I am halfway to the heavens (to the gods)
And halfway to hell.
(I have outgrown my mortal shell)
She is dreaming. In her dreams, she is riding on an endless grass sea, blue sky above, barely able to grasp the reigns. Her father’s steady hands guide her own small ones on the bow, and later how to hold the knife.
“Like this, it will lessen the pain.” Her father’s voice is unclear, like passing through a water bubble or behind a curtain. “Every part has a use. The bone for knives, for bow handles, sinew for string, fur to pass the winter.”
“Always give thanks to the life that sustains yours.” They clasp their hands together and pray as she imagines the twisting branches, the impossibly deep roots of the Tree of Worlds, connecting souls from one life to the next. Abril closes her eyes.
When she opens them, a Princess cups her cheeks tenderly, the light reflecting off her sky-blue eyes, dark braids with beads twinkling in the wind. She is beautiful, so beautiful that it hurt to look at, because it was a beauty she could never hold.
“Do not cry,” the Princess says, but tears fell from her eyes too. “I am not worth your tears. You are made for greater things, Abril daughter of Adriel, companion of Kings and Queens.”
“You are worth this and so much more, my jewel.”
“I will find you one day under the Eternal Blue Sky,” The Princess says, their foreheads just touching. The tears continue to fall.
“You must go, now!” The Princess cries, “Go!” Smoke rises in the distance. War drums and the earth trembles with the sound of a thousand horses. Her father guides her and mother in a moonless night. Her mother is crying, but his eyes are dry.
“You must be brave now, Abril-jin. Protect your mother. Look after yourself.
I will find you under the Eternal Blue Sky.”
Lady Cecillie Vasseur stares at the full moon above and Abril stares at her, at her fingers gripping the handrails, the moonlight dusting her cheeks. There is a new crease on her forehead, in the corner of her eyes. She wants to run a hand over them and smoothen it out.
“You promised me. You promised we would grow old together. Now you go where I can not follow.”
“I did. I’m sorry.”
“No, you’re not,” Cecillie says. A small half-sigh. Her golden curls, once always short and framing her face in their youth, are now pinned up at the top in elaborate patterns and braids.
“No,” Abril smiles wirily. “I’m not.”
They wrap themselves in silence. The wind is warm on the balcony. The lights glowing from inside reflect on the waters of the pond below, distorting the reflection of the moon.
“I don’t regret it. There is too much I want to do, to see. To know. The world is vast, filled with secrets I have yet to discover.”
Abril breathes in the scent of petrichor and the sweet-smelling perfumes of the oil lamp. She moves a hand closer to where Cecillie’s rest as they stand side by side. “You could join me.”
“I can’t. I have my people, my husband, and my children…” She smiles sadly. “I don’t want to outlive my children, my grandchildren, watch them grow old and pass on without me.”
“Let’s make a new promise. When your kids have grown and you have passed on your post, come with me. For a short while.”
“What if by then, I am old and gray?”
“I won’t mind.”
“And if I can no longer walk?”
“There is a fox that can help with that,” Abril smirks, “Though you may have to charm him a bit.”
Cecillie laughs, the memory of fireflies and summer storms, “Okay. It’s a promise.”
In a small village by the Yulong Mountain range, a man sits by a small house surrounded by rice paddies. He was once a young man, strong arms and tanned skin, but he is old now, with white hairs, aches in his back, and a knee that stiffens before it rains from the years of working in the fields, back bent and head towards the ground.
Abril had known him when he was a young man.
She had arrived after New Years. This was his grandmother’s house and was his and his wife’s and now is his once more as their children have left, some travelling to distant shores, others just down the street. He had said goodbye to his wife in her sleep last winter. She was buried in their familial cemetery in the hills in the back.
“Are you planning to stay here?” Abril asks. The house was not so large to be a hassle to upkeep, but some shingles might need to be replaced and the bed creaked.
Li scratches the chin of the fox who was sleeping on the floor, who opens one eye and sniffs the hand, and went back to sleep. The fox was always fond of Li. Abril swore she was not jealous. For many years, his rice and the rest of the village had been plentiful. Good fortunes as they were so far away from the capital that supplies rarely arrived during famine years.
“I think so.” Many years ago, he thought he would never have the chance the return, ****** into a destiny he did not ask for and felt hopeless to escape from. He had lost his mother and a father that he just regained to the machinations of the royal court.
“I think I’ll stay in Lijiang for a while.” I’ll stay with you until it is your time.
“Thank you, old friend,” He smiles softly.
Overhead, a large flock of egrets fly along the arch of the setting sun back into the mountain burrows and the pines. Some children are playing in the long hallways of the house nearby, their laughter can be heard over the white walls. They crack sunflowers seeds like old people did and spit watermelon seeds like children until the sun sets.
4/5 The Hunter and the Fox