Tor.com is pleased to reprint “Seventh Day of the Seventh Moon,” a story by Ken Liu originally published in Kaleidoscope—an anthology published by Twelfth Planet Press.
Edited by Alisa Krasnostein and Julia Rios, Kaleidoscope collects fun, edgy, meditative, and hopeful YA science fiction and fantasy with diverse leads. The anthology features twenty original stories focusing on scary futures, magical adventures, and the joys and heartbreaks of teenage life.
Ken Liu’s “Seventh Day of the Seventh Moon,” tells the story of Jing and Yuan, a pair of young women in love for the first time in their lives, who’re about to be parted by circumstances beyond their control. On Qixi, the Festival of the Cowherd and Weaver Girl, the legendary lovers give the young women some help and advice.
“Tell me a story,” said Se. She had changed into her pajamas all by herself and snuggled under the blankets.
Se’s big sister, Yuan, was just about to flip the switch next to the bedroom door. “How about you read a story by yourself? I have to … go see a friend.”
“No, it’s not the same.” Se shook her head vigorously. “You have to tell me a story or I can’t sleep.”
Yuan glanced at her phone. Every minute tonight was precious. Dad was out of town on business, and Mom was working late and wouldn’t be home till midnight. Yuan needed to be home before then, but if she could get her little sister to sleep quickly, she’d still have a couple of hours to see Jing on this, her last night in China.
“Come on, Yuan,” Se begged. “Please!”
Yuan came back to the side of the bed and stroked Se’s forehead gently. She sighed. “All right.”
She texted Jing: Late by half hour. Wait?
The crystal cat charm, a gift from Jing, dangled from her phone. It twirled and glittered in the warm bedroom light as she waited impatiently for the response.
Finally, the phone beeped. Of course. Won’t leave until we meet.
“Tell the story about the Qixi Festival,” said Se, yawning. “That’s tonight, isn’t it?”
“Yes, yes it is.”
Long ago, a beautiful young woman, the granddaughter of the Emperor of Heaven, lived in the sky by the eastern shore of the Silver River—that’s the broad band of light you can sometimes see in the sky at night, when the air is clear.
She was skilled at the loom, and so that’s why people called her—
“You skipped the part where you describe her weaving!”
“But you’ve heard this story a hundred times already. Can’t I just get it over with?”
“You have to tell it right.”
—as I had apparently neglected to mention: her works were displayed proudly by the Heavenly Court in the western sky at every sunset: glorious clouds of crimson, amethyst, periwinkle, and every shade in between. So people called her Zhinü, the Weaver Girl. And though she was the youngest of seven immortal sisters, we mortals addressed her by the honorific Big Sister Seven.
But over time, Zhinü grew wan and thin. Her brows were always tightly knit into a frown, and she did not wash her face or comb out her hair. The sunset clouds she wove were not as lovely as before, and mortals began to complain.
The Emperor of Heaven came to visit. “What ails you, my granddaughter?”
“Haha, you do that voice so well. You sound just like Grandfather.”
“I’m glad you approve. Now stop interrupting.”
“Oh, Gonggong, I’m so lonely. Living all by myself in this hut, my only company are my loom—jiya, jiya, it squeaks all day long—and a few magpies.”
The Emperor took pity on her and found her a good match. The young man tended to cows on the western shore of the Silver River, so people called him Niulang, the Cowherd. He was handsome and kind and full of funny stories, and Zhinü loved him, and he her, the moment they set eyes on each other.
“See, I’m not such a bad matchmaker.” The Emperor of Heaven smiled as he stroked his beard. “Now, I know you’re young, and you should have fun. But now that you have a companion, please don’t neglect your work.”
Zhinü moved to the western shore of the Silver River to be with Niulang, and the two of them married. They had two boys, and there never was a happier family.
“Oh, no, here comes the boring part. You can skip it if you want to.”
“No way! This is the best part. You’ll understand when you’re older. Now pay attention.”
Every morning, as Niulang got up before sunrise to take the cows to their favorite pasture, Zhinü could not bear the thought of being separated from him. So she would come along. She’d put the two babies in two baskets draped on each side of an old, gentle ox, and she would ride on the back of a pure white bull led by Niulang. They’d sing together, tell each other stories from before they met, and laugh at the jokes that only they understood.
Zhinü’s loom sat unused back at the hut, gathering dust.
Sunsets became ugly affairs. The few clouds that remained became tattered, wispy, colorless. The people laboring in the fields lost the beauty that had once lifted up their hearts at the end of a hard day, and their laments rose to the Heavenly Court.
“My maritorious child,” said the Emperor of Heaven—
“What does that word mean?”
“It means loving your husband too much.”
“How can you love someone too much?”
“Good question. I don’t know either. Maybe the Emperor of Heaven didn’t have enough love in his heart to understand. Maybe he was too old.”
—“I warned you about neglecting your duty. For your disobedience and neglect, you must now move back to the eastern shore of the Silver River and never see Niulang and your children again.”
Zhinü begged for reprieve, but the Emperor’s word was as irreversible as the flow of the Silver River.
At the Emperor’s decree, the Silver River was widened and deepened, and Zhinü forever parted from her husband. Today, you can see the star that is Zhinü on one side of the Silver River and the star that is Niulang on the other, their two sons two faint stars on each side of Niulang. They stare at each other across that unbridgeable gap, the longing and regret as endless as the flowing river.
“Why did you stop?”
“It’s nothing. My throat just felt itchy for a bit.”
“Are you sad for Niulang and Zhinü?”
“Maybe … a little bit. But it’s just a story.”
But the magpies that once kept Zhinü company took pity on the lovers. Once a year, on the seventh day of the seventh moon by the lunar calendar, on Qixi, the day when Zhinü is at her highest position in the sky, all the magpies in the world fly up to the Silver River and make a bridge with their bodies so that the lovers can spend one night together.
This is the day when all the young women in old China would pray to Big Sister Seven for love.
Oh, I know you want to hear more about the bridge of magpies. You love this part. Well, I imagine it’s a lot of work for the birds. They probably have to go to magpie bridge-building school, and those who’re a bit slow have to go to cram school for extra study sessions…
Yuan turned out the light and tiptoed out of her sister’s bedroom.
On my way, she texted.
She made sure the air conditioning was set comfortably low, locked the door of the apartment, and ran down the stairs. And then she was in the hot, humid evening air of Hefei in August.
She biked through the streets, dodging an endless stream of cars beeping their horns. She liked the physicality of the ride, the way it made her body come alive, feel awake. She passed the sidewalks filled with people browsing past stores and kiosks filled with everything imaginable: discount electronics, toys, clothes, fancy European soups and cakes, mouth-watering sweet potatoes baked in tinfoil and fried, smelly tofu. The heat and the exertion stuck her shirt to her skin, and she had to wipe her forehead from time to time to keep the sweat out of her eyes.
And then she was at the coffee shop, and Jing—slender, graceful in a plain white dress and a light jacket (for the air conditioning), a faint whiff of the floral perfume that always made Yuan dizzy—greeted Yuan with that bright smile that she always wore.
As if this wasn’t the night the world ended.
“Are you done packing?” Yuan asked.
“Oh, there’s always more to pack.” Jing’s tone was light, breezy, careless. “But I don’t have to get to the airport till nine in the morning. There’s plenty of time.”
“You should dress in layers, with something long-sleeved on top,” said Yuan—mainly because she feared saying nothing. “It can get cold on the plane.”
“Want to take a walk with me? The next time I walk around at night I’ll be in America. Maybe I’ll miss all this noise.”
Yuan left her bike locked to the light post outside the coffee shop, and they strolled along the sidewalk like the rest of the crowd. They did not hold hands. In Shanghai, perhaps no one would have cared, but in Hefei, there would have been looks, and whispers, and maybe worse.
Yuan imagined Jing walking about the campus of the American high school at night. Jing had shown her pictures of the red brick buildings and immaculate lawns. And the smiling boys and girls: foreigners. Yuan felt out of breath; her heart seemed unable to decide on a steady rhythm.
“Look at that,” said Jing, pointing to the display window of a pastry shop. “They’re selling Qixi Lovers’ Cakes now. So overpriced. And you know some stupid girl is going to throw a fit if her boyfriend doesn’t buy it for her. I want to throw up.”
“Not quite as bad as Valentine’s Day,” Yuan said. “I think the vendors are pretty restrained. Relatively speaking.”
“That’s because people aren’t into Qixi any more. We Chinese always get more enthusiastic for Western imports, even holidays. It’s a national character weakness.”
“I like Qixi,” Yuan said. She said it more emphatically than she meant to.
“What, you want to set out an altar under a melon trellis, offer up a plate of fruits, pray to Big Sister Seven, and hope for a spider to weave a web over the offering by morning so you’ll get a nice husband in the future?”
Yuan’s face grew hot. She stopped. “You don’t have to mock everything Chinese.”
Jing cocked her head, a teasing smile in her eyes. “You suddenly getting all patriotic on me now?”
“Your father has the money to pay for you to go to an American boarding school. That doesn’t make you better than everyone else.”
“Oh, lay off that wounded tone. You’re hardly some migrant worker’s daughter.”
They stared at each other, the neon lights from the nearby stores flickering over their faces. Yuan wanted to kiss Jing and scream at her at the same time. She had always liked Jing’s irreverence, the way she wanted to turn everything into a joke. She knew her anger had nothing to do with this conversation about Qixi at all.
Jing turned and continued down the sidewalk. After a moment, Yuan followed.
When Jing spoke again, her tone was calm, as if nothing had happened. “Remember the first time we went hiking together?”
That had been one of the best days of Yuan’s life. They had skipped their cram school sessions and taken the bus to Emerald Lake, an artificial pond bordering several college campuses. Jing had showed Yuan how to set up her phone so that her mom couldn’t see the messages Jing sent her, and Yuan had showed Jing her baby pictures. They had bought a lamb chuanr from a street vendor and shared it as they walked along the lakeshore. Her heart had beaten faster with each bite of roasted meat off the skewer, thinking that her lips were touching where hers had touched. And then, as they strolled through one of the campuses, Jing had boldly taken her hand: it was a college, after all.
And then that first kiss behind the willow tree, tasting the hot spices from the lamb kebab on Jing’s tongue, the calls of wild geese behind her somewhere…
“I remember,” she said. Her voice still sounded wounded, and she didn’t care.
“I wish we could go there again,” Jing said.
The anger in Yuan disappeared, just like that. Jing always had such a way with her. Yuan felt like putty in her hands.
“We can chat on QQ or Skype,” Yuan said. She hurried to catch up so that she was walking next to Jing. “And you’ll come back for visits. This isn’t like the old days. It will be okay. We can still be together.”
They had wandered off the main thoroughfare onto a less busy side street. The streetlights on one side were out, and looking up they could see a few stars in the sky. Hefei wasn’t as polluted as some of the cities on the coast.
“I’m going to be really busy,” Jing said. Her tone was calm, too calm.
“We can text every day, every hour.”
“It’s different over there. I’ll be living on my own in a dorm. I have to actually study if I want to go to a good college. My family is paying a lot to give me this.”
“Americans don’t study that much.”
“It’s not like watching American TV shows. There aren’t subtitles. I’ll meet lots of new people. I have to make a new life over there, new friends. I’ll need to be thinking, talking, breathing English all the time if I want to make it.”
“I can text you in English,” Yuan said. “I’ll do whatever you want.”
“You’re not listening,” Jing said. She stopped again and looked at Yuan.
“What are you trying to say?” As soon as she asked the question, Yuan regretted it. It made her sound so weak, so clingy, like a girl from one of those Korean dramas.
“I’m going away, Yuan. I told you this was going to happen last year, when we … started.”
Yuan looked away so that Jing would not see her eyes. She pushed the image of Jing with someone else out of her mind. She cursed her eyes and told them to behave and stop embarrassing her.
“It will be okay.” Jing’s tone was now comforting, gentle, and that made it worse. “We’ll both be okay.”
Yuan said nothing because she knew she couldn’t control her voice. She licked her lips, tasting the salt from the sweat of her ride. She wanted to wipe her eyes so she could see clearly again, but she didn’t want to do it in front of Jing.
“I want to make this night a happy memory,” Jing said, but her voice finally cracked. She struggled, but failed, to keep her calm mask on. “I’m trying to make this easier. Isn’t that what you’re supposed to do for those you love?”
Yuan looked up, blinking her eyes hard. She looked for the Silver River, and she remembered that in English it was called the Milky Way—what a graceless and silly name. She looked for Zhinü and Niulang, and she vaguely remembered that in English they were called Vega and Altair, names as cold and meaningless to her as the stars.
Just then, magpies seemed to come out of nowhere and gathered over their heads in a cloud of fluttering wings. While they looked up, stunned, the flock swept out of the night sky, descended over them like a giant spider web, and lifted them into the heavens.
Riding on the wings of magpies, Yuan found, was not like riding a magical carpet.
Not that she knew what riding a magical carpet felt like—but she was sure that it didn’t involve being constantly poked from below by a hundred—no, a thousand—little winged fists.
The magpies would fall a bit below where they were and flap their wings rapidly in an upward burst until they collided with the girls’ bodies. The combined force of all the magpies would push them up until the birds lost their momentum and began to fall away, and then a new wave of upward-thrusting magpies would take their place. The girls resembled two ping-pong balls riding on the water spout from a hose pointing up.
In the maelstrom of wings they found each other and clung together.
“Are you all right?” They each asked at the same time.
“What in the world is happening?” Jing asked, her words jumbled together from fear and excitement.
“This is a dream,” Yuan said. “This must be a dream.”
And then Jing began to laugh.
“It can’t be a dream,” she said. “These magpies carrying us: they tickle!”
And Yuan laughed too. It was so absurd, so impossible; yet it was happening.
Some of the magpies began to sing, a complicated, trilling, lovely chorus. There were magpies of every description: some with white bellies, some with white beaks, some with iridescent, shimmering, blue wings. Yuan felt as if she and Jing were enclosed inside the beating heart of some giant, flying, alien musical instrument.
Arms around each other, gingerly sitting side by side, they peeked out at the world below from between the darting wings of the magpies.
They were floating in a dark sea. The lights of the city of Hefei spread out below them like a pulsing, receding jellyfish.
“It’s getting cold,” said Yuan. She shivered as the wind whipped her hair around her face.
“We’re really high up,” said Jing. She took off her summer jacket and draped it around Yuan’s shoulders. Yuan tucked her nose into the collar of the jacket and breathed in the lingering perfume. It warmed her heart even if the thin fabric did little against the chill.
Then Yuan berated herself. Jing had broken up with her, and she didn’t need to look so needy, so pathetic. It was fine to cling to Jing in a moment of weakness, but now they were safe. Gently, she took her arm from around Jing and shrugged out of her arm as well. She lifted her face into the clear, frosty air, and tried to shift away from Jing, keeping some distance between them.
“Reminds you of Su Shi’s poem, doesn’t it?” Jing whispered. Yuan nodded reluctantly. Jing was the literary one, and she always knew the pretty words, suitable for every occasion.
A half moon, like a half-veiled smile, loomed pale white in the dark sky. It grew brighter and larger as they rose on the backs of the magpies.
Jing began to sing the words of the Song Dynasty poem, set to a popular tune, and after a moment, Yuan joined her:
When did the Moon first appear?
I ask the heavens and lift my wine cup.
I know not whether time passes the same way
In the palace among the clouds.
I’d like to ride up with the wind,
But I’m afraid of the chill from being so high
Among the jade porticos and nephrite beams.
We dance with our shadows.
Are we even on earth any more?
The silver light dapples the window,
Illuminating my sleepless night.
Do you hate us, Moon?
Why are you always waxing just when we’re parting?
Like a dancer and her shadow, the two girls swayed, each separately, to a harmony as young as themselves and as old as the land beneath.
“So, it’s all true,” said Jing.
The magpies had lifted them above the clouds and leveled off. As they glided over the cottony mists, they could see a celestial city of bread loaf-like buildings, punctuated by spiky towers here and there, gleaming in the late summer moonlight in the distance: blue as ice, green as jade, white like ivory. The styles of the buildings were neither Western nor Chinese, but something that transcended them all: heavenly, the Palace of Immortals.
“I wonder if there really are immortals living there,” said Yuan. What she didn’t say out loud was her secret hope: she and Jing had been picked by the magpies for this trip to the heavens because the immortals thought they were as special a pair as Niulang and Zhinü—the thought was tinged with both excitement and sorrow.
And then they were at the Silver River. It was broader than the Yangtze, almost like Taihu Lake, with the other shore barely visible on the horizon. The rushing torrent roared past like stampeding horses, and giant waves as tall as the apartment buildings in Hefei pounded against the shore.
“Hey, don’t carry us over the water!” Jing shouted. But the magpies ignored her and continued to fly towards the river.
“They’re building a bridge,” said Yuan. “It’s Qixi, remember?”
Indeed, more flocks of magpies appeared. Along with the flock carrying the girls, they congregated like rivulets coalescing into a mighty river of wings. The magpies hovered over the water, with newcomers extending the flock’s reach towards the other shore. They were forming an arching bridge over the Silver River.
“I have to take a picture of this,” said Yuan, and she took out her cell phone.
The crystal cat charm dangling from the phone caught the light of the moon and dazzled. The magpies immediately surrounding Yuan trilled and dashed at it, knocking the phone out of her hand. And then it was a free for all as more of the magpies forgot about building the bridge and rushed after the shiny bauble. Even when charged with a magical mission, birds were still just birds.
Or maybe even the birds have realized we’re not such a special pair after all,Yuan thought, and the charm is more interesting.
She gazed after her phone anxiously. If Se woke up from a nightmare, she might try to call her. And if her mom got home before her, she might wonder where she was. She needed that phone back. She hoped the birds would bounce the phone closer to her so she could snatch it.
Then those worries were pushed out of her mind as the magpies that had supported Yuan dropped off to join the chase after the charm, and no new magpies replaced them. Her weight overwhelmed the few magpies that remained on task, and she began to fall. She didn’t even have time to cry out.
But then a strong hand caught her right wrist and arrested her descent. Yuan looked up into Jing’s face. She was lying down on the bridge of magpies, and she strained as she reached out and held onto Yuan with one hand while fumbling in her purse with the other.
“Let go!” shouted Yuan. “You’ll fall, too!” Her world seemed to shrink down to her hands as they clasped around Jing’s hand, around her warm, pale skin. She willed herself to let go, but she could not.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” said Jing, panting.
The magpies continued to fight each other for the shiny charm, causing Yuan’s phone to bob up and down over the flock like a stone skipping over water. They had stopped extending the living bridge over the water.
Jing finally managed to free her own phone from her purse. She paid no attention as her purse almost tumbled over the side of the bridge, where it would have disappeared into the roiling waves below. By feel, she pressed the first button on the dial pad.
Yuan’s phone came to life and began to vibrate and buzz. The shocked magpies backed off in a panic, and the phone stayed still in the air for a second before falling, faster and faster, and finally disappeared into the Silver River without a trace.
Yuan felt her heart sink. That cat charm, the first gift Jing had ever given her, now gone forever.
“Good thing I have you on speed dial,” Jing said.
“How do we still have reception here?”
“After all that, that’s what you are worried about?” Jing laughed, and after a moment, Yuan joined her.
The magpies seemed to have awakened from a bad dream, and they rushed over and lifted Yuan up onto the bridge. Once the girls were safe, the magpies continued to extend their bridge to the other side of the Silver River, leaving the pair at the middle of the bridge, suspended over the endless water and mist.
“We almost caused the magpies to fail to build the bridge,” Yuan said. “It would be so sad if Niulang and Zhinü don’t get to meet this year.”
Jing nodded. “It’s almost midnight.” She saw the look on Yuan’s face. “Don’t worry about not being home. Nothing bad can happen on the night of Qixi.”
“I thought you weren’t into Qixi.”
“Well, maybe just a little bit.”
They sat down on the bridge together, watching the moon rise over the Silver River. This time, Yuan did not let go of Jing’s hand.
“She’s coming,” said Yuan. She jumped up and pointed down the bridge towards the eastern shore. Now that she had spent some time on the bridge of magpies, she was getting pretty good at keeping her footing over the fluttering wings.
In the distance, through the mist that wafted over the bridge from time to time, they could see a small, solitary figure making its way towards them.
“So is he,” said Jing. She pointed the other way. Through the mist they could see another tiny figure slowly creep towards them.
The girls stood up and waited, side by side, looking first one way and then the other. Being in the presence of the annual reunion of this pair of legendary lovers was exciting, maybe even better than meeting TV stars.
The two figures from the opposite ends of the bridge came close enough for Yuan and Jing to see them clearly.
Out of the east, an old woman approached. Yuan thought she looked as old as, maybe even older than, her grandmother. Her back bent, she walked with a cane. But her wrinkled face glowed healthily with the exertion of having traveled all the way here. Wearing a Tang Dynasty dress, she looked splendid to Yuan. Her breath puffed out visibly in the cold air.
Out of the west, an old man emerged from the mist: straight back, long legs, wiry arms swinging freely. His full head of silvery white hair matched the old woman’s, but his face was even more wrinkled than hers. As soon as he saw the old woman, his eyes lit up in a bright smile.
“They’re not—” Jing started to say in a whisper.
“—quite what we expected?” finished Yuan.
“I guess I always pictured immortals as being … well, I guess there’s no reason to think they wouldn’t grow old.”
A wispy tendril of sorrow brushed across Yuan’s heart. She tried to imagine Jing as an old woman, and the tenderness made her almost tear up again. She squeezed Jing’s hand, and Jing squeezed back, turning to smile at her.
The old man and the old woman met in the middle of the bridge, a few paces away from where the girls stood. They nodded at Jing and Yuan politely and then turned their full attention to each other.
“Glad to see you looking so well,” said Zhinü. “Da Lang told me that you were having some trouble with your back the last time he visited with his family. I wasn’t sure you were going to make it here this year.”
“Da Lang always exaggerates,” said Niulang. “When he visits I don’t dare to sneeze or cough, lest he insist that I go to the moon to visit Chang’E for some Osmanthus herbs. This old bag of bones can’t really take any more medicine. I think he’s more upset than you or I that his brother didn’t want to be a doctor.”
They laughed and chatted on, talking about children and friends.
“Why don’t they kiss?” Jing whispered to Yuan.
“That’s a Western thing,” Yuan whispered back. “Niulang and Zhinü are old school.”
“I’m not sure that’s true. I’ve seen Internet posts arguing people in ancient China used to kiss—but anyway, they’re standing so far apart!”
“It’s like they’re friends, not lovers.”
“It seems that we have some curious guests,” said Zhinü as she turned around to look at the girls. She didn’t sound angry—more like amused.
“We’re sorry,” said Yuan, feeling her face grow hot. “We didn’t mean to be rude.” She hesitated. It didn’t seem right at all to call this old woman “Big Sister Seven.” So she added, “Grandma Zhinü and Grandpa Niulang.”
“We just thought,” Jing said, “that … um … you’d be more … passionate.”
“You mean less laughing, and more tears and recitation of love poems,” said Niulang, a gentle smile in his eyes.
“Yes,” said Jing. “No,” said Yuan, simultaneously.
Zhinü and Niulang laughed out loud. Niulang said, “It’s okay. The magpies have been building this bridge for thousands of years, and they sometimes bring guests. We’re used to questions.”
Zhinü looked from Yuan to Jing and back again. “You two are together?”
“Yes,” said Jing. “No,” said Yuan, simultaneously. They looked at each other, embarrassed.
“Now that sounds like a story,” said Zhinü.
“We were together,” said Yuan.
“But I’m leaving,” said Jing. “We’ll be parted by the Pacific Ocean.” And they told their story to Niulang and Zhinü. It seemed perfectly right to pour their hearts out to the legendary lovers.
“I understand,” said Zhinü, nodding sympathetically. “Oh, do I understand.”
At first I was inconsolable. I stood on the shore of the Silver River day after day, pining for a glance of my husband and children. I thought the pain in my heart would never go away. I refused to touch my loom. If my grandfather was angry, then let him find someone else to weave the sunsets. I was done.
The first time we met over the bridge of magpies, Niulang and I could not stop crying the whole time. My children were growing up so fast, and I felt so guilty. So, when we had to part again, Niulang came up with a stratagem: he asked the magpies to retrieve two large rocks that were about the weight of my babies and carried them home in two baskets on the ends of a pole over his shoulder, the same way he had carried the boys onto the bridge. And everyone thought they had gone home with him. But unbeknownst to anyone else, I carried the boys home with me on my back.
And after that, every year, as we met on the bridge, we passed the boys back and forth. They’d spend one year with me, one year with Niulang. They would not have their parents together, but they would have both of them.
Each time we met, I told him again and again of the solitude of my hut, the desultory squeak of my loom. And he told me of how he took his herd to the same pastures that we had gone to as a family, to relive the happiness we shared. The grass had grown thin and bare from overgrazing, and his animals were just skin and bones.
And then, one year, when the boys were a little older and could walk on their own, Niulang held me and told me that he didn’t want to see me sad any more.
“We live a whole year for this one day,” he said. “We’re letting our lives pass us by. It’s not right that you should sit by your loom pining from morning till evening. It’s not right that our sons should think our lives are lives of sorrow. It’s not right that we should come to believe that yearning for what we can’t have is what love is all about.”
“What are you saying?” I asked. I was angry, and I didn’t know why. Was he saying that he no longer loved me? I had been faithful to him, but had he been to me?
“We know we cannot be together,” he said. “We know that sometimes things happen to people that keep them apart. But we have refused to look for new happiness. Are we sad because we’re in love? Or are we sad because we feel trapped by the idea of love?”
I thought about what he said, and realized that he was right. I had become so used to the story about us, the idea of us living our whole lives for this once-a-year meeting that I hadn’t really thought about what I wanted. I had become my own legend. Sometimes the stories we tell ourselves obscure our truths.
“You’re beautiful when you laugh,” he said.
“We’re beautiful when we seek to make ourselves happy,” I said.
And so I went back to my loom and poured my love for Niulang into my weaving. I thought those were some of the most beautiful sunsets I had ever woven.
And then I found that love was not a limited thing, but an endless fount. I found that I loved the laughter of my children, and the chatter of friends new and old. I found that I loved the fresh breeze that brought smells from far away. I found that other young men made my heart beat faster.
And Niulang went and took his herd to new pastures, and he came up with new songs. Young women came and listened to him, and he found that conversation with them gladdened his heart.
We told each other these things the next time we met over the bridge. I was glad for him and he for me. We had been clinging to each other as though we were afraid to drown, but in fact, we had been holding each other back from moving on.
“And so we each went on and had other loves, joys as well as sorrows,” said Zhinü.
“We still meet once a year,” said Niulang, “to catch up on each other’s lives. Old friends are hard to come by.” He and Zhinü looked at each other with affection. “They keep you honest.”
“Are you disappointed?” asked Zhinü.
Jing and Yuan looked at each other. “Yes,” they said together. Then they said “no,” also together.
“Then, are you not in love anymore?” asked Yuan.
“You ask that question because you think if we’re no longer in love, then that means the love we had was somehow not real.” Zhinü turned serious. “But the past does not get rewritten. Niulang was the first man I loved, and that would be true no matter how many times I fell in love after him.”
“It’s time to go,” Niulang said. The magpies under them were getting restless. The eastern sky was brightening.
“You were together, and you’re together now,” said Niulang to the girls. “Whatever comes, that remains a fact.”
“You look lovely together, dears,” said Zhinü.
Niulang and Zhinü embraced lightly and wished each other well. Then they turned and began to walk in opposite directions.
“Look!” said Jing, and gripped Yuan’s hand.
Where the old Niulang and Zhinü had been, there was now a pair of ghostly figures: a young man and a young woman. They embraced tightly, as if Yuan and Jing were not there at all.
“They were such a handsome couple,” said Yuan.
“They still are,” said Jing.
And as the bridge of magpies broke up, carrying the girls down to earth, they looked back at the pair of ghost lovers dissolving gradually in the moonlight.
Miraculously, Yuan found her bike where she’d left it.
The sidewalks were still relatively empty. The first breakfast shops were just getting ready for the day, and the smell of warm soy milk and freshly fried youtiao filled the air.
“Better rush home,” said Yuan. “Don’t miss your flight.”
“And you need to go, too. Your mom will be worried sick!”
Jing pulled her in, wrapping her arms around her. Yuan tried to pull back. “People will see.”
“I don’t care,” Jing said. “I lied that day at Emerald Lake. I told you I had kissed other girls before. But you were the first. I want you to know that.”
They held each other and cried, and some of the passers-by gave them curious looks, but no one stopped.
“I’ll call you every day,” Jing said. “I’ll text you whenever I get a chance.”
Yuan pulled back. “No. I don’t want you to think of it as a chore. Do it if you want to. And if you don’t, I’ll understand. Let whatever will happen, happen.”
A quick kiss, and Yuan pushed Jing away. “Go, go!”
She watched as Jing ran down the street to catch the bus. She watched as the bus pulled into the stream of traffic, a mighty river of steel like the Silver River, and disappeared around the corner.
“I love you,” Yuan whispered. And no matter how the stream of time flowed on, that moment would be true forever.
© 2014 by Ken Liu