Chang’e Dashes from the Moon
by Benjanun Sriduangkaew
There’s a lady on the moon and she has a rabbit; at mid-autumn we have mooncakes when her husband visits.
Long ago the moon grew a city on its skin like nacreous shell around a pearl, and in this barren city lives a goddess who was once a girl.
The goddess counts the years, at the beginning.
She folds gold paper and silver paper in the proper months, and burns them for her mother. She makes houses of glassy yellow windows and pale walls, double-storeyed, and burns those so that her mother will have a comfortable residence in her passage through death. She makes animals, companions, furniture. When she begins counting in decades instead of years she starts burning offerings for her niece. It is the wrong way around; she is the elder, and she should be the one waiting beyond for her niece’s sendings.
But she is immortal, and her family is not.
After the first century she burns offerings for her mother, her niece, and her niece’s children. Who knows what descendants do now, whether they remember their duty? So she takes it upon herself, just to be safe. She watches the houses in the mortal realms change and lengthen, until they become towers which pierce the clouds, until their cities are thick and thronged and she can’t imagine locating her kin anymore in the million-millions that overwhelm the streets.
Sometimes her name slips away from her. In defiance she etches into the soft stone of the lunar city, I am Chang’e, and I have a wife whom every night I long to meet. Her chiseling erases itself before an hour finishes.
The walls are high to fill her sight. The houses are huge to make her small.
In moments where she can rouse herself from lassitude, Chang’e indulges in fury. Though her mortal life she learned much, the knife and the bow. Cut though she might, the moon does not bleed. She loosens flaming arrows into the dark, but the moon does not burn. There are moments where, stepping through a garden gate or passing through a door, she glimpses a world under sunlight. It does not last.
Often she watches the rabbit toil at its mortar. It makes no mention of leaving; this it seems to consider its rightful place. But it is the closest she has to a friend.
“Does the moon think?” she asks, as though in idle wonderment.
The rabbit pauses its pounding. “What makes you think so, Lady Chang’e?”
“It is only a thought.” She nods at its jars and pots. “What are you making?”
This medicine, it explains, reunites flesh and spirit: those chased out of their own skin by malicious devils, those who have spent too long in dreams, those sent to the underworld by an accounting error. Many ills require such a cure.
Chang’e peers into the mortar at the thick, glittering purple paste. “It’ll work on any body?”
“Even ones not of flesh,” the rabbit says with solemn pride. “My pharmacology is unrivaled, though many have tried to match it.”
She smiles and strokes its long ears. “Perhaps one day you can make me a pill to make me heavy, so heavy that I will sink from the sky and return to the earth.”
Its nose twitches and it looks at her with sad red eyes. “I wish you would be happy, Lady Chang’e.”
“I’m happy, rabbit.”
She does not say that happy does not come from wishing. Once she thought that was so, swept into the arms of the archer god who came into being full-grown and graceful as though born from a wish. Centuries later she has learned otherwise.
A ghost butterfly alights on her shoulder. There are many of those in the gardens of the moon, phantom swans and mute songbirds, wisps of feathers and beaks that come apart if she looks at them too hard. A menagerie on the verge of breaking down.
Chang’e will not break with them.
She inhales the scent of the rabbit’s works, smells bitter and tart, fierce and demure. In the chambers of her heart she holds an idea, a solution. Clutching it behind her sternum–so the moon will not hear, so the moon will not see–she leaves the rabbit and, steps light as the passing of autumn, follows the ghosts.
Heroic Houyi shot down nine sun-crows to save humanity, and through schemes of the jealous came to his ruin; in death he rose to the tenth sun, where ever after he made his home.
For material Chang’e would have liked clay, soft and obedient to her hands, but the city is pavement end to end, and hard soil or harder rock where it is not. She settles with cherrywood, which is all they have to make anything from, there being an endless supply from the one tree. Over and over she’s watched its leaves unfurl green and fresh and branches burst forth stronger and steelier than before. The faster Wu Gang hews, the faster it regrows. Like the rabbit he never mentions escape, content to suffer and wait out his sentence on the moon, but sometimes she thinks it is merely that he has no one to return to.
Appropriating chisel and saw from the woodsman’s cache she learns the fundamentals of carving, and over the months comes to understand where to chip, where to cut, where to etch: the subtleties of grain and knots, the differences between sap- and heartwood. Though she isn’t done when Houyi’s visit nears, it is progress and it keeps her busy, elbow-deep in shavings and dust.
On this day mortals kindle lanterns for her and Houyi, she hears, and put on dragon dances. And marry: it’s been absorbed into the matchmakers’ calendars, one of the most favorable dates in the year and certainly the most in the season. Chang’e doesn’t know how to feel about that. Perhaps mortals are different now, and marriages are happier things. Houyi has suggested they might be, but she finds that beyond the reach of imagination.
Zhongqiujie has become an annual celebration for the inhabitants of the moon–which is to say, all three of them–as though to make up for the lack of congratulations and liquor when Chang’e wedded Houyi. Wu Gang brings lanterns shaped as vast lotuses and serpents. The rabbit makes cakes, viscous lotus paste inside and the salted yolks of ghost birds: they were pale rather than orange, but they taste no less rich. She thanks them, heartfelt. “It means more than I can say, both to me and Houyi.”
“It is good for husband and wife to unite, Lady Chang’e.”
Her smile stiffens. With effort she keeps it from hardening into a rictus. Tact has become as necessary as the air they breathe, and so Chang’e has ever avoided the subject. “You have met Houyi.”
His mouth sets. “I have had the honor of acquaintance with heaven’s best archer, Lady Chang’e.”
“I realize Houyi doesn’t dress as most women do. It pleases her to dress as she does, and she requires no more reason than that.”
“Goddess, it’s never been my place to criticize how the divine garb their sacred persons.”
“Very good. So, Houyi is a woman. On this we can at least establish a common ground?”
The woodsman nods.
She wishes she could say this marks progress. Unfortunately Wu Gang has never mistaken Houyi’s gender: he has always recognized that her wife is female, that Chang’e is monogamous. Yet he puts that side by side with the idea that Chang’e has a husband, and in a stunning blast of illogic reconciles the two. “Houyi is married to me. This makes her my wife, as I am hers. There is no one else.”
He looks down at his feet. He looks up at the moon’s roof. Delicately, he hedges, “Have you considered, Lady Chang’e, that the archer is in truth a lord, and when he comes to you puts on a woman’s guise to please your tastes?”
Chang’e very much would like to remain poised, graceful, unassailable. Instead she wants to strike him. “I was there when she entered the court. She’s always been as she is, and must’ve lost count of the times she is asked whether she would like to incarnate as a man.”
The woodsman kneels by one of the lantern beasts and makes a pretense of patting the silk flat. “Husbands do not always tell their wives everything, goddess. On this I can attest. It’s not maliciously meant; men cannot give themselves wholly to their spouses.”
For a long time she looks at him. “Then it is quite fortunate I didn’t marry a man, isn’t it?”
“Lady Chang’e, I didn’t mean to give offense. You know that.”
“No,” she says, “you didn’t.” It would profit neither of them to say that only makes it worse.
To his credit Wu Gang has done much to ensure their privacy, having built from nothing a pavilion large enough to contain a small court: embellishing and furnishing it with enough ornaments for the same. All colors, all light: the rabbit’s wine steams amber, the wood shines defiant red.
She takes one of the lacquered chairs, sits, and counts. Cherrywood armrests dig into her palms.
She feels her wife’s arrival on her eyelids, a finger of heat down her cheeks. When she looks again Houyi is there, warm and real, a little breathless.
The first moments are always difficult: they have gotten used to over three hundred days without the other. Absence has become more familiar than presence. Neither knows what to say, how to reacquaint herself to the actuality of her wife.
Chang’e stands. They embrace and habit takes charge. Habit makes Chang’e take Houyi by the wrist, and lead her to the cushions, silk and satin the color of bridal drapes.
“There are no walls,” Houyi murmurs.
“No one will watch,” Chang’e says and discovers there is more than habit, that despite everything–the sheer stretch of the centuries–there is still desire. She draws her wife down with her, and for the next moments they do not speak at all.
Eventually they come to the wine, a single cup between the two of them. Chang’e straddles Houyi’s lap, sipping amber heat that goes down scalding, tangerine-tart. Given their position, which they settle into as surely as key into lock, she feels awkward when she finally asks, “What have you been doing?”
“Bearing your absence without grace.”
She traces a line down the archer’s breast, doubling and circling back. Her palm pushes gently against Houyi’s heart. “Do you still think of us as married? Or just–”
“Friends who become lovers, very briefly, once a year?” Houyi leans into her touch, eyelids fluttering against her cheek. “I have thought on it, though I feel the time differently.”
“My kin are all dead.”
“Yes,” the archer says gently, “that’s why the centuries pass unmarked for me, for I’ve nothing on the changing mortal earth, but for you… I’ve consulted many gods, many sages. Most continue to say that in a few centuries perhaps your sentence will lift, and you need only to wait it out. Obviously I disagree.”
Chang’e presses her nails to the edge of her mouth. “I can’t–not another century. Not another decade.”
“I know.” Houyi exhales. “If there’s a way we will find it; if there’s anything I can do I will do it, and none will stand between me and your freedom. I swear this.”
Chang’e makes herself smile. She might have made herself say that she is absolute, that she has no doubts, that what is between them is steadfast as the moorings of a continent. But it was Houyi’s forthrightness that first made her say, Oh, may we have a thing like marriage, might we become wife and wife? It was that, and many things besides, which Chang’e loved. Between them there can be no lies, and few secrets. So she whispers, while they’re still so close their teeth are on each other’s lips, the fragment of a thought she’s been hoarding close to her breast.
Long after the chariot has gone Chang’e remains to watch its trail, wisps of gold that too quickly dissipate, a thin memory of stars.
On earth Houyi, too, dresses like a man. But in this place of chrome and skyscrapers it is less remarkable than it once was. Having let her hair down she becomes even more ordinary, for mortal men now keep theirs very short. Some are clean-shaven entirely, even though they aren’t monks.
She comes at night, when her duty relents, and haunts the ocean’s side. She watches the ferries crossing the gulf between city districts: strange to think that Hong Kong and Kowloon, once very much unlike, can now be counted two parts of the same whole. It’s taken her several centuries, to track as she has never before, not prey of hooves and fangs and tiger-fur, but a thin faded line of blood. A long time ago she met the mother, brother and niece of her wife, and when she looked again they were all gone.
But the hunt is Houyi’s domain and delight. Though there is nothing left she could recognize, no commonality of name–for people speak differently now, and name their children differently especially on this isle–and little to see in the cast of skull and shape of eyes, she’s chased the tracks of genealogy to Hong Kong.
It is not that she keeps secrets from Chang’e. But she doesn’t want to hold out a false hope, when it’s taken her this long, when it’s this thin and flimsy a thing.
In the Space Museum it is almost empty, climate-controlled air whispering against her skin, a quiet hum of electricity. She goes past the glass cases of spacesuits and shuttle models, the gravity well demonstration with its whirling metal spheres, the instrument panels that simulate a cockpit. But it is the photographs of lunar landings that snatch at her attention, make her linger.
“You’ve been showing up every other night.”
She glances up, unsurprised. “You work here.”
“Unfortunately.” The young woman is in the process of locking down doors, dressed for the cold. Belatedly Houyi realizes she is not. “Well, we’re closing soon.”
They leave the museum separately, and board the same boat off Star Ferry to Wanchai. Houyi sits by the railing, where the winds buffet her hair and tear at her skin. When the young woman settles beside her, Houyi hears her frown before she even asks, “Aren’t you even a little cold?”
“It doesn’t bother me. You are Julienne, I think?”
Julienne’s hand brushes the spot on her sweater that corresponds to where her employee’s card has been. “People don’t wear name tags in real life. It’s awful.”
The young woman blinks, but offers no commentary nor wonders aloud just why it is that she has a name so masculine.
Chang’e continues in testing and measuring her enemy.
With no drop of joy but plenty of grim clarity, she sets one of the houses on fire. No small feat, for the moon is cold and the building pure rock, but the rabbit keeps bottles of phoenix flame. Small collection–even in heaven the substance is rare–but she pinches one anyway, guilty but not guilty enough to seek another solution. After a stone house is reduced to blackened rubble, Chang’e finds herself unable to leave the pavilion Wu Gang built for days after. The surrounding courtyard turns in upon itself, and she can venture no further than the edges. Like an impertinent child in need of correction she has been punished.
The rabbit visits with sticky rice wrapped in ghostly lotus leaves. It plucks at its whiskers nervously. “Why did you do this?”
To that she only gives a serene smile. “What could be done to me?”
“If you wreak such ruin regularly? Banishment to earth as a mortal, or a demon. Or worse, Lady. You aren’t beyond the wheel, and when it turns it can break you, pulping flesh and grinding bones. Immortal doesn’t mean impervious.”
Her expression tightens. “I’ll keep that in mind. Thank you, rabbit.”
Subsequent experimenting becomes subtler. She notes the times when she can glimpse the earth through windows, through archways. Then she might step through, and be on a mountain, in a temple, on the street of a city. She’s never fast enough, but it is a close race.
So, then, what she wants to do might work. As long as the symbolism, the center of story, is satisfied.
The ghost animals have neither voices nor words of their own. A few eels and frogs can be coaxed to echo Chang’e, and that suits her purposes. The trouble lies in luring them. They do not behave much like their living counterparts, neither eating nor mating; owls and starlings sometimes swim languidly in the lakes, and twice she’s seen carps up in the branches of a stone cypress. She’s tried to tempt them with cakes, fruits, wine, dumplings. None avails. Tatters of fabric and melted candle wax do even less.
Finally she starts giving out pieces of herself.
Clipped locks of her hair attract middling interest. She turns to pain, a hairline thread open in her hand–and they come, attending her blood like courtiers around an empress, wet toothless mouths latching onto her skin. She whispers words at them in slow stressed syllables: her name, common phrases, the way she greets the rabbit and the woodsman. Thank you and You didn’t have to and The food you made is delicious. It is like reciting poetry. Conversations so repetitive she can conduct them on her own, exhausted to banality and prescribed lines.
Chang’e melts the rabbit’s remedy, the one that unites spirit to body, and blends it with her blood.
The mixture takes a long time to boil, blood and medicine far thicker than water, and when she pours it into sculpted mouths too quickly it splashes and scalds her. Her eyes water at the pain. She does not allow it to slow her down.
She finishes the statue in what she imagines is winter, where the moon’s lapses are more frequent and she gets to see the earth almost every day; her prison’s mind turns to deserts and brightness, while hers turn to sanding and polishing.
Her features are duplicated across the carved face. No amount of paint will make it seem flesh, but she has prepared a solution for that.
She waits as the ghost animals slip into the mannequin, drawn irresistibly to arterial sweetness. Perhaps they sip at this mixture, and are content; perhaps they struggle to escape. They can’t. Having imbibed the medicine they will be bound.
Hands on the shoulders of the statue she concentrates. It isn’t something she’d have been able to do mortal–martial practitioners may, and she was never that–but her ascendance has bought more than imprisonment. It will cost her, for she is guided by instinct, not discipline.
A brush of vitality she can scarcely afford to spare trickles through her fingertips. With it, a fraction of herself, that which makes her Chang’e and divine. It suckles at her as though a babe, and she nurses it into a facsimile of life. When she is done her knees are weak.
She clasps the wooden doll to her, mouth to wooden mouth, “You are Chang’e.”
It is silent. Only wood, sanded and painted amateurishly.
“You are Chang’e,” she repeats, “and you have a wife whom every night you long to meet. You met her in heaven. Under a golden tree and black petals she first kissed you. Her name is Houyi, and you are wedded wives.”
“I am,” it repeats haltingly, in a voice not quite hers, “Chang’e.”
Once the first word has been uttered color flourishes, wood limbs softening to skin, chiseled hair flowing into soft strands. In the best silks she has she dresses the statue, and on its head she puts pearls and ivory. When she is done she hides it deep among the ghosts, draping it in swans and lions winter-pale.
The second time Houyi sees Juliene the latter exclaims, “You can’t find these things that interesting.”
The archer smiles faintly. “Do you have mooncakes at Zungcauzit?”
“Of course.” Julienne glances sidelong at the moon-walk box. “What does that have to do with anything?”
This time they end up at a Maxim’s outlet, which even at this time of the night is crowded, noisy, and not especially glamorous. They order and have indifferent honeyed pork, dim sum, and pearl tea. Julienne wrings her sleeves and bites her lip. “I do know nicer places.”
“I don’t mind,” Houyi says. “There’s something to be said for convenience.”
“You’re so unpicky. Where are you from?”
A disbelieving laugh, as though she believes someone who dresses as elegantly as Houyi–and her choice of attire is that, by accident–couldn’t possibly have so provincial an origin. “Shenzhen? Peking?”
“I’m not much for cities.” She looks across the room, where one woman–catching Houyi’s gaze–stops giggling with her friends and blanches. A spider demon. Her shadow briefly flares extra limbs as she scrambles, upsetting iced tea, and excuses herself from the table. “They are too easy to hide in. But I’d rather know about you.”
Julienne sets down her chopsticks. “Are you flirting with me?”
This surprises a chuckle out of Houyi. “I’m much too advanced in age for that. Old aunts shouldn’t flirt with young ladies.”
“You can’t be more than thirty-five.”
“You shouldn’t affront your elders by suggesting they’re less than they seem. Regardless I have a wife.”
The girl puts the tip of a chopstick back in her mouth and chews it with a peculiar fervor. “You got married abroad, I suppose. What’s her name?”
“Oh come on.”
“That’s actually her name.” Houyi signals a waitress–she has to call only once to gain attention, which seems to awe Julienne disproportionately–and despite the girl’s protest she pays the entire bill. “I’m about to ask you something very odd and rather personal.”
“How odd can it be?” Julienne gestures with her glass, whose bottom is black with ice-trapped tapioca beads.
“Do you visit a cemetery during Chingming?”
Julienne leans away from the table. “That is a bit personal. And you aren’t even single.”
“I’m not that bewitching, child.”
“Well, fine. I don’t go. I don’t owe my parents anything, not even burning them bits of shiny paper.”
“Ah,” the archer murmurs. There’s little family resemblance; marriages, migrations, and sheer eons have washed those out, sculpted quite something else in the place of features possessed by Chang’e. But there is, perhaps, something of the same sharpness. “I have a boon I would ask of you.”
“You talk like you just stepped out of a mowhab set.”
Houyi has seen her share of those films. They amuse, mostly because when gods do battle there is a great deal more fanfare than even the most ostentatious special effects. “It’s hard to get out of character.”
They step outside the Maxim’s, into a night thick with neon signs and street vendors peddling counterfeit watches. Houyi thinks, and hopes, that Chang’e will like this place, this era. It will surely suit her curiosity.
She holds out a hand to Julienne, who frowns but takes it.
When they reappear in the silence of Che Kung the girl staggers, looks about wildly, and bites down on her knuckles. There isn’t much light apart from the bulbs illuminating a shrine full of Guanyins in white and gold, clothes colorful and colorless. Houyi eases Julienne down to the lip of a blue pool, at whose center yet another Guanyin stands with child in hand.
“I’m not going,” Julienne says, voice gone thin and breathy, “to scream. I’m not.”
“I hoped you wouldn’t.”
When she has gotten herself under control Julienne demands, “What do you want from me?”
“To burn something.” Houyi draws out what she’s hidden by the shrine. It is caked in ashes, but undamaged: coils of silvered paper linked together, braided into a rope ladder. The length isn’t anywhere near enough, objectively, but she’s learned that such things are only symbols. “While thinking of a… great-aunt many times over.”
Julienne takes the paper ladder in hand. “This isn’t the right time, there isn’t a picture, I have no incense, there isn’t a grave. I don’t even know her name.”
“It is Seung Ngo.”
“Oh,” the girl says, giving a vindicated little clap, “of course. Of course your wife is the goddess on the moon and you’re the archer who shot down nine suns. Does she have a pet rabbit too?”
“I wouldn’t call it precisely a pet. There’s also a woodsman on the moon, if you were curious.”
Houyi describes Chang’e to Julienne quietly, quickly, as she makes a fire and wishes she had some skill at sketching. Julienne kneels dazed, but concentrates on Houyi’s voice. She feeds the paper ladder to the flames all at once, as such things are meant to be consigned, and watches as it crumbles. That takes longer than most offerings; Houyi made the ladder strong and thick, just to be sure.
When all that remains is smoke–Julienne exclaiming how illegal it is to litter temple grounds as they have–Houyi feels as though she has emptied herself into that fire, into that rope ladder of paper, and now as the ashes drift skyward this has flitted beyond her grasp. There’s nothing more she may do.
“Will I get to see whoever it is that I just burned that for? The great-aunt. Great-grandaunt.”
Houyi touches the base of her throat, chasing the recall of her wife’s touch. “We will see. I believe she will wish to meet you.”
“She isn’t a ghost?”
“Flesh and blood, and beautiful.” The archer stands. “Shall I bring you somewhere else?”
“I’d hate having to explain myself to the police.”
She takes the grand-niece of her wife near the Sha Tin station, in a spot quiet and empty enough that they were not seen except by a stray cat. It hisses at Houyi and turns tail, though not before she notes that its eyes are an unnatural, lambent blue.
Before she leaves Houyi allows her clothes to reweave themselves into the form she favors, a man’s robe and trousers in pale blue. Bow and quiver at her back, reassuring solidity and weight against her spine.
Julienne stares at her, dumbfounded, as she presses her palm over her fist and bows to the girl in that old way mortals don’t bother with anymore except at New Year. As Houyi departs she can still hear Julienne muttering something about mowhab sets.
When the rope ladder appears Chang’e knows it is time.
It drapes halfway in, halfway out of her window. Touching it she knows at once whose hand wove it into shape, whose hand touched it and made the passing of it to her possible. It is still warm, as though hiding in its strands a secret heat. The length of it seems immeasurable. The strength of it feels muscular, the flexibility of it prehensile.
She sits, gripping the ladder tight, until she feels its gravity bleed into her bones.
The weight of earth. The weight, perhaps, of kinship.
Chang’e races over the roof with a lightness impossible anywhere else, toward the garden where she’s hidden a part of herself. She peels away the swans and lions and tigers, the foliage and shrubs not quite real, the leaves and fruits that taste of honey and ice.
The moon is greedy and will not let her go. And there must, always, be a woman on the moon. Very well: she will give it one that never tires, one that never weeps.
She points the mannequin at the city, whispering, Go.
Child-obedient it goes, Chang’e-shaped, as she ties one end of the ladder to a roof finial. Knowing the length will not fail her, she tightens the knot until it no longer budges. Then she casts the ladder. It falls, and falls, until it stops taut.
Between the rough jagged rocks of the moon’s flanks she descends. The wind slices at her, flaying-sharp, scalpels driving between her vertebrae–searing the shells of her ears–infiltrating lungs and nose. Her fingers turn numb, and freeze solid to the rope. Her skin tears. With each rung she weighs heavier.
Lunar cold recedes. She is halfway, or three-fourths of the way. It becomes very warm and, off the corner of her eye, she sees sun-struck seas, she sees fruits and treetops, a sunlit day. She sees a mountaintop nearly as close to her as her own feet.
She passes through fire. On the moon slivers of her self vibrate within their wooden cage, leaping and hissing through wooden mouths. The puppet that is her, that appears skin and hair but whose core is cherry bay, clutches itself and translates her raw flesh to amphibious pain-cries.
On the other side Chang’e is charred hair and blood fruiting on her lips, she is blisters and lymph dewing on her arms. The snow mutes and absorbs the retching of her screams. When she does stand she totters and would have pitched over again if she does not remember that she is breathing freedom, tasting it with lungs, pores, palate.
She straightens: dignity, she must have that when she does this for the first time. She has witnessed Houyi doing it without thought or effort. Back then she did not imagine she would one day gain the capability to do the same, the right of any deity. She thinks east; she thinks of bringing it close.
One step, two. Her footprints are shallow in the snow. By the fifth she’s treading on sand, on the howl of tides against cliff. Saltwater laps at her waist, searing the burns on her thighs and hips. What remains of her robes drifts seaweed-heavy in the waves.
There is a little house by the shore.
Chang’e limps up the winding path she knows her wife paved: conch shells and sea-smoothed pebbles, dyed in the bright colors that Houyi loves.
The front door, double-paneled, is shut against drafts. At her touch it parts. Inside, three rooms. An enclosure for ablutions with folded screen and fish-scale tiles, an untidy workshop, and a bedroom. This last is built for two, furniture in duplicates, a pair of armoires side by side: one filled, the other empty as though in hope.
Houyi sits at the window, back straight, clad in a thin robe carelessly thrown on that leaves one shoulder bare. She turns and her breath leaves her in a long whisper. “Chang’e.”
The archer spreads burn salve over her; from the familiar vegetal smell she recognizes it as the rabbit’s work. When she can speak again without her face hurting she murmurs through cracked lips, “What did you do?” Her voice claws its way out a ruin, cold-wracked, fire-scourged.
“I found your family.” Houyi pours her lukewarm water, keeping at arm’s length as though unsure if she may touch Chang’e.
“Family.” Chang’e holds her cup, presses it to her smeared cheek for relief. “I’ve family left?”
“Your niece had children. It took me a while to track them–they spread and went away to far lands. Some never came back; it’s difficult to read their footprints.” The archer brushes away what remains of her wife’s hair. Charred handfuls fall out. “Her name’s Julienne.”
Chang’e repeats it. “What an outlandish name.”
“She is of the same blood as you. Else when she burned it the ladder wouldn’t have found you.”
“Or let me escape.” Kinship, she thinks, the surest anchor.
She looks at her wife, who has done so much, who has opened this path. “Can you,” she asks uncertainly, “take me to see this girl?”
Julienne zips up her jacket and chafes her hands, wishing she’d declined the invitation to the class reunion. Her schoolmates haven’t gotten any more interesting than the last time, and all the women remain–as far as she can tell–depressingly straight.
At her feet night club flyers rustle, garish things heavy on neon-pink and black. Tomorrow someone is going to be fined for littering. She stops at a 7-11 for chrysanthemum tea, a bar of chocolate, sanitary pads. Ordinary items for an ordinary life.
The MTR station is quiet, dead last-train hours and closed convenience stores. She hopes that the one night of oddity in Che Kung hasn’t ruined her for a lifetime of normalcy. In a way Julienne resents that woman–whoever or whatever she was, for surely she was not that Hau Ngai–for disrupting her life. She tries not to dwell on it as she waves her card at the turnstile, goes down the escalator, and into a front carriage. The only other passenger is an older man, dozing. Yesterday’s issue of the Apple Daily flutters by his side.
The smartphone in his shirt pocket chirps and shakes at the next stop. He wakes groggily, disembarks, and Julienne finds herself alone.
A hand falls on her shoulder, jerking her out of the white-noise zone born of electrical glare and the ghost of her own reflection foregrounding the tunnel rushing by. Julienne looks up to find two women. One tall, in suit and slacks. The other, astonishingly, in cheongsam. Pearls in her hair, either a net or secured by supernatural means.
The goddess is known to be exquisite.
Julienne realizes her mouth has fallen open. She shuts it.
Seung Ngo cups Julienne’s face in her hands. She startles to find that the goddess’ palms are not velvet; they are rough, harder than her own, as though she is a woman who works with her hands. The most menial Julienne’s ever gotten is with keyboards. Carefully, as if speaking Gwongdongwa for the first time Seung Ngo says, “My wife was wrong. I do see written on you my mother and Third Niece.”
Finding her voice finally she says, a little irritably, “Not my parents, I hope.”
The goddess–her ancestress–lets her hands fall away. “You’re your own, mostly. Will you introduce me to the rest of our clan?”
Julienne splutters a laugh. “I don’t think they can take the shock.”
“They don’t have to know everything. And you, of course, will always be my favorite.”
“Do I get the thickest red envelope?”
“Insolent child,” Seung Ngo says fondly. “I’ll stuff yours with gold.”
A cool female voice announces that the next station is the end of the Island line. Julienne tries to imagine New Year and Chingming with all their family obligations. She’s refused to show up for several years now. “Next Zungcauzit my cousins in Indonesia and Singapore are coming home. You’re supposed to be on the moon by then, but…”
Seung Ngo laughs. “I’ll be with you, not to worry. I’ve never tasted mortal-made mooncakes.”
“We put ice-cream in them now. All sorts of fillings. You can even buy them off-season.”
“Oh, my,” the goddess says.
“But until then I’ve got photo albums. Of–the family. Baby pictures too. Do you want to see?”
“I’d like nothing more.”
The two immortals take each of Julienne’s arms, clasping her between them, and somehow they exit without needing either octopus card or ticket. Julienne knows that this year she’ll attend all the family gatherings. Perhaps they won’t go very well. But she will have two divine aunts with her, and isn’t that worth something?
Very different, if nothing else. And never boring.
“It feels like I’m continuing a story,” Julienne breathes. “You might’ve heard of it before.”
Hau Ngai tilts her head. “And which one is that?”
“On the moon,” she begins, grinning, “there’s a lady with a rabbit…”More stories like this by topic: Asia, Authors of color, Characters of color, China, LGB characters, Thai authors, Women authors