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When the Sea Turned to Silver (National Book Award Finalist)
By Grace Lin
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Pinmei’s gentle, loving grandmother always has the most thrilling tales for her granddaughter and the other villagers. However, the peace is shattered one night when soldiers of the Emperor arrive and kidnap the storyteller.
Everyone knows that the Emperor wants something called the Luminous Stone That Lights the Night. Determined to have her grandmother returned, Pinmei embarks on a journey to find the Luminous Stone alongside her friend Yishan, a mysterious boy who seems to have his own secrets to hide. Together, the two must face obstacles usually found only in legends to find the Luminous Stone and save Pinmei’s grandmother–before it’s too late.
A fast-paced adventure that is extraordinarily written and beautifully illustrated, When the Sea Turned to Silver is a masterpiece companion novel to Where the Mountain Meets the Moon and Starry River of the Sky.
Table of Contents
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When the sea turned to silver and the cold chilled the light of the sun, Pinmei knew the Black Tortoise of Winter had arrived with his usual calmness. But when a shrieking wind pierced the sky, bursting it into darkness, she grew frightened. It was as if the Black Tortoise of Winter were being forced to the earth, screaming and struggling.
Even the snow, usually so gentle, flew at Pinmei's mountain hut like sharp needles before falling onto the village below. The village was filled with houses crowded together, and when villagers climbed up the mountain, their hearty laughs and stomping boots shattered the quiet. At the sound of their footsteps, Pinmei would scurry away to be out of sight, her long braid trailing her like the tail of a disappearing mouse.
The villagers used to climb up to the mountain hut regularly, requesting that Amah embroider peonies or five-colored clouds onto silks for weddings and birthdays. Even in the winter, when the rough-stone hut was all but buried, the villagers still came. However, while they came for Amah's embroidery skills, they stayed for the old woman's stories. Even Pinmei, watching from behind a door, was unable to resist her grandmother's words.
"… and when the immortal dragon picked up the beautiful white stone, it began to shine in his hands…" Amah would say, telling the Story of the Dragon's Pearl, or, "… and because only a mountain can hold up the moon, no one could lift the ball…" when telling the Story of the Boy Who Rolled the Moon, and Pinmei would find herself standing among the villagers as if pulled by a thread.
But now few villagers came up the mountain, and it was not just the winter keeping them away. The ones who did come told stories of their own. "A new emperor wears the gold silk robe," they whispered, as if afraid even up on the mountain they would be overheard. "All celebrated when the old emperor was overthrown, but now we tremble. For the new emperor is brutal and fierce. They call him the Tiger Emperor."
"But a new emperor is supposed to pay tribute to the mountain!" Amah said. "He must get the blessing of the Mountain Spirit at the top! We have not seen anyone."
"Do we ever see any rulers?" Yishan said in a scoffing tone only a young boy such as himself could have. Even though he had his own hut farther up the mountain, Yishan claimed the seat by the fireplace in Pinmei's hut as his own. "They all say they go to the top, but do they?"
"He came," one villager said, "and he started up the mountain. But the wind or the winter—or who knows, maybe even the Mountain Spirit—forced him down, to our great misfortune. He was humiliated, and now all the mountain villages are being punished."
"But reaching the top of the mountain has nothing to do with the villages!" Amah said. "It is the Spirit of the Mountain who decides if the ruler is worthy!"
"That does not matter to the Tiger Emperor," the villager said, the bitterness cracking the hushed tone of his voice. "His soldiers come to the villages late at night, taking away all the men. We do not know when they will come to ours, but we know they will."
"All the men?" Amah gasped. "What for?"
"For the Vast Wall," another villager said. "The men are being forced to build a wall that surrounds the entire kingdom."
The entire kingdom was hundreds of cities and thousands of villages! Amah often told stories about a city with a wall around it, and Pinmei could scarcely imagine that.
"You can't build a wall that long! It's impossible!" Yishan said. The firelight made his hat glow as if he were aflame.
The villager shrugged. "This emperor has a habit of making the impossible happen."
"But even if it could be finished, it would be poor protection," Amah said. "How could a wall spanning the kingdom be defended? There would never be enough soldiers to guard something so vast! What does this Tiger Emperor want?"
"He wants a Luminous Stone," said a third villager, speaking for the first time. "When anyone—a wife, a child, a mother—begs for a man's freedom, the soldiers always say the same. 'Bring the emperor a Luminous Stone That Lights the Night and you can have your wish.' "
"A Luminous Stone That Lights the Night," Amah repeated slowly. She hesitated, and Pinmei thought she saw a flash over Amah's face. But Amah shook her head. "I've never heard of such a thing."
Disappointment flickered on the faces of the villagers. The first villager reached out his hand to Amah for his completed job, a cloth embroidered with the dark blue color of a burial robe.
"No one has," the villager said. "But now we all wish for one."
The villagers left in silence, but their words remained loud in Pinmei's ears. Luminous Stone, Vast Wall, Tiger Emperor… Another gust of icy air burst through the open door. Shivering, Pinmei crept deeper into the shadows of the fire, hoping to hide.
Pinmei had not realized how long it had been winter until she was getting the rice for dinner. When she reached into the jar, her fingers touched the bottom of the container.
Pinmei drew back her hand as if stung. It was too soon! She was only supposed to feel that smooth base when the tree tips were green and the swallows were awake and singing. But the breath of the Black Tortoise of Winter was still shaking the bare tree branches, and the birds were still as asleep as mussels deep in the sea.
"Pinmei!" Amah called. "What are you doing? Where's the rice?"
Pinmei grabbed a bowl and filled it. As she brought it to Amah, her grandmother shook her head.
"We shouldn't be using that bowl, Pinmei," Amah said, and Pinmei realized she was holding the blue rice bowl with the white rabbit painted on it.
"Sorry," Pinmei said.
"You know that bowl is only for special occasions," Amah said. "My grandfather—"
"Received it from the king of the City of Bright Moonlight," Pinmei finished, an impish smile curving. "But he wasn't the king yet when your grandfather got it, so I don't think it counts as a royal gift."
"You only tease your poor grandmother when we are alone." Amah pretended to sigh. "When I tell people how you taunt an old woman, they don't believe me. 'Little Pinmei?' they say. 'She's just a shy little mouse.' "
Pinmei made a face as Amah grinned at her. It was true that now, alone with Amah, her words did not freeze in her throat. She didn't know why, at the sight of anyone unfamiliar, she felt like a fish trapped in a bowl of ice, unable to even gasp for air.
"An old grandmother is not enough company for a child," Amah said, her smile fading. "Maybe trying to keep you safe by living up on this high mountain is selfish."
"Yishan lives even higher," Pinmei said. "You can even see the sea from where he lives. And above him, at the very top, is the Mountain Spirit. But we never see him."
Pinmei looked at her grandmother. "Why don't we ever see the Mountain Spirit?" Pinmei asked. "You'd think we would because we live on the mountain."
"We do see him," Amah said. "You know, the Mountain Spirit is also called the Old Man of the Moon. So you see him every time you look at the moon."
"That's not what I meant," Pinmei said. "I meant seeing him the way emperors are supposed to when they pay tribute to the mountain—as an old man talking to them."
"And what would you say to him?" Amah teased. "My quiet girl who just squeaks and hides?"
Pinmei flushed. She often wished she were like Yishan, who spoke as if each of his words were carved in stone. Or like Amah, who seemed to weave silk threads with her voice.
"Do you wish I were different?" Pinmei asked.
"Different?" Amah asked. "How?"
Pinmei shrugged, embarrassed. "Maybe if I talked more or did things," Pinmei said. "Like Yishan."
"I never wish for you to be anyone except yourself," Amah said, looking into Pinmei's eyes. "I know that when it is time for you to do something, you will do it."
Pinmei looked at the rice Amah had washed, a drop of water rolling down the side of the bowl like a single tear.
"Besides," Amah said, "you shouldn't compare yourself to Yishan. He…"
" 'He' what?" Pinmei asked, raising her head.
"Oh, he doesn't remember everything he knows—that's all," Amah said. "He forgets a lot. Like now, he forgets he's only a young boy."
"Why doesn't Yishan just live with us?" Pinmei asked. "He comes here all the time."
"He doesn't want to," Amah asked. "I asked him right after Auntie Meiya died."
The wind began to wail, filling the hut with a mournful sound. Pinmei felt the stinging feeling of the rice jar return, its numbness spreading over her. It had been right after Auntie Meiya's death that winter had come. And ever since, Yishan had lived alone in his hut.
"Amah," Pinmei said slowly, "it has been winter for a long time."
"Yes." Amah nodded. "I've never known the Black Tortoise of Winter to stay so long before."
"The Black Tortoise will leave though, right?" Pinmei asked. "It can't stay winter forever."
"He will leave," Amah said confidently. "The Black Tortoise will wish to go home eventually."
Will he leave before the rice jar is completely empty? Pinmei thought. The wind was howling now, and Pinmei could see the tree branches clawing at the darkening sky. She swallowed and said, "Couldn't someone get the Black Tortoise to go home now?"
"The Black Tortoise is very strong and very mighty," Amah said. "It is his little brother's feet that hold up the sky."
"Hold up the sky?" Pinmei asked.
"What? You know this story!" Amah smiled, and, for the moment, winter was forgotten.
Long ago, the four pillars of the sky collapsed. Without their support, the sky burst apart, and the Starry River crashed down, flooding the entire earth. Countless people and animals perished in the deluge, and sea demons emerged and began devouring those still alive. All cried for mercy. But with the heavens also in turmoil, all the immortals were too concerned with their own affairs to attend to the ones on earth.
All the immortals, that is, except one. Nuwa, the goddess who instead of legs had a tail like a fish, heard the cries from earth. She looked below and gasped in horror.
When she saw a monstrous turtle destroy a hundred villages with each step of his foot, she flew down in a fury and slew it with her sword. Then, just as quickly, she sliced its legs off and used each limb to replace the broken pillars. The legs turned to stone and became the four great mountains of the land.
However, even though the sky was now supported, it was still broken. The Starry River gushed through the holes, flooding the earth. Nuwa gathered stones of five colors and shoved them into each opening. But she could not find a stone to fill the largest gap. The water dislodged every rock she tried to place in the gash, each failure creating more death.
Nuwa saw the devastation and knew what she must do. She looked at her husband, Fuxi, in the distance, and a single tear fell from her eye.
"Goodbye," Nuwa whispered.
At that moment, Fuxi realized what was happening. "Nuwa!" he shouted, his hands grabbing.
It was too late. Nuwa slipped from his grasp and thrust herself into the hole in the sky. In an instant, her body turned to stone.
Fuxi stared. Clasped in his fingers was only a single strand of Nuwa's hair, a tiny drop of blood falling from it. His wife was gone.
Fuxi bellowed a sound of grief, a thunder that shook the heavens and four new mountains of the earth. But the Starry River flooded no more.
"The turtle that Nuwa slew," Amah finished, "was the younger brother of the Black Tortoise of Winter. His little brother's feet turned into mountains strong enough to hold up the sky. Imagine how powerful the Black Tortoise must be! So when you ask if anyone could make him go home… well, if one could make the Black Tortoise do anything, that person would be invincible."
"Why don't we ever see the Black Tortoise, then?" Pinmei said. "If he's so big, he would be hard to miss."
"The Black Tortoise brings winter, just as the dragon brings spring," Amah said. "Only the most honored animals are chosen for the job."
"And that makes them invisible?" asked Pinmei.
"Yes," Amah said in a tone so unusual Pinmei looked up.
"Amah," Pinmei said, "how do you know this?"
"Oh," Amah said, "a friend told me."
She lifted the cover from the pot of rice, and steam rose like a thick smoke, veiling her face.
"Amah, these stories aren't real, are they?" Pinmei asked. "Was there really a tortoise or a Nuwa?"
Amah spooned the rice from the pot. She handed Pinmei her plain bowl, the cooked grains shining like a mound of pearls against the dark pottery.
"They say when you see a rainbow in the sky, you are seeing Nuwa and the colored stones she put there," Amah said. She gave Pinmei a smile, her face wrinkling like the pit of a peach. "Whether you believe that or any of the things I tell you is up to you."
"Wake up, Pinmei! Wake up!"
Pinmei's eyes opened more from the urgency in Amah's voice than the shaking of her shoulders. In the blackness of the room, Amah's face was a thin sliver above her, like the moon on its last night. "Come quickly!"
"Amah?" Pinmei said. "What…"
"Shhh!" Amah said. The softness of her voice was unable to hide its intensity, and she was already pushing Pinmei into the darkness. "Not a word! Hurry!"
Pinmei looked at Amah's face for answers but could see only its bare outline in the shadows. In the unlit rooms, the night was as solid as lacquered wood. Pinmei wondered why Amah did not light a lantern. She silently stumbled as Amah dragged her to the hut's storage room, the freezing drafts biting her feet.
But those bare feet that knew the feel of the mountain also felt something else. There was a slight rhythmic trembling—as if the ground itself were scared. Suddenly, Pinmei knew why Amah had not brought out a lantern. Someone was coming.
"In here!" Amah said, pushing Pinmei toward a huge vat.
"In the old gang?" Pinmei said. The giant clay container had once held wine, but now it was empty and cracking. It sat in the storage room only because it was too big for Amah to get rid of.
"It now has a use," Amah said as she hoisted Pinmei up. "As does your quietness. Now is the time to use your gift of silence, Pinmei."
"Amah," Pinmei protested, "what—"
"The mountain is not stopping them from coming," Amah said, more to herself than to Pinmei. "Perhaps there are too many or it does not dare, for it might injure those who are blameless. But Yishan will watch out for you."
"Yishan?" Pinmei asked. "Why—"
"Remember," Amah said, shushing her, "you can always trust Yishan." Ignoring the rest of Pinmei's protests, she gently but firmly pushed Pinmei down inside the gang.
Pinmei clutched her knees, grimacing as the grime of decades rubbed against her. She twisted in the vat, the rough pottery scratching her cheek, but she was rewarded by a good-sized crack at eye level. She saw Amah swiftly shuffling baskets and boxes to further hide the gang.
"Amah," Pinmei whispered, "where will you hide?"
Instead of answering, Amah came to the gang and rested her hand on Pinmei's head. Through the crack, Pinmei saw the worn knot of Amah's sash. The frayed threads, like delicate hairs of a newborn child, caught the dim light from the doorway.
"My quiet girl," Amah said softly. And then, silently, Amah took a large platter, placed it over the gang's opening, and left.
They came like thunder.
The wind and sky were eerily quiet, so, even with the muffling snow, the thumping echoed. The baskets and pots Amah had placed on the floor near the gang trembled as the beating came closer. When they finally arrived, they seemed to crash into the house, for the front door clattered to the floor like a fallen tree. Even though Pinmei couldn't see much from the gang, she squeezed her eyes shut.
Then there were men's voices, rough, harsh, commanding. When Pinmei finally dared to open her eyes, the crack in the gang let her see the angry fires of the soldiers' torches. The orange flames made the men and horses glow like demons.
Then Pinmei gasped, for there was Amah. She stood in the open doorway, as if waiting.
"Good evening," Amah said, her low voice spilling into the crowd, like a stream of water. "I hope you did not abuse your horses just to reach this old body."
"That's her!" a rough voice roared through the cold night. "She's the one we want! Take her!"
His soldiers come to the villages late at night, taking away all the men, the villagers had said. Were the soldiers here for Amah? Why? She wasn't a young man!
"Shall we go, then?" Amah said, as if asking Pinmei to gather firewood. Amah's silhouette was still and calm against the flickering light of the flames. The ocean of shadows swayed in a mad dance around her.
In response, the soldiers growled in unison, the sound swelling into a snarl.
And then, in a swift, brutal motion, like a monstrous snake swallowing its prey, the men swept Amah into the blackness of the night.
Pinmei could do nothing. As she stared, her arms, her legs, her body froze into the cold stone of the gang. She could not even whisper the desperate, wailing cry that throbbed in her chest.
Soldiers began to bang into the hut. They lit the lanterns, and Pinmei could see everything as if it were a stage. Once, when she was younger, Amah had taken her down to the village to see some traveling entertainers, and Pinmei felt as if she were watching a performance again. But this show was a nightmare. The soldiers overturned the tables and chairs, and Amah's carefully organized box of threads and sewing tools were strewn on the floor, red silk lying on the ground like a pool of blood.
"There's not enough room in this hovel for more than two of us!" said one man, his elaborate armor and demeanor marking him as the commander. "You, stay," he barked, motioning to a soldier in green. "Everyone else, out!"
When all the others had left, the commander turned to the remaining soldier with a transformed manner.
"Your Exalted Majesty," the commander said, bowing his head. "We have the Storyteller. Was there another purpose for your honorable presence on this excursion?"
The soldier took off his helmet, and Pinmei could see he was much older than the commander. His pointed beard was veined with white, as were his eyebrows, arched like poisonous centipedes. She also saw that his uniform was slightly ill fitting, his girth stretching the scales of his armor. He must be a king or some other royalty in disguise.
"The old woman gave up too easily," he said, his voice low and harsh. "She's trying to hide something."
He scanned the walls and shelves and floors, stepping deliberately. As he kicked aside a small bamboo container, needles spilled out. Their sharp points glittered in the lamplight, and the king (or whoever he was) pulled at the scarf around his neck and clutched at his collar. He crossed into the storage room, the other man following.
Their steps came closer and closer to Pinmei, each thud of their boots echoing the pounding of her heart. The smell of cold and horse and oiled leather filled her nose, and she could see the lacings of each small plate of their armor.
"What is that?" The king breathed sharply and stopped directly in front of the gang. Pinmei's breath left her, yet she couldn't look away or even close her eyes. The king bent over, and if he had been looking at the gang, he could have seen Pinmei through the crack, her eyes fixed upon him like those of a trapped mouse.
But the king was not looking at the gang; he was looking over it. And he was staring with such intensity the air around him seemed to crackle. With a sudden forceful movement, he reached out his arm, his collar falling open so Pinmei could see a silver pin sticking out from the imperial gold silk of his hidden robe. Imperial gold silk? That meant this pretend soldier was not just a king—he was the king of all the kings! He was the emperor!
"This is mine!" the emperor said with an anger that would have surprised Pinmei had she been capable of feeling any more shock. He was holding the blue rice bowl with the white rabbit painted on it.
"Yes, Your Exalted Majesty," the commander said as the emperor handed the bowl to him. He held it as if it were made of eggshells, and Pinmei could see it took great effort for the commander not to prostrate himself on the floor. "Was there anything else?"
The emperor looked around the hut as if it smelled of rotten fish. "No," he said in disgust. "Take the old woman, and join the other troops at the bottom of this accursed mountain."
At that moment, a loud clamor sounded outside the hut. The emperor replaced his helmet as the commander strode to the doorway.
"What's the problem?" the commander snapped.
There was a brief sound of a struggle, and a soldier entered. "Just this boy," he said, shoving a small figure forward so he fell into the room. Yishan!
It looked as if the entire cavalry had trampled on him, for his filthy shirt was the color of soot. His hat was gone—but his head, also grime spattered, was raised high. The commander waved the soldier away with his hand.
"Do not take her!" Yishan said angrily, as if continuing a conversation.
The emperor and the commander laughed. "Here is a small pup pretending to be a dog," the emperor mocked.
Yishan's face flushed, but he still did not bow his head. "At least it's more honorable than a tiger pretending to be a man," he said, his eyes flashing.
The laughter stopped. Even under the soldier's helmet, Pinmei could see the emperor's eyes narrow. In two ferocious strides, the emperor seized and lifted the boy as if he were an animal the emperor planned to slaughter. The emperor's eyes scanned Yishan intently, from his muck-covered robes to his grubby face and matted hair. A faint, foul smell of horse dung drifted from the boy. The emperor snorted in disgust.
"You're just another dirty turtle egg, like all the others," he growled. "You want the old woman? Bring the emperor a Luminous Stone That Lights the Night, and you can have her."
And, as if Yishan were no more than a sack of rice, he tossed the boy to the floor. He retucked his scarf around his neck, and he spat out his next words like venom.
"Burn the place," he said.
Pinmei felt like the walls of the gang were pressing into her, forcing the air from her lungs. Burn the place? Burn the hut? Her home? As the men left the hut and the night filled with noises of bellowed orders, horses, and stomping boots, Pinmei squeezed her head into her knees, the blackness creeping over her as she trembled.
"Pinmei! Pinmei!" Yishan was whispering desperately. "Where are you?"
Her throat refused to make a noise, but Pinmei's quaking hand reached upward. The tray Amah had placed over the gang's opening clattered to the floor, and in seconds Yishan was dragging Pinmei out of the gang.
"Pinmei!" Yishan said, shaking her. "We have to get out of here! Do you hear me?"
Pinmei nodded. The icy thatched roof made a sizzling sound, and she realized it was already beginning to flame. "They're burning the hut," Pinmei whispered.
"This hut is made of mountain stone," Yishan told her. "It won't burn fast, but we still have to leave."
Pinmei looked at the door and windows and could see only the lit torches, balls of fire rolling and spinning madly around the house like toy yo-yos.
"How?" she asked helplessly.
Yishan, standing on a storage box, was already sweeping the bowls and cups off the shelves above the gang, letting them smash to pieces on the floor. Fiercely, he ripped the shelves off the wall, revealing a window closed in with ancient shutters and dirt. He grabbed a plank to cover the opening of the gang, pulled himself up to sit on it, and began to kick at the window with such force the dirt flew over Pinmei like rain.
Torches flew into the front room, crashing against the walls. As one rolled into the pile of fallen silk, Pinmei stared as the fabric smoldered and curled, the flames sputtering as if gasping.
Praise for When the Sea Turned to Silver:A New York Times BestsellerA New York Times Notable Children's Books of 2016A National Book Award FinalistAn IndieBound BestsellerNPR Best Book of the Year PickThe Horn Book Fanfare Best Books of 2016
- On Sale
- Oct 4, 2016
- Page Count
- 368 pages
- Little, Brown Books for Young Readers