look much older than my daughter.”
“You can have him, then!” the merchant said with an unkind laugh. He shoved Rendi to the ground. As Rendi coughed up dust and the innkeeper helped him to his feet, the merchant quickly closed the cart, climbed into the driver’s seat, and grabbed the reins of the donkey. “Didn’t you say your son left?” he mocked. “Take this one. He’s included with the wine!”
“But…” the innkeeper said as the wheels of the cart spit dust at him. “But…”
Swiftly, the merchant drove away, deaf to the innkeeper’s stammers. The innkeeper gaped from the cart to the boy, and then at the cart again. The boy clung to his cloth bag, and the cart blurred in the distance. The innkeeper stared blankly at it. And when the merchant and his cart finally disappeared into the flat line of the horizon, Master Chao, the innkeeper, was still staring.
Rendi’s muscles were as soft as uncooked tofu and his face as friendly as an angry tiger, but Master Chao said finally, “I do need someone to help with the chores at the inn.”
A chore boy! Rendi scowled with scorn, but then he saw the long, wide, empty road in front of him and the dust from the merchant’s cart floating in the air like a fading ghost. The grass was yellow and withering, and a quick scan around showed, besides the shabby inn, a handful of broken-down stone houses. There’s nothing here! Rendi thought with shock. Where am I?
“What kind of chores?” Rendi said, forcing the words from his mouth. He would stay for now, he told himself. But just for now.
“Well, first,” Master Chao said, “I need you to help me bring this wine into the inn.”
Rendi was not much help moving the wine. He could not get his puny arms around the gang, much less lift it. Master Chao grunted and huffed and panted and had only succeeded in moving the wine a few feet when Rendi said, “If we put it on its side, we could roll it.”
Master Chao stopped and said, “What is your name?”
“Well, Rendi,” Master Chao said, “that is a good idea.”
Rendi’s dark frown lightened. They tilted the gang and slowly rolled it into the inn, the hot sun burning their necks. But when they brought the wine into the back storeroom, a small figure ran in like lightning, and Rendi’s scowl returned.
It was Master Chao’s young daughter, Peiyi. Her round face still showed remains of her breakfast, and the bottoms of her pant legs were brown with dirt. Rendi wrinkled his nose, looking at her as if she were a worm in a half-eaten peach.
“Who’s that boy?” Peiyi asked, stopping in midstride.
“That’s Rendi,” Master Chao said without turning. He was mixing realgar powder into a small bowl of wine. “Rendi is going to take over some of Jiming’s chores. Rendi, this is my daughter, Peiyi.”
Rendi sniffed and rolled his eyes away from her in contempt. Peiyi’s eyes narrowed.
However, Master Chao seemed not to notice and brought Peiyi in front of him. He gently pushed her tangled hair from her cherry-blossom-pink face. She stood as still as a carved statue, with only her eyes moving, as her father dipped his finger into the wine mixture and carefully wrote wang, a symbol of power, with it on her forehead. Rendi watched from the doorway, and a strange, jealous anger filled him.
“That should protect you from the Noxious Animals,” Master Chao said to her, and sighed. “Day of Five Poisons, already! Spring was hardly here, and now it’s summer.”
Peiyi didn’t answer, for her eyes were glued on Rendi in the doorway. He had been making rude faces at her, pretending to be each of the five poisonous animals—snake, scorpion, centipede, spider, and toad. His last impression was of the Noxious Toad, which he made by bulging his eyes and sticking out his tongue.
“Why is that boy here?” Peiyi said, her lips pursing.
“I told you,” Master Chao said. “With Jiming gone, we need someone to help with the chores.”
“We don’t need him!” Peiyi protested. “Jiming will come back!”
Master Chao sighed again, this time a heavy sigh that fell like a stone in water. “Your brother made his decision,” he said, standing up stiffly. Without another word, Master Chao walked out of the room.
Peiyi stared after her father with forlorn eyes and then looked at Rendi. The strange, jealous anger from before had lingered and strengthened, and he jeered at her.
“Baby!” Rendi said. “Too young to drink the wine, so you have to wear the wang sign! Watch out for the Noxious Animals!”
Peiyi glared. “Horrible!” she hissed at him, and ran out of the room.
To Rendi, this small Village of Clear Sky and its inn were horrible. Peiyi was forced to show him everything, and she fumed with anger as he sneered at the rough wooden floors, the humble and broken-down houses, and the yellowing weeds dying between the rocks in the walls.
The only thing Rendi could not scorn was the strange, endless plain of stone that lay beyond the inn. The smooth rock ground stretched beyond sight, as if someone had wiped away part of the landscape with a rag.
“What is that?” Rendi gasped in spite of himself.
“It’s the Stone Pancake,” Peiyi answered. She was glad there was at least one thing this horrid boy could not mock. “My ancestor made it.”
“Made it?” Rendi said in disbelief. “You’re lying!”
“It’s true!” Peiyi insisted. “My ancestor was a great man.”
“Your ancestor? My ancestor was the…” Rendi sputtered, and then stopped.
“What did your ancestor do?” Peiyi said. “Mine moved a mountain!”
Rendi bit his lip in frustration. His ancestors were far greater than the ancestors of this dirty-faced girl! But he swallowed his words bitterly and, instead, said, “How?”
THE STORY OF THE MAN WHO MOVED A MOUNTAIN
When this place was called the Village of Endless Mountain, my esteemed great-grandfather moved here. He was an extraordinary man. He was so determined and courageous that when he wanted his tea made of Nan Ling water, he journeyed the hundreds of miles to the Long River and braved the brutal and violent waves to get it. He was so smart and clever that he never lost a game of chess in his entire life. He was so strong and powerful that he pulled two oxen by their tails through the street. So wondrous was my honored great-grandfather that all, even the spirits above, looked upon him with admiration.
So, when one fall morning he looked out his window and was displeased, the ground seemed to join his family with their trembling. “I see nothing out my window,” my great-grandfather cried. “Why can I not see the sky, the sun, and clouds?”
“Honored father”—his two sons and wife bowed at his feet—“our house is next to the mountain. You do not see the sky in your room, because the mountain blocks it.”
My esteemed great-grandfather sputtered, “I must be able to see the sky! I cannot let the mountain block the heavens! We will move the mountain.”
He gathered shovels and pails, and he and his obedient sons began to dig. One bucket at a time, they began to carry the mountain away. Obviously, this seemed an impossible task, like emptying the ocean with a rice bowl. Yet my honored great-grandfather was not discouraged, and day after day, he and his sons carried away buckets of earth.
All the villagers came to watch in amazement as my great-grandfather and his sons attempted to move the mountain. Their awed whispers carried to the clouds, and the Spirit of the Mountain overheard. The Spirit gazed down at my great-grandfather and his tireless, unyielding shoulders bearing away stones of the mountain and was alarmed. The Spirit took human form and rushed down.
“Why are you trying to move the mountain?” the Spirit asked my honored great-grandfather. “To carry it away, bucket by bucket—is that not impossible? Even if you were to live a hundred years and work every day, you could not achieve it.”
My esteemed great-grandfather brushed away the words. “I will move this mountain,” he said. “If I do not move the mountain in my lifetime, my sons will continue my work and their sons after that. Eventually, this mountain of annoyance will be gone!”
The Mountain Spirit heard the truth in my honored great-grandfather’s words and began to quake and shiver with fear. Without another word, the Spirit left. The next morning, the sun streamed into my great-grandfather’s room. He leaped from his bed and ran outside.
The mountain was gone.
Instead, there was an empty stone field that seemed as flat as a plate and as endless as the sky. My honored great-grandfather stood with pride. He had moved the mountain.
“And that is why we have the Stone Pancake,” Peiyi finished. “It is where the mountain used to be, before it fled from my great-grandfather’s power and wisdom.”
“No one uses it?” Rendi said.
“Nothing grows on it, no one builds on it, and no one travels on it,” Peiyi said, shaking her head. “It’s so big that if you walk on it far enough, you’ll see nothing but the sky and the flat stone and get lost! Sometimes we use a small bit of it near the inn for celebrations, like weddings, but usually it is left bare.”
“I can’t believe it,” Rendi said. But the never-ending flat land drew out in front of him, and he could think of no other explanation.
“The missing mountain is also why this place is called the Village of Clear Sky,” Peiyi couldn’t help adding. “Because the sky is clear of the mountain.”
Clear of the moon too, Rendi thought grimly.
That evening, in his new bedroom at the inn, the moans of the sky returned. Rendi clenched his teeth and covered his ears with his hands until, finally, he glared out his window into the dark. Below the groaning of the night, he heard the satisfied snores coming from the bedroom of Master Chao. Was Rendi the only one who heard the sky? Was it just in his head? Why wouldn’t it leave him alone? Another cry echoed.
“Stop it!” Rendi whispered fiercely into the moonless sky. “I’m not going to listen to your whining anymore!”
But the night just gave a mournful noise in answer, and Rendi scowled. He would forget about the sobbing sky, the missing moon, everything. He would forget it all. He turned from the window, shutting his eyes. There was nothing to see anyway. Outside, there was only blackness and the poor Village of Clear Sky.
Just like that, Rendi became the chore boy at the Inn of Clear Sky. He was not used to doing chores, so when he found a broom in his hand, he had to watch Peiyi to learn how to sweep. He watched her so closely as she washed and dusted that she was convinced he was mocking her and said in annoyance, “Go clean that room by yourself.”
As he left, Peiyi added, “Do a good job. It’s the best room in the inn.”
Just by her tone, Rendi could tell that the room was a point of pride. Instead of plain wood, the couch bed in this room was carved with ribbon-tailed birds and plum blossoms. There was a matching table, and the warm-colored wood shone as if it had just been dipped in honey. Silk scrolls hung on the wall, and lacquered, painted gourds stood as vases.
Rendi sneered. “Best room in the inn,” he scoffed to one of the painted peonies. “It’s not even good enough for one of my father’s servants.”
But as the words fell from his lips, he froze and his face darkened. Without another word, Rendi spent the rest of the time vigorously polishing and dusting, flinging the dirt from the window as if to rid the room of any of his lingering words. When he finished, the room was spotless, and even Peiyi could not find any fault with it.
Wasted work, though, Rendi often thought. With the exception of old Mr. Shan, who did not even stay at the inn but just came to eat every day, there were no guests at the Inn of Clear Sky. Rendi watched carefully day after day, hoping another merchant or trader would arrive so he could leave this poor, pitiful village with its crying sky.
It could barely be called a village, really; most of the homes were empty and abandoned, and the people who lived here now would barely fill the dining room of the inn. “Everyone leaves. Villagers, guests, everyone. Even my brother left,” Peiyi had said sadly to Rendi. But she had added with a note of happiness, “Even you’ll go, someday.”
I hope someday soon, Rendi had thought.
But it was not to be today. In the morning, Rendi awoke to the strident crow of the neighbor’s rooster and looked out the window. As he expected, the hot sun shone brightly on the undisturbed yard, and there was not a horse or hoofprint visible. Rendi sighed and washed his face. Perhaps tomorrow a guest would come. A guest with a cart he could crawl into.
“You’re late,” Master Chao said as Rendi and Peiyi walked down the stairs. “We have a new guest.”
“A new guest?” Peiyi said in surprise. Rendi was also surprised. The sky’s moaning had kept him awake most of the night, and he had heard no one arrive. “Did he come in the night?”
“No,” Master Chao said. “Arrived early this morning, alone, on foot, and paid for a room for a whole month. She said she may stay longer.”
“She?” Rendi said. The word spurted from him in surprise. It was unheard of for a woman to be staying alone at an inn, much less one who came on foot and stayed for longer than a night.
“Yes,” Master Chao said, “and she wants her breakfast brought to her room. Make sure you ask her if she wants all her meals there.”
“What is she doing here?” Peiyi asked. “And for so long?”
“That’s not our business,” Master Chao said, quickly shaking his head at Peiyi. “She paid for her room and meals. That is all that concerns us.”
Peiyi looked at Rendi, but he did not return her gaze. He hoped he looked bored and uninterested, even though inside he was as curious as she was.
“I’ll help you bring up the breakfast,” Peiyi said to Rendi. He wasn’t fooled. He knew she just wanted to peek at their new, mysterious guest. But he said nothing and handed her the covered cup of tea.
The new female guest was standing at the window in the finest room of the inn, the same window Rendi had flung dust out of. Her back was toward them, and she stood against the yellow sunlight. The darkness of her silhouette reminded Rendi of the moonless sky that cried at him at night.
“Your breakfast,” Rendi said, “Madame…”
“Madame Chang,” the woman said. Her serene voice seemed out of place in the hot room, already baking in the summer sun. “Tell me,” Madame Chang said without turning, “what did you name the stone field where the mountain was?”
“The Stone Pancake,” Peiyi said, pleased that this new guest already knew the story. “It was my ancestor who moved the mountain!”
“Really?” Madame Chang said, and she turned and looked at them. Rendi and Peiyi gaped.
Madame Chang did not look like any woman Rendi had ever seen before. She was not like the painted ladies of the court, who giggled and swayed like flowers as the wind blew. Nor did she resemble a broad-shouldered peasant woman, thick and browned by the sun. Her features were fine and smooth, as if she had been carved from ivory, and the light in her dark eyes made them shine like stars. She stood with the elegance of a willow tree, and even though she wore the cotton robes of a commoner, both Rendi and Peiyi felt as if they should kowtow before her.
Peiyi’s eyes were as large as lychees, and it took a moment before Rendi realized that they were both staring.
“Master Chao would like to know if you want all your meals brought to you in your room,” Rendi said.
“It’s cooler in the dining room,” Peiyi said, and then with an attempt at a grown-up air, “but it’s hot everywhere, these days.”
“Yes, it is,” Madame Chang agreed with a smile. “But at least it’s not as hot as when there were six suns in the sky.”
“Six suns?” Peiyi asked.
“You don’t know the story?” Madame Chang asked, looking from Peiyi to Rendi. Both shook their heads.
THE STORY OF THE SIX SUNS
Long ago, so long that only the sky, mountains, and water can truly remember, six suns appeared in the sky. These six suns caused great suffering and devastation to the earth. Rain boiled away before ever touching the ground. The trees and plants withered, leaving behind only the scorched earth, burned and brown. All the villagers were forced to live like worms, crowding into an ancient dark hole in one of the hills. As they began to starve, they also began to despair.
But then a rumor began to murmur at night, perhaps sent by the Spirit of the Mountain above. “The one marked with power can save you,” it whispered. “The one who bears the mark of power can save you.”
The people looked at one another in confusion until a man stepped forward. His name was WangYi, and he was the strongest, bravest, and quickest of all men. He had already done many great deeds. They said he had tamed the flooding water serpent with just the fierceness of his eyes, and he had killed the single-toothed earth giant with his mighty strength. But more than that, WangYi had an unusual scar on his forehead. It looked like the character wang, a symbol of power.
“It must be WangYi whom the Spirit of the Mountain meant,” the people said. “The scar is the mark of power!”
But when WangYi stepped on the scorched earth and gazed at the six suns, he knew his strength and fierceness would not help. He had to stand in the shade of the mountain, for the ground lit by the suns burned his feet. Everything on earth was suffering—even the giant tree next to the mountain seemed to be withering. WangYi realized that he could not fight the suns. His only hope was to shoot them down from the sky.
So he shot his arrows at the suns, pulling his mighty crescent bow so that it made the shape of a full moon. But no matter how powerfully he pulled, the arrows could not reach. Over and over he shot, until the shade of the mountain disappeared as the suns moved overhead. Finally, with only six arrows left in his case, WangYi was forced to dip his feet in water to cool them. He looked down in defeat.
It was then that he saw his reflection in the pool. The great lake had shrunk because of the heat, but the shade of the mountain had saved it from completely vanishing. There was still enough water for him to see the six suns reflected in it.
“I will shoot them here!” WangYi said. And with his back to the mountain, he quickly placed an arrow in his bow and shot at the reflection of one of the suns. As the arrow flew into the water, a sun sank from the sky. WangYi fitted another arrow and shot again. Another sun fell.
Immediately, the people felt a change in the temperature. They crawled out from the hole to watch WangYi shoot the third sun and then the fourth. But as everyone cheered, WangYi’s wife thought quickly.
“If he shoots all the suns,” she realized, “we will be forever in darkness.”
So, knowing better than to disturb her husband’s concentration, she crept behind WangYi as he prepared his arrow for the fifth sun. With all eyes on WangYi, only the mountain saw her as she silently took the sixth and last arrow from his case and swiftly hid it in her sleeve. As a result, after shooting the fifth sun, WangYi found his case empty and laid down his bow.
This is why there is now one sun.
“Well, that one sun is hot enough,” Rendi said. The guest room had grown even hotter during the story, and a drop of sweat rolled down his forehead like a falling grain of rice.
“That is true,” Madame Chang said, and she looked out the window at the dry, yellowing earth below. Then she looked again at Peiyi and Rendi. “Please tell Master Chao I will take the rest of my meals downstairs with the other guests. I think I would enjoy the company.”
Rendi didn’t think Madame Chang would much enjoy the company of old, slow-witted Mr. Shan, the inn’s one regular mealtime guest, but he refrained from saying so. Instead, both he and Peiyi bowed respectfully and left the room.
“You couldn’t teach a pig how to snore!” Widow Yan snapped.
“I wouldn’t have to,” Master Chao roared. “I would just let it follow your example!”
In the garden, Rendi sighed. He was unsure which was worse, the sky’s wailing at night or the screeching of Master Chao and Widow Yan during the day, for Master Chao and Widow Yan were fighting yet again. He did not know what caused the first argument between the two neighbors or when it had been, but every day was full of their quarrels.
Rendi returned to his weeding, though truly it was the snails he was tending. The inn’s garden was not really a garden. It was a snail haven. As soon as a green shoot sprang from the dirt, snails covered it like a warty plague. Any surviving leaves were also ravaged, and the partially eaten greenery looked like delicate paper cuttings decorating the dark wall.
The only garden that was worse was the one on the other side of that wall. Snails also reveled in Widow Yan’s garden. Their shells adorned her plants like brown berries. The only things more plentiful than Master Chao’s and Widow Yan’s snails were their insults to each other.
A door slammed, and Rendi saw MeiLan, Widow Yan’s daughter, come out of the house next door, drooping like a magpie with a broken wing. That meant Peiyi was sure to come out and try to sneak a visit. Rendi knew Peiyi had formed a secret friendship with the older girl, admiring her like the mother and sisters she didn’t have. MeiLan was pretty and gentle, with long hair tied up smoothly in a woven clasp and skin like a fresh peach. To little Peiyi, who went about constantly with bruised knees and tangled hair, MeiLan seemed a fine lady.
And sure enough, there was Peiyi now, taking advantage of her father’s distraction, stealing out of the inn and over the low wall. Perfect, Rendi thought wickedly as the girls greeted each other. He began gathering snails and arranging them on the wall. When he was done, Peiyi would be so annoyed.
“Have you heard from Jiming?” MeiLan asked Peiyi.
“No,” Peiyi said, her voice suddenly full of sorrow.