Chapter 1: A Marriage Proposal
It was early winter of 1942. Lugu Lake, an alpine location in Yunnan plateau, southwest China, had been much more peaceful and no less beautiful than it was today: bordered by a line of golden poplar trees, embroidered with emerald patches of islands, a vast sheet of turquoise silk undulated under the morning sun. The land surrounding the lake had been home to an ethnic group known to the outsiders as Mosuo for nearly 2000 years.
It was late morning; the villagers worked quietly in their fields at the foot of Gemu Mountain (named after the Mosuo Goddess). It was silent except for the occasional quacking of ducks and grunting of pigs. However, soon galloping of a horse broke through the tranquility. On horseback was a man in army uniform. Astonished by the scenery in front of him, he slowed down somewhat, but soon hurried on. He shouted at the straying ducks and pigs to clear the way. This also alarmed playing children, who retreated to the roadside, covering their faces in anticipation of a temporary dust storm.
After raising a long line of dust along the lake, the horse stopped in front of a magnificent log house painted in bright yellow and the man dismounted. The house servants at the gate checked his identity and rushed into the house to announce the arrival of the messenger from the central Han government. Moments later, they came out again to lead him into the main hall of the mansion.
In the center front of the main hall, on a platform carpeted with exotic wool rugs, sat the Mosuo chief. Clad in leopard fur, he was a charismatic young man in his twenties: tall and dark, his narrow eyes and aquiline nose suggested fierce nature, while his round chin and high cheekbones spoke of benevolence.
The Han messenger bowed to the majestic chief, pulled an envelope from his lambskin bag, and handed it to him with both hands. “Zhaxi-nongbu, chief of the Mosuo of Lugu Lake, I have an important letter from the governor of Xi-kang Province, Major General Wen Liu.”
Chief Zhaxi accepted the envelope with respect. In fact, he had been waiting for it ever since he had made his request for help from the Han government over a year before.
He unfolded the letter carefully, took a deep breath, and started to read:
“First of all, I would like to express my sympathy on behalf of the central government of Han in Xi-kang regarding the incessant assaults from the bandits that have become a constant threat to your people. We have considered your request for aid and your proposal for an alliance between the Mosuo and the Han. We’re willing to provide you military supplies including arms and ammunition in exchange for your sentry along the western borders. However, you must pledge your allegiance to the Han by marrying a Han woman. Enclosed are names and pictures of eligible young women from good families and brief descriptions of their backgrounds. We look forward to hearing your answer.”
The smile vanished from Zhaxi’s face as he read the last lines of the letter. He had promised he would guard the border in return of the Han’s military support, but did not expect a marriage. The Han government didn’t really trust him; it was their way to ensure that at least the aid they provided wouldn’t be used against them.
Zhaxi sighed. “How much time do I have?”
After the servants had taken the messenger to the dining hall, Zhaxi sank into his tiger seat. A marriage of convenience was loathsome to him by itself. Besides, it was against Mosuo custom for a man to take any bride at all.
“I can’t accept it,” he murmured.
Chapter 2: The Engagement News
Three hundred kilometers away, over the mountains shrouded with fog and covered with bamboo forests, Ya’an, the hometown of pandas in Sichuan Province, woke with the sound of street vendors. “Fresh soy milk!” “Onion pancakes!” “Hot noodle soup!” This did not disturb Magnolia, who was still soundly asleep. In her dream, she was reciting a poem on stage in front of the whole school, but stopped in the middle of a line. “When I was little/I didn’t know the moon/I called it a…a…” While she was trying to recall the line she heard a shout from the audience: “A pancake!” The laughter nearly drowned her. She wanted to cry but resisted the urge. She kept thinking very hard: a plate? A bowl? Silver? Jade? She was still trying when she heard her name being called from a distance.
It was her maid Lan’s voice. “Wake up, Miss. It’s the day of your poetry recital contest.”
Magnolia’s eyes fluttered open and she stared at the ceiling for a while before she smiled and muttered, “Oh, it was a dream!”
Jumping out of bed, she recited the poem again and again as Lan helped her dress. “When I was little/I didn’t know the Moon/I called it the mirror of the Goddess/I waited every night for her to appear/but all I saw was her gown made of silk clouds.”
Lan smiled as she finished. “Don’t worry, Miss. You’ll win!”
“You always say that.” Magnolia pouted. “How do you know? You’re not a fortune teller.”
“I know it because you always win.” Lan patted the cheeks of her young mistress. “Singing, dancing, speech, table tennis, martial arts—whatever it is. That’s why you’re the star of Ya’an Girls’ High. I’m sure you’ll win this one too.”
“Thank you, Lan. You’re the best!”
Magnolia smiled at Lan and then flew downstairs to the living room for breakfast.
Located on the outskirts of the city, surrounded by green hills, the Ya’an Girls’ High School was a private school for daughters of military officers and government officials. The poetry contest went well. As Lan had predicted, Magnolia won first prize. Her friends congratulated her during recess and together they went to play in the meadow behind campus. The other girls liked to pick flowers and catch butterflies, but Magnolia preferred practicing kungfu. In fact, she earned her nickname because of her martial arts aptitude and her ambition of becoming a woman warrior just like the legendary Mulan. She practiced Flying Leg, a continuous kicking technique she had performed since she was eight. She delivered a series of kicks to the trunk of an old ginkgo tree and caused a shower of morning dew. Then, seeing some bricks lying on the ground, she decided to test her Shaolin Iron Palm—a skill she had been secretly training herself for months. Taking a deep breath, she raised her hand high in the air and shouted, “Ha!” as she chopped the brick in half.
The girls who watched her flinched the moment her hand hit the brick, but Magnolia smiled. “I did it,” she murmured as she messaged her hand, which hurt quite a bit.
Finally, she lay down on the grass and rested along with her best friend Pearl, Colonel Ma’s daughter.
“I wish we could practice shooting guns,” Magnolia said dreamily.
“Why, so you can become a real woman warrior?” Pearl asked.
“Right. I want to join the Sichuan Army and fight the Japs after graduation.”
“My dad said the other day the war would be over soon. We’ve been winning battles, and the Americans are helping us.”
“Then I’ll join the People’s Liberation Army and free the peasants.”
“Are you serious? Joining the communists?”
“Yes.” Magnolia nodded. “They promise freedom and equality for all people.”
“But your dad—Captain Liao—wouldn’t allow it!”
“I won’t tell him. I’ll just go to Jing-gang-shan.”
“You’re so rebellious,” Pearl said. “But how are you going to get to Jing-gang-shan? Where is it anyway?”
“It’s in Jiangxi province. All you need to do is to get to Chengdu and then take a train.”
“It takes at least ten days to get to Chengdu by horse. Besides, they won’t let a young girl get on a train by herself.”
Magnolia fell silent. She hadn’t thought about that. But she wouldn’t be discouraged by her friend’s comments. “Well, I’ll find a way. But what about you, Pearl? What’re you going to do after graduation?”
“I’m not sure,” Pearl said. “Probably get married. My mom’s been talking about it.”
“Really? Are you seeing suitors?”
“Not yet, but they’ve already invited quite a few families from all over Sichuan province to my graduation party next month for that purpose.”
“That’s awesome, Pearl. A married life would suit you. I can see you being a good wife; you like cooking and needle work and you love dinner parties. But for me, I’m not going to get married until all the peasants in China are liberated.”
“How long would that take?” Pearl asked.
“I don’t know. Five years? Ten? It won’t be long.”
Magnolia watched Pearl pluck a dandelion puff from the ground and blow its seeds into the wind. Remembering the song they created together, she started to sing. “I’m a winged dandelion/my wings carry me everywhere/cross the rivers, into the mountains/wherever I go, I live and thrive…”
It was then that a group of girls ran over to them. One of them was holding a newspaper. “Magnolia! Magnolia!”
“You’re—there is news about you. Your picture is in the paper!”
“You…uh, read it yourself.” The girl hesitated before handing her the copy of Ya’an Daily.
Magnolia was bewildered by the headline: “Captain Liao’s Precious Daughter Married to Mosuo Chief.”
As far as she knew, her father was the only Captain Liao in Ya’an and she was her father’s only daughter.
She went through the lines of the article as if it were a story about someone else. The words did not register in her mind and it took her awhile to make sense of them. The article said the daughter of Captain Yuan Liao was chosen by the chief of a Mosuo tribe. The marriage was an alliance between the Mosuo and the Han.
Pearl broke the silence. “Congratulations, Magnolia. You’ve been keeping your secret tight. It looks like you’re going to marry before everyone else!”
Clutching the paper, Magnolia was too embarrassed to look up at her friend or her classmates. She wanted to cry. Why didn’t she know anything about this?
“Who are the Mosuo and where on earth is Lugu Lake?” a girl asked.
“They’re barbarians,” another girl whispered.
“Don’t say that.” Pearl’s voice was loud, defending her friend. “Not all minorities are barbarians.”
“Lugu Lake is in the Great Cool Mountains,” said yet another girl. “My dad used to fight bandits over there, and he said that there was nothing but mountains. It was like a prison made of mountains.”
Tears threatened to brim her eyes but Magnolia clenched her fists and said proudly, “It can’t be all mountains if it’s called Lugu Lake. There is a lake—a huge lake. Have you ever seen a lake in your life? A lake is like a small sea. Clear, blue water, tons of fish swimming inside and a beautiful algae bloom on top. There are islands and boats floating on the water too.” Magnolia was remembering the lake in her mother’s hometown, where she had swam the previous summer.
The girls became quiet. None of them had seen a sea or a lake. The closest things resembling a lake in their imaginations were the goldfish ponds in their front yards.
In the classes that followed, Magnolia did not hear a word the teachers said. She couldn’t stop thinking about what had happened in the past few days at home. She had heard whispers from her parents in the living room and had sensed sorrow in her mother’s eyes. Just last night when she opened her eyes in the middle of sleeping she saw her mother sitting on her bedside, looking at her sadly. She ran home as soon as the school bell rang.
“Mom! Mom!” she cried as she entered the house.
Her mother was not in the garden as she usually was at this time. The maid told her that Madam Liao wasn’t feeling well and was upstairs resting. Magnolia went upstairs and saw her mother was indeed lying in bed, eyes closed. Mom wasn’t a strong woman, and tended to get ill often. Magnolia stood at her mother’s bedside and watched her for a moment before she decided not to wake her.
When she went back downstairs she glanced at the door of her father’s study. Her dad was most likely there at this time. Magnolia headed towards the door but hesitated before she knocked. Father didn’t like being disturbed when he was in his study. She lingered at the door for a moment and finally gathered her courage and knocked.
“Come in,” her father said.
Magnolia went into the study with her head hung low. Her father was composing a letter, and didn’t look up until he finished a few more sentences.
“Ming-ming!” The captain smiled at his daughter. He put his hands on her shoulders, looked at her closely, and asked, “Did you see the news in the paper?”
“Yes.” Magnolia’s eyes and nose stung at the mention. “Is it true?”
Captain Liao held his daughter and patted her as she cried. “Yes, daughter, it’s true. You’re about to become the wife of the Mosuo chief.”
Magnolia broke free from her father’s embrace and said in the middle of sobbing, “But I don’t want to get married!”
“Foolish girl. Everyone must get married one day. You’re doing it earlier than your classmates, that’s all.”
“I don’t want to! I don’t want to go to that prison made of mountains and live among the barbarians and bandits!”
“Who told you all that?” Captain Liao asked quietly. “The place is called Lugu Lake. It’s beautiful and the Mosuo are a peaceful people.”
Magnolia’s agitation calmed somewhat with her dad’s answer. “But why should I marry a Mosuo?”
“Listen, daughter.” The captain took her hand and they sat down on the couch. “You’re a member of the Girl Scouts, and your mission is to protect our country. Here is your chance. The Mosuo need our financial aid, and we need their help guarding the borders. The general believes that the coalition of all ethnic groups will make our nation strong so no foreigner would dare intrude. Your marriage is a way to establish an alliance between the Mosuo and the Han.”
Magnolia listened intently, and then shook her head. “I don’t see why I must marry somebody in order to protect my country. I can just join the army and fight foreign intruders.”
Captain Liao smiled. “True, you’re not to be a soldier, but you’re to become an ambassador. You remember the story of the great beauty Wang Chao Jun, who brought peace between the Han Dynasty and the Xiongnu Empire? And Princess Weng-Cheng of Tang Dynasty, who married the Tibetan king Songzan-ganbu and brought the Tibetans not only seeds, tools, silkworms, but Han culture as well? You will be just like them, except you’re more talented. You can open a school there and teach the Mosuo kids how to read and write; teach them math and science, music and art—by the way, the Mosuo are good singers and dancers.”
Captain Liao’s words appealed to his daughter’s vanity, but only for a brief moment. Magnolia stared at the floor. “I don’t want to be an ambassador. I want to be a woman warrior, like Mulan who fought the barbarians. Ambassadors are for pretty girls. I’m not a beauty.”
“Oh I don’t know about that.” Captain Liao smiled. “The Mosuo chief chose you among the pictures of a dozen other girls—Pearl included.”
Magnolia looked up with beaming eyes. She was flattered since Pearl was considered the prettiest girl in school—but again only for a second. “No, I don’t want to marry him or anyone else. Cancel the engagement, please!”
Captain Liao looked at his stubborn daughter and sighed. “I’m sorry. It’s not up to us. It’s an order from the major general.”
For a moment Magnolia was too confused to speak. An order from the major general? Why? Why was her future in the hands of a man unrelated to her? Then she felt indignant: why should her marriage be arranged by someone other than her parents? And why would her parents yield to such an outrageous order?
“Why can’t you speak to him? Please speak to the major general and ask him to pick someone else. Please, Father!”
“I can’t,” the Captain said. “The general is in Kangding, child. We got the order by mail.”
“Why can’t you refuse him by mail?” Magnolia insisted. “You are friends, aren’t you?”
Captain Liao looked into his daughter’s eyes. “Magnolia, the general is your dad’s superior. He’s a nice, friendly person, but he’s still my boss. To disobey his order would be disrespectful, and if I did that, I would put him in a difficult position.” He finished the sentence with a heavy sigh.
Seeing the helpless face of her father, Magnolia held back her tears and ran out of the study.
Chapter 3: The Caravan
Six months after the visit of the Han messenger, Zhaxi woke to the sound of a crowing rooster. Damn. He reluctantly opened his eyes. Dawn was already breaking. Last night he had wished the day would never come. He turned on his side and saw the alluring eyes of Naruma, the most beautiful Mosuo woman in his territory.
“When did you wake?” he asked softly.
“A little while ago.”
“Why are you looking at me like that?”
“You’re going to leave me soon.” Naruma buried her face in his arms.
The chief’s heart felt tender. He cradled his lover and whispered, “I’ll come back soon.”
“With a Han wife.”
“Yes. But I’ll still come see you.”
“No you won’t.” Naruma turned her back to him.
Zhaxi sighed. He was fond of women but could never understand them. It was Naruma who had convinced him to accept the marriage contract, yet now she was sulking.
“What’re you jealous about? It’s just a deal. I don’t care for her. She’s just a child, and she isn’t as beautiful as you.”
“But she’s smart for sure. She knows poetry and arithmetic.”
“Doesn’t matter. Those things don’t turn me on.” He touched her lips and was going to kiss her, but she wouldn’t yield. He sighed. “Should I cancel the trip then?”
“No!” she said without moving. “You must go.”
“Okay, then I’ll be going.” He let go of her and sat up to dress. Then he felt her arms circling his body and her lips on the nape of his neck. He hesitated for a moment. The rooster was crowing for the second time. His men were waiting for him to set off on the journey. He shouldn’t linger, but the journey would take two months in the Cool Mountains—long scorching days followed by cold lonely nights—and he would marry a schoolgirl that he had not met and had no feelings for. Naruma’s hands and lips burned his skin. He turned abruptly and kissed her until she moaned.
Outside the mansion of the chief, a crowd was gathering. The caravan included a dozen fine horses and a dozen warriors, as well as a dozen mules and half dozen porters. The lamas were already chanting inside the house and incense filled the air.
Sadama, his late mother’s sister, came to him. “Everything is ready, Zhaxi my child. Have some breakfast and we shall set off.”
“We?” Zhaxi looked at the kind woman who had been taking care of him for as long as he remembered. She had never had a child of her own but had treated him like her son since the death of his mother. His earlier gloom vanished with the cheerful sight of her. She was in her most vibrant traveling combination: a vest made of golden yak fur over an indigo Manchurian gown and a pair of goatskin boots dyed purple in mulberry juice. Her headscarf and sash were both bright orange, and tucked into her sash was her bronze dagger with an embroidered leather sheath.
“You’re not going with us. The trip is too long and exhausting.”
“Yes I am!” Sadama raised her eyebrows. “I had been on long trips before you were even born. The trip to Tibet took us a whole season.”
That was over three decades ago, Zhaxi wanted to remind his aunt but decided not to make her mad. Besides, he needed her to go with him. In the past he’d had very few trips without Sadama, and they were not pleasant. Sadama, who spoke the Han language well, would also be an excellent companion to his Han bride, which would spare him tons of troubles.
The caravan set off as soon as the sun cast its golden glory onto the hilltops, the roofs, the lake, and the grass blades on shore. The lamas walked on the roadside by the caravan, hitting gongs, chanting, and sprinkling roasted barley to expel evil spirits. Villagers had come out of their houses and waved to the chief. Every roadside Mani pile had been filled with branches of juniper—an auspicious tree. Streaks of smoke rose to the sky—also a sign of good omen.
Zhaxi looked at his people and his village as the caravan proceeded slowly and solemnly on the lakeshore, stopping now and then as villagers went up to him, either contributing food to the trip or wishing him safety. His nephew Binma, a six year old child, asked to be seated on horseback and refused to get off until Sadama threatened to whip his bottom. As they reached the mountain that marked the end of the village, Zhaxi turned his horse and waved to the villagers who had followed him all the way. Some of them were wiping tears, and Zhaxi was moved but he held his own. He took a last look at the lake and the fields surrounding it—a beautiful land that his ancestors had first set foot upon thousands of years before; it had never been devastated by natural disasters since. A land blessed by Goddess Gemu and coveted by outsiders. He knelt and kowtowed to Gemu Mountain, praying once again for protection from the goddess. He then confirmed to himself that accepting the marriage proposal was the right thing to do—it was against his will, but good for his people and his land.
Chapter 4: Runaway
Lan tucked her young mistress into bed and left quietly. Magnolia opened her eyes as soon as she heard the door close, but waited until she heard no sound at all in the next room before getting up. She had finished her graduation exams the day before and had decided to go to Kangding to speak to the major general. She had met him more than once at dinner parties and at school. She remembered him as a kind uncle who cared about the education of the girls. The general had even complimented her on her calligraphy. She would convince him to cancel the engagement and she would promise to serve the Sichuan Army for the rest of her life if her wish was granted. She hoped the general would accept her proposal. Why not? After all, there were so many girls in the city—many prettier than her—and it wouldn’t be hard at all to find a replacement. Magnolia was sure the Mosuo chief wouldn’t mind, since they had never met. Lighting a candle, she packed. Her backpack was not big, but big enough to hold a set of clothes for change and some food. She had saved a few pieces of silver and some bills, and she also had some jewelry. These valuables she wrapped carefully in a piece of silk cloth before slipping them into the inner pocket of her army backpack.
She was too excited to sleep and rose in the first sound of the street vendors. But she had lingered in bed until her father went out of the house. Although lacking appetite, she ate an extra steamed meat bun at breakfast to get herself ready for the journey. She could hardly bring herself to say goodbye to her mother, who was always frail. Magnolia suddenly worried about what her reaction would be when she found her daughter missing.
“Mom.” Magnolia couldn’t look into her mother’s eyes when she sat down in a chair next to the bed.
“How was breakfast, daughter? Did you eat enough?” Madam Liao took her daughter’s hand asked in her usual solicitous voice.
“Oh, I ate an egg and two meat buns.”
“Wow, two meat buns? Do you want to grow as tall as a boy?” Madam Liao laughed and reached out to smooth her hair.
“Yes, so I can beat the boys.”
“Still dreaming about being an army general?” Madam Liao shook her head, smiling. “It’s time to think about how to be a good wife. Later today Lan will show you how to sew. Even though you’ll have servants, I doubt the Mosuo know how to make Han clothes for babies.”
“Babies?” Magnolia cried.
“Yes. You’ll bear children soon.”
“Really?” Magnolia recalled the last baby she saw in their neighbor Yong’s house. A baby crying with clenched fists in an eardrum-piercing volume, face smeared with tears and lips covered with saliva. She shook her head vehemently. “I don’t want babies.”
“Don’t say that, silly girl,” Madam Liao chided gently. “It’s every woman’s destiny.”
Magnolia opened her mouth to protest, but swallowed her words back. Staring at the pillow, she said instead, “Goodbye Mom. I’ve got to go.”
“Why? Isn’t school over?”
“Yeah, but we’re supposed to go check our grades.”
“Oh I’m sure you did well.” Madam Liao smiled.
Magnolia held her mother’s hand tightly for a moment longer, then stood up abruptly before her tears would flow.
No, babies were the last thing she had in mind, Magnolia thought on her way back to her room. She couldn’t picture herself staying home all day with a baby in her arm like the wife of Yong. She would go crazy with a life like that! Magnolia quickly put on the army uniform that her mother had sewed for her fifteenth birthday. It was quite loose a year ago, but now it fit since she had grown taller and fuller. She pulled up her braids and put on her father’s army cap; it was roomy but not too big. Then she carried her army bag that she had packed last night, and sneaked out of the house while Lan wasn’t in the living room.
Magnolia had meant to take a different route to avoid Pearl, who would usually meet her at the next alley intersection. But in her nervousness, she forgot about her plan and soon she heard Pearl’s running steps and her voice calling from behind, “Magnolia, is that you? Why are you dressed like that? Where are you going? Wait for me!”
Darn. Despite her disguise, her best friend had recognized her.
Magnolia pretended that she didn’t hear her and quickly turned into an adjacent alley, hiding in the entrance of someone’s yard until Pearl’s steps faded. Once she exited the alley, she immediately got on a rickshaw waiting on the street.
“To the ferry dock, quick!” she said to the puller.
Chapter 5: The Tea Porters
The ferry dock was already crowded with tea merchants. The rainy, foggy, humid weather of Ya’an provided a perfect environment for tea to grow and the city had been processing and exporting it to Tibet, Nepal, and India for centuries. The famous South Route Tea Road that originated from the Ming Dynasty started right here. Large merchants hired caravans and chose the official wide but long route that started farther south. Individual porters formed small groups and carried tea loads on their backs so they could use the shorter, though narrower and more dangerous route. Wanting to get to Kangding as soon as possible, Magnolia chose the short route.
“Soldier brother, where off?” the boatman asked.
“Kangding,” Magnolia said a bit nervously.
“Okay. Right in the middle of the Tea Road. You’ll get off at Er-Lang Mountain with the tea porters.”
“I know,” Magnolia said quickly and paid her fare.
She felt relieved the boatman did not suspect her—it was common to see young soldiers around during wartime.
The boat was small and could only transport half a dozen porters, since each was carrying hundreds of kilos of tea in stacks of rectangular bamboo boxes. The porters stood while balancing their tea packs taller than themselves.
Although she had never gotten close to them, Magnolia was used to seeing tea porters in the cities. The proximity to these porters caused her curiosity and sympathy.
To her, carrying one pack of twenty-kilo tea was impossible; she couldn’t imagine walking with a dozen. A few of the porters were women, and one of them who was holding the hand of a child looked just a few years older than her.
With all the tea packs around her, there was hardly any place to stand. But the woman with the child—whose name was Plum—let Magnolia sit on her tea box. Soon Magnolia started to play with the little child, whose name was Doggie. She taught the child to sing the Song of the Yellow River, a patriotic song that was quite popular in school. Plum told another woman porter that her husband, who usually traveled with them, was very sick and that was why he hadn’t come.
“We’ll be fine,” said Plum, a small woman with determination. “I can carry the tea myself.”
“But no one can carry the child. He’ll have to walk all the way. The poor thing will be exhausted,” an older woman said sympathetically. “Don’t you have relatives to look after him?”
“No.” Plum shook her head. “Not around here. We’re from Chengdu. The city was ruined by the Japs. Nothing to eat there so we came to Ya’an.”
They were going against the current and it became quicker as they went farther north. Three ferry docks later, they were at the end of the waterway. All the passengers got off there and started to on foot to cross Er-Lang Mountain, which would take them to Kangding.
Magnolia looked at the mountain from below. It was shrouded with fog and the air felt icy cold on her face. She shivered as she remembered that the mountain was notorious not only for its bad weather and dangerous roads, but also for the frequent bandit activities. Seeing the group of porters eager to move on, she soon forgot her worries and followed them up the path.
Although she wasn’t carrying any heavy loads, Magnolia could barely catch up with the tea porters because the mountain road was narrow and steep. At some places, the road was less than two feet wide, and it was on a cliff. There were times her legs shook and she had to hold on to the tea boxes of the porter that went before her for support.
The porters told her that it would take at least ten days before they got to Kangding. They stopped only twice during the day: once for lunch at noon, another at the end of the day. It started to drizzle around noon and the group stopped at an open hut inside a bamboo forest, and everyone unwrapped their lunch. Most of them had brought potatoes, corn flour buns, or rice balls. A couple of men gathered some bamboo stalks from the forest and started a cooking fire to heat up their lunch. Doggie’s mother shared their corn meals with Magnolia, and in exchange for her kindness, Magnolia gave Doggie a steamed meat bun that she had brought with her.
Soon they finished eating. While some porters fell into naps, others decided to go dig bamboo shoots—a favorite food in the region. Plum asked whether Magnolia would like to go and she eagerly agreed, so they left Doggie, who had fallen asleep, in the care of a woman porter and went into the rain with a back basket.
“Don’t go too far; there are bandits everywhere,” the woman warned them before they set off.
They were cautious at first, checking only the area near the hut, which had been more or less claimed by someone. A man who was filling his basket with the local delicacy glowered at them as they put down their own and started to dig. Plum didn’t want to make an enemy so she told Magnolia they should move on. They soon found themselves deep inside the forest, away from the others.
Plum was nervous in the beginning and told Magnolia to keep an eye on the hut so they wouldn’t be abandoned by the group, but soon she forgot herself in the digging. “I’ve never seen larger and better shoots than these,” Plum said as she showed Magnolia what she had gotten. “I’ll stew them with the bacon. It’ll be good! And I’ll pickle some. They’ll last the entire trip, I guess. Too bad they’re so heavy; I would really like to get more.”
“I can help you carry them,” Magnolia said. “I don’t have much.”
Hearing that, Plum gladly dug up a few more.
Suddenly, they heard the rustling of leaves and they both stopped what they were doing. It wasn’t caused by the wind. It sounded like someone was climbing or jumping down from a tree. Through the swaying bamboo and the misty rain, Magnolia saw a white shadow, and her heart pounded.
“Somebody is there,” she whispered to Plum. “A man—a big man crouching behind those stalks.”
They were getting ready to run when the rustling got louder, and they saw the “man,” who slowly made its way out. It was wearing a fur — black and white.
Plum broke into a laugh. “Why, it’s a panda!”
Magnolia’s jaw dropped as she stared at the fluffy bearcat. She had heard about the elusive creatures, had seen pictures of them, and had even seen their furs being sold in the markets, but she had never seen one alive with her own eyes.
“Does it bite?” she asked.
“They’re gentle creatures. But if you make them angry, they might attack.”