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The Three Chores
Hanmui must complete three chores before she can go the banquet, in a tale from the world of THE WIRE ROAD.
A man and a woman, Oh-Da and Miyo, lived quiet lives in their little village. They loved each other, they spent each day together, and while they were happy, they both yearned to have a child.
They tried for seasons to have a child.
But to no avail.
They sat together in front of a winter fire. Oh-Da held Miyo’s hand. Her arm was around his shoulder. They wanted it so desperately. Staring into the embers, they both prayed.
“Please,” Oh-Da prayed. “If only we could have a child, and watch them grow. I would give anything.”
“Please,” Miyo prayed. “If only we could have a little one, and our days would not be so quiet. I would give anything.”
They cast their prayers to the fire, and the fire consumed them, as it consumes all things.
By spring, Miyo knew she was pregnant.
She told Oh-Da in the field outside their home, and they held each other, and they cried tears of joy, as the wind stirred the new-blooming flowers to applause.
In the fall, Miyo gave birth to a daughter. Small and beautiful with eyes dark as the sky. They named her Hanmui.
Oh-Da and Miyo watched their daughter grow. They heard her say her first words. They watched her take her first steps. As the seasons changed, they saw who she would become: A girl with a beautiful ghost, who cared for those around her, and brought light to everyone.
They were happy.
It began when Hanmui finally grew as tall as her mother. Hanmui grew, and Miyo grew ill. As the daughter became more radiant, the mother faded faster. Miyo wanted to tell her everything—how proud she was, how much she loved her daughter, how happy the last years had been. Miyo wanted to see her become a woman, find love, make a family. Now that she had a daughter, Miyo wanted granddaughters and grandsons. She wanted so many things.
She wanted the strength to speak, so she could say goodbye.
But Miyo had said she would give anything.
Oh-Da did the best he could. Hanmui was so strong.
But he believed she needed a mother.
In their village was a widow with a young daughter Hanmui’s age. The widow’s name was Fifteen Lilies, and her daughter was named Color of the Snow.
Fifteen Lilies came to Oh-Da to give her condolences. She understood, as much as anyone could. And it was so hard, raising a child alone.
Oh-Da nodded. His tea grew cold as he stirred it, over and over.
And a girl—almost a woman! Fifteen Lilies was astounded. Oh-Da’s late wife must have prepared him for this.
She left him with fingers brushing the back of his hand.
He felt it, like a stain on his ghost.
But he was lost without Miyo.
How could he guide Hanmui, if he did not know where he was going?
Oh-Da and Fifteen Lilies married in the new year. It would be two beginnings.
But a beginning is neither good, nor bad.
It is just a beginning.
Fifteen Lilies had her pride as a cook. She made all of Oh-Da’s meals. When Hanmui came to help her stepmother, Fifteen Lilies shooed her away. In time, she would teach her stepdaughter. For now, let her take care of her new husband. Besides, shouldn’t Hanmui spend time with her new sister?
Hanmui wanted to spend time with Color of the Snow.
Her new sister was warmer than her namesake.
But only a little.
Oh-Da ate, and he ate well, for the first time since Miyo’s passing. The color returned to his skin. The strength came back to his limbs. The torn edges were not sewn up—they never would be—but the ends frayed, into some softer grief.
Hanmui had a mother again, and now she had a sister.
When the pain came to Oh-Da’s stomach, when Fifteen Lilies stood over his bed to pour medicine into his mouth, he realized the truth.
He had no strength to fight.
Fifteen Lilies pressed the bowl to his lips. Her face was strange and remote. She parted his pursed lips and dribbled the poison into his mouth.
As the light faded, he wished he could take it back. He did not want to leave Hanmui with this terrible woman. He wanted to stay—
—with all the blood in his body he wanted to stay—
But Oh-Da had said he would give anything.
In the days after her father’s death, Hanmui saw the real Fifteen Lilies. In the days after her father’s death, Hanmui saw the real Color of the Snow.
Fifteen Lilies was jealous of her youth.
Color of the Snow was jealous of her beauty.
With no one to stop them, the jealousy brewed to hatred, strong and hard and unrefined.
They took the clothes from Hanmui’s back, and left her with rags.
They took the food from Hanmui’s plate, and left her with scraps.
They took the peace from Hanmui’s days, and left her with drudgery.
The days piled on, one atop another, until their weight bowed Hanmui’s back, and dulled her bright eyes, and pushed her feet deeper into the mud.
When so many days had passed that spring peeked its head around winter’s legs, the village received an unexpected guest. A minister to the Mikado himself arrived in a splendid jiao, on his way back to Altar.
The minister stopped in their village to be among the people, to talk to them, to listen to their worries, to plan how he could help. He was a good man, and a wise man, and everyone agreed that he was handsome.
It became known that the minister did not have a wife.
After three days of sun and three of rain, the village decided they would hold a banquet to thank the minister for his appearance. The banquet would be in four days’ time, four being the lucky number of those who prepare.
Fifteen Lilies and Color of the Snow called Hanmui away from her chores to tell her the news.
“Everyone will be there,” Color of the Snow said.
“With the finest foods we can cook, and the sweetest drinks we can make,” Fifteen Lilies said.
Hanmui listened, joy bursting inside. She was ragged, and thin, and covered in dirt, with lice in her hair and sores on her feet. But she still believed in her family, and hope rose in her chest.
Fifteen Lilies looked down at her. “You may go,” she said, “if you finish all your chores. There will be one for each day.”
“Thank you, stepmother,” Hanmui said, and it was genuine, and sweet.
“We can afford one new outfit,” Fifteen Lilies said, “and you need new clothes. Please mend these so Color of the Snow will have something to wear, and we will buy you something new.”
Hanmui wept. “Yes! Yes, stepmother,” she cried, for she was skilled with the needle.
Color of the Snow brought out the clothes. They were worn, true, but they would still look quite fine when Hanmui was finished.
Fifteen Lilies held out a needle.
Hanmui took it, and asked, “Stepmother, where is the thread?”
Fifteen Lilies smiled. “Stepdaughter, you are the one who has sewn and mended and darned. Surely you remember where you put the thread.”
And with that, Hanmui’s stepmother and stepsister left to buy new clothes for the banquet.
Hanmui wept, for there was no thread.
She sank to the ground. She watered the soil with her tears.
From below the soil came a soft voice. Why do you cry, it asked, and—
it did not sound like her father.
“I must mend these clothes,” Hanmui whispered, “and I have no thread.”
I can help you, the speaker said. I will send you a spider.
“I have never sewn with spider’s silk.”
It will not be silk, the speaker said. It will draw out the strongest thread.
“I have nothing to give,” Hanmui said.
Yes, you do.
From below the soil came a spider, as wide as her palm, flecked with dark blue. She looked into the spider’s many eyes, and she held out her hand. The spider bit her, and drew out long thread, beautiful thread.
Hanmui began mending the dress. The thread was strong, and easy to work with. But when she pricked herself with the needle, and saw a drop of blood well there, she felt no pain.
Fifteen Lilies and Color of the Snow returned. They bore beautiful clothes in their arms, resplendent in the colors of jade and sea foam.
Hanmui held up the worn dress, now mended.
Newly crimson, and still damp.
She was sent to bed without supper. Before sleep came, she looked at her fingers, and counted the pinpricks there, as numberless as the stars.
The next day Hanmui sat before the cooking fire. Fifteen Lilies said, “We can afford one sweet bean cake. Please make honey cookies so Color of the Snow will have something to bring, and you can present the bean cake.”
“Yes, stepmother,” Hanmui said, for she was talented with recipes.
Color of the Snow brought out the ingredients.
Fifteen Lilies held out an empty jar.
Hanmui said, “There is no honey.”
Fifteen Lilies smiled, and said, “Stepdaughter, you make all our food. Surely you know where the honey is.”
With that, Hanmui’s stepmother and stepsister left to buy desserts for the banquet.
Hanmui did not cry. She put her face to the earth, and whispered, “I must make cookies, and I have no honey.”
The speaker came from the earth, like a buzzing in her ear. I will send you a bee, it said.
“What will it cost?” she said.
But you have nothing to give.
“Yes, I do,” she said.
From below the soil came a bee, as long as her finger, splintered rainbows in its wings. It flew into the air.
Hanmui closed her eyes and stuck out her tongue. The stinger pierced her like a nail.
When she opened her eyes, before her was a pot of honey, clear and brimming and beautiful gold.
When the cookies had cooled, she took a bite of the last one.
It tasted like ash.
Fifteen Lilies and Color of the Snow came home, bearing baskets of crisp rice wafers with lavender, jeweled ginger baked in sugar, and box upon box of sweet bean cakes.
Hanmui bowed before the rows of honey cookies she had made.
Hanmui was sent to bed without supper. She smelled the delicious scent of fresh honey cookies, and longed for a sip of water.
The next day Hanmui sat before a cold kettle above a quiet hearth. “You will make soup,” Fifteen Lilies said.
Her stepmother and stepsister left, to buy food for the banquet.
She gathered her ingredients. She prepared vegetables. She measured spices. She placed them in the pot, and she filled the pot with water. Hanmui stirred and stirred, but it was not soup.
Hanmui walked outside. The sky above was dull and stupid. She did not bow to touch her face to the earth. She barely raised her voice.
“I must make soup, and I have no fire,” she said.
The speaker came from below, as if crawling up her legs. I will send you ants that can make fire.
She did not ask what it would cost.
She knew, and she no longer cared.
“Do it,” she said.
Ants swarmed from the mud beneath her feet. Of all sizes, all shapes, some with wings and others with hardened pincers, their bodies bristling with coarse fibers. They smelled of sulfur as they crawled over Hanmui’s skin. As one, they dipped their stingers into her flesh.
She did not cry, or cry out.
The rippling mat of insects flooded into the house. Where their fibers dragged against each other, sparks ignited with the scratch of tearing stone. She heard the whoosh of the hearth erupting into flame.
Hanmui sat before the bubbling soup, and she shivered.
Fifteen Lilies and Color of the Snow came home. They held packages of salted beef wrapped in lettuce, and pots of spicy cabbage, jars of pickled carrots, and strips of dried fish rolled in rice wine and crushed peppercorns.
“I have finished my chores,” Hanmui said. Her breath a spraying cloud before her blue lips.
Color of the Snow looked angry, as she always did.
Fifteen Lilies’ face was painted the color of a deep and abiding fear.
Hanmui went to bed without supper. She did not drape herself with sackcloth blankets, with the rags she dressed herself in. She did not bother to make herself warm, because she could not.
But tomorrow was the banquet.
The sun sat at the edge of the sky when she awoke. The house was empty. The kettle was gone. The honey cookies were gone. The mended dress, now an abiding shade of red, was gone.
Fifteen Lilies and Color of the Snow were gone.
Hanmui stood in the fading light.
“I must go the banquet, and I have no one to take me,” she said.
From the ground rose the shape of a man in oily mud, in peat and clay, in soil and the black blood of the earth. He smiled at Hanmui and his teeth were jagged stones. His eyes gleamed, for they were the black glass of lava flows. He was handsome and vicious and annihilating.
Hanmui took his extended arm, and they walked to the village.
The moon hid behind a cloud when Hanmui and the speaker from the earth entered the village square. The warm sounds of conversation, of music, all stopped. The only noise was the crackling of the bonfire in the center of the square.
Fifteen Lilies sat on the minister’s left. Her dress was the green of sea foam and jade, and crumbs from a fresh honey cookie remained on her painted lips.
Color of the Snow sat on the minister’s right. Her dress was a deep and vicious red, made even more beautiful in the light of the burning fire.
The minister—who was indeed a handsome man, with a kind face, and a strong build—looked upon Hanmui. In his eyes there was pain.
“I have finished my chores,” Hanmui said.
Fifteen Lilies stood. She pointed a sharp nail at her stepdaughter. “Get out of here!” she hissed.
The minister turned to Fifteen Lilies. “You know this girl?” he asked. His voice was deep and rich.
“I baked your cookies,” Hanmui said.
“I—” Fifteen Lilies began.
Her eyes bulged, sudden and white in the dancing firelight. She reached to her throat with one hand. Into her mouth with the other. With a desperate gulp, venom poured from her parted lips in the languid flow of warm honey.
Fifteen Lilies drowned in venom before them, her lips swelling, her eyes reddening, her cheeks expanding with the force of the thick venom coming forth.
Hanmui’s stepmother dropped, lifeless, to the ground.
Color of the Snow stood with a wail. She stepped behind the minister, her hands white-knuckled on his broad shoulders.
“Sister,” she cried, “you can’t do this to me!”
“I mended your dress,” Hanmui said.
Color of the Snow reached to the cloth fixed tight and becoming upon her body. With a shriek, she arched her back, her face contorted. The crimson dress’s threads shined like wire in the firelight.
The threads pulled taut, all at once, and Color of the Snow was torn to pieces, and each one dropped, lifeless, to the ground.
Hanmui looked at the villagers, all of them gathered in silence, too afraid to move or speak.
Still, and quiet, as they had been since her father died, since she had been at the mercy of Fifteen Lilies, and Color of the Snow.
They stared at her with horror in their eyes. Not for what had been done to her. Not for the wretched girl she had been beaten in to. For the things she had done, to the ones responsible.
The speaker from the earth smiled, and she heard its lips open, the wet slip of a landslide.
To some of the ones responsible.
“I cooked your soup,” Hanmui said.
The square lit up with red and orange, the air thickened with greasy smoke, as the villagers—each and every one—burned to cinders.
The cinders floated, lifeless, into the sky.
The minister stood from his seat, the soot on his face creased with tears.
Hanmui turned to the speaker from the earth. “I needed to destroy them,” she said, “and I had no weapons.”
The body made from mud, and clay, and the black blood of the earth looked down at her.
“I will pay the price,” she said.
The body laughed, and laughed, and laughed. It was the gurgle of a flooding graveyard. It was the dust of decaying bones.
You gave me everything, the body said.
And then the speaker from the earth was gone.
Hanmui wept, for there was nothing left.
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