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Author’s note: This is the first chapter from novel #5, my last completed novel. It is my baby, one that I am waiting on editing, and it will eventually go out to agents.

THEN

Yunnan, China
Summer 1983

It all began with the drought. For two straight weeks, not a single drop of rain fell from the clear blue sky in the southwest province of China. A fortnight without rain was not atypical of Yunnan. But it was monsoon season, and the entire village had been counting on the next storm. It wasn’t easy to get water in the small valley outside of Mouding that its residents referred to fondly as lao jia—home. The nearest river and water reservoir had both been drained, and it was a 200-kilometer trek through mountainous terrain to reach the nearest major cities of Kunming and Dali. The farmers had predicted this. As they watched their sugar cane and Pu-erh tea trees wither, they looked at their wives and children, and wondered how they would make it through the winter. Their relatives in the east had warned them that the sandstorms were particularly bad this year. Even the humidity of Yunnan could not resist the dry air’s insatiable thirst. Grandparents reassured the farmers that rain would come soon—it always did. But the darkness in their eyes told a different story. They still remembered the Great Famine of 1958, during which half their generation had perished at the hands of Mao Zedong.

Lee Hanbin knew he had an incredible business opportunity. For the first time that the youngest generation could remember, there was no water. And Lee Hanbin owned the only reliable form of transportation in the valley. He was not a farmer, but a horseman. For generations, his family had raised stocky Mongolian horses in the mountains of Yunnan. Although they were neither pretty nor fast like Arabians, they could also withstand hard, weeklong journeys through desert conditions. Lee Hanbin had bred them that way. As soon as his horses were broken for riding in the summer of their second year, he took them one by one up the peak he’d christened Big White Mountain. All year long, even when temperatures rose to 30 degrees Celsius, the top of the Big White was dusted with snow. Lee Hanbin’s Mongolians would never fear heights. He never even had to take water with him—the horses loved to eat snow.

Unfortunately for the villagers, who watched with dismay as Lee Hanbin drew the remaining buckets from his well and filled the horses’ troughs, he was a horseman, not a businessman. On any given day, he was already reluctant to loan out one of his Mongolians. He was certain that the inexperienced handlers would return his horses lame and undo their careful training. If someone asked politely, the going rate was five yuan a day—already an exorbitant amount. Now that the entire village was eager to use his horses as ambulances, water carriers, and God knew what else, he was charging up to 10 yuan. That was a month’s profit for the average farmer. If Lee Hanbin’s Mongolians were not getting water, nobody was using them as transport. When the rain still hadn’t come on the first day of the third week, Lee Hanbin told the group of hecklers outside his home to get lost. He saddled up his second-most prized mare and hitched her best friend, a trusted gelding, to the wagon. The wagon was mostly empty now. On the way back, though, he would have the mare join the gelding, and he would sit atop the wagon. The two of them could easily pull 1000 kilograms for 50 kilometers a day. He was not worried about the load. He only hoped that he could find enough water to fill his wagon.

His most precious mare was with foal. At least, he hoped. Every sign was pointing toward a healthy early pregnancy.

Lee Hanbin rode west to Dali. There was no particular reason for it. In fact, the hike to Kunming was shorter by half a day. But he had a feeling that he would find what he was looking for in Dali. Once upon a time, the Kingdom of Dali had been one of the largest cities in the world and a leading religious and cultural site. In the 13th century, however, it fell to the Mongols, who came with their bows and arrows, ambitious leader, and—of course—their horses. Legend had it that Lee Hanbin’s family was descended from the Mongol warriors who settled in the region. Whenever the villagers were angry with him, they would blame his ruthless Mongol blood. In retort, he would point out that Genghis Khan was loyal man who championed religious tolerance, created the first international postal system, and promoted literacy. Lee Hanbin didn’t know if it was true. It was just something his father often said, and his father’s father before that. Lee Hanbin himself had never read anything about Genghis Khan. He’d never attended a day of school in his life and he was mostly illiterate. Fortunately, his neighbors were similarly illiterate. Unable to prove him wrong, they would wag their fingers at him and tell him that he may be the wealthiest man in the valley, but one day he would know suffering. Even as the villagers disparaged him, though, they courted his parents with tales of their teenaged daughters. My daughter is the most beautiful girl this side of the Yangtze River. My daughter belongs to the Yi ethnic minority—in our culture, women slaughter the pigs. My daughter can dance the Red Detachment of Women.

Lee Hanbin was the most eligible bachelor in the valley. At the ripe old age of 23, he was well aware.

No matter how many times he made the journey, he would never fail to marvel at the beauty of his home, his lao jia. Despite the drought, the rolling fields of grass were only starting to yellow. The distant mountains were covered in lush forests, and the yet more distant peaks, with snow. Every other kilometer, he would find himself riding parallel to the land of a rice farmer. There was no other color in nature that could compare to the saturated, vivid green of a rice field. When he closed his eyes and swayed to the gait of his mount, he could almost smell the starchy fragrance of freshly cooked rice. A breeze caressed his cheek gently, and he smiled. It never got very windy in the valley, since it was protected by the south-facing slopes. Although Lee Hanbin had never traveled outside Yunnan, he was certain that it was the loveliest place on earth. He had no intention of ever leaving.

Early on the fifth day, he rode into the ancient city. He took the side entrance, where he knew there was a second well that only Dali natives frequented. Hoping that there would be water left, he was chagrined to see that it was empty. Except for a child sitting on the ledge, there was nary a person in sight.

“Pardon me, little girl,” he said in Mandarin. His voice came out hoarse—it had been days since he’d spoken words. “Do you know where I can get water?”

When she raised her head, and the shawl fell away from her face, he was surprised to see that she was not as young as he’d thought. In fact, though her full cheeks and heart-shaped face bestowed her a cherubic quality, he could not help but notice the gentle curves of her body. He blushed. She was much smaller and more delicate than the women he was accustomed to. It wouldn’t have occurred to him that he would be attracted to such a woman, but the fluttering in his loins belied his interest. Her hair was darker than his blackest stallion, and it was glossy like a horse’s mane. She wore it much longer than would be practical. As she reached for the embroidered cloth to veil her hair once again, he noticed her hands. How milky white they were, how soft they must be to the touch, how delicately they tapered. He shivered.

“I’m sorry, miss. May I ask for your surname?”

“Peng,” she said. “Surname Peng, given name Peiyun.”

“Hello, Miss Peng. I have come from Mouding to fetch water for my horses. Can you help?”

She gathered her long skirt and swung her legs off the ledge. Even when she stood, she didn’t rise to eye-level with his mare. Before she looked at him, she raised her hand and rubbed the star on the horse’s forehead. He smiled. She caught him with his lips upturned, but she did not smile back. “It’s just your luck today, sir. I’m the water girl.”

“Oh, is that right? Does your family own the Erhai Lake?”

She walked ahead of him, rather quickly, and he clucked his horses along. He could not see her face as she answered him. “Nobody owns the lake. Today is my first day as a water girl. It’s not a real job. I finished my schooling a few weeks ago, and I’m waiting on the results of my exams to see if I can get my teacher’s certification. My father said that it was about time I got married, and so he sent me here to direct people to the water. He figured there would be plenty of eligible bachelors passing through. My mother had me wear her jewelry. See?”

He admired both the gold bangles on her wrists and the smooth skin of her forearm. “Have you had many customers?”

“No,” she said. “You’re the first and only.”

“How old are you?”

As they passed a tea house, she paused and waved hello to the owner. “I was born in 1966. Why, are you seeing if we are compatible?”

He shook his head. “I was curious. You are the year of the horse.”

“Yes, just barely. I was born a few days after the new year.”

“Ah, so you are the head of the horse. That is a good omen, you know. Horses are intelligent. You must be too.”

She looked him in the eye. “What do you know about horses?”

He paused. He was at a loss for words, as he often was. Oh, if only he could show her. Swing her by that tiny waist onto his horse’s back, gather her in his arms, urge the mare into a full-speed gallop. He could show her how the mare responded to a turn of his head, how she curved around his legs, how she followed the rhythm of his hips. There was nothing in the world that rivaled the sensation of flying in unison with the horse. Perhaps only making love with another human could come close.

“They are the most beautiful, sensitive, and stubborn creatures on earth,” Lee Hanbin answered.

When she halted abruptly in the middle of the cobblestone road, he wondered if he’d offended her. Then, she threw back her head and laughed. Her shawl fell to the ground, and he quickly snatched it up before it gathered dust. She smiled at last. “You do know them, after all. And what are you?”

“1960. Year of the rat.”

“We are not compatible, then.” She was still smiling. It enthralled him—he could not take his gaze off her angelic face. Her eyebrows were as dark and thick as her hair. He noticed that there was a trace of fuzz above her upper lip. The Chinese believed that a moustache was a mark of feminine beauty.

“What do you know about zodiac signs?”

She brushed the dirt from the fabric, but she didn’t cover herself this time. “I know that the horse and the rat are fundamentally opposed. The horse is flighty and needs a great deal of independence, whereas the rat must be showered with attention and gifts. When the rat does not respect the horse’s space, the horse will feel tied down. The rat makes a good husband, but the horse does not make a good wife. While the rat will seek harmony in marriage, the horse will ultimately wander.”

As she started up ahead of him again, he followed her. He hoped that she was leading him to water, but the truth was that he would follow her anywhere. More importantly, he hoped that all his years of mastering horses had taught him something. Because now, he had set his eyes upon one horse. And, if he knew anything about horses, he had the sense that this one would be tough to break.

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© 2017 Rebecca Cao. All rights reserved.

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