At first glance, there was darkness. Impermeable silence. Motionlessness. For the spectators, only a feeling existed… a pulsation within and without: rapt submergence. Then loud chaos clanged and tinged, settling into a single bang of a gong.
Alas, illumination. Clouds poofed into a burst of powdered mother-of-pearl.
It was all so operatic.
Liqin’s spectacularly manifest face, ablaze.
The bridge of her nose, the canvas of her forehead – alabaster and vestal as a porcelain lily. Her eyes – framed by charcoal black valances – painted vibrantly fuchsia, radiating to her cheekbones. The lips, crimson rose petals so baroquely swathed, they perfumed her quiet murmurs.
The headdress was a sight of unapologetic opulence, of enduring tradition. No other tóushì would avail for Liqin’s final performance.
Fabricated by calloused, blistered fingers over many months, it was comprised of pearls that were said to once belong to the first empress of the Ming Dynasty, the feathers of a hundred kingfisher birds, interwoven gold and silk applique, and miniature paper mâché cherry blossom tassels which coquettishly flapped against her flesh-tone neck. How the gathered audience almost remembered what flesh felt like.
Liqin’s lips parted, soaring pitches like scattering nightingales consumed the teahouse. Even the unsettled spirits watched and listened, momentarily in heaven, as she sung of paying respect to her ancestors — of self-sacrifice — of transcending the earthly plane.
Ghostly whispers uttered: Xian-born Liqin Zhang’s voice is impossible. The notes are impossible. She is of Tiān.
But Daiyu felt no peace as she could only observe from the darkest corner, never to feel such radiance. She watched the crowd watching Liqin. What might if feel like to be so admired! Daiyu’s eyes glistened like black jade, as her given name would indicate. A given name bestowed with best wishes that amounted to just that.
The daughter of villagers, traded at twelve for a year’s worth of rice to the imperial palace, Daiyu’s name, her black jade eyes, were all that reminisced of her humble upbringing. Although she relished palace life, the finery, the abundance, mostly the attention, she would never be anything more than the last of many concubines. Even the softest skin, the prettiest of faces, can grow ordinary. By sixteen, her life was as if written.
It had been ages since she had thoughtfully considered the past. How much dust remains within the deepest crevices of an empty rice sack?
Daiyu fixed her black jade eyes to what was directly in front of her – or if she employed her imagination, what was above her. A sky’s worth of best wishes. A parallel fate that Daiyu dreamt up like immeasurable drops of cooling rain, erasing the footprints behind her step, smoothing the rough edges of destiny. Or, in this instant, dousing the scorching envy.
Maybe if she had been born in the winter, her name would be Xue, and it would be possible to gain the favor of providence.
Although she had reason, it was not vengeance that consumed her heart. Daiyu’s heart along with her mortal being was long dead. It was something infinitely more damning:
Longing to be seen. Longing to be adored.
It was this longing that sealed her doom.
As Liqin’s song passionately tells of diving into the under realm, Daiyu dreams of diving out. She can all but taste the elixir of oblivion, the antidote to hell, feel the inclement static of death, the true death, evanesce as she leaps from the bridge of pain, spreading her arms like the mockingbirds liberated from Liqin’s vocal cords, and is swept into the river of new existence.
But neither does hell possess a heart.
Against her will, Daiyu climbs the irresistible spinning wheel of eternity. Facing her conviction, all the while void of any semblance of justice, unabashedly renouncing her own vanity, begging for the empress’ forgiveness!
Xiu sat in front of a mirror, applying traditional cosmetics. As she was taught, she painted a white canvas on her beautiful countenance, as her name would indicate, applied vibrant fuchsia about her eyelids and cheek bones, darkened her brows and lined her eyes.
It was Ghost Day, the year of the snake, and coincidently, Xiu’s last scheduled public performance.
As she finished pinning her raven hair back, an attendant placed the weighty tóushì atop her head, carefully avoiding any pulling at the scalp.
“How’s that?” the attendant asked smiling at Xiu’s reflection.
Avoiding eye contact, after a few adjustments, Xiu nodded, “This will do.”
“I’ve never worn one quite like this before,” Xiu said as if to herself, gleaming pride, oozing vanity.
“You know, this headdress is said to once belong to an empress to the Ming Dynasty,” Xiu boasted.
The attendant’s words showed up quicker than her discretion:
“The pearls were stolen by a jealous concubine. Legend is that this headdress must be cursed.”
The attendant cupped her mouth — Mother warned her to not to speak to Xiu unless necessary.
“But those are just silly legends,” the girl added.
Xiu shook her head and shooed the girl away. It was wrong to make light of angry spirits.
Now alone, Xiu admired her reflection for one last lingering glimpse. An unsettled feeling of déjà vu overcast. Had she seen this headdress in a dream? A rush of cold air. The mirror turned dark. Her crimson lip quivered as the director called to her, “It’s time.”
In the pensive moments before the show began, Daiyu hoped that the darkness would last. No more operas or vengeful empress or spinning wheels. Daiyu no longer dreamt of being seen or adored. For a brief moment, she wondered, if only a dream, could the curse finally be broken? But she would never know the sweet taste of elixir, and so, Xiu’s song began.
Ghostly whispers uttered, “Xian-born Xiu’s Zhou’s beauty is impossible. Her face is impossible. She is of Tiān.
No consequence. Beautiful Xiu could not liberate unsettled spirits or change viperous fate.
J.A. Psoras’ short fiction has appeared in Mad Scientist Journal and Aphelion. She lives in Philadelphia, PA, United States of America.
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