According to the Chinese legend of the White Snake, a dumpling sold by an immortal stuck in a little boy’s throat for three days. When it finally fell out, it was swallowed by a white snake, which turned into an immortal woman. After 18 years, she went in search of the boy, now a man, and married him. After many misadventures and adversities, the couple finally settled down with their son and lived a normal family life.
Today our child, home from school, announces
that he has learnt a new word ? . I tell him what it is,
then fall (as I have for years
when I see someone who might listen) into silence.
You will never tell him that his mother was once
a snake, a glorified ? and I convince
myself that I have forgotten the time I lived
in cool dark water under the bridge,
white and slim and glittering with scales,
an ivory livewire in the deepness.
That was before the dumpling
with three days of your life fell
like a star, streaming a grape-cluster tail
of bubbles in its silent tumbling
into my mouth. I could have spat
but I swallowed in fright,
and a new-born woman was swimming through the air,
trying to find you, my ignorant dear,
still thinking you saved me from
my watery home.
Ten years married, and I know you wonder
if there is more snake in our child
than I think. They say he is the village’s best swimmer,
as if his blood remembers it once flowed
in a wetter, deeper place. I’m glad for you
that his face is like yours but somehow
when he moves he reminds me of
what I thought I didn’t remember. The love
between water and white scale lies
in my heart like a burnt-out star, deferred
for ten years. Now it flares each time our boy writhes
with a joy that has no need for any word.
*? the Chinese character for ‘snake’
*? the Chinese character for ‘worm’
According to the legend of the White Snake, a dumpling sold by an immortal stuck in the throat of a little boy called Xu Xian. When it finally fell out, it was swallowed by a white snake spirit called Bai Suzhen. She then turned into an immortal woman and after 18 years, she went in search of Xu Xian and married him. The couple eventually settled down with their son and lived a normal family life.
I grew up in water. In the evenings
rain fell across the window
like a woman’s fishlines of hair
as I helped my older brother
with his maths homework.
On good days: scrabbling up rambutan trees
for handfuls of small red galaxies.
Before my mother died we visited a market
and I choked on a bean-paste dumpling
black and sweet as night.
She had to hang me over a drain,
thrashing my back until gobs
fell like grubby snow
and I couldn’t talk for hours.
Sometimes I wonder if
the words to change my life
are still floating like orphans
in that lamp-stained water.
The rest of my family swims every day.
After work I watch their shadows
from our fifteenth-floor condominium
drifting like dead fish.
Each week my son and I play golf in silence.
The white balls careen
like frozen tears on the ironed green.
According to the legend of the White Snake, Bai Suzhen (a white snake that turned into an immortal woman) bought a green snake which she turned into a young girl. She named her Xiao Qing, and she remained her companion even after her marriage. When an evil monk trapped Bai Suzhen in a pagoda, it was Xiao Qing who, after years of martial arts training, was the one to free her. Together they fought the monk, and after winning they went back to her family home and lived happily ever after.
I appeared in the story only because you
wanted me to. It was your pale hands
that lifted me, a whip of emerald,
from the marketplace basket, and it was your words
that writhed out a soul from my shine-crusted body.
So there I was, to the world something between
your friend and a maid. He tended
towards the former; he was nice, that husband
of yours. I remember the rain when we
first saw him - it lanced silver across your cheek
while I cried out in spite of myself, isn’t he the one?
You just smiled, holding his hand as you
stepped lightly onto the boat.
That, I tell people, is how it began :
love at first sight, silver flashing down your face
while I (everyone laughs here) vomited into
the spangles on the water.
It was never explained to him why I moved
into his new home ... I was just the giveaway
that had to be accepted with the amazing deal.
We got along in the end, and there was always
three of us at important events :
your child’s birth, the shop’s opening
and the inconvenient business you try not to remember.
But there was only me through the years
of perfecting my dance of death for you.
It was a rain of silver blades that I lived ten years in,
that quivered your pagoda-prison
into a thousand glittering shards. We won, of course. Now
it’s difficult at New Year visits; I ignore
your rhapsodies on family life
and the bachelors you invite to dinner. Now
your child thinks I’m his aunt; he pesters me
for stories of your life, but only my eyes
(when the tears melt him into your image)
tell him what you have forgotten:
Your face darted among the swords
like a river’s shifting light and we danced
in a rain of silver for the last time
together. Darling, I would have died for you
but I never had the luck.