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I do know when: the first time she played for the royal court. She held her instrument like a lover and music spun from her fingers like shining bolts of silk, colours never before seen. She bound us all right where we sat. The emperor was enchanted, exactly as we intended, and it made me sick.
Afterward I asked her about the song she had played and she said she had made it up, thinking about the mountains where she was from. I thought, I said, and then paused, conscious of my ignorance in a way I had never been before. I didn’t think you were from anywhere.
She smiled and I wanted to touch my finger to the dimple in her cheek. I decided I was, she said. You and Pheasant should try it. Just because we are spirits doesn’t mean we have to remain unmoored.
All the things I could have said then. That us being spirits could mean nothing else. That there was no concept of choice in what we did. That thinking of ourselves as anything other than the tools of a goddess’s vengeance was A Very Bad Idea.
Tell me about your mountains, I said.
This was what we were: Nüwa’s soldiers, imperial concubines, demon spirits. If there was space within those corseted certainties for anything else, we didn’t know it. I spent three hundred years meditating in the drippiest cave in Guizhou (long story) before it occurred to me: friends, that was what we had been, the fox, the pheasant and the pipa. So simple, and so grand. The only ones I would ever have. By then we had made it into the myths and the histories, immortalised that way as well, even if none of the stories ever asked what we wanted. Which, to be fair, I couldn’t have answered anyway, not at the time. Everything I felt I ascribed to the darkness shifting beneath my borrowed skin. Just because we were indestructible didn’t mean we had a clue.
But each night after the emperor fell asleep she and I would walk together in the palace gardens, beneath the red haloes of the lanterns strung from the peach trees, between trellises of jasmine and beds of chrysanthemum that marked their sweet, blossomy scents on our skin, across the bridges spanning the gardens’ seven ceremonial lakes. I have never been so aware of time as I was in the shadow of those hours, wandering barefoot through grass or snow, my hand in hers. I remember thinking, more than once, that this must be what it was like to be mortal—constantly haunted by how quickly you were losing time when you had so little of it—and that it was terrible.
What secret are you and Pipa keeping?, the pheasant asked once. I see you leave every night.
We go on walks, I said. Since we don’t need to sleep, it seems like a waste otherwise.
The pheasant tilted her head and I saw the glowing outlines of her spirit-self in the air above her. Waste of what?
I said, not knowing what else to say, Our time together.
You sound almost like one of them, said the pheasant.
After Shang collapsed she said to me, We don’t have to go back to Nüwa. We can just— be.
Her eyes flashed jade-green and I felt as if I was falling from an immense height, but at the bottom there could be nothing but darkness.
So we returned to Nüwa’s temple, and our goddess condemned us for our cruelty. That was how you made us, I wanted to say, unable to take a step within the mortal realm without human sacrifice. And also—you ordered us to overthrow a dynasty. Did you really think we could get that done without collateral damage? Of course I said nothing: it was our destiny.
I expected Nüwa to unmake us the way she had made us, with a long-suffering sigh and a flick of her fingers. Instead she packed the three of us off to hell post-haste so others could do her dirty work. In the first court the Yama king ordered his guards to take each of us in turn to the Mirror of Retribution, to commence our separate trials. They brought the pheasant away first, with her bead-black eyes and that proud tilt of her head. When the guards returned the pipa took my hand for a moment. Her fingers were cool and callused, and I thought of glimmering nights, moon-watching, the songs she had played only for me. I had no words for what I wanted to tell her. They led her out of the room and I listened until I could no longer hear the press of her footsteps across the black rocks of the underworld. Above us a hundred years passed and all the mortals we had known were rotting into the ground.
In the tenth and final court of hell I refused to drink the tea of forgetfulness. The Yama king was disarmingly kind. You will not be able to reincarnate unless you do, he said.
I know, I said, but there are things I need to remember.
The Yama king shrugged. Your loss.
It didn’t work, by the way, not really. By the time I found the mountains she had imagined for herself, I had forgotten all her songs.
I’ve tracked her down twice in the past three thousand years.
Once: the third wife of a nobleman in the era of Tang, jade pins in the black brilliance of her hair, jasmines and chrysanthemums embroidered along the hems of her dresses. A gifted pipa player who performed only for her husband. Her feet had been broken and bound since she was six, and so she had to be carried in a palanquin whenever she left the house. She died in childbirth.
And again: a peasant soldier in Mao’s army as it shambled west and north from Jiangxi to Shaanxi, shedding skeletons and scruples along the way. Dirt seamed into her skin, lice crowning her hair, her eyes flashing with the conviction of another impossible dream. She had never heard the sounds of a pipa. A hundred miles from their final destination a cut in her sole became infected—by then they were walking through mountains and swamps with rags wrapped around their feet—and she died two days before they reached Yan’an, where the march would be declared a victory and the Great Leader would commence the next phase of his project to hollow out the heart of China.
I did what I could—her husband never hit her when he was drunk, unlike with his other wives; foraging in the fields and the forests she always found more than anyone else in her unit—but for the most part I could only watch. The absurd frailty of humans, dying from the instant they are born.
Still, on balance, maybe she made the better choice: free to try, and try again. I’m the one left chasing a backward glance, a hand pulling away from mine, an unmade promise, across the underside of history.
A couple of hundred years ago, as part of my English-language education, the British missionary made me read the Bible. Mostly I found it dull—too little magic, and none of the demons aside from Lucifer had any personality—but the story of Judas enraged me. How was that fair, I asked the missionary: obviously Judas was only acting as Jesus had instructed. The man obeys his god and for that he suffers the brand of the eternal traitor? I was so upset I refused to read any more for weeks. The missionary was alarmed by my vehemence, but also heartened—this was when he still held out hope of saving me, and he mistook bitterness for belief.
My husband’s best friend wants to get me a job. Her cousin is the director of a language school in Midtown and they’re looking for people to teach Chinese, Beijing accent preferred. “Is that something you might be interested in?” asks my husband. I can see that he’s not sure why his best friend has taken it upon herself to secure me gainful employment, and I want to tell him that it’s because he belongs to her and she’s guarding her territory, which now, by extension, encompasses me. I dislike the Beijing accent, which sounds like the speaker is looking down their nose at you and pinching it at the same time, but I say, “Yes. Please thank her for me.”
Most of my students are in finance and corporate law, learning the language because China is where fortunes are made now, once again. They want to know how to say things like conference call and preferred equity and share purchase agreement in Mandarin. Just say it in English with a Chinese accent, I tell them.
There are a few exceptions. I have a student whose parents were prominent Communists until they fell from favour during the Cultural Revolution. They came here as asylum seekers and settled in a small town in Ohio, one of only two Asian families. My student’s parents learnt English, adopted Western names, attended church, worked as dishwashers and house-cleaners, and never spoke to their daughter about anything that predated their arrival in America. Now they’re getting older, and she wants to ask them about the history they cut themselves out of when they left China. Why, I ask, reminding her to answer in Mandarin. She says, with her atrocious Midwestern accent, “It’s mine as well.” She hopes (switching back to English) that it will make her feel more substantial in this land which is the only one she has ever known but has never quite felt like enough.
Another student is dating a girl who moved to the United States from Shanghai when she was thirteen, and even though that was two decades ago he believes he will never be able to fully understand this girl unless he can understand the language in which she was formed. “She still dreams in Chinese,” he says, and then asks, almost like a test: “What language do you dream in?” I tell him the truth, that I don’t dream. “Everyone dreams,” he says. “You just forget when you wake up.”
During one of my lunch breaks I visit the art museum, the one that served as the austere white backdrop for my husband’s best friend’s happiness. Most of the artwork looks like it was created by savage children, but there is one that I circle back to, once, twice, and then one more time again before I leave. It’s a painting of the interior of a New York movie theatre, during a time when they were lush and ornate, curtained and chandeliered, palaces in their own fashion. But the focus of the painting is on the woman in an usher’s uniform who stands at the side, leaning against the wall. She’s not looking at the screen—probably she’s seen this movie a hundred times by now—but into the glowing darkness where the audience sits. Her hair is golden and her gaze is private, and I wonder about what she is thinking. I’m not sure what it is that moves me so—but maybe that’s not important; what matters is that I’m still capable of being moved.
The morning I leave my husband is still asleep. The light floods our room yellow through the window, and I imagine the city outside melting like an epic sculpture of butter. New York in the summer: worse than the Gobi Desert. My husband is snoring in that quiet, mannered way he has, as if apologetic about disturbing me. It’s funny how quickly you can get used to some things. The length of time I have spent with this mortal is a single pleat in an ocean, but for a while after this I think I will feel—unmoored, as my dearest friend put it—without that sound, or the stubborn bassline of his human heart keeping count for us both.
Before I go I whisper in his ear that his best friend will not stay with the musician. The musician doesn’t know her and he never will, not the way my husband does. I tell him to drink the glass of water that I have left for him on the bedside table, into which I have emptied the contents of one of my silver vials.
When he wakes he will believe that I have left because, having conned my way into America, it is easier to disappear than to continue with the sham. One more minor act of villainy to tack onto my record. He will drink the glass of water because it is there and he is thirsty, and then he will go to his best friend’s house and tell her that he loves her. I don’t know what she will say to him, but at least I will have given him the words.