I woke at dawn and heard the clattering of a horse's hooves in the distance. I thought I was dreaming. In no time a rider appeared in front of me. I felt dizzy with fatigue and hunger. The man dismounted and walked straight toward me. Without saying a word he presented me with a package tied with ribbon. He said it was from the taotai of the local town. Startled, I ran to my mother, who opened the package. Inside were three hundred taels of silver.
"The taotai must be a friend of your father's!" Mother cried. With the help of the rider we hired back our footmen. But our good luck didn't last. A few miles down the canal we were stopped by a group of men on horses led by the taotai himself. "A mistake has been made," he said. "My rider delivered the taels to the wrong family."
Hearing this, Mother fell to her knees.
The taotai's men took back the taels.
Exhaustion suddenly overwhelmed me and I fell on my father's coffin.
The taotai walked to the coffin and squatted as if studying the grains of the wood. He was a stocky man with rough features. A moment later he turned to me. I expected him to speak but he didn't.
"You are not a Chinese, are you?" he finally asked. His eyes were on my unbound feet.
"No, sir," I replied. "I am Manchu."
"How old are you? Fifteen?"
He nodded. His eyes continued to travel up and down, examining me.
"The road is filled with bandits," he said. "A pretty girl like you should not be walking."
"But my father needs to go home." My tears ran.
The taotai took my hand and placed the silver taels in my palm. "My respects to your father."
I never forgot about the taotai. After I became the Empress of China I sought him out. I made an exception to promote him. I made him a provincial governor, and he was given a handsome pension for the rest of his life.
Copyright © 2004 by Anchee Min. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.
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