A Dog on the Roof
“No coincidence, no story,” my a-ma recites, and that seems to settle everything, as it usually does, after First Brother finishes telling us about the dream he had last night. I don’t know how many times my mother has recited this praising aphorism during the ten years I’ve been on this earth. I also feel as though I’ve heard versions of First Brother’s dream many times. A poor farmer carries freshly picked turnips and homegrown soybean sprouts to the market town to barter for salt. He takes a misstep and tumbles down a cliff. This could have ended in a “terrible death” far from home—one of the worst things that can happen to an Akha person—but instead he lands in the camp of a wealthy salt seller. The salt seller brews tea, the two men start talking, and… The coincidence could have been anything: the two men are brothers, separated at birth, and have been reunited; the salt seller will now marry the farmer’s daughter; the farmer’s frightful fall protected him from being washed away in a bridge collapse. This time, the farmer—First Brother in his own dream—was able to trade with the salt seller without having to walk all the way to the market town.
It was a good dream with no bad omens, which pleases everyone seated on the floor around the fire pit. As A-ma said, but in the shorter words of someone older and respected, every story, every dream, every waking minute of our lives is filled with one fateful coincidence after another. Otherwise, as she’s asked me when I’ve questioned her about it, why bother? People and animals and leaves and fire and rain—we whirl around each other like handfuls of dried rice kernels being tossed into the sky. A single kernel cannot change its direction. It cannot choose to fly to the right or to the left nor can it choose where it lands—balanced on a rock, and therefore salvageable, or bouncing off that same rock into the mud, becoming instantly useless and valueless. Where they alight is fate, and nothing—no thing anyway—can change their destinies.
Every morning begins the same way. A-ma and my three sisters-in-law wake when it’s still dark, prepare the fire, pick edible weeds to flavor our soup, and heat water for the tea we make from large, broad, old, yellow leaves picked from inferior trees that were left standing when our house was built. It’s taboo for the men in my family to enter the side of the house where A-ma, my sisters-in-law, their children, and I spend our home time. That is a place for us to spin cloth and prepare food. So we meet in a central room for our meals, although my sisters-in-law are not allowed to sit with my a-ba or eat in his presence. Cold wind blows through our bamboo walls. The open fire struggles to light the gloomy corners and heat the room, and the smoky air fills my lungs and stings my eyes. We eat, and like all families that live in villages on Nannuo Mountain, our parents listen to the dreams of their sons and try to make sense of what the night has told them—a warning that evil is lurking or a hint that propitious news will be arriving shortly. Second Brother is next in line to tell his dream. It is so-so. Third Brother recites his dream, which is less than so-so. No bad omens but nothing auspicious either.
A-ba nudges me with his elbow. “Girl, tell us a dream you had last night.”
“My dream?” The request surprises me, because neither of my parents has asked this of me before. I’m just a girl. Unimportant, as I’ve been told many times. Why A-ba has chosen this day to single me out, I don’t know, but I hope to be worthy of the attention. “I was walking back to the village after picking tea. It was already dark. I could see smoke rising from household fires. The smell of the food should have made me hungry.” (I’m always hungry.) “But my stomach, eyes, arms, and legs were all happy to know I was where I was supposed to be. Our ancestral home.” I watch my family’s faces. I want to be truthful, but I also need to be careful, for every dream holds danger.
“What else did you see?” A-ma asks. In our village, power and importance go in this order: the headman; the ruma—the spirit priest—who keeps harmony between spirits and humans; and the nima—the shaman—who has the ability to go into a trance, visit the trees God planted in the spirit world to represent each soul on earth, identify which one is ailing, if it has pests, if it has disease, and then determine which incantations should be used to help. These men are followed next by all grandfathers, fathers, and males of any age. Secretly, for women and girls, the most important person in our village is my a-ma. She helps those who wish to get pregnant, are having difficulties with their pregnancies, childbirth, or nursing, need to care for a fussy or sick baby or child, or hope to fulfill the requirements needed for the post-menopausal ceremony. As the midwife, she has permission to perform certain rites and mix medicines made from things she finds in the forest—leaves, bark, and roots, teeth, bones, and feathers. She’s well known on Nannuo Mountain, and worried men from other villages often arrive in the night to ask her to help their wives. She always goes, slipping on her cape, securing her bags and pouches, and trotting out the spirit gate to hurry to the side of a woman in need. Sometimes, when men and boys get sick and the ruma and the nima have been unable to help, a wife or mother will come to our door for one of A-ma’s medicines to help with insect bites, stomach upsets, or malaria. Wherever she goes on our mountain, she’s praised for her ability to interpret dreams.
The silver balls that decorate her headdress tremble, catching the firelight. I can tell by the way the others have their heads bent over their bowls that they’re nervous for me. This moment of recognition is prized, but I don’t want to ruin it for my family or for myself by telling them that I dreamed a dog stood on our roof, alert, his snout pointed upward, his tail erect. We allow dogs to live among us for three reasons. They are essential for sacrifices, they warn us about bad spirits, and they are good to eat. To me, the dog in my dream looked as though he were guarding our village, and seeing him made me feel confident that I would make it home safely. But the Akha people believe that a dog on the roof, whether in real life or in a dream, is a bad omen. Dogs are not human, but they live in the human world. They are not of the spirit world, but they have the gift—and curse—of seeing spirits. When you hear a dog howl or bark in the night, you know he has spotted a spirit and hopefully scared him away. When you discover a dog on the roof, you know that a spirit has sneaked past the spirit gate which protects our village and is now among us. Nothing good can come from this, and another saying thrums in my ears. If your first word is not true, whatever you say later will not be true.
“Answer me, Girl,” A-ma says, pushing her silver bracelet with two dragons facing each other nose to nose up her wrist. “What else did you see?”
“The whole family was sitting outside,” I reply, as though I’ve given the dream my deepest consideration and have been searching for the best words to impress my family during their special acknowledgement of me. “Every person had a chicken to eat.”
“Every man and woman got to eat his or her own chicken?” First Brother scoffs.
“And all the children too! Every single person had a whole chicken—”
“That’s impossible! Meaningless! A fabrication!” First Brother looks at A-ba indignantly. “Make her stop.”
“So far I like her dream,” A-ba says. “Continue.”
I hadn’t expected that I’d need to tell more, not when I’ve already given a description of the best dream I could imagine. “I saw birds in a nest,” I go on uncertainly. “The babies had just broken through their shells. The a-ma bird tapped each one gently with her beak. Tap, tap, tap.”
A moment passes as my parents and brothers ponder this addition. A-ba glances at A-ma, waiting for her interpretation. As her eyes search my face, I try to keep my expression as still as a bowl of soy milk left out overnight. Finally, A-ma nods approvingly.
“Counting her babies. New lives. A protecting mother.” She smiles. “All is good.”
A-ba stands up, signaling that breakfast is done. I’ve gotten away with my lie. I don’t feel happy about it, but I tell myself I’ve prevented my family from the worry my dream would have caused them. I lift my bowl to my lips and slurp down the last of my soup. It contains no meat or chicken. We’re too poor for those luxuries. If you called our breakfast “flavored water,” you would not be wrong. A few bitter mountain leaves slip into my mouth along with the fiery broth. Chili flakes burn their way down my throat to my stomach. For as long as that heat lasts, I’ll feel full.
# # #
I live in Spring Well Village, which has about forty households and nestles in one of the many saddles on Nannuo Mountain. It’s said that we live among tea, and tea lives among us. Most of the houses in Spring Well are sheltered by old tea trees. The tea terraces and gardens where we work, however, are outside the village. When we leave the house, stars still glitter above our heads. I carry a small basket on my back. My other family members have large baskets slung over their shoulders. Together we walk along the dirt lane that divides the village. It was built to be wide enough for mule caravans to pass through, but those days are long behind us and I’ve never seen one. Now the lane is considered to be a powerful firebreak and a place to gather for ceremonies.
A few houses from ours, we join another family. The youngest daughter, Ci-teh, is my age. I could find her anywhere, because her cap is unlike any other girl’s in our village. Her family is better off than all others who live here. In addition to tea, they grow pumpkins, cabbages, sugarcane, and cotton. They also grow opium, which they sell to the spirit priest to use in ceremonies and to A-ma to use as a medicine for those suffering from the agony of broken bones, cancer, or bear bites. The extra money Ci-teh’s family earns means that when they sacrifice animals for offerings, everyone in the village benefits with cuts of meat. It also means that Ci-teh’s cap is decorated with lots of silver charms. Apart from these differences, Ci-teh and I are like sisters—maybe closer than sisters, because we spend so much time side by side.
Since no moment can be wasted, Ci-teh and I twist thread on hand spindles as we walk. We leave the last house behind and proceed a little farther until we reach the spirit gate, which separates and protects the humans within Spring Well from the spirit and animal world without. No matter where we go, we must pass through the gate when we return so that spirits won’t follow us. If someone doesn’t pass through the gate properly—touching it perhaps, so a spirit slips in—then that person might die a terrible death, our village might experience an influenza outbreak, or an epidemic of typhoid, cholera, or typhus might swoop in to kill us all.
Our spirit gate is made of raw wood and stands quite tall. Every year replacement figures of a man and woman are carved and mounted on the posts. The woman has huge breasts. The man has a penis that is as thick as timber bamboo, longer than my entire height, and sticking straight out. Carved birds of prey and vicious dogs hang from the single crossbeam. Be warned. That these figures frighten me is comforting. If I’m afraid, then think how terrified a spirit would be to see such confusing, but powerful, things protecting our village.
As we begin our climb, Ci-teh and I chatter, catching up as though many cycles have passed instead of one night.
“I worked on my embroidery before bed,” Ci-teh confides.
“I fell asleep before my a-ba had his pipe,” I tell her.
“Hot water or tea with breakfast?”
I don’t want to tell her about my fibs this morning. We have a long way to go and the only other way to make the time pass quickly is through games and challenges.
“How many different parasites can you spot on the trees before we get to that boulder?” I hoot.
Nine, and I win.
“How are you doing with your weaving?” Ci-teh asks, knowing I haven’t shown a talent for this skill.
“So boring!” I holler, and the men look back at me with disapproving grimaces. “Let’s see how many jumps it will take from this rock to that one way up there.”
Seven, and I win again.
“Last night, Deh-ja”—that would be Ci-teh’s sister-in-law—“said she wants to have a son.”
“There’s nothing new with that one.” I point to a little rise. “Bet I can beat you to the top.”
My bare feet know this route well, and I hop from rock to rock and jump over exposed roots. In places, the dirt is powdery between my toes. In other spots, pebbles poke at the soft under parts of my arches. Since it’s still dark, I sense more than see the old tea, camphor, ginkgo, and cassia trees, as well as stands of bamboo, towering around me.
I win again, which nettles Ci-teh. But that happens between sisters too. Ci-teh and I are close, but we compete against each other…constantly. I won our games today; she reminded me she’s better at embroidery and weaving. I’m poor; she’s rich. Our teacher says I could prove I’m smart if I worked a little harder; he would never say that about Ci-teh.
“See you at the tea collection center,” I say when Ci-teh leaves my side and follows her a-ma onto another path. I linger—watching them scramble up a steep stretch of mountain, their empty baskets bouncing on their backs—and then I skip ahead to catch up to A-ma before she too disappears into the undergrowth.
After a half hour of walking, the black of night begins to fade and the sky turns pale. Clouds catch tints of pink and lavender. Then suddenly everything brightens as the sun crests the mountain. The cicadas waken and begin to trill. And still we climb. My a-ba and brothers maintain distance ahead of us so they can have their man talk. A-ma is as strong as any man, but she takes her time, looking about for herbs and mushrooms she can use in her potions. First Sister-in-law has stayed home with the children too young to pick tea and too big to be carried by their mothers, but my second and third sisters-in-law accompany us with their babies tied to their bosoms as they too forage, searching the moist forest floor for anything we might take home to put in our dinner soup and for a special plant that they dry, make into brooms, and sell or trade to the traveling merchants who roam these hills. Even though for now I must continue with my thread spinning, I’m learning from them not only how to forage but how to see if people and animals have passed this way by observing the muck beneath our feet and if branches have been broken or vines disturbed.
We reach First Brother’s tea terraces. I was born into a tea-growing family, so my knowledge of tea arrived with me the moment I dropped from my a-ma’s belly. Once upon a time, my family only picked leaves from tea trees like the ones we passed earlier. Each one of them is unique, because it grew from a seed. Now it’s more productive to cultivate tea bushes. Every tea bush in the world is a clone started from cuttings from a master plant. Clone—that word I couldn’t believe when my teacher at the school I attend during the rainy season explained it to us. How can living things be exactly the same on our mountain, let alone on other mountains far beyond those we can see?
I slowly move between the tightly packed rows of bushes, scanning the outermost branches for the bud and two, maybe three, leaves that begin to unfurl as the sun’s rays warm them, and then gently nip the tiny cluster between my thumbnail and the side of my forefinger above the first joint. I’ve picked tea every spring since I was five, so my thumbnail is stained and the little pad of flesh calloused. I’m already marked as a tea picker.
Leaves harvested over these ten days are considered the best, because they’ve had the winter to rest while storing up nutrients and flavor. A-ma and the others each pluck up to twenty kilos of leaves a day, but I’ll be lucky if I pick ten kilos. A-ma rubs her thumbs across the tips of her fingers as all Akha do to beckon a child. When I reach her side, she runs her hands through my leaves, fluffing and inspecting them. “You’re very good, Girl, at finding the choicest bud sets. Maybe too good.” She glances in A-ba’s direction a few terraces away, then leans down and whispers, “Pick a little faster. And you can take some of the older leaves. We need more, not just ideal, leaves.”
I understand. More leaves means more money to be paid by the tea collection center. When my basket is full, I find First Brother, who transfers my pickings into a burlap sack, and the process begins again. We break for a lunch of rice balls rolled in dried moss. How can it be that I’m hungrier after eating than I was before the meal?
We pick all through the afternoon. The air is hot now—sticky with humidity. We’re fully exposed to the sun on the terraces, and I long for the shade of the forest. I stay close to my mother, who sings to keep us in the rhythm of picking and to remove our minds from our hunger and the heat. Finally, A-ba calls, “Enough.” We gather at the spot where First Brother has been consolidating our harvest. The last leaves are packed into burlap sacks. Then each sack is strung with ropes and a flat board. My mother mounts the smallest one on my back, wraps the ropes over my shoulders, and secures the board on my forehead. All this is to help the weight be carried evenly, but the pull of the ropes on my shoulders and the press of the wood against my forehead are instantly painful.
Once the others have their sacks on their backs and our picking baskets have been bound together for us to retrieve on our way home, we begin the two hour journey to the tea collection center, climbing even higher, up and along one of Nannuo Mountain’s ridges. We’re all aware we must hurry, but our pace can only be slow. One sure foot after another sure foot. We climb up and over more tea terraces, each one seemingly steeper than the last. And then we’re back in the forest, which has engulfed forsaken tea tree groves and gardens. Vines wrap around the trunks, which have become homes to orchids, mushrooms, and parasites like crab’s claw. How old are the trees? Five hundred years old? A thousand years old? I don’t know the answers. What I do know is that selling leaves from tea trees was abandoned long ago, so only poor families like ours use them for at-home drinking.
By the time we reach the tea collection center, I’m so tired and hungry I want to cry. We enter through big gates into a courtyard. My vision flits around the open space, looking for Ci-teh’s distinctive cap. Her family must have come and gone already. They might even be home by now, eating their supper. I try to let the bustle of activity distract me from my growling stomach. We Akha have our own style of dress. So too do the Dai, Lahu, Bulong, and the other tribes who live here with us. Everyone wears their work clothes, but even these are colorful, especially for the women and girls. Every headdress, scarf, and cap is decorated, each one according to the traditions of that clan and the individual taste and style of that woman or girl.
My stomach calls to me again, aggravated yet entranced by the smells coming from the food vendor stalls. The perfume of skewered meat on an open flame fills my head. My mouth waters. One day I’ll get to taste one of those. Maybe. If, somehow, my family earns more money. The one thing we can afford are the scallion pancakes that an old Dai woman sells from a cart just to the left, inside the tea collection center courtyard. The aroma is enticing—not as rich as the grilled meat but cleanly fragrant with the smell of fresh eggs.
A-ma, my sisters-in-law, and I squat in the dirt as my a-ba and brothers take our bags through a set of double doors that lead to the weighing area. On the other side of the courtyard, I spot a boy about my age, lingering by a mountain of burlap bags filled with tea waiting to be transported to the big city of Menghai, where they’ll be processed in a government-run factory. His hair is as black as my own. He, too, is barefoot. I don’t recognize him from school. But I’m less interested in him as a person than I am in the steaming scallion pancake he holds in his tea-stained fingers. He looks around to make sure no one is looking—obviously missing me—before ducking out of sight behind the burlap mound. I get up, cross the courtyard, and peek around the corner of the wall of tea. He stands a meter away from me.
“What are you doing back there?” I ask.
He turns to me and grins. His cheeks are shiny with oil. Before he has a chance to speak, I hear A-ma calling.
“Girl! Girl! Stay near me.”
I scurry back across the courtyard, reaching my mother just as A-ba and my brothers exit the weighing area. They don’t look happy.
“We were too late,” A-ba says. “They already bought their quota for the day.”
I moan inwardly. We’re a family of eight adults and many children. It’s hard to live on what we earn during the ten days a year of prime tea picking, the two secondary picking times, plus what rice and vegetables we grow and what A-ba and my brothers bring home from hunting. Now we’ll have to take the leaves home, hope they stay fresh, and then tomorrow morning—early-early—climb back up here and sell them before rotating to Second Brother’s tea garden to do our work for the day.
A-ma sighs. “Another double day tomorrow.”
The sisters-in-law bite their lips. I’m not looking forward to walking here twice tomorrow either. But when my second and third brothers won’t meet their wives’ eyes, I realize even worse news is coming.
“No need,” A-ba reveals. “I sold the leaves at half price.”
That’s only two yuan per kilo. The sound that comes from A-ma is not so much a groan as a whimper. All that work at half price. The two sisters-in-law slump off to a water spout to refill our earthenware jugs. The men drop to their haunches. My sisters-in-law return and give the water to the men. After that, the two women fold themselves down next to A-ma, adjust their babies in their swaddling, and give over their breasts for nursing. This is our rest before the more than two-hour walk downhill to Spring Well.
As the others relax, I wander back across the courtyard to the boy. “Are you going to tell me why you’re hiding back here?” I ask as though no time has passed.
“I’m not hiding,” he answers, although surely he is. “I’m eating my pancake. Do you want a bite?”
More than anything.
I glance over my shoulder to A-ma and the others. Then I step behind the wall of bags that ooze the smell of freshly harvested tea leaves. Once I’m back there, the boy doesn’t seem sure of what should happen next. He doesn’t break off a piece for me nor does he hold it out for me to take. But he offered me a bite, and I’m going to get it. I bend at the waist, sink my teeth into the softness of the pancake, and rip off a mouthful—like I’m a dog snatching a scrap from his master’s hand.
“What’s your name?” he asks.
“Li-yan,” I answer, my mouth happily full. My given name is used only at school and for ceremonial purposes. In my village, people call me Daughter of Sha-li (my a-ba’s daughter), Daughter of So-sa (my a-ma’s daughter). Every Akha exists only in relation to one another. Daughter of, Sister of, Mother of; Grandfather of, Third Paternal Uncle of, and so on. In my family, I am Girl.
“I’m called San-pa,” he says. “I’m from Shelter Shadow Village. My father is Lo-san. My grandfather was Bah-lo. My great-grandfather was Za-bah…”
Every Akha boy is trained to Recite the Lineage by naming his male ancestors back fifty generations—with the last syllable of one generation becoming the first syllable of the next generation. I think that’s what’s going to happen, when a woman’s voice—angry—interrupts him. “Here you are, you little thief!”
I turn to see the old Dai woman who runs the pancake stand looming between us and the open courtyard. She seems to sense my desire to escape, because she grabs the cloth of my tunic. Then, with her other hand, she takes hold of San-pa’s ear. He yowls as she drags us from our lair.
“Sun and Moon, look! Thieves!” Her voice cuts through the clatter of the courtyard. “Where are the parents of these two?”
A-ma looks in our direction and cocks her head in disbelief. I’ve never been a troublemaker. I’m a good girl. Everyone says so. I never cross my legs around adults, I accept my parents’ words as good medicine, and I always cover my mouth to hide my teeth when I smile, giggle, or laugh. Maybe I colored my dream a little this morning, but I’m not a thief or a cheater in school. Unfortunately, the oily residue around my mouth shows that at the very least I ate some pancake, even if I didn’t steal it from the Dai woman’s cart.
A-ma and A-ba cross the courtyard. Seeing the confusion on their faces makes my cheeks burn red. I lower my eyes and focus on their calloused bare feet as they talk to the vendor. Soon two other pairs of feet join us, taking spots on either side of San-pa: his parents.
“What is this all about?” A-ba’s voice is polite and even. He can be gruff at home, but he’s clearly trying to blow away the pancake seller’s anger with his polite Akha ways.
“I’ve had trouble with this one before.” The old woman gives San-pa’s ear a yank. “As a thief, wherever he goes, may he be eaten by a tiger. If he passes by water, may he slip into its depths. When he walks under a tree, may it fall on him.”
These are common, yet potent, curses, because they’re hexing him to suffer a terrible death far from home—in the jaws of a tiger, by drowning, or by being crushed so badly there’s nothing left to find—but the boy beside me doesn’t seem to care, because he doesn’t even cover his mouth to hide his grin.
The Dai woman regards my mother with sympathy. “Now it seems he’s brought your daughter into his ring.”
“Is this so, Girl?” A-ma asks. “Why would you do such a thing?”
I raise my eyes. “I didn’t think I was doing anything wrong.”
“Not wrong?” A-ma asks.
“He gave it to me. I didn’t know it was stolen—”
Others crowd around us to see what the hubbub is all about. Everyone has been working among tea plants all day, so the air smells green. Beneath that, I catch the earthiness of bare feet spent in sun-warmed soil, while last night’s dinner has seeped out as garlicy sweat as people climbed and worked and climbed some more. Then, dancing around us on wafts of temptation, the seductive aromas of noodle soup flavored with ginger and scallions, rice paste balls rolled in ground peanuts, and those meat skewers make my mind nearly crazy. And, of course, the scent coming from my own breath—scallion pancake.
“Let’s not allow this little girl to be blamed,” the man I understand to be San-pa’s a-ba says. “You’ve been in trouble in this very place before, Boy. Tell everyone the truth.”
“I took it,” San-pa admits, but it doesn’t seem to cause him any pain. He’s so matter-of-fact it’s as though he’s talking about rainfall or how many eggs the chickens laid last night.
“He offered me a bite,” I chime in. “He wanted to share with me—”
But A-ma isn’t interested in my excuses. “Now the world is out of balance for both children,” she announces. “We follow Akha Law—”
“We adhere to Akha Law as well,” San-pa’s father states. “Every Akha on earth has a shared memory of what we can and cannot do—”
“Then we must perform cleansing ceremonies for these two children, our families, and our villages. The only question that remains is, will the ceremony be conducted with the children together or apart?” A-ma asks. A-ba is the head of our family, but A-ma, with her added status as midwife, has snared this negotiation. “The most propitious outcome would be if our two families could do it together.” To strangers like these, her voice must sound as smooth and warm as my a-ba’s during this confrontation—this unpleasantness can be wiped away, and we can all be friends—but I know her very well. What I hear is her disappointment in me and her concern for the situation. “May I ask on which day of the cycle your son was born?”
“San-pa was born on Tiger Day, the ninth day of the cycle,” his mother answers, trying to be helpful.
My family members shift their weight from foot to foot in response to this regrettable information. We Akha follow a twelve day week, with each day named for a different animal. I was born on Pig Day. The world knows that tigers and pigs should never marry, be friends, or go into business together, because tigers like to eat pigs.
“This one was born on Pig Day,” A-ma reveals the bad news to the other mother. “Separate purification ceremonies will be best.” She courteously tips her head, causing the balls and coins on her headdress to jingle melodiously. She puts a hand on my shoulder. “Let us go home.”
“Wait!” It’s the pancake seller. “What about me? Who’s going to pay me?”
A-ba bites down so hard on his upper lip that the skin goes white. The eyes of the two fathers meet. San-pa wouldn’t have stolen the pancake if his father could have bought him one; I wouldn’t have accepted a bite of pancake from a strange boy if my father had bought me one. This tells me both families are hungry.
San-pa’s father reaches into an indigo satchel tied at his hip, but A-ba says, “A girl has only her reputation. As her father, I will pay the amount owed.” He pulls out a couple of coins from the paltry sum we earned today and drops them into the Dai woman’s hand.
I already felt bad. Now I feel terrible. If Ci-teh had been here, I never would have gone behind that wall of tea, met San-pa, taken a bite of the pancake…
The Dai woman yanks San-pa’s ear one more time. “Let me see you going but never coming back.” It’s another familiar, but haunting, curse that again hints at a terrible death. Fortunately, she does not say the same words to me.
# # #
All the way home, my family says nothing to me in a very loud way. We stop only once—to pick up the baskets we left on First Brother’s terraces. We arrive in Spring Well Village well past dark. The houses glow golden with open-hearth fires and oil lamps. When we step into our home, we’re all hungry and the smell of the steamed rice First Sister-in-law has made is almost painful to inhale. But we still don’t get to eat. First Brother is sent outside to look for a chicken. Second Brother is given the job of pulling the ruma away from his evening pipe. Third Brother brushes a flat stone set into the hard-packed earth outside our door with the palm of his hand. A-ma sorts through her baskets, looking for herbs and roots, while First Sister-in-law stokes the fire. My young nieces and nephews gather around their a-mas’ legs, peeping at me, their eyes wide.
Second Brother returns with the ruma, who wears his ceremonial cloak—which is heavily decorated with feathers, bones, and the tails of small animals—and carries a staff made from a dried stalk of tule root. Our ruma has special powers, but I think of him like the traveling traders who come to our mountain, bringing iron, sandals, and other trinkets. They are only the carriers, acting as go-betweens. That’s what our ruma does too. He’s our intermediary between the spirit world—whether inside spirits like our ancestors or outside sprits who bring malaria, steal the breath from newborns, or devour the hearts of beloved grandfathers—and the world of human beings in Spring Well. Tonight he’s here for me.
My family gathers in the open area between the house and the newlywed huts, where my brothers sleep with their wives. First Brother holds the chicken by its legs. Its wings flap miserably, fruitlessly. The village elders—who lead us and care for us—step onto their verandas and descend the stairs. Soon other neighbors emerge from their homes and join us, because I’m not to be alone in my disgrace. I couldn’t be alone, for my actions—taking a bite of that stupid pancake—have the power to affect every single person in Spring Well. In observing my purification, our neighbors will be helping me, themselves, and the village. Otherwise, I might bring a terrible death, the birth of a human reject, or crop failure to any one of them, because we’re all linked.
I see the blacksmith and his family, the best hunter and his family, Ci-teh and her parents, and Ci-teh’s brother and his wife—Ci-do and Deh-ja—who sleep in the newlywed hut outside his parents’ house. Ci-do has always been nice to me, and I like his wife, Deh-ja. The hair on Ci-do’s face and scalp has grown long and unruly, because men must not shave or cut their hair once their wives are five months into their pregnancies. Our entire village is holding its collective breath—as it does every time a woman is pregnant—until Deh-ja’s baby is born, when it can be determined whether it was a good birth, meaning a perfect baby boy or even a girl, and not a bad birth, marking the arrival of a human reject. I’m only pondering these things about Ci-do and Deh-ja, because I’d rather not have the focus on me, which it is.
The ruma’s eyes bore into mine. He starts to shake, and the little pieces on his headdress and clothes rattle with him. My teeth chatter, I shiver, and I want to pee.
“In the beginning,” the ruma says in tones so quiet that we all must lean in to hear him, “A-ma Mata was the mother of humans and spirits. A-ma means mother and Mata means together, and once upon a time man and spirits lived together in harmony. A-ma Mata had two breasts in front, where her human children could nurse. She had nine breasts on her back to nourish her spirit children. Humans always worked during the day, and spirits always worked at night. The water buffalo and the tiger, the chicken and the eagle, also lived together in harmony. But someone must always destroy paradise. Humans and spirits, water buffalos and tigers, and chickens and eagles needed to be separated. Since the decision to divide the universe happened during the day, men were first to pick which realm they wanted to live. They chose the earth with its trees, mountains, fruit, and game. The spirits were given the sky, leaving them angry forever after. To this moment, spirits have retaliated by causing problems for humankind.”
I’ve heard this story so many times I could almost recite it myself, but knowing that he’s telling it on my behalf makes my heart hurt.
“In the wet season,” he goes on, “spirits descend to earth with the rain, bringing with them disease and floods. In spring, as dry season begins, noise is made to encourage malevolent spirits to move on. But they don’t always leave. They’re especially active at night. That is their time not ours.”
My family and our neighbors listen intently. Here and there, people click their tongues to show disapproval for what I’ve done. I don’t want to look at anyone too closely, because I don’t want to be forced to acknowledge the shame they feel for me. Nevertheless, somehow my eyes find Ci-teh. Oh, her expression! Plus she’s gone to stand next to her sister-in-law rather than her a-ma, because she doesn’t want to remind someone important that the two of us are friends. I suck in my cheeks, but nothing will hide the dishonor searing my flesh.
“The name of our supreme god—A-poe-mi-yeh—means ancestor of great power. He created the world and this soul before me,” the ruma says, turning his attention to me. “Look at Li-yan’s hair. Look at the skin on her arms and legs. These too were created by God.” He takes a moment to make sure he has everyone’s attention. “We have many taboos. Men must not smoke nor women chew betel nut when they walk through the spirit gate. A pregnant woman, like Deh-ja, must not go visiting to another village or she might miscarry there. Men and women must not bathe in the same stream. A woman must never step over her husband’s leg on his sleeping mat. We’re always careful, and we always try to propitiate our wrongs, but please, our Li-yan did not hope to offend.”
Is he saying nothing bad is going to happen to me?
“She is just a hungry little girl,” he explains to the others. “As the sun always comes up, as the earth is forever under our feet, as the rivers flow down the mountains and the trees grow into the sky, let us together put Li-yan back on the proper Akha path.”
He stamps his staff on the ground three times. He sprinkles water over me and pats my head. I decide I’ll never be afraid of our ruma again, but when he turns away to perform the rite that will finish my purification, my stomach sinks. He takes the chicken from First Brother’s fingers, presses its body to the stone that Third Brother cleaned earlier, and then cuts off its head. My family has so few chickens, which means very few eggs. Now I’m the cause of the loss of food in my family. The way the sisters-in-law glare at me, their eyes hollow and dark. But then…
A-ma takes the chicken from the ruma and swiftly plucks the feathers from the twitching carcass. She scrapes the smallest under-feathers from the bird’s skin with the sharp edge of her knife. Then whack, whack, whack. The chicken pieces are thrown into the pot that dangles over the fire First Sister-in-law has been tending.
Fifteen minutes later, A-ma ladles the soup into bowls. The men gather on one side of our family home; the women gather on the other side. We sit on our haunches to receive our bowls. The sounds of greedy slurping, sucking, and chewing are among the happiest I’ve heard in my life, yet frogs, mosquitos, and night-calling birds alert me to how many sleep hours we’ve already missed. As I gnaw gristle from a bone, little sparks of ideas fly through my head. In my dream last night, the bad omen of seeing a dog on the roof told me I was going to get into trouble. And I did. But right now, in this second, each person in my family, as well as the ruma, has a piece of chicken to eat and rich broth to drink. That’s just like in my dream too. My fake dream… But in that dream we each had a whole chicken… Still…
No coincidence, no story.