It’s not often I see a person with the luminary moon bird, especially one so young. It was there, so still, perching on her left shoulder. People know it as the owl. My mother called it the moon bird, for it appears only under a bright moonlight. The person with the moon bird holds wisdom and has the ability to change the course of things. I wonder.
Apart from the moon bird, there are other creatures too. For example, the forest deer, the ocean turtle, the grey heron, and the banded snake. Some call them guardians; others call them protector spirits. My child likes to call them avatars. I call them spiritual guides. Though most of us cannot perceive them, they are there. Some spiritual guides come to us at certain phases of our lives, while others remain with us from birth to death. Without our spiritual guides, we are lost.
Just the other day, I was listening to the wind and it reminded me that all life came from the ocean. The ocean holds the secrets of life. It was at that moment I decided to take the girl with the moon bird to the ocean, to peer into it. And indeed! The flaming pearl revealed itself to her. It was well worth the trip.
One day, she will understand her journey and place. Like I have, and like those that came before me. I will not see this for myself, but in the darkest of the night, may she trace the shadows of the moon, and lit it bright.
Instead of busying myself with extra credit courses and internships for this summer break, I decided to come home. Mother was distressed when we last spoke. She was not someone to worry about. I knew she wanted me home too, which I found ironic given her free-spirited nature and tendency to travel spontaneously.
I got home on a redeye flight. We had brunch, and then she took out a newly bought V-Skin Generative X., Also known as V-Skin GX. Oh yes, mother was into new gadgets. She liked to buy stuff too. She told me that the latest V-Skin was intuitive. In her words, “it almost has a soul.”
The earlier versions of the V-Skin were in glasses and contact lenses. Users put them on and accessed the metaverse. But the V-Skin GX had taken it to a whole new level. It was a lightweight headwear that connected to the user’s brain synapses. You did not even have to speak or make any hand gestures to turn it on or navigate the metaverse. You simply talk with your head and enter the metaverse with your mind’s eye. How cool is that! I know, right?
So mother told me to put on the V-Skin GX and watch the replay of a story she created. I put on the gadget and accessed our family’s virtual house. A five-year-old girl was sitting in a corner, flipping through books.
I was amused. “Is that you?”
“Just watch it.”
She was reading voraciously. They were introductory encyclopedias, and the girl was consumed by the contents. She was reading a book on volcanoes and then another on deep-sea creatures. The next book she read was on ancient civilizations, and then a book on food cultures. Finally, she found a book on ancient china within the piles of books. She loved it instantly. She savored every page of it and hugged it.
And then, she beckoned me to follow her into a room next door. I followed her and watched a family gathering take place. The girl showed her prized book to her relatives. Surprisingly, she received snide comments. Someone mocked her, “Why are you so cheena?” The girl looked confused, ashamed, and disappointed.
I asked my mother, who was quietly waiting outside the metaverse for me, “What does cheena mean?”
No reply. The story continued. The girl grew older, and she always found herself cornered by the voices around her:
“You like Chinese? Seriously?”
“Eeeyur, I can’t speak Chinese.”
“You like Chinese culture?”
“Why are you so cheena?”
“Why do you want to go to China?”
“Why are you so cheena?”
“China is so dirty!”
“Why are you so cheena?”
“Why are you so cheena?”
“Why are you so cheena?”
“Why are you so cheena?”
The story ended; I put down the V-Skin GX and wanted to give my mother a hug so badly.
“What does cheena even mean?”
She replied softly, “It means someone from China or someone very Chinese influenced.”
“I know we are Singaporeans but aren’t we Chinese? At least ethnically? Aren’t our relatives all Chinese, and from what I can see, your schoolmates are Chinese too? Mum, that story was so real. It can’t be a figment of your imagination, can it? I know you are a great storyteller but… I am not even sure if I can call that racism because those nasty people are Chinese themselves! But if it is not your imagination, then-“
“Those were my memories.”
“But how? How did you recreate your memories in the metaverse? It was almost documentary.”
“I don’t know. I put on my V-Skin GX, and what I thought appeared right before me. Some of what I thought I did not even realize. It was like they float up from my subconscious. I was hoping you could tell me since you major in these things in school.”
I looked at the V-Skin GX carefully. “I don’t know. I don’t even think my professors know.”
“Kinjo-san! I swear I felt the pearl in my hand! But the next second, it was gone!”
With an ear listening to Lynn and the other ear paying attention to the sounds of the fu champuru frying in the wok, Kinjo-san barely gave a response but a little grin at a corner of her lips.
“Where did the pearl go? Can we go back to that magical ocean place again?”
Kinjo-san paused her cooking and replied firmly, “No.”
“It’ll be a waste of time.”
“No, it won’t!”
“Yes, it will.”
“Why would it be a waste of time?”
“Because you will not find the pearl.”
“Because you are obsessed with it.”
“That doesn’t make sense!”
“The pearl seeks you; you do not seek the pearl.”
“But last night, we went seeking for the pearl.”
“That’s not seeking.”
I stared at Kinjo-san in disbelief while she enjoyed every bite of her fu champuru.
“Don’t believe me? Go try it yourself.”
That night, I went to the castle grounds on my own. I walked up to the wooden gates, kneeled, and said a prayer. And then, I got up and pushed the gates. They would not open. I tried again a few more times until they finally cracked open. I went in, but instead of finding myself in the cave leading to the magical ocean, I found myself falling onto the heavy vegetation of the castle grounds.
Kinjo-san was not joking about going to the castle grounds. She prepared dinner for us, showered, and got ready that very day. We left her place just before ten when the half-moon hung high in the cloudless sky. I followed her slow but steady footsteps up the 500-year-old stone steps. As there were barely any lamp posts lighting our way, we had to make do with torchlights. Thankfully, it was not a cold night, and we had a pleasant walk. It felt like a night pilgrimage.
We reached the gardens surrounding the castle grounds. Carefully placed yellow lights shone on the flowing curves of the slanting stone walls. They felt like ocean waves of the past, greeting me as I stepped deeper into a time bygone. We made our way to the tower gates. Expectedly, it was cordoned off with tapes and signages. Kinjo-san stared at it solemnly. I tried my best to console Kinjo-san, “I mean, after all, it is a UNESCO heritage site, and the Castle buildings burnt down just last year…”
I was worried. Was Kinjo-san going to break in? What if we got caught?
Kinjo-san walked away from the main gate and made a left turn back to the Castle gardens. She walked up to a pair of wooden gates with short stone walls and a curved roof. They led to nowhere behind. They were conspicuous, fairly large, clearly historical, a remnant of something. How could I have missed seeing this in daylight when I first toured here?
Just beneath the stone steps fronting the gates, Kinjo-san kneeled and said a prayer. I followed suit. And then, she got up and walked toward the gates.
“Kinjo-san, there’s a lock on the gates-”
She pushed the gates, and they opened. She flashed me a grin.
“Let’s take a walk.”
We went through the gates with her lead and found ourselves in a cold, damp, dark place. I turned on my torchlight. We were in a cave. Kinjo-san kept walking straight, slowly but surely; a light shone into the cave from the entrance. We walked out of the cave, and I found myself surrounded by tall, wavy mountains with an ocean bay in front of me. The sun was up in the sky; the waters were a glistering kerama blue. We stepped into the ocean and walked. The waters barely came up to our knees and were just the right temperature. They were so clear that I could see everything underneath. We were crossing the bay with our feet. I must be in a dream.
The next thing I knew, Kinjo-san and I were standing in its center. She looked around, took in the scenery, and smiled. And then, she looked into the waters. A glowing red pearl, the size of a fishball, was resting on the sand.
“Pick it up.”
I bent my knees, placed my hand into the waters, and reached for the legendary flaming pearl. Serendipitously, a gush of energy surged into me. I gasped and fell into the waters. That was the first time I felt the birth of time, of all who came before me. It was also the first time I touched the souls of all whom the flaming pearl had touched.
The marketplace was crowded. With an assortment of vegetables, tofu, and potatoes, sellers sat by their produce with umbrellas barely shading them from the sun. Beckoning for passersby to make purchases, they spoke a language that Moon could not comprehend. With their foods supported with a hand on their heads, the local Ryukyuan women bargained their best with the seemingly upset sellers. She noticed they had tattoo motifs on their hands and wondered what they meant. Moon looked around for the Creature, but it was nowhere to be found to her surprise. She carried on walking and kept a lookout for it anxiously.
She walked through the streets of fishmongers and meat sellers until she reached a shallow harbor that had a few wooden boats bobbing along the ocean. She sat by the harbor for a rest when out came in the waters a sea giant.
The sea giant had an overly large head with gill slits on his body and webbed fingers and toes. He had a gentle smile, which made Moon naturally at ease with him. He walked towards Moon and asked, “Are you the Ming princess with the flaming pearl? The entire Eastern Sea knows of your escape from China to Ryukyu.”
“Oh! Yes, I am. I mean, I was.”
“I am no longer a princess, and I no longer have the flaming pearl.”
The sea giant was visibly surprised and disappointed. And so, Moon asked, “Why are you looking for me?”
“I was hoping you could help me bring my family back.”
“Don’t you know? By using the flaming pearl. It can bring back the dead.”
“Yes. At least, that’s what my brother told me before he was turned into an ocean stone.”
“I’m sorry about your brother.”
“Not to worry, it happened a hundred years ago. But I will keep trying to bring everyone back.”
“Everyone? You mean your family?”
“Yes. My family and the entire tribe actually. I am the only one left after the attack of the irabu.”
“The flaming pearl is with a Yuta now… Can the flaming pearl really resurrect the death?”
“I think so. Do you remember what the Yuta looks like?”
“Yes, I do.”
“I say we go find her and get the flaming pearl back. It is worth a try, at the very least.”
Moon hesitated, but she knew the sea giant was right. She did not want to see the sea giant going back to the ocean alone as well. If the flaming pearl could bring the dead, she was sure it could help her find the Creature too. And so, for the first time in a long while, Moon looked up at the sea giant, nodded her head in agreement, and smiled.
It was said no less than some eons ago, The Sea Giants of Ishigaki evolved from old ocean stones. With webbed fingers and toes, Gill slits on their body folds, They were large gentle creatures, With undying ancient souls.
Irabu. A black-banded sea snake that rose from the dark waters. Venomous, it slaughters all.
The Sea Giants should not have been defeated. Yet, they were. They succumbed and regressed into ocean stones. Fashioned by the wind, water, and the sands of time, They scatter across the ocean scape, Blurring the world into an anxious, somber horizon.
*Irabu, The Okinawan word for the black-banded sea krait, is a venomous sea snake found in the tropics of the Indo-Pacific.
The coronavirus swept the world, and everything changed. One by one, like dominos falling to the ground, international borders, stadiums, schools, offices, shopping malls, cinemas, and theatres closed. The virus attacked congregations best, so even places of worship had to be closed. Nowhere allowed to go, the world found itself at home. It felt like the world was forced to power down. Except for the hospitals, they became battlegrounds. It was strange and uncomfortable. A world with no festivity or events. Those were important to me. I could no longer travel, yet I did not want to go home. I was craving for an adventure. There was something about Kinjo-san and her stories that compelIed me to stay. Admittedly, I found myself growing attached to her. And so, I enrolled myself in language classes at a Japanese language school. Anyday then, my student visa would be approved.
Kinjo-san was a lot better, both emotionally and physically. I learned that the Shuri Castle had a special and sacred place in the Okinawans’ hearts. It was a proud symbol of their legacy and heritage as children of the land.
One evening during dinner at Kinjo-san’s place, she said, “The Castle will be rebuilt, again.”
“It’s not the first time it burnt down. It was horrible after the War. In the past, two Ryukyuan princes fought for the throne and burnt down the Castle too. It will be fine. It has the pearl.”
“You mean the flaming pearl?”
Kinjo-san gave an unexpected sly smile, “You have been paying attention.”
“Isn’t the flaming pearl with the Moon Princess?”
“Yes, it was. But it eventually landed with a Ryukyuan prince who became King.”
“What is the flaming pearl? Is it from China?”
“Nah, it is not from China. The flaming pearl came from The Ancients before countries and kingdoms formed. It went through many hands over the ages. The emblem of the powerful phoenix, sometimes men, but usually it finds itself in female hands.”
“What does it do?”
“It keeps you safe, very safe.”
“But… if it keeps a person safe, and if it is with the Castle, why did the Castle burn down?”
At this point, Kinjo-san smiled again, “The pearl is beyond life and death. The Castle burnt down, but it will rise from its ashes again!”
I nodded knowingly but was completely unconvinced.
“You don’t believe me? Let me show you. Tonight, we go to the Castle grounds.”
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.
Okinawa’s winter was easy. On a day in early December, it was just about 68 Fahrenheit. Kinjo-san was feeling much better. Ever since the castle fire, she wore a visible layer of sadness. Nevertheless, she carried on with life. Unexpectedly, or perhaps expectedly, after exploring the Chinese world as deeply as I could, my initial spontaneous sprint out of it has me exploring a world, a culture at the peripheral of it, so deeply intertwined and influenced by the Chinese, yet so uniquely independent of it.
I was impelled to travel to seek something. As a Singaporean Chinese, I was brought up to speak communicable Chinese and held customs and beliefs from the Chinese system. Yet, I knew very little of the Chinese, or should I say, I did not know deeply and consciously the shape and texture of the bones beneath my yellowish skin and deep black hair. It never really did bother me, though I was acutely aware of it as I grew older until I finished school.
Yet, there was this restlessness, this gaping hole that appeared one day, and I felt it more and more as time passed. I could not point my finger to it until my grandmother passed on one day, and I dreamt of her younger self waving goodbye to me. She wore a white cotton qipao, and uncannily, like how I used to wear my hair at her age, she had her fringe pinned up to the side. She looked at me. I looked like her. That semblance of our youths was striking, even in a blurry dream state. When I woke up, I was crying. I knew then I was a descendent of those who have left their ancestral birth grounds to form floating diasporas that dot our world. I knew then that I had two umbilical cords. I knew one well, but I barely knew the other, and I had to seek it out, my subconscious umbilical cord, the in my blood past.
And so, I packed a bag and left home. I started in Beijing and went through all the major cities and sites in the Chinese world until I could tell apart from one Chinese to another. Along the way, I met many interesting people traveling through China. Some traveled to seek regardless of nationality or ethnicity, while others traveled to flee from something back home. Many traveled to both seek and flee.
I was physically and emotionally exhausted when I reached Xiamen, Fujian. I got on a ferry to Gulangyu, a quaint island off the coast of Xiamen, and stayed quiet there for a couple of weeks.It was time to leave China and explore somewhere new. Yet, after almost half a year in Okinawa, I finally learned that I have not really left the Chinese world after all.
One day, Kinjo-san chanced upon me, cleaning the tiny photo frame with a painting of a woman in a faded pink hanfu, and said, almost carelessly, “That’s the Moon Princess from China.”
I beckoned her to tell me more. Kinjo-san sat next to me and took the tiny photo frame in her hand; she tugged a small latch and opened the bi-fold frame to reveal a hidden painting of the Moon Princess in a hibiscus red and orange flowery patterned ryusou. She had her hair bunned up like the shape of a spiral shell, fastened from the back to the front with a long gold hairpin. She looked dignified and solemn with her half-smiling expression.
Kinjo-san continued, “There was a war, and her dynasty fell. With the help of magical creatures and the flaming pearl, she fled China and came here. My grandmother used to tell me because we are her children, we will forever be blessed by her and the flaming pearl to live long and winkled.”
Lynn sat down and spoke of the time when she first visited Okinawa. She talked about touring the Castle, meeting Kinjo-san and attempting to catch a black butterfly with her, cleaning Kinjo-san’s antiques, and listening to her fascinating family stories. When she spoke, her eyes lit up. She captivated everyone easily, even without the theatrics or illusions one can conjure up in the metaverse. She continued to share with Benny and Amy her trip to the medicine hall with Kinjo-san and the day Kinjo-san developed a fever. It was a day of sadness and anguish as the pair witnessed the burning of the Castle on television. It was a story Lynn had never shared before, which surprised Amy. Lynn recounted every detail of the burning Castle. She drew her audience in, including those observing them on screens. To the point that not a single one of them noticed the kitchen stove catching fire. The fire spread to the wooden cabinets and walls and then onto the main door. It was then that those observing on screens of the metaverse took notice of the fire. Two of them took down notes while the rest watched intently.
The fire continued to spread until it surrounded the trio, seated amongst the orange furniture. Lynn made no attempt to acknowledge the fire and continued her storytelling. Finally, the fire moved in and trapped Lynn. Amy screamed and composed herself. She directed massive gallons of running water from the taps and showerhead to the fire, and within seconds, she put out the fire.
Amy spoke with her adult voice, “What were you thinking!”
Lynn yelled back, “I KNEW IT! I KNEW IT!”
“You could have gotten hurt!”
“My brain would only be tricked to feel pain on my skin and flesh. But this! What is all this?”
Lynn looked at the house with broken furniture, burnt wood, soot, and smoke. She looked at Benny and then at Amy. Amy transformed back to her adult self and waved for Benny to go. In a split second, Benny disappeared into nothingness.
“Why are we in here?”
Amy thought for some time. This was her last chance with Lynn, and she had to make it work. She had to.
“Ma, I’m… sorry.”
A long silence fell between them.
“I don’t know what else to do. This is the only way-”
“What are you talking about?”
“Ma, I know I was angry with you, angry with everything, and I left.”
Lynn slowly sat back down. She did not feel so strong anymore. She spoke slowly, “I know you were angry. Angry and hurt. I regret it very much too.”
Amy sat next to Lynn and buried her face in her hands. She composed herself and said, “Ma. I need you to trust me. We don’t have time to talk about it now. I want to make this right for others.”
Lynn looked weary and asked feebly, “What do you want?”
“I need you to tell me everything you know about the flaming pearl.”
” The pearl seeks you; you do not seek the pearl.”
“Tell me from the beginning. Every detail. I want to know.”
“You will not find the pearl.”
“I need to at least try.”
Lynn nodded her head understandingly. She walked to the main door and beckoned for Amy to follow. As she opened the door, they walked into Lynn’s youth, at a time when she first met Kinjo-san in Okinawa.