An Old Tale

Angeline Yap

In China long ago, we're told,
a baby girl was bought and sold
-- not for silver or for gold,
nor even land, the tale unfolds;
but shelter, and the food to eat
to keep alive and warm, and heat
her body and her human heart,
if she would only play her part.

Her brother, brought forth on the same
day, who bore the family name,
was cherished, kept, and never sold --
not for food, nor land, nor gold.

By the bed where both were born,
in the quiet before morn,
a bucket full of water stood,
made of stout and sturdy wood,
to wash with if the child were male
-- and now a twist attends the tale
(it is no tale of fun or mirth) --
the bucket made of sturdy wood,
the bucket full of water stood,
next to the bed where both were born,
for use before the light of morn,
to drown a baby girl at birth.

But "No!", her mother, young, did cry.
The midwife, busy with the boy,
had but one pair of hands and so
could only scold the foolish child
and scurry, meanwhile, to and fro,
upbraiding her with eyes grown wild,

"Why don't you up, and drown the child!"

But "No!", the mother cried, "no, no!"
and clutched the baby girl the while.
For in the furor and the fuss,
the girl had drawn her breath at last;
the girl had filled her lungs and cried,
with reddened face and even tried
to nuzzle at her mother's breast.
And so her mother's "No" was firm
with streaming face and tired breath;
and so the wooden bucket stood,
made of stout and sturdy wood,
by the bed where both were born,
on that grey and quiet morn,
with the water's role confused;
stood, unheeded and unused.

The husband, glad to see the boy,
was just delighted, filled with joy.
He looked upon the little girl,
he watched her tiny fingers curl
around her mother's tangled hair,
and then and there, her life did spare.

But then, alas! alack the day!
the farmer took stock of his goods --
the little farm beside the woods,
his sturdy ox, the suckling sow,
two ducks, the pig, the hens, and now
what could be sold to keep a girl?
He turned to wife, his mind a-whirl
-- there was no way to keep a girl!

He grabbed the girl -- his stomach churned,
but in his haste he overturned
the sturdy bucket where it stood,
the bucket, stout and made of wood.

Then, cursing at this twist of fate,
he quickly rushed away before
his wife could cry out, through the door,
and hurried to the landlord's gate --
rushed out to sell his new-born daughter,
and that is how the landlord bought her;
agreed to give her food and heat
if she would grow to daily greet
each day with diligence, and work,
and not complain, and never shirk,
if she would water buckets fill,
and boil and wash, and fetch and mill,
and clean and scrub, with cheerful will,
and instantly obey his wife
the sad remainder of her life.

In China long ago, we're told
a little baby girl was sold --
not for silver, nor for gold,
but shelter, and for food to eat,
a sleeping space, and winter heat;
a little girl, who grew, and worked,
and didn't complain, and never shirked,
who daily filled the water bucket,
cooked and sewed, and went to market,
and, sold to be a farmer's wife
the sad remainder of her life,
cried "No!" and saved her daughter's life.

And so the wooden bucket lay,
where it fell that fateful day,
lay unused, unfilled, unheeded;
lay ignored -- it was un-needed.

In China once, the tale is told,
a tiny baby girl was sold .......

Written in 1998.

Postcolonial Web Singapore OV Singaporean Literature Angeline Yap

Last modified: 20 December 2000