I. SAM SUI.
The dragons stole Little Phoenix’s sister on the way to the British port of Singapore, snatching her from the deck of the Kwangtung Mariner as it struggled in the belly of a storm.
1892 had been a bad year for seafarers. So many dragon-worms survived the spawning season that the seas across the warmer parts of the world seemed to churn with their gelatinous bodies, serrated teeth destroying everything in their path. Fishermen’s boats went out in the morning and came back empty driftwood torn with holes. Stilt houses fell whole into the sea with their occupants, foundations razored away to nothing. Coastal cities closed their ports to all but airships and erected walls to keep hungry mouths away from the soft flesh of populace.
In the sisters’ home village of Sam Sui (called Shan Shui in the capital) the old women had blamed the surge of dragon-worms on the wrath of the dragon princes. When their mother had still been alive, she would tell Jade and Little Phoenix stories about those four princes—North! South! East! West!—living under the waves in grand stone palaces, inlaid with pearls and all kinds of precious gems, a world away from the human life they knew. The princes took the forms of both men and full-grown dragons, thousands of feet long, with far-seeing eyes that glowed like urn fires. All the creatures of the sea served them, their mother whispered, fishes and turtles and crustaceans. But none more fiercely than the dragon-worms, their foot soldiers.
Little Phoenix loved those stories, lapped them up, spent afternoons in the mulberry fields with Jade swapping tales they made up about the lives of the dragon princes. Their imaginations conjured up great and noble figures who fought wars with each other, had petty competitions, and even quarreled with the higher gods sometimes.
But why they were punishing humankind, no one knew.
When it happened the Kwangtung Mariner was enveloped in a storm a thousand feet in the air. The captain had taken the ship on a detour around the tip of the Malayan peninsula to avoid the tempest, but it had caught them fast, tendrils of grey suddenly turning into stinging suffocating wet and ship-tossing howls of wind.
Little Phoenix and Jade had come up onto the deck to lean over the railings and point out the crooked diamond shape of their destination to each other with excited yells. What happened next Little Phoenix remembered in nebulous blurs of turbulence, thunderclaps, and saltwater burn in her eyes. Blinding lightning flash—the sudden sharp lurch of the deck—and screams from the other passengers. Jade’s frightened eyes and her mouth an open O as she fell away.
Little Phoenix grabbed her sister’s arm as the ship tilted and she went overboard.
Centuries ago, their little village in Sam Sui had replaced paddy fields with rows and rows of mulberry trees, and the villagers bought rice and livestock by exporting the fine brocaded silks they were famous for. People grew brown and strong tending to the trees and their gelatinous crop, writhing and white as they ate calligraphy into the veins of leaves. No one tended better to silkworms and their cocoons than the women of Sam Sui, who spent their entire lives dedicated to the art of silk-making, trading husbands for Jacquard looms and the prospect of children for walls of boxes filled with moths, their wings the colour of ash.
But the dragon epidemic had hit them hard. Disrupted trade halved silk orders while raising the prices of even the simplest things. Meanwhile the rich found a new luxury fabric in the skins of the dragon worms. Harvesting the creatures was not hard, if you had hovercraft and spears enough, and a roaring trade sprang up in the East Indies with tanned, scarred men returning from sea with dozens of dragon-worm carcasses in the bellies of their flying craft. Many women blamed dragonskin for the drop in demand in moth-silk, but it was really just the final stone that broke the pot.
Farms ran out of money to tend the mulberry orchards. Crops dried up, harvests yielded only weak and draggly spools of once-fine silk. Stomachs went empty. Desperation mounted. People, young people, began to leave the village for opportunities elsewhere.
Boards crushed up against her ribs, burning water whipped into her eyes, and Jade’s fingers clawed into her arm as her legs dangled. Little Phoenix sobbed as the weight of her little sister wrenched at her shoulder and pulled her half over the ship’s edge.
A long white shape reached out of the ocean, rising a thousand feet up, water sluicing off iridescent scales. Its head was massive, the size of a house, with a deeply wrinkled nose.
A flash of horns and tourmaline eyes. A piercing cry of pain from Jade. Then she was gone.
Little Phoenix opened her mouth and lungs to scream. Blood welled over her wrists where Jade’s hand used to be, skin broken and flesh gouged in long tracks.
Back in Sam Sui a steady stream of suitors had tried to court the two sisters after their mother had died, despite the fact that both had chosen to take the silkworker’s vows of chastity. Whispers carried on wind reached their ears: The silk trade was dying and what more could a pair of orphaned sisters heading into their twenties—and unmarriageability—do with themselves? Their family savings had been emptied to pay for medicines for their mother.
It was Little Phoenix who had her eye fixed on distant shores, the islands of the South Seas, booming with trade even in these hard times. Many young women from Sam Sui had already left, for Singapore, for Melaka, for fortune and glory. Little Phoenix had declared, arm around Jade, that she would rather work as a labourer in the Nanyang than see them both take husbands. Jade agreed. She did not want to go where her older sister did not. Their grandmother, convinced by the conviction in their voices, pawned her dowry to buy them two tickets on the Kwangtung Mariner.
Someone pulled her back over the edge. She fell against the deck, and the distinct memory of rough and rain-slick wood under her palms burned into her mind. Someone else—a deckhand, a man, had asked if she was alright, and she could not answer because all she had in her were high-pitched breathy sobs.
A long-faced old woman had grabbed her bleeding arm, grinding bones together: “She’s been taken. The dragon prince took her,” she said, her deep-set eyes never blinking. Little Phoenix had not seen the old woman again after that, but she knew it was the truth. Jade was gone. Her little sister, whom she had sworn to protect, was gone.
Her mother had once said that to talk to someone who lived under the sea you had to fill a basin with water and say their name three times. As soon as she was able, Little Phoenix walked to the Thieves’ Market in Singapore and came back clutching a shallow copper washbasin, bought with a share of the meagre sum she had brought from home.
Her sister’s name slipped from her mouth like a prayer split into three sounds.
I thought I’d never see you again, she said, when Jade’s wan face appeared in the surface of the water.
I thought the same, Jade said.
The prince of the South Seas had locked Jade in a stone cell with no windows and no doors. She hadn’t had anything to eat except the elixir to let her live underwater. She was so lonely and cold.
He is not what we imagined, sister, Jade said, her voice a bare fraction of its usual birdlike volume.
I will come for you, Little Phoenix swore. I will scour the earth and find a way to reach you under the ocean.
You mustn’t tell anyone about this, Jade warned. The dragon prince has spies everywhere. Ask only those who would know better.
I will be careful, Little Phoenix said. She repeated it three times.
Tell me a story, like you used to, Jade said.
So Little Phoenix spoke about the boy who fell in love with a sad-eyed girl by the sea. Every night she would coax him nearer and nearer to the shore, until one day he stood in the boundary of the waves. She beckoned him further, but as he put one foot into the ocean white hands rose towards him, and in panic, he ran. When he told what had happened, an elder revealed that the girl was the spirit of someone who had drowned many years ago, looking for someone to take her place. A priest cleansed the waters and set her spirit free, but this saddened the boy too, for he had truly loved her.
In the past, Jade might have said, “That’s morbid,” and hit her older sister in the arm. Now she just looked sad.
Little Phoenix had found lodging with a dozen other Sam Sui women, in a rented room crammed honeycomb-like in a shop house perched along teeming quays. It had raw wooden floors, no running water or electricity, and smelled of kerosene and river sewage on hot days. She had been taken in by Miss Soong, who had lived in a neighbouring village and was the daughter of a woman on good terms with Little Phoenix’s grandmother. She, too, had been a passenger on the Kwangtung Mariner.
In the mornings men came to the five-foot way under the shop house with jobs. With their broad shoulders and callused palms, toughened by years of carrying bales of silk, the women of Sam Sui were not afraid of hard work. The construction sites that blossomed across the growing colony were peppered by their distinctive red hats and blue work aprons, easy to spot even from the decks of airships that whirled overhead.
In between work and sleep Little Phoenix hunted for ways to save her sister, trawling the narrow alleyways of Singapore by foot, elbow-to-elbow with rickshaw pullers and men with sacks of spice on their backs and European merchants in their starchy layers of clothing. But none of the people she’d talked to—the woman who swept the temple grounds, the apothecary with his jars of ginseng and powdered horns, the old man spitting streams of betel nut juice, who had told her about the legend of Redhill—could tell her how to bargain with dragons. A well-dressed man, carrying a heavy box with a glass window, said something about villagers’ tales and how stories could seep into the real world. He then asked Little Phoenix if he could make an image of her with his box. He was of no help at all.
The Sam Sui women found most work with the construction site along Beach Road. Singapore’s dragon-warding wall, stretching along the island’s south coast from the sandy swamps in the east to the wilderness of the west, had been hastily erected with bamboo—just like in the legend of Redhill. But the bamboo was storm-battered and no one was sure how long it would hold. Labourers had been called in to reinforce the wall with fifteen-foot layers of brick and masonry.
On site, the women’s task was to carry wicker baskets of bricks to the builders. Little Phoenix welcomed their weight cutting into the flesh of her shoulders: The dull ache of industry was an old friend.
One afternoon Miss Soong beckoned to her at lunch, and they climbed to the top with their tins of porridge tucked into the front of their samfoos. The sun pressed heat across their cotton-clad shoulders and glazed the top of the grey sea with false translucence. Little Phoenix imagined the massive body of the dragon prince rising from the surface, but the sea was too calm for that. From their perch the women could see the bronze-bellied hovercrafts at work, flattening circles of water with their powerful blades, men with spears spilling downwards like pearls on strings.
Little Phoenix watched as one of the men lunged and thrust his massive spear, a dozen feet long, deep beneath the water’s surface. Other men swarmed hand-over-hand towards him, and together they hauled a dragon-worm out of the water, writhing and impaled. Even from a distance she could see the magnitude of the forces at play, the way six men were barely able to keep the thrashing creature under control.
“See,” said Miss Soong, “We take back as much as they do from us. We hunt too.”
But the dragon worms were only foot soldiers, Little Phoenix thought, and they could kill a thousand and it would be barely a dent in the armies of the prince of the South Sea.
“There’s something interesting,” said Miss Soong, hand outstretched, and where her finger pointed lay an ugly, crooked outcropping of rock in the waters, as if someone had smashed a giant glass bottle and left it there. “Have you heard the story of the Dragon’s Teeth Gate? You have not?
“A long time ago these rocks used to be pillars of granite. Some said they were markers left by the prince of the South Sea to mark his territory to passing ships. When the white men came they blasted the rocks to pieces so their big ships could come into the harbor.
“The prince of the South Sea took it as a sign of war and sent his worms to attack humans in revenge. Legend says they won’t stop until they’ve taken enough to replace the gate they’ve lost.”
Little Phoenix stood up suddenly. “An exchange,” she breathed.
“Probably.” Miss Soong looked up at her. “Is there something wrong?”
“Nothing, nothing,” said Little Phoenix, sitting down again. She said nothing more, mind and belly full of churning thoughts.
That night Little Phoenix lit a stump of a candle and filled her copper basin.
Have you found a way to save me? Jade asked, after she appeared.
Oh yes, I have. Listen, little sister: Humans destroyed the dragon prince’s magnificent granite gate and he is still angry. I will return him some of the granite he lost in exchange for you.
But where will you find it?
There are granite quarries looking for work. I will go, and steal a piece home every day. They will never know. Will you wait? Can you wait?
Jade nodded. Little Phoenix could not tell if this news made her excited or not. Will you tell me another story? she asked.
Little Phoenix told her a story she had recently heard, about the mousedeer and how it tricked the crocodiles into letting it cross the river on their scaly backs. Jade listened attentively but said nothing, the smile across her face developing only slowly, like a stream wearing into stone.
Miss Soong did not approve of Little Phoenix’s decision to work in the quarries. “Are you sure? Their day’s wage is only half of what the men on the wall pay.”
“It’s what I want.”
“I’ve not meant to ask this, but I am quite worried. I hear you talking at night. Are you really okay?”
“I am.” Little Phoenix could not be swayed from it.
The quarry was in the middle of the island, shadeless, and full of coolies. They were mostly men from Fujian, who talked and joked in a dialect that Little Phoenix only understood poorly. But she could pull her weight and that was what mattered. The dust and the heat, the skin-stripping roughness of the granite, the deafening sound of explosions to fell rock: She bore it all with the determination of a woman possessed.
That evening she put a large chunk of granite into the front pocket of her work apron. No one noticed. Little Phoenix took it back to the little room, where it went into a pilfered wicker basket under her bed.
So it went. One rock every day. The wicker basket filled up, but not fast enough. In their nightly conversations Jade grew quieter and quieter, sometimes not speaking at all for minutes. Her eyes were always sorrowful, like something that might sink slowly to the bottom of a river.
Little Phoenix would tell her of little pleasures: Finding a fragrant, tender scrap of meat in the day’s porridge, the exquisite texture of a new batch of silk that just arrived on the country’s shores, or the joy she found in a child’s marble with swirls of coloured glass in it.
Sometimes she would talk about the men who worked in the quarry. One of them, Lee, had gone on a monologue about the awfulness of airships, how they could barely carry any cargo, and were unsafe for passengers, too. Why, just last week a young girl fell out of one and drowned as it was docking here at Boat Quay. “She had a sister, too,” he had said. Little Phoenix did not tell Jade that at the word “sister”, she felt a twinge in her chest and had to turn away. It was as if the word itself had been poisoned, sending sorrow into her body.
Finally, sometimes Little Phoenix would tell Jade about her nightmares. She had one where cocoons tumbled from great height into boiling water, steam erupting from its churning peaks. Trapped silkworms screamed as the waves closed over them while white filaments unravelled in spools, like the hair of a drowned corpse. Little Phoenix woke from those dreams coated in a layer of sweat, as if she were the one who had been boiled alive.
Still Jade said nothing.
One Sunday afternoon she walked to Little India, where the letter-writers worked, to send a message back to her grandmother back home in Sam Sui, where someone would read it for her. Little Phoenix said that everything was alright in Singapore. There was lodging and work, rice every day, and sometimes, scraps of meat. She did not mention Jade’s captivity. She was certain that by the time the letter reached her grandmother she would have gotten Jade back, safe and sound.
III. THE SEA
Rain slanted hard against the shop house’s roof the night Little Phoenix filled the wicker basket to its brim. By then Jade had long stopped speaking, locked into silence, only nodding solemnly to what her older sister said. Little Phoenix let all the other women fall asleep before she filled the washbasin with water.
I’m taking the stones to the shore tonight, she said.
Jade nodded, but only barely, so frozen and heavy it seemed her face had become. Little Phoenix realized she had forgotten what her sister’s voice sounded like, and that brought a burning sensation to her throat and the corners of her eyes. She forced herself to swallow: Her journey was almost over. Soon she would be able to embrace Jade in her arms again.
Outside in the storm, Little Phoenix struggled with her burden, mud sucking at her calves and bullets of rain stinging her cheeks. Her shoulders and back were warm with pain by the time she reached the dragon-warding wall, a hundred handspans she had to climb with a full person’s weight in stone strapped to her back in a cloth sling.
She reached the top with her chest tight with exhaustion and legs barely able to support her. She still had to find slippery handholds on the other side of the wall to get to the real shoreline. Little Phoenix sank down on her haunches and leaned against the wooden construction scaffolding, eyes shut. She needed to catch her breath first. Rain dripped into her collar and threaded paths down her skin under her clothes.
When breathing no longer hurt Little Phoenix got to her feet again. The sea seemed impossibly far below, crashing as angry foam against the ribbed stolidity of the wall. She took one step and her foot slipped; with a lurch she was off-balance, and if she hadn’t grabbed the scaffolding she would have fallen to her death into the roiling sea. The wind picked up, and drove saltwater into Little Phoenix’s eyes, making it hard to see.
She climbed downwards.
By the time Little Phoenix reached the water’s edge her fingertips were raw and her trousers were cut to ribbons. The sea bit her wounds more sharply than the rocks had and dragged at her like hungry hands in a crowd. The aching burn in Little Phoenix’s legs was a telltale sign: Nothing like the bone-ground exhaustion at the end of a hard day’s work and more like the guttering of a candle down to its last drops of wax.
“I’m here!” Little Phoenix shouted over the sound of lashing water. She held out a lump of granite over the water, like an offering. “Give me back my sister!”
Little Phoenix would never figure out what drew them: Her shouting or her blood, or maybe something else in the water. But they came, breaking the water’s dark surface in glistening humps, distinguishable from the waves only by their gelatinous, translucent skins. Dragon-worms, like monstrous versions of the moth caterpillars she knew so well. They were so close, she could see them even through the sea-spray in her eyes.
One surfaced just ten feet from her. Its head was twice the size of a horse’s and in a flash of lightning Little Phoenix saw its mouth yawn open to rows and rows of serrated teeth. In panic, she hurled the granite rock at it and it sank beneath the waves. She threw a second one, just in case.
“Dragon prince! I’ve come to return your stones to you! Why do you send your soldiers after me?”
No answer, no giant white curve rising from the tempestuous sea. More worms were coming for her, more than she could fend off. Little Phoenix ran for the wall. Desperation fueled her as she stumbled over stone and surf, knowing that thousands of teeth waited if she should fall.
She reached the wall and scrabbled upwards, finding a teetering balance spot just out of reach of the gnashing teeth that had gathered.
“Dragon prince! I ask for nothing! Only the return of my sister. She has done nothing, release her from your prison!
“Dragon prince! You came for my sister then, why will you not come now?”
Something was wrong. There was a yawning gap in Little Phoenix’s plan, a gap that she, in all her storytelling wisdom, had failed to see and failed to fill. What went into the gulf between bringing the stones to the sea, and her sister rising from the waves in return?
A dragon-worm hit her legs and Little Phoenix felt the sting of teeth. Only through mercy did the sensation remain brief, as the dragon-worm fell away, tossed by the surf. The pain jerked her out of immobility. Up she climbed in retreat, scrabbling against the salt-slimy surface, arms and legs moving without thought.
This was all too familiar: The storm, the salt in her eyes, the feeling of rough wood on her hands. Dormant images she had suppressed rose and bubbled and crashed as she climbed, each handhold filling gaps with thick and terrible memory.
Step up: Jade, by her side as the ship lurched. Step up: Jade, losing her balance and falling over the railing.
Step up: Jade’s fingers clasped around her arm, Jade’s fingers slipping despite everything—
Step up. Jade’s hair forming a cloud around her face as she fell, far far down towards the black surface of the sea until her screams vanished. Empty sea, blank sea, no mythical dragon princes rising up to keep her and save her from her fate.
What the coolies had said, Miss Soong’s concern, the well-dressed man’s talk of stories seeping into reality: It all made sense now, like an imago emerging from a cocoon and taking hardened form. Jade had not been taken. She had never been taken. Little Phoenix had made up a story for herself because she couldn’t bear what she had lost.
She crawled up onto the top of the wall on her hands and knees. Her chest hurt. Her throat hurt. Every part of her hurt.
“Jade,” she shouted, “Jade, Jade.” Little Phoenix looked over the churning sea, wanting so badly for Jade’s face to appear there, to hear her forgotten voice saying she was waiting still. But there was nothing. Nothing, nothing, Jade was gone, and the only things left to her were the white storm peaks, as though the sea were boiling.
She remembered her mother’s funeral just then, a poorly formed memory of how she, as eldest daughter, had burned joss paper as the priest sang the rites. Ash the colour of moth wings had risen and whirled into the sky, out of sight. That day she had told Jade that her mother’s spirit was free, like a moth emerging from a cocoon, and for the silkworms every moth was a victory because it would go on in existence, even if it left them.
Little Phoenix had a choice. She could fall into the water and be dissolved, or she could shed her burdens and fly.
She did not come here to die.
Little Phoenix loosened her sling and eased herself out of it, knowing what she must do. She picked up the largest remaining stone and flung it over the edge into the unsettled ocean. It vanished beneath the surface of the water as if never existed. Then she picked up another and did the same, and another, and another.
One by one the stones she had collected went into the ocean. The last piece hit the roiling surface with a huge splash before it, too, became nothing. A sister’s weight in stone, swallowed by the hungry waters. All that remained was the pain in her shoulders and back, a reminder of the terrible strain they had been under. Little Phoenix picked up the empty sling and hugged it to her chest like a child. The storm was petering out. It was done.