The light from the Weaver’s aurora illuminated the dirty smoke rising from Chinatown; the snaps of the dhobis slapping linen against river banks cut through the early morning mist like rifleshots. Qian sat with her legs dangling off the edge of the lighthouse platform. Below her the city yawned, stretched, and went back to sleep. The sun wasn’t out yet, and in the cusp when day chased night across the sky lay the best time to see the Weavers. Fingers deftly manipulating clouds into a filigree of shimmering light, slowly pulsing through the spectrum and beyond, the cloud mesh a ward against attacks from above. The eighteen hells alone knew Singapore needed it, with the forces of the Chrysanthemum Throne casting their eyes south from China, through French territory, through Siam and Malaya, all the way down to Singapore herself.
Only at dawn did the lazy daylight match the Weave in brightness, so that the figures atop it were just visible against the brightening sky. There may have been ten or twenty of them in the sky, but all were superfluous to the one Weaver that Qian knew was on duty today.
Her engineer hands were steady as she fit the stubby candle in a frame woven of light bamboo strips within a box of light rice paper. The lantern took to the sky, buoyed by heated air from the candle. Qian watched as the guttering speck of light joined the stars in the sky above. And maybe—although truly it was impossible to see with anything but her heart at this distance—that her Weaver claimed the lantern.
Brother Ox was warm under her legs, even through the rough canvas of her overalls. When he exhaled, the greyish exhaust puffed over his back, and Qian smelled smoke that was acrid with the sharp tinge of sourness. It beat the lingering earthiness of nightsoil that trailed behind the hunched collectors, each carrying balanced buckets on thin pole across broad shoulders. Behind Brother Ox came the squeaking cart with barrels of water to slake the thirst of the city, one bucket at a time. Around her, the sun-blackened backs of labourers; coolies from China, stripped to the waist to combat the heat. Without Brother Ox, she would have been storm tossed in a sea of glistening limbs. On her companion, with his iron hooves the size of plates, even the cars had to give way.
Qian hauled water in the mornings, drawn by hand from wells and loaded onto slopping barrels, from Ann Siang down to where she was now. The wisdom of crowds had dubbed this road Ox Cart Water, after the droves of wagons like hers. In return for water, she collected dirty coinage, half and quarter cents of Straits currency. This didn’t pay the bills, not completely. More than anything it got Brother Ox out and about, allowed him to stretch his joints. The extra money helped with little luxuries, like lanterns that didn’t come back.
“My shoulder is still stiff,” lowed Brother Ox, puffing smoke from his nostrils, wafting dragonoil towards her. After the way of all his kind, his speech was musical, a series of notes given meaning by scholars. There was a commonality to musical speech, whether the mechanical beast was a bullock, or a horse from the steppes, or a great white bear from the north. Scientists published voluminously about it and some of that intellectual warfare trickled down to lowly engineers such as Qian. Less now, that the world had real war to worry about.
“I’ll fix it back in the shop after our run,” she said back, rubbing at the dull iron of Brother Ox’s haunch as though it were muscle and sinew that powered his lumbering steps and not steel and dragonoil. The shop was where Qian worked through the day, barely a workshop, barely enough for a fledgling engineer, without the shelter of gangs or guilds, no clan or kongxito fall back on. She preferred it that way, with just her gut and cobbled together knowledge from her parents, with handed-down tools and others scrounged and traded. A junkyard engineer, but with an eye for delicate artisanal work that kept her afloat out of the edifice that had grown up around all other formal engineering. Her shop was just a sleeping space vacated by female labourers, Samsuiwomen who wrapped their heads with red scarves and worked from dawn till past dusk, hauling brick and mud along with men from back in China.
“Work has been poor,” said Brother Ox, his notes lower than usual, a statement of fact. Mechanical beasts were noted by most to be soulless, humourless automatons, but Qian put that down to laziness and more than a hint of bigotry. The beasts were expressive in their own way; sardonic, as only creatures with hides of iron could be; sadder than the bounce of rain off a tin roof. It was all in the pitch and roll of the music. Most people had neither the ear nor the patience to listen for it.
“They say war’s coming, with the Iron Reich in Europe and the Children of the Chrysanthemum Throne up North. I hear they have set their sights on Singapore too. At least the British are still here to defend us,” said Qian. If the British wouldn’t hold the crown jewel of their Empire in the Orient, what else would they do? There was silence between them amidst the early morning chatter of the crowd, and the relentless thud of steel hooves on dirt.
“The war in the continent does not go well. I hear from the other beasts that we have but a pair of Leviathans in the harbour, and only gun emplacements besides. Do you think Singapore is more important to the British than the throne?” Brother Ox snorted, and people might go on about mechanical beasts being less emotional than door hinges, but oxen were champion snorters. It was some mythic quality inherent in their form, and their snorts were quite near a separate language.
Around them the crowd shuffled on, sweating flesh and clanking steel alike, and death waited on the other side of the ocean.
Qian was a paradox; amongst the few in the first generation born in a new land, fresh faces like hers were uncommon. Yet she found solace in reshaping ancient metal into intricate gears; nursing the tiny, battered reciprocating engines which sipped dragonoil, exhaled exhaust and gave life to the mechanical creatures that moved the world.
The morning wind had snatched her daily lantern from her fingers and whipped it around until the delicate paper skin tore from its wooden skeleton. The tattered lantern at least had the mercy of the ground to aspire towards; Qian, equally buffeted by life, had no such hope. Her nine and a half fingers told her story: dirty grease under short, split nails; skin callused by a resolute grip on rough tools. With those hands she adjusted, tightened and twisted away at Brother Ox’s leg, detached from his body and on her workbench.
Brother Ox was not discomforted by his disassembly, stalwartness a feature of form rather than of design. Qian had worked on songbirds and mechanical lapdogs, and those beasts fretted most annoyingly when they were taken apart.
“There will be other lanterns,” said Brother Ox, from across the workshop, gears visible from the socket where his left leg had been removed. The engine that was his heart and stomach combined was idling, his exhaust but a trickle of tired pale white smoke, instead of the sooty darkness of hard work. Qian paid intense attention to her work, losing herself in the feel of articulating joints calibrated just right to support Brother Ox’s bulk. “I could tell you why you do this every day,” said Brother Ox.
This, at last, piqued her interest. There was no one else who could understand her yearning for the Weaver above. Enigmatic and aloof, the Weavers were a contribution to the defence of Singapore from China, although they themselves were under threat from the armies of the Chrysanthemum Throne. Deep in the hinterlands of old China, where the mountains were tall enough to touch the clouds, kingdoms of fairies still survived. The Weavers but were one of many skilled artistes from those kingdoms, particularly suited for the task at hand.
Qian watched, below the darkening sky, as the Weavers worked tirelessly, blending magic and cloud into a shifting aurora that the bombers could not penetrate. She couldn’t explain why she sent the first lantern, nor the one she’d lost this morning. Someone had to tell the Weavers thank you from below, even if the lanterns couldn’t reach the sky, or if the Weavers could not read the base script of humans.
“Tell me how you know more about me than I do about myself, Brother. And seriously, or I’ll affix your legs backwards so that you’ll have to present your rear end to the world everywhere you walk.”
“The world is a wider and deeper place than you can perceive, Qian. Your brief life as a human isn’t the sum total of your existence. Your actions reverberate across time and space. Your song has echoed since the beginning of all things.”
“So an ox is lecturing me on reincarnation and karma now. Perhaps you should don saffron and join a temple.”
“We are never what we are here and now; we contain worlds and multitudes. We come from so much more. I am more than an ox; you are more than a herd mechanic,” said Brother Ox, low and serious. Qian ambled over on her knees, holding the loose leg up to the socket in Brother Ox’s haunch, the heat from his engine heart leaking out and coating her grease stained hand with sweat. She began securing limb to body with a heavy wrench, taking comfort in the solidity of the work.
“You yearn for the heavens and the Weaver boy because you were a star, Qian. You’re incomplete down here on earth.”
“If I’m a star, then you’re a dragon,” said Qian, giving Brother Ox’s side a thump with the wrench; the sound, like his words, booming but hollow. Next, she decanted a pitcher of pearlescent dragonoil and began to top up Brother Ox’s tank.
“Dragons. Nobody talks to us beasts. You don’t even question why you call it dragonoil, why it’s valued above the rude derivatives of black oil that runs in automobiles. Our bodies and bones and souls rotted underground, where the roiling pressure of the earth pressed us into the form you see. The fire gives us life but for a while, before we pass on in smoke.” This was perhaps the most Brother Ox had said about himself in Qian’s dealings with him, ever since she’d inherited the antique beast from her parents, her bequest and the first step in her journey of oil, exhaust and grease.
“It’s a brief second life then, measured in engine cycles,” Qian said.
“Better to fly free for a little while than to linger in the dark beneath the mountains. If you have to choose, choose life. Or love. You won’t be far wrong.”
Qian snorted in flat imitation of Brother Ox and capped his fuel tank. The functioning of these beasts remained a mystery; even the most loquacious of them liked to wrap their secrets up in riddles and myth, and scientists still strove to understand their secrets.
“And what do I, a star, have to do with cloud-weaving fairies?” she asked.
“He’s a star too, of course. He knows it. I know it. Only humans with your preoccupation with the present cannot see. Would you like to see him, your little Weaver star?”
Yes, Qian wanted to say. Yes more than anything; yes to be away from being at the mercy of clans and gangs; yes to be above the quicksand of poverty, the slow panic of hunger. She didn’t need to speak. Her eyes answered for her.
“The Governor will be holding a party on the lawn of the Istana for the officers of the British Army and for the regiment of fairies sent by the Jade Emperor to aid the war effort in the south, or so the British warbirds have told me,” said the Ox, getting to his feet and causing the floorboards to creak.
“And what place does a herd engineer have at an empire ball?” asked Qian.
“I can think of no better guest at a military party than the ones they are beholden to protect,” said Brother Ox, and even Qian’s practiced ear could not tell if the animal was serious or not.
The Istana was the official residence of the Governor of Singapore, a pure white edifice in a tropical land which eschewed such pallor. Beauty from pain; not a single day’s wages had been paid for the building. Workers in chains raised the palatial frontage from the mud, a vulgar ivory tooth against the emerald jungle. The party was being held on the lawn, the heat of day lingering on the tips of rough grass nodding at the evening breeze. The crowd was mixed; Straits Settlements officers, military, high society and—at this Qian’s breath caught in her throat—the regiment of Weavers. Dark from their work above the clouds, faint lines shifting under their skin like smoke, the fairies were artisanally human shaped; features cleaner, necks longer, fingers more delicate than simple lineage would allow. Her Weaver was there, in the party. She feel him in the crowd, her entire body a compass needle straining towards him; such was the love of stars, Brother Ox had told her. Every star pulls on another and by that attraction balance is achieved. From outside the party, her Weaver might as well have been on the clouds. She had to get in.
Qian’s fresh linen trousers and baggy blouse felt light as breeze on her skin, but heavy on her conscience. Her clothes were a far cry from the slick cheongsams of the rich, brocaded with cloth buttons, with golden peonies or resplendent phoenixes embroidered onto the silk. Others wore Western dress, the wives of British officers hanging off the arms of their liveried husbands. Local servants flitted through the crowd, bearing trays of food and drinks in tiny glasses.
At the centre of this luminescent orbit: the Governor and his guest, the Mother General of Heaven. The Mother General’s defining feature was her hair, towering above her and doubling her height. Held together by combs of jade and needles of ivory, her hair was a palace; a throbbing light at its heart shone like a miniature sun, the brightness of which waxed and waned with the tempo of the Mother General’s tone. The Mother General wore an elaborate dress uniform of heavily embroidered silks and medals of rare gemstones and metals. A divine dragon and phoenix were patterned over her broad back, appearing to dance and chase each other with the movement of the Mother General’s generous musculature.
All this Qian took in from a distance, for her path was blocked by an enormous Indian guard, an imported soldier wide as Qian was tall, blocking her way with a rifle with bayonet so large that Qian could have wielded it as sword. The entire regiment had mutinied before she was born, but the British had been bringing them over in ever greater numbers. Better to be overthrown than to be invaded, it seemed.
Qian held up a bag of tools, speaking in rapid-fire Cantonese and gesturing toward where the officers must have parked their horses. Engineers were in demand in the army, but all they could conscript were unwilling tradespeople, slow and dull-fingered. Urgent repairs were often commissioned out to the clans and triads, whose indentured engineers were far better. A problem with an officer’s horse would certainly justify the appearance of a free agent like Qian.
Consternation and confusion fought under the soldier’s stoic visage; a situation which orders did not cover was not his idea of evening guard duty. All outcomes involved him being yelled at and the only thing within his control was the outlay of effort. He defaulted to the simplest solution.
Qian was in. In and closer. She knew not what her Weaver looked like, and the group of them navigated the currents of the party like a school of fish or a flock of starlings, turning and steering as one large organism.
There was no room in the hierarchy of the heavens for stars to love; even if Qian and the Weaver star could do nothing more than stare at each other across a river of sky. Yet even that distance seemed surmountable compared to the space between a simple mechanic and the lofty heights of society twenty paces away. In any case, each of the Weavers could have passed as the twin to the next, and the next one besides. Cut from the same cloth, without a hairsbreadth to separate them in height, nor a single feature out of place in their dark, beautiful faces. Qian knew her love was there, but even she could not tell them apart, and she could get no closer in her common garb.
There were still places where people like her could pass; she wandered around the servants, the cooks, the stablehands who stoked the idling engines of British warhorses, their cannons and guns stowed for the occasion. He was a star then, but a soldier now, Brother Ox had said to her. You cannot go to him, but a soldier is nothing without his uniform.
Qian left the party through the back of the cloak room, her blouse bulging at the waist, the rough cotton of her Weaver’s dress tunic tucked safe by her skin. She’d chosen it from twenty sets, identical to the eye but not to Qian, who felt the ghost of a pull from a single piece, the same feeling she had for her Weaver. If she could not go to her Weaver, he was coming to her.
Her Weaver found her past midnight, at the tower where she sent lanterns skywards. Even up close, he was indistinguishable from his fellows, with his features and proportions at once perfect and inhuman.
“You found me,” he said by way of greeting. There was no need for introductions, not between the two of them. Qian could detect harmonics in his voice reminiscent of Brother Ox’s musical speech.
“I don’t know why or how I did it,” said Qian, her contribution to the record of grand romances through the ages.
“Because your form can’t remember the reason for our punishment. The Jade Emperor himself forbade our love and tore us from the sky, reborn to herd oxen and to weave, as were our namesakes above, and still fate brought us to this island. Now you strive upwards; I can only receive your lanterns and pray that your efforts do not bear fruit, because misfortune will surely follow.”
“But you came,” she said.
“I’m a fairy, not a god.”
The pair of them sat, looking up to the heavens where the other Weavers had returned to their work, the wispy lights cycling through the spectrum and back. Weaker now, for the lack of one of their number. Moonlight was bright enough for Qian to read his features: long straight nose and high cheekbones, wispy lines moving under his skin.
“So you and your brethren will save us all? Will the weave work?” Qian asked.
“Mostly, but the Japanese have landed up north, and we barely held off their tengu the last time they came in the air.”
“Not planes? The Japanese have brought yokai to bear?” Yokai, Qian thought, fantastical beasts just like the Weavers. Humans, mechanical creatures and magical beings, caught up in this war to end all wars.
“Yes, the yokai and we, the yaokuai, are close cousins,” answered Weaver.
“And still you fight.”
“In that we are no better than you.” At this, his eyes widened, the clarity of the moonlight allowed Qian to see the liquid gold of the fairy’s pupils. “The tengu are coming. I need to go back.”
Qian handed his tunic back to him; her fingers, so used to oil and grime that the whorls and eddies of her skin were permanently visible, brushed the Weaver’s. His fingertips were as cool as the air above the clouds.
“Will you be punished?” Qian asked, not letting go of the heavy cloth.
“The Mother General has the temper of the Yellow River. Her channels are known, as are the times she bursts her banks. She has no jurisdiction over you, but the Governor will be happy to assuage her anger. I will be punished, but it is you that must stay away.”
Beneath them, the first bombs hit in blossoms of fire and curls of smoke.
By the time Qian got home, she was soot-streaked and breathless. Buildings had been hit, reduced to little more than smouldering rubble. A chorus of pain and sadness mingled with dust and ash in the air.
The row of shophouses she’d once called home had collapsed. Rescuers were pulling bloodied bodies out of debris and there was little distinction between the living and the dead. It was only when beams had been cleared and the four youngest of her eleven housemates had been pulled out that Qian saw the means of their salvation.
Brother Ox had borne the weight of the falling house on his back, affording the Samsui women shelter from the debris. It had taken its toll, and Qian sat by him, stroking his cracked side, dabbing at leaking lubricant.
“I could fix this, Brother Ox. Your fire would be out for a day, two at most,” said Qian.
“You could fire up the engines again, and this shell would speak and move, but it would not be me,” replied Brother Ox, settling, after the manner of his kind, to the ground.
“Then what is left? You said to choose life.”
“My time here is done. The war grows. I also said to choose love. Who is going to fight for your Weaver, if not you?”
“What can I do? I’m just a cow mechanic.”
“And a star. As a dragon, I’ll fly again someday, and so will you. I’ve died a hundred times, crossing into the dark holds no fear. My fire is growing cold, and you never get used to being alone. Will you sit with me?”
And she did.
The Mother General of the Heavens was dressed for war in a soldier’s tunic and trousers, with only the elaborate brocaded dragon epaulettes at her shoulders indicating her rank. They writhed and growled at Qian across the courtroom. The Mother General’s hair was as elaborate as ever, with black lacquered sticks replacing jade and ivory. The tiny sun above her head blazed, painful to the eyes, but her voice was soft and controlled.
“So Cowherd Star, after all this time on the island, you distract my Weaver at the worst possible time. And now you appear to offer evidence where none is needed,” she said from the high chair from which she presided over the court martial of Qian’s errant Weaver. Qian’s beloved was in the dock, his smoky skin in rough grey prison attire. The surprise air raid had taken more than sixty lives.
“My evidence is relevant. It was I that stole from the Weaver, and lured him away from his post. Surely the Mother General values justice above protocol,” said Qian, eyes suitably downcast. Civilians were beyond the jurisdiction of the Mother General’s court, but Weaver was not and Qian was his only hope.
Choose life, choose love, he told her, and you will never be wrong. So she chose this, to present herself up to the mercy of the divine court.
“Little Cowherd, you are not on trial. The Weaver is, for dereliction of duty.” The Mother General bent forward and said, so softly that Qian could see the crowd lean to catch those words, “Perhaps after the war we can decide what to do with you, Cowherd star. I will petition the Jade Emperor to have the Weaver star reborn as a worm at the bottom of the sea, and you a mountain goat, that you will never meet again. That should stop you.”
Qian had no answer for the Mother General, but she knew that nothing the Mother General could do would be enough.
“No, I know it will not suffice to split you as far as heaven and earth. Not even the distance of sky could stop you. Very well—”
“Then I offer you a solution. You cannot afford to punish Weaver. If you or the Governor punishes me, you would lose him just as surely.”
The Mother General was not used to being interrupted, and her light had darkened to a slow burning blaze, a throbbing glow like an angry scar. She gestured at Qian to go on.
“So I give you myself. Weaver shall not come to earth, but he will always have something to protect. I will serve with the army and lend my skills and tools to the defence of the island.”
The Mother General’s light hesitated, flickering, and then pulsed. Despite her serene death mask of a face, Qian could tell that the other woman was laughing. There was no humour there—the being at the head of the court had no such facility—merely the grudging laugh of a master unexpectedly surpassed.
At least the Mother General let them say goodbye.
The war grated on. The Governor had first made a proclamation for all mechanical beasts to volunteer in the fight, and when that failed, he sent out a conscription notice. Those with means had long since fled over the sea to the south, running ahead of the blockade to Dutch territory. It was only some time later that the actual rats abandoned the island.
Qian had all the tools she needed now and the Army’s workshop was easily double the space she had before. She spent the days grafting death onto beasts. Guns, cannon and blade to horses; sharpening the teeth of tigers; even seeing the occasional ox. The Mother General sent them all up to be reduced to scrap. The forces of the Chrysanthemum throne would not be long in coming; armies of men, of oni, of tengu and worse.
Her days were a breathless rush of tinkering, jury-rigging and repairs; the workshop bustling with the complaints of the great metal beasts. Things settled at night, and she preferred the security of the shop floor to the curfewed streets. Nights were quieter, now that she was through making lanterns. Nothing else needed to be said. But she allowed herself time to look to the heavens, to see the broken and tattered weave of clouds above, and to allow herself hope because she still felt her Weaver.
As for Brother Ox, Qian spent her breaks sitting in his shade while she sipped tea, and although he did not answer, she spoke to him anyway. With the war at its zenith, there was little more she could do to keep her promise to the Mother General.
But she still had her tools, and she still had Brother Ox. And she could still choose.
There were many beasts in her workshop that could serve no purpose in war. From them she asked a greater sacrifice, to which most agreed. Brother Ox must have gotten her story out; even in death he was laying the way for her.
So she chipped away at his hide for material, at his innards for gears, for springs, for bearings. This she fitted onto all those that volunteered, an army for her own battle.
Brother Ox would have wanted to help. Qian ran her fingers down what was left of his scarred steel hide one last time; that dragon would fly again.
She worked as the city died by pieces, abandoned by residents in favour of bomb shelters.. The air raids had stopped. Qian missed the wail and whoop of the sirens, a soundtrack to her work of stitching steel to tiny engines, to adding and enlarging wings. Her previous work was for war, her contribution slowing but not stopping the advance of the invasion. Even now she heard the rhythmic pounding of artillery. Above her, ragged and stubborn, the Weavers still guarded the sky.
Qian rubbed what was left of Brother Ox: his immense skull and beyond that the great engine of his heart, cold forevermore. Brother Ox was never coming back, but Brother Ox would never really leave her.
She threw open the doors to her workshop. Exhaust and metal shavings billowed out and mixed with the dust and desperation of the street. Curfew was in effect, but who was left to enforce it?
She could have run, but her Weaver was still above and the city would soon fall. She could still choose.
Qian chose love instead.
Behind her, Brother Ox, in all his myriad forms, large and small, powered by the dragonoil engines of a thousand others, woke. A tiding of magpies, their wingbeats creaking with the scream of metal against metal, took to the sky, waiting for her. Brother Ox flew again, and in the chorus of wings, that cacophony of mechanical avian screaming, Qian thought she could hear the echo of Brother Ox’s own music. Nothing was ever lost; all that was left was to strive for the better.
Qian chose love.
And she took her first step into the sky, on a bridge made of song.
L Chan hails from Singapore. He spends most of his time wrangling two dogs. His work has appeared in places like Liminal Stories, Arsenika, Podcastle and the Dark. He tweets occasionally @lchanwrites.