is beige and washed with soft, settled dust. It nests between sand dunes, two-tone hills that whistle and whisper at dusk, the breeze bringing mysterious dreams to those who sleep under its soupy night sky. My guests, pilgrims whose cotton shifts are streaked with the brown patterns of their journeys, spend the last of their silver on a bed and a meal in my inn. They are tired, worn, and bone-thin, but there is that momentary sense of relief in their eyes when they clap an ugly coin into my palm. I lead them to their cots and my husband ladles precious wine into their bowls; twice a year, he makes hard candies out of the sugar grains that have stuck to the bottoms of jars, and I hand them to the pilgrims’ children. “Ah—” I tease, holding the candy just out of reach. “Say, ‘Thank you, Mister Innkeeper!’” The parents smile as the toddlers’ fingers work to unwrap the treats. Inside the wrapping paper, my husband makes an inscription: a character from a sutra, painstakingly calligraphic and minuscule—just big enough to cast a spell. I don’t believe in these words anymore, but he does, and I adore him for his insistence on sewing whole sheets of sutras into our winter clothes so that they sometimes swish and crinkle when I do the morning chores.
Not that we need winter clothes here in the desert, but even after twelve winters—a full zodiac cycle—we haven’t shaken that habit of renewing ourselves for the start of each year. In the weeks before the spring festival, we sew them for each other, then exchange them over a rare feast of pork buns. It would shock our younger selves, the effort we put into every stitch and our miserly use of the cloth, but now that we’re poor, we pay more attention. In recent years, I have become worried that our annual gift-giving lacks fairness, that he has ruined his eyes copying our sutras by candlelight. I have offered to write my own, but he says it wouldn’t work—heathen that I am. It has taken me some time, but this summer, I have prepared an extra gift for him: his own sword.
When we’d left the world, he pretended not to mind leaving it behind—, he threw it nonchalantly into the Yangtze and didn’t look back. In that moment, I’d thought of that idiom, ke-zhou-qiu-jian, about the fool from the Warring States era who, instead of diving to retrieve his drowning sword, carved a mark onto the edge of the boat and said, This is where the sword fell. When we reach shore, I shall dive from here. They don’t say what happened to him afterwards. For what was a wuxia without his weapon? A martial artist without his art; a fool; a wastrel; an innkeeper, a cook—someone without a name hiding somewhere far off doing ordinary things that would never be told of over campfires across the jianghu. I’d thought of selling the sword, but my husband hadn’t wanted to draw attention with such a famous weapon.
He’d been right, as always: when, some years ago, I began to discreetly ask about the sword, it was too easy to track it down to some middle-class collector in the capital city with the audacity to admit visitors in exchange for an entry fee. The hard part was stealing it. I debated whether to reveal myself to one of our old friends, an imperial general, perhaps, who might remember what I did for him in the war, or instead to venture out on my own with some plausible cover story. In the end, it was one of the rare merchants at the inn who helped me secure the services of a rogue wuxia who could travel to the capital and back, no questions asked. All it took was a tumble in the hay with the merchant, under the watery eyes of our one wizened donkey. And money, of course; money all the time, the entirety of my secret savings as well as one of the two gold bars we hid under the kitchen floorboards, which my husband does not often check and which I will blame on a thieving pilgrim when he does find out.
Would a thief only steal half our gold? I must continue to work on the story, but it is hard to focus when all I can think of is the smile that will bloom on my husband’s face when I present him with the sword next week, the kind of pure and joyous smile that even he is unable to suppress, maybe even a smile with teeth! Or else I worry about the naked blade’s condition after having traveled such a distance—I could not afford the scabbard, which remains at the collector’s. I think we could go retrieve it together. We’ll shut the inn for a month or two, go on vacation for the first time; a kind of honeymoon. We could detour through Jiangnan, spy on those we left behind: our shifu, our sworn brothers and sisters who by now will have taken on disciples of their own, the teahouses where we eavesdropped on local gossip, and my husband’s grandfather, though perhaps he has died. Would it be too painful? I suppose that question is too far into the future, considering that we cannot afford to shut the inn. Business slows in the summer for reasons I still haven’t fully comprehended. Some days, there are so few guests that I am able to leave our hired girl in charge and accompany my husband to the market.
In town, we are careful not to walk too closely together. Everyone on the Silk Road has a secret, and people in Dunhuang don’t mind these things, but it also means that any tanned, forgettable face could be masking violence. The assumption, I think, is that we are brothers, and technically we are—brothers-in-arms, fellow disciples under one shifu. I don’t mind: it reminds me of our youth, when there was always this invisible hurricane that raged in the space between our bodies and into which we would throw everything we weren’t allowed to say or feel. Sometimes I miss those days, not because we were wealthy, but because of the back-and-forth of our dance, how precarious it all was, how miraculous, how heartbreaking. Everything was so new that I’d sometimes forget we were fighting a civil war; even in the midst of a battle, when across the melee in the corner of my eye I could watch him slash and parry, I’d felt so attuned to him, as though we were the only ones there, as though my hands weren’t full of someone else’s blood. I miss that, too, but I don’t tell my husband that I do: he’d made me promise, that day on the Yangtze, that we’d leave it all behind. I think he prefers Dunhuang, our inn, the lazy fog of sunlight, the spices and curiosities brought in from the West, the foreign languages that he practices with the street sellers. The callouses on his hands have faded; instead, he has little cuts here and there from the cleaver brought down too fast or too hard.
Today, a week before the wuxia arrives in Dunhuang with the gift, the sunset sends rays of glimmering pink clouds across the sky, and my husband stops by a Persian carpet-seller to feel the soft weave on the tapestries. I am admiring the way that his face, bathed in golden light, seems to be chiseled from the sand dunes that surround and cradle us when I am hit with a nauseating premonition and stumble a little. I steady myself against the merchant’s camel, which wavers its head, as if aware of my distress. It has suddenly occurred to me that my husband may not want his sword back at all, that I have made a terrible mistake; I have overreached, overstepped, overwhelmingly overstated—it is over. I imagine him trying and failing to hide his profound disappointment, turning his back to me as he rolls up his sleeves to knead more dough, the rise and fall of his silent shoulders. My husband is gripping my arm now, saying something with his low voice that I can’t make out—all I hear is the rush of blood in my ears and the fuzziness in my mouth. I am frozen, like that night on the battlefield so many years ago, an agony I’d forgotten. He leads me away from the crowd, into a quieter alley, and I start to calm down a little, I think. He leans against the wall next to me as my breathing slows. After some time, I shuffle closer, lean my head against his shoulder, touch his hand. He lets me.