Jade-colored rain fell on Xitang, splashing into the waterways whose surfaces glistened like emeralds between the multicolored houses. Li Qiang, a young man of nineteen, sat on a wooden bench, his nose pressed to the glass of the window of his bedroom, watching Wang Lei, who sat underneath a large umbrella, paddle his sampan with a long oar slowly through the water. He adjusted the shawl embroidered with green and blue dragons around his shoulders, and sighed loudly.
Wang Yong, his brother, aged nine, looked up from the straw mat he was sitting on and cutting pieces of red paper into the shapes of rabbits, no two of them alike. “You do that a lot,” he said.
“Do what?” Li Qiang asked turning from the window.
“Make those sounds,” his brother said. “You sound like the radiator in my school room when steam is coming out of it.”
“I’m so bored,” Li Qiang said.
“Take Li Li out of her box or write a story,” Wang Yong said. “Or you can help me cut out rabbits and dragons to put on the lanterns.”
“I’m a man now,” Li Qiang said. “I’m growing tired of doing those things.”
“Then I can have Li Li?” Wang Yong asked excitedly.
“Of course not,” Li Qiang snapped at his brother. “She’ll always be mine to take care of, but I don’t want to do it every minute of every hour.”
Zhang Jing pushed aside the dark blue curtain hanging in the door to their bedroom and stuck her head in. “I have some black tea for you Li Qiang,” she said. “May I come in?”
“You can come in Auntie,” Li Qiang said, “but I’m as full of tea as the canal is full of water.”
She walked into the room, holding a blue cup with gold designs of ginkgo trees on it with steam rising from the dark liquid. With every step the tiny bells on the tip of her shoes tinkled like raindrops falling on tin. “It has done your health good to drink it,” she said. “It’s good to see you getting your health back after such a long illness.” She stepped over a small pile of Wang Yong’s cut outs and handed the cup to Li Qiang.
He took the cup, sniffed it as he always did, turned up his nose, and then took a sip. “That it is hot is the only good thing I can say about it.”
“You shouldn’t be sitting so near the window,” she said. “The cold draft isn’t good for you.” She wiggled her foot, producing music with the bells.
“I’m bored and want to watch the sampans,” he said, taking another sip of the tea, forgetting that he didn’t like it when the scent of honey suddenly wafted up from the cup.
“You should play with Li Li, or write one your stories,” she said, and then walked out of the room, taking her music with her.
Li Qiang sighed loudly.
“See, just like the radiator in my classroom at school,” Wang Yong said.
Li Qiang sat cross legged on his mat and held his left arm out straight and watched Li Li crawl up it, felt her go around the back of his neck, and then held his right arm out and watched her scurry down it into the palm of his open hand. “What a good little mouse you are,” he said to it, bringing it near to his lips and blowing it a kiss. He scooped some cooked riced out of a small, green, porcelain dish with his fingertips and held it to the mouse’s mouth and smiled as she began to nibble on it.
“Li Li, is a very smart mouse, isn’t she?” Wang Yong asked as he flipped through his pile of cut outs. The idea of balance and harmony had been instilled in him when he was quite young, so he wanted to make certain he had the same number of dragons and rabbits.
“The smartest I’ve ever seen,” Li Qiang said. “But it’s not her only quality. She’s also very pretty.”
Wang Yong leaned forward and peered closely at the fluffy white mouse, as if seeing her for the first time. “She just looks like a mouse to me,” he said. “Mā doesn’t like her very much.”
“Mā is afraid of mice,” Li Qiang said placing the mouse on a bed of shredded newspaper in a wooden box. “If Mā knew Li Li the way I do she would love her as I do.”
At that moment their mother pushed back the curtain. She was holding a broom and dust pan. A loose strand of hair hung limply down the side of her face. “You boys need to roll up your mats so that I can sweep the floor in here. The entire house needs to be swept clean of ghosts and bad luck from the year before,” she said. “Tonight Auntie is preparing long noodles as way to say goodbye to the year gone by and to begin the new year early. It would be nice if after we eat you could read one of your stories to us Li Qiang, if you’re feeling up to it. But right now there’s a lot of cleaning I have to do so put away those cut outs, Wang Yong, and that awful rat, Li Qiang, and do as I asked.”
“Yes Mā,” Wang Yong said picking up the dragons and rabbits from the floor.
“Li Li isn’t a rat,” Li Qiang said under his breath, closing the lid on Li Li’s box.
Standing at the window after the rain had stopped, Li Qiang watched Wang Lei as he steered his sampan the opposite direction he had seen him going that morning. He had known Wang Lei from a distance his entire life and had watched Wang Lei’s hair become gray and his beard grow long enough to touch his round stomach. Li Qiang tried to wave at him, but Wang Lei went by without seeing him. Li Qiang picked up his notebook and went into the dining room. The walls were covered with long red cloth and paper banners, each of them with the same words: “May you enjoy continuous good health.”
“Is there nothing else to wish for?” Li Qiang asked as Auntie came into the room from the kitchen carrying a huge plate of steamed vegetables. The bells on her shoes rang a melodic tune.
“Since you’re getting better we want it to continue to improve,” she said putting the plate on the table. “I’m so glad you’re going to read us one of your stories. It has been a long time. Your parents are so happy about it. Is it a new one?”
“Yes, it is,” Li Qiang answered. “Is Bà home?”
“He’s taking a nap before we eat,” she said.
“Not any more,” Li Qiang’s father said as he came through the open doorway into the living room. He turned to Li Qiang. “You look almost entirely improved, son,” he said, lovingly grasping Li Qiang’s shoulder. Bà underestimated his own strength, as always, and made Li Qiang wince from the power of his big hand.
“I am, but everyone is making such a fuss about it I feel like crawling in the box with Li Li,” Li Qiang said.
“Not before we have some of Zhang Jing’s noodles,” his father said with a laugh.
“Just remember not to cut them as you eat them,” she said. “That way we ensure that the entire family will live long lives.”
In the living room with his father, mother and aunt seated in soft chairs and Wang Yong stretched out on a mat on the floor, Li Qiang sat upright in a chair in the middle of them, opened his notebook, and flipped to the middle of the book.
“High up in the mountains there lived a hermit whose name no one knew and neither did they know where he came from. He lived inside a cave where he had built walls of bamboo and dragged in bales of hay to spread about as a floor. He built furniture from the branches of fallen ginkgo trees tied together with hemp. He lived near a village that had no doctors or anyone who knew about how to use herbs or natural remedies to cure ailments or how to do acupuncture. It was rumored that the hermit was wise about medical matters.
“When a fever broke out, striking many in the village, the elders of the village had no idea what to do and went about the streets wailing and weeping in despair, hoping the hermit would hear them. The hermit did hear the echoes of the elders cries and came out of the cave, captured a quail, tied a note to its feet with the instructions on how to cure fevers, and sent it to the village. As soon as the quail landed on the street, the elders killed it and ate it without reading the note. This happened several times as the hermit watched from the mountain. Finally the hermit gave up and stopped trying to help and returned to his cave. When many of the villagers died, an elder passing by the cave while looking for bamboo shoots went in and said to the hermit, ‘have you no heart? What prevents you from coming down to see what is wrong?’
The hermit scratched the long hairs on his chin and said, ‘I heard you and sent ways to return health to those who were sick but you kept killing the messenger.’”
At night as Li Qiang lay on his mat covered with a bright red cover embroidered with tigers, he let Li Li play in his hair and run across his face. “If only you were a real live girl,” Li Qiang whispered to the mouse.
“Did you say something?” Wang Yong asked from his mat against the opposite wall.
“I wasn’t talking to you, but now that I am, how am I ever going to find a wife by the end of this year as I planned since I am just now returning to good health?” Li Qiang said.
“Is it so important to you?” Wang Yong asked. Wang Yong had many interests, but girls wasn’t one of them.
“Lately I think of nothing else,” Li Qiang said. He placed Li Li in her box and rolled onto his side, facing away from his brother, and fell asleep.
“Wake up sleepy head,” Li Qiang’s father said to him as he prodded him gently with his big foot; a foot that was slightly larger than the other one. “Today we say goodbye to this past year and to your unfortunate illness.”
Li Qiang rolled onto his back and rubbed the sleep from his eyes. “Good morning, Bà. I was dreaming I was on the sampan with Wang Lei and he was telling me the most fantastic tale.”
“You must write it down before you forget it,” his father said.
Li Qiang sat up and looked up at the large red lantern covered with rabbit and dragon cut outs hanging in front of the door. “Wang Yong has been busy already this morning,” he said.
“He said you wanted some special luck so he put it together for you in the middle of the night,” his father said.
“It will take more than a red lantern with cut outs glued to it to give me what I want,” Li Qiang said.
His father went to the door, turned and said, “Write the story down that you dreamt about and then come have your last breakfast of this year.”
“I will, but I need to feed Li Li first,” Li Qiang said.
“All mice should be as lucky as Li Li is,” his father said, exiting through the curtain that got momentarily tangled on his big foot.
After feeding and giving water to Li Li and writing the story down that he remembered from his dream, Li Qiang came out of his bedroom just as his mother was carrying a large vase of flowers into the living room. “Those are pretty, Mā,” he said.
“To end the year with beautiful flowers is also a good way to begin the new one,” she said, going into the living room. His mother had a saying for every occasion that had been passed down for generations.
Li Qiang followed her and stopped at the entrance to the living room. There were several red vases filled with large bouquets of flowers on the tables. In the middle of the room a table had been set up and on it were platters of oranges and tangerines with rinds that gleamed, a candy dish piled with dried sweet fruit, and several bowls of peanuts. Pictures of deceased ancestors, most with inscrutable expressions, hung on the wall with the corners of the frames draped with red silk. On every wall was a red banner with gold lettering wishing everyone a long life or reminders to be thankful for good health.
“Are many relatives and friends coming this evening Mā?” he asked as she rearranged one of the bouquets.
“I believe so,” she said. “Auntie and I are making enough dumplings, bamboo shoots, nian gao and zung zi to feed a small army.” Before she married, Mā had been a cook at a military base, so she knew what she was talking about. “We’re hoping you will read one of your stories for entertainment.”
Just before it was time to greet those who had gathered in the living room to say goodbye to the year that ended and in anticipation of the New Year’s festivities to begin tomorrow, Li Qiang stood at the window and looked out at the glowing red lanterns hung on the outside of the houses up and down the canal. Their reflections wavered in the water’s glassy surface. Wang Lei’s sampan was moored on the dock along his house.
He took Li Li from her box and petted her and blew kisses into her face. “I owe my returned health in part to you my little Li Li.” He placed a piece of steamed dumpling with red bean paste on it in her box and sat her down next to it and watched her begin to nibble on it before closing the lid. Before going through the curtain in the door he picked up his notebook, ran his hand across Wang Yong’s rabbit cut outs on the lantern, said a wish, and then went out to join the family’s friends and relatives.
Sitting in the chair in the middle of the crowded room, Li Qiang opened his notebook and began to read.
“Zhang Li, the most beautiful princess in all of China, was very ill and was being taken by sampan up the Yangtze River on a very long journey to see a healer said to be the most knowledgeable in all the land about her particular illness. He would have come to her but he was blind and didn’t travel. The princess’s companion and caretaker, Madam Li Xia, who had the face of a salamander, was an old woman who had been with her since she was an infant, but was more strict than was needed. She didn’t allow Zhang Li to talk to the young handsome man named Wang Ping who was steering the sampan. Zhang Li spent most of the time lying on pillows under the protection of the sampan’s straw roof, sheltered from the sun and rain.
“Wang Ping could see that the princess was very ill and was very concerned that he might not get her to the blind healer in time, so he never rested and rowed and steered the sampan day and night. His effort was not enough for Madam Xia and she would berate him for not making the sampan move faster and belittle him when he took time to eat or drink, which he seldom did anyway.
“Princess Zhang Li could see how much effort Wang Ping was putting into getting them to the destination as swiftly as he could, and when Madam Xia wasn’t watching, the princess would toss him pieces of fruit that he could eat while he steered the sampan.
“Days and days passed and by virtue of getting plenty of rest and the calm of riding on the sampan, the princess’ health greatly improved, but Wang Ping became very ill and was still steering the sampan, but near death, when they arrived where the blind healer lived.
“’Is there someone very ill aboard the sampan?’ the healer asked, sensing an aura of bad health that hung over the sampan, before stepping aboard.
“’Yes, the princess has been very sick,’ Madam Xia said, wringing her hands. ‘You must tend to her at once.’
“The blind healer examined the state of the princess’s health and said to Madam Xia, ‘the princess has only a slight case of anemia from not getting enough sunlight, but other than that she is healthy. You have come a great distance for nothing,’ he said. As he started to leave the sampan he tripped over the body of Wang Ping who had fainted on the floor of the sampan. ‘Who is this who I have fallen on?’ the healer asked, placing his hand on Wang Ping’s fevered brow.
“’That is just the useless oarsmen,’ Madam Xi said haughtily.
“’Please do whatever you can to make him well again,’ the princess pleaded, coming out from under the covering of the sampan. I will work with you to make him well again,’ the princess said, much to the horror and shock of Madam Xi.
“For ten days the healer and the princess tended Wang Ping, and gave him herbal medicine, food, plenty of fresh water, and allowed him to get plenty of sleep. Wang Ping recovered his health and just before he was about to take the princess back to the palace, the blind healer said to the princess, ‘there is still a sick one among you who has not been healed and a lengthy stay with me might restore her health.’
“’Then it should be so,’ the princess said.
As the sampan left the dock to return home with just Wang Ping and the princess, the only one who didn’t understand why she was being left behind was Madam Xia.”
As everyone was clapping and chattering about the wisdom of the story, Li Qiang saw a beautiful girl sitting next to Wang Lei. He knew he had to meet the girl and so he approached them.
“I’m glad to see you here, Wang Lei,” he said. “I hope you’re enjoying yourself.”
“Very much so,” Wang Lei replied, “Let me introduce you to this young lady who I just met who was standing on your doorstep as I was coming into your house. Her name is Li Li.”
Surprised at her name, Li Qiang turned to the girl who was wiping away a bit of steamed dumpling with red bean paste from the corner of her mouth. “Someone who helped me get over being ill is also named Li Li,” he said.
“She’s lucky if she gets to hear such wonderful stories all the time as the one you just read,” Li Li said.
“She says very little about my stories,” Li Qiang said, “but I would enjoy reading more of them to you some time.”
“It would be a great privilege,” Li Li said.
Going back to his room with his notebook under his arm and practically floating on air with happiness, Li Qiang, rubbed the lantern one more time, and then sat the notebook on his mat, picked up Li Li’s box, and opened it.
The mouse was gone.
Steve Carr, from Richmond, Virginia, has had over 630 short stories – new and reprints –published internationally in print and online magazines, literary journals, reviews and anthologies since June, 2016. He has had seven collections of his short stories published. A Map of Humanity, his eighth collection, published by Hear Our Voice LLC Publishers came out in January, 2022. He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize twice.