The gentle waves of the Yellow River tapped against the sides of Wang Wei’s sampan, producing shallow reverberations, like fingers drumming arrhythmically on the stretched animal skin of a tanguu drum. Along the docks that lined the river banks of Zhengzhou, the tiny white lights hanging from miles of cord draped from one pole to the next, from one dock to the next, gleamed brightly like fireflies. Beyond the docks the steady discordant hum of the city rose from its streets and factories even though it was well past midnight. Wang Wei’s new bride, Ying Yue, lay on the bench at the front of the sampan, away from the cover of the bamboo roof at the middle of the boat, twirling the long braid of her hair with her index finger as she stared up at the starry sky. From inside Zhengzhou when she looked up at a night sky the brilliance of the stars was obscured by the brightness of the neon lights that glowed twenty-fours a day, but from the middle of the river the twinkle of each star was like looking closely at a candle’s flickering flame. On her chest lay the new silk slippers that Wang Wei had given her as a wedding gift. They were studded with imitation rubies, sapphires and jade made of cut glass sewn onto the fabric in floral designs. They reminded her of the slippers her grandmother wore.
Although a good distance from the sampan, as a barge passed by, the sampan rocked back and forth on the rolling currents. Pitched from side to side, Ying Yue hurriedly grasped onto the sides of the bench and sat up, sending one of the slippers flying over the edge of the boat and into the water. It floated on the top of the water for a few moments like a dead fish before sinking beneath the waves. She snapped her head defiantly to one side, flipping her braid onto her back where it usually lay.
“What do I care about an old woman’s shoe?” she muttered.
The river water that had splashed onto the floor of the sampan washed over her feet. She raised them, annoyed that she had nothing to dry them with and only one slipper to wear to go from the bench to where Wang Wei lay sleeping on a straw mat on a raised platform under the bamboo roof. Married only six days, she found his snoring to be one of his most annoying habits. As she considered how to get to the bed, the noises he was making sounded animalistic and uncouth. She looked up at the stars, sighed heavily, and then lowered her feet onto the floor. Holding the one slipper, she crossed to the bed, sat on the edge, and dried her feet on the edge of the cover that lay across Wang Wei’s body. Lying on his back his huge stomach rose up beneath the cover like a steamed bun waiting to be broken open. She crawled onto the platform beside him and turned on her side, facing away from him. His breath always smelled of catfish; something else about him that annoyed her. Still gripping the slipper, she lay awake for some time thinking about the life she had left behind in Zhengzhou. She finally fell sound asleep while listening to Wang Wei’s oldest son, Li Qiang, at the rear of the sampan whistling softly as he guided the oar from side to side in the gently flowing water.
The next night, Ying Yue sat on the bench pulling at a string that attached a sapphire colored fake jewel to the slipper she had carried around in her pocket since awaking that morning. She hadn’t told Wang Wei what happened to the other slipper. She had seen his temper flare up during an encounter he had with a merchant on the docks and didn’t want him taking out his anger on her, especially over something as insignificant as a slipper better suited to a much older foot. She glanced up at the star-filled sky and tried to isolate one star to look at it only, but looking at just one was impossible. She could see Wang Wei at the other end of the sampan talking to Li Qiang, but couldn’t hear what they were saying. Noise and music from two slowly passing small, gayly lit party boats loaded with foreign passengers filled the night, blocking out all other sound. Li Qiang was the same age as she was and wearing the new shirt he had purchased in the city that afternoon, he looked like the boys she had gone out with before becoming betrothed to Wang Wei. A scream followed by an outburst of laughter from one of the boats drew her attention away from the father and son. When she returned her attention to the slipper, she saw that the sapphire-colored had fallen off.
She was busy searching the floor around the bench when Wang Wei suddenly appeared a few feet away. For such a large man, he moved about as silently as an apparition. She surreptitiously stuffed the slipper in her pocket.
“It’s a beautiful night,” he said as part question and part statement.
She glanced up at the sky trying to find the last star she had been looking at. “The skies look much different from inside the city,” she said. “What have you and Li Qiang been talking about?”
“He’s interested in a girl whose family I don’t know,” he said.
“Isn’t it an old fashioned idea that you must know the girl’s family?” she said. “You don’t know mine.”
“A father’s duty to his son is much different and Li Qiang isn’t accustomed to being around young women.”
She stood up, balanced herself as the boat gently rocked back and forth, and started toward the living area under the bamboo roof. As much as she hated it, it was her duty as the wife to put away the cooking utensils and prepare the bed for the night.
As she passed him, he gently grasped her arm. “Will you accept my affection tonight?” he said.
“Not tonight,” she said. She pulled her arm away, glanced up at the stars, and continued on.
Wispy clouds slowly passed across the starlit sky. Ying Yue was bent over the edge of the sampan, trailing her hand through the water as the boat slowly glided along. A large ship stacked with huge metal containers was a short distance ahead, pulling the sampan along in its wake. The ducks that she and Wang Wei had bought that day at a meat market on the docks swung from hooks on the end of chains at the entrance to the living area. The chains tinkled musically, like wind chimes. Wang Wei had been in a good mood, lavishing her with candies and other treats bought from vendors who had small stands set up on the piers. His mood quickly darkened for a few minutes when they stopped in front of a hair salon and she said she wanted to have her hair cut in a more modern style.
“Absolutely not,” he shouted. Within minutes and beyond the salon, his mood returned to being jovial and affectionate.
It was twilight before they returned to the Sampan. As always, because Li Qiang’s job was to steer the sampan during the night, he had spent the day sleeping. He was awoken by his father who wanted to use the platform he was sleeping on as a table to read the contracts and documents he had picked up at his lawyer’s office. Li Qiang untied the boat from the pier and they set off for the nightly trip upriver. To alleviate the boredom that at times weighed on her like a boulder, Ying Yue retreated to the bench and spent the time observing the river and the sky, both seeming endless and vast.
She filled her hand with a palm full of water and splashed it on her face.
“Be careful, you could fall in,” Li Qiang said from behind her.
Startled, she rose up and turned about. He was a few feet away and shirtless. Sweat glistened on his chest. She looked to the back of the boat and saw Wang Wei manning the oar, something he did during the day but rarely at night. Li Qiang had a wry smile on his face, as if he were holding a secret. Sometimes his handsome looks alarmed her; they made her heart beat faster than normal.
“Why is your father steering the sampan?” she said. “Are you ill?”
“My father said he was feeling restless and not yet ready for bed,” he said. “I think his new wife leaves him frustrated.”
Ying Yue’s face reddened. “You shouldn’t say such things to me,” she said.
His smile broadened and then just as quickly evaporated. He looked up at the sky. “I see you often staring up at the heavens. What do you see up there?”
“The stars, mostly. The way they’re arranged.”
“Do you believe in astrology, that our fate is foretold in the stars?”
She turned around on the bench so that she was facing straight ahead, no longer looking at him. The immensity of the container ship was like seeing a mountain afloat on the river. “I believe in nothing,” she said. “We live. We die. We are no different than the ducks hanging on the hooks.”
He sat on the bench next to her, facing the opposite direction, watching his father at the back end of the boat. He slid his hand across the wood until his hand touched hers.
At his touch, she gasped, but left her hand where it was.
They sat that way for some time until Wang Wei called out that he was ready to sleep.
The next morning Ying Yue prepared eggs, rice and steamed dumplings for breakfast. While Wang Wei and Li Qiang ate, she rolled up the mat and covers she and her husband slept on, but left the platform in place for Li Qiang to prepare for his own sleep. She had hidden the slipper in the basket where she kept the covers but took it out and shoved it in her pocket intending to throw it in the river as soon as she could do it without being seen. The sampan was tied to a pier near the docks where Wang Wei would be meeting with the managers of his tea export business. It was the only sampan moored at the docks.
“Why do you not have a better boat in which to travel up and down the river, something with an engine, something more modern, or travel by train?” was one of the first questions she had asked Wang Wei after marrying him.
“Traveling on the river in the sampan reminds me that even the simplest things that need to be tended to requires some effort,” he said. “It’s why I’m successful and very wealthy.”
She only thought of him as being cheap, but it was his wealth that drew her to him in the first place. They both understood that and accepted it, but it wasn’t spoken of.
As soon as Wang Wei finished eating and left the sampan, and Li Qiang laid down to sleep, she sat on the bench with the intention of throwing the slipper away, but forgot all about it. Wang Wei hadn’t questioned her why she wasn’t wearing the slippers or why she was wearing the shoes she wore before they were married, so her anxiety about the slippers had melted away. She gave great consideration to the fact that Wang Wei was much older than she was and in poor physical shape so he would die long before she did, and leave her a very wealthy widow. The first thing she planned to do after his funeral was to buy as many pairs of shoes of all types as she wanted.
Although she hadn’t seen Wang Wei’s tea plantation that covered many acres on the outskirts of Zhengzhou, she had been told about it in great detail by Wang Wei and Li Qiang. That night when she was told by a courier that Wang Wei would be spending the night at the plantation instead of returning to the sampan, she resented not being taken to the plantation also. She dreaded spending the night on the sampan since it would be tied to a pier instead of traveling up or down the river. She had very quickly become attuned to the routine of the boat being tied at a dock during the day and plying the river at night. The starry skies at night and the river traffic during the day each held her interest. When Li Qiang found out that his father would be gone all night he quickly retreated to the front of the boat, staying near the oar. Ying Yue lay on the bench staring up at the sky, casting occasional glances at Li Qiang. They hadn’t spoken since she felt his hand against hers. She was uncertain what the gesture meant, but it became fixed in her mind like a splinter just under the skin.
After midnight when the stars cluttered the sky, she prepared the bed, removed her shoes, and climbed under the cover. She pulled the slipper from her pocket and held it close to her chest, determined to toss it overboard when the right moment came along – uncertain what the right moment would be – but as much as she disliked it and had no use for it, blithely discarding it would mean she could no longer be so readily reminded how different she was from Wang Wei. It reminded her that she had married her father, or grandfather. She didn’t want to be married to either of them. She rolled onto her side and gazed at Li Qiang who had removed his shirt and was bent over the edge of the boat, splashing water on his muscular chest. His wet skin glowed in the starlight. She fell asleep, awakened a short time later by Li Qiang.
“I love you,” he whispered to her while kneeling beside her on the bed.
She didn’t answer, not in words. She didn’t love him any more than she loved Wang Wei, but she wanted him. She pushed aside the cover, and spread her arms, ready to accept his embrace and his kisses. She hadn’t given herself to her husband and the thought that she would someday have to filled her with dread. In that moment, taking Li Qiang as a lover removed so many of her fears about remaining married to Wang Wei until he died. In opening her arms for Li Qiang, the slipper caught on the hem of her sleeve and was pitched into the river.
“The slipper!” she shrieked.
Frantically, she pushed Li Qiang away, pulled herself to the edge of the sampan, and stared out at the glassy swiftly moving currents. Not far from the boat the slipper bobbed up and down in the water.
“You must get that slipper,” she screamed.
“It’s just a slipper,” he said, as he stood on the platform.
“Your father, Wang Wei, gave it to me, and he loves me, truly loves me,” she said as her eyes welled with tears.
Li Qiang looked into her eyes, and without hesitation, jumped into the river. He never reached the slipper. The last thing that Ying Yue remembered seeing – when she dared to remember it afterward at all – was seeing Li Qiang disappear beneath the surface of the river and not reappear, and how brightly the stars shone.