Mother was in the kitchen stirring a pot in the hearth, her graying hair tucked into a loose bun and her wrinkled forehead creasing further when she saw me, bundled in men’s clothing, hat in hand, and a hesitant smile on my face. “Lihua!” she burst out, placing a stern hand on her hip and glowering at me. “Where have you been this whole day? Dressed like that, you weren’t helping out in the field, were you?”
Boqin bristled and took a step back while I sheepishly rubbed the back of my neck. “I’m sorry, Mother.”
“You were helping out your Father again?” She clicked her tongue and resumed stirring the pot of what looked like stew. “What’s your Father need help with, anyway? Your cousins are helping him out as is Boqin.”
“Er, yes, Mother,” he said with a sweet smile.
Mother narrowed her eyes and scrutinized him for a second, her quick eyes flitting from his sweat-stained shirt to his dirt-covered pants. “You were helping your Father, right?”
“Um, of course—”
“So if I asked your Father, he would say you were helping?”
“You lying son!” She waved the ladle in front of her like a sword and shook her head vigorously. “What am I to do with these children? One lies to me and the other doesn’t listen to me!” She pinpointed her glare at me. “Lihua, how many times have I told you not to go outside? Your wedding is coming soon and it would be a shame if you were burnt to a brown crisp from the beating sun. Do not work outside, do you hear me?”
“Yes, Mother,” I said.
“And you, Boqin,” she said in a dangerous voice, “No more lies from now on. Also, help your Father out! You’re the only remaining son that can help out! Your two brothers joined the army and have abandoned us, and my three eldest sons have already departed as well. You’re all that’s left of this farm.”
Boqin frowned and opened his mouth to say something, probably to tell her that he was planning on joining the war in a few years, but I hastily changed the subject. “Mother, when is my betrothed coming to meet us?” I asked innocently. Mother loved talking about my betrothed since she had known his aunt, whom she always gushed about being the prettiest in the village they grew up in.
Her face lit up for a brief second before she sighed, her lips depressing to a frown. “Unfortunately, you won’t see him until a few days before the wedding ceremony or, maybe even on the wedding day.”
I blinked back, not expecting that response. “Oh. I . . . see.”
“I know it’s sad, but bear with it, darling!” Mother tasted the stew before throwing in a few ingredients. She walked over to another pot and stirred the contents with a wooden spoon before scooping out a heaping pile of rice and dropping it into a bowl. “He’s a soldier, and timing is always hard for soldiers; they sometimes won’t let you off that easily, or traveling back home takes a while. There’s always offsets to soldiers, you know.”
“I expected as much.” It was better this way, anyway. I didn’t have high expectations of him, so it shouldn’t have mattered how long it would take until we would meet. Regardless, we would marry within the month.
Boqin held out his hand for the bowl as Mother ladled steaming stew into the bowl of rice, before handing it off to him. “Let’s not talk about him,” he said with a pinched expression. “I don’t want to think about him.”
“You’re just jealous that someone’s going to take your precious sister away,” Mother clucked.
Color flushed his cheeks. “Mother, I’m not jealous of him.”
“My younger brother was the same when I was married off.” Mother grinned while ladling stew into another bowl filled with rice. “You’ll do fine without your sister, and within a year or two, you’ll even have a little nephew clinging to your leg.”
Boqin rolled his eyes while Mother handed me my bowl of food. It was warm against my fingers and as I grabbed the chopsticks to eat with, my stomach rumbled dangerously. Staring down at the contents of the bowl, I couldn’t help but think of Ting and how she had to cut her food intake by half. Marriage was tough, it seemed. To be pleasing to a man was everything.
“Are you ready for marriage?” Boqin asked.
“I’m sixteen; I’ve been ready ever since I first bled,” I said automatically, gaining a smile from Mother. “I’ve been ready for three years.”
Boqin made a face but shrugged noncommittally. “If you say so.”
I was ready for this marriage, not because Mother wanted me to or because it was expected of me, but because it was natural as a woman living in this time period. I would marry, have children, and die; it was the same cycle that was repeated multiple times. If I was lucky, however, I would have more freedom between all of that. But it wasn’t as if I would become anything special, with or without freedom or marriage. I was just a woman, after all.