Avalon 5.11 The River Circus, part 2 of 6

Zhou Gongming stood on the deck and looked out over the town.  His sons, Bi and Wang made the boat fast against the dock.  His wife, Chen, cooked the fish and rice, while her niece, Feyan, who was also Gongming’s ten-year-old good luck charm, slept lazily under the shade of the boat house.  She had one arm draped over the tiger who napped with her.  The tiger, like a nanny, had the sleeping girl trapped between her front paws.  They were a team.

He found the black tiger cub and saved it when it was a newborn, barely able to suck milk from a cloth.  To this day, he had no idea what madness possessed him to do that.  But when Feyan showed up, a runny nosed four-year-old, and Feyan’s mother begged her sister to take the girl, they did.  Another act of madness.  Now, the tiger adopted the orphan girl, or the girl adopted the tiger, and they were making him a fortune.

The boat bumped the dock.  Gongming had to shift his weight to keep from falling over.  The tiger let out a small sound of protest.  Feyan shouted.  “Wang,” like everything was Wang’s fault.  Well, he was the eldest, but she never shouted at Bi.  A different Bi, that is, Bi Gan, had been Feyan’s father, presumably murdered by the Great King of the Shang, Di Xin.

They gave the girl the stage name of Shang Feyan.  Gongming thought it was a great rub in the nose of the Shang king.  No one would ever know her father had been brother to the former king, Di Yi, the present king’s father.  Feyan was the current king’s first cousin, but only Gongming and Chen knew that, and Chen’s sister, if she was still alive somewhere out there, in hiding.  The woman had been pregnant when she begged Chen to take the girl.  Gongming often wondered if the woman had that baby, and if Feyan had a baby brother or sister.

The tiger they named Ziya, a reminder that there were great rulers before the Shang took over.  Of course, Feyan just called the tiger Baby.

“Come along, Baby,” Feyan said.  “Let us see what Aunt Chen is cooking.  Maybe we can help.”

Baby let out something between a purr and a yawn, but got up and lumbered beside the girl.  The big tiger’s head was as tall as the girl’s head, and Feyan was not so short for a ten-year-old.  In fact, the tiger grew into a monster size, big enough and strong enough for Gongming to ride upon, and Gongming was not so slim for… his age.

“The boat is fast,” Bi reported.  “Wang is hungry.  Feyan is not helping, and Baby is following her like a puppy.  All is right with the world.”

Gongming raised one eyebrow.  The name Baby had pretty much infected the family.  “Son,” he said.  “Always do your job as well as you can.  Work hard and save, and fortune will smile on you.  And always take care of the things you have or you will soon lose them and have nothing at all.  Like, try not to damage the boat against the dock.”

“That is too much to fit in a fortune cookie,” Feyan protested.  She sat scratching the shoulder of the cat who sat beside her. The shoulder was as high as she could reach.

“Very wise,” Chen said.  She said that every time Feyan said something that no one knew what she was talking about.

“But father,” Wang spoke up.  “What is our job right now?”

“Lunch,” Gongming said, and Chen gave him his big bowl full of rice and fish.  Wang, the eldest got his bowl.  Bi said, “Thank you.”  Feyan got her little bowl.  She never ate much.  Then Chen set aside her own bowl before she scooped most of the rest into Baby’s big bowl.  Baby loved her rice and fish.  Feyan sometimes turned her nose up at the same thing, day after day.


The sun got ready to set.  It turned pink and extra bright against the river water.  Feyan knew from long experience that it would give her a headache if she stared at it for too long.  But the colors were especially beautiful that evening as the sky turned from golden to crimson, to maroon, and finally to a deep purple.  “Ultraviolet,” Feyan called it.  “Probably storm clouds gathering in the west, or too much dust from the Taklimakan Desert blowing up into the sky.”

“Very wise,” Aunt Chen said, and hugged Feyan and gave her a motherly kiss.  “Time to get ready.  Feyan had her pants on, and only needed to tie back her long, straight hair and make sure Baby had on her brass collar.

Many people came to the dock at sundown, because they had been told, they had heard about the show, or just because any sort of entertainment to break the monotony of their lives was welcomed.  Most of the rest came when they heard the fighting.

Wang and Bi set up a square on the place between the dock and the market.  They put up a bamboo curtain with great, wide openings for the people to see through, and admonished the people at every opportunity to stay behind the curtain.  Many people got up on the roofs of the houses around so they could look down into the square.  The boys brought out the stand with a great circle on top, and Bi made sure the wooden circle got soaked with plenty of oil that would burn without turning the circle to ash.  Wang set the two buckets of water aside, and then the brothers set up the wall on the fourth side of the square.  The wall had rope attached, though it was not evident what the rope might be used for.  Only one opening next to the wall let people in and out of the square.

As the sun set, Bi and Wang began to light the torches.  Wang tossed them to Bi, who pretended to not catch very well.  The torches went up in the air, and as soon as they were all lit, he tossed some back to Wang.  In this way, the brothers juggled the torches for a bit before they set them in place.

Shang Feyan came out doing a series of back hand springs.  She entertained the crowd with her acrobatics before she ended in a handstand, and walked on her hands until she stood between the brothers.  She curled to her feet and walked around the boys in a figure eight.  When she stood between them again, she tapped Wang on the chest and said, “No.”  She tapped Bi on the chest and said, “No.”  Then she threw her nose straight up in a haughty look, and stomped off through the opening by the solid wall.

“I will have that girl to wife,” Wang said his line.

“You will not,” Bi responded.  “She will be my wife.”

The boys growled at each other and retrieved their swords.  Wang and Bi fought a very well-choreographed duel.  The fists and kicks flew around the swords, but it all ended when Feyan leapt into the ring with a short sword of her own.

“Who is it that disturbs my beauty sleep?”

“It is I, Shang Wang, your one true love.”

“It is I, Shang Bi, the one who loves you most of all.”

Feyan practiced a little acting and marched around the two boys, examining them again, this time like one might examine livestock, going for more than a couple of laughs, including looking at their teeth.  She ended with, “But I do not love either one of you.”

“Give us a chance,” both boys objected.

“I tell you what.  I will marry the one who can best me with a sword.”

Suddenly, the sword fight became three ways, and Feyan got good licks on the boys, but they never touched her, until, at last, she disarmed them.  She picked up their swords and began to juggle them.  The boys stared, amazed, and came close until she jumped, did the splits in mid-air, and supposedly kicked both boys in the face.  They fell and pretended to be unconscious, and she caught her own sword, but let the other two hit the dirt, to prove they were real.  One or both usually stuck into the ground and stood straight up, but even if they clanked on the dirt, that proved the point.

Feyan went to the water bucket and took a swig of the river water.  Then she took the boys to the solid wall.  She used the rope loops, where she supposedly tied the boys so they could not escape.  She backed up and threw water into Wang’s face to wake him up.  She threw two knives, one to each side of his head.  He shrieked, which he was supposed to do, but he always shrieked.  She threw a third knife between his legs.  The entire audience winced before she spoke.

“No, I will not hurt my one true love.”

Then she splashed water in Bi’s face and picked up her bow and a handful of arrows.  She put an apple on Bi’s head and split it with an arrow.  Then she shot arrows all around him, without hitting him.  People applauded, until they heard a roar.

Feyan let the boys loose with a word.  “My Father!”

Zhou Gongming came into the square, riding on the back of the tiger.  He had Baby on a leash, but it was not necessary.  Baby knew her part.  Wang and Bi brought out the ring and the see-saw while father paraded along the edge of the bamboo curtain where the people could see the tiger up close.  He had a stick in the hand that was not holding the leash, and he was quick to slap any hand, young or old, that was foolish enough to try to reach through the bamboo to touch the tiger.

When they stopped, Bi and Wang pretended to be petrified, unwilling to move.  Feyan kissed baby’s nose and Baby licked her, and Gongming got down.  He asked what was going on, and Feyan said, I will show you.  She made Wang stand in a certain spot and put Bi on the see-saw.  She backed up about as far as she could and did back handsprings before a final back flip where she landed on the other end of the see-saw.  Bi went up, and landed, standing on Wang’s shoulders.  Feyan grinned and stood on the down end of the see-saw, presumably to laugh at the boys.

“Jump Ziya.  Jump,” Gongming said, and the tiger jumped on the up end ot the see-saw with enough weight to send Feyan to the top, where she landed on Bi’s shoulders, so they were standing three people high.  People applauded as Baby roared.  After Wang turned a bit, about as far as he could move, Feyan jumped down into Wang’s arms while Bi jumped back off Wang’s shoulders.  Then Wang shouted.

“But the tiger.”

Bi jumped through the ring and echoed, “Tiger.”

Wang jumped through, and rolled on the other side while Bi got a torch.  Feyan jumped through, and Gongming did something that made everyone gasp.  He took off Baby’s leash, and Baby did not have to be coaxed to jump through.

Bi brought up the torch and lit the ring.  “This will stop the tiger,” he declared, as Wang jumped through again, in the other direction, followed by Bi.

“You won’t escape us,” Feyan yelled and leapt through.  She turned and called.  Baby paced until she called a second time.  The tiger leapt through the burning ring, and Gongming immediately put the leash back on Baby while Wang and Bi put out the ring.  It burned mostly the oil, and they got quite a few shows out of one ring, but eventually, they did have to build a new ring, so they tried to preserve it.

All that remained was the bows, and Gongming quickly brought Baby back to the boat for treats.  After Chen got Baby, he returned to see what he could get for such a show, having already worked some things out with the village elders.  He got rice and fish.  That was expected.  He also got some pork and fowl, and a few copper, bronze, and brass trinkets that he knew where to trade for more rice and fish, or if need be, to keep the boat in top order, or even to buy a new ring.  He was a happy fellow.  As word of their little show went ahead of them, the price went up.  He thought it remarkable what people would pay for a little entertainment.

“Chen, my wife, we have so much bronze, I fear some nights that we may sink the boat,” he said, as he put the new things away.

“So you say,” Aunt Chen said.  “I never expected to have things when I married a fisherman.”

“Do what is right, and the gods will smile upon you,” he said.

“Now, I can put that in a fortune cookie,” Feyan said, as she slipped into the water and threw her soaking wet pants up to the deck to be hung to dry.

“Very wise,” Aunt Chen said.

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