Warrior Women
by Day's Lee

"Two." Jingping Chen carefully enunciated, and pushed a five-dollar bill through the opening in the glass. Thin lines marbled the skin across her knuckles, red and dry from washing vegetables and rice daily, and cracked from the heat of gas fires generated under the giant woks. At forty, she had the hands of a woman twice her age. In her haste to change out of her splattered uniform and arrive on time at the Park Avenue theatre, she'd forgotten to slather on hand cream.

Two days ago, one of the waiters told her the theatre next door to the restaurant was showing Chinese movies every Wednesday afternoon for the summer. A Chinese movie! In China, she once walked several miles to the next village to see this marvel. Here in Canada, the black and white television images didn't make sense because she didn't understand English.

Ever since they bought the restaurant four years ago, life was a cycle of work and sleep. Overseeing the kitchen meant endless hours on her feet. Between customers arriving for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, there were chickens to kill and pluck, egg rolls to make, homemade pies to bake, and supplies to replenish. A bowl of rice, some stir-fried meat or fish, and a cup of tea were downed in a short thirty-minute lunch break. Friends commented that her five foot three inch frame looked smaller since she'd lost weight. Rivers of grey seeped into what used to be ink black hair, now cut short to fit under a hair net.

The middle-aged woman in the glass booth bobbed her Jackie Kennedy hairdo in understanding and rang in the sale. "One adult, one child," the cashier confirmed in a heavy Greek accent. "Three dollars fifty." Her plump manicured hand took the five-dollar bill, and then slid the tickets and change across the green marble counter and through the slot.

Jingping picked up the tickets and tucked the change into the black vinyl handbag she had purchased at Morgan's department store the week before. "Aie-yah! Come. It will start soon," she said to Ruby in their Hoisanese dialect and headed towards the front doors with her ten-year-old daughter at her heels.

"What are we watching?" Ruby's dark inquisitive eyes roamed over posters lining the foyer walls. Some boasted unfamiliar Greek movie stars in family or romantic settings. The French posters were adorned with drawings of handsome men clutching pretty women in various states of undress.

"A good movie. A Chinese movie," replied Jingping.

"In English?"


As eager to see the movie as she was to sit down and give her swollen feet a rest, Jingping ushered Ruby into the theatre. Heavy faded curtains dominated the front of the room. The lighting was dim, but not enough to hide the gold paint peeling from the mouldings and the water-stained textured wallpaper.

"Where should we sit?" Jingping scanned the sea of red seats.

Ruby shrugged and stuck out her lower lip. "Anywhere. There's nobody else here."

They made their way down one row. "Here. This one is good." Jingping unfolded a seat and sat on the thinning velvet upholstery. "The middle is good."

Then, the room went black and the burgundy curtains peeled away from each other, revealing a large white screen.

"Mommy," Ruby whispered. The darkness urged her to use her theatre manners. "Do you understand Mandarin?"

"No," came the equally hushed reply. "You read the English words and tell me what it says."

After a short black and white National Film Board clip about the Antarctic, the soothing, plucking sound of the erhu signalled the beginning of the main feature. Scenes of majestic mountains, the Yellow River, and peasants working in rice fields flashed across the screen. Chinese script unfurled to a drum roll.

"What does it say?"

"The Young Warriors," Ruby read aloud. "Can you read the Chinese words on the bottom?"

"No," Jingping confessed, and then quickly added, "I forgot my glasses."

A young woman and an old man worked the fields.

"That's her father," Ruby translated. "They don't have enough to eat for the winter."

The smell of ox manure and freshly plowed fields floated through Jingping's memory.

"The girl has to leave the village to find a way to make money," Rudy said after awhile, "and that boy is going too."

"You don't have to explain now," Jingping whispered. "I understand." Ruby leaned back, lifted her tiny feet onto the edge of the seat and tucked her knees under her green cotton dress.

After a tearful goodbye, the boy and the girl set off on foot. Danger confronted them along the way, but the girl's expertise with the sword saved them. With the grace of a seasoned warrior and a sweep of hardened steel, she defied highway robbers, struck down wild beasts, and shielded them from the power of angry gods. A purse of gold was her reward for capturing thieves. Her family would have enough to eat for the winter, but the girl learned that no matter what happened, the power to take care of them was always within her.

"Mommy," Ruby peered at her through the darkness as triumphant music brought the film to a close. "Are you crying?"

Jingping took a deep breath to keep her voice steady. "No. My eyes are tired." Rising to her feet, she said in a determined voice, "Come. It is almost four-thirty. I have work to do."

Minutes later, after she donned her uniform and entered the kitchen, Jingping took her place at the butcher's block that doubled as a small table. A row of worn black handles filled the crack created by the block and the edge of the steel counter that housed dishes and cookware. The handle felt familiar and solid in her grip as she slid a small butcher's knife out of its sheath. She reached into a metal bowl containing bok choy and positioned the vegetable on the block. Then, with the swiftness and sureness of a warrior, she slashed the knife through the air; the iron blade rhythmically tapped the wood underneath.

Day's Lee has been short-listed in several contests, including the 2001 CBC Radio Short Story Contest. She has been published in Storyteller magazine and several anthologies. In the fall of 2005, her mystery story, "The Red Pagoda", will appear in the next anthology by The Ladies' Killing Circle, and her first children's book, The Fragrant Garden, will be published by Napoleon Publishing. She is a recipient of a grant from the Conseil des arts et des lettres du Québec and is currently working on a novel.