We see, sister to sister, salt to salt. We live as gut and gill and long hair fanning weed-like in the water. We are linked hands and tails, our eyelids thin and delicate when we close them in the deep, veins like a forgotten map—have you ever sliced something so bao that the light from far, far above made it glow when you held it in warmer seas? Have you ever remembered something brought to you in the teeming surf? We have not forgotten you.
Far out in the waters, where the sea is a wonderful qing shade of summer grass and clear stone, so deep that not even the bravest pearl diver could reach its depths, there lived the Longwang and his subjects. You could take your vast wall to the north and all of the summer palaces, piling them end to end, and still never reach the kingdom floor. You must not imagine that there is nothing in all those waters but salt and sand, for it is full of life, lurid plants the size of houses, fishes that stink and glow and glide, creatures of long slick fin and gristle drifting strange and slow in the shifting waters.
The Longwang had a wife once, many wives actually, but they’d gone where wives go, and now he had only his wise old mother and six daughters.
We call ourselves the Longnu, or sometimes another thing we can only sing in the deep. We are saltborn and proud as grandmothers. Our own has always said that pride suffers pain. So we wear oysters and sharper-teethed things clamped to our tails. A seathing’s motion is sometimes all it has, and the Longwang thought that the particular sway of a tail weighted in pride was beautiful. And so we were. A renyu with no pride, untethered, adrift, might become a witch. In the deep, that is a dangerous thing.
The hai is almost the whole world you see, and we sisters can travel from the clearest waters, where coral gardens flourish toward the sun and xie with bright translucent carapaces dance toward the sand, to the murky green cold of the northern seas, where we may rise above the waves and rest our tails on the vast ice. This is one of the great pleasures: to hunt good meat with your sisters and swim with fat, sleek haibao through icy currents, your teeth ready for smaller prey and the horns of dujaojing at hand for greater.
Everything we are comes from the waters but it is in our nature to look to the sun.
But renyu, even the Longnu, must wait to come of age before they break the surface and see the world beyond the waters—ships and palaces and the odd, bland taste of running inland seas.
When it was time for First to go, she sat upon the jagged rocks near the shore and watched the small boats dash themselves to pieces when the storms came. The fishermen had fine brown hands suited to rope and net and carried clay pots of something that burned her throat when she tasted the dregs that spilled into the sea, but none of this saved them from their fate, just bones and soft meat falling to the seafloor.
Second liked the dawn and the dusk, when the sun set the waters ablaze with colors and the seabirds followed the hunting fish. She would see great ships in the distance when she turned her long-seeing eyes to the horizon, all bright flags and butchered wood. When she sang in her lovely voice, they heard only the pressure of an oncoming storm.
Third loved the calm, midnight waters in the open ocean, the deep quiet of the surface, and then the storm beneath. She would float on her back in the oil of the black ink sea, eyes adjusting until each star in the sky blazed like a tiny sun.
Fourth favored the filth and noise of the harbor, full of interesting smells and tastes. She teased handsome sailors whose heads were already spinning with drink, unsure of what it was they saw, sharp teeth here, and silken hair there—or was it only kelp? Sometimes, when the days grew warmer, they would toss delicately wrapped gifts into the sea, murmuring prayers for some long-lost scholar, and she would bring the things to her sisters, bland leaf folded over cooked grain and odd sweet things amidst meat that had the good salt and tang burned out of it.
Fifth dared to follow the muddy estuaries into the running inland waters, which were curiously still for all their chatter. She saw flooded fields full of green shoots and grand ladies hidden inside bright silk palaces carried by sun-bronzed men, armies on the march with colorful banners. She liked to watch the scholars on the banks making their marks with steady hands, delicate ink and alien creatures unfolding, spidery like an underwater garden unfurling in the sun-heated tide. Sometimes they would fall asleep, and she would kiss their lips, leaving a salt taste that they would remember for years, blooming at its richest on their deathbeds.
Sixth was the youngest and loveliest. She watched for what dropped into the waters from the world above, and went up into the currents as far as she dared, her eyes flickering along with the light on the waves. Sometimes she floated just below the surface, like one of the human dead beginning their journey. She liked feeling the seabirds resting just above her face, the push of the wind against the foam.
When at last it came time for her to rise, our grandmother told her to remember her pride and she wore that pride sharp all along her tail. This ascent, the first when she could break the surface, was her slowest. She felt each oyster’s bite like the weight of a greater beast, and dreamed of casting them off in the moonlight, far from the Longwang’s sight. She rose past the darkest waters, past vast sea caves and mountains, into waters thick with kelp, her eyes raised up to the surface.
You know of course that the first person she saw, gazing out from a ship rail, was a wangzi, the fourth son of a favored concubine, fair and quiet with a thoughtful brow.
Sixth watched him read on the open deck, his elegant fingers and resonant voice, beautiful to her in a way quite unlike her own or ours. He wrote poetry with a fine hand, shook his head over the crawling script, and dropped it into the foaming waves. Sixth would snatch the papers from the waters, even as the fibers unbraided themselves, trailing fine strands of ink alongside her hair as she swam with it.
Sisters are born salt to salt, the old song goes, older than the Longwang and his palaces, older than the beauty of pride. It is something we know, in the salt of our eyes, our bones, our blood, something we whisper far away from the ears of our father. In the Wangzi’s poetry, Sixth thought she saw something of this ancient thread. This you must understand.
She followed the slow, clumsy path of his ship up the coast, waiting each night for a glimpse of his face, a taste of bitter ink. Sometimes his attendants would call him toward some unseen part of the ship, but she thought she caught his eyes looking for something in the waves in the moment before he turned his back. She swam until she saw where the ship came to land, the great palace overlooking the sea. This was where the Wangzi lived—a gift from a father as great as the Longwang to the son of a beloved favorite.
Sixth looked at the shore as if it were a whole universe.
She knew she had to go to the Haipo in the truest deep, who breathed hot sulfur and ash and smoke, the great eyeless witch who lived where nothing had even thought of the sun. Determined, she swam down, down, down, into the coldest waters lit only by fish with glowing lanterns that grew out of their heads and translucent things that pulsed in the water. She had come this deep only once before, to feast with her sisters on the flesh castles that thicken the seafloor, jostling with the hagfish and the sharks. The renyu here were more yu than ren, scales on their elegant faces, jaws that could extend to hunt for darkwater prey. In the gloom, it was impossible to see if they wore pride on their tails.
“Popo will be happy to see you, Longnu,” they sang into the waters, sibilant and joyful.
Sixth swam until she could taste the sour heat of the vents, the Haipo’s kingdom lit by the yellow glow of a greater fire than the sun, pulsing beneath all the waters.
She swam through copses full of red worms and white xie with their claws and jointed limbs, scuttling blindly in the heat, until she reached the Haipo’s den, a lovely thing made from the bones of men sunk deep, deep, deep.
“I’ve been waiting for you, Longnu,” said the Haipo, in a voice full of sand and jellied flesh. She eeled out from her home to greet Sixth, her great limbs carrying her gracefully through the thick, dark waters. There were lantern fish biting the waving worms of her hair to light her face and the blank pale lattices of scale and skin where eyes might have blinked once, twice, thrice. It was said that she and her subjects alone lived apart from the Longwang’s rule. This place was beyond his sight and reach.
She smiled. Her jaws were fierce and thickly gardened with teeth. “So you want to see what they do in the sunlit world, do you?”
“I do, popo,” said Sixth.
The Haipo tilted her head as if searching Sixth’s face with her eyes, though she had none.
“And what does a Longnu want outside her father’s kingdom?”
Sixth thought of swimming the waters of the world, going anywhere she wanted, but never adrift, for she was always tethered by the pain of pride. She thought of the Wangzi’s poetry, the ink in the water, the memory of an ancient thing. The Haipo had ruled this place for longer than the Longwang had his kingdom.
“I want to live salt to salt, popo. Free.”
The Haipo laughed. “He’s grown old, your father.” She shifted closer, the worms of her hair brushing Sixth’s lovely cheek, a pulse of rich heat in the water. “Will you pay the price of song or the price of knives?”
“The price of knives?”
She told Sixth of how the foolish ren of the sunlit world thought beauty was in two stumpy things they called legs, on which they walked and sometimes even swam, how horrified they would be at Sixth’s strong tail and fins and sharp-toothed lovely smile.
“But each step you take, guniang, will be as if knives drove through you, though graceful you will be.”
“And the price of song?” asked Sixth, whose heart beat in her body like something dying.
“Your voice, guniang. I would have it.”
Sixth thought of her singing with her sisters, calling down into the waters to the warm-blooded giants who would answer their cries, thought of singing above the waves into the storm. She thought of swimming wherever she wanted, even dressed for pride, how her strong tail could take her in or out of many a place. She imagined being tethered in the sun, unable to leave when she wished. If she had asked Fifth, Fifth would have warned her. We would have gone to her, sister to sister.
“The price of song, popo.”
So the Haipo, with swift mercy, cut out her tongue.
“Take this up to the surface where you wish to be and eat it. You will have your legs.”
Sixth nodded, mute, her mouth raw where her tongue had once been, coppery and hot.
She swam up, tail waving, swift and free from sharp-toothed pride, the long, silent journey to the shore. There she ate what had once been hers, one slow bite at a time. The Haipo’s knife had made it something else, something that smoked heat through her veins.
When she woke, there were legs.
She glided as if in a dream to the familiar palace, feeling with pleasure the sand between her toes, and found the Wangzi with her speaking eyes, but you know that, don’t you?
He marveled at her long, lovely hair that smelled of the sea, at her graceful form, unmarked and new like she’d never breathed a moment in his world.
He took her into his household, a mute, biddable thing who would let him rest in the softness of her lap, would wash his feet when he asked, would follow behind him through the winding halls of his palace.
He dressed her hair with precious jewels and draped her in fine-grained silks that whispered against her new skin like a forgotten melody in the sea. You know this well, but she was strong and firm-moving and unguarded.
“You’re not like any woman I’ve known,” he told her. She had seen them move, their odd, small steps, their carefully kept laughter, and knew this to be true.
He ran his hands through her hair, watched her dance with pleasure, the song in her steps instead of her throat. He said she made him think of his verse, of quiet moments on the deck of his ship, idle thoughts. Sixth was happy. You must have seen it. When he looked down at her feet sometimes, he frowned, but she thought nothing of it.
In this way, she passed many happy months, waking each morning with salt on her tongue, and a memory of sisters.
One day, he told her a story, about a concubine who loved her emperor deeply, more than any of the Longwang’s wives had ever loved him. She too was a gifted dancer, with slender limbs and nimble feet, a mind for beauty. She knew how much the emperor loved the grace of the lotus flower, its folded petals, its compact elegance, so she dreamed of a dance where the flower’s beauty and her own became one. For him, she bound and broke her feet, and because she was the emperor’s favorite, the first woman in all the empire, all others followed.
She loved him so much she gave him a son. We suppose you know this is a thing prized above all else in the world above the waters.
The Wangzi knew the story well. The lotus dancer had been his mother.
His household women clucked and pulled her aside one night, gently bathing each foot as she wriggled her toes in pleasure at the newness of them. They braided her hair like grandmothers, their strong grips tightening on her feet, firm even when she moved to stand. Sixth looked at them with her speaking eyes, her heart loud against her bones as it had been when the Haipo asked her price.
They had their tongues, but they only looked at her, not speaking. Then they bent her foot until her bones broke and did not stop when she gasped and struggled.
They folded her toes to her heels, a sharp agony like pride, because it was what the Wangzi called beauty. She was old for it, one murmured, but it was the right thing to do,
Her new toes curled sadly under her skin, nails digging into her new flesh. The women laughed ruefully at her fear. They were kind. Gently, they showed her their own tiny feet, bound and exquisite, their mincing steps finally becoming clear in her eyes. They dressed her feet in long white bandages that she had to change nightly, for her ren feet bled blood and foul pus into them. For days she couldn’t walk. For weeks she would wake up with salt on her cheeks, not of home but grief.
When the Wangzi came to see her, he smiled at her new shoes, small and perfect.
“Beautiful,” he said.
She looked at him with eyes that asked, “Am I dear to you?”
“Yes, you are dear to me,” said the Wangzi, “for you are the most devoted.”
Devoted, thought Sixth, looking at her torn feet, bound up in their silk wrappings.
It was weeks before she learned to walk again with her new feet, cruelly misshapen, and the household women whispered of a faraway gongzhu come to the palace from the west.
“A good alliance,” they said.
“A true beauty,” said the Wangzi, gently brushing her cheek as she sat, quiet and tethered at his feet. “You will rejoice at this happiness, for your devotion to me is great and sincere.”
At night, Sixth would take mincing steps, one thousand one hundred and twenty-one, she counted, down the stairs from her chambers, away from the palace to where the land met the sea. She would sit and smell the salt, the ocean wind, watch the dark waters with all their power, now lost to her, and weep, thinking of her sisters, her strong tail, her freedom, the knives that were with her always now.
She understood that the way of things with the Wangzi and gongzhu is that they married each other, not nameless mute girls who came from the sea. (You know this, don’t you? You know it well.) She understood that she would be put aside, silent and slow, a thing rooted.
One night, when she realized she no longer thought of the pain in her feet, and that it was hard to remember her sisters or their hunts, the warm clear waters with their coral and the icy waters of the north with the haibo and the leaping fish, she walked the thousand steps to the water and soaked her feet in the surf, gentle that night. The bandages, rich with blood and misery, unwound in the current, trailing like a renyu’s hair into the waves, bleeding into the waters.
It was Fifth who came first, who knew the smell from her time in the inland seas, then First, and Third, and Fourth, and Second, because they had been called.
“Oh, meimei,” we said. “We smelled your grief in the water. What has happened to you?”
She told everything with her eyes.
We went down, down, down into the darkest deep. Renyu do not think as you do, you must know. We understand the bonds of family in a way you cannot. We went to the Haipo with our sister’s pain.
When the Haipo laughed, her whole vast body rippled in the water, an old song. “So the little Longnu has paid both prices, has she?” She turned her great eyeless face to each of us in turn. “Will you cut your hair? Will you shed your pride?”
They say that the Haipo and her subjects alone are beyond our father’s reach, that the songs of her kingdom are the oldest songs in all the waters, sister to sister, salt to salt. We cast off the oysters and sharper-teethed things from our tails. We cut off our lovely hair.
“Tell your sister,” she said, “to sail with the Wangzi when he goes to barter with his gongzhu’s royal parents. Tell her to go on the ship so she may be close to the sea. And give her this.”
What is this, you may ask?
This is a knife, made from what the Longwang called beautiful, all that we shed when we turned our faces from our father. We live in the salt of the Haipo’s kingdom now.
You see, she may return to us. It’s only, as with all things in sea and earth, a matter of price.
Sixth did as we bid her, pleading illness with the Wangzi’s household women, leading him to the moonlit deck on a night very like the one when she first saw him writing poetry by the water. But you know what speaking eyes she has, our sister, how delicate her steps with her broken feet.
“Come into the water,” she said with her eyes and arms, with her graceful shoulders beneath her gifted silk.
It is a bright night, the moon swollen above the sea. The water must have looked inviting. Tell us, is it warm?
Your tongue is the price of song, so Sixth may have her voice back.
See, are we not swift?
“You are dear to me because you are the most devoted to me,” says Sixth. Is her voice not sweet, worth paying for?
Your feet are the price of knives, so Sixth may have her strong tail back and swim once again in her own waters, free from the Longwang’s pride and yours.
“You will rejoice at my happiness, because your devotion is great and sincere,” says Sixth.
Your flesh is the price of salt, so we may not go hungry, and so your bones may add to the Haipo’s house, our debt repaid.
We promised you, did we not? We see, sister to sister, salt to salt. We have not forgotten you.