Sit among the farmers. Here, tending mulberry bushes and silkworms, planting wheat, rice and gourds, the first storytellers were born. Remember, the best tales are not always those told at the imperial court.
—The Bamboo Storyweaver, Musings on a Spring Equinox
Summer is when we spend our days in the flooded rice fields, the fish tickling our ankles. Hours of planting stretching out like a bamboo stem in the wind. But there were never snakes before.
My older sister, Tai Kim, pulls me to the edge of the fields. The serpents’ long bodies are mesmerising: like twisted strands of hand-pulled noodles, knots in the muddy shallows. The hissing breaks the illusion, but still we urge each other to take furtive steps towards the teeming waters, certain they are but a mirage. A snake rears up at our faces, fangs exposed.
We run all the way home.
Tsang Daifu, the old medicine man, is in the house brewing the herbal soup that keeps my sickness at bay.
“There are snakes in the fields. Hundreds of them!” I say. My voice is unfamiliar to me, startling me as if from slumber. My eyes are drawn to the mole on his chin, the one that sprouts like a stubborn mould. They could write poems about it—I am almost certain someone has.
“After rainfall, the den is warm,” he says. Handfuls of caterpillar fungus appear from a pocket and are passed over to an earthenware bowl. My mother is shaving slithers of ginseng into the teapot.
“Are you listening? Snakes appeared from nowhere. Tai Kim, tell them!” I say. I look at her, the most sensible of us four sisters. Her mouth opens but before the words can chime, she frowns. Her face flits through a series of emotions and then her lips clamp shut again. Finally: “I don’t remember.”
“See? Climbing mountains, mist-shrouded vision, the fawn wondering what she sought,” Tsang Daifu says through yellow-stained teeth. A mouthful of rice husks, my mind whispers. I hear the phrase ringing across a courtyard, a laughing crowd demanding more.
I hate everything about him. The noise of his shuffling slippers and the hollow gourds rattling against each other. His brown-stained fingers holding up scales that shake under his ministrations. Pinching my nose and pouring viscid soup down my throat until I learn to do it myself so I can spill as much as I dare down my front. The heady scent lingering on my clothes for days. He is always here, as constant as the seasons come around.
I push open the shutters and point. Point and then stop, my eyes disbelieving the calm before me. The men and boys are tanned and sinewy against the vibrant green fields. Chatting in the beating sun as they sweep woven baskets into the shallow waters. Flashes of silver fins flutter in their nets. Nothing out of the ordinary.
“But… but I saw them.” Even I hear the doubt in the corners of my voice, the hesitancy tipping me into uncertainty.
“Stories for children.” The medicine man puts a bony hand on my shoulder. “The locusts swarm in angry fists, the bamboo yielding under scythes, the modest girl makes the hearth and loom her home. Your place is here: planting the rice, harvesting the crops.” His words were out of place, like pieces of iron on a forest floor.
“Aiyah,” says Auntie. She shuffles forward from the shadows, her familiar face a balm. She moved in after her husband died. Prematurely aged, her hair is speckled silver at the roots and her expression is an ever-changing mask. “No time for tales? What else will fill the days we spend breaking our backs? Dreams, stories, lives we have not yet lived—are the only things that keep us going.”
“All the stars—” he starts.
“All the stars do not live here,” Auntie snaps back.
My mother clatters the soup ladle loudly. “The mosquitoes are feasting today. And ah, I need to mend these old tunics for your little sisters.”
Tai Kim takes the cue. “Ah Ma, we’ll help with the sewing tonight. Come, let’s get back to the fields.” The last comment she directs at me.
“Go, take Auntie with you. Some fresh air will clear her head.”
I offer Auntie my arm and she pushes my elbow away. “Foolish girl. I am not yet old.” And yet her back is crooked from decades of planting and she can only walk with a shuffle. “He is scared,” she says over her shoulder when we are a distance from the house, “of Lady White Snake.” She looks at me as if she has called my name.
Tai Kim laughs. “Oh yes, the snakes. Perhaps Auntie’s stories last night have woven nightmares in our heads.”
“Lady White Snake’s story is boring.” The others turn to look at me, wary eyes that flicker in my direction until I realise the voice is my own. My hand rising to cover my mouth—or has it always been there?
“What makes that so?” Auntie asks. Her tone is lilting, a curious dandelion seed drifting in the breeze.
“She lives for a man, she dies for a man. Takes for granted the sister at her side.”
“Sister?” Auntie says.
“The green snake. She is Lady White Snake’s strongest ally, her friend, the only one who truly loves her. Why, if I was to tell the story, they would not slink into the grass and be cut by the swords of men. They would push back those who hurt them. Fight.”
“Tell the story then. Tell it the way you want.” Auntie’s eyes bore into me, blacker than an inkstone. She is the only one who encourages me. Who approves of imagining other lives.
I paint the picture with my words, a light brush across the paper. Wet my lips like dipping into the ink, long flowing phrases deftly pressed into the parchment. An image emerges. A white cobra with black eyes. Still in the thick humidity but like a sprung trap she pounces, fangs and coils gripping those against her. And the green snake, a viper. The little sister who gets things done.
I tell my version as I walk heel-to-toe along the bank to the rice fields. And my audience—my sister and Auntie—prod at me again and again. The colour of her scarf? The pattern on her scales? The words in her last goodbye? I repeat it, alter it, stitching in the details they want as we pull the weeds from between the rice stalks, until my tongue is dry and lips cracked. And we shine, all of us with our feet ankle-deep in the water, squinting into the sky, pushing back our straw hats to dream. We reweave the story until I swear I was there, that I am a noble lady and have lived in a grand residence too.
I turn and see Auntie decades on, in her old age: weak with a lingering lung infection, her head on a ceramic pillow and frail body encased in silk sheets. Ice-cold fingers run down my back and I cannot move, cannot breathe.
She reaches for me, as warm and solid as the calluses on my hands. “Where did you go?”
I shake my head, refusing to let the grief consume me. How can I mourn for someone who is at my side?
“You can go anywhere,” she adds. “Sit the imperial exams, become a yiao gui hunter, a warpoet, a martial hero. Do not let the past define you.”
Some believe women are too weak to be true poets. Their minds suitable only for delicate things: flowers and birds. This is the time for water hemlock and condors. Take out your thorns and snap with your beak.
—The Bamboo Storyweaver, Address from under a Magnolia Tree
In Autumn we use machetes, slicing through the stalks like snakes in the grass. Thresh the rice like joss sticks at the temple, overhead and down, the flapping wings of birds. There is an air of urgency in the village. People fixing window shutters and locks. Tools are sharpened, blades honed to a fine edge.
Even my younger sisters carry a wooden staff each, to defend against the invaders, they say. How long will the snakes keep our enemies at bay? they say. We needed an auntie, a grandmother figure with the authority to speak plainly where I cannot. But there is no such person in our household. I think them mad but they look at me like the problem is mine alone.
The air is yellow with dust and the smell of harvest. Tai Kim and I raid the fruit trees around our house, filling baskets with persimmons and crisp pears.
“The weaver maid and the cowherd were true lovers,” Tai Kim says. She bites into the orange flesh of a ripe persimmon, the juices running down her wrist and arm in rivulets. She sighs as if the taste is more profound than life itself. She used to be afraid. Scared of the dark, of slipping by the riverside, of spiders and snakes. These days she laughs at everything. She calls me a child, still playing with bamboo dragonflies and catching crickets like our little sisters. Says that I do not know what she knows about the world. She wears the two-year difference like it is a new snakeskin belt around her tunic, cinching in her waist before we walk outside. I am alone, wading in the river whilst she runs ahead.
Tsang Daifu appears. As if he is always there. He takes up the thread. “Set in place, their roles, their story. Returning heavenward the dutiful weavermaid; her companion always behind. The chasm of the silver road, a river of stars too deep to navigate.”
My sister looks over and completes the tale, speaking as if in one voice. “A thousand magpies fly wing to wing to build a bridge. For one night the two lovers are reunited, one night a year.” She sighs again. Her hands tight over her chest and her face turns towards the sky.
A cough surges through my body, cracked and angry. Tai Kim glares at me, the stardust falling from her eyes as she wipes her hands on her skirts. As if the malady is my own fault. As if I choose to be sick, endlessly drinking soup the flavour of burnt tea and soil. As if I have any control over it.
“One night?” I hear my voice say. “Built upon anticipation and expectation, who can climb atop that dais?” We would rub each other’s feet after long days on the fields. But when we fell out, I would dig my nails in, push them against the arch of her foot. A simple mistake, I would apologise as I needled her more. Who knows your weak points better than a sister?
“What do you know of love?” Tai Kim says.
“What do you?” I spin back at her. She is the fish who swam too far upstream, tail flapping uselessly in the mud. I continue, emboldened by her silence. “One disappointing night will lead to morning and a mournful goodbye, knowing they are never further apart than at that moment. A river of stars is also an ocean of darkness. The chasm between them grows deeper and longer as each year passes.” I glower at my sister and Tsang Daifu, as if to sear through them with a qiang. Heat prickles at my collar but I take it, hold it until it makes my hands burn and my mouth breathe fire.
I feel alive. More real than all my fourteen years. My voice echoes around us, bouncing back to my ears. The earth trembles beneath our feet. Something shimmers like an army crashing through the trees, the branches swaying together, yielding beneath the force. A shout, a cry of warning, but when I look, the others are frozen in place.
I know this for certain: Tai Kim marries. Builds a house with her husband at the edge of our village. Half a dozen children follow, and I feel like a stranger without her. The distance grows and the divide ever wider and deeper. Pushing me further into my books, my stories, my songs. I visit at New Year and Mid-Autumn, bringing brightly-coloured paper lanterns and silk kites from the city and she thanks me. Perfunctorily. Strange gifts from an official she no longer knows. Her children lower their gaze as if my wrath could pull their world asunder.
Ah Ma is running towards us, her hands over her mouth. “Did you feel that?” I ask my sister.
Her eyes spill like an overfilled cup of rice wine. “Wake up you fool, wake up!” Tai Kim shouts. And there are blue-black feathers woven through her hair. A flock of birds takes off, silhouetted like a calligraphy stroke across the grey. I look at my sister, uncomprehending, as tears roll down her cheeks. I wonder if the weavermaid of my imagination looks just like her.
An honourable opponent shows great skill and warrants respect. A dishonourable one may force you into stories that have no end. People write about the four great warpoets of our generation: the Iron Poet-Sage to the north, the Horseback Scholar to the west, the Jade Mountain Orator in the east, and the Bamboo Storyweaver of the south. Our words, deeds and disciples are scrutinised by rulers and peasants alike. But the true faces of the four can only be seen on the battlefield.
—The Bamboo Storyweaver, Selected Quotes from the River Dragon Battle
Winter is our time. The menfolk cut us with their comments, harsh as the rice straw left after the harvest. The work of the season is done and whilst we make baskets and mend clothes, we huddle together for warmth. Twist the dry stalks, folding them into sandals, mats, fans curved like bird wings. Wrap parcels of sticky rice in lotus leaves and cook them in bamboo steamers. We kick pebbles down the chasm, watching them strike and deflect off the sheer sides.
I am the eldest although I feel like a middle child. My two little sisters come to me each morning, holding curved short dao. I ask them whose weapons they have so brazenly taken. Tai Ngai shakes her head. “You gave them to us.”
My neighbours, my friends, they all have weapons. A sabre tucked into a belt or a knife within the folds of long sleeves. A guandao with its crescent moon blade. My father stands at the weapons rack, handing them out like red envelopes.
“Then where is mine, little sister?”
“You have all the weapons. But you have to use them. Tell us a story.” Everyone has stopped: the grandfathers at mahjong, the women mending clothes.
“Let me tell you about the Butterfly Lovers.” The village lets out a collective sigh. I will not talk of Red Cliff this evening. Tsang Daifu stares at me, his eyes narrowing although he says not a word. His nose is pockmarked as a lotus root and his earlobes droop down low. So easy to deride: even street orators compose couplets—ever more ridiculous—raising his ire.
“There was a woman, smarter than a man. But they would not take her seriously, not in her silks and with her face. So she hid herself within layers of lies. A story of being a man, a person respected and listened to. She lived in this lie for a long time, until she began to forget where it ended and she began. But people living long and contented lives do not make for interesting tales. So she went home—because of filial piety, because there are no happy endings, because the story requires it.”
“But this is a love story. You aren’t making any sense,” Tai Lok says. She dies before she turns twelve, a fever that never breaks. I make promises I do not keep, about doctors and money and being by her side.
“No, it’s about transformation. The lovers die and are reunited as butterflies; yes, because they break out of their cocoon. We are the caterpillars. But one day, we will fly.”
“Break free then, break free now,” Tai Ngai says in a voice that is not her own. She follows me to the city but does not pass the imperial exams.
A scream sounds from beyond the houses. Metal striking on metal and coarse voices reach my ears. My vision swims in colours and faces I recognise but cannot hold in my mind. Fingers push at my temples and my lungs ache as if I have swallowed mouthfuls of pebbles, the shards scoring my windpipe and resting heavy in my stomach.
Beyond the houses, behind the fields, there is a deep ravine. It has always been here. Carved east to west as far as the eye can see, it is a ragged sword stroke cut across the landscape. And from it pours hundreds of butterflies. Beating their iridescent wings, they rise up, the noise like arrows sailing through the air. A voice shouts for them to reload, but when I turn it is only the rustling bamboo leaves. I crumple to the ground, knees soft as dough. Blood in my spit stains the ground. Without looking, I know Ah Ma and Tsang Daifu are behind me. Ready. Always waiting.
Folktales are a collective voice often overlooked because they have no written form. But this is their key: change. The stories we tell and retell are strips of bamboo, woven into the basket that can be both full and empty. They mature with us— the green of youth, the russet of age— changing with each passing season.
—The Bamboo Storyweaver, Lessons in Oration
Spring arrives with a burst of peach and plum blossoms. Petals carpet the ground around our house, dropping in flurries from the branches. Has my sister had her baby yet? But which sister? I don’t … have any sisters. Faces flee like smoke wisps.
My mother watches me, her baskets filled with washing.
“Good health, Ah Ma, to you and father.”
“You don’t have a father,” she replies, eyes narrowing.
I laugh. “That rice bucket of a man who drinks too much and gambles away the money we make?” I do not speak to my mother like this, not in my youth or even years later. When I am in my forties yes, stable in my court position, wanting her to better herself and the lives of my siblings.
“No husband, no stories,” she says firmly. Her hand grips my wrist and I look down at the sudden pain of it. How strange that she has scholar’s fingers, smooth with unchipped nails. “The doctor is brewing your medicine. Get on with your work.”
The endless furrow lines bore into my skull as I plough: up and down, down and up. The field extends beyond the horizon. It will be dark soon and I still have work to do. We turn, the ox and I, both without complaint, the sound of feet and hooves as the only mark of our presence. He has no name, our trusted labourer. One of the villagers would have named him. Where are they all? There definitely should be more of us. More people tilling the rice fields, more people to share stories at night. But they are all gone.
The field is unploughed. The earth is pristine. We start again. Pink blossom petals carry in the wind and blow across my face. They land on the ox’s back and I wait for his tail to swing up and swat at them. It is the tail of a horse, sketched by an artist who has never seen oxen up close.
I walk to the house. The poor workmanship is clear now that my eyes are open. The roof, the windows—all new and precise as if built only yesterday. The chickens in the yard do not smell nor cluck. Fruit trees in autumn are convincing, but cherry blossoms are for palace grounds and parks. For people who have time to paint watercolours and listen to the guzheng playing from a pavilion. For those who have never lived the life I lived.
The door opens and Ah Ma stands beside the medicine man, a single cup upon a tray in her hands. “Time for your medicine.”
“What’s my name?” I ask.
She falters, her eyes flashing to Tsang Daifu for support before she stammers, “Tai…”
“If you start a story, do it with confidence. Fill the gaps with detail. Lacquerware? I’m no esteemed guest. A cracked bowl, a ladle or an open gourd—those I might have believed.”
My mother looks down at the tray. A pair of peonies curve across its surface. “Yes, you are correct.”
I have seen the tray before. I remember being in my chamber, as a trembling hand placed the teapot and cup upon my table, spilling hot liquid upon the rice paper. The unfamiliar maid had mopped it up with the corner of her sleeve, bowed to me then: once, two times, three times. The peony tray against her chest, a shield before her.
“You had me drugged?”
My mother laughs nervously, and now I see the face of the maid hidden beneath the mask. I offered my real mother rooms in my house, servants and money to do what she wanted but she shook her head and clung to village life. I bought the house for her, and the fields around it, giving her the deeds so no-one could chase her from the land. Even then she was aghast, embarrassed at her sudden change in status, at the way others looked at her.
Tsang Daifu moves forward, straightens his crooked back. His whiskers grow long to his waist. Silkworm eyebrows hang heavy on his forehead and the folded black fan in his hand taps sharply against his side. “You do indeed deserve the title, Bamboo Storyweaver,” he says with a condescending nod of his head. “Bending tales to your will without breaking them.” I recognise him now, the transformation not really surprising me after all. Of the four great warpoets of the kingdom, he is infamous for words that slide from his tongue and smother his enemies in rich brocade. My rival, whom I had goaded with every taunt. The maid steps to one side, her head respectfully lowered before her superiors. A disciple.
“And you, Iron Poet-Sage? They say you conjured a hundred charging elephants with only a gushi poem. Your pingshu is peerless on the battlefield and yet you drug me?”
“You seek to better me, daughter of the muddy fields and unbound feet? You do not deserve the honour of honest combat! If the bamboo does not yield, a true warrior knows when to cut it down,” he replies as he strokes his long beard.
“So you trapped me in my own childhood?”
“They say the great Bamboo Storyweaver is close to her people. That she visits the villages and recruits from dregs. I thought you would enjoy it: the life you should have lived if the natural order was correct. No need to fight it.”
Someone takes my hand. It is my mother—no, my sister—no, my aunt. “My life has always been a fight. Let us begin.” On the battlefield our words can change the course of combat. In dreams… I do not know what will happen.
The Iron Poet-sage snaps his fan against a tree branch. Petals fall spiralling, and he indulgently opens the fan, one section at a time, to catch them.
“Lady Meng Jiang was a flower, fragile as the untouched snow. Love and duty her only role. The perfect lotus blossom on a still lake, the wine sweet in her own home. Her loyal ox husband toiled, the length of the wall snaking before him, every penny sent home for her idle leisure.”
He is taunting me and yet I cannot help but rise to it. I continue the story. “She had waited patiently, as all women must. But she could wait no more. This was her story, and it was named for her and her strength alone.”
He smiles at me, the old doctor, the poet-sage. Like a hare I have put my neck into the snare. He continues, his deep voice commanding the very air around it as he makes a sweeping gesture to draw in my eye, “Her husband gone, nothing more than whispers on a spring breeze. She was lost, a splintered arrow in a forest. The Great Wall stretched tall and long, steep rocks chilled in the dying light. The sheer expanse she could not climb. Trapped in a dream, to retake her steps again without end.”
Green shoots push like fingers through the soil. Water trickles down the furrows and fish fry like arrowheads stream in. I can hear the noises of the village, the houses emerging from shadow. The calls of my sisters, waving me from the fields. Auntie, hunched over in the distance. My mother barking out our jobs. The smell of plums and fish, a heady concoction drying in the sun. I should get back to work now; I’ve a long day ahead of me.
My hand feels empty, as if I once held something in it. Whose hand did I hold? I bring my hands together. I need to remember. “Lady Meng Jiang would not give up. She dug with her nails, with her bare hands, and pulled out the smaller stones. She wept tears for a life wasted, for those who had worked on the wall, and for herself, waiting for another to fulfil her fate. Tears turned to a river, a river to a tide and she swept it down. A section of the wall fell, breaking beneath the torrent and revealing the bare bones.”
“Yes,” he picks up. “Her beloved’s bones, white as a full moon. But what life for her now? A broken branch from the tree. One choice remained—join him, an obedient wife in the hereafter.”
I laugh. He is retelling the story in its most popular form. A tragedy of love, just as Lady White Snake, The Cowherd and the Weaving Maid and The Butterfly Lovers. But folktales are never motionless. Pieces are lost, misremembered, rewritten. They evolve with the changing winds and I am the kite.
“She is women, waiting, cast aside. She is the labourer, worked to death without care or consideration. She is the people, angry and frustrated at the order of things.” Each word gives me strength and my voice carries across the void. Tremors vibrate from the soles of my feet into the ground and I can see the hairline fractures in the porcelain of the Iron Poet-Sage’s illusion.
“Lady Meng Jiang stood upon the precipice but she did not fall. She tore down the wall. Every. Last. Brick.” The earth responds to my word like an axe splitting down the grain of the wood. The trees are uprooted, the house collapsing into a mound of rubble. My words rend holes in his story, cutting through the rice paper to reveal what is behind. I feel more awake than I’ve ever been. He says something, words contorting his face as he screams across the growing distance, but I do not hear him. There is no purpose in listening to the drone of a mosquito.
The world is made anew. My calligraphy brush hovers above the fresh paper. I feel her slip a hand into mine. Ah Ma, Auntie, Tai Kim. The taste of lychee on my tongue, freshly pilfered from low-hanging branches and bursting sweetness in my mouth. If I strain my ears I can hear the thwack of a machete against bamboo stems, the chatter of low voices from the fields.
I have won. This battle and the many before. Fought those who doubted, who slammed the door and raised the ladder so I could not follow in their footsteps. I can return to my court life, to continue the unending war of words that he has begun. But the Iron Poet-Sage’s words are shadows of truth.
I feel their absence more keenly than the years and miles that separate us. The family I left behind. The strangers they became. The weight of it is uncertain in my arms. I could let them go, let the grains of rice slip between my fingers. Or I could weave a different story, retell my tale.
A familiar voice calls me.
It is nearly summer in my village.
The calligraphy brush touches the paper, weaving a new story.
Eliza Chan writes about East Asian mythology, British folklore and madwomen in the attic, but preferably all three at once. Her work has been published in The Dark, Podcastle and The Best of British Fantasy 2019. She is currently working on a modern fantasy novel about a flooded world. Find her on twitter @elizawchan or www.elizachan.co.uk