Foxglove and Snakeroot
As it turned out, Kai’s house was in the townhouse complex across the street from the pharmacy buildings, with their fluorescent white light shining out of the wide glass windows and spilling into the roads below. Kai’s expression was still as bland as always, but Liwa thought she could detect a trace of embarrassment on his face as he thanked her for walking him home at the edge of the empty driveway.
She was about to head back when the front door slid open. She shielded her eyes from the sudden bright lights from inside the house, as Kai gave an awkward little wave from beside her.
“Hi Dad. How’s it going?”
Liwa would be lying if she said it wasn’t jarring to hear that from him, compared to his usual way of talking and occasional slightly archaic speech. She would’ve expected something more along the lines of him saying “greetings, Father.” And as her eyes adjusted, she realized she knew Kai’s father was.
“Dr. Mengjiao!” she blurted out.
“Hmm, it’s Hu Liwa,” Mengjiao replied serenely, and the uncanny similarities between their appearance and speech style clicked then. “So you’ve met my son.”
“Yes, we are friends,” Kai said, turning to Liwa. “So you know my father.”
Outside of his lab attire, the doctor looked very much the part of a father in a simple, dark sweater and thick-rimmed reading glasses. With the same silvery-white hair and reptilian yellow eyes, Liwa wondered why she’d never made the connection that they were related. He smiled warmly in a way that Kai hadn’t seemed to have inherited, and gestured for them to come in.
Liwa expected to go home after dropping Kai off at his house, but moments later here she was, perched on the edge of her seat in their dining room. Kai was curled up on a bean bag chair below the table because they only had two dining chairs, and she couldn’t see him unless she leaned out of her seat and craned her neck to look. With his legs curled up under him, Kai looked like a coiled snake as he blinked owlishly back at her.
She looked away, embarrassed.
The townhouse unit looked compact from the outside, but it made use of the space quite well. The dining room was cozy and warm, and Liwa felt like she was intruding even though Mengjiao insisted that she come in. The green tea he had poured for her smelled fragrant, and she gently lifted the cup to her lips.
“Hmm, I’m surprised you have friends.”
That was the first thing Mengjiao said to his son and Liwa was grateful she hadn’t taken a sip of the tea yet, otherwise she would’ve choked.
“I’m surprised too,” came Kai’s voice from under the table, and Liwa had to bite back laughter. “Dad, did you know that Miss Liwa was the fox in the legend of the snake and the jade curse?”
The snake and the jade curse? Liwa had never heard of the name of Kai’s legend before. She felt a little cheated that her own placed such an emphasis on the white snake when his tale didn’t even mention a fox in the title.
“Hmm, I had my suspicions,” Mengjiao said. “She was the first fox spirit that ever came to my clinic with asterism-attributed heart pain so it crossed my mind. But as a medical professional, I did not want to make any unfounded claims without proof. And well, the Xu family’s legends are quite peculiar after all.”
“Peculiar?” Liwa echoed, curious.
Then, the doctor began to speak of the Legend of the White Snake, one of the four great folktales.
The tale of Bai Suzhen was a well-known one. She was a white snake spirit that fell in love with a human named Xu Xian when he lent her an umbrella. He reciprocated her love, and they opened a medicine shop after they got married. A jealous monk warned Xu Xian of his wife’s identity and told him to give her realgar wine to reveal her true form. He did, then died of shock when she turned into a giant white snake. Thus, Bai Suzhen traveled to the mountains to steal a herb that would resurrect him and when he came back to life he still maintained his love for her.
Angry with the turn of events, the monk tried to separate them again by capturing Xu Xian and imprisoning him in a temple. Bai Suzhen used her powers to fight the monk and flood the temple, drowning many innocent people in the process. However, she was pregnant with Xu Xian’s child and weakened as a result, so she could not save him.
And a lot more came after that.
Like many celebrated folk legends, the Legend of the White Snake was long and convoluted, spanning details the length of a novel and had been fictionalized and revised over the years. Liwa had heard many versions in high school classics lessons, and didn’t make the connection that Kai was related to it in some way.
“Oh, Xu Mengjiao is the name of Bai Suzhen’s son!” she exclaimed suddenly, when it clicked.
“Indeed,” the Mengjiao that sat before her said in amusement. “Every few generations, a son in our family is given that name. Is it out of respect? Or is it simply laziness? Alas, I do not know. But our bloodline has grown far out of touch with the original Legend of the White Snake. Many a diluted lineage no longer holds the strength of old legends in their veins. We’re just a small family of snakes that have practiced medicine in every generation.”
Kai stuck his head out from under the table. “Perhaps I should have studied economics instead of pharmacy.”
“And why would you do that?” Liwa asked, genuinely affronted. “I just had my microeconomics exam and I’m pretty sure I failed.”
“Oh,” said Kai. And with that said, he retreated back under the table and disappeared.
“The two of you are really like fire and ice,” Mengjiao commented as he watched his son curl back up into the beanbag chair. “For the two of you to be able to hold a conversation like this without the interference of your past life is thanks to modern medicine, and for that, I am grateful. I just hope that those stubborn ancestors will learn to give up after all these centuries.”
He looked so sad at that, and a pang shot through Liwa’s heart as she thought about their tiny townhouse that only had two seats at their dining table. It seemed he was more like her than she had thought, raised by a single parent in a lonely household. Kai never talked about himself. Even after getting to know him for half a semester, she still hardly knew anything about him.
“Oh, Dr. Mengjiao,” Liwa said, “if you don’t mind me asking, what is the legend of your past life?”
His gaze was sorrowful, and his yellow eyes were the same shape of his son’s, but much more expressive. “A legend full of mistakes. And I can only hope to rewrite fate this time around.”
Like father, like son, Liwa thought as she reached for the tea sitting before her. She might’ve just learned more about Kai from the past conversation than all of the time she spent with him prior.
Usually, Liwa dreamt of significant memories from her past life once every four or so years at most. That was why she could so confidently say that they were premonitions, signalling something that was sure to come true. The contents of her dreams had always been somewhat pleasant, but the result had always been much less favourable.
When she was five, she dreamt of a foxglove forest, of flower petals in her fur and bramble clinging to her tail. She was stung by a wasp on a school excursion and cried for hours until her mother came to pick her up.
When she was nine, she dreamt of the Azure Dragon flying high above her, and his blue eyes were as bright as a cloudless sky. She met Lan for the first time and didn’t like her very much, so she tried to beat her up. Then Liwa fractured her wrist, and was suspended from school for a week along with having to wear a cast for a month.
When she was thirteen, she dreamt of a white serpent coiled up beside her as she gazed up at the waxing moon. That year was when her father walked out.
When she was eighteen, she dreamt of a strange crimson liquid that spilled from within a large granite mortar under a blanket of stars. She was pretty sure not being admitted to the top three universities of her choosing near home was mostly her own fault, but the dream might’ve been alluding to that.
And now, when she closed her eyes, she could hear the red fox of her past life calling out to her and she did not want to answer. She did not want to hear. She did not want to drown in an ocean of sorrows that were not even her own.
Let me deal with my troubles on my own terms! she called out soundlessly, squeezing her eyes tightly shut. I am not you. I am me!
There was no response except the sound of waves crashing against the shore in her ears.
And then she was awake again, like she’d never slept at all.