Change As Seen Through An Orrery Of Celestial Fire

by Michael Matheson

Change As Seen Through An Orrery of Celestial Fire

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“Change as Seen Through an Orrery of Celestial Fire” was originally published in the Superhero Universe: Tesseracts Nineteen anthology.

Shurui peels long strips of burnt skin off her shoulders in front of the bathroom mirror. She grits her teeth as they tear away down her back. The days between immolations are always painful; the moments in which she burns down to ash blinding, but nothing compared to the waiting — to the slow build of days before the fire frees. Her body a cage, too-narrow knit with bird-hollow bones.

The rest — the rebirth and what comes after —

The rest is agony.

Has been since she first rose, broken, garbed in lank, slick flesh. Since she tumbled to Earth in a scatter of pinions, remiges, and retrices, her sun-bright feathers ripped away in the heat of her descent. Since she spotted the first Xifeng bathing in a moonlit lake. And fell.

The whole of it, now and always, Chang’e’s fault. A terrible gift she hadn’t known better than to accept.

“You alright?” asks Zetian from the doorway. Her lover takes a step into the bathroom to lay a glacial hand on Shurui’s burning back. The frost of Zetian’s fingers a momentary respite. Like scorched, shed feathers brushing the surface of a distant, long-ago lake bathed silver. Zetian’s qi strong, but mortal. The ice coating her hand fades in a swift billow of steam. It fills the air between them. Zetian barely draws her hand back in time to avoid burned fingers.

“It’s bad this time,” she says quietly.

“Too long between burns,” grunts Shurui, breathing through her mouth.

It’s been a long time since their last trip to Mount Sinai Hospital. Most of those visits not long after they officially got together. After they decided to try living together instead of just falling into Zetian’s bed most nights. After Shurui carted her couple of boxes worth of possessions on the TTC up to Zetian’s Spadina and Willcocks apartment from her own place in the Market.

Shurui remembers the looks the nurses used to give her. How sure they were that Shurui was abusing Zetian. How sure they were she kept lighting her lover on fire.

Not that they weren’t right. They just had the wrong end of it: not on purpose. Never on purpose.

Six years of relearning control after living so long alone later, and those years will mean nothing if she can’t control the furnace raging in her now. If she can’t quiet her qi.

So many centuries later, and she’s still a co-opted version of her own Celestial mythology. A western phoenix burning and beginning again instead of her own radiant fenghuang self.

She knows what happens if she can’t quiet it. Knows exactly where that leads. She learned the hard way. With the first Xifeng.

“You going to be alright?” asks Zetian – Xifeng Zetian. Always a Xifeng in her life. She’s drawn to them like the sun. Always seeking their warmth. She nods. Exhales.

It’s that care and that patience that have kept them together. Zetian the only one who doesn’t think her condition a burden. Zetian the only one there for her when her body can do nothing but scream for days on end. That sense of unity, of co-operation, served them well in their separate careers, but much better once they struck out together. A life of crime far easier if you have someone to share it with.

Zetian waits until Shurui’s breathing quiets before she leaves her to her ablutions. Says “I’m here if you need me,” as she leaves the room.

Shurui listens to her lover’s footfalls travelling away as she turns on the tap. She cups her hands under an icy waterfall and pours the water onto her back. The steam rising from her shoulders makes a sauna of the tiny bathroom.

This form was never meant to house the qi of a fenghuang. She didn’t think that far ahead when she descended from the peak of Liushi Shan — when she left behind the Kunlun range and gave up the sky. She can’t remember what her plans were then. Beyond Xifeng.

She pours more water across her back. Forces her qi quiet. So she can pass for human.

An hour later, Shurui sits in the Starbucks a few minutes from home, set just back from the southeast corner of Harbord and Spadina, waiting for Xinhua. Outside, amid all the concrete and slate grey, autumn paints the trees gold and the sky in pale drifts of cloud, darker at their edges. Darker still in the distance: rain not far off. The smell of it is in the air. Inside, the café is mostly empty, the decor cast in warm, earthy tones.

Shurui likes the muddy, arboreal feel of the place. It offsets the autumn chill, denies winter in its turn, and welcomes spring with fair familiar hands. Her jacket lies slung over her chair behind her. Soft against her back. It’s quiet here; she likes the quiet.

A cup of tea steams between her palms. She bleeds off excess qi by keeping the tea’s temperature constant. A trick she picked up from a wuyi, Chen Xifeng, not long after Shurui made her way north to the Colony of Vancouver Island. Back during the second BC gold rush, when the mass migration up from California began.

She learned a great deal from that Xifeng before the wuyi died: better methods for regulating her qi. How to make herbal medicine. The theory of acupuncture — the proper practice of which has always escaped her. She stopped peddling it shortly before she started working her way east, helping build the Canadian Pacific Railway in the 1880s, disguised as a man.

—Had taken up, instead, the sole practice of making herbal medicines and teas by the time she’d found her way east to then-Muddy York’s Ward District, back when Toronto’s first Chinatown still lay nestled along York and Elizabeth, bordered by Queen and Dundas. And as the old city’s Chinatown moved, as it did frequently, Shurui moved with it.

“Your tea’s cold.” Shurui startles as Xinhua settles down across from her. She slings her own folded jacket over the back of a chair and sets down her steaming coffee. The waft of it fills the space between them. “I’m sorry, am I late?”

The cup in her hands has cooled while her attention was elsewhere. “Not very much.” Shurui sets her tea aside. Smiles at her friend.

Shurui watches her while Xinhua settles in, pays half mind to her friend’s talk. This young woman, too, is a fixture in her life. Has been since Xinhua was an undergraduate at UofT in need of a history tutor. And their ties go deeper, though she doesn’t have the heart to tell Xinhua the whole of it: the full body costume of the Xun Long — the Swift Dragon — conceals her face, but does nothing to hide her voice. Unlike Xinhua, Shurui does not speak when they fight in costume.

It means so much to Xinhua, not being known. And Shurui is so tired of having only enemies — of having only dead lovers in her wake.

It’s been easy to stay friends, long though the tutoring has ended. Shurui will always look to be in her early twenties; something she has made peace with. And Xinhua, like her, is desperately lonely.

Sometimes, too, it’s easier to talk with someone who understands so little, instead of Zetian who understands too much.

A sleek sports car and several police cruisers in pursuit hurtle past the window, and Xinhua stops mid-sentence. Both women track the rush of air that follows — the masked woman at its centre that streaks through the air. A visible wake of whirling leaves and air lit with bursts of lightning in her wake.

The rest of the café’s patrons crowd toward the windows, trying to get a glimpse of the chase scene. “The Xun Long is out early today,” teases Shurui, sipping at her coffee to hide the fear awake in her belly. She knows exactly who the flying woman is. Her heart races. Does Zetian know the Leiyu is out of hospital already? Shurui takes out her phone casually. Calls her lover. Tries not to panic as the words “This customer is not available” whisper in her ear.

Across from her, Xinhua shakes her head. “No. Costume’s similar though. Looked more like the Leiyu. Guess she’s out of hospital. And she’s changed her look again,” grumbles Xinhua into her coffee.

Shurui takes a deep breath. Makes mental calculations: three blocks. Less than three blocks. She could run it. Remembering it’s her turn to speak, she asks quietly: “Seems soon for her to have been released.” Doesn’t add that what Zetian did to her skull should have left her in a coma. That when they brought the building down on top of her, the Leiyu shouldn’t have lived.

Does the Leiyu know where they live? Could she?

“You read the interview in the Star?” asks Xinhua.

“Yes,” lies Shurui. Interview? “How awful, what happened to her,” she prods.

Xinhua nods. “She’s lucky there wasn’t a concussion. She heals fast, but after what Nepenthe did to her–”

“Nepenthe?” Not Nepenthe: Adaora in Arizona with Tomiko at the time.

“Yeah,” says Xinhua, confused by Shurui’s reaction. “The Leiyu says that’s why she can’t remember what happened. Must have been Nepenthe, because who else could wipe her memory?” Xinhua shakes her head and finishes her coffee.

A gift. An extraordinary gift. Unless it’s a lie? Is the Leiyu that clever? Vindictive and cold, yes. But she does not lie. Has never lied. As far as Shurui knows.

Shurui rubs at sore eyes. At the heat pounding behind her skull.

“Are you alright?” asks Xinhua.

“Fine,” says Shurui. Dons a false smile. Forces herself to remain calm through centuries of long practice. Forces herself to trust that the Leiyu is telling the truth; to keep playing her role a little longer, until she can reasonably excuse herself without giving anything away. Straightens in her chair and says: “Tell me how your mother is doing.”

“Zetian? I’m home!” Shurui waits for the awful moment where Zetian isn’t there. Hoping today is not that day.

“Yes, I can tell,” answers Zetian from the kitchen. The sound of bubbling pots and the scent of tofu frying in black bean sauce follow her words, the waft of soy and garlic sesame lung-searing strong. “Dinner’s almost ready.”

Shurui collapses against the wall of their apartment, limp-boned with relief. She shuts the door behind her and shucks off her outerwear. The Leiyu has not yet come for them. She does not yet know who they are. Or may honestly not know who almost killed her. Zetian is still safe. She slips into the tiny kitchen and leans against the fridge by the doorway so Zetian can’t see her shaking. “You’re making dinner before a job? You don’t want to order in?”

Zetian raises an eyebrow at her and swishes the wok on the stove. “After what happened last time? How’s Xinhua?”

Shurui slips a takeout flyer on the side of the fridge out from under its magnet. “She’s okay. Too many hours at work and school. And Lin’s still on her back about cutting her hair short again. No, seriously, we could bring food in.”

Zetian covers the wok and turns down the heat. Sweeps out of her eyes steam-frizzled hairs that have escaped from her ponytail, and gives Shurui her full attention. “What is it?”

“What’s what?” Zetian waits, close-lipped, while Shurui fusses with the takeout menu in her hands, burns it to a crisp and lets the ashes fall. “The Leiyu’s out of hospital,” she whispers.

“She’s alive?” shouts Zetian.

“She thinks it was Nepenthe. It’s fine.”

“It is not fine.” Zetian’s hands flex, and the entire kitchen flash freezes as she struggles to regain control of her qi. “Why does she think it’s Nepenthe?” she asks when she stops quaking.

“She told the reporters at the hospital she can’t remember what happened.”

Zetian laughs. Pinches the bridge of her nose where her glasses used to rest before the surgery. “I’m not sure if I should be relieved  or upset that I don’t get the credit for trying to kill her.” She looks at the pot, frozen to the stove, and turns off the element. “You’re right. We’re eating out.”

Shurui crosses the room and folds Zetian into her arms. Breathes in the cool, cassia-bark scent of her lover. “She will not come for us.”

“No, the Xun Long will come for us,” she mumbles.

“Because the Xun Long always comes for us,” smiles Shurui, eyes closed, chin resting on Zetian’s shoulder. “Xinhua’s always been reliable that way.”

“I’m not sure how much longer I can keep doing this,” Zetian says into Shurui’s neck. Shurui can feel the tightness of her lover’s jaw.

“Nothing lasts forever,” says Shurui. Brushes her lover’s stray hair off her face, and kisses her forehead.

For a time, they are the only two people in the world.

Shurui hates the quiet before a heist. The waiting. With Zetian on edge, waiting farther down the Spadina strip, there is only the commotion of Chinatown and the rumble of streetcars to distract her.

It is not enough.

This place is too familiar to her. She’s lived along the Spadina strip, or near it, since Chinatown migrated here in the 1950s — into what used to be a Jewish quarter of the city. This, the Chinatown she still thinks of as home, even though she’s moved north along Spadina to be with Zetian. This, the Chinatown people talk of when they speak of Toronto’s Chinatown, despite the five others spread across Toronto’s amalgamated sprawl. The Greater Toronto Area she reminds herself. Those words still awkward on her tongue two decades later.

What is a decade to her, but a moment? She who has lived long enough in this too-small body that she sometimes struggles to remember which century she occupies.

A small child in a dress, thick leggings, and a miniature jacket, stops to smile up at her. The tiny mittens on the sleeves of the girl’s coat flap in the autumn wind like wings. Shurui smiles back involuntarily as the girl’s mother calls her. The little one waves and is gone, vanished back into the crush.

Shurui watches her disappear among the clutches of residents and late night interlopers wandering the streets looking for a meal or heading deeper into the city’s downtown core. The street vendors have hauled their wares in for the night, but Chinatown’s restaurants are still open. The smell of them strung down the strip is thick and heady. She and Zetian stopped at Mother’s Dumplings before they settled in to wait, but her body burns through fuel at an absurd pace, and she’s already hungry again. Her stomach rumbles, and she ignores it to watch the street and the crowds.

Still too many people. She doesn’t like working with this large an audience. Once she starts burning she won’t be recognizable — the coming agony not something she looks forward to, but necessary. It’s Zetian she worries about. In costume as the Hei Jiang her lover’s features are covered, but it’s now, while Zetian’s still in street clothes and mingling, that she might be a memorable face.

Then she catches sight of the Xun Long running along a rooftop across the street, shadowing the armoured car they’ve been waiting for. Her focus narrows in, until it is only her and Zetian and the G4S truck. Waits until the truck stops on its scheduled run at the RBC, National, and Scotiabank trifecta at the intersection of Spadina and Dundas — until the guard and the hopper leave the truck to start their ATM refill runs.

Shurui wades into the crowd, shouting “Huǒ a!” — Fire — to clear the street; gets only minimal reaction. Cars swerve around her and horns blare as she steps into traffic. Fire boils off her skin and catches on her flesh as she sets herself alight. As she assumes her role as the Fenghuang. She ignores the pain as the fire eats at her; as she has done for centuries. Lets the flames fan and furl in her hands, and lobs a fireball almost as tall as she is at the armoured car.

It rips the vehicle into the air, crumpling its side. And now the crowd runs as the car crashes back down to asphalt. Smoke streams everywhere, onlookers screaming as they scatter. Shurui cannot hear them — the fire roaring in her ears. Her focus narrows further down to the Xun Long as Xinhua leaps from wall to lamppost to street. Shurui flares hotter, a pillar of fire, aware that she only needs to buy time for Zetian to freeze the security team, grab the money, and run. Sirens doppler in the distance as the Xun Long shouts something at her she can’t hear.

Shurui stands her ground as the Xun Long rushes her. Xinhua’s own qi crashing on the air like a wave ahead of her. And then there is only the commotion of combat, and restraint as she tries not to burn Xinhua.

All she has to do is hold. Until this body burns down to ash. And wait to resurrect. Zetian her anchor.

Always the Xifeng is her anchor.

Everything becomes this moment.

Somewhere in the darkness between bodies, there is a memory of bright wings. Of open sky. Of mountain ranges with a dawn so bright no mortal eye can behold it.

And there, too, is Chang’e, bound to the moon, ever waiting to descend. She speaks words Shurui cannot hear. Words meant only for her. Each time she is closer to hearing.

And then she is being pulled back down to her body.

Shurui struggles to keep her qi from overflowing the new self it’s building to house her. Tendons burgeon and snap taut around hollow bones, light as air. The pain sends her floating up off the ground. Until the meat of organ and muscle tissue bubbles up out of her bones, coats them in bloody gristle, and her new weight drags her down to the hardwood floor. Presses her down into the grain.

She bites clean through her new-formed lower lip as fresh skin knits itself over raw nerve endings in fits and starts. Her lungs still too new, too weak, to scream with.

Zetian is there beside her. Cool hands steady on her half-finished back, keeping her from setting this new body on fire before it’s done forming. Zetian sweats from the heat her lover throws off.

When she is done being born, Shurui gulps down air and peels her bloodied nails back from the long furrows they have made in the floorboards. Her breath forms steaming puddles on the wood. Beside her, Zetian sits down and splays her legs to massage cramped thigh muscles.

In the quiet that follows, broken only by the settling and creaking of their ancient apartment, Shurui wishes things were different. Hates herself for thinking it — for Zetian not being enough to tie her to this place. But still, always, wishes she’d never left Liushi Shan. Wishes Chang’e had never shown her that first, beautiful, unattainable Xifeng.

—That she weren’t going to lose Zetian and the rest of the life she has built here. Because she always loses her Xifeng.

When her muscles are strong enough she rolls over on her back, rests one arm on her stomach. Her new chest rises and falls. Sweat plasters her naked skin. Each body identical to the last. She wonders if she’ll ever be allowed to truly die.

Zetian brushes soaked, matted strands of hair from Shurui’s face. Shurui’s cellphone rings, and Zetian strokes Shurui’s shoulder and levers herself off the floor to go answer it. Shurui hears her “Hello?” as through water; tracks the slap of Zetian’s bare feet back across the floorboards. Opens her eyes to find Zetian, hanging upside-down in her vision, leaning down above her. “It’s Xinhua.”

Shurui nods slowly. The phone is heavy in her hand as she takes it. She croaks to clear her throat. “Is everything alright? You don’t usually call this early.” Her voice is a whisper as her new vocal cords acclimate to speech.

Xinhua’s voice is softer still than her own. “I’m sorry. I just really need to talk. I can’t talk to Lin right now. I mean, eventually, but, she’s not—” Xinhua’s voice catches. Her inhale shaky. “I shouldn’t have called.”

“No, it’s all right.” Zetian helps Shurui up to a sitting position. She leans on Zetian’s proffered shoulder. “What’s wrong?”

Xinhua pauses so long Shurui wonders if she’s hung up. “I can’t … deal with carrying this secret anymore. Can I just talk to you — do you have time?” And there it is. One more burden to bear. Or is this the one Xinhua has already told her? Will this be the day Xinhua tells her of the mantle she carries — a secret shared that can only divide them if spoken aloud? Or will this be the day Xinhua finally means to tell her mother, Lin, that Xinhua cares for women? Shurui cannot imagine what Lin will make of that knowledge; knowing that her daughter will be the last of the Xun Long. She remembers well the days when Lin’s own voice issued from behind the blank mask of the Xun Long’s costume. The Fenghuang and the Xun Long have been at odds a long time. But she does not know Lin well enough to know if she can make peace with that legacy’s end.

Whereas Shurui already knows all too well that everything ends.

How long will it be before this Xifeng at her side, too, is consumed by her fire. Before she has to leave behind Xinhua, and the rest of the life she has built here. How long before the next Xifeng? And the next. And the next…

For now, there is only this moment. This time. This Xifeng.

It is enough.

Shurui lays her head on Zetian’s shoulder, closes her eyes, and lies. To herself. To Zetian. To Xinhua: “Always.”

Michael Matheson is a genderfluid Clarion West (’14) graduate with work published in NightmareShimmer, and the anthology Upside Down: Inverted Tropes in Storytelling, among others. Their first anthology as editor, The Humanity of Monsters, was published in 2015, and they’re co-EIC of Anathema: Spec from the Margins, a tri-annual speculative fiction magazine of work by queer POC/Indigenous/Aboriginal creators. Find them on Twitter @sekisetsu, and at michaelmatheson.wordpress.com.

Illustration by Maybelle Leung.