Over the next eight years the Taiping Rebellion ends, Lily's first son marries and passes exams to become a scholar, and his wife has a son. Jade, at 16, is set to marry a rice merchant, and Lily has worked hard to forget about Snow Flower.
Life has gone on as usual for Lily, and her prosperity only continues to grow. Lily's son's good fortune indicates the power of language to change lives for the better.
One day, Yonggang fetches Lily to see someone downstairs. Lily sees a girl in worn clothes, bowing. Lily offers to fill the beggar girl's bowl, but the girl stands and Lily recognizes Spring Moon. Spring Moon tells Lily that Snow Flower is very ill and will die soon, and that she’s been asking for Lily. Lily promises she'll come, thinking of her duty as Lady Lu.
Once again, Lily decides to go not because she loves Snow Flower, but because duty says that she must. She's now ascribing what she's previously characterized as familial, dutiful love to her laotong.
At Snow Flower's house, Lily meets the butcher. He says he can't watch his wife suffer anymore and that she's better off with women. When Lily sees Snow Flower in bed, the years of hating her fall away. Snow Flower looks like a crone. Lotus, Plum Blossom, and Willow sit around her, but Lily doesn't greet them. Lily takes Snow Flower's hand. Snow Flower looks at Lily and speaks, and Lily hears the little girl from many years ago. Her body spasms and Lily wipes her forehead. Snow Flower apologizes for "everything," and tells Lily that her love never wavered.
It's obvious here that Snow Flower doesn't harbor any real ill will towards Lily; she's simply glad to have her friend back. In this moment where nothing is said about the painful past, Lily is able to draw upon her memories of their happier past, as Snow Flower asked her to do in her final entry on the fan.
By this time Lily and Snow Flower are alone while the other women make dinner. Lily pulls back the quilt. She sees a tumor the size of a baby growing in Snow Flower's belly, and realizes that Snow Flower's womb betrayed her once again.
Lily starts planning to fetch a doctor and a diviner for Snow Flower, but Lily the narrator says that she still didn't understand that you can't control or change love or another's destiny. Lily goes downstairs and announces that she'll be back tomorrow, and won't leave "until..."
Lily still thinks she's helping, just like she thought she was helping Snow Flower by instructing her to be a better wife. Lily does show that she understands the end result won't change, however, with her use of "until."
Snow Flower only lives another two weeks. Lily doesn't leave her side. At night, Lily sleeps next to Snow Flower to keep her warm. She calls for her own doctor, who says that he can do nothing, but tells her how Snow Flower will die. Lily vows not to use him again and sets about making bitter melon soup to reduce Snow Flower's fever. Willow, Plum Blossom, and Lotus do as Lily asks and clean up Snow Flower's vomit later. Lily calls her diviner, who leads Lily, the sworn sisters, and Madame Wang in prayers and songs to ward off evil spirits. It doesn't help, and Lily vows to not use diviners except to choose lucky dates.
The doctor and diviner's failure to help Snow Flower begin to erode Lily's trust and belief in these traditional systems. When they can't provide the comfort she seeks, she rejects them altogether. Lily is simply cycling through all the traditions and customs she can think of in the hopes of finding something that will be able to conquer the cancer. She hasn't yet accepted that no tradition can help—only love can improve the situation.
Plum Blossom tells Lily that Snow Flower is only playing along with these attempts for Lily's sake, and begs Lily to let Snow Flower go. Over the next few days, Lily sees how Plum Blossom and the sworn sisters bring joy to Snow Flower, and realizes they certainly have been doing so for many years.
While Lily doesn't yet realize how bad of a friend she's been, she sees in these sworn sisters what true love looks like. Plum Blossom here equates true love with not forcing someone to suffer.
Lily begins working on burial shoes for Snow Flower and embroiders curly-wing bats and deer on them. Snow Flower's feet and legs start to turn purple, and Lily tries to make Snow Flower fight her sickness. Yonggang visits daily and brings clothes and messages, and one day, she arrives with a basket full of letters, embroideries, and the secret fan—all the things Lily couldn't find when she made the flower tower. Lily spends the last few days of Snow Flower's life reading through all the letters. Lily writes, "the bed is lit by moonlight" on Snow Flower's palm.
Practically, Lily has accepted that Snow Flower is going to die, and the evidence of this begins at Snow Flower’s feet. Death will bring her freedom from the life she led in part because of her bound feet, and Lily represents this freedom with the embroideries of flying creatures. By writing the poem that the women wrote on each other during Catching Cool Breezes, Lily tries to rekindle the intimacy they once shared.
During their final conversation, Snow Flower asks Lily to be an aunt to her children. In Snow Flower's final hours, Lily reads their contract and happy parts from their fan. Snow Flower's skin turns golden and she finally stops breathing, surrounded by Lily, Spring Moon, Madame Wang, and the sworn sisters.
Lily finally honors Snow Flower's request in their fan, and they remember their "happy girlhood days." Remember that Snow Flower will also have these written words in the afterlife to provide her comfort.
Lily tells the reader that what happened to her reminded her very much of the story Aunt used to tell about the woman with three brothers. Lily says that girls learn stories like that not just so they learn how to behave, but also because they live variations of the stories again and again over the course of a lifetime.
Finally Lily has learned the true purpose of the stories. They're not just teaching tools for proper behavior; they teach girls what real life is like. This recalls the Tale of Wife Wang as well, and provides hope that Snow Flower died a virtuous woman and will be rewarded in the afterworld and in her next life.
In the main room of Snow Flower's house, Lily, Lotus, Willow, and Plum Blossom dress and prepare Snow Flower for burial. Three days later, the butcher and Snow Flower’s son bury her. Lily burns most of the writing from her relationship with Snow Flower so that Snow Flower can have it in the afterlife.
In death, language itself and the intimacy it brought in life go on to provide companionship and comfort. This tradition gives language even more power, and specifically power for good.
Lily learns then of her greatest shame. The sworn sisters say that Snow Flower wasn't actually their sworn sister. Lily cites the message on her fan, and they ask to see it. Lily learns that Snow Flower taught Lotus, Plum Blossom, and Willow to read nu shu, and they point out that the note says nothing about becoming their sworn sister. They say that Snow Flower only wanted someone to listen to her without pity or judgment, which they did. Lily realizes she made the worst mistake that someone literate in nu shu can make and did not fully consider the nuance and sophistication of Snow Flower's words. Lily says she lived for the next 40 years with this regret.
Lily finally opens her eyes to the possibility that female friendship doesn't have to be contracted (as in laotong or sworn sisters) to exist and provide true intimacy and comfort. Snow Flower couldn't turn to any person with whom she had a contract (her husband and Lily) for comfort, and so turned to non-traditional and non-contractual relationships. This realization brings Lily down from her sense of superiority, as she finally recognizes that she herself broke the laotong contract.
Lotus, Willow, and Plum Blossom continue to tell Lily exactly how she hurt Snow Flower. They say that Snow Flower did bed business with the butcher too soon after birth to try to adhere to Lily's calls to try again for sons. They call her out for having as little sympathy as a husband or an in-law regarding Snow Flower’s dead babies. Plum Blossom says that Snow Flower loved Lily for everything Lily was, but that Lily valued Snow Flower like a man would: only for following men's rules. Lotus says that Snow Flower was already sick when she lost the baby in the mountains, as the same cycle of miscarriage happened again and again.
Lily never considered the possibility that Snow Flower may have idolized and looked up to Lily like Lily looked up to Snow Flower as a child. It's obvious here, though, that Snow Flower did. She both followed and broke with tradition to try to make Lily happy. This indicates that Snow Flower and Lily are maybe more similar in their deepest desires than previously thought. They both wanted to be loved, and they both tried very hard to earn love.
Lily realizes that Snow Flower's loss of appetite and paleness were due to the tumor. Lily then realizes that when she arrived two weeks ago, Snow Flower had apologized and Lily hadn't. Lily says her heart had been a shriveled old walnut. Lily goes home with the fan and writes on it that one day she hopes that she and Snow Flower will soar together. She says she'd have many years to consider the writing on the fan and how to atone for the damage she'd done.
Keeping the fan was partially a selfish act on Lily's part. She doesn't allow Snow Flower to have it in the afterlife (yet), but she uses it in her own life as a reminder to consider language fully, and to love people without question and without conditions. In her last entry, Lily uses language to give Snow Flower the freedom she never had in life.
Rice-and-Salt Days: Letter of Vituperation
Rice-and-Salt Days: Letter of Vituperation