It was in 1874 when he first saw her. She was sitting against the outer edge of Tun King's village walls, eyes closed and her expression serene. He watched her as if she were an animal and he the hunter. His eyes traced every contour of her body, from the slightly angular face to the hands with dirt on them. He tried to be silent, holding his breath as he edged forward, trying to figure out this enigma.
A twig snapped.
She opened her eyes, and he noticed the unusual flecks of gold in them. He had never seen anyone from his village with eyes like hers.
"Stop, please don't go!" he cried out and forced himself past the bushes frantically as he raced towards her. He repeated the plea in his mind.
The girl's eyes widened, and she scurried away like a frightened animal. Staring silently at the spot where she stood, Yao sighed and headed back towards the village. He hoped to see her again tomorrow.
Yao was strolling aimlessly round the market the next day. The old aunts and uncles of the orphanage had sent him out to buy meat to celebrate the year's good harvest. But he was restless despite it being a favourable time for the village.
He couldn't stop thinking about the girl. Who was she, and why hadn't he seen her before?
He tried asking Uncle Chai, the village scribe, but the old man grumbled and waved him away with an angry flourish of his brush.
"I have no time to entertain the daydreams and fantasies of a boy. I have work to do; now, shoo!" he declared.
A sudden shriek awakened Yao from his reverie as a dark blur ran past him.
"Stop that thief! Stop her! She stole my money!" a woman yelled angrily, her basket of groceries strewn over the floor as curious onlookers gathered.
Snippets of conversation floated into Yao's ear:
"Wow, you won't believe what I just saw."
"Gosh, that poor woman."
"I'm late for dinner. My wife will be mad."
"Where did that thief come from?"
A young boy, aged about 10, shoved himself through the crowd and helped the distressed woman put her groceries back into the basket, which Yao had grabbed.
She cried hoarsely and tears stained the front of her shirt.
"Why didn't any of you help me?" she accusingly pointed a finger at the onlookers.
"Oh, my husband will be furious. That was all the money we had this month. You accursed people, may the goddess Kwan Yin punish all of you!" she yelled and clumsily grabbed the basket.
Yao felt embarrassed and scolded himself silently for not stopping the thief. But on glancing around, he found it strange that the onlookers seemed unaffected by the incident. They stood gossiping with their friends, and he imagined that soon all conversation in the village would start with: "You won't believe what I just heard."
And naturally, with each retelling, it would deviate further from the truth.
Yao shrugged and dismissed the incident. Not interested in dwelling on it further, he glanced at the dying sun. He hadn't much time to get the meat and arrive back at the orphanage before the curfew.
The next day, Yao stumbled upon the girl again at the outer edge of the village walls.
He was fascinated by the carefree look on her face and how skilfully she tossed a coin into the air and caught it every time, even though her eyes were closed.
It was then he saw the red purse lying beside her and realised - with a jolt - that she was the thief from yesterday!
"Hey!" he cried out, forcing his way through the bushes.
The coin dropped on the ground and the girl opened her strange, gold-flecked eyes.
"Return the money to the woman you stole it from yesterday. Do you know that a month's worth of money is in there? She needs it to feed her family," he yelled angrily and waved his fists.
The girl didn't run away this time but instead faced him calmly.
"Then why did you not stop me?" she asked quietly.
"I ... er ..." - he didn't know what to say.
"I was distracted," he mumbled, the anger within him suddenly gone.
"Then perhaps you shouldn't blame me for the theft, yes? Perhaps you should focus your attention on the people who chose to watch and talk, but not help," she said, with a small smirk on her face.
Yao was, for a moment, speechless.
"But you shouldn't be stealing in the first place," he argued, now confident.
The girl laughed lightly and pushed herself off the ground.
"I don't have the time to debate my moral values with you today. But if it makes you feel better, the money was returned. I found this coin on the road yesterday."
She made a huge show of glancing up at the sky.
"Well, it's almost noon! I must head back home for lunch. See you later," she said, and turned to go.
Yao was confused and could only gape at the retreating girl.
"May I please know your name?" he shouted desperately after her.
The girl stopped and turned.
"I'm Qin. It's a pleasure to meet you, Yao. One word of advice before I leave: you don't have much time left, so make sure you make the right decision from now on, OK?"
It wasn't until much later, when Yao lay on his bed, that he realised he had never told Qin his name.
In 1894, Yao saw the mysterious Qin for the third time.
It was a bad time for the village. A gang of ruffians had recently appeared and terrorised the women. The husbands shrank away in fear, and the women were left to fend for themselves.
By now, Yao had left the orphanage and was being trained by a woodcutter. Every penny he earned went to restoring the orphanage, and he was proud to give something back to the place that had raised him.
On his way to the town's diner, after a long day's work, he heard snippets of conversation from the old wives:
"Gosh, those poor children."
"Why are the gods punishing us with these ruffians?"
Yao smiled slightly, remembering the dialogue he'd heard 20 years ago and wondering where the weird girl had gone. Ever since Qin had left, with the cryptic warning that he didn't have much time, his dreams were plagued by her words. And the sense of foreboding he felt had grown during the past few years.
The young man was soon seated in the diner and tucked heartily into the rice before him. A few metres away, a rowdy gang of men huddled round a cowering woman and leered at her.
"Hey, where's your husband? Has he gone with another woman so he doesn't have to look at your face?" one of them barked. His friends laughed loudly.
Yao sighed and ran his hand through his hair. He really wanted to help her, but was afraid of the ruffians.
A woman suddenly slid into the chair beside him.
"Are you not going to help her?" she asked.
Yao leaned back in surprise and exclaimed loudly when he saw her eyes:
"Qin! Is that you?"
Qin sternly questioned him again: "Are you not going to help her? Her husband has all but abandoned her, and she needs to feed three children."
The men's laughter boomed again in the diner, and the woman whimpered, trying to slip away.
"You have to help her!" she pleaded with him.
Yao glared at her: "You have no right to interfere with what I do."
Qin stared at him and jumped up from the chair. At the door, she turned and said: "I'm sorry. I tried. I really tried."
Yao saw her for the last time in 1914. He was in hospital and lay silently among the tubes and wires extending from his body.
"I'm your half-sister, you know," Qin gripped his hand tightly, inducing a wince from the old man.
"Why didn't you tell me?" he murmured.
The old woman with the gold-flecked eyes stood up and laughed.
"I'm not allowed to - the rules of the curse, and so on." She raised an eyebrow at him and rolled her eyes.
"Well, dear brother, legend has it that a jealous woman once put a curse upon our grandfather and told him that every generation of men from his line would always let opportunity slide past. The women are cursed to see the possibilities but never to reveal the truth to the men. It's quite clever actually. The curse is only lifted when the men have one foot in death's door, and by then it's too late for the women to tell them the truth."
Yao quietly took in this shocking news. He'd always felt there was more to his life. As Qin revealed the truth, he felt as if something heavy was lifted off his chest, and for a moment, he wondered if it might mean the end of the curse.
"Does this mean the cancer will kill me?" he asked.
She smiled bitterly at him, lips tinged with despair and sorrow:
"Yes, it will. I tried to help you before, remember? If you had stopped me from stealing that purse, you would have been honoured as a hero and received a scholarship at the local school to become a policeman instead of a woodcutter.
"If you had stepped out and helped the woman in the diner, she would have given you a plot of land her ancestors left for her. You would have found a pot of gold buried on the land that would have allowed you to live comfortably." Qin paused and wet her lips:
"Do you see now? We are forever forced to live the lives of the accursed."
The beeps of the machines filled the air.
"Perhaps we are," said Yao, "but I wouldn't give up this life for anything. I now know I have a sister, and just knowing that is good enough for me."
He smiled sadly.
Qin laughed, with tears in her eyes.
"As you wish, my dear brother."
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