She Snakes & the Medicine They Ate*©
by Blake More
*This story is dedicated to the Year 2001, 4699, the year of the Metal Snake, otherwise known as the White Snake. It is liberally adopted from the Chinese Legend of White Snake, a love story whose origins date back to the Tang Dynasty (618 AD).
Once upon a time, in the enchanted mountain of Er-Mei, there
lived a white snake and a green snake. But these weren’t ordinary, garden variety
snakes. No, they were magic snakes with extraordinary powers of change and discovery.
Theirs was a good life, peaceful and honest, and really, except for momentary
lapses into sloth serpent-dom, they couldn’t complain. They had everything they
needed atop their mountain retreat: endless slithering and sunning, ample rat
tails to munch on, more friends than they could visit in a year, and, of course,
plenty of alluring potions to conjure up.
Yet, like all magic creatures, they bored easily. Usually this wasn’t much of a problem, for there were many distractions on Er-Mei. However, on this particular day, neither Green Snake nor White Snake could stay focused for more than a couple of coils.
"Lets go for a hike," said White Snake.
Green Snake lifted her tail a centimeter off the ground and lobbed her mind out into the cobalt sky (she was bored after all). White Snake waited out her best friend’s indifferent silence, but refused to give up. She smiled with all her fangs, "Come on. It’ll be fun."
Green Snake grinned involuntarily at White Snake’s cheery persistence, then let out a long and willing exhale, once again grateful for White Snake’s easy companionship. "Oh, all right. But no steep hills! Promise?"
Luckily, on this fated day, the sky was a sapphire sparkling with sinewy diamonds, the ancient round sun directly over head—a perfect remedy for snake malaise. So, before long, both snakes were wiggling away, parading through the dew-spotted grass, raising their tails in greeting to all the other creatures who were also out enjoying the fine afternoon. When they reached the summit of Er-Mei, the snake friends stopped to take in the view of the valley below. They could see the human city of Hang-Zhou in the distance. The possibilities for discovery were endless, and the two snakes fell under the spell of their imaginations
Green Snake broke the silence. "What do you think life would be like if we had legs and arms?" she asked with a flash of her crimson tongue.
"You mean if we were human?," asked White Snake, her eyes widening with the thought.
"I guess so," said Green Snake. "I mean, wouldn’t it be nice if we could reach up and grab an apple from a tree or give each other a hug when we wanted to."
"Yeah. We could run like the White Rabbit, use our legs to swim like carps in a pond. We could even ride a dragon to Hang-Zhou if we wanted to."
"Why don’t we use our magic powers to turn ourselves into women," said Green Snake. She smiled, pleased with her idea. "Now THAT would be fun!"
"Hmmmm," said White Snake with a quick flip of her tail. She thought for a minute then answered, "I don’t see why not. How about we go to the kitchen and cook ourselves up a Homo sapien potion."
And off the two snakes went, hissing and giggling about their secret scheme. When they got home, they went right to work, mixing a smidgen of this and a smattering of that, a blade of truth here, a fib or two there, blending and whipping, boiling and toiling, until at last, they had two champagne glasses filled to the top with a sweet bubbling liquid the color of plum blossoms.
"Bottoms up," said Green Snake.
"To Change," said White Snake.
Glug, glug, glug. The snakes emptied their glasses in gluttonous time, and, as the last swallow hit their bellies, they stared into each other like mirrors and gasped as their cylindrical torsos curved and sprouted long graceful arms, legs, hips. Within seconds, two women stood face to face, awed by the other’s loveliness.
With her greenish hue (humans call it olive), Green Snake’s beauty was wild and exotic. Her thick mane flowed down her back like an ebony river. Her skin was soft and supple; long velvety eyelashes framed her sparkling brown eyes. She even had lips. White Snake’s beauty, on the other hand, was so cool and metallic, that she resembled a hologram. As unique as a glittery snowflake, her face shone like a diamond set in white gold. The breath that came from her ruby lips carved the air gracefully, in and out, in and out, swirling around the summit of her check bones. Her hair surrounded her face like moonless sky, and her new human shape fit her like a woman’s should.
Each was so mesmerized by the other’s shapeshift, that all the former snakes could do was stand and behold each other’s magnificence. The night passed, then another, and another, until finally the moment was over and, in unison, the two lady snakes clasped hands and said with a whoop: "It is time to go to the city." And off they went arm and arm down the steep and windy path toward the bustling city of Hang-Zhou. Suitcaseless. After all, they were magic snakes, uh em…ladies, which meant they could whip up a dashing outfit whenever they pleased.
As they rounded the west end of the Great Lake and neared the long row of garnet banners flying above the West Gate of Hang-Zhou, a tall stranger dressed in a blood red cape galloped by on a horse, whipping up the air beneath them.
"Did you feel that?" asked Lady Green, her eyes following the red apparition into the distance.
"It leaves me speechless," replied Lady White as she pulled a colorful feather fan out of the still swirling air and tried to compose herself with it.
"He must be Hsu Sheng. The respected human botanist. Did you see all the bags he had tied to his horse. He must’ve been in the woods for weeks. I can only wonder what kinds of potions he’s making. Let go spy on him and find out," said Lady Green.
"Ummmm," said Lady White as she stood in place and began twirling her fan into the sky.
"Are you listening to me?" said Lady Green. "White Snake?" She squinted at her friend.
Lady Green turned around and faced Lady White. "Come on girl, we’ve got some human life to live. Lets go enjoy it."
The fan stood still. "...what?" said Lady White.
Lady Green grabbed Lady White by the shoulders and looked directly into her eyes as she over emphasized the words, "LET’S GO SPY ON HIM."
"I...what?" Lady White dropped her fan and bent over to pick it up.
"Let’s go spy on him."
"No...I mean we can’t. It wouldn’t be right, nor would it be easy. We’re women now, remember"
"No we’re not. We’re snakes. And besides, we’re magic. We can do anything we want," said Lady Green. "So come on, it’ll be our first adventure."
"No. If we are going to his home, it will be as visitors, not spies. We will knock on the door like any respectable Chinese ladies would. It is only proper," said White Snake. She lifted her finger in a feigned scold, then picked up her dress and dashed forward.
"If I didn’t know better, I’d think you’re in love," said Lady Green, winking over her shoulder as she ran past her friend. "Hurry up, we’ve got to get there in time for dinner."
Yes, if you, dear reader, believe in such things, it was love at first sight. And it appears that Hsu Sheng felt the same way. When the two Ladies arrived at his doorstep, the great, cucumber cool Hsu was too nervous to open the door. Okay, so he wasn’t that ruffled, but he did find himself at a loss for words---something that doesn’t happen to him very often. In fact, he had to think hard to remember the last time. It had been many full moons ago. Yes, that was it, the meeting that redirected the course of his destiny. Fa Hai.
He looked up at the dusk sky and released the thought. Then, without taking his eyes off Lady White nor missing another beat, Hsu invited them both inside and---as Lady Green had predicted---to dinner. And oh what a splendid spread it was. A very fitting first human meal for the travelling snake ladies. It began with a plate of oranges, tangerines, persimmons, crisp green leaves still attached.
"For good health, long life, and lasting relationships, said Hsu holding out the mound of color. Lady White imaged they were each a piece of the bright orange sun that was setting behind their beloved mountain home.
After Lady Green had devoured most of the fruit, Hsu brought out a candy tray. But it wasn’t an ordinary candy tray, it was, as Hsu called it, "The Tray of Togetherness", an octagonal plate that contained a dazzling array of sweets---candied melon and red melon seeds, lychee nut, kumquat, coconut, peanuts, lognan, lotus seed---all of which, Hsu claimed, bestowed some kind of propitious fortune. Lady White found herself drawn to the coconut and the lotus seed---togetherness Hsu told her. Many Children.
(My heaven, he does move fast, like a snake, thought Lady Green as she dug into the candied melon. At least he knows how to romance.)
When the trio lost interest in the candy tray, out came the Jai. A vegetarian dish made of lotus seed (more children thought Lady Green as she poked Lady White under the table), ginkgo nut, black moss seaweed, dried been curd, bamboo shoots---once again all the ingredients represented good fortune. When the pot was empty, both snake ladies said they couldn’t eat another bite. Hsu just shushed them and brought out more. And more. And more. Before the stroke of midnight the host and his mysterious guests had ingested a dictionary full of magical foods, including a huge fish, a whole chicken, including its head, tail and feet, zong zi (which was some kind of sticky rice wrapped up in reed leaves), a steamed wheat bread called man tou, a bowl of uncut noodles, and sweet pudding cakes. The snake ladies wouldn’t have to worry about another meal for weeks.
"Gong Hey Fat Choy," said Hsu, lifting his wine glass toward the wood beams that framed his elegant, but simple dwelling.
"Happy New Year?" asked Lady White. She looked around at the hanging scrolls, the freshly painted red door, the flowering plum sprigs, incense burning on the family alter. "It’s true. My goodness, in all the excitement, I’d forgotten. It’s the first new moon since winter solstice."
"You’re right!" said Lady Green. "Spring is coming, for I am beginning to losen my winter ski..."
"So that is why we’ve had such a feast," interrupted Lady White, batting her eyelashes at Hsu as she kicked her friend’s shin.
"Ouch...I...uh...what a New Year’s treat you’ve given us, Mr. Sheng," said Lady Green.
"Please call me Hsu," he paused and filled his lungs before continuing. "So ladies, forgive me if I’m being rude, but I must ask. What finds you too here alone, in the big city, rather than at home with your relatives?"
"I was going to ask you something similar Mr....Hsu," said Lady White.
Hsu sighed and shrugged his shoulders under the weight of his burden. "It is a very long story, much too long and weary to tell on this glorious New Years. It is the year of the metal snake, you know. The White Snake," said Hsu, looking directly into Lady White as the fireworks began exploding outside.
Lady White caught herself before she gasped.
"Come on you two lotus seeds," said Lady Green. Her smile telling the lovers she had already seen the future. "Lets go outside and catch some of the other fireworks."
Thus, if you hadn’t already guessed, fate was written that night---literally penned across the sky in cascading color. And for the rest of the New Year, the threesome was inseparable. Except, of course, for the stolen moments between Lady White and Hsu, times when Lady Green (who wished she could call herself Lady Green Snake) pretended to be admiring a peony or contemplating a red couplet.
Over the next 15 days, they attended every dragon dance, parade, folk festival possible. They went to temples and prayed to ancestors, joined thousands of people at a dog birthday party (the second day of the new year, the snakes discovered, is believed to be the birthday of all dogs). They stayed home to welcome the God of Wealth, then spent days wandering all over the city calling on Hsu’s many friends and business associates. Hsu showed them how to make offerings to the Jade Emperor and introduced them to the special seven vegetable New Years drink made by local farmers. But the snakes especially liked the nights when they co-hosted dinner parties for Hsu’s friends at home, lavish feasts that set the city talking about his two charming "guests" who’d seemed to have descended from the heavens.
By the Lantern Festival on the last day of the New Years festivities, Hsu and Lady White were engaged. Truthfully, everybody, even Lady Green, was relieved. As soon as the green snake heard the news, she swept her friend into a nearby garden to talk. The sky was glowing with lanterns, the full moon dangled overhead. Children were laughing in the distance.
"Oh friend, I am so happy for you. It is what you asked for," said Lady Green.
"Yes, I did ask for change didn’t I?" said Lady White with a giggle. "But, falling in love was not what I’d expected. I was thinking more about a couple of new skills, maybe a potion or a plant I’d never seen before." She paused. "But I think Hsu and I will be happy together. Don’t you?"
"He is the only creature I would let take you away from me." A single tear sparkled like an opal as it rolled down Lady Green’s face.
"But I’m not going away from you...am I?" said White Snake, her voice acknowledging something that she had never imagined before.
"I am a snake," said Lady Green with a sigh. "Being a human woman is fun and all, but I prefer to use my whole body when I move. I find legs rather a hassle. And this odd obsession with eating three meals a day, I don’t know how they do it. I have no appetite, but I must keep eating or people think I’m rude. And then there is the thing they call bed. It is too soft for me. I miss my hole!"
"It’s funny, but I haven’t thought about being a snake at all since we’ve been here," said Lady White.
"Of course not, you’re walking around on lotus petals. I’m glad for you, I truly am."
"You will stay for the wedding won’t you?" Lady White clasped her hands against her bosom and stared into her friends steady eyes.
"Of course. But afterwards I must go home. To Er-Mei."
"Oh even words of our home are so beautiful. Will you keep it safe for me?"
"Yes my friend."
"Will you offer my hole to a snake who will appreciate it, care for it."
Lady White stared at the bare cherry tree beside them, gathering courage before asking her final question. She already knew the answer, "Will you come back to Hang-Zhou to visit me?"
"I will never be far away no matter how many miles are between us," said Green Snake as she embraced her oldest and best friend in the whole world.
The marriage, which took place on the Spring Equinox, was truly a regal affair. Waterfall cakes, Mantong music, ecstatic poetry, dancing till dawn---not a single, detail was missed. Thousands of people attended, and all agreed it was the finest wedding they had ever been to---in fact, the celebration soon became known all over the city as "the little new year of love." If people had thought Hsu was magic alone, with Lady White as his partner, they knew he had double the magnetism---as a couple they were unstoppable.
Taking a break from all the gossip, Lady White and Hsu spent two amorous months alone, honeymooning in Guangzhou on the South China Sea. It was a glorious holiday; they lounged at the shore, watched sea birds, took sunrise walks that lasted till noon. Yet, all the while, they never stopped planning and plotting about how they could combine their talents and create something truly inspirational out of their union. Children would come later; first they needed time to make the world an better place for everyone, big and small.
Given that Hang-Zhou was a vital trading city along the Silk Road and both were experts at herbs and potions, they decided to open up an herbal medicine store. It was easy to divide the duties: Hsu loved bartering and was a relentless haggler, so he would collect the import herbs, set the prices, and maintain the office finances; Lady White, because of her intuition and easy way with people, would prescribe and concoct the remedies. They would spend Sundays together, gathering indigenous plants and herbs in the woods outside the city gates. Coming up with a name for their shop however, was a bit more problematic.
"I think we should call it Green Forests Herbal," said Hsu.
Lady White gestured toward the sky. "Too boring."
"How about Many Mountains Medicines?" said Hsu.
"Too stiff; besides it reminds me of Many Mountains Tea Shop on the East side of the city."
Hsu looked down and examined his fingernails. "Jade Remedies and Mercantile then?"
"Okay, miss "too". You’ve turned down my suggestions, what do you have in mind?" Hsu ran his fingers through his mound of black hair and stared evenly into her eyes.
Delighted by the challenge, Lady White held his gaze and smiled. "I think we should name it Green Snake Medicines."
Hsu paused, then shook his head. "Green Snake Medicines? That sounds scary. I don’t think people would like it."
"Scary? That’s ridiculous," she snapped. Snakes aren’t scary unless you provoke them." It took all her strength to keep from baring her teeth and hissing. Could it be true that Hsu, her darling husband, might be afraid of her true nature? The thought made her tremble inside.
Hsu gave Lady White a pained look, confused by her sudden burst of anger. "Relax. It is only a name."
True enough, she thought, wishing she could tell him that his innocent comment felt like a knife to her soul. But she couldn’t. She knew that Hsu was an honest man, and that if he knew who she used to be, who she’d always be inside, he’d be split in two: forced into secrecy to protect his wife from exile, on one hand, yet bound by conscience to live the freedom of complete truth on the other. She couldn’t bare to cause him such pain. She vowed that he would never have to face his friends, his beloved community, with her secret inside. If only humans weren’t so panicky about snakes.
She softened. "I’m sorry. I just don’t understand the fear. Yeah, snakes give some people the creeps, but they also symbolize natural healing power. They are change, energy in motion. The eternal wave and spiral. They are more kin to herbs than mountains and jade."
"So are you saying that by using ‘Snake’ in our name, we will help people get beyond their fear of change and mystery?"
"That’s one way of looking at it," said Lady White, already feeling better. Hsu was so compassionate, so willing to understand. She smiled at him. "It is the year of the snake, the year of our marriage, after all."
Hsu put his arms around her waist and grinned into her glittery eyes. "And you think I’m the salesman."
So it was. Hsu accepted Lady White’s suggestion, with modifications of course, and the couple agreed to call their store "Green Snake Remedies and Mercantile". Even if it was only in name, a hidden one at that, Lady White needed something tangible to keep her beloved friend close by.
They started working toward their goal as soon as they returned home from their honeymoon. Within days, Hsu found an empty storefront in the hub of the city’s trading activities. It had once been a doctor’s office, so it was perfect for their needs. It had a large storage space in back, a waiting room and retail store area in front, and a small study off to the left where Lady White could keep her books and talk with customers privately. Lady White took on the decorating, and Hsu went out in search of inventory. By the Mid-Autumn Festival, an OPEN sign was hanging from the front door.
"Green Snake Remedies and Mercantile" was an instant success. Word spread quickly, and soon they were serving people from all over China as well as traders from foreign lands. Lady White and Hsu were kind and generous, and nobody felt rushed or hurried when they were in their presence---even when there were 20 people waiting to be seen. Patients were amazed at Lady White’s ability to "see" inside their sickness and prescribe the medicines they needed most. Their herbs were fairly priced, and anyone unable to pay was treated for free.
Driven by the energy of love---for each other, the plants, and the people they served---Lady White and Hsu worked steadily for two years. Festivals came and went, imperial parties were barely noticed, even the anniversary of their meeting barely shifted their focus. They were having so much fun that they had to force themselves to take days off, and usually this meant travelling into an uncharted forest to track down a rare plant some old wise person had told them about.
Two and a half years after they started their business, they finally agreed to take a real vacation---that is if you consider a four month journey along the Silk Road a vacation. Many of their friends protested, warning that the trip was too dangerous for a man and woman of their importance to the community. But both were ripe for an adventure, especially now that they had a good friend named Go Chen who led a caravan through the Road’s southern route. Lady White wanted to discover if the stories she’d heard around the dinner table were true---even more, she wanted to experience a few fascinating tales of her own. Hsu longed to see beyond the border town of Jiayuguan, a place he often visited when he was a bachelor, the last trading outpost for Chinese merchants. Both hoped they could endure the long, inhospitable Takla Makan desert and make it all the way to Dunhuang, the budding oasis town people were heralding as the center of Buddhist learning and art. They both had something they wanted to pray for.
As the couple cuddled in their bed on the night before they were to join the caravan, Lady White got unusually quiet.
"What makes you so serious my dear? Are you nervous about the journey?" whispered Hsu. His whole body tingled in anticipation.
She caressed her belly and gazed into his eyes until both felt an eternity pass. "We are pregnant." The first half of their prayer had been answered.
The next morning, the couple, plus their baby-to-be, loaded their gear onto camels and headed west, toward the Hexi Corridor with a caravan of thirty-five. Extending to the North, farther than the eyes could imagine, was the Gobi Desert, the first desert Lady White had ever seen (she was a mountain snake after all). To her, it resembled an infinite parchment scroll, a place for her to paint her dreams and watch them fill with rich ink. The Nan Shan mountains to the South were far more impressive than she had hoped, although less fertile than the range which included her beloved Er Mei. Sandwiched between distant layers of hazy peaks and stark barrenness, the ragged line of chattering beasts and men, lugging silks and spices, family heirlooms traded for new tastes, seemed small and insignificant. Even so, Lady White felt grateful to be a part of such a tiny greatness.
Since Hsu had volunteered to serve with the scouts, Lady White spent the opening days of their journey listening as Go Chen entertained her with ancient folk tales about the mountains in the distance.
"Do you know what mountains really are," Go Chen asked, drawing his camel even closer to her’s late on their second morning out.
"They are pillars separating heaven from earth," she answered. She brought her red silk handkerchief to her face to mop the rivulet of sweat that ran from beneath her woven hat.
"Yes, heaven would fall down if it weren’t for China’s tallest mountains. Do you know the story of the Goddess Nu Wa?"
Closing her eyes and lifting her face toward the sun directly overhead, Lady White let out a contended sigh. "Not Yet." She looked over at him and extended a soft smile. "Will you share it with me?"
He rubbed the soft leather reins gently through his fingers. "In ancient times, a great rift happened between the Gods, causing the sky to break and send vast pieces of blue tumbling to the ground, destroying villages and devastating crops. People retreated to caves and prayed for the gods to stop the onslaught of sky. Finally, after weeks of death and destruction, the Goddess Nu Wa answered their call."
Go Chen stopped abruptly and shouted something in a dialect she didn’t understand to his second in command. He cleared his throat and spat. "I’m sorry. The animals will need water soon.". He paused before continuing, "She called a meeting with the warring Gods and, through her great negotiating skill eventually convinced them to end their foolish argument. Once she had their peace contract in hand, Nu Wa began repairing the sky. She hired a team of semi-gods to fly to earth and pick up the chunks of blue, which she than carefully sewed back into the seams of heaven. Although much better than it was, the sky still sagged horribly, nearly touching the earth in some places. Distraught, Nu Wa sat down on a cloud to think and was deep in thought as a giant turtle, nearly as ancient as the sky itself, rose up from Earth and hovered on a nearby cloud.
‘Uh em...um...em...ex...excuu...excuse me Goddess,’ said Turtle finally, its voice a spooky whisper.
A startled Nu Wa somersaulted off her cloud and nearly tumbled down to earth herself. Fortunately, she caught hold of a low hanging wisp and climbed back up to her perch, exacerbated. ‘What DO you want, Turtle?’
Turtle put his head in his shell and started to leave.
‘Oh please don’t go Turtle," she said, remembering how senstive turtles are. ‘I’m not upset at you. I'm worried because I don’t know how to make the sky wide and open like it used to be. I’m afraid I have failed the humans.’
The turtle stuck the tip of his head out carefully and saw Nu Wa’s wrinkled brow. He put his head out all the way and (just in case she got mad again) quickly suggested that her problem could be solved if she would permit him to lie down on his back and allow his upstretched legs to support the four quarters of sky. Whereupon, the troubled goddess clapped her hands together in relief and gratefully accepted the turtle’s generous solution.
So, from that moment on, the turtle’s legs became the most sacred mountains of China---towering access points to all the heavenly realms. And today, sages and mystics dwell in the turtle pillars, living for thousands of years on rare herbs and exotic elixirs, hosting all sorts of wild celebrations for the magical spirits and mighty deities that come to visit them."
Lady White lifted her face and directed her words toward the sun. "Thank you. Thank you so much for the wonderful fairy tale Go Chen."
Go Chen followed her gaze upward. "My deepest pleasure madam. Of course, Nu Wa and the turtle would never call it a fairy tale."
She hesitated for an instant, deciding if she truly wanted to hear the answer. "Go Chen, is...is Er-Mei one of these sacred pillars?"
"Oh yes," said Chen, his voice trailing into a long silence that left Lady White alone with her memories of Er-Mei. Soon, her thoughts of misty fog, endless bamboo oceans, mountain capping clouds filled the vast space surrounding the steadily advancing caravan.
Save for the hastily prepared food and rugged sleeping conditions, their journey through the lower portion of the Hexi corridor passed easily and, other than a minor skirmish with a couple of wild dogs, without incident. By late morning on the tenth day, the caravan reached Jiayuguan, stopping briefly to gather supplies and pick up a few extra travelers. Before sunrise on day eleven, the caravan left behind the protective wall along China's northern border and was again heading toward Dunhaung.
Hsu was back at Lady White’s side, and she was relieved, for this was the most treacherous leg of their journey---the Takla Makan desert. It was a hostile landscape fraught with terrible tales of drought and famine, of men losing their minds and wandering off into the nothingness, never to be seen again.
"The Tekla Makan is so long that it would take us a year to go from end to end," Go Chen’s words from a week earlier echoed in Lady White’s ears. He had told her the caravan’s route---across the Takla Makan’s narrowest point---would take them a month. "Then, we will see flowing water again," he had promised. She thought of the journey ahead, nothing to look at but brown sand rising into buttes and spires. Thirty long days and nights of parched oven air, lingering animal waste and rations! No lotus seed candy, no fresh kumquats. Only dried fish and rice, water carefully divided and dispensed---everything measured to last. She knew the desert would test her patience and strength, and although she believed her body would make it, she prayed she had what it took to resist the voices.
On their fourteenth night in the Takla Makan, under an enormous overturned bowl of sparkling sky, Lady White and Hsu cuddled next to a tiny oil fire, their bedding layered around them like folds of cozy pastry. Lady White talked excitedly about the journey, surprised by how peaceful she felt, how effortless their passage had been so far. Although Hsu smiled and listened, Lady White felt a heaviness around him and soon fell into a courteous silence. Hsu put out the fire and wrapped his arms around her waist and held tightly. When she tried to move away a little, he gripped harder. She wondered why he seemed so intent on keeping her near.
"What is the matter my love?"
Hsu sighed, his burden too heavy to bear alone. "My only brother Li Jou disappeared somewhere near here. On his fourteenth night into the Takla Makan."
She breathed deeply. She’d always known he had painful secrets hidden away, though she was shocked to learn of a brother. Lady White brought her fingers to his temple and stroked, accepting the futility of her words.
"Li Jou was intent on finding enlightenment," Hsu went on. "A monk named Fa Hai convinced him to sell his inheritance and travel to India to learn more about the great teacher named Buddha. I warned him to wait, that it was too late in the year for caravan conditions to be favorable, but he wouldn’t listen. He was young and overconfident. On the night before he left, we got into a fight and he accused me of jealousy, said I was sowing fear out of my selfish desires for spiritual fullfilment."
She could see Hsu’s tears glistening in the starlight. "When did this happen?"
"Nearly fifteen years ago," said Hsu, his tone signaling that the conversation was over. He rubbed her belly and, as she felt the tremble in his hand, Lady White knew she would not know more about Li Jou until Hsu was ready; at least she now understood why her husband had been so intent on making the pilgrimage to Dunhuang.
The next morning as soon as the caravan got moving, Lady White sought out Go Chen.
"Tell me more about the desert voices?"
"They are especially dangerous later in the year," said Go Chen, "when the sun burns so fiercely that the caravan can only move at night. Weary from fitful daytime sleep, the traveler’s eyes get lost in the lights of the black sky and his mind slips away---when it returns, the caravan is nowhere in sight. Scared and alone, he calls out, and the spirit voices answer, sweetly as if they were his companions, sometimes even calling him by name. But they are not his companions; they are enemies sent to lure him away from the path. If he chases them, forgets that they aren’t real, he loses himself to the desert’s brutal hospitality."
Goose bumps formed on her arms despite the sweltering heat. "Then we are lucky to be traveling by day aren’t we?"
"It is more than luck, magic lady," said Go Chen. He patted the back of her exposed hand in a fatherly gesture. "Hsu knows the dangers, which is why he wanted to make sure you and your child were on an early passage through the Takla Makan. But don’t be fooled. The spirit voices are alive in the daylight too. Travelers often hear them as instruments, the clash of arms, the thunder of hoofs---sounds that draw the fatigued from the marked trail in search of fellow travelers, never to be seen again."
"I have heard such sounds, like a steady drum, a heartbeat beckoning me somewhere I long to be but cannot describe. This is why I am always grateful for the little bells around the animal’s necks."
"Yes, listening to their sounds keeps us from forgetting, from straying off the path." He paused and looked up at the sky. "We hope."
This time, Go Chen’s hopes weren’t in vein, as nobody in the caravan wandered off into the desert. The next two weeks passed without another word about Li Jou or the voices, although Lady White was keenly aware of the omission. Go Chen and his men were highly skilled leaders, and all admitted their journey was the least eventful they had ever had---they only lost one man (a sick monk traveling to Dunhaung to die) and four animals. Go Chen credited their safe passage to Dunhaung to the charms of Lady White.
"We will return for you and your family in a month’s time," Go Chen told Hsu. The two men shook hands and then bowed.
"We’ll be ready," said Hsu. His face relaxing for the first time since the caravan had entered the Takla Makan.
The oasis town of Dunhaung was far more than Lady White or Hsu, had expected. In Chinese "Dun" means grandness and " Huang" means prosperity, and Dunhuang was certainly bustling with both. Nourished by melted snow from neighboring mountains, this lush retreat had all the cosmopolitan flair of a silk road outpost---all night cafés alive with multi-lingual chatter, a palatial trading hall, exotic goods from all over the world. But it was different than other silk road stopovers in China. Calmer, more peaceful. Artists and scholarly devotees seemed to be at work behind every door, and their sacred arts infused the narrow streets---even the marketplace danced with an air of exalted priorities.
Since it was still early in the traveling season, the couple had no trouble finding a place to stay. They chose a riverside dwelling along the Northwest part of town, near Dunhaung’s oldest Buddhist monastery, which was only about 600 years old, very new for China, even in those days. Hsu and Lady White were immediately enamored love with the bells and cymbals chiming intermittently through the silence, somehow making the stillness even crisper. Every morning began with the deep throated chants of the monks, and every night, they closed their eyes to the gong of remembered dreams.
Grateful to have a break from their busy city life, the couple passed most days reading, talking and gathering plants beside the surging river. They took evening walks through the monastery gardens and encountered many seekers who had relinquished everything to come to Dunhaung and study the Buddha’s teachings. While some were from as far away as Europe, the majority were Chinese. Lady White knew that every young Chinese man they saw made Hsu think of Li Jou.
Yet, despite the lingering specter of Li Jou, Lady White and Hsu were immensely happy. Dunhaung felt safe and friendly, not overly pious or dogmatic. And after all her worry about the desert voices, Lady White was relieved to settle herself among such untroubled serenity.
"I think it is special here because of the Buddha’s influence," Lady White told Hsu on their seventh day in Dunhaung. They were gathering dates and palm leaves in the forest at the edge of the monastery.
"Perhaps you are correct," said Hsu.
"Why do you say it so grudgingly? Do you blame the Buddha for Li Jou’s fate?" She saw the sting of her words on his face. She didn’t want to be cruel, but she had to be honest.
He exhaled purposefully, quelling his rising anger. "Possibly. Yet, I am beginning to realize that Buddhism is not a charlatan’s religion. At least not in Dunhaung."
"Your troubles with Buddhism are caused by more than your brother aren’t they?" She tickled him playfully with a palm frond, hoping to lighten the heavy mood. "What other mysteries do you have sheltered inside that golden skin."
Hsu laughed, thankful that Lady White was his best friend as well as his wife. He knew her questions were for his benefit, not hers. "I too sought to reach enlightenment in this lifetime."
"Who is to say you won’t reach it."
Hsu lowered his head. "I no longer practice the techniques,"
"But you practice other techniques."
Hsu threw a date into the basket.
"So, it was really you who introduced Li Jou to the Buddha’s teachings," said Lady White
As if to keep the shame from leaking out, Hsu placed his basket on the ground and wrapped his arms around himself. "Yes."
"And why can you not forgive yourself for it? The Buddha’s words are very good."
"I have. It is Fa Hai I cannot forgive."
"Yes, he was my teacher. And Li Jou’s. But after a while, I stopped trusting him. There was something wrong, a hunger for power that cheapened the teachings. But my brother was more idealistic, a victim of his willingness to believe. When Fa Hai convinced my brother to sell his portion of the family jade to the Hang-Zhou monastery to finance his travels, I knew. After the deal was made, I followed Fa Hai through the city. He ended up at the estate of a corrupt royal family. I made some inquiries and found out Fa Hai made twice as much as he gave my brother. I doubt the monastery received a single gold coin."
"Did you confront him," asked Lady White.
"Yes. But he was very clever, and I very young. When my brother disappeared, I visited the family compound and tried to buy back the jade. They wouldn’t sell at any price, and in the end, I was so angry that I swore I would never step foot in a temple again."
"Where is Fa-Hai now?"
Hsu stopped to watch a monkey and her baby gather dates. "The last I heard, he was living in a cave outside of Dunhaung---attempting to made amends for his former ways."
"Are you ready to forgive him?"
"I think the time has come."
A couple of days before Go Chen and his men were due to return Dunhaung to pick them up, the couple decided they were ready to visit the caves. They packed a days worth of supplies and, at sunrise, headed north from the monastery gates, following the wide river gully. It was an easy hike and barely a couple of miles upriver, before the sun had even peeked into the valley, Lady White noticed dozens of caves dug into the steep cliffs ahead.
They stopped and listened. An odd cacophony of digging and chiseling, interspersed with chants and giggles, every once in a while a wild hoot, bounced through the canyon walls. Hsu seized Lady Whites hands and pulled her close to him so he could touch her belly. They hugged wordlessly, then continued walking, both excited by the mysterious world they were approaching. They stopped again when they were directly below a maze of paths twisting toward the rickety planks that seemed to stabilize each sandstone opening. Countless monks were working on their masterpieces; murals and carvings were everywhere.
"My God, each cave is a living work of art," said Lady White, the joy in her voice bouncing off the canyon wall and coming back to her from the other side of the river.
"I had heard the Caves of Magao were spectacular, but I had not expected beauty as grand as this," said Hsu, whispering to keep his voice from echoing.
After pointing up towards a particularly colorful cave, Lady White scrambled toward the nearest path like an excited child. "Lets go see who’s working in that one."
She scaled the cliff like a seasoned climber, Hsu close behind, rushing through the cave’s opening so quickly, she nearly knocked over the old monk who was meditating inside. Although initially annoyed by the intrusion, the monk softened when he realized the sincerity of his visitors and gifted them with a much needed history lesson before he shoed them away.
"This is the oldest of the Magao caves," said the old monk, his posture unwavering, his unblinking eyes fixed on enlightenment. "It is a vision that was carved over three hundred years ago by Le Zun. This humble monk hiked into the mountain gully one evening and saw shafts of light shining upon the cliff like a thousand Buddhas. Seeing it as a sign from the Great Teacher, Le Zun threw himself to the ground and pledged to erect a monument so all who entered the canyon could witness and receive the gifts of the Buddha."
"How long did it take Le Zun to carve the thousand Buddhas?" said Hsu.
The old man ignored the question; either because he didn’t hear it or didn’t deem it important enough for words. "Several years later, Fa Liang, another monk from China came to dig the second cave. Today monks come from all over the world to carve caves to express their gratitude to the infinite nature of the Buddha."
For the remainder of the day, the couple met as many of these working monks as they could. They climbed from cave to cave, listening to lore and sharing their tea and snacks with any monk who’d let them---which was fewer than they’d expected since most fasted while they worked so as not to dilute the clarity of their vision. One by one, the monks revealed a section of the carved library. The series of caves reminded Lady White of chapters in a book, with each cave connected to another, depicting Buddha in his various guises and teachings. Many murals were highly religious, examining the strife between good and evil, as well as the happiness that arises when a seeker overcomes attachment and recognizes that heaven and earth are one. The caves also explored secular themes, incorporating various decorative patterns to tell the ordinary details of life, including politics, music, poetry, medicine, farming, hunting, and the travelogues of the foreign envoys and merchants on the Silk Road.
The couple left the grottos with just enough light to make their way back to Dunhaung in the shadows. Both were deep in thought, reflecting on all they had seen and learned that day.
As the monastery came into view, Lady White broke the silence. "Are you disappointed that we didn’t see Fa Hai today?"
"We did see him."
She stopped walking and faced him, "What? And you didn’t tell me?"
"Remember the monk in the forth cave, the one who refused to talk?"
Lady White nodded, understanding the reason for Hsu’s silence. "He was creepy."
"That was Fa Hai. He looked so ghastly, so pitiful; I didn’t want our discussion of him to spoil our beautiful day."
"Did you notice the strange way he looked at me, like he was dissecting me."
"Yes. He felt like a hungry ghost."
"That is why I didn’t talk to you about him---I didn’t want the energy of our discussion to strengthen his hungry ghost. I don’t know if it helped, but I prayed to the Buddha about him."
"So did I," said Hsu. He opened the monastery gate and turned towards her, touching her back protectively and guiding her inside. "Well, we are safe here, the comfort of our little retreat. Shall we see if the monks have leftovers for three?"
Lady White's face softened into a relieved smile. She was ready for a warm meal.
Their final days in Dunhaung passed quickly, and although they were going to miss their simple days in the oasis very much, both were glad to see Go Chen when he arrived to escort them back to Hang-Zhou. While happy to see them too, their caravan leader groaned when he noticed their packs had doubled to accommodate the many gifts they’d acquired for friends. Still, extra weight and all, the return journey through the Talka Makan and home was even smoother than their first crossing---possibly because Lady White and Hsu were so rested and relaxed. In no time, they were walking the streets of Hang-Zhou, mixing up remedies at Green Snake and gobbling dim sum with friends---just like they had always done.
On the surface, life had returned to normal, yet inside, something had changed. It was if the desert and Dunhaung had taken root in a way neither had anticipated, had inexplicably altered their view of the world. Both were more reflective, even more determined to do whatever it took to make the world a better place. They had begun to regard their lives through the eyes of impermanence, yet were resolved to do whatever it took to make every moment solid as gold.
Friends mistakenly attributed their more serious outlook to anxiety about the coming baby, and in hopes of lightening their mood, a few of their closest companions conspired to throw them a party.
"We will have it at my house. A triple celebration: dragon boats plus a welcome home, welcome baby party. Coconut and lotus seed cakes for everybody," said Asu, Lady Whites most trusted neighbor.
"It feels like all we’ve been doing is partying since we’ve been back. I’ve had enough. What I really want is to focus on work," said Lady White.
Asu tossed Lady White’s objection into oblivion. "Nonsense. A true celebration will do you and Hsu good."
"If you say so," sighed Lady White, knowing that when Asu made up her mind, resistance was futile.
The party took place two weeks after their return; it was a gibbous moon in mid-June, the height of the Dragon Boat Festival. Like many other merchant’s houses, Asa’s home was resplendent in boat festival decorations, with calamus and Chinese mugwort draped across tables and hung from windows. Seven large tubs of plum wine sat on the kitchen floor and wine cups were being filled as soon as they were emptied---wine drinking was highly encouraged during the Dragon Boat races since it was purported to help drive away spirits. Earlier in the day, much of the city had gathered at the lake near the West Gate to watch the packs of slender boats with ornately carved dragon heads race through the water. It was a lively celebration, with infectious sportsmanship and keen competition between the crews. This year, a collective of rice farmers from a nearby village swept the race and captured the hearts of spectators. After the award ceremony, Asa invited the rowing rice farmers and their relatives to the party, and they accepted, bringing barrels of specially distilled rice wine to commemorate their victory.
"A quadruple celebration it has become!" announced Asu to her guests, rising her cup high in the air.
"Yes to rice farmers and boat races" said a voice in the crowd.
"And to the baby to be" said another.
"Don’t forget the parents," said a third. It was an unfamiliar voice, uttered errily, cyrptic, almost like a proverb. The guests craned their heads to see who had made the odd toast. Hsu and Lady White remained motionless as their eyes found each other from opposite sides of the room. They didn’t need eyes to determine who the well-wisher was.
The guests cheered loudly, and, Lady White, alarmed by their unexpected guest, rushed towards Hsu. She barely walked three steps before she was intercepted by Asu.
"Are you enjoying the party my friend?"
"Yes," replied Lady White, her feet still moving in Hsu’s direction. Through the ocean of faces, she saw Fa Hai closing in.
Asu swayed from left to right in attempts to seize a candied melon from a passing try. She popped it in her mouth, then grabbed Lady White’s hand with her sticky fingers. "This party has turned out much better than I thought. Everybody is so happy."
Lady White’s face grew tense. Maybe because they’re all drunk, she thought. She checked herself, "Yes, it is a very lovely party. Thank you." She managed a half, but polite smile as she wrestled her hand away and ran over to Hsu. But by the time she reached him, he was alone. Fa Hai had disappeared as swiftly and furtively as he’d arrived.
"Where is Fa Hai?" said Lady White.
Hsu’s lip was trembling, his face pale. "Gone."
"What did he say?"
Hsu shook his head, unable to speak.
Lady White looked into his frightened eyes and her heart sank to her knees. "You must tell me."
He paused and stared into her eyes. "I don’t know how to."
She felt his confusion, his wavering trust. Her intuition told her it was bad. Perhaps Fa Hai had seen inside her that day in his cave. Perhaps he knew who she really was. The idea plunged her into a chasm. She took a deep breath and stopped the horrible march of thoughts. "Just start from the beginning."
His hands rubbed the sides of his pant legs absently as he worked to find the courage to speak. "He told me he had a vision...that you came to him...but not you as I think you are, not as how you stand before me now..." His words trailed off.
"What do you mean, wasn’t me? Who was it?" whispered Lady White, already knowing the answer.
Hsu paused, tears welling in his eyes. "He said it was you as a white snake."
Her worst fears were true. "How can you believe such nonsense," she blurted. She saw Hsu calculate the speed and defensiveness of her words. "You know Fa Hai," she covered. "You know the lengths he will go to for power, for revenge. Maybe your feud isn’t over, maybe he still wants to control you."
"That is exactly what I said to him," said Hsu. "But he told me he was different now, that Dunhaung had given him new life."
"Then why did he come?"
"He insisted that he’d come for my sake; because of our past karma, because of Li Jou. He said he felt he owed it to me," said Hsu.
"You don’t believe him do you?" said Lady White.
"Of course not," said Hsu, but the doubt in his voice was obvious. He clenched his fist and pressed it into his opposite hand a couple of times before noticing the row of full wine cups on the table beside them. He grabbed a glass and drank it in one swallow. He took another, drank it, then baited her with a third glass. "Here. Want one?"
Lady White winced, stung by her husband’s suspicion, by the lies she told. Thinking back, she thought of their initial months together, the many times he’d quizzed her about her uncanny abilities, how he’d teased her about her "serpentine charm", questioned her right to see inside people the way she did. Out of a mix of guilt and desire to draw suspicion away from herself, she accepted the glass and emptied it. Yet she knew this too was a sign of broken trust: in all their years together, Hsu had never seen Lady White accept a drink of alcohol.
He took the empty cup and placed another in her hand, this one so full that it sloshed over the rim and created a pink pond on the floor between them. She brought the wine to her lips and paused. She had to be careful. The child growing inside her had already weakened her control over her magical powers, and as a snake spirit in a human body, she was in double danger---especially during the dragon boat festival when all of China was drinking to drive away spirits like herself. But her mind had already grown cloudy from the last glass, and without fully weighing the consequences, she swallowed quickly, as if this would prove that Fa Hai incorrect: No spirit masquerading as a human would ever be foolish enough to do what she was doing.
Hsu emptied his third glass and looked at her through sheepish eyes, his suspicion waning. Her plan was working. "I don’t feel much like celebrating anymore," he said. "Lets us go home and lay down together. After a good night of sleep, all of this craziness will seem like a bad dream."
Lady White felt the room sway and reached out to Hsu to steady herself. "Yesssssssss. letsssss go home ssssssssss." She swooned and, just before she hit the floor, Hsu scooped her into his arms.
Luckily for both of them (Hsu too was dizzy from wine), home was right next door, which meant he didn’t have to carry her very far. Good thing, cause just as Hsu’s feet crossed into the safety of their bedroom, she lost control of her human form, and in a flash of color, like sunlight hitting a diamond, Lady White’s female body vibrated then disappeared.
Hsu’s jaw flew open and he flung his head from side to side, gasping, his body trying to reject the horror happening in front of him. As his wife drew herself into a coil at his feet, his breath faltered and he whispered "Fa Hai was right...you...you are a sna...." just before his limp body thudded to the floor. White Snake writhed over to him and felt his pulse with her neck. It was gone.
Knowing she had to act quickly, White Snake mustered her strength and dragged Hsu into the cellar. She laid him on the floor in the corner, hoping the relatively cool temperature below the house would buy her more time. It was a long trek to Er-Mai, but she had to go. White Snake would have no chance of bringing Hsu back to life and resuming her life as a human without the help of her beloved friend. It wouldn’t be an easy trip: the wine, her pregnancy, Fa Hai; all conspired against her and she was exhausted. She prayed for the energy to make the all night journey.
As she set off down the road, the bright moon began to fill her with hope, and soon she was slithering briskly along the moonbeams leading up the mountain. She imagined her friend’s face beckoning from inside the moon, while the memory of Hsu’s gentle touch urged her on, and the baby growing inside her human form begged for a chance to live. Miraculously, she reached the summit before dawn.
"Green Snake, Green Snake. Where are you? It's me, White Snake," she called out as she got closer to her friend’s hole. She slid above it and peered in "Green Snake, my beloved friend, are you home? Please, oh please, answer me!" There was no response. She tried again, still no response. White Snake began to cry; soon, a waterfall of tears poured into Green Snake’s home.
"Glug, glug. hssssssssss. WHAT! How can there be water on my head. It's too soon for the rains," said a sleepy voice from deep inside. It was Green Snake.
"Green Snake, it is me, White Snake. Wake up. I need your help. Please hurry."
Green Snake scrambled above ground and embraced her long lost friend. "My god, it's you! I thought I would only see you in my dreams for the rest of my life. What are you doing here," her voice faltered, "as a snake?"
Without wasting a second, White Snake told her old friend everything: about Green Snake Mercantile, the pregnancy, their trip to Dunhaung, Fa Hai, and the boat festival disaster. She looked into her friends amazed eyes and concluded, "when Hsu saw me turn into a snake in front of him, he was literally scared to death. I cannot save him without you. My magic is too weak to make the remedy from the resurrection plant." She collapsed into her friend’s arms. "Oh Green Snake, will you help me?"
"My life is yours, dear friend,"
White Snake’s tears returned, except this time they rained with relief. "You have no idea how much I’ve longed to see you again, longed for the sanctuary of your devoted presence."
"You bet I do. Friend, I too have missed you far more than memories can alleviate." She too was crying. She squeezed her friend quickly, then brushed away both of their tears with a soft flick of her tail. "Enough of our blubbering; there will be time to catch up later. For now, we must focus. We have less than 24 hours to locate and administer the plant."
Quicker than a darting tongue, the two snakes rushed off to the Kunlun meadow in the southern summit. Luckily, the plant was in season, and its long flowering vines were in plentiful supply. Both snakes grabbed a handful of the purple trumpets and hurried back to Green Snake’s hole. They were inside mixing the resurrection potion when White Snake heard footsteps above the hole.
"Do you hear that? It sounds like a human," said White Snake.
"I agree," whispered Green Snake. "But who could it be? I haven’t seen a human in this part of the mountain in over 100 years."
White Snake peeked through the secret lookout hole and confirmed her suspicions. "It is Fai Ha, the monk."
"I know you are in there She Snakes," boomed Fai Ha’s voice from above.
"Why do you torment us?" asked White Snake. "Why do you insist on ruining the peace of our lives."
"Why don’t you accept your fate, your deception, and return Hsu to his rightful place in the universe," answered the monk. "His boddhisattva spirit belongs to humankind, and you have seduced him from his true calling."
"How can you make such a claim," interjected Green Snake.
"He was born to be a monk," said Fai Ha. "It is time for him leave your snake den and serve mankind."
"Serve mankind? Can Hsu---or we---do anything less? With or without monk's robes, all who are born are equal servants of the Buddha. Including snakes. We were among the twelve creatures who came to the river when the Buddha called. We are united under the heavenly stars. All of our actions, all of our thoughts, are a fulfillment of the great teachers wishes. We answer he calls of all the creatures in this world."
"You have changed the cycle of suffering. My mistaken actions were responsible for his despair, and it is my karma to return Hsu’s rightful smile."
"Do you think the Buddha cares who puts the smile on a man’s face as long as it is present and of good conscious. In the name of Buddha, won’t you please admit your jealousy, your misplaced ego. Why is it so hard to accept that Hsu has found true happiness," said White Snake.
"Possibly your actions have contributed to Hsu’s happiness," interjected Green Snake. "What if your meditations in the Dunhaung Caves, your willingness to withdraw from the world in search for inner peace created the doorway that allowed White Snake and Hsu to fall in love."
"Oh Fa Hai," cried White Snake, her voice growing more anxious with every passing minute. "Can’t you see that my love for Hsu is true, truer than anything I have ever known."
Green Snake thrust herself above ground, pulling White Snake up along side her. With fierce determination, she locked into Fa Hai’s eyes in a way that only snakes are capable of. "You foolish monk. Can’t you see the future karma you are creating with your desire to do good. Must you continue to interfere with their joy because of your attachment to the past? We are wasting precious time."
Jarred into awareness by the truthful force of Green Snake’s words, Fa Hai sunk to his knees and began to sob, conceding the shortcomings of his logic. "Budhha, oh my master, please give me the strength to forgive myself."
White Snake pulled Fa Hai to his feet and wrapped her tail around him. "Do not despair old man. All will be forgiven when we administer the cure and return the light to Hsu’s eyes."
Green Snake nodded and held the resurrection tincture out to him. "Here. Add your prayers to the tincture so it may become even more potent."
He reached out and took the cure, clutching it tightly to his heart. "Oh wise and beautiful snakes! How will I ever repay you for your patient counsel. You truly speak for the compassionate Buddha in all of us, " said Fa Hai, heaving under his own joyous sobs.
"You can repay us by joining us. Come on, lets go save Hsu," said White Snake as she took off down the hill. She wasn’t about to start celebrating until her husband was standing safely beside her pregnant human form.
The three reached Hang-Zhou just before the noontime rush. As soon as they were safely inside the house, Green Snake and Fa Hai united their magic and turned White Snake back into her human self. Then, the three of them carried his motionless body to the bedroom, and Lady White covered her husband with blankets to stimulate body heat. She leaned her swelling womb against him and brought the potion to his cracked and withered lips. He looked ghastly. She prayed they weren’t too late.
She sang as she administered the liquid cure drop by painstaking drop onto his tongue, "Come back, my darling husband, return to me, return to the people who love and need you,"
Green Snake and the monk chanted simple tones and prayers behind her. When the bottle was empty, White Lady joined the other two and the three continued to chant over Hsu’s motionless body, aware that it would take hours---maybe even days---for the resurrection potion to take effect. If it took effect at all.
At sundown that night, Green Snake wordlessly offered to go to the market and buy them all something to eat, but Lady White and Fa Hai shook their heads. Yes, thought Green Lady, food would distract their prayers. If Hsu couldn’t eat, neither would they.
"You are right," agreed Green Snake, continuing to communicate with her companions telepathically. "But my intuition tells me that our watch needs fortification. I will go to the vegetable venders and buy some oranges to make into a longevity nectar for Hsu when he wakes up."
"Good idea," answered Lady White without speaking. "There is a supply of dried ginseng in the pantry which should be boiled down and added to the mix. It will strengthen all of us."
Green Snake went off to the market as the other two continued their vigil, alternating between chants and silent meditation until Green Snake returned. Green Snake ceremoniously offered White Lady the longevity nectar, which the now human snake accepted with great attention and then placed the cup on the ground above Hsu’s head in hopes the nectar would reinforce their determination and provide added enticement for Hsu.
Hours passed. More hours passed. The sun rose and set for a second time, yet Hsu did not move. Lady White began to fear that they had administered the resurrection remedy too late. She closed her eyes and prayed with all her might, inwardly admitting her primary mistake. She had been wrong, foolishly wrong, to lie to Hsu about her true identity.
Slowly, lips trembling, she began to speak aloud, "Hsu, darling Hsu. My husband. I am so very, very sorry that I didn’t tell you the truth, did not tell you I was a snake. I thought I was protecting you, saving you from having to lie to others. I thought your human society wouldn’t understand, would denounce you for choosing me, a White Snake, for your wife.
"Then, as time passed, and my inner voice insisted that I tell you the truth---told me I was deceiving my greatest love---I sent it away. In my selfishness, I convinced myself that you wouldn’t want me if you knew my true, serpentine identity. Please, please, my only love, please forgive me. Please come back so we can start our life anew, rebuild our relationship on truth. Don’t make me raise our baby alone. Can you hear me? My darling, Hsu? Come back to us. Open your eyes. Say yes to life, tell me you will be my husband again, tell me you will be father to our child," her voice trailed off. She squeezed her eyelids together and pressed her lips to his, mentally weaving a bond of infinity from his life to hers.
"Look at his toes," cried Green Snake. "I think they’re moving."
"Yes. He’s alive," said Fa Hai.
Lady White opened her eyes and scanned them down his body. It was true: Just like thick earth worms moving through the soil, his toes were inching beneath the mound of blankets. She threw her arms around Hsu’s neck and covered his face with tearstained kisses. "Oh yes. Darling, you’ve come back to us."
Hsu fluttered his eyes and moved his lips, but no sound came out. He was too weak to speak. Lady White gently laid her finger on mouth, "Shhhhh. Save your strength. Now you must drink this." She brought the longevity nectar to his lips.
After he drank what he could, which wasn’t much, Lady White took a sip and offered it to Green Snake, who drank and held the rest out to Fa Hai. "Were it not for your added prayers, these two may never have found each other again."
"Thank you for believing in me." The monk brought his palms to his heart and bowed his head before taking the nectar.
Hsu jerked upward, surprised to hear Fa Hai’s voice and saw Green Snake wrapped around his feet. He began to mutter.
"Sssssshhhh," said Lady White, no longer masking her true essence. "The bad dream is over, and soon you will know the whole truth. For now, it is enough for you to know that you are surrounded by love."
Hsu smiled up at his wife tenderly and, warmed by the protection of her gaze, feel into a deep, deep sleep.
It was two weeks before Hsu woke up again. In the meantime, Lady White, Green Snake and Fa Hai worked in the shop and entertained the steady stream of visitors. Not wanting to get ino a similar situation again, Lady White came out as her true self, and soon, the whole city knew the true story of the Lady White and her friend the Green Snake. Although shocking and deliciously tantalizing, the gossip quickly dissipated under the purity of truth and, as happens in all fairy tales, everybody learned a lot from each other and then lived happily ever after.
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