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A quarterly international literary journal

The Stone Man's Harem




/ Second Place, 2024 Plentitudes Prize in Fiction /

In the dark desert passage between Yilin and Langtougou, I tapped Plum-Bright on the shoulder and asked if she would stop stealing my husband-to-be away from me. If it was a matter of time, I wanted to be prepared. She glanced at me the way a locust sizes up a dung beetle, and the yellow sun looming worlds away dropped beneath her neck.  


“That is not how it works.”


She brushed her hair behind her ears and went back to rinsing his utensils in a basin filled with a shallow strip of water. The wind whisked the sand thickly around her ankles, fixing her body into the dunes. But heaving and sighing Plum-Bright overcame the becoming of the desert.


“I only mean,” she said, before stamping out the fire, “that I will be the legitimate wife, even when you and your little sister marry in.”


The sun set, and she had no more to say. The water she poured out darkened and desiccated as soon as it touched the sand. When she crept into bed with him, he was curt, but over the last days his angularity – his prickly beard, his sudden elbows, had been sublimated into the whirlpools of yellow dust. Maybe it was also the ticking gaze of the stars that softened him, shepherded his sharp animal self onto its belly.


I sat unblinkingly awake in my tent, in my bridal skirt, listening to my sister’s shallow breathing. Underneath the vermillion veil everything was red-tintedthe red rocks, the red wildlife faces, the sprawling auburn hills. That was the year I turned fifteen, and Yu-er was still eight. Mother had died and father had given us away to the Yang family, prolific leathermakers in the region. “Just as water poured out cannot return to the basin,” father said, “a daughter married out cannot return home.” Last I had seen him, he was contentedly lying on the bedspread with his hawksbill opium pipe. And why shouldn’t he be sprawled somewhere, eyes closed, his far-off body waddling in low-flying clouds? There no weeping to be done about my engagement, no wintering birds or canyon echoes lingering on my departure. Everyone could see that I had the right constitution for being a concubine. In my young life I had already learned to submit to loneliness, the heaviest of human burdens and I had no other virtues or talents.


So it made no great difference that the man I was to marry slipped into an incandescent fever overnight and was dead by dawn. When Plum-Bright woke she mentioned idly to the desert air that her left side was cold, as though she’d slept next to a fine slab of jade.


* * *


“Year of the snake,” Madame Yang tsked, standing blindly in the courtyard. Her thumb plucked at her chanting beads.


Stiffly, the old woman knelt down and felt the shape of her son’s smooth, sanded visage. Her household was weeping politely behind her, the sixteen men in the tannery, their seven wives and children, three servant girls, the wastoid uncle, the accountant-manservant, the vats of reddened oil and the one-armed cook. Racks of unfleshed hides hung from lines piercing across the estate. The halls seemed clogged up and sagging with processions of slow-moving Qing dynasty ghosts.


“Bad harvest. The wind’s brought in evil.”


Plum-Bright knelt before the body. His second wife, Weaving-Moon, hovered above us from the terrace, in a white gown, a phoenix coronet set crookedly on her head. The lanterns around her shivered. Madame Yang retreated to her seat and raised her teacup to her mouth, wetting her lips sparingly against the rim. The officiant and the ritualist fidgeted behind the pillars.


“Come now,” Madame Yang said, not looking up. “Let us all hear what must be done.”


The officiant stepped forward, his body prostrated.


“The wedding must take place by nightfall,” he declared, staring at me with bulging goldfish eyes. “The banquet must include three courses. You must slaughter a black chicken.”


Madame Yang set the teacup on the table. “And the other one?”


The ritualist took quick steps to stand before the matriarch, and cleared his throat.


“The funeral must take place by dawn,” he announced, his canine tongue barely clasped inside his mouth. “Joss paper must be burned until full moon. Those who keep vigil must not drink.”  


He paused, tilting his chin as though mapping out some curve of the cosmos. 


“His wives must be buried with him,” he added finally. “Within three days, to follow him and attend to his needs in the afterworld.”


Plum-Bright closed her eyes. Suddenly, Weaving-Moon began tapping her feet, her body twisting in intricate patterns in contraposition to her beautiful flicking hands. She was singing the part of the white-bone demoness, an aria from some Peking opera. Her paper cut-out neck seemed translucent in the shadows. The albino peacock feathers tucked in her crown shook languidly with the movements of her long, hungry face.


Madame Yang sighed, wrinkling the corners of her mouth. Weaving-Moon’s singing crept to a rapid, percussive crescendo. Blue veins emerged on Plum-Bright’s clenched fists like rock-carving rivers.


“The myriad of things each have their way,” Madame Yang muttered. “Each will join where each must. See…”


Standing up before her household, she tossed her teacup on the ground, where it shattered with a splash. Then, she plucked a feather from her python jacket and blew it from her palm, where it joined with the wind. Her chanting beads turned, and again unturned.


“Let my son take whomever he wishes with him, go where he wishes to go. Let me have no part in those dealings,” she said finally, sitting back down and resting her hand on the lacquer table. The blue in Plum-Bright’s knuckles paled.


“And call the stonemason.”


* * *


The groom’s first body burned during the wedding banquet. As his bone fragments were ground into a limestone slurry and mixed into terracotta clay, I made three prostrations to the heavens and to the Yang family’s ancestors. Horns and firecrackers sounded across the village square. His ashes were poured into a glaze while the kiln licked with slow flames a molded facsimile of his appearance. Plum-Bright sat stiffly with Weaving-Moon, her gaze drifting to the kitchen. Yu-er wandered underfoot from table to table, stuffing candied haws in her mouth. I served rice wine to the guests while the groom’s face emerged under the chisel, with a round, merciful nose and luminous eyes. His queue braid was thick and glossy and perfectly coiffed. As the night settled in, my husband returned from the stonemason’s in his second body, hoisted by four men on an embroidered sedan seat. The guests cheered at his arrival, marveling at the fineness of his brows, the pearlescent generosity of his teeth. “A prosperous match indeed,” a distant relative conceded, stroking his beard as he encircled my husband with fault-finding candlelight.


“To which mistress’s quarters?” one of the sedan carriers piped, as the last lanterns were blown out.    


But Madame Yang was already turning away, retiring to her own chamber. She waved her handkerchief indifferently. “Just take him, he will go.”


The sedan carriers looked at each other hesitantly. After a moment, they heaved the groom onto their shoulders, and each began walking soundlessly in the direction to which they felt compelled. The procession made confused loops and half-turns across the courtyard, nudging the pillars, encircling the estate twice before, drunkenly, or perhaps undecidedly, stumbling in front of my door.


My heart fluttered. I breathed heavily as I followed him to our bed. I drew the curtains shyly and, seeing no displeasure on his brow, made a slow feast of removing my garments.


* * *


But for the next two months my husband slept with Weaving-Moon. At sundown, the sedan carriers made the same meandering path across the estate, tearing out strings of curing hides, snagging on falling pomegranate branches, before settling in front of her door. Occasionally, having traced the courtyard too many times, the exhausted carriers fell to their knees and left my husband underneath the stars, where ice crystals gathered on his handsome face. At dawn, Plum-Bright and I hiked our solitary bodies up rolling hills to visit his headstone. We lit incense sticks and burned joss papers for him, while Weaving-Moon idled about her toiletry, humming and languidly massaging her shoulder. At mealtimes Madame Yang allowed Weaving-Moon the first scoops of bone broth, even picking out heavy chunks of meat to place them into her bowl. As Plum-Bright and I scrubbed laundry, plucked chickens, dug for potatoes, she painted her brows with charcoal. Her flimsy frame seemed to grow increasingly palpable with each passing night.


“Let her be,” Plum-Bright said to me, as she vigorously scrubbed the burnt side of a pot in the courtyard. “She miscarried a son last spring. He was cold to her while she was ill.”


And yet whatever iciness that had formed between the couple seemed to long have thawed. Weaving-Moon walked around with newlywed jubilance, parading the stylish fox-pelt lined brocades that had been delivered in her favorite colors, tugging at the neckline in pretended absentmindedness to reveal the outline of my husband’s handprint hidden below her clavicle. The maids snickered behind my back. When I caught Weaving-Moon sifting through my and Yu-er’s dowry, examining our silver hairpins and carnelian earrings under the sunlight, she smirked and asked, “What use do you have with these, little girl? You cannot satisfy a man.” Hearing the commotion, Plum-Bright marched into her room and returned my jewelry to me. In her eyes there was a glint of something hot and windswept. That night, the stone man slept with her instead.  


* * *


“Have I displeased you?” I asked, facing my husband, my breath frosting in the air. Yu-er was curled beside me on the bed, half asleep.


“Autumn has gone by since last you visited me. You must not even remember my name.”


The constant boredom of being a concubine, the necessary idleness of that very way of life, settled heavily in my stomach. Nothing had stirred my attention for weeks, save for briefly, when the one-armed cook suddenly disappeared from Langtougou. I dipped a cloth in warm water and ran it across my husband’s dust-ridden face.


“You are very fond of Weaving-Moon, yet look how she neglects you.”


I wrapped the sheets around us, feeling a soft glaze of moisture pass from my warm body to his. But sleep wouldn’t come. Some malignant, foreign species of yearning had roosted in me and killed that sweet pull of unconsciousness – I trembled at the thought of being abandoned on the morrow, made widowed again. I knew that he did not yet crave my company because he did not know me. His brightly polished eyes had not yet adjusted to my silhouette. Who was I, other than a woman younger and more fertile than his other two wives, qualities that no longer had any weight in his heart? Plum-Bright was bound to him as a proper wife, a part of his very soul. Weaving-Moon had trapped him, with her theatrical fingertips, her raw animal magnetism, he was her floorboard mouse. Inside the stone man’s harem I knew I had to forge myself, emerge from the fire as something legible to him. I dug my fingernails into my knees.  


“Mother was a seamstress, but I was no good at it,” I started, staring down at the loose threads on my shirt. “She died just when the embroidery started making sense.”


I snuck a glance at my husband, finding him in his usual, compassionate expression. Reaching across the bed, I picked up the oil lamp and raised it to his face, watching the flames cast flickering shadows over his patient eyes. “Father always wanted the money for a concubine, to give him a son. He said both Yu-er and I were ugly,” I said, staring at him unblinkingly.


Still he sat listening with that neutral rapture. I took a deep breath.


“My cousin has a friend, her father sold off everything he owned, even his old pots, his winter boots, so she could go to university in the big city,” I spoke delicately, as though disrobing and revealing to him what no photograph or matchmaker’s charts could capture.


“She wrote back letters, said she was learning about equality between men and women – you know, those fashionable Western ideas. All the girls were jealous of her, said they didn’t want to marry, that it was better to be educated, join a revolution. And romance too, like in the Butterfly Lovers, stirred in the squat and the slim alike. ‘Let him care for me, admire my mind, and should fate tear us asunder, let us waste away to be reborn with wings,’ the girls said. ‘Let us escape,’ they said.”


I sighed, my ribcage tight around my heartbeat.  


“They never resigned to fate. What more can be said about that?” I asked, lowering my cheek on his cool shoulder. Teardrops gathered in the corners of my eyes, and surprised, I blinked them away into his hands. I had always believed myself a conqueror of solitude  that strange, suckling beast. 


“Do you think there’s enough in my dowry to send Yu-er off to school when she comes of age?” I wiped my eyes on my sleeve. “How much would it take? I have three silver pins, two small pearls, and three earrings with carnelians of different shades. You can’t possibly want her as a concubine anymore, in your state. Please, husband. Oh, I won’t ask for anything ever again. When the time comes, let me send her away.”


Yu-er stirred fretfully in her sleep, murmuring. “Who’s sending us away again, Sparrow-Thought?”


I bit my lip. “Nobody, dearest. Sleep nowtomorrow I will cut a pomelo for you, with sweet, fat flesh.”


I watched her lashes flutter, her mouth slightly ajar, and in that tender silence my heart swelled. My husband had promised to let Yu-er go, to satisfy himself with just me. Outside, against the backdrop of the ever-creeping desert, icicles melted from jasmine trees in a fragrant pitter-patter.


* * *


And there was room to dream in the Yang household. My husband’s affections were indifferent to my temperament – he visited me infrequently when I was sensuous, and infrequently when I was sullen. One night, on a whim, I announced to him that I was a bamboo-cutter laboring down in the south. “My callouses! How they harden in the winter months,” I sighed with relish, waving my hands underneath his nostrils. Another night, I told him I was a court pipa player, with petal-red lips, being held hostage on enemy land. “How I wish to tune my instrument to the pitch of my native wind,” I languished, my bosom heaving with delicious grief. Sometimes, I cradled my belly, and teased my husband – “A boy, maybe? But you would care for me even if it were a girl. You would watch over a simmering pot of pork bone soup for me overnight, drop in fresh-cut daikon in the morning, even if I miscarried.” He still slept with Weaving-Moon on most nights, still her ricepaper-thin wrists gained opacity with each conjugal visit, still I was silkworm-sized in her eyes. And I was aggrieved by his passivity, his unfeeling, unneeding distance. He could not dampen my my forehead with a kiss, nor quiet my storm-ridden melancholy over my mother’s passing. He could not even soothe the festering wound of my felt ugliness with some occasional carnivorous wanting. But I warmed to his tepid silence, found my footing in his life, and slowly, we began to tolerate each other, in that rich, resigned manner that is truthfully a form of love.

* * *

               

Other than my stone husband, the only other evening visitor I had was Plum-Bright. She knocked on my door that spring night before she stopped stealing my husband away from me and left the Yang estate altogether. She carried all her belongings in two simple cloth satchels. We spoke quickly, in hushed voices, underneath flowering magnolias.


“You mustn’t fight with Weaving-Moon,” the legitimate wife said, radiant and warm.  “She never learned how to be lonely. And please take care of Madame Yang, her legs are weakening.” She slid off the agate bracelet from her wrist, and pressed it into my palm. I shook my head, but she wrapped my hands firmly around the cool beads. I swallowed.


“The cook is waiting for you, isn’t he?”


Plum-Bright looked away, smiling. “The myriad of things each have their way.”


She slid her hand into mine, and I walked her as far as the grassland would reach. At the edge of the desert, where the yellow sand slowly overtook the vegetation, Plum-Bright embraced me one final time. “Please tell the family that I have gone to join my husband,” she whispered.


I nodded silently. And then, sitting down, I watched her silhouette shrink against the dunes, the wind whisking the sand thickly around her ankles. There, or perhaps elsewhere, all the time heaving and sighing, with the lingering of wintering birds and canyon echoes, Plum-Bright overcame the becoming of the desert.

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