by Caitlin Leong
Art by Cynthia Shi
Issue: Ataraxia (Spring 2018)
They said he’d be here tonight, 月下老人. The old man under the moon that ties lovers together with red thread.
I’m at the same spot where Wéi Gù encountered him thousands of years ago, by the water’s edge, next to a river that rushes with the lights of the flowers lanterns—wishes that have yet to be granted. Behind me, families hustle through the festival grounds. Tonight is 元宵節, the lantern festival, the best time to find him.
The fortune teller’s words hum in my ears. You’re not destined to find love, she’d said. And so tonight, I’m searching for confirmation from the god himself, the old man.
I open and close my fists in my pockets to warm my hands.
As I stand there, a vendor pulls out a flower lantern and smiles at me, her teeth yellow. “30 yen,” she says, and I take it, dropping the coins into her palms. She gives me a pen and a lantern.
I go back to waiting.
A man comes too close and knocks his bag against my shoulder.
“Watch it,” I snap. He pays no attention, and I steady myself, picking up my belongings from the grass.
“你需要幫忙嗎?” Do you need help?
I look up. It’s a boy, everything about him soft and delicate, carrying a flower lantern, wishes scrawled on it in Chinese characters. He offers me the flower lantern I’d dropped.
“Thank you,” I say, taking it from him. “Actually, I’m looking for 月下老人. Is he here?”
“He usually comes by this temple later in the night.” He smiles. “While you wait, you should write something on your lantern,” he says.
“I didn’t know what to write.” A pause. “What’s on yours?”
“Wishes for my sister,” he says. “She’s gone.”
“Oh.” I lower my gaze. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be,” he says. “She’s happy now.”
“She wasn’t supposed to die. But she went back to save someone from death. ” He gaze flickers into the distance for an instant. “I miss her.”
“The old man. He’s here.”
In the fading lights, breathless, I find him on the temple steps. The old man leans forward, as if searching for something, a book resting in his hands.
“Did you need something?” he asks, reaching into his pack to pull out red thread.
“My fate. Can you tell me my fate?”
“Why are you so eager to find love?”
“A fortune teller told me that I’m not destined to find it.”
His gaze falls on me, to the road, and then to his book. He riffles through the worn pages.
He must be thinking of that boy now, Wéi Gù. How he’d found out his fate, refused to accept it. How he’d thrown a rock at a three-year-old child destined to be his soulmate. How he’d worked his whole life to escape marrying a poor farmer’s girl like her, and the way his face twisted when he’d realized that his future wife—a high-ranking court mistress—was that same girl. The way he’d traced his fingers over the scars on her face from the rock.
“Sir?” I ask again.
Moonlight unspools, silk against our skin.
“Yes,” he says.
“So what you’re saying is—?”
“The fortune teller is right.” His gaze is more piercing than before. “You’re not destined to find love.”
“The boy you met earlier. His sister—it’s true—she shouldn’t have died.”
A pause. My head spins, and the world unravels beneath my feet.
“I followed the scripture and tied the thread when you two were born. But I only control threads, not fates. There must’ve been some mistake.”
“Three years ago, there was a flood in Tianjin. She died there, three years ago.”
When I look up, he is gone, and I am still holding the flower lantern in my hands. I pause, my tongue pressed against my teeth. Then I head down the temple steps, toward the river.
The boy is still there.
He smiles. “Do you know what to write now?”
I nod. On the yellow paper, I write 愛—love. Then I pause, and on the other side of it I write 樂—happiness—tracing the character over and over again until it’s etched in the deep. He smiles at my messages.
Under the full moon, the water seeps the warmth from our fingers as we send off our lanterns together. We watch them float away.