When Tian Shih and Penelope approached the cottage in the midst of the graveyard, they could see that it was in fact a very small farm, with a garden, a chicken coop, and a goat on a line. It seemed unlikely to Tian Shih that this could be a caretaker’s cottage with such an arrangement. A dog appeared from under the front porch to greet them, wagging his tail, but as always happened, he caught the scent of the Fox and slunk back under the porch not to be seen again.
Penelope stopped short of the porch steps. “I know nothing of these customs. I…I am only an apprentice…” she stammered.
Tian Shih looked at her and considered. Of course. This girl, who seemed so much younger than she did was actually slightly older, yet she knew nothing of the world, only of the Dream Caves. “Of course. I will talk,” and she climbed the rough wooden steps to the off-kilter door. Composing herself, she looked at the detritus on the porch: washtubs, obviously in use as nesting boxes for hens, an old table piled with tins, pieces of rope, various objects that she could not identify, the floor of the porch caked with dirt and dung of what? goats, chickens, what other animals this person owned.
She had been to the farm her father owned, which had every animal her family chose to eat or sell, and everything had its place. Everything was neat and in repair. Here, she had caught sight of an untidy garden behind the cottage and a gnarled apple tree with misshapen apples—this also would never been allowed within the bounds of the Chen farm. The gardens and greenhouses were beautiful and in constant use; when one crop went out of season, another replaced it or a cover crop was put in place to allow the soil to recover. The fruit trees were carefully pruned and servants watched for disease and insects. The head gardener prepared substances to ward off these things, but they were vigilant in order to provide the best harvest.
Tian Shih knew all of this because she had made it her business to know. Her father knew nothing of her interest as he knew nothing of her studies. But she had had Pon take her to the farm day after day for a year and she had followed the head gardener then servants through their duties to learn how the farm was run and why it worked so well. She could not describe a single reason for her interest, but she knew that the farm was a place her father rarely visited and so she felt safe there.
She sighed and knocked hesitantly on the door. It instantly flew open and she took a step back. “I wonnered if ye were gonna stan’ there all dang day or git with knockin’ on this dern door,” said the very round very bright eyed very wrinkled woman who stood in front of Tian Shih in her faded habit with obvious stains on the front. Tian Shih was speechless. The woman was all of four feet at most and Tian Shih found that she was looking at the top of her head as she moved forwards in a rolling gait.
“Missy, you too, I knows you must be a leetle shy like, but in ye come. My birds tole me ye were comin’ an’ whare ye were goin’ so let’s have some tea an’ git ye on yer way.”
“Birds?” said Persephone.
“Birds,” breathed Tian Shih, as they followed the old woman into her house, and found themselves surrounded by ravens perched on all available surfaces. The birds stared at the girls, ruffled and preened, but looked sleepy and content, not keen and predatory, as Tian Shih had always seen them.
“Yep. I’m Sister Cumie and thems my birds. Thems why I’m not at the big Abbey yonder. Them folks didn’t take kindly to my birds, no no. Theys the sign of devils folks said. But the abbess she knows wild thangs better than most so she sent me here. Not so bad. I like the daid. Thems don’ say much most times but they tell me thangs, only sometimes thems angry ‘bout livin’ thangs so I stay in my house.” As she talked she bustled around a tiny, grubby kitchen, gathering cups, peering into tins, pouring water into a slightly cracked teapot. Before Tian Shih realized what was happening, she found herself seated in a rickety chair next to a dazed Persephone, also seated in what appeared to be a chair with three legs. In front of them was the cracked teapot, two dubiously clean teacups, a plate of some sort of baked bread in slices and a tin with a fruited bread in it. The woman placed a pot of cream and a bowl of sugar next to the teapot and smiled, creating even more wrinkles on her round face. “Now, be eatin’ both of ye’ an’ I’ll do the talkin’ seein’ how I know ye an’ ye don’ know me.”
Tian Shih poured tea for herself and Persephone, not knowing if the girl drank tea and took a slice of the bread. She never used milk or sugar, preferring, in the Chinese way, her tea without adulteration. Persephone, after hesitating, added sugar to her tea and took a piece of the fruited bread.
“Thare now. Let me tell ye whare ye are an’ whare yer goin’.” And this is what she said:
They had been transported to the next best place than the ship—this was White Owl Island, and the ship had been in port there for quite awhile, the passengers going to and from the Abbey on the island. But at the moment the ship was preparing to leave, although some passengers would stay behind to ride donkeys across the island to board a barge to another island. Sister Cumie suggested that the donkey ride was not a ride that she would want to be part of and they should dang well be moving on to catch that ship. In fact, they might be too late because here they were in the Abbey cemetery not on the ship so it might be donkeys for them.
Tian Shih had been startled by the tea. It actually was a tisane, a number of herbs—she could identify the lavender, the small amount of sage, the chamomile, but there was something very delicate that she did not know, but she was thankful again that she was drinking her tea unadulterated so that she could enjoy the perfect mix of the herbs. It reminded her slightly of a tea Ting Ting gave her as a child. The bread too was startling. Fresh, smelling of wheat and nutmeg, she made the slice last through Sister Cumie’s tale, but she ate no more.
However, Persephone seemed to have consumed most of the fruited bread. Although she knew Persphone to be older than she, Tian Shih was beginning to realize the knowledge of the world that Persephone had been denied. But Tian Shih had brought her from the caves so Persephone was her responsibility and part of her destiny now and part of that meant that she, Tian Shih, would have to teach her what she did not know.
“I’ll be sendin’ a bird with ye to guide ye to the donkeys. If’n the ship’s still in port, ye kin go thare, but I’m havin’ my doubts,” and Sister Cumie looked around the room as if someone would step forward with the information she sought. Then she started bustling around the kitchen again with a pack muttering to herself, swiftly snatching the tin from the table just as Persephone’s hand reached for another piece of bread. In less time than Tian Shih would have imagined, they were on the porch with warm coats, packs with an array of breads and dried fruit and water canteens.
“Goodbye, me dearies. I’ll be seein’ ye,” called Sister Cumie, as they followed a path to a more well traveled road. Tian Shih wondered if she were talking to them or the several ravens that flew, hopped or walked with them, craning their necks to peek at the women with bright, shrewd eyes.
After they had trudged along the windy sunlit road for awhile, Persephone said, “I’ve never seen a donkey, except in books. Are they difficult animals?”
Tian Shih stifled a smile and said, “They can be. I have seen them on our farm, where they are used to pull traps,” and here she looked at Persephone to see if she understood. There was a blank look on her face. “Traps are small carts for hauling, too small for horses.”
“The only horses I know are the Nightmares and they do not look like the horses in the books. In fact, I don’t think that they are horses at all.”
Tian Shih thought for a moment. “If they are horses, I believe they are only to be found in the caves. I have seen many but none such as the Nightmares. I am sure that the donkeys shall be the same which is why I believe we should hurry to be able to board the ship.”
Persephone was silent for awhile and then said in a troubled tone, “Will I be allowed on the ship?”
Tian Shih stopped walking. All the ravens stopped too, surrounding them in a raven circle, watching them carefully, heads cocked to the side as if waiting for her answer. Tian Shih reached up and held Persephone’s face in her hands, a movement that she had never accomplished with any person other than Ting Ting. The gesture and the touch startled Persephone as much as Tian Shih. Their eyes met fully and suddenly with a gasp they pulled apart.
Rivers of memories and dreams had melded in that instant of touch. Tian Shih had seen dragons and foxes and her mother and cruel dreams of wandering, lost. Persephone stuttered, “ You you you….who are you?”
“I am Tian Shih Ching of the Chen family.” She bowed formally. “My father is a Dragon in his Changed state. I am a fox. The Chen family has been one of shape changers for as long as time. And you can Change also.” The last sentence was more of a question.
“I never knew…I mean I thought…I thought…” Persephone was unaware of the tears on her face. “I was the only one. No one knew in the caves except my nurse. She hid me deep in caves when the Change came and then with time I was able to control it.”
“I believe that there were some who knew of your Change. The Dream Master who I met knew immediately of my Changing,” said Tian Shih gently.
Persephone shook her head refusing to look up, saying “no no no no…”
“Why would it matter?” said Tian Shih and then the words came back to her, “You can’t change here. No one can. It has something to do with the closeness of the dream state. If you changed, then the veil might break and dreams would enter the world unchecked and that would be a mess, wouldn’t it?”
“How did you manage without breaking the veil?”
“Not all the caves are true Dream Caves. My dwelling is in a part where no dreams leak.”
“Or the Dream Masters were lying, and they let you change for a reason.”
Persephone looked up startled. “Why would they do that?”
Tian Shih said, “I don’t know but they wanted me to stay also, using as pretext that my mother wanted me there. And also, you said as an apprentice, you cannot read dreams. I saw in your memories something completely different. You have been reading dreams. The dreams in your head are not all yours—they belong elsewhere. Could the Dream Masters cause you to read while you were unaware?”
Persephone was beginning to look as if she might be ill and Tian Shih was sorry she had started the conversation. “Pay no heed to my words. Yes, you will have berth on the ship as my guest. But we must keep walking or we will not arrive in time.”
And they started off again, and the ravens one at a time disappeared until only one was left, guiding them from road to road.
Finally, in early evening, they saw the oil lamps and candles of a town. And from the vantage point where they were, they could see the wharf, but no ship. Tian Shih sighed. Donkeys. She looked at the raven and said, “Where are the donkeys?” The raven looked at her and seemed to give her a wink, and led them into the town.
Tired and dusty, they arrived at the Rose & Swan tavern. It was a boisterous place, and Tian Shih could see a few passengers inside. Obviously they were on the donkey trek too, but were celebrating before leaving. The raven took them around to back of the tavern where Tian Shih could see a corral with a few donkeys left, and just outside the corral was Ting Ting with a small donkey cart hitched and ready to leave and two donkeys, blankets over their bodies and rope halters across their heads. In the cart were packs and bundles. Tian Shih gave a wordless cry of happiness and ran to her servant and embraced her. Ting Ting gave her a tight little shake of her head but couldn’t contain her small smile. “Mistress, you late very late, but raven came with message with information. Nice woman, Cumie. But where Persephone? Must see her.”
Persephone stepped forward but Ting Ting was already there, holding her hands in her own and kissing them saying over and over something unintelligible. Persephone just stared at the old woman’s horn in the middle of her forehead and then looked at Tian Shih helplessly. “My servant Ting Ting. She has had me in her care since I was a baby as my mother was murdered.”
“I saw that, I saw a dragon,” Persephone said and then stopped when Tian Shih shook her head slightly. At least she understood discretion, thought Tian Shih. She moved to the two donkeys outside the corral. “Ting Ting, which is mine?” she asked.
“Ask them,” she said
Ask them? thought Tian Shih. She was expecting something different, but a sentient donkey? Both donkeys were looking at her in a very guarded fashion and one of them sniffed rudely and said, “Fox.” She stepped back a pace. Talking donkeys. Oh this would be a delight. Not only were they talking but they were rude. “Well, yes, I am able to Change…” but she wasn’t able to get any further because the donkey to her right said,”Yes, we know that already. I know everything including the fact that you are late so let’s just move please. I’m not so thrilled to be traveling with those,” and she tossed her head towards the two donkeys pulling the cart. “They are dumb animals, but I suppose since Ting Ting needs the cart, we’ll allow it.”
The other donkey said, “Persephone! Let’s be off! Daylight’s a’wasting!”
Persephone gave a little cry and said, “They talk!”
Both donkeys farted and laughed. The gas was enough to asphyxiate someone. Tian Shih said, “No more of that,” and the two muttered something rude but quieted down.
Ting Ting climbed in her cart and Persephone and Tian Shih threw their packs in the back. Tian Shih mounted her donkey and looked back at Persephone. She had put one leg over, but it was the wrong leg and she was about to mount facing backwards. Tian Shih sighed, dismounted and helped Persephone to mount facing forwards.
Her donkey started talking immediately. “Now we have everything you need for the trip, although Ting Ting insisted on bringing enough provisions for a trip around the world,” and here both donkeys laughed their obnoxious laughs. “There is no reason for you to guide us or even touch the halter rope, unless you have a thing about dominating other animals.” She twisted her head around to give Tian Shih a look that said if you Change while riding me, there will be trouble.
“My name is Eurydice, that’s Demeter. We thought it would be nice to all the players in the stories, well the women anyway.” Tian Shih vaguely remembered studying Greek and Roman myths but she was confused by the reference and would have to spend some time remembering. “And who knows,” said Eurydice, “We just might meet the men on the way.” Demeter gave what Tian Shih thought was supposed to be a whistle, but it was more like a honk. Wonderful. Rude, randy, talking donkeys.
“Our first stop will be in the Valley of Bones. I do hope you are prepared. The last time we did this trek, the woman went off in the night and never returned. That happens sometimes. Powerful voo-dun those bones are.”
“Voo-dun?” asked Persephone. “My stars, honey, you are the protected one, aren’t you?” said Demeter. “Voo-dun, while an actual religion, although most believe it to be a cult, is usually used as a descriptive term, as in magickal, filled with unknown power.”
The overly pompous voice that Demeter used rendered them speechless. Then Eurydice said, “She reads too much.” And the donkeys immediately started a name-calling argument, ending with ‘Elephant turd,” which made them both honk, and then all was quiet again.
Unbearable, thought Tian Shih. This must be a test or trial by fire. Ting Ting, from behind her cried, “Mistress, bones ahead!” and Eurydice and Demeter both said, “Damn, woman, you’ve got the touch for sure!” Then there was crunching under foot, and Tian Shih realized that what she taken for white sand was actually a landscape of bones as far as she could see, heaps of bones with a few trees here and there. She could see small fires and donkeys here and there, where travelers had bedded down for the night. “We are not sleeping here,” she said. But both donkeys and the cart walked off the track to the nearest little copse of tree and stopped.
Oh, this was not good, she thought, just as Persephone said in a strangled voice, “Too much death, I think I’m changing.”
Tian Shih was trying to say, you can stop it, when Demeter bucked and threw Persephone off, the donkeys pulling the cart ran sideways and nearly tipped Ting Ting into a pile of bones and Eurydice bolted. “Stop!” yelled Tian Shih, pulling the rope on Eurydice’s halter, with no result, so with resignation she wrapped her hair around her neck to keep it from tangling, slid sideways off the donkey, and turned a somersault on the ground to minimize damage to herself. Then she watched her donkey disappear over the hill.