Sally Wen Mao
from Ninetails

A Huxian’s Guide to Seduction Revenge Immortality


Once a year I give myself permission to indulge in real tenderness. I dip an overripe fig in honey and eat it with yogurt. Then I allow some man to worship me. I make him go down on two knees and pray.


“Pray for what?” he’d whisper.


“Pray for whatever you like, as long as you pray to me,” I’d reply. “I am your goddess.”


Then I’d fan my hair out on my bed, splay my legs, and he’d dip his head down, put his palms together, and purse his lips in concentration. Sometimes he wouldn’t know what to pray for, because his prayers had been answered. Sometimes he’d recite a novena he remembered from childhood. Sometimes he would take too long, and I’d watch him bend against the bed, his brows furrowed in thought. Sometimes he would start weeping, though this was rare. Then when he finished praying he would put his lips to my thigh and I’d arch my hips forward, and time would begin again.


Summer is a series of aches heightened, sharpened into blades. I watch it spin itself to the ground—the simmering sounds and scents of the city: lamb skewers frying on halal truck griddles, girls in puff­sleeve dresses with their manicured toes crunching over subway grates, Chinatown dumpsters full of baby’s breath and rotten rambutan and slimy cockles, the sheen of sunscreen and sweat on the foreheads of commuters heading to Jacob Riis or Brighton or Rockaway. I smell and hear and see it all. I am always aching for meat. Months and months of listlessness culminate into a raw, bloodletting hunger. My sport is almost too easy for me, so I fantasize about switching roles, becoming my own prey. You look at your body in the mirror and want to consume it yourself. The taste of your own sweat, your own saliva, more thrilling than the taste of any other. The feeling gives you the impulse to go out there and find opportunities to defile yourself. To be defiled. To defile another.


I’m what they call a nine­tailed fox. A hulijing, huxian, fox spirit, fox fairy, fox demon, fox seductress, exquisite fox, all the names I can and can’t claim as my own. Enchantment is my sport, and this city of ten million people and twice as many rats is my arena. I’m not heartless—I feed on the wicked. I observe from the margins—this in­between, this unseen place between dawn and dusk, this cockroach­infested apartment, this fur, this skin. I love this perch from which one can survey the world, gather the infinite wisdom of the city. Every street, every café, every gym or club or hotel lobby—all fair game for bad men who come out to play. I’ve noticed in particular how straight men are not cautious. They don’t care about the potential dangers of inviting strangers into their homes or walking out in public spaces. They don’t think twice like most others do.


My home is a studio apartment on the edges of Ocean Hill, Brooklyn, close to Broadway Junction and the sounds of the aboveground J crisscrossing the A, C, and L. It was vacated half a year ago by its owner, this whole complex up for foreclosure, then gut renovation. Last month, as soon as the windows were boarded up and the last squatters departed following an infestation of centipedes, I moved in and made my den. Just one flea­ bitten mattress on the floor is all I need. Until the developers begin their gentrification, I am free to live in this liminal place and work. By work, I mean writing down all I learn from observing humans’ habitations, their conflicts with foxes, the politics of it. My current project is a guide to help other fox spirits like myself get what we want: Love. No, scratch that. Revenge. Eh, I mean immortality, transcendence. It’s a self­help book, if you will, a work in progress. Foxes are notoriously too proud to seek help unless from an actual god, so I fib a little here and there, like the lie that I’m already an immortal, that I already have nine tails. But we all lie sometimes to survive, isn’t that true?


The rest of the time, I spend hunting.


I locate my targets with precision and caution. Certain men believe they are systemically oppressed because women won’t have sex with them. They write manifestos about how unfair it is that they can’t find someone willing to fuck them, how humiliating, and they blame this on women. According to the logic of these poorly written manifestos, if a woman is sexually active, then she is a slut and deserves to die, but if a woman does not sleep with these manifesto­writers, she is a bitch.


And some men move through this world with an ease that tells you vaguely what kind of life they lead, what kind of car they might drive, what kind of sheets they sleep in. When they wake up in the morning and walk outside their condos, they treat the larger world just like that—like the sheets they make love to their wives on, these men so wholly at home in what they do. And some men quit their jobs to go backpacking in Thailand or teach English in China, to distract themselves from their self­loathing, drown themselves in debauchery and local women that they feel free to exploit because life in such countries is not real to them.


And still some other men post long eloquent screeds on Facebook citing the statistics attached to sexual assault, yet in private, talking to the woman they’re sleeping with about her previous trauma, they ask her if she reported her rape to the police—if not, then why not? Is it really trauma if you haven’t been diagnosed?


Sometimes they are ordinary men, too. Most of the time, that’s all they are. Men.





Vixens and enchantresses, you’ve come here from all walks of human life to learn how to seduce mortal men, extract their energy, their power, and acquire the elixir of transcendence that allows you to become huxian (divine fox transcendent) so you can get the hell out of the festering foxhole called Earth and ascend to Heaven.

If a vixen lives to the age of a thousand and gathers enough human essence, she will reach divinity and transform from hulijing (fox spirit) to huxian (immortal nine­tailed fox). The word xian connotes a blissful being, a perfected and immortal creature. Huxian, blissful transcendents, are free agents, unattached to any one house or temple or grave, and they live forever in their divinity and beauty, gaining the coveted nine tails. The huxian enters the cloud forests of Mount K’unlun, and above, the seven stars of the Big Dipper that she has worshipped all her life, which joins Heaven and Earth. After you arrive at the goal of transcendence and immortality, you forsake all human relationships.


To reach xian­hood, there are several ways. The first is self­ cultivation—to isolate oneself on a mountain, refine the self in perfect solace, and study the classics. It’s a process of meditation and purification, and those foxes who master this for one thousand years achieve true huxian status.


The second is a combination of self­cultivation and spirit possession—these foxes might haunt human residences, abandoned boardinghouses, and other liminal spaces. Sometimes at night, a fox might use their magic to possess a human’s body and extract a bit of their life force. Sometimes they shape­shift into doppelgängers and steal life force from those unfortunate people’s families. This is usually not fatal, but it sure leads to conflict. If caught and exorcised, these fox spirits are expelled from their residences. But if feared or worshipped, then they might enter into an agreement with a spirit medium and deliver their wisdom that way. I myself don’t like to half­ass things, so this is not my preferred way.


The fastest, easiest way to reach xian­hood is through praying to the Big Dipper and metamorphosizing into beautiful women, bewitching human men and absorbing their life essence and yang force through sex and enchantment. This third, infinitely more dangerous path is the boat we are on, the way we have chosen.



• • • • •


There was a man who drove a truck. Every so often he picked up hitchhikers and took them to motels.


There was a man who ran a Fortune 500 company. Every so often he traveled and conducted his affairs discreetly.


There was a man who studied at the local law school. Every so often he drove to the park looking for girls.


• • • • •



I do not ever visit the graveyard, the cemetery where I was born. From the place dead bodies are buried, I came out, sprang forward, fresh­faced, peaches in my cheeks, a young girl with shapely limbs and a leonine prowl, hands and feet crawling on the earth. My metamorphosis began with the scent of rain­torn Easter lilies, all those deathly white flowers, some of them plastic, polluting the sacred ground of the dead.


People waste so much time on grief. People waste so much energy trying to please the dead, revere the dead, remember the dead. All those tangerines wasted on ghosts without the stomachs to enjoy them. But I do. I eat them whole, oily rinds and all. The citrus segments, the acids cooling all the cinnabar heat in my body. It was my first human meal, the tangerines left on a young girl’s headstone.

I dug her skull up from the earth. I placed it over me. The contours of her bone fit snugly over my head, but its heaviness surprised me. Then I gathered all the flowers, all the dead bouquets, all the plastic roses and lilies, and mixed them with the wet sycamore leaves. I laid them out over my body and then I slumped down beneath a cypress tree. The night was clear, every planet naked and feral in the sky. Under the Big Dipper, I counted the holes between each star and worshipped my constellation until the leaves and flowers whistled through my fur. I summoned the oily pearl in my throat, closed my eyes, and imagined a mountain, K’unlun, the mythical Palace of the Sun and Moon where the heavenly nine­tailed foxes lived in harmony among hot springs and verdant waterfalls, all of them huxian, all of them divine.


Instead, I dreamt of clothes being ripped apart—wonderful hand­sewn clothes, stitched with the best fibers and selvages, torn to pieces. Instead, I dreamt of a hand reaching inside a silk robe and grabbing. Instead, I dreamt of mad violence in a field of lavender.

The girl whose skull I wore was only nineteen when she died. I could not imagine departing the world at such an age. All night, I dreamed of violet fields stained with rope and silk burns. Then I woke up, and I was a woman.


The dead girl was the third­generation daughter of a shoe repairman. Her father fixed and smoothed any and all of the scratches, scuffs, and burns that this city could inflict; her mother was a tailor and a laundress. They had a tiny laundromat and shoe repair shop in Sunset Park between a dollar dumpling joint and a day spa where the dead girl used to get bad copper highlights for ten dollars. The dead girl loved the smell of leather. The dead girl knew how to fix a zipper caught in linen, how to untie the most impossible knots, how to flame someone on an Internet forum.


One day she was out at Brooklyn Bowl with her friends, and an older man of about thirty­five approached them. She recognized him—he was one of the old regulars at her father’s shop, always bringing in his broken shoes or old leather jackets. He was friendly with her father, often sliding him an extra five­dollar bill here and there, but a few years ago he had moved out of Brooklyn. The last time she had seen him was probably three years ago, when she was sixteen.


“Fancy seeing you here!” he said, as if they were actually friends. He reached out for a hug, and she half-patted him on the back, thinking that would be the end of it as she went to take her turn.


As soon as her ball fell with a thud into the gutter, the man began to give her some “tips,” some “pointers.” He demonstrated, with his arms, how to throw the ball, even though she didn’t ask him, and she certainly did not feel comfortable when he came up behind her and tried to maneuver her arm such that she was holding the ball a certain way. Her friends intervened, and finally batted the man off by escorting her to the bathroom, where she explained in hushed whispers who he was—a “family friend,” she said uncertainly.


But that was not the end of it. The man showed up at their shoe repair store a week later with a pair of scuffed leather oxfords that needed fixing.


“Look at these laces, they sure need an upgrade,” he said, loosening the laces from the shoes, their discolored tongues hanging out. She removed the laces and sifted through the shoelaces on sale, then handed him a new pair. “I ought to properly thank you sometime,” he said.


She did not politely say, Sorry, but I’m not interested, because she’d seen what happens to girls who reject men aloud, what happens when men’s feelings get hurt, and so she was friendly, even asked him a few questions about himself, which he of course interpreted as interest, as flirting. So then when he asked her to go to the cineplex with him on a date of sorts, she did not decline, and when he said he’d pick her up at the store when her shift was over, she did not protest. Perhaps she was flattered, because he wasn’t such a bad­looking man, and she had no idea why he would take an interest in her, a gawky Chinese teenager who didn’t even get asked to senior prom.


It was a Sunday, late summer. Later, this man pulled up in the parking lot across the street at seven o’clock sharp just as he’d said he would, and she thought, Who cares, it is just a movie, I do not have to even talk to this person, I can just focus on the movie—if anything, this would be a funny story to tell, this creep whose shoes were always inexplicably broken. Within hours her thoughts would turn to regret. But then it was still before, and this man was smiling, because he had her in his car.


This man is you. You are the man I’m looking for.








From NINETAILS by Sally Wen Mao, published by Penguin Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a dvision of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright (c) 2024 by Sally Wen Mao. 

Found In Volume 53, No. 04
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Sally Wen Mao
About the Author

Sally Wen Mao is the author of the poetry collections The Kingdom of Surfaces (Graywolf Press, 2023), Oculus (Graywolf Press, 2019), a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and Mad Honey Symposium (Alice James Books, 2014). Her work has appeared in The Best American Poetry 2013 and 2021, The Paris Review, Granta, Poetry, A Public Space, Harpers Bazaar, The Washington Post, and others. She has taught writing at NYU, Cornell, and Sarah Lawrence College, and is an Assistant Professor of English and Creative Writing at Baruch College in 2024.