Foxglove and Snakeroot
When Liwa’s eyes fluttered open, a familiar sense of terror gripped at her heart and she knew she had to get out of here, she had to go, go now, anywhere but here—
“Hmm, where are you going?”
A voice she did not recognize snapped her out of it for a moment, and she slowly became aware of her surroundings. She was standing in the middle of a brightly-lit laboratory space with bleached walls and glossy laminate flooring. There were glass cabinets against the nearest wall that held vials of liquids and powder and rows of fancy lab equipment on the other side. A man with a shock of white hair in a lab coat and goggles lay on the floor, wincing as he nursed a sore wrist like he had just taken a fall.
It all came to her then. When Liwa had regained consciousness, he’d been hovering over her and in a dazed and disoriented panic she had thrown him violently to the ground and tried to run.
She quickly knelt down and helped the man up, apologizing profusely for attacking him without warning. He only laughed it off, saying it was a common occurrence around here and that he was used to it. Whether that was true or not, it made her feel a little better, grounding her against the very real feeling of fear from her dream.
“We’re in the west wing of the pharmaceutical science building,” the man told her. “My name is Mengjiao. This lab also doubles as an on-campus clinic that specializes in treating ailments and afflictions in relation to one’s past life. Your colleagues brought you here when you reportedly collapsed unconscious about twenty minutes ago. How are you feeling?”
Now that he mentioned it, Liwa could still feel a strange twinge in her chest like something was stabbing deep into her heart. She sucked in a deep breath. She could taste the sickly sweet odor of phenols in the air when she breathed in, and the faint scent of traditional herbal medicine when she breathed out. As she exhaled, the last of the memories of water flowing into her lungs seemed to clear.
“Better than before,” she said honestly. “But not very good.”
“Are you well enough to answer a few questions?” Mengjiao asked, reaching over the counter for a clipboard and some documents. He pulled up a chair and gestured for her to sit down. “We already had a nurse perform a basic physical examination, but I want to rule out all other factors before diagnosing your condition.”
“Yes, ask away,” she said, taking a seat.
He cleared his throat. “Hmm, what was the nature of your past life?”
“Oh,” she said, “a minor fox spirit.”
“And the corresponding star or asterism?”
“Any known hereditary medical conditions? Past life-attributed or otherwise.”
“None that I know of.”
Mengjiao scrawled something on the clipboard, squinting at it for a moment, then pulled off his safety goggles. Liwa had thought he was an elderly man upon first glance, but he seemed to be about her mother’s age. His eyes were yellow-gold with prominent slit pupils much like her own.
“Hmm, any inherited powers?” he asked, placing the goggles aside on the counter.
Liwa’s gaze dropped to the floor. “I dream...about memories of my past life sometimes.”
“Everyone does,” Mengjiao said, and even though his tone was kindly, the words themselves were cold and callous. “So none.”
“None,” she said, and her voice was softer than the sound of his pen scratching against paper.
“To be so carefree in this life, that’s quite fortunate,” he said faintly, and she wasn’t sure if she heard him correctly. “Anyway, I’m assuming the legend of the fox spirit was passed down in your family through oral tradition. But do you happen to have a written account? Just to keep on file with your medical records.”
“I’ll transcribe it for you,” Liwa said, and in her mind’s eye there was a red fox in a field of foxglove flowers at the edge of a redwood forest, yearning for something she was not allowed to have. “I know it by heart.”
“Certainly. I’ll give you my business card, and you can fax it to my office at your earliest convenience.” Mengjiao put down the clipboard and moved to the other side of the counter, rummaging through cabinets as he continued, “Like I said earlier, we already did a physical examination so I don’t believe you have any health-related heart problems you need to worry about at this age. We can arrange for a blood test if you’d like to be absolutely certain. And here.” He handed Liwa a small, unmarked bottle of pills that fit snugly in her palm and a business card.
“For the relief of active symptoms,” he continued. “Take one every twenty-four hours or as directed by a doctor—pardon me, I am a doctor. Please take with food or a glass of water as needed, and if symptoms persist, feel free to give me a call.”
She gazed down at the tiny white pills. “What are these?”
“Over-the-counter antihistamines,” he said. “Allergy medicine.”
“So it’s just an allergy,” Liwa concluded.
Jin clapped hesitantly, and she made a face at him so he stopped.
“It felt like the thing to do,” he said defensively. “Either way, I’m really glad you’re okay. You had us worried sick...that’s a figure of speech, by the way.”
They were hovering outside of the building of Yuna’s classics lesson while Liwa explained to him what had happened earlier. This was one of the few classes she didn’t have with Yuna – classics credits were mandatory for reincarnations of descendants of the four great folk legends and the four auspicious beasts of the cardinal directions. That requirement was the only reason Yuna ended up in a class like that in the first place. She would always leave the building in a foul mood, sick of lectures on the old tales she didn't even believe in.
Today though, she burst out of the front doors in a rush, and relief flooded her gaze when she caught sight of Liwa standing beside Jin.
“Thank the heavens you’re okay,” she breathed, flinging her arms around Liwa’s shoulders in a rare display of affection. “I knew you were too young for coronary heart disease. So what was that? What happened to you?”
Liwa explained once again what she had recounted to Jin earlier.
“What a coincidence that you fainted right outside the pharmacy buildings,” Yuna said when she was finished, “I didn’t even know that was where we were when we carried you inside. And you’re saying it was just an allergic reaction? Do you know how scared we were?”
“I’m sorry,” Liwa said sheepishly.
“Ugh, don’t apologize, none of that was your fault.”
“Er, sorry to interrupt—although I’m not actually sorry because this is kind of important—but I don’t think it was a coincidence,” Jin cut in. They turned to look at him and he continued in a lowered voice. “When it’s an unintentional lie, my powers are less precise. That is to say, I don’t think a coincidence is the right word to use in this situation.”
“Chance, then?” Yuna said impatiently. “Fate? Whatever it is, Liwa’s fine now and that’s all that matters. Why are you all worked up about semantics?”
“I guess that’s true…”
Earlier, when Liwa took an antihistamine pill just as she left the pharmacy building, the pain in her heart had completely subsided, like it had just been a fleeting memory of a dream. It was as if the world had returned to normal, as if an ocean did not take the place of the redwood forest in her past life’s memories.
Everything here too, had returned to normal. With Jin and Yuna bickering like children as per usual and the sunlight filtering through the canopy of trees shining down on their campus and a calculus exam next week that she should really start studying for by tonight…
“Oh, I need to drop these notes off at the Azure Dragon Estate for Lan,” Yuna said suddenly. “Could you borrow your dad’s car and drive us there, Jin?”
“I could, but I don’t think I should,” Jin said honestly.
“Wait,” Liwa said, noting the casual 'we' in her words. “I need to study. Why am I coming too?”
Yuna's lips twitched into a devious smile. “I’ll photocopy an extra set of notes for you if you do.”
The winding mountain roads on the way to the estate of the Azure Dragon family overlooked steep cliffs and acute turns. The reason Jin’s father was so reluctant to let them borrow the car again was because last time they made this trip, both Liwa and Yuna had thrown up all over the plush leather seats.
“It’s okay, I’ll weave a quick barf bag if we need it,” Yuna had said so confidently last time, but when the motion sickness kicked in she was already feeling too ill to move, much less make anything. And just as well. Barf bags fashioned out of celestial thread? It would surely be considered sacrilege.
This time, Liwa shamelessly returned to find Mengjiao at the pharmacy department to ask for some motion sickness medication. Her sudden return worried him at first, but he was more than happy to direct her to the university pharmacy store in the east wing of the building.
“Once you run out of the allergy meds I gave you,” he told her, “you can buy more here. I’d recommend second or third generation antihistamines, but they’re all quite effective."
And so with medicine acquired, Liwa headed back to her dorm room to pack for the mountain excursion. It would be a four-hour round trip and it was almost evening, which meant Yuna fully intended for them to stay overnight whether Lan was fine with it or not. The notes were just an excuse to visit their friend, Liwa was certain.
Lan had only taken over as head of the Azure Dragon family recently. Just last week she'd still been hanging around them like an ordinary university student, attending classes and studying for exams together at their usual cafe hangout. Despite her prestigious heritage, it had never once felt like she was far out of reach. Until now.
But there had always been a quiet pressure on her that Liwa had never noticed until the abrupt passing of the former family head. All of a sudden, all eyes were on the two most powerful azure dragons in the family to succeed the position. Lan's parents withdrew her from school halfway into the semester for the succession ceremony, and then her appearances at school grew gradually more scarce until this week she stopped coming to class altogether.
On the drive deep into the eastern mountains, Yuna told them that actually Lan had been expecting this for a long time.
"She always said she didn't want to ruin what we had," Yuna said, uncharacteristically solemn as she gazed out the window instead of making witty remarks about Jin's driving. "An awkward xiezhi, a measly huli jing, a descendant of Zhinu, and a part of the Qinglong god...name a more iconic and unlikely friend group."
"Could you leave out some of those adjectives?" Liwa said wryly from the backseat.
“Exactly!” Jin chimed in. “Liwa isn’t measly, she’s super strong and can beat anyone up!”
Yuna leaned against the window and sighed dramatically. “Why am I arguing about wording with a walking lie detector…?”
But it was true that people tended to gravitate toward similar past lives. That was why there were organizations such as the Moon Rabbits’ Student Association on campus, and why weavers still had the tendency to fall in love with cowherds, and why that goat lady from the noodle stand was drawn to Jin. And yet the exalted Azure Dragon of the East watched over millennia of woodland and mountain spirits, and Lan chose to befriend Liwa all those years ago.
“Lan was always the most likely to drift away first,” Yuna said. “That’s why she wanted to maintain the status quo for as long as possible.”
“It doesn’t mean we’re no longer friends if she’s busy though!” Jin pointed out.
“Exactly!” Yuna said fervently. “That’s why we’re going to her house to prove her wrong! And also I’m bringing all my lecture notes because I’m not about to let you guys fail the calculus midterm on Monday.”
“It’s on Monday?” Liwa asked, horrified.
The car swerved a little as Jin croaked, “We have a calc midterm?!”