Song of the Crimson Flower – Julie C. Dao

The music came in on the breeze. Lan rushed to the window, the sleeves of her pale-yellow robe fluttering like butterfly wings. “He’s here! Quick, put out the light!” Her maid blew out the candles, plunging the bedroom into darkness, and Lan saw outside with a sudden sharp clarity: the great oaks sheltering the Vu family home, bending close together as though sharing a secret; the sunset-pink blossoms in the garden that smelled of summertime; and the grassy hill sloping down to the river two levels beneath her window. The warm breeze ran playful fingers through her long hair as she leaned out. “Be careful, miss!” Chau begged. “What will I tell your parents if you fall?” Lan brushed away the maid’s hands. “I’ve never fallen yet, have I? Hush, now.” A boat glided over the water and stopped near the riverbank. In the moonlight, Lan could only see a sliver of the young man’s face, turned up toward her, and the shine of his bamboo flute. Tam, she thought, her mind caressing his beloved name. Her heart soared as he began to play, every sweet note ringing out as clearly as though he were in her room with her. The music seemed a living, breathing thing. It whispered to her and danced in the air before her. The notes clung to her skin and the back of her throat. Lan pressed her hands against her flushed cheeks, thrilling at the beauty of it.

Tam had come every night for two weeks and had played this song each time—her song, the melody he had written for her. He had tucked the lyrics into the hollow of their favorite tree, and she had learned them by heart: Little yellow flower, You crossed the grass and the wind kissed every blade Your feet had blessed. I see springtime in the garden of your eyes. The flute sang for her, and her alone. It was his voice, telling her in music what he had always been too shy to say in words: that he loved her, that he couldn’t wait to spend his life with her, that both their families’ dearest hope was also his own. When he finished, he gazed up and lifted his hand to her, and Lan noticed the soft blue scarf tied around his wrist. She had given it to him along with a ruby dragonfly brooch, the heart-jewel a woman presented to her true love. Chau, well versed in the routine by now, handed Lan several bundles of hoa mai. Lan kissed the sweet-smelling yellow flowers before tossing them to Tam. Most of them scattered on the surface of the water, but it was no matter.

She knew he would gather each and every one, for she had watched him do it for fourteen nights. As she watched, he stooped to pluck a blossom from the river and kissed the petals her lips had touched. The maid sighed. “How lucky you are to have such a beautiful romance, miss.” “I am,” Lan said softly, stretching her hand to the boatman. She felt like a princess in the ancient ballads her father loved, with stars in her unbound hair. But the girls in those tales were always falling in love with men far beneath them. Tam was of a family equal to Lan’s, and the prospect of their marriage was as close to their approving parents’ hearts as it was to their own. “He’s perfect, isn’t he?” If only he would find his courage. If only he would get past the shyness that forced him to express his feelings only in moonlit visits.

In the two weeks since he started playing her music on the river, he had not come by once during the day. He’s busy learning how to become a great court minister like his uncle, she told herself sternly. It’s silly to complain when he is building a good life for us. Tam was devoted to her, and when the time was right, he would finally allow the fortune-teller to choose an auspicious date for their wedding. In the meantime, she would try to learn patience and understanding, two of her mother’s strongest qualities. As though Lan’s thoughts had called her, Lady Vu’s footsteps sounded in the corridor. “Why is it so dark in here?” she asked, entering her daughter’s room. Two servants flanked her, their lanterns illuminating the crisp turquoise silk of her long, gold-collared ao dai. The overdress fluttered against her cream trousers. “What on earth are you looking at?” Lan jumped back from the window.

“Nothing, Mama. Just stargazing.” She didn’t have to fib; her parents approved of her betrothal to Tam, after all, and there was nothing improper about these visits. But she was nearly eighteen, and Ba and Mama allowed her so few secrets from them; she wanted these nights of moonlight and music to belong to her and Tam alone. “I was thinking about Tam and how hard he works.” “Of course you were, my love,” Lady Vu said, her face softening. “I am certain your wedding will take place soon. You needn’t worry.” “I’m not worried,” Lan answered, but it sounded forced even to her ears. Her mother signaled for the servants to relight the candles, and the room in which Lan had grown up came back into view: the bright oak walls, the yellow-and-white embroidered rug, and the cheerful gold silk pillows on the bed.

Lady Vu patted a lacquered sandalwood chair. “Sit. I will brush your hair,” she said, and the servants left the room to allow mother and daughter their nightly chat. She ran the teeth of the ivory comb tenderly through Lan’s hair. “You’ll be a happy wife and mother, like me. You have nothing to fear from your Tam.” “I know he cares for me, Mama.” Lan fixed her eyes on the night sky, imagining Tam gathering flowers on the river outside and watching the square of light from her room. “I’m just eager for a wedding date to be chosen. If there’s a task to be done, better to do it right away.

” Lady Vu laughed. “How like your dear father you are in that.” “And like you in my face,” Lan returned, lifting an ornate bronze hand mirror. Her face and her mother’s looked back at her, both rosy and round with wide noses and wider eyes, dark and shining as the river. Even their dimpled smiles were the same. Her mother stroked her hair. “Master and Madam Huynh have always spoiled Tam. He’s their only son, which is why they indulge him in everything. Ba and I know better than to give your brothers such freedom. We are their parents, and we know best.

” She set the comb down and met Lan’s eyes in the mirror. “Tam may be shy, but his nerves will soon pass.” “Do you think that’s why he keeps putting off the fortune-teller?” Lan asked, turning to look at her. “Because he’s nervous about marrying me?” “I don’t think it has anything to do with you, my treasure.” Lady Vu laid a hand on her daughter’s shoulder. “Some men are still children at twenty, and Tam may be feeling anxious about the responsibilities he will take on as a husband and head of a household.” “Was Ba anxious?” The older woman smiled. “No. But he has always been a decisive person.” “He left flowers for you every day after you were betrothed,” Lan said, remembering Ba’s story.

It was both funny and sweet to imagine her proper, formal father as a youth in love. “Your father and I were well matched from the start. Sharing my life with him has been a joy, and I want that happiness for you,” Lady Vu said, squeezing Lan’s shoulder. “Ba will speak to the Huynhs and see if they can’t push Tam a bit. It’s long past time to choose a wedding date.” Three dates had been proposed by the fortune-teller and all refused by Tam. The first had landed in the middle of the rain season, which he insisted was not a propitious time to marry. The next had fallen too close to the Festival of the New Year, which might have symbolized a fresh beginning, but Tam had insisted it would be disrespectful to the gods to celebrate a marriage instead of spending time in reflection and prayer. And the third date—for which both the Huynhs and Vus had pushed—had been in the winter, and Tam did not wish his bride to be cold and uncomfortable in the journey to her new home. No matter that the Huynhs lived only on the other side of the river, no more than a half hour’s journey by palanquin.

Lan had been disappointed each time, but had excused these concerns as proof of Tam’s thoughtful, conscientious nature. “He’s superstitious, and also cautious,” she told her mother now. “Our marriage will be the most important event of his life, and he wants it to be perfect.” “Of course he does. Ba will speak to Tam’s parents, and by year’s end, you will be a bride.” Lady Vu dimpled. “Just think of the finery you’ll wear and how beautiful you’ll look. The first of your cousins to marry, even though you’re the youngest. How jealous they will be.” Lan beamed, picturing herself in her festive red wedding clothes and gold headdress.

“Will you lend me your jade necklace, Mama?” “Better than that. I will give it to you as a gift,” her mother said indulgently. “And we will have Bà Trang add ten times the gold embroidery to your wedding clothes. They’ll be so much prettier than the hideous silks Bà Danh’s great-niece wore at her wedding.” They giggled at the great-niece’s expense and sat up late together, gossiping and planning for the future. When Lady Vu finally retired for the night, Lan gazed out at the star-dappled river, now empty of her passionate boatman. As a child, she had sat by this window with her grandmother, making up wild stories about all the adventures she would have as a bold, brave young woman. Bà nội had loved tales of daring quests and far-off lands and had transferred her passion to Lan, encouraging her to dream and imagine herself as strong and courageous as anyone in the old legends. But Bà nội had died last summer, leaving an empty place in Lan’s heart where her grandmother’s love and her thirst for adventure had once been. It made Lan feel lonesome and a little sad, wondering when she had changed so much.

But she supposed that letting go of her flights of fancy and her desire to see the world came with growing up. And getting married will be an adventure, too, she told herself. The pieces of her life were falling perfectly into place. Soon, she would make Ba and Mama proud, and she would have everything: a lovely, elegant wing of the Huynhs’ home, servants to tend to her every wish as a cherished daughter-in-law, and Tam, the handsome young man who wove his love for her into the melody of a flute beneath the moon. L 2 ong before sunrise and the first rays of peach and gold touched the sky, the river market came to life. Boats swept over the water, packed with nets of wriggling fish, buckets of jackfruit and spiny durian, and baskets of sweet, fragrant pastries wrapped in banana leaves. Neighbors shouted greetings to one another, having seen the same faces and heard the same voices year after year. Men and women who had once played as children on the riverbank now rowed their goods to shore, setting up stalls of wood and bamboo along the sand as their small sons and daughters tottered after them. They wore loose cotton clothing, cheap but comfortable in the stifling heat, as they hammered, tied rope, lined up wares on tables, and carried crates. Bao would have given anything to be one of them.

He knew it was a hard life. The people of the river market were always at the mercy of nature—one year might bring a drought, and then the next, the monsoon rains might last for months, flooding boats and damaging goods. But they all belonged, from the oldest man to the newest baby. They all had a place; they all had someone to love and miss them if they were gone. He couldn’t say the same for himself. “Bao! You’re here early,” said Ông Hung, a cheerful, red-faced man in his sixties. In the eight years Bao had known him, the man had only ever worn one outfit: a gray hemp tunic over brown trousers. He stood under a lopsided cloth tent, behind a table lined with gleaming catfish. His many daughters sat cross-legged on the ground around him, their hands and legs stained with fish blood as they cleaned the day’s catch. The youngest, a girl of fifteen, turned bright red when she saw Bao, causing her sisters to titter.

Bao pretended not to notice, to spare the poor girl further embarrassment. He was too tall to stand up straight beneath Ông Hung’s tent, so he stood outside and stooped his head to speak to him. “You look better today, Uncle.” He used the term out of respect, but still it gave him a thrill, like addressing a real family member. “You know why?” called Chú Minh, an adjacent vendor. He was a short, slim man in his forties, with kind, twinkling eyes above a thin mustache. “After he collapsed the other morning, he finally took your advice and rested yesterday.” “Mind your own business,” Ông Hung told him good-naturedly. “As the saying goes, an idle man courts the gods’ ill will. Lazing about means less money to feed my family.

” Bao studied the older man’s color. He still looked a bit too peaked for Bao’s taste, but at least his eyes were bright and his movements quick. “Your family wouldn’t want you to work yourself to death,” Bao said. “One day of rest is worth it if it means you can work for years longer.” Chú Minh grinned, and Ông Hung put his hands on his hips, saying, “Listen to the boy! Wah, so you’ve decided to become the king’s court philosopher instead of a physician now.” “I’m not a physician yet, just an apprentice,” Bao said, chuckling. “I tie bandages and hold patients’ hands and carry Master Huynh’s medicine bag for him.” “You’re too modest, son,” Chú Minh scolded him. “That fancy Master Huynh may be a retired court physician, but you’re the one who takes care of us lowly folks. Who else would set our broken bones or treat our coughs? Or tell this old sack of rice to take a day off?” He clapped an affectionate hand on Ông Hung’s shoulder, and the older man grumbled about lack of respect.

“I feel at home here,” Bao said honestly, looking at the bustling market around them. He wouldn’t trade these haphazard tents, these rickety stalls, and the sharp, pungent smell of fish and dust for anything. It was his escape from the servants’ quarters of the Huynh family house, where he slept and studied in a tiny, stuffy room that always smelled of greasy cooking. He had only a thin straw pallet for a bed, a tiny scrap of a table, and a single chair with uneven legs, and still Madam Huynh complained to her husband about the price of keeping a charity orphan like Bao, no matter how gifted he was at medicine. “Everyone in this river market is the closest thing to a family that I have.” Ông Hung fixed Bao with a piercing gaze. “You’re a good boy, with a good head on your shoulders. What are you, nineteen? If you get tired of treating rich people’s imaginary ailments, come work for me. Learn the business with my sons and marry whichever of my daughters you want.” The girls erupted into giggles, and the youngest hid her face in the flank of a catfish.

Bao cleared his throat. “That is much too generous of you, Uncle.” “I’m serious. I’d be honored to have you for a son-in-law.” The fisherman’s eyes narrowed. “Unless another man has chosen you for his daughter?” Chú Minh’s grin widened. “I think you’ve hit upon the truth. The boy is blushing.” Bao’s face burned as though the midday sun shone upon it, though dawn had only just crept over the limestone mountains. The girl he loved was still his own, and he would not share her yet—not when he might never summon the courage to speak to her.

“Even if I ever wished to make a marriage proposal, I have no parents to speak to the parents of my intended.” “Do you think that matters to me at all?” Ông Hung exclaimed. Beneath the older man’s teasing demeanor, Bao saw kindness. Ông Hung was honest and good, and a life with his family would mean hard but decent work and plenty of food. Bao imagined living on the man’s boats as children ran around him and scolding aunties told him to eat more, he was getting too skinny. Ông Hung’s youngest daughter would be there, too, smiling shyly from behind her dark curtain of hair. They would all love Bao and care for him, and for an orphan who had drifted alone for almost ten years, the hunger for that life was physically painful. But Bao’s heart belonged to another. He didn’t know whether her father would welcome him so readily, but he wanted no other wife but her. “Thank you, Uncle,” he said sincerely.

“Well, I should be on my way. I’ve got a lot of people to check on before my work with Master Huynh begins. I’m going to see Khoa first.” Both men sobered at once. “If anyone can do anything to help poor Khoa, it would be you, my boy. You and the gods . and maybe the river witch,” Chú Minh said, ignoring Ông Hung’s snort of derision. “People may sneer, but there’s no denying she’s helped many a sick or ailing person. Her methods may be untraditional—” “Untraditional!” Ông Hung laughed. “The king would throw her into prison for her unnatural practices if she were important enough for him to know.

” “She’s the closest thing we’ve got to a magic-wielder,” Chú Minh argued. The older man shook his head. “You can keep your mountain magic and enchantresses. I am a citizen of the Kingdom of the Sacred Grasslands, and we are rooted in the earth and good, reliable medicine we can see. I’ll take Bao here over that witch any day.” They looked at Bao, who hesitated. Growing up, he had often heard Madam Huynh telling her son, Tam, the tale of the river witch to frighten him into good behavior. The story went that the woman had been born in the southern Grasslands, among magicwielders with benevolent powers like the gift of healing or foresight. But the witch had chosen dark magic, blood magic, to manipulate and control others, and her people had thrown her out because of her evil ways. She had gone north to make her home in the darkest part of the river, and anyone wandering her forsaken banks might have the hair cursed right off their head or a second nose magically sprout from their chin, just for her sheer pleasure at hearing them scream.

Unlike Tam, Bao had never been scared by the story. Perhaps it was because he lived with the Huynhs’ servants, who often joked about the witch and talked of how a former cook had successfully sought her out to erase all of her memories about her unfaithful husband. Or perhaps Bao liked hearing about someone who had come from the southern Grasslands, just like him, the only nugget of information he had about his past. Perhaps they had crossed paths once. Now Bao shrugged, not wanting to take sides. “I always try to do what I can.” Chú Minh glanced at the small package in his hand. “I don’t have a strong opinion either way about your employer, but I’ll say this much for him,” he remarked. “Even if Master Huynh doesn’t deign to serve us peasants, it’s decent of him to give you medicine for us.” Bao forced a smile and said nothing.

“Well, go on, then,” Ông Hung said. “Let’s hope Khoa isn’t too far gone to be helped.” “No one is too far gone to be helped,” Bao told him, but the men’s grave expressions made him wonder whether he should have had Master Huynh accompany him today. He had asked the physician for advice on Khoa’s case just the other day. Khoa was a hale, hearty man who traveled south frequently to harvest milk fruit for his sister to sell in the river market. He rarely stayed more than a day or two at home, but had felt so ill this week that he couldn’t make the usual trip. Master Huynh had listened to Bao’s description of the symptoms that had developed slowly over the past few months —paleness, lethargy, and chills—and put it down to a case of travel exhaustion. But the physician had not been there to see the transparent quality of Khoa’s skin or the dazed look in his eyes. As Bao bid the men goodbye, he saw a small woman hurrying toward him. It was Khoa’s sister, Cô Ha, who was a feminine copy of the man, as though living together for forty years had turned them into each other.

But her usually cheerful face was stricken with panic today.

.

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