I’m reposting this for Qixi. It’s one of the stories in my ebook of short short stories, The Bridge Across the Sky (and Other Single-Serving Stories). Links on the top of the page! shot – The Weaver’s Daughter
“China,” he says. “The motherland.”
She laughs, looks up from the shirt she is folding. “The motherland, huh? Do you even know which village your family comes from?”
“Of course not. Nobody does. I’m not even sure how many generations ago my forefathers came. But it’s still the motherland.”
“Okay, dear.” She places the folded shirt neatly into the suitcase.
“Did you know that any ethnic Chinese can become a Chinese citizen?”
“Why would you want to?”
“Just saying.” He stands near her, surveying her work with the nodding approval of one who does not have to do the work. “Why are you bringing bird food?”
“In case I get hungry. The bird food is for Pica, obviously.”
“You’re bringing your bird on our holiday?”
“Uh-huh. Are you bringing your phone?”
“I can’t just take off with no way for the office to contact me. Why are you bringing the bird?”
“Pica is important.”
“Aren’t there laws about this kind of thing? Quarantine and such?”
“There are. It’s not a big deal.”
“So you’ve done this before, then?”
“Not exactly. I’ve gone with Daddy and Pica a few times, when I was much younger. It’s fine.”
“Your father has brought the bird on holiday a few times?”
“Uh-huh.” She turns to look at him, her head tilted to a side in thought. “You know, I’ve brought Pica before, but I’ve never brought a boyfriend… so you might try to be less noisy than the bird.”
“Well, that was strange,” he begins.
“The girl at the counter, when we checked in. She didn’t say anything about the bird.”
“You’ll see in the morning.”
“Hmm. And she didn’t count the cash.”
“You paid her in cash, in an envelope. She didn’t open it to count it. She just kept it.”
“Oh, that. It’s… well. I guess you can say she’s family.”
“You never mentioned this place is run by your relatives.”
“It’s… not exactly my relatives. I’m really tired, dear. I’ll explain in the morning.”
“Alrighty. You go to bed, I’ve to check my email and clear up some work.”
“I’m going to shower first. Join me?”
“Let me just check my mail first.”
“This is the life,” he says, as he leans back against the edge of the pool.
She splashes water at him. The water is warm, though the air is cold. He wipes his face with a hand, doesn’t bother to retaliate.
“A hot spring in the mountains.” He closes his eyes, smiles peaceably. “It’s just… strangely perfect.”
She walks to the edge, leans back next to him. Under the water, her hand finds his.
He points into the distance, where there is a giant cage, housing birds; a riot of feathery colour, even from this distance. “Look, more birds.”
“They’re magpies. Like Pica.”
“I always thought magpies were black and white.”
“Some are, not all. You can go look at them.”
“Maybe later. But we have time now, tell me the story.”
“Why you brought your bird here. Does this place belong to your relatives?”
“You don’t check your mail for the rest of the day.”
“I’ll consider that a victory. Well, once upon a time, there was a cowherd…”
The cowherd, as these stories go, lost a calf.
He went in search of it, because (as these stories go), the lost calf is more important than the rest of the herd, which he had to leave behind in order to search for the one.
So he walked into the woods. After a time, beneath the trees, he heard singing.
The song was as beautiful as it was out of place. It was strange and lilting and melodic and all the other words to describe songs that are heard in deep forests. The cowherd was thus torn between the calf (that most important calf of all) and the song. What was he to do? Continue looking for the calf? Or investigate this pleasant aberration?
Unless – unless – the clever cowherd thought, the calf had followed the singing (for it had such beauty!), that one choice would be as good as both choices.
So the cowherd followed the singing, moving through the woods until the trees part and there, before him, is a hot spring, and, within it, the most beautiful girl he had ever seen.
She was also the first girl he had ever seen naked.
His mouth dropped open and he marvelled.
I would tell you his thoughts; if he had any. For anyone who is male and has been young would know this: There are times when one has no thoughts at all. These times usually involve a woman. In a state of undress.
“Now you’re just being condescending,” he says into her smug smile.
“You know it’s true.”
“Maybe. Is this even the right story? We’re in a hot spring… is this leading up to you saying you’re a beautiful woman? Are you going to sing?”
“No,” she laughs. “I’m not singing.”
“Good, because I’m not a cowherd, though I’ve always wondered… Why do we Chinese have cowherds when we’re mostly lactose-intolerant?”
“To eat them, of course.”
“It doesn’t seem very practical. We’re a practical people.”
“Do you want to hear the story, or shall we discuss agriculture?”
Our cowherd recovered his senses. He was young and he was male but he was also polite, and a proper upbringing caused him to avert his eyes. He did so quickly, perhaps to somewhat assuage the guilt for having been staring for so long. This quick movement caused two things. First, in his haste, he turned his entire body, causing the leaves to rustle. Second, he saw the robe upon the earth, soft of colour and vibrant like a rainbow, a technicolour dreamcoat.
The first event, the sound, caused the girl in the spring to call out: “Is anyone there?”
The second event caused him to do something uncharacteristic, drastic, even; he picked up the robe, folded it quickly, and hid it within his clothes. Then he called out: “Hello.”
“I’m just a cowherd, looking for a lost calf.”
She left the water, covering herself as best she could with her arms, and walked towards him. The first thing that she noticed, of course, was that her robe was missing. “My robe is missing,” said she.
The cowherd, gaze still averted, said: “Perhaps my lost calf took it.”
“What would a calf do with a robe?”
He shrugged. “Who understands cows?”
She paused a moment, a little confused, then tried an answer: “A cowherd? Maybe?”
She sinks into the water, comes up again. “Anyway, I can’t remember how it happened, but they fell in love. She’s obviously pretty, but I can’t remember what she saw in him.”
“Maybe she found it flattering that someone can like a girl as condescending as herself.”
“Dear, if you want to poke fun at me, you should at least make sense. The story gave no indication that she was in any way condescending.” She shakes her head sadly. “At least try.”
“Maybe he was as handsome as she was pretty.”
“I think it’s more likely that it’s one of those ‘you’ve seen me naked, so you’ll have to marry me’ kinda thing. It’s an old story.”
“Could be. That’s why I have to marry you, after all.”
“It’s unfortunate. Not just for you. Mostly for me. Almost entirely for me.”
“If only you hadn’t seduced me.”
“If only I had known you were already married to your job.”
“So they fall in love.”
They fall in love, they got married, lived happily, and they had two beautiful children.
She was, however, a goddess, a daughter of the Jade Emperor, tasked with weaving clouds of many colours. And, as these stories go, unions as these rarely ended well.
One day, while cleaning out their home, she found a box. Within it was her robe. It was a magic robe, made of the stuff from which she weaved coloured clouds – gossamer and silver lining, gold spun from sunlight and the red threads that connect lovers, cotton candy, that kind of thing. It was the magic of the robe that allowed her to come to earth to bathe in that spring those many years ago.
Running her hands over the divine fabric, she realised that she missed her parents, and decided to return to Heaven for a quick visit.
Time passes differently in Heaven, so the gods had not yet noticed that she was gone. But she broke into tears when she sighted her mother, and they had a happy reunion, and all were amazed that she had fallen in love, and had wed, and had two beautiful children.
She knew she could not stay for long, because time passes differently in Heaven, but when she wanted to leave her father disallowed it. She had a task to do, he reminded her. With her gone, there would no longer be clouds of many colours.
“I know this story,” he says. “It’s the cowherd and the weavergirl.”
“Then you know how it ends?”
“To stop her from leaving, the Empress of Heaven, her mother, drew out a hairpin and scratched a river across the sky, separating Heaven and Earth. The river is the Milky Way. And, once a year, the lovers reunite on a bridge across the river.”
“That’s it then.”
“But what does this have to do with your bird? Or with anything, for that matter.”
“For that, you’ll have to wait.”
“So your story is this old story that everyone knows?”
“Yeah, pretty much.”
He shakes his head. “That’s… really unsatisfying. It feels like you’re playing a trick on me.”
“There’s no trick. It’s hard to explain, dear. You’ll see. I promise.”
“You know, I don’t really care any more,” he waves across their vision. “This hot spring, this view, the mountains, being with you. This is a little bit of Heaven. I’ll even keep my end of the bargain and I won’t check my mail, even though you cheated me.”
“I didn’t cheat you.”
He chuckles, says to the air: “An old love story is your little secret.”
“It’s not a love story.”
“People think it is, and I suppose that means that it is. But the moral of the story is…” She gives a small, rueful sound. “I didn’t notice this before, but the moral of the story, and thus the great irony of my life, is this: Work is more important than love.”
He thinks for a moment, then nods. “Because the weavergirl has to weave, and the cowherd has to herd, for the entire year but for the one day of their reunion.”
“Maybe it is a love story. They didn’t choose to weave or to herd, that choice was made for them.”
“It’s a tragic love story, then.”
“Indeed it is.”
She carries Pica in his cage as they walk up the mountain. It is almost night, and the air is chilly, their breath coming out in little clouds when they speak.
“Isn’t the mountain closed at night?” he asks.
“It is. But not tonight, not to us.”
“There are other people, with birds.”
They walk up the mountain, their route taking them off the road, along a concrete path, and off that path, through the woods, guided by little lamps placed upon the ground. Ahead and behind them, they spot other people, small groups or couples, each with a cage and its bird.
The forest opens, and they are in a large clearing, a small lake in its centre, part of a stream that runs through the clearing. People are standing around, clustered in small groups, talking amongst themselves, with an air of anticipation, of expectancy. Some have small children. It reminds him, almost, of being at a concert, at the time before the music starts.
“This is it,” she says.
“What are we doing?”
“Okay, this is starting to feel like a cult of some sort.”
“Yes, we’re going to sacrifice the birds.”
“And then we’ll sacrifice our…” She turns to him, slowly breaking into a big grin, “…guests.”
“You’re kidding, right?”
“Yes.” He couldn’t see, but he knows that she had just rolled her eyes.
“For a moment there, I was worried.”
She giggles, then points upwards at the huge expense of night, the Milky Way a line of dark cutting across the field of stars, a river across the sky.
“It’s beautiful,” he says.
They stand in silence, as the minutes pass, looking up at the sky.
“It’s a half-moon,” he says.
“Uh-huh, it’s always a half-moon.”
And they stand in silence, as the minutes pass, looking up at the sky.
“Here,” she says, “hold Pica.”
He takes the proffered cage from her, watches curiously as she opens the door. From the corner of his eyes, he sees movement, and he turns to see the other groups holding up their cages, opening the doors.
There must be hundreds of people here, possibly thousands.
Pica hops to the opening, sticks its head out. The magpie turns to face the sky, as if it too understood the precious rarity of this sight, this river of pinpoint lights.
He watches as Pica hops out, takes flight. It joins the other birds who have just left their cages, joins yet more birds flying in from across the sky, their tiny coloured forms like blinking lights, lit by the bright half-moon hanging in the sky.
He watches as the many streams of birds join together, forming one single river, starting from the pool in the centre of the clearing, reaching out across the sky. A thousand, ten thousand, a million birds, forming a river like shimmering cloth.
The thought pokes at him; magpies are not capable of stationary flight, only hummingbirds are. But the thought feels… strangely unimportant. It feels like he is watching a movie, and logic didn’t quite apply. Not in this clearing, in these woods, on this mountain, under this sky.
He feels her hand find his, their fingers intertwining automatically. A single figure steps forwards, separating from the spectating crowd, and steps into the water, slowly walks, then wades, to the ribbon of birds.
And his eyes follow the ribbon upwards, the shimmering bodies of coloured birds, like a moving rainbow, all the way up across the sky. From where he stood, it looks like a giant cross; one arm the shimmering birds, one arm the black on twinkling lights of the Milky Way far behind it. Standing here, the Milky Way doesn’t look that far away.
His eyes glance down again and he sees the figure, a man, reach the ribbon of birds. And then he is… walking on them.
He feels concious of her hand squeezing his, as the man walks upwards – no, along – as the man walks along the river of birds – the bridge of birds – step by step, moving forward.
The man is walking up into the sky.
And then he realises what he is seeing – what her story is – what he is being allowed to witness. He speaks in a whisper: “And once a year, the lovers reunite on a bridge across the river.”
“Yes,” she says, her voice soft, soft as down and feather, soft as a coat of many colours must be. “The magpies form a bridge across the river, and the cowherd and the weavergirl meet upon the bridge. Once every year.”
“Why are you…?” He pauses. “How is it that you’re…?”
“They had two children. Thousands of years ago, they had two children.”
“You’re… a descendent?”
His realises that his free hand is in his pocket, holding his phone. He hasn’t checked his mail for some time, he had reached for his phone subconsciously, had been holding it for a while now.
And he realises: Perhaps, this is why the cowherd forgot all about the missing calf when he saw the girl.
It is a love story. Just because the cowherd and the weavergirl didn’t have a choice doesn’t mean that nobody had a choice. The cowherd had to herd, and the weavergirl had to weave, but he was neither of them. He lets go of his phone, takes out the empty hand.
He has a choice. No… Perhaps, after all, he doesn’t. He had no choice at all. The choice had been made for him.
He turns to her. She is looking at him.
She is beautiful, like a goddess, bathing in a pool.
It is true, he thinks; there are times when men, young or thousands of years old, have no thought but one; to walk across the bridge of birds, to be with the one that you love.
With his free hand, he takes her other hand. “Our children will get to see this,” he says to her, building his own bridge by adding a promise.
She smiles. She nods.
“Yes. And their children too.”
It’s always a half-moon (technically, a night before, and, thus, a sliver off, a half-moon).
In Japan, the festival is Tanabata. They’re called Hikoboshi and Orihime, which aren’t actual names either.
Also, about the Sewing Girl – The weavergirl’s reward for being good at her job is separation from her lover. Red gets fucked by the wolf. The Rumpelstiltskin girl has to weave straw into gold or die. And Sleeping Beauty is prophesied to prick her finger on the spindle and (wait for it) die. It’s just not very encouraging, is it?
“Look,” he says, “One sews, and the other looks after sows.”
“Looks after sows?”
“Female pigs, s-o-w.”
“That’s pronounced ‘sow’, rhymes with ‘cow’.”
“Yeah, I was thinking of the verb, ‘reap what you sow’. Okay, I have it. So, one sews clothes, and one sows seeds.”
“Uh-huh. Your jokes aren’t as funny when I have to help you think them through.”
“‘Cow’ rhymes with ‘sow’; what rhymes with ‘hitch’?”
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