Issue 187 – April 2022
9770 words, novelette
by , translated by
The breaking news of the day came before dawn: a starship from Planet Monkey plunged into the port of Orange Town. When it came crashing down, it knocked over the chicken pen and laundry line of Lady Charla’s tavern, as well as the enormous sign of the local bar “Twister” and the town’s communication antenna that connected us to the stars.
Of course, the entire town was enraged by the unforeseen disaster. By the time a few people had chased the monkeys out of their starship, most of the townsfolk were already gathered in front of the bar. The lords sneered and spat out chewed tobacco in the monkeys’ direction. The ladies huddled together in the outer circle of the crowd, gloved hands over their mouths.
Su Youxiang and Mann burrowed through the crowd. When the adults weren’t watching, Su Youqing managed to squeeze past the front row and pinched one of the monkeys. He has grown rather mischievous; even the three of us older children combined couldn’t quite keep up with him. In total, we ended up with three wallets and one pocket watch.
The monkeys looked defeated and crestfallen. But I knew that no one here would really feel pity for them. For one, their appearance was unsightly. Just look at them! Their bald heads were like the bottom of a steel pot, and their chins, bony and protuberant, resembled the shape of a half-ripe olive. Their torsos, smaller than the size of an average dog, were wrapped in strange, tattered clothes that revealed their golden, hairy backs. There was not a single trace of friendliness in their glaring, triangle-shaped eyes.
“We are here for peace,” said one of the leading monkeys with both of its hands up. Before it could finish its sentence, Sargon, the grocery store manager, fired his pistol. The monkey’s brains and blood splattered, stirring up a wave of annoyed groans from the townsfolk who had worn brand-new clothes to the scene.
Stunned and intimidated, the monkeys backed off clumsily. Huddling in fear, they looked like tomatoes in a basket. “We want to trade with you,” said another monkey. “We bought cargo. Please, let us negotiate . . . ” It spoke in a squeaky, chittering voice that resembled the squeal of a monkey.
Trade! Negotiate! The adults roared with laughter. Some of them laughed so hard that they fell on their feet. “I’ve drilled three wells this year. There isn’t a single drop of water in those wells—only sand,” exclaimed Lord Eron, the farm manager, eyes blazing with anger. He owned a farm in the deserts west of town, but the harvest was poor. “It’s all because of these monkeys! We have monkeys instead of pennies from heaven! I suggest we kill them all.”
Sargon blew at the muzzle of his pistol, trying to play cool. A policeman of the port area in his spare time, he always made sure to maintain a poised persona. “Cut the crap,” he said, his face stern. “We don’t fraternize with monkeys.”
Lady Charla added to Sargon’s statement by furiously waving a duster above the heads of the monkeys. “Don’t you know that trespassing on private property is a capital crime?” Her duster knocked several monkeys to their knees. Surely, if those monkeys had known better, they would not have crossed Lady Charla. No one in this town wanted to be in her way.
The monkeys, panicking, looked around frantically. “Hanuman, Hanuman,” they stuttered, pointing their hands up toward the sky.
“Hanuman? Don’t you dare try to threaten me with your Monkey King nonsense again,” snapped Lord Hao Fu, the bar owner. Apart from running the bar, he was also the town’s judge. His favorite activity was to glare menacingly at a convict and announce the final verdict while fiddling with his big folding knife with a hairy thumb. “I hereby declare that all of you are found guilty! You will either be hanged or drowned—I haven’t decided yet.”
Long, long ago, we found out that there must be a Planet Monkey somewhere out there in deep space, because once in a while a bunch of extremely ugly monkeys would descend upon our earthly little town. If the townsfolk caught them, they were beaten up; sometimes killed. Every single time, the monkeys would chant, Hanuman, Hanuman. Hanuman the Monkey King was their champion. Hanuman the Monkey King would come avenge them and restore justice. After a while, we learned to crack up at the mention of Hanuman.
It was the same this time. The townspeople gave the remaining monkeys a good beating, then sent them to the slaughterhouse, where all the criminals were held in iron cages—Lord Meng Lu, the owner of the slaughterhouse, also happened to be our mayor. We, the children, followed the escort as they took the monkeys away, tossing banana peels and pebbles at the monkeys. We hated the way those monkeys looked—they were the inspiration to many of our nightmares.
After the adults took care of the monkeys, they turned back and saw us. We made our grand escape and ran faster than the wind, piercing through air as arrows, our footsteps pounding the earth like heavy drumbeats. We loved to run. The ladies in town would have made a huge fuss if they saw us—Look at those undisciplined girls! they would say. Grabbing onto the hands of their dressed-up, roly-poly children, they would dodge out of the way to avoid having our dirt and grime taint their lavish silk robes. Those children would cling onto their mothers’ arms with sticky fingers and grin at us innocently.
We ran until we were out of breath, our hearts thumping so fast as if they were about to explode. We collapsed to the ground, trying to catch our breath. The sky was just about to dawn. Lying on our backs on the cold pavement, we gazed into the vast heaven above. One by one, pale stars glided toward the horizon.
I enjoyed stargazing. My family was somewhere up there with the stars, living a happy life. Those stars, the size of peas, were shimmering with a dim glow. They seemed far away, but I was not the least disheartened. I knew that I would get there one day.
Orange Town was a town of hope. Everyone came here to seek for hope.
Every day, we ran through the dusty, narrow streets of Orange Town, carefully avoiding the police and townspeople who dreaded us. Those adults were our bread-and-butter. We approached them with the gingerliness of a hummingbird, snatched their goods with the precision of a snake, and leaped back with the swiftness of a mongoose. The entire choreography was a dance of dexterity and agility. Then we ran for our lives.
The town was our oyster. We vagabonded everywhere, soaring on the breeze that brushed past our underarms. I must say, though the breeze was friendly, it was rather useless in dissipating the rotten odor that wafted through the air. The port remained magnificent, a safehold connecting us to the last sliver of hope; yet in my eyes, it resembled the beautiful painted skin of a dying noblewoman—concealing what was slowly decaying inside.
Sister had once told me that death was a process instead of an end point. A person in the process of dying could look perfectly fine on the outside, but the flesh and organs beneath their smooth porcelain skin were already withering, suppurating, melting away. I felt like Orange Town was just like that. At night, when nobody was watching, the town would squeak and moan, twist and turn, exhaling a faint miasma of putrescence. It was, too, in the process of dying. I reckoned that the impending death of Orange Town wasn’t a fact known by many people, though, because we kept on receiving more travelers. Following the densely intertwined roads, swarms of people pilgrimaged through the wastelands of sand and dust, like coiling black hemp ropes extending endlessly into the horizon.
We used to stand by the roads and peer at the travelers as they entered the town. Their footsteps were as heavy as that of a hippopotamus; their eyes were blank and dull. As they inched forward, their feet kicked up thin yellow dust that stuck to their weather-beaten bony legs. Orange Town was the final destination of their journey. Usually, they would linger at the port, eager for news on the next departing starship. There were always empty starships waiting at the port. Compared to the neighborhood’s rundown bungalows barely held together by a few nails, those starships were breathtakingly glamourous: their silvery metal bodies stood erect, glowing with an ethereal shimmer. They were silver towers with staircases that spiraled infinitely upward, connecting us to the stars.
The travelers would sit by the port and look up at those towers. They were grubby, worn-out, vulgar; their clothes reeked of sweat and filth. Most of them would eventually die here.
The townsfolk hated those new migrants—but they hated us more. All the street-wandering children mastered the art of running. Little Youqing, the youngest one of us, learned how to stagger-dash on bare feet before he could walk properly. Children who were slow would be caught, and then sold to predatory merchants. Sir Darwin called this “evolution”: survival of the fittest. The children who survived were as fast as gazelles. I was the fastest of all.
Speed, however, wasn’t enough. Luck mattered just as much. Su Youxiang used up her luck on the day the monkey starship crash-landed. Sargon caught her red-handed when she was stealing food from a market stall. To me, the way she seized that piece of cake was flawless, as smooth as a magician’s best performance. But Sargon’s single eye was able to see through the magic. She slipped on the stairs as she was getting away and fell. Sargon was right on her back. He clamped one hand around her neck and used the other to twist her arms behind her back. The girl’s face was as white as a sheet of paper from the pain. Instinctively, she started pleading for forgiveness. We knew that pleading was useless, but it was better than saying nothing.
Sargon took her to the grocery store. We followed them. Hiding in the alleyway behind the grocery store, we peered in from the cracks on the wooden wall. We witnessed him push her into the cupboard under the stairs. A few moments later, we heard a gunshot.
It wasn’t until nightfall that the neighborhood was finally cleared of people. Mann and I mustered up the courage to sneak into the grocery store. In the cupboard, we saw Su Youxiang’s body. Blood pooled on the floor. Rats scurried and hid themselves in the bloodstained coiled hemp ropes. She looked even smaller in size now. Her rib cage was protruding beneath her skin. On her body we found a lucky charm made out of ebony wood.
Mann was weeping. She was only ten years old, so the scene must’ve been frightening. I decided that Su Youqing was too young to hear about his older sister’s death. After we got out, I put Su Youxiang’s lucky charm around his thin neck and said nothing. He held on to the lucky charm and played with it until he eventually fell asleep on Mann’s back.
The lucky charm was elegantly crafted, a souvenir from Su Youxiang’s hometown. She once told me that her family was from the south, somewhere in Zhanzhou. I couldn’t remember what my own hometown looked like. Mother brought Sister and I to Orange Town when I was a toddler. Orange Town was beautiful back then: lush, fresh, and sweet, like a fruit that had just sprouted. The port was always crowded with people who were crisply dressed, waiting for their turn to step onto the staircase that led to the stars. Lord Hao’s bar permeated with smoke. The warm glimmer of gaslights shone through the hazy veil. More people lined up in there, longing for their turn to send a letter to family that lived on the stars above. A letter to the stars was costly, so everyone took their time to write and waited patiently. Whenever the white, shiny, pot-like communication antenna installed next to the bar spun around, a glint of hope would flash across the worn-out faces of the people standing outside. It meant that messages were being passed over.
Mother, Sister, and I lived in a tiny shed, in the darkest and dampest corner of Lady Charla’s tavern. She did all the work she could find to earn money, regardless of the weather or other conditions: laundry, cleaning, hauling . . . finally, we saved enough to send Father a letter. Lord Hao’s clerk helped us through the mailing process at the bar’s counter. Neither one of us knew how to read and write, so the clerk wrote the letter in our stead—of course, with an additional cost. “It’s going to be fine. Once we get in touch with Dad, he will come for us,” said Mother. “Then we can move to the stars together.”
Some stars came with two suns. I imagined that it would be warmer on those stars. Perhaps we would have summer every day, so Mother’s cough would get better. Mother loved to smile. After we sent the letter, she couldn’t stop grinning. For the entire day she beamed with joy, her cheeks rosy.
At first, the excitement was too overwhelming for me to conceal. I joined the crowd waiting on the plaza next to the bar, hoping that Father’s letter would arrive soon. From the look on Mother’s face, she was happy that I spent my time there. The clerk told us that it would take months even for the letter to reach Father’s hands, but I had patience. The people I hung out with were just like myself. Together we waited like a flock of geese, standing on tiptoe and craning our necks.
My enthusiasm started waning after months and months of waiting. Father hadn’t written back yet. The weather turned cold again. Mother’s condition was getting worse. The light in her eyes dimmed. She was constantly wheezing and coughing up blood when she worked. Whenever she was allowed a break, she would gently massage her own lower back and fix her gaze on the sky above our heads, lost in thought.
Just as we were about to lose hope, Father’s response finally came.
Sister told me the whole story. When I came home from the plaza that day, Mother was gone. Sister said that Father had come down for her. They departed for the stars right away, and they would be working together in a newfound human settlement. That way, they could save up even faster. When they have enough money for more tickets, they would come get us. They wanted to bid me farewell as well, but the starship was departing soon, so they couldn’t wait any longer. Sister was able to meet Father, though. She said that his hair was neatly combed, and he had a beard. Why, he was even wearing a new shirt! I had already forgotten what he looked like. I was so jealous of Sister that I didn’t speak to her for two days.
But Mother’s departure was something to be happy about, after all. The other townsfolk were green with envy. I was a little scared to be left behind, with no one else to depend on except for Sister, yet Sister remained her cool, composed self. She always knew the right thing to do. That was why Mother trusted her with taking care of both of us.
Sister was hitting puberty at the time. At the age of sixteen, she was tall and graceful like a grown adult. Now was my turn to turn sixteen. I wasn’t sure whether I would ever be as beautiful as she was.
Mann and I took turns carrying Youqing on our backs as we trotted toward where we sought refuge. All the lights in the town were out at night. In the dim moonlight, the shadows that the eaves casted over the pavement were jagged like the jaw of a dog. It felt as if we were walking in the belly of an upside-down cauldron, amongst ghosts that lurked in the dark. The entire Orange Town was utterly silent, like a giant troll finally lulled to sleep. I had the urge to light a fire, to scream, to become that tiny flea who would bite the sleeping troll on its back. But I controlled myself, for the sake of Youqing, who was sound asleep.
A bird glided across the sky, flapping its wings. Mann and I heard noises approach from the back. Hiding ourselves in the shadow, we turned to look. A girl we knew scurried down the street noisily, yelling, “A monkey has escaped! The adults are looking for it!”
The escape of the monkey was the second piece of big news of the day. We had seen the monkeys behind bars in the slaughterhouse. Thirsty and hungry, they leaned against the barbed wires, their eyes drained of life from the scorching sun. How could a monkey have escaped? The adults were furious. They went on a searching spree with hounds and weapons. In the end, they found no trace of the monkey, but ended up with drunks, beggars, and homeless children. However, now that the iron cages were filled up by the monkeys, they had nowhere to put these newly arrested people, so they beat them up to vent out anger. By the time we managed our way back home, it was already past midnight.
We usually slept beneath Lady Bilheart’s house. She was a widow, elderly, and near-blind. To prevent burglars from getting in, she sealed every window in her house with nail and wood. It wasn’t just the burglars that couldn’t enter her house, but also wind and sunshine. After she tripped on a rock and chipped her front teeth, she stopped going into the garden altogether. That gave us a chance to sneak into her backyard. We dug a long tunnel and made home right beneath her floor. I have been sleeping here for three years, ever since Lady Charla got rid of me.
Our landlady grew increasingly suspicious of the shenanigans happening right under her nose. Lady Bilheart, with the eyesight of bats and hearing of moles, took snooping around as a personal hobby. Whenever she sensed a possible threat, she would pull out a dirty little handkerchief-purse from under her pillow and count the coins inside. Then, she would roll the handkerchief up again and tuck it back into where it came from. Every night, we went to sleep accompanied by the sound of tinkling of coins.
When we finally got back to Lady Bilheart’s garden, all of us were so exhausted that we could barely keep our eyes open. Mann pushed the thill bamboos and ferns apart, revealing the entrance to the tunnel. As she was lowering herself into the tunnel, she let out a scream. We saw a dark shadow lurking in the hole beneath. I dropped Youqing and rushed over to help Mann. Together, we seized the creature and dragged it into the yard, so we could examine it in the moonlight.
It was none other than the escaped monkey. Even with its face smeared in dried blood, I could tell that it had a golden complexion. Its shriveled cheeks were puffing, as if a rat were wriggling in its mouth, and it looked like it would pass out any second.
The noise we made was obviously too loud for Lady Bilheart. We could hear her moaning and cursing inside that gloomy house of hers, pounding the floor with her walking stick. “Damned rats! I’ll get someone to take care of them tomorrow,” she would say, but she never did. We were careful to stay quiet, knowing that she would soon forget about us. A moment later, we heard her counting her coins again. Mann yawned. Youqing, having just woken up, hid behind my legs out of fear for the monkey.
Mann threw a tomato in the monkey’s direction. It caught the tomato and stuffed it into its mouth at once, gobbling down the fruit without chewing. Squatting in a semicircle, we examined the monkey carefully. A fully clothed monkey desperate for food. We didn’t know what to do with it.
In mere minutes, the monkey finished most of the food that we brought back. Youqing, now sensing that the monkey was not hostile, reached over with a hand and patted it on the back. Startled, its body shivered, and it almost choked on the food. Youqing giggled. He had already come to see the monkey as a friend. I sniffled. My eyes met Mann’s eyes, and I knew that she was thinking the same thing. We just lost a companion, after all. Perhaps it was heaven’s will to bring us a new friend.
I wiped the monkey’s face. The coat of dried blood peeled off like a layer of skin that was shed. I made up an inaugural ceremony where I introduced the three of us to the monkey, then sternly warned it, “If you want to join us, you will have to follow my lead. From now on, I’m your captain.”
“My name is Fifi,” answered the monkey solemnly, pointing at itself.
We almost burst out laughing. The monkey gave itself a girl’s name! Mann and I rolled on the ground. Youqing cheerily joined the group. Fifi, unimpressed by our response, rubbed its nose awkwardly.
“Wait, since you’re a traveler, surely you’ve been to other stars?” asked Mann.
No kidding, I wanted to chime in. Of course it has been to other stars. Earth was “another star” to those monkeys.
Fifi the monkey looked rather defeated. Pouting and sulking, it squatted in the corner, its figure strongly resembling that of a wooden statue. Maybe it was upset because it didn’t want a girl to be its captain, I thought to myself.
“So, what was it about Hanuman that every one of you was talking about?” I asked.
“I’ve met him,” said the monkey, its eyes darting around.
We laughed again. Everyone knew that Hanuman was only an ancient myth. I’ve heard of Hanuman’s story: Once upon a time, there was a monkey named Hanuman. It was the most powerful monkey of all. When the demon king invaded Planet Monkey, it defeated the demon king and protected everyone.
“Why would humans eulogize a monkey king, though? Don’t you find it strange?” Fifi grinned smugly. “Hanuman, our Monkey King, is the monkey in the story. He is the most powerful monkey of all. He possesses unparalleled divine magic. His eyesight is as clear as a mirror and his hearing is as sharp as an arrow. Mounting crimson clouds, he rules the stars. He brings piercing lightening and booming thunder to the world. The gloomiest sky burns beneath his feet, and the most iron-hearted heroes cower upon his gaze. You humans better watch out—for Hanuman is our king.”
There were hundreds of homeless children in Orange Town. For some reason, most of us were girls. Perhaps it was because the people here unfairly preferred sons over daughters. When a family was looking to emigrate to the stars yet had no money to buy every child a ticket, they almost always left the daughters behind. They believed that boys were more useful when it came to farm work. Girls, on the other hand, had to find ways to live. If they were lucky enough to survive, there were two ways out: one, their families who had left would settle down on a star, then come get them. Two, marry wealthy men who were planning on emigrating.
The sun had not yet risen from the horizon. Dewdrops collected on blades of grass, then rolled to the tips and plummeted down. One by one we climbed out of the tunnel to start our daily routine of approaching, snatching, and running. The more people we had on our team, the easier it was to make a living. An empty starship was docking today, and the plaza would be packed with people. Good chance to make a fortune. We lost Youxiang, though. Our newest member’s appearance would attract way too much unwanted attention; besides, it was still recovering from its wounds. We left it home to look after Youqing.
The plaza was a sea of bobbing heads. Whenever starships arrived, the townspeople would be at the port waiting for starships to descend, regardless of whether they were blessed with a boarding ticket or not. It was hard to imagine that there were this many people in town. Many of them had unfamiliar faces, as if they had somehow emerged magically from under the ground. In fact, there were too many people everywhere. Earth itself was swamped. Nobody wanted to stay here, though only a selected few had the privilege to leave.
I saw the look in people’s eyes. They were no different from caged animals in a slaughterhouse.
The process of boarding the starship was a literal war. After the starship had docked, it creaked open and dropped a long, slender ladder-shaped drawbridge. People elbowed and shoved themselves across the bridge, stepping on each other’s heads and shoulders to squeeze into the starship. It was one of the few occasions that humans wished that they could be more like monkeys. Some people, after making their way up the slippery, wavery, fifty-meter-high ladder, channeled their gymnastic talents and tried to somersault through portholes to steal a seat. The starship was quickly packed and by the time takeoff took place, a few of those gymnasts were still clinging onto the rim of portholes. They didn’t own tickets, so they couldn’t board the starship. The starship would take them to cold space, where they would freeze, fall, and drift to unknown places.
I knew that some rich bachelors would purposefully try to find partners at Orange Town. A few of them had come for Sister. By the time Sister reached adulthood, we were still waiting for the letter from our parents. Though undernourished throughout puberty, Sister was one of the most beautiful girls in town. She had emerald eyes and physique like a polished marble statue.
“No, my lord,” she would reply when men asked for her hand in marriage. “I am waiting for my father’s letter. One day he will come for my younger sister and I.” Often times she would add, “If you’re truly interested, my lord, why don’t you spare me some change and let me tell your fortune?”
Sister worked as a fortune-teller by the port. She would wear low-cut dresses and a necklace made from green glass beads. The ladies despised her, but the lords were fond of her. They would take her to the bar and drink with her, tipping her generously. That was how we managed to live after Mother had left us. She once told me with a secretive smile that she had been saving up for another letter, so that we could write to our parents and ask them to come get us.
I knew that she had been in love before, with some of the people she met. I’d seen her in distress upon coming home. She would pace back and forth like a cat on a hot tin roof and peer out the window every few minutes. A starship happened to be departing. She watched it ascend. I reckoned that she stayed behind because of me.
The big day came. Sister went to the bar to send the letter. Two starships had just arrived, and the plaza was bursting with people, so I stayed behind. She never came back. I looked everywhere, but I couldn’t find her. Night fell and stars slowly emerged in the sky. One after another, the people on the plaza went home. Finally, I was left all alone. I couched down, so that my own shadow would look less obtrusive. A few homeless children told me that they spotted Sister at the bar.
I went to the bar. Back then, Sargon still had both his eyes intact. He used to look rather handsome, with low eyebrows and a friendly face. He was not nearly as nasty to me. He told me that Sister had left with the starships upon receiving a letter from Father. Our parents worked hard to buy her another ticket.
I was on my own. I lain in bed in a daze, until Lady Charla found out and kicked me out. I ran into the homeless children—Su Youxiang and Mann—again. They told me that they had seen with their own eyes that Sister had left with someone she met in the bar. She was so drunk that she could barely walk. She must’ve gotten herself drunk because she was happy to leave. Apparently, she was taken to a meeting room in the port administrative office building. All the children around knew of that special meeting room: whoever received letters from their parents was brought there. From there, they would board the starships and reunite with their parents on other stars. Their parents would have already made a fortune, and they would live happily ever after together.
I let out a sigh of relief. Now that Father, Mother, and Sister were together, they would save up even faster. I was sure that they would come for me soon. The white, pot-shaped communication antenna, standing erect by the bar, rotated in silence. The townspeople watching tilted their heads to the angle of the antenna, like the moon spinning around Earth. Most of them would die before they had a chance to see what the moon really looked like. Their letters would never come.
I knew I was different from them. One day my family’s letter and money would arrive. As the townspeople rot away in their coffins, I would spread my own pair of wings veiled behind scrappy clothes, kick off, and fly to the stars. I waited patiently. I was ready to wait until the end of time.
Anyhow, that was how I met Su Youxiang and her brother Su Youqing, as well as Mann. Our life experiences were more or less the same. We stuck together to keep each other company.
When I told Fifi about Sister, the monkey kept on throwing me strange glances. Its eyes glistened like two blazing lightbulbs. Even Lady Bilheart’s floors were lit up by its gaze. I was worried that she would find out about our hideout.
Then, Fifi said, “We didn’t try to knock over your communication antenna on purpose. When we got off the starship, we saw that your so-called antenna was nothing but a silvered cooking pot. A motor was put inside the pot to make it spin. For all this time, no one here has been communicating with the stars. Even an electronic speaker would’ve done more than the antenna.”
My mouth was dry. My chest felt so tight that I could barely breathe. I climbed out the tunnel and sat alone in the garden. Starlight washed over me like a warm and gentle rain. A faint indigo haze rose up. The town seemed to be floating up, too, in the dreamy atmosphere. Mann and Youqing were sound asleep. I pressed my hand on the earth beneath. A tingle of pain. It was a blade of grass cutting into my palm. The sensation was too real for the monkey’s words to be a dream.
“Are you trying to say that there were never letters to begin with?” I tried to reason with the monkey. “That’s bullshit! Mother and Sister both left after receiving letters. They’re living on the stars together, with Father. So many other people left when their letters came. They’re all gone now. If there were never letters to begin with, then where did they go? Where did my mother and sister go?”
It stared at me, utterly silent. I saw sadness in those big, round, lightbulb-like eyes.
“Answer me now!” I was on the verge of shouting. My head was buzzing. My heart pounded. I fixed my gaze on the monkey’s face. In the heat of the moment, I wanted to murder it and throw it into the river.
Lady Bilheart was prodding the floor with her walking stick again. The monkey lowered its voice, “I can’t afford to wait any longer. My kin are still out there, caged up and about to die. They don’t have much time left. If I were younger, I could save them all by myself; but now, it’s all in Hanuman’s hands . . . ” Fifi looked up, its blank gaze extending into the vast space above. I examined its face closely in the moonlight and realized that its hairs were turning white. Its skin was wrinkled. Fifi was indeed an old monkey.
“To hell with your Hanuman,” I said. “I’m going back to bed.”
Lying down, I wept quietly. I couldn’t stop thinking about my family, who were enjoying life together on another star and left me behind. A while later, I woke Fifi up. “Speaking of your Monkey King, if his power is so great, could he take me to the stars? I want to leave this place.”
“You’re young,” said Fifi. In the darkness of the tunnel, its eyes were twinkling like a pair of stars. “There are plenty of ways for you to leave Earth. You don’t have to wait for someone to come save you.”
But I knew that women weren’t allowed to board starships on their own. The only way for them to travel anywhere was to go with their fathers or husbands. That was how things worked on Earth.
“Have you tried making a wish?” Fifi smiled mysteriously. It cackled with laughter as it stuffed a small trinket into my hand. The trinket had a rough surface that felt like dried orange peel. “This is a magical monkey paw,” boasted Fifi. “It has seen worlds that you couldn’t begin to imagine. It has saved my life many times. Come, make a wish! The magical monkey paw has never let anyone down.”
My face twitched. Instinctively, I felt like laughing and scoffing and rolling on the ground. But something about the little monkey paw was mesmerizing—as if it really contained magic. I curled my fingers tightly around it. “I want to leave,” I said solemnly. Milky clouds drooped down from the sky. Each cloud was made out of billions of tiny stars that glistened like jewel shards and pixie dust. “I want to go to the stars.”
“Then your wish shall come true,” said Fifi, smiling smugly. “You will board the starship and go wherever you like. You will be with us together on the stars.”
I cast my eyes on the monkey paw lying in my palm. I didn’t know how I could realistically board a starship, though. If I couldn’t send a letter to Father, how would he know that I was here? Nobody would want to marry me, either. I was far from being graceful and poised. I would never be as beautiful as Sister.
“Don’t you worry,” said Fifi, as if it could read my mind. It patted my cheek with a crinkly hand. I saw butterflies flutter in its triangle-shaped eyes. “You’re beautiful, just like your sister. I’m sure you will find someone.”
It added, “Even Hanuman would fall in love with you. I know him like a brother. I promise, not only that Hanuman would love your beauty, but he would also love your heart.” The sincerity in its voice almost made me believe that it had really met the Monkey King or Sister. However, it must be mad to have believed in such a ridiculous tale.
I didn’t want to embarrass Fifi with more questions of the Monkey King, though. “What about Mann?” I asked.
Fifi sighed and wrinkled its nose. “I don’t know. We’re running out of good-hearted single monkeys. I guess I could marry her!”
I bit down on my arm and giggled. My stomach was twitching again, but my heart felt lighter.
“Gee, what a sacrifice to make,” I teased. “Okay, perhaps you have a point. But do you know what humans would do to women? To them, women are already inferior to begin with, but monkeys are even worse. If I marry your Monkey King, then we would all be hanged to death together.”
“Actually, we are not real monkeys,” responded Fifi mellowly. “You see, when humans live for a long time in a different habitat, they begin to evolve. Our current physical form is more suited for the conditions in space.”
“Are you trying to say that humans are evolving into monkeys on your planet? The complete reverse of our theory of evolution?” I couldn’t hold back my snicker this time. Mann and Youqing stirred from their sleep. After hearing about what had happened, they burst into laughter. We never really believed in the monkey’s words. After all, look at the grin on its face—I was sure that it was pleased with its fabricated tales. The noises we made woke up Lady Bilheart, too. She was prodding at the floor again.
Fifi said, “You can laugh at me all you want, but I can get us out of here. Do you know where they stored our starship?”
We spent the next day looking for the monkeys’ starship. Densely packed laundry lines and poles crisscrossed in midair as we dashed through the cramped labyrinthian alleyways. We ran beneath the curtain of water dripping from the wet clothes. We ran beneath the crooked, wobbly balconies, and ran past the mosaic of twisted, spear-like drainpipes inlaid in the moldy brick walls. We ran by the people who were dusting their mops and carpets outside, in little wooden pens that dangled down from their windows like bird nests, and held our breath as we passed through the clouds of dust they raised.
Wanted posters with a picture of a monkey’s face stamped in the middle were on every wall. The face, though, didn’t quite look like Fifi. Upon further scrutinization of Fifi’s complexion, I decided that those monkeys were, in fact, different from the monkeys we were used to seeing on Earth.
By noontime, we reached the hill behind the port. The monkeys’ starship was tied up behind the port administrative office building. The adults were in a heated argument about how to distribute the goods on the ship. No one was guarding the starship. Perhaps they thought that the escaped monkey had died the night before; or, even if the monkey could find the starship, it would be impossible for it to operate the starship on its own. Earthling textbooks said that monkeys were inferior creatures. The starship had a knotty surface that resembled the bark of a tree. Indeed, it looked hideous, just like the monkeys themselves.
We also saw the captured monkeys that were put in cages. Their health was deteriorating quickly. Sargon had given them some water to keep them alive, because the adults hadn’t decided on what to do with them yet. They were discussing the possibility of using those monkeys as hostage in exchange for ransom.
We returned home by sundown. Dusk was falling, and people’s faces were reduced to fuzzy silhouettes in the twilight. Lady Bilheart’s door was shut. No one spotted us when we slid down the tunnel. The monkey was waiting there, stretching its arms and legs. “I can walk fine on my feet,” it muttered. “Why, beating can’t break the spirit of ol’ Fifi! Since you found the starship, let’s leave tonight.”
Mann asked, “Are the four of us leaving together?”
“Of course! We’re a team,” chuckled the monkey.
We laid down, waiting for nightfall. On the way home, we bought some food. We couldn’t show up in the grocery store with the money we stole, but thanks to the black market, we were able to buy meat, pizza, and some fruits. Food would come in handy on our way out. Perhaps we should get some sleep first, since a long journey was waiting ahead, but we were far too excited to fall asleep. Mann even managed to get her hands on a bottle of wine. It was extremely dangerous to steal from Lord Hao Fu at the bar, for he kept track of his bottles meticulously, but we couldn’t care less. We were going to leave for sure, to board a starship and fly to another star.
I have never been so impatient for the sun to disappear. Every second felt like a lifetime. Youqing didn’t know what was going to happen, but he was nevertheless exhilarated. He crawled around, unable to stay quiet. We had to feed him some wine to put him to sleep.
Finally, it turned completely dark outside. Orange Town was dead silent save for an occasional dog bark. In the moonlight, the pavement gleamed like a piece of smooth, white cheese. It was time to leave.
We had barely passed through two blocks when Youqing started to throw a tantrum. Whining loudly, he twisted and turned, refusing to walk.
“What’s the matter? We need to hurry up,” said the monkey.
I knelt down to check. The boy’s body was fine; no wounds, no limbs missing. Though his neck seemed empty. I realized that he had dropped his lucky charm.
The road was empty. Moonlight rippled like water. Milky mist swirled around our ankles like pixie magic. Youqing insisted on going back to look for his lucky charm. Mann was worried.
As the captain of the team, I knew I had to make a choice. “Go to the starship with Fifi,” I told Mann. “I’ll turn back with Youqing, then we’ll meet you at the port.” After all, the lucky charm is the only thing his family left for him.
We were back in Lady Bilheart’s garden in no time. Bugs were chirping. Rats scurried around. Down in the warm, dry tunnel, we fumbled around in the dirt. Finally, I snatched the wooden amulet out of a rat’s jaw. Youqing stopped whimpering. I tied the lucky charm on his neck and tightened the knot.
A blazing torch plummeted into the tunnel through the hidden entrance. Youqing and I jumped, jamming our heads into the floor above. Hounds was barking outside the tunnel. They sniffed around, trying to poke their heads inside. “Enough, kiddies! Get out here now!” bellowed Lord Hao Fu. Next to him, Sargon was giggling.
“I knew that something wasn’t right,” squealed the old lady. “Rats fighting under my bed every night! You owe me the bounty on these children.”
“Out of our way!” barked the two men. The entrance was too small for them. They unleashed the hounds, but the hounds have been well-fed and were thus too fat to fit comfortably through the tunnel. The leading hound kept on bumping into the roots and branches that hung from the tunnel ceiling. We scrambled to get away from the hounds. The tunnel was a dead end; we couldn’t hide for long. The men outside were beginning to dig at the entrance with shovels. In mere minutes, they would capture us. It was the end.
“Come out, little girl,” teased the men. I smelled the briny stench of the hound’s breath. It was panting next to me. I kicked its nose with all my might. It roared with pain. Then I kicked at the wooden boards and beams against my back. Century-old whiffs of dust spurt from the cracks like a snowslide and engulfed my face. I was suffocating. The wooden bungalow trembled and creaked as if it would collapse any moment.
I kicked a hole through the board. The golden fur of a monkey emerged from the hole. It was Fifi extending a hand to me. “Leave! Now! Grab my hand,” shouted Fifi.
I spun around to look for Youqing. He was wailing. Blood gushed from scratches on his grimy face. A hound clenched its jaw around a strap on his shirt and tugged at his body. Through the thick smoke that filled the tunnel, I saw that he was dragged into the garden, now entirely lit up by lamps and torches. He disappeared between the forest of legs standing outside. I heard punching sounds, and then a heavy thud.
The adults outside tossed torches down the tunnel, but instead ignited Lady Bilheart’s entire house by accident. Flames surged into the air. The crowd screamed, making a huge mess. Lady Bilheart must be devastated, I thought to myself.
“Get them!” someone yelled. “They’re leaving from the back!”
“Go, go!” shouted Fifi. “They’re coming!” I heard Mann’s voice, calling my name. After a moment of hesitation, I finally turned around and crawled on all fours. My hair was sizzling from being caught on fire. When I pulled myself out of the mess, I saw that the garden was empty again. The adults must have gone into the back alley.
Youqing’s body laid horizontally before me. His head was smashed in, and his neck was cut open. Blood spurted all over the grass. His lucky charm had fallen off again. Bowing down, I picked up the lucky charm and tucked it away in his pocket. Cold beads of water fell onto his pale, thin arm. He looked so small and fragile—no bigger than a cat.
The smell of stainless steel permeated the air: chilly, bitter, a hint of blood. Then a hand grasped my shoulder. I looked up and saw the face of Lord Hao Fu—the messenger who was supposed to deliver our letters to the stars. “Oh my, look what we have here!” he bared his teeth at me like a hound.
I smelled the sweetness of his perfume when his hand seized my collar. The adults running the town were upper-class people, as they said. They would never forget about their feathers and gowns and makeup and perfume, even on a night raid. “You can’t run away from me now! Where’s the monkey?” demanded Lord Hao Fu.
He must have been drunk because he was staggering on his feet. As I wrestled him with all my might, my fingertips brushed pass the large folding knife that he always carried around, attached to his belt. The faces of Mother, Sister, and Youqing flashed across my mind. Memories of them filled my entire body, seeping into my veins, muscles, and nerves. I felt like I was going to explode from hatred, fear, and heartache. I reached for the knife.
Lord Hao Fu’s face turned blue. The first stab missed, but the second stab landed on his stomach. He started to shriek. My ears were ringing. If he continued to scream with the same pitch and volume, all the donkeys in the area would come to see him as their own kin.
I didn’t get to stab him a third time, though. The folding knife was too big for my hands. A blow landed on my head. My vision went black.
The next time I regained consciousness, Sargon was dragging me by the hair to pull me up from the floor. “Caught you at last, filthy bastard! Look at you—you’re the exact same as your sister,” he exclaimed. He pressed his dull, single eye into my face. I smelled the stench of alcohol on his breath. “Your sister blinded my other eye, and you stabbed Lord Hao Fu. Scumbags!”
Behind him was a luxurious office desk. Our mayor Lord Meng Lu sat by the desk, with his greasy, bulky hands crossed over his stomach, and his bony legs stretched out in front of him on the table. He has a tanned face and straw-like hair.
“I’ll take care of her punishment. I promise, she’ll be a different person once I’m done,” muttered Sargon with an evil grin. He winked at me. I bared my teeth at him in response. Of course, our judge Lord Hao Fu was injured, so he couldn’t attend my trial.
“Children are corrupting our town! Perhaps we should publicly execute one of them to warn the rest,” the mayor wondered out loud. I could tell that his visions for Orange Town were much grander than that of Sargon’s.
I recognized our surroundings. We were in the port administrative office. It was my turn to go to the special meeting room that the children longed for. The room was empty, save for a small iron bed. The bedsheets were stained with grease and blood. All the children who were supposedly leaving for a brand-new happy life on the stars have slept on the same bed. I pressed my head against the ragged sheets, trying to make out the traces that Sister had perhaps left here. I saw nothing. Did Fifi and Mann get away? I didn’t know. My head was throbbing. I couldn’t think properly.
I reached my hand into my pocket and felt the hardness of the magical monkey paw against my fingertips. The adults had forgotten to confiscate it. Even in a dark iron house, one could hope for drops of dew that would seep through the cracks on the wall, bearing the scent of life outside. I remembered the stars again. How beautiful they were! I imagined them growing a thick layer of warm, soft fuzz in winter.
If I would never see the stars again, maybe I could dream about them. Would the world be a better place in my dreams?
I heard someone barge into the room next door. “Did you find the monkey and the starship?” asked the mayor.
“No, no,” stuttered the person. “It’s not about that . . . ” He gulped, but no sound came out of his mouth. I knew he was the clerk from the bar who wrote letters for people. How strange—it was as if I had acquired the power to see through walls. He uttered some broken syllables and started pounding his own head. I was curious about what he had to say, yet it seemed that he had lost his ability to speak coherently. All of a sudden, he leaped across the room, shoving the mayor out of his way. He grasped onto the embroidered curtain, pulled it down, and pushed the windows open.
The others in the room thought he was going to jump. They made a dash for him and extended their arms. However, as they reached the window, their hands halted in midair as if they had met an invisible wall.
Outside the window, countless battle starships were zooming above the port. They swooped down on the town in turns, dragging white smoky trails behind, like a swarm of bees clouding over a lavish bush of flowers. The nozzles at the head of the starships spewed petroleum compound. Then fire rained down. The towering bar, “Twister,” burst into flames and collapsed like a tree chopped down. The sky was completely darkened by the spreading wings of those ferocious birds, then reddened by the blazing fire rising from the port buildings. Even the low-hanging clouds seemed to be burning. A huge flag was waving in the wind.
“What’s happening?” the town’s administrators yelled, overwhelmed with terror and confusion.
“It’s the Monkey King’s starship. The Monkey King is here,” I responded from my bed, laughing loudly. I saw the Monkey King’s starship with my own eyes, though it was gliding thousands of feet above the ground. It surpassed all of the other starships in the fleet. It was as fast as lightening and as loud as thunder. It radiated glorious golden light, and the flame at its tail was a trail of dazzling red cloud.
Everyone next door heard my words. Stiffly, they turned their heads in my direction and stared at me. I saw the fear in their eyes.
For the entire day, thousands of battle starships darted through the clouds. Orange Town was submerged in a shower of fire. Those tall, magnificent buildings came crashing down and crumbled to pieces. The organs of Orange Town were so rotten that even the finest skin could no longer conceal them. In the taut, translucent belly of the town, the fancy feathers, the silk gowns, the makeup, and the perfume exploded at once, spurting out stinking, green juice. Orange Town was finally dead.
The Monkey King had given them a chance to make peace. They missed the chance.
The town’s administrators gathered in the room next to me. They seemed to be debating in panic, with hushed voices. Their words crawled into my ears like tiny ants. Half-awake and half-lost in a feverish dream, I heard the content of their discussion.
“Sure, let the beast take its monkeys back, but why the hell should we give it one of our own people? It’s meddling in our internal affairs!” I recognized the angry voice of the mayor. “They’re only monkeys! Why should we be scared of them?”
“I don’t think so, mayor,” said another voice. “Remember? They said that the Monkey King wanted to marry her.”
The people froze into silence. For a long time, no one said a single word.
“Bastard,” they said at last. “Let’s pardon her and let her decide for herself.”
Right. I had never considered the prospect of marriage before—not seriously. But I made a quick decision anyway. I knew that I was going to become the biggest news of Orange Town. How humiliating! The townspeople would complain, burying their faces in their palms out of embarrassment. It was none of my concern, though. I despised Orange Town. The orange fruit inside its perfect skin had already rotted away and nobody bothered to peel the skin open to reveal the gruesome muck.
The port had turned into ruins. Smoke rose up from the debris. The odor of burned flesh wafted through the air. I remembered that I once had Sister tell my fortune. “Forget about it, honey,” she said. “Your husband is going to be extremely ugly.”
I couldn’t care less. My husband was going to be a beautiful monkey. It would be tall and strong, covered in spiky, golden hair. It would have eyesight as clear as a mirror and hearing as sharp as an arrow. The muscle on its neck would be as firm as bronze.
I ran toward the port, barefooted. I had never run so fast in my life. Swirls of wind swept past me. The cold pavestone beneath my feet were as sharp as blades. Time was tugging at my feet like a swamp, threatening to slow me down. The adults were chasing after me, but I wasn’t scared. Nothing could catch up to my speed. A few starships had already docked at the port; more starships were hovering in the crimson sky.
Mann hopped off a starship and reached for me. Then came Fifi, beaming with pride, its chest stuck out. Hey, don’t forget I’m still your captain! I wanted to blurt out, but I fell silent as my eyes landed on the monkey next to Fifi. The monkey was so tall that I needed to crane my neck to see its face. It was dressed the same as the other monkeys, and its visage was veiled behind a pilot’s helmet.
I trembled with nervous energy—I was probably just too shy. It took off the helmet and extended a hand in my direction. My hand was shaking. I couldn’t believe my eyes. In the twilight, I discerned its face: it was a human’s face. The face looked weather-beaten and worn out, but it belonged to a human, no doubt.
“Thank you for saving my friend,” he said. His eyes were glistening like stars.
I buried my face in my palms and sat on the ground. “You’re not the Monkey King,” I whispered stubbornly. Tears were rushing out. I dabbed at my eyes. “I was waiting for a monkey to come. It would have eyesight as clear as a mirror and hearing as sharp as an arrow. The muscle on its neck would be as firm as bronze.”
“Fifi was joking with you. They’re a mischief-maker. You’ll get to know them better, I’m sure,” said Hanuman the Monkey King with a warm smile. Behind him, Fifi was grinning and making faces at me. “Not all of us who live on Planet Monkey are monkeys. In fact, Planet Monkey belongs to the descendants of humans. I am a new immigrant.”
“Why do they call you the Monkey King, then?” I asked, then immediately regretted asking such a dumb question.
Hanuman shrugged and smiled again. He had a smile that could captivate the world. I stopped crying at last. A strange feeling washed over me from head to toe: I felt like I had met him a long time ago. For all this time, I knew the kind of life I wanted to have. He would be the best partner-in-crime I could ask for.
I placed a hand on his arm. He tilted his body so I could see his starship. It was small-built and unadorned, reminding me of a black beetle huddled on the ground. It was even more plain than the starship that Fifi had come with. I bet it would be uncomfortable to be crammed up in the starship with the big guy next to me. I was growing taller day by day. I kind of hoped that he was a small monkey, so that the starship would be more spacious for the two of us. But it didn’t really matter, did it?
Fifi had hopped into the pilot’s seat. It fidgeted and winked at me like a real monkey, clearly proud of the big joke it pulled. I was plotting revenge in my heart—of course, I was going to keep that a secret.
The time has come for us to go somewhere far, far away. I was going to find Father, Mother, and Sister. I was sure that they were waiting for me somewhere up there. The red-and-white patterned drawbridge dropped from the starship and landed by my feet. The sun had set. One by one, stars revealed themselves on the dark backdrop of night. In my dream, my fingers, curled up in my pocket, brushed past the magical monkey paw.
Originally published in Chinese in Science Fiction World, November 2004.
Translated and published in partnership with Storycom.
Pan Haitian is a graduate of School of Architecture, Tsinghua University, National Class I Registered Architect, and a science fiction and fantasy writer. He has won five Galaxy Awards of Chinese SF. His story “The Legend of Yanshi” was adapted into the ballet drama “Yanshi” by the National Ballet of China. He is also the co-founder of Jiuzhou Novoland, a fantastic ancient Chinese setting crowd worldbuilding project. He worked as editor-in-chief of Odyssey of China Fantasy from 2005-2010, and now works mainly as a screen writer.
Emily Xueni Jin (she/her) is a science fiction and fantasy translator, translating both from Chinese to English and the other way around. She graduated from Wellesley College in 2017, and she is currently pursuing a PhD in East Asian Languages and Literature at Yale University. As one of the core members of the Clarkesworld-Storycom collaborative project on publishing English translations of Chinese science fiction, she has worked with various prominent Chinese SFF writers. Her most recent Chinese to English translations can be found in AI2041: Ten Visions For Our Future, a collection of science fiction and essays co-written by Dr. Kaifu Lee and Chen Qiufan (scheduled to publish September 2021) and The Way Spring Arrives co-published by Tor and Storycom, the first translated female and non-binary Chinese speculative fiction anthology (scheduled to publish April 2022). Her essays can be found in publications such as Vector and Field Guide to Contemporary Chinese Literature.
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