By Ai Jiang
On the eve of the Year of the Niu, the animals of The Great Race—organized by the sky ruler, Yuhuang, thousands of years ago—and their descendants gathered for a night of festivities. The two-headed ox always felt an unspoken foreignness.
The descendants were scattered across the world, but always returned to the starting line of The Great Race before New Year. With Grandmother Niu, the two-headed ox stumbled towards the crowd dancing by the river. Tails and heads all swayed. Laughter, in different depths and tones, echoed, but was drowned out once it reached the rippling waters of the river. The two-headed ox wanted to join the dance but found her legs unfamiliar with the traditional steps.
“It will soon be our year,” said Grandmother Niu, in Mandarin. “But remember not to dip your head and body in the water when the sun rises.”
The two-headed ox trotted towards the tree where Long lounged—red and gold scales wrapped around the high branches. Their descendants twirled, feasting on the steamed fish they held between their claws. Long’s whiskers and manes floated with satisfaction. She and their descendants slithered among the Long, making it difficult to distinguish between the two.
Beneath the tree sat Hu and their cubs. Having arrived earlier than Long and She, Hu had finished its meal and lay with their younglings close: a pile of orange fur with black stripes. Tu, who arrived after Hu, munched on rice cakes instead as they did not have a palate for fish; their snow-colored fur and round tail shivered with each bite.
The two-headed ox breathed in the familiar smells but found her appetite lacking. She was used to a Western palate for most of the year. She headed for the fields instead, where Ma and Yang grazed. Young foals and lambs raced but paused to stare at the two-headed ox when she approached. She tried to form words, but the sentences became muddled in her mind and just the thought of speaking twisted and tied her tongue.
Beside the field, at the center of a clearing, Hou—more human in appearance—and Ji, clucking, and their descendants, traded red envelopes with barking Gou. The two-headed ox listened to the rowdy exchange as they seemed to pass the same single envelope back and forth, but she could not find an opening to join in. She also did not have a red envelope to offer—only the one that her grandmother had passed her, but that was for herself to keep. She thought it would be intrusive to insert herself, especially empty-handed, and again turned from the gathering.
Zhu arrived last for the celebrations but fell asleep soon after their arrival. The two-headed ox smiled when Zhu snorted. Their stocky body rumbled and large ears flew upwards before flopping down with each breath. That was an activity the two-headed ox felt she could join, but she decided she should stay awake to watch the New Year sunrise.
“Why aren’t you with the others?” said one of Shu’s descendants. She shrugged. His whiskers wrinkled. “What’s your name?”
It was an unusual question to ask—most of the descendants carried their ancestor’s name. But what was more unusual was that the two-headed ox realized Shu’s descendant had spoken in English. “Gemini,” she answered.
“Mouse,” he offered. “I live on the other side of the river.”
The water rippled and occasionally splashed onto the grass of the two lands it divided.
“The West?” Gemini asked.
“I return East whenever New Year approaches.”
It was the same for Gemini. She only saw her family on New Year’s Day. They had been adamant about not travelling West themselves, though they pushed her to. “A better future awaits you there,” they had said.
“What about you?” Mouse asked.
“I was born here, but now I live in the river.”
Gemini looked into the distance. Dawn was quickly approaching. New Year announced its silent arrival with a sliver of gold peaking over the horizon. The rest of the animals and their descendants had fallen asleep, but Grandmother Niu watched Gemini from afar, settled amongst the other animals.
“I must return home soon,” said Gemini.
“You’re not supposed to cleanse yourself today. It is bad luck.” Mouse paused. “I’ll come with you.”
When they reached the river, the other animals had awakened and gathered for their departure.
Mouse hopped onto Gemini’s back as her front foot dipped into the water. She remembered her grandmother’s words the night before. As Gemini’s back foot left the land of the East, she felt the full weight of the river’s current, one side rushing to the left and the other to the right, pushing against her body. Her legs trembled, but she withstood its force. Once she reached the middle, she looked back. Grandmother Niu stood with a forlorn expression.
Most who chose to live in the river were washed away quickly. Sometimes, they would step on to the land of the West without a second thought or step back onto the land of the East. It was difficult to live in between.
Gemini turned and looked up the river, unending, rushing towards her from both directions. A fragile balance of cultures pushed against each side of her body.
Mouse hopped off her back. His feet met the West. As she stood in the middle of the river with one head craned towards the East and the other towards the West, she began treading in place as she has done every day.
She was not yet ready to settle in the West, but she also knew that she could no longer stay in the East. Though the East was no longer familiar, the land remained rooted within her. Though it was buried and often difficult to reach, Grandmother Niu was always present to remind her who she was during New Year. Though it was the Year of the Niu, she knew that this year would be just as difficult as the others.