Read Bitter Winds Online

Authors: Kay Bratt

Tags: #Historical, #Mystery

Bitter Winds

Silent Tears; A Journey of Hope in a Chinese Orphanage

Chasing China; A Daughter’s Quest for Truth

The Bridge

A Thread Unbroken

Train to Nowhere

Mei Li and the Wise Laoshi

TALES OF THE SCAVENGER’S DAUGHTERS

The Scavenger’s Daughters

Tangled Vines

Bitter Winds

The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.

Text Copyright © 2014 Kay Bratt

All rights reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the publisher.

Published by Lake Union Publishing, Seattle

www.apub.com

ISBN-13: 9781477848999

ISBN-10: 1477848991

Library of Congress Control Number: 2013914051

To Lisa
my twin, more than just a sister

“A violent wind does not last for a whole morning; a sudden rain does not last for the whole day.”

—Lao Tzu

L
ily shivered as she pulled her Ye Ye’s jacket tighter around the stiff clothes they’d made her put on. The sterile smell of the room mixed with what reeked of old urine was nauseating, and she filtered her breath through her mouth as she waited. She listened intently, hoping the sound of footsteps wouldn’t come. She’d been crouching on the ice-cold floor in the corner for hours, ever since that nasty excuse for a man had slammed the door on her. The turning of the lock and his threats to return later that night still rang in her ears. She felt a wave of revulsion remembering how he’d taunted her, coming close enough that she could smell his rancid breath as he hissed what he’d like to do to her.

But she wouldn’t let him touch her—he’d have to kill her first. If he thought because she was blind she wouldn’t be able to defend herself, he was in for a surprise because she’d fight until there was no breath left in her. She’d pull from that place deep within her, the reserve that so far had kept her from becoming hysterical. Ivy would be proud of her for being so strong. When she’d wished for independence she hadn’t meant this—being jerked away from her sister and sentenced for something she hadn’t even done. She only wished she could go back and live the morning again, just start completely over.

Her face burned with shame. It was her own fault. Given another chance, she’d do it differently and stay within the protection of her family—she’d forget her
independence
nonsense.

Her ears perked as she heard the faint slapping of plastic slippers coming closer. She reached out and pulled the mattress from the bed, then crouched under it. If it was him, maybe he’d think she’d been moved to another room. As she waited, a high-pitched shriek filled the hall and then her room. A chill went through her at the sound, a scream that could only be triggered from complete torture or hysteria.
What were they doing to that poor woman?
She tried to still the new onset of trembling.

She would not let them break her.

She would not let them break her.

She would
not
let them break her.

Old Town Wuxi, China, two months earlier

S
he concentrated on the sounds around her, letting her in
stincts guide her forward. Under the anticipation Lily felt about the public performance looming ahead of her, she pushed
away an underlying feeling of foreboding. She wouldn’t tell Ivy her concerns, or her sister would refuse to guide her to the park.

She’d awoken at four o’clock that morning, on the fourth day of the month and then had dropped her boiled egg not once or twice, but four times! Only in China would such events involving the number four predict impending doom, but she would not let ancient superstitions ruin her day. She was sixteen—not sixty, and only the elderly held on too hard to the old ways.

“Curb coming,” Ivy warned.

Lily stepped up patiently. She always tried to think positively. She knew being blind had its perks, though sighted people might argue the point. But really, there were many things she could do that some couldn’t. Take her exceptional hearing, for instance. Or even the way she never judged someone by their looks, instead focusing on their personality. She’d tried to tell her twin sister to ignore the clothing people wore, or the cleanliness of their hair, or whether they carried a designer bag or a knockoff. From her viewpoint, sight just got in the way.

But today being blind gave Lily another advantage. She knew the rain was coming probably before anyone else on the street did. Even through the heavy layer of pollution she could feel and smell it. She moved her white cane back and forth faster in front of her to show her sister she was in a hurry. Ivy wasn’t cooperating and her stubbornness was going to get them caught in the rain.

“Ivy, the rain’s coming.” She kept her voice calm and matter-of-fact. She didn’t feel like arguing this morning.

She heard the irritation in her sister’s reply. “No, it isn’t. Ye Ye said it isn’t supposed to rain today. You’re just feeling the wind. Slow down. We can’t go too fast or you’ll break your neck. You should see all the piles of bicycles and electric scooters stacked up and down these sidewalks. It’s a freaking obstacle course.”

Lily didn’t answer but picked up the pace anyway, even though her sister was supposed to be the one leading her. Holding tightly to her upper arm, she forced Ivy to walk faster, oblivious to the uneven sidewalks and the other obstacles in her path. She knew her sister wouldn’t let her get hurt; Ivy was her twin and had been her eyes since birth. There wasn’t another person on earth she trusted more. But she’d made a decision. No longer was she going to sit in the dark and wait for her destiny to come to her; she was going to go out and find it.


Aiya,
I hate it when you’re right,” Ivy said, and Lily felt her cringe into herself as the rain began to fall in big, slow plops. She felt Ivy juggle the violin case around as she dug in her bag for the umbrella and popped it open above their heads.

Lily smiled. “I told you, didn’t I? Make sure Viola doesn’t get wet! We’re almost there, aren’t we?”

Lily could feel the sidewalks crowding up with more people the closer they got to the park. And even though she couldn’t see them, she could feel their stares and hear their voices trailing off to nothing as she and her sister walked by. Being blind wasn’t a big deal to her—but obviously it was to others. Lily was glad she couldn’t see the pity evident in their voices. She wished she’d left her cane at home, but these days Ivy insisted she take it everywhere. For her it was like a flashing sign to the public
,
I’M BLIND, LOOK AT ME, I’M BLIND!

This was one thing between them her sister just couldn’t understand. Ivy always tried to tell her the hesitation people showed was because they were twins—not because she was blind. But Lily knew better and just wanted to be treated like everyone else.

“Zao!”
someone called from the other side of the street.

Ivy returned the greeting, then leaned in closer to Lily. “It’s old man Wong from the butcher’s shop.”

“Give Benfu and Calli my regards,” the man called out again, and Lily waved her hand in his direction. She was surprised someone hadn’t already stopped them. It was rare to walk anywhere without running into someone who knew their Ye Ye and Nai Nai.

“I still don’t think this is a good idea, Lily. If Ye Ye finds out we did this, he’s gonna pitch a fit.”

Lily squeezed Ivy’s arm as her sister guided her around a barrel of reeking trash. She could barely hear Ivy over the cacophony of street sounds around her. Cars and trucks zoomed by and even without touching, she felt carried away in the flood of other pedestrians crowding the walkways. She let the dinging of the bicycles horns, the chattering of pedestrians barking into their phones, and street vendors hawking their wares give her a moment to collect her thoughts for a response for her too-protective sister.

At sixteen years of age, they’d made it through most of their lifetime with very few disagreements. When a tragic fire had been the catalyst to have them taken from their birth parents, they’d landed in the care of a kind old scavenger and his wife—now their beloved Ye Ye and Nai Nai. Even as young as they’d been, it had made for a tumultuous time, but together they’d learned to deal with it.

But lately, they both seemed to be pulled in opposite directions. Little things were causing friction, stuff that normally wouldn’t have been a problem. Lily felt it was because Ivy was growing more mature and wanted more freedom, though she knew her sister would never admit it. Lily hated being a shackle around her sister’s ankle.

“Ye Ye and Nai Nai won’t find out until it’s too late for them to stop it. And don’t think of it as begging—I’m going to put on a concert and if people want to pay to hear good music, that’s up to them.”

“Well, what if no one gives you anything? Then you’re going to be in one of your moods all day,” Ivy said.

Lily laughed. It was amusing how Ivy thought
she
was the moody one and Lily thought it was just the opposite—Ivy was definitely the one who slipped into her dark clouds when things didn’t go her way.

“No, I won’t. If I don’t make any money today, I’ll come back tomorrow and try again. It will just tell me I need more practice. Ivy, you know we need more money now that we have the new house and Ye Ye and Nai Nai are getting old. One of these days they aren’t going to be around to make sure we’re all okay. I have to find my way, on my own—or at least with your help for a while. Then you can go on and do what you want to do, without me.” She hoped her sister didn’t sense she was keeping a secret. The real reason she wanted to perform in front of strangers was because she was tired of being invisible. She needed to know and feel she was present in the real world. Her entire life she’d felt like an accessory on the arm of her sister, and she couldn’t take it any longer.

“We need to get back by four o’clock or Nai Nai will have our hide,” Ivy said.


Mei wenti,
stop stressing so much!” Lily was excited for the party. For a family made up of all adopted daughters until now, tonight was going to be a big event. Nai Nai and Ye Ye’s long-lost biological daughter had finally been found and for the first time, they were going to be celebrating the birthday of her son—and their grandson—Jojo. All of them were supposed to help get the party ready. Lily didn’t mind the extra work—so far Jojo had managed to steal everyone’s heart.

Ivy didn’t answer and Lily could feel her pouting. She hoped her mood wouldn’t last long. She needed her sister’s emotional support; this would be a fateful day. She’d find out if she really was good or if she was a total loser when it came to the violin. It’d be much different than playing for her family and neighbors in the
hutong
. Here, no one would know her or give her praise just because they loved her. Empathy in the public areas of China was rare to find. If they didn’t like her music, they’d be sure to let her know. She felt a rock of nervousness settle in her stomach and took a few deep breaths.

Ivy guided her around the corner and Lily knew right away they were there. The sounds of laughter and festivity floated through the air. Her moment had arrived and she hoped the last year of intense practice sessions paid off.
Literally.

Ivy watched her sister from a few feet away as she stood hidden under the low branches of a large banyan tree. The rain had stopped almost as fast as it’d arrived, so she didn’t need the cover, but she didn’t want people paying more attention to the fact they were twins than to her sister’s concert. Anyway, it was her job to watch to make sure no one swiped Lily’s money can and also to alert her sister if the
chengguan
came sniffing around. The officials who walked the city were supposed to be urban law enforcement and their job was to tackle low-level crime, but it was well-
known they mostly harassed and blackmailed street vendors and beggars. Simply put, they were bullies. They shouldn’t mess with Lily, since she wasn’t technically begging, but Ivy didn’t want to take any chances. She and Lily agreed if she saw one of them approach, she’d clap her hands slowly, then faster the closer he got.

So far Lily’s music had brought in a few curious lookers but none had given any coins to the can. If Ivy could get away with it, she would’ve added a coin just to make Lily feel she was successful. But Ivy knew her sister would sense her—or smell her, or whatever it was she did to instantly know she was near—before she could get away with anything sneaky.

She had to admit, even without the clink of coins in a can, it was obvious Lily was doing a beautiful job of playing. With all of their Ye Ye’s instructions, and a few months of his constantly correcting her bow placement along with hours and hours spent listening to recordings of classical songs, Lily had conquered the tremors her nervousness usually brought and had turned into quite the musician. Best of all was the look of peace that came over her sister’s face while she was playing. Ivy was surprised to find she was actually a little jealous. She knew that was ridiculous, considering she had full vision and her sister was blind, but Lily had found something to excel at, and so far all Ivy was good at was being her sister’s helper.

Movement in front of the bench where her sister sat caught her attention, and Ivy saw a woman stuff a rolled bill into the can at Lily’s feet. Success! As she watched, others murmured their wonder at her sister and how she played without sight. Ivy felt her cheeks burn as she saw a few point at Lily’s blank eyes and lean in to whisper. It embarrassed and infuriated her that people found Lily’s motionless eyes strange. Why couldn’t they just talk about how beautiful and serene she was? People were cruel and sometimes Ivy wished she couldn’t see, either. Then she wouldn’t have to witness the constant pity the sight of her blind sister evoked in others. Pity infuriated her.

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