Mama cleared her throat. A few women looked in her direction, but otherwise the tittering agitation continued. She cleared her throat again, tapped her fingernail on a table, and began to speak in a melodious voice. One day the Kitchen Gods seven daughters were bathing in a pond when a Cowherd and his water buffalo came upon them.
At the recognition of the opening lines to every girl and womans favorite story, quiet fell over the room. I nodded at my mother, acknowledging how clever she was to use this story to relax us, and we listened to her recount how the impudent Cowherd stole the clothes of the loveliest daughter, the Weaving Maid, leaving her to languish naked in the pond.
As the chill of night settled in the forest, Mama explained, she had no choice but to go in natures full embarrassment to the Cowherds home to retrieve her clothes. The Weaving Maid knew she could save her reputation only one way. She decided to marry the Cowherd. What do you suppose happened next?
They fell in love, Tan Ze, Madame Tans daughter, piped up in a shrill voice.
This was the unforeseen part of the story, since no one expected an immortal to love an ordinary man when even here in the mortal world husbands and wives in arranged marriages often did not find love.
They had many children, Ze went on. Everyone was happy.
Until? my mother asked, this time looking for a response from another girl.
Until the gods and goddesses grew weary, Ze answered again, ignoring my mothers obvious wishes. They missed the girl who spun cloud silk into cloth for their clothes and wanted her back.
My mother frowned. This Tan Ze had forgotten herself entirely! I guessed her to be about nine years old. I glanced at her feet, remembering that shed walked in unassisted today. Her two-year footbinding was behind her. Maybe her enthusiasm had to do with being able to walk again. But her manners!
Go on, Ze said. Tell us more!
Mama winced and then continued as though yet another breach of the Four Virtues had not occurred. The Queen of Heaven brought the Weaving Maid and the Cowherd back to the celestial skies, and then she took a hairpin and drew the Milky Way to separate them. In this way, the Weaving Maid would not be diverted from her work, and the Queen of Heaven would be beautifully robed. On Double Seven, the goddess allows all the magpies on earth to form a celestial bridge with their wings so the two lovers can meet. Three nights from now, if you girls are still awake between the hours of midnight and dawn and find yourselves sitting beneath a grape arbor under the quarter moon, you will hear the lovers weep at their parting.
It was a romantic thoughtand it coated us in warm feelingsbut none of us would be alone under a grape arbor at that time of night, even if we were within the safety of this compound. And at least for me, it did little to still my quivering excitement about The Peony Pavilion. How much longer would I have to wait?
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