Before they took you, we were watching the stream ripple as the gentle breeze caressed its surface. We tied our ox to a dove tree next to where we were sitting by the edge of the water. This was the time of day I loved most when you and I stopped by the river on our way home from a long day in the maize field during harvest season.
Though we work the land, we do not own it. And though we have private thoughts, we do not own our bodies. Huangdi owns all.
It was the first time you told me about jinli magic and the first time you showed me your true form. At that moment, father, you were more magnificent than Huangdì with your inked fins moving with the water, scales catching in the sun.
My feet dipped into the water, cool against sunburned skin, and drifted to the left from the pressure of the current. My fingers fiddled with my straw-weaved sandals tossed beside me. The water looked deeper, darker today. Your face looked overcast, though the sun had not yet started setting, and there were only a few clouds, but they were barely there and sat almost translucent against the blue of the sky.
You took off your clothes and folded them neatly, placing them beside me before diving into the rippling currents of the stream. It was so sudden, I could do nothing but stare. My hands cold like the water. Your body morphed into one much smaller, magnificent white with black ink: a jinli. The magic intrigued me, but only for a moment, because with a sudden change the currents became too strong, too violent for you to swim against. It carried you away as you thrashed, or was it only pretend? Your fins disappeared in a flurry of white.
My bare feet kicked grass and dirt behind me as I scrambled after you. I stumbled several times over the uneven ground below the mountains. You told me that magic could not be used unless you are calm. I wondered if you were calm while you were carried away. And if you were, why did you not come back?
When you disappeared too far for me to follow, I returned to where your clothes lay and hid them in the bushes near the stream. You would need them when you find your way back.
I whisper into the water: I wish for your safe return.
* * *
You never taught me the jinli magic. How could I follow you?
I now return to the place where you left me and whisper daily into the water. I know there is little chance you can hear me, but the water always has its way of carrying a message. Water travels much greater distances than our bodies.
The villagers murmur about how Huangdi is paying high prices for those who can bring him jinli yu because jinli symbolizes wealth, power, bravery and such based on colour. I wonder, father, are you brave? You never told me what each of the colours means.
* * *
If someone found you and took you to the palace, you were no doubt fluttering under the waterfall, as you often do when you needed to be alone. You never noticed, but I always knew where you were because that is where mother disappeared.
You told me that jinli could swim up waterfalls, but only those brave enough, strong enough, determined enough. You are convinced that mother is at the top. I know this was not true, but you would not believe me. She could not be on the top of the waterfall because I saw her red-scaled body drifting downstream, luring the collectors away from you while I hid in the forest until you found me. We don’t blame one another; we only blame ourselves.
Father, you cannot find her over the waterfall. But perhaps you already know and that is why you jumped into the water that day even though the currents were unsafe. Did you want Huangdi’s collectors to find you?
* * *
The villagers tell me that the jinli festival will be hosted at the palace soon at the end of the year. Huangdi will release all the jinli yu he has collected in his pond. Jinli, the people like you and me. Will you return then?
I whisper to you again through the water, the trickle of the stream, the currents. My whispers are disruptions to the calm stillness in the middle of the night. I whisper my words to the currents in hopes they will carry my thoughts to you, but it is difficult when I am whispering upstream. The downward currents are unkind. But all the streams surrounding the villages lead to Huangdi’s pond, though iron bars are blocking where the water flows outwards from the palace.
I return to our spot by the stream and place my clothes by yours in the bushes. My naked body cuts through the water, and I pray I am capable of magic before I hit the rocks at the bottom. I see the rocks and graze past them as the currents carry me downstream. Where others pray for opaque water to hide their colours, I hope, like my mother, I will be eye-catching enough to draw attention.
Wait for me, father.
* * *
You told me that no one is born free. Freedom cannot be earned, but often bought instead. True freedom, you said, does not exist. Are you free in the calm waters of Huangdi’s pond? When will you forgo the calmness, the illusion of the calm, artificial pond and return to the irregular, rushing currents that carry you to the rest of us? The waters like the fields we tread against daily, feeling almost a sense of contentment in the struggle, rather than floating downstream with ease. For us, the struggle is normal.
When I think about your glassy eyes and inked scales when you disappeared, I understand why you never believed in true freedom. But unlike you, I believe it exists even if we must sacrifice our humanity for it, much like how Huangdi sacrifices his humanity for wealth and power.
You said what makes us different from the nobles and the royals is not our magic but our values: we value hard work, they value unearned wealth.
You told me that we become spirits when we can no longer turn human again. But even spirits must battle against the winds that threaten to carry them away.
* * *
When they find me by the waterfall, whispering the names of both you and mother, I know I will meet you soon. But will you still be there, or will you have become a spirit?
* * *
As the festival continues and the nobles sway, drunk with wine. Our tails cut through the pond’s still water. We make it look so weak compared to the rushing streams in the mountains. But this freedom feels false, unnatural, constructed. Unsatisfactory. Unearned. There cannot be freedom without the struggle. But father, you believe you have struggled enough.
I watch you swim, aimless, in the distance near a small waterfall. A waterfall that is hand-crafted rather than natural. It is smaller than the one you usually visit near the mountains. Your inked body thrashes against the current that is keeping you from climbing the fall while the rest of us dance in the calm water, not because that is what Huangdi wants to see, but we dance because we can. It is only during this festival where we can believe that we are somewhere else, someone else, even if it is only for a moment. And only a moment is enough.
Father, why do you struggle to remain the same, but in a different place?
* * *
When the festival concludes, all the jinli yu, including myself, gather by the iron bars where the pond connects to the outer streams. With a booming laugh, Huangdi calls for the guards to open the pond gates. I now understand that he does this only so he can catch us again the following year when we most desire rest; when we no longer desire to swim against the current.
Without effort, the downwards current pulls us along the stream once we are outside the palace walls. I turn back and catch sight of you, still trying to swim up the hand-crafted waterfall. Alongside the other villagers, I leave you behind. Once a safe distance away from the palace, each jinli transforms back into their human forms and climbs out of the water one by one. They wave to the rest of us after fumbling to pull on the clothes they hid.
Father, you cannot stay at the palace forever.
* * *
I lean back on my hands at our usual spot by the stream with my feet cutting through the calm water. It has been almost a year since the festival, and I have been hard at work, harvesting the crops in the maize fields. The crops that you left behind, do not worry father, are thriving.
* * *
The festival is approaching again. The palace men take my harvests to Huangdi, leaving me with only enough to survive. Sometimes, I think about the jinli magic, and you under the waterfall at the palace, but I know I will not hide my clothes by yours and enter the water again.
No matter what jinli I had become last year, our magic is only meant for a temporary rather than permanent solution to our daily, mundane battles. We cannot swim up waterfalls with magic alone.
Perhaps next year, you will return. And father, I whisper into the water, I will wait at the top of the waterfall. Turns out mother is already there like you said, but only you, father, could never figure out how to get there. You were never be brave enough to let go of the past. No matter how hard you swam against the rapids of the fall, you made not progress. To find mother, we have to let her go.
When I raise my face from the water, I see a dragon jinli yu with swirling colours symbolizing bravery, strength, and determination, dancing where my reflection should have been.
Soon, I will join mother on top of the waterfall, while you, father, continue to flutter at the bottom.