It was tight in the Lamp, that was for sure. Her hair drifted in the dark space as if underwater, and her tail looped in on itself. Her human form wanted to sleep, while her serpent form was itching to shed its skin.
At last, Qing Se let herself drift off, loosening her grip on human shape. Once she slipped into serpent form, she had much more room in this cool space within the Lamp. Ironically, once she relaxed and was fully the Green Snake, she only awoke in the middle of the night with a terrible itching to shed her skin faster, writhing. Though there was now plenty of space to drift and swim, she thrashed and bumped against the boundaries.
“Damn it, it’s never enough,” Qing Se hissed. “Never a comfortable position either way…”
Suddenly, the darkness in the void gave way to great light, and Qing Se felt as if she were radiating. She lifted human arms up from her snakeskin and covered her now human face against the bright light. “Really? Right as I’m about to sleep?” Like a mermaid swimming to the surface, Qing Se swam up toward the light, transcending the dark mist, leaving the Lamp to face her new keeper.
Her human side said to make it a dramatic entrance. Her serpent side said to wait and see.
The Lamp’s bearer appeared to be a young boy in rags, wide-eyed and speechless. Qing Se appeared in human form for his sake and said she would be his friend throughout the course of granting three wishes.
It was not as dramatic as she would have hoped. The boy was so dumbfounded that Qing Se let him think about it while she went back to sleep in the Lamp. Oh, gods. First encounters are always awkward, anyway.
After some comfortable darkness curled up in serpent form within the lamp, bright light cut through and her skin radiated again. When Qing Se emerged again, she was prepared for questions about the rules of wishing, the drill of no murder, no time travel, no reanimation, no turning into an omniscient god, and no making people fall in love (that one was always met with disappointed scowls).
She wasn’t prepared for the boy’s simple awe, and wide-eyed question: “Who are you really? From before you were captured in the Lamp? Can you remember?”
Qing Se almost stumbled out of her human guise, laughing in disbelief. “Captured! Well, that’s one way to put it. You don’t know much about creatures like me, do you? Curses happen, the way fatal accidents happen to you mortals. Inconvenient, but just a part of life.” She folded her arms back against her head and made herself comfortable on a patterned rug on the floor. “Just concern yourself with your three wishes while you’re lucky to have them.”
The youth did not give up so easily. “Why my wishes? I thought releasing a djinn meant releasing great ancient powers. Why is it now that you serve us?”
“We got bored,” said Qing Se. Her serpent side wanted to stretch out against the oriental rug and scare the mortal for rubbing it in. Her human side whispered that he was only curious. It was on the tip of her tongue to speak of who cursed her, but still she found herself remaining silent.
After a while, the youth sat down on the other side of the rug. “Forgive me. I jumped right into it as if we were old friends. I’ll just think of my first wish, then.”
Qing Se’s human side was content in the silence sitting together. Her serpent side preferred the solitude of the Lamp.
The boy’s first wish was for his mother to be well off, because they had grown up poor and broken. Qing Se saw to it that his wish was granted.
The boy’s second wish was to be made a prince, so that he could have a chance at winning a princess’s heart. Qing Se laughed, “A love story. Of course!” Her serpent side hissed bitterly. Her human side was more hopeful. Her mind was as tangled up as her body in the confines of the lamp, but she prepared to clothe him in wealth and send him to his fate.
“No, not like that!” laughed the boy, draped over in oversized emperor’s robes.
Qing Se flicked her wrist, and the boy was almost drowning in gold.
“Come on, you know this is an illusion,” the boy laughed, his mouth still showing through the pile of gold.
“You’re mortal. It’s all an illusion,” Qing Se said nonchalantly. “Still fun, though.”
“I don’t want to be that kind of prince,” said the boy, shaking off the gold. “I just want a path to reach the princess.”
“A poor prince? Yeah, that’ll be the day,” Qing Se snickered.
“And a bound immortal,” said the boy, raising an eyebrow. “We’re both oxymorons.”
Qing Se dropped her smile. Kill him for that remark, said her serpent side. Wait and see, said her human side. “So what do I even change on you?” she asked him aloud. “If not wealth, what makes you a prince in human terms?”
“Courage, I suppose,” shrugged the boy.
“That’s it?” said Qing Se incredulously. “You ask of an immortal djinn to give you what you can grow yourself?”
“An insane amount of courage,” said the boy. Then he quickly added: “While still keeping me alive and rational.”
Qing Se laughed. “Oh, I’ll give you the practice of bravery.” At last, she emerged from this guise, majestic and terrifying, serpentine and coiling. As the Green Snake, she hissed at him with a monstrous grin. In the back of her mind, her human side told her to return to being a proper servant. But her serpent side, sunlit with scales, felt so free.
To her surprise, the boy wasn’t frightened off. He didn’t recoil in disgust, nor try fruitlessly to fight her off, nor pity her limbless form. “That was amazing!” he said, his eyes alight in awe.
Qing Se fell back into human form. “You really weren’t scared?” Then she added, “Well—that’s utterly pointless! It isn’t courage without a little fear.”
“I’ll have whatever you’re having,” said the boy brightly, sitting upright next to her. “That shot of courage to be completely yourself.”
Qing Se stared at him. Humans are weird, said her serpent side. Isn’t it great? said her human side. “You want a drink when you first come back from the princess?” she said aloud. “We can be completely ourselves and talk about how it went.”
“And you’ll tell me who you were before?”
“Yes.” What did she have to lose, anyway? A mortal who treated her like a fellow human was hard to come by. Sure, the last time she slipped a drink centuries ago at the Dragon Boat Festival had painful consequences, but this time she didn’t mess with free will. This time, with no ulterior motive, she offered friendship.
“I can’t wait,” said the boy. And then, magic carpet beneath his feet, he was off to see the princess.
Poor fool in love, said her serpent self. Just like Bai Se.
But how lucky, said her human self. To not know what red threads bind him to fate, and to explore.
It is said that, invisible to the mortal eye, threads bound people to meet one another. Red threads of fate bound people to their true love, and once a match was made, nothing on earth could sever it.
Qing Se had lost vision of such things a long time ago. She had seen rushed marriages, broken spirits. She could not find it in her heart to believe such matches were meant to be. Even if it produced children like herself, with dualities like herself.
There is only intertwining, then leaving, said her serpent side. And you couldn’t even do that properly, could you?
Perhaps then there is only romance, said her human side. But even then you recoiled, didn’t you?
“She put me in the Lamp,” Qing Se said aloud to herself, to stop her own inner, arguing voices. “What do you expect?”
No mate to save you, hissed her serpent nature. No soul to save, sighed her human spirit.
“There are no soulmates for the likes of me,” Qing Se reminded her selves, alone with her thoughts. “They all leave for greater love. No one has time for these splitting questions.” She could never understand the force of attraction like the others.
Many of her kind had whims to shapeshift into human form and dance for a night. But even in human guise, they could not change that they were bound to their promises. Many an immortal had been trapped in a mistake of a marriage, waiting until a human companion’s death to be freed.
But Bai Se didn’t look free when her husband died, Qing Se thought bitterly. I have learned nothing. I could never be like her. And angrily, despite the bliss of friendship only moments earlier, both her human and serpent sides wept.
She awoke, head rested on her elbows, her long tail coiled snug all around in the dark room of the lamp. Of course, she could have shrunken herself down to make it easier, but it didn’t feel right to not take up space.
She decided to get up out of her slumber and follow the subtle light above her.
But when she emerged from out of the lamp, she realized it was still early. The boy was nowhere to be seen. For a moment, Qing Se panicked that the Lamp had fallen into the hands of another, one who wouldn’t be her friend, one who would see her as servile and soulless, one who didn’t believe magic and humans could mix. But no one else was in the room.
Was the boy in trouble? Did he need her help? Qing Se gathered up her powers and prepared herself to burst out of the room controlling rain and wind, riding the air like a dragon, all to save her friend, despite not knowing where he was, when—
“Guess who got a date!” piped a cheerful, familiar voice.
Qing Se whipped her head around. “Oh thank the gods!” she cried, rushing to embrace him despite herself. “It was you who rubbed the Lamp, wasn’t it?”
“I only just got here,” said the boy, embracing her back.
“But that’s impossible!” said Qing Se, slithering over to the Lamp. “I can only emerge when summoned, when I’m allowed.”
“I didn’t tell you my last wish,” said the boy. “For your freedom.”
If she had been fully in serpent form, her jaw would have hit the floor. “Boy, if you think I’m staying human for you—”
“The freedom to be both your selves,” said the boy, reaching out to her. “Without the shame of the Lamp someone threw you in.”
Stunned, Qing Se’s eyes filled to the brim. She was ready to tell him.
“I had a Lady once. I couldn’t stand to see my Lady White Snake suppress herself in marrying a man. I slipped her a drink one night to be like the good old days, and when it made her reveal her serpent form, it scared him to death. She bound me to stay while she save his soul, and then the curse was cast.
“I have seen my Lady find life in moments, in festivals, in the people she healed, and perhaps that was enough for her, perhaps it had to be, to fit into a new life. She had so much life in her, from a world of the simple and divine to the world of bustling people. Her human husband came from wealth, but his family brokenness had filled him with his own venom, and confusion. Would you believe, he even shortly ran away to become a monk!”
“And how did that work out for him?” said the boy.
“I was in the Lamp then, but I’m willing to bet all the treasures…not well,” Qing Se whispered, as if she had juicy gossip instead of ancient history, and she found herself laughing. “But you know I don’t see you the same, right?
“I do not fear man; on the contrary, I’ve skipped rocks and eaten good food with many humans long ago. But I dread the mortality of such moments, once they each trace their red threads and meet their fate. I exist because of tangled threads. And yet, what good are they?”
“Well, you know what I think?” said the boy, kindly taking her hand. “Best not to see fate anyway. But I’ll bet there are threads all around us that bring us together, all kinds of soulmates for us to find in a lifetime. I’m glad I found you.”
Qing Se took a hold of the empty golden lamp and smiled at her friend. Freedom, her human and serpent sides harmonized. For once, it seemed a tapestry of peace were being woven between her two ever-shifting, fluid halves. Neither part of her missed anything; she had shed the chains of the lamp, and she was whole.
For that, embraced her friend, more satisfied than anything in the world.
Then she transformed the lamp in her hands and began to pour tea for the both of them. “So! Tell me about the princess!”
Ellen Huang is an ace writer of fairy tales who loves wearing capes on special occasions. She has a BA in Writing & a minor in Theatre from Point Loma Nazarene University, and for the past year she’s been teaching children creative writing and drama games. Her work has appeared in over 25 publications, including Enchanted Conversation, TL;DR Press, Gingerbread House, Awkward Mermaid, The Folks, and South Broadway Ghost Society. A previous version of “The Soulmates of Qing Se” appeared on As I Am, the blog for Diverging Magazine. Follow her creative work: worrydollsandfloatinglights.wordpress.com