When Madam Ma-Liu rushed home with her eldest granddaughter, a faint fragrance of meat entered her senses.
Madam Ma-Liu was slightly stunned as she pushed open the courtyard door. Upon hearing the commotion, Ma Xiulan ran out. When she saw her grandmother and sister return, she jumped up happily and said, “Grandma, Cousin is here to visit us. We have meat to eat.” Ma Xiulan lowered her voice at the last sentence.
Although she was young, she knew to guard against those who would come over to freeload should they hear there was good food here.
Ma Xiulan ran over and grabbed her sister’s hand. She tiptoed and whispered in her ear, “Sister, Cousin brought us candy.”
Hearing the commotion, Mu Yangling came out and saw her Great-aunt. She greeted her with a beam. “Great-aunt, you’re back?”
“Ah Ling?” Madam Ma-Liu was only surprised for a moment before she quickly went forward to push her out of the kitchen. “Child, why are you cooking by yourself? I should be the one preparing food for you.”
“It’s alright, Great-aunt. The dishes are ready. I was just about to bring them out.”
When Madam Ma-Liu saw the basin full of pheasant meat on the stove, her eyes immediately turned red. “Your father is so considerate.”
Most afraid of seeing people cry, Mu Yangling quickly brought out the dishes and said merrily, “Great-aunt, you must be hungry, right? Quickly wash your hands and eat. Cousin, quickly bring out the food.”
Ma Xiulan responded and pushed her sister. She said in a low voice, “Sister, quickly wash your hands. I’ll go get the rice.”
Ma Xiuhong had been looking at Mu Yangling from the beginning and didn’t say a word. Now that she was pushed by her sister, she only nodded slightly.
Madam Ma-Liu walked around the kitchen and realized that there was a clean pheasant soaked in a wooden bucket and two rabbits hanging in the kitchen. She couldn’t help but say, “This is too much. It’s not like the three of us can finish them all. You’re not allowed to bring more next time you come. Since your family lives on this, you should sell them and use the money to buy more grains…”
Surprised, Ma Xiuhong glanced at Mu Yangling.
Mu Yangling felt that this cousin’s reaction was very strange, so she smiled and said, “You must be the older sister. My father said that I’m two months older than you. You should call me Cousin.”
A stiff smile appeared on Ma Xiuhong’s face as she greeted her, “Cousin.” She then lowered her head to wash her hands.
Mu Yangling responded.
As the four of them sat at the dining table, Madam Ma-Liu kept putting pheasant meat into Mu Yangling’s bowl and said, “Eat more. You’re still growing…”
Mu Yangling looked at her two cousins, who were much thinner than her, and quickly stopped her. “Great-aunt, I’ll help myself.” As she spoke, she wrinkled her nose and said, “My family lacks everything else, but we don’t lack these wild animals, so it’s better for you to eat.” As she spoke, she picked up the two meatiest pieces from her bowl and stuffed them into her two cousins’ bowls. “Hurry up and eat. My mother often says that I have subpar culinary skills. Try it and see if it’s really as bad as she says.”
Madam Ma-Liu smiled and said, “Your culinary skills are not bad. It’s just that your mother’s culinary skills are exceptional.”
Ma Xiulan wolfed down the meat and exclaimed, “Cousin, it’s delicious!”
Ma Xiuhong’s speed of eating meat wasn’t slow either. When she heard this, she only nodded. It was obvious that she didn’t know how to say good things.
Mu Yangling ate two bowls of rice and a lot of potatoes and pickled vegetables, but she only ate a few pieces of meat.
When Madam Ma-Liu noticed this, she couldn’t help but feel sorrow. She felt that this child was too understanding.
The basin of food was eaten clean by the four people. This was the first time in many years that Ma Xiuhong and her sister were this full from eating, when it was not the new year. They couldn’t help but hug their stomachs and sit at the side.
Madam Ma-Liu stood up and cleared the table. She cut open the two rabbits in the kitchen and placed them under the roof to dry. Because she was afraid that someone would see them and steal them, she even took something out to block the view.
Madam Ma-Liu stood in the kitchen for a while. There was truly nothing they could offer in return, so the granddaughter slipped over and said, “Grandma, Cousin said that her mother loves your pickled vegetables.”
Madam Ma-Liu’s eyes lit up. As her nephew’s wife was a lady from a wealthy family, she definitely didn’t know how to make such stuff. She could give her more as a gift.
However, pickled vegetables were so cheap that Madam Ma-Liu felt embarrassed giving it as a gift. Furthermore, Ah Ling was just a little girl and probably couldn’t carry much.
Madam Ma-Liu secretly gritted her teeth and decided that after the autumn harvest ended, she would bring some silk made from the silkworms raised by her as a gift in return. That was what was left after paying the summer tax. She originally wanted to save them up and sell them for the two children’s dowry when they grew up.
“Ah Ling, what else does your mother like to eat? I’ll get you more.”
Mu Yangling smiled and said, “As long as it’s sour, my mother will like it.” Squatting at the side, she watched Madam Ma-Liu take pickled vegetables from the vat. She couldn’t help but say enviously, “Great-aunt, you’re really amazing. You know how to make pickled vegetables and sour beans. My mother has no clue how to make them.”
Madam Ma-Liu’s pickled vegetables and pickled beans were top-notch. Mu Yangling almost couldn’t stop eating these at the dining table just now.
Although Shu Wanniang’s cooking skills were excellent and her dishes were exquisite, she couldn’t master the essence of such common dishes.
Therefore, such foods weren’t seen at the Mu family. Even if they did appear, they were the result of an exchange with the villagers.
Madam Ma-Liu picked out quite a bit from every type. Looking at Mu Yangling’s small frame, she picked out some before placing them in the basket on her back. She said, “Since you’re still young, just carry these back for now. Next time, call your father over. I’ll pack two vats to let him bring back. I don’t have much at home, but I do have plenty of these pickled vegetables and pickled beans.”
Madam Ma-Liu was not being polite. Farming households used oil very sparingly, only choosing to boil their vegetables before adding two drops of oil. Since preserved vegetables went great with rice, were cheap, and could be prepared without much difficulty, every household in the countryside made their own preserved vegetables. Due to the Ma family’s poverty, they tended to stock a lot of these.
Of course, Mu Yangling couldn’t ask for too much. If she took enough this time, what excuse would she use next time? Hence, she said, “These are enough. Otherwise, we won’t be able to finish them while they’re still fresh. I heard that sour foods won’t taste good if they’re left in the wind for too long.”
“That’s true, so when you go back, ask your mother to mix it up. Don’t keep it. If it’s not enough, come back and get some more.” At this point, Madam Ma-Liu complained again. “How could your father be at ease letting a young child like you travel such a long distance? Next time, let him come over himself. It’s too dangerous for a young lady like you.”
Smiling, Mu Yangling said, “It’s not far at all, as I came over the mountain. I’m fast, so it only took me 35 minutes. It’ll take more than four hours to walk on the main road.”
Madam Ma-Liu’s body stiffened. Then, she flew into a rage. “Your father actually asked you to climb over the mountain? This scoundrel. You’re only nine years old. With there being so many ferocious beasts in the mountains, isn’t he afraid that you’ll be picked up by wolves?” As she spoke, she carried Mu Yangling and checked her from head to toe. After confirming that she was unharmed, she heaved a sigh of relief and stood up. “Let’s go. Great-aunt will send you home. Let’s take the main road. Not anyone can cross that mountain. Only those in their prime would dare to take that path. Even then, they’d have to travel in a group of three to four at least. How could your father make a child like you take the mountain path? He’s really too unreliable.”
Although the mountain behind was already the tail of Chef Mountain and there were much fewer ferocious beasts compared to other places, the howling of wolves could still be heard at night. The children in the village were not allowed to go into the mountain.
Madam Ma-Liu did not know how carefree Mu Shi was to dare to let his daughter go into the mountains alone.