Foxglove and Snakeroot
When Liwa closed her eyes, she dreamed of where the sky met the sea.
Where a sprawling forest once stood tall, unfurling their branches toward the heavens, only an endless ocean stretched into the distant horizon. The familiar, comforting scent of pine was replaced by something sharper, the tang of salt and brine that clung to her throat. There were empty conches scattered at her feet, and she lifted one tentatively to her ear to listen to a poor imitation of the crash of waves against the shore.
The sound made her heart lurch uncomfortably, because a fox did not belong at sea.
Liwa took a halting step forward anyway, letting her toes sink into the watery sand and feeling nothing at all because this was still a dream. Here in the life of her previous incarnation, the dream would not let her drown, even if the memories took her underwater and even if the water took her life. And so she plunged headfirst into the ocean with her eyes wide open, her heart thudding painfully in her chest like clockwork and her hair splayed out in the water as if to set fire to the sea. A whisper she couldn’t quite catch fell from her lips as the world spun dizzyingly on its axis and suddenly she was falling, falling through the azure skies and her eyes flew open—
—to be greeted unceremoniously by a white ceiling and slanting sunlight streaming through the blinds of her room. Her heartbeat slowed with each steadying breath as she struggled to sit up.
“That has got to be the shortest, most useless dream you could give me,” Liwa muttered, revelling in the feeling of the cold, hardwood floor against her bare feet. Dreams of her previous life were infrequent, and each time still felt just as jarring and disquieting as the first. She had no idea what this sudden memory was trying to warn her about, but the closest ocean was over a hundred miles away from campus.
Perhaps the dream was hinting that she should take a break from her studies and go to the beach.
“Tsk, your eyebags are getting ridiculous! Did you pull an all-nighter yesterday? And for what?”
Once, Yuna was a friend of a friend, but now that they were taking the same classes, Liwa found herself spending most of her time with the eccentric weaver girl that didn’t trust in her own lineage. More accurately, Zhi Yuna turned a blind eye to the implications of her past life as she drew indiscriminately on the powers of the weaving star anyway. Her beliefs didn’t matter, not when children of distinguished legends were many, and her past incarnation was one of the countless descendants of the brightest star from the constellation of the Black Tortoise of the North.
“I dreamt about the sea last night,” Liwa said reluctantly, shrugging off her backpack and sliding into the seat that Yuna had saved for her.
“The sea,” her friend repeated, twirling a lock of stray, dark brown hair that she wore in a messy bun on her head. “Which is what, a couple hundred miles from this inland town? You’ll be fine. You know what you should be focusing on? The calculus midterm.”
Liwa knew she would brush it off like it was nothing, even if her premonitions had always heralded a reliable warning for things yet to come. But what things? That was as much as a minor fox spirit could do for her—cryptic messages in her dreams to stress her out for no reason on top of school. And Yuna looked very distracted, engrossed in trying to clean a piece of lint off her laptop screen with an eyeglass cloth. It was for the better to drop it for now.
As the lecture hall slowly filled up, Liwa took her time fishing her pencil case and notes out of her backpack. When a classmate she recognized only by face and not by name sat down next to her, she turned to Yuna who was now delicately wiping down her glasses.
“Hey, are the others not coming again?” she asked in a low whisper. “Should I have saved the seat beside me?”
“Jin is on his way,” Yuna replied wearily, repositioning the glasses back on her face. “He texted me this morning saying he slept through his alarm. And you know how Lan is busy with her Azure Dragon duties now that the twins are taking up the mantle of the head of the family. That’s why she took this class as an elective, y’know, so I could take notes for her.”
Liwa feigned a look of betrayal. “Rude! You won’t take notes for me and Jin even if we paid you. I see how it is. And you say you don’t care about the hierarchy…”
“Unlike you, Lan actually has a reason for missing class,” Yuna sniffed, her voice indignant. “Besides, the prof doesn’t mark that hard for a calc class. You just suck.”
“Miss Zhi,” came Professor Liu’s cool and collected voice from the front of the lecture hall, and Liwa realized belatedly that the class had already quieted upon noticing his arrival. “What were you telling Miss Hu about my marking scheme? Care to share with the rest of the class?”
Yuna shook her head quickly, ducking behind her laptop screen as if it could hide her from the professor’s sharp gaze.
“If not,” he said, completely unperturbed by the disruption, “then in today’s lecture we will be reviewing how to use a parametric equation to graph a curve. Can someone volunteer to explain how to find the slope of the tangent line of the given polar equation that I’ve written on the board?”
“So now you decide to show up,” Yuna said loftily, and even though she stood a foot shorter than Jin, he seemed to shrink in her presence like he was being scolded. With characteristic horizontal pupils from his bloodline and pale blue eyes, he looked comically like a goat being yelled at by a farmhand even though a xiezhi was far from an ordinary bovid.
“I can explain,” he said, raising his hands protectively over his face and Liwa stifled the urge to laugh as she walked alongside them. “You see...I made it to class at the thirty-minute mark...I think? Then I found a seat in the back row because I was too nervous to interrupt Liu’s lecture. You know how he is...”
“Prof’s scary when he’s mad,” Liwa supplied helpfully from her safe spot on the other side of Jin’s bookbag in case Yuna decided to turn on her as well. Yuna was just as scary when she was mad too.
Jin nodded with great enthusiasm. “See, Liwa gets it!”
“Oh both of you shut up,” Yuna said, but her anger had already dissipated. She sighed, raising a hand to her temple. “If I must face the prof’s wrath, then Jin is going down with me.”
“His wrath? You?”
Liwa peered back at the direction of the mathematics building even though they were already a block away now and the professor was still inside teaching the next class. Then she turned back to her friends who were still squabbling. “Please, he was hardly angry at her. It just seemed like he was amused that his best student was being feisty for once.”
“Feisty?” Jin asked, his eyes wide and round. “In front of Liu? What did you do?”
“She’s speaking nothing but nonsense,” Yuna said loudly, elbowing him in the rib. “Where do you guys want to go for lunch? Jin is treating, as a penalty for being late.”
“Wait, what? Since when did we have this kind of—okay fine. Don’t buy anything too expensive though.”
“That’s my call.”
“Miss Liwa, if it’s you at least, please have mercy on my wallet.”
Because Yuna had another class in an hour, they settled for quick street food from a new noodle stand that opened up just west of campus. The vendor introduced herself as a descendent of the goat of the zodiac even though no one asked. Yuna ordered curtly for both herself and Liwa, then stepped aside for Liwa to get the food when it was ready. Jin, always too well-mannered, ended up being roped into a hearty conversation with the old woman while the other two finished up their noodles without bothering to wait for him.
“By the way, the white and brown pinto pattern of your hair, dear, is it natural or dyed?” Liwa heard her say.
Jin shifted his weight a little. “It’s natural.”
“Oh goodness, so you must be one of ours. You have a handsome face and a polite way of speaking. I would love to introduce you to my granddaughter sometime.”
“Thank you for your kind words, Ma’am. And I’m not zodiac, I’m a xiezhi. If you’ve heard of them. Oh, I guess you must have, haha...”
“A xiezhi!” she exclaimed, her voice tinged with awe. “In all the moons I’ve been alive I have never met a legend such as yourself. Most live in seclusion nowadays, such a pity really. Say, from one goat to another, would you be able to tell me if business will prosper in the coming months?”
Jin chuckled, sounding uncomfortable for the first time. “Ma’am, I don’t think I’ll be able to complete such a request. I’m really sorry.”
“But surely,” she pressed on hurriedly, as Yuna got to her feet and started marching toward the noodle stand before Liwa could tell her to settle down. “Because xiezhi cannot lie, so just tell me...tell me what you think, it can’t be hard—”
“Excuse me,” Yuna interrupted, yanking Jin aside by the arm and he looked more alarmed than relieved at her interference. “This guy is no fortune teller. If you’re looking for good business, you ought to seek out a winged lion to pray for wealth instead. Good day.”
She all but dragged him off, and Liwa hurried to follow, casting a sympathetic glance back at the vendor who looked stricken with fear.
“You know you can’t lie,” Yuna was saying furiously, ignoring Jin’s feeble attempts to shake off her iron grip on his forearm, “then at least skirt around the truth! Do you go around advertising who you are to everyone you meet? And why is it that they’re always trying to take advantage of you? And why do you never stand up for yourself? Did something like this happen when you were late for class this morning?”
“No,” he said, bewildered at the onslaught of questions. “I really slept through my alarm.”
“What’s gotten into you today?” Liwa asked, putting a comforting hand on Yuna’s shoulder. She was tense, and behind the lenses of her thick glasses her eyes glittered dangerously like a splash of stars across the night sky.
She shook Liwa’s hand off. “Nothing.”
“That’s a lie,” Jin said automatically, then he looked away at once.
“I hate you, you stupid goat,” Yuna said, seething. “Can’t you read the room for once?”
Before Liwa had the opportunity to hear Jin confirm or refute that, a sudden, sharp pain not unlike that of her dream last night flared in her chest. She doubled over on the sidewalk as her throbbing heartbeat rang loud and clear in her ears, drowning out the sound of traffic, pedestrians, and even the worried shouting of her own friends.
And worse, she could see the ocean waves cresting over the shore in her peripheral vision, which meant she was dreaming again. She squeezed her eyes tightly shut, taking a deep, calming breath. There was water in her throat, catching her breath before the air could reach her lungs and she couldn’t breathe. Was this really a dream? She felt lightheaded, felt like she was drowning, actually drowning. Adrenaline and the primal instinct to flee flooded her veins, and then panic settled in, because there was nowhere to run, nowhere to go.
A fox, she told herself as her consciousness began to fade, did not belong at sea.
Once, a red fox lived at the edge of a redwood forest, in a field of foxglove flowers far east of the East Sea. Longing to imitate mortals like others of her kind, she asked her fellow woodland creatures how to become human.
“Human?” they scoffed. “Those short-lived mortals? If you truly wish for such a curse, speak to the white snake, for he shall know.”
Like the legend of Bai Suzhen, a descendant of the first white serpent should surely know to take on a human form. So she decided to set off to find the white snake early the next morning.
The guardian of the East, the Azure Dragon, visited the fox in a dream.
“Cease this foolishness at once,” the dragon told her coldly. “Or my powers can no longer protect you once you set foot outside of the realm of the east.”
“I am grateful for your protection, as one of the Four Symbols that watch over the constellations,” the fox replied. “But on the contrary, I have no powers. I do not even have a star of my own.”
“You are fine the way you are.”
The fox could only bow reverently, biting back her resentment. “Lord Dragon, I beseech you. I wish to find the white snake. I wish to become human.”
“If you insist,” he said, “then heed my warning. A snake will always come back to bite you, so do not turn your back on him.”
Why, the fox wondered, did the Azure Dragon say such horrible things? Fox spirits too, were known to be a bad omen, gaining the power to shapeshift by placing a human skull on their head among other atrocities. But the dragon said nothing else, and disappeared into the inky night.
Ignoring his advice, she sought out the white snake among the reeds of the silver lake three days later. Like the other woodland creatures, the snake also mocked the fox for her wish.
“To become human?” he said derisively, drawing himself up to his full height. “For what do you wish for such a curse?”
But at that moment, she had already forgotten the reason she wished to become human. Perhaps she was clinging to something to anticipate in her long, weary life, and not a means to an end. Perhaps she wished to break free from the fate of a mere fox spirit in every lifetime, in every reincarnation. Perhaps she wanted more than just a fleeting dream as she gazed upon silvery scales and shrewd, yellow eyes.
And in the end, the white snake stole the fox’s heart.