Five years old
Diana had to pry her mother’s bedtime stories out of her. They were the charred remains of a war fought with small fists and persistent whines, but each time she surrendered, Diana could crawl into her mother’s skin and live inside of her, for a time, again. While her mother spoke, Diana could count the parts of her that belonged to her mother: the hollow of her cheek or the way she answered the phone. Like counting sheep, she learned how to soothe herself to sleep. She found she could contort her body into seemingly impossible positions to fit into the nooks of her mother’s body, and there, Diana didn’t have to think about anything. She could be content with the knowledge that she fit into her mother’s shape. The bedtime stories were mostly parental propaganda; her favorite one to retell was that of 垃圾婆, a withered old lady who snatched up children that stayed up past their bedtime and carried them away in her trash bag. Other lessons included eternal shame and misery for children who didn’t finish their homework or children who lied to their mothers.
The word “story” held tremendous weight in the family, a detail that Diana had always inherently understood. Her grandparents kept their childhoods in China tucked neatly in a small bundle at the back of her throat like a piece of mashed meat too large to swallow. Even more obscure still were their tales of raising Diana’s mother in America, which lay hidden beneath the soles of their slippers. She had never heard the story of her birth or her sister’s birth or about the names of family members who were only spoken about in hushed tones. When she would ask her mother to tell her a true story, her mother liked to say that she was too young to deal with anything true. But once, when Diana asked for something true, her mother conceded. She would tell Diana the story of herself and Diana’s father and their love.
Before her mother is her mother, she is only 织女, or Zhinu. She is the youngest and most beautiful daughter of the Goddess of Heaven, charged with weaving the clouds in the sky. Zhinu takes her responsibilities seriously; she laces and molds each water drop with painstaking care, working until her hands ache and her vision blurs. But she never complains or resents her duties, for she loves seeing the joy that her clouds bring to the mortals down below. One such mortal is Diana’s father, 牛郎, or Niulang. Niulang is a poor cowherd without a family, but he is charming and young and has a strange sort of magnetism that has always served him well. It is through this charm that, one day, Niulang is gifted an ox who becomes his closest companion. Each day after Niulang has finished working, he lies in the fields against his ox with his eyes fixed firmly on the sky, admiring the beauty that Zhinu sculpts each day. Zhinu smiles down at him, playing with the shapes of her clouds to entertain Niulang with stories of herself and the world. Niulang sings songs to the goddess, with a heart full of wonder for the beautiful creature in the sky. Over time, Zhinu grows fond of the mortal with the melodic voice, and they begin to fall in love.
Eight years old
There was music playing in the house. Diana’s mother was in the kitchen flipping through recipes and shifting from foot to foot ever so slightly off-beat. Diana stood between her mother’s legs and wrapped her mother’s cotton dress around her face and body. The world around her was black and blue paisley. Her friends’ mothers all smelled so motherly, but Diana’s smelled the best — like wet grass and pears. Her mother feigned confusion, pretending that she did not know where Diana had gone. Diana giggled. Her mother’s face appeared before her, unwrapping her face from its cocoon to shout boo! Diana smashed her cheek into her mother’s.
My sweet 蝴蝶, her mother cooed.
Her father liked to tell Diana that there was always music playing so that at any point her father could scoop her up onto his feet and dance her around the living room. Today, he waltzed into the kitchen, running his hands over Diana’s mother’s shoulders and stooping to kiss her lightly on the neck before offering Diana his hand. She clung to him for balance, finding knots and holds in between his fingers and along his back, using the full range of motion of her neck to look up at him. He spun them both clumsily out of the kitchen. He smelled sticky like gasoline, but sometimes it was paint thinner and other times it was pavement after it’s been rained on, so she held her breath when he held her to dance. But his voice was sweet and smooth.
His voice made every movie theater usher let them bring candy into the theater even though they hadn’t bought it there. Waitresses swooned over his words and teachers forgave him for being hours late to pick up Diana and her sister from school. Diana felt proud that she had a father that seemed to wield such power over the rest of the world. It meant that she got a lot of attention whenever she was with him too. People would notice her at his side and pinch her cheeks or her curls. Then they would hear Diana call her dad 爸爸, and they would get this look in their eyes like he was the most decent man they had ever met in their lives. Once when Diana asked her father why everyone seemed to love him wherever they went, he said that he always kept a sugar cube under his tongue. So he was always a sweet talker. The next day, Diana put a sugar cube underneath her tongue and told her crush at school that she liked him.
When the song ended, Diana’s father slipped her off of his shoes and went into the kitchen with Diana’s mother to say goodbye before work. Diana’s sister clunked down the stairs and ran to sit on the couch, calling Diana over to her. She had a thick black book between her small hands, and she told Diana that she had found their parents’ wedding album. Diana excitedly went to sit next to her sister and watched her sister begin to flip through the pages. Their mother’s dress was simple; it sheathed her snugly in red satin. She wore no veil. Their parents seemed like strangers to them in these photos, lighter somehow. Their mother was nineteen when she married their father, who was thirty at the time. Her parents had been invited haphazardly, but had not been in attendance. Diana’s sister lingered on a photo of their parents feeding each other cake. Frosting was smeared across their father’s cheek and his face was lit up in a wide smile. Their mother’s right hand was resting on her stomach, her mouth stretched in a line, the faintest suggestion of curve pulling at the seams of her dress.
At dinner that night, Diana and her sister sat at the table waiting in silence. They had decorated the table together, strewing purple flowers from the backyard across the tablecloth. Diana’s sister had just taught Diana how to light the candles, and they played with dipping their fingers in the wax together. Her sister was nervous and kept fidgeting with her cuticles, but smiled weakly whenever Diana looked up at her. Diana started to worry that the candles would melt all the way down before she could show her parents what she had learned.
Their father came home around nine, an hour before Diana would have to go to bed. Diana saw her sister recoil at his hug, so she held her breath before he came to her. She asked him where he was and he pretended not to hear. Before they ate, her father grasped the hands of Diana and her sister, signaling the family to follow. Diana closed her eyes, allowing the words of her father’s prayer to drift over the room. She peeked out of one eye like she always did whenever anything involved people closing their eyes, and she saw that her mother’s eyes were open too, fixed vaguely on the melting candles. That was the first night that Diana had noticed the air of tension that had settled on the house like fog around trees. But when she finally put her finger on it, she realized it had been there for some time.
One day, Zhinu and her sisters travel to the Earth to bathe. They unlace their long red robes and lay them on a log before splashing into the water. Looking for water for his ox, Niulang comes across the riverbank, and upon seeing the heavenly sisters, he is mesmerized and stops behind a tree to watch them. Niulang spies Zhinu amongst the sisters and sees that her beauty is even greater up close. From behind the tree, Niulang begins to sing. Zhinu, hearing the song, emerges from the water and redresses, padding towards the noise. When Niulang appears to her, she is elated to see him. They embrace each other, grateful to finally be standing together. They sit together on the riverbank for some time, resting on Niulang’s ox and talking of their lives and hopes for the future. Niulang plucks a flower from beside him and tucks it into Zhinu’s braid gently. Both goddess and mortal believe that there is no one else in the world for them.
When the sisters’ mother calls them home, Zhinu promises Niulang to return soon to see him, leaving Niulang on the ground. Niulang grows increasingly bitter with his inability to have Zhinu while he awaits her return. He decides he must have her for his wife. Knowing that mortals and immortals cannot wed, Niulang concocts a plan. On the first day of spring, when the sisters finally descend again to bathe in the river, Niulang lies in wait behind some brushes. He watches Zhinu with her family, anticipating their wedding and brainstorming names for children still unborn. Noiselessly, Niulang slips out from his hiding place and steals a dress from the log that the sisters had placed them on. The sisters tie their dresses back on and ascend back to the heavens, while one sister, the fair Zhinu cannot find hers. It is then that Niulang reveals himself and proposes marriage to the frightened girl. While Zhinu loves the young cowherd, she does not wish to abandon her home in the heavens with her sisters and her mother. But when Zhinu looks up at the sky, she sees her mother’s cheek has turned away from her, and she knows she has been cast down. For Niulang has seen the goddess naked, condemning Zhinu to accept his proposal and stealing from her immortality.
Eleven years old
Diana liked the feeling that slouched men gave her on her walk home from school, faceless men who followed her through the supermarket aisle, toothless cashiers whose eyes lingered too long on the hem of her skirts, on the barrettes in her hair. She was desired, they told her, and they gave her the butterflies that she read about in fashion magazines she would steal from her sister. Bile would creep up her throat, and she would swallow it back down. She knew these butterflies and this bile were preferable to the boys at school who mocked her round face, who poked fun at her disproportionately large forehead and who thought that calling her “bok choy” was a streak of comedic genius. But Diana was patient; she was confident she would grow to look like her mother, beautiful and soft and loved.
Once, she had borrowed her father’s laptop without asking and found his bookmarks. She scrolled through videos of women who looked like her mother, women who looked like herself and her sister, smooth-skinned and dark-haired and eyes-lidded. Diana wondered if her body would ever look like theirs, pale and bare and firm and wanted. She was old enough to know what sex was, but she hadn’t known that sex looked like this. Violent and sudden and one-sided — hair-pulled, legs-thrown, screaming and crying and thrashing and begging and messy; why was sex so messy? The names of the videos read ASIAN in every title, always accompanied by petite, submissive, hungry, desperate, willing, teen, eager.
She was reminded of the man at the bus stop. He’d been staring at Diana and her sister while they waited. Diana’s sister was wrapped tightly around the pocket of Diana’s sweater, and she noticed that her sister’s body seemed to bend itself as far away as possible from the man without physically taking a step. The man looked to be about forty with pale skin and peppered brown hair. He looked like one of her teachers at school, the kind of guy that would pick up trash left around if he happened upon it and dispose of it properly. But he stared at the girls like he could see inside of them.
I hear little chinky girls like you like it rough, he spat out at them.
When she got home, she asked her father what the man meant.
Do you know what a fetish is, Di?
A boy at school says he has a foot fetish. He steals our shoes from the gym lockers sometimes.
Yeah like that. Some men like Asian girls as much as your classmate likes shoes and feet.
Somewhere in her eleventh year, Diana was listening in on a fight. Diana had learned where all the right spots to step were in the house, and she crept silently down the stairs where she stood behind the living room wall and watched. Her parents were whisper-screaming in that way that makes your throat dry. From behind the wall, Diana could pretend she was watching a movie. They were arguing about a girl. A girl was going to have a baby, Diana thought. But whose? Diana’s mother said she would leave them. She was so young, she whispered. She still had so much to do. She wanted to leave. Her dad picked up the landline and threw it at her mother’s head. Then he walked over to her body curled into the fetal position on the floor and held her. He cried and told her he was sorry, smoothing away her hair and kissing her all over her face. Diana padded on her toes back to her room and watched the window all night, waiting for her mother to get into her car. But in the morning when she went downstairs, her mother was in the kitchen like she always was.
Zhinu and Niulang marry in the spring in a meadow. They have two children together, whom they name 天子, or Tianzi, and 木子, or Muzi, who enjoy their childhoods riding around the fields on Niulang’s ox and playing in the river. Zhinu loves her children and her husband dearly, but eventually, tensions in the family run too high to bear. Niulang had loved Zhinu for her clouds and her weaving and her immortality, but now Zhinu is only a woman, a disappointment in her new form. He develops a wandering eye, and then wandering hands. And as his words to her become far more cruel and vicious than ever before, it’s not long before Zhinu can no longer recognize her husband as the boy with the sweet voice and wonderful songs. His violence worsens, and Zhinu falls into despair. She misses her family and her weaving, and she longs for her children to know her family and their way of life in the sky. One night, Zhinu, overcome with sadness for herself and her children, begins to weep. To her surprise, her tears do not sink into the ground, and instead form a pool at her knees. Her mother’s face appears in the pool and speaks to her, comforting her daughter. The goddess takes pity on her daughter and returns her immortality, allowing her to return home. In the blanket of night, Zhinu takes her children and travels home to the sky.
In the heavens, Zhinu introduces her children to their aunties and their grandmother who fawn over their skin and their noses, twirling the children’s hair between slender fingers and marveling at the color. The children wonder at the beauty of the heavens and spend each day exploring its many faces and sights. They play with the animals and help with their mother’s weaving; they are the favorite creatures of all the immortals. But the longer the children spend away from Earth and away from Niulang, the more they wonder about who their father really is beyond the cowherd who stole the weaver girl from the sky, often wondering if they truly belong and are wanted in the sky. They weep each time someone does not know that their mother is their mother. They ask their mother if they can still belong to her if their skin is the cowherd’s skin and their feet are the cowherd’s feet and their laugh is the cowherd’s laugh.
Sixteen years old
On her sixteenth birthday, Diana showed her sister a text from their father, asking if he could visit their home to see her on her birthday. It had been four years since he moved out. Holes filled themselves in his absence. Diana likened the loss of her father to arid dirt softening to soil — land becoming hospitable. But guilt gnawed at Diana. Without people to bury it in, her father had nowhere for his anger. He texted Diana often to tell her how he was struggling, how upset Diana and her sister made him by not seeing him more. She saw him on major holidays and sometimes birthdays and on those days, Diana found herself forgetting his faults when he told a joke or used his hands to talk.
Her mother locked herself in her bedroom when he came over. He strode into the kitchen and began opening cabinets to grab a plate. Her mother had made Diana her favorite birthday cake, and it sat on the kitchen counter. Her father cut himself a slice without a word. That was what bothered Diana most. He acted like everything in the house still belonged to him.
How’s everything been with you, Di. You never answer my texts.
I’m sorry, I’ve just been so busy. I’ve been good though. How have you been?
I’ve been doing my best. Happy birthday, sweetheart. Where’s your mother?
Oh, she’s at work. Can I get you some water or anything?
I can get it.
Her father watched her for a while, long enough to make her uneasy.
You changed your hair. You look more like me than your mother.
You have a boyfriend these days?
I do, actually. Almost a year together. He’s a good guy.
When do I get to meet him?
Oh, I don’t know. It’s not like I’m gonna marry the guy.
Mhm. I just want to protect you, Di. You know that right? You’re a beautiful girl. There are dangerous people out there. I don’t want you to get hurt. I love you.
I know. I love you too, Dad.
When Niulang discovers that his wife has fled with his children, he boils over with rage, determined to find them. It is then that his ox begins to speak to him. The ox tells Niulang to kill him and take his hide, for its magical properties would have the ability to carry Niulang to the sky. Niulang takes a knife from his belt and, slaying his beloved friend, he steals its hide and wraps it tightly around himself. The air around him grows thick, allowing him to lift one foot and step into mid-air, walking on nothingness, making his way toward the heavens.
Zhinu is asleep in her bed with her two children when her dreams are interrupted by the melody of a song. The song floats softly through her mind, intertwining itself with her dream effortlessly and she smiles in her sleep at the sound, remembering a song like this she heard once on a riverbank. Jolted awake, she rushes her children into her mother’s bedroom. There’s a knock on the door before the knob turns. When the door opens, Niulang is standing in front of them swathed in the skin of his ox, but before he can reach Zhinu, Zhinu’s mother unclasps her hairpin from her scalp and etches a river in the sky, creating the Milky Way and separating husband from wife forever.
Once a year, all of the magpies on Earth form a bridge across the river, and Tianzi and Muzi would travel across the bridge to Niulang. As the impossible children of a mortal and an immortal, they travel between their worlds freely, belonging everywhere and nowhere at once.
Ten years old
Diana thought of herself as the powdered floor of the snow globe that sat on the living room mantle. Like at any given moment, anywhere and no matter where she turned, she could reach one small finger out in front of her and meet the cool finish of glass. She was the snow that never left the globe, hearing and seeing and breathing the house’s inhabitants and their movements without ever being an inhabitant herself. She envied things with names and thought of this envy often. Water was water because it was water and spoons were spoons because they were spoons and her mother was a weaver girl and her father was a cowherd and more than anything, Diana wanted to call herself a word and believe in its meaning. What is a person if they cannot be named and known by their name? What is a person if they are pieces that do not form a whole, only parts of one.
MiC Columnist Claire Gallagher can be reached at email@example.com.