(First draft for inclusion in Neon Blue)
She chews for a moment. “Did I ever tell you about my great-great grandfather?”
I shake my head.
“His name was Duàn Lú, and because he was the son of a magician, people were always coming to him and asking him to fix things, even though he had no magic himself and was so poor that he worked his own rice fields. One day a beautiful woman came walking down the Great Wall of Qi, carrying a broken basket. She brought the basket to Duàn Lú and told him that she’d put her heart in the basket and given it to her lover as a gift, but her lover had been unfaithful and the basket had broken and she’d lost her heart. Duàn Lú was so moved by her story that he offered to help her mend the basket, even though he had no magic and it was time to harvest his rice. So he went to banks of the Huang He, the Yellow River, and gathered reeds for the basket. The woman gathered with him and as they worked, he saw her legs through the water. Where the hem of her kimono had floated up, he could see fox legs and he realized what she was, a huli jing. A fox spirit. But he said nothing, and they took the reeds back to his house and repaired the basket. When the basket was so tight that it would hold even water, he filled it with the little rice he’d harvested and gave it to her and said, ‘now this basket holds my heart.’ And the huli jing was so moved that she married Duàn Lú and bore him a son. The son grew quickly and soon went to help Duàn Lú in the rice fields, and as they worked, Duàn Lú saw his son’s feet through the water and saw that he had fox paws like his mother. Duàn Lú’s heart broke and he took his son back to the huli jing and told her what he’d seen. The huli jing said nothing but the next day, when she sent Duàn Lú and her son out into the fields, she gave Duàn Lú the old basket and told him to take out the rice and sprinkle it in the water. And he did and when he looked at his son’s feet through the water, he saw only human feet. And his heart was filled with happiness and he went back to his house to tell his wife, but she was gone.”
“Never to be heard from again,” I say, guessing where this is going.
“And Duàn Lú?”
“Died of a broken heart.”
I pour two cups of coffee and hold one out to Lin. “People only die of broken hearts in stories.”
Lin takes a sip and nods. “True. Convenient, really. I’ve always thought it would be worse to live. Realizing what you’ve lost.”