Moon found herself waking up in a humid cave with barely a light peering in from the outside. The sound of dripping water gave away the presence of long stalactites hanging above her. With every painful move of her muscle, she pulled herself across the cave until she felt the taste of water. She laid there, mouth agape until she passed out again.
In a barely conscious state, Moon overheard two men speaking. They were in the cave, too, somewhere closer to the entrance, it seemed.
“How many units are available for purchase?”
“As many as you want.”
There was a moment of silence.
“I’ll take a hundred units first. If everything goes well, we can do ten thousand units… quarterly.”
“Deal. In the next shipment, your men will find a hundred units at Manila Port.”
Another moment of silence.
“Send my regards to your father.”
With a quivering voice, the younger man replied, “Thank you.”
As footsteps quietened, Moon fell back into unconsciousness.
The Creature fed Moon with sea algae until she regained her strength. And though she had given up the flaming pearl to the Yuta, in return, the brief meet with Ma gave back Moon her spirit. It was as if the thick black fog that had consumed her since Ma’s death had finally dissipated, and she could breathe again. Ma was dead. But Ma would always live in her.
With the Creature by her side, she pulled herself together, walked out of the cave, and traced the winding beach. Faint sounds grew louder; soft lights grew brighter. She followed them and found herself in a sprawling marketplace.
Like a boat floating on a calm lake, the crescent moon hung quietly in the night sky. It cast a gentle light over Shuri Castle with just enough illumination and warmth. Yet, within seconds, the winds and clouds moved in and concealed the moon from sight, turning those unexpected moments into memories.
For the first time, Kinjo-san and Lynn had a quiet dinner. For once, they could hear broadcasters on TV talking. It was Lynn’s last night in Okinawa, and they both were unable to find the right words to speak to one another.
When dinner was over, Lynn volunteered to clean up and busied herself washing the dishes in the kitchen when she heard a loud shriek from Kinjo-san. She rushed out to the tatami room where Kinjo-san was. Mouth agape with soap water still dripping from her hands, she saw the main hall of Shuri Castle engulfed in flames on the television.
The news reported about the strong winds and electricity that caused the fire. But Lynn could make no further deductions from the information. By now, Kinjo-san was crying. Lynn put her arms around Kinjo-san and tried her best to comfort her.
Lynn did not remember how long she sat in the tatami room with Kinjo-san. They watched the venomous flames, strengthened by the strong winds of the night, burn through the surfaces of the Castle buildings. Like an innocent giant set ablaze, roaring in pain as the fire burned through his flesh, revealing for all to see the shadows of his skeleton. It was his final act of death.
They followed the news until it reported no more of the Castle. Almost after that, Kinjo-san began to run a fever. By daybreak, Lynn was making her way to the pharmacy for medicine. On the streets, the mood was heavy and somber, older men and women in funeral wear were making their way to the burning Castle. A few families, hand-in-hand with their little ones, were headed that way too. They wanted to pay their final respects. Back in Kinjo-san’s place, Lynn tried her best to care for Kinjo-san. It would take Kinjo-san three days for her fever to subside and another week before Kinjo-san could climb out of bed.
When Kinjo-san regained some strength, she put on a long black dress and walked with Lynn to the lake by the Castle. The pair stood still silently. The once proud and dignified brick red architectural emblem was now nothing more than a pile of burnt remains with large swirls of impenetrable black smoke rising from it. And though Lynn was a visitor to this foreign land, she felt emotional. She hugged Kinjo-san. Like a daughter who lost her father, Kinjo-san hugged Lynn back and cried in her arms.
The turtle left when Moon and the creature arrived onshore. At Naha Port, the waves rocked the junk boats lightly while children played by the shallow waters. Situated by the cliffs, soft light from the Naminoue Shrine colored the scene with warm illumination.
At the docks, an old woman in white was waiting for Moon. She was a Yuta, a spiritual person. She walked toward Moon and said, “You are grieving. Come with me.”
The creature was uncertain, but it knew the Yutacould give Moon what she needed. And so, it did not stop Moon from following her.
The Yuta led them into a cave not far from the port. She offered them some water and food. And then, she said, “You have what I want- The Flaming Pearl from the Ancients that protects she who consumes it. Without what is inside you, you would have perished with your kingdom.”
Moon had no fear of perishing. She did not deserve to survive.
“I will give you what you want in exchange for the Pearl.”
“You can’t. No one can give me what I yield for.”
“I can show you your mother.”
“I will give anything to see Ma.”
“Wait,” the creature cautioned, “Without the Pearl, you are open to all dangers.”
Moon smiled with watery eyes, “I will give anything to see Ma.”
With that, the Yuta laid Moon down and closed her eyes. She chanted and gently touched Moon’s forehead. Slowly, a blurry vision formed and came into focus. Moon cried. A young girl, barely twelve, appeared before her. She had a beautiful oval face with almond-shaped eyes, just like Ma. The girl smiled. With the strength of the rolling tides, emotions crashed onto Moon and left her in a flood of tears. Yet all too soon, the girl morphed into a black butterfly and fluttered away.
“Ma!” Moon opened her eyes and cried, “That was Ma!”
“She was always by your side. She was waiting to bid you farewell.”
“I want to see her again.”
“She can’t. Not anymore. And now, my Flaming Pearl.”
The Yutacommenced her chant. The pearl in Moon’s chest shone as it yielded to its new mistress.
The keys turned softly, and the door opened. Lynn walked in, visibly confused. Amy’s father, Benny, looked up, smiled warmly at Lynn, and continued making his tea. While Lynn looked at Benny, then Amy, and then the house she knew to be home. Upon which, Amy ran up from the orange sofa and hugged Lynn.
“Mama! You are home. Where did you go this time? Tell me, please!”
Lynn thought for a moment, yet nothing came to her mind.
Benny chided her, “Didn’t you go to Okinawa again?”
Lynn nodded her head slowly and said, “Yes…”
“Where did you go in Okinawa this time? Tell me!”
Lynn got excited. The smell of Kinjo-san’s antiques permeated the room. She replied, “Oh, you want to know? I went to visit Kinjo-san, of course! She’s really old now and can barely leave the house. But she is in good spirits.”
“What did you do in Kinjo-san’s house!”
“Oh, as usual! We talked and talked. Ate and Ate.”
“What stories did she tell you this time!”
A large wooden box appeared by the orange sofa. Before Amy could react, Lynn looked at the box and frowned. Was that Kinjo-san’s box she just saw? Yet, the wooden box was no longer there in a blink of an eye. Benny placed a hot cup of tea in front of her and sat next to her.
“Mama, what stories did Kinjo-san tell you this time?”
Lynn sipped her green tea slowly. This was unexpected. Amy was never interested in Kinjo-san’s stories. Especially since they were always the same to her.
Lynn and Kinjo-san were eating Blue Seal ice cream in a cafe on the busy street of Kokusai Dori. Kinjo-san had arrived at eight in the morning to pick Lynn up from the guesthouse. By noon, they had finished walking most of the main street and markets behind. Along the way, Lynn picked up a pair of shisa painted in bright red and orange. They tasted dried local seafood, desserts, fruits, and mozuku, a slimy and refreshingly sour seaweed shaped like angel hair pasta. As Lynn contemplated the next stop, she licked the cookie and cream off her tiny wooden spoon and proceeded to scratch the patch of eczema at the back of her left ear.
Kinjo-san asked to see her eczema. Lynn flipped back her ear to reveal a patch of red itchy skin and brushed it off as a helpless situation that surfaced during her travels in the southwest part of China. Though secretly, she viewed her eczema as proud battle scars of a seasoned traveler.
“I think it was in Guangxi that my eczema appeared, or was it Wuxi? Can’t really recall. But anyway, I don’t just have it at the back of my ear. There are some on my elbows and back too.”
“I see. Have you seen the doctor?”
“Yes. But it comes and goes, and it doesn’t fully go away.”
“Well. We will get it treated today.”
Lynn was skeptical but was curious for Kinjo-san to lead the way. Despite her tiny frame, Kinjo-san had a way of evoking command. Perhaps it was this trait of Kinjo-san that reminded Lynn of her late grandmother.
The pair took the car and made their way to the nearby Kainan Street. Kinjo-san parked by the road curb and led Lynn through the busy street. A familiar scent came to Lynn. She panicked.
“Chinese medicine? We are going for TCM?”
“We call it TCM back home. It means Traditional Chinese medicine.”
“Yes, TCM. You got your eczema in China, so we treat it at its roots.”
A sizeable stand-up banner greeted the pair. Three bold kanji characters were printed. Kanpo yaku. Kanpo for short. Han medicine from China, before China, became present-day China.
“Wait. Is this a Japanese Chinese medicine hall? Or is it a Chinese-run Chinese medicine hall?”
“Just come in.”
The wooden hand-painted plaque board and rows of herbs in the display window concealed the contemporary interiors of the medicine hall. As the pair entered and waited in the tea area, they overheard a conversation in the examination room. An anxious Chinese lady who spoke with a northern accent relied on her bilingual Chinese friend to communicate with the practitioner.
“If you are concerned, you should not take my medicine.”
“She is just a little concerned because you prescribed a weaker dosage compared to what she is used to having from other places.”
“In my opinion, this is enough for her.”
“Okay. My friend would like to know if she can continue her Western medicine.”
“It is best to not mix the two. If your friend insists, she should have a 2-hour interval between the medicines.”
Lynn pitied the physician. These were common questions even for TCM practitioners, sinsehs, back home in Singapore.
“Thank you. We will take our leave.”
As the pair walked out of the examination room and the hall, Kinjo-san led Lynn to see the physician. For one reason or another, be it TCM or kanpo, the practitioner tended to be a man in his fifties or sixties. And indeed, in sat a man in his fifties or sixties.
Kinjo-san and the practitioner, Nago-sensei, exchanged friendly greetings and spoke in a mix of heavy-accented Japanese and the local dialect. They were longtime friends. Kinjo-san explained Lynn’s condition, and Nago-sensei carefully examined Lynn’s eczema.
When done, he addressed them both in simple Japanese, “I will need time to prepare. Come back in an hour to make payment and collect your medicine.”
Lynn was a little anxious. She asked, “How much will it be?”
“It’s a standard fee of six hundred yen for a day’s worth of medicine, and you will need thirty days’ worth of medicine for a start.”
Lynn was bewildered. She would have to find some work to pay for the medicine. Noticing Lynn’s worry, Kinjo-san offered to pay, which Lynn immediately refused.
“How are you going to pay if I don’t help?”
“I’m going to work at the guesthouse. If they would take me.”
“So you are staying longer?”
“Yes, I am. At least until I finished my course of medicine.”
Kinjo-san was happy. She said, “Let’s go eat taco rice. It’s like taco without the shells on rice, and you can add lots of cheese and sauces. Or how about spam and egg sandwich? Tonight, we drink Okinawan alcohol, awamori, and fried pig skin at my place.”
“Isn’t the diet of the Okinawans supposed to be really clean and healthy? That’s the reason for the longevity of the Okinawans, no?”
Kinjo-san laughed boisterously till onlookers smiled at them with amusement.
Moon’s mother, Concubine Shun, revealed a flaming red pearl from her silk handkerchief and pushed it into Moon’s mouth. In a reflex, Moon resisted, and the pearl fell to the ground. Concubine Shun scurried to retrieve the pearl. With tears falling out of her eyes, she cried, “For Heaven’s sake, swallow the pearl now!”
“What is going on!”
“The rebels have entered the outer palace. Ming is collapsing. So swallow this pearl and leave at once!”
Concubine Shun pushed the pearl into Moon’s trembling lips and made a small cut on Moon’s thumb with a blade. She dripped Moon’s blood on a palm-sized bronze creature statue and murmured, “This will protect you too. You do not need to be afraid. There is no time to be afraid.”
Bang! The doors flanked wide open. The Emperor, barely recognizable, stood in front of them. Disheveled and defeated, his tears rolled down his downcasted eyes and over the tear stains on his face. On his right hand held a blood-stained golden sword.
He dragged himself toward them. Like a frightened mouse trying its best to be brave, Concubine Shun flung herself in front of Moon and stared wide-eyed at the Emperor.
With a trembling voice, Concubine Shun said, “Run, Moon, run now. Moon, quick, Moon-”
At that moment and without hesitation, the Emperor pierced his sword into Concubine Shun’s chest. Moon let out a shrilling scream. She ran toward them, but her legs could not move. Instead, she collapsed onto a creature as it sped through the burning palace and capital.
The creature brought Moon deep into the forest and said, “I am the bronze statue, and I am to protect you.”
Still shaking and with tears rolling down her closed eyes, Moon looked at the deer-like creature and cried, “What about Ma? Who protects Ma?”
Not long after, the Qing army swept through the deep forests and mountains in search of surviving Ming royalties and loyalists, forcing the pair to flee down to the southern coastal areas. But the war pursued them relentlessly as forces fought to control all of China.
“Where can I go? Nowhere in China is safe for me.”
The creature carried her further south, to the southern caves by the southernmost port. For the first time, Moon smelled the saltiness of the ocean breeze.
By a stream of water leading to the ocean, the creature sang into a large spiral seashell. Gently, from within the cave walls, a hundred-year-old turtle awakened and broke free. He smiled at Moon and his old friend.
The pearl in Moon shone, and the turtle obeyed. With the guide of the pearl, the turtle carried Moon and the creature across the Eastern Sea.
By the time the trio arrived at the Ryukyu Kingdom, China had irrevocably changed from Ming to Qing.
Kinjo-san’s house was in one of the small alleys running across the stone steps. It was a fairly large two-story house, it had a carefully tended garden with blooming hibiscus, bougainvillea, and many local plants Lynn could not name. As with all other buildings in Okinawa, a pair of dog-like stone statues flanked the wooden gates.
Kinjo-san looked at them and said, “Shisa, guardian creatures. Some ‘English-speaking people’ call them ‘shisa dogs,’ but they are not dogs, more like lions.”
Lynn nodded and smiled sheepishly while the traveler in her knew for sure then that Kinjo-san was to be her helpful local friend throughout her stay here. The type who would feed hungry travelers, drive them all over town and act as local guides at the “must-go” tourist sites. In fact, a little out of the ordinary, even for hospitable Japanese, she may suggest housing her new traveler friends for a day or two.
“Wow, these are-”
“Really? Wow. It looks like a museum.”
Kinjo-san’s home was full of antiques, and Lynn could not tell if she was an avid collector or someone who discarded nothing. There were tea sets, scrolls of paintings and calligraphy, vases, furniture, and textiles. Many of which would sit nicely together with the exhibits in the Castle that she had visited earlier. Lynn hugged her backpack and carefully walked into the house. As she walked further in, she could not help but wonder about Kinjo-san’s life.
“If you are interested, I can share many stories with you. But first, let’s eat.”
Kinjo-san walked out of the kitchen with a plateful of sweet Okinawan crepes chinbin decorated with pineapple, mango, berries, and a glass of chilled sanpintea. It was as if she knew she would be expecting a guest today.
“Delicious! Thank you.”
“How long are you staying in Okinawa?”
“Where are you staying?”
“At the Goya Guesthouse near Kenchomae.”
“Nice place. Where are you looking to visit?”
“Well, today is my first day, and I’ve visited Shuri Castle. I plan to visit the shopping street Kokusai Dori tomorrow and then maybe a beach in the evening. The reviews for the Prefectural Museum are great, so I think I will go there too. Actually, do you, by any chance, know where I should visit?”
“Let’s walk Kokusai Dori tomorrow together. There are many hidden gems at the back of the main street that only I know.”
“Ah! But you mustn’t. I have troubled you too much already.”
“No, no, I insist. In fact, let’s grab a bowl of Okinawa soba now before I send you to your guesthouse. Do you like pig feet? There is a restaurant in Kenchomae that sells very yummy pig feet.”
No longer intending to be polite, Lynn replied, “Oh! No! No! You shouldn’t! I can make my way to the guesthouse! Really! And you have fed me delicious chinbin and sanpin tea already!”
“No, no, I insist. Let’s go now. I’ll see you in the car.”
Lynn knew there was no use resisting her new friend, so she quickly downed her last bit of sanpin tea and grabbed her backpack. As she looked around the house one final time to remember everything as best as she could, she noticed at the far corner of the living room table sat a carefully displayed photograph. In that photo were Kinjo-san and a woman who looked like a younger version of her. They smiled proudly without revealing a single tooth. With them stood a Caucasian man and two biracial children. Family stuff.
Next to the photo stood a tiny frame, and it enclosed a painting of a woman in a faded pink hanfu. Her melancholic eyes gazed at a seemingly faraway land. A Chinese? At that moment, Lynn felt a tug in her heart and stared at the painting intently once more.
I walked into the room 30 minutes early. Everyone involved in the trial was already there making final checks. Jake was there too. Beneath the front of professionalism, I could sense a mix of sympathy, ambivalence, and mostly frustration from my colleagues. Jake was right. People were unhappy. People wanted to move on to other patients. I could not blame them. We were like the nurse bees in the hive; only potential queen bees came to our team of neuroscientists, psychologists, doctors, and interpreters. We selected and nursed the best cases to be high-performing queen bees. With my mother’s case taking up 8 months of our time, we had lost many potential queen bees.
My mother was seated on one of the two chairs with a blanket over her. Her face was wrinkled and lifeless. I kneeled by her side, and for the first time in 13 years, I held both her hands.
“Ma, I know you are in there. Listen, you have to tell me everything you know about the red orb. You know, the time you used the V-Skin GX and created a red orb in the metaverse. I was 22 then. You told me how amazing the experience was and that the people loved it. But I was so angry with you, so angry at your betrayal of not keeping your promise. Why did you fixate on the red orb, the ‘flaming pearl’ as you called it…”
“Ma. Please tell me everything about the flaming pearl when we put on the V-Skin later. I want to hear it this time. Tell me all those stories like you always did when I was growing up, about all those adventures you had when you were traveling the world. I want to hear it! I really do. If you don’t, you are going to…”
At that moment, I could feel Jake’s eyes on me. I did not disclose everything I knew about the red orb to him after all.
I had nothing more to say. I walked to my seat and downed a glass of water. I grabbed the lightweight headwear with the words “V-Skin GX” printed on its side. I switched it on and placed it on my head. Instantly, emptiness enshrouded my senses while gradually, white light grew with a soft hum and a brewed coffee smell.
An angelic voice spoke, “Hi Professor Chang, welcome back to Blackbox 61 of Sosi Labs. Shall we pick off from where we left?”
I replied, “Log in a new case file, please. Name it ‘Oki Times.'”
“New case file, ‘Oki Times,’ created.”
And then, I imagined my childhood home, the olive green walls, the white wooden stairs, and the warm orange furniture. The colorful carpets and rugs and the smell of fresh tropical spices hanging in the kitchen. The background jazz music, and my tall and lean father who was always contented and easy-going. He was making tea, as always. On this day, a sudden and ceaseless storm appeared. These thoughts, my imagination, came to life in the metaverse. I took my seat on the well-worn orange sofa. With a thought, I transformed my avatar-self into a nine-year-old me and waited patiently for my mother to come home.
Lynn was satisfied with the tour of the Shuri Castle. As she walked out of the site, she skillfully took a selfie with the vermillion buildings peeking out from the stone walls, cropping and adjusting its lighting.
She shared it on Instagram with the caption:
“First day in #Okinawa and already visited this beautiful #UNESCO site! The old palace of the once Ryukyu Kingdom~ Love it! #ShuriCastle”
She wondered if she should finally call home but decided first to get a drink. Her eyes searched the area, skipping past crowded gift shops and touristy cafes until she caught sight of a vending machine across the street. While making her way toward it, she fished from her coin pouch a hundred Japanese yen coin and wondered if she should have a bottle of cold water or oolong tea. She inserted the coin and pressed for cold water. Down fell the bottle of cold water, and with it came an unexpected beeping sound. She was caught off guard and wondered if she could have made a mistake during her purchase. In her limited understanding of Japanese, she tried to read the message on the vending machine screen, and to her amazement, as she was the 7777th customer of this vending machine, she won a free drink of her choice. Without hesitation, she pressed for oolong tea and was exuberant to share her luckiness with Instagram.
Dosing down the bottle of icy cold water, she made her way down the stone steps behind the vending machine carefully and threw herself and her backpack on a stone bench. She searched GoogleMap and checked the time to plan her route to the guesthouse when she saw a large black butterfly fluttering toward her. Her eyes followed it, and it flew behind her and up the stone steps from where she came down.
“HAI-YA!” An old lady steadied herself on the stone steps and swished and swashed her net several times in her attempts to catch the butterfly. Though the old lady was nimble, she was not quick enough to get hold of the little creature. Within seconds, it flew further up and disappeared. The old lady was relentless. She waited, and in a minute or two, the butterfly came back. She smiled and waited for the butterfly to come closer. Yet, it tactfully landed on a tree branch, entirely visually yet unreachable. It was mocking the old lady.
“Don’t just stare! Carry me up!”
Lynn looked around, and there was no one else but the old lady and herself.
“You! Yes! I am speaking to you! Come carry me up!”
Lynn hurried towards the old lady and carried the old lady on her shoulders. The old lady was barely half of Lynn’s height, so Lynn managed. She steadied herself as carefully as she could on the steps.
“Go nearer to the tree! Nearer! Yes! HAI-YA! WE GOT IT!”
The old lady caught the butterfly with one swish of her net. But in the process of coming down off Lynn’s shoulders, the butterfly found a chance to escape, and it did.
“Hmm…” The old lady pouted and panted, “Can’t be helped…”
Lynn knew she should not stare, but she found the whole scene amusing, and she laughed heartily. The old lady smiled too. She asked, “What’s your name? Where were you born?”
“I’m Lynn, and I am from Singapore.”
“Haisai! That means hello in Okinawan dialect!”
Seeing the old lady panting from her butterfly chase, she offered her the bottle of oolong tea.
“Thank you, but no thanks.”
“How may I address you?”
“You can call me Kinjo.”
“Haisai, Kinjo-san! It’s nice to meet you.”
“You speak very good Japanese.”
“Ohh, no, I don’t!”
“Have you eaten? Would you like some tea and desserts? I live just here.”
Lynn felt easy around the old lady, unlike other uneasy encounters she had. And so, she smiled widely, and in polite Japanese, she agreed and followed her home.
Amy stared stone-cold into the water, her body lightly touching the surfaces of the bathtub. She was barely floating. She looked up at the digital clock on her wall:
7 more minutes left. She was not one to waste a second or two. And so, she closed her eyes and slipped entirely into the water, anxious to feel some sort of weightlessness. Yet, like an amniotic sac of fluid that carried a child to her mother, all that came to her mind were the day’s flashbacks of her mother’s avatar in Sosi Blackbox of the metaverse. In her age 30 form, her alluring presence evoked every floral note and beautiful blooms. Scents. Not something Amy liked in the metaverse. They were disarming to her. She remembered the anxious-inducing hug; the change of mood when her mother realized she was working for Sosi Pharma; the theatrical burst of flames.
It was the 25th trial. The 25th time Amy was with her mother in the metaverse. And yet, no progress on understanding the red orb. She had no clue what she should do. She thought of her mother’s cold, frail comatose body in Sosi Lab, and she felt time behaving like the merciless night tides washing away a ship from shore to the disappearing horizon.
She had to steel herself. How could she convince her mother to speak of the reb orb? Or as her mother called it, the flaming pearl. And then, Amy remembered her mother jumping onto a fire-spitting dragon’s neck and staring down at her with angry tears.
“Send my body back to the hospital! I will not have anything to do with Sosi!”
With that, the dragon and her mother disappeared into nothingness.
Short of air, Amy pushed herself out of the tub and struggled like a fish out of water.
She did not feel so strong, and she did not know what to do.