She was called Chang'e where she flowed toward the sea. The woman who was a river. She was not a goddess. She was not an immortal. She did not serve in the court of Yù Huáng, Jade Emperor, with his carved boxes of display where objects were accorded their perfect context. Walk a step. Change context. She did not serve in the court of the Xī Wáng Mŭ, Queen Mother of the West, with her orchard of peaches by the jade lake at the foot of the Green mountains.
Chang'e was a river. She was a woman.
She stretched wide where she flowed into the sea. She overflowed. Nine years she flooded. She flowed over her muddy banks and into the green flat fields of rice beyond. They tried to hold her back. They built berms. The people with their wide green fields between her and the sea.
She felt an arrow pierce her water. It sliced into her wide brown waves. It floated away as a floating goblet might do. She stood on her own banks to look. Chang'e the river. She looked at him, fierce and wild. There where she was wide flowing, she had all but forgotten fierce. She smiled at him.
She knew him. The men and the women spoke of him along her banks. Yi, the Pacifier of the Country. Hou Yi, the archer god. Houyi, the piercer of sunbirds. She smiled at him there along her banks where she was soft and surging. She loosened her sash to open her green and brown embroidered robe. There where she was wide and flowing, she removed combs of carved bamboo from her hair until it coiled in a hundred channels on her shoulders. She was welcoming to him. She was welcoming to his fierceness. She was welcoming to his fire. They lay in the mud and moved together as the Kun-Peng bird does as it changes from a fish into a bird. He wound the long muddy locks of her hair around his archer's fingers. "You will be my wife."
She brushed her fingers along the side of his face in a grass script answer. She wrote eternal on his cheeks in mud. "Yes, I will."
He held her in his arms. He sighed into her long, long hair. "I want us to be like this always."
She held him in her arms. "Oh, love. I'm flowing to the sea."
"Then we will go up river." He held her tight. Chang'e the overflowing river.
He made the people dig a hundred canals that fed the fields. He pacified her with his strong archer's fingers. He was her husband. He was her king there where she was wide and welcoming.
They had a daughter, who floated away as she was born. Chang'e looked up at the new sleeping moon rising along the silver river of stars.
Houyi said, "Love, we have each other." She wept into Houyi's shoulder. He kept her tears. They could not be kept.
An old woman from the green fields brought her a bowl of rice. Chang'e gave her in return a mooncake of lotus seeds imprinted with a flower. It was sweet.
She was called Heng'e where she wound her way through the yellow clay hills. She was not a goddess. She was not an immortal. She did not serve in the court of Tiān Gōng, Heavenly Grandfather, where he placed the carved meat jade out of sight of the carved cabbage jade. Until the viewer took a step and took their place with what was viewed. She did not serve in the court of Amah, Auntie, where she braided pears into a meal for kings.
Heng'e wound through the yellow clay hills riddled with caves. The men and the women came to her banks. They built their homes there. A wind ruffled her water. A great wind sent by Fei Lian, a one eyed bull with the tail of the serpent. He lived in the hills. He sent a storm that smashed her water into the houses that clustered along her banks. Her waves knocked them over.
Her husband came on the wind. Yi, the Pacifier of the Country. Hou Yi, the archer god. Houyi, the piercer of sunbirds. He pulled back his bow. Fei Lian fled back into his cave. Fei Lian hid in a sack of grain. Such a great storm in such a small sack. Houyi fired into the sack. Fei Lian fell out. He was wounded in the knee. He could not move.
Houyi came to Heng'e. "He will do as he's told." She reflected the yellow hills at Houyi. She reflected the blue of the sky. She stood next to him on her soft clay banks with the remains of houses. He took her hand in his. His hand that could kill sunbirds. He wrapped her tight in the arms that could pull back his bow. She bent into him. The woman who was a river.
He made the people build high berms along her banks. They built mounds of clay that kept any wind from ruffling her surface. There was no wind. Fei Lian did not leave his cave.
She lapped at the berms. She put aside her blue tunic embroidered with the clouds. She put aside her green skirt embroidered with the distant fragrance of long grass. Houyi was her husband. He was her king there where she wound through the yellow clay hills. They made cries together in the sheltered length of her like the Jiān bird does as it flies. Each bird has but one wing and only mating may fly.
He held her in his arms and sighed into her long, long hair, like a man trying to embrace the reflection of the moon. "I would want us to be like this forever, unchanged."
She held him in her arms. "Oh, love. I am a river lapping hills with the sea at my feet."
He hugged her to him. He breathed in as one does before letting go an arrow or letting go of a cup of wine to float away on the stream.
They had a daughter. She floated away as she was born. Heng'e looked up at the new sleeping moon rising along the silver river of stars.
Houyi said, "Love, we have each other." She cried into Houyi's shoulder. He kept her tears. They could not be kept.
A mother with her five sons brought Heng'e oxtail soup. She gave them mooncakes of red bean imprinted with a vine in flower. They were sweet.
She was called Heng-O where she flowed through deep canyons that she herself had spent years carving. She was not a goddess. She was not an immortal. She did not serve in the court of Yu Huang Dadi, Pure August Jade Emperor, who had a thousand carved boxes each with their own secrets. She did not serve in the court of Yaochi Jinmu, Golden Mother of the Shining Lake, who would serve as a teacher to those who would come to learn.
In the deep canyons that Heng-O had carved, Bashe, the water serpent, swam there and consumed men and women, who fished in the water. Bashe ate elephants and ground their bones. She was that large.
Her husband came on the wind. Yi, the Pacifier of the Country. Hou Yi, the archer god. Houyi, the piercer of sunbirds. He pulled back his bow. He shot Bashe's green head with his arrows. He consumed her bones. This did not not make him immortal. It make him strong.
Houyi built a dam across Heng-O. He held her in. He only let her out in small measures. She filled the canyon and became a lake.
She was beautiful in his eyes. His fierce eyes and his fire. He held her infinitely safe in his arms. His strong arms.
She tilted her head up to look at the sky. She loved him. She put aside her red tunic embroidered with an orchid pavilion. She put aside her long gold skirt of twining roots. They lay together on a pleasure boat in the lake that he had made of her. Heng-O, the lake, was green as a kingfisher's feather. She was green as a Feicui jade lake with mutton fat waves. Heng-O, the woman, reflected only on Houyi. They brushed together as cranes may brush the air. Drunk on each other as if the moments were cups of wine floating down Heng-O's length and clustered in the lake of her.
He held her in his arms. He breathed into the column of her neck. "You're so beautiful like this. I want you to myself and always."
She held him in her arms. "Ah, love. I am an ever flowing river."
Houyi tightened his hold. "Will you be a lake?"
She framed his face in her hands and left a poem of grass. She marked him by touching him. Drunk with touch. "Yes. I can sometimes be a lake that reflects the moon."
They had a daughter. She floated away as she was born. Heng-O looked up at the new sleeping moon rising along the silver river of stars.
Houyi said, "Love, we have each other." She wept into her husband's shoulder. She wept into Houyi's shoulder. He kept her tears. They could not be kept.
The people, forbidden to fish in the lake that Heng-O had become, brought her a broth of orchid roots. She gave them mooncakes of dates imprinted with jade rabbits, white as mutton fat. They were sweet.
It would take a long time to describe the journey along the river. It would take a long time to describe Houyi's great deeds.
Where she was called Heng Bo, she watered a lush river valley. The people who tried to travel along her length could not. Tso Chih, a great giant with a tooth on the top of his head, would not let them pass. He ate the travelers until Houyi came.
He killed Tso Chih. He built a bridge over Heng Bo. The bridge was painted red and its arch was the shape of a moon. They wound around each other there. There in the wide valley where the travelers passed through. Houyi let them to pass far from the river. Houyi and Heng Bo had a daughter, who floated away when she was born. Houyi told her it was so. She looked up at the new sleeping moon and cried into his shoulder. His arms tight around her. They had each other.
She was called Chang Xi where she rushed wild in rapids. She was a waterfall lit golden by the afternoon sun. She cast off rainbows with her fall. He bridged her there too. She roared for him. She was fierce there. They were fierce when they faced the Peng bird that blew storms. On the rocks, they merged as the Fenghuang may do in fire. She did not cry when their daughter floated away. She roared up at the new sleeping moon, but the moon did not wake. The mountains did not move.
She was called Changxi where she chuckled as she went by the orchards of the Xi Mang Wu, Queen Mother of the West. Where she flowed in and out of the lake of Jade. Where she climbed up cataracts and falls into the Green mountains.
She watched with narrow eyes while Houyi built a summer palace for Xi Mang Wu, who offered to teach Houyi how to breathe the divine breath. She offered to teach him the strategy of the three palaces, the dipper steps of hidden time and the six rens of supreme oneness. Houyi studied. He built the Xi Mang Wu a beautiful summer house through which Changxi flowed. Blue round stones that she ran over quick and fast.
From her orchard of peaches through which Changxi ran, Xi Mang Wu made a pill. She held the pill in her hand."This pill will grant you immortality. It will allow you to be together always." She put the pill in a box carved from the wood of a cassia tree. "You must first prepare yourself before you take it as I have taught you to do, or you will float away into the sky."
Changxi looked at the box as Houyi took it. She brushed her hand along the curve of her belly as he held it tightly. She looked up at the sleeping moon crossing the silver river in the sky.
It would take years to tell the story of all that happened after that. There would be white in the hair of the listener. White as the mutton fat waves that ruffled Changxi's water as Houyi built bridges and dams and berms. As he held his wife, who was a river, in his arms. Twelve times in all, he built along her length. Twelve times in all, they had a daughter who floated away. Twelve times she wept or roared according to her nature. There were twelve moons that slept along the length of the silver river.
She was called Ch'ang-hsi where she was ice frozen on mountain tops that brushed words on the sky itself. She watched as he built a twelve tiered pagoda. She watched as Houyi prepared to consume the pill of immortality. She watched his smile that curved like a new moon. His smile that curved like a bow. He spoke of going into the pagoda together where they would consume the pill and be together always.
She turned her face from him there.
Houyi kept the pill close. He kept it in a box. He prepared himself as the Queen Mother of the West had taught him. He held Ch'ang-hsi tight. He drained Chang'e into fields and Heng-O into pleasure lakes. He held her very tight. She loved him. She melted into him.
The night before the morning when they would consume the pill of immortality, she watched him sleep. The new sleeping moon was high over head. She opened the box. The trick of opening it was simple. She looked at the pill inside. She ate it. One swallow. It was gone. All of it.
She floated up. She floated out of the window. The ice in the mountains. The stream in the orchard. The river in the wide valley. The green lake. She broke free of bridges and dams and berms and fields.
She floated up with a crash and a roar.
Houyi woke up. He looked up at her in the sky. His fierce eyes were full of tears. He tried to keep them. They could not be kept. He aimed with his bow. He let loose his arrows. He did not kill her. He let loose arrows that fell beneath her feet like a deadly rain.
She came to the first of the twelve sleeping moons and jumped lightly down. She landed lightly. Ch'ang-hsi coughed up immortality. She did not want it inside her. She coughed it up and it became Jade Rabbit, who pounded immortality for her to dust.
It was cold on the moon. It was dark. The moon was asleep. She sang to it. Not a lullabye to put a child to sleep. She sang to wake it up, but the moon slept on.
She looked down on the earth below. She looked at her husband, who stood beside the river. The woman was not there. She saw him with his arrows. She saw him with his fingers that could pull taut the bow. She watched him teach the trick of it. He taught by letting loose his arrows. Arrows that pierced as he walked up and down the length of where she had been. He did not breathe the divine breath. He did not follow the strategy of the three palaces. He did not walk dipper steps of hidden time. He put aside the six rens of supreme oneness. He raged as the sunbirds had once done. She watched as he ruled like a sunbird.
She saw the people take the wood of a peach tree. They struck her husband down. He flew up as a red crow might do. As an arrow might fly. He flew straight up to the sun.
Yi, the Pacifier of the Country, lived on the sun. Hou Yi, the archer god, had a palace that was made of fire. Houyi, the piercer of sunbirds, blazed.
On the sleeping moon, Chang'e longed for him where she was wide and flowing. As she longed for the sea.
He flew to her one day. He had made an amulet that he might do it. He cut from the ever growing cassia tree that grew on the moon. He made a palace for her, his wife. He named it the Palace of Great Cold. The moon grew bright. Bright and shining. The jade rabbit cast a shadow it was so bright. The moon woke to brilliance.
The moon woke to the smell of peaches. There were no peaches. Yet, still, they were thick in the air with each breath.
On the third night, Ch'ang-hsi watched Houyi as he slept. She jumped away to the next house of the new moon. There were twelve moons after all.
He found her. She was not hiding. He would always find her from his palace on the sun. She left a channel of herself. She was a river. Chang'e grew bright thinking of him. Longing for Yi, the Pacifier of the Country. Thinking on the strong arms of Hou Yi, the archer god. Thinking on the hands of Houyi, the piercer of sunbirds.
When he visited, the air grew thick with the smell of peaches. He built her twelve Palaces of Great Cold from cassia trees. The moons grew bright waiting for his arrival. Waiting to wake. Dark into sleep when he left.
Ch'ang-hsi always slipped away. She always jumped through the dark to the next sleeping moon. She was forever falling up, but then Houyi had not desired to float with her down into the sea.
Sometimes she looked down and smiled to see mooncakes. They were sweet. She smiled and jumped.
Sometimes she looked down to watch the waves of the sea and tides pulled to the moon's motion.
Forever falling up, they lept to the sound of moons sleeping and waking in their turn.
Instead of flowing into the sea, they eternally journeyed. Meeting ever again far in the river of stars.