Forbidden Tales: Sword
Reading level: Ages 9-12
Format: Hardcover, 240 pages
On Sale: August 26, 2008
On the morning of Miu Miu’s fifteenth birthday, her mother makes a startling revelation: Miu Miu’s fate is to travel to the faraway city of Chang’an, avenge her father’s death, and find her true love. But the evil emperor has other plans for her. Defeating him will take all of Miu Miu’s courage, wit, and martial arts experience.
Master storyteller Da Chen paints a vivid portrait of his native land in this classic tale of honor, adventure, and romance in ancient China.
On the morning of Miu Miu’s fifteenth birthday, her mother did not arrange a visit by a matchmaker, as all the mothers of Goose Village did when their daughters reached marriageable age. Instead, Miu Miu rose early to pick a basketful of green olives from the cliff of Goose Mountain behind her village. She washed them clean in the gurgling river fronting the town’s houses and laid the olives, a symbol of longevity, before her father’s memorial name plaque placed in the ancestral hall on the sacred central hearth in their two-story brick home. The delicate wooden plaque was mounted on a wide bronze base, with her father’s name engraved at the top and the dates of his birth and death at the bottom. It was always there, standing solemnly, reminding Miu Miu every day that even though Father had died before she was born, he was always there, watching over her, no matter that he was no longer among the living. Sometimes she thought the only proof of his having lived was this evidence of his death.
Miu Miu prayed to Father every day, the first time at sunrise before she left the house for Goose Mountain to cut wood for her mother to sell in the market square, the second time at night just before crawling into bed after washing her face and feet, and combing her long dark hair.
She prayed for Father’s spirit to accompany Mother so that she would not be so sad and lonely, tormented by his absence. And she prayed for the day that Father’s ghost would be lifted up by Buddha to ascend to Heaven from the hellish dungeon where all the dead languished before going anywhere. She never begged anything from Father for herself, for she did not need anything. She felt whole as an egg, round and lively, sufficient unto herself. God had given her a sturdy body and a steely mind. She saw the absence of a living father as a mark of fate, like rocks jutting up in a river’s path, or dark moles on smooth skin: It was something to bear, something to endure, nothing more.
But today, on this very first day of her adult life, an occasion that other households of means would mark with much celebration honoring the end of girlhood and the coming of womanhood, Miu Miu’s heart felt hollow. Her mind longed for something, though what that was she did not know. All she knew was that the canons of the Miu clan and the customs of Goose Village dictated that a girl turning fifteen be visited by a matchmaker, who would appear at her door as though unforeseen, bright and early, dressed in red, with a wild bloom pinned to her head. The mother of the household would wear red as well, and welcome the guest, pretending to be surprised by her visit. The matchmakerâ€”the messenger of love, the ambassador of happinessâ€”would bow and shout the girl’s name in a joyful voice, and the father of the household would appear, dressed in a long red silk gown, clasping his hands together, offering deep and grateful bows. The matchmaker, usually a hunched woman of about fifty with crooked fingers, would roll her oily tongue and say, as she always did, â€śDon’t thank me. Thank Yue Lao, the moon deity, and only do so after I show you whom I’ve got up my sleeve.â€ť
The mother would pull out a chair in the central hall, already deftly arranged in the traditional square of four, and invite the matchmaker to sit. The father would pour the first cup of tea while the mother rushed to the blushing daughter’s xiu fang (bedroom) and dragged her down to join the early guest, who would then pull out a strip of red silk from within her left sleeve, inscribed with names of possible grooms. As long as the shy but beaming daughter was nodding, the matchmaker would keep reading off her silk list, one suitor after another. The wedding fee would be extracted from the groom’s coffers, and the age, health, and appearance of the man were never objects of discussion unless the suitor was of little means.
But such a scene did not occur on the dreary birthday morning when Miu Miu turned fifteen. Of course, there was no possibility of her mother wearing red. Widows of Goose Village and beyond could wear only black until their own deaths. Red was the hue of the married sisters of the village who still had their husbands around, even though their husbands might be shared with other wives and concubines in da fang and xiao fangsâ€”the big bedroom and smaller bedrooms.
There didn’t seem to be a hint of any surprises coming Miu Miu’s way, this day or the next, not in this life, for even if a matchmaker did show up, Miu Miu would stick to her childhood pledge to remain by her mother’s side, protecting her till the end of her days.
The hens gargled as they did every morning, announcing the laying of their eggs, warm in their straw nests. Cocky roosters charged after them, their heads and tails lowered, vying for another round of early coupling. The peach trees in the front yard sang if you listened carefully to the breeze blowing along Goose River, passing through Goose Valley each morning along various paths, depending on which way the wind blew: from east to west, it whispered; north to south, it shouted, blending with the yawns of villagers waking, cows mooing, mountain goats baying, and the geeseâ€”a village full of themâ€”honking noisily.
The cause of such sound and fury could only be blamed on her mother. All things seemed to revolve around Miu Miu’s mother, the mistress of their humble manor. Hens seemed to lay eggs just for her. If Miu Miu tried to gather their morning eggs, the hens would peck her hands bloody with their pointy beaks, and the roosters would erect their combs, stretch their wings, and fluff up their feathers as if confronting a duelist. But for Mother the hens clucked proudly, reporting their production, and the roosters charged playfully after Mother’s heels in hopes of receiving their morning feed.