Excerpt of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See
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Grandmother tottered into the room. Her face looked like a dried plum, and
her back bent so far forward that she and I saw eye to eye.
"Help your grandmother," Mama ordered. "See if she needs anything."
Even though I had just made a promise to myself, I hesitated. Grandmother's
gums were sour and sticky in the mornings, and no one wanted to get near her. I
sidled up to her, holding my breath, but she waved me away impatiently. I moved
so quickly that I bumped into my fatherthe eleventh and most important person
in our household.
He didn't reprimand me or say anything to anyone else. As far as I knew, he
wouldn't speak until this day was behind him. He sat down and waited to be
served. I watched Mama closely as she wordlessly poured his tea. I may have been
afraid that she would notice me during her morning routine, but she was even
more mindful in her dealings with my father. He rarely hit my mother and he
never took a concubine, but her caution with him made us all heedful.
Aunt put bowls on the table and spooned out the congee, while Mama nursed the
baby. After we ate, my father and my uncle set out for the fields, and my
mother, aunt, grandmother, and older sister went upstairs to the women's
chamber. I wanted to go with Mama and the other women in our family, but I
wasn't old enough. To make matters worse, I now had to share Elder Brother with
my baby brother and Third Sister when we went back outside.
I carried the baby on my back as we cut grass and foraged for roots for our
pig. Third Sister followed us as best she could. She was a funny, ornery little
thing. She acted spoiled, when the only ones who had a right to be spoiled were
our brothers. She thought she was the most beloved in our family, although
nothing showed her that this was true.
Once done with our chores, our little foursome explored the village, going up
and down the alleys between the houses until we came across some other girls
jumping rope. My brother stopped, took the baby, and let me jump too. Then we
went home for lunchsomething simple, rice and vegetable only. Afterward, Elder
Brother left with the men, and the rest of us went upstairs. Mama nursed the
baby again, then he and Third Sister took their afternoon naps. Even at that age
I enjoyed being in the women's chamber with my grandmother, aunt, sister,
cousin, and especially my mother. Mama and Grandmother wove cloth, Beautiful
Moon and I made balls of yarn, Aunt sat with brush and ink, carefully writing
her secret characters, while Elder Sister waited for her four sworn sisters to
arrive for an afternoon visit.
Soon enough we heard the sound of four pairs of lily feet come quietly up the
stairs. Elder Sister greeted each girl with a hug, and the five of them
clustered together in a corner. They didn't like me intruding on their
conversations, but I studied them nevertheless, knowing that I would be part of
my own sworn sisterhood in another two years. The girls were all from Puwei,
which meant that they could assemble often, and not just on special gathering
days such as Catching Cool Breezes or the Birds Festival. The sisterhood had
been formed when the girls turned seven. To cement the relationship, their
fathers had each contributed twenty-five jin of rice, which was stored at our
house. Later, when each girl married out, her portion of rice would be sold so
her sworn sisters could buy gifts for her. The last bit of rice would be sold on
the occasion of the last sworn sister's marriage. That would mark the end of the
sisterhood, since the girls would have all married out to distant villages,
where they would be too busy with their children and obeying their
mothers-in-law to have time for old friendships.
Even with her friends, Elder Sister did not attempt to grab attention. She
sat placidly with the other girls as they embroidered and told funny stories.
When their chatter and giggles grew loud, my mother sternly hushed them, and
another new thought popped into my head: Mama never did that when my
grandmother's late-life sworn sisters came to visit. After her children were
grown, my grandmother had been invited to join a new group of five sworn sisters
in Puwei. Only two of them plus my grandmother, all widows, were still alive,
and they visited at least once a week. They made each other laugh and together
they shared bawdy jokes that we girls didn't understand. On those occasions,
Mama was too afraid of her mother-in-law to dare ask them to stop. Or maybe she
was too busy.
Excerpted from Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See Copyright © 2005 by
Lisa See. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House,
Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted
without permission in writing from the publisher.