Foxglove and Snakeroot
Once, a white snake lived at the edge of the silver lake, among grassy reeds and snakeroot, far west of the Western Mountains. Seeking out a remedy for his incurable illness, he asked his fellow grassland creatures if they knew of such a cure.
“A cure?” they scoffed. “Or would you rather be cursed? If you truly wish it, then speak to the rabbit on the moon, for she shall know.”
Like the legend of Chang’e and the Jade Rabbit, a descendant of the first moon hare should surely know how to make a cure. So he decided to set off to find the moon rabbit late into the next evening.
The guardian of the West, the White Tiger, visited the snake in a dream.
“You wish to cure your illness?” he said in a rumbling voice. “Or do you wish selfishly for eternal life? To pay for longer years is to shorten another’s, that is the rule.”
“I am not seeking eternal life,” the snake replied, “for I simply wish to cure my pain.”
“And with what do you intend to pay for an end to your pain?”
The snake could not answer. “Lord Tiger. I wish to find the moon rabbit. I wish to hear his answer.”
“If you insist,” he sighed, “then heed my warning. The Moon Rabbit seeks the elixir of life. For himself or for his companion, I do not know. Know this if you wish to make a deal with him.”
Why, the snake wondered, did the White Tiger speak of the rabbit in such a manner? Just as he sought out a cure for his ailment, surely he only coveted the same. But the tiger said nothing else, and disappeared into the night.
Ignoring his advice, the snake shed his skin and ascended to the moon to seek out the rabbit pounding medicine with a mortar and pestle. Like the other grassland creatures, the rabbit also mocked the snake for his wish.
“A cure?” he said derisively, continuing to pound medicine without interruption. “For what do you wish for such a curse? Very well, listen carefully…”
The snake returned to the earth after the rabbit told him what to do. He travelled to the east where the redwood forests stood tall and waited three days and nights to catch a fox in his trap. On the third night, an unsuspecting fox hopped out of the foxglove undergrowth. The snake struck from behind, tearing out her beating heart from its ribcage with long, pointed fangs.
And in the end, the white snake stole the fox’s heart.
“All clear,” said Jin with a satisfied nod. “Everything he said was true.”
“Okay, you’re all clear,” Liwa said, turning to Kai. “I’ll hear you out.”
“No, no, no, wait,” Yuna interrupted, glancing furtively at Liwa like she’d lost her mind. “So what exactly is your deal with this guy? And why are you paying for his coffee?”
Of course Liwa was reluctant to bring the white snake to the cafe she frequented with her friends, but Yuna and Jin were conveniently already there and she wanted answers from Kai that only Jin could verify. And she was feeling a little guilty for attacking him at the lab, so she wanted to make up for it. Something like that.
“Excuse me,” Kai said, tapping Liwa on the shoulder. “I don’t like coffee.”
“Then why did you order it?” she asked with a groan.
He peered at his coffee mug in scientific interest. “Hmm, this is a ‘cafe’, and the drink of choice in such an establishment is coffee, is it not? But the taste is not quite to my liking.”
Yuna and Jin exchanged confused glances.
“This guy’s bonkers,” Yuna said, biting her lip to keep herself from laughing. “Is he really in our year?”
“I’m perfectly sane, thank you,” Kai said serenely. “I’ve just never had much of an opportunity to enjoy campus life. I spend most of my time cooped up in the lab.”
Yuna stifled her giggles with a dignified cough. “It’s just, the way you talk you sounds more like an eighteenth century monk than a pharmacy student, enunciating cafe like you’ve never heard of the word before.”
“Hmm, I’ve heard of it,” he said. “But I am not acquainted with the word. You see, I was home-schooled due to being severely ill as a child. My experiences are rather limited, and I don’t have any friends.”
“Oh, ouch. Now I feel bad for laughing at you. Sorry.”
“Er,” Jin spoke up suddenly, “All the stuff he’s saying is still true, by the way. Since that’s all I’m here for. I’ll let you guys know if anything’s off.”
“You’re here because you’re my friend,” Liwa said consolingly, and he perked up somewhat at that. “Your abilities are just a bonus.”
The way Kai looked so forlorn at those words made her feel almost guilty. It was hard to believe this was the same person who’d said all those manipulative things earlier. Or maybe, judging by the way he was acting now, he was just really bad at expressing himself. And to be fair, she hadn’t been herself when they first met either, riddled with the asterism-attributed allergy or whatever that was called. She’d tried to tear his throat out, after all. That kind of took precedence over everything.
“So back on track. Kai, you said you wanted to see how far you could push against fate, right?” she asked.
He nodded. “Correct. On that note, I wonder if you’ve noticed something strange about the timeline of our respective legends?”
Liwa had recited each sentence in the legend of the fox and the snake hundreds of thousands of times from early childhood. Line for line, she noticed the direct parallels immediately. The discrepancy of the ending too, was evident.
“You didn’t sense even a trace of a lie in his story?” she confirmed with Jin, who nodded. “And mine too? if you need me to recite it to you again, I can.”
“Not a single lie in yours either,” he said confidently. “The legend itself is accurate, but no folk tales are ever wholly true of course! My powers can’t really reveal the exact details of stuff from that long ago. All I know for sure is that word-for-word, this is the story that was passed down to Kai from his father.”
“What do you think?” Liwa asked, directing her question at Kai who was inspecting his coffee again and wrinkling his nose. “Dude, if you’re not going to drink that, don’t force yourself. I can order you something else.”
He tore his gaze away from his drink and sighed deeply. “I had my suspicions. The conclusion of the legend of your past life is incredibly open-ended. The only thing I could come up with is that the timelines are disjointed. Mayhaps the fox had returned to her forest after her visit to the silver lake, only to be murdered by that snake in cold blood shortly after he’d returned to the earth.”
“Oof, brutal,” Yuna said. “You’d think that’s something important enough not to leave out.”
“Why’s the snake ripping out my heart anyway?” Liwa asked, frowning.
“The cure, of course!” Yuna and Jin exclaimed at the same time.
“I wasn’t asking you guys…”
Kai glanced at Liwa hesitantly. “I…would never do that to you.”
Suddenly, Liwa was very aware that the world was a bit scarier than before if their past lives could influence their current behaviour. She’d felt firsthand the agony in her heart, the terror racing through her veins, and the desire to rip out the snake’s throat. It was suppressed now, but there was no telling if…
“Are you on allergy meds too, Kai?” she asked suddenly, as a thought occurred to her.
“Then without it,” she said with an involuntary shudder, her voice dropping to just above a whisper. “Would you…?”
“That, I do not know,” he said. “But I want to fight against the flow of fate. If I form a relationship with you, I may be able to wrestle with the destiny thrust upon me. Will the memories I’ve made be able to overshadow an old legend? Or is the vessel of the white snake all that I am?”
“Find out next time on Snake Ball Z…” Jin whispered under his breath. “Ow! Why did you pinch me, Yuna?”
“Shut it, they’re having a moment!”
“I think it’s worth a try,” Liwa said, nodding. “Yeah, sure. Let’s be friends.”
Kai’s eyebrow twitched, and he smiled that strange half-smile that she was beginning to recognize. “No. Not friends. I would like to form a close relationship with you.”
“Yeah,” she said impatiently. “That’s what friends are. Close friendships grow over time, you can’t just barge in and demand one.”
“Hmm. No, that’s not what I’m asking,” he said. He seemed to struggle with himself for a moment. “A relationship. A courtship.”
“My goodness,” Yuna blurted out, her jaw dropping. “He’s asking you out.”