Content warning: castration, mention of piss, some sexual content, typical wuxia violence
after Dongfang Bubai
The last time we met, she cleaved off my arm and I castrated her, took her balls and tucked them into my robes. For safekeeping, I told her, and she nodded. We’d always had an understanding, Dongfang Bubai and I. She wanted to swallow the world and I wanted to ruin it, but the Jade Emperor had had enough and told us to give up. You’ve grown too great together. Either stay and change or leave with nothing and start again, he said, and so we decided to leave and start over. She fucked me and I fucked her, and then we made a plan. Your arm for safekeeping, she told me, sucking my fingers, and when she nodded, I shoved them down her throat, till they bouqueted around her breath. Her drool dried briny around my wrist, ringing it. For a moment, I wished for it to dry red—just like that string of fate— but then her incisors clamped down to meet my lifeline. Fuck, I spat, and she gurgle-laughed till I drew out my fingers, my hand, my wrist. Fuck, I said again, and she echoed me. Fuck.
That’s when we did it. She pressed her blade, the one she’d found mountainside, monk-blessed and gleaming, right where my arm socketed into shoulder. She rubbed at the spot, thumbing the bowl of cartilage and bone. She leaned in close. My love, she breathed. 阿亭。 She told me to count to three:
一、 二 、 三—
—but I blinked on the 三。
And so I missed how she did it, how she sliced on the exhale, ripping away my arm in a single arc—the way a man’s head rolls forwards, never backwards, when you slice from behind the jugular. Once, she and I had fought together, cheeks facing where the Ru River swirls into the Huai. We’d killed men, hordes of them, by counting: 一、 二 、 三—
—then nothing. Then heads stolen from bodies, riders stolen from their saddles.
What happened to us? The centuries, maybe. Immortality plays tricks on the mind. After Dongfang Bubai took my arm, she made me reach between her legs. Gave me a dagger and told me to un-seam her there. Why?
Power. I choose power, she whispered. Don’t you want to master the needle arts too?
I shook my head. No. I tired of destruction. All those years of carnage. Maybe I wanted to wander. Maybe I was frightened of what it’d mean to be powerful. I could already see Dongfang Bubai stretching through time, arcing away from me, from us. She’d always been the more ambitious one, with dreams of a world greater than ours.
Do it. Please, she said.
Dongfang Bubai didn’t cry when I sank the dagger between her thighs. She only cried when it was over, when I patted the freshly knit skin, tight and full like the bottom of a rich man’s purse. Please, she cried, and so I nudged aside a knee and dipped my head down, where I flicked what remained with my tongue. I kissed her. I gifted her my blade, pressing her fingers into the hilt where we once notched our names.
We parted afterwards. Where did she go? I don’t know. I felt lost without her. Without my blade, I shriveled. I became a wet flag of a wuxia, a ghost of my original self, and I roamed through the years. When I couldn’t take it anymore, I lay down in the desert until my body fell off my skeleton. Out of pity, or perhaps out of shame, the Jade Emperor fashioned me a new body. Did he make it out of clay? No. I’m sand-limbed. Memory-glued. The Jade Emperor jigsawed together images of a life I’d thrown away until I became a pocket of a person, memory and painted skin woven around a howling emptiness.
It hurt and it hurt and it didn’t stop hurting.
Why had I set out alone?
Why had I been so frightened of power?
After all, it’d fed us for so long.
So I set out once more.
I wade through a shifting landscape, tipping my head into the air and willing my new feet and knees and hips towards the memory of her. When I find Dongfang Bubai, I almost laugh. Aisle 8. Butter, yogurt, ice cream. Fat, sour, and sweet. She’s gripping the handle of the freezer door, one wrist bathed in the glow of modern convenience, like milk running down a bruise. She turns toward me as I blink.
「阿亭？」 Her face curls around my name. In this century, she’s glossed her lips and she purses them for me to see. I stare. She looks like every other woman at the supermarket, but I can smell her killing intent—still so familiar to me, after all this time. And besides, her shadow has always liked me. It tugs at me now, pooling across the tiled floor and nipping at my robes.
Should I reach out? I do.
She shudders when I rest my palm along the swoop of her cheek. Maybe she’s thinking about the way her teeth had felt long ago. Could these be the same teeth that had once punched moons into my skin? They look softer now, as if she’s ground them down. My lifeline itches. My heartline is quiet.
Come back with me, she says, and I nod. How could I not? She lives a block away, right above an osteopathy clinic. Osteopathy?
Yes, osteopathy. Bone-setting. She grins, her shadow nudging mine as we climb up one flight of stairs, then another. The air chases us with the sound of wronged bones being righted.
Her flat is nondescript. Small. Bowed with dampness, the walls hug the ceiling. The kitchen is dark, and I watch as she glides across its pebbled floor, reaching for the kettle. Slowly, I recall her hunger, how we drooled as she steeped and boiled it, then let it spill over. That vast hunger for the world.
My hips buckle when she tells me to sit; my neck tingles when she offers me tea—red as the Ru River. Strong as the Huai. Still, I say yes. My mouth can’t help but make that shape for her. Yes. She hands me a cup and brims it with bitterness. When our fingers brush, her nails sliver along my wrist, drawing blood. I begin to sob, but the sound comes out strange and misshapen, like a horse halved from its gallop.
She leans in close, her thighs touching mine. Her mouth is wide like a ditch and I tell her that I can still love her with my tongue if she wants. I whisper that I still have her balls, but she probably doesn’t need them, right? I can tell from her hands that she’s mastered the needle arts.
Suddenly, I ache to learn. Maybe I, too, want to swallow the world, rub my belly against her own, full and warm and stitched with red. Maybe I, too, want power. Can you show me too?
Ah, you only had to ask. Come here. She brings me to the bedroom, and there on her bed rest the needles. Rests my blade. I see the bones of the arm from a body that’s no longer mine, and I lie down like I did in the desert: palms bald and beholden to the sky, eyelids folded. She cradles my head and kisses me, long and slow. Do it, I say, blinking away my nervousness. You can even do it slowly.
After the first time we fucked, she pissed on me. A whim. It had felt sacred, hot and vicious, and we’d laughed as the piss slid down onto my waiting tongue. That’s what it feels like right now. She finds my mouth as she guides my blade into the realm of me. She gutters me, in-in-in. She strokes my face the entire time. My world, she whispers, 阿亭、and we laugh. I think about all those years I wasted, alone and wandering, as I sink into her mouth. My whole world. You’ve always been my world. The room cracks. Our bones set.