Brother Six keenly caught the brief expression that flickered through Xiaocao’s eyes. It looked like she was surprised? He barely restrained his desire to rub at the scars on his face and a feeling of confused doubt settled into his heart. Didn’t they already meet each other yesterday afternoon? At that time, the little girl had been so frightened by his facial scars that her face had turned ghost white. How come her reaction today to his face, which was scary enough to make any little kid weep, was simply surprise? He must have misinterpreted her expression!
He briefly glanced at Xiaocao and thought about saying something. In the end, he decided to stay silent and turned around to slowly walk towards the area where people were selling breakfast. Xiaocao looked around her and noticed that not a soul was in sight and quickly followed behind him. She definitely didn’t want to stay in that area by herself. If that group of scoundrels suddenly came back looking for blood, then she was dead meat in their hands.
Since Xiaocao was gone for a long time, Yu Hai was starting to get antsy waiting for her by the noodle stand. When he saw his daughter coming back with her tail between her legs next to a stern and ferocious looking man with facial scars, his first thought was that his beloved daughter was being bullied. He quickly limped forward and pushed his daughter behind him. He looked at Old Six warily and said, “Don’t be scared, daughter. Father is here and I definitely won’t let anyone bully you!”
Xiaocao simultaneously felt touched and tickled by his protectiveness. She smiled apologetically at Brother Six, pulled her father back to the stool to sit down, and explained, “Father, Brother Six wasn’t giving me problems. On the contrary, he had just saved me from bullies!”
After that, she broadly sketched out what had happened during that heart-pounding scenario to her father. Yu Hai pulled on her hand and inspected her from head to toe. Only after he didn’t find anything out of the ordinary did he slightly relax a bit and say, “The docks are very chaotic, so in the future you’re not allowed to wander around randomly! Brother, I was rude to you earlier, but thank you very much for saving my daughter!”
Brother Six’s face was as expressionless as before, and he only lightly nodded his head in reply. He opened his mouth for the first time to speak to Old Liu, “I’d like a bowl of noodles in soup without any bean flour noodles…”
Old Liu quickly ripped a piece of dough from a small bowl and skillfully rolled and cut the dough into sections. Within a short period of time, a bowl of delicious noodles was done.
At this moment, Yu Hai hastily took out a portion of braised pig head meat and a portion of pickled fish from the basket. He then placed them both in front of Brother Six’s bowl and said, “Brother, eat these two dishes with your noodles. Take them as a token of my gratitude for saving my daughter’s life earlier.”
Brother Six slightly raised his eyebrows but didn’t refuse the offer. However, when he finished eating and left, he had placed two copper coins on the table. When Yu Hai noticed the coins, he wanted to chase after the man to return the money but was stopped by Xiaocao who said, “Father, let it be. He doesn’t lack these two copper coins. Get ready, it’s almost time for the dockworkers’ break to eat their meals!”
Sure enough, when they looked towards the direction of the wharf, they saw a group of rough, old men chattering and laughing as they walked over. A few people who were more impatient walked briskly the whole way and started calling out to Xiaocao from far away, “Xiaocao, give me two portions of braised pig head meat, I want the fatty portions!”
“Xiaocao, Xiaocao! I want a portion of the pig intestines and one of the tripe…”
“Do you have any of the fish from yesterday? I want two of those!”
Despite having heard his son describe the situation over and over to him, Yu Hai was shocked when he saw it in person.
However, Xiaocao had become accustomed to this and calmly dealt with the crowd while also advertising her new product, “Old Uncle Hao, today I also made a new type of food. This is called blood sausage, do you want to buy a portion to try?”
“You have another new type of braised food? Give me a portion of blood sausage!” hollered a young fellow. He was behind the crowd of people surrounding her, and, despite his attempts at jumping around to get to the front, he was unable to squeeze through.
“Give me a portion to try, too!”
“Those of you in the front, don’t buy too many at once and leave me a portion of the blood sausages, ah! I absolutely believe in Xiaocao’s cooking skills!”’
The father and daughter pair worked together to receive the money until their hands started cramping from the effort. They were busy for over an hour without any chance to take a quick breather or break. The crowd gradually dispersed when the basket had about a tenth of the original amount of braised food left.
At this point, Old Liu’s noodle stall was also full of people at the tables eating noodles. The father and daughter pair could only find a rock at the side of the road to sit on to rest their feet. Grandma Liu was busy but sent the two of them each a bowl of steaming hot noodle soup. She smiled and said, “Yu Hai, Xiaocao, you two must be thirsty, right? Drink a mouthful of noodle soup and let it wet your throats.”
“Thank you, Grandma Liu. There’s no need to wait on us, I’m sure you have other things to do right?” Xiaocao took the two bowls from the old woman and gave one of them to her father. The other one she held in her hands as she drank in small sips from the bowl.
At this time, Xiaocao noticed that her Eldest Uncle, Liu Pei, Second Uncle, Liu Han, and her oldest male cousin, Liu Zhiwei, were at a nearby congee stall eating food. She put down her bowl of soup and took out a portion of pickled fish, blood sausage, and braised pig head meat to take over there.
“Eldest Uncle, Second Uncle, Oldest Cousin, you are all eating breakfast right now…Second Uncle, did you come to the docks to find work today too?” Xiaocao greeted the men warmly. In the previous two days, she had only seen Eldest Uncle with Oldest Cousin in the area. This was the first time she had seen Second Uncle at the docks.
Liu Pei and Liu Han raised their heads and grinned at her, “Hey, Xiaocao. How’s the business going today? Look, your head is full of sweat, you must be exhausted right?”
“I’m fine, I’m fine! Today my father came with me as well. Eldest Uncle and Second Uncle, here’s some of the braised food and pickled fish I made. You should all try some and see how it tastes. I didn’t make enough the past two days so I couldn’t leave you guys any…” Xiaocao replied somewhat bashfully.
The honest and timid Liu Han shook his hand hastily and said, “Your eldest aunt had packed us some salted vegetables. Earlier I noticed that your braised food sells really well here, so you should keep the food to make money. Your family has a great need for money at the moment…”
Xiaocao smiled, “I made a bit too much food today, so there’s still some left in my basket! When we were remodeling the house, Eldest Uncle and Second Uncle were both a great help to us. It’s right and necessary that I repay your kindness with my feelings of respect. Please take the food. Oldest Cousin, you should try this pickled fish, I bet you’ll really like the taste.”
The three men from the Liu Family only brought a few pancakes made from coarse grain and three salted radishes from home for breakfast. At the congee stall, they also bought three bowls of bean soup for one copper coin apiece. Although Liu Zhiwei had a tall and imposing figure, he was only around fourteen to fifteen years of age. This was the time when boys like him constantly hungered for food to eat.
Had the person selling the braised food for one copper coin a portion not been Xiaocao, he would have gone over earlier to queue for the food. Sometimes, he would see his fellow dock workers eating the braised food with gusto, and he could catch a whiff of its tantalizing and appetizing smell. Those were the times when he almost couldn’t keep the drool in his mouth.
When he noticed that Xiaocao had already opened the oiled paper packets and the tempting, savory smell of the braised food hit his nose, Liu Zhiwei had to swallow down the saliva that flooded his mouth. He glanced at his father and older uncle. His eyes glinted with a look of pure envy that was the exact same look Little Shitou had whenever he wanted to eat something.
Xiaocao stifled her desire to burst out laughing and snatched the pancake from his hand. She unfolded it flat and put a piece of stir-fried fish and a couple pieces of fatty pig head meat in the middle. She then gently placed the food back in his hands and said, “Oldest Cousin, try it! This was all made by me…”
Back by the noodle stall, Yu Hai had a few more customers come up to him to buy food. After that, other than the portion of braised food reserved for Foreman Sun, the rest of the food had pretty much been sold out. He placed the basket back on the wheelbarrow and walked over to where Xiaocao and the others were. He also urged the men when he got there, “Eldest Brother-in-law, Second Older Brother-in-law, it’s only three copper coins worth of food. Xiaocao is showing her filial respect to you, so just eat some!”
Seeing that they couldn’t refuse the offer, Liu Pei and Liu Han each used a pair of chopsticks to pick up a piece of braised pig head meat and placed it into their mouths to slowly savor. A burst of delicious flavor hit their tongues. They had never eaten anything so delicious, so it prompted them both to praise the food endlessly. The two brothers then tried only a bite or two of the other two dishes. They left the rest of the food for Liu Zhiwei to eat, as he was still a growing adolescent.
After Liu Pei finished eating breakfast, he took a look at his younger brother-in-law’s leg. With sincere concern, he asked, “I’ve been a bit busy lately, so I haven’t had the time to visit you. Does your leg give you any problems after walking so far a distance?”
Yu Hai slapped his left leg a couple of times and grinned, “Not a problem at all! The doctor in town even told me to walk a bit more on it when I have the time! It’s all thanks to Xiaocao for massaging my leg every night. Otherwise, I don’t think my leg would get better so quickly! Who knows, maybe after more time passes, I can also go to the docks to find some work.”
The two brothers from the Liu Family complimented their younger sister and brother-in-law for raising such an obedient and sweet daughter. Yu Hai felt more happy from hearing the praises than he did about his own leg getting better.
The small group of people chatted for a little bit more until it was time to start working again. Yu Hai and his daughter had also gotten enough rest during this interlude. They left the saved portion of braised food for Foreman Sun at Old Liu’s noodle stand and prepared to go into town with their wheelbarrow to buy some stuff at the town’s markets.
At this point, the solemn looking Brother Six came over. He threw some silver bits at Xiaocao and said, “Tomorrow I have an important client coming over. Are you able to help me prepare some food for them?”
Xiaocao looked at the money in her hands and estimated that it must be around two taels worth of money. She proceeded to ask him more details about his clients. How many people did he plan on entertaining? Were they southerners or northerners? Did they have any specific tastes or requests regarding their food? Brother Six answered her questions one by one. After that, Xiaocao had a good idea on what she needed to prepare.
At this time, Foreman Sun hurriedly rushed over from the docks to here and clearly didn’t take any time to catch his breath. He looked at the silver bits in Xiaocao’s hands and frowned, “What’s going on, Xiaocao? Is there someone trying to cause trouble for you here? If so, don’t feel shy to tell me. You have me behind you!”
Brother Six stared at him with an imperceptible smile on his face until Foreman Sun started to feel uncomfortable. Only then did Brother Six speak, “Foreman Sun, I know what you’re thinking about! The larger one’s head is, the larger the hat you’ll have to wear! Beware of biting off more than you can chew! Xiaocao is someone who does business with everyone and is not just an instrument for you to use to bring in clients! Old Sun, tomorrow’s customer isn’t someone you can steal just because you want to!”
Foreman Sun rubbed his nose out of embarrassment and said, “Ah Liuzi, don’t be so petty! Xiaocao has helped me a bit, so I was afraid that she was being bullied by others…”
Brother Six glanced at him with disinterest and then returned his gaze back on Xiaocao. He said, “Then I’ll be counting on you tomorrow…” After that, he turned and left the area.
Foreman Sun took offense to his attitude and sneered while quietly grumbling, “What’s he’s so proud about? If I had come to the docks to work two years earlier, then I wouldn’t have to deal with your blustering—Xiaocao, what did that stupid Liuzi want you to do for him? He gave you so much money, he’s not asking you to do something illegal, right?”
Xiaocao looked at him with a faint smile on her face and said, “Older Uncle Sun, he was merely admiring my culinary talent and wanted me to make some delicious food for him tomorrow. He gave me this money to buy ingredients…Older Uncle, the braised food you reserved is back at Grandpa Liu’s place. It’s getting late, I need to go into town and restock my seasoning and condiment supplies.”
Xiaocao’s clear and bright eyes seemed to pierce through Foreman Sun’s small schemes, and he replied with slight embarrassment, “Then go! Here’s the money I owe you for the food…”
It wasn’t a special market day at the markets at the docks today, so there weren’t a lot of people browsing. Most of the shops were open at the market, and Butcher Wang’s meat shop was one of those open stalls.
“Xiaocao, are you here to buy some another pig head and pig offal? How was business today? This uncle has heard that your one copper coin per meat dish is very popular at the docks” Butcher Wang smiled genially as he greeted her.Previous Chapter Next Chapter
Sanguine’s thoughts: Xiaocao’s maternal uncles are such good people.