Love is love, no matter what form it comes in, and it is powerful enough to cross the stars. ✨
In this sapphic retelling of the Chinese folktale “The Cowherd and the Weaver,” two girls struggle to build a home together in a world that threatens to tear them apart.
Sizi wiped the sweat from her brow. The heat of the day baked cracks in the hard clay path, turning her shoulders flush with sunburn. Her ox plodded beside her, his head hanging with exhaustion.
She took a deep swig from her waterskin and offered the rest to him. Ji shot her a baleful look.
“I don’t want you keeling over.” Sizi patted the crest of muscle over his shoulders. “We should reach a town soon, and we can refill there.”
Ji snorted, flicking up dust with his hooves.
It was their third day on the road since her brother had kicked her out of the house. Though he had let her take nothing but her ox and a waterskin, Sizi felt happier than she had in years. There would be no more tending to herds all day for hard crusts of bread. No more running at the beck-and-call of her sister-in-law. No more fighting with the chickens for space to sleep in the barn.
She took work in the villages she passed and spent her nights under strangers’ roofs, searching for a new place to call home. Sizi figured she would know when she found it.
A breeze ruffled her clothes, stirring up strands of black hair that had fallen loose from her braid. The scent of flowers blew in from the wind. Ji’s head shot up, and he took off running in a sudden burst of speed. Sizi sprinted to keep up.
“What are you doing?” she panted. “It’s too hot to be running.”
Ji veered off the path and disappeared behind a barrier of reeds. Sizi hurried after him, pushing aside the fronds. They snapped under her palms.
A lake stretched across a dip in the rolling plains, steam rising from the surface and catching the light in a myriad of colors. Seven women bathed in the waters. Ebony hair fell to the smalls of their backs, and their skin glowed like moonlight. They moved with an otherworldly grace, as if the air itself parted to cradle their bodies.
Sizi’s breath caught in her throat. There had always been stories about the gods descending to the mortal realm, but she’d never expected to see them herself.
Ji charged toward the silks left on a pile of rocks, his hooves kicking up clouds of dirt. Sizi made a desperate grab for his lead, but the rope slipped through her fingers. Her palm was skinned raw.
“Stop that,” she hissed.
Her ox snatched up a red dress and trotted back toward the road. Sizi snagged the hem as he passed and tried to pull the garment loose. Ji tugged back. The silk started to tear from the force.
“Ji!” she scolded. “Give it back. It’s not right to steal.”
Her ox made a rumbling noise in his throat and backed toward the lake.
“There’s someone here,” one of the women called.
Startled cries came from the water. The women splashed to shore and began putting on their clothes. Droplets scattered the ground around them, leaving dark spots in the dirt.
One of them noticed Sizi standing on the shore and gave her a dirty look. “You shouldn’t be here.”
“I know.” Sizi gave a final tug at the dress and Ji relinquished his hold. She went stumbling back from the lack of resistance. “I didn’t want to disturb you, but my ox—”
“No. You shouldn’t be here.”
The women took flight in a storm of swirling silks, shooting toward the heavens in a beam of light. Sizi shot Ji a bewildered look. Her ox dropped his head and lipped at the water grass.
“Would you be so kind as to return my garments?” a voice called. “I’m afraid I am not quite decent like this.”
A lone figure remained in the waters, the steam obscuring her figure. Sizi looked down at the silks in her arms and flushed.
Ji made a chuffing noise that sounded like laughter.
“Hush,” she jabbed a finger into his side. “Stealing her clothes was rude, and you know it.”
Sizi left the silks on the rocks and turned away until the girl stepped out of the waters. She appeared younger than the other women, in her late teens if Sizi had to guess, though she had a feeling the girl was far older than she looked. Her cheeks were flushed pink like summer peaches, and her eyes sparkled with a mischievous light. She blew strands of black hair out of her face.
Her dress swirled around her as she stepped forward, sunlight glimmering on her dewy skin. Ji butted his head against the girl’s shoulder.
Sizi tugged on his lead, blood rising to her face. “I’m so sorry about him. He’s not usually so forward.”
Ji snorted and shook his head.
The girl scratched behind his ears. “It’s alright. I can always make an exception for an old friend.”
Sizi frowned. “Do you know him?”
“Of course. You introduced me to all the cattle in your herd.” An uncertain look crossed the girl’s face. “Don’t you—don’t you remember me?”
Sizi shook her head, mystified. “Should I?”
The girl opened her mouth to reply, but Ji grumbled at her and she closed it again.
She forced a smile. “Perhaps not. We knew each other a long time ago. I am Zhinü, the Cloud Weaver and seventh daughter of the Emperor of Heaven.”
“So I must have been a child when I met you,” Sizi reasoned. “Were you a friend of my family? Did you know my parents?”
She had no true memory of them herself, but her brother had told her enough stories for her to piece together images. Her mother was made of gentle touches and fresh-steamed rice. Her father was the disciplinarian wielding the cruel strike of his oxhide whip. They had died in a herd stampede not long after Sizi was born.
Zhinü shook her head. “I’m afraid I have never met them. We knew each other before you came to them.”
“How? I didn’t exist before I was born.”
She glanced at Ji. “It’s difficult to explain. I doubt you would believe me if I told you.”
Regret flickered across her face. “Perhaps some other time. I need to go back to weave again tonight before my sisters begin to worry.”
“If there’s anything I can do to help…” Sizi realized the absurdity of her statement the moment the words left her mouth.
A mortal held little power against the gods, but her heart clenched at the thought of Zhinü shackled by an overbearing family.
“It’s not your problem.” Zhinü took her hand. “I have defied my mother long enough by staying down here. My sisters can shield me from her view, but she may notice I am gone before long.”
Sizi bit her lip, and squeezed Zhinü’s fingers. She understood dealing with callous family members all too well. “Stay. Just a little longer. You’ve gone through the trouble to come all this way.”
A shy smile curved across Zhinü’s face.
How does the modern retelling of traditional folktales reflect society's current view of the world and impact cultural acceptance? Mira Jiang, a young author from Novelly’s Rising Voices Collective, joins our Youth Ambassadors for courage conversations about sexuality and cultural acceptance in her novella, “River of Stars.” In this story, Mira captures what it means to be a young woman of color fighting to stay with her true love against disapproving opposing forces.
Novelly intern and high school student Nancy Martinez reflects on Episode 3 of the Read to Heal Podcast.
When she is asked what she thinks of people who could find a problem with her story, she emphasizes that it is a retelling, not the original tale. This is timely, especially when you think about the backlash movies and shows have gotten from audiences when a character’s race, ethnicity, or appearance were changed from the inspired story. Such examples are the casting of Halle Bailey in the live adaptation of “The Little Mermaid”, and most recently, the revealed cast for the “Percy Jackson and the Olympians” show.
Diverse Youth Voices. Amplified.
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