Beth said, “Auntie Ting?”
“Yes?” the old priestess said.
“If I may ask–why is it called the Bridge of Magpies?”
“Ah!” Auntie Ting smiled. “There is a story behind that, one of the classic tales of Heaven! It has been told and retold for centuries! You and the Monkey Queen need to hear it, wizard!”
“I’m not a wizard,” Beth muttered as Michiko moved next to her.
Auntie Ting ignored her. “Come closer, spread your ears, and a tale I will tell!”
Once upon a time in Heaven, there was a god who was an author. He was of middle age, as gods go, and behind his words and characters and stories were a winning grin and a ready laugh, a clever mind and a gentle soul. His tales were shared and spread to all the corners of Heaven. Yet for all the acclaim sent his way, he found himself lonely. His acquaintances tried to tell him that he should find a modest, meek goddess who could keep his house and keep him grounded. He nodded politely, but he knew his heart needed more.
There was also a goddess, young as gods go. She was an expert seamstress, well-read and quick of wit, with enchanting eyes and a smile that could charm the stars out of the sky. And she was the most skilled archer in Heaven; she could shoot the stem off an apple. But she, too, was lonely. Her acquaintances tried to tell her that she needed a suitor, a daring god who would sweep her off her feet and lead her to a life of adventure. She knew better.
It was by sheer coincidence that the author and the archer met. He was captivated by her eyes and her smile, while she sensed his kindly heart and his wild imagination. It wasn’t love at first, just the one meeting followed by letter after letter. But in her, he saw the muse he needed to spur his creativity and bring him joy. In him, she saw the kind and witty spirit to keep her smiling and help fulfill her dreams. And in time, it grew into love.
Alas! Love can be wondrous and beautiful, but it can also provoke bitterness and jealousy. The acquaintances of the author and the archer complained loud and long to the Emperor of Heaven, for how dare they ignore them and listen to their hearts instead?
At that time, the Emperor was dealing with not only the usual pressures of ruling Heaven but also constant griping from the Empress, who had earlier lost a prize diamond from her favorite crown. He was in a sour mood, and his hangover from the first of that year’s plum wine crop didn’t help, when he called the author and the archer in to discuss the rumors.
When the Emperor expressed his doubt about the relationship, the author spoke of courage and true love and defiance. This gave the archer strength, and she spoke in turn of putting an arrow in the ribcage of whoever would keep her and the one she loved apart. She quickly apologized, but that was the last straw for the Emperor.
He allowed the lovers one kiss, which would be their first and last. As their lips parted, he separated them and with a gesture sent them away, banishing them to opposite sides of Heaven, the entirety of land and sea and sky between them, never to see one another again.
The author found a cottage to live in where he could write to his heart’s content, with all the ink and paper he could need and an audience waiting for every tale. But the stories he now wrote were tinged with loneliness and sorrow.
The archer found a small cabin, with an archery range in the back, and neighbors who were good and pleasant company. But there was a sadness that held sway in her heart, leaving everything joyless, her favorite books, her needle and thread, even her beloved longbow.
The Emperor forbade them from even contacting one another. Letters were never delivered, magical communiques were dispelled. Their paths were blocked when they strayed too far from their new homes. Days turned into weeks, and the author felt the faint flicker of hope he desperately clung to going out.
But the archer refused to lose hope. The memory of the author’s kind heart drove her, their one kiss inspired her. She would be with her love again.
Near her home was a meadow ringed by shrubs and bushes where berries grew in every season. Many of the birds of Heaven came there to dine on the sweet berries. One day, the King of Magpies himself had come, and was helping himself to the delicious fruit.
The archer had a magic arrow in her quiver, one that would snare objects and bring them to her. When she saw the King of Magpies, she nocked that arrow in her longbow, and the goddess who could shoot the stem off an apple shot a golden feather off the bird’s tail and caught it as the magic arrow returned to her quiver.
Now the King of Magpies had some good and noble qualities, but he was also quite vain. He had acquired, in the way magpies do, several feathers from other birds to decorate his tail, and he was quite unhappy with one being taken from him. “Goddess!” he shouted. “How dare you tamper with the royal tail?”
“Watch yourself,” the archer said, and quick as a wink she had readied another arrow. “I am desperate.”
“And violence prone.”
“I am willing to strike a deal, King of Magpies. You can get your tail feather back if you will deliver two messages.”
“Two?” the king said.
“One would be to my true love, who has been banished far from here. The other would, I hope, be from him to me.”
“And why should I do this? I can always find another feather.”
“I know.” The archer lowered her longbow. “But without my love, I have no purpose, no joy, only loneliness. I would do anything to be with him.”
Magpies might be vain, with a tendency to claim things not theirs for themselves, but they also symbolize love and hope, and the king saw the tear in the archer’s eye and remembered the Queen of Magpies, who was in hiding after being a touch too attracted to a pretty, shiny diamond. “I will help you,” the King of Magpies said. The archer placed a small case on a leather strap around the bird’s neck, and he flew off into the sunset.
The king was as good as his word, and he reached the other side of Heaven the next morning. He arrived at the author’s cottage and hovered outside the window. Through it, he could see the author, sleeping at his desk, piles of crumpled and discarded paper around him.
The bird rapped on the window with his beak. The author woke up and stared blearily at the King of Magpies. “What brings you here, Your Majesty?” the author asked as he threw the window open. “If you’ve come to commission a story, you’ll have to wait. The words…are not coming like they used to.”
“I bear a message,” the king said as he perched on the desk. The author took the case from around the bird’s neck. He turned away as he pulled out the folded paper and read what was written there.
When the author looked up, there were tears on his cheeks. “Thank you, King of Magpies,” he whispered. “You have brought back something I thought I had lost forever. You’ve given me hope.”
The king bowed. “I have been tasked to bring back a message, if you wish.”
“That won’t be enough. I need to be with her. I need to overcome the Emperor’s will. I’ll move earth, sea and sky if I have to…”
The author stopped, a mad gleam in his eyes. “Oh, dear,” the king muttered.
“The sky! That’s it!” The author ran back to his desk, dug through the papers there until he found one that wasn’t crumpled or ink-stained, and wrote feverishly. When he had finished, he stuffed the paper in the case and hung it around the King of Magpies’ neck, thanking him again and again, and the bird took to the skies.
It was late in the day when he reached the archer’s cabin, and other birds had gathered by the berry bushes, including members of royalty. The archer took the case from around the king’s neck and turned away. The birds all did their best to pretend they weren’t listening to her gasp, then her joyful weeping, and, at the end, her laughter.
“Thank you, King of Magpies,” the archer finally said. “You have brought back the love I thought I might have lost forever. Thank you.”
The king bowed. “Now about that tail feather…”
“We’ll get to that later. Right now, we have a plan to discuss.”
“A plan?” the king croaked.
“My love has a marvelous idea! And once it’s carried out, we will be reunited! We’ll be together at last!” The archer laughed.
The King of Magpies saw the gleam in her eyes. “Oh, dear,” he muttered as the archer waved the other royal birds over.
They listened silently to the archer as she read from the author’s message. When she was done, the birds all looked at each other. Finally, the Duchess of Sparrows cleared her throat. “My lady…”
“Yes?” the archer said.
“Has being separated from you driven your love just somewhat mad, or completely insane?”
“This plan is ludicrous!” The Duchess flapped her wings. “Asking every bird in Heaven to be part of a living bridge across the skies?”
“How in the world,” said the Earl of Eagles, “are you going to get hundreds of thousands of birds to hold still?”
“No god is walking across my back!” shouted the Count of Starlings. The other birds chirped in agreement.
The archer stared at them, mouth agape. “But…you don’t understand. You’re my last hope,” she said softly. “If you won’t help, I’ll…I’ll never see him again…” She fell to her knees, covered her face in her hands, and sobbed.
The birds watched her as she wept, and some of them had tears in their eyes as well. “We…we have to help her,” the Duchess of Sparrows said.
“But how?” asked the Earl of Eagles. “We can’t be a bridge of birds.”
“Wait.” Everyone turned towards the Princess of Jays, those cleverest of birds. “We can’t be a bridge…but we can build one.”
“How? We’re just birds.”
“Watch.” The Princess of Jays flew into the trees, returning with a branch in her talons. “There,” she said as she dropped the branch on the ground.
“That’s a very small bridge,” the Count of Starlings said.
“But if all of us did this…it would still be very small, wouldn’t it?” The princess shook her head.
Then, there was a loud chirp. The other birds fell quiet as the King of Magpies began to sing, as clear as a summer breeze. When he had finished, he said, “If every bird in Heaven were to do this, we could build a bridge that would span the skies.” And as he spoke, a tiding of magpies swooped into the meadow, singing in a tangled yet oddly sweet cacophony, all bearing branches that they dropped in a growing stack.
The archer stared at the pile of branches. “It couldn’t work…it couldn’t…” she said as she stood.
“It can!” the Count of Starlings cried. “And it will!” He chirped, as did the Princess, the Earl, the Duchess, and all the other royal birds. The flapping of wings grew louder as more and more birds brought more and more branches.
“Your pardon…” The archer looked down and saw the leader of the College of Cranes. “We are on a schedule, and we must finish by dawn to avoid being discovered. We could use your longbow.”
“What do I need to do?” the archer said.
“Take out an arrow.” The archer pulled one from her quiver. The crane, who symbolizes magic, brushed it with his wing. “When it reaches the other side of Heaven, the birds there will get the message to start building the bridge on their end.”
“But no one could shoot an arrow that far!”
“You can…” The archer and the crane stared at the King of Magpies as he continued, “If you tie my golden tail feather to the end. It once belonged to the Pasha of Phoenixes, the swiftest of birds.”
“But what about your tail?” the archer asked.
The king shrugged. “I can always find another feather.”
The archer nodded and smiled. Using a small piece of thread, she tied the golden tail feather to the arrow. She nocked the arrow, aimed her longbow in the direction of the bridge, drew, and fired. Birds swerved out of the way as the arrow shot through the sky like a comet, with the shiny feather as its tail.
After that, all there was to do was wait, as the larger birds brought branch after branch and the smaller ones weaved them together, with magic from the College of Cranes providing the finishing touch. And at seven minutes after midnight, on the seventh day of the seventh month, the archer took the first step onto the bridge.
She reached the halfway point just as the first light of the new day appeared and stopped when she saw the final branches being put into place. The birds all flew away as one, and the author was there, holding up the archer’s arrow with the golden tail feather attached, laughing until the archer ran up to him and quieted him with the first of many, many kisses.
As the author and the archer tearfully embraced, all the birds of Heaven broke into song. It was a song that greeted the dawn and could be heard throughout Heaven and even in the Far Lands below. It was a song that made babies coo and children laugh and brought tears to lovers’ eyes. It was a song that woke the Emperor who staggered outside, saw the new bridge spanning the sky directly over the imperial palace, and swore off plum wine on the spot.
The Emperor had a good heart when he wasn’t deep in his cups, and he had been questioning his actions ever since he had banished the lovers. When he learned what had happened, he reversed himself and lifted the banishment. In fact, he insisted on conducting the wedding, and so the author and the archer were married, with the King of Magpies and the other royal birds as witnesses.
The couple couldn’t decide which house they preferred, so they kept both, traveling back and forth as needed. They persuaded the Queen of Magpies to return the diamond to the Empress’ crown, and found a new golden feather for the King of Magpies’ tail.
And every year, the author and the archer stepped onto the wooden bridge across the skies of Heaven at seven minutes after midnight on the seventh day of the seventh month, walked hand in hand to the center, and stopped there to give thanks to the birds of Heaven and to renew their love. And they lived happily ever after.
“Yay!” Michiko said, a dreamy smile on her face. “That was the best story ever! Thank you, Auntie Ting!” The priestess smiled.
“It’s quite good,” Prince Yun said, “though I suspect some details have changed over the centuries. What did you think, Beth?”
“Oh my gosh!” Beth said. “It’s like the Qixi story! Like Bridge Of Birds!”
The others stopped dead in their tracks and stared at Beth. “What?” Merchant Sheng said.
“It’s a book! By Barry Hughart! About a young peasant who hires a sage with a slight flaw in his character to help save a village of sick kids, and…” Beth stopped and looked around at her companions. “And I’m the only one here who gets this, aren’t I?”
“Yep!” Michiko said with a cheerful grin.
“Figures,” Beth muttered, red-faced, as the others started walking again.