The stars were out tonight. The celestial partygoers were celebrating the seventh day of the seventh month, when the constellations of the Weaver Girl and the Cowherd would be together for one blissful night. One observer of their reunion had come out on the porch, downing a cup of wine as he observed Vega and Altair, separated far away from each other at the opposite ends of the Silver River, that glorious galaxy above the palace.
How could mere magpies ever form a bridge big enough to hold the fetching Weaver Girl or the handsome Cowherd? Liu Che could only wonder what the legend’s nameless, faceless authors were thinking when they handed this folk memory down to the Shang and Zhou kings. Now in the reign of the Han, all his people had joined the cosmos in hailing the divine couple’s embrace.
The seventh Han emperor sighed contentedly on his porch. How he’d like to swim in that galaxy! High above and beyond even the petty sky that watched over the even pettier affairs of his subjects! Perhaps he’d be able to see not only his ancestors, who would surely be proud of his family being conferred the Mandate of Heaven. He might also see the royal Shang forebears and the high gods of the northern celestial pole, up in the Big Dipper.
But that would be for another day. Although it wasn’t too late, he yawned and felt his eyelids drooping beyond his control. He couldn’t stop them. It had been a bruising day, and he needed rest. He turned away from the porch and back into his dark chamber. He allowed his body to slump and crawl onto his bed, crossing the threshold of the red curtain.
His attendant, a lithe girl swathed in white cloth, had arrived at his bedside. The candles had already been blown out, and her figure was shrouded in darkness. “There you are, girl,” he groaned, waving his hand. “We’re thirsty. Fetch Us water.”
“Do you want water to drink, Your Majesty?” came the reply. “Or would you be interested in drinking starfire from the Silver River?” Immediately Liu Che sensed that something was wrong. The insolent, playful tone wasn’t the problem. What came from the girl was not her voice per se—it was still a female voice, but it was somehow gargled, as if the attendant’s very head and neck were creaking, squashed, under the weight of an archaic presence.
The guttural reply deepened into a feral growl, and only then did Liu Che glimpse the sharp fangs of a tiger lining his servant’s mouth.
Frozen, he couldn’t even shout in terror as the deformed girl slowly looked at him, her eyes reflecting the distant quasars of the unreachable past, their light only reaching the bedchamber this moment. The nebulae swimming in her irises were the only things that illuminated the room, and he stared helplessly into them. He forced his clammy hands to rub his eyes. Maybe if he blinked a few times, the unspeakable, overwhelming celestial that had entered the poor girl would take pity and leave. “You’re a dream. Just one really bad dream.”
“So Your Majesty wishes,” came the pert reply. The magnificent but dread creature used his servant’s body to shuffle closer, prompting him to scramble back hastily. The human vessel coughed, and discharge of an unknown substance and indescribable smell slid out her mouth and down her chin. “These bodies… they wear out quickly down here, don’t they?” spat the girl suddenly, in that voice that wasn’t hers. “Useless corporeal sack of fluids and flesh!”
“A chambermaid isn’t an appropriate engine for a being of antiquity to dwell in,” observed tianzi, barely able to hide the quaking in his voice. He had realized what was in the room with him. Tonight was Qixi. The stars were right. As the old tomes had noted, something prehistoric and timeless would descend to visit the emperor this night.
“You’re right, little boy. I can’t stay too long. But tonight is when the constellations are making merry, when the cosmic energies are in perfect balance. I can cross the threshold to meet the mortal sons of heaven. I hope you treasure this occasion because I have teachings of immortality to impart—teachings even Zhou’s great King Mu couldn’t realize, as much as I loved him.” The divinity twisted her pitiful host’s face into an expression of wistfulness. “He wasn’t scared of me like you are.”
“We’re the son of heaven. We’re not scared of even you, Western Queen Mother,” breathed the emperor. He felt a tender wetness beneath his nostrils, and he wiped his face, and a long trail of blood from his nose was smeared along his sleeve. His head felt light in the deity’s company. “And besides, weaver of stars and human fate, you’re not the only one offering immortality.”
He mustered the courage to move his body in the shamanic deity’s vast shadow. Every muscle he stretched seemed weighed down by a grindstone. Even though she was just peering innocently at him through the skin of his servant, it took him an eternity to just make his way across his room. Time and space stretched at her feet. He nearly collapsed to his knees, fumbling at the wrapped object on his table. His shaking fingers managed to untie the string, and the cloth fell away, revealing a beautiful sculpture of a meditating man in loose robes and with an expression of utter peace.
“Do you see?” said Liu Che, smiling as he turned the image around in his hands. “There are things of beauty beyond Our empire’s borders. We received it as a gift from a wandering monk from Parthia.”
The Western Queen Mother’s starlit eyes blazed and her leonine mouth curled. “What do you call him?”
Liu Che paused, before speaking the word. “Fo. Buddha.”
“You refuse my blessings. King Mu didn’t.” The Western Queen Mother cocked his possessed attendant’s head. “If you don’t consume my fruit of immortality, you won’t be able to join me in the Big Dipper. You’ll die.”
“You speak of forever dwelling on Mount Kunlun with your weird and fantastic chimera and beasts, but what if the bald men from the Indus are right? What if this life is but one of many and we need to break away from it altogether? This teacher could show us the way. And yes, it is a different way from yours.”
Liu Che stared at the statue. “I thank you for your visitation,” he said, pointedly dropping his imperial suffix, “I really do. No man can rule in auspicious times without your blessing. But even King Mu, the mortal you loved and imparted teachings to, couldn’t follow your advice.”
He stared at the Buddha image’s tranquil face. “Monarchs don’t know what they themselves believe. But I know that in time, we’ll need to try something different. Perhaps this idea of Nirvana might be superior even to your Kunlun paradise. The monks say that the old alchemy the First Emperor so vainly sought is ineffectual in the face of the Buddha of infinite light. If this is true, then he is the deity I wish to serve, not you.”
He put his hand on his chest in apology. He felt faint; the world was going dark. He wouldn’t last long with this god in the room. “But I promise to continue seeking your propitiation, glorious matriarch.”
When there was no reply, Liu Che looked up, only to feel the wild, disheveled divinity’s willowy hand cupping his cheek. “It was good to see you, little child,” came a distant echo.
She would be merciful, for now.
Then… he could hear sound of chimes, a ringing of the gateway between his world and hers. Then there was a whoosh like the crash of the Yellow River against its banks during the flood season. It felt so real that he thought he was about to be swept up and smashed against the wall of his chamber.
But when he relaxed his clenched eyelids and lowered his shaking arms, he saw only his sweat-drenched attendant, collapsed on the floor and breathing feverishly.
Gone were the tiger’s teeth that had warped her face, the glowing stars that inhabited her eyes, and the otherworldly pus trickling past her lips.
“Your Majesty!” she wheezed, shooting up. “What have I done? Please don’t punish me.”
Liu Che touched his nose: it was no longer bleeding. He walked over and lifted her shaking form, placing her on his bed. Still flushed, she glanced up at him in terror and shook her head—a mere chambermaid couldn’t rest here. But the emperor, having seen far stranger things this evening, simply chuckled.
“I had a nightmare, Your Majesty.”
He pulled the blanket reassuringly over his maid. “So did We. We’ve both had the most extraordinary dream.”