The love between two immortals can never die.
In the industrialised southeast of China there is the port city of Guangzhou, harboured on the east bank of the Pearl River. It is a dense concrete forest; glass boughs and sky-piercing skyscrapers, the meandering Zhujiang threading between its urbanised corals and beneath Haizhu bridge, and lazily trudges past the soaring Chigang Pagoda with serpentine ease; a considerably titanic hybrid of nature and man-made industry, a peaceful and shining creature that commands the pelagic as well as the inland grottos, where thirteen-million have made their nests.
It would be comparable in size and civic stature to the gold-laden, neon-light lined streets of New York, and its mammoth temperament would intimate such suggestions of power and municipal acumen, a thriving hub of colourful and contemporary Chinese culture.
Forna walked the lengthy and broad Ma Chang Road, deliriously swallowing the twinkling lights of Happy Valley, marvelling slack-jawed at the Canton Mansion poking its spired head above the city’s silhouette, and snaking between throngs of people as they cluttered the sidewalk and the road, busily contemplating the urban jungle as the indigenous tribes usually do when it comes to city life.
Forna was a tourist, and a good one, too. Already he had been to see the Chigang Pagoda, sidled beside the Pearl River and found its namesake floating on its bed – the pearl-hued shells embedded in the malleable sand like diamonds tangled in a lumpy tan carpet – and he was now searching for his lodgings; the Yi Villa.
The towering buildings that sequestered the streets and bordered the tortuous river were dwarfing, and threw their spruce shadows towards the road as if to cloak the pristine asphalt. Forna clutched his holster-bag tight to his chest, paranoia bubbling and boiling. Any city across the world can look clean and shiny and polished, in the same way laminate flooring can be so varnished as to not show ugly gouges or scars, but at some point the mask drops, the varnish wears down, and the ugly marks re-appear like fingerprints on glass. Forna figured it would be better to be safe and look stupid hugging his bag like it was a lifejacket and he was lost in a formidable and blocky and skyscraper-riddled sea.
Travelling there had been arduous and agonising, as was the tourist’s curse, everything had gone wrong. He had planned a three-day trip, one day in Guangzhou and for the next two he would take a trip south and visit Hong Kong, but due to severe flight delays he had made the executive decision to not indulge in Hong Kong’s vibrant and prismatic nightlife, and instead stay in Guangzhou and experiment with its many flavours.
The temporary lodging he had procured was advertised as a villa, but anyone with two brain-cells capable of generating the friction necessary to spark a thought would construe the advertisement as slightly fallacious and grossly exaggerated, an experiment in how far strategic photo angles and carefully calculated lighting can improve a dingy and cramped apartment in the city’s outer strata. Forna didn’t mind, as long as it had a bed and running water he’d sleep in a stable. Even if it had horses.
Yi Villa was a vague mystery to Forna. It hadn’t appeared on established websites, or popped up on searches, it wasn’t suggested by worldly travellers or purveyors of natural wonders; it had slid into view on an airport billboard, a deceptive slideshow with furtive text, like a bear trap dressed in Christmas lights, and knowing his flights had been delayed and an adventurous journey to Hong Kong would no longer be on the cards, Forna didn’t have much of an option other than to call the number.
It was a strange call, the kind made in exhaustion and frustration that doesn’t make sense to an outside listener, and only one party has traction on the conversation. Forna wasn’t said party. He was given an address and an assurance that whatever time he called, no matter how late in the night or early in the morning, he would be accommodated. Forna wasn’t in the mood to discuss anything further, extricate the sordid details or call out the blatant lies promoted on the billboard, he was simply happy to have found somewhere to place his head.
And now, as he dodged a headstrong cluster of people, his gaze settled on the grey and darkened alleyway on his right, a dull cylinder-shaped pocket between a pair of discouraging and slanted apartment buildings. Forna could see just beyond the mouth, opened like a cave entrance between the swollen and rocky arms of twin mountain ranges, and found the address, written in Cantonese on the wall beside a rusting metal door, and edged towards it.
The full moon had begun its climb into the tranquil ocean of the night, which ferried wispy and cotton-candy clouds across its still waters, and hung like a luminous halo upon an inky-black wall, speckled with shrill stars. It offered enough light to illuminate the narrow alleyway, the discarded rubbish bags, the sharp cracks in the concrete, and the metal door that hid the elevator Forna was anxious to use.
Fourth floor, that’s what he was told. The fourth floor would open into the ‘villa’. Inside the elevator he pressed the button for the fourth floor, ignored the other twelve, and clung desperately to the banister as it shuddered and whirred into life. Cramped spaces were a worry for Forna, and this elevator looked like maintenance was a distant childhood memory, and it had become a jilted adult without positive support in its juvenile years. A small and restricted space was to be avoided, especially one supported only by wires and cables and rusting metal, that dangled above a precarious and fatal drop, and all it would take was one malfunction for the entire contraption and the intricate mechanisms within to shed safety and nose-dive into the ground like a suicidal albatross.
It screeched to a halt, the doors opened automatically, Forna stumbled dazed out of the metal death-trap and into his humble lodgings.
The apartment, as it wasn’t a villa even in the broadest definition of the word, was surprisingly modern; huge glass panels on one side commanded a stunning view of the city and its rolling skyline, corner sofas circled a coffee-table hearth like logs around a campfire, a white-panelled kitchen hid behind a jutting partition, with winding counters and regimented egg-shell cabinets, and squeaky clean laminate flooring spread out, devoid of dust or murk. The whole apartment was lathered in silvery moonlight beams that spilled through the windows, spread over the cyan walls, glinted off of glass jars and ornaments, bounced around like an excited silver-haired rabbit.
There was an ornament copse on a three-tiered cabinet, lodged into the partitioning wall; various figures of Chinese folklore, sculptures mainly, but the most interesting ornament decorated the coffee table in the centre. It was a serpentine dragon, ascending through a swirling mass of pewter branches and ensnaring spurs, fighting against its entrapment, and on its tail it carried an egyptian-blue crescent moon, and snared between its alabaster jaws was a copper sun.
At the window, looking down at the sprawling mass of Guangzhou, was a young man no older than twenty. He wore a white, tie-dyed polo shirt, below his overgrown beard that would take a hedge-trimmer to tame, probably to make up for the deforestation that had left him completely bald. His beady eyes scanned the city below, and warily avoided glancing at the lamp-like disc beaming into the apartment like an astral spotlight.
It had been a woman’s voice on the phone, a sprite and animated voice dipped in harmony and eloquence. Forna couldn’t imagine this man with any semblance of poise or grace.
‘Hello?’ said Forna.
The man turned slowly on his heels, as if the very act of turning was an Olympian exertion, and Forna noticed he was holding in his meaty palms a ceramic bowl, rather tentatively, too.
Beard-man gave a look of shock, as though surprised to see another tourist, an extra lodger, an extra money-slip in the owner’s pocket, there in the villa, but the bird of thought that had taken lofty flight swooped down and settled back into its cage with a feathery flutter of its wings, and droned in meagre and paltry acceptance.
He wasn’t happy to see Forna, that much the latter could be sure about. It was as though Forna had interrupted a ritual of some sort, a formal, holy and routine procedure outside eyes were not intended to behold.
After a few tense moments of bewildered and uncomfortable staring, during which their gazes were arrested by the other’s, Beard-man gingerly opened the closest window, swung it inwards, and cautiously perched the bowl on the outside sill like a sacrificial offering on an altar. There was something in the bowl, feathers or petals perhaps, that remained untouched and unknown to Forna as Beard-man shut the window and finally addressed him.
‘Let me tell you a story,’ he said, ‘about the sun and the moon.’
Forna wasn’t in the mood for stories.
‘This is Yi Villa, isn’t it?’ he said, tentatively. ‘I was told -’
Beard-man raised a warning palm. There was something in the way he held himself, the weary and tired resignation in his withered eyes, that told Forna silence was golden. It was like an important thought process had been cut short in the man’s head, a sinewy line of thought snipped and bundled aside, that had been substituted with realisation and melancholic acceptance, a stoic truth he had neither the strength nor the willpower to deny.
‘It’s the story of Chang’e, goddess of the moon,’ he said solemnly, ‘and her husband, the archer Hou Yi.’
Exhausted, frustrated, and lacking the strength to argue, Forna took a seat under the shade of a spruce and lurid green potted eucalyptus and waited impatiently for his host to continue. The quicker the story was over the quicker he could go to bed.
‘Heaven is a secondary state of being,’ explained the man. ‘It’s a place many of us will go when it’s all over. Whether you want to believe it’s above the clouds or a side-pocket in the universe, it’s there, and it’s inhabited by immortal gods, whom we will meet when the time comes. Chang’e and Hou Yi were such immortals.
‘The Jade Emperor, ruler of Heaven, had ten sons who descended to the Earth aeons ago, and took the form of ten suns that burned and scorched the Earth. Humanity struggled, it couldn’t continue. Earth had become a living hell-scape, scorched and scarred mountain ranges, the seas boiled and dissolved. Life has its hardships, but none such as this.
‘The Emperor was at a loss. His own sons boiling the Earth, destroying the planet. He couldn’t stand by helpless, so he sent down to Earth the great archer Hou Yi, accompanied by his wife, Chang’e, to see what he could do to save humanity, and to stop the ten suns destroying the planet.
‘When they arrived on Earth they discovered the people in pain, roiling in turmoil, boiling in the heat, the Earth in tatters. Such suffering resonated with Hou Yi; he couldn’t be idle while humanity died out like ants under a magnifying glass. Their pain rallied him. He swore an oath to be humanity’s defender, to protect it from the relentless gaze of the suns and Heaven’s incompetence.
‘He shot down the suns, one by one they fell out of the sky, plucked from the day by an arrow’s tip. Hou Yi left one sun to provide warmth and light for humanity, and as an insult to Heaven’s callousness. He was regarded a hero, humanity’s greatest defender, an arbiter between Heaven and Earth, and he and Chang’e were presented with all manners of gifts and thanks. When the Jade Emperor discovered his sons had been killed, by the very man he had sent to deal with the problem, no less, he was furious, and locked Hou Yi and Chang’e from Heaven, stripped away their immortality, and barred them further entry when their mortal coils had unwound.
‘They chose to be human, to live with the other mortals, but found their lives were difficult, too difficult, for immortals such as themselves were used to a certain way of life, and though Earth may have its gems and moments of greatness, it is rather pale and dull and horrible in comparison to Heaven’s glory. Hou Yi couldn’t stand to see his wife suffer, so he searched the Earth for a fabled potion of immortality, said to grant the drinker the power over mortal life. It was his only way out, the only way to return to Heaven and remove his wife’s suffering.
‘And he found it,’ said the man, moonlight streaked across his cheeks. ‘He found the potion of immortality in the Queen Mother of the West’s palace, where it had been hidden for centuries. Hou Yi explained to the Queen Mother that he had one wish: to avoid his wife’s death, as she should not be left to suffer the consequences of his choices. She took pity on him and granted the potion as a token of faith and as gratitude for the destruction of the nine suns. But she warned him that the vial wouldn’t work the way he had hoped; drinking half the elixir would grant immortality, and drinking all of it would force the drinker to ascend beyond mortality and human confines, beyond the limits of the universe, and return them to Heaven. Since Hou Yi and Chang’e were banned from Heaven they would be trapped, unable to move on or return to Earth. Hou Yi took the elixir, thinking that half for him and half for his wife would deliver them into immortality, and even though they couldn’t return to Heaven, they at least would not die, wouldn’t suffer as all ordinary mortals do.
‘He returned to Chang’e but before he could explain his plan and what the elixir did, he passed out, exhausted from his arduous journey around the world, human pains weighing him down like a brick slab. Curiosity got the better of her, and while her husband slept she drank the entire potion. Her limbs grew weightless, her body began to fade like smoke, and she drifted upwards, ascending to Heaven as a full-fledged immortal beyond mortal pain.’
The man pursed his lips, turned to the window, and gazed out longingly into the moon’s eye, as of an unrequited love, the distance between them nothing but a river that would one day be bridged.
‘The Jade Emperor refused Chang’e entry into Heaven. She was a trapped immortal, Heaven was closed, Earth was beneath her. There was only one place to go.’
Palms pressed to the glass, he looked out at the moon hovering so far above him, so far out of reach.
‘Hou Yi was devastated. His wife gone, his chance at everlasting life gone. He had to live out the rest of his days a mortal man, a forlorn lover without his one true love. He died a broken man, a normal man, after a lifetime of hardship and suffering, knowing that his love was out of his grasp. He knew where she was, true love for immortals is like that, we couldn’t comprehend it. Every night for the rest of his life he placed offerings to the moon, appeals to his love, a bowl of flowers for each season of the year: plum blossoms for winter, orchids for spring, lotuses for summer, and chrysanthemums for autumn.
‘Could you imagine… could you imagine living a life like that? To look up every night at the sky and see your greatest mistake staring down at you? To have lived with your love since before the dawn of time, always together, always in love, then to make a choice that leads to their pain and mortality, to search the world for a way out, for a way to make up for it, only to condemn her to a fate worse than death?’
His hands slumped indolently by his waist, his story over and finished, rheumy eyes dodging and darting inside his skull.
‘Your bedroom is on the right,’ he said, voice barely a whisper. ‘Do as you wish. I hope you remember the story. And please don’t disturb me during the night.’
With that, the man retreated dejectedly behind the partitioning wall, and vanished into another room. It was like his heart had been ripped from him, torn out in front of him, his conscience laid bare and stretched, his sins and pain a discordant song echoing in his ears. Forna, bewildered, had sunk deep into his seat, a poor effort to escape the apartment, and found comfort in the seat’s velvety arms. The story had burrowed into his mind’s secluded warren, gnawed away at his exhaustion, and inspired sadness to rise like a hot bubble in his chest.
Everything he had heard resonated within him, so much so that he was surprised to discover himself in tears. A product of the day’s labours, he told himself. Nothing more.
As for the bearded man and his morose tale, Forna decided there was nothing to it, a late-night whiskey dram had loosened his lips and encouraged his brain to espouse and twist a mythological fabrication. Forna was simply the unfortunate victim.
Grey rays drenched the room, a heavy lunar-saturation. He pinched the bridge of his nose. The day had been long and the night tip-toed closer to dawn on the legs of dusk. Exploring the following morning would have to be relegated to the afternoon, a long lie-in was too tempting, and sleep’s song was already playing softly and sweetly in his ears.
He danced over the beams, for reasons he couldn’t quite understand, and sidled into his temporary bedroom; a cosy cupboard, for lack of a more accurate term. At least the bed was made and the window had curtains, and the only light in the room was emitted from the domed lampshade slammed into the ceiling above. Luxury is overrated, and in any case, Forna wasn’t going to find any here.
He starfished on the bed, limbs heavier than lead, eyelids fluttering. He was inevitably drawn towards the story of Chang’e and Hou Yi, the poor and, quite literally, star-crossed lovers, stuck on separate celestial bodies, never again to see each other; two distant islands divided by an elysian ocean. The story had a weight to it but that was the case with myths; they preyed on emotions, hungry to stimulate ironic loss.
There was an important detail he felt escaped him, dancing in the periphery, there in the shadows. And it had something to do with a name…
The following morning Forna awoke bolt-upright, sweating like he had slept in a furnace, disorientated as if he’d gulped down a bottle of vodka the night before.
And the apartment was silent. The main room and the kitchen were empty.
It was startling to see the apartment in the sun as it streamed through the windows, amplified by the glass; not like the silver-haired rabbit that leaped from surface to surface under the moon’s caress, but like a reflective serpent, dodging between the ornaments, flying straight onto everything it saw with marksman accuracy, like a fire-tipped, inferno-tailed arrow that struck and ignited the pasty white-washed counters, and cast fiery orange glares like flaring and writhing shadows. Under the absolute heat of the sun’s glare the apartment looked ablaze, and felt it, too.
The flooring felt like hot coals, Forna danced across it and poured himself a glass of water, then another, and then several more, using the counter as a twin product; an icy coolant, since white paint reflected heat it was like an iceberg, and as a support-beam for his overtaxed arms. He rested against it, wiped away the sweat congealing on his brow. He’d never experienced this kind of heat before. He had trekked across Africa’s sun-baked back, survived the desolate Nevada desert, but this was like being in the centre of the sun. And he didn’t even have sun-tan lotion.
Curiosity enticed him, the door to the room the bearded man had resigned to was on the kitchen’s right, a baby-blue wooden puzzle-box, and Forna wanted to know what was behind the door.
‘Hello?’ he said, and knocked on the door. His mouth opened and closed noiselessly several times, like a fish blowing bubbles, when he realised he didn’t have a clue what the man’s name was.
‘Er… sir?’ He paused. ‘Beard guy?’
The metal doorknob was freezing cold, like a fistful of glacier, Forna’s grip tightened around it and prepared to twist. The chill travelled up his arm, an icy crusade waged against warmth and comfort. He didn’t know what would be waiting on the other side; a hungover and irritable tall-tale teller or a sober-ish apologist, eager to rectify his nocturnal, moonlit behaviour.
Figuring there wasn’t much else to do, Forna turned the handle and pushed his shoulder into the door forcefully, very aware his heartbeat was drumming like peals of thunder, tenuous connections formed and fear creeped in, shackles of apprehension and wariness clamped around his limbs.
Then he picked himself up off the floor, rubbed his bruised shoulder. Doors are known for their universal subservience, so it was confusing to find one so stubbornly, for lack of a better word, wooden.
Forna, a little hurt by the door’s defiance, elected not to bother with the it, confident whatever was behind its timber insolence would eventually be revealed. The man would be sleeping off drunken residue, detoxing with sober determination. He was in Guangzhou and he was a tourist, a talented and gifted purveyor, and there was a reason he was here; to explore and discover and experiment.
He stepped into the elevator, cursed the dearth of stairs, and went out into the city.
When Forna returned to Yi Villa the fiery orange blaze had been extinguished by the moon’s silvery waters, the apartment almost as cool as a freezer. It felt like the apartment’s normal state, an auroral equilibrium of coruscating silver and nocturnal chill, and Forna had already gravitated towards its iridescent and calming beauty.
His legs were tired and aching, he relaxed them on the couch, massaged his inflamed calves. The public transport system had proven too complex for his comprehension, forced him to explore the city on foot, which was gradually revealed over the course of the day as aggressively idiotic and short-sighted.
Moonlight pirouetted between his fingers, shadows twirling across the laminate like ballet-dancers, nimble and fleet-footed.
Forna turned his attention to the locked door, which had advanced into a new state of being. That is to say it was now open.
He stood in the doorway and looked into the room, where moonlight beams flooded through the window panel on the right wall, basking the double-bed in vivid grey, took the duvet softly in lunular palms, caressed the air with gentle and tranquil love; an immortal love that mankind would never know.
And laid on the bed like a buffet was a telescopic and rainbow flower-flotilla, tangled in the covers, a veritable petal-bouquet beautifully arranged in a precise circle, a colourfully vibrant halo that gradually and dutifully progressed through the spectrum of colour; orchids and lotuses and plum blossoms and chrysanthemum petals, left as if in offering, a floral donation that sparkled under the moon’s tender kiss.
Forna retreated backwards to the kitchen, rummaged through the cabinets until he found a bowl large enough for his intentions, and collected the petals; carefully, so as not to disturb the peace. As for the man, he must’ve left during the day when Forna was out exploring and gorging on the sights, and would tumble out of the elevator in a drunken stupor, bawl out another twisted and dexterous myth in a lip-curling slur, then pass out in his flower-sprouting bed.
That was Forna’s reasoning and given his environment, the evidence at hand, it was an astute deduction, a logical sequence of events that couldn’t by anything of this planet be revoked. But not all things of this planet are logical.
He was in the main-room, cupping the bowl in his palms, when he drifted into thoughts of Chang’e and her husband Hou Yi. The man had been correct: it was a horrible thought to watch your love hang in the night sky, to fear the stars poking through the black curtain, to reach towards her, unable to help, unable to see her.
Guangzhou spilled out below, a rolling and uniform spread of towers and apartment blocks, rambling roads and the windy Pearl River navigating between the cloud-high spires and pristine streets like a liquid snake, and then there was the moon, the full moon, far into the night-sky, a stocky white portal burning bright like a supernova; an orbicular disc cut out of the blackness to reveal the emptiness behind.
A voice from behind him tore Forna out of his daydream. He turned sluggishly, tired, hands clamped around the bowl like he was afraid he would lose it. It would be the beard-man, he thought, back from his alcohol-fuelled journey, ready to spin another yarn.
But the squat figure stepping out of the elevator hadn’t a facial hair to his name, nor was he bald, or as young as Forna’s temporary roommate. He was a stout man with thinning blonde hair, black thick-rimmed glasses, a rotund and protuberant belly that would take a lifetime of over-indulgence and laziness to swell, and a frame that looked like a squished grape, and seemed just as soft and malleable.
The man looked at Forna from behind glassy eyes, searching for an answer.
In surreal and heightened moments of realisation, the mind can move at a million thoughts per second, perform incredible gymnastics and wild acrobatics like a professional circus recitalist, and align all cerebral departments with governmental authority.
Forna’s mind tied together all the threads, and a weary, cold acceptance washed over him. It was impossible to fight against it; the will of gods and immortals supersedes the conscious of man.
The bowl in his hand, the flowers inside, the full moon beating down, the new lodger, and the love between two immortals, never united, never again to touch, and the flowery gifts one made to the other.
He opened the window gingerly, swung it inwards, and placed the bowl on the sill, where the previous night another bowl had been placed, let the petals inside taste the pure, untainted moonlight… where they were meant to be, and for the moon to taste them alike.
Then he swivelled towards the podgy lodger, eyes at the floor, head dropped to his chin. There was a role he had to play, regardless of his desires. This went above him. Hou Yi may have been dead, and nothing more than a man, but his legacy extended further than the meteor-pocked moon suspended in the sky. An offering had to be made. A sacrifice.
‘Let me tell you a story,’ he said, ‘about the sun and the moon.’