Xia’s Gift

A story by Sadie Jade Forde, age 13, Co Wexford

Xia Chen was born in 1631 in Peking, China. She was born into wealth. Her father was a merchant who had accumulated great riches. Her mother came from a family of medical practitioners who were not rich but were widely respected. It was a loving family. Xia grew up knowing nothing other than this household to which she was bound, the servants who were employed to do the family’s bidding, and one other thing that was drilled into her since before she could remember much else: “Inside the house you are safe, outside you are not.”

As Xia grew, she received a few of life’s true gifts. First, a brother who they called Bai, of whom she was extremely fond, and then twin sisters. Liang, who was always misbehaving, was often told she was “quite the practical joker”, which, although Xia was sure was not meant as a compliment, was constantly reflected in public in a showy way by Liang. The other twin was called Mei, who was a sickly child, deathly pale and with permanent dark shadows under her eyes. Xia always thought that this was the reason for Liang’s misbehaviour. Xia sympathised with Liang over the fact that Mei received almost all of their parents’ attention.

They were a privileged family, and they enjoyed a very fulfilling life. That was, of course, until the peasant uprisings came. Xia was not told much, only that the peasants were fed up with the Ming rulers and had decided to revolt. Their father constantly reminded them that it was not safe, and by the time Xia was 11, her father was the only one who would leave the house.

In time, further catastrophe descended: an outbreak of the deadly plague in 1643, the effect of which was akin to that of a mass murderer. Thousands of people were dying, and Xia and her family were now not safe even within the house’s walls.

READ MORE

One Sunday, the father called his children into the library and told them that he and their mother had decided it was in the children’s best interests that they were sent away. Xia wanted to argue against this, but knew that her parents’ difficult decision was the right one.

In the weeks before the children left, their mother made it her business to pass on to Xia some of the remedies she herself had learned from her own mother, in hopes of assisting Xia in looking after her younger siblings. Xia learned the practices eagerly, and her mother was proud of how much she had progressed by the time it came for them to leave.

A carriage arrived and the few possessions they were to take with them were loaded on. Father pulled Xia to the side and told her it was now her duty to look after her siblings; she was to give Mei her medication, ensure Bai applied himself to his studies, and keep Liang from getting into too much trouble. He then told her that they were going to live with a relative in a village in the countryside where they would be safe. Lastly, he told her to stay safe, that he would be thinking about her every day, and that she was his special girl. He swung her up into a tight hug and whispered “I love you” in her ear. He lowered her, wiped a tear from his eye, ruffled Bai’s hair, and kissed the top of the twins’ heads.

Three days of travel later, the four children arrived in a remote village. Their relative (who was a lovely woman called Lei) welcomed them with open arms, and the other villagers were just as friendly. After a few weeks, Xia had made many friends and even started attending a girl’s school. Aunt Lei (which is what they had come to call her) had insisted upon this.

Several months passed, but in time the villagers began to fall ill. Although no one ever said it, it was clear the plague had spread there. Xia could tell that Aunt Lei was trying to keep the worst of the news from the children so as not to worry them. But Xia did worry, for the village was very cut off and the villagers’ knowledge of remedies was very basic. Xia wanted to help, but Aunt Lei insisted that she must keep herself safe. She obeyed.

That was until the death of Choi Ling. She was not a close friend of Xia’s, but perhaps that’s why it hit as hard as it did. For, Xia had not had the chance to get to know this girl – and she never would. Death is a strange thing, it hits hard.

That was the day Xia decided to take action. She would no longer stand by and watch, she had to do something. So, using the skills her mother had taught her, she nursed the grateful villagers back to health. Bit by bit, one by one . – until the plague had all but vanished from the village. Almost. Everyone except one person was healed.

You see, some distance beyond the edge of the village, there lay a cottage. An old woman lived there. The villagers did not mix with her, they did not trust her. Some claimed she was a witch, others that she had been disgraced from society. She had almost never been seen. Many villagers even denied her existence.

One day, a beautiful songbird flew through the window of Xia’s bedroom and dropped a note in her lap. It told Xia that the old woman was sick and needed her help. Although Xia knew of the villagers’ fears of the woman, she knew also that she must help because otherwise the plague would never go away.

Xia brought the old woman medication and visited her every day until she recovered. She never saw her face, as it was always hidden beneath a veil. On the last day that Xia visited, the old woman told her how grateful she was and produced a beautifully patterned lantern. “A gift,” she said, handing Xia the lantern. “Even when your vision is clouded and the darkness is overwhelming, light this lantern and hope will prevail.” Xia thanked the old woman, took the lantern and left.

The next day, the old woman’s cottage disappeared and with it the old woman. Xia asked a few of the villagers if they knew where she had gone, but no one even remembered who the woman was. It was as if she had never been.

One day some months later, a letter arrived. It bore devastating news for Xia and her siblings. One of the servants had betrayed the family to the revolutionaries who had burned down the family home and killed their parents. They were orphans!

Within days, the children were sent back to the city for the funeral. Xia did not believe what she saw that day. It was as if she was in some sort of trance. She was whisked from the ash-littered ruins of their house to the funeral of her beloved parents, and then to a place she could not have imagined in her worst nightmares. You see the family’s fortune had been confiscated, and now they didn’t have money even to pay for their return to the village, so instead they were placed in a shelter for the poor. It was an awful place, unhygienic, dirty, overcrowded, and although Xia hated to admit it, the place smelled of pure poverty.

The following years were dismal for Xia and her siblings. They endured the squalor and hunger of poverty. The loss of their parents and happy family life was a constant heartwrenching pain. The siblings’ former wealth ensured that they received little sympathy. The plague passed, but now they were surrounded by the diseases of poverty. Eventually, Liang developed Tuberculosis. It brought her to what appeared to be her deathbed. This broke Xia’s heart. Liang had always been the strongest of the four. Hope seemed lost.

It was when Xia came to rummage desperately through the trunk of their few remaining possessions for some sort of cure that she came across the lantern. The words of the old woman returned to her. “Hope will prevail,” she recalled, ”hope will prevail.” It was worth a shot, so, fumbling with the box that held their ration of matches, she tore one out and struck it. She lit the lantern, and it burned peacefully all night long. Xia felt hope. It was as if the flame was Liang’s soul, flickering perhaps, but still clinging on for dear life.

The sun rose on a new day and with it the children, and Xia was amazed by what she saw. As if by miracle, Liang had recovered. She smiled weakly, but her eyes were bright.

That night, Xia pondered over the lantern and the old woman’s promise. Could it be? After much thought she accepted that it might always be a mystery.

Kindness is rewarded – you never know how much people value it.