.S. I. N. H. E. A. R. T.
to make a human being
"Genius is born, not paid." –Oscar Wilde
"Every end is a new beginning." –Anonymous
Let me give you a little biology lesson.
When a sperm and an egg meet, it's called fertilization (and I bet you can imagine perfectly well how that came about). The fertilized egg is called a zygote. The zygote multiplies and develops, plunks itself into the mother's womb, and develops some more. By the second trimester of pregnancy (months 4 through 6) the zygote (now a fetus) is conscious. It can hear and recognize voices and move around.
Meanwhile, there's a bunch of crap around the baby called the placenta, which is how it gets nutrients. Then there's the umbilical cord, which is also how it gets nutrients. There's also the amniotic sac, which is a bag of liquid around the baby that keeps it from getting hurt. (This is what actually ruptures when "water breaks.") It's all great, and of course the baby doesn't think anything about it when it's in there,
When the fetus is around 5 months old, it's conscious, but unless you're a freak of nature, you obviously don't remember being in a womb or suspended in disgusting sticky liquid.
After around nine months of pregnancy, a woman goes into labor and then the baby's out and everyone breaks out the champagne, but unless you're a freak of nature, you obviously don't remember getting pushed out of your mother's uterus.
And then for months afterward, the newborn baby has to nurse and endure wearing diapers and possibly colic, but unless you're a freak of nature, you obviously don't remember drinking milk from your mom's breast or having people change your underwear for you.
But then, unless you're a freak of nature, which you're probably not, you wouldn't know what it's like to die and then reincarnate in a world you'd only ever imagined in 2D.
There's a long silence, and then the world slows down so much I almost think it could start running backward, I'm falling falling falling but there's no one behind me to catch me, and then there's the sensation you get when you're underwater and you see yellow lights melted in chlorine, only I'm on hard concrete I just can't make myself breathe. And then the freeze frame shatters and there's screaming and honking and the screeching of tires and then the smell of burnt rubber, metal glinting in the sun, someone hurrying out of the car with panic on his face windshield splattered red so much noise and pain someone calling and is that my blood and oh God I just want this to end—
In that kind of blur, I died.
Darkness darkness darkness. Because there's no light for our eyes to reflect in this world, and it must be hell because where else is there no light, no hope, no nothing, just eternal suspension in this little bubble. I reach out, groping, grasp the thing next to me I guess is a hand, and it must be a hand because it squeezes back.
I'm not alone.
I'm not alone.
When I open my mouth to speak, it feels like it's just been carved into my head. It opens and closes fish-like, but nothing comes out, and we're in some kind of hellwater but oddly enough nothing goes in. There's some shifting next to me, and then the hand reaches up to touch my face, and I've been in water so long my skin is numb all over.
But I reach up as best I can to touch back, because these are the only reassurances we can give each other of our sanity and our world.
Eternity is a long time to wait, I think. I've long since lost track of time, because time is meaningless when you can't do anything with it, just as money loses value on a deserted island.
Suddenly, the water around me shifts, and then there is a feeling of skin sliding against skin, arms around body, head on shoulder. I cannot call that person a stranger, though I have no knowledge of him or her beyond touch, and even then very limited. I cannot call him a stranger because we are suffering together.
If I could, I would cry, but in this darkness even that much has been taken from me.
Something isn't right.
The world around me suddenly shakes, like hell is being hurled by earthquakes. The water swirls and flies and suddenly it's all gone—and for the first time since dying I feel remarkably wet. The shaking continues, I'm thrown this way and that and turned sideways, backwards, upside down. A hand grasps mine tightly, tightly, so tightly, we hold on to each other for dear life because we're all we've got. Separation for us is nothingness, because knowing for sure someone else is there is the only way to make sure you are.
And then suddenly the shaking seems to have a direction. It's pushing me on my head, thrusting me forward, like some monstrous giant is throwing me up from his stomach. I reach out desperately but suddenly our hands are torn apart, and I'm being pulled away. I try to scream but nothing comes out except a sound that might resemble a gurgle.
And then I have feelings, feelings of being cold and wet and tired and hungry, and they're feelings I'm feeling and the world is such a shock that I open my mouth and what comes out is a sound so earth-shattering it cannot be anything but a baby's first cry.
In this kind of blur, I was born.
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"They're beautiful, aren't they?" A pale colorless hand, stroking softly softly gently, a strained voice (pretty she thinks dully) full of weary beaming pride.
"Yes, my lady, they're lovely. And they look just like you."
(She turns and inclines her head toward the voice, like a flower facing the sun.)
"Look, she smiles, she knows her mother!"
A hand finds and grips hers.
"Aw, they're so sweet. Not even a day old and they're clinging to each other!"
"They'll need to support each other later on, so that's good."
"Yes, my lady."
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"Be strong and healthy children." Not a request, an order, given to be followed and obeyed, the general commanding her army of two in a battle against the world. "The fate of the Yao clan rests on your shoulders, little ones."
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"My lady, you should rest. I'll take them to the nursery and put them to bed for you—"
"There is no need. I'll sleep with them tonight."
"But, my lady, what if you crush them in your sleep?"
A loving gaze, warming to the tip of the naked toes.
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"I won't. A mother cannot hurt her children without losing herself."
"Isn't that right?"
"My little Ling." The hand squeezes hers again and she is not alone.
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"My little Ming." A kiss is placed on the tip of her nose and she flinches, shrinking into the scarlet blankets, baby-blue eyes widening like two pieces of sky.
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"Such lovely names, my lady."
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but she cannot help but feel somewhere, in the depths of her mind, that something has been forgotten.
The broom sweeps over the stone tiles mechanically as the old servant thinks, thinks as only one with her years and her eyes can.
The princess does not see it. When the stories come, the rumors circulate, the whispers echo in the halls, she turns a blind eye and pretends not to hear them.
(Stories of how a book went missing, a brush set disappeared, ink spots were found on the bed sheets …)
"My children are normal," she insists. "Both of them. And if they aren't, well, that's only to be expected, isn't it? They're the children of the emperor. One of them will have all Xing under his rule."
But that one, the one who is currently flopped over his sister and sucking his thumb, is not the one the old servant is worried about. It is the other, the girl-child, the one who is currently being pinned by her brother and wearing the faintly annoyed look of someone much, much older.
From the day of her birth she never cried, not even once. When her twin brother wails from want or hunger or sickness, she is silent in comparison. When she wants or hungers or sickens, she does not cry. Instead, she watches.
She is always watching.
Even now, the old servant can feel pitch-black eyes on her back, and a cold shiver runs down her spine.
"Nai Nai," says the prince-child, sitting up, holding out his arms. His eyes are narrow, just like his mother's, giving him the look of a fox, but the grin itself is sweet and innocent and pure. "Up."
She sets the broom down and walks over to pick up Ling, wincing as her bones creak, crows' feet crinkled in an old dry smile. Ming says nothing, the dark eyes watching, always watching.
The old servant carries Ling piggy-back around the courtyard. He shrieks with laughter.
She does not change the pace but he laughs anyway. She looks across the courtyard, beyond the peony bushes, beyond the gingko trees, and her eyes catch a black smear on the edge of the stone.
"Someone help! The courtyard is on fire!"
"Fasta, Nai Nai!" Ling laughs again and pounds the old woman's back, and she speeds up carefully, shifting his weight so she does not drop him.
"Who did this?!"
"All this smoke, someone must have set it—"
"Bring water, water!"
"I wanna geddown nao," the prince-child announces, and she lets him down inside his room just like an obedient servant should. He crawls over to his sister and tugs her hair. "Minmin!"
She does not answer. She is looking at the old servant, and the old woman looks back, feeling the chill down her spine again, wondering, as she has so many times before, if this girl-child knows.
The wrinkled old hand slips involuntarily into her robes, where a scrap of charred paper sits folded, written with words she cannot read, a language she does not understand. It is the only thing left of the pile she found burning; the rest have been scattered into the wind as ashes. She tries not to think of it, because the girl-child might look into her mind and see, but the shapes of the letters she does not recognize spring unbidden.
She looks down. The black eyes stare for a bit longer, and then the child-lips curve into a small, sweet smile, a perfect imitation of her brother's. Ming holds out her arms.
Why do you even ask? the old woman thinks, knowing, just as Ming does, that she has no choice.
Ming looks at herself in the mirror.
She looks at herself in the mirror, and she thinks, this isn't me. But it is, and she knows it all too well. She reaches out and touches the frosty glass, and the girl who is and isn't her reaches out and touches her too.
She's left the candle on for too long, and Ling is awake, rubbing his eyes blearily, squinting through the light to try and see her face.
"Minmin, what're you doing?"
She turns and closes her (too small) fist around the tiny flame, throwing her features in shadow. There's a hiss, and then there's smoke, and she looks at her hand, knowing that the burn is there but unable to make out its edges in the darkness she has drawn around herself.
"Nothing. Go back to sleep."
The first thing Baifeng Yao said when she awoke from her nightmare was: "I want to see them."
The signs and symptoms were all clear, the doctors told her: the pallid of her skin, the deep bags under her eyes, the deep bruises she hid beneath silk robes, the raspy throat, the enervation, the fainting spells. Healing from this would be long in coming (if it ever came at all). But she wanted to see her children, and she was the princess of the Yao clan: what she wanted, they would give. It had been that way since she was born, and it would be that way now.
The foolish servant shifted on foot to foot. "But, Milady, you're sick, the doctor specifically ordered that you were not to have visitors—"
"I want to see them," the princess of the Yao clan said, with her comply-or-I'll-see-your-throat-cut-and-your-head-t hrown-into-the-river look, and the terrified girl scurried to obey. As she rushed out of the chambers, Baifeng let her head fall back into the pillows. They're too soft, she noted.
So soft, so light, it felt as if she could sink right through them and fall forever.
"Mother?" that was Ling, blinking sleepily in the dim light of the candles. She heard a distinct sneeze: that was Ming, choking on the thick incense that clouded the room. "Mother, you wanted to see us?"
"Yes." I wanted to see you, she wanted to say, just one last time, to apologize for the mother I wasn't, the princess I had to be, the world I brought you into against my own accord. "Ling, you know you are the prince of the Yao clan, do you not?" She made out a nod. "Do you know what that means?"
Ling scrunched up his face—adorable, thought Baifeng momentarily, feeling a rush of love—and tried to think. "Um…I'm gonna be the emperor?"
He said it so simply, as if everything could be summarized in that one short sentence. She wondered silently how long ago it had been since she had been that innocent, that carefree, that ignorant. "Yes, you have to be the emperor. Do you know why?"
"Um? Because, because…"
"You are the prince of the Yao clan. That means, Ling, that the fate of the Yao clan depends on you."
Yes, fate. This is what I brought you into, my son. You will never be able to escape the fate that was chosen for you, just as I was not and am still not able to escape mine.
"The future of the Yao clan depends on you, Ling." She gave a tired smile, ordered her muscles to stretch in a way that she knew was reassuring to them but wearying for her. "It is a huge responsibility, but I believe you can bear it." Because you must bear it. Human beings can do amazing things when given no other choice.
"What about Minmin?" He cocked his head like an inquisitive little bird, or maybe a fox. "Is Minmin gonna be emperor too?"
Baifeng made out Ming's features in the dark; she thought she saw a perk of the head, a quirk of the mouth, but Ming's face was still as unreadable as no child's should be.
It was the same as she had realized for the first time, long ago: she sought her daughter, and in that daughter's place she found a stranger, a stranger she could not fathom. …Oh, she heard the rumors, she knew the tales, and they said demon and spirit, and they called her ignorant, blind, foolish, but she knew, and she could call all of them fools: this stranger was closer to her than any other blood-child could be.
In this strange Ming, Baifeng saw, clearer than ever, a reflection of herself.
"Ming has another job," Baifeng said, slowly so that they could understand. "Ming is the princess of the Yao clan, yes, but only one of you can be emperor."
"But that's not fair," Ling said, narrow eyes stretched as wide as they could go.
Life is not fair, my dear son, and you will learn this all too soon.
"No, but that is how it is," she said. "Ming may not be emperor, but she still has a job to do."
"What is it?"
"She's simply not normal, Milady."
"She will help you become emperor, my son, and then she will take care of the clan when you take care of our country."
"Oh, okay," Ling said: placated, just like that, content with a simple question and a simple answer. She thought she saw, or perhaps she imagined, Ming staring at her at that moment.
"She is watching, always, all the time. It unnerves us."
"It is not as easy as it sounds, but neither is it as difficult as some imagine it to be," Baifeng said, replying to the question unspoken, cementing her madness. "And I believe, I have faith, that you can do it. Both of you."
"She doesn't play with the other children, or even Ling. We don't know what she does."
"Yes, Mother," the two chorused.
"She barely even speaks."
There followed a long silence in which she desperately racked her mind for things to say, ways to comfort, ways to cushion the fall. She watched them hungrily as she did so: Ling shifting, Ming pinching the skin of his hand to keep him still; Ling casting longing glances at the door, Ming almost involuntarily grasping his hand to keep him from inching away…and suddenly she knew what to do.
"But before that, you must make a promise to me."
"A promise, Mother?"
"Things go missing. Books, brushes, paper…small things. Barely anyone notices them. But, milady, that's not the most unnerving part of it."
She would not ask the impossible of them. She would only ask the most of what they could give, and that would be enough.
"Take care of each other," was all Baifeng Yao said: no choked farewells, no tears, no wailing, no pain, no regrets. But she thought she saw (or she imagined) that as her child—not children, child—walked out the door, Ming turned halfway and calmly mouthed goodbye.
Please, take care of my son.
"No matter what, she never cries."
The funeral for the princess of the Yao clan was long and grand and solemn, and Ming was thoroughly sick of it all.
"Minmin?" A whisper, a tug on the clothes. "Minmin, what's going on? What are we doing?"
They had not seen fit to inform the children, it seemed, royal though the twins were. Well, that was fine: after all, she was not a child; she had never been a child.
"Be quiet and watch," she said, not bothering to turn to look at him. He was the child, the sweet, innocent child, and sometimes she felt infuriated without knowing why, that they had shared so much and yet so little, that he was as innocent as she had once been.
"Minmin? Minmin, what's wrong? You're crying…"
"?" She reached up, touched her cheek and felt wetness that shouldn't have been there, brought away her hand, stared as that wetness streaked down her finger. "?"
She had not known that woman. That woman had not been her mother, not really, and she had felt nothing for her, she still felt nothing for her, and yet the nothingness she felt still overflowed.
"Minmin, what's wrong?" Ling hovered, concern on his baby-face, tugging at her clothes. "Minmin, are you sad?"
"I'm not," Ming said: her voice wasn't choked, there was no sorrow, but the tears fell stubbornly one by one. "I'm not…" She reached up and tried to wipe them away with one swift movement, but her sleeve dampened and the tears still fell. "I'm not. I'm not."
Ling watched her, baffled, and she could see the cogwheels turning with difficulty in his mind. Then his eyes lit up. "Minmin, is it Mother? Does this have something to do with Mother?"
"No," Ming said. "It has nothing to do with Mother. I'm not, I'm not—"
I'm not, I'm not, I'm not. I didn't care, I don't care, she didn't matter, no one matters, I don't matter. So why, so why, so why—
And then she was broken down, sobbing into her sleeve uncontrollably, wailing as though her life depended on it, reaching instinctively for something, someone, anything to hold her up,
Little hands grabbed onto her, arms latched around her waist.
"Don't cry, don't cry," Ling panicked, watching the girl he had never seen even stumble take a fall in front of his very eyes. "Please don't cry, Minmin, please—I'll be good like Mother said to, so please—" Please don't be sad, I don't know what to do, I don't understand, but "—I don't want you to be sad, Minmin, please don't cry! I'll be good, I promise! I'll, I'll—"
He groped for something, anything firm and concrete, found something, latched onto it. "—I'll be the emperor, like Mother said I should! Minmin, I'll be emperor, and you can take care of the clan, like Mother said, so please don't, please don't cry—"
He jabbered on mindlessly, trying to comfort her in the only way he knew, while terrified at having the ground pulled out from beneath his feet, at seeing the world turned upside down snowglobe-like and shaken by some mysterious giant; but still he held on to her, patting her back awkwardly with his little hands,
(They were so small.)
holding on to her because she needed him, and he needed her as the only confirmation he had.
A hand grasps mine tightly, tightly, so tightly, we hold on to each other for dear life because we're all we've got.
She sobbed into his small shoulder. She cried for what she had left behind, for the things she had forgotten, for the things she had lost; she cried because they were abandoned and forgotten and broken, and because it had taken forever for her to realize that she could pick them up again and put them back together.
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