by Nghi Vo
Locked in the back room of the temple, I had nothing to do but stare at my slippers. A pair of gold phoenixes arched across the red toes, carrying chrysanthemum blooms in their beaks and promising marital joy. The slippers had come from the mayor’s daughter’s wedding chest; they were far too fine for a fisherman’s family.
The jade-drop earrings were from the Deng family, who had ties with merchants in the city of Tsang, and the dress itself was made of stiff red silk taken from the home of Chin Zhou, the village’s greatest miser.
The mayor’s wife came in with a lacquer box and she opened it to reveal small, secret jars of paint. With white lead, she gave me the perfect pallor of a ghost, and then she swept powdered malachite mixed with mica across my eyelids. She painted my lips black with soft charcoal dust, and when she was done, she held up a a round silver mirror for me to see.
I examined my face in the glass. It was the first time I had seen my reflection in a proper mirror and not the river or a puddle. The paint made me foreign to myself. It erased every line in my face and when I frowned at my reflection, it became a caricature, a mask an actor might wear.
“You look beautiful,” she said encouragingly and I continued to examine my own face without looking up at her.
“This won’t make me grateful,” I told her.
The rain slapped the tin roof like an angry hand.
The Hu River flows from the cold mountains to the north and the great city of Tseng sits at the delta where it empties to the sea. Along the river’s twisting black length are dozens, perhaps hundreds of villages like the one I grew up in. We live and die by the river’s floods, and that year, the river would not stop rising.
The rains fell and the Hu River, usually as broad and complacent as a water buffalo in its wallow, rose from from its banks. Two young boys drowned in the flood, and it threatened to overwhelm the earthworks. After that, it would be in the streets, driving those who survived it high up into the mountains to starve.
The river needed a bride, our old soothsayer declared, and I felt a chill at the back of my neck when he said it. I had been in disgrace for so long that I had almost forgotten it, but the way that people glanced at me, and then glanced away again very quickly, I could tell that they had not.
My mother sat with me next to the stove for a long time without saying anything. For all we lived in the same house, we hadn’t spoken much over the past year. Now we sat in the darkness together and blindly, I felt her cold hand reach for mine.
“Well,” she said, her voice a dry croak, “you will get to wear such beautiful clothes.”
I wanted to laugh. It was ridiculous. It was obscene, it was ludicrous, but she was right. I would get to wear beautiful clothes.
I squeezed her hand. We had had so little to say to each other that now there was nothing for us to say at all, so we simply sat in the darkness, holding hands.
They brought me to the river’s edge in a sort of parade, with every man, woman and child from the village following along like it was the bridal procession of a princess. Han, the mayor’s eldest son, held a tasseled umbrella over my head against the pelting rain. It was a gesture, like everything else. In the space of eight steps, I was drenched to the bone, and I was spitefully satisfied that, dressed in silk, I was at least warmer than my honor guard. Then I thought of the silk weighed down with river water, carrying me down to the muddy deeps, and I bit the inside of my mouth hard enough to taste blood. Tears would cut through my paint like a knife and I refused to allow my village’s last sight of me be my face streaky with lead and tears.
By the time we reached the river, the hems of my skirts were laden with mud, and my makeup was dribbling down my face, tears or no. The river roared like a distant tiger, and when we climbed up to the high bank above the water, I could see the waves, black with dirt from the mountains and green with froth.
My father stepped forward, and it struck me with the force of a thunderbolt how old and frail he looked. He had been an iron giant my entire life, his voice and hand unyielding, but now I could see how he stumbled. My mother, who was only fifteen when she married him, would outlive him, perhaps by decades and I felt a deep pang I had not expected to feel.
He threw a flint knife into the river, one that had been gaily wrapped with red ribbons around the bone handle. It disappeared into the water and then he threw in a small bag of coins. Like my dress and my jewelry, they were taken from the richer families in the village. It might have been the most money he had ever held in his hands.
He turned away and he had to walk past me to return to the crowd behind. I tried not to make a sound, but I found myself reaching for him. He kept his head down as he passed, as he had for the past year, and I snatched my hand back.
I was a bride after all, and I walked stiff-legged to the ledge as the priest called down blessings on my union to the Hu River. I stood on the very tip of the ledge, the water ten feet below me but a single step ahead. A traveling scholar once told us that the characters used to spell hu could variously refer to the dewlap of a water buffalo, to rush forward madly, or to reach far into the distance. I looked down at the fast-moving water, thinking that somewhere south, it flowed out to the ocean, past the mighty city of Tsang. I had always wanted to see Tsang.
The priest was ending his blessing and I thought I felt the breath of the people behind me draw up at once. For a moment, there was a silence where we only heard the roar of the water and the blur of the wind.
I started to turn around, perhaps thinking that someone, my mother, my father, would stop this. Perhaps if I begged, perhaps if I screamed.
Then there was a hard shove between my shoulder blades and the dizzying, sickening sensation of the ground giving way before me. My sleeves were so heavy with rain that I could not raise them, and I fell straight to the water like a pebble falling to earth.
For a moment, the billow of my silk dress held me afloat, skimming on the surface of the water, but I could see nothing with my oiled hair falling into my eyes. I shouted with the shock from the cold, filling my mouth with river water, which I hastily spat instead of swallowing. I could only feel the cold as a lack of feeling, as if I had lost my legs and my arms entire, and then I could feel the power of the current as it whipped me away from the bank, dragging me down as my clothes and my heavy jewelry stopped me from flailing, let alone swimming.
Underneath the water, it was as dark as a cave, and I shut my eyes, keeping my single breath in my mouth as long as I could until my lungs felt as though they tore. I sank in the water, concentrating on holding my breath as only a fisherman’s child can, but then I had to let it go, feeling bubbles rush past my cheeks like soft pearls, escaping me, rising to the surface.
Well, I thought, closing my eyes, at least no one can see me cry.
I distantly felt a bump against my hip, and then there were a pair of terribly strong, terribly thin arms wrapped around my body. If I could have thrashed I would, but the arms turned me around then there were a pair of chilly lips on my own. I realized I was being kissed just as a round, beautifully warm object the size of a marble was pressed into my mouth.
Warm returned to my body by degrees, and by the time I was flexing my fingers, I realized I could breathe, and when I realized I could breathe, I saw that I was being pulled through the water at an astonishing speed.
We broke the surface of the water moments later and I got my first look at my rescuer when she dragged me up to shore. She had brought me to a stand of knot trees, where their deep roots dipped bare into the water and the weaving of branches above sheltered us from the rain. I lay gasping and struggling for calm on the hard roots and stared at her in wonder.
She was as tall as a man and entirely naked. Her skin had the color and translucence of blue flint, and her black hair draggled around her body like a scanty pelt. There was a monstrous beauty about her, one that made you catch your breath in disbelief and fear. She dropped me on the bank and I looked up into her narrow face, wondering if her smile would bare sharp teeth like a crocodile.
I spat out the round object from my mouth to my hand, and gaped at a large pink pearl, pale and perfect. The strange woman took it from me and casually chucked it back in the river before I could protest. Then she squatted down next to me on the roots, peering at me with her moon-round eyes.
“Now what are you meant to be?” she asked curiously, pulling at one of my earrings with inquisitive fingers.
Her voice was low and sweet with the distant burr of moving water in it, and I was so startled that the truth came out.
“A bride,’ I said, finding my tongue slow but warming rapidly. “A wife for the river.”
She laughed like the whoop of a loon, and I recognized her then. I had swam in her waters since I was a toddler, she had killed my older cousin Su, she gave us fish for the cooking pots and water for the rice paddies.
“Whatever will I do with a human wife?” the river Hu asked me, slapping a long-fingered hand against the roots. “What’re wives good for?”
“Plenty of things!” I responded, stung.
She looked unconvinced and I thought that a river wouldn’t have much use a wife to slop the pigs or tend the garden. It struck me how strange this was, how very odd it was to be chatting with a river while sitting in the mud in a red silk dress, but I shrugged.
Experimentally, I rose to my feet. It was a near thing with my shaking legs, but I stood and then I could strip off the red dress and stood in the white silk shift underneath. My skin was warming by increments, and I rubbed my hands up and down my clammy skin to warm it further. Like a curious child, the river Hu watched my every movement.
“Why did they send you to me, anyway?” she asked. She almost sounded petulant and I smiled with half my mouth, slightly painfully.
“I suppose they expected me to die for you.”
“Why would they do that?” the river mused. “Whenever I want a death, I can take it.”
I shuddered at that, thinking of those long arms wrapping around my chest and pulling down instead of up.
“Because they don’t know what else to do,” I said finally. “Because you are going to destroy them if they don’t do something.”
“I might destroy them anyway,” the river pointed out.
The anger and fear that had held me up let go in a bright burst and I slapped her hard across the cheek.
The shock of it traveled up my arm and I dropped my hand, stricken by my own temper, but she only stared at me, her round eyes going rounder.
“You struck me!” she complained. “Wives aren’t supposed to do that!”
“I’m not your wife!” I shouted. I was exhausted by the slap and the shouting and my head pounded like the blacksmith’s hammer.
“Yes you are,” the river said, nodding her head decisively. “Your village gave me to you.”
We stared at each other for a long moment, the pattering of the rain the only sound. We were like mountain deer that had locked horns and unless we came up with something, we might die there, staring stupidly into each others eyes.
“Will a wife stop the river’s flooding?” I asked cautiously, and she nodded.
“It is new. I’ve never had a wife before. What does a wife do?”
I could have laughed. Instead I thought carefully. She didn’t need someone to slop her pigs or clean her house, and I’ve never been inclined in that direction in the first place.
“Wives should be well-educated,” I said slowly. “They should know things about rivers, and alchemy, and cities. They should be… worldly and wise and clever.”
The river Hu considered me for a long moment, and her thoughts swam behind her eyes like fish.
“Are you all of those things?” she asked curiously.
‘Some of them,” I said as confidently as I could. “Not all of them.”
She looked skeptical, and I hastened ahead.
“But I could be. Oh, I could be a grand wife for you.”
“Could you now?” she asked and this time I thought I heard more interest in her husky watery voice.
“Oh yes,” I said, warming to the tale. “I could go learn everything the sages had to teach and hear every tale the storytellers sell, and dance every dance that the women in the city know. I could come back and teach them to you.”
The river was catching my excitement and her eyes lit up like swamp fire.
“I would bring back fire in paper, and new things to eat, and buckets of captive water from the city fountains.”
“Yes, do that!” the river said, clapping her hands. “That sounds just like what a wife should do!”
I laughed in spite of myself, feeling the edges of hysteria and fear fray at my nerves.
“Let me sleep a while out of the rain,” I said, “and then take me to Tsang, where you empty out to the Mother Sea. I’ll only be forty or fifty years, and then what a wife I shall make for you.”
Tsang spread over the delta valley like spilled coals, more people and more light at night than I had ever seen before. On my hip was a pouch full of wedding jewelry to barter for my food and shelter until I could find a living. I had traded the red silk dress for two full sets of linen robes, and the single remaining slipper for a sturdy pack to carry it all in.
The river Hu stood by my side, staring down at the city with me. At the delta, far from her source in the mountains, she looked thinner, but there was something exultant in her eyes when she gazed out to sea.
“And you’ll return? And bring me things and tell me the stories?”
“I will,” I promised.
“You’ll be a fine wife when you’re ready,” she said proudly. “You can tell me everything that a wife does.”
“Well, there is one more thing…” I said, fiddling with the strap of my pack. “One more thing that wives do…”
The river looked up eagerly, bright and curious.
In response, I leaned over and gave her a quick kiss on her thin mouth. She tasted of river water, but her mouth was warm and firm underneath my own. It was better than Luli’s kiss, which had gotten me in all that trouble in the first place, and it was a long moment before I drew away.
“Well!” she said in pleased surprise. “Go and hurry back then, if that’s part of what wives do.”
With a grin, I settled my pack on my shoulders and walked towards the city.More stories like this by topic: Asia, Authors of color, Characters of color, China, LGB characters, Vietnamese-American authors, Women authors