There were dead flowers by the foot of my parents’ grave—the same kind as the living ones I held in my hand: jasmines. No one found their bodies after their disappearance while on a trip to the neighbouring village, so their grave took the form of a fokienia with their initials marked on its aged bark. When I reached toward the flowers, my fingers passed through the wilted petals, expecting them to crumple, but they turned into wisps of smoke instead—dissipating.
“Měi . . . ” two disembodied voices whispered my name, the voices grainy, cracking, bouncing echoes in my ears. The hairs on my head tug against my scalp, rising with the goosebumps skittering across the rest of my body. This was not the first time they visited my parents’ grave, but their forms became more opaque, less translucent each time. Perhaps they had something in this would they have yet to let go of.
From behind the fokienia, my elder sisters stepped out of the shadows. Strands of lank, greasy ribbons streamed down their chalk-white faces, as though someone had splashed white paint over their entirety. Their bodies served as skeletal hangers for simple white dresses, which floated around their ankles. Where the whites of their eyes should have been, only black rimmed with red sclera remained. The smiles on their faces stretched wide, revealing teeth that were straighter than when they were alive—symmetrical cubes that looked glued on.
“Ér. Míng,” I called my sisters’ names.
Ér—the character in son—was the eldest. Our parents had high hopes that she would be male. Míng—the character in smart—was the second. If they could not have a son, they wished for a daughter who was at least smart. Míng was not. They named me Měi, beautiful. Since they believed our ancestors wrongfully cursed them with daughters, perhaps a beautiful one would fetch them a high price in the markets. Horses and cattle were of much greater value to farmers. My parents sold both my sisters like animals but passed before they could sell me, too. Ér and Míng were spiteful that I had gotten to live.
“Why do you still visit their grave, Měi?” Ér asked. Her hair drifted upwards, exposing the faded rope burns around her neck.
“The grave will soon disappear, anyhow,” Míng said. She tossed her head back as her laugh rang through the trees, slicing through the wind like the scraping of metal against glass. Though she had no burns, pale scars hid under the paint of her skin, like carvings etched but healed and smoothed.
“Gone?” My voice sounded far too loud.
“There will be a flood soon,” Míng said. It should have been impossible to tell the direction my sisters were looking in, but somehow I knew. I followed their gaze toward a dam the emperor had neglected for years. Moss climbed its walls and into the cracks. From this distance, it was difficult to tell if the cracks had widened over the years or if it was simply the illusion resulting from the textured bricks with wavelike patterns. Nobody at the village would assume the former, and certainly not the emperor either—his focus remained fixed on the comfort of his daily living.
“A storm will arrive in four days,” Ér said. “The dam will burst.”
I had to warn the villagers. There was a grandmother—Grandmother Guān—who took care of me when my parents disappeared. Without her, I would not be alive today.
“They will not believe you,” Ér said, reading my thoughts.
“You must go to the emperor,” Míng said.
To beg for an audience with the emperor as an orphan would likely meet with failure, but I had no other choice. His words would convince all, even those reluctant to listen.
Grandmother Guān’s hut sat near the entrance to the village, closest to the water and removed from the other clay-tiled homes. The dried straw door stood propped open. Grandmother Guān sat next to it in a chair, cooling herself with a bamboo fan.
“Grandmother Guān!” I said as I approached. “You must leave the village. There will soon be a flood!”
Her eyes stayed fixated on the mountains in the distance before drifting in the dam’s direction. She stopped fanning. “And where will I go?” she asked.
I paused. “The village in the mountains.”
“And who will I have there?”
“I will convince the others to flee the village as well.” But both of us knew no one would believe me.
Grandmother Guān shook her head, smiling, and her fanning resumed. “It is all right, child.”
I had come of age a few days prior, but, in front of Grandmother Guān, it felt as though I had only learned how to walk.
I bit the inside of my cheek and bowed before running towards the emperor’s palace. The sound of Grandmother Guān’s fluttering fan followed me.
The emperor’s palace sat segregated from the rest of the village, farthest from the dam and adjacent river. The emperor despised the water. Legends of the shuǐ guǐ—the spirits of those who drowned, howling during the night. Though the spirits frightened most of us, we did not have the luxury to avoid them like the emperor. Often, villagers disappeared when fetching water for the imperial palace.
I knocked on the red lacquered palace gate, quiet at first, then with growing urgency. My knuckles scraped against the overhanging decorative lanterns as the stone dragons guarding the entrance seemed to mock me. The door creaked open, revealing a single eye from an imperial guard. “What purpose do you have here?” the imperial guard asked.
“I beg for an audience with the emperor,” I said, hoping the desperation in my voice was apparent. “The matter is urgent.”
“The emperor is busy.”
“Who wishes to speak to me?” a low voice boomed.
The imperial guard lowered their heads and turned sharply, leaving the door sitting ajar, revealing the other guards behind him. There were black with gold and green designs on their chest and shoulder guards. Atop their head sat a white hat with red threads streaming down to its edges.
“Your Imperial Majesty,” the guards said.
“Open the door.”
The door swung open, revealing the emperor in a gold robe lined with black with dragon designs in green, red, blue, and white. A red and black beaded necklace hung around his neck, hovering just below his waist. The emperor’s lips matched the curve of the necklace.
“Why are you here?” the emperor asked, nodding to the guards to usher me inside.
I stumbled through the entrance, conscious of my tattered brown rags speckled with dirt and grass and baked in water marks. “T-There will be a flood, Your Imperial Majesty,” I said, eyes trained on my bare feet.
“A flood?” he asked, his tone curious. “How do you know this?”
The shadows of my sisters came to mind and from the corner of my eye, I saw them linger, hidden beyond a towering bonsai tree that was far too tall to exist. Their wide smiles caused an unsettling feeling in my stomach.
“There are cracks in the dam walls. They are growing, Your Imperial Majesty.” To say my sisters were the ones who told me would be a wish for death. A witch, they would call me. Dark magic. The forbidden craft.
“How sharp your eyesight is, child.” The voice was sharp, high-pitched, and enunciated each word with a clipped edge.
I gazed up before quickly looking down again. The empress, in a similar attire as the emperor, approached, followed by two trains of maids. Decorated elaborate gold pins and flowers adorned her head, holding her long hair in an elegant updo hidden under an elaborate headpiece.
“I am sure the dam is sturdy and well. His Imperial Majesty has his men check it every year.”
My sisters drew my attention once more. They bared their teeth, sneering at the emperor and empress in silence.
“Would you like to stay here?” the emperor asked. His eyes roamed my face. Hunger, lust, desire. I dug my nails into my fingers to stop them from shaking.
The empress first narrowed her eyes at her husband before she trained her glare on me. One could not refuse the emperor, even if it meant upsetting other royal members.
No one can resist your beauty. My sisters’ spiteful voices sounded in my ears. Use it to your advantage.
As per the emperor’s request, they broke my feet first, then bound them, before sliding the misshapen limbs into red cloth shoes half the size of my hand. I bit down on a towel as the pain from my feet bloomed. The maids brought out a silk robe similar to the empress’s, but thinner and vibrant, like a peacock’s feathers in full plume. They tightened the layers of the robe—purple, pink, gold, black—around my chest and waist. My breaths came out shallow.
Without golden pins, the maids secured my unruly hair above my head. From the corner of my chamber, my sisters watched, side-by-side, smiles of familiarity wavering on their ghastly faces.
“His Imperial Majesty is waiting,” the maid said, before exiting the chamber the emperor confined me to.
Male servants—eunuchs—entered and carried me to the emperor. My foot throbbed the entire way.
There were two days left. The thought of the flood loomed in my mind.
“Your Imperial Majesty,” I said, my voice sweet, acidic, and left a sour taste in my mouth. A wide smile stretched across my face as I reached a hand toward him, trailing down his chest. He clutched my hand and pulled me closer. I bit my tongue.
Without hesitation, he reached for the ribbon that held my robe together.
“The flood . . . ” I began.
My cheek stung, and there was a sharp ringing in my ear. I turned to see the emperor’s raised palm. “Never mention it again.”
The servants did not remove me from the emperor’s chamber until the sun rose. The empress passed by my room when I loosened my robes.
“Filth,” she whispered through the paper screens.
My sisters left their spot by the mirror and bent down toward me, each holding a hand out to cup the side of my face.
“She killed us,” my sisters whispered. Black tendrils flowed from their lips into my mouth as they pushed it open.
My parents never told me they sold my sisters to the emperor. Or were they taken?
A darkness churned within me.
When I woke the next morning, not only were my feet swelling, but so was my stomach. Though flat the night before, it had grown, ballooned to the size of half a watermelon while I was asleep. Within me, the darkness continued to spread, bouncing off the inner walls. Faint veins crawled up the sides of my stomach’s stretched skin as I ran my fingers along the pink patterns. I sat in front of a small table mirror, and behind it my sisters stood—one on each side. They were not staring at me, but at my stomach. My body lurched forward. The jade comb in my hand flew against the mirror, shattering its surface. Shards rained onto the bamboo mat.
In the mirror, my broken reflection took on pieces of my sisters’. Our three appearances merged. Hair streamed down my bloodless face, my robes torn—soaked in blood. Deep scars littered my exposed limbs. These were not mine. There was a single golden hair pin clutched in my hand.
My mouth moved in the mirror. But this, too, was not mine.
“Měi, Měi, Měi,” sung Míng’s voice.
“Always so beautiful,” Ér said. “You always got what you wanted.”
“Now you will give us what we want, and do what we could not,” they said together. “Kill the emperor.” They pointed to the golden pin.
“But the flood,” I croaked.
“Killing the emperor will stop the flood.”
Words could not persuade the emperor.
Throughout the day, my stomach grew. I swept the glass under the mirror with my fan. I pulled the surrounding robes as tight as I could. The protrusion, the size of a large melon, flexible, squirmy, but compliant with my efforts.
A maid entered my chambers to prepare me for the emperor. Her eyes darted to the broken mirror. “Lady Měi!” she said.
“There has been an accident.” I offered an apologetic smile, but it did not feel like my own.
The maid threw a thin sheet over the mirror before taking the pin from my hand and securing my hair up. My robes were normal once more, my skin mark-less.
The maid led me out of my room and rushed me down the corridor. At the end of the hallway, the empress blocked our path, a wicked smile curling the ends of her lips, a dark aura poisoning the surrounding air. “You are walking well,” she cooed. “Such a quick recovery.”
My feet were painless. I returned a guarded grin. “Almost like magic.”
The empress froze, stunned I would challenge her. But before she could speak, several more maids and male servants appeared and ushered me away, stating, “The emperor is waiting.”
One night before the flood. My words of warning met many ears of those around the palace, but the servants only replied with hissed hushing; the emperor warned me the second time I mentioned the flood and said, “I’ll have you hung.”
IV: Xiǎo Èmó
The emperor stumbled backwards when he disrobed me during the night. The protrusion had grown to the size of two melons and pulsed under translucent skin. Black veins rippled against my purple, stretched skin. I pulled the golden pin from my hair, pointing it towards the emperor.
“W-Witch!” the emperor mouthed, clutching at his throat. No sound escaped his lips.
My back arched as I fell onto my knees, my body numb, but it felt free. The pin flew from my hand as I lurched forward, then back when my arched like a crecent. From below emerged a small child—a baby with no whites to their eyes. Darkness gave birth to itself. I was nothing but a temporary host. The baby sat in a pool of liquid the colour of ink, yet its skin was unmarked.
“G-Guards—” The emperor cut himself off, realizing it was another futile attempt. He had asked the guards to station themselves too far to notice anything amiss. And again, only a sliver of breath left his mouth sitting agape—no words.
I picked up the baby. Its eyes were unblinking, black voids, no whites, as though it already knew the world before it had even seen it. A strange, magnetic force pulsed from its body.
“Your child, Your Imperial Majesty,” I said, my voice a mixture of three sisters.
The emperor dragged himself backward after swiping the pin from the ground, his face almost as blanched as the ghosts by my side. I placed the baby in front of him when his back hit the wall. A smile stretched across the width of the baby’s face as it sat upright. It reached back, peeling its newborn skin—sticky, wet, like half dried glue—from its body, revealing long, flowing white hair and a chalk-like film beneath the human surface. Its eyes remained the same.
With his own lids shut, the emperor plunged the pin into the xiǎo èmó—little demon—in front of him. I held my breath, but the demon pulled out the pin, its skin undamaged from the puncture, and thrusted it into the emperor’s neck.
The sun’s rays peeked through the paper screens of the room. Footsteps echoed down the hall.
“Your Imperial Majesty, the flood is heading towards us!”
The door to the chamber slid open, revealing a guard looking in. I scrambled away from the emperor, who was no longer breathing. A stream of blood dripped from the corner of his lip. The xiǎo èmó remained on top of the emperor, snickering. The guard looked as though he could not decide whether to propel himself toward the emperor or to flee alongside me as I rushed past him out of the room.
In the courtyard, my sisters floated towards a well. At its rounded stone edges, they stopped.
They pointed to the empress across the courtyard, heading my way then said, “Thank you,” in unison without waiting for a response and disappeared into the well. I understood exactly what they wanted my last act to be before the flood arrived. Nothing was going to stop the flood. My sisters had only wanted revenge.
The empress hurdled toward me, attempting to flee the rampaging waters. Her headpiece was missing from her head and pins loosened from her hair as she stumbled forward. By the time she was within reach, her hair streamed down the front of her face, slick with sweat. No longer did she have the elegance grace with her head held high when I first arrived at the palace. Her body stooped forward, her fingers clawed the air in front of her, as though she was trying to hold the last bit of her face and pride. Like the emperor’s attempt at calling for help, a call he never answered when it came from the villagers, her efforts were futile. No one was there to save them, and no one wanted to.
Laced within the oncoming rapids were the shuǐ guǐ—ghosts of those who drowned. Some of the faces were unknown to me, some were familiar villagers. At the front was Grandmother Guān. I unbound my feet and hobbled towards the empress, catching hold of her robe, and dragged her towards the well.
“You—” Her lips moved, but like her husband, no sound drifted forth.
With a single push, she tumbled over the stone rim. Her red robes would soon become white.
I stood rooted by the well before the water reached me and looked down, catching sight of the opened arms of my sisters at the bottom as the echoing scream of the empress approached them—an intermingling of white and red. Spite, spite, spite, was what all three of them had.
With my back turned against the well, I stared at the water and Grandmother Guān. She held her translucent arms out in a similar manner as my sisters, weaving between the rippling water that encapsulated half her body. But rather than fear, I felt a sense of peace, a warm welcome—a sense of family I never had before. My arms fell open as I stepped away from the well, allowing Grandmother Guān’s embrace to consume me.