“Come out!” shouted Chen, beating the bushes with his stick. “Come out, little maggot! Just wait ‘til I get you, I’ll stripe your legs! I’ll…”
He didn’t get to finish. Dai broke from the tangled growth beside the tannery and dashed for the trees. He looked like a tiny deer, his large brown eyes wide with fear as he bolted.
Chen was too quick for him. He lunged forward and thrust his foot in front of his younger brother, sending him sprawling face-first into the dust of the yard. Dai yelped and tried to jump up, but Chen was upon him straight away, picking him up and shaking him.
“What’s the matter with you? If I have to mind you, you’re coming with me. I’m not going to hang around here all day watching you playing in the dirt. We’re going fishing and that’s that.”
“No way!” shouted Dai, wriggling and squirming. “Get off!”
After a short while, Chen managed to calm Dai down and they began their walk to the river. As they passed through the fields, old Xu waved to them from behind the two tawny oxen that were pulling his plough. Dai loved seeing Xu working with the staunch, longhorned beasts. He looked like Old Father Nature from one of his Da’s woodcuts. From Xu’s, the trail wound its way through the verdant hollows at the base of White Crane Knoll, a steeply impressive outcrop of wooded rock. Lazy avian figures drifted to and fro about its higher reaches, like lost souls searching the misty heights.
The hollow led to Wixie Dell, which bordered the river on its south bank. The dell was one reason why Dai hadn’t wanted to go with Chen. Wixies were pernicious tree sprites, and the children had often heard tales of how little boys and girls had been kidnapped by the bogles, who had then imitated their forms and gone home in their stead to eat their grandparents.
Chen marched along in front of Dai, not seeming to care whether he followed or not, thrashing at flowers and undergrowth with his stick.
“Chen,” called Dai, his voice small and afraid, “wait for me, please, I’m telling if you leave me here.”
Chen turned suddenly, his face a mask of rage. “Your brother is gone!” he shouted. “I am Wai-tan-goru, King of the Legions of Wixie, and you must prepare to die,maggot.”
Dai screamed, bursting into tears. Like monsoon rain on a window the drops clouded his vision, as he stood there, sobbing helplessly. He could hear Chen guffawing to himself, could picture him telling every girl he met about how he had scared little pissy-knickers Dai.
Dai looked up in time to see Chen disappearing around a corner in the trail, brandishing his stick before him like a sword. Drying his eyes, and trying not to blubber, he ran to catch up.
“Chen,” he panted, “could you get a stick for me?”
“Ha-ha shen-ru, and why would a little maggot need a sword? You’d probably cut your leg off, and I’d have to do all your work as well. Wait ‘til you’re my age.”
They came to the bank of the river and Chen found them a peaceful spot, warning Dai to stay quiet. The river was old here, and idled past them in a copper wash, its silent depths reflecting the amber sky. Tiny cherry blossoms drifted by on the light breeze, settling themselves gently on the almost-still waters. The only sound was the faint susurrus of the breeze stirring the branches of the ancient trees that lined the bank. Chen let Dai trail his feet in the cool water as he himself luxuriated on the warm grass.
“Chen! Chen! help!”
Chen sat up, fragments of a dream fleeing before him. Dai was standing, one foot on the bank, the other in the water, battling with something on the end of his line. Not far out, the water churned sporadically. “Chen!” shouted Dai, overwrought, “Help!”
“Alright, Dai, steady… steady,” coaxed Chen as he came behind Dai and supported his arms. He could feel the pull coming through the line. It was big, whatever it was.
Twenty minutes later they sat there panting on the bank, looking at the magnificent specimen before them. The fish’s slick green sides still heaved with the effort of the struggle, and its tail still flicked every now and then.
“Well done, Dai, well done,” said Chen, tousling his hair. “He’s longer than your arm! Wait ‘til Dad sees him!” As he spoke, Chen threaded the fish on to the line so that they could carry it easily. Dai stood too, brushing the dust from the wet spots on his breeches. He was smiling fit to crack his face. Chen looked very old as he lopped the fins off the fish and threw them out onto the waters. He was muttering the San-sai or prayer of thanks.
The sun was beginning to sink as the brothers turned towards home, and its vast orange globe silhouetted the two forms; Chen with the prodigious fish slung over his shoulder and Dai, the diminutive hero of the day trailing behind. Dai was watching Chen closely as he swaggered along jubilantly. Chen had been a real big brother to him, and his expressive dark eyes were full of love and admiration for him.
“Dai!” called Chen over his shoulder, “do you want to carry my sword?”
Peter C. Loftus’s short stories have appeared in Focus Magazine, Visionary Tongue, Midnight Street, Alienskin, Byzarium and Monomyth, among others, and have been longlisted for both the Fish and Aeon short fiction competitions. He is a regular reviewer for Interzone (UK) and Imhotep (Nor). He is the main writer for the Irish Longstone Comics and Co-Editor of Albedo 1, Ireland’s leading science fiction magazine.