I.
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.

II.

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.

III.

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.

* * *

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.

IV.

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.

V.

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.

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