This story is by Barbara A Denz and was part of our 2023 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
In Lihua’s family room, she stared, grinning, at presents piled on her brick-heated floor-bed. Today, Lihua turned ten.
“Your mother’s living elsewhere now.” Her father sounded frustrated. Lihua frowned, hoping that it wasn’t because of her. “She wants a son, and I do not. As you can see on the bed, for me, you are my everything.”
Lihua smiled tentatively, not sure what else to say or do. She nodded at the presents. “May I open these now? Or do we need to talk more?”
“No more talk,” her father laughed and ruffled her long, black hair. “Open the box wrapped in silk and read the note.”
“‘Do not untie the silk bow. Bear is dangerous if unleashed’,” she read and looked up at her father with a raised eyebrow. “What silk bow?” She shook the box and almost dropped it.
“Do not break him!” A fit of coughing momentarily took his breath away. “Inside is a family heirloom–now yours.”
“Your white jade bear? Why am I getting him now?”
“It is your turn to carry The Protector.” He smiled.
She tore away the silk and lifted the lid. The white stone bear’s opaque eyes stared at her. A red silk ribbon wound around the jade bear’s neck. It was tied in a tight double-bow.
“ZhiAhnji.” she whispered, recalling the name her father had told her years ago. “Why are you giving me my ‘someday’ present now?”
Her father lifted her chin to look into her eyes. “Take care of him. I pass to you his protection for your lifetime. Now, pay attention. Soon, we will say the words that make it so. Just keep that bow tied tight.”
Lihua and her father were both crying. “Are you sure my time is now?”
“I am sure,” he smiled, but coughed up blood that splashed onto the bear.
“Should I call for help?”
“No, child. Your mother’s new mate added poison’s sting to the knife-blow of her leaving. She told him that our protection and wealth lies in the bear. As my time ends, yours begins. When we finish here, ZhiAhnji will keep you safe, just as he kept our first-born children for generations. Love him as you love me. Now, give me your hand.” Another fit of coughing stole his voice.
When he recovered, her father took a thin blade from around his neck and pricked her finger. A drop of her blood fell onto the red silk bow, turning it a darker red.
“Now, mark him to complete the connection.”
Lihua traced the bear’s carved white tongue with her bleeding finger. The white tongue turned red.
“Repeat after me. ‘I am first-born and heir. Blood ties our family. Your blood now ties me and ZhiAhnji. He will protect me until I pass him on.'” She repeated his words.
“Now, come and sleep beside me.”
Lihua snuggled next to her father on the heated floor-bed. She pulled the bear to her chest and fell asleep in her father’s arms.
When she awoke at dawn’s first light, her father lay beside her, cold and still.
On her fifteenth birthday, Lihua stood with her hand on the locked window in her attic room. She wanted to enjoy the sun in her father’s garden below, but that was not allowed. No one visited. Her step-father moved in and denied her everything except sustenance. Her only company was The Protector–her white jade bear.
Since her father’s death, she’d watched workers bury three small bodies and one larger one in those gardens. After servants told her of burying two baby girls, her mother, and a still-born boy, her step-father removed their tongues. Lihua was just as happy to be locked away from that.
Lihua’s Protector now resided on a shelf by her heated floor-bed. Although isolation left her mostly silent, she cuddled ZhiAhnji and spoke to him. “I would be so lonely if I did not have you.”
As she grew, she rubbed the bear’s nose and kissed it until it glistened, and his inner glow deepened. His body felt smaller in her hands now. His jade fur had darkened to ivory white, and his back and belly shone from being handled constantly. At night, from the tiny window behind his prayer-shelf home, moonlight reflected through his body, and Lihua thought she saw and heard her bear’s heart beating.
As the year wore on toward her next birthday, she invented adventures to entertain herself and her bear. She told ZhiAhnji her dreams, and confided her miseries and desires, and now she imagined his head nodding at her stories, or turning toward her from across the room. On lonely nights, she pretended they were betrothed, and touched his carved back until she swore she could feel his jade fur rise in response.
Lihua waited for something in her life to change so she could feel alive again. Her father would not have wanted this life for her. Waiting was not living.
To Lihua’s surprise, her step-father unlocked her tower door on her seventeenth birthday.
“You will marry my son Jihau, by my first wife,” he sneered. “Then your family’s wealth will belong to me with your first-born child.”
Lihua just stared, dumbfounded.
The flurry of wedding plans carried on out of her sight. She knew Jihau from childhood as a thief and a bully. Her father would not think him a suitable mate. Besides, she had ZhiAhnji and needed no one else.
On her wedding day, she awoke on a tear-soaked pillow with her jade bear in her arms. She could not face having ZhiAhnji watch, so she turned his face to the wall. After no company for years, she moved numbly through the ceremonies and intrusions until mute servants led the newlyweds to her attic’s heated floor-bed and left them alone.
A drunk Jihau lay beside her, fumbling with her robes. His only utterances were throaty moans. She turned from his slobbering kisses toward her bear. ZhiAhnji’s enormous head turned on strong shoulders to watch her. She reached up to push him away. Jihau’s hand yanked at hers, but caught ZhiAhnji’s silk bow and yanked it free.
Lihua heard a growl. Her tear-blinded eyes saw carved fur hackles rise on the bear’s softening shoulder while his jade-covered muscles flexed and moved.
“Jihau, stop. Something’s wrong.”
“Don’t order me,” Jihau bellowed. “I have a husband’s rights now.”
A voice, not hers, said, “You will stop. I, The Protector, demand it.”
Jihau belted a guttural laugh. “You dare command me?”
“That’s not me,” Lihua said quietly, her eyes glued to her bear.
ZhiAhnji’s head turned to face her, jade fur turning to real fur, hackles rising on his back as he changed–his bright eyes lit with a pale light from within. The tongue she had marked with her blood changed to a living red, and curled around teeth in his growing, widening maw.
“She is mine,” the bear said. “Not yours. Her father gave her to me when he gave me to her. You will not take her. I am ZhiAhnji, her protector. Let go of her.”
Jihau released Lihua and looked at a bear who was now many times its toy size.
“What is this treachery?” he demanded of Lihua.
“I have done nothing. It was you who ripped off his bow.”
“It matters not who freed me,” ZhiAhnji growled. His froth dripped on Jihau, teeth bared and ready to rip flesh. “What matters is that I protect what is mine.”
Jihau laughed, shifting to hysteria as the bear towered over him, jade completing its changes to a real white bear.
Eyes wide, Lihua pulled her wedding robe over her head, hiding her eyes and ears, turning away from Jihau, and leaving a clear path between the two males. She did her best to close out Jihau’s screams.
When next she looked, Jihau’s body lay smoldering on the room’s recessed stove, his blood soaking into heated stones. Lihua’s Protector sat by her side. She kissed ZhiAhnji’s blood-covered nose, then used her wedding robe to wipe clean her bear’s soft fur.
“Now I finally can be husband to a wife,” he said as he licked her forehead. “Your family’s ancients created my jade bear’s form to protect the first-born children down your line. They were always male children–until you. They promised that if a surviving first-born was a female, she would be my wife.”
“And I am,” Lihua whispered. “He set you free, and now I am yours.”
Lihua pulled ZhiAhnji close and kissed him.
“And tomorrow?” he said against her lips, “First, I feast so I can change to my rightful body. Then, I think it is time to end your father’s murderer.”
“With him gone, I will be safe always.” She yawned sleepily. “Just as I am safe in your arms–loved and not alone. I am protected as my father and the ancients intended.”
Nose to nose, they slept–the woman and her changing bear.