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Daughter of the Moon Goddess
Author: Sue Lynn Tan

 

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Part I

 

 

1

 


There are many legends about my mother. Some say she betrayed her husband, a great mortal warrior, stealing his Elixir of Immortality to become a goddess. Others depict her as an innocent victim who swallowed the elixir while trying to save it from thieves. Whichever story you believe, my mother, Chang’e, became immortal. As did I.

I remember the stillness of my home. It was just myself, a loyal attendant named Ping’er, and my mother residing on the moon. We lived in a palace built from shining white stone, with columns of mother-of-pearl and a sweeping roof of pure silver. Its vast rooms were filled with cinnamon-wood furniture, their spicy fragrance wafting through the air. A forest of white osmanthus trees surrounded us with a single laurel in its midst, bearing luminous seeds with an ethereal shimmer. No wind nor bird, not even my hands could pluck them, they cleaved to the branches as steadfastly as the stars to the sky.

My mother was gentle and loving, but a little distant, as though she bore some great pain which had numbed her heart. Each night, after lighting the lanterns to illuminate the moon, she stood on our balcony to stare at the mortal world below. Sometimes I woke just before the dawn and found her still standing there, her eyes shrouded in memory. Unable to bear the sadness in her face, I wrapped my arms around her, my head just coming up to her waist. She flinched at my touch as though roused from a dream, before stroking my hair and bringing me back to my room. Her silence pricked me; I worried that I had upset her, even though she rarely lost her temper. It was Ping’er who finally explained that my mother did not like to be disturbed during those times.

“Why?” I asked.

“Your mother suffered a great loss.” She raised a hand to stall my next question. “It’s not my place to say more.”

The thought of her sorrow pierced me. “It’s been years. Will Mother ever recover?”

Ping’er was silent for a moment. “Some scars are carved into our bones—a part of who we are, shaping what we become.” Seeing my crestfallen expression, she cradled me in her soft arms. “But she is stronger than you think, Little Star. Just as you are.”

Despite these fleeting shadows, I was happy here, if not for the gnawing ache that something was missing from our lives. Was I lonely? Perhaps, although I had little time to fret over my solitude. Every morning my mother gave me lessons on writing and reading. I would grind the ink against the stone until a glossy black paste formed, as she taught me to form each character with fluid strokes of her brush.

While I cherished these times with my mother, it was the classes with Ping’er that I enjoyed the most. My painting was passable, and my embroidery dismal, but it did not matter when it was music I fell in love with. Something about the way the melodies formed, stirred emotions in me which I did not yet comprehend—whether from the strings plucked by my fingers, or the notes shaped by my lips. Without companions to vie for my time, I soon mastered the flute and qin—the seven-stringed zither—surpassing Ping’er’s skills in just a few years. On my fifteenth birthday, my mother gifted me a small, white jade flute that I carried everywhere in a silk pouch that hung from my waist. It was my favorite instrument, its tone so pure even the birds would fly up to the moon to listen—though part of me believed they came to gaze at my mother, too.

Sometimes, I caught myself staring at her, entranced by the perfection of her features. Her face was shaped like a melon seed and her skin glowed with the luster of a pearl. Delicate brows arched over slender jet-black eyes which curved into crescents when she smiled. Gold pins gleamed from the dark coils of her hair and a red peony was tucked in one side. Her inner garment was the blue of the noon sky, paired with a white and silver robe that flowed to her ankles. Wrapped around her waist was a vermilion sash, ornamented with tassels of silk and jade. Some nights, as I lay in bed, I would listen out for their gentle clink, and sleep came easy when I knew she was near.

Ping’er assured me that I resembled my mother, but it was like comparing a plum blossom to the lotus. My skin was darker, my eyes rounder, and my jaw more angular with a cleft in the center. Perhaps I resembled my father? I did not know; I had never met him.

It was years before I realized that my mother, who dried my tears when I fell and straightened my brush when I wrote, was the Moon Goddess. The mortals worshipped her, making offerings to her each Mid-Autumn Festival—on the fifteenth day of the eighth lunar month—when the moon was at its brightest. On this day they would burn incense sticks for prayer and prepare mooncakes, their tender crusts wrapped around a rich filling of sweet lotus seed paste and salted duck eggs. Children would carry glowing lanterns shaped as rabbits, birds, or fish, symbolizing the light of the moon. On this one day a year I would stand upon the balcony, staring at the world below, inhaling the fragrant incense which wafted up to the sky in honor of my mother.

The mortals intrigued me, because my mother gazed at their world with such yearning. Their stories fascinated me with their struggles for love, power, survival—although I had little comprehension of such intrigues in my sheltered confines. I read everything I could lay my hands on, but my favorites were the tales of valiant warriors battling fearsome enemies to protect their loved ones.

One day, while I was rummaging through a pile of scrolls in our library, something bright caught my eye. I pulled it out, my pulse leaping to find a book I had not read before. From its rough stitched bindings, it appeared to be a mortal text. Its cover was so faded, I could barely make out the painting of an archer aiming a silver bow at ten suns in the sky. I traced the faint details of a feather within the orbs. No, not suns but birds, curled into balls of flame. I brought the book to my room, my fingers tingling as they clutched the brittle paper to my chest. Sinking down on a chair, I eagerly turned the pages, devouring the words.

It began as many tales of heroism did, with the mortal world engulfed by a terrible misfortune. Ten sunbirds rose in the sky, scorching the earth and causing great suffering. No crops could grow on the charred soil and there was no water to drink from the parched rivers. It was rumored that the gods of heaven favored the sunbirds, and no one dared to challenge such mighty creatures. Just when all hope seemed lost, a fearless warrior named Houyi took up his enchanted bow of ice. He shot his arrows into the sky, slaying nine of the sunbirds and leaving one to light the earth—

The book was snatched from me. My mother stood there, flushed, her breaths coming short and fast. As she gripped my arm, her nails dug into my flesh.

“Did you read this?” she cried.

My mother rarely raised her voice. I stared blankly at her, finally managing a nod.

She released me, dropping onto a chair as she pressed her fingers to her temple. I reached out to touch her, afraid she would pull away in anger, but she clasped her hands around mine, her skin as cold as ice.

“Did I do something wrong? Why can’t I read this?” I asked haltingly. There appeared nothing out of the ordinary in the story.

She was quiet for so long, I thought she had not heard my question. When she turned to me at last, her eyes were luminous, brighter than the stars. “You did nothing wrong. The archer, Houyi . . . he is your father.”

Light flashed through my mind, my ears ringing with her words. When I was younger, I had often asked her about my father. Yet each time she had fallen silent, her face clouding over, until finally my questions ceased. My mother bore many secrets in her heart which she did not share with me. Until now.

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