Kim Dharka was packing a bag to take on a short trip out of town. The process of completing, submitting, and defending a first graduate thesis was done. Northern universities considered that the equivalent of their Masters degree, and the young Tang-jian had received some very interesting and flattering offers to study overseas while completing the second, longer graduate degree that would allow one to style oneself a Doctor of Physical Sciences. The disadvantage to such offers was, of course, that one would have to leave Tang-ji to take them up. Dharka had heard that many northerners still considered Tang-jians to be backward compared to them and was of the opinion that certain visiting northern academics did not treat the local professors with the respect that they deserved. Much as one was tempted to reject the offer signed by Professor Vois out of hand because of the way she had spoken to Professor Hu Kun during her visit to Xiamtian University earlier in the year, it was not a decision one should make lightly. There were other offers as well, more or less problematical, plus the desire to remain with known and supportive associates.
All of which explained why one was taking a two-week trip to Wugao Province's Riverland district to visit one's paternal relatives.
"So," said Dharka's flatmate, Tsang Ai, as she leaned against the door, "your idea of getting away from it all is to go up river and help some elderly relative plant his rice crop."
"Yes," replied Dharka calmly. "I've missed doing it the last few years because of classes, but this year I'm free. Also, I have decisions to make about next year and Number Three Great-Uncle Kim has always been very good at helping me work things out. He is wise, but he's also skilled at getting others to think clearly."
"I take it these aren't the relatives that think you ought to be some sort of engineer?" Tsang Ai was a chemistry graduate from a family of assayers who expected to work in her family's business.
"That's my mother's side of the family." Dharka gave a short laugh and started pairing and rolling socks. "They wanted me to be an engineer, because what else do you become when you're a Shimba who's gone to university? However, after I spent some time at last August Moon Festival explaining how metals are made in the hearts of suns, they seem to have decided that I should be a spirit talker."
"That's a religious thing, isn't it?" Tsang Ai looked at her flatmate critically. "Do you want to go around talking to spirits?"
"I don't know that the spirits want to talk to me," Dharka tucked the socks away. "It's the other side of the family, my father's Khem relatives that I'm going to see this time. The ones with the beards and moustaches."
Tsang Ai looked at her friend's gender-marker free form and asked, "Is there any need for me to be worried on your behalf about this trip?"
"I believe not." Kim Dharka had briefly thought about this, because sometimes one's presentation was a problem around the uncouth. "Number Three Great-Uncle Kim and his wife gave me gifts of suitable clothes and toiletries before I knew that they were suitable. My cousins and their neighbours will follow Number Three Great-Uncle's lead. As long as I plant my share of the rice, I don't see there being a problem."
The next day, Kim Dharka was in a third-class carriage on the train from Xiamtian to Pushang, with a return ticket to the intermediate stop of Hao Jia. The service was an all stations train, once it had cleared the urban network, and the trip took much of the day. The orchards had almost finished blooming and in the paddocks young livestock gamboled playfully with their age mates as they began the serious business of putting on weight and muscle. Having managed to secure a window seat on the platform side of the carriage, for most stations, one bought a lunch basket through the window from a vendor on the platform at the noon stop. Lunch was long gone and most of the professional journal one had been reading was finished by the time the conductor came through the carriage announcing that the next stop was Hao Jia. A few of one's fellow passengers also got their bags down from the metal net-work racks above the wooden slated bench seats after the announcement was made, and everyone who was disembarking moved with their luggage to one of the vestibules at either end of the carriage.
At Hao Jia the platform was level with the floor of the train and there was none of the awkward lifting or lowering of luggage that occurred at some of the more idiosyncratic stations. Dharka moved to the side of the platform to clear the carriage doorway for boarding passengers and to allow for the other arrivals to sort themselves out before trying to make one's way to the exit. One was expecting to be met, because Number Three Great Uncle Kim had said that a family member would be at the station with a motor vehicle for the trip to the farm outside Sanniucun. Dharka had offered to catch the bus but been overruled on the grounds that the last scheduled service of the day to Sanniucun could not be relied upon to run. Number Three Great Uncle had added that the village headman had raised the matter with the mayor of Hao Jia and the woman who was head of the local bus company yet again at the previous month's district governance meeting, but no improvements had been seen. The gleeful comment that one would be in time to help with the letter writing campaign had made one suspect that Number Three Great Uncle and his cronies were up to something.
The train's departure towards Pushang was delayed by vigorous negotiations involving an unexpected crate of chickens that were presented to the baggage car when the conductor had told the owner that they couldn't travel in the third-class carriage. The rooster in the crate had punctuated the conversation with crowing, and Dharka suspected that one of his companion hens was getting ready to lay an egg. Given the claims that the owner was making about prizes and champion blood lines, one suspected that an accounting for any and all eggs was going to be demanded when the crate left the train. When the train did leave, the platform cleared almost immediately, and the physical scientist was able to pick up one's bags, walk to the exit, and show one's ticket to the station attendant without tripping over half of Hao Jia. A green, Qiangniu work truck sat right outside the station exit, engine running, with Number Three Great Uncle Kim behind the wheel and one's second cousin, and Number Three Great Uncle's fourth oldest grandson, Kim Ye wasstanding beside it, holding open the door to the cab.
"Come on," called out Number Three Great Uncle, leaning over towards the passenger seats beside him. "Throw your bags in the back, if there's nothing breakable inside, and climb in. You'll have to sit in the middle; Number Four Grandson insisted on coming, and your legs are shorter than his. Last time he sat in the middle we had an argument about which of us was using the clutch."
Dharka bowed and said, "It's good to see both of you again. I have missed everyone up here."
Kim Ye replied, "Well, we've missed you too." He had grown a neatly trimmed beard and moustache since his cousin had last seen him. "You're looking well though, studying must agree with your constitution. I like that thing you're doing with a scarf around your neck - could you show me how to tie it like that? It would look well for those times when I don't want to show the world exactly how hairy I am." He took the proffered bag of clothing from his shorter cousin and added, "I swear, the tray is clean. Nothing bad is going to happen to your stuff back there. I'm going to cover everything with a tarp so it won't pick up dust on the way home."
He was true to his word and tied down the green tarpaulin securely before climbing into the small block-shaped cab beside his second cousin. "You need to put on the seat belt," he told Dharka cheerfully. "You remember that Number One Uncle's eldest daughter, Kim Fang, went off to train as a nurse? Well she's back again now, working at the hospital here in town and it turns out that she has strong views on seat belts. Every time we see her now, she nags us about wearing the things."
"And tells us horror stories about the injuries people get when they don't wear them," added Number Three Great Uncle Kim from the other side of Dharka. "If we aren't wearing seat belts, do have an accident, and get taken to hospital, then I'm sure her scolding for not wearing seat belts will be worse than our injuries."
"She told Grandmother and Mother to on no account allow me to have a motorcycle," went on Kim Ye. "And that wasn't because I said I wanted one, it was because I was talking to one of the Tang's cousins who was visiting about how he uses one for mustering sheep where he works in the northern part of the province."
"It sounds like Kim Fang still worries about everyone," commented Dharka diplomatically.
"She's still working out exactly who she is and where she sits in the world," said Number Three Great Uncle Kim philosophically. "She's not as far on her journey as you are on yours, Kim Dharka. You seem to have found the skin that fits you."
"I believe I have," agreed Dharka. "Certainly, I find it easier to behave well to others and myself than I did before, with the benefit of not feeling forced into the wrong shape or behaviour."
"Those are good things," agreed Number Three Great Uncle. "I hope you still like steamed fish with greens and noodles - your great aunt remembers it as your favourite dish so she's making it specially tonight."
Dharka asked eagerly, "With river cod? Xiamtian has excellent seafood but the fish is exactly that, salt water fish. I haven't had river cod in years."
"Then you're in for a treat tonight," Number Three Great Uncle Kim promised one. "Number Two Son went fishing this morning and got some good-sized fish."
The conversation continued between the three of them for the rest of the trip, covering the doings of the family and the village since Dharka had last visited. They were skimming over the fuss that had surrounded the birth of the latest addition to the Hong family, who lived on the other side of the village from the Kims, when they passed a blue and white bus stopped on the other side of the road with its bonnet up. "That," commented Number Three Great Uncle, "is supposed to get back into town and be the last bus to Sunniucun today. Given the number of tools I can see out of the toolbox at a glance, I have doubts."
They arrived at the stone farm compound just before sunset. The stone wall surrounding the buildings was tall enough to keep in small children and keep out other people's dogs. There was a pig pen situated to shelter the animals from the worst of the heat and direct sun and it came with what Dharka knew to be a comfortable sty - one had cleaned it often enough. The family still kept an ox for farm work, and a few goats to keep it company. Dharka suspected that the goats were really because Number Three Great Aunt had been a goatherd, before she'd married, and just liked having them around. The poultry houses were under the same roof as the animal stalls, but the seed and feed were in a separate, solidly built and soundly locked building. The small plantings of stone fruit trees clustered around the fence had fruit developing. The farm house itself surrounded a courtyard on all four sides, and although it was not as large as the courtyard houses in Xiamtian, Dharka could see the similarity of floor plan and how, with increasing family size and prosperity to match, the farm house could be expanded.
Once inside, it was clear that one was not the first of the family to arrive to help with the planting. Dharka bowed to the family shrine, observed the number of ribbons pinned to the frame to indicate non-resident members staying for a time in accordance with Khem custom, and added one's own ribbon to the collection.
Number Three Great Uncle was already telling someone about the broken-down bus, and the wife of one of the older cousins was loudly counting heads to see how many plates and places were needed for the evening meal. The main room, when Dharka entered it, was full of one's Khem relatives. Most of the people present were descendants of Number Three Great Uncle and Number Three Great Aunty Kim, but others were the descendants of Great Uncle's brothers. Dharka was the child of the only son of Number Three Great Uncle's second to oldest older brother. Kim Loong and Kim Soong, sitting next to the door that led out to the kitchen, the laundry and the other wet rooms, were the grandsons of the oldest brother; the one that had followed Great-Grandfather Kim into the money lending business. Three of the Wens, that Dharka recognised, who were descendants of the Great Uncle's only sister were helping destring pea pods. Relatives from Great Aunty's birth family were there too, including her youngest nephew, Mau Tang, who towered over everyone present and wore a silky flowing beard to his waist that sat oddly with his chosen clothing.
Dharka had always thought that Mau Tang only needed a sword and a bow to look like an old-fashioned bandit, he had enough metal bits on his clothes to look like armour already, but at the moment he was telling a group of small children a story about a bandit and a dragon. If it was the story that Dharka thought it was, then the dragon was the Celestial Water Dragon, but one found it sobering to realise that one did not recognise any of the children. "Good evening!" That had to be almost shouted to get over the buzz of the room, then Dharka bowed and continued, "I have been away too long. I am sorry. Please forgive me."
"No need to apologise," Number Three Great Uncle waved a hand. "Studying and finding your way in the world takes time. Besides, you won scholarships - none of us would want that money to go to waste. Tell everyone what it is that you study these days." He beamed at his younger family member with pride, and suddenly the entire room was looking at them.
Temporarily off balance, Dharka announced, "Um, I study how metals are formed in the heart of stars. Which is where they come from before they're in the ground waiting to be dug up or in the soil for plants to use."
Someone, one couldn't see who, asked, "So, that's where the celestial dragons get the metals from when they gather the materials to make planets." It was a reminder that some of one's relatives were very religious.
"I don't study the who, just the how," Dharka hoped that wasn't going to be counted as weasel words by someone, "but yes, that is where all the metal we know came from. That includes the trace metals in each of us. The celestial dragons don't just use star stuff to make planets, they use it to make us."
Number Two Cousin, Great Uncle's Number Two Son, asked from the table where he was making and repairing fishing flies, "Have you considered joining the clergy? That sounds all rather metaphysical to me."
Dharka laughed. "Do you know, that's almost exactly what my mother's family said to me back at August Moon Festival? Thank you for the thought, but I prefer to remain Scholar Kim for now."
Then Number One Cousin's wife was taking one to the eastern portion of the farm house so one's bags could be unpacked and find out who one was sharing a room with. That turned out to be Mau Tang, Wen Ling, and Kim Loong. Matters could have been far worse. Then it was back into the main room to find out who the small children were, soberingly they were the children of one's age mates among the cousins. That led to meeting several new spouses whose weddings one had been unable to attend, although everyone expressed thanks for the thoughtful gifts and written good wishes.
Dinner was served with all the available tables pressed in to service, and there was indeed steamed river cod, greens and noodles. Not to speak of dumplings, chili tofu, and red bean jelly. Dharka felt wonderfully full at the end of it and was happy to get up and help with the clearing up so as not to fall asleep at the table. The small children were packed off to bed, and the wise among the assembled family soon followed them because rice planting would start early in the morning.
Lying in bed in the shared room, Dharka considered the choices before one. Tomorrow or the day after would be time enough to consider the decisions to make for the future, and to discuss them if one was still having trouble making a choice. It was good to be back among family again, and the feelings of having been too long away from this annual spring gathering was something to consider in the decisions one had to make. Already one was beginning to feel more connected to one’s clan, which was the point of the spring gathering, and that was a thing to be treasured.This entry was originally posted at https://rix-scaedu.dreamwidth.org/113761.html. There have been comments there.