We are thrilled to reprint “The Way Spring Arrives” by Wang Nuonuo, the title story in the groundbreaking anthology The Way Spring Arrives and Other Stories edited by Yu Chen and Regina Kanyu Wang, now out in paperback!
“The Way Spring Arrives” first appeared as 春天来临的方式 in 2019 in No Answers from Earth（地球无应答) by Hunan Literature and Art Publishing House. The story was translated from Chinese by Rebecca F. Kuang.
The boy Goumang dashed through the morning mist, dripping sweat onto the mud.
The village was bordered by mountains on three sides and surrounded by a babbling creek. The green-bricked walls of the village were built in concentric circles, each surrounded by the next. Goumang darted through one green ring of packed dirt wall after another.
He flew past the walls and rice paddies. When he saw Xiaoqing, the light mist hadn’t yet dissipated from the surface of the river. Her form was faintly visible through the mist. She stood atop a boat, holding a bamboo pole in her hands.
“You can go if you want,” Goumang shouted, panting. “But can you take me with you?”
Xiaoqing didn’t answer.
The dawn mist faded away. Goumang’s face had been reddened by the sun.
“You can’t go by yourself! You—you have to marry me!”
A shorebird dashed out of the weeds, sending ripples across the river’s surface.
“You think we’ll get married just because you said so?” asked Xiaoqing. “I’m older than you. Who carried you around when you weren’t even tall enough to reach the table? Who picked persimmons for you? Who gave you candy?”
“But I’ve gotten bigger since then, and you’ve stayed the same. There must be a day when I’ll be older than you.”
“We don’t count years like that.” Suppressing a smile, Xiaoqing beckoned to Goumang. “Come here, then. Come aboard and accompany me to the South Sea.”
“What are we going to do in the South Sea?”
She pursed her lips, considering for a moment. “Let me finish this errand, and then we can do anything you like.”
Goumang didn’t keep questioning her. He hopped forward and boarded the boat. The boat’s draft wasn’t very deep; it wobbled back and forth a few times before steadying. Dappled sunlight shone on Xiaoqing’s face, and her skin was covered with fine, glistening beads of sweat. Her eyes were bright as two sweet grapes.
Xiaoqing bent low, pushing the pole against the riverbed. The boat slowly drifted forth. Ripples spread out, evenly stirring the rosy clouds that covered the river.
“Did you mean what you said just now?” asked Goumang. “When we get back from this trip, you’ll . . . you’ll marry me?”
“All I said was that we would never part,” said Xiaoqing. “I didn’t say that we’d marry.”
“Never parting is fine! This morning, when I heard that you were never coming back, I got so scared I searched the whole village for you!” Goumang paused. “What kind of errand is this, anyhow? Hurry, tell me so I can help you get it done. Then we can come back to the village.”
“My mission isn’t difficult. It is . . .” She paused. “It is to make the begonias bloom.”
Goumang knit his brows. “Which pot of begonias do you mean? How hard can that be? All you have to do is water them every day.”
“Not just one pot of begonias. All of the begonias in the world. I need to make all of them bloom.”
Goumang’s eyes widened. “All of the begonias in the world? But they all need watering and trimming. Surely that’s too much work!”
Xiaoqing cast him a smile. “You still don’t understand. Watering and trimming don’t make begonias bloom. Gardeners don’t make begonias bloom. What makes begonias bloom is spring.”
“Yes, spring. Every year at this time, I must bring about the return of spring.”
The day was still cold. The fields on both sides of the shore hadn’t come alive yet. They were bare and dusky, steadily falling behind their boat as they sailed. Xiaoqing sat down and placed the pole beside her. She rested her elbow against the side of the boat, propping up her chin with her hand.
“Look, it’s the South Sea.”
Goumang looked to where she was pointing. The river had run all the way to the ocean. The water suddenly deepened. An island lay just at the edge of his vision.
“Are we going to that island?” Goumang asked.
Xiaoqing nodded. “Yes, but my pole can’t reach the bottom of the ocean, so I’ll have to invite them to help.”
As she spoke, she pulled an old, tiny ocarina out from the folds of her clothing. She stood up and blew. Goumang was familiar with this tune. Xiaoqing had hummed and sung it in the past. He’d listened to it; over time, he’d grown up with it.
Goumang could sense them. Creatures hidden under the ocean’s surface were pulling them forward. The little boat suddenly sped up, torrents on both sides spiraling into tight little whirlpools.
As they approached the South Sea, they saw a stove burning on the cliff of the island. A pot hung over the stove. The stove and pot were both massive, about the size of the walled village. If this stove and pot were used to make soup, Goumang wondered, would a single pot be enough to feed everyone in the village for a lifetime?
Compared to the massive stove, Zhurong, the giant god of fire, seemed like a tiny, insignificant black dot. Goumang remembered how, in the village, he’d been unable to see Zhurong’s face even if he tilted his head back. Now, Zhurong hoisted a tree branch several times his height and threw it into the stove. The thick, sturdy branch was instantly devoured by fire. Zhurong dodged away from the leaping flames, wiped away his sweat, then headed down the cliff in search of more firewood.
Overhead, Chisongzi, the god of rain, rode on one of his cranes as the flock circled above the island. The cranes would drag wisps of clouds over the pot using their beaks and then quickly beat their wings, turning the clouds into small showers of rain that then pattered down into the large pot.
“Nüwa used this pot and stove when she smelted the five colored stones to mend the sky. Once the sky had stopped leaking, she left it behind for us to boil water,” said Xiaoqing.
“Boiling water? Is that what Chisongzi and Zhurong’s regular jobs are?”
“Yes, though they also have other tasks. Chisongzi grants rain to places suffering from droughts. The red-crowned cranes he keeps use their feathers and beaks to gather the water vapor in the atmosphere, bit by bit. They create wind by beating their wings, and the fast-moving air makes the temperature of the dark clouds plummet. The saturated water vapor condenses until the weight of the water droplets exceeds what the atmosphere can support. Then they fall to the ground as rain. As for Zhurong, he is in charge of fire. He keeps lots of fireflies near the South Sea. When the skies go dark, he lets them loose and they fly into the stoves of every household in the world, lighting the stoves with the fire in their tails.”
“No wonder I hardly ever saw Zhurong and Chisongzi in the village! So . . . does everyone in the village have a job like this?”
“Yes, they all do, once they’ve grown up. Leizu, for example, is wonderful at reeling silk, spinning, and weaving. Every night, she weaves a cloud brocade to place on the water. The brocade’s colors blur together, dyeing the water and the heavens that touch it. That is the glow of clouds at sunset. My grandfather is in charge of plants. The seeds of plants that can cure illnesses are coarser than those of plants that are toxic. He uses a small sieve to filter out the seeds of medicinal grasses. Then Feilian blows them across the earth in one breath. As the seasons pass, all living things in the world move according to set rules. The people of our village are responsible for maintaining these natural rules. Things have always been so, from the ancient past to the present.”
Thanks to Chisongzi and Zhurong’s efforts, the water quickly came to a boil. The pot bubbled over, bubbles bursting and splashing.
Xiaoqing knew then that it was time to set out on her true journey.
Again, she blew her ocarina in the direction of the ocean. Its sound was like velvet, perhaps because it was so soft. Goumang closed his eyes as the melody surrounded him. He felt as if he could hear the sound of the ocean rushing forth from the dark depths.
Their bodies were massive. Their horizontal tail fins were raised high, emerging from the water like rows of huge crimson flags. Similarly, their backs appeared over the ocean surface like sleek islands, steady under the beating of the waves.
“Incredible—what are they?”
“They’re giant fish.” Xiaoqing swept her bangs behind her ears, but the sea breeze quickly blew her hair into a mess again. “Come, jump on.”
“We’re riding them?”
“Yes! We’re riding them to the North Sea.”
When he mounted the back of the giant fish, Goumang felt like he wasn’t touching scales, but rather skin as coarse as a reef.
The massive pot tilted slowly over the precipice. Scalding water streamed down the side of the cliff, making steam hiss from a large patch of the ocean. The giant fish, who numbered about fifty, arranged themselves in a bowl-shaped formation, sweeping up the hot water between them like a ladle. Slowly, they began moving north. Goumang and Xiaoqing sat on the back of a fish in the center, who seemed to be the largest of them all.
“They’re not afraid of getting scalded?” asked Goumang.
Xiaoqing shook her head. “Hot water is lighter, so it floats on the surface. The giant fish also float near the surface, and guide the hot water from the South Sea to the North Sea. That’s what ocean currents are. They bring moist air and heat. When the water vapor reaches dry land and meets cold air, spring rains will fall. Then all living things will sprout roots and germinate. That’s what spring is.”
“So every year you guide the warm currents from the south to the north?”
“That’s right.” Xiaoqing pointed to a small island they were sailing past. “Look!”
The island wasn’t large, and it passed quickly from their field of vision. Yet in the moment that they sailed past, the once-gray island went from light yellow to grass green to dark green. A small bout of rain fell into the cracks between gray stones from which shrubs tunneled out. A few small, barren trees rapidly branched and blossomed, attracting bees and butterflies. At a rate visible to the naked eye, spring arrived on the island.
It wasn’t only this little island. On every island, every part of the vast country they’d traveled; indeed, everywhere they passed through, spring appeared. Under the warm spring rains, the frozen rivers and creeks became a flood. Birds, insects, and little critters awoke. All of the plants blossomed—spring, like an infectious disease, was unstoppable.
The arrival of the warm currents also stirred up krill carcasses from the ocean depths. They floated up and turned into marine snow—the best food source for ocean life. Schools of sardines chased behind Goumang and Xiaoqing, fighting with each other for food; occasionally, a silvery-white fish belly flopped over the surface.
Goumang sat basking in the warm sea breeze, watching as both the sun and the school of fish gradually sank below the horizon. He pointed below his feet. “He won’t suddenly dive underwater, will he? We’d drown!”
The giant fish were swimming north. The setting sun shone against the western side of Xiaoqing’s face, turning her into a red-orange silhouette.
“Then we’ll just have to ask him.” Xiaoqing bent down, caressing the fish’s exposed back. “Kun, will you?”
All they heard in response was a long, drawn-out bellow from the ocean depths.
When night fell, the giant fish slowed their pace. Land appeared before them.
Taking advantage of high tide, Kun delivered Xiaoqing and Goumang to the side of the cliff. The waves were few in the gulf, and the stars shone clearly against the water. A few lively fish jumped up, leaping from one patch of the starry skies to another. When they sank back below the water, the glimmering water droplets thrown by their fins were flung toward the even brighter moon.
“With the fish playing around like this, won’t the hot water disperse?”
“No, it won’t. Some of the fish are guarding the heat in a circle formation, while the others have gone off to find food or to rest. They’ll switch shifts later in the night.”
Kun gave a low cry. His body half-emerged from the water, throwing up massive waves that resembled a begonia flower on the ocean surface. As she turned to answer him, Xiaoqing caught sight of the flower blooming in the water.
As if Kun had made a gift of it to her.
“I think that this fish must really like you,” said Goumang.
“Well, of course. When I was your age, I thought I would marry him.” Xiaoqing’s eyes, bright as sweet grapes, brimmed with amusement.
But Goumang didn’t think this was funny at all. “You wanted to marry a fish?”
“Everyone turns into a fish.”
He furrowed his brows. “I don’t care about that. Anyhow, you’ve already agreed. You said we’d always be together.”
“You’ve already learned about jealousy? I remember what I agreed. Now, come and help me do my work.”
Xiaoqing bent down, rooting around the grass. She rustled about for a moment as she searched, then lifted a black stone into the air. “Ha! Here it is.”
“What is that?”
“That can’t be. How could a meteor be that black? And shouldn’t . . . shouldn’t it be in the sky?”
“Meteors look the way they do because of their friction with the atmosphere, which generates light and heat. Only then do they appear bright. At other times, they look like this. If you don’t believe me, look. There’s still a wish attached to the end of this meteor.”
Goumang went to have a look. Indeed, a string was attached to the coal-black stone. Several rolls of paper hung from its end. He unrolled the first one and read it under the moonlight.
“I want to get rich overnight.” He glanced up at Xiaoqing. “What kind of wish is that?”
“The humans who see meteors make a wish, and then that wish will attach to the meteor’s tail and fly behind it. When the meteor has reached the highest point in the sky, if a Xuan bird flies past and sees the wish, then the wish will come true. Right, so, this person wants to become rich.”
Goumang unfurled another roll of paper.
“I want my wife’s . . . illness . . . to be cured? Huh? This one’s handwriting is so terrible, I can’t even read the rest!” The third and fourth rolls of papers were similar; the handwriting was so crooked that he couldn’t make out the complete sentence.
“Only the wish of the first person to see the meteor will be recorded clearly,” said Xiaoqing. “The ones that follow will be more and more blurred. The Xuan bird can’t read them clearly, so their wishes don’t count.”
“So the person who wished for their wife to get better from her illness won’t have his wish fulfilled, but the person who wanted to get rich overnight will? This—this isn’t fair!”
“All of those wishes were made to satisfy the wisher’s own desires. There’s no judging which is better or worse.”
“Yes, there is!” Goumang retorted. “You’d only make that kind of wish if you love someone. If you love your wife. That’s a much better wish than wanting to get rich overnight!”
“Love? That’s a very small love.” Xiaoqing didn’t keep arguing. She pulled the string off the rock, then threw the smooth meteor toward the east. She wasn’t very strong, but once the meteor entered the night sky, inertia would keep pulling it along.
“After you clean off the old wishes, the meteor can start receiving new wishes and take them to the Xuan bird. Right now, we’re standing on the westernmost part of the world. If we throw the meteors from here, the air resistance is minimal, so it can fly to the easternmost part of the world before dropping. When we’re at the easternmost point, we’ll have to pick it up again and fling it back west.”
So Goumang joined Xiaoqing in picking meteors out of the grass. He’d come up with a secret trick. Every time he threw a meteor, he immediately made a wish:
“I want to be with Xiaoqing forever.”
He knew very well that no one had seen this meteor before him, which meant his wish would be recorded very clearly on the paper. He threw out so many meteors carrying so many slips of paper expressing so many identical wishes. The Xuan bird had to make them come true, didn’t it?
They set out from the westernmost point of the world. A few days later, they reached the North Sea.
A dozen stone pillars marking the northernmost point of the world jutted from the sea. The hot water had cooled over its long journey. The giant fish broke their formation and dispersed, one by one.
Goumang probed Xiaoqing. “Look, we’ve brought about spring, so shouldn’t you marry—”
“It’s almost noon now, but the sky is still dark. How can that be spring?” Xiaoqing watched Goumang intently.
Goumang grew anxious. “How are we not finished? Do you mean we still have to adjust the time of the sunrise?”
“That’s the earth’s axis.” Xiaoqing pointed to the stone pillars in the distance. “The sun’s orbital path forms an angle with the earth. When the angle is large, the sun is moving in the north. The sky in the north is short, so the days are short. When the angle is small, the sun is south of us. The sky in the south is long, so the sun takes longer to move across the southern sky. When the days grow longer, that’s summer.”
“That—what does that have to do with the earth’s axis?”
“The axis extends from the North Sea into the earth’s core, where it connects to a gear wheel. When Pangu split heaven and earth apart, his heart became the gear at the center of the world. His heartbeat makes the gear move a little bit every day, and the earth above slowly tilts accordingly. This gradually adjusts the angle of the earth. The sunlight changes according to these rules, which is how we get the four seasons in order.”
“Then won’t the days get longer if we just let the earth’s axis and gear turn by themselves?”
Xiaoqing shook her head. “Later, Gonggong smashed his head against Buzhou Mountain in a fit of anger. The earth suffered too much of an impact, and the gear in the earth’s core broke. It doesn’t work so well anymore. Every time winter transitions into spring, the gear will turn halfway and then get stuck. It needs an outside force to pull it all the way around.”
As they spoke, Kun slowly swam toward the earth’s axis. The axis, Goumang noticed, seemed to be made of basalt. It was dark in color, covered with ash-colored barnacles where the axis met the water. A few tangled strands of twine were attached to the top. Saturated with sea salt, they had long become coarse and tattered.
Xiaoqing was trying to tie one of the strands to Kun’s dorsal fin. This wasn’t an easy task, but fortunately a groove had been etched into Kun’s fin from years of pulling the rope. At last, Xiaoqing succeeded in tying a knot. Having finished this, she lowered her head and said to Kun, “Tomorrow, your reincarnation will be complete. The days you spent taking care of me in the village will seem like they happened yesterday. Eight thousand years pass very quickly, and then my reincarnation will also be complete . . .”
Her voice wasn’t very loud, but Goumang had grown used to it. It was soft and gentle, but his ears easily picked up its sound.
“Your reincarnation?” Goumang asked, distressed. “Where are you reincarnating to?”
“I told you. When this is all finished, we’ll be together.” Without lifting her head, she picked up a strand of twine and tied it to another fish. “We won’t part.”
Goumang, in response, began helping her with her task.
When they had bound all of the giant fish to the earth’s axis, a marble white color appeared in the eastern sky. During the winter in the northernmost point of the world, Xiaoqing told Goumang, if they didn’t pull the axis around, then the sun would not appear in the east. The light would quickly fade, and the curtain of night would descend.
Once again, Xiaoqing blew the ocarina. Under the faint light, the dozens of giant fish pushed toward the west, their scarlet backs poking out of the water. The ropes gradually stretched taut. The force of the tension made water drip off the twine, each droplet reflecting a piece of the begonia-colored sky.
Very soon, thanks to the collective efforts of the giant fish, the earth’s axis budged a fraction. Goumang heard a kala sound. The angle of the earth had changed accordingly. Their plan seemed to have worked.
But the side effects of moving the earth’s axis now became obvious. The sea level simultaneously began to tilt. A great wave rose in the distance—vaguely, the water appeared like a towering wall, rumbling as it rolled toward them from the southern horizon.
“What do we do?” Goumang shouted to Xiaoqing over the din of the wave. “If we get hit by a wave that huge, we’ll die!”
“Quick, bend down! When the earth’s axis is adjusted, the ocean will stabilize.”
The giant fish had noticed the changes in the ocean. They quickly clustered together, the ropes tied to their bodies interweaving into one piece. They seemed to be trying to use their combined strength to withstand the wave.
“Hold me close.” Goumang used the rope to fasten them tightly to Kun. The surge of water was getting closer and closer. It was even taller than the walled village; taller than a small mountain.
The shift in the ocean had disturbed the atmosphere. Black clouds soon gathered over their heads, chafing against one another, generating thunder and lightning. The gale smelled of fish, but the giant fish were still rapidly moving their tail fins. They pushed toward the west, straining against ropes that were on the verge of snapping.
Goumang could feel blood rushing into the muscles under Kun’s rough skin.
He clung tightly to Xiaoqing. “The wave is too large, the fish can’t all pull in the same direction.”
“Kun, did you hear that?” Xiaoqing asked. “The wave is too large! Use your wings; use your wings to block the water.”
“It’s a fish!” Goumang shouted. “How can a fish have wings?”
“All giant fish have them . . .” Xiaoqing lowered her voice. “Many years ago, I asked Kun the same question. He once had arms and legs like me. He watched me grow up. And every year, he brought about spring.”
They were drenched from head to toe. Xiaoqing spoke as she and Goumang embraced, and he didn’t know if she was talking to Kun or to herself.
“And then?” Goumang asked. “He turned into a fish?”
“Yes. I will also turn into a fish, for we must all become fish in the end.”
“So I . . . I will also become a fish?”
“You will as well. But before then, you still have work to do. After today, you’ll have to take over my task and bring spring every year.”
Xiaoqing’s voice was getting fainter and fainter, perhaps because the winds and waves were too great. She didn’t notice Goumang’s hesitation as she continued, “Eight thousand years ago, Kun brought me from the South Sea to the North Sea and taught me how to bring about spring for the first time. Eight thousand years have passed . . . Kun is about to enter the world of humans. Are you . . . happy?”
Kun seemed to understand her words. Suddenly he rushed forward, threw off the ropes, and charged out of the water.
A pair of small, scarlet side fins expanded on either side of his body and transformed into a pair of featherless wings. Unbound, Kun’s wingspan expanded at an astonishing speed. He flew against the morning light toward the giant wave.
Goumang struggled to hold onto Kun’s back. This was the first time he’d seen the world from above.
The giant fish’s torso was like a flying island. Goumang looked over his body at the vast, stormy ocean below. It was pitch-black, limitless. A great many schools of fish—tiny from his perspective—swam within the waters, still striving to pull the earth’s axis.
The eastern horizon was getting brighter and brighter. That meant that the fish had almost succeeded. Inch by inch, they pulled the earth’s axis around. Bit by bit, the sun appeared.
And then . . . and then spring would truly arrive for the entire world.
Spring . . .
Goumang’s mind gradually went fuzzy. He thought of the dark green of rice paddies and tea fields. He thought of how the bricks of the walled village turned warm and cozy under sunlight; how his buttocks felt too hot when he sat atop them. He thought of the downy kittens that his grandmother’s cat gave birth to every spring. He thought of spring rains. He thought of Xiaoqing holding an open umbrella when she picked him up as a child; the mist and rainwater moistening her eyelashes and her sweet grape–like eyes.
He couldn’t stop thinking of these things . . .
There was a fish in the North Sea named Kun. Kun was so huge, one did not know how many thousand li he stretched. He turned into a bird named Peng, and Peng’s back was so large, one did not know how many thousand li he stretched. When Peng rose up and flew, his wings were like clouds covering the sky . . .
The great wave was almost in front of his eyes. The water vapor hit them in the face. He grasped Xiaoqing’s hand tightly.
“I think I understand what love is.”
Smiling, Xiaoqing nodded. “Then you’ve grown up.”
Then Kun smashed against the great wave.
When Goumang awoke, the ocean was calm again. The other end of the rope binding him was empty. Xiaoqing and Kun had both disappeared.
The sun emerged from the eastern horizon. Golden strands of light shone on his skin, the ocean, and the breeze.
He knew that the earth’s axis had been pulled around.
The fish, exhausted, now drifted along with the waves. There was no sound from the wind or waves. He only heard silence. He sat steady and cross-legged on the back of a fish, quietly watching the sunrise in solitude.
Perhaps the sunrise was Xihe—he who pulled the sun from the east to the west every day in a cart. Goumang supposed it was so. He knew that from today, he would never look at the world the same way again.
Bit by bit, the warm light of spring dried his clothes. Suddenly, his shirt pocket twitched.
He reached into his pocket and pulled out a tiny, delicate creature. A red fish, even smaller than a goldfish, lay on his fingers, beating its tail against his palm. It was slippery and cool to the touch.
He quickly scooped up some ocean water. The fish flipped over in his hands.
At that moment, he saw that the fish had a pair of eyes bright as sweet grapes.
He knew that in eight thousand years, this little fish would also grow as large as a small mountain. Then she would finish her mission and enter the world of mortals, transforming into an ordinary human being. And he knew that in eight thousand years, he himself would turn into a fish, transporting the warm currents year after year, laboriously pulling the earth’s axis.
But he also knew that if his soul wanted to mature, things had to be this way. He needed to spend sixteen thousand years, experiencing the same thing sixteen thousand times, to see clearly what love was. Only then could he grow the heart of a human.
What was love?
Goumang found the begonias very beautiful. Now, he wanted to bring spring’s return every year.
“Xiaoqing, we’ll be together for another eight thousand years . . .”
Goumang pulled out the ocarina. Slowly, the giant fish awakened one by one, and together they began their journey back south.
“The Way Spring Arrives” copyright © 2019 by 王诺诺 (Wang Nuonuo)
Reprinted from The Way Spring Arrives and Other Stories ed. Yu Chen and Regina Kanyu Wang
English translation © 2022 by Tom Doherty Associates
Translation by Rebecca F. Kuang
Originally published as 春天来临的方式 in 2019 in No Answers from Earth（地球无应答) by Hunan Literature and Art Publishing House in Changsha