The story, like many stories of lifetimes, began with the birth of a child. The child was the firstborn of the heir to the Mo family, the old man said, a family that had lived by the mountain and the lake for many generations and had always been known for its wealth. To the delight of the whole family, the boy was beautiful, with lashes thick and soft, so his grandfather named him Qingyu, a dark feather.
When Qingyu was seven weeks old, the Double Ninth Festival arrived. It was said that evil was strongest on that day of the year, so like everyone else in the village, the Mo family visited their ancestors’ graves for blessing. Everyone in the family went: Qingyu on the chest of his wet nurse, his young and graceful mother, his respected father, his father’s parents and their other children and children’s children, and many servants.
Afterward, they headed for the mountain. The closer they got to the sky, they believed, the more protected they were from evil. But when they were high on the mountain, the clouds turned dark and the wind grew strong. Qingyu cried, screaming with his eyes wide open, till his mother held him to her own chest. Then the rain came and with the rain, lightning and thunder. When people found that lightning had struck Qingyu’s mother, she was already dead, but in her arms the boy was quiet and alive.
It was a time when people still believed that lightning came from a just deity and it only hit a living thing when there was evil in it. But everyone in the village knew that Qingyu’s mother was the most virtuous woman who’d ever walked before mortal eyes, so what could’ve been evil in her? The only answer was the boy.
Suddenly people said that on the day the boy was born, there was a brightness with ominous tails sweeping through the sky, that the only reason the lightning had hit the mother but had not killed the boy was that the evil in him was stronger than the power of the lightning god, and that the boy would grow into a monster one day and drag down everyone around him, starting with his own family.
It so happened that on the seventh day after Qingyu’s mother had died, Qingyu’s father was found dead before a mirror in his room. In despair, Qingyu’s grandparents brought the boy with them and went deep into the mountain wilderness, to see an old woman who was said to have the vision of immortal eyes. The woman confirmed their fear. She said that they’d all die because of the boy, and he would be engulfed by his own evil in the end.
“But there is hope,” she also said, her eyes bloodshot, her lips pale with her words. “Whoever has fed milk to the boy could save you, and the power is in her blood. Marry a girl of that woman’s blood to him, or kill him now.”
Baoying’s father had been a poor fisherman, but he’d had a wife, who in his eyes was as perfect as a human could be. Baoying had been nine when her father woke up one morning and found half of his bed cold. He went to many places to look for his wife, but never did he hear her voice again. One day, however, he saw her face in the water of the lake. He jumped into the water, but the face was always out of his reach. As he chased after the face, he went deeper and deeper into the lake until he was too far down ever to return.
Baoying’s father had two brothers, but neither of them was willing to raise the orphan girl. Baoying’s mother had an elder sister, who had a soft heart and took the girl to her own home. That sister was now Qingyu’s wet nurse, but she had only been a servant back then. She had been married for years but had no child when Baoying came to her home. Within a year after Baoying arrived, a healthy boy was born to her. She believed it was Baoying who had brought her the son, and had treated her as her own daughter from then on.
So when Qingyu’s grandparents asked the wet nurse for Baoying and promised her great fortune in exchange, she hesitated. But she had also grown attached to Qingyu. She could not bear to see this infant boy killed just because his parents had died strange deaths. In the end she agreed. Soon the twelve-year-old Baoying and the three-month-old Qingyu got married.
Baoying had grown to look very much like her mother: a pair of peach-petal-shaped eyes above her rosy cheeks, sleek hair against a neck that was like the white stem of a green onion. Qingyu's eyes opened wide at Baoying the first time he saw her, on their wedding night. From then on, he would not go to sleep anywhere other than in her arms.
For two years, peace was restored to the Mo family, until one night, Baoying woke up to a great fire. She carried Qingyu with her and ran through the fire to the outside, seeing on her way that red lanterns and mahogany tables and silk curtains were all burning, and that her servants were dead. Every living soul of the Mo family died in that fire, everyone except for Qingyu and Baoying, the baby husband and girl wife.
Now they had nowhere to stay, and the neighbors would not give any help to an evil like that. So Baoying took Qingyu and went to a new place, far away from the mountain and the lake. She never abandoned the child or sought to remarry.
Baoying endured the hardship of a single mother, and she loved Qingyu as a mother, but as he grew, she came to love him also as a woman. Having raised him herself, she felt he belonged to her completely, more completely than a child to his parent or a man to his wife. But she never got to tell him she was his wife. At first, he was too young to learn that; then year after year, there never seemed to be a proper time for the truth.
When Qingyu was sixteen, he fell in love with a girl his own age. He told Baoying about the girl and asked her to seek permission from the girl’s parents. Baoying said she would go the next day. That night, she quietly hanged herself.
Qingyu did what he could as a son. He put Baoying in a coffin and carved “Beloved Mother” on her gravestone. But after he had dug the grave, he could not make himself let her go. He stayed days and nights beside the coffin, till one day, lightning hit the coffin and set it on fire. When the coffin burned to ashes, he found a stone in the ash, a stone as red as blood.
He picked up the stone and looked into it. When he held the stone right in front of his eyes, the stone became as big as the entire world to him. Red enclosed him. In the stone he saw a red moon. In the red moonlight, a father kissed a ghost image of his lost wife and drew in the breath of the dead. There was also Baoying in a red bridal dress, and in her arms, a child wrapped in wedding red too. And he saw the many lanterns that burned on the fire night; the inhuman eyes in an old woman’s face; the red lips of Baoying that kissed him in his sleep. He buried the red stone, erased the words “Beloved Mother,” and lived to a ripe old age.
The old man looked around. He looked at the mei flowers and mushrooms, and smiling a storyteller’s smug smile, he stood up to show me the way out.