I married the wrong mortal, I see that now.
I must be getting careless in my advanced age. I would never have made that mistake during the era of Shang, those silken days and pavilioned evenings. Dancing and verse and music, so much music. Every night we watched the moon floating in the lakes like a treasure to be netted and wished this would never end. I did, anyway. The celestial blush of the peaches we ate, twisted off the branches as they ripened; nothing like the specimens you find at Whole Foods, trucked from one coast to another to be stacked into mealy pyramids.
But then, in the era of Shang, such a mistake would have lost me everything. The world I am in now is far more forgiving, even for fox spirits.
My husband is in love with his best friend, who is in love with a boy she met eighteen months ago outside an art museum when she dropped a glove on the street and he snatched it up and ran after her. I can’t tell whether either my husband or his best friend knows this, the fact of his love, which shimmers in his hair and on his hands like deep-sea phosphorescence. The way he watches her walk across the room; the way he listens to her speak as if he’s listening as much to the sounds of her voice as what she’s saying. It seems obvious, but mortals can be purposefully dense at times.
What I can tell, because she might as well have tattooed it across her sceptical brow, is that the best friend doesn’t like me. She believes that I’m in it for the prize of living in her leaking cruise liner of a country: why else would I travel seven thousand miles from China to marry a man I’ve never met? It’s a fair question.
I realised this about my husband at a house party instigated by my husband’s friends so they could find out who my husband had married. Something else I learnt there: that a house party in Brooklyn, New York, the United States of America, circa early-2000s A.D., refers to a mortal gathering in an undersized apartment where people drink microbrewery beer, smoke low-grade marijuana, and comment ironically on television shows, politics and each other’s lifestyle choices. The music is pre-recorded, adrift like a ghost through the rooms, and its disembodied singers are blasé about enunciation. This is very charming, I said to my husband, and he glanced at me as if he thought I was being sarcastic or perhaps had confused my adjectives.
My husband had told me about this group of friends—how they met in college, how they talked each other into moving to New York afterwards, how they didn’t hang out that much anymore but would always be close because of everything they knew about each other, because they had seen each other become the persons they were now. “They will want to meet you,” he kept saying, in a way that made it clear he was aware such a meeting would be inevitable but he would continue to delay it for as long as he could. They knew he was married because he had texted their chat group the day we went to City Hall. At first they responded with raised-eyebrow and eye-rolling emojis; and then, after he sent them a selfie of us holding up our marriage certificate, they started calling. He turned off his phone. “In case you haven’t noticed,” he said as we exited the city clerk’s office through a side door, ignoring the men standing on the sidewalk with cameras who asked us if we wanted to have our picture taken for a fee, “I’m bad at confrontation.” I understood: he was embarrassed. Not of me, but of himself, and how we had met.
My husband’s best friend is part of the group. For several years my husband shared an apartment with her, and then she met the boy who retrieved her glove and they began dating and eventually moved in together. Until the party I knew nothing more about her. My husband never spoke of her except when he had to in order to explain chronology or why there was a wooden salt shaker with a girl’s laser-cut likeness in the back of a kitchen cabinet (she kept the pepper shaker, which had his likeness). From his silence alone I should have guessed.
The boy my husband’s best friend is dating is a musician. He plays the viola in a chamber music group, and he teaches at a music school that I could tell was famous from the diffident way he said it. He was the gentlest person at the party. I couldn’t help myself; I asked if he had ever heard of the pipa. He hadn’t, of course, so I told him about it, its strings and frets, the curvature of its neck and body, the resemblance to the Occidental guitar—and, for that matter, the viola. I knew the finest pipa player in China, I said. Her playing could move kings and demons. I noticed he was starting to look uncomfortable. Figuratively speaking, I said.
My husband’s best friend came up to us and cinched an arm around the musician’s waist. If she were a spirit she would be a hound, salivatingly vigilant about marking her territory. “What are you talking about?” she asked.
A friend I left behind, I said, and just to be able to invoke my knowledge of her felt like a gift I didn’t deserve, even after all this time.
Toward the end of the party I indulged my curiosity and let myself listen to what everyone else was saying about me.
In the far corner of the living room, where my husband was standing with the boy he played Dungeons & Dragons with, I heard: “Dude, she is ridiculously fucking hot.” In the kitchen the host of the party asked, “How long do you give it?” Outside the building, the host’s fiancé lit a cigarette—I heard the silvery scratch of the lighter’s wheel—and said, “That’s a desperate move, ordering a wife off Amazon.”
The best friend, in the kitchen: “I can’t answer that question. It’s too depressing.” Dungeons & Dragons boy: “The other women on the website—did they all look like that?” Outside, the autumnal scent of smoke curling through the halogen-tinted night as the girl who was visiting from Michigan—and the pretext for the party—said, “I don’t know. I mean, she looks like a supermodel. And her English is really good.” (I learnt the language from a British missionary during the time of the Opium Wars. In exchange I liberated him from all that nonsense about original sin.)
The best friend, again: “You know what’s the worst part? That he felt he needed to do something like that to be happy. Or less unhappy, at least.”
The musician: “What about her?”
And my husband, he said nothing at all.
One version of what happened: my husband wanted a wife and he went to a website offering to match Asian women with American men. Maybe he bought into the submissive-Oriental myth, or he calculated that he would have higher odds this way of landing someone ridiculously fucking hot, to borrow his friend’s phrase.
Another version: I was searching for a way to escape the short straw of the birthright lottery that I had drawn. My husband is the patsy, and once I get my green card I will leave.
Here’s a third version. As a demon spirit, I can only tether myself to this mortal world with a human life. The unfortunate side-effect, for this human, is that he forfeits half of all the time he spends with me—but mortal lives are so brief anyway, what’s a lost decade or two?
And a fourth. I wanted to leave China but wasn’t sure where to go, so I let fate decide. I used to despise fate, that self-absorbed, incompetent cosmic bureaucrat, but now it’s a relief to abdicate responsibility. I created profiles on nine matchmaker websites—seduction is my skillset, after all—and waited. When my husband contacted me I could smell the spoor of his loneliness, and I thought: this one. This one I can help.
There are as many versions of this story as there are ways to lose the thing you want most in the world.
I suspect that, as a result of being effectively immortal—assuming of course that I have a mortal handy, but that’s never been an issue for me—I experience time differently from most. It’s come to feel a little like walking in circles, always in one direction, through a vast landscape. I can never turn around, but after a while I start seeing the same sights all over again. Mostly it’s the green indifference of grasslands, swaths of time vanishing without my even noticing; but now and then I hit a cliff, or a chasm, and I have to pick out my path the way mortals do.
My American adventure is shaping up to be one of those obstacle courses. It’s been a while. I did my best to ignore altogether the period of time that the mortals refer to as the twentieth century. The European and Japanese invasions were depressing enough, but what ensued after the Chinese had banished all the barbarians and had no one to set upon except themselves was enough to make me weep, once or twice. (And whenever I did I made sure to save my tears and seal them in vials smelted for me by the greatest silversmith of Han. We don’t like to advertise this—it undermines our image—but the tears of a demon spirit are almost as valuable as a C-list deity’s blessing.)
The Long March, the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution. Human labels for inhuman events. I thought maybe I would wait for China to break apart and reforge itself, the way it always has. But when the beasts with metal claws arrived at the base of my mountain, and the men in their bright yellow helmets, I knew it was time. I’ve seen enough conquering armies to recognise when they will be victorious.
My own group of friends, from the era of Shang: a nine-headed pheasant, and a jade pipa. I know, not the company one would expect a self-respecting nine-tailed fox to keep—and I must admit I was a little stand-offish at first. Foxes hunt pheasants, after all; and who the hell had ever heard of a pipa spirit? But it turns out, conspiring to destroy a dynasty by seducing its emperor is a remarkable bonding experience.
I don’t know when I began to watch her walk across the room, to listen to the low, liquid sounds of her voice when she spoke. Once we were behind the partition undressing for the emperor and I couldn’t look away from the long, moon-lit curve of her back. That night the emperor chose her and I almost killed him in nine different ways: my claws in his eyes, my tails around his neck, my teeth everywhere. When I remember that now I think I must have been mad. Throwing aside our mission, spiting the reason we had been sparked into being, not to mention irretrievably pissing off our goddess—for what? this sudden, inexplicable sensation of a stone being rolled onto my chest, as if there could be any stone in the world heavy enough to contain me.
Except. As he led her into his bedchamber, she glanced at me over her shoulder like she knew what I was thinking, and she wished that I had.