Words by Sharlene Teo
Words by Sharlene Teo
A short story by Sharlene Teo.
It was high summer and our satin stitch robes were soaked with sweat. We tried not to scratch our skin for fear of leaving blemishes that would cast us back out into the deep poverty of the world. The ice men were equally fearful of such an exile. We would know; some of us were having dalliances with them. All year round the ice men had to wear their heavy raiment of green and gold. We watched all ninety-four of them marching solemnly across the bridge, stern faces fixed on the gates.
Emperor Tang had sent them to collect snow from the highest peaks of the Qilian Mountains. It was a long, perilous journey and there was no certainty that they would return alive, or with enough snow. How could forty chests of snow survive this sweltering heat? We could not believe our Emperor was going through so much trouble for one sickly girl. All week the new concubine had been sequestered in the ivory chamber. The Emperor had found her on an expedition. It was said that she glowed from the ground on which she lay, a sweet slip of a thing with skin like rice milk and willow leaf eyebrows. A beauty, for sure, but nothing special. We were all great beauties, culled from provinces near and far. Yet since the girl arrived, the Emperor had stopped turning over our jade tablets. Every night it was her tablet he chose without deliberation, the one inscribed with the name he had given her: Tian Shi Xue, Sweet Moist Snow.
The dish looked and smelled like a thousand bad eggs had been smashed and left out in the sun
Such a crude endearment was uncharacteristic of our stern, laconic Emperor. What must the Empress Consort think, we wondered gleefully? The new concubine was getting all the attention. On the rare occasion that Tian Shi Xue ventured out from her bedchamber, greeting us with timid smiles and tentative waves, some of us vomited or spat in response. All across the courtyard came the sound of retching in spittoons. The girl had a violent effect on our beings, the same mysterious way that she enraptured the Emperor completely.
To keep us young and lissome for his imperial majesty we were fed a strict ration of mulberries and dew. The last thing a poor person wants to be called is greedy, but we were hungry all the time, even though our families outside believed us spoiled on aromatic duck, horseshoe crabs and jellyfish. Every Sunday morning the eunuchs pinched our arms and waists, checking we were slender enough so that his highness, a man with a face like fried tofu and a body like a turnip, would feel manly and imposing as he rutted into us. But he only desired Tian Shi Xue, even if, as the rumour held, she was dying. We heard that she had asked the Emperor for the snow because she had grown up near Harbin, the Ice City, and when she was a little girl her constitution was so delicate and her teeth so soft that all she could stomach was a concoction of flour, camphor, buffalo milk, snow and salt. And even now, as a young woman, this was all she could subsist on.
The ice men returned one muggy afternoon when a few of us had fainted from overheating and fatigue. Once revived we were dismayed to hear that ten of our lovers had not survived the journey back. The remaining eighty-four ice men bore forty chests of snow straight into the bowels of the Imperial Kitchen. When the mixture was ready we gathered by the doors and windows of the inner courtyard, watching as Tian Shi Xue fed the Emperor the first porcelain spoonful of her creation. His eyes lit up and he exclaimed in glee. For the remaining days of that summer the Emperor ate Tian Shi Xue’s concoction morning, noon and night, the bowl scraped clean by his fat tongue up to five times a day. We weren’t tempted to try this mixture – what the Emperor referred to as Sweet Moist Snow, after its creator, or Soft Sugar Ice, or Imperial Happiness Bowl – the dish looked and smelled like a thousand bad eggs had been smashed and left out in the sun. We did not think it seemed worth dying for, as those ice men had done. So the rest of the summer days passed, languid and malodorous. At high noon we fanned our faces and come evening we slept dreamlessly in our bedchambers, safe in the knowledge that our jade tablets would not be turned over; it was only Tian Shi Xue the Emperor wanted.
None of us were surprised when the Empress Consort passed away – from heatstroke and a weak heart, came the official story – nor were we caught off-guard by the news that her immediate successor would be the girl with skin like rice milk, the one who had swept in from the cold and ordered all the snow. What we did not expect was how rabidly the Emperor and his eunuch’s moods and bodies changed: their faces became jowly and unlined, their stomachs visibly distended. All day laughter echoed across the halls, men clapping their hands like idiots, with sweet dribble on their robes. Whispers abounded that the Emperor was losing his mind, that his senses had gone soft as bean curd. All he wanted to do was eat Sweet Moist Snow and coo endearments at his new Consort. This once-timid girl now moved through the palace with arched eyebrows and a newfound bravado as she cradled a swollen belly of her own.
On the same morning that the first frost appeared on our windowpanes, each of us received a royal command: we were to accompany the ice men to collect snow. We wept as we left the palace, having not set foot beyond its confines for the duration of our concubinage. We rode out of the city angry and afraid, until at the first crossroads the ice men halted our procession. As per the orders of the new Empress Consort, they handed us a gold ingot each and told us that we were free to go.