Wen Yu Yang is a regular contributor to Tharunka and is a team member of the UNSWeetened Literary Journal.
Content warnings: minor self harm, minor gore
They always underestimated how heavy bird bones could be. They remembered the hollowness, not the dense wall that enveloped it. They forgot that these bones were bred for flight.
This girl wasn’t one of them.
Her first kill had been a crane. A reminder that nothing was sacred, even the mighty could fall. Off had come the meat, tendons, blood and slime. Bones soaked in water. Her trophies.
Many followed soon after, each lined either perfectly parallel or perfectly perpendicular to one another. The crane on the top, then the tiger, water deer. Hares were placed along the windowsills beside her mattress, evenly spaced.
They always were, but not today.
Today, they scattered over the floor. Splinters, cracks, shards. The aftermath of a hurricane. She had been that hurricane.
The room spun and hissed and jeered and snarled, faster, and faster, and faster.
An ugly splat on the floor. Thick, with a metallic sting to the nose.
She glanced down to where she held the fractured end of a bone to her wrist, white, tainted crimson. The bone was from the crane, the creature’s forever outstretched wing, she knew. Blood slithered on her skin.
Now that she had awoken herself, an old impulse caged in her ribs fluttered. Her knuckles pulsed with pain as her grip tightened. Do it. Do it.
The voices hissed in her head. The voices were still her Mother’s.
No. She would not disappoint Lian, even if her sister was already buried under dirt and rocks and worms. Bile rose to her throat at worms. Once the thought was there, it stuck and took over. Worms biting, burrowing, infiltrating. Worms upon worms upon worms.
She knotted a cloth around the wound to stem the blood with vicious force, slamming her rioting thoughts to a halt. She took out her hunting dagger and began to chip at the crane’s bone. Her movements honed her focus. Frenzy gave into ice cold fury.
The bone became a pin, and the pin grew petals; white as death, harsh as the edges of a scythe blade. A soul reaper’s envoy. A promise from the hells.
The girl had visited Lian once at the palace. She was eight then. It had been a year since her sister went to serve in the harem. Lian’s letters had started to slow, her calligraphy became smudged, hasty. The girl had just given up waiting for the next letter when another flew to their house on the wings of a dove. Lian had asked them to visit.
The girl had let Mother pack their things and usher her into the awaiting carriage. The same lectures were thrown at her throughout the journey. For once, she hadn’t minded. She was going to see Lian.
The girl remembered the main road felt as if it had no end. She had complained, but Mother was too busy speculating Lian’s place in the court, deducing how much the Emperor fancied her eldest daughter from the texture of the cushioned seats.
When their carriage had finally steered past the jaded gates and into the palace, Lian was already waiting for them, along with dozens of other girls. The girl had rushed towards Lian despite Mother’s bark of warning and threw herself into her sister’s embrace. Lian’s arms around her were firm yet cautious, the way someone would cradle a dream: gripped too tightly, dreams shatter; too little effort, they slipped away.
Mother had looked at Lian with a slanted mouth and a grimace. In her eyes, there must be something wrong with the way Lian dressed, or the way she was standing. The girl couldn’t be sure. There were endless possibilities.
Lian had smiled down at her. ‘I missed you, little one.’
The girl’s lips quirked, her manner of beaming. ‘I missed you, too, jie jie.’
‘The High Consort told me that I shouldn’t come, but I couldn’t miss this.’
‘You should’ve listened to her, then,’ came Mother’s flat reply. Indeed, the other girls were giggling at Lian’s little sister. How dirty her peasant clothes! How unsophisticated her hair!
The girl decided then and there that she didn’t like this High Consort, whoever she was to the court.
Lian smiled tightly at their Mother before taking her sister’s hand. ‘Come now. There are people I want you to meet.’
They had joined the royal assemblage for tea. There was the boy-Emperor, looking much less impressive than the artists on the streets had depicted. The General, his delightful presence weaving through the entire room. The Empress Dowager, nose and chin pointed in a fixed upper angle. The High Consort, her smile too perfect, words, hands, walk too perfect.
Normally, it would have been a challenge for a child to stay still in such a setting. One would expect a good amount of fidgeting, whining and constant grappling for attention, but she had done none of that. People always said that she could be oddly quiet for a child. It came from the hours she spent spying on birds between reeds and peering at red deer through the canopy of leaves. This was somewhat like that, she had supposed.
The girl had regarded the room of people with an intensity that was almost feral. They glanced at her as they would the discarded chicken wings on their plates, a filthy insult. The Empress Dowager rarely looked at her son, but when she did, she did so by peering at her son from the corner of her eyes as if it hurt to look directly. The General behaved as one of those statues of legendary warriors would if they came alive, grand and gracious. Maybe that was why she felt odd watching him calling for extra sugar each time the Emperor bid him to.
Mother giggled too much, her smile too wide, ravenous hunger in her unguarded eyes. Lian looked to the High Consort before every utterance and the High Consort responded with steady looks or near-imperceptible nods. The Empress Dowager and the High Consort sparred over the fine wine and delicacies with blades forged from words of venom. Lian and the General exchanged secret looks over the rims of their cups. She had not failed to notice the way Lian glowed that day. Back in their house, Lian was a trapped firefly flailing in the darkness. Life, the girl decided, was likely better here for Lian.
The High Consort had been the only one who noticed her watching.
‘What is your name, little one?’
She gave her name. She was willing to be good on Lian’s behalf.
‘What do you see?’ This was uttered in a staged hush but with it, true curiosity.
She had looked at the room again. These weren’t animals, whom she was acquainted with, who were a part of the natural order. These were not cranes filing before the setting sun. It was more like the shows her mother would force her to watch in front of the temples they passed near the marketplace.
‘It’s like a play.’
The High Consort’s smile was small and private, it had felt intrusive just to look at. ‘Indeed, child, indeed.’