A/N: I wrote this story for a Bonanza Convention magazine, so it is short, to correspond to the required word limit. It is my only story written from Hop Sing's POV, and writing it was a revelation.
It seemed appropriate to start posting it today, eve of Chinese New Year 2012, Year of the Dragon: not only because of the title and subject matter, but also because the late Pernell Roberts was born in the Year of the Dragon.
For those who like to know these things, I use the actors' actually birthdays for the Cartwrights, so in my stories Joe is born in October, Hoss in December, Ben in February, and Adam in May. To figure years of birth I worked with the dates shown in some of the intro scenes in early episodes (remember San Francisco 1850?) and the ages Dortort assigned first season: 18 for Joe, 24 for Hoss, and 30 for Adam, and calculate from there. And since Dortort put six years between sons it worked out very neatly with the twelve year cycles of Chinese astrology. :)
Aside from the math challenges, I did a ton of research for this little story and I learned more than I could have imagined, so it remains close to my heart.
"Is winter. Snow in winter only natural."
I know this is not what he mean, and he knows I know. Is my way of telling him not to worry so much. So much worry not good for little boys. But he worry anyway. Is his way. He continue to stare through open shutter. By his wrinkled forehead, I know his thoughts are dark.
"When's Pa comin' home?"
He glance down at small figure in customary place at elbow. "Pretty soon," he say automatically. "Soon as the snow lets up a little."
"What if it never lets up?" There is suggestion of quaver in little voice, and he turn to give him full attention.
"Of course it will. Don't be silly. It's only been two days."
The round blue eyes look some reassured, but shadow still linger there. "Will Ma be all right?"
This time he crouch down so they are eye to eye. Well, almost. The little one grow so fast — will not be long before he does not need to bend down at all.
"You know what?" he suggest with sudden smile. "It's time for me to feed the animals. Want to come?"
"Yes!" The little one — a big little one — clap his hands in delight. He so pleased that he does not notice his question goes unanswered.
"All right." With efficiency of long practice, he is already wrapping younger one in his muffler and buttoning coat. "But you have to promise to hold tight to me. We're going to use the rope to get to the barn."
"I'll hold the rope!"
"You're too small." For now. By next year, plenty big. "Hang tight to me. Promise me, Hoss, or you stay here."
"All right." Hoss a little disgruntled, but, with his sunny nature, does not last long. He sit obediently while boots are pushed on feet, then offers hands for mittens.
"Wait for me."
Of course, Hoss does. Proceeding without his idol unthinkable. I watch to be sure all are bundled warmly.
"Hats," I remind sternly.
Older brother nod.
Younger brother nod in imitation.
I work hard to hide smile. "Check for eggs."
Older brother nod again. So serious.
Younger brother smile. So sunny.
"Do not get too wet. Catch cold."
"Right. C'mon, Hoss."
A rush of cold as door open, and I shiver, then watch the two figures, suddenly looking very small, become dark blurs in cyclone of snow and wind.
Such cold. I am not used to cold; it has not been part of my history — not in San Francisco, despite foggy air; not in Canton, where air is warm and moist.
I do not like.
Missy Cartwright, she also is not used to cold. Where she comes from it is hot and moist too, like Canton. We laugh about it. Or we did. Before she grew ill. I shake my head. Cold is not good for those of us with heat in our blood. I sometimes wonder what brought me here. Perhaps she does, too.
I move to kitchen to check fire in stove and set kettle to boil. Some tea. Good for Missy Cartwright. Good for me, too.
No, Missy Cartwright know why she is here — this is her new family. Missa Ben. The little boys — Missa Adam and the little Hoss. I smile. The not-so-little Hoss. And the tiny one. Missy Cartwright's health not so good after the tiny one is born — and then this cold. Very bad. Why anyone want to live way out here? I ask myself.
I know why I am really sulking and scold myself very hard.
Pouting for silly things is childish with Missy Cartwright ill and Boss Cartwright gone to village for doctor. Snow come very fast, very hard — keep him from getting back. Many of the men try to go to him — no good. But Missa Cartwright is safe in village, of this I am very sure. Say many prayers for this, burn much good incense.
Kettle sing loudly, and I jump up and fix tray. Much to do. No time for foolishment.
Missy Cartwright is quiet. I think she is no worse. No better, maybe, but no worse.
The tiny one wails, and I pick him up. Damp. This one always damp.
I smile. Very tiny, but very good lungs. Strong. Calls loudly for what he needs. This is good. Many sons, Ben Cartwright. Very lucky.
I jiggle the tiny one and take him downstairs so he does not disturb the missy. I change him and settle him in basket by stove with cloth dipped in sugar water to suck on. He coos loudly. Never quiet, that one. I smile.
Then frown, counting days in my head. So much snow. There will be no trip to Virginia City as I planned. I knew there would be no San Francisco this year, but I had hoped for Virginia City. Many Chinese there. Fine celebration. I have a few things from San Francisco, carefully stored away to help celebrate. Missa Cartwright agreed.
But then, Missy Cartwright ill. The snow. I frown very hard at window. Perhaps it will stop. Perhaps, at least, I will see Lantern Festival. I will not admit, even to myself, sore spot in my heart at thought of New Year passing unblessed, uncelebrated. Not in whole life have I ever imagined such a thing. Not in the many, many generations of my family has such a thing ever happened. Unthinkable.
Angry with self. Such foolishment.
There are things you cannot do alone, of course, but many that you can. You have no debts to settle — this is good. No grievances to ask forgiveness for. You can clean house, top to bottom — sweep out old luck. Repair clothes. The important things, the sacred things, remain. Of course, there is no one to wish you Gueng Huei Fa Zuai. But you can wish it to others in your heart.
Determined, I go to mending basket and look — much to do here. Those boys. Always torn, always growing. Already Missa Adam's wrists hang out of his jacket sleeves and little Hoss's coat stretches tight across shoulders. I pull out one of Missa Ben's shirts and shake my head. Missa Ben almost as bad. Not for growing, of course, but for tearing. I start to mend with diligence. I am so intent, the tiny one is so quiet, is shock to hear front door bang open.
So loud, this family! I push open kitchen door to look. Both boys are covered with snow, laughing and dropping it in great puddles all over my freshly washed floor.
"What you thinking?" I scold. "You crazy? Leave snow on porch!"
"Sorry, Hop Sing." Missa Adam steer little Hoss back outside and brush snow from him. They not seem very afraid of my scolding. Still, is good to hear them laugh. Not much laughter in this house these days. Not good to enter New Year so somber.
I watch, keeping face very stern, while they shake off snow.
We are entering Year of the Tiger. It will be my first year in this wilderness, this land of savages. Missa Adam will turn 12 in New Year. He will have lived his first full cycle — a tiger boy. Fierce. Sometimes quiet, hidden, purring like a kitten. But the fierce tiger is always there, underneath. Missa Hoss has just turned six. A ram. Very steady, but likes his comforts — his food, especially. Very much, his food.
This reminds me. What am I thinking? "Come in, come in. Enough. You freeze." I gesture them inside, take basket with few pitiful eggs from Missa Adam. Even hens do not like this cold. "I make you hot chocolate. You sit by fire, get warm."
I shove door closed against wind and gesture them to fire. The tiny one sets up roar. I roll my eyes.
"I'll get him." Missa Adam pushes his way into kitchen and returns carrying squirming bundle, now making happy noises at his brother. Missa Adam very easy with babies, though young — makes my heart smile and hurt at same time.
Hoss run over to peek at tiny brother.
"By fire," I remind them, very stern. "I bring chocolate."
They are playing by fire, all three boys, when I return. I pick up tiny one so they can enjoy their chocolate without worry of him spilling and burning self.
Missa Adam keep looking at me, and I know he want to ask about Missy Cartwright but not want to remind Hoss.
"All is fine," I say, to let him know I know. "I think maybe fatha home soon."
"Not while it's snowing like this," Missa Adam correct me, blowing on cocoa. "He can't ride in this. Jake and Burl tried, and they couldn't get anywhere."
"Fatha very clever man. Do many things that will surprise."
"Pa can do anything," Little Hoss agree loyally.
Missa Adam look doubtful, but keep his peace.
I come across shirt with whole elbow torn out and hold up to show. "What you do here?" I demand in exasperation. "How you expect me fix this?"
Missa Adam bend forward to look. "Oh. I tore that on a nail in the barn."
"Maybe you kin cut the sleeves out fer summer," little Hoss suggest brightly.
I stare at him. "Very warm shirt for summer," I point out. Still. I look at Missa Adam. Probably sleeves already too short anyway. "Well. Fine dust rag. Or maybe keep as flannel for wrapping hot bricks or mustard plasters."
Missa Adam make face at mention of mustard plasters, but say nothing.
I find pair of trousers, both knees torn out, and throw up hands. "What you boys do on knees? How I ever finish all this mending in time for New Year?"
Missa Adam lower his cup. "New Year's is over," he point out.
I had not meant to say aloud. "Not American New Year," I explain gruffly. "Chinese New Year."
"When's Chinese New Year?"
I sigh. That one — always questions. "In few days — three — it start." I watch him do calculation in head.
"How come Chinese New Year is January 28th and American New Year is January First?"
More questions. Of course. "Chinese New Year not like American, same day every year. Chinese New Year come on first day of lunar new year. We follow nature, not calendar."
Missa Adam look thoughtful, and I know there will be no ending conversation now. "The Indians do that, too."
"Ah, so?" I think, Maybe not such savages after all.
"What do you do for Chinese New Year? Do you drink a toast at midnight?" He has finished cocoa and reaches to relieve me of the tiny one so my hands are free to sort mending.
"No, no — is very different. Everything must be made new. Start fresh. You must enter New Year with no debts. No old arguments unsettled. No corners unclean." I hold up pair of trousers, torn through pocket — Missa Ben's this time. "No tears in clothing — your luck may leak away through holes."
Big little Hoss look up from where he is poking finger at tiny one. "That kin happen? Yer luck can git out through holes in yer pockets?"
Missa Adam laugh. "He's teasing you, Hoss."
"Is true," I say firmly. "Holes in pockets, your power can drain out. Very unlucky."
Missa Adam is silent. He has been brought up to be polite, but is his nature to question. I watch his nature and his upbringing struggle in his face.
Hoss is frowning. "Does yer luck get out yer button holes?"
I shake my head. "Is different."
Hoss creep closer. "How?"
He lean against my leg. "Tell me what else you do fer New Year's."
I fold one pair trousers for scrap pile, thinking. "After we clean house, we paint window frames red — very lucky. And we hang pine over door for long life and riches. Paint rhymes on paper and hang by door with good wishes for New Year. Decorate with flowers. Flowers opening on first day of New Year very lucky omen."
Hoss settle his head on my knee. "What do you eat?"
I smile. Food. Always food. I reach down to smooth fine bangs off his forehead. Need haircut. If we cannot get to town, maybe I cut. "Many very special foods. Big feast on evening before first day. Each food has special meaning. Noodles for long life. Oranges for riches. Dumplings for many sons. A tray of sweets so New Year full of sweet things."
"Pa must have ate some of them dumplings," Hoss say, very serious.
Missa Adam laugh.
Hoss look at him, not understanding what is funny. "I like the sound of them sweets. What else?"
I pull out some socks and start to mend — very worn, barely worth effort, but must not waste. "Many things. Big celebration. Fireworks and firecrackers at midnight — light up sky."
I wrinkle my forehead. "Big noise — big color — wah! Light like stars in sky. You never see?"
Missa Adam shake head. "Think I've heard of them, though."
"Very beautiful. Scare away evil spirits."
Missa Adam look skeptical but hold his tongue.
"You got evil spirits in China?" Missa Hoss ask.
"Evil spirits everywhere."
Hoss look at Missa Adam. "What d'we use here to keep evil spirits away, Adam?"
Missa Adam shrug. "Guns." I give him firm look, and he look away from my eye. "Well, how can lights in the sky keep away evil? It's just superstition."
I put down my mending and hold his eyes with mine. "Missa Adam. Chinese tradition thousands and thousands of year old. America not even one hundred. Sound strange, maybe, but possible we know something you not know?"
I watch his face and see he is thinking about this seriously, rubbing in absentminded way at the tiny one's back.
I smile. "Festival last fifteen day. Toward last day, we light red lanterns in every door, and the dragon dance in street."
"Dragon!" Missa Hoss sit up, mouth a round "o" of surprise. "Does it breathe fire? Do you slay it?"
"Slay!" Now I stare. "What is 'slay'?"
"Kill," Missa Adam explain. The tiny one whimper, and he drape him on his shoulder and bounce him.
I am amazed. "Kill! Why kill?"
Missa Hoss stare back. "'Cause they're bad. In the stories Adam reads me, the dragon scares people, and so the hero kills it."
I raise eyebrows at Missa Adam. "So?"
He shrug again. "That's what all the stories say."
I think for minute. "Perhaps American dragon bad. Chinese dragon very wise, very powerful — great protector of the people. The dragon dance in street to protect village from …" I try to find American word for what I want to say. I look again at Missa Adam. "Great sickness? Many people?"
Missa Adam frown. "Epidemic?"
I nod. "Maybe this. Dragon dance to protect village from great sickness. Of course, is not real dragon — is many boys in long cloth. First boy carry dragon head. Look like dragon — bring protection of dragon."
Missa Adam's face thoughtful now. "The Indians do something like that, too."
"So?" Hm. Perhaps not very savage at all. I unbend just little bit. "Maybe is superstition, maybe real. Either way, why take chance? What harm?"
Missa Adam nod.
Little Hoss tug at my trouser. "What else do ya do?"
"What else?" I think. "First evening, very important. Entire family gather for big meal. Stay up all night — little ones with firecracker, older ones play Mah Jong. Wish each other 'Kung-shi.'"
"Kung-shi?" Missa Hoss repeat. Sound like sneezing, way he say it. We all laugh, even the tiny one. "Even the kids like me stay up late?" He puff up a bit. "I stayed up till midnight fer New Year's."
"You fell asleep," Missa Adam correct.
Missa Hoss look indignant. "I woke back up!"
"To go to bed."
I interrupt quickly. "Little ones stay up all night, too. Very important. Legend say the later children stay up on eve of New Year, longer life have their parents."
Missa Adam look like he want to ask something, but stop and pat tiny one's back instead. Face very thoughtful, guarded. I watch him for minute, but there is no reading what he is thinking. Very good at hiding his heart, this one.
Missa Hoss tug again at my trouser. "What else do you have to eat?"
We all laugh.
Tiny one fuss, and Missa Adam feel his bottom. "He's wet. I'd better change him."
"Time he nap anyway. You put down with Missy?"
He give me grateful look.
I know he has been wanting excuse to check on Missy. Then, to distract little Hoss, I add, "Maybe you can set table for Hop Sing? Dinner very soon."
Big little Hoss jump up and take mending basket from me. "Hop Sing, kin you fix us some of them dumplings and stuff sometime?"
I smile at him. This one just the opposite — heart never hidden, worn in full sight where anyone can bump or bruise. "Maybe. Need some special tastes for them, though — maybe find in Virginia City."
"You can find everything in Virginia City. It's big."
I sigh. To his young eyes, maybe. To mine, not everything — not everything at all.