Ping sat perched high up in the Great Tree. She pried apart the branches and peered at the crowd gathering on the lawn far below. Cheng had led them here. He might not have wanted them to follow, but they did, and they would not go away until they got what they wanted.
How small they look from here, thought Ping. How harmless. As if she could step on them and crush them like ants. But she did not want to hurt them. She only wanted them to leave her alone.
From childhood, Ping had known she was unusual. She knew by the way Li Qin talked to her like she was a princess, and by the way Kong ignored her like she was invisible, and by the way Cheng looked at her like she was a meal. But she never imagined things would end like this.
A year ago, shortly after Ping turned thirteen, she began to wonder if something was wrong with Cheng. Ping had already begun to blossom in the ways of womanhood, "like the early bud of spring," her mother said. But Cheng, almost sixteen years old, stood two inches shorter than Ping and had not yet developed his manly voice. His shirt and trousers hung loosely around his scrawny body, but despite his stature, his father, Kong, spent countless hours with him, preparing him to lead. "The late bloom blooms best," Kong often said, clapping Cheng on the back.
Ping's mother, Li Qin, had been forced to marry Kong at the age of thirteen. When Li Qin was fourteen, Cheng was born, followed almost three years later by Ping. Although Li Qin's life with Kong was difficult, she did her best to care for the children and create a pleasant childhood for them.
Perhaps a blessing in disguise, Kong was often away on business. He seldom stayed at home for longer than a day or two at a time, and when he was home, he spent his time with Cheng, teaching him the ways of manhood. Kong rarely spoke to Ping, or to Li Qin, and when he did, his words were harsh with disapproval.
One afternoon, as Ping scrubbed the floor of the main house, she heard Li Qin and Kong arguing in the kitchen.
"Ping is too young," said Li Qin.
"No," replied Kong, "She is the age you were when you began to perform your duties."
Li Qin began to protest again, but a heavy, dull slap cut off her words, then a crash.
Ping rushed into the kitchen to find Kong leaning against the wall and her mother sprawled on the floor amidst broken pottery. She knelt beside Li Qin, whose mouth hung open, blank eyes staring back unseeing. Ping cradled her in her arms, whispering "mama, mama," letting tears drop to Li Qin's face. She did not respond. Ping tried to brush away the tears from Li Qin but found herself smearing something dark and red. A trickle of blood ran down Li Qin's cheek into her mouth, but it was not Li Qin’s blood.
Horrified, Ping pulled her hand away. A deep gash ran across her palm like a sinister smile. She must have cut herself on a pottery shard as she knelt, she thought. She tore a piece from her sleeve and wiped the blood from her mother's face. Then she tied it tightly around her own hand to stop the bleeding.
"Ping?" broke a voice behind her, and she turned. Cheng stood in the doorway, his eyes curious but impassive.
"Mama!" Ping sobbed, rocking her mother's lifeless body against her chest. "Father killed her!"
"Away, Ping Mei!" bellowed Kong from the dark corner of the room. He rushed to where Ping held her mother and grasped her shoulder roughly. "She must learn her lesson as you must learn yours!" With a strong thrust, Kong sent Ping sliding across the floor head first into a stack of wooden shelves in the corner of the room. They crashed on top of her.
Ping rolled from under the shelves in time to see Kong bend down toward Li Qin, whose body lay spread out face up in the middle of the floor. As Kong's face approached Li Qin's, her arm suddenly swung up in an arc toward Kong. In her hand, Li Qin held a sharp piece of broken pottery. It sunk into the side of Kong's head, and he collapsed next to Li Qin, clots of blood and tissue gushing into a puddle beside his head.
Ping's stomach heaved, but she stood, steadied herself, and approached Kong and Li Qin lying side-by-side in the center of the room. Cheng remained motionless in the doorway, his eyes flicking from Kong to Li Qin to Ping and back to Kong.
She knelt quickly beside her mother. Li Qin suddenly reached up and pulled Ping into an embrace. "Thank you, my sweet," Li Qin whispered, then her arms went limp and her head fell to the side. Ping rolled to the floor beside her mother, gasping.
"What have you done?" barked Cheng from the doorway, still not stepping foot into the kitchen. "You have killed Baba."
Ping bathed her mother’s body in clean water, dressed her, and placed her in her bed. She returned to the kitchen to find Cheng with a mop and a large wooden bucket full of steaming water. Kong's body was gone.
"Cheng?" asked Ping, stepping into the room. "Where is father?"
Cheng turned and glared. He ignored her question. "I know you did this, Ping Mei." No one called her Ping Mei except Kong. "But I will not allow this family to be disgraced." He stood up tall and held the mop rigidly beside him like Ping had seen in the old warrior paintings. "I shall lead now, and you shall follow."
"But father?" Ping asked, thinking of all the time Cheng had spent with him. "Did you not love him?"
"There is no strength in love," Cheng said. He turned back toward the puddle of blood on the floor and resumed mopping. Ping bowed her head slightly and stepped slowly backward from the room, keeping Cheng in her sights.
He was right. She had done this. She had peered into Li Qin's blank eyes, through her eyes, into her soul, and she had seen Li Qin's desire: to break Kong's iron grip on herself and her children. Ping had desired it, too, and she had given it to Li Qin. With her blood.
Li Qin woke the next day, but she did not truly wake. She rose and cooked and cleaned and went to market, but her eyes remained empty, her hands cold. Ping knew why, as did Cheng, but they never spoke of it. Nor did they speak of Kong.
Life under Cheng's leadership was better than life under Kong's leadership, Ping decided. As long as she and mother kept his clothes laundered and kept him fed, Cheng had little to say to them. Yet, the way Cheng stared at her made her uncomfortable, like the way she felt when she looked at the painting in Kong's room: a tiger hunting its prey, hungry, ready to pounce.
Days passed into months until one afternoon, as Li Qin busied herself with household chores, Ping went to market to purchase food for the evening meal. She had purchased the rice and had begun to gather vegetables when she noticed, out of the corner of her eye, a frail old man standing nearby, weeping quietly. She glanced toward him and caught his eye. The wrinkled old man gasped and opened his dull gray eyes wide. His eyes flashed, hungry.
Ping stepped back, brushing her arm against a wooden vegetable stand, scraping a sharp splinter across her skin. A dashed line of thick red bubbles emerged on her arm, and she dropped her bag of rice.
The old man's eyes flicked toward her arm, and he shuffled toward her, licking his lips involuntarily. She tried to back away, but he grasped her arm, pulled it toward his toothless mouth, and licked the blood from her skin with his rough, dry tongue.
Ping screamed and tore her arm away. The old man stepped back, his body suddenly rigid. He shuddered and snapped his eyes toward Ping, his once dull gray eyes now deep, piercing blue, his once wrinkled face, now smooth and young. He flashed his white teeth, turned, and left Ping shaking, gasping, steadying herself with her hand on the wooden vegetable stand.
Ping did not remember returning home that day, but she found herself standing in the kitchen with the bag of rice gripped tightly in her right hand and her basket of vegetables spilled across the floor. She set down the rice and bent to gather the vegetables.
"Leave them, Ping Mei," said her brother's voice from behind her. "Li Qin will gather them."
Cheng stood close, his face drawn but his eyes bright with excitement.
He has never called mother by her name before, thought Ping. Something has changed. She stood up and bowed her head slightly.
Cheng leaned forward in a show of dominance and spoke sternly. "Your acts at market today are being told, Ping Mei." He grasped her arm firmly. "You will not leave this house again without my permission."
"Cheng--" Ping began.
Cheng pulled his hand back and swung it toward Ping's face. She closed her eyes, waiting for the impact, but she felt only a hot wind against her cheek. She opened her eyes. Cheng had stopped his hand an inch from her face.
"If you question me again, Ping Mei," Cheng said, "you shall know my wrath." Still grasping her arm, Cheng wrenched Ping toward him until her face was so close to his that it seemed to Ping that his eyes merged into a single, large eye in the center of his forehead. "You shall come with me and do as I command."
Ping had seen this face before--Kong's face. She did not resist as Cheng led her toward the back of the house to the small prayer room. He pushed her in, commanded her to stay, turned, and left. Ping sunk to her knees, hot tears dripping from her face onto her hands and arms, running across the scabs crusting the wounds where the splinter had scratched her arm.
"Ping Mei!" Cheng's harsh voice broke into Ping's mind. She opened her eyes and found herself lying uncomfortably against the idol pedestal. Cheng stood in the center of the prayer room with his left hand on his hip and his right hand brandishing a small, fish-cleaning knife.
Ping scrambled backward on her hands toward the corner of the room. Beside Cheng stood a heavy man who breathed with great difficulty. His skin, beaded with a thin layer of perspiration, looked gray and cold.
"Ping Mei!" repeated Cheng, louder. "Stand!"
Ping rose unsteadily to her feet, hunched her shoulders, and bowed her head, from fear, not respect.
"Cheng--" she started.
"Do not speak!" barked Cheng. Reaching forward with his left hand, he jerked Ping's right hand toward him, twisting it palm side up. She tried to pull it away, but he held it firmly. Cheng took the knife in his right hand and slid it across Ping's palm, slicing open the flesh. She cried out as blood pooled in her hand, flowing over the sides, spilling to the floor.
The heavy man lunged forward and knelt clumsily before Ping, gasping for breath. He grasped her bleeding hand, pulling it from Cheng's grip, and placed it to his lips. Like a dog, he lapped the blood from Ping's hand, smearing it on his lips and face. She struggled against his grip, but he was stronger. Finally, he let go and sat heavily to the floor, hanging his head to his chest. Ping stumbled backward and fell into the pedestal, knocking it and the idols onto the floor. Cheng did not seem to notice or care.
Ping’s eyes refocused on the man sitting on the floor of the prayer room. He looked thinner, younger, healthier. Handsome. His breathing had eased and came now in deep, rhythmic waves. Ping was not surprised. He had taken his desire from her. She glanced at Cheng. His face showed no hint of surprise. Ping was surprised by that.
The man rose and returned with Cheng to the main house. Through the screen, Ping saw him place several pieces of shiny metal in Cheng's hand. A transaction. She sank to the floor in a heap, weeping, not for herself, but for Cheng.
How very much like his father he has become, she thought, burying her face in her hands.
Cheng brought a steady stream of customers to the tiny prayer room at the back of the house where he had imprisoned Ping for the past three weeks. Each day, Li Qin brought Ping a small bowl of rice and a cup of tea. Ping tried to speak with her, but her mother simply set the bowl and cup on the floor and left the room without looking at her. Ping knew not to expect much. Her mother had not spoken since the day Kong had died at her hand.
The men came and went, growing younger, stronger, healthier, more beautiful. Ping grew weaker. She felt the flesh around her eyes receding, pressing back against her cheek bones. Her hands were raw and caked with scabs, so much so that Cheng had begun to cut Ping's arms and legs to ensure a cleaner source of blood. As her strength waned, she began to pass in and out of consciousness.
Although Cheng seemed to care nothing for Ping's wellbeing, he understood that killing Ping would not profit him, so he began to cut smaller incisions, binding Ping's wounds between sessions to reduce loss of blood. Ping wished he had left the wounds open.
During rare episodes of lucidity, Ping tried to make sense of things. She had seen the old become young, the weak strong, the sick well. She had also seen young men grow older, and once, a woman entered the prayer room and left, moments later, as a man. But strangest of all, she had seen Li Qin, her mother, come alive again to kill Kong. This power, to fulfill desire, was in Ping’s blood. And for Cheng, Ping’s blood made him rich, but it was not enough. His eyes remained hungry, like a tiger ready to pounce. What else did he desire?
Questions and confusion swam through Ping's mind as the weeks passed into months. She had little left to give, yet Cheng kept bringing the men, and the men kept taking, until one cold, rainy late autumn day.
Ping lay on the floor unmoving, listening to the rain pattering softly on the roof. Although her eyes had long since swollen shut, she listened, waiting for Cheng to bring his next customer. But she heard no boisterous talk, no shuffling of feet, no clink of coin.
The morning and afternoon passed without a sound. Finally, as a chill breeze swept along the floor announcing sundown, Ping heard the light tap of her mother's feet approaching. She waited for the familiar click of the wooden bowl against the floor and the gentle slosh of tea in the cup. Instead, she heard a voice, soft and distant.
"My sweet," whispered Li Qin.
"Mama?" Ping rasped. A finger touched her lips.
"Cheng comes for his desire," said Li Qin. "He follows his hunger." Ping felt her mother's fingers press something cool, damp, and paper-like into her palm, softly closing Ping's fingers around it. "Cheng will take his father's place in the world. You will become to him as I was to Kong."
"No!" cried Ping. "My brother would not--"
"Appearance can deceive," said Li Qin. "Open your eyes and see." She squeezed her hands gently around Ping's. "Cheng is not your brother, nor was Kong your father. Do not let Cheng take from you as I let Kong take from me."
Ping felt her mother's hands retreating gently from hers and her mother's lips being pressed lightly to the tip of her nose.
"Remember your desire, my sweet," whispered Li Qin.
The slap of Cheng's feet approached quickly from the main house, and Ping felt her mother pull away and scuffle to her feet.
"Li Qin!" Cheng's harsh voice burst into the room. "Why do you disobey?" Ping heard heavy footsteps, a dull slap, and a crash. The footsteps moved toward Ping. "What did she say to you, Ping Mei?" Ping remained silent. Cheng's shoe scraped sharply against the floor then pain exploded from the left side of Ping’s face, flashing light across her vision, then darkness.
Ping felt a sharp pain in her jaw and opened her eyes. She hadn't been able to open her eyes for weeks, but they were open now. The room was cold and dark but starlight twinkled through the thin crack in the wall. She lifted her hand to rub her eyes and realized that she still held the item her mother had placed there, folded into a small square. Gingerly, she unfolded it and held it up to the dim light: a leaf from the Silver Almond Tree, smeared with a sticky, pungent liquid. Medicine.
Ping rolled to her side. She scooted to where her mother's body lay crumpled in a heap and touched her mother's face. Cold. She collapsed onto her mother's body and embraced her. It was all too familiar. Li Qin had died twice to protect Ping, and as Ping held her mother now, she knew Li Qin could not take her desire this time. It was too late. She laid her head on her mother's chest and wept, allowing the night chill to enter her body and fill up her mind.
"Stand when I speak to you, Li Qin!"
Ping recognized Cheng's voice, but it had deepened. Lying face down on the floor of the prayer room, she opened her eyes, blinking in the sunlight filtering through the window. Cheng's feet stood inches from her face, and she scrambled to her feet. Her mother's body was gone. So were the wounds on Ping’s arms and hands. Her flesh was smooth and clean. Was this from mother's medicine?
With wide eyes, she looked back at Cheng, who seemed to stand several inches taller than he had before. His chin and shoulders looked broader, and his face was proud, like his father's. Exactly like his father's.
This was his desire, thought Ping, to be like Kong!
"Bow your head, Li Qin!" Cheng barked.
"I am not--" began Ping, confused. Cheng slapped her face hard with his hand, leaving the hot impression of his fingers on her cheek. Ping bowed her head.
"You shall do as I command, Li Qin!" Cheng continued, "And I shall protect you."
"Protect me?" whispered Ping.
"Do not be insolent, Li Qin! After your shameful display at market, the people clamor for your blood, the Fountain of Desire. Yet I have protected you!"
"You have profited from me," whispered Ping.
Cheng's hand flew again, landing on her left ear. "You shall learn respect, Li Qin, or I shall not be able to protect you!" Cheng rushed from the room.
Ping sunk to the floor and put her head between her knees. She had lost her mother twice. Had she also lost herself? She opened her hand, still holding the leaf her mother had given her. She spread it on the floor and traced its outline with her finger. It reminded her so much of her mother.
Ping had often walked with her mother through the sacred grove of Silver Almond Trees near the temple. Hand-in-hand, they would stroll by the river, listening to the flowing water, until they stood peering up through the branches of the Great Tree. To Ping, it seemed to stretch all the way through the sky.
"Does it touch the sun, Mama?" Ping had asked one warm, autumn afternoon as golden sunlight filtered through the leaves.
Li Qin laughed kindly, lifting Ping into her arms. "Not yet, my sweet. But perhaps one day." Then Li Qin recounted, as she had many times, the story of the young princess whose name had long been forgotten.
“One morning, almost three thousand years ago,” said Li Qin, “the princess wandered from her home while playing, becoming so entranced by the beauty and power of the sun that she followed it high up into the mountain.
“The Great Dragon of the mountain discovered the princess wandering and lost, yet her eyes were so blinded by the sunlight that she supposed the dragon to be a kind old man. She cried out, pleading with him to take her back to her parents' home. He spoke kindly and said he would do as she asked.
“But as the dragon approached, she saw that he had deceived her. He was the Great Dragon, who desired only to consume her and slake his own ravenous hunger. She turned to run, but the dragon was too fast and caught her in his great teeth, swallowing her in a single gulp.
“As the dragon turned toward his cave, the princess kicked him angrily from within, and the dragon opened his mouth, belching her out in a great fireball. She soared many miles before plunging deep into the earth beside the river. From that spot, the Great Tree sprouted and has grown for nearly three thousand years.
"See?" said Li Qin, pointing toward the branches silhouetted against the great orange disk of the sun. "The princess still reaches for the sun."
"Why, Mama?" Ping asked, pressing her cheek against her mother's.
"It is her desire, my sweet. She seeks its beauty and its power."
"But why, Mama?" repeated Ping.
Li Qin lifted Ping from her chest and peered into Ping's eyes. "With such beauty and power," said Li Qin quietly, "she might vanquish every dragon on Earth." She pulled Ping close and wept.
Ping picked up the leaf and turned it over in her hands. She had not understood her mother's tears that day long ago, but she understood them now. Her mother had lived within the Great Dragon's belly for many years. She had wished to be free, like the Great Tree, spreading her arms toward the sun. She had wished to pull down fire upon the Great Dragon's head. And with Ping's help, she had done it, only for another dragon to take its place.
Ping pushed herself to her feet. She did not have her mother's strength, and she was not sure she could stand against Cheng. He had grown into a tall and powerful man and spoke with such authority. She was a girl, not even fourteen years old.
I cannot fight him, thought Ping, but I shall run. Tomorrow.
The next day passed. A week. A month. When Cheng entered the room, Ping bowed, speaking only when spoken to. She cooked his meals, made his tea, laundered his clothes. On a cold winter evening, as snow fell outside and Ping set Cheng's meal before him, Cheng looked into Ping's eyes and smiled.
"You have begun to learn respect, Li Qin," said Cheng, turning back to his meal. Ping felt tears pushing at her eyelids. She had let Cheng consume her as Kong had consumed her mother. She was trapped within the belly of the Great Dragon.
That night, as Ping laid out her bedroll, she promised herself this would be her last night in this house. She could delay no longer, for soon she would be fully digested by the dragon's acid. Tomorrow, Cheng would be away for several hours in the morning. She would prepare his breakfast, wait for him to leave, and make her way through the village toward the river. Beyond that, she had no plan.
A sleepless night gave birth to a cold morning as Ping rose early to prepare Cheng's meal. He ate and left the house without speaking. Ping watched him walk down the pathway to the village road and disappear below the hill.
She would take little with her so as to raise little suspicion among the villagers. Concealing a small knife in her waist satchel, she took up her empty rice sack, slipped from the house, and walked toward the market. As usual, villagers moved out of her way, avoiding eye contact. They knew she belonged to Cheng.
She arrived at market and continued walking. Several merchants called out to her. People leaned toward each other with faces close together, whispering. Would they send word to Cheng? Ping wondered. At the village boundary, she stopped and looked back, remembering how Cheng had forbidden her to leave the village. She clenched her fists, spat on the ground, turned, and strode past the boundary toward the next village.
The road wound away from her village into the country, over rolling hills, beside snowy banks of frozen grass dotted with trees, and past the ancestral shrines. Ping had walked for about ten minutes when she saw the next village about half a mile ahead. She quickened her pace.
As she pressed forward, she heard a pattering sound behind her. About a hundred yards back, a horde of at least thirty men and women from her village hurried after her. She ran, but the noise of the crowd grew louder and closer. The people had also begun to run, and they were closing the gap. Ping ran as fast as she could, but she was weak. Cheng had made sure of that. She glanced back. The horde was less than twenty yards behind her now.
As she looked back, her right ankle twisted and she fell to the road, scraping along the gravel into the snowy grass. The people rushed toward her, ravenous. She tried to scramble to her feet, but she was not fast enough. Two men running at the front of the pack tackled her, then four others, three men and a woman, joined them. They wrestled Ping to the ground and rolled over and over, hands grasping and scratching, as Ping cried out in pain and fear.
"Stop!" A man's voice shouted. Cheng's voice. "Let her go!"
Ping found herself suddenly alone in a bank of blood-stained snow. Confusion swirled in her mind. Cheng had come for her. Perhaps she did need him to protect her, for how else could she stand against such forces of desire? She looked up at Cheng's face, red and hot with anger.
"Li Qin! You have betrayed me!" He shook his head, breathing heavily from running. "I told you that you must obey me or I cannot protect you!"
Ping wept hot tears into the snow, saying nothing.
"Get up, Li Qin!" Cheng walked to where Ping lay. He bent and grasped her arm roughly, pulling her to her feet. She pulled her arm away and closed her eyes.
"Do you not understand, Li Qin?" he yelled into her face. "You must return with me to the house, or I cannot protect you!"
Ping opened her eyes and stared directly into Cheng's dragon eyes. He was not her protector. He was her captor. "I am not Li Qin!" she screamed. "Li Qin was my mother and you killed her! You will not take from me anymore!" She was no longer afraid of him. She would kick him from within and hope that he would belch her out.
"I am Kong and you are Li Qin!” Cheng grasped her arm again and wrenched it violently. “You will come with me now!"
Ping ripped her arm from his grasp, slipped the knife from her waist satchel, plunged it into Cheng's arm, and pulled it back quickly. He cried out and fell into the snow, staining it red with his blood. Ping turned and ran, across the snow toward the river, toward the sacred grove of Silver Almond Trees, toward the temple.
She glanced back. As long as Cheng remained, the horde would not follow. But soon, he would pursue her, and with him they would come. If she could reach the temple beside the grove, she could find the priest of the Old Way, Da Shi Ho. Her mother had spoken of him--a man of wisdom and peace. Surely, he would give her protection and counsel.
Ping ran, then walked, then stumbled for nearly an hour before reaching the temple. Da Shi Ho saw her as she approached, and he rushed to meet her. She collapsed into his arms. He carried her quickly into the temple and laid her carefully on a bamboo mat.
"Child," he said, "you have run far and are much distressed. Why have you come?"
Between gasps, Ping recounted her story to Da Shi Ho. He listened intently, closing his eyes and nodding his head.
"Please," said Ping. "My mother often spoke of the wisdom of Da Shi Ho."
The priest opened his eyes and smiled. He reached to a shelf beside Ping's cot, grasped a small bundle of yarrow stalks, and cast them across the floor. He stood and examined them closely.
"Ah," he exclaimed, nodding his head. "This gift flows through you as wind through the leaves."
"But what shall I do," asked Ping, her eyes wide with hope.
"You must do nothing, child."
"You must not resist the Way of all things," said the old priest. "Give me your hand." He knelt beside her and stretched out his hand.
Ping saw the hunger in Da Shi Ho's eyes, and she shrunk back, slipping her hands beneath her thighs. The priest grasped Ping's forearm firmly. She twisted her arm and tore it away, leaving a hot rash.
She ran from the temple, not looking back, as Da Shi Ho called after her in his aged, warbling voice. This is not the Way, he called. She would face great danger unless she returned at once to his protection.
She ran faster, but as she approached the sacred grove she saw the people, at least fifty of them now, rushing toward her through the trees.
She could not return to the temple, yet she could not continue forward or the vicious crowd would surely drain her life. Her eyes flicked toward the Great Tree, almost two hundred feet tall, in the center of the grove. Strange, she thought, how it’s branches were still covered with golden, autumn leaves. If she could reach the first branch, she could climb up, up, away from the people, and hide among its leaves. They might follow, but Ping was younger and smaller. She could climb higher.
She sprinted and, with all of her remaining strength, propelled herself up the trunk, clamping her fingers around the first branch, pulling herself up with difficulty. The crowd rushed the base of the great tree, screaming her name. She climbed, weakening with each branch. After several minutes, she heard Cheng's distinctive voice below.
"Li Qin!" he called. "Return to me! I cannot hold this mob for long!" Ping spat toward the ground and continued climbing. He did not want to protect her. He wanted to control her. "Li Qin! Please, listen to--" A muffled cry replaced Cheng's words as the people silenced him. They would come for her now.
She climbed higher and higher, until the weight of her frail body was too great for the branches.
From her perch high up in the Great Tree, Ping glanced up through the branches to the sun shining overhead. The people bellowed and screamed below. The tree shuddered. Ping peered down at people, tiny as ants, groping, scratching, climbing over each other. They would never stop. Eventually, they would reach her, and they would devour her. Finally, here at the end, Ping knew what she desired more than anything else: to be with her mother once again, safe in her arms. She knew she could never have it.
Ping closed her eyes and thought of her mother and the story of the princess who had become the tree, reaching for the sun, desiring its beauty and power. Had the princess striven these thousands of years in vain? Would she never reach the sun? Would she never vanquish her dragons?
Ping turned her hands palm-side up. The rough bark had ripped away the flesh, and they were red and slick with blood. In the sunlight, the blood looked like fire. "You may not reach your desire, princess," Ping whispered to the tree, "but I shall bring it to you. For that is what I do."
She slipped her knife from her waist satchel and, into the bark of the branch upon which she sat, she carved a circle, shaving away the bark inside, then cut eight rays radiating out in all directions. Ping dipped her right forefinger into the blood in her left palm and painted the carved sun and each of the eight rays. As the golden sunlight filtered through the leaves, the carved sun shimmered and shone, red, orange, gold; brilliant.
"Oh, princess. See?" said Ping, smiling. "I have brought down the sun for you!"
Like a child waking from a nap, the tree shuddered. Ping glanced down, expecting to see the people climbing through the branches. Instead, golden drops of fire rained down in a spectacular arc around the Great Tree. People fled in all directions.
The branches suddenly collapsed around Ping, and she felt herself descending rapidly until she stood where the Great Tree had risen from the ground. The branches had dissolved and a dome of golden leaves surrounded Ping on every side. She reached out and touched the leaves gently with a finger. They rippled as if a stone had been cast into a pool of water, and Ping felt hot power rush through her hands, her arms, her body.
She closed her eyes and breathed in deeply.
Her body shuddered. She felt smaller, younger.
She felt happy. Free.
She breathed out and opened her eyes.
The golden leaves lay around Ping in a wide circle, and the trees of the grove lay in eight rays radiating out from the circle of leaves. Something like a mound of dark earth about thirty feet away lay across one of the rays. Ping walked slowly toward it.
As she approached, its form took shape before her eyes. Legs, four of them, a tail, and a great head with sharp teeth. The Great Dragon, once fierce and mighty, lay crushed and charred. Ping placed her hand on its head and peered into its eyes. Cheng's eyes.
"Ping Mei," the dragon breathed through its teeth. It dissolved to dust and settled to the ground.
Ping turned around and surveyed the eight rays. She could see them now. Dragons. Hundreds of them. Crushed under the thick, fallen trunks of the Silver Almond Trees. They had gathered to devour her, but with the power of the sun, her sun, she had vanquished them all. They would never devour again.
Ping turned toward the temple, but it was no longer there. In its place, a young woman strode toward her. Ping ran to her. "Mama!" she cried, her voice childlike and innocent. Li Qin picked her up into her arms.
"Oh, my sweet princess," cooed Li Qin, brushing Ping's hair from her face, "Do you want to come home now?"
"It is all I want, Mama," said Ping.
Li Qin set Ping down, took her tiny hand, and walked with her toward the village.