The River Dragon’s Daughters is a partially completed book spanning the lives of four Chinese women from the Republic to the present day.
Chapter 1, A GIFT OF THE RIVER DRAGON
© 2000, James A. Clapp
Weiping dribbled the goat’s milk carefully onto her left breast. Some ran down her stomach, but some drops clung to her nipple. It was a small breast, and she wondered how it might look if it were indeed engorged with mother’s milk. It would be bigger, and firmer, she considered, like Chen Yi-ban’s, the size that the village boys seemed to like to measure with their hands.
I haven’t even a small handful, she thought. No boy would take any notice of these meager mounds. But that didn’t matter now. Perhaps this baby would love her breasts.
She breathed a sigh of relief when the child’s mouth actually latched onto her, and then gasped when the power of its suck surprised her.
From such a little mouth, such a little baby.
She positioned its head so that the goat’s milk could be dribbled into the corner of its mouth. If she was too slow the child would suck harder; too fast, and it would blow little milk bubbles when it exhaled.
Weiping knew that she didn’t have to alternate breasts, the way a real nursing mother would. But she did it anyway, dribbling the milk into the other corner of the baby’s mouth. It was a very pleasing, erotic sensation, and she wanted both breasts to experience it. She was a crosscurrent of emotions—maternal, sexual, apprehensive. She was deceiving this little child with her breast-feeding method, but it was for its own good she reasoned. She surmised that it must have been nursed at the breasts of its real mother, or perhaps a wet nurse, but already she could feel a bond between herself and this baby, and admitted to herself that it was for her own good as well.
Soon the baby had ceased sucking, more tired than sated, and its eyelids fluttered toward sleep. Gently she placed her in the basket that she had padded with her own winter jacket, then tucked a rag under its naked bottom. It was a basket that she normally brought home full of squirming eels.
“How did you come into my eel basket, little dolphin?” she whispered. “Why did the river gods send you to me, xiao bai-ji ?” I must get you another basket for your cradle; we can’t have you smelling of eels.
She, too, felt tired and laid herself down on the hard-packed dirt floor. Already she felt that her life had changed in some fundamental way, but only now did its fuller meaning begin to assert itself. She remembered how she first thought that thump against her thigh was in fact a small river dolphin. Once she had seen a dead one the village boys discovered on the shore. The bump had startled her, but when shed went to push it away she felt the softness. But in the next moment she knew for sure that it was a child, a live child.
Weiping had seen several dead children float by the little cove where she fished for eels. Only a few metres out into the Yangtse and the current raced by so rapidly that the water roiled and sent little whirlpools spinning into the little cove. The dead babies might be so bloated that they would race by like balloons, spinning and flipping in the whorls of beige water. One day she had come upon one in the large rocks that rimmed the cove. It was being feasted upon by maggots and its eyes were just holes. She put her eel-smelling hands to her nose to mask the horrible smell.
These were only the babies who had been “washed,” the term that midwives used to refer to their intentional drowning. Many others would have been smothered in ashes as soon as the midwives had pulled them from their mothers and determined their sex. No one knew just how many girl babies were left in fields to die of exposure, were strangled, or even eaten. Weiping knew most of these things by whispered stories, but the floating babies confirmed the truth of it.
Then how had this baby survived, she wondered? It couldn’t have been in the river for long; the cold water, being pulled under by the current and drowned, her head bashed against a rock or a floating log, she could have died in any number of ways. This river killed strong adults, for a baby to survive was a miracle.
The thought quickly followed that the baby might have been thrown in the river quite nearby her little cove, perhaps by someone from the village. Maybe by the mother, the father, or the midwife? It could be anyone. No one values girl babies.
Then again, maybe whoever brought the baby to the river knew that Weiping would be fishing in her cove, had seen her there. So perhaps someone intended that she discover this baby. Maybe the perpetrator even secretly watched as Weiping pulled the baby from the water and placed it in her eel basket.
The implication of that last speculation caused a rush of anxiety to come over Weiping. What did it mean if someone knew that she actually had rescued this baby? The thought formed almost automatically that the parents might change their mind and come to take the baby back.
But why should that matter? Why did she seem to assume that she wanted to keep this baby for herself? What made her assume that? And when?
And why should she assume that this baby had come from nearby, she thought. She only knew the river from her little village to Chongqing, a distance of not many kilometers. But she had been told that it began far away to the West, where snows melted into as many as seven hundred little streams, then larger rivers, and finally swelled into the mighty Yangtse. Her little hut rested on a hillside where the banks of the river began to slope more steeply. It was an area of peasants, where homes were small and rude: mud or brick walls roofed in gray tiles and might be shaded by banana trees. Their farms were small, too, terraces carved out of the steep slopes and knitted together with footpaths that were often difficult to see from the river surface. Life was hard along these slopes, as it always had been, and it always would be.
But here too, the steep slopes began to constrict the river’s flow, and as it pushed against the hills, the current quickened and carved out coves such as those where Weiping fished for eels. And further to the East the river would force it way through three great gorges, where the mountains on either side rose to cloud-shrouded heights and the waters rose higher against their pressures. Weiping only knew of these changes in the river from tales and stories, for, although the gorges were not distant from her home she had never seen them. She had heard as well that far to the East, in another province, the land became low and flat, and here the river flooded millions of acres of farms, and swept entire villages away, and with them many lives. The river and its dragons gave life or took at way according to whims beyond the ken of a mere girl who fished eels.
So how could she know what destiny the river dragons had for this baby. Perhaps it was not the child of a village woman, but the child of the dragons, like the white dolphins, the bai-ji, and its destiny was not intended to be joined to a girl who fished eels. Perhaps it was not sent to keep as her own, but yet belonged to the dragons that ruled the river and the lives of those who lived beside it. The thought chilled her; perhaps the baby was destined for another and she intercepted it on its way. Oh, what ill fortune that might bring, to interfere with such strong forces.
The baby stirred and she lifted her head to look at it. Already it did seem that this baby was “hers.” She surveyed its features to see if some of them bore some resemblance to herself. Of course she understood that the basis of this proprietary feeling was that she had rescued this baby from certain death. If she had not, this baby would be floating, bloated and discolored, well down the rive at this hour. She had seen the difference between life and death, and that difference surely conferred certain rights, rights of ownership. And responsibility as well. But she would think about that part later.
The baby stirred again and began to fuss. Its face contorted into a crying expression, than relaxed as though it had reconsidered.
Weiping pondered her, moving the candle closer. How old was this baby? Certainly not a newborn, she thought. She looked at the umbilicus again. It was still red, with some hard scar tissue still attached. But the baby must have been several days old, maybe a week. It knew how to suckle, so it had been fed from the breast. By its mother? A wet nurse? How long could someone keep a baby and still be able to throw it in the river? Already Weiping couldn’t even consider such a thing. So how could a mother do it? Her own mother has not done it, that was certain. But she had abandoned Weiping nevertheless.
She moved the candle closer, checking the baby’s sex once more, as if to confirm that this was the reason it was rejected. “Just because of that,” she said, looking between the baby’s legs. Just because you are like me, you are worthless, unworthy of love, or even life,” she whispered. She meant, too, that they were more alike than in gender alone.
Weiping covered the baby and put her head down beside the eel basket, but kept one hand on it. In a short time she was asleep, and dreaming. In her dream the water was warm, and although she had never swum in the river she was now below its surface being gently tugged by its current. She was surprised that she was not afraid. It seemed that the current was pulling her toward where the land plunged into the river. When she reached the side of the river her hand touched a wall with large, slippery gray-green tiles and she moved along its length wondering whether there might be a window or a door in this wall.
She was startled when the wall began to move in a slow but powerful way. A wave of movement rippled the tiles, but they did not break or fall off, but slid over and under each other to accommodate the waving of the wall. As her eyes adjusted more to the dark water she could see that the wall was long and now had a sinuous appearance. It seemed to come alive. It was not only moving in a wave, but moving forward and slightly up and down as well, and taking Weiping along with it in the pull of it wake. It was then that she realized that she had not encountered a wall, but the flank of the Great River Dragon.
Soon the River Dragon was moving a greater speed, and now Weiping became alarmed. But she was afraid to release her grip on the scales that she had first thought to be tiles for fear that she might sink to the bottom of the river.
But the dragon moved faster and faster, and now the force of the water pulled greatly at her. The speed of the dragon increased and she was no longer able to hold on to its side. She spun and turned, not knowing up from down. But as she slowed she began to sink toward the botton.
As she approached the bottom she spied a shoal of eels, more eels than she had ever seen in her life. They swirled and swirled, blurring their green and yellow color. And then she saw that they were swirling around a small white river dolphin. The eels and the dolphin seemed to be sinking further toward the bottom, and again Weiping became fearful that she might never be able to return to the surface.
She was about to turn away and make for the surface when she looked one last time at the dolphin amongst the eels. But the dolphin have turned into the baby, the baby that she had rescued from the river.
Weiping turned in desperation, forcing herself further deeper in an attempt to reach the baby, but the current seemed to be pulling the eels and the baby further away. Now her heart was pounding, and she realized that all this time in the river she had been holding in her breath. She realized that now she must return to the surface to breathe. She began to feel panic, not that she might drown, but that the baby might be lost to her.
Now she struggled to catch up to the eels and the baby, exerting herself further and increasing her need to breathe. She flailed at the water fighting the current, but she drew closer. She reached and was able to grasp the ankle of the baby, but it slipped from her grasp. She reached again, but only clutched a handful eels.
Weiping’s lungs now felt as if they would burst. Her head pounded and, in one final, desperate lunge forced her body downward and grasped the baby’s leg. She turned, and pulling the baby behind her struggled for the surface, the last of her breath expended. She could just see the surface when she thought she would faint, and it would take a great lunge made to break free of the river. She screamed into the thick, brown water.
As Weiping broke out of her dream, gasping for air, she realized that she had jolted the baby out of its sleep with her struggle and scream. The child reached up with both its arms extended and bawled loudly. Weiping quickly reached down and picked her up. She felt relieved that it was only a dream and that the baby was safe with her. But the relief quickly gave way to concern; it was late in the night now and the sound of the baby’s cry would carry. Someone might hear. Uncle might hear!
“Take this ‘Little Dolphin,” she whispered, pushing its head toward her breast. “Take some of my milk.” At first it resisted because of Weiping’s heavy breathing and sweatiness from the panic in her dream. But soon it quieted and sucked contentedly.
Weiping liked the feeling. She liked this little thing that needed her, and she relaxed too. She leaned back comfortably against the wall, looking at the baby’s face as it slowed its sucking and slipped into sleep.
“Tomorrow we must find you something to wear, little Bai-ji .”
“Women,” she thought, “we.”