Before the end there would be love-songs to a passion so fierce that the offspring of my body turned into suns; tales of our courtship a wildfire that scorched the world.
The annals of heavens may not always be trusted. They were texts carefully edited, passed to chosen scholars; it did well to remind the warlords—and once empire dreams had come true, the monarchs calling themselves heaven’s sons—that above them reigned paradise, and above paradise an everlasting emperor.
Much was elided and confused. But in the beginning, it was mostly that I was young.
The Huang He was new, freshly disgorged from a dragon’s gullet, brimming with stomach-lizards and fish with scales thick as lamellar. The heat drew me, as it too must have drawn him. And so I found Dijun by the banks with knees drawn up like a boy, gazing into the waters. In his palms flame detonated into monsters that cavorted to the edge of his nails and spilled onto the grass, turning green to black-brown.
I measured and watched him through the frame of my hands. What did I know of him then? That he was an oddity, not unlike me; that he was without a place at court, without sworn brothers earned through blood and fire. A lack that left him wifeless, for all that women gazed upon him as they would on rare silverwork. They would glance at him, and sigh a little, and look away. Untitled and unpositioned, what husband could he make?
I did not think of positions or titles.
He noticed my approach, and his smile intrigued me, for aesthetically it was most pleasing. Being young I mistook this for something else; being young I thought beauty was all there was.
“Would you like to try?” He held out his hand, where many-eyed beasts spun through their deaths and rebirths, purer each time, finer with each cycle.
“How did you know?”
“Your shadow moves on its own even when heaven’s light stands still. Like calls to like.” Dijun hesitated. “And I find I cannot look away from your radiance.”
I inclined my head. Men offered flattery; women accepted with poise. That was the way of things. We examined one another; he in fascination, I for lack of conversation. Portrait-still, portrait-flattened. To escape that tableau I thought of heat. It flared out of me, gusting into two wings that multiplied, quartet then decaplet.
I’d thought he would take to it, my natural kindred. He recoiled. “That is wild. Have you never taught yourself control?”
Until that moment it’d never struck me that this required discipline, anymore than did breathing or laughing, or searching for the true face of the sky. “No, why would I?”
He frowned at me. “Unreined it’ll bring disaster. This will burn even immortals.” Leaning close he gripped my wrists, his breath on my cheeks. “Let me teach you.”
I wanted to tell him: no, I had never burned anything, anyone. That I did not want guidance, for this was part of me, like my tongue and my feet, and why did he want to teach me how to use those? I was no infant; I was no child.
But for a reason I wouldn’t be able to name until years after—years stretching between us like clouds unrolling beneath chariot wheels—I was silent; I was silenced and could not demur. I let him, could not quite pull away, show me how to coax the flame and bring order that it did not need. I let him teach me what I already understood.
Pulse hot in my throat I went away from him rubbing the places where he’d touched, the fingerprints on my arms.
This, too, was easy to mistake for an entirely different emotion.
Winter was air sizzling against my skin, snow hissing to steam on my hair, a susurrus in my ears: Xihe, Xihe. Had I a mother she’d have warned me, Your vanity is how men will ensnare you, little daughter—but I gestated in the dreams of birds and left them fully grown: a woman’s silhouette, no childhood behind and no old age before to give it substance.
I would have liked to be someone’s daughter, to call someone my aunt. But all I had was my older self, teeth bared in angry laughter.
Winter was shelter too, for Dijun hated that season. He courted status more desperately than he courted me, and he thought the cold would diminish him. It would not; only why tell him that? This was my place, this was my peace.
In my contemplation I could have missed the girl. Only look another way, sidestep rather than forward, take a different turn—any of this and the storm would have sifted over, burying her fortune. How small that chance; how breakable her life. Humans were so prone to death it was a marvel that they survived to fulfill their allotted span, a fraction’s fraction of my own.
Furs in the snow like slain carcasses: she was wrapped in layers of them, had curled in upon herself to retain heat. I brushed away the flakes on her cheeks and lifted her up. So light, so small, as though mortals were made of a substance less dense and less real than mine.
A wolf’s den. The beast, litter-mother, towered over me even as it slept. It woke and made room.
At my behest it extended a paw, gathering the girl to its belly like a pup. I left and returned with lychees from my garden, fed from seed to fruit with fire. Stripping it of skin and seed I fed to the mortal flesh like meat, flesh like liquor; blood-red and just as hot.
The girl woke like that in my lap around a mouthful of sweetness, of warmth leaping in the jugular and bounding in the stomach. Flush with this heat she’d changed colors. She spluttered laughter through chapped lips. “They told us death would look like a field in summer, not a giant wolf and a woman.”
“There’s no field,” I said sharply, and did not tell her that the afterlife was far harsher than the wolf. “Nor am I of the world below. What insult. What were you doing in the storm?”
Her name was Lin, and she did not believe I was real, my throat and head bare, my robes summer-thin. With her thumbs she brushed my braids; with her fists she crumpled my sleeves; with her mouth she insisted I was a fever dream.
When that was past, Lin told her tale. Her mother was a physician, away in the neighboring village. “I was fetching Mother. When I started off,” she said defensively, “there wasn’t yet a blizzard. My friend’s sister got so ill. That’s the only family Jia has got left.”
What did I think? Only: gods were beginning to teach mortalkind the arts of hunting and making, the sciences of crafting and writing, while I stood aside, giving them nothing. Only: through her girlish glibness there was need, afraid of being heard but no less true for that.
“I will take you there,” I said, and impelled by pride added, “for I haven’t saved you only to see you rush to die in this weather. It would have been a waste of my time and investment.”
“This is what near-death sounds like: my mother.” Lin sniffed. “But thank you. I think.”
We did not wait out the storm. In the aegis of my warmth she needed fear nothing of winter, and we raced along the snow. I tucked up my robes to keep pace, the winds like razors on my cheeks. They filled my ears with the beating of wings.
This was better than peace.
Dijun asked me to marry him, in my garden where I grew tiger lilies with stamens in gold, mandarins that crackled in the mouth, and starlings that thrived on graphite. My self, made old and sagacious by rage, would say: a crime committed against yourself to have so much, to love so much; had you made nothing, had you loved nothing, you would have had nothing to lose.
I was, then, turning my speculations to the sky. Not the one seen by mortals, whose every chi was charted and layered by celestial topography. Their sky had limits; mine, far above even the heavenly court, was endless and true.
Skies had nothing to do with what he talked about, which was what he always talked about. Finding a gap in human knowledge that other immortals hadn’t yet filled—law-making, matrimony, poetry—and through that making a name for himself, earning worship and shrines, then a place in palace hierarchy. Between this he also recited poetry wonderfully and played music sweetly. So he interrupted both his own rhetoric and my thoughts when he pressed his mouth—hot as the bubbling lakes around us—to the inside of my wrist.
I looked at him, at my seized hand. “What?”
“I would,” he said against my skin in a voice low and thick, “see you a bride.”
His breath jolted my pulse as his words and gestures had not. It was so sharp, so singular; an arrow’s pierce. Later I would think: was this meant, did he know? Of fire quickening fire, as oil in a lamp. A reaction without mind or thought and I was caught up in it, in the insistence of his mouth. “I—” I began, and stopped. My stomach roiled.
“I do not require your answer now, though I’ve long postponed this. Each day—” His choked hesitation, mirroring my own; for different reasons. “You overwhelm me.”
Custom demanded that I respond. An appropriate answer to his question; surely one must exist in the cup of my skull, floating like tea leaves or hiding among the bottom dregs. Not until his leave-taking, graceful and correct, did it strike me there had been no question. Only a series of statements. The imprint of his lips stayed, my skin ridged red around it.
I wanted more than anything to seek another goddess’ wisdom. How would I put forward to Xiwangmu, wedded empress, that I had been made uneasy; how to say that without losing some essential piece of myself, becoming an alien unwoman? I did not object to Dijun’s lack of rank, so what misgivings did I have? Why would I not want a man this well-made, this adept in his bearing; a voice this rich, a hand this firm?
In search of clarity I descended.
Through piety and deed humans could join heaven, scoured clean of mortality; there were almost as many ways to achieve that as there were to fail. For beasts, the methods were different. For fish of jeweled scales there was the dragon’s gate, an arch above the apex of great waterfalls over which they must leap. I had always liked watching these quests to transmute from fish to divine beast, from small bodies to sinuous muscle and horned head. Most did not clear the height, and fewer still arced over the roof.
The handful that did, one in a hundred-thousand thousand, emerged so incandescent that they filled me with certainty that a transformation awaited me; that someday I too would pass through my dragon’s gate and become more than a goddess who did not know her way and purpose.
This certainty eased me into an answer for Dijun’s non-questions: to see me in bridal dress he should be made to leap. Perhaps I would set him a wall so great, a cataract so fierce, that he would never leap high enough.
Enlisting a child spirit I sent him the message: I want a light in the night that sheds without heat, winged and strong, tame to me and fierce to all else, and when you have brought me this thing I will consent to be your wife.
At once he came to me and frowning asked, “This is not a riddle or a metaphor?”
I smiled at him; felt safe in doing so, in the impossibility of my demand. “I am being entirely literal.”
His long lashes beat slowly as he regarded me. “That is a tall order.”
“What treasure worth having is not purchased dear?”
Did I want to be purchased; did I want to be treasured? So thoughtlessly I gave that taunt. But he’d have risen to the task regardless, for the idea of marriage appealed to his need for recognition; it would secure his manhood and therefore his godhood. He might have a splendid mansion now, and all the knowledge he’d gathered, but what of that? All in heaven did. A goddess to wife gave him something to possess, something to master. This nebulous sense of having and achieving would grant him the beginning of status.
In days, so few and so short, he brought me the crane. It was garbed white, the color of death. It was crowned red, the color of weddings.
Dijun knelt to present his gift, not from humility but necessity; he was nearly as pale as its feathers, his eyes glittering above bloodless cheeks. “It fed from my arteries, to have light without heat.”
I did not let on how well the bird pleased me; its beak like butchery, its talons like anger. Expectant, it stretched its long neck in my direction. “Is it to feed from mine also?”
“Then it would be no gift.” His eyes fluttered shut and his head lowered, as though it could no longer bear the weight of being.
Weakness inspired if not tenderness then bravery. I would remember: I was the one who let him into my arms, I and no other. His head was heavy on my knee, his breath stuttery in my palm. Dijun was so breakable that I could have strangled him with my bare hands and exhumed his heart with my nails. Older, wiser Xihe would have done that and ended our misfortune before it could begin. She would have known he’d predicted me and laid down his fragility in my lap, an exquisite trap.
I was not old. I was not wise.
Night fell. We stood on my highest balcony, he and I. Having been satiated on my orchard the crane preened and did not fight when I cast it high. Its light burned silver-white and blotted out the stars. More beautiful to me, by far, than Dijun ever was or would be.
We did not immediately wed. There were dates to consider, auspices important even to us who were divine. Lacking mother, father, or older kin it was up to me to give myself away in marriage. I felt an accomplice to a robbery of my own home.
That was moot; on the day of my transition from goddess to bride my mansion dissolved to mist, to await shaping by the wishes of the next immortal granted this patch of land. As though that would be recompense, Xiwangmu invited me to her palace where cloud-girls dressed my hair in spirals, pinned it under a buyao heavy with fire opals, and draped my face with a silk veil the color of my lychees. The hue smoothed out the creases of my disquiet until I realized that I would be half-blind until Dijun lifted that trifling bit of cloth, his right as my groom. My own hands were not permitted such.
The cloud-girls assured me that I would be the envy of every goddess and Dijun the envy of every god.
Our nuptials were presided over by the emperor himself, beneath a sky of phoenixes and qilin. One table for gods, one for goddesses; both plied with nine courses of dishes that renewed themselves without cease. A celestial scribe stood in attendance, unspooling an endless scroll, his hand and brush a hummingbird blur to record my entry into the country of wifehood. Dijun held up my veil far enough for me to eat, feeding me pearl-dusted abalone, shed longma scales, iridescent shark fins. Our guests praised his diligence and husbandly virtue: not yet properly wed and already so adoring, so excellent! How fortunate I was, best-blessed of all brides.
He did finally lift that whisper of silk all the way, once my cloud-girls retinue and I arrived at his home.
Stepping over the threshold should have been my metamorphosis, sailing high over the cataract of ceremony and the roof of conjugal feast. It was not, and his home was nothing like mine. A garden easily as vast, with its own lakes; in place of fruits and trees stood obsidian, sculpted expertly—his own work, he murmured in my ear—but they did not move, did not grow. They would not taste sweet if they tasted of anything; they would cut my mouth, draw blood from gums until my palate understood only hurt.
In the enclosure of the marital bed we sat, sipping wine until the celebrants were done wishing us luck and fertility. I’d have liked to have seen more of his house, which he had built like a honeycomb hexagon by hexagon, hanging each wall with long scrolls of verse and proverb, lining each corner with black vases. We finished the last drops. It would have to wait. This night would be passed by means other than wandering from chamber to chamber, touching and admiring new things, meeting with his servants.
Dijun removed jewelry from my head and loosened my hair; each coil fell before him with a sigh. He peeled the complicated robes from me, fastidious as flaying, and when there was nothing more to expose he undid his own.
Seized with an urge for tidiness I gathered the clothes, folded them away on the round table at which we would share breakfast come morning. I caught a glimpse of my nakedness in a mirror, sheathed in nothing but the lingering warmth of his hands. His reflection watched me, and I watched it back—spousal scrutiny mine by right—examining the sweep of his eyebrows, the heavy fringe of his eyelashes, the sure lines of his jaw. I waited for them to ignite in me a reaction stronger than the remote pleasure of viewing an exceptional orchid bloom.
When I turned around, his patience had expired.
He panted into the crook of my neck, whispered flame into my breast, chanted my name into my belly. My hands sought purchase; knowing not what to do with them I arranged them on his sides, where under my fingertips his blood throbbed, an animal fighting to break loose from a net of ligaments. When he pressed me into the sheets my muscles coiled against the coming finality of our union, and I told myself: calm. There was delight to be found in the dictates and practices of desire. Set aside fear; it could not be so terrible.
And it was not. There were moments when his touches surprised, made me shudder from a sharp impersonal thrill. He did not cause me harm. But it obtained over the minutes a mechanical repetition that I soon found unbearable. I wanted to be done; I wanted to be gone. The longer it went, the less I felt like myself; to be opened like this, to be bared inside-out. The lamplight was as voracious as he, and neither left my skin with a secret to keep.
Above me Dijun shuddered, his mouth sealed against what I did not understand, his perfect face blank and slack. Sweat beaded on his brow and pattered onto me. I turned my cheek so it might not slip into my mouth. He bent to whisper in my ear, hoarse, that I was his.
When his rhythms had quieted and he lay as though one dead, I stepped out into his obsidian labyrinth to watch the crane that’d drunk from his veins and eaten from my hand. Under its light I revised my definition of contentment.
Lin was beating clothes against river rocks when I found her, side by side with another girl. The sight of me stopped her short, and she let the laundry drop slowly into the washing tub at her feet. She grabbed her friend’s sleeve, yanking nearly hard enough to unbalance the other mortal and send them both tumbling into the river. “Jia. Jia! See? I told you I really did meet her.”
“I see—oh.” Jia’s eyes were wide. I was not used to appraisal so direct. Even Dijun’s had been circumspect, offered through the filter of his lowered lashes. “I thought you’d gone mad with fever when you told me you met a gorgeous maiden in the blizzard.”
“I did not say she was gorgeous!” Lin elbowed her friend in the side.
“From the way you spoke it was obvious you thought she was.” Jia grinned at me. “Which you are, if you don’t mind me saying that.”
“You are both mannerless,” I said, though I did not mind. Her flattery was not like my husband’s, given for no motive other than that she thought me pleasant to look upon. “You do realize I am of heaven?”
Lin put her hands on her hips. “I still don’t believe that.”
Her insolence surprised a laugh out of me. On the few occasions I had appeared before humans, none had ever questioned my divinity; one and all they had prostrated themselves in awe. I bent to the tub and exerted the mildest pulse. The waters rippled and in a moment were seething. “Well? I could boil an entire lake, but I don’t do that to amuse a pair of rude country girls.”
“An entire lake,” Lin said with a wistful sigh. “To bathe in that during winter.”
To which, Jia: “To see you bathing in that, winter or elsewise. You’ll invite me, of course?”
At that the child I had saved from winter turned the hue of cherry blossoms. She flapped her hands at the cooling tub. “The steam.”
Jia laughed, throaty, full of knowing. Though of mortal girls I comprehended near nothing, I could guess that they were not simply friends. “Are you sworn sisters?” I said when Jia had disappeared to fetch more dirty laundry. “Or lovers?”
“Aren’t you blunt.” Lin made a face in Jia’s direction. “She’s a lecher, a wanton, and if Mother knows... You don’t think it strange or—or wrong, or impious, do you?”
“Why would I? Silly child.”
She let out a breath long pent-up. “Good. So what’ve you been doing with yourself? It’s been nearly two seasons.” As though we were old friends, with years of climbing trees and mushroom-picking together on scraped knees and running downriver on bare fish-bitten feet.
Out of me, silence bled from the pinprick she’d made in my shell of empty words, empty acts.
“Did I say something wrong?”
“I’ve been marrying.” For it seemed a process, not a finished result. The idea of its completion filled me with eager dread. “A god.”
“Oh,” Lin said. “I thought you might have chosen a goddess to wife. Well. I suppose that... that doesn’t happen in heaven. It’d be ridiculous, wouldn’t it? Should I offer congratulations? It’s just you don’t seem happy.”
“I’m not unhappy.” The lie curdled in my mouth. I longed to spit it out, but like all lies it congealed, stuck. “But I do wonder if I could have delayed the wedding.”
“You could have told him ‘No, you are ugly as a pig’s rear.’”
“Out of all the gods he is the handsomest.”
“Then, ‘No, you are doltish as an ox.’”
“He is intelligent and learned in the scholarly pursuits.” Scrolls in every chamber; all his servants were artists and poets, learning at his feet as he painted portraits of me, composed verses to my loveliness.
Lin’s brows drew together. “Does he bore you in bed?”
“You ask too many questions. I suppose Jia does not ever bore you.”
“She kisses like summer,” Lin said and her gaze became distant, her mind turning fast on its wheels to secrets and embraces.
Did Dijun kiss like summer? I could not fathom what that even meant. “My husband is kind.” All of heaven said so; lauded his devotion to me. Was even the emperor so good to Xiwangmu? “Daily he labors to please me.”
“But you don’t look pleased. He doesn’t keep mistresses, does he?”
“We in heaven are above impulses so base.” Yet I wished he was not. I stood and shook myself. Beyond Lin I could glimpse a being more paper than skin biding patiently under bamboo leaves. Its whiteless eyes peered at me. Dijun’s creatures had perfected that art of reproaching me in my husband’s place, without words. My throat tightened. “I should go.”
“Already? I thought you might want to share a meal with us.” Lin drew one of the trousers out from the tub and wrung it. The garment was faded; had never been white. Sideways she glanced, longing, at my robes. Her eyes lingered on the patterned bixi where plum blossoms flowered. “But you wouldn’t want to do that anyway, I guess.”
“It’s not—” I caught myself. To be flustered before a mortal girl. “I have matters of import to attend to. I will come again, and next time... perhaps you and Jia will like something fine to wear. It doesn’t do for me to be seen in such ragged company.”
“Oh, you bite.” Before I could step away, Lin flung her arms around me. She smelled of sweat, youth, and rice. “Do come back. Jia and I will cook for you. It won’t be as amazing as anything you eat up there, but it’ll be our best.”
A few hours later, when I was safely ensconced in heaven, the sky fell and flood claimed the mortal lands.
His servants gave me such obeisance, fit for an empress. There is no corner in his house, no path in his garden, where I might walk without the rustling of paper robes and paper caps as spirits of lutes and zithers cast themselves low before me. An inkstone that’d gained soul and thought would kiss the tip of my slipper, its muzzle pebble-smooth and cold. None of them ever spoke; across their vests was the word silence. Dijun treasured quiet.
I shattered that when I strode into his study, where he sat at his writing desk bent over loose papers, jade tablets, and clusters of threaded coins. “Husband,” I said, “why did you have your servant fetch me?”
He looked up, vexation warping his features. Quickly gone; a veil slid shut over that and he was flawless again, as sweet-seeming as he’d been that day by the Huang He. “Xihe! To celebrate—though each time I see you it is a celebration unto itself. Come, see these. I’ve presented them to the emperor and he was most pleased. A work in progress, these divination charts, but I predicted the flood to the hour.”
A fine trembling began deep in my liver. “You knew this would happen?”
“Of course, that’s why I sent for you. The cause is still to be determined, a dragon in its death throes perhaps, or two uncouth quarreling gods.” He motioned with his hand, elegant dismissal. “It is beside the point. My labors have caught His Majesty’s interest. At last I may be granted domain, monarch in my own right, and that will elevate you too, my wife. Doesn’t that charm you?”
“Why did you—” If I retched I would disgrace myself. “I was there, I could have saved mortals. The flood’s only water. At a thought I could’ve vaporized it.”
Dijun gazed at me, smiled; gentle amusement. “Xihe, you could not have. The flame in you is splendid, but it has limits. Other gods have given succor to mortals. Don’t trouble yourself with it, and I wouldn’t want to see you strain yourself unnecessarily. You are too young.”
“I could have—” And now I sounded as petulant as he’d made me out to be; I could not have sounded otherwise. He’d done it so neatly, my husband; reducing me to a child.
It was the shattering of a heavenly pillar. I heard it even up here, the howl of its breaking, the scream of its fall. The flood that’d burst through had drowned the sun; so swift and total that all had been washed away, whether dragon corpse or furious deities strangling one another all the way to the depths. Those that could had saved entire villages and towns through sudden relocations of desert, patches of hill, and walls of earth.
His Majesty summoned immortals to deliberate on the matter of restoring order. I did not attend; Dijun would have persuaded me not to in any case. Instead I sought out mortal survivors. Xiwangmu had in her graciousness sheltered some at her palace, and there were so many that even the vast compound attained the grimy busyness of the densest mortal towns. Memory of heaven would be sieved out of them afterward through a mesh of fine but specific foods: delicacies found nowhere on earth, herbs like emeralds grown to bring forgetting.
My observation of the mortal world had always been at a distance; I’d never been this close to this much humanity. The empress’ servants had dressed them in clean clothes, had given them filling meals, but still they clutched each other. None made eye contact with me. They hid when they could, and pressed their foreheads to grass or floor tiles when they could not.
Neither Lin nor Jia was here. They’d been by a river. Floods, even mundane ones, were not things mortals could outrun.
Cloud-girls, the very same who had dressed me a bride, greeted me and informed me that Xiwangmu was occupied with assigning goddesses and acolytes to finding space for the survivors; to seeking out those still stranded on earth. I wanted to ask why I hadn’t been sent for, why I hadn’t been included. Shame thickened my mouth. Unable to speak past it I allowed them to lead me to an isolated pavilion, away from the refugees; away from anything that mattered.
They sat me down among blue lotuses; they held up tresses of my hair, exclaiming at the softness and luster. Covering me in their raindrop-beaded braids they mistook my quiet for wifely pining. “He will soon be with you, goddess.” “Doubtless he thinks of you every moment.” “No man may turn his gaze from loveliness like yours.”
I would have laughed in their ice-tipped faces. I would have sharpened my scorn and with it dissolved them to wisps of fog, two cupfuls of water. “You find me pleasing, then.”
“More than pleasing, wondrous Xihe. Oh, if you weren’t made as you are, prone to scorch us with your divinity...”
“...in throes of passion, we would clasp you between us and show you, for all that you are a wedded wife. We can keep secrets, as we keep rain and thunder, storms and lightning, within our bellies.”
“I won’t harm you.”
They glanced at each other, challenging; one knee-walked forward. I bent, obliging, and she took my face in cool hands, pressing sunset lips to mine. I waited, wanted, for it to stir me in some way. It should have. Why wasn’t it? Her waist like a wasp’s, her eyes more enchanting than my husband’s, her kiss inviting. In the end, awkward, I thanked her and prevailed upon them to bring me stationery. They got me the best, but if they had put before me uncured hide and a rusty knife with which to carve upon it I would not have cared.
So long and closely I had guarded the thought of this behind my teeth, concealed it deep between the ventricles of my heart, that when I began to draw the chariot it startled me how solid it was, how sleek its shape and lines. Here the dragons would be yoked. There I would sit, the reins taut in my hands. I’d fly so fast, so far. None would keep pace with me.
Once the ink dried I rolled the paper tight, as small as it could get, and clutched it to me as I returned to Dijun’s mansion. Calling the crane I brought it to the corner where my orchard tried to grow. So few of my trees and bushes would thrive on Dijun’s land, but the handful that did I nursed with all my strength. The flowers and fruits were so prone to bursting into flames that his servants did not dare approach them, for their garments caught easily and my husband disdained slovenliness. I wedged the scroll in the crevice of an orange tree and bade it seal shut.
His courting gift had grown so large it no longer fit in my arms, but it tried to nest there, nuzzling me for warmth as I fed it the ripest of what I had. Stroking its back I wondered if in a thousand years it might learn thought and woman form. Or even sooner; the crane had had an unconventional provenance. Then I would have a companion, a mercurial girl with yellow irises and crimson eyelids, robed all in white. I smiled into the crane’s feathers, which smelled of tangerines. Perhaps it would be like having a daughter of my own. “Would you like that?” I murmured. She would fly with me, and unless she wanted to I would never make her wed. My crane-child.
Dijun came back from the palace exuberant. He did not pass the details to me, but once he’d dismissed the servants he pulled me against him, clasping his mouth to mine. He tasted of victory; his tongue fed me loss.
Each time I would turn tense then uncoil in stages, yielding into softness that he’d take for desire. He would suckle at my breast while I thought of flight and limitless skies. A tedious chore to get through; nothing more. I had even learned to gasp and tremble, for I did not want to face again the anxious brittle questions—Do I not please you? which hid What is it that you think of; has another man caught your eye? So learned and lovely, my husband; yet so afraid that I would slip loose of his arms, dance free of his house.
The crane snapped forward. Dijun jerked away. His blood, viscous-hot, dripped from the crane’s beak.
“Ah,” he said, holding his hand away from his silks. “Tame to you, fierce to all else; my gift to you has been most perfect to your tastes.”
Sourness rolled over my tongue, the first stepping-stone on the path of silence; silence as he spoke and drew me into a trap where I could not breathe, could not be heard. I tried. Oh, my older self, my mother-self, I tried. “It was born of your blood.”
“But shaped by your request.” His edged regard grazed over my skin, fine and honed, and my stomach clenched; had he felt in me that disinterest so near to unwant? Then he chuckled, loudly false. “Let it be. It is nothing. Shall we dine together? Matters of court have kept me so occupied and I’ve missed you, in all ways.”
In his presence even celestial repast turned to dust in the mouth.
Once, Dijun incinerated three of his servants for having mislaid his tablets. Spirits with origin in instruments were made of wood; remained wood, bamboo, and camphor. Soon they became ashes and scented smoke. I did not love them, I would never care for them. Yet I knew it was the fear of him that made them dog my steps, report my every move to him in scrolls left by his desk at dusk.
One morning I summoned them and showed them fire. “I will be in my garden,” I told them, “to tend my plants. I will not have moved, gone anywhere, spoken with anyone. Do you understand?”
They looked at one another, at me.
It was so easy for courage, or cowardice, to fruit cruelty. Discarding Dijun’s lessons of control and restraint I opened my hand. Blue heat ambered; paled to white. Soundless even now, they shrank away. “Are you mute? Have you no language? Answer me!”
I singed and seared them. And they finally spoke with throats meant for music, with voices meant to be heard: every word a note, all of them together a song. They said yes. They called me mistress. They swore obedience.
Mount Kunlun reared high enough to elude submersion. I did not entertain illusions; others would have already combed every shadowed pool for mortals. Were Jia and Lin alive, they would have been found. Even so I searched, rattling the minutes in the abacus of my skull, tallying them into the hours I had until Dijun returned home.
The fish-kite was a yellow slash in the sky’s watery murk, whipping at the end of a tether wind-pulled taut. I followed it, and thereby discovered the twins.
They genuflected in a fall of bronze headdresses and rustling scales and introduced themselves as Nuwa and Fuxi. They orated and moved in perfect harmony; smiled simultaneously, perpetually at peace in their oneness. Sister-brother, wife-husband, sharing a single snake tail that served as stomach and tool of perambulation.
Sheltered in their immense coils, Lin and Jia lay asleep. “We have put them to dreams,” Nuwa said; Fuxi continued, “full of easy prey and quiet so they would not alarm and flee. We smelled a goddess on them and have kept them safe. Are they for you?”
“They... are.” I risked touching their scales. “What are you?”
“We are of a kind.” “Disaster has ever been our domain, and it came to us that we are wise to mending the heaven-breach, of restoring mortalkind to this earth. This we would set to for a little boon. Will you grant us this, or bring us to one who may?”
It wasn’t for me to grant anything, and they were so large that I could not imagine carrying them back to heaven, let alone with two mortal girls. We managed by and by, and I directed them to Xiwangmu—she had authority I did not, and I wanted least to be given credit for Nuwa and Fuxi. Dijun would never forgive it. Lin and Jia I entrusted to Guanyin. Under my husband’s gaze, I was not myself, not my own. The girls, who knew themselves so well, did not need to witness that.
The twins wanted permission to marry. To his credit—or some said discredit—the emperor swiftly gave them that, so long that they did not procreate. They accepted that clause serenely, and set to baking clay that would become humans full-grown: no need for infancy and childhood, no want for the slow process of pregnancy. Fuxi took up my husband’s charts and made them fit for mortals so they might predict and avoid the next calamity. Nuwa sheared off the tip of their shared tail, which in aplomb grew into a second snake, black on gold. This creature she coaxed to fill the roaring gulf the broken pillar had left. In days it hardened, scabbing over that wound in heaven’s sea.
There remained only the matter of the extinguished sun.
The shape of Dijun’s thought on this became evident when he reminded me that in both of us an illimitable flame burned, that we had a duty, and did I not miss our courtship? I avoided him. I considered cuckolding him so he would cast me aside. It would be scarce challenge to find a fisher boy, seduce him, and rut with him, if the idea did not clog my throat with disgust. Dijun excited me little enough; other men interested me even less. Had the cloud-girl inspired some want in me, some longing at all, I would have invited her into my bed and flaunted her before my husband.
I heard that he laid down the rules and ceremony of nuptials for mortals new-made, in the fashion of our own wedding: the veil, the sacred husbandly lifting, the loosening of hair. Man and wife.
But those days softened from desperate to bearable through the liberty I had purchased with wrath. My wanderings were not half so blithe as they had been in my maiden days, but it was good all the same to step free, even under this sky. The flood abated by degrees. At the foot of Kunlun muddy mounds, once huts, began to emerge. A lonely pagoda finial; the head of a statue. I went to the empty place where my house had once stood. I could not transmute it to what it had been; to do so required having one’s name registered to that plot on heaven’s census, and mine was appended to Dijun’s now.
Then came a night when I could not find the crane. This had never happened; it—she—had learned the routine so well, like breathing, like flight. My husband to my relief was absent, which gave me free reign to question the servants. But this time, however I threatened, none of them would answer in words, holding in their collective silence as though it could shield them from my anger. One pointed, paper sleeve charred by my hand, toward the obsidian maze.
On black pavement I found the crane, limp and still. Every bone in her wings had been broken. Dijun was slight, never a warrior, but I’d felt how unhesitating his grip could be, and bird bones were so fragile.
I did not waste tears. From each branch and bramble in my orchard I stripped orchids and okra, lilies and lychees, sunflowers and starfruits. Hands trembling I fed the crane. Her bones did not mend; her ligaments did not knit. When she had swallowed every fragrant and hot thing, she shuddered: a spasm of gullet and shattered pinions. From her beaks ten black pearls fell into my hand.
She laid her long neck across my knee, for mercy. I gave her that. Once she had gone cold, I flung her up into the sky one last time. Her body, if not spirit, would remember the way.
The pearls I spilled into a silk pouch, which I tied shut and slipped into my robe. I had seen Nuwa make life from craft and memory, children without mating. I knew what I had to do.
Under blackness crane-corpse lit, I entered His Majesty’s palace. It had many gates, many walls, tiered one over another and bisected by a stair that did not end.
Guards in stone and lamellar barred my way. I melted the metal on their glaives, burned black marks into their armor. A storm of twenty wings and thirty taloned feet passed through them, and they gave way.
My wish had been for: impervious, aloof, untouchable. My reality, when I reached the throne room, was one of breathlessness and trembling knees. Kneel and I would have snapped; kneel and I would have fallen, to such depths that no godhood or fire could have saved me. I remained therefore standing. The crows hid my terror, scarlet beaks and dark eyes holding close to me as a shield. My own court. Arrogance, then, would serve me.
The few immortals in attendance pinned me with their scrutiny. Behind him the emperor’s throne hissed, scales rustling, claws unsheathing. His Majesty quieted both throne and gods with a motion. “Xihe, we have long missed your grace and company, though we did not expect the size and unusual nature of your entourage.”
To ground myself I ought to have murmured ritual greetings, every respectful phrase. All that tumbled out of me was, “Majesty, I have an answer to the question of bringing back daylight.”
A sharp intake of breath, by whose cadence and pitch I recognized as my husband’s.
“Might we see a demonstration?”
“Outside, Your Majesty. I would not wish to ruin the roof.”
Gravely he led; royal body, royal head: the limbs of the court must perforce follow. My husband among them; my beautiful husband with his traps at the ready, his snares snapping after my heels. I did not look at him, would not look at him. My voice would not be taken; my courage would not be shaken. The crows moved with me and there I took refuge.
In the courtyard I whispered to one of the crows perching on my shoulder. He leaped into the night, strong as summer morning, and blazed. The emperor shielded his eyes with his sleeve. Courtiers drew back from the stab of midday heat. Dijun had gone utter white.
The emperor gave a contemplative nod. “How did you come by them?”
“They are the sons of my flesh and my husband’s blood.” I did not tell them I had given birth through my eyes. Feathers slick, leaving me like tears. Cartilage passing through my lashes to harden on the other side; blood-brooks on my cheeks. I smiled slowly. “My children, Your Majesty, every last one of them.”
Dijun’s proximity rippled against my skin. He would claim us all, wife and progeny, and we would return to his mansion, where in his hexagonal rooms my path would wind around itself until the only way was back. There he would part my thighs and with a kiss murmur, More sons, most precious of wives. “I will want an engineer to help me build a chariot. In this my sons and I will ride, bringing day to mortals and heavens alike. We will glide high and in this way avoid all earthly frights. No flood will ever again cause winter unending or night everlasting.”
Dijun fell back. He could not object; could not admit he’d been told none of this, that this plan was none of his, that he did not know his wife. The shame would fall on us both but on him hardest for being unable to master me, inkstaining indelibly what he thought the pellucid waters of his honor. I had strangled his words in the crib of his throat. I had given back the silence he’d forced into me with his mouth.
This was my moment of becoming, and I savored it, every bite, more potent than the best of my orchard.
Taming mounts was no difficulty. Carps newly reborn were docile, and drawn to my power they would acquiesce to anything. With them pulling the chariot I brought Lin and Jia to an inland town where survivors—not Nuwa’s clay offspring—had gathered to try again and heal. Fuxi and Dijun had laid down the customs of marriage, man to wife, but this small corner I claimed for myself; wife and wife would live without reproach. I visited them often.
My sons grew in bounds, greedy in their eating, until they stood as tall as I. Soon I had to fly with only one of them at a time, for together their joy would crisp and cook the earth to ashes. After the first three dawns they began to speak, a jabbering chorus of Mother! Their first utterance, their first reality. On the easternmost shore, beyond gods and humans, I nursed a tree to grand heights, mulberries like embers on its boughs and leaves that would cut to pieces anyone other than us. Each sunset I watched my crow-children sleep on the branches.
My sons’ laughter was music, and they knew no sorrow.
It was long after the end, and out of ten sons only one remained to me, the last, the youngest; here approached the part of my story which is known best.
Even then it was such a quiet, submerged part. Mortals learned the legend of how ten sun-crows rose and terrorized the earth with their fatal light, how heroic Houyi—heaven’s best marksman, Dijun’s champion—shot them down. Xihe went barely mentioned: the suns’ mother, nothing more, for the function of giving them birth must be fulfilled by some vessel.
I’d told my sons of what Dijun had done to me, to the one who preceded them as my child of the heart, but they were sons, not daughters: a gulf no motherhood could cross. They wanted only to be a family. In the end I could not impose my hate upon them, for I wished their existences unmarred; I wanted them steeped in bliss. They were only mortal. Few realized that they were not divine, inheriting neither Dijun’s agelessness nor mine. They would pass, and some other way would have to be devised to light the world.
Dijun told them: I sometimes long for a fancy to see the sky subsumed by your wings. The brilliance of you all together, for heaven and earth to behold.
My sons had been uncomplicated creatures. Born to be loved. If their father expected a little gesture to earn his, why then, they would gladly give it.
The feathers of my youngest were growing rime, aging before their time. Absorbing the work of his brothers was more than he was made for, and in time he would fade. It was terrible for a mother to mourn her children—but when my offspring was mortal and I was not, what was to be done? Life was change.
He fell asleep, my last son. In the sky a dead crane drifted.
A footfall; a radiance. “Xihe.”
“You ever visit uninvited, husband,” I said without looking at him. “It seems you do not understand the meaning of unwelcome.”
“You were a delight once.”
“These days I’m rather delighted with myself.” I turned my attention to scrubbing one of my dragons’ necks. “Heavenly etiquette is all that stands between you and the event of your eyes being pulped between my dragon’s teeth. I’d personally gouge them out with my thumbs. Since our wedding night I’ve longed to do this.”
His robes rustled as he backed out of the dragon’s reach. “You would not. And could not.”
I looked down at my arms, at muscles hardened over centuries. “How precious that you think so.”
“In celestial census we remain spouses, Xihe. What would befall you if you attempted to murder your own husband?” He drew closer. “And witness what has transpired after you left me. Your sons dead. You cannot govern yourself, much less them. One child is all you have left to live for.”
I could not keep from laughing. “That’s what you think?” I stepped into the chariot and tugged the reins. The paired dragons arched and reared. “I live for myself, Dijun. For that I have been made; for that I have been born—for myself, not for you, not even for my sons.”
Life was change, and not even the mother of suns would forever stay the same. The limitless skies opened for me. Into them I soared, flames pouring out of me in a roar, a dragon’s gate carved into the night.
Mine alone to leap.