At the hoist of the red lantern, she draws the curtain of her cuff across her face, so she does not pollute The Emperor with her unworthy gaze. At His approach, she invokes the spirit of the nightingale and trills gratitude for His gifts: a toothpick, a sprinkle of caraway, a pot of foxgloves. In the bask of His Divine Radiance she conjures herself from bird into the squeezed crawl of silkworm grub; grinds her brow in dust made holy by His heels.
Small wife. Humble. The neat brown cheep of her agreements, her praise-songs for His Majesty, the Great Sage, Equal of Heaven. She has memorised the hundred righteous positions of a woman: the peony, the dog, the spatchcocked pigeon. She plants incense sticks before Kuan Yin, sheaves of them, that she may bear ripe sons and not the yoke of intelligence.
Most all of all, she studies the goddess’s most important lesson: how a wife can keep her skull attached to her neck. Every month there is a new girl. She is one of many choices. In the cage of her head, she tends dreams of butterflies. The bars are so narrow that no finger, however celestial, can poke through and flatten the tiny creatures.