Water rushed through her lungs, her inability to scream, cry out, or even flinch painfully obvious. She was suspended in the water, helpless as she watched it drag her down.
And there were people. Always people, faces, staring at her. These faces never had any lips or noses. They were just blank, featureless faces, save for two eyes pasted across. The eyes were always fixed on her. The eyes were never blinking.
They stared at her while she drowned. Sometimes, they would stay silent. Other times, they would laugh— laughter without lips, laughter from their eyes.
This was when things were the worst. The laughter echoed in the water, slamming into her, crushing her tightly, compressing her as if it was trying to fit her into a small, small box. And then, the laughter would pull at her, dragging her flesh through the water, stretching and molding her to the shapes they liked as if she was elastic.
She couldn't comprehend the feeling properly, or describe it with the right words. It was just a constant feeling of push and pull, followed by the burning sensation of the icy water in her lungs.
Only one part was for sure: her moments of drowning were getting better.
A while had passed since her first drowning, yet she had lived through it again so many times since then that perhaps this is what dulled the sensation. Or, perhaps it was just time working its magic, fading these harsh memories and flashbacks as the days went on.
Over these nights, she would still drown. There would still be fear. But the fear was lessening; the panic was decreasing. She would wake up with less sweat on her skin, less tears tracing her eyes.
Yet still, sometimes she wondered. She wondered in the layers of the night, after she blinked her eyes open and out of the nightmares, if this was what her younger brother felt when he was drowning. It must be similar— the only difference being that she had survived, and he hadn't. And this would bring tears to her eyes again, tears that would vanish the next morning, replaced by her greetings to her senior brothers or her smiles to the servants passing by.
Earlier tonight, when she laid in bed, still awake, she thought about her conversations with Zixu. She thought about her master's story, the one he told her the other day, and all the details of it. She thought about it the previous night too, but not quite in the way that she did right now, where she recalled all the words, scenes, and phrases that she possibly could.
Then, she thought less about the story itself, and more of the words her master departed to her.
"It's not about making the grief vanish. It was never about that, in the first place."
At the thought of these words, Yujia closed her eyes. She let out a soft breath.
She allowed the sleep to take her again.
This time, when she drowned, there was still that pain. There was still that laughter. Except this time, instead of trying to compress the pain, or to block out the laughter, she relaxed.
Let there be pain. Let there be laughter.
Yujia allowed herself to drown. She allowed the water to wrap her up, to rush into her lungs. The water still burnt her. The chilliness still spread to her heart. Yet she still allowed herself to relax, instead of struggling against the invisible binds that tied her to the water, against the stiffness of her limbs.
Her heart pounded in her chest, louder than before. She focused on that, the pounding of her heart, every beat becoming a number in her mind.
One. Two. Three.
The pain spread through her even more, but she didn't fight against it.
Four. Five. Six.
The laughter rang out even louder, but she didn't try to block out the sound.
Seven. Eight. Nine.
The water strangled her breath, trying to pressure her into moving. The invisible binds against her limbs loosened, as if encouraging her to raise her hands, to try to swim up, to escape from the water. But Yujia only relaxed some more, containing the urge to thrash.
As if this number was a spell, a mystical incantation, it all fell apart. Everything— the agony, the voices, the frost.
Yujia found herself falling as well, out of the water that she had been suspended in. She pummeled down, deep into the darkness. As she fell, air returned to her lungs slowly, bit by bit. Her heartbeat steadied, regaining the normal pace it was supposed to be at. Her eyes finally blinked.
And with that blink, Yujia landed in a white space. It wasn't the pure blackness she saw so frequently in her dreams, but a shining white so bright and welcoming.
She found herself walking through the light, aimlessly, until things began to solidify. The white slowly transformed into walls and floors and ceilings, then windows with lovely sunlight pouring past the misted glass. Then, there were beds, rows and rows of them, with white sheets draped across all of them.
Yujia walked and walked through these beds, before she stopped, bumping into the foot of a bed placed right in front of her.
She stared at the bed with the white sheets, noticing that someone was lying inside of it, hooked up to tubes, wearing a cap. The person, a fairly young woman, was still, but with the slight rise and fall of their chest, she knew that she was sleeping.
Yujia stared at this person in the bed. She didn't recognize the face, but for some reason, one name rang in her head.
At the idea of this name, the person in the bed shifted, her image changing into a face Yujia knew well: her own.
The person in the bed— no, Yujia herself— opened her eyes, staring back at Yujia. She looked with her glassy eyes, and then, the corners of her lips lifted up into a soft, wordless smile.
Yujia woke up.
She woke up, and for the first time amidst the many mornings that she had experienced since the time where she drowned, she discovered that her heart was calm. She tried to think of one word to describe this feeling, the feeling of waking up without the worries plaguing her heart, the panic racing through her thoughts, of waking up more tired than she had been before she fell asleep.
It had been such a long, long time since she last felt this, in its truest form. It was a sensation that she had lost so many years ago, one that she had never been able to find again until now. Not numbness. Not despair. It was one, simple thing: