Some nights she dreamed. Dreamed about a girl, pacing back and forth. She would occasionally look to the horizon, and wring her hands, or fold her arms across her chest.
She always wondered what the dreams meant, because eventually, the girl would wander back over to Meiling, and curl up on her lap. Her body was tense, and her eyes would flicker. The world underneath them was restless.
Her fingers would trail through short, unruly hair, and the girl would calm.
Meiling awoke to a body curled up next to her. It wasn’t big and strong, cradling her in an embrace, but it did still feel nice. The bed was just a bit too big by her lonesome. There was a rooster crowing at the sun. It wasn’t Bi De who normally took over crowing duties but another younger, less skilled rooster. The voice was loud and scratchy as he howled, seemingly trying to make up for lost time, silent as he was when the other rooster was around.
She wished he would take after his sire a bit more. His incessant shouting was annoying, but she supposed she was just a little bit spoiled. Bi De normally only crowed once, and then was silent.
Beside her, her little brother grumbled petulantly, burying his head under the pillow.
She sighed, and got up, leaving him for the moment to get dressed. When she was done she turned back to the bed, Xian still hadn’t moved.
“Come on. Time to get up,” she cajoled.
Hong Xian the Younger made a muffled noise, and rolled away from her hugging a pillow. Meiling raised an eyebrow, and pulled the pillow out of his grasp. He scrunched up his nose in response and whined.
“If you don’t get up, Chun Ke and Wa Shi won’t give you any rides,” she threatened.
Xian’s eyes opened a crack and he levelled a glare at her.
“Meanie,” he declared.
But he did get up. He struggled out of the sheets reluctantly then threw on a set of clothes. Meiling pulled his unruly hair into a braid once he was dressed.
“Right. I’ll get started on breakfast,” she declared. As she started descending the stairs, a weight pressed against her back, as Xian clambered up onto her back. She absently caught his legs for support, barely feeling anything.
It was nice to still be able to pick him up with impunity. Although her little brother took advantage of it far too often.
As she descended the stairs, her father glanced up at her from his seat, as he had for the week since her husband left for the south. He already had a pad of a paper in front of him, his musings on the Spiritual Herbs written down in his formal, exacting detail. It was nice having people around, even after everybody had gone back to Hong Yaowu, or departed south. Even if she did have Chun Ke and the rest of their ‘Disciples’ for company… it was just nice, to live in the same house as her father and younger brother again.
His smile warmed, as he saw Xian’s head resting on her shoulder, still half asleep. She rolled her eyes, and deposited Xian on top of Chun Ke, the boar snorting a pleased greeting.
She leaned into his embrace, as he stood to greet her.
“How’s that going?” she whispered, pointing at his pad of paper.
Her father shrugged, stroking his beard. “Qi makes things… wonky,” he admitted. “Especially in such concentrations.”
He pulled back, and stared at her. “I’d like your thoughts on a few things, if you’d give them.”
Meiling nodded. “I’ll look over it after we’re done for today,” she agreed.
Meiling headed off to the kitchen, where Pi Pa and Wa Shi were readying things for breakfast.
The sow perked up as Meiling entered.
‘Good Morning, Mistress. The fires are lit and ready,’ she stated, bowing her head. Wa Shi just slapped his fins on the floor, as his head poked out of the river. Already there were vegetables lined up and washed, ready to be cooked. Meiling was impressed. Only a single carrot had it’s end bitten off.
“Thank you Pi Pa, Wa Shi.” They nodded at her .
Breakfast this morning was something she had made a thousand times before. Rice and eggs. While she did like Jin’s strange food, and his bread, there was just something good and comforting about the food of her youth. Doubly so since her father and brother were here.
She went to add more rice to the bowl, when a nose gently touched her, startling her.
‘Too much, Mistress,’ Pi Pa gently corrected.
Meiling stared at the scoop, and put it back. It would probably get eaten, but they were missing over half their company.
She shook her head and finished breakfast. How easy was it to slip into a routine again.
A fish in a trough, two pigs, her brother and her father gathered around the table. Bei Be was still outside. She had made an offer for him to join them, but the ox had politely declined, contenting himself with a meal of grass.
After breakfast they lined up moving into the quiet meditation of movement that the family practiced except now it was Meiling leading. She moved slowly, going through the motions Jin had taught her. The beginnings of a martial kata, one that left her refreshed, and ready for the day. The first times she had done it, her father had raised an eyebrow, but hadn’t commented. Beside her her little brother followed her trying to ape the movements. Her father did his own slow breathing exercise nearby.
The whole family gathered for the day.
Meiling turned around, after she was finished. Everybody was waiting for her patiently to begin the day.
She gathered her list for the day and checked tasks off as she handed them out. “Father, could you help us check over the ledgers today? Xian, go around the perimeter and check the fences, please. Chun Ke, could you tell me how things are going upstream?”
There was a chorus of affirmatives.
Meiling set out into the sun, and did her own work that day. Milking the cows, and moving the sheep to a different pasture. Cleaning the floor, and checking in on the apple trees, steadily growing their fruit. It was long, but not particularly hard. Most of the chores were simple things, and she ended up spending most of the day looking at Jin’s notes. He said she could read them, and if she felt like it, she could test anything that caught her interest.
It was only recently that he started including complete instructions on what to do, as well.
Meiling considered the recipe. Potato stew? With cream? With a shrug, she stenciled it in for dinner, as her brother climbed on top of the balancing poles, and repeatedly fell in.
Like all of Jin’s recipes, it was a bit strange to cook. A thick broth, rich with cream, and full of vegetables.
It was quite delicious.
The girl didn’t want to catch frogs. She didn’t want to throw mud. She even refused to ride the stone boar that was bigger than Meiling’s house.
It was a far cry from the mischievous welp she knew.
Meiling took a breath of the cool forest air. It was much nicer in the shade, rather than the late summer sun. Meiling hummed to herself, as she held onto the straps of the large basket on her back. Her father had looked a little concerned that she was planning on carrying so much weight back, but Meiling wasn’t that far along yet. The baby bump barely showed!
Xian looked around at the small trail, as they walked in the shade of the trees. They were headed upstream today, near the river that ran through the forest.
“Not even a year ago and it was all tangled undergrowth,” her father muttered, adjusting the large, empty basket on his back.
And indeed, the forest floor was remarkably clear. Clear like in the sections near Hong Yaowu, where it took painstaking effort to clear the junk undergrowth, and help promote the useful plants and fungus they needed. Meiling herself was no stranger wandering around the forest with an axe, and shearing off the vines that grew like weeds, or looking after the pigs as they rooted around, making sure they didn’t target anything that was valuable.
Naturally, all it took was a small explanation on why he wanted the forest like this from Jin, and Chun Ke, Wa Shi, and Pi Pa made the forests their foraging ground. In a year, the forest looked like it had been carefully maintained for hundreds.
The massive boar was trotting along, six of the baskets that Meiling had on her back strung out over his. Xian had cheerfully taken his place as a rider, looking around at the forest from his lofty perch. Pi Pa trotted beside him, a brush behind her ear, and a ledger tied to Chun Ke’s side.
The oddest member of their group was of course Wa Shi, in his dragon form and trotting happily along beside them. His whiskers twitched, and his fishy eyes were locked ahead. A long tongue lolled out, almost like a dog’s, and he licked his lips in anticipation.
They came into a clearing. The entire section of forest was blanketed in gentle mist from a small waterfall, pouring continuously onto rocks. Though the occasional tall tree provided cover, it was thin, making room for row upon row of logs stacked together and leaned up onto small scaffolds.
The sound of flowing water filled the clearing.
Meiling stared at the sight. Her father made an impressed noise.
“That's a lot of mushrooms,” her little brother said, from on top of Chun Ke. The boar oinked, proud of his observation.
Xianggu, the mushrooms Jin called shiitake, absolutely covered the logs.
“It's certainly been an explosion,” Meiling muttered. It hadn’t been quite this many the last time she had checked.
And while the black fungus was the most dominant, this entire area was flourishing, in the damp, and slowly rotting wood. Edible shelf mushrooms. Jadecaps. Other medicinal fungus that her father had given them on their wedding, sprouting like weeds from the trees and the soil.
“I do believe we’ll need to make a couple of trips,” she said.
One night, she asked the girl in her dream what was wrong. The girl pouted fiercely. She looked away. She didn’t answer for several long minutes.
“I don’t like it when he's gone,” she muttered petulantly. “It feels weird.”
Meiling didn’t really know what she was talking about, but she did know the feeling.
“It's better when everybody is home,” she agreed, and the little girl held onto her tighter.
“I need him. I don’t want to lose him, or you… or them,” the little one said. “Maybe I should keep them all here?”
The last part was said with an inflection Meiling wasn’t sure she liked, as the ground rumbled.
They collected the mushrooms from the logs and then wandered the property. She spent time with her father, crushing the Spiritual Herbs into paste, and examining their effects.
Even her little brother joined in, though he was mostly just handing them tools.
There was no real grand breakthrough. But they did get to spend time together, making medicine. Something she treasured and cherished. This time, without the worried look on her father’s face that had become prevalent, with each failed matchmaking. Just listening to his calm voice, as they walked through the crushing and grinding together.
Her father’s proud smile, at the carefully organised medicinal plants, and at the quality of ingredients made her flush with pride.
But even he could not stay forever. He had his own duties to attend to.
The days passed. Her father returned home, carried on Chun Ke’s back.
Hu Li, the Xong brother’s mother, came to visit.
“Ya know, I was a little surprised when you asked me for help with this,” the woman admitted, as they worked together.
Meiling squinted at the curdling milk. “…Jin likes it,” she muttered, her voice nasal from the fabric plugs stuffed up them. “And I want to surprise everybody, when they get back home. Make a big feast, Like Jin did for me, ya know?”
Hu Li smiled at her. “Making something you hate because somebody else likes it. Oh, I know that. I always swear its the last time I’m going to cook bear, and then my husband comes back with more meat and his dumb hopeful grin…”
Meiling blushed and nodded.
“And I see you’ve been practicing.” Hu Li pointed to where Chun Ke and Wa Shi were lazing on the river bank. Wa Shi pushed one of his strangely muscled arms into the basket and pulled out a slightly burned loaf of bread, dipping it in more stew. His entire body shuddered, as he popped the morsel in his mouth.
“The sourdough stuff bakes weirdly,” she muttered “And sometimes Jin uses weird names for spices, but he was super enthusiastic about his ‘pizza’.”
Hu Li reached over and ruffled Meiling’s hair. “Cute,” she declared.
Meiling pointedly ignored her.
Hu Li barked out a laugh, as the curds started to separate.
She kept stroking the girl’s hair. “It's fine, not to want to lose him. But I don’t think confining anybody will work.”
The girl turned, and buried her face in Meiling’s skirt. There was a nod.
“All you have to do is trust that they’ll come back. I miss my husband… But I’ve got a family to take care of. Work to do. And I know, without a doubt he's coming home.
“And when he gets back, he's going to laugh about the stinky cheese I made him, even though I hate it. He’s going to marvel at how nice the house looks, and show me all the cool things he bought in the city.
“And then, when they set off again, you make sure they have all the supplies they need, and see them off with a smile. Or if you can, go with them, and go on that journey together.”
The girl paused, as Meiling kept stroking her hair.
She turned, looking up at her, with a petulant pout.
She stared out, over the river. Her back was resting against a boar, and her fingers played with a dragon’s beard as she sipped her tea.
Sometimes, the surrealness still struck her. The small little jolt. When she was scratching a boar who was taller than her at the shoulder under his chin, only for her to blink, and Chun Ke to be smaller again.
To be minding her own business, then suddenly be wrapped up in the coils of a dragon. Wa Shi’s clawed hands on her shoulder as he tried to hide behind her to escape Pi Pa’s wrath.
A polite pig, nodding her head diligently, and writing down everything Meiling said. Bringing her ledgers and counting up baskets of mushrooms with her.
Walking to the back, and Bei Be following silently behind her, his plow hanging from his horn. She could almost see a stoic swordsman guarding her.
And yet… she still appreciated that little jolt. That small feeling of wonder.
Some days felt like a pleasant dream. But it was real, and it was her life.
She put the cup down, and continued to write. The proper baking time for the sourdough. Her own idle musings on how to use ingredients, added to pieces of paper.
Her own ideas on how to help their home improve. Maybe they would be good ones. Maybe they wouldn’t amount to anything. But she wrote her thoughts down anyway, as she sat with the family that had remained behind.
She couldn’t wait until everybody got back… but for now, she was content.
A girl stared at a road made out of gold, leading off into the distance. She poked at it. It was in disrepair. It was broken, and bits leaked, covered only by the barest of patch jobs.
Energy travelled along it. Little bits and pieces.
It was in dire need of repair. But out there.... out there, was pain. The strange gem the little moonshard brought back, that she had shied away from. The other pieces, cracked and broken, full of memories she wasn't even sure she wanted.
The girl sighed. She got to work. Even if she couldn't travel to him.. she could make sure he got home safely.