The winter wears on in the mountains. It takes a month for Lily's feet to heal. When they do, she begins searching the groups in the mountains to find family. After two weeks she finds a family who knows Elder Sister, and they tell her that someone who sounds like Lily’s husband came looking for her. Lily never hears a story like that again.
Lily is aware that her power may not mean anything here in the mountains, away from her husband and family. As a valuable woman, she finds that people want to use her for their own personal gain, hence the family's unwillingness to say more about the person looking for her.
Snow Flower's husband, as a butcher, becomes a hero. He's willing to do the necessary things for survival like hunt, cook meat, and carry heavy loads. Snow Flower’s mother-in-law, however, remains nasty. One day, when they reach the bottom of their rice sack, she declares that Snow Flower's first son, who is still thin and sickly, should be allowed to starve. Snow Flower remains fixated on her second son, but Lily cannot stand for allowing an eldest son to perish. She shares her food with him.
Notice here that Lily doesn't take offense at Snow Flower's mother-in-law's declaration because she knows it's cruel—rather she takes offense because she can't bear the thought of a first son being killed by his own family in such a manner. This suggests that Lily's belief in tradition is often stronger than any emotions she feels for individual people.
The butcher punishes Snow Flower and her son one day for eating Lily's food. Snow Flower's mother-in-law wants to turn Lily away, but the butcher says that Lily's husband may reward him if Lily returns alive. Lily tells him that if she doesn't receive more food, she'll tell her husband she received no hospitality. She shares her resulting large amount of food with Snow Flower, Snow Flower's eldest son, and Spring Moon.
The butcher reveals that he continues to feed Lily because he believes he might get something out of it, reasserting that even as older people, women are still viewed as currency. Lily is able to use this to promote her own cause of saving Snow Flower's first son (because of tradition) and help Snow Flower (still out of love).
Snow Flower's eldest son begins seeking out Lily. Lily notices that he's not stupid, just uneducated, and she starts to teach him Uncle Lu's lessons. When she runs out of lessons, she tells him a didactic story and changes it to fit the boy's circumstances. Snow Flower's mother-in-law sneers at the story, but Lily sets the stage for her husband to later become the boy's benefactor.
Lily knows the value of language, and through teaching Snow Flower's eldest son, she sets up the possibility that he can use this education to move up and out of his current dreadful circumstances. This mirrors Lily’s hope for her own son, who can help her family if he becomes a scholar.
As supplies become even scarcer, people continue to die. Lily observes Snow Flower's children. Snow Flower’s second son is very bright and adores the butcher, while Spring Moon is beautiful. Lily struggles to tell the reader that despite the hunger and the cold, Snow Flower and the butcher continue to do bed business. She gets pregnant again.
Contrary to tradition, Snow Flower's second son is the bright light of her family. Also contrary to what “should” be done, Snow Flower and her husband continue to have sex. These transgressions strengthen Lily's belief that Snow Flower is fundamentally uncouth.
Snow Flower notices that Lily likes Snow Flower’s eldest son, and asks if she'd agree for Lily’s daughter Jade to marry him. Lily refuses, but the two again discuss matching their daughters as laotongs. Over the next weeks and months they celebrate Snow Flower's second son's fifth birthday, and begin to pay more attention to her eldest son. They teach him the few poems they know. Snow Flower glows and seems to have remembered her old independence.
Here in the mountains, Snow Flower experiences (some of) the freedom she dreamed of as a girl. She's high up in open air (pointing back to her love of birds), and comfortably inhabits this world of men while she also successfully performs womanhood by being pregnant.
After ten weeks in the mountains, Snow Flower's second son dies unexpectedly. The butcher is distraught and holds his son for two days, lamenting his loss. He buries his son in the woods but when Snow Flower asks where, he beats her so baldy that she miscarries. Lily and the other sworn sisters tend to Snow Flower as the beatings continue daily. Lily says she couldn't stand up for Snow Flower because both she and the butcher knew that she had no power alone.
Lily finds the extent of her power here—she can't influence the whims and desires of men when her own body and worth can't be used as collateral. The beatings illustrate how little worth Snow Flower's body has in this society. Her body “betrayed” her by miscarrying and bearing a son who died—and these misfortunes are construed as her fault.
Lily realizes how much she needs her husband, and vows to actually earn the title of “Lady Lu.” She continues to care for Snow Flower, but Snow Flower remains depressed. Daily, Snow Flower walks as though in a dream to the edge of the cliff. Lily follows her, afraid that she'll jump to be like her birds. After eleven days, Snow Flower finally speaks and tells Lily that her husband beat her after every lost child. Lily is hurt to discover that it's been going on this long and that Snow Flower never told her. Snow Flower says she's wanted to die for a long time.
Much of what we’ve learned about Snow Flower's married life has been through the letters she sent to Lily, which said little of her obvious deep depression. Notice, though, that Lily’s main reaction to Snow Flower’s suicidal thoughts is a selfish one—she’s hurt that Snow Flower didn’t explicitly tell her. The reader is reminded, then, that Lily brushed off Snow Flower's first attempts at truthful communication beyond platitudes and the naïve intimacy of their childhood.
Snow Flower continues, saying that she and the butcher have been punished for not following the pollution laws. Lily greets all of Snow Flower's laments with traditional platitudes (“girls aren't meant to live”; “sons are a woman's worth”), and Snow Flower tells her that while Lily has everything, she has nothing. She asks Lily to leave her alone. Lily thinks that a woman should never outlive her children, and realizes she never understood Snow Flower's grief at her stillborn daughters.
Remember that Lily has experienced little loss in her own life. While her parents and in-laws are dead, she had no strong emotional connection to them, and can still worship them appropriately. The culture provides Snow Flower no such comforts for her stillborn daughters, and Lily simply doesn't have the skills to provide the true, personal empathy that could help Snow Flower and make up for the cultural narratives that have failed her.
Snow Flower mentions Lily's aunt and says that thinking of Aunt makes her want to keep living. Snow Flower then seems to snap out of her reverie, and she and Lily return to the camp to write on their fan. The butcher and Snow Flower do bed business that night, and afterwards Snow Flower whispers to Lily that the butcher does love her.
Aunt represents a wholly miserable female life with a (somewhat) happy ending, an appealing narrative for Snow Flower. Here, Snow Flower is able to momentarily step out of her depression by seeking companionship from Lily and the butcher, asserting the life-saving necessities of love and friendship.
The next day it's deemed safe to return to the villages. The butcher carries Snow Flower’s mother-in-law while Lily, Snow Flower, and the children follow. Bones litter the path, and Snow Flower stops once when she sees a mother collecting the bones of a child. The butcher comforts Snow Flower and promises to bring their son's bones home.
The reader isn't allowed to view the butcher as entirely a monster, as he does appear to care for his wife's emotions. Like Lily, he simply doesn't have the skills or the strength to truly love Snow Flower beyond the way cultural narratives have taught him to.
When they reach the butcher's home, he runs on to Tongkou to notify Lily's husband. Snow Flower pulls Lily upstairs and helps her wash and dress in some of Snow Flower's clean clothes. Lily is concerned about what Snow Flower told her, and tries to tell Snow Flower that she has never thought less of her. Lily hears her husband arrive before she can finish. She runs outside and bows at his feet. He lifts and embraces her, and for the first time, she says his name (Dalang). Lily thinks that she had deep feelings for her husband that day. He pays the butcher for keeping Lily safe and she bids Snow Flower goodbye.
Lily finally learns that there can indeed be love, emotion, and companionship in a marriage between a man and a woman. This widens her definition of love, although not enough to guard against what is to come. Lily's husband proves the butcher correct in assessing Lily's worth by paying him, but the possibility that love is also involved seems to humanize this example of the transactional nature of women's bodies.