The Witch Nichang– Chapter 23
In this life, I rarely held on to anything.
In the sixteen years I had lived, there had only been two things I set my sights on: The first one was a thought I had since birth, that was to run away from the poor, indifferent, so-called home and family, which treated daughters as objects, to make life better for myself. This wish had been fulfilled ever since I followed Master. The second one was the thought I had now, that was to protect the child.
It was not an idea that had just popped up. That afternoon, every word I said to her while ruffling her hair was never spontaneous, but a sincere promise, though it had not yet occurred to me that the girl might have an unforgettable tragic love in her future.
I hoped the so-called tragic love was just my imagination.
No matter what, I want to protect her. It was my own business, so I said nothing to her. I could not tell her; there was no need either. About the uncertain future, I could not even tell what would happen myself. Only I could understand the vague notion, and only I had to understand.
For Lian’er, who knew nothing, simplicity is bliss, just like her biggest worry right now was simply not knowing what to buy to celebrate Master’s birthday.
Of course, if I let her know that I secretly used “simply” to define her worry, she would most likely blow up.
This trip to the stone chamber was fruitful for me, but it was almost meaningless for Lian’er. She was still bothered by the fact that Master loved someone other than us, but it was nothing compared to the trouble she was facing.
Fortunately, it was easy to reinstate the room because of its simplicity. Master noticed nothing strange when she was back, so we were safe. But time was still ticking away. With Lian’er temperament, it was difficult for her to stay calm when she was anxious. That night, I listened to her tossing and turning on her bed all night in her restless sleep.
And the next day, I had to convince her to make a trip down the mountain first. There was so much stuff in the market. She might find one or two things she fancied for Master as we browsed around.
This idea was just a temporary way to stop her from being anxious for nothing. She knew it too, so she seemed a little dispirited. But maybe because of her reluctance to resign herself, she still nodded to the idea, eventually.
It was still early in the morning. After she nodded, we went to Master to request for a leave. I could not say much, so I just said that seeing Master went down the mountain yesterday had sparked our interest to go out for a walk, and we wanted Master to grant us a half-day leave.
The leave-taking did not go so well. Master disliked people loafing about to begin with. Plus, she had just gone down the mountain yesterday, so we had the suspicion of going against her with this move. But she could not stand us bugging her and finally begrudged us permission on the condition that we do not show off, do not flaunt our skills, keep a bamboo hat on, and not take it off before returning to the mountain.
I agreed with a smile. Every one of these three rules was used to restrict Lian’er.
Lian’er was more or less aware of Master’s intention. Grudgingly, she agreed. She went to grab a loosely braided bamboo hat hanging on the outer cave wall and slapped it on her head. Then she urged me to go. I knew she was not in a good mood, so I said a quick goodbye to Master, took the hat beside me, and went after her.
We went down the mountain without a word and came to the largest village market nearby. It was a village, but it had taken on the size of a small town. Today was the grand market day of the month. The market was bustling with people. Usually, we did not like this kind of occasion, which was why Master went to run some errands the day before the grand market day. But now, as we were going to pick a gift without a specific item in mind, a market of this size with a variety of goods from all over the countryside was perfect.
Thanks to our nimbleness, Lian’er and I could move about freely in the crowded streets. On both sides of the cobblestone road were a vast array of stalls selling everything from food, clothing, and household goods, to delicate knick-knacks. Lian’er would sometimes stop in front of some stalls, look at them, ignore the vendors hawking their merchandise, and walk away.
I had been down the mountain more often, and I always paid more attention, so I was rather familiar with the area. When I turned around and saw a disgruntled face through the crack of my bamboo hat, I knew she had not found anything that appealed to her, so I pulled her away from these stalls and went straight to some larger shops. There were clothing shops that Lian’er was familiar with, and also jewelry, calligraphy shops that she normally overlooked, and even a shop specializing in all kinds of intricate weaving. I took her from shop to shop, allowing her time to browse. She did try her best to look for something, but nothing took her fancy.
This was no longer a matter of high standards. In all fairness, any few of those things would be far better than the ones made by Lian’er. After all, her problem was just that she could neither give Master her handmade gift nor find something Master liked. With this grudge in her mind, she was bound to find everything unsatisfactory.
By noon, I took Lian’er to an uncrowded tea shop to take a break after a round of browsing. As if to prove my guess, she suddenly looked up at me and said as I was drinking tea and having some snacks after taking a seat in a corner: “No, I still want to give Master something I made myself.
After slowly taking a sip of my hot tea, I laid my cup down and asked while looking at her: “That same pair of colored stones? If you don’t mind those minor flaws, sure.”
“You’re missing the point.” She shook her head and replied sternly: “I’m not giving her the colored stones this year, but I’m still going to give her something I made myself. Didn’t you make one yourself here last year? Then I’ll do the same too. Take me there.”
“Last year?” I was slightly dazed, then I could not help but smile and explained: “Lian’er, pottery is not that simple. Just to make it yourself, you won’t be able to do well without learning it beforehand, not to mention if he will help this time. I…I happened to try making it two or three times prior before I could barely make it. But you’ve never…I’m afraid this last-minute decision…”
“There’s no such thing as I’m afraid.” She refused to listen and said as she waved her hand: “Just take me there. You won’t know until I do it. I haven’t tried it yet. Why are you worrying so much?”
After standing off for a while, there was nothing I could do about her. We set off together to find the potter I had once visited after finishing the snacks. The old man was in his fifties or sixties, hale and hearty. He had an inconspicuous small shop in a remote alley near the outskirts of town, where he fired his own wares and sold them. His wares were mostly utensils for commoners.
Last time, I had the nerve to go to him uninvited. I felt embarrassed then, but this time around, I was a lot more familiar with him. First, I gave him a gift to thank him for his help last time, said a few words of courtesy, and explained why we were here this time. The folks here were unsophisticated, after all. When he heard my junior martial sister too wanted to make a gift herself to celebrate our master’s birthday, he laughed while fingering his beard, saying that her filial piety was commendable and that there was no problem.
When I was talking to the old man, Lian’er was standing beside me silently, looking around at times. It was only when I mentioned junior martial sister that she glared at me. When the old man praised her as he laughed, she smiled sweetly at him. Fortunately, she had promised Master not to take off her hat, so her smile was mostly covered. If not, I would have been worried about the safety of the two little apprentices by the old man’s side—if anyone dared to take the chance to approach her, I feared I would see blood the second I took my eyes off her with her temper.
After some pleasantries, the old man led us to the backyard. It was a small square courtyard. I had been here once, so I knew the kiln for firing pottery was at the end of the yard, and the few rooms near the kiln were for making pottery. The old man took us to a small room and said that this room was for his own exclusive use. It had all the tools inside, and he lent them to us for today, so there was no hurry.
After thanking the old man, I closed the door and turned around. I saw Lian’er had taken off her hat and was curiously poking about the room.
Though I said I had made it myself, the clay was all pre-kneaded. Like the last time, the most crucial part was throwing the clay. I had done it before and knew a thing or two about pottery, so I pulled her over and sat her down in front of the wheel, walking her through the way of using the machine. She understood and was eager to try it out. Soon, she started to put it into practice.
But how could anyone do well on their first try? As expected, the clay could not be coned up at all when the wheel started spinning. It collapsed every time her hand touched it. Lian’er tried again and again as I told her, but it still slanted every time at her touch. Finally, she lost her confidence and slapped the clay in exasperation. Then she looked up at me, biting her lips, her eyes bright and limpid.
I could not stand the look of help in her eyes and wanted to get her someone to guide her, but I felt it was inappropriate. Lian’er had already taken off her hat. Besides, it was hard to work with the hat on when it was dim inside. But if I called someone in without the hat, it was obviously disobeying Master. I thought about it and could only think of one way. After a moment of hesitation, I pulled a stool over, wetted my hands, and sat down close behind her, beckoning her to pedal the wheel.
Lian’er did not know what this was all about at first and just instinctively did as I instructed. It was not until I wrapped my arms around her and cupped her palms, guiding her fingertips to touch the clay, that she realized what I was doing. She thought it was a good idea and leaned against me, holding her breath and focusing on feeling the pressure and the movement of my fingers.
The clay, which would have slanted at her touch, changed under our fingertips, slowly taking the shape of a brush holder.
It had nothing to do with the maker’s talent or skills. Just by spinning and touching the clay itself, it gradually changed from nothing to an entirely new shape, which in itself was an incredible beauty.
The person in my arms became more and more focused. Lian’er’s eyes widened, staring at the changes before her with unblinking eyes, seemingly entranced. I could not see her expression. But holding her quietly, body to body, arms to arms, palms to palms, I could feel her slightest breath and heartbeat. Her heartbeat was slightly slower as she was concentrating and being gentle, trying to touch the object in front of her with the gentlest of strength. My heartbeat, however, was slightly faster.
I guessed it was still awkward. I tried to justify it. There were these fuzzy images in my head, constantly reminding me that this gesture represented a special kind of intimacy, so the awkwardness was inevitable, I supposed.
My fingers lost their accuracy once I was distracted. A faint flap came from the spinning clay, which had been somewhat formed in shape, proved another failure in throwing the clay.
I stood up as I cleared my throat, turned to the sink to wash the clay off my hands, and said: “Just like that. You try again in this way a few more times. Remember, ahem, remember the feeling just now.”
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