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The Three Jeweled, © Heather McDougal 2024

 

Content warning:


We must confess that back then Father had us too overawed to question anything. It was difficult not to be—Father had that quality. Short of stature, wide of waist, midway through thirty and already stooped and wrinkled as a prune, he nonetheless radiated. Like a fire in a cave, like the sun at high noon.

(Of course he was not really our father, being a eunuch, but we’d called him Father half our lives, and that was what we continued to call him long after. Long after all was known and accounted for, long after he laid bare the dark cards of ambition he’d held to his chest. Even after all that, even now in our exile, once in a while some shadow will pass over us in the sky, and we three will look up as one, openmouthed. The unspoken thought dangling between us like a phantom limb: “Father. You’ve returned for us.”)

 


 

“Luck,” he explained once, years ago, when we fumbled to put this quality of his into words. “That’s all it is, girls. Some have it. Some don’t. I do. And heaven willing, you will too.”

This brightness, this oil-slick coating—dumb, blind luck. If we squinted we could see it, draped around his shoulders like a cloak.

This luck gathering around him when, as a boy of ten, the Ming overran Yunan. His father killed, his brothers mutilated, his sisters led into slavery with shaven heads. Father alone in the rubble, surviving to spit at the feet of a Ming commander; Father standing in his own filth, closing a mulish mouth around the location of the fleeing Mongol prince. Mongol boys had been killed for less. Father was merely castrated.

“All said,” he mused, “not the worst punishment.”

And in fact it was just another honey-drip of luck. Luck that the fractious Ming schemed against each other constantly. Two emperors into their dynasty, and already uncles were fortifying against nephews, mothers menacing their sons. Luck to be a eunuch, devoid of familial designs. Luck to find himself in the retinue of Zhu Di here in the north, where eunuchs were held in esteem as advisors without competition from the squabbling, pedantic mandarins of the south.

Luck that he rode well. Luck that he spoke well. Luck that his first Nurgen campaign was a resounding success, the Mongol lords scattering like flies.

Luck, some darkly wagging tongues might say, that he found it so easy to turn against his own, so comfortable wearing the yoke of the Ming.

But Father saw it differently. Luck, he said tenderly, as he stroked our hair, that the northern frontier had fallen so quickly, bloodlessly. That there had been no need to besiege Chengde, to set fire to its homes or terrorize its populace. Luck that he simply rode through its open gates one fine spring day, a peaceful conqueror, and encountered three rag-bundled urchins. Girls fleecing his loitering soldiers with a card trick so clever it took him an entire afternoon to unravel.

“Luck, Yi-mei, Er-mei, San-mei,” he said, casting each of us for a moment beneath the burning coal of his gaze, “that I did not flatten you in an assault on the city. That I decided on a whim to take you with me, set you up in this little house, raise you, as best I could, as children of my own.”

Always at this point he paused, looked at us with rare uncertainty. “And you’re happy, girls, aren’t you? Here with Ang? You’re happy?”

“Yes, Father,” we chorused.

Because of course we were. How else should we be? We had a caretaker in the kindly, silent Ang. We had our books. We had the warm house and the deep woods and the bright mountain air. On clear days we could even glimpse the town far below, shimmering in the heat.

And once a season, if Zhu Di was not making yet more war, we looked out our window at dawn to find an ant-like figure circling the base of our mountain. By midday we recognized Father’s curved back and pointed head. By dusk he would be striding through the door, rimmed by the last light, and he would be here, right here, his voice sounding like a bell, saying, “Girls, girls. Yi-mei, Er-mei, San-mei.”

And we would fly to him (“Father, Father, Father!”), a flock of starlings, from where we’d been waiting and watching all day.

What could that be, but happiness?

 


 

That was Father—a storm in a drought, a comet in the night. Acting first, thinking later, carried on not by foresight, but on luck’s slippery feet.

And so we were not as surprised as we should have been when, one warm night in our tenth year on the mountain, Father showed us the flying machine.

 


 

He arrived at the spring equinox bearing honey sweets and the dust of faraway lands. He stayed the full month as usual, but then, without a word of explanation, stayed on a second month, then a third, then a fifth. We drifted through the tail end of summer and into the rise of the harvest moon, but still he stayed, humming when he was not silent.

Invariably he was awake when we slumped out of bed at dawn. Already slurping down his third or fourth bowl of porridge by the time we’d dressed. All morning he hovered over us like a friendly carrion bird, correcting our sums, quizzing us on the stratagems of old Master Sun, guiding us through the tortuous history of the Warring States.

Then he ruffled our hair, grunted his approval. “How quickly you girls are learning. Yi-mei, Er-mei, San-mei, you’re already brighter than all the miserable, exam-taking bureaucrats I met in the south.”

But by midafternoon he faded into distraction. He spent hours scribbling on crumpled sheets we were forbidden to touch (and which, we discovered when we did manage a peek, we could not decipher anyway), snapping at anyone who approached, even the meek, silent Ang, who through gestures and dark looks made clear to us her displeasure at cooking now for five instead of four, on top of cleaning up the shriveled crusts of porridge Father left in his wake.

By the time dusk fell and we settled in for our dinner of pickled cabbage and bone broth (sloshed into our bowls by a sullen Ang), Father was gone. He’d already retreated to the adjoining workshop, from which we were barred. From there we could hear scraping and hammering and the occasional muffled curse. These noises came to us all night in the clear mountain breeze and marbled our dreams. Dawn found him slumped at our roughhewn table again, rubbing the dark beneath his eyes.

When he found the time to sleep we never did find out.

 


 

Then on the last night of summer we looked up from our uninspired bowls of millet and stared. Father, enshadowed by the gloaming, beckoned.

“It’s ready,” he said. “Come see.”

He led us to the workshop and we saw—

A stranded sea monster, bulbous limbs undulating from wall to wall.

But no—

On a closer look, the menacing lumps and gills resolved themselves into a heap of gray silk and tangles of rope. And tethered at the center of all this, dwarfed by the cloth, was a ship. But as we circled the oblong structure, we saw that the hull was constructed not from wood but from a basket weave of bamboo, light and springy to the touch. And on the deck—which we reached with Father’s sure hands guiding us over a web of rigging—instead of oars and skimmers and masts and beams, nothing but three pits, each holding a sack of coal.

“Well, girls? What do you make of it?”

We glanced sideways at each other. “Some kind of ship?” An answer obviously incorrect, but the best we could come up with.

But instead of sucking through his teeth the way he usually did when we failed his tests, Father surprised us by letting out a bark of a laugh.

“Clever girls,” he said. “In a way you’re right. I have built a ship. A ship of the sky.”

 


 

That very night he took us up. Late, long after Ang blew out the candle in her attic window and pulled her lattice blinds shut against the rising chill, we wheeled the ship out to the field behind the house, sneezing quietly among the feather grass tickling in the wind.

We clambered aboard and stood shivering on the deck, three abreast, as Father instructed us in the mechanisms of flight. The three braziers of coal and wood, fired just so. The two boat wheels, front and rear, held tight. The pulleys that controlled the billowing silks, pulled taut. It would not occur to us until much later that the ship seemed perfectly, ominously designed for three. Back then, our first hour on the ship, nothing occurred to us but delight. As Father bent with a flint, as the flames leapt up, as the silks unfurled, as we lifted shakily, creakily, into the spilled-ink sky, we thought of nothing, future or past. Our minds were blank with wonder.

But as soon as we rose above the treeline, Father lost the caution that had driven him to rap our knuckles, schoolmarmishly, when we’d giggled too loudly among the tall grasses. Now he was shouting commands like we were conscripts in a losing battle.

Now he was saying, in a voice like thunder: Yi-mei, front wheel to the left, harder, you see that vent opening, that wing slicing at an angle? Keep it there, for heaven’s sake.

Er-mei, rear wheel. Are you even trying, put your whole body into it. You see, girls, we’re turning with the wind.

San-mei, no cowering behind the braziers, fire up the coals, we need all hands on deck.

And all the while he scuttled around, before, behind us like a deranged beetle, pulling ropes, twisting sails, leaning over the edge to reassure himself that the wings were holding strong, that we were still gaining height.

The cold grew bitter as we ascended, cutting through our woolen coats, and soon we were dashing off from our posts whenever Father’s back was turned, huddling around the braziers that required constant tending. The wind rose as well, whipping our braids into our faces, driving us in staggering steps across the deck. Even Father’s voice receded to a faint roar among many. It was as if we’d been submerged under deep water.

But still Father persisted, yelling out maneuvers that resembled military drills: ascend, descend, left turn, right turn, with the wind, now try one against, now make a full rotation.

At the first purpling of dawn he relented, started us on our slow descent. Back on our mountaintop we disembarked on trembling legs, our hands raw and red, our lips blue-gray, as battered as sailors returning from the western sea.

“Well, girls,” Father said jovially, as if we were returning from a brisk but rejuvenating stroll, “lucky night to encounter a meteor shower, eh?”

We turned to him, three blank faces. We’d spent the whole night scrambling after his orders, the ship our entire world. Not once had we thought to lift our eyes to the sky.

 


 

It is with some shame that we confess that we initially regarded the flying machine, which is now our home, with a queasy trepidation, if not outright fear.

It had been a great honor to fly with Father, we privately agreed, but what was the point of flight if it bruised our arms, winded our chests, left us exhausted and dazed and foul-tempered in the morning, pinching each other beneath the breakfast table as Ang worried over our wan faces and ladled second servings of the porridge we could not keep down?

The ship became our instrument of torture for as long as Father stayed. By the second week we came to dread the sound of his boots thudding toward our door. By the third, we almost resented Father himself, he whom we’d always revered.

Only Father remained sanguine. All smiles and whistles and a mad gleam in his eye as he led us out through the wild field night after night.

“Why?” we finally asked one miserable flight as we lurched our way through a howling storm.

He held a palm to his ear.

“Why?” we shouted, our voices reedy in the wind. “Why are we doing this? Why did you build this ship?”

He turned to our rain-lashed faces, his smile as serene as a Buddha’s. “Why not?”

Why not?

We settled back into our stations, grumbling, laughing. Of course. Father spent his life stumbling from one whim to another, letting the transformative logic run backwards—the ink drops of action coalescing into a portrait of a plan.

Of course his desire had simply been: He wanted to see if he could. He wanted to see the stars. He wanted to see them with us.

 


 

Of course we now know this to be untrue. Or, at least, not the full truth. But back then we believed it down to the marrow of our bones and basked in his esteem. We began to soften our hearts toward the flying machine. One brilliant autumn day we were even whispering Father’s drills to each other, determined to improve our sorry performance, when a vermillion figure darkened our doorway, bearing a scroll stamped with the royal seal of Zhu Di.

“Hide,” Father hissed when the first shadows of the messenger fell along the house.

But we were well trained, had already shuffled quietly into the grain room before he’d turned. Ang stood scrubbing some tubers, her sly fox features collapsing moment by moment into a dull domestic’s frown. Ang complained ceaselessly about her pay, but we knew that she stayed here with us, her hidden charges, at the top of a remote mountain, for the same reason that we tickled each other now in the storeroom when we were supposed to be deadly serious and silent—the thrill of conspiracy, the stomach-fluttering giddiness of a secret well kept.

Eunuchs weren’t supposed to keep families, but here we were—Yi-mei, Er-mei, San-mei, his live and tumbling daughters. His little defiance. Here we lived like sprites. Even Zhu Di’s thousand squinting eyes could not see this far.

We expected Father to scold us when we emerged afterward. No teasing each other in the storeroom, what if the man had heard?

But all was quiet in the house. His face was pale, his lips pursed. “It’s too soon,” he was muttering to no one. “We’re not ready.”

He hardly looked up as we snaked our way around him, simply shook his head and rubbed the groove that had begun deepening between his brows since the equinox.

“Zhu Di is moving against the Jianwen Emperor. He wants me back at the front in a month’s time.”

We cast our minds back to what we knew of Zhu Di and the emperor. The uncle, the nephew. Sometime allies, sometime rivals, both pretenders to the Ming throne that ruled us all. The emperor holed up in the south, surrounded by his nest of viper-tongued mandarins. Zhu Di the protector of the north, striding through our ice-pierced lands with Father at his side. For as long as we’d been alive Zhu Di and his nephew had maintained a strained diplomacy, with the former accepting the latter’s marginal rule. Their feud was the distant stuff of fairytales. But now—

“The final confrontation,” Father said. “By this time next year we may know the one man who will rule us all, from the Nurgen plains to the shores of the western sea.”

“It will be Zhu Di,” we said with a confidence we did not feel, our hearts hammering against bone.

He nodded absently, said to himself, “I told him to wait,” like a master chastising a careless pupil.

“Well then,” he said, standing, and we saw that he was already holding his cloak. “I must go. As soon as—ah, thank you, Ang.” She had materialized behind him, holding a small bundle of the coarse clothing Father preferred, and a sack overflowing with dry, dense bread. She turned away as he took them from her, but not before we saw the tears standing in her eyes.

Our unease tipped into panic. As Ang left the room, we crowded around him. “Don’t go, it’s too soon, the men aren’t ready, Zhu Di is pushing too quickly,” repeating his own complaints back to him.

He shook gently free of us. “Promise me one thing. While I’m gone, take the flying machine out as often as you can. I built it for you, you girls of the mountain. I built it to give you the freedom so long denied you. Fly it under the cover of night, and see the world.”

He paused, one foot on the threshold. “I’ll write when I can.”

“Be safe, Father,” we said, through throats thick with fear. “Come back to us.”

He fixed us with a smile that did not reach his eyes. “Of course, my girls. When have I not?”

 


 

Father left. We, as was our habit, obeyed.

Not a night passed that we did not, as soon as Ang blew out her candle and released her wall-trembling snores, slip over the rough ground in socked feet, creak open the battered door, and haul ourselves up our ship and into the wide-open sky. Our hands hardened with callouses, our feet grew nimble and light. By the time the first of Father’s letters arrived, we felt we were seasoned sailors, laughing with each bump, whistling into the wind, working our limbs through the hammering cold that set in above the treeline.

Gathering troops in Tongzhou, Father informed us in the looping code of his invention. Inspecting the conscripts—mostly malnourished farm boys. They’ll have to be armed with their own spades and rakes, that’s how low we are in weaponry.

The implicit rebuke: and yet Zhu Di endeavors to march in a month’s time.

We considered this message while floating over the fir forests that lined the east side of our mountain. A clear night, the moon stark and brilliant, our breaths misting in the cold. Poor Father, we thought, stuck on earth and so far away. We sent a prayer up for him.

Then: Moving out. The road will be hard, but my prince is confident.

Subtext: I am not.

We fought our way through a thick fog, our hands invisible before our own faces. We moved by touch, brushing past each other like wraiths drifting between this world and the next.

A river battle at Baigou, thousands of drowned men. Landmines ripping through the ground. But, thank heaven, the winds turned, we prevailed. The emperor’s army retreating in disarray.

We spun like a top in a sudden storm, the rain breaking over us as abruptly as water from an upturned bucket. We abandoned the useless navigational gears, turned our energy to feeding the braziers. When the sky cleared, we saw that we’d been blown some thirty li south, above a winding river we did not recognize. We navigated home by the stars. We returned at dawn drenched and shivering, but beauteously, wondrously, laugh-out-loud alive.

The fall of Dezhou. The southward path clearing.

We floated down our mountain, across the village set in the valley. Village of Ang’s girlhood, brief motherhood, long widowhood. Village where her four children, in a single winter, succumbed one after another to a hacking cough. Village from whence she’d been plucked and ferried up to us.

We dimmed the braziers, drifted low. There, we guessed, pointing at one thatch-roofed house or another. That’s where Ang lived, or perhaps there, or there. There, there, there. The sites of the stories we’d imagined for her. Ang and her squabbling brood, squatting by a fire. Ang in her mourning clothes, disappearing into a doorway. There the pastures where Ang once led the family flock. There the millstone where she ground her wheat. There the sweets shop where she bought our favorite honey candy.

Then, suddenly: “Ack!” A soft cry, a lurching run. A white face cast over a trembling shoulder.

The next day, Ang, returning from a market trip, mimed through her laughs the village drunk’s newest raving—a godlike bird, descending from the sky. What a shadow it cast. What terror.

We simpered at her above our porridge. A cloud, we suggested, passing over the moon.

She nodded thoughtfully. Most likely. Clever girls.

Resistance at Jinan unexpectedly strong. A forced march back to Beiping, eight hundred li.

We set our sights higher, further. We traveled over mountains, valleys, the fluvial plains to the west.

Victory at Cangzhou. For every two li we advance, we are chased back eight. We can take cities, but cannot hold them.

We saw Chengde, crumbled city of our youth. When Ang left on another market trip, we did not return for three days. We drifted over the long walls built by the Hongwu Emperor to bisect the steppe. With one turn of the navigation wheel we were in Zhu Di’s realm; with another, in the wild lands of Father’s ancestral tribes. We lurched over the garrisons, far beyond the yawning guards. No walls could hold us now.

We saw the rolling hills of the lower grasslands, the glassy waters of the Chaobai. Zhu Di’s glittering gem of Beiping, lovely and bright beneath the frost.

We drifted dreamily home, high in the clouds, the cold its own sort of marvel. We schemed more convoluted errands to trick Ang into embarking upon. We listed all the lands we could see by night. Perhaps as far as the great Yellow River, or down to the imperial splendor of Nanjing. Perhaps as far as the western sea.

 


 

Then, startling us out of our reverie:

Girls, come, to Gaocheng, at the bend of the River Jia. I am here with fifty thousand men and no reinforcements coming. The enemy will meet us with two hundred thousand. We fled here from Dongchang, where we were ensnared in a trap. The situation is dire; I fear I may soon face death. Come quick, with the flying machine. Bring three months’ worth of food and coal, and the firecrackers beneath the boards of the workshop. You know I would not ask this of you if I did not need it desperately. Make haste.

We understood then that we were meant to be the reinforcements.

 


 

Another letter arrived at the house that very day, dispatching Ang on another obscure quest. She left with a disgruntled wave, wrapped in the muddied shawls and boots that would preserve her on the weeklong journey through the mountain passes.

As for us, we waited only until her hunched form disappeared down the bend. Then we sprang into action. Father! The only thought in our heads.

We dragged out the sacks of millet, the water, the pickled cabbages, the mutton and the hare that Ang spent all summer drying on a line. We lifted the sacks of coal, ferried them to the ship with blackened hands on blackened shoulders. The firecrackers we found exactly where Father had promised, nestled and waiting in hay.

So many, we marveled, running our hands over the stacked boxes. Surely enough to light up the imperial parades we’d heard so much about. Had Father been planning a parade for us, here at the peak of our desolate slope? Our rock-strewn paths lit with green and red? Ang waddling along in a dragon costume? (Even then, on the eve of battle, we were thinking as girls, not as soldiers.)

At dusk, the ship packed, we allowed ourselves one last wander around the only home we’d ever known. Then we were off, slipping through the tall grasses by touch, clambering over ropes, stoking the flames of our slumbering ship. Less than a full day had passed since we’d received the message. And already we were rising up into the moonless night, like a gull on a wave, striking south across the mountains to rescue poor Father.

 


 

The last thing we did was leave a note for Ang, despairing at the thought of her return to our cold and empty house.

Ang, we wrote in our best formal calligraphy, we’re off to save Father. But then we remembered her illiteracy.

After much debate, we drew three figures, walking south: we’re off.

Then, as an afterthought, the figures gliding north among the spring blossoms: we’ll be back soon.

And a fourth, loitering in a doorway, wearing a smile the width of its face: don’t worry.

We left, unsettled at how the drawing compressed the nuance of our farewell. We worried over the state of all possible Angs—angry Ang, frantic Ang, Ang frightened and alone, her frost-chapped lips parted in confusion. But these days we are more unsettled by what the pictures said about us. These days we think back to the crude brushstroke, the crooked faces, the long strides of the returning heroes, the complacent happiness gauzed over all of them like a veil, and we think: what children we were.

What beautiful, stupid children.

 


 

South we went, down over the stern ridge of mountains that sealed off our frigid land. Down over the forests, the crags and plateaus, the patches of steppeland petering out across the land Zhu Di would soon claim as his own. From afar the signs of war were small and dreamlike—a column of smoke, the red jewel of a distant flame. Up here with the birds, while we shoveled, pulled, grunted, yelled to each other in voices snatched by the wind, the hard knot of our dread loosened. We felt our spirits lightening, buoying us up and over the clouds.

Only the thought of Father kept us from floating off altogether.

South, south, south.

It was not until we approached the battle-fresh lands that the destruction below began to seep into the lightness of above. Here the smoke grew thicker, the fires wilder. We began to see villagers and soldiers scurrying over the gray earth like ants. That’s when we realized that what we’d taken for serenity in the north was in fact wholesale devastation. At night as we flew low over fresh battlefields, the stench of the dead turned our stomachs; the moans of the dying joined our ship’s nightly chorus of creaks and groans. As if in sympathy, the sky grew dark, drew its clouds around itself like a shroud.

After a week of traveling through this day-turned-night, we stumbled upon the River Jia, then Gaocheng, rearing out of the haze. Before the mud-walled city, a gaggle of soldiers led by a few red-cloaked professionals. Inside the walls, guards draped in black, hurling stones. And streaming all around, inside and out, a swarm of indistinguishable conscripts in varying shades of dun.

Yet even through the gloom of day and the chaos of battle, Father was lit up for us like a beacon. We could see every feature, every line in his face like he was standing before us. Father on horseback, leading the siege with his sword in the air. Father red of face, wild of eye, sending spittle flying with every order he roared.

Father! Father! Father!

We swooped down toward him, keeping the sun behind us. Somehow he saw us, as he’d promised he would. He saw our shadow passing over him like the darkest cloud in the steel-gray sky, and grinned. He tilted his sword ahead, just the tiniest bit, toward the fortified city with its scurrying black-and-red men. A small gesture that not even his lieutenants caught. But we saw. We understood. We steered our ship over the city, behind the walls where the armored men were massed. We peered down, holding our lit firecrackers, and let them drop.

What colors then! Dazzling as they fell. The sky blown open into the poppy red we’d seen glimmering over distant palaces during new year’s celebrations. All at once, and all around us. Nights of wonder condensed into a single moment. We clapped our hands over our ears and cheered. (You must remember that we were still children then, had not yet drifted up with our ship into wisdom beyond our years.)

The men scattered, stumbling as they ran, waving their lances wildly at invisible enemies in the sky. Some unleashed arrows that went laughably wide, so well tucked behind the clouds and smoke we were. We swooped lower, launched another volley. More flames, more screams, an entire tar-coated armory gone up in a flash. If they could see us now, they were too panicked to act. And in any case it was too late. The guards had fled their stations. With a thunder of hooves, Father breached the wall. The fate that should have been ours—to be flattened beneath Father’s charge—now befell these city men.

Perhaps if we had seen their faces we would have been sorry. Perhaps if they hadn’t been pointing their swords and arrows at Father. As it was, we drifted lazily above the fray, unleashing firecrackers wherever resistance seemed to be forming, but mostly watching the defenses swept away, watching Father’s gleaming form.

So intent were we on watching the siege, leaning over the edge of the ship like fresh-bathed spectators at a wrestling match, that for a moment we didn’t notice Father signaling to us, desperately. He was holding his sword aloft again, this time letting it fall back, toward the men crowding behind him.

His own men? Surely we misunderstood. We squinted down at him, dropped as low as we dared.

He read the hesitation in our stillness. He thrust the sword back again, more insistently. Do it, we thought we read on his lips. He gave us his bravest smile. Trust me.

We obeyed. We raced back beyond the city walls, the wind tearing at our hair. We unleashed one volley, then another, then another. The industriously clamoring men we’d thought of as Father’s crumbled like a house of sticks. We were pulling back, preparing for another round, when we saw them.

Spreading over the plain, from horizon to horizon: another army. Marching up to the city behind a straight-backed figure draped in the imperial yellow.

And on the other side of us, back in the city, Father frozen in place. His face slack with shock.

Zhu Di.

Reinforcements.

 


 

Suddenly Father was flapping his hands at us, desperately, all pretense gone. We did not understand his fear, but we understood what to do. There was still time to save him. With some luck, we could make a hasty landing, scoop him up quickly, and rise out of the range of arrows.

We steered back over the city, began our descent. Began lowering the anchor into the branches of a still-standing oak, unfurling the rope ladder that would whisk Father to us. Only then, as he ran toward us, his face twisted, did we understand. Only then did we realize that he was not summoning us—he was waving us away. He was ordering us to leave.

“But Father—” we cried.

He struck out with his sword, severing the cord of our anchor in a single blow.

We were spiraling out into the clouds before we could finish: “—how could we abandon you?”

 


 

Back home, then. North, north, fighting through a sky set against us. The winds blowing contrary, the storms gathering one after the other like a row of snares. Wiser girls might have heeded these portents. But we had nowhere else to go, so we returned to the only place we knew. On the way we wore out the questions we still thought we’d pose to him—why had Father ordered us first against the city, then against his own men? Why had Father panicked at the sight of his prince? Why did Father send us away? Had we misunderstood? Had we failed him somehow?

Our answers came when we landed among the snow-crusted grasses of our mountain home. Not yet spring and already we’d returned.

“Ang!” we cried, not caring if she saw the ship. But the door swung open into a house dark and spare. Not just spare, we realized. Empty. Empty of Ang, of Father, of every piece of furniture, of every purple yam, every book and smock and strand of hair that could have testified that we were ever here. That we’d ever existed at all.

Beneath the floorboards, in the space that had once been crammed with fireworks, we found the letter. A brittle roll of paper, traversed by Father’s spindly, unlearned hand.

Girls, it read. I knew you’d be clever enough to find this note.

We read it in the waning day, in one held breath, passing it between ourselves like an amulet. By the time we finished, the light had melded into a single reddish ray, pointing our lonesome path forward.

What we learned from the letter:

Our first aerial attack had weakened the emperor’s hold on the city, allowing Father to take it easily. Our second and more confusing attack had been aimed at Zhu Di’s men, under Father’s own command. What we didn’t understand (Father explained) was that he’d wasted years marching between the two pretenders, fighting their wars. In this time he’d seen them for what they were: weak. Both of them. Soft men who roared like lions and cowered like sheep.

With Zhu Di rushing into the campaign and the emperor depleted by years of war, Father came upon an idea. He rolled it around in his mouth like a pebble. First an idle thought, then a spring day’s dream, then a many-parted plan, as meticulous as any he’d drawn up for Zhu Di.

Why not destroy both, Father wondered (reasonably). Why not rise through the smoke like a phoenix and take the imperial yellow for himself? After all, he already had a core band of fighters loyal to his person. He had the goodwill of the north, perhaps the future backing of the Mongols ranging beyond the wall. And best of all, he wrote, all tenderness and pride, he had us, his wild mountain girls, his secret weapon.

We’d destroyed the emperor’s men most admirably (he could not be more pleased with us), and we had turned well to the task of Zhu Di’s men. But at the last second, as we saw, his patron had arrived with a new contingent of recruits. Freshly arrayed and watered. Even with our innate fierceness and Father’s warriors, there was no hope of defeating them.

So we understood, surely, why he had to do what he did? Why he shooed us away like a gaggle of pecking crows, sent us lifting into the sky without him. Why he turned back to Zhu Di and embraced him like a brother. Why he led the conscripts in a final, devastating assault on the last imperial holdout, sliced the emperor’s general like a swine from throat to groin, and walked two paces behind Zhu Di all the way down to Nanjing as he claimed dominion over the whole of the Middle Kingdom.

And why, he wrote—his tone turning instructive, the words of a commander, not a father—why he had to send Ang away, forever. And why we must now flee.

Go.

We leapt to our feet.

From beneath the floorboards we collected the small stores Father had left us. The baskets of coal, the bundles of firewood. We ran them back and forth, from house to ship, three mice on a length of rope. The same motions we’d repeated not two months ago, full of a different kind of fear, one laced (we now admit) with the tonic of excitement.

Run, Father wrote. There were rumors of fugitives, or monstrous birds, their eyes aflame and their beaks disgorging sulfur. We took any number of forms, but all rumors pointed north. Perhaps to this very house, which he was claiming to have emptied the day he set out for the front. They were coming—Zhu Di’s men—heading our way as he wrote.

We stumbled through the field, hardly feeling our falls, our skinned palms and knees. We scrambled up the ladder and into the ship. And there, surrounded by the teetering piles of our provisions, we ascended into the gloom.

And not a moment too soon. Almost before we’d lifted behind the mountain mists, we saw the line of grim men moving over the hills. Scattered and methodical, like hunters circling an enormous prey.

Father saved his brief apology for last.

I’m sorry, girls. I would have made a dynasty of you.

And (he could never help it) one final command:

But now you must take flight, and become fugitives of the sky.

 


 

Left unexplained: if he’d been so certain of victory, how he’d had the foresight to order us to pack months’ worth of provisions. Why he’d buried the firecrackers and spare fuel beneath the floorboards long before they were needed. Why he’d built the ship in the first place. Why he’d adopted three orphans from Chengde, raised them in the splendid isolation of the mountaintop, taught them nothing but the art of war.

For a long time we debated these points as we flew. Nestled together, shoulder to nudging shoulder, we pored over that first letter, then the many that followed, like pyromancers sifting for meaning in the charred lumps of bone.

Father’s notes appeared at intervals in the field behind the now-dilapidated house—first once a season, then every other season, then once a long-trekked year. In these he detailed the routes he took around the newly unified kingdom, telling us of the birds he’d shot out of the sky, the beasts he’d trapped on land, of all manner of foreign flora and fauna that now bloodied his hands and lined his gut.

He told us of Zhu Di, now called the Yongle Emperor, and of his unsated ambition. His consolidation of the north, his designs on the unseen western lands. He told us of his own ascent—shyly, we thought, with brushstrokes hesitant and light. That he had been elevated to Grand Director of the imperial household. That he too found himself a new name in the new administration: Sanbao, they called him. The three-jeweled.

Sometimes he left us gifts—smooth river pebbles with strange striations, sacks of black rock sugar, poorly sealed and insect-swarmed. Once a set of linen dolls of the sort we’d long abandoned for other, more warlike pursuits. We left them buried in the hillside. Their three milky-blank faces gaping, their mouths smeared with dirt. Yi-mei, Er-mei, San-mei.

And always he warned us to be on our guard. That the emperor’s men were just around the corner. That our lives hung now, forever, by the thread of the rope ladder that tethered us to the ship.

Through our scholarship of the letters we came to three incontrovertible conclusions:

One, Father had been planning to usurp Zhu Di for much longer than he claimed. Perhaps for as long as we’d been alive; at least since he’d rescued us from the ruins of our city to rear us in his own image.

Two, ever a commandant, Father knew when to cut his losses. In the battle for Gaocheng, which morphed into a shadow battle against Zhu Di, we came in as a loss. And so Father cut us off.

Three, our situation was permanent. There would never be a time when the emperor would not hunt us, or a ghost version of us. And the torrent of information, speculation, and military plans that the normally taciturn Father now felt liberated to share could only mean that we had moved beyond this world for him. That he was certain we, shut away in a sky prison of his making, would never again descend long enough to tell our story to another. That he might as well be talking to the wind.

Or that he missed us desperately.

Perhaps both.

All this had little to no bearing on the secret fourth conviction, left unsaid but nurtured like a fungus in the damp dark of our souls:

That Father loved us, very much. That he still does.

Otherwise, why would he have given us this ship as our final refuge? Why send us high above the clouds, free among the birds and beyond imperial reach? Why else would he have done all this, if he had not meant every word, every small affection he’d ever doled out to us?

In the early days we said: Father loved us, but he abandoned us.

Now we say: Father loved us, and he abandoned us.

Two statements of equal measure, neither qualifying the other.

 


 

The last message we received on a golden autumn day eerily similar to the one that had launched us on this ill-fated journey so many years ago.

Girls, he wrote, the ink a smear where he’d dragged a sleeve. He must have written in a hurry.

At last the emperor has approved a mission to the western lands. I am to be chief envoy, heading the greatest fleet the world has ever seen. The Star Fleet, the emperor says in moments of poetry, and I think of the three of you. Know that however far I wander, I’ll always remember the commandants of my first fleet. With your blessings at my back I will meet the red-furred men of the west. I will walk along their shores and demonstrate our might. I will overawe them.

He had started to write: It will be some time before—, but scratched it out. Instead, he closed with: This may be the last you hear from me. I’ve long dreamed I would die at sea.

 


 

Lucky, we whispered. That old refrain. Luck to emerge from a conspiracy unscathed. Luck to pilot a fleet into the vast unknown. Luck to know, with a solemn certainty, the time and manner of your death.

Father’s entire life a ray of light, passing from one serene star to the next.

 


 

As for us? Well, luck had passed us by, but by now we were accustomed to going our own way.

For once, we did not obey.

We could tell by the richness of the ink that he was only a few days ahead. With a fresh wind at our sails, we might even beat him to the coast.

We left, creaking into the sky, following the path he blazed on horseback.

 


 

For once, like Father, we will follow impulse in lieu of a plan. Of our vague tomorrows, this is all we know:

We will fly above him, all the way down the mountainous country and to the far reaches of the emperor’s domain. We too will see the western shore. We’ll cast off with him, turn our backs to the land we’d once called home. We’ll follow him, brave hearts, into open sea.

Around us a new world will unfurl, all salt wind, smooth doldrums, shoals of nameless, silvery fish. Soon we’ll forget the sharp scent of fir lifting from the forests of our youth, the feather grasses murmuring in the slanting light. Our books. Our honey sweets. Ang. Our mountaintop days a dream of someone else’s recount.

We’ll sail on with Father, unburdened, unmoored. Light as air.

On stormy nights, waves a li high, we’ll position our hull above his and shield him from the fray. And on still mornings, the sun a pink stain on waters of glass, he might glimpse, behind his reflection, some trick of light. A shadow, an enormous bird. He might hear, behind a wall of clouds, above the stirring of the deep, the wheezing of a contraption he once built with his own hands, cast from silk by candlelight.

“Girls,” he’ll say, more a start than a greeting. And he’ll lift his gaze to us, his face a mirror of awe.

 


Editor: Hebe Stanton

First Reader: Ruan Etsebeth

Copy Editors: Copy Editing Department

Accessibility: Accessibility Editors



Kathy Chao is a writer, data scientist, and New York transplant originally from Southern California. Her work, which incorporates elements of historical, speculative, and “literary” fiction, has appeared in, or is forthcoming from, the Gettysburg Review, Gulf Coast, and the Georgia Review.
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