The five hour trip gave Meifeng the opportunity to rest up. It would be the only time she would have to get sleep before seeing her extended family again.
Some time later, Meifeng was awaken by voices speaking in a hushed tone. When she opened her eyes, she found herself in the company of a mother and two of her brood.
The woman was pouring congee into bowls for her son and daughter. Seeing the food made Meifeng hungry, so she took out her own lunch, that Leo had packed for her in the last minute. It was a mushed ham and egg sandwich with the crust removed. As it got a bit dry, she washed it down with sips of water from a canteen.
The boy, having finished eating was eager to resume playing. His tugging at his sister's hair caused a commotion that started with her yelling, followed by their mother's slap on the table between them to enforce good behavior. This only served to make the boy start crying.
Meifeng watched this exchange with interest. The young girl reminded her of herself a long time ago. Which seemed like a lifetime ago. She was eleven or twelve perhaps when she found Ming and Xiaolung. Or was it they who found her. These boys, thirteen and eight respectively, were already subsisting in the streets for a year by the time she walked through the city gates.
"Take it," Ming had said.
It was only a piece of jerky, but she was grateful just the same. Meifeng had taken Ming's generosity as an invitation to join his little gang.
When you have no parents around, home is wherever you end up at night. In a city the size of Canton, a child can easily get lost in the crowd without attracting too much attention. The boys taught her how to survive.
Meifeng had a mother and a father, but she had lost them the same day they had lost their home to drought and famine. She got separated from her family when their entire village was forced to leave their farms. On her own, she walked for days until she made her way to the next town. All she ever knew was that they were brothers. At least they had each others. In time, they would come to treat her like a sister.
They all took turns to get food. Begging for scraps, helping themselves to unfinished leftovers from road side diners, or even digging up vegetable gardens for potato. Unless it was festival season, times were often lean. Between the three of them, they were lucky if they managed to find something hot to eat once a week.
Things were always bad when it got cold. Ming started getting sick a lot around that time of year. Between her and Xiaolung, they barely scraped together enough to eat everyday. Day by day, Meifeng grew despondent praying for miracles.
On one of those days, while Xiaolung had been out scrounging, Meifeng savored the last bit of sweet potato, she had been saving in her pocket. She did not even mind having to brush off the lint. She huddled up close to the fire, hoping if she fell asleep, she would think less about being hungry, but the constant grumble in her belly was noticeably getting louder.
At the end of the day, Xiaolung came back. He was holding onto the begging dish close to his chest lest it should fall. Meifeng and Ming were both in awe when they saw the feast. And what feast it was. A whole chicken. It was more than they ever had in their young lives.
After they had their fill, Meifeng wrapped up the rest for later, as Xiaolung told them how he got the food.
"It was a big house!"
There was one on every street. Xiaolung stretched his arms wide for emphasis.
"They were giving away food to everyone!"
He was little, but he liked to exaggerate. He only paused a moment when he remembered something in his pockets.
"Ah, I got this too."
He showed them a white paper candy wrapper, that could only have come from a funeral.
"Did you happen to see who had died?"
Xiaolung scratched his head and then shrugged.
"I heard the grown ups mention something about white hair sending the black hair."
It was obvious to Meifeng then that that family had lost a child.
When she was younger, she knew a woman, whose son had died, before the next season that woman brought home a strange girl, the other villagers said was for a spirit marriage.
It occurred to Meifeng that they must take advantage of the situation. If it could lift their fortunes for the better, they will never go hungry again.
Xiaolung held out a piece of chicken for her. She took him in her arms and gave him a quick squeeze.
"No, brother. You have it." She said, watching him devour it with gusto.
The long whistle blows announced the train's arrival at the Canton station stirring Meifeng from her reverie. It won't be long until she is back at the great house of Chen.