Jing-sei entered this world on the 4th day of the 4th month at 4:04 pm. Chun Wa cried desperately as her husband Li reached out to hand their baby to her, batting away his hands in terror.
“She is cursed!” she screamed. No amount of cajoling on the husband’s part could compete with centuries of superstition. The number four was so unlucky that it was forbidden even to speak it.
Li sat rocking the crying baby in his arms, trying to get her to drink some goat’s milk and ignoring his wife’s crazed ramblings. Chun Wa refused to give Jing-sei any milk, shouting, “I don’t want her. You should give her to the mountain! This girl will bring sǐ to our house.”
Chun Wa tossed and turned restlessly that night, refusing food or water, despite the fact that she’d lost a lot of blood during labor. Li fell asleep holding tiny Jing-sei in his arms.
When Li awoke later, it was to find his wife lying pale and still. Her last words had come true: sǐ had come to their house during the night and stolen Chun Wa’s spirit.
Li did not have a lot of money, so he could not give his wife a lavish funeral. But he scraped together what he could, enough to honor Chun Wa so that her angry spirit wouldn’t come and chastise him for not honoring her enough.
The day after the funeral, Li could not get the baby to drink any milk. Jing-sei refused the very goat’s milk she had been complacently drinking, as if suddenly hungering for that which had been forsaken her.
Her pearl-drop of a face scrunched up and red with her wailing, Jing-sei cried all day and night. Li pleaded with the infant, “Why do you cry, little dove? Your mother is in heaven and she cannot give you her milk. This kind goat has given you hers. Please drink it, daughter.” Still the infant cried, her voice growing louder and louder.
Li was beginning to worry the baby was possessed with a demon. He could hear his wife’s insistent voice in his head. “You should give her to the mountain! This girl will bring sǐ to our house.”
Li knew then what had to be done.
Li wrapped Jing-sei in some of his wife’s old silk scarves and placed Chun Wa’s cherished jade pendant, the only valuable thing left of hers, around the baby’s neck. The necklace was much too large for her, of course, but a strange thing happened when it was placed on her – the crying stopped instantly.
Li looked down at the suddenly quiet infant, her bright dark eyes shining up at him. His resolve wavered for a moment, but then his wife’s beloved face swam in his mind’s eye again. He took a deep breath and then opened the door. Holding the baby tight against his breast, Li stepped out into the night. A sharp breeze from the mountain was sweeping across the valley. A bird’s mournful cry could be heard in the treetops. The sky was starless, infinite.
Li reached the mountain at daybreak, when the sky was turning a color similar to that found inside of a shell, that iridescent and pure. Li took one last look at his daughter and then placed the sleeping infant at the foot of the mountain and walked away.
Li always wondered what became of his daughter, the little unwanted dove with the pearl-drop face and cursed life. In his memory, she was pure and perfect. He did not like remembering her as unlucky, unwanted. He did not like thinking that she had met an untimely end, like her mother.
Despite the fact that he had abandoned her, knowing that to do so would honor his beloved wife’s last wish, he often imagined that Jing-sei had not died out in the cold, with only the mountain for company. He knew that an infant could not survive out in the wilderness, not for very long at all. But Li still held on to the hope that some kind soul had found his daughter and saved her from her misfortune.
Li never lived to learn the fulfillment of his hope.
He never knew that a Buddhist monk who had come to meditate at the foot of the mountain found Jing-sei and brought her back to his monastery. He never knew that Jing-sei became a cherished pearl for the monks, who viewed her not as a curse but as an unexpected blessing.