Thu 1 Nov 2012
by Benjanun Sriduangkaew
It is the aftermath of the world’s end, and nine birds–nine suns–lie dead while Houyi cradles the curve of her bow, her fingers locking around the taut hardness of its string. The tenth sun, the last, has fled. Chastise them, Dijun said, a father’s plea. But there is the land and the horror and the dryness, desiccated corpses in empty dust trenches that were rivers not long ago. There are dead dragons, too, and snake women with bright eyes–and is it not right to bring down the suns, is it not what Houyi is meant to do? She is a god who protects; she is a god given a duty.
The birds are dead. They no longer burn, but the places where they have fallen will long after be black scorch marks, indelible. There will be consequences. It does not matter that her first shot meant to warn: wing clipped, the eldest sun plunged and shattered on the earth. Seeing their brother fall they attacked, and she had to defend herself.
Behind her Chang’e is inhaling and exhaling shallow scraps of air. They will not let this pass. What will you do now? Where will we go?
And the archer whispers, I saved them all.
She knows, as she has known since she notched that first of nine arrows–even in the firestorm of their rage she was a peerless shot, one arrow per bird all she needed–that for her there will be no thanks. They have transgressed enough, wife and wife, and this shall be the final insult tolerated.
So Houyi only takes Chang’e’s hand and says, I am sorry.
Night comes, and with it the first drops of rain. Somewhere a dragon king or queen serpent stirs and tastes the air with a forked tongue. The Sea Mother sifts sand out of her eyes, which have been so parched, so dry. Out of their bellies and mouths rivers will surge forth, tides will rise bright-green with brine, and the world can go on as it did before the convening of ten triple-legged suns. This is their duty, as the murder of sun-crows has been hers.
Houyi sometimes thought she might have been mortal. But all she remembered was the bow and slivers of wind which she soon learned to pin to wood with arrowheads. Neither mother nor father commanded her early recall.
Easily enough she was accepted under the jade roof, for new yearly new deities swelled the court. When the time came to instate her, some consternation arose. What she was, ought to be, seemed evident from the divine weapon and quiver on her back. Whether she should be titled accordingly was a matter of debate. Archer-God denoted a militarial register: should she be appointed general, marshal, or captain in the bargain as other deities of similar associations were? Wasn’t there a young man from the realm below, skilled with the same weapon? Houyi could perform as his follower, his hunter, and she could keep the bow.
In the end Meng, who attended court rarely and spoke up less, pointed out the obvious solution. Let the god-to-be compete with the boy and decide thereby which deserved the title. The boy was summoned, Houyi matter-of-fact defeated him, and that settled the matter. Out of respect for Meng–who had abandoned gleaming nacre and ever-blooming gardens, and agreed to a duty of doling out oblivion in hell–the emperor did not gainsay the result, and out of fear too that the Old Woman of Forgetting might leave her hell-post in pique. Few were suited to it, fewer still willing. Brewing amnesia had become a woman’s work: no male of his court would stoop to it, and no goddess would leave the hard-won comforts of paradise.
Houyi became the divinity within the sacred instant between tautness and letting fly. But she remained merely Houyi the Archer. The army’s marksman division continued headless, making do with reporting to the artillery chief, whose main passion was vested in ballistae and who had little appreciation for the finesse of arrows.
All agreed, however, that the engineer’s eccentricities and injustices were preferable to Houyi. She endured this as she would endure other slights in the knowledge that she stood one excuse away from demotion. The archer might be new to celestial ways, but she’d seen how other women acted–the wives, the mothers, the sisters–and how they were acted toward: no fault of theirs, but it was a strict and narrow path they walked. Houyi was nothing if not a quick study.
“And where might I live, Your Majesty?” she asked of the emperor, kneeling in her men’s clothes.
An absence of answer from the man on the throne. He didn’t appear young, the emperor, though he took care to look in his prime: oiled hair, oiled mustache, earlobes lengthened to denote wisdom. A crown that dripped sapphires orange, blue, green.. “It’ll have to wait,” he said imprecisely, “for the masons need to rebuild the palace wings Dijun’s crow-sons burned down. They were most enthusiastic their last visit to our court, but who may deny a father his sons?”
She descended to the earth, passing through storms and sky-lakes, and sought out lairs of great beasts. One tiger, of some nine centuries in age and known for his cunning, fell to her after seven nights and seven days of tracking and trapping. An angry typhoon, manifesting in a litter of foxes joined to one mind, surrendered its flesh to her after she’d pierced the hearts of its bodies one by one. Her fame grew, almost incidentally, in the demons’ realms.
It couldn’t be helped that she was seen by mortals and that they began to chronicle her, imagining for her an origin rooted in one of their own. In one province they said she was a warrior hermit; in another they insisted she was the son of a goatherd, and in the capital they linked her to the royal lineage, calling her a prince.
Houyi considered correcting them, but she was busy drawing up the plans of her house. In any case the hearts of mortals were obedient. When she appeared to scholars in person, she was certain, they would immediately rewrite their manuscripts to match the facts of her existence. Academics must be empirical, or else what were they for?
She made the pillars of her home out of tiger femurs. The roof was the ribs of foxes, delicately strong, and the lattices of her windows were the finest in heaven, put together from the bones of immense sharks that feasted on the flesh of fishermen. Hardened feathers and scales of demonic owls and lizards became the tiles on her roof. Her methods of construction were barbaric, but when the house was completed few were able to say it was not exquisite. Her deeds, too, secured her position. Was it intended? None could tell, for she was indifferent to all–the praises more grudging than respect, her own skill, her effortless slaying of wicked spirits–and kept her thoughts hid and close.
The emperor was said to pay her a personal visit, telling her, “This is most excellent work.”
“I’m honored, Majesty.”
“You could consider the office of our chief architect. Building and making are the noblest of arts, the most dependable of sciences. We need nobility and dependability, Houyi. For look: many of the court are happy to range abroad and subjugate heaven’s enemies, yet when we call for solidity and wisdom, who provide but a rare handful?”
“Demons,” Houyi was reported to have said, “require killing, Majesty. It’s a fact that they are fecund and breed without need or care for the natural process of things. Quell one and five more rise to replace it, springing full-grown out of filth and mud.”
“That is a truth.”
“I am grateful, Majesty, that you thought me fit for a post so exalted. But while the matter of masonry and the laying of pillars may wait, the multiplying of devils can only be regulated through hard labor and vigilance. I give myself to this work so that another may enjoy the privilege and comforts of being your chief architect.”
And perhaps the emperor smiled behind his sleeve, half in chagrin. It might be that he took her answer for insolence and that it would explain what transpired in the following years. For the time being, he merely left her be in her house of bone and fur and scales. She cupped her hand over her fist and bowed to him as he departed.
The suitors started then. Houyi couldn’t pinpoint why men suddenly took up the fashion of wooing her, nor where the idea had started and caught hold of them like fire on dry grass.
First Xuanwu, a monarch in his own right, riding to her home astride the snake that had been his guts, the turtle that had been his stomach. He’d made himself young for her, donning a skin luminous as pearls and robes redder than wounds. Houyi did not receive him beneath her window: instead she took him to a howling gulf between two cloud-cliffs, where she honed herself by shooting sunlight, separating each beam into seven colors. Between the seventeenth and nineteenth rainbows she asked, “Why is it that you want a wife?”
On the turtle’s back he sat, placid; no marksman himself, he was content to watch and admire. “In my mortal years I never wedded.”
“That seems a fair enough rationale,” she allowed. “But I don’t think I will suit your court.”
“It is small, true, and solemn. Still I am a martial being and we ought to complement. I shall have your bow done over in hematite, and your arrows tipped in black diamonds. In your lap furs and feathers and scales shall be piled high, dyed black and obsidian-beaded. You shall be queen over the north, feared for your wisdom and prowess. As my wife you may hunt as many evil spirits as you like and, in the sunless hours, pour their blood into the rivers of my domain.”
“That’s most generous, Xuanwu, for a husband.” She didn’t mention that hematite was not much good to grip and that diamond arrowheads would defeat the point of her practice. “Yet I’m few in years and have not had examples: I do not know how to be a wife, much less a queen. I’ve a love for bright colors besides, which is why I’ve made my house as I did. Will you allow me to remake your palace? I’ll be most careful, papering the walls with the eyes of wolves and the bellies of peacocks, making lamps out of deep-sea beryls, draperies out of sunset skies. That is my requirement, Xuanwu, for what wife may tolerate a house not done in substances and style to her desires?”
He admitted that, certainly, a wife had every right on that matter; he also admitted he wasn’t willing to compromise, for he found the brightness she enjoyed distracting. They parted on good terms, over what was–or what he was led to think was–a philosophical difference.
Marshal Tianpeng, after that. He visited her drunk, as was his wont, gourd clasped under one arm. His fondness for women was legendary: if this one dressed more like one of his soldiers than the girls he chased, he readily discounted that. “For,” he roared, “what’s existence that does not vary? Boring, that’s what. Come with me, Houyi, and I’ll dig you a lake filled with the best wine. I’m a builder too, and have a deft hand with carpentry. I will take apart my abode and you may do it over, in any color and material you like. How is that?”
“Most magnanimous,” she was reported to have said.
“All I ask, lovely Houyi, is that once in a while you wear soft silks and hairpins. Oh, not much, not often–but perhaps one day out of a year, or even five? The rest of the months and hours are yours. You can practice with my men, if you like, to show them just why it is you are named heaven’s best archer and feared by all the wicked.”
The archer sipped the wine he’d poured her. “That sounds very well, Marshal. Then on those days you will also wear soft silks, hairpins, maybe even bangles on your wrists?”
Tianpeng paused his drinking. “What?”
“It is both your custom and mine to dress martially, and you wish me to spend a few days every year changed. Therefore it seems logical that on those same days you will alter yours so that we can be well-matched. It’s not orderly otherwise, and as wife and husband we’ll be subjected to ridicule. Or so I gather, being yet new to existence and not tutored in the ways of our kind.”
He stared into his gourd for a long time. Upending it he found the last drop gone. “I’m not sure it works like that, Houyi.”
“Why not, Marshal?”
In the end Tianpeng left to seek more liquor, more befuddled than angry, having spent an hour trying to expound on the logic of garments and the attributes of matrimony. His own rhetoric turned around to gulp him whole, for he’d never been scholarly. He wrote the archer off as a lost cause. Other girls were abundant, more voluptuous and pliable than she. Also, most women comprehended clothes.
Others followed, half-hearted attempts to make a bride out of Houyi. Not from any real yearning, she realized, but because she must be placed somehow, being fatherless, brotherless, unmarried, and not motherly in any way. But the tide ebbed. No mortal origin in her, so perhaps she was not dissimilar to Guanyin: meant to be celibate. The white goddess had even been known to take on a masculine aspect.
The suns’ father alone did not relent. Dijun watched her and sometimes they encountered one another at court, exchanging passing words and obligatory greetings. He had his avian sons, who lit the world with their heat, track her when she left the safety of celestial confines–to kill, to find new and sharp things with which to make arrows, to collect sounds and smells in her bowstring. Houyi did not require help and, with the wariness of a born hunter, knew when the presiding sun monitored her from his mother’s chariot. Infidelity in the hatching, and abetted unwittingly by Dijun’s own wife. She contemplated telling Xihe of this, but found no opportunity. The suns’ mother was remote, rejoicing only in her distance and abhorring any society not her sons’. And though Houyi was fearless, she could not fly so high, nor endure the birds’ fire.
She prepared herself, close-lipped, for one last courtship.
He came to her armed in the glory of himself, whose seed had made possible the winged conflagrations that were his sons, whose incandescence had captured aloof Xihe for ten fleeting moments. Even the emperor was not so resplendent: Dijun was gold of skin and mouth, and flame threaded through his hair and the fabric of his robe. When he found her, he knelt as though she was empress, as though she were not merely an archer.
Houyi tried not to cringe from the heat. She grimaced, in that subtle way she’d mastered, with only the crinkling of her eyes and the slightest shift in the angle of her brows. To most it did not show; to Dijun, clothed in brilliance, it was invisible.
“I have long admired your grace,” he began.
“You do not have to kneel,” she interrupted.
“I wish to submit and supplicate–to tell you that of you I will ask nothing, no silk or hairpin, no surrendering of your bow, no parting with your house. I will come to yours, if you will have me, and sleep where you point. I do not offer you jewels, for I know you crave none. I give myself and beg you to accept.”
The archer glanced skyward. “You have a wife.”
“Xihe and I had children to give humans life. We had children because we were alone. We had children because fires burned within us that had to be birthed, given shape. There’s ever been only duty, Houyi, and when my wife speaks it is only to our sons. They are her world; I am nothing.”
“I cannot mother the crows, Dijun, nor chariot them to their ascent. I’m not made of such material that can withstand the edged branches of Fusang. I cannot give them my breast to rest their heads when they tire.”
“You do not have to. Xihe loves her sons, and they will remain hers. I will forfeit her and forfeit my office. It will be my contentment simply to be yours, my peace to know your embrace.” Dijun opened his hands, and flame like molten gold fell, scorching the bones with which Houyi had paved her garden paths. “Please.”
She knew there would be consequences. She knew Dijun could not be crossed. She knew he could not be deterred, or brushed off, or misled. In the face of all this, she pulled him to his feet–she was strong–and said, “No.”
He looked at her, eye to eye. They were of a height, mandated to be tall. “Why?”
“Because,” she said very softly, “I do not wish to be your wife. This is not due to any shortcoming of yours, nor mine. I simply do not wish this, and ask that you seek elsewhere for a bride.”
In silence, Dijun gazed at her. In silence, Dijun took leave.
On the day Houyi returns to face judgment the court is gravid with the weight of immortals from every rank, celestial and ascendant, sage and disciple, even half-mortal apprentices. Divine beasts wind themselves around palace pillars, lending the gleam of their scales and seven-hued wings to the polish of everlasting wood. They shy away from Houyi, remembering well how she loves to adorn her quiver and house.
Today she does not see them. Grime and red sand cling to archer and mortal woman; they leave dirty footprints wet with the blood of birds, fringed with feathers and ashes. Though Houyi moves with the same grace she always has, and Chang’e with the same light steps, nothing in them is seemly. The archer tastes dust in her mouth, and death of shriveling and peeling, of flesh thinned to paper. Here the air is cool and sweet, the lakes fresh and full. Ten suns rose; nine fell before their scorching blast could reach these lands.
They kneel, wife and wife, before their monarch.
Who speaks. It was ill-done, Houyi.
He gives sentence. Her bow will be taken from her: quiver, arrows, string. She will be Houyi the Archer no longer but must take on another name, after which a goddess will take charge of her, to instruct her in the worth of wisdom and forbearance. On these qualities she must contemplate. In a few centuries, should she be deemed adequate, she may be restored to her former station.
Chang’e is widening her eyes, angry. Even so she recognizes that this may be borne. It could have been terrible and final, and it is not. She touches her wife, takes comfort, but Houyi remains wary. The archer knows predators and prey both.
Then: No, Majesty. No.
Distant Xihe, whose bare arms are muscled like an archer’s from eons of charioteering and the weight of her children; aloof Xihe, who rides in the silence of the sky, above and beyond the emperor’s regard. Where she walks the tiles blister. When she speaks the air sizzles. She does not kneel, and this breach of decorum draws forth a shuddering collective gasp. My sons, save one, are lost. I shall not suffer their murderer among our ranks, and if you decree that must be so, then I am quit of heavens. Better to seek refuge in the demons’ nation, for there at least justice of a sort may be seized.
The emperor shakes his head, admonishment. Justice is not a series of strikes dealt back and forth. It is not a duel, a skirmish, a war. Justice is weighed on a scale, right against wrong, wrong against wrong. Your sons were not blameless and there must be an accounting. What’s done is blood-hot, but righteous. Years of labor are ahead for all of us to repair and restore. The dragons shall weep until they bleed from their eyes to water the land. Who knows when the sea may brim again, may throng again with their thousand thousand lives?
She holds her head high, the mother of suns. I birthed them because I had to, and loved them in spite of that. They were children. They were only children.
Houyi is not a mother, does not intend ever to be. But she remembers that the crows soared and danced in the skies, and ignored her as children ignore interruptions to their play. She remembers their beauty and how their joy gripped her even as she brought down the eldest. They broke on a ground too cracked to cushion them, in lakes too empty to buoy their fall. They tried to burn her, but she fired the first shot; what else could they have done?
There is something in Xihe’s magnificence that hurts her.
And Houyi rises, while Chang’e grips her wrist whispering, No, no, please no, Houyi. It’s enough.
Majesty, she begins and Chang’e is trying not to cry, I did commit a wrong. Their deaths were at my hand. This too is a crime that must, on its own, be weighed.
My sentence has been given says the man on the throne. My word is final.
Xihe deserves better.
The emperor leans back into his vast, living throne, and when he exhales it is a long tumultuous sigh: like storms dying down. He looks from one goddess to one who will soon no longer be. Very well.
In the crowd, his flame swallowed, Dijun watches.
The feast nominally honored victory, but the palace thrived on a collective impulse for feasts, and any excuse would have done. Houyi ate with enthusiasm but drank sparingly, and chuckled at Marshal Tianpeng’s loudness. When the dancers–girls not yet ascendants but disciples of goddesses–appeared to undulate and sing, the marshal’s laughter crested to a rumbling that shook his table and his companions’ seats.
She allowed herself a smile that did not show on her lips, and gave Xuanwu a polite nod as he passed by. The lion she had fought was many-headed and ferocious, and she’d put its whiskers into the wood of her bow for hardiness, its deep-throated growl for flexibility. More than the hunt, and very much more than the revelry, this had been her true delight.
The court had grown accustomed to her, too, and she was surprised that she enjoyed the company of goddesses. They shared stories; Houyi had few of her own, and was therefore interested best when Xiangu told her of her mortal years. “Not,” the ascendant hastened to add, “that I had many of those.”
“It is no shame,” Houyi offered, “to have many or few. It is all experience and memory, wealth of the rarest and highest sort.”
Xiangu flushed, laughing. “You have such ideas. Do you not believe then in enlightenment, the discarding of the self?”
“I have no opinion. Sometimes I think it would be good if I could be mortal for a few years, so I can see for myself what it is like and thereby decide whether purity suits me.”
The goddess fell quiet. “You wouldn’t.”
“Unless you can manifest as a man, you would hate such a life viciously.” She laughed again, sour this time. “Being a woman in the realm of men is… not easy. Certainly it’s not simple here, either, save perhaps for you and the great Guanyin. Yet even for me, for those dancers and serving girls, this is far better. This is the riches we dreamed of, this is the wealth and goodness.”
Houyi frowned. She was not oblivious, and had an inkling of what Xiangu meant. In the abstract: she couldn’t imagine the reality of it, the days and nights of living on earth. “Do you think I should consider taking a pupil? A mortal girl?”
“Yes! Oh, yes.” Xiangu presses her fingers to her lips. “Do you notice, so many more boys than girls are raised to immortality? I was never really taken in as anyone’s disciple. I had guidance, yes, but it’s not the same as tutelage, which makes all the difference. You would have much to teach.”
“I don’t believe I do, in truth, but it is a thought.”
A dash of ceramic on floor tiles. Houyi looked, found a servant standing over a ruin of shards and spilled soup. Her face pale, her eyes wide, and her lips taut over a cry that she had bitten in half.
The silence deafened, and filled Houyi’s ears with endless ringing.
One of the goddesses hissed into that quiet, and rose to grip the servant by her arm, chastisement–threats–on the tip of her tongue. Grim-faced too, the goddess bowed and pushed the girl to bow with her. The mirrors she wore, armor-like, clinked. “Majesty. She is one of mine. I knew she would… I shall send her back to her parents.”
Houyi stood. “My lord, might I beg for her pardon? It is a feast that honors my deed, and I wouldn’t wish to see it marred by severity for a mishap so little.”
The incident was small, and after all so was her request: the emperor granted it, as rich men granted trifles.
She did not dwell on the event or her part in it. So when the dining and performing were done, she did not expect to find a stranger waiting at her door. “I am Chang’e,” the girl said, “and my mistress Tianmu bade me seek you and give you thanks for sparing Wenlan, the servant who disgraced herself at your feast.”
“The feast wasn’t truly mine. You are one of Tianmu’s acolytes?”
The girl’s smile was balanced on a precipice. “I should be so fortunate. No, I was brought here to serve; she doesn’t accept followers. I haven’t the fortitude or the talent even if she did. The Lady Tianmu has been most kind to me, even so.”
Houyi opened her door. “Have you eaten?”
“I… haven’t, no.”
“I’m not much of a cook, but there are some buns I can steam, lotus seeds I can boil in syrup.”
Chang’e shook her head. “I’m not meant to touch celestial food. I eat with other servants. I don’t mean to be ungracious or ungrateful, only…”
“You are of earth?”
She looked down at the hem of her dress, a hint of color on her cheeks made gold by lantern light. “Yes. I serve. I haven’t earned ascendance.”
“I never had to earn it, technically,” the archer mused. “Might there be a difference between divinity earned and divinity inborn? If you put it in a box, the shape of it, the texture? But come in. The lotuses didn’t grow here. They are wild; I picked them while I was abroad. Unless you don’t like sweet things? I can boil them in ginger instead. Or you could eat them as they are, but they aren’t fresh anymore.”
The girl gazed down, up, and down again. “With the syrup would be fine. More than fine. Or anything, really. Please. And thank you.”
Chang’e waited as Houyi ignited the lamps and exhaled softly when she saw the house. Her fingers flowed over the porous tibia cross-sections, the chimeral overlap of mammal and reptile, the twisting curling horns that upheld the roof. When she ate the lotus seeds she did so reverent. “It tastes of home.”
The archer ladled boiling water into the teapot, reasonably certain that rainwater wasn’t beyond the strictures permitted to Chang’e. “Do you miss it? Your life?”
“Heaven is perfect beyond words. There’s no hardship here, no starving. There was a dry season when I was young, and I remember my mother weeping as she goaded our one ox to plow the field, weeping over food that was not and would not be. Over the empty bowls, empty plates. But it was home.” She splayed her fingers over sugared steam. “Though there’s much I don’t miss.”
“Being a daughter. Being a sister.” Chang’e shook herself. “I didn’t mean to waste your time with all this. It’s unworthy of your attention. You are divine and I’m just–myself.”
The archer poured tea. She’d put a pickled plum in each cup, a hint of spice and salt. “I would like to know, unless you’d rather speak of something else.”
Reluctant, then freely, Chang’e spoke. Her childhood, in part, and many matters strange and new to Houyi. Playing in the river, trying and failing to spear fish with a sharpened stick, sleeping on a mat so thin it barely existed. Brothers came up in brief, sporadic mentions, creatures better valued than she was and who weren’t afraid to let her know this was the case. Hot with tea she revealed, in fragments, the red bridal gown and red bridal veil; of how she’d fled both into a night choked with thunder and there was found by Tianmu.
Later, emptied of words long lidded, Chang’e drowsed and drifted off. The archer found her a bed and went to her own, thinking of the puzzles she’d learned and thinking, more than a little, of the girl who had taught them to her.
Houyi asked for and obtained Tianmu’s reluctant permission to take Chang’e through sky and sea, and even to the demons’ world. Though not unafraid, Chang’e trusted the archer and, laughing, would pet glittering eels in one of the dragon kings’ homes. She asked Houyi to teach her to shoot, to cut, for they seemed to her useful things; lessons were given and Houyi made her a knife from the horn of an ox devil.
Once Chang’e pinched Houyi’s cheek. “You should smile more. I’ve never seen you laugh.”
“Neither have I.”
“Does nothing amuse you? Bring you joy? It’d make you look so lovely.” Chang’e reddened. “Not that you don’t already.”
They were standing underneath a tree whose trunk was silver, whose fruits were golden hands fringed with black petals at the wrists. Chang’e turned rigid, at first, when Houyi kissed her. Soon that changed, and when they were no longer breathing from one another’s mouths, the archer drew back and softly laughed.
Chang’e stayed silent for a long time, her breath quivering in her throat. At length she spluttered, “Well I was right. You are beautiful. I don’t know about what we just–” She tangled her fingers in the folds of her robes. “Though I would like to try it again. Maybe. Sometime. Sometime tomorrow. Oh and… I lied.”
“That Tianmu bade me seek you and thank you in her stead. Wenlan was to do it, but she was too shy and I took it upon myself. Without Lady Tianmu’s leave. She reprimanded me for days and gave me twice my usual chores. But it was worth every scrubbed wok.”
Outings followed, and more trees, and more words, during which Chang’e lost her awe of the god and gained in its place a wrenching want for the woman. It culminated in a visit to Guanyin, whom Houyi had a faint idea might be wise in this matter. The white goddess was seated at the edge of a river, attended by two children who would remain children in perpetuity. Guanyin did not acknowledge Houyi.
“Chang’e and I have decided we would wed. But she has misgivings and suggested I seek advice. Might you have any for us, great Guanyin?”
The goddess turned her attention from the waters. Fish that she’d been communing with dispersed, the children likewise. “My advice is to pursue it not, Houyi. It wouldn’t be taken very well by heaven at large.”
“I am a god,” the archer said, unnecessarily. “I would think that’d give me liberty to marry whomever I please.”
“Perhaps if you intend to become a man–that is doable, of course.” Guanyin looked, for a moment, like someone else: clothed in yellow instead of her customary white, tall and bearded with bristling brows. “For the ceremony’s duration at least and, for preference, several years afterward. So the idea would stick. Beyond that if you return to being a woman, why, that happens.”
“I don’t think I can, but even if I could, I feel no urge to become a man.”
“Then,” Guanyin said, flattening water reeds into neat rows, “I recommend against it. You will not be happy; neither will Chang’e.”
The archer pursed and unpursed her lips. “There are gods with a taste for men.”
“Oh yes, I know a dragon’s son who has a great fancy for sun-beaten farmers. But that is… looked upon differently and in any case he doesn’t mean to marry them. Wife and wife are unheard of and, as a rule, we are not fond of things too novel or strange. There are limits to what is permissible, archer, even for you–and your doings are more permissible than most. You do recognize that?”
“We could be less than open about it.” Compromising.
Guanyin drew out a handful of water and molded it, sculpting it into a pagoda around the ribs she’d made with reeds. “Heaven is full of loose lips. One would think it ought to be otherwise, we being what we are, but there it is. Do you mean to persist in this?”
“Chang’e and I are in accord, yes.”
“Then bring her and I will bless you both, though I don’t believe it will do much good in the end. For that, archer, I am sorry. Even I may not protect everything.”
Chang’e and Houyi wedded, with the same quiet of a mouse stealing through a room full of cats. But Guanyin was proven correct: secret became news. On her part the archer heard the beating of wings, and felt the heat of the sun as it slanted onto their ceremony–both of them in red, though veils, being redundant had been dispensed with–as though, for a moment, one of Dijun’s sons was gazing down at them.
Not long after that, the ten suns rose and Houyi was called to duty.
Houyi has never been mortal and, in ignorance, knows no terror. The emperor’s sentence sits on her but lightly.
The land is slow to heal. As though making up for that single searing day the sky broods, clouds churning thick as mud, crackling with flashes from Tianmu’s mirrors. Rain fills cracks in the soil, transmutes dirt to mud, deepening red sand to bruise, ivory sand to honey.
Chang’e shivers, tugging useless drenched silks to herself. Houyi doesn’t feel the cold and damp so keenly. Her senses have not adjusted, not convinced yet of mortal fragility. She puts her arm over her wife, a trade of warmth for chill. “You did not have to come. This is my punishment to endure. You shouldn’t have come.”
“I came because I wanted to. Never forget that, Houyi.” Chang’e interlaces her fingers with the archer’s. “Tianmu would be loath to take me back under her wing in any case.”
“Guanyin would shelter you.”
“Out of pity, and I’ve had enough of that. It is not love. It’s not even appreciation. Does it help that we can now grow old together? No, it wouldn’t, would it?” She tries uselessly to wring her sleeves dry. “If we head northeast… My eldest brother makes his home there. He is, or was, wealthy and our mother lives with him. It’ll make this almost bearable for you, Houyi. No paradise, but it is comfortable.”
Houyi doesn’t require comfort, but does not say so. Her wife’s mother. She imagines that. A family. That too is a difficult concept to grasp, she who has had none.
If she has lost her deific span, she hasn’t lost that curious way with which gods travel: a method that truncates distances, sidestepping conventional time. Houyi is subliminally aware she will forget the how of this soon, but for the moment she puts it to use and they are at the estate when morning dawns cool and clear. Perhaps Tianmu and her husband have tired for the moment, and the dragons have gone to rest.
The brother’s home has survived, shaded under ancient trees too obstinate to wither and subsisting on a well hidden deep underground. Haggard but alive, servants and family both come to greet Chang’e and Houyi.
The brother: “Back from heaven at last? It was good of you, to be so silent. Never sending word to ask how we fare.”
But Chang’e's mother, Yunping, only embraces her with eyes gone wet and full. She is bent; Houyi recalls the story of the ox and the goading.
Introducing Houyi is complicated. Her mode of dress is glanced at sideways by the brother, who scrutinizes with scowl and sneer. His family (two wives, three sons, and an ignored girl named Meijie: young, ox-horn hair buns) follows suit, some without any real conviction. What the house’s master does it is best to copy.
“My companion,” Chang’e says coldly, “is of heaven.”
Her brother’s outlook changes abruptly. So does that of his sons, wives, and daughter. “Great sage.” Deep bows.
It suffices for the moment.
Meijie pays attention, despite not having any paid to her, and is the first to notice Houyi’s bow. “Lady,” she says one day, “I hear things from… that.”
“I don’t think bows are supposed to hiss and purr and bark.” Said with the perfect certainty of the very young.
“It’s not a fashion, no.” Houyi watches Meijie eye her knives. “These things fascinate you.”
“No they don’t. They are boy things. For my brothers.” A little belligerent Meijie straightens. “You look silly. You are silly. Big Mother says so.”
The archer cocks her head at the child. “Would you like to learn how to use knives?”
“I’m not a boy.”
“Neither am I. Nor do I want to be one.”
Unable to reconcile this paradox the girl sticks her tongue out and runs away.
Houyi contemplates the unfathomable minds of children and returns to the room she shares with her wife, to find Chang’e red-faced and trembling with rage. “My brother,” she says when she’s regained her composure. “He wanted to know when you would bring him luck and coin and make shark fins magically appear on the dining table thrice a day. You are only two more mouths to feed, he said. How does he dare?”
“Technically he’s right. I could hunt. There would be meat, of the stringy and fatless sort. As for sharks, I imagine they’re all dead.” The archer settles into her wife’s lap. It’s a close fit and she has to hold her weight just so, but they’ve had practice. “There’s more, though, isn’t there?”
Chang’e crumples almost into her old self, the silent girl under Tianmu’s charge. “He wants me to marry. There’s a governor who–the details aren’t important, though my brother thinks he has a pet sorcerer of some sort, which is how he went through this unscathed. Stores upon stores of food. If he was a rich man before he’s swimming in gold now. And my brother had a portrait of me sent to him. That’s all I’m good for, all I ever was.”
“I’m sorry, Chang’e. For making you return to this. I shouldn’t have–”
“You’ve already apologized. Five times. Ten! I told you it doesn’t matter. I told you I will not bear heaven, or anything else, without you.” More quietly she says, “This governor took four wives. Only one remains. The other three died, supposedly by accidents or… worse. I don’t know. The living one is striped, my mother says, from back to ankles. Always she weeps. If he cannot have me, he will take Meijie, and my brother has already given his consent. Meijie, Houyi, little Meijie. His own daughter. She’s not even twelve. She’s a long way from twelve.”
“Where does he make his home?”
Chang’e looks at her wife sharply. “You are mortal now.”
They always lie close, breast to back. Tonight Houyi keeps a small distance so that when she rises in the deep of the night she doesn’t wake Chang’e. She takes her weapons and finds a few servants still up, and coaxes out of them the governor’s address. They give it pale-faced, half in hope; they think her much more than she is. She cannot correct them.
Her strides are long and she doesn’t yet know fatigue. The moon, half-full, lights her way.
The monster is a blot in the sky, crouching on the roof of the lord’s mansion, which curves around a lake brimming with sleek fish. Houyi does not hesitate. She lets fly as she always has, cleanly, precisely.
It might have heard the twitch of released tension, the letting go of bowstring. It might have reached out and gripped the passing wind, and used that to turn her shot aside. The fiend moves and the arrow penetrates not its eye but a spot between ear and horn. Cartilage parts, noiseless, into shivering shreds.
Houyi shoots once more–a shaft lodges in, and protrudes from, the beast’s throat–and it is before her, closing the distance in loping bounds. A knife in her hand, its point testing and triumphing against tender places: she twists and pulls, trailing gore and ligament from the inside of the demon’s elbow.
It shrieks in her face, a spume of sound and bile. She turns aside, the blade again finding and plunging into the softest of its flesh. Blood warms her, filling her mouth with the aroma of coins, as it sinks teeth into her flank and wraps her close with the snake of its tail. This is not new to Houyi: she’s fought, been wounded, carries scars. It’s never made her heart stutter, nor slowed her down. Until this moment.
There is a third arrow, buried deep in the demon’s back. It spasms alert, pausing in its chewing and savoring of Houyi. She drives the knife deep, and hard, into its stomach where she’s felt the beating of its heart. Her hand follows and grips the organ that gives it life. “Do you know who I am?” she whispers through lips flecked with devil ichor. “You do. Tell your master to ply his trade elsewhere, and tell his master to submit to a sage, live a life of piety and repentance. Make this happen, demon, or I shall travel to your realm and end not only you but your entire clan.”
Her fist tightens. A burst of gore. The fiend’s spirit leaps through its mouth in a green-black mist, speeding toward the governor’s estate. Houyi finds herself, without meaning to, on her knees. Beneath her the broken earth is saturated crimson.
Chang’e comes, bow in hand, and presses herself against Houyi as though by sheer determination she can staunch the blood and dull the pain.
“I am,” Houyi murmurs, “mortal now.”
By the next hour she has begun to age.
Ascending Mount Kunlun, where virtue dwells, is simplicity itself to gods. To mortals it is different, not journey but pilgrimage, to seek what they have not, to petition for what they believe is the desire of their hearts. At the mount’s foot, a town has sprung up.
The home of Chang’e’s brother is months past, and the quiet disbelief of her mother likewise. Shouldering the weight of a bloodied, torn Houyi home, Chang’e stammered to her mother finally that they were not companions or–what Yunping wanted to think–goddess and acolyte, but something else entirely different. That there is a reason they share their room. That their marriage, however distant now, was blessed by Guanyin herself, and shouldn’t that have been good enough?
Chang’e desperately misses the indifference of paradise. If their marriage was not celebrated, if Tianmu found it disquieting, if the emperor had winced at its mention–it was still preferable to this, this crushing grief she cannot understand, the disappointment of her mother. Who will care for you in your old age? And she said, We will care for each other, Mother, and my niece will burn houses and gold for us but it did no good.
A servant listening at the door: in that same night her brother screamed at them Get out, no matter her pleading that her wife was wounded, near death. Is she not of heaven? Little liar. Unnatural whore. They beat Houyi while Chang’e fought, costing one of his men an eye; only by Yunping’s begging was Chang’e spared. When they were finally done they dragged Houyi by the hair and flung her out.
All that is behind, but it is so raw and she cannot ask Houyi for comfort. Houyi who knows hunger and despair for the first time, who lay broken for so long, and ages months in a day.
The town itself is small, as yet nameless though many nicknames have been thought up and hung under eaves. Being where it is lets it prosper, profiting from aspirants hoping to scale Mount Kunlun and gain the attention of a sage, to become ones themselves. Being where it is makes it a target too: too many men, and not a few women, of the world believe that great deeds will raise them to ascendance, and what greater deeds than saving cities and villages from malicious beasts? Vengeance-hounded they come to the bottom of Kunlun, and vengeance-hounded they bring with them collections of teeth and talons, maws and mandibles like butcher-hooks. Sometimes the aspirants are adequate to meeting them. Sometimes they are wanting. In the first week of their stay alone Houyi has killed five threats. A few, realizing who she is, keep their distance from the town–a phenomenon that doesn’t go unnoticed by the barbers, hoteliers and traders. They give the couple board, food, shoes. A tailor brings them clothes: brocade gown and sash-pendants for Chang’e and, never asking why, men’s robes and trousers for Houyi.
“They adore you,” Chang’e tells her wife as they attend a dinner cooked exquisitely by a widower living in the shop under their room. Soup thick with crab meat, soft bean curd in hot paste and diced shrimp, turnip cakes fried crisp and brown. Lavish, but the town is grateful.
“I despise what I have become.”
Chang’e’s breath hitches. “Mortal?”
“No.” Houyi gazes into the liquid red of her tea. “Afraid.”
She liberates the cup from Houyi’s unresisting fingers, and takes the woman who was a god into her arms. “It doesn’t make you weak, Houyi. Even gods are afraid. Do you remember the looks on their faces when the suns rose? They were deathly frightened, even the emperor.”
“He was born mortal.”
“I am mortal. I’ve always been. If I’ve learned anything in so short a life it is that fear keeps you alive and coaches you to survive. You are still Houyi the Archer and you save people, and you are the woman I love without limits or conditions.”
Houyi lowers her head to the crook of Chang’e’s neck, pressing her mouth to her wife’s skin: acknowledges the transience of the beating pulse that reflects her own. “Thank you.”
She has not said why it is that they have come to this town and Chang’e was too relieved to escape her brother’s to ask: any destination would have done, so long as it was away.
But now there is a box, which Houyi unearths from the untidy collection that is her belongings: the lid is ivory, carved into a likeness of Houyi’s house. She opens it–there is no lock save the trust that lies between wives–and lays down the feathers, sleek and black, warm and huge. On each is calligraphy so atrocious it can only have been written with talon-tips. The sun-crow, last of his kind, must have balanced himself precariously: two legs for his weight, the third dripping ink and poised over his own feathers spread out like manuscript pages.
The first reads, We both grieve.
The second reads, more confidently, It was for love that we rose.
Our father said, in passing only, that he would like to see his sons in their utterness subsuming the sky. He thought us our mother’s but never his–and what belongs to Dijun must be Dijun’s alone: you will have become wise of this, we’ve watched you turn by turn. None of us wished to forsake our mother, but we were hungry, so hungry, for his affection. It’s the nature of crows to be greedy. So on that day we decided, what harm could it do? We pulled one another, for without Mother’s chariot the ascent is difficult, and thought we would present ourselves as our father wanted. A moment. It would not hurt anyone.
But it was bright and sweet, and made us drunk. To burn together! As never before, and never again. We did not think. That is why we did not listen when you called to us until our eldest brother died, and then what was there to do but fight, in grief, in fury?
Death was a stranger, to us, to me. To my mother too. She’s never lost, in her absoluteness, her self-contained grace.
The final one is small, half the size of a hand, and says only, I do not ask forgiveness, as you have asked for none. Some things are beyond forgiving and absolving.
“We must bring this to His Majesty,” Chang’e says, though she hasn’t the remotest idea how. Mortals do not petition the celestial monarch, not directly, and who would sponsor Houyi? Not the final sun-crow. “How did these come to you?”
“Falling from the sky at dusk, one by one. I’d have shown them to you, but I wanted to be sure. To have the entire tale.” Houyi puts them back and shuts the box. “I’ve done enough harm to them. To take this to His Majesty will press him to punish the crow. But knowing, for a certainty now, that Dijun did as he did–it is not right, it is not just.”
“It never was, Houyi. There must be an authority to which you can appeal.”
“I mean to ascend Kunlun. Xiwangmu rules there and she has… treasures. I don’t think she will send us back to heaven, but she may grant us life everlasting.”
Chang’e’s pulse leaps. She cannot lie to herself that immortality is a luxury she’s never coveted but, “She will not give it freely.”
“We will earn it. Or I shall. You don’t have to. We wouldn’t be here in the first place if I hadn’t been–”
“Ridiculous but heartbreakingly earnest. Why else would I have consented to be yours? I will come with you, and we will do this together.” Chang’e brushes Houyi’s eyelid, lips to lashes, and does not tell her that back in heaven this plagued her: the gulf between them, the eternity that would be Houyi’s by right and hers never. “I will not say no to forever by your side, wandering and witnessing the world. Only make me one promise.”
“I would promise you anything.”
“When we have obtained this miracle, we find Dijun and settle the score.”
Houyi’s smile, which has become rarer than opals, is like the dawn. “You are not frightened of confronting the father of suns?”
“You were not frightened of refusing him. In all the heavens, and all the earth, there’s no woman braver than you.”
They share a laugh, and share a meal, and taste the desserts on the tips of each other’s tongue.
The paths to the summit of Kunlun are many, and a hundred times again as many maps chart the ways. In that little town the maps are sold, scrolls plain and gilded, striated like elephant hide and utter white, held in bamboo and silver tubes. Adventurous entrepreneurs extend the reach of their commerce through Kunlun’s roads, peddling liquor and glutinous rice, dried fruits and hundred-year eggs. Not a few used to be aspirants but, either in failure or realization, find fulfillment instead through the exchange of coins, in the trade of tales, and the wistful watching of others climbing the mount as they used to do.
There are rivers of fire, waterfalls of blades, and half-seen moths which sip breath and life from the ears of sleeping travelers. Kunlun, even a glimpse, must be purchased by torn flesh and shattered teeth, and blood like black pearls glinting in the night.
Houyi and Chang’e guard one another as flesh guards bone, burning tallow to lure and scorch the moths. When they fell a monster of hard hide they skin it, and sew it into armor against waterfalls. In deep pits they find aspirant carcasses, faces papered in yellow talismans, leaping futilely in death to an escape just out of reach. Houyi lights a torch and frees them from flesh and memory. Chang’e salvages their bones, fire-toughened, to fashion into raft and pole with which to cross the rivers that rise and ebb without rhythm or warning.
It makes them sharp, Kunlun; it is feral, for all its proximity to the virtuous court, and lessons them in wildness. A world is born between them where only they exist–Chang’e and Houyi, Houyi and Chang’e. Traders that they meet at all, for they avoid the mapped and trodden roads, are irrelevant. Sometimes conveniences, other times momentary irritants. Every few days one of them would have to remind her wife, We seek Xiwangmu and her treasures, which are said to confer unending life.
The air thins to needlepoints in their lungs and the rivers turn to rime. It is difficult to breathe, but the stairway that leads to the home of Xiwangmu shimmers in the distance: reachable, if only just. Out of an unspoken agreement they stop to gaze upon it, long and long, for though Xiwangmu’s house is not quite heaven, neither is it of mortals. And what will it be like to taste that air again, sleep under that sky, which looms beyond the one that men and women of the earth see, that roof of the world?
Making their way upward they fast, subsisting on bitter ice-water and each other’s heat: to gain entry to Xiwangmu’s home necessitates purification. Memories of rich warm food wear down until they are as thin and colorless as the cracked brittle road beneath their feet. They hold onto one another, charm against forgetting and hunger. Hand in hand they whisper the other’s name. They do not rest. Only the winds remain, and their hair crusted in frost whipping in the snow.
It is a lifetime, to mount the steps which are steep as walls and half again as tall. They cut apart monster hide and with it wrap their hands, their feet; even so each foothold and handhold draws blood, and the steps hoard every drop. Chill pulls at their eyes, draws tears that freeze on their cheeks as fast as they bead.
When they crest the topmost, the final step, the sky has changed and it is autumn. They are sinew, then, and bone: pushed and pulled by will, held up by the strength of one another’s arms.
Xiwangmu waits for them on the steps of her house, which is only a house, no larger than the needs of a woman content with her own company. Her fingertips are stained brown with soil; across her lap is a broom, its bristles tangled in twigs and leaves, moth wings and spider webs. She wears no regalia, no finery. Heaven’s empress could have been the wife of a merchant or a reclusive scholar.
“I know why you have come,” she says, “but that will wait. Inside: you will want something hot and balanced, and full of colors.”
There is no meat at Xiwangmu’s table, but it little matters. Chang’e and Houyi eat with the delicacy of those too long famished, without appetite, in bites they do not taste and sips they do not feel: hunger has infiltrated their arteries and it is easier to tolerate than to outright cure. If there are parameters and rules to what they should and should not touch, they are not told. When their hunger, conditioned into briefness by fasting, is sated the empress gives them steamed cakes dusted with sesame and studded in dried lychee. She offers tangerines in red papers that tell them it is the new year. Sweetness goes down easier.
“I know why you have come,” Xiwangmu repeats, “and I am willing to grant that which you desire, for it was taken from one of you unrightly.”
“It was never mine,” Chang’e says, and wishes she had not.
“You have equally earned the way: I will not grant it to one and deny the other. In return I ask for one favor. A mortal woman who served me passed and left in her wake an orphan son, Fengmeng. I would do her a good turn. Teach him the bow.”
The archer flexes her fingers, surprised to find them supple again so soon, stair-cuts turned to scars. The food was more than food, and the sweets more than a magic of fruit and flour. Beside her Chang’e grows quiet. “I have only ever taught my wife, Majesty. It seems trivial, that is true, and more than a fair exchange, but–”
“It is a favor, not a requirement.” Xiwangmu draws from her sleeve a casket no larger than her hand, and places it before the couple. “Within this is a single pill, the last of its kind. In its entirety it will tender divinity, if not acceptance at my husband’s palace, and deny death. Take half each and it will suspend: though it won’t heal flesh already broken, it will give you eternity side by side.”
Houyi’s hand hesitates over the casket. “Majesty.”
“Your loss of immortality came of your own doing, Houyi, of your arrogance. But you are only a child and making mistakes is what children do. My husband never interrogated Dijun, and that’s a galling lack of foresight. Take the pill, but delay its swallowing. It’s been made in a certain way, not meant for unpurified mortals, and it will take six turns of the moon breathing Kunlun before you are immune to its venom.”
Knowing exactly how acute her wife’s sense of duty can be, Chang’e makes herself speak. “Is there nothing I can offer, Majesty?”
“Were you not already a wife, and were I my husband, I would have demanded that you allowed Fengmeng to court you.” Xiwangmu ruffles Chang’e's hair. “You are a good child. Once you have gained your wish, find your mother and tell her you are well. That you are happy. Whatever she might have felt at your marriage, it is the terror of all mothers to think their children dead.”
Inevitably Houyi agrees to train Fengmeng: the archer finds herself unable to accept Xiwangmu’s gift for nothing. He is a child of Kunlun, reserved and straining to look wise, and ought to have been taken as someone’s apprentice. The empress chooses otherwise. He must prove himself, like any other, and he cannot do that without being sent into the world to live. “So many ascendants are too young,” Xiwangmu tells Chang’e, “and I do not mean their years.”
The archer is not a lenient mentor. She forces Fengmeng away from the summit and makes him practice on the banks of burning rivers, tells him to aim at the leaping dead, pits him against ancient monsters. Xiwangmu has granted Houyi a seal with her name upon it, which lets the archer return to the empress’ house in a single step. But in the first week she informs Fengmeng he must climb the stairway, as though a petitioner. If Xiwangmu thinks this harsh she does not remark upon it. Fengmeng clenches his jaw and does as he is bidden.
Chang’e wheedles Xiwangmu into letting her pass onto girl petitioners what she’s gained from her own living and what she’s gained from Houyi. Difficult at first, for she’s little older than her pupils, even younger than some. Understanding is established slowly, respect slower, and eventually a connection emerges. Not quite the prescribed one of mistress and students, but no less true for that.
It occupies her and makes her happier, though she still paces the confines of the room Xiwangmu has given them, and stands at the edge of Kunlun’s summit to watch for her wife’s return. It is so easy to wait, an old habit of hers, from childhood to near-bride to serving Tianmu: and she remembers too how her brothers were the ones sent out to learn letters and make things, to apprentice and seize more than they were born with, while she waited to marry. Waiting, her mother educated her, is a woman’s lot. Waiting for a groom, waiting for a husband, waiting for a child to be born.
It is the first thing she tells her aspirants: You do not have to wait. Do what you must if they are necessary to keep your mothers or sisters warm and fed, but do not wait for luck or unluck to come to you. The second is: If, when, you ascend seek out Xiangu, Guanyin, Tianmu. There is protection, of a sort, and you may find it easier to be.
She observes Fengmeng, too, and what she sees indents her brow into a frown. “He is obsessed with your teaching,” she remarks as they undress for the night. Climbing Kunlun they have had to swathe themselves in layers of fabric, hide, worse; they have sorely missed heat sealed between the curves of their bodies, the immediacy of bare skin.
“That is a surprise, seeing that he nearly dies to it every other day.” Houyi, almost nude, hangs up her knives on the wall next to her bow. She has been cleaning the weapons while waiting for her hair to dry and, though it is routine, the sight of near-naked Houyi and unsheathed blades always excites Chang’e. She has never been able to tell if Houyi does it on purpose.
“He worships you, more than a little. The way he speaks, or doesn’t speak rather, around you. How he looks at you hold your bow. I think you’re the first woman he’s gotten close to.”
The archer makes a contemplative noise deep in her throat and, settling on her haunches, frames Chang’e's face with her hands, which are callused, bas-reliefs of hunts in the pads of thumbs and joints. “Am I doing something wrong?”
That surprises Chang’e into a rueful grin. “I think I am only being jealous of your hours and I don’t much like the boy.”
“Fengmeng’s harmless. There are six months to put him into some kind of shape, and I want to be done with it within that span, no more. When Xiwangmu’s gift is safe we can both take it and leave him to his own devices.” Houyi climbs into the curtained bed. “I am grateful to her, but not that grateful. There’s such a life ahead of us and I’m impatient to meet it. But… before we get to that, do you want to go hunting?”
“Right now the only prey I want is you. Tomorrow? Yes, hunting will do.”
When Chang’e is not with her aspirants, then, she would be with Houyi keeping the wild beasts of Kunlun in check: they have a habit of proliferating beyond the quantity required to test those climbing the mountain. Fengmeng turns more withdrawn when he sees them ranging together; neither woman pays him heed.
Nearly half a year passes before a new petitioner arrives, bloodied, with a letter for Chang’e.
It is from Meijie and tells them that winter has been harsh on Yunping, and Meijie’s father is unwilling to send for a physician. The girl vows, in an unsure childish hand, that she will do what she can; she’s learned her letters, and enlisted the passing warrior to deliver this. She hopes that her aunt will be proud of her.
A week remains before the moon turns. “I can go ahead,” Chang’e says, worrying at the cheap paper with her nails.
Houyi shakes her head. “We will go together.”
They pay their respects, Chang’e making farewells to aspirants who hold her hands and tell her they will practice her advice. She promises to return to Kunlun when she is immortal, and the way forward and backward simpler for her to tread. For now she has Houyi, and a world to cup in her palms. “When I am here next,” she tells her students, “I will have more to impart. I will be less foolish.”
(As they depart Fengmeng tries to speak around the silence that sits in his mouth like a pebble, but they are gone before he is able to conquer it.)
Xiwangmu’s seal in hand, they are at the town at the foot of Kunlun in one step.
It is deserted.
Lantern light pools on the streets and ripples as they pass. In each shop chairs are empty, even though the shelves are as amply stocked as they ever were. At a teahouse the tables are set, bowls and chopsticks, soup-spoons and condiment jars. But the kitchen is silent, the chopping boards clean on their hooks.
They enter the widower’s shop, and find it too empty–would have walked on, if Houyi hasn’t heard the small noise they both recognize for hitched sobs muffled behind knuckles. When the archer uncovers her the girl screams, squeezing herself into the crevice that’s allowed her to hide between armoires, flailing and kicking as Houyi brings her out and Chang’e tries to soothe. Neither of them knows much about children, but by and by the girl realizes that the two are not demons. For it is demons, she tells them in a fractured tale pieced from glass sounds and shadow glimpses, that have emptied the houses. Her father, her aunts, her friends. Everything has been going wrong since the archer left.
Houyi examines the girl, closely, with a scrutiny that makes her burst into tears. “You are not one of them,” she says, at length. The disguises of children and maidens are the favorites of fiends and she has no intent of falling into such a trap. “Will you wait here? My wife and I will look for survivors.” But when Chang’e makes to leave the girl starts shrieking, clinging to her, brooking no attempts at disentanglement. The archer sighs and puts down their belongings. “I will be back quickly.”
When the archer has gone the child quiets down by degrees. Chang’e makes nonsense noises, one hand stroking the girl’s matted hair and the other clenched tight around the knife Houyi made for her. She tries very hard not to feel afraid.
She isn’t able to tell, exactly, when the unease begins. A lengthening of a shadow? A chill in the air that does not belong?
A shape on the wall, horned bull head and serpent tail. In a moment it is silhouette; in another it has bled through, tar ooze, and Chang’e remembers the first time she let fly at a beast without Houyi’s hands over her own. The first time Houyi bled, and feared.
Its grin is a wound, yellow mortification under a snout the color of rust.
“You have been slain before,” Chang’e says, and through will made fierce by Kunlun’s wildness, does not tremble. “I do not fear you.”
Its tail hisses derision, a soft wet sound of rotten meat parting.
“Do you remember what Houyi the Archer said? She will destroy you and all you love.”
Houyi the Archer is human. As are you.
It comes for her, a blur smearing across her vision.
If she isn’t as fleet as Houyi or as strong, still she has been tutored by the best. She dodges, and weaves, and draws it out of the house. Outside Houyi will hear; in the chilly night Houyi will come.
She is still thinking that when the monster’s broodmates, shadows given flesh, tear into her. Houyi will hear.
She is still thinking that when they pin her down, drawing blood-threads out of her skin as though for spooling and weaving, flaying and separating her flesh into strips as though for drying and preserving. Houyi will come.
And Houyi does come, when she can no longer see. But Chang’e hears a wail high and long: only that is not possible. Houyi does not make a sound like that, collected and graceful Houyi, who is always dignified and impervious even in deep pain, in deep grief. So it cannot be Houyi’s tears that burn Chang’e’s peeled nerves. It cannot be Houyi’s mouth which lets loose such cries.
Fingertips pry at her lips. Something small is slid through.
Awareness takes Chang’e like dry land takes a fish. Xiwangmu’s gift fills her, past capacity, past possibility. In her stomach it takes root, in her throat it blooms, and in her mouth it silences her scream.
The sky rushes toward her, and she is certain that the pill hasn’t lost its poison after all–that this is death, not apotheosis: and she is at peace with that, for divinity alone, divinity thieved, is nothing at all. She will die without having stolen immortality from Houyi, and that will be enough.
There are stars in her mouth, and night in her bones.
The moon is a mirror that swallows the sun-crow’s light, and gives it back–a miser’s jealousy–pale and drained in the night.
Chang’e doesn’t weep. She is past that, and in any case it is so cold that shedding tears hurts; it wrings too much out of her, heat and memories. Tirelessly she has walked its streets, for she is a god now and has transcended the limits of humanity–but though she has traced the paths, finding new ones and twists and turns she never saw before in those familiar, she cannot find a way out. She locates the moon’s edge and unthinking steps over to find herself back at the center. But she persists.
Once, during one of her explorations, she hears a voice like music and Dijun is there, seated on a carved stone bench. I have gone to Houyi and asked her, one last time, for her hand. She said no. But you–I can bring you to her, and for love of you she will consent. As my wife she’ll regain divinity, and you will both find I am not without mercy. You will see one another, at times of my choosing. Do you not desire this, girl?
Chang’e refuses with a knife that opens the sun-father’s cheek. His bone shines gold, and his blood gushes fire.
The rabbit tries to warm her as she navigates the city, telling her stories. It loves her desperately but it is small, and it is not Houyi. Accepting that, it tells her of a room with many windows, each panel painted black as in the court of Xuanwu. Each overlooks a different view, depending on the room’s whims and sometimes cruelty. Of the latter it warns: Please, please be careful.
She does not take caution. It is something. It is, by far, superior to nothing. Xiwangmu’s pill filled her with such lightness that she went up and up, until the moon caught her, and she woke. All her wounds were gone, save one. Existence without Houyi is an injury that festers deeper than apotheosis may overturn.
The moon is a labyrinth, its craggy mountains holding houses that have never been habited, palaces with empty thrones, stone gardens where black waters slosh in basins and ghost swans drift through the air. Through paths paved with calcified eyes the rabbit leads her, up and into a palace where lanterns are tasseled with peacock ligaments and feathers: and is that not a shadow of Houyi’s home, the one in paradise, which feels like many lives ago?
Please be careful. It will not amuse you, the sights. The city loves to deepen hurts. To kill without killing, if it may.
She opens one window and sees sunlight.
Houyi sits in a workshop full of canvas and cut bamboo surrounding her like pieces of a beast she’s slain and disassembled to craft into furniture and weapons. The bamboo ribs suggest the beginning of wings, or perhaps an immense sky lantern. Her lips move, though Chang’e hears only silence and she aches–it hurts, to see without hearing, to see without touching. But at least she sees.
Chang’e requires no sleep, and not much food, now. She holds the rabbit in her lap, and watches as the sky lantern inflates. It floats high into the night, and Houyi gazes after it until it is long out of sight.
The archer climbs a mount greater and higher than Kunlun, and there lays the foundations of a tower. It is built up, and up, but in the end it can bear only so much. Not quite collapsing but listing, and it is not anywhere near high enough.
She finds Chang’e’s mother in the capital and tells her, in words Chang’e reads from the parting and shutting of her mouth, Your daughter is a goddess now.
Yunping does not find any joy in this. She seems so much older, and doubly stooped, having survived but never recovered from that winter. Chang’e cannot remember how long it has been since their leave-taking of her brother’s house. There are lines in Houyi’s face, too, clustering thick at the corners of lips and eyes.
The archer asks after Meijie, and learns that it is now the girl who provides both for her mother and grandmother, a scholar of some means. If she doesn’t do as well as her male peers, she does well enough. The governor has been removed from his post, ensconced in a temple, white-haired and drifting toward a lonely deathbed.
Chang’e sees the Kunlun aspirants, some ascended now, others still seeking entry to heaven. Each does this in her own way, some by marrying a sage, others by the skin of their teeth. For none of them is the path simple or quick.
Between this, Houyi is joined by Fengmeng. She regards him distantly, him existing only at the furthest periphery of her vision and awareness–but her at the center of his. Chang’e can see it in his eyes, the same franticness with which the rabbit adores her but more dangerous, edged by humanity. By years spent out of Kunlun, perhaps, and he beats his fists against the earth crying Why can’t I best you? while Houyi stands aside, her bow clasped loosely. His he has snapped to halves then segments.
Later: Why do you want to best me?
Fengmeng holds himself small as though to protect his heart. To be worthy of having been your disciple; to be worthy of heaven–I cannot be lesser. Not to you.
That is not how the proving of worth functions; you want to be better than I am specifically, and that means nothing at all.
His glance at her face, furtive. You trained Chang’e.
My wife was the best that I ever taught. None compares. Without her I wouldn’t have overcome Kunlun’s trials.
Fengmeng’s hands have turned to fists. What if I’d met you before she did?
Another might have laughed, but Chang’e knows Houyi has always been too kind. It would have been no different. There’s no place for you; there never was. Why do you persist? I’m long done with suitors of any sort, and done with the obfuscations I fed them. They tired me when I was young. Doubly now they exhaust me.
Are you not afraid of being alone?
Solitude may be borne, with some patience. But she looks up at the sky where the sun-crow flies; where at night the moon would rise and she would glimpse the pits and etchings and, rarely, a woman’s shadow.
The last window opens to Houyi in a valley, surrounded on all sides by men gaunt with starvation, and Fengmeng in their midst whispering to them. She is of heaven; her liver, her hair–any piece of her will bring fortune and prosperity. It is an easy lie to believe for desperate men.
She grips her knives without tension, without fear; she was a protector god, forbidden once to harm humans, but she isn’t that anymore. She kills them with the sure knowledge that it is a slaughter, that none of them is a match for her. When it is down to just Fengmeng, who holds yet another bow having misshot again and again, who snivels on his knees begging for absolution–when it is down to him she only turns away, and tells him that he’s learned nothing from her instructions. For Xiwangmu’s sake I spare you. Nothing more. Of forgiveness she offers none.
The next time, the ambush is an army, amplified by the blood she spilled the first and second and third occasions. She is monster to their heroes, a god gone wrong, come down to earth to wreak ruin. And again there is Fengmeng with his lies, eliding always his own part, his unclean jealousy. She seeks godhood and toward that she has boiled young men in a great cauldron–from their blood, an elixir that’ll grant endless life. Your brothers, your sons.
This time there isn’t enough of Houyi, and too many of them.
This time Fengmeng does not miss, and when she falters for a moment between knife-slashes he takes aim.
He weeps as he loosens the bowstring. But even wracked by sobs and sickness and rage he does not miss. He did, after all, learn from the best.
Chang’e boards the windows shut, one by one, and then the door. She no longer seeks to escape the city.
Hell is red and black, and red and black, enough light to see yourself–what you have become–and the wounds the demons inflict upon you, with spears and thorn-trees, and long luxurious oil-baths in boiling brass cauldrons. For Houyi it is an arrow-shaft protruding from her breast, it is tears and gashes in her skin, and bruises where they beat her until her heart stopped.
She examines the shaft. She pulls it out slowly. There is pain; in this place there is nothing but. Enough to make her retch, though the archer does not. Within herself it is control that she values second after memories of her wife.
When the demons come, she is ready.
In her hand is only an arrow, stained in her own blood and Fengmeng’s sweat, but she remembers a knife and that is what it feels like, weighs like. Even in this light she is used to the finesse of cutting and tearing, and with the same precision she shoots she drives the knife into gaps between armor; she inserts its tip into eye sockets, and cuts off ears–horse ears, swine ears–with abattoir ease.
They give pause.
“I will go willingly,” she says to the soldiers of hell, who know who she is, who have lost kith and kin to her methodical massacres, “if you can show me that my name is on the registry of the dead.”
The one among them not armed, a capped and robed bureaucrat with a seahorse’s face, consults his scroll. On it unspools, collecting and puddling until it is up to the bureaucrat’s waist; when it has reached his shoulders he at last concedes Houyi’s name is not to be found. Still she must be placed, named and posited in the hierarchy of hell, and so they bring her to one of the high magistrates: a giant encased in bronze. His face is a mask, twisted into a deep scowl.
He asks, “Father?”
“My origins must be known to you. I have none.”
Ignoring her he goes on, “Mother? Sister? Husband?”
Thrice she says no; again she tells him that she was born of no parent, made only by the particular wants of heaven. Wants that seem to have expired, but nevertheless.
In the end she is sent to the Old Woman of Forgetting.
For expediency Meng makes her house by the gate under which all dead must pass. Its doors are always open, for hourly there are hundreds of men and women deceased who must be processed and made to drink Meng’s mixture. Some unwilling, but most embrace it and cradle the little cups she hands out as though it is salvation.
Meng receives Houyi privately, in a room full of earthenware and somnambulant lizards. When the archer has seated herself she is offered a cup. It is dainty, this cup, and no color at all–though its sheen reflects her face in rainbows, and behind her she can see the moon racing by.
She looks up and gazes into Meng’s age-soft face. “No.”
“It can buy you grace. You may start again a child. With parents and kin, and a life unwinding before you.”
“Chang’e is not part of this cycle. I’ll only make her grieve, watching from where she is knowing that I’ve discarded memories of her. It would be selfish.”
Meng withdraws the cup. “What will you do then?”
“Wait.” The archer fingers the arrow that is also a knife. “Watch.”
She sits by as the dead file through Meng’s parlor, sipping slow or gulping greedy. Houyi thinks she sees her wife’s mother among them once, but it is difficult to be sure. In the moment before they pass the gate a few become whole again, young again, and then are gone.
Houyi is a mindful guest. She helps with the brewing and distilling, though she’s careful never to inhale when steam bursts from beneath lids and wafts up in fragrant clouds. She also does the windows over so they would be draft- and fire-proof; Meng chuckles to see this, and asks what it is with her obsession with carpentry when first she was born with a bow. “It keeps me useful,” the archer answers. “It keeps my mind turning, my fingers nimble.”
It is when she is climbing up to patch Meng’s roof that the dragons come.
They pull a chariot, and upon the chariot are the mother of suns and her last child. If the demons give Houyi wide berth Xihe sends them outright scurrying, for she blazes and singes, and those who are so used to roasting souls like little to be roasted in turn.
Houyi is off the roof and on the ground even before Xihe’s eyes fall on her.
“Archer,” the goddess says as she steps out of her chariot. “Despite your new home you don’t seem especially tortured.”
Houyi does not speak of her mortal decades. “I’m sorry that I did not speak to you before. None dared approach you, and I could not myself reach so high.”
“I’m not here for your excuses. You seem adrift, archer, and in want of a new duty. So I’ve come to bring you to that.”
The archer gives her host thanks, promising to return and finish her work with the roof. Meng does not ask if this is what she’s been waiting for, and Houyi does not offer to explain.
Houyi touches the chariot; pulls her hand away from its metal to find blisters on her fingers. “It burns.”
“This was made for me, and drank in the fire of myself and my sons. You will absorb some, until the heat lives in your gums and your lungs, until you can illuminate a day mandated to be wan.” Xihe does not smile; her anger is beyond malice. “But it will always burn. Remember this, archer. Each dawn will hurt. This is punishment, not exaltation.”
“I do not fault you, lady.”
“Do not mistake me: I care little for Dijun’s faithlessness. We are barely spouses. I do not despise you out of puerile jealousy. It is the murder of my sons that I cannot forgive; it is for that you have been sentenced.”
“What I did is beyond forgiving.” Houyi touches the reins gingerly. It leaves a ruby welt on the heel of her palm. “But I would ask for a boon.”
Xihe looks at her, as though from a great height. “Why do you believe you deserve one, much less that I’d grant it?”
“It is not much.” The archer bows low, her humility an offering, lower than she ever bowed to the emperor. It is obeisance; it is a suspension of pride. “And I believe you might do, in recognition that we were all injured by the same blow.”
The goddess’ mouth twists. “Dijun keeps a scar from your wife’s hand. The first, for one so vain. He never understood why I forsook him, why the children are not his. It is a simple point. My sons could have spoken to me. Asked. I might have found them a safe way. I knew, I always knew, how tedious they found it to spend nine days out of every ten on Fusang. How they loved to be together.”
The one surviving son hides his face in the shadow of vast wings. He has grown thin and tattered in grief and singularity, in bleeding his light and heat, in rising alone and resting alone on Fusang’s empty branches. His wings droop, eyes like obsidian gone to dull stone, dry as baked prunes.
“I could have come and spoken to you. I did not. Of such silences are misfortunes built, I’ve learned, not fate or any decree greater than us.”
“Ah,” Xihe murmurs. Her eyes remain hard. “I will not forgive you. Understand this. I will never forgive you.”
“Yes,” Houyi says, and keeps her gaze trained on the dragons Xihe has tamed for her chariot. One rolls a limpid eye toward her, cautious, whiskers quivering.
“What is it that you want then? That you cannot grasp for yourself despite your conceit?”
She tells Xihe.
The moon is brittle spite and envy, and if it ever was a bird the memory of wings and flight is long past. The paths to it are hard, from it harder still. It is why those not quite of heaven, the chastised and the exiled like Chang’e, are sent here.
But the moon is hungry. It lusts for warmth, which slides past as though its jagged cliffs and mountains are sieves, and in that rare moment when the sun-crow comes near the moon lowers its guard. It drowses and basks, opening itself, a plea written across its barren city. The lanterns come alive all together, flickering into characters, tentative greetings.
Chang’e stands in one of the high courtyards. The rabbit curls in her arms, rejoicing that she–almost–smiles as chariot, dragons and crow pass overhead. From this distance the goddess’ figure is invisible.
This time the chariot pauses and lowers. City shadows cavort wild, unused to this abrupt change in light and temperature. The swans flee into ponds and lakes, some part of them recalling a day long ago where ten suns convened.
Houyi lands, lightly, on her feet. She climbs the path spiraling up to Chang’e in quick, long strides. There are tears in her eyes, the sun’s radiance on her skin.
“Oh,” Chang’e whispers, and, “oh, why are you crying?” Said even though she, too, gasps and her words are leaving her like broken glass.
When they embrace their cheeks are wet, salt-smeared and fever-warm. They touch and touch again to make certain the other exists. If they are seen, if they are watched, they do not care.
Houyi may not stay; her new duty tugs at her as hell tugs at the newly dead. But they have time to kiss, and love, and make each other laugh. Chang’e holds to her tight when it is time for Houyi to return to the chariot. “For now it will do,” she tells Houyi, “but you must come back soon. And write.”
The archer promises. “Always.”
On that night, the moon shines at its brightest: and mortals below see in that an auspice for newness and wonder, to be celebrated in rich cakes and lantern lights each night Houyi brings the chariot and finds her wife.
When they part, they do knowing that they will see one another again: a year to them is as short as an hour. And maybe, someday, they will find a path easier to travel, a freedom for Chang’e to come and go as she pleases. They plan for that, long days in sunlit grass and lotus seeds in syrup.
Nothing is beyond reach when they have come so far, and they are not afraid.
Copyright 2012 Benjanun Sriduangkaew
Benjanun Sriduangkaew splits her time between Hong Kong and Jakarta. She can be found blogging at A Bee Writes and tweeting as @bees_ja