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.