(A Chinese Mermaid Tale)
Written and illustrated by Linda Yi | Chinese Translations by 竻竻
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Chapter 28– Handle with Care
Hai’s breath skidded to a halt, his heart thudding in his chest. He wasn't quite sure he believed what he was seeing. Hai shut his eyes, breathing deeply before opening them again.
And there she was: the stone maiden who had once been a living, breathing Mei. The statue stood still, mute and immobile under the light of the moon.
Hai reached out to touch her face. The stone was cold as the moonlight in which it was bathed. Hai suddenly remembered that he still clutched Mei's pearl bracelet. In one desperate motion, he slid the bangle onto her stone wrist.
It fell with an empty clank against the other seven bangles. Hai stared at the bracelets. The silence around him roared, canceling out all other thoughts.
“That’s of no use, dear,” spoke a voice as gentle as a summer’s breeze.
Hai turned with a start, his eyes searching the shadows of the cave for the source of the voice. And there she was: a tall woman cloaked in a robe of…was it gold? Hai couldn’t quite tell – for she was half hidden in shadow.
"The bracelet will not bring back sweet Mei," the woman continued on, as she strode out from the shadows. Her hair, which had seemed raven black moments before, now seemed to be threaded with silver. Strange, Hai thought dimly, I thought her robe was yellow? He blinked his eyes and looked again. No, he must have been mistaken. The woman was clearly cloaked in a robe of dark red.
As the woman made her way slowly to the edge of the pool, she seemed to stoop, her long strides slowing into carefully measured steps. When she finally reached the stone pathway leading to the center of the pool, Hai saw that the hair on her head had become snowy white. Another trick of the light? In her right hand, the stooping woman grasped a wooden cane…
Wait! Wasn’t this the old woman who had taken Mei in?What could she be doing – before Hai could complete his thought,Nai Nai had somehow already crossed the stone pathway, and was now standing beside him at the center of the cavern lake.
The old woman gazed at Hai, a shrewd expression in those cloud colored eyes. With a wizened hand, she plucked the pearl bangle off the stone maiden's wrist. She pressed it, as Mei had done, into Hai’s palm. He felt it turn, from warm to cool then back to warm again.
“So, she took the leap did she?” The old woman clucked her tongue as her gaze slid from Hai onto the stone maiden. Nai Nai turned and shuffled back towards the stone pathway. “Come,” she commanded, beckoning for Hai to follow. “Hurry along now, the middle of a lake is no place for talking.”
Nai Nai moved slowly, leaning heavily on her gnarled cane. Hai started forward to lend a hand, lest she slip on the stepping stones – yet in the next moment, he found the stones before him vacant. Hai blinked in confusion, looked up, and saw Nai Nai’sbent figure already at the edge of the pool. The old woman waved at him to hurry. And hurry he did – rushing across the stone pathway, his feet almost slipping off the stones. As he ran, Hai grasped the pearl bracelet tightly in his palm. When he finally reached the old woman, Hai’s breath came in ragged gasps.
Nai Naigrinned up at him, wrinkled lips stretching into a broad smile. "Your grip young man." She rapped Hai’s knuckles with the end of her gnarled staff. "That's Mei's heart you're squeezing there. Handle with care."
Chapter 29– Earth Mother
" Mei's ... heart?" repeated Hai, feeling numb.
"Yes." The old woman answered with an earthy sigh. "Like I said, she took a leap… of faith.”
And there, in the half shadows of the cave, the old woman spoke to Hai – for the second time that night – of Mei’s story. A wet ball of dread knotted in Hai’s stomach. Shivers of guilt raced up his back and down his arms, stinging with the sharpness of regret.
"I didn't believe her" he choked out, throat raw. The old woman sighed and patted his shoulder.
"She knew you might not. But she told you all the same. It takes courage, it does," the old woman nodded approvingly towards the center of the lake, "to tell the truth to the person one loves. So many hold back for fear of what they stand to lose..."
The old woman fixed her gaze onto Hai once more. "What you hold in your hand - that is Mei's Hai-zhi-xing. Her sea-heart. When she gave it to you, she not only gave you her love, but her trust. And that, my dear boy, is something quite precious indeed."
"And she was wrong!" Hai cried in despair. "Because of me, she..." He had lost her – lost the person he held most dear to nothing more than the whispered smoke of rumors.
"I've lost her." Hai finished, voice flat and defeated, eyes fixed dully on the rose pearl in his hand.
"Not quite..." came Nai Nai’s reply, her voice somehow gentler - and younger sounding - than before. Hai, his head still bent and gazing at Mei’s Hai-zhi-xing, did not see the figure of the old woman straighten, standing taller as she spoke. Neither did Hai see the white hair on her head darken, first into silver and then into an inky black.
"Do you feel the rose pearl in your hand?"
"Does it not change, from warm to cool, then to warm again?"
"It ... does"
"Well there you have it!" the woman standing before Hai cried, voice triumphant like sunshine in June.
"Er... have what?" asked Hai, mightily baffled. He finally turned his gaze towardNai Nai, only to find that the old woman had disappeared. Instead, a woman – no, a girl (here, Hai actually rubbed his eyes in disbelief) stood where she had been.
The pigtailed little girl, who had once been an old woman with cloud colored eyes, rolled her own chestnut hued eyes in exasperation. She shook her head at Hai, fat pigtails flouncing about her shoulders. The little girl pointed at the bracelet he held, and spoke in a melodious voice:
"That heart you hold – Mei’s heart – it still beats! Because it has been given to one who's heart is also true. Should your heart remain true, one day, your love will return to you."
As she finished speaking, the little girl had transformed once more into a tall woman with raven hair. "Go home and rest, boy," she said. "You still have questions, I know. The answers you seek will come by dream.”
Then, the earth mother stepped forth and dropped something into Hai’s hand. He looked down to see that she given him a single leaf – purple in the moonlight and edged in silver.
“Hold this in your palm when you go to sleep” she said. “It shall guide you to where you need to be.”
And with that, the earth mother melted into the ground, vanishing without a trace.
Chapter 30– The Dream
Hai lay down that night with Mei's Hai-zhi-xingresting on his chest. As the rose-pearl bracelet was too small to fit on his own wrist, he had looped it onto a length of twine which he had tied around his neck. In his left hand, Hai held the leaf given to him by the earth mother.
"The answers you seek will come by dream."
The moon spilled silver light into his cottage. Hai shut his eyes and saw Mei's face - marble shining bright under the same moonlight. The pearl rested upon his bare skin, warm and cool, warm and then cool again. His eyelids slid shut a fraction. A hum of wind…the lazy drifting of clouds… and an ever-shining moon… Hai slept.
A tangle of vines – silver vines with purple leaves. With some effort, Hai broke free from the grasp of vines, only to find himself in a silver-gray landscape.
He was thirsty. Very thirsty.
Hai swallowed, trying to wet his throat, but to no avail. Water. Where was water?No sooner had the question formed in his mind, the sound of rushing water filled his ears. Hai turned to see a waterfall, its clear water cascading down and foaming white where it struck stone. Mist rose in silver droplets. Hai started toward the waterfall, eager to quench his thirst. As he entered the mist, the silver droplets dusted his skin, clouding his vision.
It was then that a powerful drowsiness replaced his thirst. The silver mist blurred his vision further, pressing down upon his temples. Hai’s footsteps slowed as the silver mist settled upon his limbs like dust. He walked forward still, yet slowly now, as one does when half awake.
Hai came full stop, beginning to slide into slumber’s eternal embrace. Suddenly, a sharp heat from the rose pearl (which still hung about his neck) jolted him forth a few more steps –
- and he was out of the mist.
The fog weighing upon Hai’s mind lifted, and he saw he now stood in the middle of a slate colored landscape, barren of all vegetation. All around him was gray, as was the sky (which seemed to melt into the gray slate earth). Only the silver moon hung, ever familiar, in the sky. Hai looked around him to see... no one. He stood alone.
And then, quite suddenly, he was alone no more.
The other figure was tall. Very tall. Thin, too, with a sort of tapered elegance. They stood with their back to Hai, head slightly tilted to gaze at the moon. Hai moved toward the figure dressed in black. He saw the tall figure raise a thin arm, extend long delicate fingers… and with one smooth motion pluck the moon from the sky.
All was darkness.
Hai froze in his tracks, unable to see. Stretching his arms out before him, he groped blindly. Then, Hai felt the rose pearl pulsing its warm-cool rhythm against his chest. The pulsing seemed to increase in speed… and then Hai saw the light coming from inside his tunic.
It was faint at first, but quickly grew brighter, shining against his chest. Hai removed the loop of twine which held the rose-pearl bangle from his neck. He held the rose-pearl in his palm, seeing that it now glowed a pure, radiant white.
Hai held the shining pearl aloft, lighting his way forward. He took one step forward… two steps… three – and then he halted. For the figure clothed in black had re-appeared, blocking his way.
Hai’s heart hammered.
The rose pearl shone with steady light.
Story Video (with bonus drawing process! )