The heavy, layered silk slips between my boney fingers and collapses back into a sea of crimson fabric. My boney hand grazes the soft silk, tracing the elegant golden embroidery on the upper part of my wedding gown.
“Zhu Mei Li!” My head jerks back at the sound of my mother’s sharp, menacing tone. Her piercing eyes and tight jawline never fail to make a shiver run down my spine. Born into a poor peasant family, she married her way into Chinese royalty, and now she wishes me to do the same. As the daughter of the emperor’s cousin, I have blood of royalty but could still climb higher on the ladder of hierarchy.
“My dearest Zhu Mei Li looks like an angel. You are a beauty that matches your name!” she exclaimed. But as I glance into the mirror my eyes are not greeted with beauty; instead they are met with wild hair and a sharp, beak-like nose. My eyes bare into me, cold, dark, piercing, like the raven that I am.
Trapped in this palace, my dreams of leading a normal life will never be fulfilled. Sometimes, a group of young teens are visible from my window. They sing, dance, and play with each other, always chattering and laughing. My parents constantly remind me of how privileged I am, but seeing those kids my age having the time of their life while I am all alone makes me doubt what they are saying. Despite the fact that working several hours per day must be extremely laborious, these teenagers still get to enjoy their personal lives after work hours. I never have the opportunity to enjoy my own life, since the bars to my cage grow thicker every day. Everyone expects me to complicitly marry a fifty-year-old man whom I have never even met. Everyday, every moment, every second of my life would consist of silently following the men, allowing their orders to take over my life. I will never have a chance to spread my wings and learn to fly.
I look away from my wretched reflection to see the bright, blue sea through the window. Situated at the edge of a promontory, my home views the ever-swirling tides in the sea. Crystal clear water forever gliding and lapping against each other in harmonious splashes...
It is a day before the princess’s grand wedding, and her dazzling gown hanging on the wall waits to be mended. My delicate hand grazes the soft silk and traces the elegant embroidery as I ponder what it must feel like to be the princess. She possesses exquisite jewelry and fine clothing, living a life she never worked for. Traveling all over the country and dining with the emperor is her everyday schedule while I am stuck in a prison and sentenced to be a slave for life.
The princess has no right to take this magnificent wedding gown that was designed and created by me! I yank the dress off the wall, almost tearing the fabric. I’m gritting my teeth and holding back tears as I scream to myself about the unfairness of this whole system.
Once when I was younger, my mother told me that I was a beautiful dove flying all the way to the sun. But now that my mother has died, the naive child inside me has also passed away. The king and queen squashed my dreams of designing clothing for anyone else, ordering me to complete only clothes for their family. Hidden under my bed, I have a stash of forbidden works, designs that the royalty restricted me from creating. The bars on my cage become thicker and stronger as I grow older and my imagination expands.
Turning my head, I can hear the sparrows chirping and singing, and I can see the cliff hanging over the ever-swirling tides in the sea. Crystal clear water forever gliding and lapping against each other in harmonious splashes...
My feet slowly tiptoe towards the forest to my right, trying not to make any sound because surely there are soldiers guarding the front of my palace.
For the first time in forever, I actually feel quite energized. As I’m stalking towards the wooded area where I will be safely concealed, I can hear the howling wind urging me on and pushing me to my destination. Calm down wind, I thought to myself, I know where I’m going, and I know that I’ll never come back.
Stumbling on stray branches and shivering as the wind cuts to my bone, I must look like a moron, yet I continue on my journey. My parched throat screams for water but I have no time to turn back around.
After a couple of minutes of trekking across the wooded area, I allow myself a moment of rest, and I gently rest my back against a large oak tree. The fresh smell of pine needles pervades the forest, and this foreign scent sends goosebumps up my slender arms. Closing my eyes, I envision myself as one of these trees. Honestly, how can one feel so lonely in a forest full of hundreds?
A sudden hoot from a nearby owl reminds me that I am on a mission and I don’t have time to dawdle. I am on my feet in a second, and I quicken my pace as I notice that the trees are becoming more sparse; I must be nearing the edge of the promontory.
The moonlight pouring through my window indicates that it is midnight and the time has arrived for my trip. I push away my bed covers and slip into a comfortable wool jacket that will keep me warm when I go outside.
The old wooden door groans softly as I push it open. Almost immediately I feel the cold night air tickling my hair, and I smile like I always do in the comfort of the forest. As I cross the green grass and head for the trees, I recall the first time I had stumbled into the vast forest.
With my mother gone and very few friends left in my life, I needed to escape the suffocating place that had killed my mother. Whenever I broke down in tears in front of the other laundry workers, they would send me back to my room, claiming that I was a distraction in the work environment. Fatigue was constantly dragging me down, sorrow was always tormenting my heart, and I was just so sick and tired of the daggers in the others’ eyes.
Before my brain could process that I was leaving my room, my legs were rushing out the door and taking me as far away from the hellhole as possible. Sobbing and choking on my own tears, I had sprinted straight into the welcoming arms of the forest. From that day on, the forest became my new family, and the trees became shoulders I could cry on when I was feeling down. There were no rude remarks or chastising commands coming from the innocent trees. They would listen to me quietly as I spilled out all of my anger. The forest became a replacement of my dead mother, and they kept me sane.
I’m strolling through the forest now, and I gently graze the bark of one of the smaller trees as I think about all the times I ran into this place in despair. Well, I’m not running or in despair tonight; I’m calm and composed, because my mind has finally cleared the mist that used to fog up my vision. I have made a decision that nothing could change, a decision that nothing will change.
Finally, I am reaching the edge of the cliff, and the rhythmic beat of water is growing in volume. I peer over the edge of land and stare into the abyss…for a few seconds I can feel myself leaning over the edge, but my heart is pounding out of my chest and my legs suddenly can’t hold my weight, so I catch myself before I fall. A wave of terror immobilizes me as I realize how close I am to the water…how close I am to death. I shut my eyes and tell myself that this was my destiny and this is what I want, because I can’t breathe and live under the pressure of my family. But ironically, I can’t breathe now, I’m not yet in the water but I can’t breathe with the thought of actual death hanging over me. I push myself off the ground and take a couple of steps away from the ledge, just to give me a moment to collect my composure.
As I’m backing away from the cliff, I hear a rustle of leaves behind me, not the wind blowing in my ear, but the distinct sound of feet crushing the fall leaves. My eyes fly open, and I swivel my head around like a mad mouse looking for the predator. About thirty feet from where I am standing there is a figure stalking towards me. The momentary peace I collected is now flying out of reach as panic sets in. But I just stand there, because I don’t know what to do, and I’m a coward who can’t even run away…
“Princess?” a soft voice calls to me. Since this girl is moving closer to me, I can make out the simple worker uniform that she is wearing and I know she must have heard me sneak out and came to foil my plan.
“What are you doing here alone at the middle of the night?” she asks.
I actually laugh, because that was the same question I had been pondering to myself before she arrived. All my life I’ve been taught to lie about my true feelings, and I had no one to confide my secrets to. I turn back and look out into the water, knowing that tonight will still be the night that I had planned it to be, so why not be honest for my last conversation?
“I came here to jump,” I replied. The maid’s eyes widened in surprise, and then she gave me a sad smile.
“Me, too,” she whispered.
The maid walked until she was by my side, and she linked her hand into mine.
With mutual understanding between us and tears streaming down our faces, together we jump off the cliff…
As our bodies are plummeting further downward, our souls are flying further upwards to heaven, like two birds reaching for the sky.