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The Maiden and the Fish

“P-please accept my humble offering!”

She whipped the frond, cutting through her hair in one swift motion. She thought it would hurt, that breaking her beauty would feel like a leg being removed, but the transformation to an outcast was painless and swift.

She summoned the last of her strength and ran to the river. She threw the frond, and it sailed through the air–falling short of its mark, but startling the crane enough that it dropped the fish. The fish disappeared under the surface of the water.

Fuji dove in. The river seemed deeper now, glowing with the scales of all the fish making their journey. The water stung her eyes, but she could still see silver and green and gray all around her. Just beyond her reach was the fish, her fish.

She rose from the depths of the river and gasped for breath. Every bone within her ached. She longed to lay her head on the grass and sleep, but she dragged her arms through the water and swam on. She had never realized that such strength lay within her in this world of dreams. She thought of the poor fish, lost in the waters, her promise to it unfulfilled. Morning was certainly near. The birds still hovered overhead, their sharp beaks waiting to snap up fish. Were they oni, cloaked in feathers to devour her?

The glint of gold had gone, and, with it, so went her hope. She bobbed along the river, wet and cold, her once-red kosode stained with grime beneath the water. She spoke aloud to soften the sound of the blankness inside her, to fill up the nothingness that her life threatened to become. It was Izumi Shikibu who comforted her in this moment, her sorrow becoming Fuji’s sorrow, melding together until the words and feelings were one.

Why, my love, did you
vanish into the hollow sky?
Gone beyond me now.
The purest light snow still deigns
to fall in this mundane sphere.

The world opened up at the sound of her voice. Glorious waterfalls appeared and fish leaped over them, each creature sailing through the air and disappearing out of view.

She tried to fight against the sudden current that pushed her forward, but she was too tired. Was this how it would end? A broken promise and a broken life. She was falling, falling over the cascading water as cranes soared over her. These birds looked different from the ones before; they did not stop to pester her. The sun had risen high in the sky, glowing like she had never seen before. It reminded her of her beloved little ball.

Death was certain, for no one could survive such a waterfall, but at least she would have poetry to comfort her. Words formed in her mind, and she spoke aloud the summation of so many attempts at one perfect waka:

“Golden circle of memories
how I have longed to touch you,
shining like the sun I have always known.”

It was not a waka, but something entirely new…her own voice, a writing of her very own.

For a moment, everything seemed to pause, as if the world held its breath. Even her falling seemed to slow to a dreamy spin as she looked up.

The sky ripped in two, threads falling apart as the birds flew away. A crack of night darkness showed through the rip as the golden ball fell from the sky and into her hands. She fell faster, the spell broken, until she landed on something firm and smooth.

A cage of scales and coils wrapped around her. The creature around her body twisted to look at her, and she found herself staring into the face of a dragon.

She’d only seen dragons in paintings before, and those had never captured the ferocity of a dragon’s gaze. It was like staring at the sun; she could barely stand to look into those huge, bulging eyes; the sharp, twisting horns springing up from the dragon’s head; the spines of its back.

She had nothing, and so, she had nothing to fear. The nothingness was freeing. No longer did she hold fear that could only be quelled by reciting poetry until she was distracted from the future. Her chest was filled with a solemn sadness–the sorrows of girlhood changed into the sorrows of a woman in one cut.

Fuji gripped the coils around her, for the only alternative was to fall into the abyss. Up soared the dragon. Lightning cut the skies in half as they sailed above the pine and wisteria forest, out of the strange world and into more familiar skies.

The dragon did several circles until dark clouds formed beyond them. White spikes of lightning streaked across the sky. The rains that came down were an angry flood. Winds rose up and blew the wispy clouds around her into nothing, but in seconds the dragon had formed more.

Fuji watched the sights around her in awe–she saw lights in the dark, the wink of stars above and below her through the haze of the rain. She watched until her eyes began to droop. She was so weary that even the sound of thunder and lightning could not keep her awake. When she lay her head upon the dragon’s scales, her short hair tickling its sides, the dragon made a soft sound, like a purr, and the storm turned into soft summer rain.

In her sleepy state, Fuji realized the dragon must have been angry–but it wasn’t now. That was the last thought in her mind before the low purring became her lullaby.

***

She awoke to a castle of white clouds. Her room was soft, softer than the silk world, with only a bed of cloud tufts. She hadn’t been changed. She looked down at her dirty, blistered hands, and bit her lip.

She would not mourn the loss of her beauty now. That would make the sacrifice meaningless. Instead she would go on in her life as a nun, an exile, and hope that at least poetry was not denied to her.

She stood from the bed and stepped out of the room.

The incense of the palace was familiar to her, like the fragrance of air after the rain. Her feet were silent on the floors. There were many other rooms, but they appeared to be empty. She walked toward the largest room.

Colors of dawn and dusk decorated the place, but it was not the decor that captured Fuji’s eye. A woman stood before her, clad in an intricate twelve-layer kimono of blues and grays with patterns of clouds and storms. Her eyes were the gold of Fuji’s ball, so fierce and passionate that Fuji looked away.

“I humbly apologize for my unworthy self,” Fuji said.

Fuji bent before the lady dragon, her careful makeup all washed away, her kosode stained from the grass and dirt, her hair cut away like a nun. She had never bowed more deeply and with more feeling in her life. The cut of a branch had severed all ties to Fujiwara; she was no longer her father’s jewel to be traded for a higher price.

“I promised I would stay with you all night, that I would breathe for you, and I failed,” Fuji said.

“Rise up,” the woman replied.

Fuji slowly obeyed. She longed for the sleeves of her own kimono to hide behind. Her kosode was too small, too worn to cover her face and the flush that had settled there with her rising heartbeat.

The lady dragon’s eyes crinkled in a smile. “You did not fail. The poetry is your breath; the world you held me in was your kimono. I was captured many years ago; my pearl was stolen and I was transformed into a fish. In this pond, I could not swim the yellow river to the gate and return to my celestial form. Because of this, no rains have fallen for years in the south. But because you stayed with me all those years, and guarded my pearl, I was slowly able to regain my memories.”

The lady dragon came closer, her kimono flowing like water over the floor.

“You showed a loyalty and pureness of heart like no other in the entire land. You cast aside all vanity to protect me and fulfill your promise. Because of this, Fuji, you are truly the most beautiful girl I have ever seen.”

Fuji felt her face grow warm. When courtiers spoke of her beauty, there always was some ring of falseness. But as the lady dragon spoke, Fuji sensed only sincerity and fondness in her melodious voice.

“Now, I ask you to stay with me in my palace and read me your poetry until the end of time. Be my consort and stay by my side, just as you did in the garden for so many years.”

Fuji dared to meet the lady’s eyes. Her expression was a mix of fearsome beauty and kindness. She was the summer storms, the gentle downpour that fed the gardens, and the violent storms that brought up the typhoons. Her hair fell down, dark and shining, longer than even Fuji’s had ever been.

“You told me all your secrets–your fears of the court and married life, of disappointing your father and clan–and I listened well. I promise, should you stumble, or speak a verse wrong, I will never cast you aside. I will not take mistresses, for none of them could compare to you. I will dress you in the colors of the dawn.”

Fuji gasped. It was the most beautiful and sweeping thing she had ever heard, worthy of a waka. And yet, through all the brightness of her newfound happiness, a solitary gloom remained.

“But my family…my father will surely think I have run off with a lover and curse me for the rest of his years. I may even force him into the fate of a ghost, consumed by his anger for me. I couldn’t bear it. I have already done so much to disappoint him and all his plans.”

The lady dragon came closer, her sweeping silks spreading around Fuji. “I will come to your father in a dream and give him a token, so he may tell the south that you have broken the curse and brought the rains back. A sizable fortune has been offered up to any onmyouji who would bring back the rain, and that will take care of your family.”

“Wh-what do I call you?” Fuji cursed herself for the stammer. In the court it could cost her standing and reputation, but the lady dragon seemed enamored.

She touched Fuji’s face, a smile softening the fierceness of her beauty.

“I have many names, but I take on a new one today as I have been reborn. I am Arashi.”

Arashi put the golden ball within Fuji’s hands.

“This pearl contained my heart. For a long time you guarded it, and now I ask you to guard it again. It will grant you immortality as long as you stay by my side.”

Fuji held the warm ball in her hands, happy to once again be reunited with her precious treasure. More than that, she now recognized the warmth and pulse of the ball as the beating of a heart.

“I shall guard it with my life,” Fuji said.

“I know you will. You have demonstrated your loyalty again and again.”

Arashi’s long sleeves brushed against Fuji’s cheek. Fuji allowed herself to fold away all the worries and insecurities she had known in her life until it was just liquid poetry, a life of happiness and verse to be made.

End.

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Author’s notes:

This is a retelling of the Princess and the Frog fairy tale set in Heian Japan, with some cultural liberties. Goldfish weren’t officially introduced into Japan until 1603; however, they were popular in China from the Tang to the Ming dynasties, and during the Heian period when the Chinese influence was at its height. For the sake of artistic license, I assumed that they had been imported earlier in this particular case.

The kimono in the illustration veered from the historical shades of wisteria pattern, as we were unable to find anything more than translations and notes describing it; with no visual examples, we had to wing it. Regardless, the official pattern was kept unchanged in the story itself.

The translations of Izumi Shikibu’s poems in this story are courtesy of Lillian Diaz-Przybyl (head of Sparkler Monthly comics). For more poems by Izumi Shikibu, please see:

The Ink Dark Moon by Jane Horshfield and Mariko Aratani, 1990: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/189048.The_Ink_Dark_Moon

2001 Waka for Japan 2001 by Thomas McAuley: http://www.temcauley.staff.shef.ac.uk/waka1039.shtml

Some further reading on Heian culture, and references I used:

http://www.bookmice.net/darkchilde/japan/khist4.html
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Omamori
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hanami
http://www.nationsonline.org/oneworld/Chinese_Customs/gold_fish.htm
http://www.lizadalby.com
http://kasane.fuyuya.com/kasane-colours.htm
http://www.bookmice.net/darkchilde/japan/khist4.html
http://www.personal.psu.edu/faculty/g/j/gjs4/textbooks/480/ch6.htm
http://www.personal.psu.edu/faculty/g/j/gjs4/textbooks/172/Higuchi.htm
http://www.iz2.or.jp/english/fukusyoku/wayou/index.htm
http://www.sengokudaimyo.com/miscellany/names.html

© Lydia Mackenzie, 2013.

Lydia Mackenzie has been writing for over ten years; The Maiden And The Fish is her first published work. She resides in TN, and is currently at work researching her first novel. She can be found on Twitter as @Lydia0Mackenzie and on Tumblr at http://lydia-mackenzie.tumblr.com/

Illustrator Phong Anh is a watercolor powerhouse who lives in Vietnam. View more of her incredible art on her DeviantART page, where she creates under the username Claparo-Sans: http://claparo-sans.deviantart.com/