Chang Er hunches over her desk working. The administration of the moon is no easy task and the goddess has only one employee to assist her. She has been petitioning for additional help, but each time the Queen Mother of the West – the highest goddess of nine supreme heavens, embodiment of ultimate yin, dispenser of prosperity, longevity, and eternal bliss – would point towards a cluster of gloomy clouds and heave a melancholic sigh. “Take a look, Chang Er. The world is in a state of disarray. This isn’t the time to be talking about transferring staff to your office.”
Except for the annual mid-autumn festivals when devotees gather outside their homes bearing lanterns to marvel at the moon at its brightest and fullest, no one pays much notice to Chang Er. Mankind is constantly stirring up a deluge of problems that demands greater attention from the other cosmic gods overseeing earth’s affairs. Not that it bothers her. She dreads the long meetings and work lunches and the petty gossip and is content with wading into a sea of calculations at her desk by herself.
For a start, she did not choose this job, or rather, she had no inkling a job such as Goddess of the Moon existed, or one could actually be appointed to the management of the moon for as long as you meet the basic requirements. All it took was a strange twist of fate that she found herself, thrusted, literally, into this place.
To put it more accurately, the job chose her. Initially baffled by the math, Chang Er nevertheless threw herself into the calculations and began by memorising all the celestial rules and lunar formulas and heavenly protocol from the massive pile of books the Ministry delivered to her office on the first day. By the time she reached the end of the pile, a century had whizzed past. Life as a goddess on the moon is not as remarkable and varied as she’d imagined it would be.
The other employee in the office is Jade Rabbit. He has eyes that are prominent and round the colour of jade, a coat of soft white fur that glows warmly like the moon, a pair of long ears flopping down beside his cheeks, a tail short and fluffy, and an effortless vitality radiating from the way he hops, which altogether give him a lively and lovable appearance.
But what is most outstanding about Jade Rabbit is his talent for the culinary arts. Even chefs with shiny Michelin Star plaques ornamenting the doors of their restaurants are not made for his contention. After all, a couple of decades is all these mortals have to flaunt their talents, raise kids, take a few weeks off in a year to holiday in exotic destinations, and cross out a long list of other mortally duties.
Jade Rabbit, on the other hand, has spent the past three thousand and five hundred years cultivating his culinary skills. Armed with a photographic memory and an eye for detail, he transverses the seven seas to peer into kitchens across each continent, observing how ordinary housewives to celebrity chefs whip up their meals. By now, he is a master of all cuisines.
Chang Er first met Jade Rabbit the day he turned up at the door introducing himself as her new assistant. Two things surprised her here: first, a new colleague because no one told her she was to expect one, and second, a talking rabbit because no one told her they exist.
This encounter took place at a time when she was still adjusting to the latter period of her life she now refers to as “After Drinking (A.D.)”. Although most people in this world can expect an ordinary existence, there are a rare few whose lives diverged from its proper path, upended by a single incident that can only be described as inexplicable. For Chang Er, that incident struck like a thunderbolt on a sunny day and irrevocably altered the course of her destiny forever.
Contrary to how some folklore have characterised her as a conniving woman who abandoned her husband, Chang Er swears the entire episode was unplanned.
3500 years ago
A cloudless blue in spring, nearing mid-day. The sound of sparrows chattering on the upturned eaves narrowed to a soft hum through the lattice windows. Chang Er was alone at home and attending to the household chores. Her husband was out teaching archery. He’d be back in the evening, he had told her before stepping out of the house at dawn with a bow and quiver of arrows slung over his back. Since there was time to kill in the afternoon, Chang Er had wanted to catch the matinee performance of The Peony Pavilion. She’d be done with the chores by lunch. The theatre was not far, a fifteen minutes’ walk down the street.
Her neighbour and good friend, Cai Yun, eldest daughter of a prosperous silk merchant, had cried for three days after watching the opera. Fair and slender, her delicate appearance complemented her excessively sentimental nature. The day before the incident, they’d met at their favourite teahouse for lunch. Cai Yun clasped both of Chang Er’s hands in hers, tears streaming down her brightly rouged cheeks. “Promise me you will watch The Peony Pavilion,” she uttered in between breathless sobs. Her speech was almost incomprehensible against the sound of raindrops pelting down cobblestones. Outside, the overcast sky was breaking up into a downpour. Chang Er nodded her head with a soft smile and assured her friend she would do that.
But while Chang Er was in her husband’s study sorting through the rosewood cabinet, she found, hidden under careless heaps of calligraphy scrolls and poetry books, a porcelain bottle. Where did this come from? she wondered. Exquisite and unfamiliar, the bottle was shaped like a sphere and small enough to rest in her palm; on the glossy curved surface, a picture of a luxurious peach blossom tree painted in intricate strokes of hues unusually bright and vivid.
She felt a small flame flicker in her throat. She curiously rotated and flipped the bottle, left and right, up and down. But nothing indicated what was inside. As she stared long and hard at the bottle, she thought she saw the peach blossom tree stirring as if a gentle wind was passing through.
At once, the flame lashed out in her body like a wild beast, flaring red and hot, an explosion of searing heat that seemed to steal all the air in her lungs and dry out her throat like a bone. It was a burning sensation unlike any other, the most excruciating pain fit for the gods. Just as she thought she was about to die, into her mind a voice crept.
That decision would thwart her afternoon plans and change her life’s trajectory forever.
It could be the after-effects of drinking what was in the bottle. Or the shock at finding her house beneath her feet and herself heading heavenwards past the clouds and into massive blackness and onto a cratered rock surface. Whatever the cause, Chang Er had little memory of the ensuing events. “A bizarre dream,” was all she could say.
To find the missing pieces and fill the gaps where memory handed no answers, Chang Er laid out the stack of news clippings on the dining table in chronological order. Jade Rabbit had spent days prowling through last month’s papers to cut out the articles. According to him, she had been “dominating the headlines”. Chang Er was not sure what he meant by that, but the way he said it made it sound like a very positive thing, and that secretly encouraged her while she was in a deep state of confusion. “Let me show you!” he had said to her. The excitement in his voice was infectious.
Piece by piece, Chang Er studied the spread of news clippings before her, starting from the earliest. “Internal Security Bureau”, “complaints”, “alcohol”, “Queen’s Mother Office”, “screaming”, these words leaping out at Chang Er – she of the Confucian educated: do not lose your clarity of mind from drinking – were enough to mortify her moral senses. She shook her head in denial, recalling Jade Rabbit’s enthusiasm and whispered to herself hopefully, “I’m sure it’ll get better after this.”
And therefore, despite the uncertainty weighing down her heart, she pressed on with the next article and the next article and the next article and by this point her cheeks flushed crimson, a deep furrow found a way between her brows and her breath was quivering.
Alas barely a quarter through, Chang Er could no longer bear another word the press was saying about her. Letting out a sigh, Chang Er slapped the article she was holding onto the table with an exasperated thud and stomped into her bedroom. For the rest of the day, she curled like a baby beneath the covers.
It’s a conspiracy, it must be, she tried to convince herself. But why? And how? What did I drink? Was it alcohol? Where did it come from?
There were plenty of questions but no answers. Every time she tried to contemplate the events that transpired, her mind drew a blank, as if something sinister had stolen her memories and left her nothing to recollect.
“I’m sick. I’ll be skipping dinner tonight,” she yelled from beneath the covers when Jade Rabbit knocked on her door.
A week passed in her bedroom and still she was unable to unearth a sliver of light. Exhausted from the futile rumination, Chang Er concluded it was too great a burden trying to figure things out at this point. Perhaps it would be better to forget what happened and move on. She rolled out of bed, took a long deep breath, and exited her room, making her way downstairs.
At the reception hall, the news clippings, which Chang Er had no more desire to look at, greeted her in the form of a wall collage hanging with a misplaced sense of pride. For several moments, she stood motionless, lips slightly apart, transfixed and perplexed. The way one regards a grossly overpriced abstract painting at a museum.
“Good morning Chang Er! Are you feeling better today? What do you think of the Wall of Fame?” came Jade Rabbit’s voice. He had just walked out from the kitchen and was holding a tray of deep-fried dough sticks fresh from the oven.
“Wall of Fame?”
“It’s good to keep a record of everything for posterity. History is important,” Jade Rabbit said with the kind of enthusiasm that was trying to impress. He had specifically chosen the wall at the side of the reception hall that greets visitors once they enter the office. A strategic location enjoying high visibility and the perfect spot to chronicle the office’s milestones.
As Chang Er continued to stare at the wall, visions were taking shape in front of her eyes. But they were all jumbled up, playing the wrong way like an accident. She did not know if they were from her memories or imagination or a mix of memories and imagination. Whatever the case, they made no sense to her.
As if to bat away the visions, Chang Er blinked rapidly. The news clippings were the last thing she wanted exhibited in the office. They were making her queasy and annoyed. What is Jade Rabbit thinking? This stark white wall until a week ago had morphed into a hare-brained mass of oddities bordering a nightmare. At this point, a sudden sickening feeling surged upwards from her belly and into her throat. Chang Er felt as if she was on the verge of annihilating the wall in a split second.
Instincts prompted her to turn away and she let her gaze drop to Jade Rabbit’s bright fervent eyes. He was looking at her like an excited child waiting to be praised for his stellar grades. Maybe it was the jade green. Maybe it was the slant of the sunlight through the glass panes. Or maybe it was the way he tipped his head to one side to look up at her. Something about Jade Rabbit’s eyes tamed her violent impulse.
She puckered her lips, and with great control, held in her displeasure as her heart pounded against her chest. Jade Rabbit is only trying his best to do his job. Jade Rabbit is only trying his best to do his job, like a mantra she repeated in her mind as she deftly shifted to a smile and a nod.
“I’m afraid your appointment with the Queen Mother will have to be postponed. Her Highness is still in a meeting with the God of Wealth,” the secretary says to Chang Er. “Some cryptocurrency malware going on a rampage. You know how it is.”
There is a cold hard edge to her voice. A slight and wiry woman, the secretary has her hair cut into a swing bob with blunt bangs. Chang Er recalls seeing a photograph of a socialite wearing the same hairstyle. It was in an issue of Tatler Jade Rabbit brought back from a recent visit to a Parisian fine dining restaurant. In Chang Er’s opinion, the socialite wore it prettier.
“It’s alright. I understand,” Chang Er replies with a smile that dexterously smooths out any signs of irritation on her face. An interpersonal skill necessary for the job. And one she has cultivated to an extraordinary level since she was appointed Goddess. “I’ll schedule another meeting with the Queen Mother next month.”
She bids the secretary goodbye and makes her way back to the moon. “Maybe it will be easier if I am asking for a transfer to another department instead,” she mutters under her breath.
Although staying low-key suits Chang Er’s personality, it is not without inconveniences. Matters like seeking an audience with the Queen Mother is noticeably harder especially with the current situation on earth.
Chang Er arrives at the porch of her office an hour ahead of schedule and tiptoes to the door. Cautiously she grasps and turns the doorknob and gives it a gentle push. The door opens with a slight squeak and she pokes her head in. The reception hall is empty and quiet. She heaves a small sigh of relief and enters.
It is a pain having visitors swarm her with eyes brimming with curiosity and awe as they inundate her with mundane questions like What do you do every day? and How do you perform an eclipse? As well as the occasional rude ones like Is it true you abandoned your husband? and Why did you steal from him?
And when they are done with the questions, they would rustle around the moon, go ooh and ahh, and poke their mobile phone-loaded selfie sticks everywhere. The scene, with flashes of camera light popping incessantly like a long sequence of fireworks, depending on how you see it, is either riotous or festive.
Given Chang Er’s taciturn nature, she avoids visitors like the plague, preferring to leave them to Jade Rabbit whose gregarious personality fitted him to tasks like these. He loves meeting new folks and giving them a tour of the moon. (Spending hours in the kitchen without someone to talk to can be hard on a bunny.)
But whenever Jade Rabbit goes away on culinary study trips, Chang Er has no choice but to usher visitors around in his stead. There have been several moments when she caught two or three of them, from the corner of her eye, huddled in front of the wall trying to stifle a giggle. It is always the same spot. The black and white photo splashed on half the antiquated front-page cover of The Celestial Daily.
Occasionally a wide-eyed child would tug at her long silk dress, the other hand pointing at the photo, “Ms Goddess, is that you dancing?” What was she to say? After that little girl in pigtails, no more than five years of age, Chang Er learned the trick is to feed these pesky creatures with candies and coloured comics to quell their needless questions.
As far as Chang Er is concerned, what she wants most right now is to have the Queen Mother’s approval to hire another staff – this way someone else, instead of her, in Jade Rabbit’s absence, would be able to take over his ushering duties.
If only Jade Rabbit removes the Wall of Fame! is what she often wishes deep in her heart. But Chang Er is resigned to the fact that convincing Jade Rabbit to do so is in itself a herculean task, something she should not count on succeeding.
“These are old news, have you ever thought of taking them down?” she’d probed Jade Rabbit at breakfast a week ago.
“But why? I think our visitors appreciate the news articles,” he demurred at the suggestion.
He took a sip of oolong from the porcelain teacup. Whiffs of warm fragrant steam rose, glazing over his face as a sagely look came over him. “They’re testaments to our long and rich heritage.”
Unidentified Woman on Moon
Yesterday afternoon, the Internal Security Bureau received several complaints of an unidentified woman running around the moon and screaming at the top of her lungs.
A team of elite law enforcers arrived at the scene to apprehend the woman suspected to be under the influence of alcohol. The woman is currently held custody at the Queen Mother’s Office and is under investigation for causing public disturbance.
According to several eyewitness accounts, the dishevelled-looking woman appeared to be “possessed by madness” and “was very violent”. She had launched into a cacophonic tirade repeatedly screaming, “Is this hell? Am I dead? Get me out of here!”
Investigations are ongoing.
“Moon Woman” was a Mortal Who Drank Husband’s Elixir of Immortality
The unidentified woman who caused public nuisance on the moon three days ago was found to be originally a mortal who goes by the name of Chang Er.
Investigations revealed that she had drunk the Elixir of Immortality, an extremely rare potion designed to gift immortality to human beings. The elixir was created by the Queen Mother of the West as a way to reward outstanding mortals who have attained extraordinary merits on earth.
The Elixir of Immortality that Ms Chang consumed belonged to her mortal husband, Mr Hou Yi, who had received it from the Queen Mother for his recent efforts in saving humanity.
A few months ago, an unusual phenomenal occurred when ten suns appeared in the sky, threatening to scorch the earth and bring about the demise of humanity. Mr Hou, who is widely regarded as the best archer in the entire world, shot down nine of the suns and saved earth from imminent destruction.
Claiming ignorance, Ms Chang said, “I didn’t know what I’d drunk. I was cleaning my husband’s study room when I found the bottle in his cabinet. Suddenly I felt thirsty, so I drank it [sic].”
Queen Mother Pardons Moon Woman, Makes Her Goddess
The curious case of Ms Chang Er, which has gripped all of nine supreme heavens in the recent weeks, has finally come to a close today.
Dubbed “Moon Woman” by the media, Ms Chang, although found guilty of being a public nuisance on the moon two weeks ago, has received an imperial pardon from the Queen Mother of the West. The decision took into consideration the exceptional circumstances involved as well as the fact that she is a first-time offender.
The Ministry of Celestial Appointments has also submitted a report to the Queen Mother recommending Ms Chang to be appointed Goddess of the Moon in accordance with prevailing celestial protocol.
The Queen Mother’s Office issued a statement yesterday agreeing to the recommendations.
An inside source commented on conditions of anonymity, “Since the position is currently vacant and we do need someone to manage the administration of the moon, we thought it will be a great idea to assign Ms Chang this role. The recent events have certainly brought unprecedented publicity to a very important but sometimes overlooked heavenly body, and Ms Chang’s name is now synonymous with the moon.”
Chang Er feels the heat rising to her cheeks. It has been three thousand and five hundred years, but the news clippings look as pristine as ever. Somehow, objects on the moon, like gods, she has learned, never age. Taking several deep breaths, she follows the aroma of cooked food wafting from the kitchen. To her right, frozen on the wall: a dirt-smudged face and long dishevelled hair. The deranged eyes of her doppelganger follow her.