TAO AND THE SEA DRAGON
In ancient Northern China, the land of the earliest mythology, and home to the first people created by the gods, the Huang He river, a giant shimmering serpent, winds its way through mountains, forest, and villages, eventually finding its home in the awaiting Yellow sea.
On a beach, where this river embraces the ocean, a house, with its odd porcelain foundations, wood and paper walls, its palm leaf roof, smelling of bat guana, stands uncertainly before an ever moving tide. Nearby is a bamboo enclosure housing seven pigs that grunt contentedly, half dozing, bristly backs rippling as a cool breeze whispers news from a faraway land.
Inside the house lives a young woman called Tao Lin Feng.
She lives with Father, sun washed face smooth and tanned like a leather handbag, eyes set as deep as thought and the colour of oysters, hair fine and white, standing on end, static and alert, his idiot grin, and the barnacles on his elbows that he could use to remove fish scales.
She lives with grandmother, pocked and bent, her eyes, that held electricity in her younger days (she had once killed a panda with her stare), now withdrew and turned to gaze at some inner horizon, her footstep light as summer rain, voice soft and constantly whispering like a moth trapped inside an oil lamp, her flaking skin leaving secret trails wherever she walked, and the gentle rocking motion that accompanied her endless tales of fish that swallow men (apparently Grandfather had befallen this fate).
She lives with baby Brother Su, too small and weak, his nervous laughter almost sobbing, squinting eyes as if forever concentrating, hairless, skin the colour of a newborn baby rabbit, moist and clammy to the touch.
Since Mother was abducted by oxen two years previous, a strange event that left Brother Su grinding his tiny teeth and Father constantly singing and gambling, life in the Feng household has been steady and relatively uneventful.
Grandmothers disappearances have stopped altogether, her unseen rituals, played out now only inside her mind, replaced by the tedium of needlecraft and rug beating.
Tao Lin is deciphering monkey talk, keeping her notes hidden inside a coconut husk, buried in a dark and secret place. More often she is joining Father on fishing expeditions and imitating his gibberish songs in a shrill and husky voice.
It is evening and Grandmother is singing a story to Brother Su who is watching her moving lips blur as he sinks into a world of giant sharks, screaming women that fly, frightened sailors, and a blood red sun that is slowly drowning in the cradle of a slowly churning deep green ocean.
Tao Lin is curled in her bed and watches as Grandmother kisses the toes of sleeping Brother Su. She notices the way that Grandmother walks slowly to her bed leaning slightly forward with a swing in her hips as if she were supporting a long and heavy invisible tail.
Tao Lin listens to some nightbird crying for its lost mate as she tries to remember the face of her mother, and eventually falls asleep dreaming of something entirely different.
A shadow enters the house. It is not Father returning from the nearby village after a night of gambling. Tao Lin knows this from the absence of his quiet liquor laced singing and the slapping sound of his leather thongs, but a numb feeling in her head and heavy weight upon her chest prevent her from waking and calling to her Grandmother.
The shadow silently moves from bed to bed, lingering longer over the subdued form of Tao Lin as she struggles to surface from a dark and frightening place.
The shadow knows Grandmother, a powerful witch in her time, but she is quickly forgetting her craft, and now, withered and snoring, her fingers trembling with age, she is easy game for this baleful entity.
The shadow flits over every surface, into every corner, under every rug, inside every box, cup, and bowl, leaving behind a fetid odour faintly disguised by the scent of treacle and brine.
The shadow leaves the house just before sunrise as Brother Su wakes frozen in horror. He is screaming, but makes not a sound.
The morning is warm, the ocean outside the house calm, the tiny waves gently lapping at the beach. Grandmother is outside fervently washing all of the cups and bowls. Brother Su is asleep again and when he awakens he will carry with him a terrible fever.
Tao Lin finds father sitting on some rocks on the beach. He is not singing and this reminds her of an unsettling dream that she had last night. She sits close to him and he tells her that he is in terrible debt due to his gambling and that even if they sold all of their pigs he would still owe a lot of money.
The family are unaware that, due to this debt, a powerful sorcerer has visited their home last night. Paid by one of Fathers gambling associates the sorcerer has left behind a vicious demon from the astral realm neatly concealed within a flowerpot. And this demon has remembered its training well.
Soon enough the fowl odour becomes increasingly worse, and no matter how hard Grandmother scrubs, she cannot rid the house of it. She burns the cups and bowls on the day that all of the pigs become paralysed, and is faintly suspicious that black magic is afoot.
Father shatters his spine while mending his fishing boat, and as he drowns he thinks to himself that he would not be happier to die anywhere else. He is buried with his pigs and Tao Lin creates a beautiful mosaic with shells over his grave.
Brother Su has been attempting to swallow his tongue for several days now and finally succeeds at the precise moment that Grandmother stops rocking forever and weeps tears of honey.
The ants have not yet finished eating Grandmothers eyes when the entire house mysteriously burns to the ground. The only observer to this is Tao Lin, wading by the waters edge, who now considers herself terribly alone.
She goes to the secret place where her most precious treasures are buried and uncovers the monkey skin thermos that Father had given her on her seventh birthday. She leaves the other objects, a bag of coloured stones, an empty cocoon, a pair of rusty scissors, a photo of her parents, several pieces of bamboo with carved designs, a tin containing many shiny dead bugs, and a coconut husk containing notes and drawings, scattered on the ground in the sunlight.
-Extract from a story by Mugwort Lycanthrope (Australia). Full story in SILKMILK #1
-Picture by David Aronson (USA)