Vocal Mimicry

A woman came to our village, twenty-four or five years of age, carrying a medicine bag and selling her cures. Someone went to her for treatment – she couldn’t make a prescription herself, but waited until evening to ask the spirits. That night she cleaned a small room and shut herself inside. Everyone crowded round the door and windows, straining their ears to listen, only talking in whispers, not daring to cough. All breath and movement were dulled both inside and out.

   Halfway through the first watch, a curtain sound was suddenly heard. Within, the woman said, “Is that Ninth Sister?”

   Another woman replied, “It is.”

   Again she asked, “Is Winter Plum with you?”

   What seemed to be a maid’s voice answered, “I’m here.”

   The intermingled chattering between the three rattled on incessantly. Presently the curtain hooks were heard moving again and the woman said, “Sixth Sister’s here.”

   Random voices said, “Has Spring Plum brought the little master here too?”

   One woman said, “The naughty lad! He wouldn’t be lulled to sleep but insisted on coming with his mum. He must weigh a ton – carrying him’s tired me out!”

   In turn the woman’s eagerly attentive voice, Ninth Sister’s solicitous inquiries, Sixth Sister’s cordial greetings, the two maids’ sympathetic wishes, the little boy’s happy laughter and the sound of a cat were heard, all at once in a cacophony. Then the woman could be heard saying with a laugh, “The little master really loves to play, bringing a cat here from so far away.”

   Subsequently the voices gradually receded, until the curtain again made a sound and the whole room was filled with a clamour, saying, “Why are you so late, Fourth Sister?”

   There was a girl’s soft voice, replying, “The way is three hundred miles at least and it takes that much time walking with Auntie to get here. Auntie goes so slowly.”

   Thereupon the sound of each of them exchanging greetings, combined with chairs being moved and calls for chairs to be added, all merged together to fill the room with uproar for the length of a meal before settling down. Then the woman was heard asking about the illness.

   Ninth Sister thought it best to use ginseng, Sixth Sister thought it best to use vetch, Fourth Sister thought it best to use atractylodes. They considered this for a while and then Ninth Sister called for a writing brush and inkslab. Soon there was the crinkling of paper being folded, the clanging of the brush cap being removed, and the grinding of the inkslab being rubbed. That was followed by the brush striking the desk and the rumble of the brush being wielded, and then the rustling of the medicine being wrapped up was heard.

   After a moment, the woman pushed aside the curtain and called the patient to take the medicine and prescription. Turning around, she reentered the room and then the farewells of the three sisters and the three maids, the babbling of the little boy and the mewing of the cat once again rose up in unison. Ninth Sister’s voice was clear and piercing, Sixth Sister’s slow and hoarse, Fourth Sister’s tender and graceful, even the three maids’ voices each had their own manner, and all could be clearly distinguished. The astonished crowd took them for real spirits. However, when the prescription was tried, it wasn’t particularly effective. This was all what’s known as vocal mimicry, specially employed to sell her medical art. But nonetheless it was amazing!