White Snake Green Snake

by Nuha Shaikh

A queer retelling of a classic Chinese myth, in four parts

Our primary players: (in order of appearance)

白素贞 Bai SuZhen– The White Snake, The White Maiden

小青 XiaoQing– The Green Snake, Little Green Lady

许仙 XuXian– The Husband

法海 FaHai– The Monk

许梦蛟 XuMengJiao– The Filial Son


Magic rolled off of my scales in the early days,

the water cool and clear,

my twisting body tireless.

Dropped from somewhere far above:

two pills holding immortality,

sugar sweet, then the bitter bite.

I swallowed until they swam the length of me.

Serpentine me, I left behind my watery home

And became a lady in white

Taking one faltering step, then another,

Until my feet, along the river’s path, found you

Little green snake, captured to be cut–

How have you found yourself here?

Our scales shimmer the same; I make silver appear

And you are so grateful, green-robed and young.

The rain surprised us, heavy and swift,

Our fine silks drenched and muddied,

Hair like midnight rivers, water 

Treacherous beneath the Broken Bridge–

There we met him, his umbrella generously given.

Our eyes met and I knew without knowing, my immortality 

Had fallen from sugared hawthorns hiding those pills, and he 

Had dropped them in my waters, a gift he did not know he gave.

I could love a man that good and never be human

Enough to want him the way he wants me.

There is something delicious in loving the forbidden,

And Laws of Nature govern the good.

He and I are cosmically connected, a debt

Owed and someone else collecting on it; we marry

Because he is kind and I am alluring and it is the right

Time; we set up an apothecary to cure his people’s pain.


I learned to temper myself, be soft and only a shade

Mysterious, keep my magic minimal

Until the moon was low, a pearl on my river.

That damned festival rolled around and–

Oh, little green snake! What does it mean

When your healer husband poisons you?

He foolishly heeded the local monk

Told to feed me wine to repel evil spirits, he left me

Sleeping as a snake; I could not have known betrayal

Until it bit me in my home– when I awoke, my legs lay

Numb and unpracticed after a night coiled into myself.

Howling despair, my fresh grief grows itself good.

He fled to that Gold Temple, half-blind with fear, and I 

begged you, My green-robed companion, for aid;

Help me reverse the Yangtze and flood

The men out. We knew magic once, remember?

Wasn’t it thrilling to hold such power in

Human hands? But we violated Order; now our 

Strength will wane in the hands of humanity.

You did that for me and I did that for him; my hands 

have made so many mistakes, binding us in

Coils upon coils– I believed him when he returned to me,

Swearing he was afraid only of Divine defiance, never me.

I forgave him for his human fear; who never makes mistakes?

But what good is forgiveness when he trembles at my touch?

I cannot make a scared man brave, cannot make my hands

Delicate enough to sew the gaps between us closed;

He must have known our ties were fraying, perhaps our tension 

Foretold itself– we met on the Broken Bridge after all, and no unions 

Could withstand such inauspicious starts– but still, I look again,

Searching for the first cracks and pressing where it hurts.


Once, when the world was younger,

I grew big and sleepy in the sunlight

And never feared the anger of men.

Now, I grow round with the moon, my body becoming 

Soft, my pale skin luminant; can this be a good rest 

before the snake escapes? I know I must 

leave, so one more parting gift

For him or for me? I am protected in these vulnerable 

months, Nature thrice defied decreed me docile 

until his birth, so I shall be. Little Green, you

Knew me hard and lithe, what has become

Of me? All I have is given to my son; he will be

As cunning as us; in his name, I weave a promise–

Oh, Dream of the Flood Dragon, I bore you 

Rich in the summer months, when rains are heaviest

My body unnaturally twisting, so much blood

It scared us all. My husband brings elixirs to revitalize 

my spirit, but poisoned once, I hesitate and he sees. 

My Green Snake, you soothe my soul with susurrations of our kind.

All along, my husband listened to that prying monk,

Believed we were transgressing– as if it is illegal to desire!

He waited until I became tired and tamed, 

My shapeshifter body trapped in fatigue

Then called the Divine upon me, the monk descending

With a China vase strong enough to hold my snake self

Forever, vowing to keep me beneath the LeiFeng Pagoda

In perpetual deep earth and dark thunder, what a holy man

That wicked man– I curse the both of them,

And with light’s last gaze, I bless my boy

To be better than his father. He will grow up without

Both of his parents, but have you, Little Green.


I pass many years in solitude, the world

A phantom in my mind. All that was real 

Was me, my star-white scales, and the darkness.

While I lay curled and quiet, my clear-eyed confidant

Practiced magic until it knew her strong and wise, my son

Devoted himself to learning the human world, the two

Joining me in stasis as the world moved on.

Then, twenty years from that fateful day– convergence!

My splendid son sought greatness in his study,

Gained the favor of the Emperor and told him our story.

Moved, the man granted safe passage into my pagoda

The FeiTian spirits saw all this and smiled,

Retold our tale to the Heavenly Bodies so that they might

Know our names. They blessed me with protection,

Raised me from the deep foundation, my boy a happy stranger.

All the while, my protected became my protector–

Little Green Snake, do you remember how this all began?

Heaven-pardoned as I am, the beastly monk battles

On, and still you fight for us to join you.

When does the interference end? His powers are as vast

As the oceans but you have been careful to learn the 

Freshwater ways, how to be neutral until the waters rise–

Then strike with tangled arcs of lightning

Electrifying the Gold Temple and all the saltwater,

Enough to transform him, emboldened man to 

Shell-startled turtle. There was no resisting this

Kind of magic, so long fed by affection and desperation.

The cool waters carried me home, it knew my touch–

Even after so long, one does not forget where one comes from.

It led me to you, my Jade Green Love, and our son,

Brilliant as he is good. We meet again, at the river’s edge.