5150 words, short story
Grave of the Fireflies
February 16: Through the Door Into Summer
The Snow-No-More birds appeared in the sky, adding to the chaos that enveloped the world.
The fluttering wings that were supposed to signal clear weather scraped across the orange sky like the return of snow-laden billows. Ash-white feathers filled the air, drifting down until they fell into the black orbs of my eyes, turning them into snowy globes.
On the sixteenth of February, I was born on the road to light, a refugee. My ebony eyes were luminous and vivid, but no one came to kiss my forehead. All around, people sighed heavily. I lifted my head and saw the ash-white flock heading southwards, their cries as dense as their light-stealing wings.
To the south was the Door Into Summer, built from floating asteroids like a road to heaven.
The giant star that lit the way for the refugees gradually dimmed, the shadow crawling up everyone’s face. After the briefest experience of daylight, I saw the first twilight of my life: my mother’s image bloomed in the dim light like a secret flower.
Mankind streamed across the river of time, aiming straight for the Door Into Summer. In that moment, our tiny planet was falling like a single drop of dew in a boundless universe, tumbling towards that plane made up of the broken remains of a planet.
New cries arose from the Snow-No-More birds. Gliding through the gravity-torn clouds, the soft, gentle creatures were suddenly seized by some unknown force. Alarmed, the flock wound through the sky like a giant electric eel, each individual bird a scale. They hovered near each other, their wingtips brushing from time to time with light snaps. Quickly, the snaps grew louder and denser—the birds drew closer together to resist the unknown force that threatened to divert them, and electric sparks generated by the friction of the wings hopped from wingtip to wingtip. A great, invisible hand wrapped its fingers around the throat of the flock, and the ash-white electric eel in the sky began to tremble, its entire body enshrouded by a blue flame.
And in a moment, the invisible force that had been pulling them higher into the sky dissipated. The eel writhed in its death throes among the clouds, the feathers shed by struggling birds falling like volcanic ash. Soon, the feathery snow descended over us. They slid in through gaps around the oxhide flaps, fell, moth-like, against the greasy glass of the gas lamps, floated in clumps over the dirty water in copper basins, caught in my eyebrows and the corners of my eyes.
The oxcart rolled forward slowly. My mother began to sing in the midst of this snowstorm of ash and sorrow. Gradually, I fell asleep, listening to her lovely voice. But her eyes were filled with the sights from outside the cart: in the suffocating, fiery air, tens of thousands of oxcarts headed in the same direction. The remnants of humanity flooded across the hills and plains. The further she looked, the more oxcarts she saw—each like the one we were in.
An old man rushed before our cart and knelt down. “The star is about to go out.”
Even before he had spoken, my mother already knew about the star. Even before he had opened his lips, her eyes had already sunken into gloom. Since the oxen’s eyes were covered by black cloth, the animals showed no signs of panic. But as the darkness fell, they felt the strange chill.
Rising clouds of dust drowned out the old man’s words, just like the endless night drowned my mother’s beautiful, bottomless eyes.
He had failed to notice the spiked wheels of the oxcart. Blood soaked into earth, a dark stain melting into the night. In my sleep, I felt the oxcart lurch momentarily, as though something had caught against its wheels. And then it rolled on as though nothing had happened.
My mother continued to sing. In her song, the white-bearded High Priest died on the way to see the Queen—because the news he was bringing was ill.
After that day, I never saw a Snow-No-More bird again.
Legend has it that on the day I was born, my small planet passed through the Door Into Summer. All the Snow-No-More birds died outside the door. Though they were birds of spring, when they died, it snowed: every flake was an ash-white feather; every flake was limned in pale blue fire.
On the day the Snow-No-More birds disappeared in the southern sky, we penetrated a wall made of 1301 asteroids and exited the Garden of Death through the Door Into Summer.
February 19: Curtain Call for the Crimson Universe
People called me Rosamund because, they said, I’m the rose of the world.
I thought the world was a fading rose. The cooling universe was filled with ancient stars like our sun—they collapsed, lost heat, aged, contracted into infinitesimal versions of themselves and stopped giving us light. Now, with shrunken bodies and failing sights, they could only offer us a useless prayer as they watched us flee at the edge of night.
A thousand years ago, nine priests secretly debated among themselves around a circular table and probed the will of the gods for the answer to the question: why had the stars suddenly decided to grow old and die? In the end, because they could not answer the question satisfactorily, the king punished them by taking their heads.
But one of them, the most powerful priest of them all, managed to survive. He lived because he had two faces, the second one hidden by his long, thick hair, and no one ever knew of its existence. If one gathered enough courage to pull aside the curtain of snake-like hair, one would see tightly pursed lips and wide-open eyes. When the king demanded that the priests yield up their heads, this priest split apart his own head with a double-edged sword and gave up the front half. Thereafter he became a wanderer far from home, and lived only with the secret half of his head.
It was rumored that the descendants of this man created Weightless City, the first planet we arrived at after passing through the Door Into Summer. The star collapsed behind us while the army of refugees dove like moths towards the last lit lamp in the universe.
No one could explain why the stars were dying. A thousand years ago, following an ancient prophecy, our ancestors altered the structure of our planet and adjusted its gravity to turn it into an Ark to flee towards those stars that seemed young still.
When we arrived at Weightless City, everyone was going to leave our own planet and move there. After its thousand-year flight, the Ark could no longer go on. And after we left our home, this planet that had once birthed and nurtured all of humanity would fall into the heat of a strange star and dissolve into a million droplets of dew.
That year, I turned six. The nineteenth of February was a special day. My mother, the Queen, set me on the back of a white bull, and I saw thousands, tens of thousands of oxen, all of them pitch black, pulling my subjects over the earth like a flood.
A lonely, golden tower rose from the distant horizon. By dusk, the refugees arrived at its foot. The tower, too, appeared as if it had been on a long journey. Behind the tower was a deep trench like a surgical incision; the rich, fleshy loam brought up from its depths gave off a burnt scent.
This was the Dock. The inhabitants of Weightless City, the dark green planet revolving overhead, had dropped it down. On this special day, the gravity between the two planets achieved perfect balance, enabling us to ascend this tower to our new home.
If anyone could have witnessed the coupling between these two tiny planets from a distance, they would have seen this: a golden rod emerged from one of the planets like a raised matchstick. As the two planets spun, the matchstick struck the surface of the other planet, scratching out a groove on its surface, and then stopped.
But for those on the ground, the sight seemed like a manifestation of divinity. Occasionally, through an opening in the clouds, we could see our future home—dark green, serene Weightless City. The mammoth golden tower in front of us had extended from that heaven like a dream, and then fixed itself inexorably into the earth. Everyone cried out in joy. They busied themselves with re-shoeing the oxen with strong, magnetic shoes, gilding the wheel spikes with silvery powder, patching the leaky oxhide tents . . .
Afterwards, the oxcarts began to climb the tower in order of precedence. Far away from the tower, I ran, barefoot. A few flowers hid in the grass, twinkling here and there. Wind seemed to come from somewhere deep within the ground, and I thought I heard a voice cry out between sky and earth: Rosamund, Rosamund. I placed my ear against the tips of the blades of grass: I wanted to know if it was my planet calling my name.
When I turned to look back, I saw the sky turn slowly, the horizon already tilted. The tower leaned away from the zenith until, finally, anyone could walk on it barefoot, like me.
Night fell, and the whole human race trod along this road to heaven. A woman carelessly knocked over a kitchen pail, and it fell all the way down the tower, clanging, banging all the way, until it plunged into a black, moist cloud, leaving nothing but ripples on the surface. It was so quiet that everyone heard the woman muttering her complaint. But then she pulled the rope attached to the pail—almost everything in the oxcarts had been tied down by rope to prevent it from moving about during the journey—and so her pail returned, filled with clear water.
We marched in the dark, silent night. In front of us was a new city, shining like a piece of jade. Around the massive and long bridge formed by the golden tower, all we could see was the star-studded night.
The universe was alike a gigantic stage curtain that gradually fell. Fewer and fewer stars remained. We walked faster.
February 22, The Magician of Weightless City
My mother was the only one who did not cry after she saw Weightless City.
After we descended the tower, the sky rotated back into its original location. The horizon was no longer tilted. Everyone got a clear view of heaven: just another ruin.
This was the first thing my mother said to the first stranger she met: “Take me to your king, archon, headman, or . . . whatever you call him.”
“There’s no one like that here,” the man answered. “We just have a magician.”
And so we came upon a machine-man made of steel. It sat in the middle of an open space like a heap of twisted metal. Walking from its left foot to its right foot took five minutes. But to climb from its right foot to its waist took a whole afternoon.
“Listen,” my mother said. She squatted down to look into my eyes. “Rosamund, my precious, I have to go in there to talk to the magician. Wait for me here. My darling, my baby, do not leave before I come out.”
I nodded. She smiled and lightly kissed my forehead. No one saw this farewell, and that was why, in the stories that people told afterwards, the Queen died from mistakenly eating a poisonous mushroom in Weightless City. But I saw with my own eyes my mother climb onto the shoulder of that gigantic robot, enter through an ear, and then disappear.
In the six years after I became an orphan, after my planet and my mother had abandoned and forgotten me, I grew into a twelve-year-old, willful young woman. Everyone now called me Wild Rose.
In the new world of Weightless City, I discovered a plant that had also existed on my planet. The vines extended hundreds of miles, and had fragile stalks that ended in delicate, thin tips. I liked to run among them barefoot. As my feet crushed the stalks, bright yellow liquid oozed out, and the wind brought indistinct cries: Rosamund, Rosamund. I put my ear against the black soil: I wanted to know if it was my planet calling me now through this new earth. My loneliness grew without cease during those six years until it took root deep in my blood and bones.
One time, when I heard the calls and put my ear against the muddy earth, I closed my eyes and saw my mother’s face. “Rosamund, my precious . . . ” She smiled and kissed my forehead, as though I really were the world’s rose. Then I opened my eyes. Nothing.
Another time, when I opened my eyes, what I saw shocked and frightened me: a young man (barely more than a boy) was puffing out his cheeks. He was buried in the earth up to his neck, but his face was practically touching my forehead. He blinked his eyes, blue as water, and a breeze caressed my face. I stood up. “Who are you?”
“A free person of Weightless City,” he said, joy in his voice. As he answered, he climbed out from his hole nimbly, as though the earth provided no resistance at all. “But who are you?”
I looked at him, stunned. He brushed off the mud from his clothes. There were flowers blooming now in the place where he had been buried.
“Let me guess,” he said. “I bet I can guess your name.”
And so he found a comfortable place and sat down, and set himself to the serious task of guessing my name.
It was an unforgettable sight: the silhouette of a young man sitting alone in the light of dawn. I couldn’t see his face, but I could imagine his expression. Slender grass shot up wildly around him, extending further and further away.
“All right,” he said, finally. “I give up. Why don’t you try to guess my name?”
But then he glanced up at the sky and slapped his head. “Ah, I forgot what I came for. Rosamund, my sweet girl, where are you?”
As he said this, he was already running away like the wind. And so I had no choice but to cup my hands around my mouth and shout at his back, “Do you know Rosamund?”
“No.” He was already some distance away. “I have to find her first. And then I’ll know her.”
“Why are you looking for Rosamund?”
He was almost at the horizon. “Because she’s my guest.”
I sighed. He was already invisible. “I am Rosamund.”
A whirlwind swept from the horizon. The young man was standing in front of me again. He combed his hair with his hands, smoothed out the wrinkles on his shirt, and then bowed towards me very chivalrously. “Pleased to make your acquaintance, my . . . guest.”
“But who are you?”
“Neither of us could guess the other’s name. If you’re truly Rosamund, then permit me to present you with my true name: the Magician of Weightless City.”
February 25, The Knight of the Rose
Six years after meeting me, the Magician of Weightless City no longer looked so young. His castle was the secret to his eternal youth.
But I still enjoyed running barefoot on the wild heath. To see me, he often had to leave his castle. And in this way we grew up together.
Now that I was eighteen, he was like a knight, with a steel will and iron-hard shoulders. But when I was twelve, I had entered his castle for the first time.
The castle was the silent robot sitting on the ground. Since the robot had no need of a bladder, that was the location of the castle gate. After we entered, the Magician (still boyish back then) held my hand with his right hand, and with a puff, a torch appeared in his left hand. The interior of the castle was completely dark.
We passed by many murals, set foot on countless carpets, and after the seventh turn in the staircase, we knocked over three silver bottles and a crystal ball. His eyes and hair glinted brightly in the light from the torch. Both of us talked only of the journey we had taken and what we had encountered along the way, as though we hadn’t been paying attention to each other at all.
Finally, I saw my mother, sitting on a chair covered by a tiger skin. She looked serene; her face hadn’t changed at all from how I remembered her.
“Let me take a look at you, young lady,” she said. Then she recognized me with a start. “What in the world happened to you?”
The Magician clapped his hands, and the torch disappeared from his left hand. Innumerable points of light suddenly appeared in the dark ceiling of the great hall, like stars, like fireflies.
The man who brought forth light said to my mother, “Your Majesty, while you have only been here a little while, she has been living outside on her own for six years.”
“What kind of witchcraft is this?!” She hugged me and then pushed me back, holding onto my arms tightly so that she could examine me in detail. I was too embarrassed to look back at her.
The Magician said, “A thousand years ago, one of my ancestors came through the Door Into Summer. Using magic and witchcraft, he built this castle of eternal youth. Whether something is living or dead, as soon as it comes inside, it ceases to be eroded by the river of time. The short periods that I have lived outside the castle caused me to grow into this boyish form you see.”
My mother spoke in the darkness. The starry light that bathed her forehead could not illuminate her eyes. The Queen confirmed the claim of this fugitive’s descendant to his domain and made him Weightless City’s first knight.
The answer to this grant of peerless honor came six years later. My knight found the dust-covered silver armor from the depths of the castle, put it on, and bowed slightly to the Queen on her tiger-skin throne. “Please allow me to be Rosamund’s knight. She’s come of age and ready to have a knight of her own.”
I hid in a dark corner, watching him with my wide-open eyes like a fawn.
“Why?” my mother asked.
“Because she needs a knight. Not just any knight, but me. And I need to become the knight for a pure lady. Not just any lady, but her.”
“Then,” my mother said, “what can a knight do for a princess? Perhaps he doesn’t even know what she truly needs, and neither does she.”
The Magician of Weightless City, once a proud youth, and now a knight standing tall, full of courage, trembled as he heard this. His cold, rigid shadow stretched long and narrow, and as he trembled, it seemed about to take off from the ground.
Finally, the corners of his mouth lifted, and he answered the woman sitting high on her throne: “The loneliness in her heart is as dark as her eyes. But I will give her eternal light.”
And with that, my knight departed his gloomy castle without looking back.
Behind him, the Queen, driven mad by the terror of eternity, screamed, “The stars are going out! You cannot bring back lasting light!”
The stars are going out. You cannot bring back lasting light. But the barefoot princess remained hidden in the darkness, expectant.
February 28: A Skeleton, or Two
I was sick.
I’d lost count of the passing years. Six years? Sixty? Or even six hundred? February 28th was the last day of that suspended period, the end coming like a cliff cleaving space into two halves.
The Queen of mankind had gone mad in the castle. She could not tolerate the erosion of the river of time, and could tolerate even less the passing days that now skipped over her like migrating birds over a forgotten tree. And so she constantly paced the halls of the castle, too frightened to abandon this heaven of eternal life, and yet unable to derive joy from the absolute stillness.
In her face, I could no longer detect the bloom of that secret flower. The permanent starry night of the great hall’s ceiling cast two gloomy shadows under her eyes against her pale mask of a face. My mother’s once-luminous black eyes, after many, many, many years of unchanging life, finally dimmed and merged into the darkness.
I thought of the man who had once built this castle, that great priest with only half of a head. Where had he gone?
When the world outside was drenched in heavy rain, I made torches out of bundles of straw and played hide-and-go-seek in the castle. I passed through room after room, full of dust, perusing books whose pages shattered at my touch—perhaps time had touched them now and then, after all? Among them was a diary, kept by another princess who had lived here long ago. She had poured out her heart through her quill.
Sometimes, I carried an oil lamp, and as its shifting light cast shadows on the walls, they coalesced into unfamiliar faces; sometimes, I lit a candle inside a rose-colored paper lantern, and the light flickered, almost going out.
I walked through the Cimmerian castle, got lost, searched, and occasionally, at the end of a long hallway, I’d see a figure, hear a low murmur, and then everything would once again disappear into darkness and silence—it was my mother, walking, losing her way, seeking, like me.
Finally, our paths brought each of us to the same room, a room I had never been before. Everything inside seemed as new as the long-ago day when the castle had been first erected. I found my mother sitting on the bed, inside the calla-lily-colored netting, sobbing like a ghost. That luxurious room had floor-length curtains, bright red, fresh, as though drops of blood were about to ooze out.
I went up and pulled the bed nets aside. But only a pair of empty sockets greeted me. It was a corpse. He had died long ago.
My game was over. The riddle revealed its answer. This dry husk of a body had once been famous—he was that priest who had escaped, the creator of Weightless City, the powerful wizard who once possessed two faces. I saw a ring on a string around his neck, and when I recognized it, I gasped.
From the day I was born, I also wore such a ring around my neck.
The inside of the ring was etched with a secret: the name of the lover my mother had lost a thousand years ago. He was once the most respected priest in the whole kingdom, but he had fallen in love with the princess, and they made love in her bedroom. The king, furious, ordered his guards to seize all nine high priests and cut off their heads. As for the princess who had lost her virginity, he sealed her inside a bronze mirror—she had been intended for the prince of another kingdom, and was supposed to become a queen beloved by her subjects and husband alike.
I had read this story in an old book, but I did not know that the legendary princess who had been sealed away was, in fact, my mother. The priest with two faces did not have a chance to say goodbye to his beloved. He cut off half of his head, handed it to the king’s guards, and then became a fugitive through the Door Into Summer. A thousand years later, the princess awoke from the bronze mirror and became the wife of a king, and then the queen regnant of a people. By the time I was born, my father—who had never gotten my mother’s heart—had already disappeared. My mother ruled over her realm as the disaster of the collapsing star unfolded, and then she led her people onto the route that her lover had taken a thousand years earlier.
Though the priest had built this timeless castle to wait for her, she had still come too late.
In his diary, she read of the suffering he had endured for a thousand years. His quill had turned into her lips, and she spoke to him every day. The diary I found had in fact been composed by the priest as he sank into these hallucinated conversations with my mother.
Finally, one day, seized by the ecstasy and rage of waiting, he cut his own heart open. Loneliness poured out of it, bright, fresh, and so he died in this murky castle.
He spent a thousand years to extinguish each and every star; she spent a thousand years to escape to the last star that remained lit. He knew she would come; she knew he would wait—even though when he had cut off half of his head with his sword, he had no chance to tell her anything.
My mother had known the truth for a long time. She had seen in the corpse’s empty sockets the cruelest ending possible. From then on, she became an insubstantial ghost wandering through this empty, massive, ancient castle. The fleeting glimpses and murmurs I had caught of her had been nothing but figments of my imagination.
I finally understood why my mother would rather turn her rotting passion into ghosts that danced at the edge of light than set foot outside this eternal hell. When she saw the stars wink out, one after another, she was the happiest woman in the world. When darkness covered her eyes like a flood, she and the man she loved disappeared together on the shore of life and time.
Now that I understood this most impossible love in the world, I found myself an orphan. Truly, this time, my mother and my planet abandoned me.
I lay on the cold floor of the castle, inches and seconds to death.
I seemed to be back on my little planet spinning in space, blue like water. Slender grass shot up wildly around me, extending further and further away. I put my ear to the tips of the grass, a few flowers twinkling here and there. I knew I was going to die. Everyone who was about to die saw visions of the most beautiful scenes she had seen in her life.
I saw all the flowers blooming, the rain falling, a bright red lantern shining in the forest. I saw legends that flared up and dimmed, the face of a youth, fragile but stubborn grass. I saw the Magician of Weightless City: his silver armor had been burnished by the ice and snow at the peak of the world’s tallest mountain, had been washed by the water in the deepest ocean, had protected him through desert, swamp, the ruins of mankind’s cities and the Eden of fierce beasts, had been borne up a tower that reached into the sky and, following the planet that had abandoned me, reached an undying star—finally, the armor was dented, broken, full of holes. I saw the Magician’s long, narrow shadow sweep across the cold floor before my eyes. I saw the return of the Knight of the Rose.
I could recognize only his eyes, the rest of him hidden behind his long-suffering armor. I couldn’t tell if his chestnut hair had turned white. I could only smell wind and earth from the wounds in that silver shell.
My knight came before me, opened his left hand: a black pearl.
He found a slender thread and began to pull on it. The black pearl spun in his hand—ah, it was a tiny ball of thread. He pulled and pulled. In this castle of eternal night, the thread seemed to also have no end.
Finally, he picked me up from the floor. Until that moment, his silence had caused me, in my weakened state, to suspect that I had also turned into an insubstantial shade like my mother, a second living ghost wandering through the castle.
He pressed his left hand into my palm and squeezed my fingers into a fist. Then he pulled the rest of the thread out from between my fingers with his right hand. In that moment, I understood that I was still alive.
Thousands, millions of rays of searing light shot out of my clenched fist. He gave me the most dazzling light in the universe, a fistful of fireflies.
The Magician of Weightless City really did bring back a fragment of the star for me. My eyes had never seen such splendor. I saw my birth and death, feathers drifting down like volcanic ash, the clear, distant cries of Snow-No-More birds—that snowstorm had been kept on the other side of the Door Into Summer, and now, the flakes fell into my eyes, dark as night.
My knight bent to kiss my forehead. The luminous heat dissolved his armor. He and I were pierced by a thousand, a million rays.
The light melted our hair and eyes, skin and organs, until he had no more lips, and I had no more forehead. Our bodies were fixed in place: two skeletons with our arms entwined about each other.
Many years later, more explorers would come here. They would smash through the gate in the robot, where the bladder ought to be. They’d walk into the castle and discover in this perpetual radiance a strange skeleton.
“Maybe this was the priest who had escaped tens of thousands of years ago,” one of them would say.
The others, after long debate, would reach consensus and publicize the cause for the extinguishing stars: “Due to the irresistible gravity of their mass, red giants tragically collapsed to death after exhausting the fuel in their cores.”
They would not be able to search through the entire castle—that fragment of an eternal star would blind many of the explorers. They would not be able to examine that strange skeleton closely because no one dared to look at it directly for even a thousandth of a second.
The priest extinguished all the lanterns in the universe just so that he could recognize the woman he loved at a glance in the flood of refugees. My knight brought back that star fragment so that the inextinguishable flame could warm the loneliness in my dark eyes. The night completed my mother; the day completed me.
Here, in our luminous crypt, the fire can never be blown out.
Originally published in Science Fiction: Literary, July 2005.
First English language publication.
Born in 1983, Cheng Jingbo is a prominent member of China's new generation of speculative fiction writers. In 2002, Ms. Cheng's story, "Western Paradise," was nominated for the most prestigious SFF award in China, the Galaxy Award. In 2010, her fantasy story, "Lost in Yoyang," won the Special Award for Youth Literature and the Best Short Story Award in the First Nebula Awards for Global Chinese Language Science Fiction. She lives in Chengdu, China, with a cute west highland white terrier and works as a children's book editor.
Ken Liu is an American author of speculative fiction. A winner of the Nebula, Hugo, and World Fantasy awards, he wrote the Dandelion Dynasty, a silkpunk epic fantasy series (starting with The Grace of Kings), as well as short story collections The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories and The Hidden Girl and Other Stories. He also authored the Star Wars novel The Legends of Luke Skywalker.
Prior to becoming a full-time writer, Liu worked as a software engineer, corporate lawyer, and litigation consultant. Liu frequently speaks at conferences and universities on a variety of topics, including futurism, cryptocurrency, history of technology, bookmaking, narrative futures, and the mathematics of origami.
Liu is also the translator for Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem, Hao Jingfang’s “Folding Beijing” and Vagabonds, Chen Qiufan’s Waste Tide, as well as the editor of Invisible Planets and Broken Stars, anthologies of contemporary Chinese science fiction.
He lives with his family near Boston, Massachusetts.