~The tears of a mother can fill the heart of the sea.~
Gulls cried overhead. Their sharp calls were a contrasting refrain to the low rumbling of waves breaking apart upon the rocky shore a distance away.
Lei Shen’s arm shot out over hers.
“I’m fine,” Nuan insisted, stubbornly clasping an edge of the netting despite her husband’s frown. Together, they pulled in the net alive with thrashing fish tails.
It was a lovely, late spring morning. And if Nuan were to have spent one more day cooped up indoors she would have gone mad. It had been a startled, yet silent Shen, who found his wife loading the gear into the boat just before dawn. His wife who sat herself astern without a word to gaze out at the sunrise while he quietly cast off and rowed them out into the bay.
The stillbirth she’d suffered almost two weeks before had left her more of wreaked emotion than of body. The ache in her heart was far greater than that of her breasts, tightly bound. For nature had not foregone that which should have fed their child. Breastmilk continued to spill from her when tears no longer did, those having dried up first. They had buried their stillborn daughter under a flowering plum tree. And Nuan had finally decided during the night that she had wept her fill of tears; tears that could fill the sea. Life must go on, cruel that it could be.
She had yet to go to the village, delaying the inevitable she knew. She was dreading to face the gossiping fishwives who would surely shower her with piteous condolences, only to turn around afterwards and spread rumour of ill fortune to befall the house of Lei once more.
The morning catch hauled aboard, Shen gently took Nuan by the shoulders and eased her back to her seat. “But Shen, I’m fi–” she stopped at the press of his finger on her lips. “I know you’re fine,” he said, his kind brown eyes, like warm cockle shells, smiling softly at her. Since their childhood, Nuan had never known Shen to raise his voice or be angry with her. “But let me finish with this. I could use your help more with mending that piece of canvas.” Nuan knew very well the canvas could wait. The task was just to distract her. It was Shen’s way of keeping her resting as best he could, given the headstrong wife he had.
She caught the flinch he quickly turned his face to hide when he tugged upon his wrapped leg so he could better balance himself to sort through the catch. It’d been over a year since he’d been discharged from the army. Nuan was so proud of her husband who despite being of humble origin had come to make a name for himself as an able swordsman. Being quick of mind and limb, he’d studied the officers being trained from afar and would practise in the nights. A day had come when he’d picked up a fallen sword in battle and taken down an enemy, followed by another, then another, then another. After that, he’d been honoured with a promotion in rank. But a horse felled in battle landing on his leg had brought an end to Shen’s military career. When the lame soldier had returned to his home village by the sea, Nuan was there waiting for him, as she’d promised.
Nuan never questioned when Shen wished to live an isolated distance from the village. She understood why. He’d experienced enough of the violence of battle and wanted peace. They lived a quiet life at the far end of the bay, near a grotto no one ever ventured into. Inaccessible by boat given its shallow waters and the maze of treacherous rocks at its entrance. Old fishwives tales of the place being haunted by sea ghosts kept the superstitious away on foot.
Their house had been an old, abandoned hut whose sagging walls and roof Shen had fixed and added to while Nuan had made the inside a home. Truth be told, she loved their peaceful life away from the village. With their own garden and what they reaped from the sea for themselves and what could be sold to market, she could go months without making a trip into the village.
Gathering the canvas to her, Nuan leaned back against the transom to watch Shen as he sorted through the catch. One by one he picked fish out from the netting to drop into buckets, casting any unwanted ones back into the water whereupon they scurried away in sunlit flashes of scale to vanish into the depths.
The waters of the bay gently lapped the side of their small fishing boat. Nuan drowsily turned to the side to dangle her arm over the stern, her fingers tracing the refracted sunlight on the water’s surface. The sea was breathing, inhaling the warm sunshine to exhale briney air. The tang of the salt breeze spread over her tongue as she tasted the wind on her face. Seaswept, sea touched, sea charmed… she glimpsed the tops of tall water reeds far below swaying to the music of the current. Forests under the sea where kingdoms of coral and seashell lay, magical places her childhood imagination would carry her to.
The warm sun and the rocking of the waves continued their soporific effect. The canvas slowly slipped from her hands and Nuan’s eyes drifted closed to the song Shen hummed while he worked.
A fierce gust of wind nearly tearing off her kerchief woke Nuan with a start. Her eyes grew wide at the scudding black clouds overhead. Shen was sitting at centre thwart, his hair whipping in the wind, his shoulders and back straining under his shirt as he rowed as fast as she’d ever seen him do through waves that now splashed to the top edge of their small boat in mad confusion. Spray flew everywhere.
Thunder cracked. A lightning bolt sizzled through the clouds.
“Shen, what’s happening?! Why didn’t you wake me?” Nuan wiped at her face, struggling to sit up.
“Stay down, Nuan! The sun shone but moments ago. I’ve never seen a storm come on so fast!”
Canvas and netting flew out of the boat as a violent crosswind ripped over them. The roaring rush of the waves and the howling winds were deafening.
Then, the sky screamed.
They both slapped their hands over their ears and froze, their pained gazes fixing in horror at the colossal ball of rolling fire that came tumbling out of the clouds. It spewed flame and black smoke in its trail as it burned through the atmosphere before crashing into the horizon in a blinding flash of light. Shen abandoned the useless oars, lunging back to wrap his arms around Nuan… just as their boat was slammed into by a giant wave which capsized it.
“Shen!!’ Nuan choked on the mouthful of seawater she swallowed. His arms had slipped from her when the sea had embraced her instead. She saw nothing but high waves about her as she bobbed in and out of swells frantically treading water. “Shen?!!” She heard a voice. It wasn’t Shen’s… it was a woman’s, the most beautiful Nuan had ever heard. And as if being sung a lullaby, the sea began to calm as the words whispered upon the waves became clear.
That which is hidden,
Once lost, will be found.
To bind what is broken,
For light to abound.
A dragon of mortal sun,
Of wind, wave, and water,
Shall rise upon the sea of clouds
Against darkness to conquer.
Nuan let out a shriek when she was seized from behind. “I’ve got you!” Shen exclaimed, pressing his cheek onto hers.
“Oh gods, Shen…” She clung to her husband who held her with one strong arm while he used the other to help him tread with but the one good leg.
And as sudden as the storm had come on, it incredibly ceased. Incredibly… for the waves froze suspended in motion, only to drop soundlessly flat; the wind cutting off as the air completely stilled over a sea surface so calm now it appeared like glass.
Shen’s body went rigid. Nuan looked towards where he stared.
The water ahead was becoming like cloud, the sea and the sky joining in a wall of mist. A large shadow loomed behind it, one whose outline and motion became more recognizable as it drew nearer: A concave curved base bridged by flat surfaces, three giant wings spread open atop… a hull with batten sails unfurled on triple masts…. A ship. It was a ship, sailing upon a sea of clouds.
“Hold on to me, Nuan.”
Despite Shen’s lame leg, he helped Nuan along as they swam towards the ship now floating at a standstill. “Ahoy!” Shen cried out. There was no response. Their laboured breaths scorching their salt rasped throats were the only sounds about them as they reached the hull. There was no motion from the deck above. Grabbing the lowest of the rung-like protrusions along the bottom of the hull, Shen hoisted Nuan out of the water so she may grab the one above as he pulled himself up as well. Side by side they climbed, Shen stopping them just before the bottom railing to raise his head and take a quick look. He saw nothing but deck and mist. He lifted Nuan over the railing and clambered wetly aboard right behind her.
There was no one in sight. “Ahoy!” Shen called out again.
“Wait, Shen. I hear something,” Nuan said. Shen stepped ahead of her, holding tight to her hand behind his back. “Stay behind me.” They made their way around the center mast.
Now he heard it too. What was it? Mewling?
There was a faint golden glow ahead, near the bow.
They edged forward cautiously, drawn to the light. And both gasped as the mist lifted from before them to reveal an astonishing sight.
For upon the deck, swaddled in a blanket made of golden light was an infant, its small face flushed with its soft cries. “Nuan! Wait!” But she’d wrenched her hand away and swooped forward to take the baby into her arms. The blanket of light vanished.
It was a boy, for all appearances a newborn.
“Shh, shh now.” Nuan cradled him. An incredulous Shen looked about. Unless a crew was hiding in the hold, they were the only ones there.
“What’s this?” Another golden light shone from the baby’s chest. A medallion on a chain about his neck. Both Nuan and Shen stared at the image upon it… a gold dragon spiralling out of water.
“A dragon of mortal sun, of wind, wave, and water…” Nuan whispered.
“Shall rise upon the sea of clouds, against darkness to conquer,” Shen said.
“You heard it as well?” Nuan asked. Shen nodded.
He turned over the medallion which was warm to the touch. Two characters were engraved on the back.
“Mo Yuan,” Shen read aloud.
As if in recognition, the infant began to cry in earnest. His head turned towards Nuan’s chest, his little mouth rooting. Without a word, she reached into the front of her sea drenched gown and pulled down the binding over a breast with a wince. She brought the baby to her nipple upon which he immediately latched and began to suck hungrily.
Tears streaming down her face, Nuan’s imploring gaze tore at Shen’s heart.
“This is no ordinary child, Nuan. This ship… this ship cannot be either.” For he watched as a breeze took hold in the sails and the ship moved again, gaining speed as it headed towards the shore which the lifting mist now revealed. Steering itself straight towards the grotto.
Even at high tide, the ship will breach on the rocks, Shen thought. He rushed to peer over the bow. Then watched as an impossible surging midday tide rose, lifting the ship higher in the water to crest safely over the rocks as it entered the grotto.
Once deep inside the cavernous space, the ship made a perfect pivot turn, to come to a standstill once again.
“Come Nuan, we need to leave this ship.”
Nuan only had eyes for the baby in her arms who seemed to be trying to fix his gaze on her.
“And the baby?”
Shen could see the stubborn resolve on his wife’s face as she climbed down the side of the ship after him with the infant snuggled in a ripped length of skirt she had fashioned into a carrier about her chest. “Be he a child of the gods or not, Shen, we cannot abandon him here.”
Shen descended upon the top of a boulder that reached the side of the ship. Reaching up to clasp Nuan’s waist, he lowered her beside him. And the ship vanished from sight.
They looked at each other then back to where the ship had been, seeing only the dark walls of the grotto opposite.
Slowly, Shen reached out his hand. “It’s still here,” he whispered. His palm rubbed against the wood of the hull he could no longer see.
With a pensive tilt of her head, Nuan took one of the boy’s tiny hands and leaned forward. She and Shen both started as the ship became visible at the baby’s touch. Leaning away, the ship turned invisible once more when the baby was no longer in contact with it.
“That which is hidden, once lost, will be found. To bind what is broken, for light to abound,” Nuan recited.
“This is meant to remain safely hidden for him to come back to someday,” Shen guessed. “As to what is broken and what the light means…” He thumbed the medallion that no longer glowed on the chain he now held.
“The boy will remain safely hidden with us too,” Nuan declared, and Shen could only nod after a long moment.
They decided it would be safer to hide the medallion away too, as well as the name it held.
They chose to call the baby Yang after the sea and the sun, the sun that was shining bright in a blue sky once more when they left the grotto.
Read the upcoming fantasy adventure Sea of Clouds by SunInTaurus on Wattpad.