The Soulmates of Qing Se

It was tight in the Lamp, that was for sure. Her hair drifted in the dark space as if underwater, and her tail looped in on itself. Her human form wanted to sleep, while her serpent form was itching to shed its skin.

At last, Qing Se let herself drift off, loosening her grip on human shape. Once she slipped into serpent form, she had much more room in this cool space within the Lamp. Ironically, once she relaxed and was fully the Green Snake, she awoke in the middle of the night with a terrible itching to shed her skin faster, writhing. Though there was now plenty of space to drift and swim, she thrashed and bumped against the boundaries.

“Damn it, it’s never enough,” Qing Se hissed. “Never a comfortable position either way…”

Suddenly, the darkness in the void gave way to great light, and Qing Se felt as if she were radiating.  She lifted human arms up from her snakeskin and covered her now human face against the bright light. “Really? Right as I’m about to sleep?” Like a mermaid swimming to the surface, Qing Se swam up toward the light, transcending the dark mist, leaving the Lamp to face her new keeper.  

Her human side said to make it a dramatic entrance. Her serpent side said to wait and see.

The Lamp’s bearer appeared to be a young boy in rags, wide-eyed and speechless. Qing Se appeared in human form for his sake and said she would be his friend throughout the course of granting three wishes.

It was not as dramatic as she would have hoped. The boy was so dumbfounded that Qing Se let him think about it while she went back to sleep in the Lamp. Oh, gods. First encounters are always awkward, anyway.

After some comfortable darkness curled up in serpent form within the lamp, bright light cut through and her skin radiated again. When Qing Se emerged again, she was prepared for questions about the rules of wishing, the drill of no murder, no time travel, no reanimation, no turning into an omniscient god, and no making people fall in love (that one was always met with disappointed scowls).  

She wasn’t prepared for the boy’s wide-eyed question, “Who are you really? From before you were captured in the Lamp? Can you remember?”

Qing Se almost stumbled out of her human guise, laughing in disbelief. “Captured! Well, that’s one way to put it. You don’t know much about creatures like me, do you? Curses happen, the way fatal accidents happen to you mortals. Inconvenient, but just a part of life.” She folded her arms back against her head and made herself comfortable on a patterned rug on the floor. “Just concern yourself with your three wishes while you’re lucky to have them.”

The youth did not give up so easily. “Why three wishes? I thought releasing a djinn meant releasing great ancient powers. Why is it now that you serve us?”

“We got bored,” said Qing Se. Her serpent side wanted to stretch out against the oriental rug and scare the mortal for rubbing it in. Her human side whispered that he was only curious. It was on the tip of her tongue to speak of who cursed her, but still she found herself remaining silent.

After a while, the youth sat down on the other side of the rug. “Forgive me. I jumped right into it as if we were old friends. I’ll just think of my first wish, then.”

Qing Se’s human side was content in the silence sitting together. Her serpent side preferred the solitude of the Lamp.

The boy’s first wish was for his mother to be well off, because they had grown up poor and broken. Qing Se saw to it that his wish was granted.

The boy’s second wish was to be made a prince, so that he could have a chance at winning a princess’s heart. Qing Se laughed, “A love story. Of course!” Her serpent side hissed bitterly. Her human side was more hopeful. Her mind was as tangled up as her body in the confines of the lamp, but she prepared to clothe him in wealth and send him to his fate.

“No, not like that!” laughed the boy, draped over in oversized emperor’s robes.

Qing Se flicked her wrist, and the boy was almost drowning in gold.

“Come on, you know this is an illusion,” the boy laughed, his mouth still showing through the pile of gold.

“You’re mortal. It’s all an illusion,” Qing Se said nonchalantly. “Still fun, though.”

“I don’t want to be that kind of prince,” said the boy, shaking off the gold. “I just want a path to reach the princess.”

“A poor prince? Yeah, that’ll be the day,” Qing Se snickered.

“And a bound immortal,” said the boy, raising an eyebrow. “We’re both oxymorons.”

Qing Se dropped her smile. Kill him for that remark, said her serpent side. Wait and see, said her human side. “So what do I even change on you?” she asked him aloud. “If not wealth, what makes you a prince in human terms?”

“Courage, I suppose,” shrugged the boy.  

“That’s it?” said Qing Se incredulously. “You ask of an immortal djinn to give you what you can grow yourself?”

“An insane amount of courage,” said the boy. Then he quickly added: “While still keeping me alive and rational.”

Qing Se laughed. “Oh, I’ll give you the practice of bravery.” At last, she emerged from this guise, majestic and terrifying, serpentine and coiling. As the Green Snake, she hissed at him with a monstrous grin. In the back of her mind, her human side told her to return to being a proper servant. But her serpent side felt so free.

To her surprise, the boy wasn’t frightened off. He didn’t recoil in disgust, nor try fruitlessly to fight her off, nor pity her limbless form. “That was amazing!” he said, his eyes alight in awe.

Qing Se fell back into human form. “You really weren’t scared?” Then she added, “Well—that’s utterly pointless! It isn’t courage without a little fear.”

“I’ll have whatever you’re having,” said the boy brightly, sitting upright next to her. “That shot of courage to be completely yourself.”

Qing Se stared at him. Humans are weird, said her serpent side. Isn’t it great? said her human side. “You want a drink when you first come back from the princess?” she said aloud. “We can be completely ourselves and talk about how it went.”

“And you’ll tell me who you were before?”

“Yes.” What did she have to lose, anyway? A mortal who treated her like a fellow human was hard to come by. Sure, the last time she slipped a drink centuries ago at the Dragon Boat Festival had painful consequences, but this time she didn’t mess with free will. This time, with no ulterior motive, she offered friendship.

“I can’t wait,” said the boy. And then, magic carpet beneath his feet, he was off to see the princess.

Poor fool in love, said her serpent self. Just like Bai Se.

But how lucky, said her human self. To not know what red threads bind him to fate, and to explore.

It is said that, invisible to the mortal eye, threads bound people to meet one another. Red threads of fate bound people to their true love, and once a match was made, nothing on earth could sever it.   

Qing Se had lost vision of such things a long time ago. She had seen rushed marriages, broken spirits. She could not find it in her heart to believe such matches were meant to be. Even if it produced children like herself, with dualities like herself. Many of her kind had whims to shapeshift into human form and dance for a night. But even in human guise, they could not change that they were bound to their promises. Many an immortal had been trapped in a mistake of a marriage, waiting until a human companion’s death to be freed.  

But Bai Se didn’t look free when her husband died, Qing Se thought bitterly. I could never be like her. And angrily, despite the bliss of friendship only moments earlier, both her human and serpent sides wept.

• • •

She awoke, head rested on her elbows, her long tail coiled snug all around in the dark room of the lamp. Of course, she could have shrunken herself down to make it easier, but it didn’t feel right to not take up space.

She decided to get up out of her slumber and follow the subtle light above her.

But when she emerged from out of the lamp, she realized it was still early. The boy was nowhere to be seen. For a moment, Qing Se panicked that the Lamp had fallen into the hands of another, one who wouldn’t be her friend, one who would see her as servile and soulless, one who didn’t believe magic and humans could mix. But no one else was in the room.

Was the boy in trouble? Did he need her help? Qing Se gathered up her powers and prepared herself to burst out of the room controlling rain and wind, riding the air like a dragon, all to save her friend, despite not knowing where he was, when—

“Guess who got a date!” piped a cheerful, familiar voice.

Qing Se whipped her head around. “Oh thank the gods!” she cried, rushing to embrace him despite herself. “It was you who rubbed the Lamp, wasn’t it?”

“I only just got here,” said the boy, embracing her back.

“But that’s impossible!” said Qing Se, slithering over to the Lamp. “I can only emerge when summoned, when I’m allowed.”

“I didn’t tell you my last wish,” said the boy. “For your freedom.”

If she had been fully in serpent form, her jaw would have hit the floor. “Boy, if you think I’m staying human for you—”

“The freedom to be both your selves,” said the boy, reaching out to her. “Without the shame of the Lamp someone threw you in.”

Qing Se’s eyes filled to the brim. She was ready to tell him. “I couldn’t stand to see my Lady White Snake suppress herself in marrying a man. I slipped her a drink one night to be like the good old days, and when it made her reveal her serpent form, it scared him to death. She bound me to stay while she save his soul, and then the curse was cast.

“I have seen my Lady find life in moments, in festivals, in the people she healed, and perhaps that was enough for her, perhaps it had to be, to fit into a new life. She had so much life in her, from a world of the simple and divine to the world of bustling people. Her human husband came from wealth, but his family brokenness had filled him with his own venom, and confusion. He even shortly ran away to become a monk.” They both laughed.

“I do not fear man; on the contrary, I’ve skipped rocks and eaten good food with many humans long ago. But I dread the mortality of such moments, once they each trace their red threads and meet their fate. I exist because of tangled threads, and yet, what good are they?”  

“Best not to see them anyway,” said the boy. “But I’ll bet there are threads all around us that bring us together, all kinds of soulmates for us to find in a lifetime. I’m glad I found you.” Qing Se took a hold of the empty golden lamp and smiled at her friend. Freedom, her human and serpent sides harmonized. She transformed the lamp in her hands and began to pour tea for the both of them. “So! Tell me about the princess!”

About the Author: Ellen Huang is a recent graduate of Point Loma Nazarene University with a BA in Writing & a Theatre minor. She writes twisted fairy tales, directs original skits, reenacts Disney scenes on demand, swims in the ocean, practices pyrography, dresses thematically, and owns a cloak. Much of her fairy-tale-inspired work is grounded in themes of progressive faith and platonic love.

Image by: Racel Hisko via Unsplash

Inheritance

Once upon a time, there was a Buddhist monk named Tang Sanzang. He was compassionate to a fault, and he was prone to being fooled. Nevertheless, he was chosen by the Chinese emperor to go on a journey to Tianzhu, or modern-day India, to obtain Buddhist scriptures and bring them back to China to help spread Buddhism. It was a high calling to a dangerous journey ahead.

Guanyin, the goddess of compassion, appeared to Tang Sanzang just as he was leaving Chang’an on his own.

“Go westward beyond the mountains,” she said, “and you will find what you are looking for.”

Guanyin promised to guide Tang Sanzang to three powerful beings who would protect him on this journey and then, without any further instructions, bade him farewell, sending him on his journey to the West.

As Tang Sanzang traveled westward, he gained three companions who protected him and walked with him on this journey.

The first companion was Sun Wukong, the Monkey King and self-dubbed “Handsome Monkey King in the Water Curtain Cave of Flower Fruit Mountain, Great Sage Equal of Heaven, Sun Wukong.” Reckless and conniving yet brave and earnest, Sun Wukong vowed to be with Tang Sanzang all the way to the end. At first, Sun Wukong only wanted the honor and glory promised to him at the end of the journey, but after defeating demons who threatened to eat Tang Sanzang, Sun Wukong saw that this journey was a greater calling, and he only grew in his devotion to Tang Sanzang.

The second companion was Zhu Bajie, a former commander-in-chief in Heaven who was banned to earth for lusting after the Goddess of the Moon. Lazy and gluttonous, Zhu Bajie cared deeply about his own comfort and would constantly prioritize his own needs and desires, including walking away from the group to talk to every pretty woman along the journey. Knowing this fault in Zhu Bajie, many demons would transform into pretty women to distract him, and Sun Wukong came to Zhu Bajie’s rescue every time. As time went on, Zhu Bajie saw Tang Sanzang’s unwavering commitment to the journey, no matter the challenges, and Zhu Bajie was eventually moved to do the same.

The last companion was Sha Wujing. Originally a general in Heaven, Sha Wujing broke a vase and was banished from Heaven by the Jade Emperor, reincarnating into a man-eating sand demon. A little dense, but extremely humble, Sha Wujing repented of his old ways and vowed to be a new man. After meeting Tang Sanzang, Sha Wujing did everything in his power to serve the others on the journey, constantly putting their needs above his own. If Sun Wukong felt hot, Sha Wujing would be the first to fan him. If Zhu Bajie was feeling tired, Sha Wujing would offer to carry him on his back. Tang Sanzang was very thankful for Sha Wujing’s faithfulness and servant heart.

Together the three companions traveled over land and sea with Tang Sanzang, defeating the demons and monsters who threatened to kill the monk and eat his flesh. They overcame many trials and tribulations, but after an arduous journey, they obtained the Buddhist scriptures and safely brought them back to Chang’an.  

****************

The year was 1985. The location: Guangzhou, China. The main character: my mother.

My grandfather was very sick — my mother couldn’t explain to me what the illness was — and needed to see a doctor from the city immediately. But because he was poor, the doctors rejected him at the hospital doors.

“Come back when you can show us you can pay us,” they said. “Until then, go home.”

My mother, 20 years old at the time, went back home to her village and begged every neighbor, cried to them, pleaded with them to let her borrow money for her father’s medical treatment. The villagers, feeling pity for my mother yet moved by her persistence, each gave her a small portion of their daily earnings. After going to every villager’s house, my mother felt that she had finally obtained what was enough. She quickly brought her father and the sum of money to the hospital once again.

When the doctors finally started running tests on my grandfather, they realized that he was too sick and wouldn’t last the week. My mother, again, begged the doctors, cried to them, pleaded with them to save her father. They shrugged, pocketed the money, and left my mother in the hospital room.

My grandfather passed away a few days later in the hospital on his 52nd birthday: December 28, 1985.

That night, as my mother walked back to her village alone, she saw a faint light in the distance. In a flash, a goddess appeared in a white robe, a water jar in her right hand and a willow branch in her left.

“Do you need help?”

My mother didn’t know what to say.

“What do you need?”

My mother looked at the goddess and said, “Money. Money would have saved my father.”

“Go westward to the Golden Mountain,” the goddess said, “And you will find a rich inheritance waiting for you.”

“Really?”

“You will have to go through trials and tribulations to receive it. And you will not be able to return to the way things were. Will you go on this journey?”

My mother talked to her older sister, my aunt, who had just married into a new family about a year ago.

“Big Sister,” my mother said, “Guanyin appeared to me and told me that if we head west to the Golden Mountain, we can gain riches. Will you go with me? We can repay our debt to the villagers for Father’s medical fees, and Mother won’t have to work so hard in the fields.”

My aunt thought about the pros and cons. She knew that she needed to solidify her place in her new family now. Besides, her husband’s family had just started a new business in Guangzhou, and she was counting on her husband’s business to get rich. This was her new family now.

“Why should I go with you?” my aunt said. “I am no longer part of your family now. This debt is your problem, not mine.”

My mother then went to her younger brother, my uncle, to ask if he would go with her to the Golden Mountain.

“Well,” my uncle said, “I think I have more potential of finding a wife here. If I’m so focused on gaining riches, then I won’t be able to settle down and find a woman.”

Finally, my mother went to her mother, my grandmother. My mother didn’t want to ask my grandmother to go on this long journey with her, but she had no one else to turn to.

“Mother,” she said. “Father is gone now, and we have to pay back our friends in the village, but Guanyin has come to help us. She told me that if we go westward to the Golden Mountain, we will gain riches. We can pay back the debt and maybe have money left over to live comfortably. Will you come with me?”

“Daughter, I have to tend to the fields now that your father is gone. Your sister is living with her new family now, and your brother will hopefully bring a new woman into ours. I still have many mouths to feed and no one to support me. You should get married and find someone to go with you.”

With that, my grandmother left for the day to the city marketplace, lifting two baskets of vegetables, one on each end of a wooden rod that she balanced upon her shoulders.

In her desperation, my mother went back to the road where she met Guanyin. In a flash, the goddess appeared before her again.

“Have you decided?”

“I will go, but I have no one to go with me.”

Guanyin smiled and said, “There is a man in the village down the road who has agreed to go on this same journey for a different kind of inheritance. You do not know each other, but do not fear. You both will need each other to reach your destination and reward.”

That night, my mother quietly packed her three outfits, two undershirts, and a pair of shoes into a bag and pocketed the $10 bill that Guanyin graciously provided for her journey. As she waited on that same road, she saw the man walking towards her with his own small bag.

That man was my father. Together, they traveled over land and sea, overcoming multiple trials and tribulations to reach the Golden Mountain.

About the Author: Cindy is an aspiring mental health counselor. She loves Korean food, boba, and her family.

About the image: Sun Wukong, aka the Monkey King

This Is Not My Beautiful LIfe

Jessie woke up to two small feet on her face. Her body was pushed to the very edge of her mattress and she really had to pee.

The room was hangover bright but she didn’t recall drinking at all last night. Also, this was not her room.

Also, WHY WERE THERE TWO SMALL FEET ON HER FACE?

And while Jessie would really appreciate the answer to that mystery, she felt as if she were about to wet herself so she made a game time decision to first void her bladder THEN determine the why about the feet.

She slowly nudged the feet off her face and then tried to sit up. Unfortunately, she couldn’t because there was an enormous stomach in her way.

Her enormous stomach.

She stared at her swollen belly for a good long while, mind blank. Finally, Jessie pat her hands all over her body. First, her face. Then her arms, thighs, and at last, the offending mound of flesh. It was hard and taut and definitely hers.

As if in response to her unasked question, something from INSIDE her pushed and pressed OUT and Jessie saw her belly move. And then, that something smashed into her bladder as well as her ribs at the same time and she somehow rolled off the edge of the mattress and
chose a logical direction to find a toilet.

Thankfully, there were only so many layouts a living space could have and thanks to her seventeen years of life experience, she had lurched in the correct general direction of a bathroom.

She peed. For a long time. So long, in fact, that Jessie wondered if she was dreaming because those were the dreams that caused an immediate panic upon awakening and surely she must be dreaming because she seemed hugely pregnant and apparently, also had a small child attached to the two small feet she had found on her face not five minutes ago and —

Oh. She was done peeing.

Pee dreams never ended with being done peeing.

This did not bode well.

As Jessie waddled (OMG SHE WAS WADDLING) back to examine the small human in bed, she took note of her surroundings. This was clearly the master bedroom of a house. And if she were not mistaken, there would likely be a mirror in this said house. She waddled back to the bathroom and looked in the mirror.

It was not her face that stared back.

Well, that was not entirely true. The face certainly looked like her – but in a tired, OLD sort of way. And her body. Her body looked as if she swallowed a basketball.

This could not be real.

She heard the rapid pattering of feet and the door to her room opening. The knot in her gut told her what was happening but still, she was not prepared. Two additional small humans – a taller boy and a shorter girl – came into view complaining in Chinglish that there were no more bars left and whining about something called an eye pad and if they could watch English videos because they had already watched Chinese videos and —

Jessie did some quick math. One kid in the bed who sounded as if he was no longer sleeping.

Two progressively larger kids in her bathroom and apparently, ANOTHER kid inside her.

She swallowed. Oh, God. The children were still yapping away and she had not been paying any sort of attention.

She needed to sit down.

She staggered past the children back towards the bed, flopped gracelessly onto the mattress, and shut her eyes. She counted slowly to ten. Then to twenty.

Jessie decided to count all the way to one hundred but when she opened her eyes, she was still in the room that was not hers, surrounded by children that were not hers, impregnated with a baby that was not hers.

She closed her eyes again.

“Mama! Mama!”

Jessie did not want to acknowledge those words. If she ignored them long enough then perhaps she wouldn’t really be their mother doing whatever mothers do.

Wait.

What time was it? Shouldn’t she be at work? Shouldn’t these children be at school? Who was going to keep these children alive? Who was she married to? How was she going to figure out what to do without making everyone think she was crazy? And most importantly, how was she going to get back to her timeline and start her second quarter at UCLA?

She summoned the internal strength to look around for an alarm clock. And there it was.

6:48AM.

Fuck.

She didn’t even know their names.


Virginia Duan is an author/writer and incapable of writing in brief. She swears. A lot. She also finds it almost impossible to refrain from commenting online for the sole purpose of making people admit they are idiots. Fatal flaw is fatal.

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