By Julia Li for KidSpirit's Storytelling and Narrative Issue.
Author's Note: In the original Chang’E legend, Chang’E and her husband Houyi are immortals living in heaven. When the Jade Emperor’s ten sons turn into suns and start wreaking havoc, Houyi is called upon to fix the problem and does so by shooting down 9 of the 10 suns. The Jade Emperor consequently banishes Houyi and Chang'E to earth. Houyi ventures on a quest to get the pill of immortality. When he comes back home, he hides the pill in a box and tells Chang'E not to open the box. When Houyi catches Chang'E peeping into the box, she swallows the entire pill in terror. Because only half the pill is needed to become immortal, Chang’E ends up floating beyond heaven and landing on the moon, where she stays for eternity with the Jade Rabbit.
Chang’E’s new life starts with a push.
Technically, it started when the Jade Emperor struck his gold gavel on the table with the strength of a lion to seal her banishment, the walls trembling and the marble cracking. Perhaps it started when she married Houyi, because Chang’E knew the kind of man he was and knew better that he would drag her down with him.
But really, it’s a push. A push is all it takes to kick them from heaven, has them tumbling through the sky like two heavy stones. She had always been kind to the wind gods; so while her husband flails unceremoniously in the air, the wind gods lay her down as gently as they can.
“I want to be free again,” she whispers to the wind as concrete kisses her feet. “I don’t want this new life.”
They laugh. Were you ever free?
The tinkling laughter of the wind gods is muffled too soon by the ambience of the city, clanging pots and pans that ring discordant in Chang'E’s ears. From heaven, Earth had reminded her of a far removed anthill. She had imagined a great big sprawling network of skyscrapers and maze-like roads that echoed the orderliness of heaven itself. But where the heavens smelled like peaches and roses, Beijing smells like thick oil.
Bitterly, she wonders how a far-removed anthill could become this cruel parody.
A wife is responsible for her husband, were her mother’s last words. Make the best of what you have. Do not let yourself be tainted by earth’s sins, and be devout to modesty and geniality.
Beside her, Houyi walks in brisk, angry steps. It’s a quick, selfish gait, and Chang'E has to struggle to keep pace. This is your fault, Chang'E wants to scream at him, and feels guilty as soon as the thought crosses her mind. It’s also her fault, as she is his wife.
Could she have stopped him, though? She doesn’t remember much of what happened — heaven is but a distant memory in her mind — but what she remembers is fear. And anger. When Houyi was angry, his wrath was unstoppable. A fearless dragon that spits fire. His anger was quiet but powerful; eyes dark as obsidian, a mouth tightened white. When the Emperor bequeathed upon Houyi the task of stopping his ten sons from destroying the sky, Chang'E looked at his face and saw his anger at the ten selfish suns, knew what he was going to do.
“Do not shoot the suns,” she had told him.
His bow drew taut. He didn’t look at her.
And the suns. Swollen peaches dropping from the corrugated blue-greyish sky in trails of sputtering fire until there remained but one sun that hung on the cloud like a burnt cinder.
Houyi would have shot that down too but Chang'E had grabbed his arm. Pleaded with a cracked voice and salty cheeks. This is murder. Stop. We will be banished. Please, please stop. Houyi never knew when to stop.
Chang'E bites her lip, pushing these thoughts into the darkest crevices of her mind, and continues walking even though her legs feel like paste, like clay doll legs unhardened by a kiln. It’s easy. Just put one foot in front of the other. One foot. At a time. It would be bad if she lost Houyi in the crowd.
So she goes. One foot. In front of the other. Rinse and repeat. Move on. One foot. At a time.
“Chang'E, Chang'E, Chang'E. The moon is like a butternut squash. It is soft and squishy on the inside! Perhaps we can eat our way out.”
Jade Rabbit has a habit of spewing random garbage. He does so like a tree sheds its blossoms; seasonally and in great abundance. It doesn’t quite fill the strange yawning silence of the moon; there’s only so much you can say over the course of an eternity before it gets old.
“No, Jade Rabbit. Don’t you want to watch the eclipse instead?”
“No, but I know you want to, so we’ll do that instead. We would fall out when we got to the other side, anyways.” Jade Rabbit’s voice lowers. “But you would like that, wouldn’t you?”
He says it in that same whimsical way he says a lot of things. It flutters to the ground, cracked blossom drifting.
She says nothing.
Their apartment is impossibly small and dingy. Two rooms, one jammed door and a small collection of stoves and cupboards pushed to the corner. The only source of light is that of the harsh fluorescents overhead, which flicker periodically, casting ghoulish shadows on walls freckled with the residues of a crude paint job.
“This is unfair,” Houyi says through gritted teeth. Then louder: “This is a pigsty! What are we, animals?” His voice cracks. He kicks at the door, leaving jagged strips of palpable harsh anger. Privately, Chang'E agrees. I would rather die than live here, she thinks.
But that’s selfish thinking, and she had been taught to be better than that. When the man yells, the lady quietly comforts, her mother had told her when she was an unwed, pretty thing and Beijing was just another anthill. Where the man is the angry but all powerful sea, the lady is the gentle brook, steady and healing. Women, we try to make the best out of what we have. Her mother said a lot of things. But now that she can’t speak to her mother any time soon, Chang'E tries her best to remember them.
“A damn pigsty,” Houyi mutters throatily. His shoulders slump. His eyes are glassy.
Following his blank gaze, she finds the dirty window. I can clean that one up, she thinks. It’s just a bit dirty. The other one can be covered up somehow. And maybe I can do something about the bathroom. Chang'E smiles, her mouth wobbly and thin.
Somewhere in the house, a door slams.
For months, Houyi refuses to leave his room. Chang'E worries that he has been rendered dumb in his grief and shock, but about a week into their banishment he slips a curt note to her beneath his door.
My shame takes on the form of a leech who sucks the colors from my reality, leaving one that is tastefully bleak and monochrome. My head throbs with painful anger of the hideous banishment to which you have borne witness, and binds me to my bed. Speaking is for me a painful chore, and your voice has the sharpness of pin needles which prick mercilessly at my wretched ears. The sensitive and exhausted mind, attacked relentlessly by parasites Shame and Anger, has two stomachs and a healthy taste for red meat, tomatoes, and scrambled eggs.
She speaks to him less and makes a note to buy red meat, tomatoes, and eggs.
Meanwhile, she sets her mind to enacting change. She scrapes all the dry paint from the walls, cleans the floor, and replaces the lightbulb. Without a breadwinner, their provincial fund is steadily draining, but that is a problem for the distant future.
Today, Chang'E goes out to buy red meat, tomatoes, and eggs. She comes by eggs and tomatoes easily enough, but the red meat is tough. There are tons of stalls and vendors that line the street outside her house, but they all sell vegetables. She asks around. Is there meat? Red meat? Anywhere? Heads shake. Sorry, their eyes say. Chang'E smiles and keeps on looking.
The third man she asks is the old man who runs the youtiao stand. “Where can I find meat? Red meat?” she asks him.
He shakes his head. "No meat."
Her lips curve up into an obligatory “thanks anyways” smile, and she walks away.
“But you are not looking for meat, eh?”
“Chang'E! Why are you so silent! The eclipse is soon! Aren’t you excited to see your home?"
I’m afraid, she thinks. So afraid of so many things. “It’s cold,” she lies. A gust of powerful wind blows their way, ice cutting through air. Chang'E barely flinches.
“But I thought you said you couldn’t feel anything anymore?” the Jade Rabbit calls out, but Chang'E has already begun to walk away.
Chang’E whirls around. There’s the old man, still cross-legged on his dirty straw mat, his smile a yellow blur in the distance. He was not smiling before. “Do you have red meat? What are you talking about?!” she yells.
The old man crooks a finger at her, beckoning. She finds herself pulled towards him like a fish caught on his hooked finger, her perception as sluggish as murky seawater. “What are you talking about?” she repeats again.
The old man’s smile widens, revealing his missing molars. “I have a very good habit of knowing, miss.” Even though he doesn’t address her by her name, she has the eerie feeling he knows and could if he so fancied.
Flies buzz around the trays of sticky youtiaos, landing periodically; ants climb up the oil-caked protective glass and ease through cracks in the metal lining. Chang’E thinks about warning him, but decides against it. “In that case, how do you not know where I can find red meat?”
“Your husband wants red meat. But your husband’s desire does not belong to you.”
The old man pulls something out from under his pointy straw hat, a little thing wrapped in cloth.
Chang'E stares, muscles frozen. He looks at her with eyes that look young despite being sunken in wrinkled sockets. Eyes that know. Under his gaze, Chang'E feels like a butterfly being pinned to a board.
“Do you want to go back?”
She walks for miles upon miles. One foot in front of the other. Here, footprints are forever; the moon’s surface is littered with them. Every step she takes is one she’s taken a thousand times in the same spot.
Wu Gang1 is chopping at his tree, like he always is. He raises his axe above his head, muscles rippling, and slams it against the crack in the trunk of the tree. The tree barely clings to its stump — the fibers of the wood are stretched thin. It seems like the tree ought to fall over with only a few more hard cleaves, but she knows it won’t. She thinks Wu Gang knows it too, but he keeps on trying. He has eternity, anyways.
“The eclipse is coming soon,” says Wu Gang.
“Yes, I suppose it is.”
“We’ll be able to see heaven. And Earth.”
“Yes, my home.”
“Do you miss it, your home?”
“Yes.” The words come out of her mouth, true but unbidden.
Fish on hooked finger, line and sinker.
“This will give you immortality.” The old man removes the cloth and reveals a pink pill, nestled in the cloth like a pearl in an oyster. It sits in his palm, impossibly small.
“What of my husband?” She speaks with deliberation this time, but it does not feel as genuine.
The old man looks like he knows this, too, but smiles gap-toothed at her and procures a second pill. “Each of you must take one pill only.” Both sit impossibly small in his palm.
Like ants, she thinks.
“Do you want it?”
Chang'E looks down at her grocery bag, which contains but a few wrinkled vegetables and the 100 yuan intended for the red meat. A motorcycle whines in the distance. “I’ll take it.”
She gives him her remaining money, then leaves.
Wu Gang puts his axe to the side and leans on the tree. “I miss Earth more than you can ever imagine,” he says after a contemplative silence. “I miss the sky the most. It was so beautiful and so vivid. Summer skies were the best. You’d look up and you’d think, ‘I want to hold that in my hand,’ it was that good. I would love a scoop of summer sky in my pocket right now.”
He stares vacantly into the horizon that indicates but a bleak stretch of grey rocks. They both know it. There’s no sky here.
Chang'E thinks of Beijing’s smog-covered skies and crowded streets. “Earth does seem pretty nice.”
He side-eyes her. “Yeah? I bet heaven was even nicer.”
The scent of the outside still lingers, faintly reminiscent of cigarette smoke and exhaust, but Chang'E doesn’t really mind. She drags the door shut behind her. She stands facing the peeling door to Houyi’s bedroom.
Tentatively, like a mouse, she knocks on his door. “I’m back,” she says.
A grunt. “Do you have food?”
The pills seem to burn a hole in the back pocket of her jeans. “Well, no. But I have something better.”
The door is slowly creaking open, but at this, it slams shut with a curt slap. “Useless rat.”
Chang'E is disappointed but not quite surprised. “I bought these immortality pills. They will take us both to heaven.”
“Where the hell did you find those pills?”
“I was looking for red meat and a wise old man gave the pills to me. Isn’t it wonderful? Life will be just as it used to be.”
“Are you out of your mind?” Houyi roars. “Why the hell would you trust some senile old man on the streets? That stuff is probably laced with drugs or something. You’re so naive.”
His words cut into her like an axe to wood. This is probably the longest he’s ever spoken since he shut himself away in his bedroom.
“Stupid. What a waste of money.”
Chang'E tries to think of a response but can’t. She stays silent, cheeks burning.
She doesn’t remember heaven.
The days slip away, giving way to seasons.
Chang'E often finds her hand darting to her jean pocket to grasp at the shape of the pills through the fabric. In spite of Houyi’s harsh words, Chang'E knows that these are truly pills of immortality — there was something about the old man who had given them to her that struck her age-old intuition. Sometimes she takes the pill out and tests the weight of it on her tongue, tastes the glamour of its promise. It’s a risky game of temptation, one crafted by careful deliberation, but when it happens it’s quick like the snapping of fingers.
One pill, swallowed in a moment of brief temerity. A warm sensation builds up in her stomach. The whole room trembles with energy, the floorboards chattering like teeth in biting cold, and her feet start to buzz and she’s rising up in the air, slowly but surely and suddenly a door is thrown open.
Houyi’s mouth is tightened in a thin white line. His appearance is too little and too late.
She hasn’t seen him since they first came to Earth, and he has become rather unsightly: all unshaven and fat and frowning, clutching a beer bottle in one pudgy hand. All eyes like obsidian, all a dragon that spits fire.
Chang'E is overwhelmed by a sudden feeling of terror. She sees 10 blazing suns soaring through the sky like swollen peaches and finds herself swallowing another pill in hasty succession.
Houyi takes a swig from his beer bottle and waddles unsteadily into his room, slamming the door behind him.
The buzz from her feet spreads throughout her entire body and pleasantly overwhelms her senses.
She feels numb as she breaks through the roof. As she rises, the house shrinks into a mere blip, no smaller than an ant.
They sit in a cozy little pause, silence stretching far out into the horizon.
“Do you miss heaven? Do you ever get homesick?”
“Heaven?” she says. The words sound eerily off-kilter, a touch of dissonance on her tongue. “The earth is my home,” she tries, but that doesn’t sound quite right either.
The wind is cool ecstasy against her skin, and the sky blooms with big, earthy, grey clouds that permeate the air with the cool scent of rain. Everything is so endless it’s dizzying. This happiness is so pure — it must be something else, something bigger.
“Is this freedom?” she asks the wind gods.
Yes, they say, this is freedom!
Wu Gang accepts this and shrugs. Grasps the firm handle of the axe, readies it for another swing. He eases into a steady pattern of chopping.
After a while, Chang’E leaves.
Chang'E rises. Soars.
As heaven nears, she sees her mother’s face — first filling with happiness, then breaking into consternation as she flies away. Heaven disappears into a dot.
“What is this?!” she screams at the air, but the wind gods don’t answer her.
Jade Rabbit is waiting for her at the curve of the moon. When he sees her, he waves.
“The eclipse is coming very soon,” he says.
“Yes. I know.”
“You’ll be able to see heaven, above Earth.”
“But only a little.”
“Well, yes.” Jade Rabbit says. “It’ll sure be nice for you to see heaven, though, won’t it? Don’t your mother and husband live there?” When Chang’E stays silent, Jade Rabbit frowns. “Are you okay?” he asks. “Chang'E . . . you’ve been acting off lately . . . is there anything wrong?”
I’m afraid. I’m afraid that when I see heaven during the eclipse that I’ll want to go home again. I’m afraid that my husband will see me and I’m afraid of facing that. I think that if I got lost in space nobody would care. Nobody cared about me before — Houyi didn’t care and I’m not sure my mother did either — and here’s no different. Wu Gang wouldn’t care, and you’re too busy drinking elixirs to care much, either. You’d look at me and see a speck in the distance the size of an ant and you’d say, "Poor Chang'E. She looks so pitiful like that, a little smudge on the horizon" and leave it at that.
But as she looks into Jade Rabbit’s eyes, shining with rare solemness, she feels something swell up inside of her, something warm and pleasant and real. “I think I feel better now,” she says.
A shadow falls across the moon, casting them into inky darkness. The earth passes before them, larger than ever before.
“All the humans on Earth look like ants,” says Chang'E after a few seconds. “What a disappointment. Let’s go.”
The Jade Rabbit frowns. “But . . . don’t you want to wait to see heaven?”
They walk away. As they search for a suitable crater to begin their digging, they talk about butternut squashes, about nothing, and everything. The eclipse ends, but Chang'E doesn’t care.
Her home is right here.
1Legend says that Wu Gang set upon the journey to become a Taoist immortal but gave up halfway. As punishment, the Jade Emperor planted a laurel tree on the moon and told Wu Gang that he would gain immortality as a reward for chopping it down successfully. The tree, however, was magical and could heal itself after each blow; Wu Gang was doomed to chop at the tree for eternity.
When she wrote this piece, Julia Li was a 15-year-old student attending Polytechnic School in Pasadena, California. Julia enjoys reading, writing, playing the piano, and drawing, and occasionally dabbles in dance. She has received honorable mentions in the Tomorrow Prize writing competition and the Storytellers of Tomorrow writing competition.