My earliest memories are of the purple wood-orchid trees on the far side of the Hua pond. Every year in spring my mother brought me to the pond and never let them out of sight, telling me to remember them as they are in the morning and watch how they are in the afternoon. Some days nothing would happen. My mother would fetch water in buckets, wash clothes, and let me play, but she never told me why we had to stay at the pond. Then it happened. The wood-orchid trees came alive. I saw buds, then leaves, then small petals, and finally full flowers over the course of several days. She never explained this yearly ritual until I could fully speak and understand what she had to say.
“Mulan,” she said, motioning to the trees. “Wood-orchid. You have the name of these flowers.”
I looked at them, probably confused. They sprang upward out of the thin tree-branches like open cups ready to catch the rain, ready to be felt. So I felt them, the hard silk of their petals pressing lightly between my fingers.
“How do they feel?” she asked.
“Yes,” mother said. “Mulan. Strong and beautiful.”
As I grew, I came to realize perhaps that I was strong, but it was my older sister Biyu who was beautiful.
That year was the last my mother brought me to the pond, but the wood-orchid trees kept their yearly ritual. Whenever my brother Zhu and I would play near the pond I would look there first, marking an internal calendar by how they looked. They were my trees, my mother said. To remind me of who I am. Strong and beautiful, she insisted.
My mother always called me by name but never my father. To him I was Nyu. Daughter. A statement of fact rather than a term of affection. I know this because he called my sisters the same thing. Father was a proud and traditional man with a small, gentle face that could have belonged to any one of our ancestors in the Hua family. As he aged and I came to know him more, his face settled well with deep-set wrinkles and under a light-gray beard. It made him look like wisdom itself. But he had a stubborn streak that burned a frown into his wrinkles over time.
Our family lived near that pond in two small wooden houses – one for living and recreation and a barn for father’s work. He loved his traditions and no tradition was more sacred in that land than the tradition of sword fighting. But father wasn’t hanging swords for exhibition. He kept one blade hung at eye-level in the barn and another stowed away where Zhu and I couldn’t find it. It was his sword for real wars.
One night when I was still a young girl our family sat together for the evening meal. It was already dark out with a wetness left over from an afternoon rain. Every Hua’s face was lit bright orange by the fire.
“What did you do today, Zhu?” father asked. A daily review.
“My chores,” replied Zhu casually.
Father chewed his hearty soup slowly, looking down at it as if it needed his continual approval. “Your chores?” he finally asked, not affected by any of Zhu’s snark.
“And what are those?”
Zhu dug deep in his head as his eyes moved, focused, to the ceiling. “I fed the animals in the morning. Gathered wood…then I joined you on the farm.”
“And the chickens? Did you feed them?”
“I always feed the chickens.”
Father finally nodded and looked at him, the faint hint of a smile spreading across his mouth. “Good.” For him, he was beaming.
I mixed rice into my brother and stirred, eager to look busy as if I didn’t know which questions were coming.
“Nyu,” he said. “What of your chores?”
“I loaded the feed, carried the feed, loaded the water, carried the water; set them out for Zhu. I chopped the firewood and brought you the water and rice at mid-day while mother washed our clothes and tended to the garden and pulled the weeds. I helped bring in the clothes when the rain came and set out buckets for rainwater. Then I gave the wood to Zhu to start the fire.” To father, remembering one’s chores could only happen if one had actually accomplished them.
Only he wasn’t satisfied yet. “And what of your studies?”
I could sense Zhu smiling at me from over his bowl.
“After I help mother clear the table tonight I will study the art of the sword and the histories you gave me.”
“Hú Nán Shāng Chūi Shì and all its wars.”
Father finally nodded, that same faint hint of a smile over his face. I looked at Zhu. He knew the same smile was harder for me to earn.
“I have a sense Mulan will enjoy reading about the art of the sword much more than the histories,” my mother said, cracking a smile to father.
“They are one in the same,” he said.
My sister Biyu, just a year older than me and sitting closer to my father at the table, suddenly interjected. “I have chores to report, father. Don’t you want to hear mine?”
“I can see the meal is cooked, the floor is clean, and that the clothes are washed with my eyes.”
I could sense Biyu frown. She was just a year older than me but was already growing into a beautiful woman. She had a long, elegant neck and the thin delicate features of the most beautiful Chinese women. Because of this beauty, my father seemed to go easy on her. My mother raised her to be a lady the same way she raised me to be strong, with constant encouragement. “Strong and beautiful,” my mother keep telling me. Strong, perhaps, but never as beautiful as Biyu would be.
That night I read by candlelight in the room Zhu and I shared, straining to make out the words against the dark blue ether of a poorly-lit night. I read about the art of sword fighting. There were illustrations of Chinese warriors standing proud and firm, showing various defensive and offensive positions, opponent vulnerabilities. Without the real threat of violence I ate it up, enthralled to the point that I didn’t notice Zhu sneaking up right behind the book.
“Mulan!” he shouted suddenly, causing me to drop the candle which he quickly stomped out, laughing the whole time.
I pushed his chest lightly, shoving him away. “Zhu,” I said. “I could kill you. And I can now.” I pointed to the illustrations. “Just a snip right here under your chin and voosh! Your blood and insides come gushing out. Just like that.”
“Ew,” he said, hopping over to the window. “Are you done with your chores?”
It was the most common question he asked me. He’d finish up earlier in the day than me and I’d be studying by candlelight into the night. He always wanted to play. So did I, but I wasn’t about to get caught playing by father when I was supposed to be studying.
“Want to go into the barn and play?” Zhu asked.
“No. I have to finish reading. And I have to remember it all.”
“We can play with the sword.”
Zhu shot me a frown and looked out the window back down at the bar, deep in thought. I tried to ignore him just standing there when he suddenly turned.
“What if I show you father’s warrior sword?”
I looked up. “You mean the sword on the wall? I use it all the time.”
“No,” he said. “The one for real wars. The one he loves.”
I was already imagining it. He’d shown it to us once before, at a time when he’d had too much to drink and felt like showing off to his children a little, but it was just the one time and he was so serious about hiding it since then that I hadn’t even thought of looking for it. Zhu had.
“You know where it is?”
“Sure. It’s in the barn. He showed me one day and said never to open it.”
Father had never showed me the sword. I set the book down on the bed. Too hard. It bounced right off and made a noise on the floor. We waited a bit to see if someone would yell from the other side of the house. Neither mother or father seemed to hear it.
“He showed you where he keeps his sword?”
“He said it was tradition. That one day it would be mine.”
I welled up. I didn’t know whether I was about to cry or scream, but part of me was hysterical. Zhu was a boy, but he was still just a boy – too young to be worrying about what swords he would inherit and which wars he might one day have to fight. By this time I was already becoming a young woman, far more mature and certainly the better fighter. I knew that to my father I was just Nyu, but I didn’t always think he really meant it.
“Come on,” I said. “I want to see it.”
The barn was large, maybe even larger than our house. It did everything for our farm and our family. It sheltered the animals when it rained. Its broad central beams held all of father’s gardening instruments and on the walls he hung the farming tools. Father kept at least a dozen rakes out even in the off-season when he didn’t hire so many laborers and even now they were sitting out like they’d been freshly used.
Zhu and I wandered into the barn slowly, having snuck past mother and father’s room on the way down and eager not to send a chicken into a fit. I’d had enough of infrequent fat rain drops smacking on my head all day long and the barn felt warm. I never came in here at night and I forget how safe it made me feel.
There were no torches or lights inside the farm, so we had to make our way around by memory and the faint bit of moonlight coming in from the big gray sliver in the night sky. I knew exactly where the family sword was, so I lifted it from eye-level as Zhu jumped up for it, laughing quietly to myself when I held it behind my back.
“Why do you want this one anyway?” I asked.
He didn’t say anything. Instead he made a frown and then turned to the upper-level of the barn, the place where the sword was undoubtedly hidden. Father only let me up there when he was also around, but Zhu started climbing up the ladder quickly, as if he’d been up there many times by himself.
“Be careful!” I whispered at him, as if he’d heed my advice. He went on crawling and I followed him up there, not content to lay down below with the chickens.
Where the good sword might be hidden fascinated me. I’d seen all the supplies up there before. I knew where to reach them and which boxes to move aside in order to find the tools we used even less. But I’d never seen the sword. Zhu walked right over to where the wooden plank met the wall and moved one of the largest boxes. Behind it, the wall was cut out in a small section, clearly in a long rectangular shape to fit a sword, and Zhu slipped it out and let it tap against the plank quietly. He stuck his fingers into one end and started sliding out the sheath.
Even in the night I could tell the sheath was a bright black, like some royal metal that shined even when dark. It had silver linings on the top and bottom with a silver emblem marking the Hua family symbol right near the handle. Zhu let me hold it for a while. I must have been lost in it because he had to tap me to get my attention again a few minutes later.
He went down the ladder and I finally unsheathed it. The blade was sharp like new but didn’t shine like a cheap metal. Instead it looked solid, the same color as the moonlight over us. I sheathed it again and carried it down the ladder.
“On guard!” whispered Zhu. He was moving around with the family sword now, swinging it around carelessly and startling some of the chickens.
“No, Zhu,” I said in my best maternal, stern voice. I unsheathed the sword halfway and looked at it. “I don’t know if I even want to play with this now.”
“Oh Mulan,” Zhu whined. “We came all this way and I showed you the sword!”
“Shh,” I said, maybe louder than he was speaking. “This is beautiful. Don’t you see it?”
“I’ve seen it,” he snipped. “It’s just a sword. If we do any damage father can always have it prepared by Tzua Chan.”
“At a price,” I said. “You don’t know how expensive these can be.” I kept looking at the sword and the family emblem. They looked holy to me. “Besides, I don’t even want to have to lie to father about this.
“Then do not lie.”
It was father. He had that warrior’s way about him – he could show up in perfect stealth and strike with a few words at the perfect time. Zhu and I both leaped up and I felt my heart come up through my throat like it wanted to escape.
Sensing our fear, he just walked to me silently and stuck out his hands. I knelt down in the hay and grass and offered the sword to him with both hands. Zhu just stood there, frozen, knowing he had abused whatever privilege he held over me.
“Zhu,” father said. “Put this back where you took it from.” Zhu took the sword with both hands, bowed, and made his way back up the ladder. Then father turned to me, as if waiting for me to speak. So I did.
“I’m sorry, father.”
To my surprise, he didn’t use the opportunity to frown. He picked at one of my hands and finally felt it with both of his own, standing me back up.
“Nyu,” he said. “My daughter. Why did you sneak with Zhu? He’s just a boy and I can expect this from him. But not from my eldest.” I felt a new sort of guilt well up in my stomach. It was the shame you get not from when you’ve just committed a wrong, but when you’ve committed a wrong against someone who truly felt the hurt.
My father went on. “That sword has a very special place in this family. I have used it in battle – many years ago. My ancestors fought with it in the wars that came before us. And one day Zhu might fight with it, should the need arise. But if there is no war, then no one should be touching this sword. It is not mine to use. It is mine to preserve for my children, and for my children’s children.”
“I know, father.”
Just then Zhu came guiltily back down the ladder. Father looked at us both and his frown returned. “I will punish you both tomorrow. It is too late now for punishments. Get to bed and sleep.”
“Yes, father,” we replied in unison.
He lead us back to the house and turned just short of the door to let Zhu in first, stopping me outside the doorway with just a glance. Someone came clapping down from inside the house, and I saw Biyu’s tall thin silhouette.
“What’s going on?” she asked.
“Nothing,” father said. “Back to bed.”
“Is it Mulan?”
“Shut up, Biyu,” I started, the blood rushing to the veins in my face and neck. “Father said-“
“Mulan wants to be a man,” Biyu said. “But men will always slap her back down.”
The words cut deeply, the perfect cap to a miserable night. These words would stay with me for a very long time.
“To bed,” my father said, his voice so serious now Biyu had no choice but to turn away, but not without shooting me a face. She saved her cruelest side for when I was already down.
Father shook his head at Biyu, and then turned to look at me. His glare seemed to go on forever.
“Yes?” I asked, eager to break the silence.
“I am disappointed in you,” he said. My heart sank. Then he walked back into the house. I felt every tap of his feet against the floor as he walked to his room, but he disappeared through a fog of tears, distorting everything in front of my eyes.
I turned out toward the woods and wept.