Mulan is old when she comes to America. Old and weary. Mushu is older still and bound to her flesh. Restless. They’re both restless on the skin of the world.
She had followed the last villager from her village to Beijing. She followed him silently through the city and guarded his path.
So, when his son gets on a ship for America, she follows him in the hold. He doesn’t know that she's there. She has never spoken to him. She remembers the last time she tried to speak.
She's not his ancestor. She has no descendants. Her house is dead.
Still, she folds herself into a four by two by two foot box and is lifted into the hold of a clipper ship, the Golden Hind. It is a good name. Mulan drowses as they cross the sea. It is as close as she can come to sleep. All around her are boxes full of spices and silk and painted porcelain. Things. Mushu stirs restlessly on her flesh. He is always restless. She is always restless, but for now she drowses deep in the dark. Folded into a box.
They arrive to a foggy summer and all the people in the ship are unloaded onto an island in the cloud shrouded bay. All the boxes are unloaded and placed in a warehouse. She smashes the box that holds her. She stands on the edge of this foggy city by a cold bay and looks across the wind raked water to the island where the last villager is being kept.
The last son of her village never comes to the city by the bay. Mushu calls to the wind and is told that he died coughing in a cement building by a sandy shore.
She goes to where her people live up the hill from the harbor. They live in a place that is called Chinatown. As if a place so large could be contained in a town within a city. The people there come from dozens of districts all over China. The words they use cascade over her ears.
She walks the narrow streets of her town. It's like a village. They are under siege. She understands siege and battle and war. How can she not? She put that knowledge on an age ago. When she put aside Ping at the pass. When everyone died, including her. When with her last breath, she let Mushu into her skin and they held the line. A flood of Hun and she held.
She may be a little broken, but she held.
Held. Held. She holds on. She walks down the streets of her village. When a boy on his way home is attacked by drunken invaders, she comes out of her shadow and she keeps him safe. When an old woman going down to the fish market is threatened, she gets up from where she watches and she defends. When a mob of wide eyed men attempt her streets, she holds the line. She slices. She is silent. Mushu roars. She holds.
It is not long after that when a dozen men in the respected robes of elders come to her as she crouches on the corner of a building. They each bow to her in turn. The oldest man with a curl in his beard says, "Venerable guardian spirit. We thank you for your protection."
The youngest man, and they all seem so young to her, these elders, says, "You must stop. Please. Every time you help, the laws that bind us get tighter."
Stop. The words echo and rattle through her. She listens to them. There are more words, but they are much the same.
Mulan walks away from the clouds of that city by a bay. She walks slowly. She is so very old and so very tired. But like Mushu, she is restless and cannot lie down.
Tiana is nineteen when she becomes a monster. Not that the folks who decide how things can be haven’t been telling her that’s what she is her whole life. Can’t eat here. Can’t sit there. Don't drink from that fountain. Don't talk back. Signs telling her that her kind is not wanted. That’s half the reason that she wants the sugar mill. To have a sweet place that’s hers. A place where she’ll make the food and be and worship in her own way.
Shadow Man stole that dream. She sat there in a frog's body. All the deadlines past. That poor prince not even knowing what hit him when the bayou ate him up. But that Doctor Facilier with all his dark Loa does not know with whom he was messing. He does not know whose dream he stole.
But she is going to show him.
An Ialorixá does not need blood or souls to make the Orishas come sit up. She needs to know how to cook. She needs to know how to sing. Tiana can do both. She did do both. If when the Orisha came into her and rode the frog out, they didn’t quite give her body back the way that it had been, well that’s life. Some things just need more work.
She makes herself a house where she can worship and live in the bayou. She can’t go back to New Orleans like this. She’s a monster now and monsters live on the edges. They sit at the back of the street car. They drink from their own fountain.
Course, the people of New Orleans come out to her. When she was a cook, she was just a negro cook. Now, she’s a monster on the edge. Charlotte comes to her holding her handkerchief and asks her to talk to Papa La Bouff on the other side. Tiana looks at little miss blond Charlotte in her black silk dress and pearls for tears and she takes pity. She pulls out reading cards and she reads for Miss Charlotte. They’re just card board. They don’t speak to any spirits. That’s the part where she takes pity.
But they come and they bring gifts and offerings and they ask for things from the monster that lives outside their city.
It’s when the Shadow Man starts sending his dark Loa after her that she decides enough is enough. They come at her when she's in her kitchen. She taps her wooden spoon against the side of her iron pot and she swallows them down.
Tiana stands in her kitchen and she spins her knife. She chops up a sweet potato in thin slices. She’s got beans and rice on a slow boil. She got out all the spices that she needs. She throws Louis a little something and he snaps it up, because he’s hungry. She knows how to feed him. She stands in her house in the bayou and she calls for a Nkisis, because she’s owed justice. She’s owed balance and that’s what she’s going to have.
She’s so intent on her song that it takes her awhile to see the Nkisis staring lighting eyed through her open door.
She’s old. Maybe the oldest that Tiana’s ever seen. Looks to be Chinese too. Tiana hadn’t even known that they called on Nkisis, but shows what she knew. There’s always room to learn more.
Poor thing stares in her door and won’t knock. Tiana beckons to her. “Come on in.” It takes the Nkisis such a long time looking. Finally, she comes inside and the power of wind and sky and thunderstorms coils all over her. She’s old and she’s powerful, this Nkisis of the Above.
Tiana says, “Oh, you poor thing. Hasn’t anyone been feeding you?”
The Nkisis steps slowly forward. She looks at Tiana with an old deep look full of the storms. “No one has ever fed me. I don’t think I can eat.”
“Can’t eat. Course you can eat. You just need someone who knows what to fix for you.” Tiana grins and her long tongue twists in the air. Fireflies flicker and buzz in the room. They like the smell of what she’s got cooking. “No wonder you look so worn out. Well, come on. Sit down. I’ve got food for you.”
The Nkisis hesitantly moves forward. She has a sword in her hand that is battered and chipped along the length of the blade. There are old scars on her arms and legs. Finally she sits at the table. Tiana puts the food that she needs in front of her. The Nkisis stares at the food. She doesn’t take up the rum. She doesn’t take up the offering. She just stares at it as if she doesn’t know what food is.
Slowly, the power of thunderstorm uncoils from her arm and with long slow swallows takes up what Tiana has offered. He blinks at her with the same lightening eyes as the woman who wears him.
Now that the foods been taken up, Tiana says, “I need your help. Can you help me? What’s your name?”
The Nkisis blinks at her and the longer she looks, the more Tiana is certain that she exactly who she’s been looking for. Maybe even before the Shadow Man stole her dreams.
But nothing worth doing is easy. She says, “Mulan.” She thinks a long moment. She looks like words are rusty for her. Rough and unused on her tongue. Tiana wonders what the words sound like to her. Seeing as they are speaking in the language of the dead. “You are not my descendant. I am not your ancestor.”
“Well, no. But you are alone. You need someone to feed you.” Tiana smiles and in her present shape, it’s probably not a very pleasant smile. “There’s a man. A Shadow Man who has wronged me. He stole my dream and made me like this. He hunts me.” She adds quickly because she doesn’t want the Nkisis to think this is something silly. “Looking at you, I’d say you're the sort that needs to deal with wrong doers.”
“Yeeeeesssss,” says Mulan. Says the thunderstorm coiled on her skin. Says the lightening crackling in her eyes. Says the sword that she’s still got in her hand as she sits at Tiana’s table. Says the scars on her arms and legs. Mulan tilts her head slightly and her dark hair falls like rain at night over her face. She looks up at Tiana with her tilted head and burning eyes. “I need,” she trails off, poor old battered soul.
Tiana brushes Mulan’s hair back and cups Mulan’s cold face in her hands. She kisses her forehead to seal her offer. She kisses her cheeks. She kisses the palms of her hands. She offers the thunderstorm more rum and he drinks it down in long thirsty gulps. “I know what you need. I think,” she brushes her fingers along the old leather of Mulan’s cheek and goes back to her bubbling stove, “we may have been looking for each other for a long time.”
“Me more than you,” says Mulan and there’s the faintest hint of a smile on her lips.
Tiana waves her wooden spoon at Mulan. “Did you just make a joke?” She grins her stretched out grin. “That’s a good sign. I think we’re going rub along just right.” She goes back to cooking, while Mulan watches over her.
Tiana’s finishes cooking what she’s got on her stove.
She packs up her purse. She looks at Mulan. She says, “Well, you coming?”
Mulan nods. They ride Louis across the swamp. He swims easily. The shadows that stole his music ride on the edges of his eyes. That’s why he’s so hungry. He's empty now. They come to the river. They come to where there are streets. They can’t take a streetcar. They walk along the edge of the street in a sort of parade. Children whisper as they walk. One throws a rock. Mulan’s thunderstorm crushes it in its mouth and grins.
Doctor Facilier thinks he’s ready when they come. He’s surrounded by shadows. He yells, “You’ve been cutting into my business, frog girl. Time for you to go.” The shadows stream forward. Tiana opens her mouth and swallows them down.
Facilier throws red powder at her and she chokes. The powder burns and she feels like she's on fire. She gasps for air and she can't sing. Can't get to her purse. It's fallen too far from her hand. All of that and she's going to die, choking for air.
That’s when the thunderstorm breaks. Mulan’s thunderstorm roars fire. Mulan walks up to Facilier. He yells, "No, stay back." He throws everything he has at her and it washes over her skin like water. All his power is from down below. Mulan is everything that is above. There's a moment when Facilier waves his hand and the ghost of arrows prick out of Mulan's flesh. She roars or maybe that's the storm. She slices him open with her sword. He falls to the ground and no amount of magic is going to stop that kind of dead.
For all of that, it feels a bit anticlimactic and leaves Tiana feeling empty. She takes Doctor Facilier’s hat. The one where he acted like he was being ridden by Baron Samedi.
She puts it on. It fits. She looks at Louis. She says, "You hungry." Louis grins. She prepares the body with her butcher's knife and Louis eats him. It’s not music, but it will have to do.
She turns to go and at the door, she looks back. Mulan stands in the middle of the room starring after her. “Well, come on.”
“Why?” Mulan holds her head at that odd angle. There's still blood on her sword.
She grins her wide twisted grin. “We’ve got to fatten you up.”
She hears Mulan follow her. She wonders to herself, once Mulan is healthy, what they won't be able to do. She starts to sing down the spirits and is a bit startled to hear Mulan join her.
They sing the whole way home.