nāga-girl and nāga-queen
by Sandra Moore
“So of course, Pauk Kyiang was able to save his skin and ruled happily ever after. What the queen felt, I do not know.”
— From “The Cowherd,” a Burmese folk tale
In Tagaung—a prospering city-state where the women wore thanaka every day to ward off the sun’s jealous rays; where the workers sang as they hefted the clay pagodas higher with prayers; where the farmers’ muscles grew wiry with muscle and their crops grew with Buddha’s blessings; where the merchants and artisans of the city grew fat and redolent with the stench of wealth; where the packed dirt wending from valley to mountain crest seemed to tremble with the infinite possibility of expansion—there were two girls, once. Two girls, who did what all growing children did in a prospering city: run past the rivers as the fishermen pulled up gleaming fish in invisible nets, goggle at the jade jewelers as they carved facets into flawless gemstones, and, inevitably, fall in love.
They fell in love with each other—and perhaps, in a universe closely aligned with theirs, they’d have run away with each other, and one would’ve cut her long black hair into a man’s style, and they could have lived for many years in their own paddy field, watching as the children ran past the Irrawaddy river. But one of the girls was a princess, the only daughter of the ailing king of Tagaung, and the other girl was a nāga, a draconic deity who could peel the skin away from her form with ease and leave the shining scales in a pile by her feet. When human, the only betrayal of her divinity was the savage look of jealousy in her eyes as male after male courted her princess—the queen, once her princess’s father died.
The populace stirred on the third day of his funeral, as they cremated the old king’s body. Prosperity like this, they knew as common folk who had lived through reign after reign, did not flourish under the female hand.
Diplomats saw her beauty, her long black hair smelling sweetly of attar, and would beg her to marry whatever princes they could scrape together. But when those princes inevitably came back, packed in salt for preservation with their terrified faces run ragged with the sharp pockmarks of snake teeth, the line of princes clamoring for her hand slowed to a trickle, then ceased entirely.
Her red-lipped smile never faltered. It was only in private that she and her nāga laughed into each others’ mouths about the folly of husbandry; outward she refused to let her decorum slip. But when her people came to her with a big strong cowherd in tow, stumbling over their words and white-faced when they offered him as a prospective husband, the queen could not help but laugh.
“What is your name?” she asked the cowherd.
His eyes met her, level. The hem of his paso was dusty from the walk here, and underneath them, his sandaled feet were blistered. His nose was crooked. “Maung Pauk Kyiang,” he said, his words square and solid.
“Well, Maung Pauk Kyaing,” she said, amused, gazing at him from her throne. From her perch, everyone looked frail, especially this big dumb cowherd with his sun-squinted eyes and gaping mouth. She could not help but think about how amused her lover would be at the sight of such an unfit suitor. “It seems we are to be wed.”
She drank a healthy amount of spirits before their wedding night. It helped her sleep better when her nāga had her fun. So she was soundly slumbering and did not see it when Pauk Kyiang slid a trunk of a banana tree where his body should have slumbered. She did not stir when he sat in the corner with his knife unsheathed, his eyes and blade shining in the dark.
She woke only when her nāga screamed, a hissing torrent of high fury cut off as abruptly as her lover’s head, which landed in a pile of steaming blood on her lap. Pauk Kyaing stood there with a bloody smile on his face, while the nāga’s body swayed and fell to the ground. She blinked, not sure if she was awake or if she was sleeping—and oh, how she wanted to still be sleeping—and took in a deep breath.
“My queen,” said Pauk Kyiang, his voice laced with triumph and conquest. “No longer shall this nāga loom over your city and marriage.”
Her nāga’s green eye, luminous in the moonlight, was frozen in death. She closed the lid. Her hands were blistered from the hot blood and Pauk Kyiang sucked in a harried breath when he saw the wounds. “You’re injured,” he said with those big, dumb cowherd eyes. She wanted to scratch them out.
“Yes,” she said, because twenty years of tutelage under the finest orators of the country had been reduced to this stammering, this girl in a sleeping gown covered in the blood of her one and only love and with a heart cracked in two.
“Yes,” she repeated and then it was her voice cracking, a betrayal of the torrent of emotion within her. And then, as Pauk Kyiang reached for her and she fought not to recoil from his murdering hands, her mind cracked and she screamed.
The city whispered that the queen grew mad when she was released from the nāga’s spell. That the nāga had been preying on her soul for so many years that her sanity was riddled with holes. She gave her workers a thousand pieces of silver to skin the nāga, watching as they peeled the skin away from the subcutaneous fat beneath, baring smooth red muscle and cutting open the chest to reach the bloody heart that was beyond possession in death. She gave them a hundred pieces to sew the cleaned skin into a jacket and from the breastbone, had a hairpin fashioned.
During that time, she refused to see Pauk Kyiang. Instead, she saw her city. She dressed in her plainest clothes and walked after dark—but she walked not in the areas she explored as a little girl, but instead to the places where the darkness pooled and clung to the walls like grease. She breathed in the air in the block of the city where the lepers were relegated, their apathy mirroring hers as they all suffered in torment. She went to where the prostitutes walked, and lingered until they chased her out, and then she kept running, running until she came to the Irrawaddy river, and to a bower of thanaka trees, shining naked in the dark, their bark stripped for cosmetics.
She stared at the river, contemplated its depth and her ability to hold her breath, and said out loud, in a voice waterlogged with misery, “I would do anything to see her again.”
Little mortal, said the river, in that wonderful way a river speaks with the caressing of watergrass, the burbling of fish, and the rush of water. Death never ends, not for humans like you.
Humans like her. The blood of a hundred princes and, now her nāga lover, was on her hands. Before, back when they were just princes and she was just a princess, their deaths had been almost inconsequential. Laughable. A demonstration of jealousy from a lover, made amusing by her own reciprocity of love. But now, she could feel the collective weight of their deaths, dripping off her blistered fingers which, in their injury, were curled like claws, visceral and red.
Deities, however, continued the river, like your nāga, never die.
Her feet drew her to the edge of the river, where she peered over and into the lapping black waves. She realized, abruptly, that her face was wet from crying—she touched her cheek with trembling fingers and tasted the salt on her lips.
A tear dropped from her face and landed in the river below. From where it collided with the water, stillness rippled outward—fish halted where they breached the surface, the fronds of the plants just below the water froze in their waves, and leaves ceased their careless drifting. An unnatural calm fell over her surroundings, as if the world around her was holding its collective breath, and the surface of the river turned mirror-like in its black glassiness.
But what looked back at her from the surface was not herself.
It was a nāga—it was her nāga, with the same green eyes, the same curl to the horns adorning the fringe of silver extending outward from the face. But when she lifted her hand to reach out, to greet, to say, “Hello, my love, I’ve come home,” her nāga reached back. And then she had to confront the bitter reality: that her nāga was really her reflection, a poor mimicry of a former love in the memory of her eye.
Do you understand? asked the Irrawaddy, but she didn’t. Deities never die. A river’s water is new every day, but I do not die. I transform.
Her nāga’s image trembled in the river, and then burst into a million moonlit waves, as the river resumed its flow. The fish returned to the water. The leaves drifted away in the breeze.
“I transform,” she repeated, lifting her fingers to her mouth, before backing away and running back to the palace.
The next day she summoned Pauk Kyaing to the palace for the first time since her nāga’s death. Her husband appeared, already dressed like a king—the people loved him, she knew. Stories of him would be told for decades, of the nāga-slaying cowherd. In contrast to his luxury, she was dressed in near-rags, her hair tumbling freely around her shoulders, her only decoration the nāga-jacket and bone hairpin on her lap. But it was still she who sat on the throne.
“My queen,” he said.
“Pauk Kyaing.” The name was loathsome in her mouth. “My city is forfeit.”
She had the pleasure of watching his dumb eyes widen and she pet the jacket in her lap idly. “Do you know what this jacket cost, Pauk Kyaing?”
“One thousand pieces for the skinning,” he said in his rumbling voice. She should’ve known, from the sound of his voice, that he would be trouble; an earthquake years ago had sent pagodas shattering. “A hundred pieces for the making.”
“Yes and more,” she corrected him gently, and laughed. “It cost me years with a woman I loved. It—you have cast me into an age of mourning, even as you celebrate your triumph. You have freed me, yes, from a city that I wanted as little as it wanted me, but the price was too high.” She shook the jacket gently in her lap, and the sound of the nāga scales clinking together was like a cascade of coins, and the sound of her heart beat even louder than that. “I did not pay for naught, Maung Pauk Kyaing. My love can never die.”
When she slipped on the jacket, her skin exploded with fire as the tiny pinpricks of scales forced their way through every pore, her legs forcing together and molding into the long coils of a tail. As she lifted her arms and secured her hair with the hairpin, she could feel her heart burst and expand, beating with blood that was not hers. If a nāga could wear a human skin, she could wear a nāga one. She was, at once, both the princess and the nāga, and her rush of euphoria was whetted all the more brilliant by the savage red edge of bloodlust, as she looked through her lover’s eyes at the terrified face of her husband as he unsheathed his blade.
Death never ended, not for mortals like her. And the princess did not know where her lover truly was, where in the universe her lover had gone when Pauk Kyaing had lopped her head off, but she knew this: in this moment, when she took the form of a nāga, it was closer than any embrace shared, sweeter than any hello, more anguished than any goodbye. It was two voices that screamed in defiance from the nāga’s chest, as Pauk Kyaing’s silver sword flashed towards them, and those last living moments were laced with flavor more bitter than love (a memory that sunk beneath the tangled threads of lore—two girls, running past the riverbank, laughing wildly, laughing free).