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Ch'ang Ô Tale

I remember fear, first.

Fear of the law of my father, erratic and volatile, his enforcement of it brutal and absolute. Fear of my mother's fear—before his volcanic rages she waned smaller and paler, attempting to escape his blazing anger by fading away to invisibility. As I watched, little by little her soul shrank from him and she became starved and ill, until finally she had fled altogether, gone like a candle-flame pinched out. With this as my mother's teaching, I too tried to evade him by becoming insubstantial, slipping like a sylph from his sight.

It was not courage that got me from that house to wander the wild woods. In the thick forest I was well-hid, and with my meek ways I was easily missed in a house full of sons. Though the forest had its own terrors, from the half-heard scurryings of small beasts to rumors of the tiger royal in its bloodlust, still it was far less than the threat of my own home.

Until the day I heard something coming towards me, and panic—always so near to my surface—took me and I ran, only to be suddenly yanked back, pinned to a cassia-tree by a loop of my hair. Twisting around, I found I was caught by an arrow, and paralysis caged my blind panic. Then the archer came, fear in his bright face. Fear for me, that I might be hurt, which, after all, I was not. He begged my forgiveness, near weeping, swearing he had thought me a deer, white and rare. He told me over and over he could not live with himself if he had hurt me, and I saw the fierce anger he had for himself in knowing that he very nearly had.

No man had ever feared for my safety.

When he asked about my family, I told him my father was dead. I saw his concern, then his sense of responsibility and loyalty and he vowed to always protect me, and if I would, we could be married and he would take me to his home, far from this place.

I said yes, and went away from that land gladly.

My new husband was a man of high standing, one of the Royal Archers, and as such was often away. At these times I think I began to learn of peace, and I would walk the long halls of our empty house, knowing myself to be absolutely alone and entirely safe.

The peach trees outside the windows were in bloom, and at first that is what I took it for. But day upon day a delirious scent haunted the house with me, growing stronger even as the petals fell. Caught in its spell, I went through every room searching for the source, through cabinets and chests, wardrobes and drawers, closets and cupboards, boxes, trunks, desks, and came no closer. Then I saw the small access-door in the ceiling.

And that is where I came upon it, wrapped in gossamer silk so fine it felt like water in my hands. The perfume that rose from it was like spring scented in winter, or the first rain falling onto a parched land. Within I found a fine miniature cake, white as sugar, exquisitely and artistically made in the shape of a hare. Enchanted, I placed it upon my tongue, and the ecstacy of that taste was even more powerful than the scent—delicate and unearthly, as a line of music half-remembered from a dream of beauty and sadness, yet also deeply satisfying, permanently assuaging a thirst I had never thought to name. I felt light and transparent, and strangely strong, as if my body were a glass lamp enclosing the flame of my Self.

Then my husband came home, and I realized what I had done.

I fled before his anger. Like a rabbit with the blazing fox after her, like a sika with the dogs at her tail, I flew from him. I ran and ran, faster and faster, near, at, beyond the point of exhaustion, until at last I fell to the ground in a strange place, and found I had not after all been followed.

The land was white and lucent, and utterly silent. No breeze, no animals, no plants save a sparse wood of cinnamon trees—and cold, very cold, though it did not at all trouble me. So strange, how distant it felt. I wandered far and long among the trees in this beautiful new place, and met no other living thing.

In time, my husband did find me, and to my surprise he was no longer angry with me. We have since forgiven each other, although we do not live together. Which is for the better. At the time of the full moon he visits me in my cold home, and has even kindly built me a palace here, for which I am grateful. But I am the more grateful that when the moon is no longer full, he returns to his own bright home, and I am left alone in blessed solitude.


Ch'ang O