When the Sea Turned to Silver Page 15

In the meantime, the women rushed to finish their pieces. They called their servants to bring more threads and silks, and the woman in blue requested a new needle. “Fetch the finest one we have from my father’s treasury,” she ordered her servant.

But one by one, each woman rose to compare her work with the original, shook her head in defeat, and abandoned the hall.

The last one to leave was the woman with the fish tail. She, of course, was the Sea King’s daughter—the most beautiful as well as the most skilled. But as she held her embroidery up to the widow’s, she too shook her head. Hers, like the others, was a poor copy. No one could match the fineness or colors of the widow’s silver clouds, flaming flowers, or crystal lakes. The widow’s embroidery is so beautiful, the Sea King’s daughter thought with yearning. I love it so. I wish I could be a part of it.

And with that whim, she began to embroider a small image of herself in the garden of the widow’s embroidery. But I’ll give myself legs, she thought with an amused smile, because it’s a picture of a mortal land. When she finished, it was late and she was quite tired. She tucked her needle into the widow’s embroidery to retrieve in the morning and left for bed.

When the son woke up, it was still dark and the hall was empty. His mother’s embroidery still hung at the front of the room, glistening in the fading moonlight. What if the Sea Daughter and her ladies change their minds? he thought. I’d better go now.

So he took the embroidery as quietly as possible and jumped onto the waiting horse. The amazing horse took off at a gallop, racing up through the water, across the frozen sea, and back to the seaside.

When they reached the shore, the man dismounted. The horse waded into the water and an ocean wave washed over it. When the water withdrew, the horse was, again, a large white stone. Then, another large crest rose and scooped the stone back to the sea.

The young man gazed at the empty impression on the shore and at the rolled embroidery in his hand. Without another pause, he turned and ran home.

“Mother!” he called as he burst into the house. The widow was in bed, thin and pale, with her eyes closed, and he feared the worst. He rushed to her side and laid the embroidery on her. “Your embroidery is here. I have returned.”

Slowly, the widow’s fingers touched the smooth, delicate threads. Her eyes opened and she smiled, her second smile in over eight years.

“My son,” she said with one hand on the embroidery and the other clasping his, “help me bring this out in the light so I may see it better.”

Outside, they carefully spread the embroidery on the ground. As they unfolded it, the silk grew and grew. It covered their poor house and bare land, and in its place, the stately manor and a glorious garden formed. The widow’s embroidery was coming to life! The swimming fish in the sparkling water, the trees with the jade-green leaves, the courtyard with patterned walkways—all real!

Everything was exactly as the widow had sewed it, except for one thing. For standing among the brilliant flowers and fluttering butterflies was a beautiful woman dressed in blue. She held a silver needle in her fingers and was looking around in confusion, for it was the Sea King’s daughter who had sewn herself into the embroidery.

But when she saw the widow and the son, her expression cleared and was replaced with one of affection. She saw she could not love the embroidery so much without loving its creator and her son.

The delighted widow welcomed her to share in her incredible fortune. The son and the Sea King’s daughter soon married, and the widow lived the rest of her days in complete contentment.

“Is that the end?” the noblewoman asked in an almost-demanding tone. “What else happened to the son and the Sea King’s daughter?”

“I suppose,” Pinmei said, a little surprised, “after they were married, they lived happily as well.”

“Yes, but…” The woman stopped midsentence, and both Pinmei and Yishan looked toward where she was staring. A glimmer of scarlet was wavering in the white-and-gray sky. The red butterfly! Pinmei hadn’t imagined it!

The two children and the woman watched without moving. The butterfly flittered through the falling snowflakes. Back and forth, back and forth it went, an intricate, silent dance.

At last, the butterfly landed on the noblewoman’s lap, on top of the gorgeous embroidery. It gave one final tremble and vanished.

Pinmei blinked her eyes. Had the butterfly melted into the embroidery? Or had a gust of wind blown it away? Where did it go?

But then the woman gave a low cry of anguish, so full of sorrow and heartache all other thoughts disappeared.

“He is dead,” the woman whispered, and a single tear began to roll down her cheek.



“Who is dead?” Yishan asked, handing her his handkerchief.

The woman wiped her tear and closed her eyes as if she could not bear to see land around her. After a moment, she raised her head.

“My husband,” she said softly. “I am Lady Meng, and my husband has been away on the king’s business for more than a year. Four days ago, I had an overwhelming feeling something terrible had happened, and finally, I could not stand it. I was on my way to the City of Bright Moonlight to find out when BaiMa threw me.”

Snowflakes dropped onto the embroidery, but Lady Meng did not bother to brush them away. Instead, her fingers stroked the smooth threads of a crimson butterfly Pinmei hadn’t noticed before.

“I knew when he left he was in danger,” the woman continued. She was looking out into the empty sky, and Pinmei knew she had forgotten about them. “I sewed him a dragon shirt to protect him, leaving in my needle, but even then I knew it would not be enough. He laughed and said he would return to me with the flight of the first butterfly…”

Her words dripped into the cold air, and while she seemed awash in sadness, she did not shed another tear. Instead, as if suddenly waking, she looked at them.

“Well, my young friends, Pinmei and…” Lady Meng looked sharply at Yishan as if trying to remember him. He gazed back at her, his face as blank as uncarved stone.

“Yishan,” Pinmei said, slightly confused.

Lady Meng smiled and returned the handkerchief. “Where are you going and why?” she asked.

“We’re going to the City of Bright Moonlight too,” Yishan said, and told Lady Meng the reason for their travels.

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