Zen Cho is a Malaysian writer living in London. Her fiction has been featured or is forthcoming in various publications including Strange Horizons, the Selangor Times, Fantastique Unfettered, Steam-Powered II and GigaNotoSaurus. Her short story ‘First National Forum on the Position of Minorities in Malaysia’ was a finalist in the 2011 Selangor Young Talent Awards.
The Four Generations of Chang E
The First Generation
In the final days of Earth as we knew it, Chang E won the moon lottery.
For Earthlings who were neither rich nor well-connected, the lottery was the only way to get on the Lunar Habitation Programme. (This was the Earthlings’ name for it. The moon people said: “those fucking immigrants”.)
Chang E sold everything she had: the car, the family heirloom enamel hairpin collection, her external brain. Humans were so much less intelligent than Moonites anyway. The extra brain would have made little difference.
She was entitled to the hairpins. Her grandmother had pressed them into Chang E’s hands herself, her soft old hands folding over Chang E’s.
“In the future it will be dangerous to be a woman,” her grandmother had said. “Maybe even more dangerous than when my grandmother was a girl. You look after yourself, OK?”
It was not as if anyone else would. There was a row over the hairpins. Her parents had been saving them to pay for Elder Brother’s education.
Hah! Education! Who had time for education in days like these? In these times you mated young before you died young, you plucked your roses before you came down with some hideous mutation or discovered one in your child, or else you did something crazy–like go to the moon. Like survive.
Chang E could see the signs. Her parents’ eyes had started following her around hungrily, for all the world as if they were Bugs Bunny and she was a giant carrot. One night Chang E would wake up to find herself trussed up on the altar they had erected to Elder Brother.
Since the change Elder Brother had spent most of his time in his room, slumbering Kraken-like in the gloomful depths of his bed. But by the pricking of their thumbs, by the lengthening of his teeth, Mother and Father trusted that he was their way out of the last war, their guard against assault and cannibalism.
Offerings of oranges, watermelons and pink steamed rice cakes piled up around his bed. One day Chang E would join them. Everyone knew the new gods liked best the taste of the flesh of women.
So Chang E sold her last keepsake of her grandmother and pulled on her moon boots without regret.
On the moon Chang E floated free, untrammelled by the Earth’s ponderous gravity, untroubled by that sticky thing called family. In the curious glances of the moon people, in their condescension (“your Lunarish is very good!”) she was reinvented.
Away from home, you could be anything. Nobody knew who you’d been. Nobody cared.
She lived in one of the human ghettos, learnt to walk without needing the boots to tether her to the ground, married a human who chopped wood unceasingly to displace his intolerable homesickness.
One night she woke up and saw the light lying at the foot of her bed like snow on the grass. Lifting her head, she saw the weeping blue eye of home. The thought, exultant, thrilled through her: I’m free! I’m free!
The Second Generation
Her mother had had a pet moon rabbit. This was before we found out they were sentient. She’d always treated it well, said Chang E. That was the irony: how well we had treated the rabbits! How little some of them deserved it!
Though if any rabbit had ever deserved good treatment, it was her mother’s pet rabbit. When Chang E was little, it had made herbal tea for her when she was ill, and sung her nursery rhymes in its native moon rabbit tongue–little songs, simple and savage, but rather sweet. Of course Chang E wouldn’t have been able to sing them to you now. She’d forgotten.
But she was grateful to that rabbit. It had been like a second mother to her, said Chang E.
What Chang E didn’t like was the rabbits claiming to be intelligent. It’s one thing to cradle babies to your breast and sing them songs, stroking your silken paw across their foreheads. It’s another to want the vote, demand entrance to schools, move in to the best part of town and start building warrens.
When Chang E went to university there was a rabbit living in her student hall. Imagine that. A rabbit sharing their kitchen, using their plates, filling the pantry with its food.
Chang E kept her chopsticks and bowls in her bedroom, bringing them back from the kitchen every time she finished a meal. She was polite, in memory of her nanny, but it wasn’t pleasant. The entire hall smelled of rabbit food. You worried other people would smell it on you.
Chang E was tired of smelling funny. She was tired of being ugly. She was tired of not fitting in. She’d learnt Lunarish from her immigrant mother, who’d made it sound like a song in a foreign language.
Her first day at school Chang E had sat on the floor, one of three humans among twenty children learning to add and subtract. When her teacher had asked what one and two made, her hand shot up.
“Tree!” she said.
Her teacher had smiled. She’d called up a tree on the holographic display.
“This is a tree.” She called up the image of the number three. “Now, this is three.”
She made the high-pitched clicking sound in the throat which is so difficult for humans to reproduce.
“Which is it, Changey?”
“Tree,” Chang E had said stupidly. “Tree. Tree.” Like a broken down robot.
In a month her Lunarish was perfect, accentless, and she rolled her eyes at her mother’s singsong, “Chang E, you got listen or not?”
Chang E would have liked to be motherless, pastless, selfless. Why was her skin so yellow, her eyes so small, when she felt so green inside?
After she turned 16, Chang E begged the money off her dad, who was conveniently indulgent since the divorce, and went in secret for the surgery.
When she saw herself in the mirror for the first time after the operation she gasped.
Long ovoid eyes, the last word in Lunar beauty, all iris, no ugly inconvenient whites or dark browns to spoil that perfect reflective surface. The eyes took up half her face. They were like black eggs, like jewels.
Her mother screamed when she saw Chang E. Then she cried.
It was strange. Chang E had wanted this surgery with every fibre of her being–her nose hairs swooning with longing, her liver contracting with want.
Yet she would have cried too, seeing her mother so upset, if her new eyes had let her. But Moonite eyes didn’t have tear ducts. No eyelids to cradle tears, no eyelashes to sweep them away. She stared unblinking and felt sorry for her mother, who was still alive, but locked in an inaccessible past.
The Third Generation
Chang E met H’yi in the lab, on her first day at work. He was the only rabbit there and he had the wary, closed-off look so many rabbits had.
At Chang E’s school the rabbit students had kept themselves to themselves. They had their own associations–the Rabbit Moonball Club, the Lapin Lacemaking Society–and sat in quiet groups at their own tables in the cafeteria.
Chang E had sat with her Moonite friends.
“There’s only so much you can do,” they’d said. “If they’re not making any effort to integrate …. ”
But Chang E had wondered secretly if the rabbits had the right idea. When she met other Earthlings, each one alone in a group of Moonites, they’d exchange brief embarrassed glances before subsiding back into invisibility. The basic wrongness of being an Earthling was intensified in the presence of other Earthlings. When you were with normal people you could almost forget.
Around humans Chang E could feel her face become used to smiling and frowning, every emotion transmitted to her face with that flexibility of expression that was so distasteful to Moonites. As a child this had pained her, and she’d avoided it as much as possible–better the smoothness of surface that came to her when she was hidden among Moonites.
At 24, Chang E was coming to understand that this was no way to live. But it was a difficult business, this easing into being. She and H’yi did not speak to each other at first, though they were the only non-Moonites in the lab.
The first time she brought human food to work, filling the place with strange warm smells, she kept her head down over her lunch, shrinking from the Moonites’ glances. H’yi looked over at her.
“Smells good,” he said. “I love noodles.”
“Have you had this before?” said Chang E. H’yi’s ears twitched. His face didn’t change, but somehow Chang E knew he was laughing.
“I haven’t spent my entire life in a warren,” he said. “We do get out once in a while.”
The first time Chang E slept over at his, she felt like she was coming home. The close dark warren was just big enough for her. It smelt of moon dust.
In H’yi’s arms, her face buried in his fur, she felt as if the planet itself had caught her up in its embrace. She felt the wall vibrate: next door H’yi’s mother was humming to her new litter. It was the moon’s own lullaby.
Chang E’s mother stopped speaking to her when she got married. It was rebellion, Ma said, but did she have to take it so far?
“I should have known when you changed your name,” Ma wept. “After all the effort I went to, giving you a Moonite name. Having the throat operation so I could pronounce it. Sending you to all the best schools and making sure we lived in the right neighbourhoods. When will you grow up?”
Growing up meant wanting to be Moonite. Ma had always been disappointed by how bad Chang E was at this.
They only reconciled after Chang E had the baby. Her mother came to visit, sitting stiffly on the sofa. H’yi made himself invisible in the kitchen.
The carpet on the floor between Chang E and her mother may as well have been a maria. But the baby stirred and yawned in Chang E’s arms–and stolen glance by jealous, stolen glance, her mother fell in love.
One day Chang E came home from the lab and heard her mother singing to the baby. She stopped outside the nursery and listened, her heart still.
Her mother was singing a rabbit song.
Creaky and true, the voice of an old peasant rabbit unwound from her mouth. The accent was flawless. Her face was innocent, wiped clean of murky passions, as if she’d gone back in time to a self that had not yet discovered its capacity for cruelty.
The Fourth Generation
When Chang E was 16, her mother died. The next year Chang E left school and went to Earth, taking her mother’s ashes with her in a brown ceramic urn.
The place her mother had chosen was on an island just above the equator, where, Ma had said, their Earthling ancestors had been buried. When Chang E came out of the environment-controlled port building, the air wrapped around her, sticky and close. It was like stepping into a god’s mouth and being enclosed by his warm humid breath.
Even on Earth most people travelled by hovercraft, but on this remote outpost wheeled vehicles were still in use. The journey was bumpy–the wheels rendered them victim to every stray imperfection in the road. Chang E hugged the urn to her and stared out the window, trying to ignore her nausea.
It was strange to see so many humans around, and only humans. In the capital city you’d see plenty of Moonites, expats and tourists, but not in a small town like this.
Here, thought Chang E, was what her mother had dreamt of. Earthlings would not be like moon humans, always looking anxiously over their shoulder for the next way in which they would be found wanting.
And yet her mother had not chosen to come here in life. Only in death. Where would Chang E find the answer to that riddle?
Not in the graveyard. This was on an orange hill, studded with white and grey tombstones, the vermillion earth furred in places with scrubby grass.
The sun bore close to the Earth here. The sunshine was almost a tangible thing, the heat a repeated hammer’s blow against the temple. The only shade was from the trees, starred with yellow-hearted white flowers. They smelled sweet when Chang E picked them up. She put one in her pocket.
The illness had been sudden, but they’d expected the death. Chang E’s mother had arranged everything in advance, so that once Chang E arrived she did not have to do or understand anything. The nuns took over.
Following them, listening with only half her attention on their droning chant in a language she did not know to a god she did not recognise, she looked down on the town below. The air was thick with light over the stubby low buildings, crowded close together the way human habitations tended to be.
How godlike the Moonites must have felt when they entered these skies and saw such towns from above. To love a new world, you had to get close to the ground and listen.
You were not allowed to watch them lower the urn into the ground and cover it with soil. Chang E looked up obediently.
In the blue sky there was a dragon.
She blinked. It was a flock of birds, forming a long line against the sky. A cluster of birds at one end made it look like the dragon had turned its head. The sunlight glinting off their white bodies made it seem that the dragon looked straight at her with luminous eyes.
She stood and watched the sky, her hand shading her eyes, long after the dragon had left, until the urn was buried and her mother was back in the Earth.
What was the point of this funeral so far from home, a sky’s worth of stars lying between Chang E’s mother and everyone she had ever known? Had her mother wanted Chang E to stay? Had she hoped Chang E would fall in love with the home of her ancestors, find a human to marry, and by so doing somehow return them all to a place where they were known?
Chang E put her hand in her pocket and found the flower. The petals were waxen, the texture oddly plastic between her fingertips. They had none of the fragility she’d been taught to associate with flowers.
Here is a secret Chang E knew, though her mother didn’t.
Past a certain point, you stop being able to go home. At this point, when you have got this far from where you were from, the thread snaps. The narrative breaks. And you are forced, pastless, motherless, selfless, to invent yourself anew.
At a certain point, this stops being sad–but who knows if any human has ever reached that point?
Chang E wiped her eyes and her streaming forehead, followed the nuns back to the temple, and knelt to pray to her nameless forebears.
She was at the exit when remembered the flower. The Lunar Border Agency got funny if you tried to bring Earth vegetation in. She left the flower on the steps to the temple.
Then Chang E flew back to the Moon.