Zhongquijie when the stranger arrives, and so they ply her with mooncakes of every size and filling: no yolk, double-yolk, or the extravagance of triple. Every family wants a foreign woman in the house, and no excess is too much.
For her part the stranger is receptive. She eats all she’s given, taking honey straight from the jar, licking her fingers and smiling at the village apiarist Zhang Xiaoli. At this some raise eyebrows. Xiaoli has a family but not a household, living apart as she does to keep her bees. To attract a foreigner all for herself seems like sheer avarice.
“Have you ever used a phone?” Xiaoli asks once she has cornered Jinhuang’s attention. “Fax machines? Ridden a train? Driven a car?”
The stranger stops laughing. “Well, yes.”
“Can you tell me how they work?”
“After a fashion.”
“Oh, please come stay with me. I’ll cook for you. You won’t owe me anything.”
So it is that Jinhuang follows Zhang Xiaoli home, much to the disapproval of everyone save Xiaoli’s family, who holds out the hope that not only will she move back into the Zhang compound but also secure an outsider bride. A coup, and already Xiaoli’s Fourth Aunt is wiping her eyes with pride. To bring the clan such a prize! Far better than being top of the class or being very good indeed with bees.
Xiaoli takes Jinhuang to look at her apiary, cautioning the stranger to put on mask and suit. Jinhuang does not; the bees give her wide berth. They rub their wings and their dusted legs and watch her from the roofs of their boxes, yellow-black buzz limned in garden lights.
“I’ve never seen them act like that,” Xiaoli says later as she takes off her veil.
Jinhuang smiles faintly, but offers no explanation. Xiaoli serves her jasmine tea and honey sorbet. They talk against the noise of distant cicadas and Jinhuang draws diagrams for her, speaking of communication that happens instantly, with pictures and sounds–“Better than telephones.”
Better than telephones. Xiaoli can’t imagine such a thing. “What is that like? How does it work? Tell me everything. Do you have photographs?”
“How can you have cameras but not phones?”
“Oh, we make things haphazardly. It happens like that. We’ve got televisions too, but not much to watch except tapes brought back from Earth we rewatch a few hundred times.”
They are sitting knee to knee, and Jinhuang leans forward as though expecting something other than this enthusiasm for screens and circuitry. When what she anticipates does not occur, she widens her eyes at Xiaoli. “Am I so plain?”
“You’re absolutely exciting. It’s just that I’ve never met an outsider. Let me show you my house.”
“I was hoping you would show me more than that.”
“You’ve already seen the bees. I could show you where I make honey? How about the guava trees? They’re nice.”
Jinhuang shakes her head. “Please, show me your house.”
She introduces Jinhuang to the family shrine, where one portrait presently rests. “My birth-mother, Zhang Yuexiang. My other mother Lai Jielin has gone back to the Lunar Village.”
Xiaoli is excellent with her courtesies; she’s been raised well, steeped in manners as tea leaves in hot water. She gives Jinhuang the spare bedroom.
Morning leaves windows in a scrim of frost, which crackles to pieces when Xiaoli lifts the slats. The same ice clings to the veranda where she brings a breakfast of steaming congee thick with pork balls and little plates of sliced lachang, rousong, diced ginger and scallion.
“Winter must be murderous,” Jinhuang says as she adds lachang to her bowl.
“We’ve got heaters and electric blankets.”
Jinhuang looks at her through lowered lashes. “And other things to do to keep warm. Do you manufacture appliances by yourselves?”
Xiaoli reels off an excited applause to wind power and a factory run by the Ding and Jiang families. “We can’t make everything–and some things we just don’t need many of–so when people visit Earth they bring back what we don’t have. I haven’t made a journey yet, though I mean to someday. Soon. My elders thought I wasn’t ready, but that’s two years ago.”
“You aren’t afraid of men? They throng the central realm in uncountable millions.”
“I’ve seen pictures of them. They’re odd–a handful of girls get fluttery about them. It’s so outlandish; why would they like creatures so strange? Not liking anything or anyone at all that way, well that’s understandable, but to want men.” Xiaoli wrinkles her nose. “Some fad.”
“What do you like, then?”
“The normal thing, of course?” Then she realizes what the outsider means. This happens rarely, for Xiaoli is not what her family would call the most astute when it comes to reading people. “You mean do I like anyone specifically? Not really. My clan will help me pick, probably from Lunar Village, when the time comes. Someone who doesn’t mind bees.”
Jinhuang tilts her head. “I don’t mind bees in the least.”
“I saw! You’d make a wonderful apiarist.”
The outsider sighs heavily. “I will do the dishes. Then you can show me around.”
Xiaoli thinks it a fine thing indeed to have someone do household chores for her, a comfort she hasn’t enjoyed since she started living on her own. If all outsiders are like Jinhuang, she decides, Earth must be a splendid place.
In the middle of Solar Village, as all villages in Nuguo, there is a water clock.
The flow of it fluctuates: oozing slow as Xiaoli’s honey, gushing like an unseasonable monsoon, and sometimes slowing down so each drop hangs still for days, glittering in the sun. Children would cup hands around them, careful not to disturb the perfect little spheres, and adults would take pictures. It does not often happen, and no one owned much jewelry. The land provides, but not for frivolities.
Jinhuang kneels by the clock. “This is how you determine when to travel?”
“It’s primitive. Widow Ding and some of her grandmothers are working hard on improving it. One clock to tell Earth-time, one clock to tell ours. Much more accurate, don’t you think? I’ve seen some of the prototypes, they’re an amazing family–really I should’ve introduced you to them! I’m just an amateur, and you wasting all your diagrams on me.”
Jinhuang gazes up at her, her frown deepening.
“Did I–say anything wrong?”
“Nothing. You’re simply too young.”
“I’m sixteen,” Xiaoli says. “Almost old enough to drink from the River of Mothers.” Though she’s never been courted in that way girls practice on each other, a point of embarrassment that can’t help being decidedly public. She chooses not to admit that.
“Nevertheless. I think we should meet again after you’ve seen Earth.”
They have a picture taken together. Jinhuang makes her farewells to those who’ve given her hospitality. The Zhang family retreats into mortification, alleviated only by the outsider’s lack of interest in any other house’s girls. Cousins and aunts interrogate Xiaoli afterward; she recounts some of their exchanges, at which her relatives and sisters put their faces in their hands. One, taking pity on her, points out that Jinhuang was putting no little effort into wooing her.
“And you let her get away!” cries Ping. “Did you let the bees have your brain, cousin? Has your brain become beeswax?”
“But,” Xiaoli tries, “she didn’t say anything like that. She didn’t even ask to see any elder. That’s what a suitor is supposed to do, isn’t it? I’ve read treatises. There’s a process.”
Ping throws up her hands. In the end the Zhang household reaches an agreement that their beekeeper is a lost cause. Next time a traveler happens by they will do better. They pin their hopes on Ping.
The following season Xiaoli’s thoughts of Jinhuang knot into an obsession, but the outsider does not return.
At year’s end she is allowed to visit the central realm for the first time, guided by a Ding veteran. When Ding Yurong left Nuguo, Xiaoli’s Second-Grandmother Jiaxin was a girl of thirteen; on the date of Yurong’s return Jiaxin was celebrating a seventy-third birthday. A large differential, but time disparities between the two realms have never been logical or simple to predict.
Ding Yurong looks over Xiaoli and Ping; what she sees evidently does not please. She tells them briefly of their destination, Hong Kong. “They speak a different dialect, though ours will be understood. No one on Earth reads Nushu.”
“Why not?” Ping pouts. “It’s beautiful. I’ve seen their scripts, and there isn’t anything to recommend them.”
“Because it was only ever used by a fraction of our ancestresses, who were forbidden to learn any other. Because it died out with them and their poetry.” Auntie Yurong’s expression, already a perpetual scowl, tightens to knots. “Earth is a funeral house and an abattoir. I do not know just why we’ve made it our rite of passage.”
Ping and Xiaoli look at one another. Everyone always says Auntie Yurong is a little strange. All that time away from Nuguo.
The next temporal overlap will last nine days, but for caution’s sake they will stay for only seven. It seems too few to Xiaoli; surely there is no way to understand a whole country in just a week? But there’ll be other trips. They have much to prepare, Xiaoli needs to select a surrogate for her bees, and finally there’s a whole new territory to cover: the matter of dress.
“Not that,” Yurong snaps. “That skirt is too short. That neckline plunges too deep. This is not the attention you want to attract.”
Ping, more directly: “I want to catch the eye of a central girl.”
“It’s not going to be the only thing you catch, fool child. On Earth you’ll be thought of as displaying yourself for men. There’s nothing you can do about this, so wear the clothes you would wear gardening: sensible things to get filthy in. How you conduct yourself in the central realm when you’re older–that will be your business. For now, mind me.”
Xiaoli’s first glimpse of Hong Kong is the sea. It will imprint onto her thoughts, and for decades after haunt her dreams with the blare of ferry horns and colors she cannot find in Nuguo.
The buildings, too–so tall and many they strain the gaze, so splendid they must house the immortals themselves– she thinks this even though she knows from textbooks and magazines they are only offices and hotels and malls, utterly mundane by Earth standards. Even the footpaths seem extraordinary, and were Yurong not there to restrain her Xiaoli might’ve taken off her shoes so she can feel them under bare toes.
Both she and Ping keep an eye out for men, those alien creatures said to choke and wither under Nuguo’s air.
Some men are tall, others short. There are outward, immediate differences like a propensity for facial hair and their manner of dress. On the whole they don’t interest Xiaoli, and once more she fails to understand why those few girls so much want to meet them. The automobiles and MTR arrest her far more, and she could have been happy stopping at every station to marvel at the bakeries, billboards, the sheer noise–and the maps. That an entire island can be compressed into so simple a layout captivates her.
By the time they reach the flat owned by Nuguo chaperons, Xiaoli is dizzy, and has to sit down to keep from fainting of sheer wonder. Her cousin, who has kept a firmer hold on her senses, asks Yurong, “Do they have so many more things than we do because there are men in this country?”
Auntie Yurong’s amusement is contemptuous. “Not so. It’s only that theirs is a much larger world than Nuguo–one day you may even comprehend the sheer scale–and there’s far more to supply, far more to exploit, far more to break. It looks wondrous, but underneath it is a bed of rotten meat. You’ll find they all have foreign names in Hong Kong, and there’s a reason for that. The bank account we hold is under Emily Tse. But don’t let me upset you. What you need to know is the now. The immediate, so you can survive first and think later.”
Ping and Xiaoli agree on few things, but on this they hold a consensus: that Ding Yurong is a very angry woman, and that Emily is a wonderfully outlandish name.
The flat has a television set and a stack of tapes and CDs. Xiaoli takes the opportunity to rummage through them, exclaiming delight when she feeds a disc to the player and the opening theme of Justice Bao rings out percussively. Every television in Nuguo is small and clunky; this has half the thickness but a screen so large Xiaoli needs to stretch her arms to span it.
The next day Yurong hands each of them a cellphone. Xiaoli nearly dances for glee; to her it is as if New Year has come twice, and her red envelope has been stuffed with diamonds. She takes to it as children take to her honey sorbet, and browses through the stored numbers. A few are for emergency–police, ambulance–but most are the numbers of other Nuguo women who sojourn in the central realm. A few live in Malaixiya and Taiguo, names that have hitherto been just untidy shapes on an age-bitten atlas.
“With luck this won’t be necessary,” Yurong says, “because I’d just as soon leash you both like difficult toddlers, but bad luck happens. Never talk about Nuguo. Say you’re from Gansu on the mainland when you must say anything. Avoid saying where you went to university, what you do for a living. Avoid conversation at all.”
Ping sulks, but neither of them objects aloud. Auntie Yurong does know best. She further instructs them to bolt the door. “There’s food in the fridge–Xiaoli, you know how to use the microwave, so you be in charge of that. If you so much as set foot in the hallway I’ll tell your mothers so they can cane you like the little children that you are.”
This is no trial to Xiaoli, who finds TV news absolutely riveting and each piece of furniture an exhilarating alien artifact. Ping paces the flat in endless circles, until Xiaoli sighs and suggests that she could maybe look through the rest of the building. “As long as you don’t tell Auntie Yurong.”
“I’m not stupid, older-sister.” Ping grins. “I won’t go far. I’ll be back soon.”
And she is back in time that day, and all the days after, until the week ends and it is time to return to Nuguo. She does not appear in the evening or late in the night, nor answer the phone Yurong gave her.
They wait for as long as they can, but Ping never comes. This is Xiaoli’s first grief, and her first glimpse that the country of Earth is not stitched all of delight.
Xiaoli is betrothed at twenty-eight: a comfortable average, neither too old nor too young, with the wedding slated for next year when she would have a nine in her age. It astonishes her that Huang Yingzhi of Lunar Village has been chosen for her; that Yingzhi and her mothers have in turn accepted. Yingzhi looks gorgeous in red, with the widest shoulders and the sweetest laugh, chiming high and young.
“Will you want children?” Xiaoli asks, at their engagement where they exchange matched slippers they hand-sewed, cinnabar boxes they carved, and jade phoenixes inherited from elders.
“I want so many,” her bride says and looks out at the River of Mothers, on which their barge drifts.
“Oh.” She tries to reconcile the concept of keeping both bees and a bevy of daughters happy. It will probably require a complicated division of labor. In the recesses of her memory, the Victoria Harbor blazes. “Have you ever been to the central realm?”
Second-Grandmother Jiaxin never forgave her, even on her deathbed. Xiaoli accepted that dully, emptily, because what else was there to do but to pay her respect every day in the Zhang shrine, and burn her plenty of comforts and money every Qingming? It still does not make up for Ping’s absence. It makes up for very little. There are aunts who now refuse to speak to Xiaoli, not least of them Ping’s mother.
“Several times. I had a fling in Kuala Lumpur–that is, Jilongpo.” Yingzhi believes in frankness between wives. “It was fun, but I could never tell her about Nuguo. You can’t live together like that. Anyway she doesn’t compare to you.”
Xiaoli smiles. “That’s very kind of you.”
“You say that, but you look so sad.” Yingzhi touches Xiaoli’s hair, careful not to upset the ivory comb. “Are you having second thoughts? I know I’ve been forward.”
Xiaoli thinks, briefly, of an outsider who was very forward indeed twelve years ago. “Not at all. If you’d left it up to me we’ll be going so slow we reach nowhere at all.”
They sleep together well before they are properly wed, and Xiaoli discovers her soon-to-be wife is sweetly shy about undressing for the first time. This makes her giggle–Yingzhi blushing as bright as the bridal drapes they’ll soon have–but when she begins kissing Yingzhi’s waist the shyness flutters away like the ribbons in Yingzhi’s hair. It fascinates Xiaoli that the woman who’ll soon be her bride is so taut everywhere, calves and thighs muscle-thick, so much power locked in long sun-coppered limbs.
On their wedding night Yingzhi proves this by carrying her to the canopied platform bed and laying her on linens freshly washed, in a room full of red anthurium. Xiaoli wastes no time in pulling Yingzhi down, and for a while it is possible to forget both Ping’s absence and a strange woman who tried so hard to woo sixteen-year-old Xiaoli.
She watches the bees mate and die, and smokes them out to collect honeycombs. Yingzhi proves unafraid of stings or buzzing wings. When she isn’t helping at the apiary, she goes to work at the power plant.
In the second year Yingzhi takes a sip from the river–a precisely measured sip; they have discussed and decided they are ready for just one girl, not twins or more. The birth is easy, baby as strong as mother, and watching them Xiaoli finds her heart unlocked and upended.
Little Anhua grows up in a house that smells of honey, and sometimes in a wind-power plant built of recycled and appropriated iron. Her first day at boarding school in Cloud Village she is solemn, and fearlessly advances into a playground full of slides and swing-sets suspended from ancient oaks. Newly assembled air-conditioners hum in the background as Teacher Xie comes to receive her newest charge. She carries a bamboo switch, but not even this can faze Anhua, who will let nothing take away from the newness of her indigo-and-white uniform.
It is Xiaoli who can’t bear to part, and who spends a while sobbing into Yingzhi’s back on their cart-ride home, for no good reason at all.
“Teacher Xie is good,” Yingzhi tells her gently. “She taught me from seven to fourteen. I turned out well, didn’t I?”
“I know I’m being a child.”
“You’re being a mother,” Yingzhi says and kisses Xiaoli on the nose.
By forty-two Xiaoli has made the crossing to Earth four times and given birth to twins, Huifang and Huiliang. Memory of Jinhuang has been relegated to a patina of dust, locked away in a cinnabar box: a single photo of them and the water clock, which though outmoded by Ding inventions remains in respect for its age and the service it has rendered Nuguo.
Anhua is beginning to show a glimmer of interest in other girls, a relief to her mothers and elders, for a teenager sighing over glossy pictures of men is a terrible tragedy waiting to happen. Nuguo has many dangers: drowning, electrocution, being eaten by mountain tigers. But they are preventable, whereas running away to Earth is not.
Xiaoli’s fifth crossing takes her to Bangkok, where she amuses herself in street markets and chooses gifts for her daughters and wife. She picks up a secondhand laptop in MBK. In Nuguo there’s now a local network in each village hall, and it is the fashion to participate in message boards and share pictures.
She stops at a Siam Square cinema to catch a wuxia title. In the queue, equipped with her own phone now, she dials the number of a Jiang who runs a girls’ dormitory near Praharuthai Convent. There are always rooms reserved for Nuguo use. Once she thought women who lived on Earth and did this duty were simply unable to find fulfillment at home, but having known the central realm she has come to understand it is courage that drives them, not bitterness.
To abandon all they know; to leave behind their families. The thought alone makes her ill.
Xiaoli jerks and twitches, nearly losing her hold on the bags. The cellphone drops.
Jinhuang picks it up and puts it back in her hand, one single fluid movement. Bend, unbend. “It is you.”
Xiaoli leaves the box office behind in a daze, and remains in a daze when Jinhuang presses iced tea and donuts into her hand. They stand under a tree that offers scarce shade, in heat this side of blistering. The sweetness of the tea jolts Xiaoli into lucidity.
“How long,” she says softly even though she doubts passersby speak Putonghua, “has it been? For you. Here.”
“Not long.” Jinhuang’s gaze darts quick and sharp, and Xiaoli’s skin prickles with the hurt of knowing how old she must look.
“You’ve grown up.”
Xiaoli nearly splutters. “I’m old. I could be your mother. You should be calling me auntie.”
“You couldn’t, and I shouldn’t.” Jinhuang’s fingertips are cool on her cheek.
She finds herself breathing oddly. She finds herself wanting to cant her face into Jinhuang’s palm, and clasp that soft unlined hand with her own. “I’m forty-two.” And though that has never been anything but natural, though thirteen of those years have been with Yingzhi and Anhua and the twins, her voice breaks. Jinhuang looks precisely as young as the day they first met. Twenty-six years ago. Twenty-six.
“That doesn’t matter. Let’s get out of the sun.”
They turn in to a boutique whose proprietor is so used to college students coming in with drinks and crepes that she only sighs at Xiaoli’s tea. They head up the second floor, where yukata and cheongsam mingle on a single rack and window mannequins stand draped in sari and heavy brass.
“I’ve been looking for you,” Jinhuang says between a corkboard lined with earrings and a wall of artist’s graffiti. “Entry to your country can be difficult, and its time just speeds by.”
“Why would you look for me?”
“To say what I did not say. I’m usually much more direct than I was, but love makes us all strangers to ourselves.” Jinhuang straightens. “I wanted to ask you to marry me. I wanted to ask you to let me stay with you and your bees, if you would have such a thing from someone as strange as I.”
Xiaoli’s throat clinches. “I’m married.” Something seems to slip away as she remembers the evenings she replayed Jinhuang’s visit over and over, between sixteen and twenty-eight. Between a girl who knew nothing and a woman who became a wife. “I’ve had three daughters.”
For a long moment Jinhuang looks at her. Then she steps away and puts her hand to her mouth. “Why,” she says between her fingers, “does my kind give our hearts to humans, whom we know will trample them to gristle and pulp? Why did I, when I’ve seen others’ mistakes?”
“You couldn’t expect me to wait.” Xiaoli’s mind snags. “What are you?”
“A demon, what else? I’m five hundred sixty-seven and counting. Forty-two, why would that mean anything?” Jinhuang rubs at her eyes. “I’m sorry. You are right. For a mortal twenty-six years make a life. May I visit you, even so?”
Afterward Xiaoli will never know what drives her to say, “I’d like that.”
Yingzhi piles Xiaoli’s arms high with red anthurium on the day Anhua leaves for her final year at school, her little sisters in tow. She is already a disciplinarian, taking after Teacher Xie, and when she wants the twins’ attention she would clap her hands just as her favorite teacher does.
Xiaoli holds the flowers in her arms, her chin brushing leaves that gleam like lacquered paper. “What are these for? I didn’t forget any dates, did I?”
“You didn’t, but it’s a close one.” Yingzhi flicks her head, coquettish as a girl. “I’ve a holiday, and the children are gone. So much free time.”
It is true. Yingzhi always comes home exhausted. When the bees leave her free, Xiaoli occasionally goes to help at the Ding-Jiang lab. She can’t quite remember the last time they did anything in bed together but small chaste touches, falling asleep holding hands. Xiaoli leans over the anthurium, careful not to bruise them, and kisses Yingzhi’s earlobe. Feeling a little young she murmurs against it, “What do you want to do?”
“Everything. There’s a spot in the woods I want to show you.”
Xiaoli arranges for a niece she’s been training to come bee-sit. They put red-bean buns, blankets and a radio transceiver in a rattan basket. Nuguo changes slowly and gently, but it doesn’t take long for them to leave the rice paddies and water buffaloes behind, to find the wilderness beyond that’s said to once hide shadows gold as candlelight, shadows striped like flogging bruises.
Yingzhi brings a rifle passed down two generations of Huang. It is for show, a charm. Xiaoli has seen her wife at target practice, but never killing anything. Chickens are Xiaoli’s to open throat to belly, Anhua’s to defeather, Huiliang’s and Huifang’s to clean. Only when all the blood is washed away will Yingzhi enter the kitchen to dice garlic.
Leaning into Yingzhi’s shoulder she murmurs nonsense into her wife’s neck, and when they’ve found the place Yingzhi wanted her to see they spread out a blanket. They unbutton each other eager as newlyweds, and Xiaoli forgets what it is to feel forty-four, what it is to wake up to aching joints and a stiff back. She looks up at Yingzhi framed by grass and catkins, the hard strength of her delineated by greened sunlight, and knows herself to be the most fortunate woman born in the worlds that are and the worlds yet not.
Between sweat beading and rasped breathing she thinks she sees, beyond the lines of Yingzhi’s hips, a yellow that is not orchids, a movement that is not aerial roots swaying in the wind. It is fleeting. Yingzhi’s salt and heat become the totality of her awareness.
They drowse in a tangle of twined legs and crumpled clothes, musk and sweat. Xiaoli jolts awake when cold gunmetal touches her flank; she sits up to find Yingzhi gripping the rifle, white-knuckled.
“I saw a tiger,” Yingzhi says, less than a whisper.
“Nobody’s seen one since forever.” But she saw it too.
They dress, gather their things, and head home.
At their door Xiaoli’s niece is wringing her hands, pointing at a visitor saying, “She says she knows you, Auntie.”
Jinhuang sits at the veranda, legs folded and hands prim in her lap. At her side is a bag of mandarins and a pile of electronics: power supplies, phones, an external hard drive and two slim laptops so new they are still wrapped in plastic.
“I thought you might find a use for those,” Jinhuang says, demure. “There’s data in the drive. How to make this and that.”
She looks at the phones and hasn’t the heart to say that Ding ambitions far outpace reality. They are years away from cell towers. But the rest–“This is an incredible gift,” she says before remembering to introduce wife and stranger to one another. Jinhuang gives a formal, courtly bow and appraises Yingzhi in that abrupt, undisguised way.
“Jinhuang visited our village years ago.” Xiaoli meant to say more but does not.
Yingzhi smiles. “And she managed to get away?”
“I’m very fleet, Mistress Huang, and won’t be caught unless I choose to.” Jinhuang begins to peel the mandarins, separating the segments on a plate she must have commandeered from Xiaoli’s niece. “I almost did, too.”
“How did you find your way?” Xiaoli says quickly.
“It’s not impossible for me, only tricky. But this time specifically I came with your cousin, Zhang Ping.”
All the wind leaves Xiaoli. Vertigo seizes her and her knees fold. Yingzhi catches and holds her until she can breathe again, until she can find the strength to ask, “Where is she?”
Ping sits by the water clock. It seems the entire Zhang household has turned out for the occasion, and half the village as well. This does happen: a girl vanished only to return years later. But the other fate is by far more common–young women who are never heard from again, for the central realm devours, gluttonous.
Xiaoli half-expects to see Ping fifteen, untouched by time just like Jinhuang, but she looks thirty and it shames Xiaoli to feel relief at this. In Ping’s lap there is a girl, three or four, and by her side crouches a strange woman with skin the hue of teak. She is dressed crisply, pencil skirt, jacket and black hose. None of it suits the weather or the village, a costume everyone expects to see only on Earth and in magazines brought back from the same–and therefore a subject of instant fascination, for what Nuguo woman ever has the occasion to put on such imported polish?
Her name is Sulekha, a linguist who worked at the University of Hong Kong. When the interrogations come to a lull, for even nosy aunties need to eat, Sulekha sees the wall-scrolls written in Nushu and hugs Ping so hard Xiaoli’s cousin has to yell for oxygen. There is a tense moment when one of the remaining Zhang women says, “So whose child is that?”
“Mine, I’m afraid.” Sulekha makes Putonghua thrum. “I fear I’m not a very good girl.” This is said politely, but it rings challenge.
Frowns pass from one Zhang to the next, but as long it is not their own flesh and blood who comes back with a child begotten the central-realm way…
Little four-year-old Indira considers them all with the grim concentration of the very young until one aunt scoops her up and declares she needs a name appropriate to her new home.
Her mother stands and smiles and smooths down her skirt. “Indira, please, auntie. It has an auspicious meaning, and isn’t hard to say.”
Again, this moves eyebrows. A foreign daughter-in-law, and already so much trouble; several Zhang reconsider the prestige such a bride will bring, Sulekha and Indira both being so dark. Very dark.
“What will you wear for the wedding?” asks Ping’s mother, pointedly, already thinking of powders for Sulekha’s face.
“A sari, Mother. Let me unpack and show you. I hope you’ll approve.”
A reluctant dispersal: Sulekha to the Zhang household, Ping to Xiaoli’s for dinner.
“There was going to be a child on me,” Ping says. “The Earth way. I got rid of it. Don’t tell anyone that, will you?”
“An elephant couldn’t wrench it out of me.” Xiaoli looks at her cousin, and looks again. “Did everyone tell you… everything?”
“I heard about–” Ping swallows and blinks rapidly, making a little gasp to ward off grief. “Second-grandmother. And I think I caused you a lot of trouble.”
Xiaoli does not say that it is nothing, that all is right and forgiven. There are two decades of regret and sleepless nights; the fault falls on them both.
She finds Yingzhi and Jinhuang setting the table side by side, laying out lobsters in black bean sauce, steamed scallops daubed in chilli paste, and braised abalone on a bed of bok choy. The table wafts thick and rich with fragrances rare to Nuguo. It could have been a Hong Kong restaurant, a proper high-rise one with a glittering harbor view.
“I took the liberty,” Jinhuang says, almost shyly. “It struck me you don’t get to eat seafood much over here.”
“She brought an ice bucket.” Yingzhi wipes her hands on a dishrag. “It was all packaged and clean. Very nice. If the Ding would just start looking into a refrigerated communal storehouse. Instead it’s silicon this fiber optic that. As if we needed those.”
Xiaoli pinches her wife’s arm. “You aren’t old enough to be a technophobic grandmother.”
The abalone has been steamed expertly, chewy without being tough, and the scallops are the right softness, not overcooked to flaking. Xiaoli breathes in the spicy-sweetness of the chili paste and knows that this must be Jinhuang’s work. Yingzhi’s would have been heavier on the bean paste, lighter on the garlic.
“For a while I wasn’t sure which was the wife.” Ping puts her chin in her hand, peering at demon and woman washing dishes in the garden under the house’s only tap. “Why didn’t you choose Jinhuang? Your first love.”
Xiaoli thins her mouth. She wonders what they are discussing among the buzzing honeyed air. “What makes you say that? She courted me, not the other way around.”
“It’s a little obvious.” Her cousin laughs. “Why not marry them both? Some do that in the central realm. There are countries where men can have many wives.”
“Earth has had you too long. Not a principled bone left in you.”
“It’s true, Earth is licentious. But it’s big and wild, and–I don’t regret it. I didn’t mean to be gone so long, but I don’t regret it.”
“You broke second-grandmother’s heart.”
“I know that. I… I’ll apologize at her grave.” Ping purses her lips. “You didn’t even look glad to see me. Can’t you be a little happy for me?”
At sixteen, Xiaoli recalls, she did not truly like Ping. With the hindsight of subsequent decades she recognizes that Ping was selfish, difficult, unbearable. “I think Sulekha is lovely and I hope everyone won’t tear her apart. My twins are a little too old to be Indira’s playmates, but maybe they’ll be good friends in a few years. You’ll settle in the village?”
“After the wedding.” Ping gives Xiaoli a considering look, unsatisfied with the lack of congratulations. “Sulekha assured me she can deal with any Zhang, since she’s already tamed the most difficult of us all.”
“Goodness,” Xiaoli murmurs. “Does this mean she’s trained you to be a kind person?
A low chuckle. “Motherhood and marriage finally hardened your head and straightened up your backbone. Well done, cousin.”
That evening she goes out to see her bees. Jinhuang is waiting for her, crouching between hives. Just as unmasked and unprotected as before, and equally unafraid.
“Do you go out of your way to keep in company so I won’t catch you alone?”
“It’s been a busy day.” Xiaoli is glad of the veil that makes a black grid of her face. She bends to check one of the hive-boxes. This season she’ll have to give them more sugared water. “A portentous one, as well. We saw a tiger in the woods, and Ping was born in a tiger year, so after a fashion it makes sense.”
“There are tigers here?” The blade of grass Jinhuang has been playing with snaps.
“Rarely seen.” A demon, Xiaoli remembers. “Is that what you… are? A tiger?”
“A litter-runt, though I outgrew that. You must’ve heard the saying that a single cave is too small for two tigers. In truth, not even a whole forest is large enough.” Jinhuang shakes herself. “Are you happy?”
“I’ve got three excellent daughters. I love Yingzhi more than I can say.”
“I could’ve donned age for you and it’d have been silk to me, been pearls. For you I’d lie down and never hunt again. If you’d asked I would have borne you girl cubs, and they would have been beautiful.”
“Some things aren’t meant to work out.” Xiaoli knows it would have–they would have wrangled it into working out–if Jinhuang had found her sooner; if she had said no to a broad-shouldered Lunar woman who did not, back then, drive her pulse to racing. But years have passed and she can no longer imagine Yingzhi’s touch or glance failing to warm her, Yingzhi’s smile failing to delight.
“Can I have just one small thing?”
Jinhuang takes her hands, pressing her lips into Xiaoli’s life-lines. She does this for each palm; her tears are hot, near-scalding, and when she looks up her eyes have become green-gold.
When Xiaoli blinks again the tiger is gone.
Zhongquijie auspices. A marriage begins.
Xiaoli can hardly recognize her own daughter stepping out of the palanquin, painted face behind red tassels. All Zhang jewelry is Anhua’s to wear this morning: the peacock buyao and diamond earrings, the jades clinking against the mirror around her neck. She treads carefully in her slippers, shining fabrics in crimson and gold to match the bridal incandescence of her gown.
An applause of firecrackers and laughter from younger sisters, younger cousins. It will be a wedding of rooster to ox: by luck their birth-signs are complementary, a relief to all involved. Sitting in heavy robes Yingzhi and Xiaoli watch Zhang women giggle, their hands outstretched for bride-gifts from Fan Shuling’s family.
“Cloud Village seems so far away,” Xiaoli says, her words made private by the din of cymbals.
Yingzhi pulls Xiaoli’s hand into her lap. “Just two hours’ ride.”
“I know. But I’ve gotten used to seeing her all the time. I thought she’d take over the apiary.”
“Huiliang’s better at that, and you know it.”
“I wish I could keep them all with me.” The Zhang host parts for the Fan entourage. Bride and bride kneel before Xiaoli and her wife, one in greeting, one in farewell. They speak all the formal words, the formal blessings, and Xiaoli bites the inside of her cheek so she won’t embarrass everyone by weeping.
They light incenses that waft honey from Xiaoli’s bees, and bow before the gods of heaven, the spirits of the village, the departed grandmothers of Zhang. They have a banquet of nine exquisite courses, and then it is time to see them off to Cloud Village, where Shuling’s mothers will receive a new daughter.
Xiaoli knows that Anhua has scarcely let go of Shuling’s hand, but to a mother this almost seems a theft. Ritual songs have already been sung to lament the parting of daughter from parents, but it doesn’t feel enough. For a time she remains in the Zhang hall, where clumps of ash and scraps of food litter the tiles, and wishes Mother Jielin was here to see all this, to be proud. She hasn’t sent word whether she’ll attend her granddaughter’s wedding at the Fan house. They haven’t spoken for a long time. Most insist the falling-out was due to a ceremony conducted on a bad date or because they didn’t pay sufficient respect to the gods, but Xiaoli knows very well it was her birth-mother’s temper that drove her Lai mother back to Cloud Village. It was also the whole Zhang family, who always scrutinized and criticized too far because the Lai won the coveted right to run the school.
The twins come to fetch her when her absence is noticed.
Huifang hugs her. “Mother Yingzhi said to tell you we aren’t marrying any time soon.”
“And,” Huiliang says, “I will never marry at all.”
Xiaoli smooths down Huifang’s braids. One’s come loose; out of habit she starts replaiting it. “Well and good that you’re both devoted to your mother, but don’t decide your lives like that just because I’m a foolish old woman. Though it’d be wonderful if you can bring your future brides here.”
“But Mother, I really don’t want to marry.” Huiliang glances at her twin, furtive, then gathers herself in one long deep inhalation. “I mean, I’m nineteen going on twenty. If I’ve never been interested in another girl I don’t think I ever will be. I’ve heard everyone talk about… about such things since I was eleven. I just really don’t want much to do with it. Or with boys for that matter. So I won’t give you grandchildren but I think with Older-Sister Anhua and Huifang taking care of those there should be enough, unless I could drink from the river without being married? Maybe?”
Huiliang has stopped, panting, and swallows as she looks down and up and away, anywhere but at her mother’s face.
There’s no help for it. Xiaoli starts to laugh. “I thought you were going to say something shocking like ‘Mother, please let me go to Earth so I can fall in love with a young man and there bring up his sons.’”
“Well.” Huiliang bites her lip. “I thought you’d be a bit disappointed.”
“As you said, Anhua and Huifang will have grandchildren. You Yingzhi and I will get to keep. When you are old you’ll have to live in the Zhang compound though, so you’ll have nieces to attend you.”
“Oh, Mother. Old is far away.”
“Old,” Xiaoli says gently and takes Huiliang into her arms too, “is always closer than you think.”
Less than a decade later she will wonder just why she ever said such a thing.
Xiaoli is sixty-four and there is death in the count of her years, death in the spots that blotch her hands and arms. There is death where Huifang should be.
Twenty-eight, the age of Xiaoli’s betrothal. Twenty-eight, the age Huifang was going to be. She has never considered the prospect of outliving her daughters. They are so young. There’s so much they haven’t done, there’s so much Huifang did not get to try and taste.
She cannot comprehend it. A tiger. There are so few of those beasts, they are seldom so desperate as to attack humans. The body has been brought back and she looks at it–looks at Huifang in a sleeping bag–and she cannot understand. The claw-marks that have cut to bones gleaming perfectly white as new ivory. The puncture wounds made by incisors larger than her fingers, by maw lined with knives.
Then Yingzhi is screaming at everyone for letting Xiaoli see this and pulling her into the house, into the garden where the honey drowns out the gore. She is sat onto the stone bench, under the swing they’ve put up because long ago the twins made such noises over the lack, for at school they had their choice of swings.
When Yingzhi begins to cry–in harsh shaking sobs, then long shattered howls–Xiaoli is startled, because she is usually the first to splinter, Yingzhi the first to comfort. Those are the grooves they have worn into the stone of their marriage. She touches her wife and presses herself against Yingzhi’s back, against the rocking of grief, but that only makes it worse.
It is wrong. All of this. But she does not know how to make it right.
They gather for the funeral, the Zhang and Huang households. Mother Jielin, at last, comes: the first time they’ve met in fifty years. She is dry-eyed, white-haired, and snaps at the Lai women attending her when they try to push her wheelchair.
Xiaoli regards her own mother, her living mother, and does not know how to react to that either. In the face of this sorrow joy is inappropriate, so it is duty rather than love that puts her at Lai Jielin’s feet, her knees creaking their age as she does. Mother Jielin puts her hand on Xiaoli’s forehead and says, very quietly, “I’m going to stay with you for a week.”
One does not deny one’s mother. It may even be meant as comfort, but Xiaoli can only answer with flat detachment. That too is how she holds Yingzhi while the priests–who have come down the mountain for this occasion–chant. Prayers for sending, prayers for a brief and painless afterlife, though all know of course that will not be: Huifang is guilty of dying before her parents, and that is not done. In hell there’s a court just for such ungrateful offspring.
It is for this reason that Xiaoli and Yingzhi must stay away while the priests, white-robed and shaven, perform the rites they brought with them down from the mountain, with voices long kept in silent seclusion. Being elder, neither mother may shed public tears.
Propriety permits them to see Huifang one last time. She has been cleaned and her face shrouded in yellow muslin, the wounds concealed by the finest silks she ever owned, though that is not much; her last good dress was donned at age twelve, and after that Huifang acquired a taste for canvas and baggy shirts. The gown on her now is new, bought for other people’s weddings and festivals. She never had the chance to wear it.
Younger cousins burn gold paper for her–a pipa, electronics, jewelry, and a house of many floors. That too is an activity Xiaoli and Yingzhi may not join, and out of them four Huiliang alone is free to openly weep before the coffin. Anhua is the elder, and stays at their mothers’ side trying to cry as silently as possible. It is such a terror, and so graceless, to die young.
Halfway through the mourning period Xiaoli puts aside the chives pancakes Yingzhi is not eating and tells her, “I am going to show you the sea.”
Her wife smiles, wan and thin. “I’ve seen the sea before, my love. We’re a little old to make the crossing.”
They wait for the clocks to align–these days every house owns a pair–and choose a safe period, one week. Not too long, not too short. They agree that this trip will be their last. From now on they want to be in Nuguo for every moment of their daughters’ lives.
On a walk along the sunlit coast of Victoria Harbor, Xiaoli says that she is sorry they did not have as many children as Yingzhi planned. To that Yingzhi only shakes her head. “Having raised three I wouldn’t have wished five or eight on any one. They are girls, not bees.”
“But it could’ve have helped.”
“I don’t know.” Yingzhi gazes out at the sea a little longer, absorbing its sounds and inhaling its smells. When her breast is full of them she starts eating again, and exclaims the excellence of scallops they have at a street eatery.
Xiaoli doesn’t cry for Huifang until a year and three months later, when they go to her grave and watch Huiliang sweep until it is clear of dead leaves and twigs, and pull the weeds until not a single growing thing is left by the plague that bears the name Zhang Huifang.
During the third anniversary of Huifang’s passing a tiger appears by the water clock, which no one looks at anymore. This one is striking in its stillness. This one is dead, with wounds in stomach and chest precisely inflicted, like the copying of a poem by hand.
The corpse brings Huiliang feral satisfaction, but Xiaoli knows who has done this and cannot say this is what she wanted, then reprimands herself for being ungrateful. Tigers kill tigers; is that not natural? Such things happen.
Xiaoli waits, but Jinhuang never appears to claim either credit or accountability. She makes sorbet desultorily, and feels as if a guest she has invited has the indecency of never turning up.
Five years after Zhang Xiaoli has buried Huang Yingzhi, she comes to live in the compound of her family. It is not that her daughters do not take care of her; more loving and dutiful children the Solar Village has not been able to produce. But Anhua, the eldest, has her own children and soon a grandchild.
Zhang Huiliang, it is said, has become far too taken with the woods and the mountains to fit polite company. Little wonder she has never married, for she would sooner stalk shadows gold as candlelight, chase shadows striped as flogging bruises. Even so some younger women have been known to gaze after her with longing sighs. Huilliang is just over forty, but what of that? Her wife can be the one to drink from the River of Mothers. Girls dare each other to seduce and recivilize her.
Zhang Xiaoli is seventy-nine. It is the year when Ding labors and ambitions have at last culminated in timepieces which tell, exact to the minute, how long each overlap between the central realm and Nuguo will last. Portable versions are made.
Overnight the Ding inventor who finalized this becomes a local goddess, venerated almost as much as the mountain priests. No longer will women leave in the blush of youth and return to find their sisters creased and white of hair, their mothers in ash jars and shrine portraits.
Against probability and a leg broken a year back Xiaoli can still walk on her own strength, a feat in which she takes no small pride. She often seeks a garden pavilion, where she shares solitude with seven bamboo-caged birds: white mynahs fed by delicate Zhang daughters who rim their eyes with blue paint in the manner of their charges.
On an afternoon a woman comes to see Zhang Xiaoli. Immediately speculations ignite: is she an illegitimate granddaughter? The right age for that. If Xiaoli wasn’t publicly wild in her youth, why, she spent time on Earth and all know anything can happen there. Nevertheless this young woman is admitted and led to the pavilion by a dutiful grandniece.
At the sight of the stranger Xiaoli murmurs, “You are late.”
The grandniece is dismissed. She goes: there are many girls in the house who would have eavesdropped, but this grandniece is blessed with an abiding incuriosity. She’s a favorite of aunties with clandestine inclinations and much maligned by clan gossipmongers.
Stranger and old woman look at one another for a time. “Which name did you give my grandniece?” Xiaoli says during a pause between myna songs.
“Hu Jinhuang. She seemed insistent on a surname.”
Xiaoli laughs. “It took only sixty years to wring one out of you.”
The tiger looks away. She has aged herself so she no longer looks sixteen. Thirty, perhaps. “Hu is only what I am, a categorization, a breed. It gives me no family. I would be proud to be a Zhang.”
“Did you wait for me to become a widow?”
“I’m not so vile. I’ve been traversing many worlds looking for an elixir of youth. An unguent that will restore vitality and reverse years. Some concoction that will grant you immortality. I have obtained this.” She has put in Xiaoli’s hand a twist of rice paper, which reveals a slice of peach browned and shriveled, as age-wracked as Xiaoli’s own skin. It retains little juice, and doubtless little sweetness. The tiger says, “This isn’t much. It will turn the clock of your heart and ligaments back by twenty or thirty years, nothing more. Please take it. Your mind will be clear, your eyes will be bright.”
Xiaoli looks up and smiles, showing gaps between yellowed enamel. “Is it so you will think me beautiful again?”
“You are beautiful to me, always. The flesh is only paper through which the lamplight of your spirit blazes.”
The old woman holds the fruit in her hand, nestled between age-spots and the life-line Jinhuang wept into long ago.
“Take the peach.” Jinhuang touches her arm, but gently, as if afraid a grip too fervent will tear and bruise. “I will find you a gift more whole, more purified, and we’ll travel all the realms together unfettered by any bonds or obligation.”
“Why are you doing this?”
“Because sixty years ago I should have said: Zhang Xiaoli, I would like to be your wife, if you will have me, for I find your honesty startling, your simple wants like new gold. Forty years ago I should have said: Zhang Xiaoli, consider me for a second wife, for I find your steadfastness heartwrenching, your simple delights like fresh ivory.” Jinhuang takes a deep breath. “I would say now: Zhang Xiaoli, consider me for a wife, for my heart has not changed, and I hold out the hope that neither has yours.”
The peach has not lost all the sugar of its flesh. The mortal woman inhales its fragrance. “Sixty years are nothing to you, Jinhuang, but they are everything to me. I waited for you when you killed the tiger which took my daughter. I didn’t understand why you did not come.”
The mynahs resume music. They’ve been taught certain words, scraps of poetry to lull and soothe, on the matter of calm lakes and the sudden death of turtles.
“I didn’t,” says the woman who is a tiger, “want you to see me draped in blood, smelling of it. That isn’t human. That isn’t for you.”
“Wives share much, Jinhuang. All the successes, all the failures. The suffering. Suffering, sometimes I think, is all we are. I’m sorry, but I cannot take this.”
“Have I never meant anything to you?”
“You have. You have, so much. But I’ve lived a life and I’d like to think I lived it well. To ask for more is sheer avarice, and in hell I’ll find Yingzhi and Huifang. I will tell my daughter that she’s forgiven for her death and plead with the magistrates to punish her no more.” The old woman’s head droops to rest upon the stone table. “There’s always the next life, though I don’t expect you to wait.”
It takes a long time before Jinhuang empties her tears. She does so in perfect silence, for Xiaoli has fallen asleep, as very old women do.
On the day of Zhang Xiaoli’s funeral a woman ascends the mountain that has no name and has never required one, for there is but one of it: it exists, stern, tipped always in snow and paved over with orchids that bloom in winter. Beyond the flowers stands the Monastery of White Grass.
As Zhang Xiaoli’s daughters, granddaughters and nieces wail by her coffin, the woman sits in a certain chamber in the monastery. Her hair falls away in lustrous handfuls, shorn then shaved until her skull gleams like moonstone.
As Zhang Xiaoli’s body is lowered into the earth, the woman dons white for the first time. Her boldness falls away in shining tufts and stripes, plucked and pulled until only quiet poise remains.
It is said that this woman remains in the monastery throughout the ages of Nuguo, unchanging and unaging. It is said that ever after no tiger is seen again in woods or mountain.
For no country is large enough for two tigers.
Copyright 2014 Benjanun Sriduangkaew
Benjanun Sriduangkaew writes love letters to cities and space opera when she can get away with it. A finalist for the Campbell Award for Best New Writer, her fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Phantasm Japan, Dangerous Games, Solaris Rising 3, various Mammoth Books and best of the year collections. Her contemporary fantasy novella Scale-Bright is forthcoming from Immersion Press.