Ten-year-old Lin did not belong to a wealthy family. But that did not bother her. No one could understand how she could be happy with just two pairs of clothes and a very insufficient meal twice a day.
The secret was this: Lin didn’t need a reason to be happy. Although her mother had died giving birth to her, she had brought a little, if not much happiness in her father’s life. From a rundown hut in a filthy condition he had upgraded to a small apartment in a considerably clean condition.
Although Lin was inherently cheerful, she had every reason to be happy that day. It was the Mooncake Festival, and she could already smell the aroma of delicious mooncake wafting in from the neighbouring houses as she adjusted her white cheongsam in the broken mirror. That cheongsam was the only luxurious item she possessed, handed down through generations. But it didn’t in the least bit look old or frayed. In fact, it was very beautiful; printed with little blue flowers, bordered with blue velvet and embroidered with tiny fake pearls. Lin wore it only on festivals and her birthday.
She took in the sweet aroma once more. She could almost taste it if she concentrated hard enough.
Her fantasies were broken by her father’s voice calling her. “Lin! Come on; it’s worship time,” he called.
“Coming, papa!” she called back and ran to the rooftop, where her father was laying out what little victuals they had on a three-legged wooden stool. Every year on the Mooncake Festival, he offered food to Chang’e, the moon goddess of immortality; he believed that she would bless them if he did so.
“Will Chang’e bless us this year, papa?” Lin asked, as she did every year.
“Surely, my dear. One day she will notice that moon-shaped birth mark on your left arm and shower us with gifts,” her father replied- the same reply he gave every year. Chang’e never seemed to notice Lin’s birthmark, though. For the last ten years, she had not given them an extra yuan, let alone a ‘shower of gifts’. But Yang Bohai was not willing to let go of his belief just yet. “Come on, now, kneel and close your eyes. Repeat after me- O Chang’e, queen of the moon, goddess of immortality!”
She repeated her father’s address to the goddess and waited for him to continue, although she knew the words by heart.
“Accept my humble offering and bestow your blessings on me.”
Lin had hardly said the last word when she was carried off into the air by… something. Whatever or whoever had done that was definitely in a great hurry, as they were so quick that she didn’t even have time to open her eyes. It was only when she was a mile off the ground that she did so.
When she looked down at her legs, she almost fell off the thing she was riding. She was sitting on the scaly, serpentine body of a dragon; A real, live dragon. Lin gazed at the back of his head. Sure enough, he had the horns of a deer and the ears of a cow, just as her father had described while narrating mythological stories to her. One more thing which surprised her was how he managed to stay up in the air without any wings. His serpentine body just seemed to glide through the air. Lin cautiously touched one of the blue-green scales on his body.
“Admiring the dragon now, are we?” he spoke in his deep but kindly voice.
Lin turned as red as one of the dragon’s whiskers. “I… I’m so sorry, sir. It’s just that… I’ve never seen a real dragon in my life before.”
The dragon laughed a deep, throaty laugh. “Won’t you introduce yourself, little girl?”
“Yes, yes sure,” she stammered. One could hardly expect to remember manners in the company of a dragon. “My name is Yang Lin and I am ten years old.”
“Ten years; I see. I am Qinglong, by the way.”
Lin’s jaw dropped in shock. “Qinglong? The Qinglong? The Dragon King of the East Sea? The Azure Dragon, god of spring?”
“Yes, yes, all that as well. Technically it should’ve been Bailong, the Autumn Dragon who should’ve come to pick you up, as it’s his season and spring is ages away. But Chang’e likes to trouble me; Said Bailong told her he was a bit ‘busy’ at the moment. Busy, my whisker. I expect he’s sleeping in some temple, all invisible, and feasting on the food those foolish mortals leave for him.”
Lin had heard nothing after the mention of Chang’e. Chang’e, the moon goddess herself, had sent Qinglong to get her? A poor little girl, summoned by a goddess, that too on one of the Dragon Kings? She pinched herself, way too hard, to confirm that this wasn’t a dream. It hurt a lot.
“But… but why would Chang’e call me?”
Although she couldn’t see his camel-like face, she could bet Qinglong had smirked. “You’ll see.”
Two minutes later, Qinglong had landed on the surface of the moon, in front of a sprawling mansion. ‘Sprawling mansion’ would probably be an understatement. This place was larger than the President’s home. Decorated in white and shades of blue instead of the traditional red, the mansion seemed to glow and emit an aura that seemed to refresh those in proximity. So did the stunningly beautiful woman who came out of it.
Her black hair was tied up in a messy bun at the back of her head, with a few loose strands hanging over her face, which glowed just like the moon. Her brilliant blue eyes twinkled like two sapphires on her face. A knee-length cheongsam showed off her slim figure.
Lin immediately knew that this could be none other than Chang’e. She did not know the proper way to greet a goddess, but she did her best and curtseyed. Chang’e smiled.
“You were always a modest dresser, Chang, weren’t you?” Qinglong said, staring pointedly at her legs.
Chang’e laughed. “Those long, flowy dresses are so inconvenient. The world is changing, Qing, and we have to change with it. Besides, this is nothing. You should see what Chuang-Mu dresses up like.” She winked. Qinglong laughed too. “Thanks for fetching the girl, anyway. You may go now.”
Qinglong cocked his head to one side and said innocently- “Just ‘thanks’, Chang? What about my payment?” Chang’e rolled her eyes and went inside the mansion. She reappeared a few minutes later with a large box wrapped in velvet cloth with a rope at its end. She set it down in front of Qinglong and stared at the rope for a second. The rope looped itself around Qinglong’s neck and tied itself on the other end of the box. The goddess then bent down, took some dust from the moon’s surface and sprinkled it on the box. “Happy?”
He tried lifting the heavy-looking box with his neck. It went up as easily as if it were no heavier than a feather. “Very. I tell you, girl, don’t do anything for her without having some of that delectable mooncake of hers,” he said, looking at Lin. Lin was confused whether she should nod her head or not. Fortunately, she didn’t have to do either. “You may go now, Azure Dragon,” Chang’e said, a little sternly. Qinglong let out a ‘Humph’ and glided away.
The goddess now turned to face Lin. “Hello, my dear. You are Yang Lin, daughter of Yang Bohai, yes?” Lin nodded shyly. “Well, I have called you for helping me with something. Just like every aeon, this aeon too, my Jade Rabbit has hopped off the moon onto the Earth. Your task is simple- just find him and bring him back to me.” Chang’e said it as if searching the Earth for the Jade Rabbit was like searching a carrot farm. Much as Lin liked the moon goddess, she couldn’t possibly search the whole planet for a rabbit. And she had other questions too. “But, Madam Chang’e, it’s impossible to hunt the whole Earth for the Jade Rabbit. You must have called some seer to find out his location. I am just an ordinary fisherman’s daughter.”
“No, my dear, you are very special. See that crescent-moon birthmark on your left arm? There’s a reason it’s there. I’ll tell you that reason when you find the Jade Rabbit for me. And secondly, you have passed the test.”
“What sort of a test?”
“The test that every seeker of the Jade Rabbit must pass- the test of eternal happiness. You are a true optimist, who is inherently cheerful, who does not need a reason to be happy. I could find no one else on the Earth who passed this test. You, therefore, must be the sole pursuer of the Jade Rabbit.”
‘That is all very well,’ thought Lin. ‘but does she expect me to wander the whole planet for a bunny?’
Chang’e seemed to hear her thoughts. “Don’t worry, you won’t be alone. The Jade Rabbit is attracted to one scent- the moonscent. The moonflower is the only thing which gives out this fragrance. Your job is to find the moonflower and plant it in the country he is in. As soon as you do that, he will come hopping to you. But you must plant the moonflower before dawn and find him. Or else, it will wilt and I will be forced to spend an age in this lonely place without my only companion. I tend to get into a temper in the absence of company, and that may have adverse effects on the tides, which might then flood the seashores.”
Lin gasped. She lived near the seashore, and her father went out to sea every day to fish. “But I don’t know where the moonflower and the rabbit are,” she said.
“These riddles will tell you that,” she replied and handed her a piece of parchment with four lines on both sides of it, written in neat longhand. One side read-
At its centre is a trail without an eye
At its end there stays an ear,
The place down the planet doth lie
Where the flower blooms near a tree with a bear.
Lin hadn’t read a more confusing riddle in her life. She was completely flabbergasted. She looked up to ask Chang’e for help, but the moon goddess had already disappeared. She let out a long sigh. It would take ages to solve the riddle on her own. It made no sense. ‘A trail without an eye?’ Since when did trails have eyes? ‘At its end there stays an ear’- it was just as nonsensical as the first line. As far as she knew, countries did not have ears. The people living in them did. It was not possible that all the people living in a country did not have an ear. Some might not, she did not deny it, but all of them couldn’t not have a single ear. Lin got even more confused after that thought. ‘The place down the planet doth lie’- of course, the place was on the Earth. Chang’e had already narrowed it down to that. ‘Where the flower blooms near a tree with a bear’- so the flower was somewhere where bears lived. That didn’t help either. A lot of countries in the world had bears.
She read the riddle again and again, but it was of no use. She couldn’t solve it, try as she might. She tried reciting it. Then it clicked. She realised she hadn’t paid much attention to the last line, which could be a big clue. ‘A tree with a bear’ did not necessarily have to mean a tree with a bear beside it. It could also mean a tree with a bear on it. There was only one bear in the world known for climbing trees. The Koala Bear.
Excited, she read the whole riddle again. She realised the first two lines were a play on words. ‘At its centre is a trail without an eye’ meant the word ‘trail’ without the letter ‘I’ was in the middle of the country’s name. She had her answer. The country where the moonflower was, was Australia.
Lin had wondered earlier how she would get to different countries. She wondered that no more. As soon as she had guessed the answer, she had flown to Australia on the wind, just as Chang’e had floated off to the moon on drinking Hou Yi’s elixir of immortality.
Now she found herself in a large grassy forest with lots of eucalyptus trees. It wasn’t dense, and there was a path running down it right in front of her. Lin found the trail ironic after the riddle. But now, there was a new problem before her. There were hundreds of trees in this forest on which koala bears must be sleeping. Searching the whole jungle for the moonflower would take hours and the day would probably dawn before she even found it. There had to be some other way.
She was just thinking about what to do when she smelled a distinct fragrance in the air. It was the smell of roses, jasmines, dahlias, and the smell of every other sweet-smelling flower mixed together. Lin guessed it could only be the moonflower. She tried to follow the scent. Following a sound is relatively easy, but trying to follow a scent is way more difficult. Then, she had an idea. She plucked some leaves, rolled them up and plugged them in her ear to block out even the slightest sound. Then she closed her eyes and pinched her nose a bit to make her nostrils smaller. Now she could concentrate only on the scent without interference from other sense organs.
She sniffed and followed where she thought the fragrance got stronger. She wandered around like a blind person for what seemed like hours, until the fragrance got so strong that it made her dizzy. She cautiously opened her eyes. There it was- the snowy, silvery moonflower glistening with dewdrops in the moonlight. Entranced, she walked towards it. She caressed its soft petals. Probably the most beautiful flower in the universe, she thought, hypnotised. Once its enchanting spell had passed, she uprooted it carefully, taking care to keep the roots intact so that she could plant it again.
Now she sat down near the eucalyptus tree on which a single koala bear was snoring and turned the parchment over for the Jade Rabbit’s riddle. It said-
Mazu rules not well here
For the rabbit, triangulate its position,
Kings and ancestors are honoured there
But it leads to a foul emission.
Mazu was the Chinese goddess of water. So, the place was surely a desert. This time, Lin guessed the answer way too quickly. “Gobi Desert in China,” she said and waited to be flown back to China. But nothing happened. She remained there. She repeated her answer, but in vain.
Lin figured it must not be the right answer. She read the riddle carefully once more. The second line seemed to provide no clue. It just stated the obvious. The third line was pretty straightforward, but the last line was cryptic. What practice of honouring kings and ancestors could lead to a foul emission? Lin’s first thought was food, which led to people farting. She chuckled to herself and dismissed the thought. She thought about other sources of a ‘foul emission’. Smoke was often called a foul emission, and fire caused smoke. She could think of only one country where dead people were burnt. “India,” she said aloud, but it didn’t work either. Then she tried the same strategy she had with the previous riddle- paying attention to the lines which she hadn’t concentrated on before. She looked at the second line- ‘For the rabbit, triangulate its position’. Why had the word ‘triangulate’ been used instead of the simpler ‘locate’? Surely there was a reason. She thought of things which were triangles. Pizza slices, nachos- she was hungry, she realised. She shook her head and tried to think of something besides food. School was where she started her search. Her mind was inadvertently drawn to her Maths class where her teacher had recently taught them about solid figures. Pyramids were triangular. The place must be the land of pyramids, she guessed. “Egypt,” she said aloud and was carried away by the wind.
Lin landed at an oasis, with the flower beside her. Dawn was approaching, she saw, and time was little. She looked for something to dig with and found a sharp rock. She picked it up and started digging as fast as she could. She took some water from the lake to make the sand softer and easier to dig. After a few minutes, she had made a fairly sized hole in the ground. Lin planted the flower firmly in it and started filling the hole again. Finally, the moonflower was standing upright in the ground. Lin washed her hands in the lake and waited for the Jade Rabbit.
She did not have to wait long. A fluffy little rabbit with light green fur came bouncing towards the moonflower. It closed its shiny little eyes and sniffed at it, its little pink nose twitching. Lin quickly grabbed the rabbit and floated to the moon.
Chang’e was already waiting outside her mansion when Lin alighted. Exhausted, she handed over the rabbit to Chang’e. “Thank you so much, Yang Lin. You may have your reward now.” She beckoned her inside her backyard and seated her down on a table. Then, she went inside and came back with two plates of warm, aromatic mooncake. Lin was delighted. Mooncake with a goddess seemed like a fair price for all her trouble. But there was still one question that was bothering her mind.
“Why do I have that crescent moon birthmark, Chang’e? You promised to tell me after I brought back the Jade Rabbit.”
Chang’e sighed and put her fork down as if preparing herself for something unpleasant. “So, we have finally come to the great revelation, haven’t we?” She let out a weak laugh. Lin said nothing. She was all ears.
“Well, if you must know, Lin, the truth is that your mother didn’t die while giving birth to you.”
Lin was tongue-tied. When she didn’t reply, the goddess continued- “She went to the Moon.”
The flurry of emotions that Lin experienced was too intense to be expressed by any expression. Her face remained blank, and her voice was emotionless when she spoke. “You’re lying.”
“No. I assure you that what I say is the truth. Although the body that bore you was your mother’s, the soul wasn’t hers. The fact is that your mom died just before giving birth to you. You would have died in her womb, had I not taken her place in her body. I went back just after you were born.”
Lin was unable to digest this. It was a long pause before she spoke again, but Chang’e waited patiently. “But you can’t come down from the moon. That’s your curse.”
“Ah, that’s what you people failed to document in your retelling of the legends,” Chang’e said and smiled. “There is a loophole in that curse. I can’t come to the Earth in my real form, but I can take the body of a recently deceased person and visit the humans’ planet, but not for more than five minutes. As soon as you were born, my five minutes finished and I had to come back. But my purpose of saving you was solved.”
It’s not easy when you find out that the moon goddess is your sort-of-half-mother. But Lin still had questions. “Why did you want to save me? My mother was a nobody. So is my father.”
“That isn’t entirely accurate. You see, Lin, your dad does not lie when he says that worshipping gods incurs their blessings. Your family was truly devoted to me, and that brought them into my notice. That is why I saved you. I gave them a daughter as a return gift.”
“So basically, I’m just a return gift.”
“No, Lin. You don’t realise what that means. I gave you life. Life is probably the greatest gift someone can give.”
Lin wished she could be grateful to Chang’e for not letting her die before being born. For some reason, she wasn’t.
“And you believed that saving my life was enough in return for my father’s devotion? Where were you ten years after that, Chang’e? For ten years, ten years, goddess, my Papa went hungry himself and left almost half of what little food he had out on the table for you to bless, which just rotted away or was eaten by dogs. On the Mooncake Festival, he gives up all of his food. People only worship you on the Festival and that is why they called my father a fool, but he endured all of that ridicule without a word in the hope that we would live comfortably one day. But no, goddess, you made a fool of him- for ten years.” Lin had stood up, eyes ablaze with hatred and was staring Chang’e straight in the face.
“Your father had proven himself worthy of my blessing long ago. But it was you who remained to be tested. That test, which you passed today.”
“But didn’t you say that I had already passed the ‘test of optimism’?'” She made the air quotes sign at ‘test of optimism.’
“So I had to pass one test, and then another? Are you a goddess or an examiner?”
“Both,” she smiled. “The test of optimism by itself wasn’t sufficient to prove you worthy. When coupled with the search for the Jade Rabbit, it was more than enough.”
Lin remained silent.
“And now, your and your dad’s wish will finally come true. Tomorrow, by moonrise, a big fish-breeding firm will appeal to your father for employment and money will flow in like water. All your troubles will end, and both of you will have a long, healthy life. And oh, don’t worry about explaining where you’ve been. You will arrive at the precise moment when you were repeating your father’s prayers. Do you forgive me now, daughter?”
There was a glint of a tear in her eye as she said ‘daughter.’
Lin thought for a moment. Although ten years of poverty were unjust, the past couldn’t be undone. All she could do was look forward to the future. “I do, mother.”
As soon as she said this, she found that she was kneeling on the roof of their house beside her father. He finished his prayer and stood up. Lin stood too and said- “Don’t go hungry, Papa. Chang’e will bless us even if you don’t offer her your food.”
“How do you know?”
“She told me,” Lin said and winked.