THE MATCHMAKER’S BREW

by Dana Y. T. Lin


My husband will be pleased.” The customer inhaled the steam rising from her cup, dabbed her nose with a kerchief. “We have one daughter, but no sons.”

Hot tea's earthy aroma blended with morning's incense and the scent of blooming peonies outside the window offered a serene atmosphere inside the matchmaker's office.

“This union will be blessed, Mrs. Chen, I guarantee.” The matchmaker wrapped dried tea leaves in paper, tied it with a red silk string. “Siu.”

“Yes, mother.” Siu poured hot candle wax on the knot then stamped it with the jade seal. She set the seal in its box holder by the brushes and inks on the dark walnut desk, blew on the melted wax then extended the package to the customer. She bowed. “Thank you, Mrs. Chen.”

Mrs. Chen sat in a chair across from Siu's mother. She wore a purple silk robe embroidered with chrysanthemums in gold. Gold hairpins and dangling earrings matched the outfit. Every finger bore a gold ring. Rather extravagant compared to the matchmaker's simple gown of green and blue cottons. Mrs. Chen's father owned the timber factories in the region. He helped her husband become the governor. Petite and lovely, she wanted Ken-li. Siu’s Ken-li.

“I'm looking forward to meeting him very much.” Mrs. Chen gazed out the window to admire the grove of trees.

“Drink it while it's hot.” The matchmaker indicated the tea.

“It's such a bitter taste to acquire.” Mrs. Chen traced the flowery engravings on the tiny porcelain cup. She sipped slowly, made an obvious effort to swallow the herb-infused concoction.

“You won't be disappointed.” The matchmaker tapped the scroll lying by the brushes. “You saw his painting. He's a fine young man. The Chen family will celebrate the birth of a son within the year.”

“I expect it.” Mrs. Chen watched the young maiden in the green dress standing quietly by the matchmaker. “What about your daughter? I know a jewelry merchant. Needs a concubine.”

“Siu?” The matchmaker glanced at her daughter - long, glossy hair, a pretty face, but sad eyes. “She'll take over the business when I'm old, no time for childbirth or marriage.”

“If she passes her prime, it'll be too late to reconsider.” Mrs. Chen set her cup on the desk.

“Invite your friend to come in anyway. I've plenty of other healthy virgins, and much prettier.” The matchmaker rose from her seat, looked to Siu. “Escort Mrs. Chen out.”

Siu ushered Mrs. Chen outside. She came back to find her mother standing, bamboo switch in hand.

“Do you know how much money the Hong son brought in?” The mother pointed the switch at Siu. “Kneel.”

Siu dropped her head and knelt on the cold stone floor. She lifted her outer layer of dress up above her waist. After twenty successive lashings to the back and legs, Siu's mother returned to the desk.

Trousers torn and bloodied, Siu wiped the tears from her face, defiance in her eyes. “I love him, mother. He’s mine.”

“He belongs to me.” The mother slammed the switch on the desk. “His father signed him away as soon as his mother weaned him. He's been drinking my teas, eating from my kitchen. Until his contract expires, he is the property of this company that will be yours one day.”

“I don't want your company.” Siu tightened her jaw, straightened her back. “I want Ken-li. You have dozens of other boys. Show them.”

“The Hong boy is the most handsome in this age group.” The mother worked the marbled beads of an abacus. “He has three good years, after that he'll sire girls for a full year before giving boys again. Damn you, Siu, his first fertile year was wasted because you kept his scroll hidden.”

“You know how I feel, how I've always felt -“

“I should have figured it out sooner.” The mother shoved a scroll into a basket underneath the desk. “Mrs. Huang and Mrs. Chen kept asking for him after seeing him in the fields, but when I bring them into the office, you’d present another candidate.”

“I want to marry him.” Siu pushed up to stand, but her legs gave out. She slumped to the ground, wept.

“Silly girl.” The mother came from around her desk. She placed a gentle hand on Siu's head. “Ken-li's type aren't for marrying.”

Siu sobbed louder, her shoulders shook.

“Forget about him.” The mother slid a piece of paper from under the inkwell. “Mrs. Huang's husband is infertile, but that arrogant pig will divorce her if she's not with child soon. Mrs. Chen's husband can only sire girls. Weak ones. Only one of their daughters survived. Bastard. Blames his wife for his inadequacies. These women placed very high bids.”

Tears fell to the ground to pool beneath Siu's fingers.

“He's a fine product with an expiration date. With his looks and his build, he can be hired out many times over what I've spent on fostering him.” The mother made for the door. She looked down on Siu. “After a few customers, you won't want him anymore. You'll get over it.”

The mother left. Siu crawled to the desk, loosened her tight green belt and exhaled her relief. She fingered through the piles of scrolls in the basket under the table, yanked out the one with Ken-li's name on the end and unrolled it.

Name: Hong Ken-Li. Sign: Rooster. Parents: No known diseases. Height: 5'11”. Features: No visible flaw. Treatments: Since age five. On the bottom was a brush painting of him. Long hair, strong chin, dark eyes. Wonderful eyes.

“He's perfect,” she whispered, outlining the silhouette with her fingers.

“Who's perfect?” came a man’s voice from the door.

“Ken-li.” Siu dropped the scroll back into the basket, shook out her dress to make sure it covered the trousers. In pain, she stood. “Did you run into my mother?”

“No.” He gathered her into his arms and gave her a firm hug.

She stiffened at his touch, beads of sweat formed on her forehead. “You look different.”

“I came from the kitchen.” His cheeks dimpled when he smiled. “They said you had my tea.”

She pushed him away, a refreshing scent lingered. “You smell different, too.”

He wore a long robe of red and orange. Birds embroidered in black silk adorned front and back. Gone was his everyday peasant's garb of slippers, knee-high trousers and loose-fitting work shirt. His face glowed. His hair shone.

“Your mother sent me to the bathhouse, courtesy of the Chen's.” Ken-li brushed a stray hair from Siu’s eyes. “Been in the fields? You’re a mess.”

“Busy day.” Siu retrieved the basket of scrolls from beneath the table. She shoved the basket into a cabinet by the window.

“Are those the scrolls of the eligibles?” He peeked around her to get a glimpse. The scrolls on the top shelf bore green ribbon. The ones on the bottom bore red. “The green ones are for marriage contracts, right?”

“Right.” Siu rested her head on the cabinet door. “Don't go through with it. Don’t do it, Ken-li.”

“I have a family farm to save.” He nudged her arm.

“You're always making light of things.” Siu slammed the cabinet door shut. “You should tell your father he had no right to sell his own son!“

“Siu, we've been arguing about this the entire year. My mother was sick, father needed the money.” He adjusted his sleeves. “Fifteen years I must serve once I’m of age, otherwise my parents will be charged with stealing from your mother.”

Childhood friends, they fished together, picked tea leaves together, stole treats from the kitchen together - they were best friends, childhood sweethearts, meant to be together.

“You will regret it.” Siu leaned on the desk, tilted the box with the seal in it to reveal a small compartment underneath.

“Summer's nearly over.” Ken-li stared out the window. He watched birds flitter from tree to tree. “I'll miss the harvest.”

“We can run away.” Siu retrieved a tiny key from the compartment. She used it to open the desk drawer. “I know where mother stashed all the money, we could -“

“I thought you were kidding about that.” He grabbed her arm, slid the drawer shut. “Your mother has been good to my family.”

“Only because she knew she could sell you to the highest bidder.” She flicked off his hand, pushed past him out of the office then down the hall.

Ken-li followed her into her bedroom. A simple space. A wooden table with two chairs, one dresser with a mirror, and a bed with mesh netting hung from the ceiling. No windows.

“What are you doing?” Ken-li closed the door behind him.

“What I should have done the day I found Mrs. Chen admiring you in the fields.” Siu pulled out a trunk under the dresser, opened drawers and yanked out clothes. “Help me.”

“I'm not running away with you.” Ken-li fidgeted with the oil lamp on the table.

Siu stopped, letting the clothes slip from her fingers and fall to the ground. “But you love me.”

He undid the knot in his belt.

“What are you doing?” Her face paled.

“I may have been bought to provide an heir to the Chen name,” he pulled off his robes, “but I want you to have me first.”

She turned her back to him. “This isn't what I want.”

He stepped closer. “This is all I can offer.”

She felt the warmth of his body close to hers. His cologne engulfed her, wrapped her in a scent that swayed her.

“Ken-li.” Tears welled in her eyes. “We can leave the city and find a farm in the countryside.”

He reached for her shoulders, but stopped. “I was never meant to be a farmer.”

His breath against her neck softened her determination. She closed her eyes and bit her lip, hard. She tasted blood, relaxed her jaw.

“No.” She maneuvered away from him. “Not like this.”

“Dammit.” He snatched his garment off the floor. “Don't you understand? It's too late. Once Mrs. Chen made up her mind, refusing her would mean death to my entire family. Her husband's the governor.”

“The governor will never find out. Mrs. Chen and her kind pay well to keep their secrets.”

“She'll create fake charges. Her kind are good at that.”

“But you can't guarantee you'll sire a son.”

“You know the guarantee. She drinks the teas, comes here on designated nights to interact with her purchase.” He shrugged on his robes. “She waits. She'll be pregnant within a month. Your mother's brews never fail.”

Siu made a fist and went after Ken-li. Her anger dissolved against his chest. He let her cry on him, but when he moved to hold her, she jerked away.

“No.” Siu composed herself, pushed her shoulders back. She sucked in a slow breath. “I knew you wouldn’t be convinced.”

“You gave me an extra year of freedom.” Ken-li tied his robes in place, ran a hand through his hair. “How long did you think you could trick your mother?”

There was a knock on the door.

“That must be your afternoon dose of tea,” said Siu. “Come in.”

An old hunched servant with grey-streaked hair entered. In his hands he held a clay pot and cup.

“ It's been simmering all morning, mistress,” said the raspy voice of the servant. He limped towards Siu. With unsteady hands, he tipped the contents of the pot into the cup. A woodsy scent filled the room.

“You may go.” Siu took the cup from the servant.

The servant bowed, his movements slow and rickety.

“Old fool. Mother’s retiring him.” She watched the servant hobble out. She handed the cup to Ken-li. “Here, drink.”

Ken-li accepted the tea. He downed it in one gulp. He coughed. The cup slipped from his fingers, fell to the ground and cracked. His breathing labored. He clutched at his chest.

“Siu,” he gasped. He slumped to the hard ground, eyes red and swollen. “You can't do this. My parents. Mrs. Chen will -”

“Mother’s got plenty others. Mrs. Chen will never know the difference.” Siu walked over his immobilized body and out the door. “Have a long and prosperous career, Ken-li.”

***

“Mistress,” came a raspy voice. A wrinkled hunchback with silver-streaked hair limped in with a tray of dried tea leaves. “For this season's brew.”

Siu, hair pulled up into a bun, head in a book and hand on an abacus, acknowledged the old servant with a nod. She accepted the tray from him.

“Interesting how in their dried state, it does nothing.” Siu crumbled the leaves in her palm. “Yet when boiled and mixed with other elements, it can heal or destroy.”

“Your mother's brews can be brutal.” With shaking hands the servant rubbed his back.

“Excellent batch.” Siu clapped her hands clean. “The leaves’ potency is very concentrated.”

“Anything else, mistress?”

“You may go.” Siu pushed aside the tray of leaves and went back to work. The click of the beads on the abacus echoed in the room. “And stop calling me mistress, Ken-li.”


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Dana Y.T. Lin lives in Southern California. Using her life's intrusions as muse, her love of American classics and Chinese mythology, she creates original stories with characters uniquely Asian fused. When not writing serious works of fiction, she enjoys bantering with her group of writer friends called, The Bunions.


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