Everything Beneath You

Issue #164

You don’t know me, but I changed the world.

I have held many names. If I had my choice, I would be known as Zhou, but names cannot be stolen; they must be given, and when your true work is secret it is not easy to be granted the name you deserve. So here I tell this story in the hopes that you, givers of names, weavers of stories, might pin the name to my breast like a badge of honor. And that in doing so, you will also bring my legend into light.

‘Zhou’ means boat. It means rocking on the water with little beneath you, with everything beneath you. I did not always have my ship, my Dragon’s Bane. Once, I lived in a fishing village where others had boats but never me. Women were to cook the food and swell with child and stay away from the water, for we were told that the sea dragons had a particular taste for woman’s flesh. I too had that taste.

This is a common story. Women who want to be other than woman. For I had a woman’s life hunger but a man’s mouth, and as I grew older I found purchase in men’s company. I was one of them for all but the fishing. Because I would still one day trade my tongue for a child. Because I would be expected not to waste a womb.

I did not explain correctly, for it is complicated. I did not wish to be a man. What I wished was to be wombless, to never be forced to carry that burden. To not have this empty part inside me waiting to be filled. That is what I wanted. To go out on the water. To have no reason to fear the calming crash of waves.

Instead I had parents who did not understand but tried their best. My father bought me miniature wooden boats from the time I was a little girl. I displayed them upon my bedroom shelf, and when I brought home girls, which my parents also did not understand and did not ask much of, the girls asked after my collection. They laughed at my explanation: “One day I will have my own.” They did not let my hands cross the skin of their bellies. “You’ll jinx me,” they said. “No touching.” So I touched them elsewhere, and loved them, but never more than the dream that woke me from sleep each night, drenched in salt sweat, smelling of seaweed. The girls beside me held their noses. “You stink,” they said, laughing. “Are you sure you’re not a man? You smell like one.” They teased my neck with their fingertips, pulled me down to them. I did not tell them about the sometimes starfish I found beneath my pillow, about the mornings I woke from dreams so deep my bed was soaked with fishy water.

The gods unwove my parents from this world when I was twenty, both of them together, one day apart. My mother caught the sickness women often caught; she died in childbirth, her body too weak to bear another daughter. My sister too did not survive. My father followed them across the wall. Other children might have hurt at this, that they were not enough to keep their father alive, but I was glad of their passing, for since I had been old enough to bleed between the legs I had thought to leave upon my twenty-first year and never return. I packed up what little I desired of my parents’ home: two pairs of clothes, my mother’s jade medallion, my father’s tangled fishing net, a single wooden ship. I left in the night, walking the stone path out of town. I did not tell the woman sharing my bed that I was leaving. I did not want to worry her, for she was beautiful and kind and would fare better without her love stretched thin between a husband and a lover.

I followed the shore until I could not walk any longer. I slept on the beach, the waves licking my skin. I did not worry for dragons; even the young keep to the deep. My clothes were always wet, my skin bloated and wrinkled.

On my second month of walking, eating only washed-up fish and the sea’s weeds, I woke to a woman panting over me, hands on her hips. Her hair was braided with seaweed, her skin beaded with salty sweat.

“I have been searching for you,” she said.

“For me?” I said. “I think you are mistaken.”

“I am not.” She extended her hand. I took it and pulled myself up. Her fingernails, I realized, were made of seashells. Her braid, I saw, did not end but stretched on and on and on, as far down the beach as I could see. The seaweed grew from her scalp. Her hand in mine was grainy, as though she were made of compacted sand. I stood eye to eye with her. Her eyes were the unearthly blue of the ocean, and like the shoreline, the blue throbbed against the outer limits of her pupil. I let go of her hand.

“Where did you come from?” I asked, wiping the grainy residue from my hand.

“Where do you think I came from?”

I knew, of course; there was only one place she could have come from. “How did you get across the wall?” I asked.

“When my father was not watching, I climbed it with my bare hands. Then I followed your footsteps.” She gestured back where the ocean had washed all trace of my steps away. As she did so, crabs crawled from the water and arranged themselves in the shape of my prints, scuttling one to the next as I stared. “Your footprints and your smell.”

Here is what I wanted, then: I wanted to go, but I did not know where I was going. I wanted to stay and rub my hands all over her belly, but I did not like the thought of all that sand in the creases of my palms. I wanted to ask her more questions, about the way the world was made, about death and dreams, but did not want to know the answers, should they distract me from my destined future. Here is what I said, then: “How far did you walk?”

She waved her hand. “It is not a good question,” she said. “Listen, I have been watching you. I have seen your parents and how you did not leave them until the very end. How kind that was, to put your life on hold. How human.”

I didn’t correct her. I didn’t tell her about the plan to escape, parents dead or not.

“I watched you with those women, giving and giving and never taking. Letting them tread on you, so that they might have a moment of happiness, while you had none. I have come here for you. I want what all women want: love, happiness. I want to be yours, forever. I want to live here, on earth, until our end days, and I want you to care for me as you did your parents, though it will be better for you, because I will never die. I will give you everything you have ever wanted.”

“Everything?” I wanted so much. The sea, a wombless body, a life of my own.

“You have only to speak it.”

I knelt into the sand and rummaged through my sack, pulled out the wooden ship, no bigger than my fist.

“A ship,” I said.

She snatched it from my palm. “You call me Huan,” she said. “I will make you a ship.”

She set the toy at the water’s edge. The ocean took it, and as the water touched its wood the ship grew until its prow loomed before us, larger than me, larger than Huan, a great dragon with its mouth hanging wide, forked tongue emerging.

Huan grabbed my hand. Together we jumped aboard before the ship grew too large for us to climb. I looked out on the blank beach and felt a solid deck where before there had been shifting sand. A home where before there had been no hope of home for miles, for weeks. I gripped the railing’s edge.

“What now?” I whispered.

“We ask my sister to weave the wind that will push us to sea,” said Huan. The wind picked up and beat against the front of the ship, the Dragon’s Bane come to life.

As the ship slid out from shore I turned to Huan. “What do you weave?”

“I do not weave anything but wool in your world, for I do not have the right loom.”

“And behind the wall?”

“What else?” she said. “I weave the sea.”

The beach disappeared into the distance as we moved toward the horizon. Huan took my hand in hers. “It is time,” she said. “You have promised yourself.”

That was not what I wanted, but it was what I had promised, she was right. It would not be such a poor trade, forever for all my desires made true. I squeezed her hand. She clamped her nails into my skin. I winced but did not let go. Blood welled up in the jagged nail marks. She let go. My body ached below my belly, the place those other women would not let me touch, and I doubled over from the pain, my knees on my ship’s deck. I felt a pulling in the space between my legs. I grabbed there and found not the vee I had stared at so curiously in the mirror as a child but a knob of flaccid flesh that flopped in my fingers and a thin-skinned sack behind it, much like I had seen on my childhood boy friends when they stripped down on the beach to dive into water I was not allowed to touch. I looked up at Huan; she did not look back at me but instead at the wood grains as though she were studying a pattern.

“What have you done to me?” I said. I did not say that it was half-good, half-bad, for I did not want to give her any sliver of hope that this was what I had wanted. If to be without womb one must also be without the rest of a woman’s form, then I was not certain that the trade was worth it.

“It has to be this way,” she said to the floor. “I cannot love a woman. It is forbidden.”

I wanted to cry but found it difficult. Huan pulled me to my feet. My new body throbbed. She took me into her arms and kissed my lips for the first time. Then she dipped her hands over the ship’s side, and a spray of ocean fountained up into her cupped palm. She brought the palmed water to my lips and bade me drink. I did so; it tasted of rice wine and made me drunk with giddiness. I kissed each of her fingers as she sipped the rest from her palm. She kissed me a second time, and as she pulled back a single red string stretched between our lips, wrapped around my tongue. “Swallow,” she said in garbled speech, her own tongue tied too. I unwrapped the string and swallowed it down my throat. She did the same, and we moved closer as the string coiled in our bellies. At our third kiss, the string dissolved between us and left a red line down the front of both our lips.

“We are bound,” she said when we parted once more.

The ocean wine had not left me. I watched the ocean dance upon the ship’s sides. Huan retreated to the stern. I gazed upon her standing there and thought, Maybe I can love you. I twitched under my pants and remembered who I was now. I felt a great drop in my belly like falling. She was beautiful, though, there was no denying that, and the water, too, more beautiful than anything I had laid eyes on. What had I lost to get here? I no longer knew.

Hours later Huan met me in the moonlight, stripped bare of her elaborate dressings. She unpeeled me, and I stood naked and ashamed of my new body until she ran her hands down the length of my spine. I felt the surge of blood that gave me a confident strength. We made love on the deck, with Huan astride my waist, and as I came inside her I felt through my body spasm an electric jolt like nothing I had ever felt. Huan pinched the skin around me until I was ready once more and moved until she too screamed into the night air. I never knew one so unearthly could make so human a noise. I held her as she shook back to herself.

It was not easy to see how this would end. It was not easy to feel glad at earning two of my life’s dreams in one day. Would I ever not want, would I ever be full? There was no womb in my body, but still there was an empty space I longed to fill.

When I asked Huan about the danger of dragons, she laughed the throaty laugh of one with power.

“Do not worry about dragons,” she said. “They are not drawn to women. And even if they were, do you see a woman aboard this ship?” She cupped her breasts. “I may look like a woman, but a dragon is no match for me.”

Huan told me other things, other truths, other stories. She told me of her six weaver sisters, how they had encouraged her to go when they saw how heartsick she had become. They did not laugh at her love of a human. They did not tell their father. They helped her cross the wall and come to me.

“Don’t they miss you?” I asked her.

“No,” said Huan. Her seashell fingernails snuck up my legs, cutting the skin as they passed. “My sisters have their weaving to keep them busy. They weave the wind and the sky and even the birds.” Huan peered at the sky, right into the sun. “Those birds, there,” she said, pointing to a patch of black moving in shadow against the light. “She is watching over us. You have nothing to fear with me, my wife-husband.”

I did not fear with her. I did not think about sea dragons or death or even much about the body I had lost, though still I did not feel as though I were myself. My fingers itched for Huan’s skin when she was not beneath them. I gripped the ship’s stern when I could not hold her for her sleeping. I gripped my new body until she woke and called to me. I loved her stories and fell asleep dreaming of her world behind her wall.

Unlike the other women, she let me touch her belly. Unlike the other women, she did not ask me if I loved her. Then one day she squinted at the sun and frowned. We had been lying across the deck, watching the blue pass us by. She sat up and searched frantic about the clouds.

I shook myself awake. How long had it been since we’d been one? I ran my hand down my beard, which seemed to have grown overnight past my navel.

“What’s the matter?” I asked.

“The birds,” she said.

“I don’t see any birds.”

The way she looked at me, one would think there would never be birds again.

She cupped my face in her palm. “No matter what,” she said, “come find me.”

A crash of thunder cracked the sky and split the ship in half. Splinters showered the water. Huan was gone.

I clung to the ship’s corpse as long as I was able, but it sank fast into the sea. I grabbed hold of a plank of wood, the last remnant of my beautiful ship, and tried to slow my breathing so that I would not choke. I searched the water but did not find her. A great pain struck my belly, and I stilled as my body changed again, from man to woman, the flesh between my legs receding.

“Never again will you steal one of my daughters,” said a voice of nowhere, no one. It was the squeak of shattered wood planks against one another making words that sounded human. It was the crash of far-off waves upon a far-off shore. “I’ll watch you drown where the sea dragons will feast upon your bloated body.”

What I worried of in that moment: that Huan was wrong about the sea-dragons, that I would drown, that I would die, and all that I had not said to her would go down with me, buried at the sea’s bottom, that I loved her, that she was my sea.

I did not drown or die. I wept all the water out of my body, and when it was gone I floated in wait for death to wrap its crooked fingers around my throat. Instead I woke like a beached whale, belly-up in the sand, with a sea-dragon breathing down my throat.

“Don’t eat me!” I cried upon waking.

“Eat you?” The dragon huffed salt spray down onto me; it stuck to my skin like mucous. “You’re thin as dry muscle. You’re the least appetizing thing I’ve ever seen, though your smell,” it said, pressing its nose against my cheeks, “is intoxicating.”

“You are drawn to women,” I said. “Huan was wrong.”

“Women?” The dragon slunk back into the surf, wetting its back. “What is women? I am drawn to those wet things down your cheeks. I am drawn to the gut empty feeling in your stomach. I am drawn to the denial of your desires.”

I remembered the women who lay across the sheets of my bed, their night whimpers, how they did not allow me to touch them across the belly, where their future lived. Some of them wanted that future. Others did not, I am certain.

“Did you save me?” I asked.

The dragon blew more spray upon me. “I could not let you drown. Those that drown smell of the sea.”

The dragon’s back was broad and expansive, a landscape stretching into the ocean: a deck, the dragon’s rows of spikes lining both sides like a railing.

“Will you save me again?” I said, imagining myself even then as Zhou, the rider of sea dragons. Only a creature great as this could ferry me to the wall, where I would beg for Huan’s hand once again, only this time as myself. I would ask her to remove the womb, and nothing more; there was no more space in this world for the old who spouted lies like the dragon spouted ocean. We were daughters, and we would take what we wanted and give back the rest.

The dragon told me this: that it would ferry me until I gained back my desire. That it would be difficult for it to leave until I was satiated. That it would not carry me forever but would carry me for a little while.

“Fair enough,” I said. “Take me to the wall.” I climbed aboard its back.

The sea we rode upon was not the same sea; purple light danced across the sky each evening, and soon after setting sail I glimpsed in the distance strange little ships off to our sides. The sea appeared as we sailed; to look too far into the distance was to look into nothing. The little ships, we came to know, were giant swallows, and they sailed to either side of us, a flock of them, leading our way forward. I watched them glide across the otherwise-still ocean and listened to them twitter to one another each morning, speaking their secret language. I remembered the birds in my other journeys, and I knew that Huan’s sisters were watching over us. I saw the sea unfold and knew that it was Huan who weaved it, that she still loved me.

The dragon demanded nothing more from me than that I cry upon its skin each night. I did my best, but soon I was too dry for tears. I became thin as paper, until I was paper pressed against my dragon ship’s sides. I had to unpeel myself from its edges to move across the bright blue skin.

The sky grew lighter as we grew closer, until it was only purple, untouched canvas, unwoven. The wall came into view. We reached it in three days. It was high and made of jade. As the dragon crawled to shore, my stomach tightened. How would I climb a wall so high? The sparrows circled me until I realized; they were meant to lead me over.

“Goodbye, dragon,” I said, letting it bury its face once more in the stink of my clothes.

“Your sorrow is lighter already,” said the dragon. “I am both happy and sad.”

I climbed a sparrow’s back and grabbed tight to its feathers. I looked down upon the sea glistening blue and white and black; my body called out to return to it. The air was too dry. But there was no going back, not without Huan.

On the other side of the wall massive trees stretched into an endless white sky, their leaves made of gold bells that rang in a soft wind. The trees did not stay in one spot, as trees did in our world, but moved with me, their roots sliding along the ground. They swatted at us with crooked branches. I clutched at the swallow’s feathers as she jerked to miss them. Finally we came to an area free of trees, where instead wooden pavilions as tall as the trees swayed in silver light. Inside the open-sided pavilions we passed up-close, weavers and other creatures slept standing up, leaning against the beams.

The sparrow slowed and descended onto a carpet of red moss that stretched below us. I climbed off its back and stood looking up and down the rows of buildings so tall I could not see the tops from the ground, wondering where to go. I did not have to wonder long, for from one of the pavilions stepped a giant man-god in bright red robes that I realized formed the moss at our feet. His eyes were wooden and creaked as they moved. He was this place, and so I knew that he must be the king.

“Climb,” he said, and he grabbed hold of the white beard that reached to his shins and shook.

“What?” I said, shrinking back from his booming voice.

“I expect you have come here to talk, and so I am telling you to climb, so that we might be face to face and can speak like two who are equal.” I grabbed hold of the beard and began to climb. He lifted the beard once I was halfway up, plucked me from his hairs, and sat me on his shoulder. “Though we are not equals at all,” he said. “We will never be equals, as I am sure you know. Why have you come to me?”

“Your daughter,” I said, holding a strip of his robe so that I would not fall. “I want to be with her.”

“You have come a long way,” he said. “And you do smell like a man, it is true. You have been at sea. You have much in common with men. But you did not want to be a man when my daughter made you so. You are a man no longer, and your marriage is revoked. Should you go back to being a man, your marriage would be restored.”

“I can’t do that,” I said, for I knew that I would not be happy. I would have his daughter’s love, but what of my own love? Was there a reason he could not give me everything I wanted? He was tall, and loud, and weaved the world. He weaved us into being. I could hardly speak I was so angry. Why wouldn’t he just give us all we wanted?

“Yes, you humans cling to what power you have. You want more than you deserve. Fine. I am impressed by how far you have come. I will not make you leave without reward. I give you two choices, then. Your first: you may have all that you ever wanted. You may keep your womanness, your womb. You may be with my daughter as you are. You may have another ship with which to sail the seas.”

I could taste it, the satisfaction of all my life’s dreams met, like salt water on my tongue.

“Or, your second choice, you can give it to all of your kind. You cannot have my daughter’s hand but can instead gift choice to others, to all of your humanity. I will make this man-woman power malleable. I will give you control of what you are. I will give you all blank slates to work with as you please.”

It was not a fair choice, to pit my desires against those of my fellow people, against those of the women I heard cry at night, who could never be with me forever always, the way some of them wanted. I would be lying if I said I did not want both things but wanted the first more. My belly ached with the weight of this decision. How dare he.

But one cannot change all the world in one day. One cannot take all the power at once. I would do what I could. I would give up Huan, beautiful Huan, who must be waiting for me, who had asked me to come for her, who I would never see again, to give my people their own power.

“You know what my choice is,” I said.

“I knew,” he said, “that you were a fool when I saw you riding your dragon to meet me.”

“Can I see Huan?” I said. “One more time? Can I see her?”

“It will upset her,” he said. “You have chosen your people over her. I cannot be sure that she will forgive you that. No, I think it best you leave the way you came.” He picked me up with his too-large fingers and dropped me upon the swallow’s back. “I hope you enjoy the complicated nature of the world you wrought. I made things simple for a reason, you know.” The swallow lifted into the air. I was grateful that I could no longer see him, though I could still hear his calls. “You will regret the ambiguity. You will regret the confusion. Things will not be as you think they will.”

When we reached the wall, his voice disappeared, and I sunk my face into the bird’s back and screamed out Huan’s name.

My new Dragon’s Bane was waiting for me. The smell of my sadness, it said, was impossible to ignore. I did not go back to my homeland to check on the women there; those I met across the sea told me stories, of the confusion, of women making themselves men making themselves women again. Of in-between people. Of people of neither. I was no longer part of that world. Maybe I never had been.

The sea brought me to you all, though neither I nor my ship led the way. We sailed on waves unfolding before us and washed up on your shore. You who bestow legends. You who weave stories into the world. I ask you for my name. I ask you for a legend never-changing, where Huan and I may be together in story if not in life. This is what I believe she wants, why she wove the sea to take me here.

Give us this, please. A story that ends in happiness, a story of love. Give me a name that suits me.


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Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam's fiction and poetry has appeared in over fifty magazines and anthologies both literary and speculative including Clarkesworld, The Toast, Lightspeed, and numerous times in Beneath Ceaseless Skies. She recently released an audio fiction-jazz collaborative album, Strange Monsters, with her partner Peter Brewer, centered around the theme of women's voices. She's been reprinted in French and Polish, for numerous podcasts, and on io9. She earned an MFA in Creative Writing from University of Southern Maine's Stonecoast Program and created and curates the annual Art & Words Collaborative Show in Fort Worth, Texas. She is active on Twitter @BonnieJoStuffle and on her website www.bonniejostufflebeam.com.

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