by Nyla Bright
The sight of the two-foot-long golden koi in the grip of a snake was horrifying. Alexandria’s mother had told her some of the fish in her grandmother’s pond were worth as much as a car. “And,” she had said, “there is a goldfish that is priceless. Watch out for that one.”
The gilt scales flashed in the sunlight as the fish thrashed wildly and the snake, as big as a boa constrictor, whipped in response. Everything about the snake and the fish were oversized, like kaiju versions of what you would find in the US.
They went under. The only sign the fight continued was the churning of the water in the otherwise still pond.
Alexandria leapt over the corners of the railless zig-zag bridge. Her pounding heart skipping a beat as she almost stepped off.
A month in Japan hadn’t broken the American habit of acting first and thinking second. By the end of August she would be more thoughtful and quiet, just in time to go home and be accused of being snobbish. Alexandria was never the right person for the right place.
She looked for a stick or garden tool. Not a twig was out of place. Her grandmother liked everything to be well ordered and she was rich enough to ensure nature obeyed.
It was Obon, the Japanese holiday when the ancestors returned. The gardeners were at home, placing offerings on shrines. There was no one to call for help. There was no one except her.
The fish and snake surfaced again, closer to shore this time. Alexandria stepped off the bridge into the knee-deep water as the fish flopped wildly in the shallows. It was losing the fight, caught by the tailfin. The fish’s struggles lessened. The snake bit forward, tightening its hold.
Tears streaming down her face, Alexandria did the only thing she could think of. She grabbed the snake close to its black head with both hands. The snake was unbelievably heavy, its head the size of her fist.
The koi’s scales glimmered in the sunlight like real gold as it gulped at the air.
The snake didn’t let go.
Alexandria pushed the snake’s head underwater. It would let go when it needed to breathe, right?
The serpent’s tail slashed, battering her legs. The snake didn’t let go.
Alexandria didn’t let go either. She gave the snake a shake.
It hung on.
Finally, in desperation, she reached forward with her other hand and pulled at the top of the head, terrified that it might be a venomous snake.
She let go of the snake’s “neck” to pull at the bottom jaw.
The koi leapt free, disappearing into the clouds of brown sediment.
Alexandria was left holding the snake by the mouth. She had a moment to look at the unusual serpent. Its black head ended in dark streaks running down its tan back like dripping ink.
It smashed its tail against her legs again and she nearly lost her balance. She did lose her grip. The snake dove deep into the murky water and slipped out of sight.
Alexandria braced for a bite in retribution. The space of three panting breaths passed as slowly as if time had stopped.
The snake broke the water at the edge of the pond and slithered up onto shore, escaping into the bushes, leaving Alexandria shivering in relief.
The head of the koi broke the surface again. Only, it had hair? Long, straight, golden hair, actual gold strands. Her skin was pale and shone like she had powdered in gold dust. Her eyes were a deep golden-brown, tilted on her face, above a petite nose. The lips that parted, still dripping wet, were a darker shade than the skin but gilded still the same. She shimmered in the sunlight.
The fish’s fins transformed into the long sleeves of an empress kimono. The expensive and intricate embroidery was a repeating fish scale pattern that vibrated in Alexandria’s vision.
The gold woman stood not in the water, but on the surface. The breeze ruffled her sleeves as if it were light silk and not heavily embroidered. How was she even dry? Everything about the dress was a contradiction, down to the torn hem.
Inclining her head in the slightest of bows the woman said in old-style Japanese, “I am deeply grateful. To whom do I owe Arigatai mono?” She narrowed her eyes at Alexandria. “Do you even speak Japanese? You have a striking look to you.”
“Striking” and “exotic” were the way for people in Japan pointed out her “western” features. Her face hid the fact she was a quarter Japanese. Japanese language classes and summers with her grandmother couldn’t erase her otherness and no amount of correct behavior ever seemed to make up for it. It was no better in the US where she was too polite–too quiet.
Alexandria climbed onto the bridge so she could stand taller than the bewildering woman. She wanted to point out she spoke better modern Japanese than this fish woman, but that was rude. Instead, she gave a quick bow and automatically addressed her as her grandmother would have demanded. “Japanese is my second language but as you see I speak it fair enough.”
The fish woman covered her smile with a hand. Alexandria could see the scale pattern of the cloth layered in faintly different colors of yellow, gold, and tan. It was the most beautiful kimono she had ever seen. Her mother and grandmother had very fine collections of kimonos, more than a person could wear in a lifetime. They had nothing like this.
“You are accomplished, then, child. I owe you my freedom. What Arigatai mono do you wish?”
Alexandria was aware her gaze was too direct but she couldn’t help it. She knew mono was “thing” and Arigatai was “thankful” but the two words made no sense together. “What’s Arigatai mono?”
“A wish, a prize, for your efforts.” The fish woman stepped up onto the bridge so that she was again gazing down on Alexandria. “My previous saviors were fast to ask for their heart’s desires.”
Was she implying Alexandria was stupid? Lowering her eyes and clasping her hands in front of her, Alexandria said, “I don’t even know who you are. Are you a demon?”
“An Oni? Do I have horns? No, child, I am the Koi Empress. What is your name?”
Alexandria looked up into those golden-brown eyes. “I am Johnston Alexandria.” She put her last name first in the Japanese style. “I am the granddaughter of Hicks Leiko.”
“Ahh,” said the Empress. “The one who wished for wealth and then was unhappy with the result. You are the child of Hicks Aiko, then? Johnston–she married the boy she wished would love her?”
Alexandria nodded dumbly. How could her grandmother and mother not tell her about the Empress? They knew there was a magic woman living in Grandmother’s pond and hadn’t said a word? What was wrong with them?
“Is she more pleased with her wish as her mother was?” the Empress asked, leaning forward.
Alexandria shook her head. “My parents are divorced. My dad isn’t allowed to come within 200 feet of my mom. She told the judge he scared her because he kept showing up to beg her to take him back.” Alexandria had a moment of hesitation. Why was she telling this stranger personal family business? Maybe because she was a magical woman living in Grandma’s backyard?
The Empress raised one perfect eyebrow. “Your mother has more grace than your grandmother. Your grandmother has spent decades trying to catch me again and force me to grant her a second wish. Your mother never came back.”
The Empress straightened to her full height. “Perhaps, you are wiser than them? No wish comes without a price. Love is a tiring thing I imagine, especially when only one party is truly in love.”
“Are you saying my dad doesn’t love my mom?” Alexandria tried wrapping her brain around two, now three, generations of wishes.
The Empress covered her smile with her hand again and shook her head. “No, child, your mother got her wish, he loves her utterly. You are a forthright little thing. I will be blunt. To force another to love you is, itself, not an act of love.”
“This is a ‘be careful what you wish for’ kind of thing? You’ll make my wish go bad?”
The Empress pulled back, her face twisting with disgust. “It is not my fault humans have impure desires. Your grandmother did not just want wealth, she wanted to be special. She got that in marrying your grandfather. It is hardly my fault she didn’t realize being special comes at a cost.”
“And my mother wished to be loved but didn’t realize she needed to love back,” Alexandria said.
The Empress nodded her head. “Just so.”
“You owe me a debt, for saving your life?” Alexandria continued thinking it through like a social-skill challenge. Do the rules of Japan apply here or does a fish goddess have an entirely different set of social rules for gifts?
The Empress nodded again. “For freeing me, I do.”
“My wish will be tainted by my own desires?” Alexandria looked back up into the golden-brown eyes.
The Empress inclined her head.
Every ounce of her Western mind told her that if she phrased her wish carefully she could have anything she wanted. There was an itch at the very back of her mind—the part that told her to cover her smiles with her hand, to not stare at people, and that slurping your noodles was perfectly acceptable—telling her wishing would be a bad thing. Japanese fairy tales were all about humility and kindness being rewarded, like Momotarō, the peach boy who always did good and asked for nothing.
“What if,” Alexandria asked, “I don’t make a wish?”
The Empress’ pretty lips frowned, “You would be so cruel as to leave me in your debt as if I were a servant?”
She could wish to not be whipsawed between the US and Japan. She could ask to be fully Japanese. That would mean an end to full-throated laughter, time after school to hang out with friends, and maybe even seeing her father. She could wish to be fully American but that would mean an end to seeing Grandmother, as prickly as she was, and also an end to long, hot, soaking baths, and having everything in its place. She liked taking off her shoes when she came inside.
Alexandria took a deep breath. “I wish…” Please, let this not be the wrong thing. “For you, The Koi Empress, to owe me nothing.”
The Empress’ laughter was as rich and golden as everything else about her. “They should have named you Chikako, child of wisdom.”
“Alexandria means helper and defender. Saving you was my duty and honor.” She bowed as deeply as she could manage from the waist.
The Empress leaned down and gave her a kiss on the forehead like she was a baby. “I bestow upon you happiness.” Alexandria’s own grandmother had never kissed her in public, nor had she ever seen another person in Japan do such a thing. The kiss must be very deeply felt to be carried out in even a private garden. A warmth spread from the spot, through her head, down her neck, arms, and legs, to the very tips of her fingers and toes.
“Your great-grandmother might actually give up this game of dragging me out to grant wishes if such wisdom continues.” The Empress turned and dove into the pond. She changed as she slipped into the water, looking like a reverse mermaid for a brief moment.
“Wait! What?” Alexandra shouted after the fish. “My great-grandmother is the snake?”
Her fish head broke the surface. “She wished for all her daughters and daughter’s daughters to get a wish for as long as there were daughters. Her wish turned her into a snake, ever to drag me to shore.
“It is tiresome.” Her head went back under. There was a flip of a ravaged tail and she was gone.
Alexandria took a moment to search for the snake in the bushes, calling out “Great-grandmother? Are you there?” She could find no sign of her ancestor.
She turned to go inside. She wouldn’t ask her mother or grandmother about their wishes. There was no point in embarrassing them. But, did they know about Great-grandmother? She gave a little shiver; glad she had wished better.
Each summer Alexandria searched for her great-grandmother. The snake never returned, not even on Obon. She threw food to the koi, covering her smile when she saw the golden koi rise near her for the food. Alexandria rewarded that trust by never trying to catch her.
Why would she? She was happy.