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Bunny Girl (short story)

In celebration of the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, here is a short story I wrote about Chang-e, the Chinese Goddess of the moon having a run in with Neil Armstrong during the Apollo mission. There are many variations of the original moon goddess fairy tale (none of which involve astronauts). I never liked this story very much as a child, because the reason why Chang-e ended up on the moon always seemed unfair. Bunny Girl is my re-imagining from the Goddess’s point of view after being exiled for thousands of years. The story was shortlisted for the Deborah Cass Writing Prize last year. And if anyone is interested in reading the variations of Chang-e, this site is a good starting point.

Mission Control: Among the headlines concerning Apollo this morning, there’s one asking that you watch for a lovely girl with a big rabbit. An ancient Chinese legend says a beautiful girl called Chang-o has been living there for 4,000 years. It seems she was banished to the moon because she stole the pill of immortality from her husband. You might also look for her companion, a large Chinese rabbit, who is easy to spot since he is always standing on his hind feet in the shade of a cinnamon tree. The name of the rabbit is not reported.

Command Module Pilot: Okay. We’ll keep a close eye out for the bunny girl.

Excerpt from transcript of the moon landing on July 20th, 1969.

Aphelleon and Paragorn Dangsombroon|Shutterstock.com.

Aphelleon and Paragorn Dangsombroon|Shutterstock.com.

The moon is a refuge for the forgotten, the fallen gods and goddesses, their cosmic powers reduced to space junk. Once you sink into a crater, not even the dust dares to stir up memories. I’ve recreated my palace to look exactly like my home on Earth near the Shudong River. There’s my old tea room with the rosewood and ivory carved table in the centre and a dais for visiting musicians. It opens into the courtyard where I’ve planted plum blossoms and cinnamon trees around a modest pavillion. A stone wall ensures my privacy. You would think solitude is a given when one lives on the moon, but I do have a neighbour. Wu Gang, a crazy woodcutter called who has spent the last thousand years trying to fell an osmanthus tree. Fortunately, the only passageway into my home is through the moongate which is watched by two guardian lions.

When I first arrived, time moved like a glacier creaking and groaning as it scraped along a mountainside. The image of my husband Houyi, drawing back his bow as he aimed an arrow at my heart replayed endlessly. One day on the moon is equivalent to twenty-nine earth days so by now the memory is etched in my bones.

I spend my mornings helping Jade Hare make his concoctions. In the afternoons, we pass through the moongate to take a walk across the rocky surface. We visit Jade Hare’s greenhouse where he has managed to grow some of the magical herbs and plants that are found on Kunlan mountains. Wu Gang will wave if he’s not swinging his axe. Jade Hare always invites him to tea. His reply is invariably the same. He’ll come right after he cuts down the osmanthus. It has been a thousand years and I have not had to fill his cup. He must have really angered the Jade Emperor to be carrying out this sentence.

In the evenings after Jade Hare retires, my thoughts are scattered. I’ll rearrange my collection of human debris. Rusted propellers, empty cylinders, an old camera, tin cans, an assortment of pens. Sometimes I do nothing but stare at the view through the moongate. The solar wind charges across the craters, whipping up the silvery dust. One by one, ghosts rise out of the clouds — my father, the River God, as he dragged a young mother under the water in exchange for her toddler, my younger brothers and sisters transformed into fish to play tricks on the fisherfolk, and Houyi, his lovely lip curled into a sneer as if he knew, even before he loosed his arrow, that he would hit his mark. When the turbulence causes red-green auroras to flash across the horizon, I flee. They look too much like sunbirds falling out of the sky.

I light astragalus root and cassia bark, and the sweet smell lulls me to sleep. No one has crossed the threshold in a thousand years; for one night I let my vigil lapse.

#

The spacecraft shows up shortly after sunrise. Chunky, metal plates, probes and foil tubes crudely fused together. Four spindly landing legs bounce over the rocky terrain.

The back of my neck tingles as two humans descend from the contraption. I turn to Jade Hare; he grinds furiously at the peony seeds in his mortar. If only I could grind away my past the same way he pounds up his herbs.

‘Human bones provide a good source of chalk.’ He doesn’t break his rhythm.

‘I can’t smite my worshippers!’ As soon as I say this, my stomach lurches. A thousand years have passed since I’ve seen a mortal up close. Even though their faces are obscured beneath their helmets, there’s something about the first astronaut that reminds me of my Houyi. He bounds over the terrain in slow, exaggerated leaps. The pole he’s gripping swings from side to side; I glimpse a flash of stars and stripes on the fabric clipped to the end before he drives the metal spike through the slumbering earth.

‘These men are conquerors, not worshippers,’ Jade Hare observes.

We watch the two astronauts set up complicated instruments and gather up bits of soil and rocks into tubes. ‘Perhaps they’re scientists? Apothecarists claiming lunar flora.’

Jade Hare doesn’t reply but I can see hackles rising along his back. He pulls out the curved blade sheathed in his leather belt and gives me an appraising look. ‘Human folly will be our final ingredient. Do you want to make an elixir of immortality or not?’

There’s that feeling in my gut again. I must have pearls churning in there. Acid, blood and bile calcified around a sticky bur. I clap a hand over my mouth to stop the stones from coming up. Houyi is gone, but even from the moon, I sense his restless ghost seeking me out, an almost inaudible keening in the Southwest Wind, a debt collector with no concept of time or distance.

#

I choose the astronaut that takes the first step off the spacecraft. Jade hurls one of his perfumed bombs through the moongate. The casing splits open as it hits the rock, releasing a phoenix-glass ball which bounces harmlessly into a crater. Eight metal legs protrude from a groove that runs around the ball’s circumference. The legs click into place and the spiderling ball scuttles over the dusty terrain.

The view through the moongate shifts to follow my spiderling. It doesn’t take long for it to find the men. As soon as it reaches the dark, basalt plain, it explodes in a cloud of thick, purple smoke. The men try to run but they don’t get far. The vapours curl under their helmets, seep into their pores. The men are unconscious before they hit the ground. I throw out my arms. Reams of silk sashes unloop from my draping sleeves, whipping through the moongate, honing in on the target. They’ve landed in a distant mare but I’ll not run out of silks. The blue sashes fly through the air, loop tightly around the first man’s waist, and reel him through the moongate.

His helmet visor fogs up as I lean close, breathe in and out until he rouses.

‘Houston! We’re under attack. Over!’ He scrambles backwards but only succeeds in getting tangled in my silks. ‘Can you read me? I’ve been drawn into some sort of Communist moon lair and I’m tied up by a …a beautiful Chinese woman and… and a bunny.’

Jade Hare’s wiry flank hardens beneath his sagging skin and his hind foot twitches convulsively. He does not like to be mistaken for a bunny.

‘Oh Jesus. This is – I’m hallucinating.’ He manages to stagger over to the tea table. His bulky suit is not made for morning tete-a-tete with immortals. The chair creaks as he sits down, muttering into his microphone. ‘Houston, can you read? There’s been an explosion. I’ve been affected by a mind altering gas. Where’s my team?’

‘You can breathe and talk normally while you are within my palace walls. Your team mate slumbers until I choose to wake him.’ My hand reaches out to remove his helmet — he flinches.

‘Maybe you should offer our guest a cup of tea?’ Jade Hare suggests. I’m surprised he hasn’t sliced the man’s throat open yet. He doesn’t make many potions that require blood sacrifice but at times like this, I’m reminded that apothecarists and butchers share a common lineage.

All this solitude has made me forget my breeding. I cup my hands around the teapot until my palms are warm. Then I pour two cups of steaming chrysanthemum tea. ‘I am the Moon Goddess Chang-e and this is Jade Hare. Who are you?’

The man straightens his shoulders, dips his head and bends to the waist. ‘My name is Neil Armstrong, Ma’am.’

‘You should kowtow and address the Moon Goddess as My Venerable One.’ Jade Hare glowers.

My sleeves ripple, vipers seeking out prey. Sometimes they have a will of their own. I have to draw back the fabric with my fingers. ‘And who were you before then, Neilarmstrong?’

‘Excuse me, my Vene- Veritable – Lady Chang-e?’

‘Humans don’t remember their past lives,’ Jade reminds me.

No matter. If I snatched his helmet away, I’d be able to see the resemblance. Even if he lived a hundred lives between, I’d recognise Houyi’s eyes. Glossy chestnuts with a burst of red around the pupil, where the sunbirds he shot out of the sky were seared forever.

‘What do you want from the Moon Goddess?’ I demand.

‘That was the question I was going to ask you. After all, it was you who brought me here.’

‘You’ve come to steal my elixir of immortality!’

‘I am not a thief!’Neilarmstrong snaps.

‘Liar!’ A skein of silks scourge the air. I force myself to calm down. One sleeve folds itself decorously into my lap. The other stretches across the room and returns with an empty bottle; the cork has been broken off but I don’t remember how. Did the seal slowly split from all the times I sneaked the phial out from my zither case to press my lips against the cold glass? More likely, it snapped off when Feng Meng, Houyi’s treacherous disciple, tried to wrest the bottle from me.

I set it down onto the table. ‘This is all that remains of the original elixir of immortality.’

I always knew Houyi would find me out, demand a reckoning. That was why I’d spent the last thousand years creating a replacement.

Slowly, Neilarmstrong peels off one of his gloves. His hand is flexed as if he’s expecting his skin to flake off. When nothing happens, he removes his other glove. I can’t help noticing the thick, gold band on his left hand as he reaches up and removes his helmet. It sticks for a moment, then with an audible hiss, the helmet comes off. He’s a gweilo, a white man, not at all handsome. His essence is somewhat diluted, leaked out through his watery, blue eyes.

I force myself not to cry when I see his hair. Faded to the colour of straw and cropped close to his head as if he was a criminal! I remember lost hours spent with Houyi’s head in my lap, running my fingers through his long, glossy, black hair. Reincarnation is rarely kind to humans.

Neilarmstrong’s slender fingers carefully prise open the cork with a pop. There’s still the whiff of peaches and gunpowder. Of course, it was a potent elixir. It was made by the Queen Mother of the West, a skilled apothecarist. How cold the elixir had felt as it trickled down my throat. The sweetest perfume followed by agony. The burning that licked at my belly. I couldn’t even scream because the flames had seared away my voice.

‘So is immortality all that it’s cracked up to be?’ he asks after a pause.

Oh, he struts and waggles his tongue just like Houyi when we first met. He was only a young god but Houyi was descended from a long line of archers. My father, the River God, had flooded the river banks and drowned an entire village because they refused to sacrifice a young virgin to be his bride. Houyi climbed on top of a gingko tree. He nocked an arrow, aimed and let it fly in one fluid movement.

Something whistled past my ear, then my father fell into the river screaming as he clutched his left eye. Houyi pushed himself up off the golden bough. He pulled loose strands of hair off his face and tucked it back into his top knot, all the while staring at me unwaveringly.

‘Are you going to do your job now, River God or should I take out your other eye?’ He spat out the word God as if it was a profanity.

My father transformed into a fish, gurgled a curse that was not the least bit intimidating, and swam downstream as fast as he could. As his celestial blood mixed with the current, a trail of water lilies the colour of rubies sprung up.

‘He’s learnt his lesson. He won’t hurt the villagers again,’ I begged, knowing that once my father recovered, I would bear scars from witnessing his humiliation.

Houyi took a flying leap into the river and pushed aside the waterlilies to close the distance between us. ‘Come away with me and he won’t be able to hurt you either.’

It’s always the lies that begin as truths that do the most harm. Neilarmstrong stands up abruptly, his tea untouched. ‘Well, now that you know I’m not after the elixir of immortality, guess I’ll be getting back to my crew–‘

‘Why don’t you be honest for once and tell me why you’ve come to the moon?’

‘To push the frontiers of space exploration for mankind-‘

‘By stealing my potions!’ I jab my finger triumphantly.

Houyi throws out his hands. ‘Has it occurred to you, my Venereal One, that I don’t want to live forever?’

‘How dare you?’ Jade Hare growls, raising his knife. ‘My Venerable One, let me end this.’

Neilarmstrong moves very quickly for someone in a bulky suit. He manages to side-step as Jade leaps at him. The knife slices across his sleeve which doesn’t tear. Jade Hare lands nimbly on the tea table, and immediately springs up again, ears flattened, nose twitching.

‘Oh, I am not going down in history as the first man on the moon who was killed by a bunny,’ Neilarmstrong grunts, throwing a hefty punch that could do some damage to Jade Hare if he lands his mark. I bind his fist with one silk sleeve; the other catches Jade Hare mid-flight as easily as a net scoops up a butterfly. I’m almost amused as Jade Hare flails about indignantly before he manages to disentangle himself.

Jade Hare shoots me a disgusted look and retreats to his workbench leaving me to deal with Neilarmstrong, the hypocrite who looks out from eyes that are blue-not-hazelnut, and declares he is not afraid of death.

He doesn’t fool me. He may not look like Houyi but the arrogance is uncanny. Houyi hadn’t thought about mundane matters of life and death when we first married and lived as gods on Kunlan Mountain. With great power comes great irresponsibility.

The Jade Emperor, ruler of the Gods, had been impressed with Houyi for chastising my father. He begged Houyi to help him with his ten wild sons. They had transformed themselves into suns and were racing across the sky, spreading wildfire and causing suffering to the mortal realm. Houyi and I descended the mountain. In the first village, babes were screaming because their mother’s milk had dried. Homes had been reduced to ashes and families clustered in the midday heat. Houyi aimed his arrow heavenwards. One by one, Gods dropped out of the sky like fallen firebirds.

‘No!’ I pulled Houyi’s shooting arm only in time to spare the last son. Perhaps if we had a child, Houyi would have understood the bond between a parent and their children. Or would our child have been forced to suffer the same punishment as us? When the news of his children’s death reached the Jade Emperor, he stripped Houyi of his powers and transformed him into a mortal. Even though I was an innocent bystander, I was forced to share his punishment.

Neilarmstrong speaks in half-truths. Perhaps, he would prefer fortune to immortality in the same way a beggar would prefer a bowl of congee to an emperor’s feast. A wise man knows that once you taste the banquet, you will be undone. When we were first married, Houyi and I walked hand in hand. After we were banished to earth, Houyi gripped my fingers until they turned blue as he traced the life line tattooed onto my palm over and over. He was fixated on ascending to Kunlan Mountain.

If Houyi hasn’t returned for the elixir of immortality, then what does he want from me? The ends of my sleeves swish over the table, drape around Neilarmstrong’s neck and slap him lightly across his cheek.

Neilarmstrong shakes his head, takes a step back to avoid my silky caresses. When he speaks, his tone has become concilliatary. ‘I apologize, Lady Chang-e. I should not have disrespected your title. I’m just frustrated because there seems no way to convince you I’m telling the truth.’

I smile. We’re making progress. ‘Let’s play a game. On the table lie two cups of tea.’ I open the tea drawer and pull out two glass vials. I veil the cups with my draping sleeve, tip the contents into the tea and give the cups a quick swirl. ‘Now the two cups have been infused with potions. One contains the elixir of fortune, the other a truth serum. You decide which tea is yours, and we will drink to either your fortune or mine.’

‘And if I guess incorrectly?’ He eyes the oil-slicked tip of Jade Hare’s blade.

I shrug, ‘You did say you don’t want to live forever.’

He laughs humorlessly and picks up one of the teacups between his thumb and forefinger as daintily as a concubine.

‘This set is a replica of the one given to me by the Queen Mother of the West for my wedding. Are you a porcelain connoisseur or are you stalling for time? ‘

‘Would either strategy work?’

‘Only if you want to die sooner. My husband was a soldier. He talked strategy night and day. It was very tiresome.’

‘Oh, I was a pilot in the Korean War,’ he says. ‘Where did he fight?’

‘He defeated a river god and killed nine sun gods on Kunlun Mountain before conquering the earthly state of Xia with a bow made of ivory, jade and a braid of hair from the Queen Mother of the West.’

He does not know where that he is, but he tries to hide it behind an attentive look.

‘Is that the drink you choose?’ I nod at the cup in his hand.

‘So who is this Queen Mother who gave you this wedding present?’

Jade Hare hisses and taps the blade against the granite top. Neilarmstrong almost topples over his chair. If he spills his drink, the game is over.

The Queen Mother had always been fond of Houyi. That was why he went to visit her to beg for two bottles of immortality. But alas, she gave him only one vial. Oh, I could imagine how she hemmed and hawed.

‘The Jade Emperor would be furious if I dare give this to you,’ the old dowager would have said, pressing the bottle to her bosom.

‘It’s for Chang-e. I worry for her. She’s taken to sulking by the river, she eats only when I force feed her. She scorns the villagers. Why should she be condemned to a mortal life when it was I who shot down the suns, even if it was to save everyone on earth?’

‘Oh Houyi, Chang-e is lucky to have a husband like you! But I insist you must drink it.’ She uncorked the vial, held it up to Houyi and let the intoxicating scent fill in the silence.

Neilarmstrong brings the rim of the second cup to his lips, tips his head back and downs the tea in one gulp. He sets the cup down with a shaking hand and I can’t resist leaning over to read the tea leaves. The dregs sit in the bottom of the cup in a pattern that resembles the character zhen. Truth.

I wet my lips with the cup of fortune, taking my time until I drink my fill.

‘So, can I get back to my crew? I’m sure they’re worried about me. If you could just wake them up, we’ll collect out specimens and get going–‘

‘You should have drunk the elixir when the Queen Mother offered it to you, Houyi. That’s what you wanted to do.’

‘Wh-what did you call me?’

‘Instead, you told me to hide the bottle.’ My left sleeve shoots out, binds his wrists to the chair.

Jade Hare takes a tentative hop forward. ‘My Venerable One, perhaps you should sit down. Sometimes, the potions can cause ill-effects.’

‘We will go back to Kunlan Mountain together or not at all.’ I can mimic Houyi’s stubborn tone perfectly. ‘You were a fool to think you could wheedle a second bottle of immortality from the Queen Mother given enough time.’

Neilarmstrong Houyi tries to break the bonds. ”I’m not this Houyi person. Please let me go.’

‘You set me up. Even on earth, people flocked to admire you. The hero who’d saved everyone from the searing suns. Generals sent their sons to train at your archery school. Court officials and scholars invited you to have drinks and give lectures. Every night you were out somewhere, while I stayed at home staring up at the stars, slowly dying. The potion called to me. I’d creep out of bed, reach into my zither case to check it was still there.’

The more I cradled it, the more potent it became. When I swirled the glass bulb, the liquid crackled, turned to hardened crystals which immediately dissolved into liquid again.

Jade Hare is fussing about, rubbing my temples with some sort of liniment. I brush him away impatiently.

‘The potion talked to me!’ I insist.

‘We believe you,’ Jade Hare soothes.

‘I had to hold it up to my ear to be sure. That’s why I didn’t hear Houyi’s treacherous student creep into our bedroom. Feng Meng tried to snatch the elixir. I had no choice but to drink it!’

‘But you had the strength of a river god’s daughter. And Houyi had taught you to fight. How did a mere human overpower you?’ Jade Hare asks.

I shake my head. The details are foggy after so many years. Why is Jade Hare bringing this up? He should be helping me. I whip out a third scarf which knots around Houyi’s neck. Silk sleeves are a woman’s weapon. Faster than poison. Gentle as a mother’s touch but apply the right torque and tension, and you’ll have your victims jerking. ‘Feng Meng took my by surprise. I screamed as the bottle fell to the ground. But the liquid had crystallised and didn’t spill. I kicked and bit and Feng Meng released me. I dove to the ground. He landed on top of me, a grunting pig. Somehow, my hand closed over the bottle just before his did.’ My face must be as red as Wu Gang, the tree cutter. Pearls are spewing from my mouth like bits of broken teeth. I clamp my hand over my mouth. ‘And then Houyi burst into the room. At that moment, the elixir turned to liquid again. I didn’t drink the potion because I had no choice. I drank it because I didn’t want to die.’

I’m not sure Houyi heard my outburst. His complexion is pale, his lips are tinged blue and his arms hang by his side, twitching occasionally. I cross my arms and with a final flourish, yank down hard on the scarves.

There’s a ripping sound. Instead of cutting off Houyi’s windpipe, my sleeves have torn. The two diaphanous folds, pale pink with embroidered flowers along the seams, fluttered to the ground. Fortune always favours men of privilege.

Neilarmstrong heaves and coughs as he rips the bonds from his neck. I turn away from him in time to see Jade busily replacing the corks on the empty truth and fortune vials. Jade Hare’s fur is as white as the little lies he concocts. I’ve seen him slip alcohol into jolly monk Buddai’s gourd instead of spirit stabiliser. He is a tricky creature, but we had only each other to trust for a thousand years. How could he have forsaken me?

As if reading my mind, Jade Hare answers, ‘I am your most loyal servant, my Venerable One.’

The truth serum is difficult to digest. It bubbles and hisses in my stomach. ‘You switched the potions,’ I choke out as a cluster of pearls rise in my gullet, leaving an acrid taste on my tongue. They clatter over the ivory inlay, crazed, iridescent marbles that scatter across the table. ‘After I drank the potion, my body seized up and I floated out the window. Houyi howled and shot me as I transformed back into a Goddess. Eight arrows pierced my arms, legs and heart before I was out of reach. I floated all the way to the moon. This man dishonoured my family. He promised to take care of me, then stole my immortality. When I was given the chance to regain my birthright, he decided we should both die rather than let me live. This is the man you want to protect?’

‘I protect only you, my Moon Goddess. For a thousand years, you’ve been making an elixir of immortality to assuage your own guilt. Neither I, Neilarmstrong nor anyone else can forgive you. It is time to let him go.’

I blink. The man in front of me is Houyi and then he is not. His hands are flexed, poised and dangerous as they notch an arrow and draw back the bow. Then his hands are slim and smooth with unbroken fingernails; he holds them out in front of me, the fingers curved and inviting.  He walks forward slowly. Careful, careful, no sudden movements or the horse will bolt. How could I have ever thought Neilarmstrong was like Houyi? Even when he was old and grey, Houyi refused to hunch. And the firecracker in his eyes burnt out leaving only ashes that clouded his judgement.

Neilarmstrong’s eyes have the clarity of the Shudong River. You could reach into their depths, cup the water in your palms and see how his heart line overtakes his life. There’s no anger in his voice, only compassion. ‘Lady Chang-e, on earth we only ever see one side of the moon, the light side. The surface that is hidden, we call the dark side, but the sun still rises and sets.’

I need to sit down. The room shifts like a kaleidoscope. The empty tea cups, the upturned drum stool, my ancestor’s altar, Jade’s workbench with its rainbow coloured vials and flasks. All smoke and mirrors. Neilarmstrong does not need an elixir of immortality to live forever.

‘Go home.’ I wave my hand towards the moongate.

‘Thank you. Can you just –‘ He flings his arms out and makes a whooshing sound. I give him an arched look, then turn my gaze to my shredded sleeves on the floor.

‘It’s just that I’m not exactly sure where I am…’ His voice trails off.

I walk towards the cinnamon tree in the centre of the courtyard. Nestled within the branches are reels of cotton. I pull out a red reel, tie the loose end to the trunk and hand Neilarmstrong the spool.

‘This will lead you safely home. Please leave me alone now.’

He’s already put on his gloves and helmet. He stumbles towards the moongate, trying to put as much distance between us with each stride. Finally, he’s bounding over the dusty surface. A giant leap for man, a small step for a god.

Guodong Zhao|Shutterstock.com

Guodong Zhao|Shutterstock.com

2019-07-19T22:02:33+00:00

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