In 1988, Wenyu rode a white horse down the streets of Kowloon City. On television, her eyes were as bright as bone. This was the year the river crawled out of her womb, red canals pulling the roaches under. I was too young to remember those days when Hong Kong was baptized by the blood that ran between her legs.
Wenyu was fond of seducing the dead—more saint than girl.
She wore a wedding dress that tore at the hip, slit crudely by a meat cleaver. All the women whispered about that dress but roamed the department stores high and low for what was one-of-a-kind. Schoolgirls traded in their skirts for bridal wear and bleached hair. They would crush cherries on the pavement to apply under their eyes, making them run wet with Marlboro Reds.
My mother saw her once, at the races where no woman graced the silken saddles. Wenyu was mascot that year, forbidden to ride herself. I learned that flowers swelled from her sclerae, eating out Wenyu’s sockets, withering in the places where there was no white left to mutiny. Wherever she rode, warm blood followed, and it stained all the good meat at the wet market, stole the roasted chestnuts right under the noses of street vendors.
Twenty-one years later, I was hired to scrape the blood off the horses.
This involved dousing them in bleach baths—formulas invented by British men paid with signed picture cards of Wenyu. Safe on human hands, supposedly, leaving the horses with no more than a pale pink sheen. The stable itself was sandwiched between a sea of concrete buildings, while arched canopies collected rain over the outdoor racetrack. Monsoon season drove regular horses mad with the sound, but Wenyu’s were a special breed.
Sometimes girls who rented Wenyu’s horses stopped by to chat. Some asked for my number. I would politely decline and wait for Wenyu to stride in through the stable doors. She never did. It didn’t matter. I spent hours scrubbing, trying to restore the white horses back to their birthright.
It reeked, but I didn’t care. After races, in the underground circuit where girls rode horses so fast they reincarnated momentarily into birds or flowers or boys, I stood smiling and ready. I undressed each horse, handfeeding them balls of curry or leftovers from dim sum with my mother, who was convinced that Wenyu was more than one girl. How else is she always on her period? I couldn’t blame her, or anyone else who shared this sentiment. Wenyu rarely did TV appearances anymore, and she had sold the rights to her life’s story over a hundred times, different actresses crudely contorting their faces to look like Wenyu’s.
Same fake blood that men rinsed off the movie sets once the filming was over.
Better to get a real job now, my mother had said, before it’s too late. I knew what she wanted to say but chose not to. Like, better leave now before I become one of those girl jockeys, with Wenyu’s red river cinching my ankle like a halo, a root searching for water. A way out.
I moved out a little while after graduating from high school. My action figures tucked into a suitcase, tacky Wenyu posters stacked on top of each other. Glittering wounds that once watched me sleep from the wall. As a child, I always came home bruised at the thigh because I rode those cheap toy horses back from school. The ones that were simply a horse’s head on a stick, reins trailing down its spine.
The first girl I went on a date with complained that Wenyu never won any races. That’s because she isn’t allowed to enter any, I argued. Wenyu rose above that world, long ago. The girl and I agreed to disagree, as we snuck into an underground race. This arena where girl jockeys, handpicked by Wenyu, were bet on for thousands of HK dollars. I cheered so loud I lost my voice. Sometime between a representative approaching me with an offer for the job at the stable and the final race, the girl excused herself to go to the bathroom. She never returned.
That night, I dreamed of riding behind Wenyu. My breasts bared as I crouched with my arms wrapped around her waist. Those strands of boysenberry hair bucking down my face; her eyes snagged on the neon city ahead. Of course: my nose buried in the crook of her neck.
She smelled like earth and blood. Grew teeth on the backs of her fingers and crowned them in silver. Wenyu had the same kind face, same feral smile she flashed at reporters when she mounted her first horse. I had never known the definition of lonely. How my body lay limp in her lap, the ocean pried open beneath us, steed riding us into a sky that lived in the water.
When the news broke that Wenyu had murdered her lover, I had no trouble believing it. Apparently, she was caught fleeing his apartment. Naked then gone, having vanished into the river running scarlet with her blood. Her sins. The headlines said she made off with an engagement ring that looked like a horse’s bit the way it was wedged between her teeth.
The cameras snapped clean shots of blood dried in the places where her face folded from age. This angered many fans, who felt tricked all these years by her youth. The press was divided: did she attempt to ride her lover? Was he choked to death? Did he die because he made her feel good, or because he failed to?
I picked up the phone in the morning, about to leave for work. My mother called, begging me to please just quit, they will understand. What was there to understand? I hung up and sprinted to the subway station, panting, splashing puddles of blood that landed on the suits of businessmen. Ba po, they spat, but I ignored them.
When I got to the stable, I counted only one horse. Nobody was inside, and more than that: no sign that dozens of horses had lived here. I tried to quell the fear in my stomach, but it only sank heavier to the bottom. No, no, I whispered, reaching out to cup its head in my hands. Where are the others? As I pulled away, my eyes skimmed over its coat. Brushed clean and unbloodied as a maiden.
I closed my eyes and thought of my mother and the riding lessons she never had but wanted more than the entire world, more than a daughter. The Wenyu radio shows and soap operas that aired past midnight. We stayed awake to watch them together. The British are afraid of her, you know, she once said. I was thirteen. They think she plans to drown them someday. To that I asked, why hadn’t she already? But my mother didn’t respond, only turned the TV off and drew the covers over her head.
The day after, my body began menstruation. My mother had cursed, then ran out of the house to buy pads; she was too old to need them herself anymore. The moment I heard the door click shut, I bolted up from bed. On my way to the bathroom, I seeded poppies on the hardwood floor, droplets shaped like strawberries before they withered into beetroot. For twenty delicious minutes, I spread my arms wide, let my body mourn its absence of a child.
Soon the blood shot out of me like bullets, or thunderbolts touching down on earth. I wanted to trade the tub I bled into for a horse of my own. Something that could hold evidence of my desire and inherit it. Wenyu never hid what she wanted, so why should I?
Turning my attention back to the horse, away from those memories, I gathered up riding materials, preparing to take her someplace safe before the police arrived and stormed the place in search of Wenyu, her accomplices. Her reign of Hong Kong had come to an end.
I don’t even know when she came in. I mean, she made no sound. Merely crossed her arms over a red cheongsam, once she caught me staring. Her wedding dress pooled at her feet, worn and crumpled, jeweled by blood encrusting. Then her hair, the color of ghosts, cut short like a life. From her hands, stained cerise, hung a helmet. Wine licked at her lips. Wet and weary. I looked down to see the blood flooding forth from her legs, the river snaking its way into the stable.
This is the last one, Wenyu said. The rest are coming with me to America.
After I said nothing, she approached the horse and saddled it, securing every last piece of equipment. I took a step forward, shaking. My hands found hers in the morning smoke and sun. The source of Hong Kong light we had shared our whole lives. Don’t go, I said. It was all I could manage, but Wenyu shook her head. Red lapped at my ankles and swelled from my eyes like newborn suns. I clutched the fence separating us from the lone horse, refusing to look at her.
At least take me with you, I pleaded. My mother, too. She adored you when she was young.
To that, Wenyu smiled. Only I am not young, and neither is your mother.
But I am, I wanted to say. I am willing.
I can’t have you coming with me, Wenyu continued. Not yet. I didn’t understand what this meant, as she summoned all of the river coursing through Hong Kong back up her legs. Stop, please, I cried. Then, before all her blood swam upstream forever, she tied the end of the river around my finger. I was not well-versed in fate, but I felt that Wenyu knew this, because she squeezed my hand and led me to the horse. She undid the lock on the fence, letting the steed trot out into the open.
Wenyu held up a finger, encircled by a matching ring of red. This is the other end of the string, the river I will carry to the west, she said, leaning down to kiss my hand. When she lifted her head, Wenyu smiled. Somewhere in the distance, sirens wailed. When she took off, spider lilies bloomed behind her. The trail exploded into fireworks and Wenyu took to the skies, dyeing the clouds the warmest shade of vermilion. Her end of the river ran thick with flowers, lubricated by laughter. A lineage. A love letter home.
I shut my eyes, itching to follow. I reeked of earth and everything that ever rotted beneath Hong Kong. Something hot simmered under my slacks.
I began to bleed.
Rumpus original art by Zach Swisher