The morning she awoke that day was misty, as it always was this close to the coast. The little cormorant yawned, and stretched out her feathers to greet the day. Milu Ji led a simple life, with her parents and older brothers, by the coast. Fishing was not particularly lucrative, with so much competition in the local villages. And the Milu family was very small. Small, but happy – or so Ji had thought.
As the young black bird hopped out of her reed-mattress bed, into her clothes, (all the while wondering why things were so quiet) and out the door to start the day's work, she saw the family's boat already gone. On the dock was a scroll. Dread filled Ji's heart, and she opened the scroll.
When you find this, we will already be miles away. Your mother, brothers and I have gone to Gongmen City to join your Uncle Yufu in his business there. Things have gotten too difficult here. We thought it would be better if we did this without you. Your brothers will be have a brighter future here.
Your mother was against me telling you anything – she simply wanted to leave. I thought you deserved to know.
When you were born, we had four children already, and your mother and I were at first overjoyed to finally have a daughter. But Ji, you are weak, and sickly – crippled as you are, there is no way anyone will want you as a wife, and you are barely strong enough to fly. Of all of us, you catch the least fish, even near to adulthood as you are. Out in the country, it didn't matter – in the city, it would. Your mother thinks you a disappointment – I don't know what your brothers think. My own reasons for agreeing to leave you are for your protection, Ji. You would have been hurt far worse if you had come with us.
So, my daughter, eat the fish you catch, as live as you may. Follow your dreams. I simply wanted you to know, before we part ways forever, that I loved you, daughter.
The dock was full of silence as it had never seen before. The only sound was the lapping of the water on the riverbank, and the drip drip drip of tears on the wooden planks at Ji's feet.
She should have known. After Mother always barking at her to keep up with her brothers, after Qiang, Zhu, Hai, and Caifu constantly making fun of her for the limp in her left leg, after years of wondering why she was smaller than the others – she should have known that she wasn't really wanted. Ji was the cripple, the weak one, the lame girl child compared to four healthy and hearty sons. Why would they want her?
Follow your dreams. Ji thought about that. When she was a child, she had always wanted to go to the Valley of Peace, to the Jade Palace, and learn the Art of Kung Fu. Having heard so many stories about it, what child didn't dream of being a master of Kung Fu?
But she was lame – why would they accept her? Somehow, that didn't daunt her. Her hero, Master Crane, was only a simple custodian when he started, right? Maybe there was hope for her.
Well, she didn't exactly have anything else to do with her time. Rolling up Father's letter in her wings, Ji limped back inside with determination.
There wasn't much that mattered to her in their small hut. The furniture was still there, and her family had taken all their bedrolls and personal belongings. Ji searched the whole house, and she found some dried fish left (perfect for traveling), some rice (which she'd be leaving behind), and a copper coin that must have been dropped by accident. Aside from the dried fish, all she really needed was some of her clothes (simple, and patched in many places), her straw cone hat, and her bedroll. As Ji gathered these things, she fixed up the place, in case someone decided to use it as a shelter. You never knew, after all, what good things might come of being potentially kind to someone.
A nasty little voice inside her also said that she would be returning soon anyway, and she might as well fix it up so it wouldn't be thoroughly destroyed while she was gone. Ji ignored the little voice.
Wrapping up her clothes in a cloth and sticking it on the end of a stick, Ji took hold of it with her legs (carefully avoiding her left knee), and took off into the air (clumsily, as she always did), leaving the door of the little hut wide open. Excitement fluttered in her chest as she headed south to the Valley of Peace. Soon she would meet her childhood heroes!
The village appeared to be having a market day. As Ji finally set down, exhausted from having flown all night, she blended right in with the rest of the bustling crowd. A smile on her face, Ji slung the stick with her worldly belongings over her shoulder, and set out to find the Jade Palace.
It took several tries, first getting lost, then asking for directions, asking for directions again, this time from someone who wasn't rude, and then finally winding up at the foot of a very long set of stairs.
As the little cormorant looked all the way up at the great hill, she swallowed. Her wings were aching from last night's flight – there was no way she was flying up there. But with her lame leg, getting up all those stairs was going to be a trial. When she got up there, it would be obvious she was crippled.
She would simply have to hide it, Ji realized. No matter how badly it hurt, she would have to conceal the pain she experienced with every step. No more limping. She couldn't risk being rejected from the very first. Ji took a deep breath, and steadied herself, readying for the task ahead of her.
She started with her right foot, putting it up on the first step, and pulling herself up with a trembling, but reasonably strong ease. Then the left foot. Pain coursed through her leg the minute she started supporting herself with it, and Ji struggled to keep it steady, and her face casual. It would get easier as she kept going. It would, she told herself.
“Learn Kung Fu?” Master Shifu leaned back thoughtfully. “You must understand, it takes a lifetime of dedication to the art in order to truly master it. It is very rare that someone older than nine or ten is admitted as a beginner. I'm going to have to assess your abilities and talents before allowing you into my tutelage.”
“I understand, Master Shifu. I'm willing to do whatever it takes!”
Her leg was killing her. It was taking almost all of Ji's will to hide the trembling in her knee, keep her face in an eager and excited expression, and stop herself from collapsing into a fit of screaming agony. She suspected she was wasn't doing it very well, as a well-meaning, concerned look kept crossing Master Shifu's face. But Ji refused to stop now. She'd gotten this far – she wasn't gonna give up now!
The old fire fox nodded in acceptance. “Very well. Come with me.” He gestured for her to follow him, and he led her out into the courtyard.
Facing her, Master Shifu spoke. “Now, I want you to try and strike me.”
“Really?” Ji felt surprised. “Are you sure?” A feeling of unease started to sprout in her chest. If he was asking her to do close-quarters combat this soon....
“Go ahead.” Shifu smiled encouragingly, white whiskers twitching upwards.
Reluctantly, Ji got into position, and tried to buffet Master Shifu with one of her wings.
In a flash, he struck out with his staff, tripping her right foot. Ji fell flat on her back, and Master Shifu calmly returned to a standing rest. “Again.”
Ji struck out with her other wing, this time using the side of it as a blunt force. Shifu dodged easily, knocking his staff into her wing and throwing her to the ground. “Again. You're doing quite well so far, Ji!”
Hearing that, Ji's heart surged with hope. She boldly kicked out with her right leg, ignoring the creaks of protest from her joints in the left one.
Shifu knocked her kick aside with a whack. “Again.”
Feeling confident, since he hadn't sent her away yet, Ji struck out with her left foot. Shifu grabbed a hold of her leg and twisted, clearly meaning to flip her over into the air or something like it.
“AAAAAAGH!” Spots filled Ji's vision, and she collapsed to the floor, holding her leg close and gasping for air.
Master Shifu knelt beside her, concern and compassion in his eyes. “You shouldn't engage in a martial art and simply ignore an illness or condition. Kung Fu is meant for those of sound body, and doesn't accommodate those who don't. I'm sorry, but perhaps Kung Fu just isn't for you.”
You mean cripples shouldn't be learning Kung Fu. You mean that I can't fulfill my one wish and make my father proud. You mean I'm weak, and that I'm good for absolutely nothing. Deep inside, Ji knew that Master Shifu hadn't meant for her to see it that way, but that didn't make it hurt any less.
Master Shifu bandaged her up, walked her down the stairs, and kindly told her he would pay for her to stay the night at an inn. Just afterwards, he rushed away, as if knowing he was being called somewhere. Ji weakly made her way to the inn, limping harder than she ever had before in her entire life. And she wasn't entirely sure that it was just because of her injury.
It took all the next day to fly back home. By the time she reached her little house by the Jijia River, night had fallen, and Ji was grateful for the lantern thrust upon her by the motherly innkeeper.
Home was just as she had left it. Empty, and at the same time, full of hurt and sorrow. There were no lights in the windows, no promise of a warm fire and a hot meal, regardless of who sat waiting. It was all dark, and cold. She would have to start a fire in the pit – it got cold here at night.
Ji felt something warm and wet under her webbed foot as she marched up the bank. Curious – it was low tide, the sand should be dry by now. She moved her lantern to look at it closer.
It was blood – a thick, crimson liquid, staining the white of the sandy bank. Ji felt a chill run down her spine, as she followed the trail with her eyes. It led right inside to her door.
Trembling, Ji shakily stepped inside to look. She gasped at what she saw.
There lay on the floor a bloody mass of white feathers, barely breathing, and apparently unconscious. Ji checked the bird's pulse, and sighed with relief. His (she assumed) heart was still beating. But he was losing a lot of blood – he would die soon if she didn't act quickly. Ji swiftly set to work, praying to whatever god was listening that she succeeded.