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Episode 66 is a GLITTERSHIP ORIGINAL and part of the Summer 2018 issue!

Support GlitterShip by picking up your copy here: http://www.glittership.com/buy/

 

Tell the Phoenix Fox, Tell the Tortoise Fruit

by Cynthia So

 

On the day Sunae turned nine years old, there was no joyful feast. A monster burst from the sea that night and ate five people. The Mirayans gathered upon the shore to watch this, as they did every Appeasement. Sunae’s mother covered Sunae’s eyes, but Sunae still heard the screams. The crunch of brittle bone between teeth. The wet gulp of gluttonous throats.

Sunae prayed to the Goddess that the warrior Yomue might rise from the dead and defeat the monster yet again. No warrior came, but a hand grasped Sunae’s and squeezed. A hand as small as her own.

When it was over, Sunae’s mother murmured, “Now we will be safe for another ten years.” She removed her hands from Sunae’s eyes, and Sunae flinched from the gore before her. The older children always said that this was why Miraya’s beaches were pink, but she hadn’t been convinced until she saw the sands now drenched with fresh blood. Dark red on dusk pink.

Full transcript after the cut:

 

 

Hello! Welcome to GlitterShip episode 66 for March 5, 2019. This is your host Keffy, and I’m super excited to share this story with you. Today we have a GlitterShip original, “Tell the Phoenix Fox, Tell the Tortoise Fruit” by Cynthia So and a poem by Chanter, “The Lamentations of Old Money.”

This episode is part of the newest GlitterShip issue, which was just released and… is very late. The “Summer 2018” issue of GlitterShip is available for purchase at glittership.com/buy and on Kindle, Nook, Kobo, and now Gumroad! If you’re one of our Patreon supporters, you should have access to the new issue waiting for you when you log in. For everyone else, it’s $2.99, and all of our back issues are $1.49.

GlitterShip is also a part of the Audible Trial Program. This means that just by listening to GlitterShip, you are eligible for a free 30 day membership on Audible and a free audiobook to keep. If you’er looking for an excellent book of short queer stories to listen to, you should check out Bitter Waters by Chaz Brenchley. This book is full of speculative fiction featuring gay men and was awarded the Lambda Award for best LGBT speculative fiction.

To download Bitter Waters for free today, go to www.audibletrial.com/glittership — or choose another book if you’re in the mood for something else.

Up first, our poem:

 


Chanter is a proud Wisconsinite who took flight (alas, not literally) from her originating small town, headed for the big city’s more accepting climes and never looked back.  She’s proudly asexual, demisensual, and some flavor of bi- or panromantic that’s as yet proving difficult to define.  She’s also brand squeaky new (emphasis, occasionally, on squeaky) to official publication.  Besides holding down a day job, she’s an active shortwave radio DXer and ham operator, as well as a crowdfunded author currently based mainly on Dreamwidth.

 


 

The Lamentations of Old Money

by Chanter

 

Jennifer doesn’t want a white dress.

She doesn’t want a church,
an altar, a tangle of coast-grown flowers,
sisters in matching silk, trained doves, stained glass,
twenty overlaid colognes and splintering sunlight,
rehearsed organ music and
recorded pop shorthand warbling through weak speakers,
biting April breezes, overthought hair and makeup,
snow in hardwood aisles.

Jennifer doesn’t want a wild time.

She doesn’t want hips around shoulders, tools and toys,
filthy supplications and hot breath ideas,
hours between bedsheets, sticky aftermaths,
bruises as tawdry mementos in hard to reach places,
hands and mouths, teeth and tongues and fluids,
too many entrances,
the junctions of legs and legs and legs.

Jennifer doesn’t want hard edges.

Not for her, leashes, spike heels and bad girl pretense.
not for her, the bite of too-demanding fingertips
grinding at her biceps,
cold and bruising at her cheeks,
clamped into the flesh of her wrists.
Not for her, orders with teeth both behind and in them,
whipcracks in voice and deed.
Not for her, daddy’s little anything, mommy’s little anything,
a schoolgirl’s life, a paddle’s life,
princess, flower, whore.
Not for her, latex and custom-made chains,
iron protocol and a child’s tear-stung punishments,
revoked names and Halloween’s expected trappings.

Not for her, anonymity.
Not for her, all of the spice
and none of the wine to mull with it.

What Jennifer wants?

Fits on a two-sided coin.

One side:

Jennifer wants nights asleep in a hayloft, clothes on,
with siblings in arms—and black coffee,
and cotton-coarse humor, and blood—
to her left and right.

Jennifer wants a uniform,
wants honest lamplight with a wick beneath it,
wants a hundred songs and a hand-tuned fiddle,
a guitar played at a campfire,
laces and burlap, branches and homespun wool,
antique language, tactile camaraderie,
respected rank and unresented ceremony,
world-spanning care so personal it can’t be feigned,
so simultaneously subtle and frank that it confuses,
so elegant it’s genuine,
so casual it’s ancient.
“To be fair, that one does drive me utterly mad of an afternoon but
God be good, dear fellow, why wouldn’t I?”

Jennifer wants a certain amount of ignored anachronism,
wants a world where ‘dear fellow’
as affectionate genderless address is just fine,
where ‘she’s a good man to have beside you in a fight’
is perfectly acceptable wording,
but where the phrase ‘man up’ is both soundly off limits
and considered decades or centuries distant, depending;
a world where, at the end of the day,
it’s quietly acknowledged and otherwise near-forgotten
that oh yes, that one there, she’s a girl.
As in woman.
As in, see also, dame. Noun.
Example I: To go to work for the war effort
on the road under cover of darkness,
on the air for the BBC,
or on the battlefield firing decisive cannon blast volleys
like a real dame.

Example II:
I’m a girl, and mostly,
I prefer other dames to fellas. Mostly.
But when I don’t, I kinda have a type? Ahem!”

Somewhere, a coin is balancing on its edge.

And the flip side:

Jennifer wants to write a hundred stories and bind them in hard covers,
wants modern skirts to her ankles,
comfortable jeans and blue corduroy coat sleeves,
wants city streets, steel toes and long hair,
near-distant clocktower bells,
silver jewelry bought by her own hand, in her own name,
a rocking chair made to last for decades,
a damn fine radio setup,
the solid strength of a wooden door at her back
after she and she – he and she – they and she
after they’ve crashed through it
and, fully clothed, battered it closed behind them.

Both sides:

Jennifer wants her wrists pressed flat against that wooden door,
all benevolent force, all warmth,
all welcome gravity, all burgeoning life in orbit,
all the steady strength of a star
in symbiosis with a planet.
Jennifer wants voices and voices and voices,
innocent details and muscle-melting,
breath-stealing turns of phrase,
sound serving as light serving as
lodestone to the iron in every millimeter of her
except, except, for a bare and unbared few.

One side:

Jennifer wants the wind at her back,
a message, a mission, a reason and a warning,
miles and miles and miles rolled out
under a sky filled with leaden stars,
a purpose and a signal, a gesture,
an anticipation of command
that tenses her like a bowstring
before—wait, wait, wait for it—rush for it— “Fire!”

Both sides:

Jennifer wants to be eager,
to be teeming under her skin with silver,
wants a reason and a cause and a leader who’s
fallible by self-description, near-matchless by others’ accounts,
wants to thrill to rank, surname, simple designation,
wants to know at exactly what she’s aimed,
near-precisely what will happen when she hits
and that yes, the trusted, entirely human hands
of gravity to a planet
are the only hands pulling or perhaps, perhaps,
the only hands directing those pulling her string,
wants to be entirely, mindfully, consensually willing
to be fired like a longbow.

And the flip side:

Jennifer wants to bring
a girlfriend home to her parents,
wants to curl into accented words
like they’re warm compresses and quilts,
wants to make promises and keep them,
find each others’ keys,
play each others’ record collections,
brush cat hair off each others’ sweaters,
adore and be adored forever,
not live together.
Jennifer wants to never grow tired of hearing herself say
“This is Elaine.” Or “This is Kim.” Or “This is…”
“This is my better half.”

Both sides:

Jennifer wants orders that both delight her
and fill her with clean purpose,
stoking a fire that consumes every inch of her
except, except, for the space between her thighs.
Jennifer wants the intersection
where bravery meets well-placed loyalty.
Jennifer wants to know exactly what she’s doing,
wants to be utterly sure of her cause,
to make up her entire mind, on her own,
and then raise her voice
and throw herself into the thing with abandon
because yes, this is right, this is reason, this is exuberance
and happiness and righteous fury blazing, this is
bright history, this is justice, this is–

One coin. With two sides.

Jennifer wants
the rarity that is liking of, love for,
acceptance and welcome of
both the existence and the admission
of her two sides.

Even when she’s difficult.
Even when she’s horrible.
Even when she’s irrational.
Even when she’s just, so most people would say,
plain off baseline weird.

Especially when she’s weird.

All of the wine to mull with
all of the spice
ground by capable hands.
Hands ringed in silver.

Hands at the ends of corduroy sleeves.

The sleeves of a coat that may have,
once or twice,
been a makeshift pillow in a hayloft.

After a night’s ride.

After a night’s mission.

 

 


Cynthia So is a queer Chinese writer from Hong Kong, living in London. She spent her undergrad crying over poets that have been dead for 2,000 years, give or take. (She’s graduated now, but still crying.) Her short fiction has appeared in Anathema, Arsenika, and Cast of Wonders. She can be found on Twitter @cynaesthete.

Zora Mai Quỳnh is a genderqueer Vietnamese writer whose short stories, poems, and essays can be found in The SEA Is Ours, Genius Loci: The Spirit of Place, POC Destroy Science Fiction, Luminescent Threads: Connections to Octavia Butler, Strange Horizons, and Terraform. Visit her: zmquynh.com. Rivia is a Black and Vietnamese Pansexual Teen who has a passion for reading, video games and music. She says “I’m gender questioning but also questioning whether or not I’m questioning…Isn’t gender just a concept?” You can hear her vocals on Strange Horizon’s podcast for “When she sings…”

 


Tell the Phoenix Fox, Tell the Tortoise Fruit

by Cynthia So

 

 

 

On the day Sunae turned nine years old, there was no joyful feast. A monster burst from the sea that night and ate five people. The Mirayans gathered upon the shore to watch this, as they did every Appeasement. Sunae’s mother covered Sunae’s eyes, but Sunae still heard the screams. The crunch of brittle bone between teeth. The wet gulp of gluttonous throats.

Sunae prayed to the Goddess that the warrior Yomue might rise from the dead and defeat the monster yet again. No warrior came, but a hand grasped Sunae’s and squeezed. A hand as small as her own.

When it was over, Sunae’s mother murmured, “Now we will be safe for another ten years.” She removed her hands from Sunae’s eyes, and Sunae flinched from the gore before her. The older children always said that this was why Miraya’s beaches were pink, but she hadn’t been convinced until she saw the sands now drenched with fresh blood. Dark red on dusk pink.

She looked at the girl next to her, the girl who was holding her hand, and she saw a determination in those eyes as bright as the moon, as bright as her own. A determination to make sure that this would never happen again.

“I’m Oaru,” the girl said. “What’s your name?”

Sunae looked down at their clasped hands and told Oaru her name.

 

The Temple of the Moon Goddess is the most beautiful place on the island. There are no straight lines and sharp angles within, but everything is curved and gentle and swooping. Shades of blue deepen as one enters through the front, the colors of twilight intensifying into midnight, accented by silver and broken up by patches of brilliant white that gleam through the dark. A pool of water from the Moon Lake shimmers in the atrium. Frosty glass cut into lunar shapes hang from the ceiling in long, glittering threads.

All of it is flawless craftsmanship, except for the wall of the prayer hall.

The hall is perfectly circular. Spanning a semicircle on the wall is a painting of Yomue, splendid in lustrous armor, wielding a sword as black as her hair and an expression as fierce as the sea. The sand of the Mirayan beach is pink beneath her feet, and she glares at the monster that towers over her. Its writhing, many-headed form is etched into the blackness of the night. The moon hangs above them, solemn and full.

The other half of the wall is blank, its contents effaced and forgotten.

Warrior confronts monster. What’s the rest of the story? Monster leaves island alone for a hundred years. Warrior dies, and monster comes back. It is starved and salivating, with too many teeth. Every ten years, it must be fed.

Is that what was on the other half of the wall?

Sunae’s mother buys her Carrucean books to read, because Carrucean is an important language to learn well. In Carrucean tales, monsters are always slain. Heroes sometimes journey into foreign lands and kill other people’s monsters for them, and they are rewarded with riches and brides and thrones.

Sunae is ten years old, but she knows this: there are Carruceans living in Miraya. Miraya was owned by Carrucea for hundreds of years, and then there was a treaty of some sort not long before Sunae was born, and now Miraya belongs to the Mirayans again.

The Carruceans came here to their island. They governed the island and lived here for centuries, but no Carrucean ever killed the monster for them. Yet here they are on the island still, with their wealth, their power. Their Mirayan wives.

“Mother, have any Carruceans ever been fed to the monster?” Sunae asks.

Her mother frowns. “Can’t we talk about something more cheerful?”

Sunae just wants to know how to defeat the monster. If no Carruceans will come to their aid, then who will?

 

The old Library of Miraya is a burnt husk with a blackened facade, secluded from the town and set into the side of a hill, a little way from the Moon Lake. Sunae doesn’t understand why it hasn’t been torn down to make way for something new when fire ravaged it long ago, but perhaps its remote location preserved it. Evidently the Mirayans of yore prized a peaceful reading environment. Sunae can hear nothing of the bustling town here, only a chorus of birds.

She also doesn’t understand why she is letting Oaru drag her into the grim ruins. Inside, the half-collapsed roof lets in some lemony sunlight, but there is an unpleasant smell like overripe tortoise fruit, and rows of charred shelves loom and menace. “It went this way,” Oaru says, and drops to her hands and knees to crawl through a tiny hole in the wall.

Sunae sighs and follows. She gets stuck, her shoulders being broader than Oaru’s, but Oaru wrenches her free with a painful yank. She emerges into a cramped and airless space, illuminated only by the glow of the phoenix fox, which is swishing its enormous tail back and forth, sweeping away layers of ash and dust from the wall behind it.

Sunae coughs, but Oaru grabs her arm excitedly. “There’s something on the wall!”

Oaru leans over the fox and scrubs at the wall with her sleeve, gradually revealing the faded colors of a painting: a woman in an ethereal blue gown, sitting with a brush in her hand. A long scroll of paper unfurls before her, inked in an illegible, swirling script.

“Doesn’t that look a bit like Yomue?” Oaru asks.

It seems impossible that this serene woman should resemble the powerful warrior in the temple, but she does. It’s in the proud tilt of her jaw, maybe. Sunae reaches out and traces the woman’s chin. She has never been permitted to touch the temple mural, though she has longed to.

“What is she doing?” Oaru wonders.

“Writing poetry?” Sunae ventures.

The phoenix fox smirks at her and stretches lazily before slipping out through the hole in the wall, leaving them in absolute darkness. Oaru yelps, “I’ve got to catch that fox!” She tugs at Sunae’s elbow and Sunae reluctantly goes with her. It’s as much a struggle to get out as it was to get in, and the fox is nowhere to be seen by the time Sunae has wriggled through.

 

The new Library of Miraya is a clean and functional building, centrally located, right next to the Town Hall. Most of the space is dedicated to Carrucean books, with the Mirayan literature section tucked into a dismal corner. Sunae asks a librarian to help her find Yomue’s poems.

“Yomue wasn’t a poet,” the librarian says, puzzled. “But I can recommend poetry from the same time period. Not much of it survived, what with the old Library burning down… But there is some, and it’s very beautiful. Do you know how to read Classical Mirayan, though?”

In the end, Sunae walks away from the Library with a few books and a leaflet for free Classical Mirayan lessons.

By the time she turns twelve, she has read all the Classical Mirayan poetry that the Library has to offer—and all the modern Mirayan poetry, too.

She tries her hand at writing her own poem. She writes about Yomue and the monster. Yomue’s husband, wrongfully convicted of murdering a man, chained to a pillar on the shore, awaiting his execution. Yomue weeping at his feet. The moon trembling in the sky, the Goddess watching. Yomue dressing herself in armor, carefully lacing her breastplate, looping her belt through the buckle. Whetting her sword and sheathing it. Her hair, tied back with a ribbon given to her by her husband. Her boots hitting the ground, her armor jangling. The monster howling, crashing back into the sea where it nurses its wounds for a hundred years.

Sunae wins a competition at school with this poem, and gets a shiny badge that she pins to her satchel.

She is fourteen, and she writes about nature: trees touching, sands blushing. The ocean embracing the coast. Leaves tender for one another. Mountains asleep next to each other. The moon observing everything.

She is sixteen, and Oaru bets a boy she can beat him in a swordfight. Sunae has watched Oaru practise in her garden every week for five years, first with a toy sword, then with a real one; Oaru is graceful and deft with it where Sunae has always fumbled and flailed.

Oaru and the boy are wearing white clothes and using wooden swords dipped in red paint; the boy soon looks like a bloody mess and yields, while Oaru is still pristine.

“You were amazing,” Sunae says afterwards, as Oaru is cutting into a celebratory tortoise fruit. Oaru waves a slice of it in her face, and Sunae grimaces at its distinct mustiness. “Ew, no thank you.”

“How can you not like tortoise fruit?” Oaru says, shaking her head. “Are you even Mirayan?”

Sunae sticks her tongue out. “It smells like a sweaty armpit and it tastes even worse.”

Oaru eagerly bites into the purple flesh of the fruit. “You should know though, you kind of looked like a tortoise fruit just then, when I wafted it under your nose.”

Sunae blinks at the wrinkled skin of the tortoise fruit in horror. “I looked like that? Don’t be so mean!”

Oaru laughs and nudges her side. “All right, I’m sorry—but hey, do you think I’ll be good enough to defeat the monster someday?”

No. Don’t you dare try. Sunae swallows. Oaru must be the best fighter Miraya has seen in generations. Surely if anyone has a chance to ward off the monster and stop more Appeasements from happening, it’s her. How can Sunae be so selfish as to hold Oaru back for fear of losing her?

She says, “You look so much like Yomue in the temple mural when you’re moving with that sword.”

Oaru’s breath catches, and Sunae suddenly understands what it is she has really been trying to write poetry about all this time. They are alone in Sunae’s bedroom, and Sunae kisses Oaru. There is tortoise fruit on Oaru’s tongue, cloying and bitter, but Sunae doesn’t scrunch up her nose. She doesn’t mind at all.

“That has to be the boldest thing you’ve ever done,” Oaru whispers, her lips soft and purpled, her hair mussed by Sunae’s hands.

“I guess you inspired me,” Sunae says, and Oaru grins and grips Sunae’s arms.

“Remember that time I tried to catch the phoenix fox?”

Sunae nods. Every day she thinks of the painted woman lit by the phoenix-fox fire. The nameless poet buried in the rubble, her face so strangely like Yomue’s. Sunae returned to the shadowy wreckage of the old Library once, but she has grown and can no longer contort herself to fit through that hole in the wall.

“I wanted to give the fox to you,” Oaru says.

Oh.

It is a Mirayan custom for young men to present phoenix foxes to girls they wish to marry. This fact had utterly escaped ten-year-old Sunae, who merely assumed that Oaru wanted the fox as a pretty pet.

Sunae raises her eyebrows, stroking Oaru’s cheek with her thumb. “You already wanted to marry me when you were ten?”

Oaru shrugs. “I didn’t know then, what it meant. I only knew I wanted to be your friend forever. But now I know what it actually means, for me to want to marry you.” Her eyes are serious, like a cloud veiling the moon.

It means we could both be a part of the next Appeasement if anyone finds out. Sunae closes her eyes against the thought and kisses Oaru again.

Sunae is eighteen and she is awarded a scholarship to study at the University of Wimmore, one of Carrucea’s world-famous institutions. If she takes the scholarship, she will be absent from Miraya for a year. She will be absent from Miraya on the day of the next Appeasement.

Tell me what else there is, she pleads with the impassive image of Yomue on the wall, as everyone else in the prayer hall lifts their cupped hands repeatedly to their faces in the traditional gesture of worship. Tell me.

Because if there is more to the story than a swordfight, then maybe she can convince Oaru not to risk her life. And if she has to go to Carrucea to find the answers, she will.

At the end of the prayer session, when people are either shuffling off or lingering to socialize, Sunae tells Oaru about the scholarship.

“It’s stupid that you have to go to Carrucea to learn more about this island, our island that we’ve been living on our whole lives.” Oaru spits the words, and her frustration echoes in the chambers of Sunae’s heart.

“I know.” Sunae wants to run her hands through Oaru’s hair to comfort her, but it would be foolish to show such affection in public. She wants to hold Oaru’s hand, but they are not children anymore. They will not get away with it, not here where everyone can see. “Just promise me that you won’t try and take on the monster when the Appeasement comes. Please. You’re not ready.” I’m not ready.

“I promise.” Oaru’s voice sounds fervent with honesty.

Sunae hopes she has known Oaru for long enough to tell when she is lying.

 

The Moon Lake is luminous as a heart that brims full with emotion, and Sunae stands at the edge and dips her toes in.

Oaru is naked in the water, moonlight dripping from her hair. Oaru wears a smile like a phoenix fox’s, sly and burning through Sunae. Oaru’s arms are muscled and impatient and open wide.

“Come on, Sunae.”

Sunae’s fingers hover over the knot that ties the sash around her waist. “You’re breaking the law,” she whispers.

Oaru wades closer to Sunae. She lifts the hem of Sunae’s gown and kisses Sunae’s ankles. “We’ve been breaking the law for a long time, tortoise fruit,” she says, her dark eyes looking up into Sunae’s. “When has that ever stopped you?” She leaves wet handprints on the skirt of Sunae’s gown, droplets trickling down the backs of Sunae’s calves. “Who knows when we’ll get to do this again?”

I’ll only be away for a year, Sunae thinks, but Oaru’s eyes are darker than fire-scorched walls, and Sunae knows it will be the longest year of their lives.

She loosens the knot. Her gown joins Oaru’s in a careless heap on the sandy bank, and soon her body twines with Oaru’s in the water. Mist forms around them, as though the Goddess herself wishes to hide them away from the world.

 

Let’s skip ahead for a moment. It is Sunae’s nineteenth birthday, and she is chained to a pillar on the pink shore of Miraya. Her lover Oaru is shackled to a different pillar. They cannot touch or kiss each other. The monster is about to rear its ugly heads from the sea, and Sunae is crying, but she is speaking. She is reciting a poem she wrote, and I am watching, as I always have. I am listening.

So how did they get here?

 

Sunae sits on the steps of a lofty sandstone building, shivering in the wind and eating a whole tortoise fruit by herself.

She has been studying in Wimmore for four months, and she hasn’t made a single friend. The light in Wimmore is muted and cold, the streets narrow and grey, the houses foreboding and tall. People laugh at her accent. The dresses fashionable here are too tight, and she can never get enough air into her lungs.

The air tastes nothing of salt, anyway. She misses the sea.

She runs her fingers over the tough, knobbly green rind of the fruit. Her professor had bought it for the class to try—an expensive import from Miraya, not easily purchased. The others in her class had squealed over how disgusting the fruit looked and smelled as Dr. Janner was dissecting it like a corpse, and Sunae thought of Oaru’s teeth tearing into a wedge of tortoise fruit. Oaru’s tongue stained purple by its juice.

Sunae had stood up, gathered the massive fruit in her arms as though it were a baby and marched out of the classroom. And now she is sitting on rain-wet stone and chewing miserably.

How Oaru would tease her, if Oaru were here.

A girl sits down next to her. Talia from her class, with wheat-colored curls flattened in the drizzle. “You really like tortoise fruit, huh?” Talia says.

“I hate it,” Sunae says.

“Let me try a bit, will you?”

Sunae gives her a small slice and she takes a tentative bite. “Hmm, it tastes a lot better than it smells. Definitely not the texture I was expecting, though. It’s… squidgy?” She finishes the slice, throws the rind over her shoulder, and grabs another immediately.

Sunae smiles. She thinks it must be the first time she has smiled since she set foot in Wimmore. “You like it more than I do, then.”

“So what are you doing out here eating something you hate and crying?” Talia asks, squinting. “Don’t tell me that’s just the rain.”

“It’s not just the rain,” Sunae says, rubbing a hand over her face. “It’s just… It’s what a friend calls me. Tortoise fruit.”

“An affectionate nickname?” Talia turns the piece of wrinkly rind over in her hand. “Is it a cute boy who’s waiting for you at home?”

Sunae hesitates. “Um. Not a boy.” And then, to distract Talia from fixating on that, she launches into an account of everything that’s been overwhelming her. She explains that the next Appeasement is happening soon, and that she has been trying to conduct research into the history and literature of Miraya to see if she can find any clues as to how Yomue defeated the monster last time and why the monster came back, but she still hasn’t found anything useful.

“I just want to find another way,” Sunae says. “I don’t want my friend to do anything rash. I don’t want to lose her.”

Talia presses her shoulder gently against Sunae’s. “One of my ancestors was part of the first expedition to Miraya. We have an attic full of things left behind by various family members. We’ve never managed to go through all of it properly, but you’re welcome to come and have a look.”

This is how Sunae finds herself cross-legged on the dusty floor of Talia’s ridiculously big attic, cross-eyed after three continuous days of rifling through boxes of miscellanea in dim light, unable to believe what she’s looking at.

It’s a roughly colored sketch of Yomue the warrior, copied from the temple wall. Sword and monster and moon. And beneath that, a sketch of Yomue again—a woman dressed in the same armor, holding not a sword but a scroll open in her hands. Next to her is something a little like a mirror, or a full moon: a vast circle, shaded in silver. Within it coils a spiral shadow.

Sunae isn’t sure how to interpret this, but she knows that this Yomue and the painted poet in the old Library are one and the same.

She rummages through the rest of the box which contained the sketches, and her hand touches worn leather. She pulls it out of the box and it falls open on her lap, yellowed pages crammed with neat handwriting.

It’s a diary.

 

Why do all you rich Carruceans have stuff just lying around in your attic that I’ve only been searching for my entire life?” Sunae mutters under her breath to Talia, who is sitting next to her at this dinner. She clenches her fist around her fork.

“Well, at least now you can read Yomue’s poetry!” Talia whispers back.

Dr. Sotkin, a dear friend of Dr. Janner, carries on explaining to everyone how he recovered the lost manuscript of Yomue’s poems when he was cleaning out his grandfather’s house after his grandfather recently passed away. Sunae saws away at her chunk of boiled beef.

“I’ll be publishing a translation later this year,” Dr. Sotkin announces.

Sunae takes a sip of water and a deep breath. “What kind of poetry is it?” she asks, proud of how calm and polite she sounds.

“Sadly, it only survives in fragments, but I’ve brought a copy of some of them to share with all of you as a preview.” Dr. Sotkin digs in his bag and retrieves a sheaf of papers. “I believe Dr. Janner told me you can all read Classical Mirayan?”

“Some of us better than others,” Talia murmurs to Sunae, and Sunae hides a smile behind her napkin. Some of the boys in their class seem to be getting by with barely any knowledge of Mirayan. Sunae assumes it must be their wealth that passes their exams for them.

She takes the sheet that Dr. Sotkin offers to her and scans it quickly. Her mind whirls dizzily and she pushes away her plate and reads the fragment again, more slowly this time. And again.

She closes her eyes and envisions the inscrutable moon in the night sky to steady herself. Dr. Sotkin is saying something about a man that Yomue is drinking with. “She compares her love for this man to the Moon Lake—a blessing that glimmers on and on.”

Sunae hands the sheet to Talia and holds onto the edge of the table. “Dr. Sotkin,” she says, and she isn’t able to sound calm anymore. Her voice quavers. “I don’t believe Yomue is talking about a man. I know it’s only a fragment, but it’s clear from the grammar that she’s writing about a woman.”

Dr. Sotkin frowns. “Did you not hear when I said that this is a love poem?”

“Yes, I know, and I believe that Yomue’s beloved is a woman.”

“That’s preposterous. It’s simply impossible.”

“You think it’s impossible that Yomue loved another woman?”

“What you are speaking of is highly illegal and punishable by death, young lady,” Dr. Sotkin sniffs. In both Miraya and Carrucea, yes—Sunae is extremely aware. “Are we to believe that Yomue shared these poems with the public and was not executed for her sins?”

“Well, she warded off the monster, so there were no Appeasements—”

Dr. Sotkin tugs haughtily at his cravat. “You do realize that it is possible to execute people without feeding them to a monster as you barbarians love to do?”

Love?” Sunae’s voice is shrill to her own ears; drums thunder in her ribcage. “You think we love having to feed people to a monster every ten years to keep it from destroying our whole island?”

Dr. Sotkin’s face is pink as the sand on Miraya’s beaches. “I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”

“Yes,” Dr. Janner joins in. “Sunae, your behavior of late has been extremely rude and disruptive and I’m afraid we cannot tolerate this. Dr. Sotkin is the foremost expert on Classical Mirayan and he will not be insulted by your bumbling reading of this poem.”

“But she’s right!” Talia protests, jabbing at the sheet of paper. “Dr. Janner, Sunae’s right. Look at this line here.”

“It’s all right,” Sunae says, putting her hand on Talia’s arm. “I’m leaving.”

 

Sunae’s head is still spinning from the fragment of Yomue’s poetry. It was so much like the poems that she has been writing about Oaru, folded into envelopes and sent across the ocean to her lover. One was about the glow of sweat and moon-water on Oaru’s skin, the night they drifted together in the Moon Lake, the last night they spent together.

And now, this letter from her mother. She sinks to the floor of the post room and clutches her knees. She is going to be sick.

The door creaks open. She looks up and Talia is there. “I’m so sorry,” Talia says. “You were such a fearsome warrior back there, speaking up to Sotkin like that. He’s utterly dreadful. Janner, too. I want to lock them both up in my attic and never let them out. Janner revoked your scholarship but he hasn’t even tried to suspend me.”

Sunae stares at Talia and cannot speak. Talia doesn’t know about the letter yet. She thinks Sunae is just upset about what happened at the dinner, but the world is crumbling at Sunae’s feet and Talia has no idea.

A smile stretches across Talia’s face. “Can you believe your legendary Yomue’s one of us?”

Sunae’s shoulders loosen a little. “One of us?”

“One of us,” Talia repeats and holds her hand out to Sunae, and Sunae understands. Instead of taking Talia’s hand, she lifts up the letter and gives it to Talia.

Talia reads it and is speechless, too. She sits down next to Sunae and together they watch the flickering light bulb. It is no moon, but it soothes, somehow.

Eventually, Talia asks, “When is the next Appeasement? Will you make it back in time?”

“If I leave at dawn, I might,” Sunae says, hoarsely.

“You’ll be arrested too if you go back, won’t you?”

Sunae nods.

“But you’re definitely going.”

Sunae nods again.

“Good luck,” Talia whispers. “If you don’t die, write me a poem. You have my address.”

She kisses Sunae’s forehead.

 

Sunae crosses the ocean home. She prays to the Goddess. She prays to Yomue.

She writes.

 

Which is what brings us here, to Sunae’s nineteenth birthday, and Sunae and Oaru on the beach where they first met ten years ago. “I love you,” Sunae says to Oaru. There is white sea-spray in Oaru’s windblown hair, and if Sunae’s plan doesn’t succeed, she wants this to be the last thing she ever sees.

She closes her eyes. The waves lap the shore. Her lungs are full of salt air. The moon caresses her face with its white light.

She opens her mouth.

The truth comes out.

Sunae wrote that silly poem when she was twelve, where I saved my husband from the monster. I laughed when I heard her read it to her classmates. Now she is a much better poet, and she has learnt so much—from sketches and diaries and mistranslated fragments—and this is what she tells the Mirayans.

Four hundred years ago, Yomue loved another woman, and they had flowers and wine and stars; they chased phoenix foxes together in the valleys. They ate tortoise fruit and kissed each other’s mouths purple. They wrapped themselves in moonlight.

Yomue was skilled with the sword, but even more skilled with words, and she was the Goddess’ favorite. She could not stand by and watch a monster kill more people in her town. She wove a spell out of poetry and enchanted the monster, led it to the Moon Lake where it slumbered for as long as she lived, and longer, because she taught others the poem.

But the Carruceans came; they brought their laws with them, and they knew how powerful fear was. How to control a people with it. Fire bloomed in the Library; in the temple, fresh paint dried on the wall. Yomue the poet was erased from history. The monster was awoken, and anyone who caused trouble could be thrown into its devouring jaws.

“Now you tell me I cannot love Oaru.

 

We chase a phoenix fox that Yomue tamed once,

Reborn from the ashes of the Library.

It hides poems in its fur.

Tell the phoenix fox I cannot love Oaru.

 

We eat tortoise fruit grown from centuries-old trees,

Roots as deep as our island.

It hides poems in its rind.

Tell the tortoise fruit I cannot love Oaru.

 

We bathe in the Moon Lake Yomue drank from,

Water sacred to the Goddess.

It hides poems in its bed.

Tell the Moon Lake I cannot love Oaru.

 

Tell the Goddess I cannot love Oaru.

Tell Yomue. Tell her and the woman she loved.

Go back in time and bind her to this pillar and

Tell her she was wrong.”

 

The monster rises out of the sea, torrents of water cascading from its back.

Oaru was arrested because of Sunae’s poetry. Because Oaru’s father found the incriminating poems, because Sunae had sent so many and they overflowed, spilled, flooded Oaru’s room. Poems alight with the memories of all that Oaru and Sunae did together, all the times they were wide-eyed travelers in the landscape of each other’s bodies, all the smoldering hearths they built in the secret corners of each other’s hearts.

The monster bellows and the earth quakes and Sunae is not afraid. She knows she is not the first who has been here. She is not the first who has done this.

 

“Let her tell you she is me.

Let her open her mouth and

Sing the monster to sleep

Again.”

 

Sunae’s pores still have the magic blessing of moon-water in them, and I am with her. Through her, I sing. I was here, like her. I loved, like her. I fought the monster and won, and she will, too.

 

If you visit the Temple of Moon Goddess today, you will see this scene painted alongside my mural in the prayer hall:

The monster walks spellbound across the island, and the Mirayans walk with it, every one of their faces slack with awe. Sunae leads them, freed from her shackles.

She holds Oaru’s hand.

 

END

 


“The Lamentations of Old Money” is copyright Chanter 2019.

“Tell the Phoenix Fox, Tell the Tortoise Fruit” is copyright Cynthia So 2019.

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Thanks for listening, and we’ll be back soon with a reprint of “Instar” by Carrow Narby.