Foxglove and Snakeroot
To fall in love was a timeless thing, and the Azure Dragon was one that could never understand.
And yet he watched helplessly as the fox gave away her heart, piece by piece as if it were tangible, to the white snake of the west. The dragon could not bear to deprive the fox of that spark of happiness in her bright yellow eyes. And that was when he realized that the greatest curse of them all was the inability to make lasting connections within the span of a single lifetime.
Because in every life, he only continued to remember and dwell on the past, when those around him could look toward the brighter future. The loneliness was enough for the Azure Dragon to go insane.
Eventually, the descendents of the four great folk legends were said to have split the core of their powers into fragments. To spread it thin among the future generations, they were able to join the cycle of reincarnation and lessen the burden of their immortality.
“Perhaps that’s a viable solution for us,” the Black Tortoise of the North said thoughtfully. “Although our consciousness will surely resurface, to experience a new life would be a wonderful thing.”
“How would we be able to do something like that?” the Vermillion Bird asked, her words skeptical.
It was then that the White Tiger spoke. “The Jade Rabbit on the moon has been researching the elixir of life from the beginning of time. It has only been recently that he has perfected it.”
“And he would share amongst us?” the Azure Dragon asked.
“Certainly,” the tiger replied. “Have we all not experienced the same fate, grown weary of immortality and the alienation it brings?”
“But the elixir—I recall it requires a most particular ingredient.” The dragon suddenly remembered a conversation he had with the Vermillion Bird several years ago. “Just how did you manage to get your hands on the heart you need without taking the fox’s life?”
The other guardians of the cardinal directions looked at him pityingly.
“What is the price of a single life of one that has been blessed by the cycle of reincarnation?”
The dragon roared in anger, stretching out his wings and taking off into the starry sky. The moon shone bright and round and full, hanging over the constellations, and growing larger as he approached. When he landed beside the lair of the Jade Rabbit poring over his mortar and pestle, the moon trembled beneath his weight.
“Goodness, what brings you here Lord Dragon?”
“You have taken something that is important to me.” The Azure Dragon spoke in a calm restrained voice as he gazed down at the form of the small white rabbit and his brilliant crimson eyes that shone like gemstones.
“I have taken nothing that belongs to you, sir,” the Jade Rabbit said loftily.
“The heart of the huli jing that cultivated in the eastern realm, return it to her at once.”
“Ah, you speak of the fox.” The rabbit turned back to his work, and the dragon could see the thick red liquid oozing from the depths of the mortar. “Then you need not worry. She offered up her own heart willingly.”
Willingly? That couldn’t be. But the Azure Dragon could remember so clearly the way the fox smiled at the white snake, and suddenly his blood ran cold.
“Did you put the white snake up to this?”
“You’re more intelligent than you look,” the rabbit said. “Indeed, out of love and duty to the one she loved, she surrendered her life willingly. Fueled by gathering centuries of the fox’s wishes, this elixir can cure the white snake’s illness, while leaving enough for the four auspicious beasts and folk legends to escape their wretched fate.”
“Not like this,” the dragon breathed, the usual rumble of his voice only a light sea breeze.
“Surely you would not give up the chance to join the cycle of reincarnation and free yourself of the burden of eternity?” the rabbit said impatiently. “Or does your pride not allow it?”
As the Azure Dragon flew back down from the moon, a torrent of rain fell ceaselessly from the sky and flooded the world with his sorrow. Would the red fox be born again without her heart? Would her consciousness remain in a world without the dreams and unfulfilled wishes she had cultivated?
Because his pride did allow for him to take the Jade Rabbit up on his offer, and a taste of the elixir of life was not of regret, but guilt that there was no regret. Where would she go, he wondered, when he joined the cycle of reincarnation to be freed from the burden of the memories of his long lifespan?
And it was guilt that led him to follow the trail of blood to the silver lake where a white serpent lay coiled beside an unmoving fox. The Azure Dragon paused near the line of trees as the snake raised his head.
“Lord Dragon,” he said in a quiet, pained voice. “What have I done?”
“What have we done?” the dragon corrected him, as he laid his head down against the cool patch of snakeroot flowers. “You too, were descended from one of the four great folk legends, were you not? I am beginning to understand now that they are all tales of tragic romances.”
“No, I believe they tell the stories of ordinary folks’s strength rising above those of gods in the face of adversary,” the white snake replied, his voice very quiet. “The Legend of Bai Suzhen, Madame White Snake, is a story of love that transcends even death.”
“What is left for us in the next life but to beg the fox spirit for forgiveness?” the Azure Dragon said dully. “Without her heart, will she be born again? Without a legend, no one will know who she is. Without a star, she has no powers to her name. Without her heart…white serpent, if you swear to never cross paths with her again so that love will not blind her from her wishes and dreams, I will give her my heart.”
“I…you mean, your own heart, Lord Dragon?”
The seven mansions within the blue dragon of the east were the horn, neck, root, room, heart, tail, and winnowing basket. It was unheard of to gift a constellation to a spirit too weak to correspond to one in the first place. But perhaps within the empty space where the fox spirit’s heart was once nestled, the dragon could line it with an apology written in the stars.
“I swear,” the white snake said, his voice fervent and desperate. “I will record a warning inked in my own blood to warn my future incarnations away from her. If she could be healthy and happy in another life, that’s all I ask.”
That was all the Azure Dragon could ask for too, but he feared the wily snake was insincere. He asked to write the contents of the record himself, to prevent the snake from ever seeking out the fox again. Deep in the recesses of the heart he fitted into the fox spirit’s chest, his own feelings lingered like the tang of the sea on the tip of the tongue.
In every life, the core of his power split into fragments as the elixir of life intended, spreading among the descendents in each generation to lessen the burden of immortality. And the red fox lived each life, unknowingly protecting and being protected by the heart of her first and most precious friend.
And the Jade Rabbit watched each lifetime unfold from his perch on the moon.