Glittering pinpricks of light reflect on the glassy surface of the water, a whole night of stars hanging on the pitch-black curtain draped over the sky. A luminous full silver moon hangs low on the sky, its round bottom a breath away from touching the dark waters, that stretch as far as the eye can see, to infinity, and beyond. A lute sounds in the distance, the notes drifting in the air, flying up and down and colliding into each other, strung together to create a tender harmony. A brilliant white swan glides through the waters, rippling the glassy surface, cutting through the smooth top, creating swirls in the water that spiral in in in. The water was thick and warm, black like liquid obsidian, the air light and breezy. From the water, the white swan looks black, with glowing red eyes instead of soft brown. But on the surface on the water, the swan, with its sleek long neck and its silky white feathers, lovely as ever, drifts towards a vivid red rose that grows from a blanket of stars. Thorns sprout from the steam, viciously sharp under the moonlight. The petals of the rose are a delicate velvet, releasing their grasp on the bud, letting go of each other, falling back into the promising blanket of stars. The petals float for a moment, balancing on the thin line of oxygen and water, before the blanket eventually claims it, wrapping the petals in its cold embrace. The swan bends its long neck and plucks the flower from the water, saving the rose before all its’ petals let go. Then, it pushes off from the water, stretching its’ wings wide and takes flight, cutting through the still atmosphere of night, sailing above a sea of dazzling stars. The swan carries the fading rose in its beak, the last petals already weak, the life draining without the power of the cold embrace from the blanket of stars. The swan flies to the moon, a shadow of a bird carrying a rose, up up and higher, until the swan and its’ rose is nothing but a distant light, shining the brightest in a whole sky of stars.
Back at the rippling sea of light, a stray white feather drifts lazily down—perhaps from the swan—swayed gently to the side by the soft currents in the air, past the bright, luminous moon, until it finally settles on the water, so light it merely perches on the surface, before a gust of wind blows, making water that flows, and the feather is lost in the current, submerged until it’s all gone.
* * *
Moonlight hits the smooth surface of the water, the stars shining bright overhead. The light hardly penetrates the surface of the water, a sea of inky darkness. 204 meters down the smooth surface, amidst the opaque darkness, a rusty shark cage drifts aimlessly like a carcass. Inside the cage, a rotting wooden coffin bumps into the corroded bars, the loose nails almost falling out, the tiny, seemingly insignificant forms of life that cling to the wood, are shaken awake from their slumber. They start milling about, swimming away or climbing into the cracks of the wood, disturbing whatever is within. The question still remains unanswered, as to what lies within. A thick steel chain is attached to the cage, to shackle it in place, the chain stretching deeper into the darkness.
The cage and the coffin settle down again, the creatures returning to sleep, surrendering to the reassuring hug of darkness. Up above, bright red circles seem to drift down, a pop of color cutting through the black. It drops closer to the cage, revealing itself to be rose petals, and then they rain on top of it, tumbling-head-over-heels into it, then it falls right through the cage, deep into the darkness.
With the petals still raining down, the lid of the coffin shifts, a thud sounds, and it is pushed aside. Inside is shadows, until it steps away to reveal a girl, with corpse-white skin, blue lips, and raven black hair. She wears nothing but a thin white hospital gown, that billows in the water, like ghosts raised from the dead. She remains still. Her hands are clasped to the side, with no sign of her opening the coffin. And then she opens her eyes; Bloodshot and faded. The girl opens her mouth, to scream, perhaps, and bubbles come out. She strains to breathe, the veins on her neck popping out. She rises up and kicks away the rotting coffin, only to find that she is in another prison. She almost shouts out in frustration and panic, for she doesn’t have much air left in her lungs, but she catches herself and notices the shower of rose petals outside her prison. Instantly, her bloodshot eyes clear, the brightness and life returning to it, as if the petals has cast a spell over her, hypnotizing her in its’ fragile beauty. The rose petals don’t fall into the cage though, not with the girl inside—Such beauty will not touch the monster in the cage. Instead, they follow a route outside the cage, falling anywhere but inside, a thing of beauty too afraid to touch the monster in the cage.
The girl’s eyes widen in astonishment, never seeing something as strange (and beautiful?) as this ever before. She reaches out in wonder to touch the petals, to stroke the delicate velvet, aiming to squeeze her hand through the rusted bars, but then the world jerks and her hand hits the metal bars, but goes through.
* * *
Meanwhile, back at surface of the water, red dots start rising up from the dark, slowly unraveling itself from the protective arms of black. The red dots surface, popping out of the water and revealing itself to be red petals, delicate rose petals, rose petals that were dying and fading fast, sinking to the bottom, gone at last. They resurface; dots of red on a sea of stars. The petals drift aimlessly on the water, wandering around and looking for each other, with tiny hands searching and grasping, finding each other but then slipping from each other’s desperate clutches. Up above, the stars glitter and shine. White lustrous swirls appear on the night sky, twisting in in in. The luster slowly fades from the sky, releasing their hold on the dark curtain of night, letting go and flowing down like angels of heaven, ready to bless the world with their kisses underneath. The stardust falls onto the water, sinks down into the darkness, lighting up the world on the other side, only for an instant, before it fades into the darkness. The luster lands on the rose petals, exploding with a white glow and leading the petals towards each other. They take the reins of the petals and draw them together, forming a rose shape on the water. The luster rushes to the center of the rose, growing brighter and brighter until it is a bud of light illuminating the soft velvet petals. The petals glow radiant with the stardust, rising and holding hands, once again blooming into a rose, with delicate petals protecting the bud of light, of the sacred angels from the heavens, the pockets of stardust in the sky.
The crescent moon sits high in the sky, its pale outline barely visible against the watercolor shades. The sun falls slowly towards the horizon, setting fire to the twilight sky, casting shades of orange, pink, purple and blue, reluctantly retiring for the night. A soft lullaby hums in the distance, the soft plucks of chords dancing in the air, swirling and overlapping, rolling and receding, building a song of freedom. The sun’s rays cast pulsating shadows across the glassy surface of the water, smooth and clear, reflecting the sky, orange, pink, purple and blue, merging into one. A bubble pops up on the water, capturing sunlight in its little transparent dome. A tiny person sits in the middle of the bubble. She gets up and starts banging on her cage, her minuscule fists creating webs on the surface. She kicks and punches until she shatters the bubble. Then she sprouts wings and disappears in the sky. More bubbles pop up, with tiny people sitting in the center. Then one by one, they start standing up and banging and kicking, until the cage shatters and they sprout wings and fly free. Then, a rusty metal cage breaks through the smooth surface plagued by popping bubbles, through of the dark waters and into the land of oxygen, shattering the glassy surface of the water, rippling the reflection, creating swirls in the water that spiral out out out. The metal cage is covered in bronze rust, with algae and coral here and there. Strange, inside the cage is a rotting wooden coffin, the lid askew, all the nails loose where the soggy wood was melting.
A little away from the cage, two more bubbles form on the surface of the water. Something splashes out, not just rippling the water but creating waves, hundreds of bubbles and white foam—what monstrosity could cause so much destruction? The thing shakes it head, and black scraggly strings fan out, raining water into the wreckage it has made. The creature then uses its claws to wipe away the strings sticking on its face, to expose a creature with two eyes, one nose, one mouth—a girl. Not a creature but a girl. Not an it but an she. Not claws but hands. Not black scraggly strings but hair. The girl slowly peels open her eyes wide in wonder, taking in the world around her, a miscellany of colors that coalesce into one sky, on future laid out in front of her. The glorious golden sun setting in the west, the moon creeping up in the east. The crescent moon rises higher and higher, brighter and brighter, until it smiles down at her, offering to scoop her up in that perfect crescent, gifting her a hope that has been gone for so long…
Before, the girl was trapped in a coffin in a rusty metal shark cage 204 meters down. Now, she freed herself from the cage and swam up, free, with her prison floating up beside her, floating up instead of sinking, floating fast, passing the girl, to meet the stars and the moon above first, bobbing on the waters and waiting for the girl to see the world, the whole sky of possibilities in front of her, a million pinpricks of dreams shining brighter every day, waiting to change the world or the small universe within. She has sacrificed and lost, but does that mean ultimate redemption? She has let the rose petals save her from a lifetime in that prison cell, she has hoped and wished, dreamed as big as the whole sky of stars, the constellations above, the sun, the moon, and whole universes in every heart…But is that enough? To let love and hope conquer her life, let it take the reins for once, steer her towards a future of freedom?
Back on the sky, where a miscellany of colors that coalesce into one, the sun slowly dips below the horizon, the last rays of sunlight finally disappear, the scattered embers of a dying fire winking out of existence, and then: Twilight puts on her dazzling evening gown, and for the final touch, pins it with a star.
* * *
I look up to see a sea of stars, a hundred billion sprinkled glimmers of hope pierced through a veil of darkness, like the eyes of angels in the distant night. Constellations sparkle in the sky, but one, in particular, takes my breath away: it’s the story of “The Swan with the Rose”, an enchanting folktale from before. Once upon a time, a snow-white swan glided on the smooth oblivion of water, to the music of a lute, and the stars and moon above. One day, she finds a vivid red rose, with petals like velvet, a delicate relic, growing from the water. The swan bends it’s elegant, long neck plucks it out and flies away, farther and farther, higher and higher, until it becomes the brightest star the sky, another constellation in a galaxy of wonders.
I sigh at the story, looking up at the constellation of the swan and its’ rose glittering above me. Perhaps we are all stars, I think. We are all moons, too. And there are planets, that orbit a much larger star, while the rest of us just sit back and watch. But perhaps stars aren’t stars but rather openings of heaven to allow the dead to gaze down at the universe, an opening in the darkness of space so that glittering luster can fall down, drifting and flying, carried by the wind and promises, rippling the water that never moves. It’s fine for a little while. We can drink it and it’ll keep us alive. But if it sits too long, undisturbed, it becomes toxic. When a swan glides in, when a rose blooms, and when luster from the heavens drift down, a thing called love blows in, rippling the air and water, creating waves. Waterfalls. Rushing currents. Life. Because love, I think, is a strange sort of thing. It’s a white feather on the shore of midnight, the single rose petal that falls off and drifts down, opening eyes and weaving lies. It is a whispered promise, soft fingers brushing skin, the twinkling stars in the sky, the full moon illuminating the darkness. It unlocks the doors, smashes away the walls to save whatever is left, leaving room sunlight in the deepest caves of the ocean, granting hope when none exists. Even in the darkest times, even when the currents threaten to pull the feather under, love is the warrior fighting, the rose sacrificing, the scattered embers of a dying fire battling to ignite.
The lukewarm water catches the reflection of the stars above, protecting me in a soft, warm blanket of darkness. Purple and dark blue ignite the horizon, the colors like a blossoming bruise on a backdrop of glittering darkness. The metal cage that has trapped me before floats farther and farther away, the rotting wooden coffin going with it. A flash streaks across the sky, a perfect arc of shimmer; a shooting star. I lift my hand up and pinch my arm, twisting the flesh until the pain drives a soft whimper to my lips. I realized it is the only sound I’ve made in 204 years. I open my mouth to test out my voice; forming silent shapes with my lips. “Am I real?” I croak out. I clear my throat. “I am real.” The corners of my lips tug up, and it takes a while for me realize that I just smiled. It grows wider and wider, out of my control, a monster let out of its cage after 204 years of slumber. In that moment, my mind makes a decision without my permission; it makes a wish, a whispered promise, with a tiny tiny voice. I look up to the crescent moon, hanging precariously in the sky. It seems to grow larger and larger, until I can see the mountains and craters of imperfections of its surface, until I realize that the crescent shape of the moon is actually a crescent, with a perfect, smooth slope. The crescent lands on the water in front of me, softly sinking 5 cm into the water, sending rings of ripples on the smooth blanket of inky darkness. The crescent is about 6 meters high and across, the surface rough and the slope smooth. It reaches out with invisible hands and beckons me towards it, nodding and smiling, welcoming me to climb aboard and take flight. I paddle towards the crescent without hesitation, hopeful for the promises it brings, eagerly pulling myself up and sitting back on the slope. I dangle my legs over the crescent, and the moon rises back up to where it belongs, the sea of stars underneath me shrinking or expanding, merging into the sky until all around me is the magnificent vacuum of space, filled with darkness punctured by light, glittering jewels pinned on the blackness of the universe shining so bright.
Every action. Every choice. Every second of every day is another part of a much larger tale. When we become stardust, when it rises to the heavens, when it rains back down to the living world—twirling and whirling and lustrous swirls—are our stories still being told? In the tale of The Swan with the Rose, the swan was remembered for saving the dying rose, flying up to the heavens to join the stars…What will my story be?
Up above and all around, constellations dance and twinkle. The swan with the rose calls to me, with a voice soft, yet alluring, gentle and enthralling. She says that she has reserved a place for me, up on the stars above, with the gods and the moons, the galaxies and the heavens. And now I soar up up up, carried by the crescent moon, ready to join the constellation of The Swan with the Rose, ready to join the brightest star in the sky.
—-By Christina Ma