Li-Li loved her dolls. She had three different ones, each named after her sister. She played with them every day, with extravagant tea parties and sewing circles, all under the watchful eye of Mama or Xiao, who took turns tending the sheep in the rolling hills that surrounded their home. Papa always tended the orchard with his workers, picking Lychee fruit as the season brought about a vast bloom of the delicious fruit.
“Come on Anming,” Li-Li said as she carried her soft-silken doll out the front door of the house, ducking beneath Auntie Kake as she carried a tray of dumplings out for the men to eat for lunch, “let’s go play!”
“You be careful Li-Li!” Auntie Kake called after her, her thin voice carrying high on the springtime wind. “Don’t stray from your brothers sight!”
“I won’t!” Li-Li called back, rolling her eyes as she raced across the well-tended gardens, scaring the birds away from their feast of nuts as she swept out of the front gate. In her silken vest she carried a wrapped bundle of stolen dumplings for lunch, and in each sleeve she had a special pocket for her dolls, with her favorite left to be carried.
Racing across the meadow into the hills surrounding their land, Li-Li caught sight of her gangly brother, leaning against a worn bamboo spear he used to ward off wolves. He caught sight of her, her deep purple outfit clashing terribly with the lush greenery of the fields surrounding them.
“Li-Li! What are you doing out here?” Xiao asked, turning from the grazing sheep and giving her stern look. She stopped a few yards from him, tilting her head to the side, smiling.
“I’ve come to play of course! And so has Anming!” Li-Li exclaimed, holding up her doll excitedly. The silk wrapped doll with porcelain features resembled a beautiful woman in a stunning dress, eyes wide open as if pleasantly surprised.
“I don’t have time to play dumb kid games with you Li-Li,” Xiao said, turning back to watching the sheep graze, “father expects me to keep the sheep protected, and if I ever want to get a better chore than this I have to keep my eyes peeled.”
“For what?” Li-Li asked, rocking back and forth on her feet.
“Wolves mostly, though occasionally bandits try to come and steal our sheep for food.” Xiao said, brandishing his spear. “That’s what I have this for!”
“That doesn’t look like it would stop a bandit,” Li-Li commented, looking at the bamboo weapon carefully. A bronze edge had been added at the end, fashioned with three sharpened prongs. While beautiful, it also looked old. And in Li-Li’s experience, old things were often brittle and weak.
Like Mama’s pottery.
“Oh it’ll stop a bandit alright. I stopped a wolf with it two nights ago.” Xiao said with glee, running his hand over the shaft lovingly. “Right now Uncle Lao is tanning the hide for a cloak for the winter.”
“You killed a wolf?” Li-Li exclaimed, distraught at the thought of an innocent animal being harmed.
“And injured a few of the packmates, if the blood on the grass leading into the woods was any indication. They came barreling out of the woods a few nights ago, baying like mad, so I charged ‘em and skewered the first wolf I came across.”
“Did you have to kill them?” Li-Li whined, looking at the spear now with a hint of trepidation.
“Of course I did! They were after our sheep Li-Li, and you know how we depend on them for their wool.” Xiao explained harshly, forcing Li-Li to look away at the gray furred sheep idling about, chewing grass lazily in the warm spring sun. “Without them we wouldn’t be able to spin the warm blankets and comfortable dresses you like so much.”
“I hate those dresses…” Li-Li muttered, looking down at her own attire with admiration; it may be an outfit more suited for a boy, but it allowed her to travel without having to worry about getting her dress caught on anything, seeing as she liked the outdoors more than being stuck in the house all day, learning how to be a “proper lady” from Mistress Chi.
“Well you better stick where I can see you, because I got a bad feeling about today.” Xiao said, glaring at her. “I don’t want to have to come looking for you in the woods again.”
“You won’t!” Li-Li exclaimed, stamping her feet. “And it was only that one time!”
“Well I don’t want to have to do it again,” Xiao said, walking over to Li-Li to flick her nose. “Now go play, and shout if you see anything.”
“Alright brother…” Li-Li said dejectedly, jogging off in the direction of the forest. The forest this time of day was always a wonderful place to be, full of her friends.
The sun streamed down through the thick canopy of trees, the low moan of crickets echoing not too far off in the distance. A bubbling brook nearby made Li-Li giggle as she hopped over the slickened stones to cross it, doing her best not to get her feet too wet. A large frog jumped from its lily pad into the pond as she grew closer, walking through a gap in a low, and well maintained wall.
She stopped to run her hand over the engraving on a stone pillar next to the entrance, sighing and shaking her head at the message.
“Beware! Graveyard for Criminals!” She read aloud sadly. Pulling a dumpling from within her vest, she bit into it thoughtfully as she looked into the graveyard, a scant few acres of land dedicated to the local villages troublemakers and low-life’s, at least according to Papa. But Papa also said that the dead should be honored, and visited often to reflect upon their lives, as well as the current her and now.
Li-Li had watched this graveyard for years, and nobody ever came to visit it; only to bury a body, priests in tow to bless the area as if the dead would somehow come back to harm us. All they wanted was some company, like any of her ancestors!
Skipping past the warning sign and the two guardian statues, Li-Li made her way along the spiraling path, stopping at each nameless marker to utter a small prayer for the deceased. Slowly, she would her way around the graveyard to the back section, a roped off area with seals hung along ropes, as if to ward away evil spirits. They were wrapped around a single tree, a large Lychee tree that had stopped bearing fruit long before Li-Li was born. The dull colored bark was rough to the touch, and easy to peel away, and no matter the season, the leaves were always orange and brown. There, beneath the tree, sat a single grave marker with the letters bearing the phrase “Better dead.”
Li-Li always stopped to speak to this grave the longest, telling the poor soul buried here of her day-to-day life, of how her braggart brother was always trying to impress her father, who never had time for her, and of her mother who constantly passed her off to her strict teacher. Of her Aunt and Uncle who served as servants for her father and mother, baking and caring for the land.
But mostly she spoke of just how lonely she truly was living in her big home, with nothing but servants to keep her company. Even her dolls failed to hold her interest for long, and soon she would be of age where Mistress Chi would begin preparing her for, ugh, boys. That was something she wasn’t looking forward to, as she just wanted to go and explore the world around her, not stay cooped up on her father’s land until she was married off to some suitor she hardly even knew.
“It’s just not fair,” Li-Li huffed from her position on top of the marker, where she sat cross-legged. “I don’t know if you know what it’s like, but having so many expectations piled upon you is too demanding. All I want is the freedom to make my own choices, to make my own rules.”
The crickets stopped as the wind blew over the graveyard, the leaves fluttering in the light breeze as the floral scent of Lychee flowers filled the air from the orchard. The sweet scent was almost overwhelming at home, but here it was soothing. Patting the headstone, Li-Li looked down at the worn surface, wondering not for the first time who was buried here, and why the priests had deemed it necessary to tie blessings around both the tree and the marker.
“I just don’t know anymore… all it seems like I am is a nuisance to my family, like they have more important things to do than pay attention to me.” Li-Li complained, leaning back on one arm and dangling one foot from the grave. “All I really have are my dolls, and you. And don’t get me wrong, I love you; you are a great listener, and judging from how old your stone is you must be a very wise spirit. I just wish I had what I never will be able to have.”
Li-Li jumped when she heard Xiao’s voice calling for her at the edge of the forest. She scrambled down the front of the grave, not wanting to get caught in the graveyard by her family, as it was sort-of off limits, and she really didn’t want a scolding.
As she clambered down the great headstone, she caught her slipper on the edge of the wrapped papers that acted as prayers and seals, tearing them off of the headstone accidentally. Cursing mildly to herself, she quickly pulled Anming from her sleeve, tugging a needle and thread from Anming’s hair, before setting to work sewing the blessings back together hurriedly, all the while listening to her brother’s calls growing ever closer.
A sudden breeze swept over the area, the wind howling over the stone wall and drowning out her brothers cries as Li-Li finished up the task of sewing the protections back together. Looking down at the grave, she bowed. “I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to do that! Please forgive me!”
As soon as she felt her apology was enough, she bolted from the spot, crossing the graveyard as quickly as she could towards her brothers voice, Anming bouncing in her hand as she went, a faint glimmer in her eyes as they blinked for the very first time.