Listen. There’s a rite of passage all Yineng girls go through when it’s time for us to become women. Here’s how it goes.
On the first full moon after you turn fourteen, you will need to go to the nearest river. For me, it was the stream that cuts through the ditch behind Aldean Textiles, but for you, that should be Mill Creek on the other side of the levee. Leave your cell phone at home, and don’t bring a flashlight with you, either. It’s important that you have no other source of light on you, but you shouldn’t need one, anyways. The moon will be bright enough to help you down the levee, no matter how steep the sides, no matter how clouded the night.
Once you’re down there, wade in up to your ankles and start walking upstream. It will be cold. Your feet will chill, you will lose all feeling in your toes. But eventually, the water will transform.
The river will turn into a ribbon of light underfoot, a river of stars. It will shake free of its earthen banks and rise up into the sky, aiming straight into the night. Take this path. The world will fall away as you climb. You will go up past the clouds, up beyond the edge of the sky, higher and higher until you are standing in front of the moon itself.
There will be a door. It will look impenetrable and forbidding, but as soon as you reach for it, it will swing open, inviting you in.
When you walk through the door, you will find yourself in the palace of Mazulim, the Yineng goddess of the moon. Mazulim herself will be sitting on her throne at the far end of the hall. By all accounts she is the most beautiful person you will ever have encountered, and the kindest, and possessed of the most sarcastic sense of humor possible.
Go to her. She’s a goddess, after all, she won’t come to you. Your legs will probably ache by now, and it will take everything you have to cross those last few meters. But if you make it to her and kneel down and press your forehead to the tops of her feet, she’ll grant you a gift of power unlike any that’s ever been seen in the world before and that will be granted to no one else ever again. Don’t tell anyone what she gave to you, not even your own mother, or your future spouse. Whatever Mazulim grants you is a mystery for you, and you alone, with which to change the world.
Or so I hear, anyways.
Your grandmother was the one who learned about the river of stars. She was working as a janitor in the Museum of Culture and Arts decades ago when they hosted an exhibition of ancient pottery. At the time, Yineng were forbidden from learning how to read, but your grandmother knew enough to recognize the word “Yineng” on a plaque next to a display of decorative urns. Every night when she was cleaning in that hall, she would memorize the shape of the letters and copy them down when she got home. It took her a month to copy down the entire contents of the plaque. But she never learned what they said, not until decades later, when the laws changed enough that she could send me to primary school.
Imagine how terrified I was that night down at the river, and how hopeful. I would be the first of our family to walk the river of stars since Integration. It was just barely spring that night, and all I wanted was to knock on that door on the moon, step inside, and see what my great-great-grandmother, and all the women of my family before her, must have seen.
It didn’t happen like that. I walked until I was near dead with frostbite, but the river never transformed, the stars never rose beneath my feet, the moon stayed nothing but a lump of rock hung in the sky. I got nothing for my efforts but a citation for trespassing and a night in a holding cell trying to rub the feeling back into my dead toes. My feet have never been the same since.
But times have changed. Things will be different for you. There are bestselling Yineng novelists and hot new Yineng restaurants, and every film festival now opens with an acknowledgement of native Yineng rights to the land. Yineng culture and history is being resurrected from its pauper’s grave and given new life in university courses and TV shows and online opinion pieces. The world is changing. Threads once snipped short are being sewn together again.
So listen, child. One day soon enough, you will go down to the river. You will walk in the dark and the cold. And so will your own daughter, and her daughter, and hers. On and on down the line of generations, until Mazulim paves the way to the moon and we can climb up and kneel at her feet and claim the power that should never have been lost to us in the first place.
One day, one of us will understand what it means to walk the river of stars.
© 2022 Emily Y. Teng