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Pirate Queen

Pirate Queen

A Story of Zheng Yi Sao
by Helaine Becker
illustrated by Liz Wong
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Until Niagara Falls

We live in Niagara Falls. People who visit call it the honeymoon capital of the world. People born here just call it The Falls. Gran says with all the traffic, noise, and crowds, life here is certainly no honeymoon.
Before school was out for the summer, everyone in my class had to do a project on someone or something that made The Falls famous. Our teacher told us about Annie Taylor, who went over the falls in a barrel with her cat. She wasn’t sure if the part about her cat being black at the beginning of the ride and white at the end was true, which made us all laugh. Most of the boys signed up for the other daredevils that plunged over the brink in some kind of crazy contraption or the collapse of the Honeymoon Bridge.
I chose Jean-François Gravelet, The Great Blondin. He was a funambulist. That’s the fancy name for a tightrope walker. The Great Blondin started with P.T. Barnum in his Greatest Show on Earth, but he was most famous for walking across Niagara Falls on a tightrope.
During work period, I stared at the giant June calendar on the chalkboard, trying to think of a way to get extra marks. I’d given up the idea of walking a tightrope as a demonstration. I wasn’t brave enough to try to balance on a thick rope, even if it was only a foot off the ground.
Miss Heard, the other grade five teacher from across the hall, came to whisper something to my teacher. Miss Heard actually looked pretty when she covered her mouth with her hand. She had the worst set of crooked teeth in the world. I was relieved not to be in her class. I would never be able to stop staring at those teeth long enough to concentrate on my work.
“Brenda,” my teacher called out. “We need your help.”
I got out of my seat and went into the hallway. She probably wanted me to take a message to the principal’s office. I was the only kid in school who could find her way to the principal’s office and back without getting into trouble.
“Someone in Miss Heard’s class isn’t feeling well,” Miss Wilson explained. “She’s not sure of the way home.”
A skinny girl in a faded dress leaned against the wall.
“Rosedale Crescent is off of your street, isn’t it?” Miss Heard said.
I nodded.
“You have your grandmother’s permission to walk her home,” she said, putting the girl’s thin, clammy hand into mine. “Then you are dismissed.”
I opened my mouth in disbelief. It was only two o’ clock. We hadn’t even had afternoon recess. Most kids would have liked the idea of leaving early, but I didn’t. I would have to spend my extra time with Gran. She would make me help with some kind of housework, reminding me over and over again that someday I would have a house of my own. She didn’t know I planned to hire a servant.
“Just a minute,” I said and ran back to my desk. I grabbed my project notes and pencil case, along with every book from my desk, and stuffed them into my school bag. I had to make it look like I had a ton of homework.
“Her name is Maureen Sullivan,” Miss Heard said, taking us to the front of the school. Students didn’t usually use that door. It felt strange walking beside the school flower beds.
As I tightrope-walked the curb, I couldn’t help but notice the frayed laces of Maureen’s worn running shoes. One of her socks had lost its elastic, and it puddled about her ankle, looking, I guessed, the same way she felt.
I walked her to the corner, stopped, and waited. This was only out of habit. I had never seen a car drive up Homewood Avenue.
The cracks in the sidewalk here were bad. In between the dandelions, billions of ants lived in small, sandy mounds. Everyone who walked to school this way said these ants bit, and then they flattened a few mounds before moving on. I wondered why the ants kept on building their homes in the same spot.
Maureen took a big gulp of air. She looked like she might throw up.
“Let’s take a shortcut through the park,” I said, dragging her across the road.
“Good to know a shortcut,” she said with a thin smile. “We just moved here.”
“Where did you live before?” Gran still used the original names of places in the city, like Stamford Centre and Silvertown, places that didn’t exist anymore. I just went by places you could swim. “Did you live up by the Cyanamid swimming pool?” I asked. It was the biggest pool in the city, with a triple-decker diving board, and because it was connected to the canal, sometimes there were real fish in the water. It was too far away to walk, and Dad wouldn’t drive me because we had a perfectly good pool in the park at the end of our street.
“Were you near Chippawa Creek or Dufferin Islands?”
Maureen didn’t speak. She just shook her head slowly from side to side.
Dad was right. The park in our neighbourhood had everything a kid could want. There was a wading pool and a huge sandbox at one end. The adult pool had a deep end with a diving board. Behind that was a tree-topped hill with grown-up swings, slides, and teeter-totters. The hill was perfect for tobogganing.
Because of the baseball diamond and soccer field, it was a busy place in the summer. The Kiwanis Club ran a sports program. Once you turned ten you could join, and that was the trouble with having skipped a grade. Everyone in my class belonged but me.
“This is the municipal park,” I informed her, using my best presentation voice. As soon as I was old enough to work, I planned to be a tour guide. “The swimming pool has a deep end with a single diving board.”
“Uh-huh,” was all she said.
We cut across the baseball field. As we walked beside the pool’s chain-link fence, I looked through the wire diamonds. A couple of buckets of paint and some rollers sat in the empty shallow end. Soon the bottom would once again be bright blue and the sides sparkling white.
“They’re painting,” I said, dropping my school bag and clutching the wire for a good look. “You know what that means?”
Maureen shook her head and leaned against the fence post.
“It means when it’s dry, we can go swimming.”
A man in paint-splattered overalls came out of the door to the boys’ change room. “Hey, you two,” he yelled. “Shouldn’t you be in school?”
“Hi, Jasper,” I called back. “I have to take this girl home. She’s not feeling well.”
“Then get going,” he said. “Quit hanging around in the hot sun.”
I turned to Maureen, who sat on the cement with her back to the fence, eating something off her finger. I figured she must have found part of a cookie in her pocket. Then I watched in horror as she scraped her fingernail along a patch of dried bubble gum and put it in her mouth.
“You can’t do that,” I said with a grimace.
“Do what?”
“Eat stuff off the sidewalk.”
“It’s just gum.”
I didn’t offer my hand to help her get up.
We walked under the trees and across the grass until we reached Jepson Street.
Cars zipped up and down this street all the time. It got really busy in the summer because Jepson Street ended at Victoria Avenue, the street that took you to the falls. Here we had to wait, but I didn’t mind. Every house on the street had either an oak or an elm tree on the front lawn. The trees grew over the road, making a huge, leafy tunnel. It was the best way to go when biking to the library.
“Where do you live?” I asked before we turned on to Rosedale Crescent. But as soon as the words came out of my mouth, I knew. The lawn of the little green wooden house was full of furniture and cardboard boxes. A motorbike leaned against the front porch.
Children swam about the place like tadpoles. A red-cheeked baby slept beneath a blanket spread across two kitchen chairs.
A skinny woman in a halter top and tight pedal-pushers was sorting through the boxes. She looked up. Her blond curls had been dragged back into a ponytail. Frizzy pieces escaped all over, giving her a kind of golden halo. She had pale, freckled skin and bright-green eyes.
“What’s wrong?” she asked. Then she put her hand to Maureen’s forehead and sighed. “I guess it’s your turn,” she murmured, leading her by the hand up the porch steps. “Thank you for walking my daughter home,” she said as she opened the screen door.
Maureen’s mom wasn’t like the other moms I knew from school. She had a kind of teenager look, one that Gran wouldn’t like.
I looked at the baby sleeping on the lawn. She didn’t tell me to mind the baby, but I couldn’t just walk away and leave it. What if a giant dog snatched it up and ran off?
“Goodbye, Mrs. Sullivan,” I said, when she finally came back outside.
“Oh, goodbye,” she said to the inside of a cardboard box. Then she pulled out her head. “I hope you’ve had the chicken pox.”

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The Lost Scroll of the Physician


THE COBRA HISSES IN STRIKE POSITION, forked tongue flickering, hood flared wide. Its icy, flat stare remains unbroken except for the vertical blink of its eyes. My fingers move up and down the long wooden reed, covering some holes and releasing others, as the notes float up and up. Gaze locked with mine, the snake slowly undulates from side to side and my body relaxes a fraction as our spirits entwine. A crowd has formed.

This is what I want.

Vendors walk toward the spectacle, attention drawn. People point and laugh, momentarily distracted from the oppressive heat of midday as they move in closer for the show. My eyes don’t leave the snake’s, but I know Ky is weaving through the carts, lifting a plum here, palming a fig there, taking whatever is most easily on offer. Hopefully he’ll find some bread, maybe some nuts and fruits, though there hasn’t been much variety of late. My ears strain for shouts, an exclamation of “thief!” over a rumbling stomach, but the crowd is as mesmerized as the serpent.

Snake charming is not common knowledge here. My father taught me the art, just as he taught me to read and write, also not so common — especially for a girl. But he believed that learning and knowledge bestow power on their possessor. Unfortunately, all his knowledge and power were not enough to keep him and my mother from being killed.

Pain blooms raw and fresh, as if the cobra has struck my heart. Has it only been one moon since they were stolen from us?


I need to focus or the snake’s Ka will break with mine. Then I will not be so safe. Though safety is mostly an illusion, I think.

Higher and higher, the snake rises in the air, out of the basket woven with grasses picked from the banks of the Nile by my own hands. Ky’s and mine. His are much faster. I pray to Amun they are fast now and try not to think what will happen if they are not. A fruit vendor, bald and fat, clothes stained with the juices of his wares, thrusts a finger in my direction and jeers.

“The snake is drugged. See how slow it moves.”

I do not stop playing to tell him the snake is moving slow because it is entranced. Also, the heat of this day would make any creature sluggish. My heckler himself is sweating, a hairy, meaty arm coming across his dripping brow. Others begin to murmur, debating the state of the cobra’s consciousness, attention wavering.

This is dangerous.

I move the reed in dizzying circles, notes coming faster. The snake follows the instrument, not taking its eyes from the wand, regarding it as a predator. It does not matter what tune I play, as the reptile can sense the sounds but not the individual notes. Those are for the audience, and so I try to make them as pleasing as possible. Unlike the fat man, I do not want my clothes splattered with rotten fruit.

There is a noise at the back of the crowd. My body tenses. A dog barks, then barks again. Time slows as the fat man turns, upper body twisting as he cranes neck over shoulder, double chin coming last, pointing in the direction of the commotion.

Please don’t let it be Ky, please don’t let it be Ky.

But Amun must be sleeping because there is my brother, scrawny arm held tight in the grip of an angry woman, dark hair frizzing around her shoulders like pregnant storm clouds. She is yelling and my brother’s face is pinched and scared.

My foot shoots out, kicking the basket over. Screams erupt from the crowd as Apep goes slithering off in search of cooler and calmer surroundings. The flash of regret at the hours of now-wasted training is quickly replaced by an intense fear that my brother could possibly lose the arm the woman is clutching.

Or worse.

Running through the panicked crowd, Ky and the screeching woman disappear in the churning masses. Frantic, I whirl in all directions, desperately trying to catch a glimpse of the pair.

A dog barks again and I look in its direction, eyes landing on the fat man.

“Don’t let him go!” he shouts, enraged. Following his gaze, I see the woman with my brother.

“If you were not so lazy and distracted, thieves could not steal so easily!” she yells back. I realize she is my heckler’s wife. He thunders toward them, one hand on the large knife at his side, sun glinting off the deadly blade. For a fat man he is quick as a crocodile, with a grin twice as evil. I dart under arms and around unwashed bodies, coughing on dust kicked up by sweaty feet.

“Sesha,” Ky cries, catching sight of me.

“Release him,” I say. The woman sneers at me in perfect imitation of her husband, who is only seconds from reaching us.

“I don’t think so.” Her lips twist in a cruel smile as her nails dig deeper into Ky’s arm, making him cry out. “He is going to pay for what he took.”

“He has nothing.” I pray she will not lift his tunic where the cloth sack is tied around his skinny waist. The fat man is almost upon us, knife gripped low. My mind races for a way out and comes up with nothing. I cannot leave Ky.

Then the dog is there, growling deep in its throat. It stares menacingly at the woman.

She takes a step back, unsure, pulling Ky with her. “Call off your dog.”

“He is not mine to call.”


And then the man is also there, lunging for me. I go boneless like Apep, and slip through his hands. He lets out a roar, rotten breath enveloping me as he fumbles for the knife. Reaching my brother, I grab his arm and pull with all my strength in the opposite direction. The man is on his knees, scrambling for his knife in the dirt. Tugging harder, I yell again at the woman to let go. She will not. She is too strong.

The dog lunges forward, jumping up on her front, teeth snapping. She screams, hands coming up to protect her face, releasing Ky so suddenly that I stumble backward and we fall hard to the ground. But only for a second.

Jumping to his feet, Ky extends a crescent-marked arm to help me up. We race through the market, dodging around stalls and people too preoccupied with their own lives and the possibility of a snake underfoot to pay much attention.

I hear both the man and the woman shout behind us, but we are lightning, darting into shadows that even the sun’s rays cannot dispel. When at last we are sure of our safety, we stop, hands on knees, breath coming fast and hard, tracks of sweat running down our dusty faces. It is several minutes before we speak.

“I’m sorry, Sesha,” Ky says, distress in his dark brown eyes. “My hunger made me careless.”

“Do not apologize for being hungry, little brother.” I ruffle his brown hair, curly like our father’s was. He brightens.

“Look.” Untying the cloth satchel at his waist, he lets the tattered sack fall to the ground. Out rolls a fig, some grapes, a few berries, and one overripe plum, conjuring with it the smell of the man’s decaying teeth. My stomach turns.

“Well done.” I gesture to the food. “Eat. I am not hungry.”

“Are you sure?” Picking up the fig, he has it in his mouth before I can nod. He needs it more than I. Noting the dark circles under his eyes and the pallor of his face under skin coloured by the sun, I gesture to him to sit as we lean back against a pitted wall behind one of the temples.

“Apep?” he says between ravenous bites, juice dribbling down his chin.

“Gone,” I say, and he lowers his eyes. “Back to the riverbank where she’ll be much happier.”

“But … all the time we spent with her …” There’s a slight tremor in his voice.

“I can find another snake.” I pat his back and smile to let him know I’m not upset. “Another brother may not prove to be so easy.”

He holds out some bruised grapes. “Have some, Sesha, they are delicious.”

I oblige, knowing he will not relent until I eat something. We finish the food together, leaving only the mushy plum, which Ky pockets. A rustling sound to our left has us on our feet, heads swivelling in its direction. The dog from the market trots around the corner and we relax, slumping back against the wall. It walks up to Ky and licks his face, making him giggle. It nudges me next with a wet nose and I scratch its pointy ears. There’s a chunk missing from the left one, an old injury leaving the skin soft and smooth.

“Do you know this dog?” I ask, curious as to where it came from.

“He saved us,” my brother says, laying his head on the lean torso. “He is ours now.”

“Just what we need.” I sigh. “Another mouth to feed.” The dog barks and a hind leg comes up to scratch vigorously behind his torn ear. “And fleas.”


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