Zhī’ Zhū and the Tradesman – 2

Continuation from: Zhī’ Zhū and the Tradesman – 1

“My children will not feed for some time.” The lilting voice had become a piercing screech and was now behind him. “So I will store you, and you may contemplate your death a few days longer.”

Ju-lun swung his sword in the new direction, but again it bit only empty air. Strong silk thread snagged his arm and pulled it straight. He struggled but a powerful grip snapped and pinned both of his arms to his waist. Sharp feet poked, spun and wrapped him. This is how my life ends, he thought as each fold swept over him. The soft caress of silk touched his face as the first binding slid across his cheek.

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Lady Zhi’ Zhu at home

“Your silk is very fine, Lady Zhī’ Zhū, the finest I’ve felt.” His voice sounded detached and business-like, as if another was speaking.

“Thank you, noble warrior,” she said, continuing to wrap, “I am a master in silk, but a swordsman such as yourself is not worthy to judge.”

“But I am not a warrior. Like you, I am a master in silk. My mastery is in the dying and painting of silk. I see by this purest whiteness that your wondrous skills do not extend to that art.”

Zhī’ Zhū stopped spinning. “A master in silk dying? How can I believe you?”

“Free my hand and you will see that it is marked by my trade.” He felt the binding on one hand loosen and something like sharp forceps twist it out. A sudden light revealed a hideous head of black spines peering at his hand.

“Last week, my father and I worked with saffron and the purple we extract from a marine snail.”

“You have other colors?”

“Many,” Ju-lun wiggled his fingers, “besides these, we have reds, blues, gold and green, and others we design to customers’ tastes. I specialize in patterns and designs. You will find no greater silk dyers in the Kingdom of Wu, perhaps not in all China.” He noted her interest and timed his pitch. “You, Lady Zhī’ Zhū are the greatest weaver of silk. If you give me the fine threads I now have about me, I will bring you one water buffalo in exchange, or three goats if you prefer. And perhaps, if you are pleased you would accept a contract for future deliveries and my family’s humble services coloring your glorious silk. We desire freedom from the cut-throat dealings of the silkworm merchants. You and your family could settle into a comfortable trade with us as your partners.”

The next morning, Ju-lun stood again before Lord Liu in the throne room of the palace. “Great Lord, I have engaged with Zhī’ Zhū as you ordered. She will trouble the Kingdom of Wu no longer.” Bai giggled and covered her face with her fan.

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Lady Zhi’Zhu visiting Ju-Lun at court.

“Is this true, High Counselor?” Lord Liu demanded.

“It is, Great Lord,” Yi Kuo said and bowed low. “By means of—“

“Clever bargain finds target missed by keenest sword,” Ju-lun interrupted. “I shall make myself worthy to be your son-in-law, Lord Liu.”

And so it was that High Lord Liu invited Ju-lun and his parents into his household. Ju-lun and Liu Bai married and had many children. The Kingdom of Wu became the center of China’s silk trade for the next three hundred years. Lord Liu reveled in his family’s good fortune. He never questioned Ju-lun about his bargain or the annual visits of a strange dark woman with long raven hair and great beauty.

Jack

Six-year-old Cory tucked her flannel nightgown tight around her bare legs. The old farmhouse was cold. Cory sat on the top step staring down the dark stairway. She listened for any creak of the pine boards that would tell her that her mother was coming. A naked light bulb with a drawstring rocked back and forth in the draft and cast barred shadows of the stair rails along the cracked plaster walls. She licked her lips.

“Mommy, when are you coming up?” she called softly. The bare walls swallowed the sound of her voice.

“Get into bed, Cory,” her mother said. “I’ll be up as soon as I get these pies in the oven.”

Cory didn’t want to go into her bedroom alone. Bad things would get her. That’s what Billy Farkin had said on the playground. Bad things like little girls. Tonight they’ll come for you, Cory. It’s Halloween night. They’ll come for sure. He’d hissed when he said it. She looked back at the dark doorway to her bedroom. A full moon shining through the window silhouetted a leafless tree, casting ghosts of boney branches across her bed cover.

Why was Billy mean to her? She remembered him pulling her swing seat away then squatting in the dirt hollow beneath the swing. Bad things happen on Halloween. Oh yes, they do … and bad things happen to little girls. He’d rubbed his nose on his wrist then pointed that finger straight at her. And they’ll be coming for you, tonight. He’d squinted his piggy eyes and flexed his fingers like claws as if to grab her.

“Mommy, come tuck me in!” Cory shouted, this time hearing her voice echo. No reply came. She wished her daddy was there, but she knew he was at the garage trying to get the car fixed. She wiped her wet cheek and blinked away tears.

Tonight bad things will get little girls.

CREAK, THUMP, she heard something in her bedroom. Cory snapped her head around and pulled her heels close beneath her to jump. A shadow moved. She looked harder. The twisting light bulb lit a corner of her bed. The dust ruffle waved. Behind her bed, a single candle flickered soft and golden from the jack-o’-lantern her daddy had set on the steamer trunk.

“Mommy! Come tuck me in!” Again, there was no answer. Cory stood and edged toward the doorway.

Tonight, Cory . . . bad things will come.

Cory leaned into the dark bedroom, careful to keep her feet in the triangular patch of light beside the door. The wind whistled. CREAK, THUMP, a frosty gust slapped one of the tree’s skeletal branches against the loose-fit single-pane window. SCRATCH, SCRATCH, sharp branch sticks like tiny claws scraped the glass, sending shivers up Cory’s neck.

They’re trying to get in . . . the bad things are coming.

“Cory, go to bed,” her mother called. Cory ran back to the top of the stairs.

“Grandma wants to make pies for Mrs. Jones, too, and daddy’s still in town, so don’t wait up. Crawl into bed. I’ll be up as soon as I roll out the extra pie dough.” Mommy doesn’t know about the bad things, Cory thought, hearing no fear in her mother’s voice.

“Mommy! I’m scared. Billy said . . .”

“CORY! Get into bed. If you’re scared—talk to Jack.” Her voice trailed off to murmurs with grandmother in the kitchen.

Cory tiptoed back to the light triangle in the doorway. The jack-o’-lantern’s candle flickered orange shadows and wafted smells of hot wax and pumpkin. Cory kneeled and looked under the bed. The dust ruffle swayed like an unseen monster, breathing and waiting.

Bad things are there, watching for little feet to come close.

“JACK!” Cory whispered loudly. “Are your there?”

“I’m here, Cory!” The jack-o’-lantern’s flame danced. “Come to bed. I’ll watch for you.”

“Jack, you better help me.”

Cory pulled herself upright, widened her eyes, and took a deep breath. The jack-o’-lantern flared a bright smile that shifted the moon shadows. Cory bolted forward, jumped, and grabbed the smooth comforter. Feet, she thought, feeling the dust ruffle brush her ankles. She curled her legs up behind her before any swift-closing claws could catch them. The comforter pulled loose and began sliding. Cory felt herself slip. Exhaling hard and pulling, she wriggled her way up.

The candle sparked. “Good work, Pumpkin! You made it!”

“Ha! Jack!” Cory turned the edge of the bedcovers back then rolled and squeezed her legs between the cool tight sheets. She pulled her nightie close about her, tucked the covers so nothing could creep under, then propped her head with the pillow.

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“Don’t call me Pumpkin, Jack.”

“Don’t call me Pumpkin, Jack,” she said with a sigh. “I’m a little girl. You’re the pumpkin.” She pointed a bent finger at Jack’s dancing eyes. “I know you are, because I went with Daddy to get you from the pumpkin patch. You were a big orange pumpkin on a curly vine.” She rocked her head as she spoke. “We brought you to the house, and Daddy gave you that big smiley face—just like I told him to.”

“Yes! He did, Cory.” Jack’s candle glowed. “And he put me right here at the foot of your bed to keep the bad things away.”

“Bad things like little girls,” Cory whispered. “That’s what Billy Farkin said.” She looked at Jack beaming beyond the foot of her bed. “How can you help me, Jack? You are little like me—and monsters are big,” Cory swept her arms wide, “this big.”

“Because I’m magic.” Jack’s flame snapped bright.

“Magic? How?”

“Your daddy put magic in me. Remember when he carved my face? He loved his little girl with every stroke. Love is magic.”

“YES!” Cory sat up, raised her arms, and put her hands on top of her head. “And Daddy was laughing, and he said when he was away, Jack would watch over me.’”

“Yes, your daddy was laughing … laughing is magic too, Cory.” Jack’s flame twinkled. “And it doesn’t matter how little you are, not when you have loving and laughing magic.”

A new tear glinted in Cory’s eye. “I wish my Daddy was here. But, I’m real glad he made you for me, Jack.”

“Cory?” her mother said from the doorway. “You still talking to Jack?” Her mother smoothed the quilted bedcover. Leaning close, she framed and kissed her little girl’s face. Cory smelled cinnamon and cloves. “Good night, Sweetheart.”

“I love you, Mommy.”

“Sleep tight! Do you want me to leave the light on in the hall?”

“No, I’m not scared any more.” Her mother left. Cory looked toward the glowing face just beyond her bed. “Good night, Jack.”

“Good night, Pumpkin!” Jack’s candle twinkled.

“You’re the pumpkin, silly Jack. I’m a little girl.”