My favorite story as a child was the one about the farmer who slits open his wife’s belly and plants an apple tree amongst her insides.
Mind you, the wife is long dead by the time the entrails come into play (the story loses a great deal of its romance when you skip over that fact, and I am partial to romance). She is a practical person and, stretched out on her deathbed with all her bones jutting out of her skin, she loudly insists that she will under no circumstance permit her body to languish in a lovely pine box when it can serve a far more useful purpose—such as sprouting a tree in the back garden, preferably one that will complement the peonies and grow tall enough to block the sun from reaching the Ling’s plot next door.
“Never did like those turnip-pushers much,” the farmer’s wife mumbles before her heart gives out. I think the farmer says something too, but that’s not important.
In some versions of the story it’s these same turnip-pushers who tear the tree up by the roots and burn it; an act sometimes painted as vengeance, sometimes a restoration of honor (the moral gets muddied in all the smoke and excitement). In others it’s Tian, god of great heights, jealous of the reach of the apple tree’s branches. Sometimes it’s even the poor wretched farmer himself, buried in a snug little box patched together from the tree’s soft wood. I, again being in favor of romance, prefer the fourth version, in which the apple tree outlives them all and sits in an overgrown tangle of rhododendrons and yellow-speckled peonies to this very day.
No matter how you tell it, it’s a much better story than the one the shaman is telling me right now about the Jade Empress and her demigod son Nu, patron of youth, untimely death, and filial obligations, tamer of tigers, etc., etc. I am tempted to ask the shaman if Nu really did try to fuck a pine tree like in the myths (admittedly, it was a very handsome pine tree, bristly like freshly grown chin whiskers), but my mother’s stricken expression keeps my mouth shut.
“All this to say,” the shaman concludes in a reedy voice, “think of today not as a day of sorrow but as a day of rejoicing. This is the highest honor any young woman can hope to attain in a mortal life. Serve the gods well and you may even attain your own seat in the Pantheon.”
I smirk down at my bare toes. In my head I conjure up a delightful image of my own face cast in gold with glossy black pearls in place of eyes. Smoke wreathes my head like a crown as neighbors and strangers alike kneel at my feet, bowing and scraping to the immortal Bi, patron of missed curfews, lost slippers, and neglected responsibilities, cracker of ill-timed jokes, etc., etc.
The shaman does not notice the fine glaze that has shifted over my eyes. He speaks directly to my mother now—when he can edge a word in, that is. Every few seconds another hiccupping sob jerks her body and he is forced to cut his sentence short and pat her hand. I fiddle with the hem of my sleeve, watching the chickens skulk about the front garden through two slats of wood in the far wall. Kuen—the baby the midwives ripped open my sister to retrieve—totters about on unstable legs, collecting fistfuls of tufty white feathers in his pink pudgy hands.
Really, I don’t see what all the fuss is about. Shamans drag away poor farm girls from the outlying provinces all the time (particularly in seasons of great calamity, as everyone insists we are in now). Even then their lives stray little from their previously charted course. They trade mud thatch and straw for cedar wood and oil, reborn as sworn sisters, plodding away the rest of their days with too many early rises.
Then again, my heavenly sanctioned calling is a smidge more exacting than a life of poverty and celibacy. If the watery gray dregs of the teacup set before me are to be believed, I’m to cure the plum pox by praying, fasting, and letting the shamans tear out my heart and eat its ashes—not necessarily in that order (though I have my personal preferences) but certainly by the end of the month.
I avert my eyes as the shaman pays me some compliment about the shape and softness of my hands—very befitting of my sex, he assures me, as my mother, embarrassed, buries her own hands beneath her sash—and I barely manage to smother my laughter. His tongue keeps darting across his lips in a way that reminds me of the black asps with their jewel box eyes that infest the countryside during the hot murky months of summer. I’ve beheaded plenty of them with my spade out in the garden, but this particular specimen, I decide, will require a more delicate touch. Still, it is all I can do not to raise my head and meet the shaman’s gaze with a defiant glare. Like an itch in the small of the back, the world can’t rid itself of me so easily.
He mistakes my silence for shyness—or, worse, humility.
“Speak, child,” the shaman urges. “What have you to say to this glorious calling?”
“I am deeply honored to have found the favor of the gods,” I say with as much graciousness as I can muster, all the while keeping my eyes set at a demure angle that never strays above the shaman’s knees. “An honor far beyond what a simple peasant girl such as myself could ever expect from the world.”
My mother blinks at me in stunned silence. Instinctively, she presses the back of her hand to my forehead. The lines that encircle her drooping mouth only deepen when she realizes that my skin is quite cool, my heart plugging along at its usual lethargic pace. Brace yourself, I think.
The shaman’s lips peel back in a reptilian smile. His gums are black from the bitter tea the shamans use for scrying—the kind they mix up with vetiver roots and ashes.
“Your words make my heart smile,” he says, and his voice drips with sweet oil and venom. “I think the Pantheon is well within your reach. But, forgive me—” The tip of his pink tongue skirts his lips. “I must now ask a somewhat... delicate question. Standard procedure, of course. The maiden, I trust, is indeed still a maiden...?”
His sentence trails off as he ducks his head in a sign of deference to my mother. She cuts her crying short. Something about this breach in propriety revives her. As she gathers her strength, her face purples and swells, twisting into an indignant expression that proudly declares as if there was any need for such a question!
I raise my head to meet the shaman’s crinkled eyes and offer him a honeyed smile as I at last answer this gambit with one of my own. “About that—”
My mother yanks me up by the collar. “What?”
Her voice is so loud and shrill that it wakes my father, asleep for so long that we’d all forgotten he was even there. His head dips forward and, to the accompaniment of a sharp cry of surprise, slams against the low table. The half-empty bottle set before him tips over the table’s edge and meets the floor in a spray of green glass.
My mother is still shaking me, my toes barely brushing the floor, but I manage to turn my head and meet the shaman’s gaze, flush with triumph.
“Since that appears to disqualify me,” I gasp through my mother’s stranglehold, “I won’t waste a moment more of your time. Here, allow me to show you the way out.”
As if he could somehow lose his way in our little three-room farmstead.
But something is wrong. Something hangs in the air, more clinging than the humidity. The shaman’s cool façade does not slip for a second. He stares at me with his too-pronounced brows arching up into his forehead, looking at me the way a teacher does a young student who has just completed a sum and—oh, how silly—marked a two where there should be a four.
“Not to worry, my dear,” he assures me. “The mistakes of youth will not follow us into the next life, so why let them haunt us in this one? Besides, we have certain... procedures now to compensate for any such blemishes that might otherwise tarnish the gods’ chosen Elect.”
I cannot work the muscles in my mouth. My father stares blankly at the shaman, then at the puddle of glistening green glass on the floor, as my mother wrings her hands around her handkerchief. In this horrible silence it is easy to make out the slight hum of an insect’s wings. A fly slips through a crack in the door, spiraling overhead before settling on my cheek. The shaman sees it, too. He stretches his arm out and, smiling, pinches it between two fingers.
The nice thing about inking your death on the calendar a few decades earlier than anticipated is that it gives you an easy out of all kinds of otherwise unavoidable social obligations—weddings, court summons, and the like. Sorry, Aunty Feng. Would if I could, Uncle Yu. But something tells me the other girls won’t appreciate me oozing puss and blood all over the skirts of their shiny new ruquns. Alright, if you insist, so long as my severed head gets its own cushion—oh, I see you’ve changed your mind.
As the ones who ushered me into life, my parents are permitted to accompany me on my journey out of it, even behind temple walls. My mother flutters and ferrets about the house all night in preparation, flinging sleeping shifts and teacups and mud-caked work clogs indiscriminately into a single trunk, only for the shaman to inform us as we load into the wagon the next morning that the temple shall be providing for us ‘in perpetuity’ (and, anyhow, there is nothing to be gained from an over-attachment to the material). In the end she leaves the trunk on our doorstep, where the chickens pick at the faded leather.
My fiancé Yusheng catches us at the front gate in order to impress a last-minute bribe on the shaman, his red commissioner’s robes hitched up about his knees from the three-mile sprint from town through the rice paddies. Yusheng is especially put out by the whole “Elect” business because now he’s short a wide-eyed girl-bride, and they’re in short supply in Pingli Province, what with the plum pox making the rounds again.
“And, not to mention...” Yusheng puffs, “I have friends in the magistracy... who would be more than happy to... to compensate you for any inconvenience this might cause.”
The shaman peers into the little leather purse with its limp red tassel that Yusheng has proffered. With a sympathetic smile he tips it over. Coins spill onto the ground, and the chickens swarm, mistaking them for bread crumbs. Returning the purse to its owner, the shaman mounts the front of the wagon (my father slips uneasily into the seat beside him) and nudges the two mules into motion. Yusheng stands rooted to the spot.
It is hard for my mother to see him go—especially after all the teas and smiles and belly-crawling it took to make such a respectable match—but as I watch him sink into the rising red-brown slope of the road I bid Yusheng farewell with a gesture vulgar enough to make a twice-widowed commissioner blush.
I sprawl in the straw in the back of the cart staring listlessly at the passing swells of white pine forests, the country quiet punctuated by my mother’s sudden outbursts as she works her way through a list of every young bachelor in the province who I could have compromised myself with (at this point I can’t bring myself to tell her he doesn’t exist). The wagon slogs along, unaware of the pain each forward movement inflicts on my spine. Steady rains have left the roads in a sorry state, and the wagon wheels are only worsening the problem, churning the loose soil into a thick, earthy stew.
The only person enjoying themselves is Kuen. He really is an ugly baby, I think, though he isn’t truly a baby anymore. It’s miraculous how little of my sister is in that fat red face, considering the price of admission for its entry into the world.
Kuen notices my stare. His cheeks puff out and a toothy grin scrunches up his eyes. I pinch his big toe, and something about this coupled with the wolfish smile twisting my lips puts him in an impossible fit of giggles. That’s right, you smug little bastard, I coo in a honeyed voice in my head, you know what you did and you’re prouder for it.
My mother glares at me, sweeping Kuen up in her arms and squeezing a cheek until he quiets. I sneak a wink at him. As Kuen struggles to imitate me, I think to myself that there isn’t anyone I hate more in the world, except maybe Yusheng and his perpetually sweating upper lip.
“What about the Shu boy?” my mother prattles on. “Oh, what was his sun sign again?”
“The Vernal Equinox, I think,” I answer dully.
“Ah, I should have known!” she declares, and then she sees something in my face that makes her start sniffling again, her grip on Kuen tightening.
“You know, when I was a boy,” my father says, lifting his hat an inch, “we didn’t bother with any of this mystic bullshit when a fever caught. We just died.”
“Right,” I say. “And now all your family is dead and you’re an alcoholic.”
“What was that?” he asks just as the wagon jolts and he sloshes rice wine down his front, eliciting a disapproving hiss from my mother.
It’s in moments like these where I cannot help but think that marriage between a demigod and a pine tree seems just as likely as that between the man and woman seated beside me.
“Can you really stop the plum pox?”
This last statement is from Hulin, one of the young soldiers serving as our escort, though he’s half a head shorter than the others. His ears are lopsided and he reminds me more of a puppy than a hardened killer, but he is not drunk or hysterical or Kuen, so it’s his company I prefer.
“By letting them chop up my heart, yes,” I say warmly.
Hulin blanches, to my surprise. I figured he was just as keen on this sacrificial business as the shaman.
“Apparently Nu visited the shaman in his dreams,” I continue. “Told him to follow the stars straight to Pingli. Then the rest of the signs turned up in my tea leaves—”
“Did you know that some scholars think the stars are just fiery stones set in the sky?”
“Fiery stones, huh. No, can’t say we’ve heard much about that in Pingli.”
Hulin flushes. “I mean, not that I believe them. I just think it’s fascinating because... well, before I came here I wanted to study at the Academy.” His gaze drops to his shoes. “Stars and comets. That type of thing.”
I look him up and down. “You’d look good with a scholar’s beard,” I conclude, and Hulin’s cheeks flare up with color again, round and red as apples.
At the temple I am greeted by a swarm of outstretched hands and sun-scorched faces, followed by a more subdued reception from the wealthier attendees, who merely rustle their fans in acknowledgment, porcelain bodies enshrined within the folds of their palanquins. They’ve poured into the city from all sides and provinces, scaling walls, tearing down gates, trampling those too weak to stand on two feet, all for a glimpse of the gods’ chosen Elect. But our wagon parts this press of bodies as if shearing through the surface of a quiet, glassy sea.
A woman catches my eye. I don’t know why. There is nothing remarkable about her weathered brown face in this mob where all faces are weathered and some shade of brown. I stretch out my hand to hers and, mimicking a gesture I must have observed at a holy festival, touch the tip of my middle finger to her palm. Others eagerly push forward. I reach all those I can. Crooked old men. Sagging young women. Grubby-cheeked children perched on their parents’ shoulders. They drape silk ribbons in plum and ruby and dusty pink across my extended arm and shower me with creamy white magnolia blossoms, fistfuls of fragrant frangipani.
“Don’t encourage them,” my mother sniffs. “It... it is not becoming of an Elect.”
“She means it’s cruel to get their hopes up,” my father chimes in from the bottom of the wagon. “They think one little touch will shield them from the pox.”
My mother scowls.
I twine a rose-colored ribbon about my finger and continue to touch as many hands as I can. The odds are that by the time we reach the temple I’ll have contracted the plum pox, and then hopefully I’ll be dead in three days’ time—sweaty, swollen, but without the hole in my chest.
The comb cleaves a part down the center of my head before sinking into the snarls of thick black hair that hang past my shoulder blades, grazing the soft skin underneath. So, I muse, this is what it’s like to be scalped. Thank goodness I can add that to my list of life experiences.
A flock of attendants flutter around me, prodding at me as if I am a prized pig about to go up for auction. They are all female and only a few years older than me. Apparently that is not enough to make them view me with any kind of sisterly sympathy. They scrub and pluck and perfume my skin without mercy, and when I try and meet their eyes, they only scowl.
“Perhaps there has been a mistake,” the eldest girl whispers.
“There must be,” says a second. “She’s so dark.”
“Dark and coarse,” a third murmurs in agreement, inspecting my hands with a critical eye. “A bad omen.”
“Bad enough to send me packing back to Pingli?” I snap, yanking my hand away. The third girl recoils, as if a hairy black spider might come crawling out of my open mouth.
“What is this talk of omens?” the shaman says, appearing suddenly in the doorway.
The girls press together, dipping their heads and muttering apologies.
But the eldest girl decides to press her luck. “Master, look at her—”
The shaman’s baton cracks across the girl’s cheek. After watching that bamboo rod dangle from his belt for so long I was beginning to wonder about its use.
“She is the Elect,” he rasps as the girl shrinks back amongst her sisters. “Chosen and without blemish in the eyes of the gods. But, like a diamond in the rough—” He forces my chin up with his soot-stained fingers. “We strip away the excess.”
I try to remember how the pox is spread. Vapors, I recall vaguely, evil spirits expelled through the mouth. I force a violent, sputtering cough up my throat, dusting the shaman in a fine shower of spit.
The girls collectively take a step back. I brace for the sting of the baton on my cheek, but it never comes. Instead, the shaman takes in a long, even breath and grabs me by the hair. I claw at his hand as he drags me down the hall, spitting like a cat with its foot caught in a trap.
“Unfortunate that we found you so late in the lunar cycle,” he says as he deposits me on the floor of a small square room with rice-paper walls. “If tonight had been a full moon I’d have had you carved up like a suckling pig an hour ago.”
The last thing I see is a sliver of Hulin’s pale face and the tremor of his hand on the latch before the door slams shut. At first I can’t make sense of his fear—after all, he’s not the one staring down the shaman’s baton. Then I realize with a jolt that Hulin’s alarm is not for himself but for me. Because he knows from experience when the shaman is making idle threats and when he is simply stating facts.
When the door opens again three days later I don’t know which is more disappointing—the fact that I am still alive or the fact that the shaman’s face is just as pox-free as mine.
It turns out the only way to purify the body after an early deflowering—as the shamans fondly refer to the alleged event—is to stew it (me) like a starchy vegetable.
“This is going to make the meat awfully tough,” I say, tapping my sternum.
The attendant shushes me. I shrug, sinking into the steaming tub. I’m supposed to use this time for thinking—which I am, just not about my souls. This is a temple, I remind myself, not a fortress. I stare dismally down at my face reflected back in the dark bathwater, conscious of the attendant’s eyes. Of course, escape would be much easier if I wasn’t constantly surrounded by shamans and scholars and Hulin’s big eyes and slack-jawed mouth. Every scenario I conjure up only ends in more guards and more locked doors. So it’s not a fortress, I think, but it’s certainly a prison, designed to keep things in not out. I guess the shamans worry their gods might get tired of squatting on their golden altars all day and one sunny afternoon, just walk away.
Can’t say I blame them. The circular hall where the Pantheon resides is always miserably stuffy. Time here passes as a shapeless blur of prayers, recitations, and lengthy lectures on various lofty subjects. Apparently the shamans want me to be familiar with the gods I am being offered to, which I think is a thoughtful gesture. It gives the whole affair an intimacy that I think most ritual murder lacks. The names prove too numerous for me to keep track of. Back in Pingli Province we had the Jewel-Eyed Five, plus the little shrine to the Immortal Mothers, which I never lit a candle to because it felt odd to pray to my sister. But here there are dozens, hundreds, endless Tians and Nus and Jade Empresses displayed in a circle so that none appear favored over the others, from Lei, the garish, green goddess of laughter, whose name you cannot speak without a smile, to the stout old Steward with his curved bull’s horns.
I smother a giggle. This is my fifth lesson of the day. I try to focus on the large words the scholar’s mouth is forming, but my eyes keep slipping to the fresco on the far wall. It depicts the Great Battle of the Chengzi River, and the river god himself stands front and center, fully disrobed for the occasion, every last inch of his dripping chiseled physique etched into the walls in painstaking detail.
“Is something funny?” the scholar asks, thick, black brows dipping down into his eyes.
My mother stands by the door, watching. She looks ill.
“Oh, no,” I say, mopping at the corners of my eyes with my sleeve. “It’s just... I’ve never seen Chengzi depicted with such a... such a studied hand. So... anatomically detailed.”
“Enough.” The scholar throws down his slate. “My efforts are wasted on this matter.”
The shaman appears, as always, as if he stepped straight from the shadows. “She is the Elect,” he insists. “The gods do not make mistakes, nor do their signs.”
“Yes,” the scholar agrees. “But surely the readers of these signs are capable of error.”
A muscle in the shaman’s jaw twitches. The moment the scholar exits the hall, the shaman darts forward. I shriek as the baton snaps across my cheek once, twice, each flecking my vision with amorphous color.
“First you dishonor your body!” he rages, “then your family, then me, and now the gods. Do you think you are above this? Do you not realize that there are thousands of girls who pray night and day for a blessing such as yours? An opportunity such as yours?”
I desperately shield my head with my arms as the baton cracks across my stomach, too short of breath now to cry out. They need me, I repeat over and over again, like a mantra, drowning out my own panic, they cannot let me die, they need me. But through my muss of hair I catch sight of the shaman’s cool black eyes—black but with trace amounts of amber, like hot embers—and as the baton descends again and again and again, I realize with paralyzing certainty that he will not stop until he has proven his point—proven that he could kill me, if he liked, here and now, Elect or not. Just because he wants to. Just because he can.
My mother screams, swaying as if nearing a faint. The other scholars who had previously been cowering on the far side of the room gallantly rush to her aid with fans and pitchers of water. The shaman’s grip grows slack and then he lets go of me altogether. I drop to the floor in an unceremonious heap of tangled hair and twisted robes. Hulin rushes to my side and eases me upright with a hand placed lightly in the middle of my back.
“Are you alright?” he asks quietly, seeing my shoulders shake. But it isn’t until he brushes my hair back from my face that he realizes the wet rattle in my chest isn’t a struggle to breathe but, rather, laughter. My mother leans into a pillar, speechless. She thinks I’ve gone mad, and maybe I have. As I look up into the shaman’s deep smoldering eyes I realize, in the first true moment of genius in my entire life, that I have all the means of escape right here, ricocheting around my brain, rockets just waiting to be ignited.
In the morning I say an impassioned prayer to Chengzi and his abnormally large pectoral muscles and then set about on my quest to be thoroughly insufferable.
I blow bubbles in my bathwater, bounce my leg constantly during meditations, and snort incense fumes to see if they can actually get you loopy (they cannot, but the sticks do make the inside of your nostrils all tingly). My mother is beside herself with humiliation. The shaman drops the serene exterior of the spiritual authority. He spits his words, and his face is constantly red and pinched from the swell of barely contained righteous fury just beneath the surface.
“I’ll have your mouth sewn shut,” he whispers into my ear. “I’ll have your lips sealed together with hot wax.”
I yawn, stirring my tea with my pinkie. “Stole that line from my mother, didn’t you?” Amber liquid sloshes over the rim of the cup, soaking the front of the shaman’s robes. “Oops,” I say, almost languidly, rolling up my sleeve and extending my arm in preparation for the descent of the shaman’s baton. But now we both know that his arm will wear out long before my resolve.
It gives me comfort, tracing the ugly purple welts on my skin as I lie on my sleeping mat at night. I think of them like medals or maybe tattoos, and when one starts to fade I can’t help but cry—even with my guards no doubt listening at the door outside—because these marks are mine and it’s like losing a part of me. I might as well have beaten them into my skin myself.
“You need to do what they say.”
I wobble about the perimeter of the temple’s garden, ignoring the groan and sway of the bamboo, the distant lapping of water, the trill of a bird in the nearby wisteria tree. Each shuffling step requires my full attention, what with the stones the shaman has strapped to my slippers. They’re a metaphor for my divinely appointed task, and a rather ham-fisted one at that.
“Bi, did you hear me?” Hulin presses, glancing anxiously over his shoulder. One hand is fixed on the hilt of his sword, the other holding my parasol aloft, presumably to shield my delicate skin from the milky sunlight that occasionally leaks through the clouds. “You need to start behaving or else—”
“Or else what?” I say through my teeth. “They’ll kill me?”
“They could cast you aside,” he whispers, and his voice is pleading.
“Well, they’re welcome to do it.” I take another tottering step, bracing against the wind. It claws straight through my thin robe. “Tits on a stick, it’s cold!”
A scholar emerges from a nearby plot of orchids where he had evidently been meditating. He shoves past us in a huff, clutching his cushion under his arm.
But Hulin’s eyes are wide and bright with curiosity. “Do all girls in Pingli talk like you?”
“Haven’t you heard?” I say, shuffling forward again. “There are no girls in Pingli.”
Technically it’s true. In the records there are no girls, at least not by name; only small black dots denoting the presence of sisters, wives, mothers. I remember as a child watching the census-taker scratch my father’s name onto his little slate, and below that our three dots, arranged like tea kettles on a shelf. One of the dots was slightly smeared, almost like a little face with two braids set on opposite sides. I like to imagine this was me.
Hulin misses the joke, but he laughs anyway. “You’re a funny girl,” he says, falling in step behind me, then repeats under his breath, “A funny girl.”
One of the temple girls—the one the shaman struck—has caught the pox. They whisk her away to another location before she even shows her first spot. Her sisters’ accusatory stares burn into the back of my head as they jerk the comb through my hair the next morning, but since the moon is still waxing crescent, my heart stays lodged in my chest (though I try not to think about the alternative, except in a purely hypothetical sense). It’s easier to forget why I’m here now that my mother has taken to napping more frequently and Hulin is my friend. You’d think he’d take advantage of such a captive audience, but I do most of the talking during our garden strolls.
“Then the woman carves out the ox’s eyes and sticks them into her husband’s bloodied sockets,” I say breathlessly, due to the fact that Kuen’s chunky arms are locked around my neck. He’s mercifully fallen asleep, but now I have to drag this drooling sack of flour around in addition to my stones. “And for the first time in his life the man opens his eyes and looks upon the face of the love of his life. That’s why they say lovers are ‘ox-eyed’ for one another.”
Hulin laughs. “We never had stories like this where I grew up. We had ‘divine histories’—Chengzi slaughtering the thirty thousand, the Jade Empress mixing the love elixir for Wei-Li, Feihong journeying across the oceans...”
“The gods are the subject of shadow puppetry,” I say dismissively. “Fantastical characters who feud and fuck and spread misery as often as they do good fortune. We tell stories about them to little children, and not even good stories.” Good stories meaning stories about farmers’ wives with slit-open bellies sprouting apple trees in the back garden.
“You should have been a poet,” Hulin observes.
“Believe me,” I say, adjusting my grip on Kuen. “If I could make a decent living sitting by a creek and writing three-line stanzas about grasshoppers all day, I would.”
“It’s hard to think of a better life purpose than to create beautiful things out of nothing.”
Now that’s a surprise. In fact, it might be the first profound thing I’ve ever heard Hulin say.
I shift my attention back to my feet, ignoring Kuen’s hot breaths on my neck. “My sister used to say all women are born artists. To us, ‘there is nothing more natural than creation.’”
“Your sister sounds very wise.”
Something in Hulin’s inflection suggests that he is about to offer his condolences, so I cut in with the first question that comes to mind. “So, the Academy, huh. What happened to that?”
Perhaps there are better ways I could have phrased this, but I’m too desperate to change the subject. Anyway, Hulin has apparently convinced himself that my general lack of tact is not a character defect but rather a part of my natural charm.
“My brothers are there now,” he says, smiling fondly at Kuen. “But I’m the youngest and my father thought he should, you know, give something back—to the ones who made us.”
For what? I think. In the shadows of the wisteria I think I see my sister’s face, the way her kind eyes and fine cheekbones looked shrouded in the black folds of her widow’s veil. “Don’t you see, Bi?” she once said so serenely, smoothing her hand over the slight curve of her swollen belly. “It’s a gift. When they take, they always give us something in return.”
“Nah,” I say, folding my arms around Kuen. “We don’t owe the gods a damn thing.”
“What are you doing?” my mother asks from across the hall, tearing her eyes away from Lei’s glittering green stare. She must have sensed the shift in my breathing from steady inhales and exhales to faint, whistling snores.
I rub at my eyes with my sleeve. “What does it look like? I’m resting.”
She storms across the hall to swat at me with her fan. Kuen laughs from his blanket nearby on the floor. “You are supposed to be clearing your mind. You must be a clean slate for the gods to write their will upon and... and anyway, you have the nights to sleep all you want.”
“Not anymore,” I say through my teeth. “Because now our dear holy man has gotten into the habit of sitting outside my door muttering incantations until the sun comes up.”
He’s been at it ever since they carried out the third girl.
My mother’s grip is so tight it crumples the paper of her fan. Faint beads of perspiration line her forehead. Something about the light here gives her skin an ashen quality.
“I don’t understand you,” she says. “Everyone here is so generous, so kind. We have a roof and good clothes and more food than we can eat and—and you should be more grateful, Bi, grateful!”
I push myself to my feet. “That’s not what Baba says. He says we all end up in the same place at the end of the day, so it really doesn’t matter what the hell I do—”
“Your father,” she spits, “only says those things because he’s allowed to wallow in all life’s disappointments and curse the gods for his lot. Because he has the luxury to be weak.”
She claps a hand to her mouth—that small, steady hand whose creases and callouses used to fascinate me so much when I was a child. Her bottom lip quivers. She stands before me small and shrunken. Like crumpled paper.
I reach for her hand, which is cool and limp, and whisper, “It’s okay. I won’t tell.”
She pulls away, mopping the sweat from her pale cheeks with her sleeve, stirring the air with her fan. “It’s very... very hot in here, don’t you think?”
I frown. The windows are open today. “Mama, maybe you should lie down for a bit.”
She takes an unsteady step forward. “Yes. A rest. That sounds so...”
And she tips over like a jug of water, spilling out across the floor. Shamans and guards and scholars flood into the hall at my calls. They descend on my mother the way crows do, and the effect is made all the worse by the way their drooping sleeves and silly tassels flutter in the breeze from the open window. I hear Kuen wailing somewhere far across the hall, pushed to the side and forgotten, and underneath that I hear the word “pox” and then the shaman’s sharp commands: “Get the Elect out. Get her out.”
Hulin locks his arms around my waist and hoists me into the air with more strength than I realized he possessed, ignoring every curse I throw at him. I can see my mother’s open hand on the floor through the tangle of bodies, the strain of the muscles as she grasps at the air. Someone has the decency to slip the crumpled fan back into her damp fingers.
The shaman will not let me within ten feet of my mother in her current condition, so I watch the progression of the crusted red spots up her arms and around her throat through a crack in the door. A snuffling sound reminds me that my father is here in the corridor, too, in the same spot where he has sat for the past two days, watching the masked healers flurry in and out. It’s not his swollen eyes or his inability to put a full sentence together that alarms me. It’s the fact that for the first time in years, I am certain he is stone-cold sober.
“Bi, I can’t go back after this,” he whispers. “She’ll be in the walls, the floor, the trees, the fields. She’ll be waiting for me...”
I smooth Kuen’s black hair over his round, little head. He will not let my father touch him while he’s in such a state, recoiling at the sight of his inflated red face.
Hulin sneaks a furtive glance at the shaman. “Do you want me to carry him for a bit?”
“No,” I murmur, moving my hand up and down, up and down. “It’s fine.”
A terrible image flashes before my eyes of Kuen’s face poxed and scarred; my father and I watching him writhe in his cradle, just waiting for him to die. I pull his face closer to mine, this face that, at this proximity and if the light hits it just right, carries echoes of my sister’s.
“What are we going to do?” my father says hoarsely. “Bi, without her I’m—I’m not—”
“It’s okay, Baba,” I say. “You don’t have to say it.”
He looks to me, wide-eyed and grateful. “You are so much like her, you know.”
I turn away, watching an attendant dab at my mother’s cracked lips with a damp cloth. “No. Everyone knows I take after you.”
No wonder the pain is so deeply wedged into my chest. It’s like watching five deaths all in one. Or maybe just one five times over.
It’s easy to revisit a memory like Kuen’s birthday. Every last little detail has been carved into my brain—the stale stench of sweat, the grating hum of the cicadas, my father’s fading footsteps as he raced off in search of another healer, one who wouldn’t give up.
“It’s not so bad,” my sister assured me, her head propped against my knee. Her skin was stretched across her bones. All the color in her face had been soaked up by the heap of blood-stained towels in the far corner of the room.
“It’s not so bad,” she said again, seeking out my hand with her own. A smile tugged at her lips. “At least not so bad as it looks. Anyway, it’s easy for me to go because I know he won’t be alone. You had me and... he’ll have you.”
My mouth opened, closed. I wanted to pull away, but I couldn’t unclasp my hand from hers. Something cool and slimy unspooled in my stomach and I couldn’t figure out why. This moment—the dying moment—was nothing I hadn’t seen before in tales told by puppets and on folded paper, tales told with relish by my own lips to any willing (or unwilling) ear near enough to listen.
“Bi, you promise, don’t you?” she said. “To love him as I would have loved him?”
She could have asked me a thousand things; demanded a thousand feats, each more fantastical than the next. One word from her and I would journey across strange seas to the edge of the world, sing and dance until my feet bled and fell off, grow flowers so big and bursting with color and fragrance that even the gods in their heavenly gardens looked on them with envy. But instead I watched her expend precious minutes asking again and again for the one thing that would always be impossible.
“Of course she does,” my mother sweeps in, taking my sister’s other hand. “We both do.”
Vaguely I remember nodding. At the time, it was the best I could do.
When a hand is pressed over my mouth, my instinctive reaction is to clamp my teeth down on that hand—hard.
“Hey—ouch! Bi, it’s me.”
The dull outline of a face emerges from the darkness. “Hulin?” I croak.
“Don’t talk,” Hulin whispers as he drags me to my feet. He throws a heavy shawl over my bony shoulders and ushers me out into the hall. My feet stumble over the uneven stones, over the slumped form of the other guard who is supposed to be on watch tonight. I rub at my eyes still heavy with sleep, as if to clear away the fog hanging over my brain and keeping me from asking any sensible questions.
“Hulin, where are we—”
“Shh,” he hisses, pressing a hand to my mouth.
But by the time we reach the Pantheon’s hall, I throw it off. “Hulin, what the hell is this?”
He blinks at me as if it’s obvious. “We’re running away.”
“Running away?” I’m suddenly conscious of the cold stare of a hundred dead divine eyes forming a circle around us. Moonlight cuts through the open windows, painting pale streaks across faces once beatific that are now twisted, distorted, grotesque.
“It’s what you wanted, isn’t it?” Hulin says and grins. “Just like the stories. But we don’t have much time before the others realize—”
He grips me by the shoulders. “Bi, it’s nearly the full moon. We’re out of time.”
“Hulin, wait.” My feet slide across the tiles as he drags me across the hall. I yank at his hand. “Stop! Stop or I’ll... I’ll scream!”
He rounds on me, leveling his eyes with mine. “What is holding you back?”
“I don’t know,” I whisper. “I—I just can’t—not after—”
Over his shoulders, the Jade Empress returns my stare. Red ribbons twine about her fingers—to simulate the moment she pulled Nu out from between her legs with her own two hands, since Wei-Li certainly didn’t stick around to do it. They match the red curl of her smile.
Hulin’s expression softens. “It’s your mother, isn’t it? She’s gone, Bi. And I know she meant a lot to you, but you meant more to her. Wouldn’t she want you to get out if you could? To live on, like the ox-eyed lovers—”
“But life isn’t like the stories,” I cut in. “You can’t take another volume off the shelf when you tire of the first, can’t bind it up with ribbons when the pages start to fall out—”
Hulin yanks me toward him and presses his mouth against mine. Several seconds pass before I realize that we are kissing; at first I can only register the sensation as vaguely wet. When Hulin pulls away his face is flushed and his gaze certain. He frowns when he doesn’t see the same expression in mine.
“Like I said,” I say quietly. “Not like the stories.”
“How sweet,” calls a familiar voice. We jerk apart as the shaman emerges from the Steward’s broad shadow. The black pits beneath his tired eyes extend the pupils, making them impossibly dark, drowning out the amber. He still wears his daytime robes, the corded belt with the bamboo rod knotted about his narrow waist. At his signal, the rest of the guards file through the far door, forming a tight ring around the perimeter of the room.
“How very sweet,” the shaman says again as he eyes each silent statue. His lips twist into a smile, or perhaps a sneer. “But perhaps inappropriate for our present company, don’t you think?”
With an accompanying chink Hulin whips his sword free of its scabbard.
“Don’t,” I say, tugging at his hand, but he pushes me behind him, brows pressed together in fierce concentration. For the first time, I believe that he actually knows how to use his weapon.
The shaman’s tongue slips across his lips. “This will not end like you think.”
“Please.” I give Hulin’s hand another desperate pull. “Don’t do this. Not for me, not for—”
“Stay behind me,” Hulin says, his sword arm steady. He mutters a prayer to Nu, though I can’t tell if he is invoking him as patron of youth or patron of untimely death.
“Shit,” I mutter, and the familiar far wall has never looked so flat, so final, “Shit—”
I cut myself short. Something small and red in a statue’s cupped hand catches my eye. Wedged between Lei and a much more subdued interpretation of Chengzi cut from white marble is the figure of a woman carved from a deep, rich cedar wood that I don’t remember being there before. She wears an impish, self-satisfied smile. I can’t tell what the red thing in her hands is, but on closer inspection I see that her eyes are black pearls, twin pools of deep liquid black.
Breaking free of Hulin’s grip, I glide across the tiled floor, transfixed. The shaman’s eyes dart between me and the wooden face of this strange god whose name I can’t seem to recall. But as the distance between us halves, then quarters, I realize it doesn’t matter. There is something in the contours of her face—in the faint crow’s feet on either side of her eyes, in that sly smile—that I recognize just as I would my father’s loping gait at a distance or the bruised back of my hand. This face is older and I like to think wiser, but it is still my own face staring back at me.
I study the fine wrinkles that line the mouth, moving down to the folds of her robe, the sleeves pushed up past her elbows. Someone has placed a red apple in the statue’s hands, which are curled close to her chest. An offering, I suppose. I pick it up, rubbing at the waxy skin with the corner of my sleeve, and laugh aloud because there is something my mother was always trying to tell me that now I finally understand.
As I turn the apple over I murmur, “You’ll look after him, won’t you?”
The black-eyed goddess stares serenely back at me.
“Good. That’s good.” I turn to the shaman. “The moon is full?”
“Waning gibbous,” he corrects with a dignified sniff, as if I hadn’t already made up my mind about him being an insufferable prick.
“Full enough,” I say coldly and raise the apple to my lips. In the moment that follows the only sounds are the gentle ksh-ksh of the wind in the trees outside, the groan of the rafters overhead, and my own furious chewing as I take bite after bite. The shaman is too bewildered to scold me for snacking on sacrificial fruit, which I suppose, in my case, is a bit like cannibalism. His jaw twitches as he watches me return the apple core to the statue’s waiting hands and wipe my sticky palms on my shift.
“Thank you,” I murmur to the statue, and then to the shaman, “Do you know the story of the Nuying Woman and the old apple tree?”
He blinks. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen him at a loss for words. “I... faintly recall it.”
I slump against the base of Chengzi’s likeness, resting my head on a bulging calf muscle. A bit of apple skin is caught between my teeth. I pry it out with two fingers.
“Well,” I begin, only a little smug, “the Nuying Woman is a practical person. Not prone to sentimentality. So, of course, she marries a farmer.” I grimace slightly at the funny taste of bitter fruit at the back of my mouth. “Anyhow, skip ahead a few decades and she’s lying on her deathbed and she can’t help but think how depressing a place a coffin is—just four walls and a bit of damp earth—as if death wasn’t already enough of a nuisance—”
I frown down at my chest where the skin has begun to ripple and bubble at the surface. “You know, I’ll just cut to the chase. The farmer fetches a nice, sturdy paring knife and... and...”
The shaman’s eyes dart between my face and the statue. Suddenly they triple in size. “No,” he rasps. “Not her. The gods can’t choose her. Anyone but her—”
A cry, a shout, the rush of slippered feet on cold stone floors. Before I can tip over onto the ground a dozen hands hold me aloft. Eventually they set me down in a small, square chamber that I do not recognize. A hole has been cut into the ceiling, letting a bit of pale, watery moonlight leak in. My stomach roils as something inside strains to get out, like tiny fists beating against the underside of my sternum. Voices pass over me, tripping over one another in their panic, though the shaman is loudest of all.
“The moon—look—it’s too early—”
“There’s no time—”
“Cut it out! Cut it out!”
On my left and right are my mother and sister, coarse hands, brown faces.
“It’s the best I could do,” I tell them.
My sister squeezes my hand. “I think it’s beautiful.”
Somewhere far away are the holy men’s voices, the hiss of metal on metal, last-moment recitations and prayers. One of the scholars pleads for my eyes to be covered, but I beat him to it, letting them roll back into my head. As I catch a final glimpse of the shaman’s thin face I smile.
The shaman’s hands are red and dripping, but not from the lump of muscle he clutches—one might say, cradles—in his cupped palms. Instead its flesh is wrinkled and brittle, stiff and scaly as tree bark, its veins threaded with green.
And bursting from the heart’s center—a sprout.