Faithful Swords

Mei Min lay awake long after the other consorts had gone to sleep. Rain whispered its rhythm on the roof high above, a pleasant sound that reminded her of sleeping in a tent while leading the campaign against the northern rebels. So rather than try to sleep, she reclined with her goblet of wine near the brazier, wrapped in a fur, gazing at the subtly shifting glow of the coals under the bronze and listening to the rain.

The doors to the women’s chamber opened and Jia Fen entered, escorted by guards. The Emperor had desired her that night, and while she’d gone cheerfully enough, Mei Min could see even in the gloom that the girl was crying.

“Jia,” she called softly. The guards bowed themselves out of the room, closing the red lacquered doors behind them. Jia Fen sighed and shuffled towards her, stumbling slightly. Mei Min stretched out one arm and wrapped the girl up in the fur with her. The dim light of the brazier glinted off tear tracks on her cheeks.

“You’re drunk,” Mei Min whispered, surprised.

“The Emperor had much fine wine for us to share,” she said dully. “He kept refilling my cup – how could I refuse?”

Mei Min held her close. The girl’s silk robes were clammy from her passage through the palace. “You couldn’t. Don’t worry, we’ll take care of you.”

Jia Fen was silent for a moment. “Do you ever think about how easily we’re forgotten?”

“What do you mean?”

“There have been many Emperors, whom we remember, but the many Emperor’s wives, and consorts, and concubines, and all the other names they have for us…” She trailed off. “There are forty-three of us just in this palace. And unless we become Empress or bear a boy child who ends up becoming a prince, they will forget us.” She stared stonily at the brazier. “I thought coming here would bring great honor to my family, and I suppose it has, but the honor is not lasting. Not the way it lasts for men.”

Mei Min looked warily over her shoulder, but the room was deserted. “Jia, you should try to sleep.”

“Don’t you think about it?” she whispered. “Men are remembered on their own merits. Women are remembered for producing men.”

“Usually,” Mei Min conceded. “But women are also remembered for producing poems, or paintings. Not as often as the men, of course –”

“I’m a terrible poet and my paintings are not as good as Lingyue’s or Lady Gao’s.” She looked up at Mei Min. “You’ll be remembered. You’re the great General Mei Min, the Faithful Sword, Guardian of Heaven. Your honor will be lasting.”

“Only if I bear a son,” she said grimly. “I may be the Guardian of Heaven, but I’m still a woman and a wife of the Emperor. At the end of the day, no matter how many battles I’ve won, I still only have one purpose.”

Jia Fen glared into the coals. Fresh tears sparkled in her dark eyes. “That isn’t fair,” she whispered, almost inaudibly.

“Is that why you stole those weapons from the armory?” she asked gently. “Because you thought if you, too, could win battles, you would have eternal honor?”

Jia Fen lay silent. Mei Min waited.

“Do you want us to return them?” she asked finally.

Mei Min sighed. She knew she had many admirers among the women in the palace, from the Empress all the way down to the lowest maids. But she’d been shocked to learn, upon her return from the latest battlefront, that a total of five concubines had stolen weapons in hopes of learning to use them as well as their General. She was partly flattered, but mostly terrified for them. She was not sure if she’d be able to protect them, should they be discovered.

And if she asked them to return the weapons, they would, out of respect for her.

But they were skilled – Mei Min had watched their demonstration and couldn’t help but be impressed.

“Not all the poets and painters are remembered,” she said finally. “Only the great ones.”


“So…we must be great. We must be the best.”

Jia’s eyes lit up. “You mean –”

“How much do you really think you’ll learn from watching those boys train?” She dried the girl’s cheeks. “No – from now on, you train with me. And when the Emperor learns of us, he will have no choice but to remember us.”

Candy, Not Cultural Appropriation: Halloween Mindfulness

MIDDLE EASTERNfinal2photos for poster

Two examples of Ohio University’s “Culture Not Costume” posters.

Well, it’s October. Time for the leaves to start changing, the rain to start falling, and pumpkin spice everything to take over our lives.

It’s also time to start thinking about Halloween costumes.

I used to rant about oversexualized women’s costumes, and I still find the options for women’s costumes disappointing (to put it mildly), but recently I’ve become more aware of the piles and piles of racist costumes out there – mostly because, well, people keep wearing them.

I know the options for mass-market costumes are not ideal. I know coming up with a costume to make or closet-shop for yourself is hard. But please, be mindful of what you choose to wear. A costume sends a message, and however innocent your intent might be, the impact could be very different from what you wanted.

We don’t like hearing about people being “offended.” We tell them they should grow a thicker skin, that it’s just a joke, that they’re being too PC, it’s not a big deal, nobody else is upset so why are they, etc etc etc.

We tell them basically whatever we can think of to avoid the truth, which is that we hurt someone and we need to do something about it.

Again, your intent doesn’t matter. (Sorry.) Regardless of whether you mean to cause hurt, you don’t get to dictate whether or not someone else has actually felt hurt. Own up to it. Apologize for it.

Better yet, be mindful about your actions and avoid causing hurt in the first place.

Here are some great pieces about Halloween costumes and cultural appropriation, which will say it better than I ever could:

“Unfortunately, sometimes the “fun” comes at the expense of others, and the scariest thing is how rampant racism is on Halloween. Before you give me an eye roll and say, “Relax, it’s just a joke,” listen up. Because I used to be you.

A full archive on why not to wear a Native American costume. A few reasons: Native Americans still exist (they are not fictional characters), 1 in 3 Native American women suffer rape, and in Canada, indigenous women are over four times more likely to be murdered than other women.

Experts break down the excuses often used to defend a racist costume.

A flowchart to determine whether your costume is racist!

“It is possible for White people to dress as characters of color, or as celebrities of color – but if the only thing that makes the character/celebrity distinctive to you is their skin color? I’d rethink your reasons behind the costume and try to be a bit more creative.”

Tea and Swords

“How is it?”

“Still a bit hot.”

The girl’s face fell. Mei Min concealed a sigh. She’d been away long enough on the battlefield that she had forgotten the delicacies of courtly conversation.

She had also forgotten how most of the Emperor’s younger consorts worshiped her. This one, Jia Fen, had won the honor of bringing Mei Min her first proper cup of tea in eight months. She had brought the tea set over with trembling hands, set down the gilded tray with reverence usually reserved for the Emperor himself, and poured a cup of aromatic liquid. Mei Min felt herself relax simply watching it, though the hot bath she’d just had – also the first in eight months – contributed significantly.

With a low bow, the girl – the Emperor’s thirtieth consort? Thirty-first? – presented the cup of tea, which Mei Min accepted gratefully. There had been what could be loosely described as tea on the campaign, but nothing compared to a cup of tea savored on a silk couch in a beautiful room behind fortified walls.

It tasted like home.

And, like home, it was not quite comfortable.

She smiled reassuringly at the younger woman. “It warms my soul. Thank you.”

Jia Fen sat down slowly at her feet. Mei Min took another cautious sip. The tea scalded the tip of her tongue and she winced. Unfortunately, the girl noticed.

“Forgive me, Honored Lady – ”

Mei Min waved her off. “I am still sore from the ride home.” It was mostly true – she was also sore from wielding a sword, sleeping on hard ground, and taking a few more blows than she would have liked.

“You were missed here,” Jia Fen said, perking up. “Lady Linyi had her baby – a boy. And two more courtesans stole swords from the armory, claiming you’ve inspired them to fight for their Emperor.”

Mei Min choked on the tea, scalding her throat. “Two more?”

Jia Fen feigned shock. “You are not delighted about the birth of a prince?”

“More delighted than I am about two more girls putting their lives in danger!”

“They know how to fight,” Jia Fen said defensively. “They observe the training grounds daily, pretending they’re sweet on the officers. And…”

She looked around, checking to make sure no one else was in earshot. Mei Min thought about warning her that it was the Imperial Palace and someone was always listening, but she was too tired, and besides, Jia Fen caused little enough trouble that there was no need to worry.

But much could change in eight months…

“They practice,” Jia Fen whispered, smiling. “With calligraphy brushes, lampstands, anything they can find.”

“And they aren’t caught?” Mei Min’s combat prowess was discovered soon after she came to the Palace. At first, when she was only one of four, the Emperor viewed it as an amusing curiosity. Soon enough, though, she was one of sixteen and leading armies, a general in her own right. Now she was one of forty-three, and highly honored.

One warrior wife was advantageous; two, or more, could be seen as embarrassing. Or a threat.

“They have a lookout. Don’t you approve?” Jia Fen looked up at her with such childish hope that Mei Min could only sigh. Besides, how many times had she been told at that age that her talents were unfeminine at best, demonic at worst? And she had always believed that a woman with the desire and talent to fight should be allowed to do so.

“I do approve, but I wish they would speak to me about this. I may be able to protect them. Who are they? And who is their lookout?”

Jia Fen busied herself pouring her own cup of tea. Min Mei raised her eyebrows. “You?”

She took a demure sip. “Is the tea to your satisfaction, Honored Lady?”

Something else occurred to her. “And – the armory? Only the royal family have access…”

The girl dipped her head. “Your wisdom is surpassed only by your skill with the blade.”

Mei Min took a slow sip of tea. So distracted was she by the news of this small army of women forming within the palace walls that she barely even tasted it.

Jia Fen looked at her anxiously. “The tea? Is it…”

Mei Min smiled and took another sip. It was a very comfortable temperature. “I am very pleased with it. You must serve me again sometime.”

Jia Fen smiled and dipped her head again. “It would be my honor.”

The Hudson’s Bay Company Siege


She startled awake, grasping for her rifle in the dark, but Amos’s gentle hand steadied her. She exhaled slowly. Within her alarmingly large belly, the baby shifted. Esther laid a soothing hand over her stomach, though she herself wasn’t feeling very reassured. They were still sitting on their cabin’s front porch, keeping watch from the hand-hewn chairs they’d brought from the kitchen. She could barely see her husband’s profile against the night sky. They didn’t dare light a lantern, not until they knew what they were facing, but she could see he had his rifle at the ready.

“See something?” she whispered.

“Not sure.”

She leaned forward, peering into the night beyond the planks that enclosed their porch. She had recently turned forty, and her eyesight already left much to be desired. Add in her nearly full-term pregnancy, lingering summer fever, the stress of having been dragged from their home three days earlier by Hudson’s Bay Company men, and the worry over their eight children staying with friends across the Columbia, and she could see just about whatever nightmare came to mind in the silent blackness of their farm.

She’d been surprised the cabin was still standing when they returned – in the past, the HBC would have just burned it down. After all, this wasn’t the first time she and her family had been loaded into a boat at gunpoint and sent across the river by the land-hungry British. But maybe the Company had realized that tactic wasn’t working and decided to try something more permanent.

Esther wasn’t going to let that happen. She’d come here, sick, pregnant, and exhausted, to ensure her children had a home – and family – to return to.

“Amos Short!” The shout rang out from the darkness. Esther seized her rifle. Amos crouched behind the porch wall, sighting into the darkness toward the voice.

“Amos Short, this is the Company. You are trespassing on British land. Come out of your house with your hands up.”

“Think they want me, too?” Esther grumbled.

“They know you’re not worth the hassle,” he whispered teasingly.

A gunshot shattered the relative calm and sent birds shrieking out of the trees. “That’s your only warning!” the voice shouted from the dark. Esther peered over the edge of the wall. She could see lamps and torches flaring to life in a circle thirty paces from the house. The cabin was surrounded.

“You know it’s just the two of us, right?” she hollered. “Didn’t need to send the whole barracks!” There was enough torchlight now for her to see faint shadows dancing on the wall of their cabin – and the grim fury on her husband’s face. “Unless, of course, you’ve heard how good a shot my husband is…”

“Come on out now!” the man shouted. They were close enough now that Esther could hear their footsteps. She glanced at Amos, wondering if he had a plan –

“Company, aim!”

Esther froze, wondering if she’d heard right. Surely they hadn’t come here to kill them – they were just here to arrest them, or send them back across the river, or simply hold them while they burned down the cabin and made them watch –

But before the rest of the Company men could even bring their guns to bear, Amos was back at the wall, rifle poised. He fired.

Esther sat with her back against the porch wall and listened to the chaos while Amos reloaded. The Company men were shouting and, if the shadows on their cabin were any indication, panicking – but no one returned fire.

One voice raised above the others. “He’s dead! Short shot him in the head!”

The shouting died away to whispers. Amos finished reloading, but stayed crouched behind the wall. Esther gripped her own rifle, ready to heave herself up. There were enough men milling around out there, she was sure to hit at least one of them.

But the whispering faded, and the torchlight dimmed. She peeked around the wall.

The farm was dark again. There was no sign anyone had ever been there.

She sank back down against the wall, sighing with relief. “Nice shot, dear.”

“Didn’t really want to kill him. There were so many, though –”

“It was us or them,” she said firmly. “This is our land now, and that’s how they chose to deal with us.”

“Think there’ll be more trouble?”

“Oh, certainly.” She stood slowly. “But I think it’s safe to take the rest of tonight off.”

Into the Constellations

How close to grasping Orion’s Belt
would you get before its tidy trio
stretched or tilted on the angling light-years –
or simply broke?

How deep into the Great Dipper’s bowl
could you dive before it resembled
not a skyborne ladle but something else –
or nothing at all?

How distant would you have to travel
before the spread of night’s dark fabric
stretched flat constellations into sculpture –
or into different shapes entirely?

How far could you fly before you looked back
and saw, with longing eyes and giddy heart,
the familiar night sky patterns
transmuted into a new universe?

How far could you go before your
order-craving mind confessed it could
no longer compress the independent,
far-flung stars into forms it can comprehend?

At that point, I could break, or cry, or dread –
but I think I would sing, and keep sailing.

Tuesday Quotes

Oh my God, what if you wake up some day, and you’re 65, or 75, and you never got your memoir or novel written; or you didn’t go swimming in warm pools and oceans all those years because your thighs were jiggly and you had a nice big comfortable tummy; or you were just so strung out on perfectionism and people-pleasing that you forgot to have a big juicy creative life, of imagination and radical silliness and staring off into space like when you were a kid? It’s going to break your heart. Don’t let this happen.

Anne Lamott