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Chapter 1 is called Milk Years. I was born on the fifth day of the third year of the emperor ‘s reign. The village of Puwei is in Yongming County. Most of the people who live here are descended from the same tribe. When I was a girl, I was told that the first people to come to Puwei were from the Tang dynasty, but most families came a century later when the armies of the north invaded the north. Although the people of our region have never been rich, we have rarely been so poor that women had to work in the fields. The Yi family line is one of the most common in the district. The land my father and uncle leased was in the far west of the province. The land was cultivated with rice, cotton, taro, and kitchen crops. My family home had two stories and faced south. There was a room upstairs for unmarried girls to sleep in. Baskets filled with eggs or oranges and strings of drying chilies were hung from the central beam in the downstairs main room to keep our animals safe from mice, chickens, or a roaming pig. There was a table and stools against the wall. There was a corner on the opposite wall where Mama and Aunt did the cooking. In the warm months, we kept the door to the alley open because we did n’t have windows in the main room. The rest of our rooms were small, our floor was hard-packed earth, and our animals lived with us. I have never considered if I was happy or if I had fun as a child. I lived in a so-so village with a so-so family. I did not know that there was another way to live. I remember the day when I began to notice. I felt like I had crossed a big threshold when I turned five. I woke up with a tickle in my brain. I was alert to everything I saw and experienced that day because of that bit of irritation. The Elder Sister and Third Sister are next to me. I looked across the room to my cousin. I waited for my sisters to stir so that Beautiful Moon would wake up. Elder Sister was four years older than me. Although we slept in the same bed, I did n’t get to know her until I joined the women ‘s chamber. I was not looking in Third Sister ‘s direction. She was too small to think about since she was a year younger. I do n’t think my sisters loved me, but the indifference we showed one another was just a face we put on to mask our true desires. We wanted Mama to notice us. We tried to get Baba ‘s attention. As the first son, Elder Brother was the most important person in our family. I did n’t feel like I was jealous of Beautiful Moon. We were happy that our lives would be linked until we married. The four of us looked the same. We had short hair and were very thin. Our distinguishing features were not much. Elder Sister had a mole on her lip. Third Sister ‘s hair was always tied up because she did n’t want her to comb it. My legs were strong from running and my arms were strong from carrying my baby brother. We were called up the stairs. It was enough to wake us all up. The elder sister hurried to go downstairs. We had to dress Third Sister as well, so we were slower. Aunt swept the floor, Uncle sang a morning song, Mama poured the last of the water into the teapot to heat, and Elder Sister chopped scallions for the rice porridge we call congee. I took my sister ‘s look to mean that she had earned the approval of my family and was safe for the rest of the day. I did n’t understand that what I saw as her self-satisfaction was closer to the cheerless resignation that would settle on my sister after she married out. My aunt greeted us this way every morning. We ran to her. Aunt kissed Beautiful Moon and patted me on the bottom. Uncle kissed Beautiful Moon after swooping in. He pinched my cheek after he winked at me. The old saying is that beautiful people marry beautiful people and talented people marry talented people. My father ‘s younger brother had bowlegs, a bald head, and a full shiny face. Aunt ‘s teeth were jagged and protruded from a cave. Her feet were twice the size of what I eventually became. Aunt, who was of healthy stock, with wide hips, could not have a son because of this. I have never heard these kinds of reproaches from my Uncle. They had an ideal marriage, he was an affectionate rat and she was a dutiful ox. They provided happiness every day. My mother did n’t know that I was in the room. It had been this way for as long as I could remember, but on that day I felt her disregard. I was stunned by the power of monastic holiness, which took away the joy I had just felt with my Aunt and Uncle. Elder Brother, who was six years older than me, called me to help him with his morning chores. Having been born in the year of the horse, it is in my nature to love the outdoors, but I have to have Elder Brother completely to myself. I knew I was lucky, but I did n’t care. I did n’t feel invisible when he smiled at me or talked to me. We ran outside. Elder Brother brought water from the well and filled buckets for us to carry. We went back to the house to get firewood. Elder Brother loaded my arms with sticks after we made a pile. We headed home after he took the rest. When we got there, I handed the sticks to her. It is not easy for a little girl to carry water or firewood. But mama did not say anything. After all these years, it ‘s hard for me to think about what I realized on that day. I saw that I was insignificant to her. I was too little to waste time on until it looked like I would survive my milk years. She looked at me the same way all mothers look at their daughters, as a temporary visitor who was another mouth to feed and a body to dress until I went to my husband ‘s home. I was five years old and knew I did n’t deserve her attention, but I wanted it. I wanted her to look at me and talk to me like she did with Elder Brother. I was smart enough to know that Mama would n’t want me to interrupt her during this busy time when she had scolded me for talking too loudly or swatted at the air around me because I got in her way. I would be like Elder Sister and help as quietly and carefully as I could. Grandmother entered the room. Her face looked like a dried plum, and her back bent so far forward that she and I saw eye to eye. Mama ordered you to help your grandmother. If she needs something, see it. I hesitated even though I made a promise to myself. No one wanted to get near her sour and sticky teeth in the mornings. I held my breath as she waved me away. I moved so quickly that I met my father. He did not say anything to anyone else. He would n’t speak until this day was behind him. He sat down and waited. I kept an eye on Mama as she poured his tea. She was more aware of her dealings with my father than she was of me. He never took a concubine, but my mother was careful with him. Aunt spooned out the congee while Mama nursed the baby. After we ate, my father and uncle set out for the fields, and my mother, aunt, grandmother, and older sister went upstairs to the women ‘s chamber. I wanted to go with my mom and the other women, but I was n’t old enough. When we went back outside, I had to share Elder Brother with my baby brother and Third Sister. I carried the baby on my back as we cut the grass. Third Sister was the one who followed us. She was an ornery little thing. The only people who had a right to be spoiled were our brothers. She thought she was the most loved person in our family. We went up and down the alleys between the houses until we came across some other girls jumping rope. My brother let me jump as he took the baby. We went for a simple lunch of rice and vegetable. The rest of us went upstairs after Elder Brother left. He and Third Sister took afternoon naps. I enjoyed being in the women ‘s chamber with my family at that time. Aunt sat with brush and ink, carefully writing her secret characters, while Elder Sister waited for her four sworn sisters to arrive for an afternoon visit. We heard the sound of four pairs of feet up the stairs. The five girls clustered together in a corner after Elder Sister greeted them with a hug. I knew that I would be a part of my own sworn sisterhood in another two years, even though they did n’t like me on their conversations. The girls were all from Puwei, which meant that they could assemble often, and not just on special gathering days such as Catching Cool Breezes or the Birds Festival. The girls formed a sisterhood when they were seven. Their fathers contributed 25 jin of rice, which was stored at our house. Each girl ‘s portion of rice was sold so her sisters could buy gifts for her. On the day of the last sister ‘s marriage, the last bit of rice would be sold. The end of the sisterhood would be marked by the fact that the girls would have all married out to distant villages, where they would be too busy with their children and obeying their mothers-in-law to have time for old friends. Elder Sister did n’t try to grab attention with her friends. She sat with the other girls as they told stories. When their chatter and giggles grew loud, my mother sternly hushed them, and another thought popped into my head : Mama never did that when my grandmother ‘s sisters came to visit. A new group of five sworn sisters invited my grandmother to join them. Only two of them and my grandmother were still alive and they visited at least once a week. They made each other laugh and they shared their bawdy jokes. Mama was too afraid of her mother-in-law to ask them to stop. Maybe she was too busy. She stood up to get more yarn. She stared pensively at nothing for a moment. I wanted to run into her arms and scream, See me, see me, see me! Her feet were bound by her mother. Mama had ugly stumps instead of golden lilies. She balanced herself on a cane instead of swaying. As she tried to maintain her balance, her limbs went akimbo if she put the cane away. For anyone to kiss or hug her, she was too wobbly on her feet. Aunt asked if it was time for Beautiful Moon and Lilly to go outside. Elder Brother could use some help with his chores. He does not need their help. Aunt said it was a nice day.