I used to think that the Mid-Autumn Festival was simply a pain in the ass. Embodying the popular conception of idealized heterosexual womanhood—even for one night—is an arduous challenge.
That’s still true, of course. But lately it’s been overshadowed by a larger problem: The offerings are dwindling. Two centuries ago, I would’ve built thrones made of mooncakes in every room of my silent palace, would’ve filled hot tubs with the fruit sent up on festival night. Nowadays, storing and preserving and pickling feels like a losing race, like if I let even one persimmon spoil in the cold moon air, there won’t be enough to sustain me and Jade Rabbit for the year.
That worry sits at the top of my mind as I consider my checklist for the festival.
Beauty. Gentleness. Elegance. Quietness. Kindness. Self-sacrifice. Intelligence is in there somewhere, though I’m always exhausted by the time I reach it.
And the intangible qualities are just the start of it. Being the real moon goddess requires a great deal of clothing and makeup. The real moon goddess must be elaborate, delicate, draped in folds of silk. The real moon goddess must be radiant. In other words, the real moon goddess must be utterly unlike the real moon, which is content in its quiet, rocky existence—cold and gray, gray and cold, just gray dirt and darker gray shadows in the shallow craters, all the way to the horizon where the gray edge meets the black sky.
The single parallel that redeems the comparison? Both the moon and I glow. From afar.
And so it’s the version of me in a full face and silk hanfu—bright, ethereal—that people believe is the real moon goddess. They probably also believe that I eat a few mooncakes one night a year, then subsist on mysterious moon mists the rest of the time.
Jade Rabbit helps with my hair and face, bless him, mumbling about skin serums and retinoids as he applies my eyelashes. “Not that you’re aging, obviously,” he says.
Obviously. I’m a goddess.
But I am fading. Every year, it takes a thicker layer of makeup to paint on my celestial visage. I would’ve given it all up a long time ago, except that I’m under eternal contractual obligation.
The most ridiculous part? By the time Jade Rabbit finishes my makeup, I’m wishing there were one more layer of blush to apply, one more eyebrow hair to pluck. But the makeup has already taken longer than it should. I can’t put off the last step. At my nod, Jade Rabbit unwraps the veil of elegance, quietness, self-sacrifice, and all the rest.
At this point every year, I tell him, “You should be the moon goddess instead of me.” He’s a true embodiment of all those traits, plus he has naturally thick eyelashes.
At this point every year, he just lifts up the veil and settles it over my head. His arms are the size of little shrimps, but he carries it as if it’s a sheet of silk, not a crushing shroud.
My neck cramps immediately under the weight. It feels heavier every year, no matter how much cross-training I do. Jade Rabbit pokes his paw into my cheek, turning my face to the mirror. The reflection is my own and not my own: eyes drawn large and dark, lips tinted into rosebud perfection, round cheeks washed out to sepulchral white.
“You look so sad,” Jade Rabbit says. “What’s wrong? Not just your usual festival grumpiness?”
I hold the veil of elegance, quietness, self-sacrifice, and all the rest away from my face. It takes all my strength. “Every year, it’s getting worse. Soon we won’t even have enough to live on.”
Jade Rabbit nods, tapping away on his iPad. When he holds it out, I see a graph that looks like a playground slide. “If the trend holds, that’ll be in twenty-three years.”
“How are you so cheerful about it?” My arms shake so badly that I have to let go of the veil. It drops over me with a whump. My voice echoes inside it as I add, “Is it because you think I’ll starve myself so you can have enough to eat? You’re cute, but you’re not that cute.”
It’s a lie. I would absolutely starve myself if it meant Jade Rabbit could live, and he knows it.
He’s nice enough not to rub it in. The iPad goes away, and he reaches through the veil as if it’s only fog, tucking a strand of my hair into place. “I’m not cheerful,” he says. “What happens, happens. At least we’ll have each other.”
“Is it a problem with me?” I don’t really mean to say the words, but the veil of elegance, quietness, self-sacrifice, and all the rest has a way of making me say things I don’t really think, and believe things I know aren’t true. “Would they give more offerings if I were more elegant? Quiet? Self-sacrificing?”
Jade Rabbit only shakes his head.
I know the moment of moonrise because the LED light fixtures power up, brighter, whiter, more ethereal than the moon’s natural light. I step out onto the balcony of the Palace. Like me, it’s been made up for the festival, with silk screens to hide the LEDs, the atmospheric wind machines, and the freezers where we store the offerings.
For an instant, looking out at the mid-autumn evening, I forget the weight of the veil and the empty freezers behind the screens. I tilt my head ever so slowly (it’s the only way I can move without snapping my neck), and look down on the earth. In my arms, Jade Rabbit whispers something warm and gentle. This is how festival nights used to feel.
A forest of red candles glows in the dark, the lights diffuse and haloed, like reflections in a still lake. Laughter carries up to the moon, twined together with the scent of incense, and countless faces gaze upward, families seated together in yards and on roofs. Every face opens in wonder as I step onto the balcony. If I had any doubt that the old contract stands firm, that moment of wonder dispels it. To the people below, both the moon and its goddess appear close enough to touch.
Among the glowing faces, a child holds tight to a mooncake with one hand and a parent’s arm with the other. That wide-eyed girl, along with all the other people looking up tonight, will dream of me: a vision with a kind, distant, lovely face, my hair and my silks billowing gently in the breeze of a hidden fan.
As my eyes adjust to the lights, though, the candles resolve into discrete points, and I see that the forest has thinned again since last year. Between the upturned faces are the napes of endless necks and the backs of countless bowed heads. The offering tables are even fewer, sparsely provisioned with persimmons and grapefruits and carved watermelons among the mooncakes. The child doesn’t offer up her cake, instead holding it tighter. Once, the parents would’ve scolded her; now, they don’t notice.
I want to curse, but the veil keeps my face fixed in a peaceful smile. If only I could go back to the days when the Mid-Autumn Festival was just a pain in the ass.
The offerings come to me, as I’m entitled by my contract, and Jade Rabbit logs them all on his iPad as they arrive. I stand on display for hours, until the red candles wink out and our grand LED moonlight dims. Down below, the families return indoors to enjoy each other’s company or to fall into bed.
The time is a blur, but finally, I’m back inside. Jade Rabbit lifts the veil of elegance, quietness, self-sacrifice, and all the rest. Air rushes into my lungs and I collapse onto a couch. “Thank Heaven. I thought my face was going to get stuck that way.”
“You say that every year. Get up so I can rescue your hanfu.”
I oblige him, grabbing a pear from among the offerings. I’m vindictively happy to see my lipstick smear a pink mark when I bite into it. I wipe off the rest of the makeup, and Jade Rabbit lets down my hair. Only when I’m back in my sweats do I feel strong enough to ask, “So? How bad is it?”
“I’m doing the math.” He doesn’t provide details.
I lie on the couch and watch him for a few minutes as he plans how to store and preserve the offerings. I can feel my body relaxing back into its comfortable shape, my shoulders a little slumped and my lips tilted down instead of up. Jade Rabbit is chomping on his ear as he enters numbers into his spreadsheet, so I give him a mooncake to chew on instead, and then take one for myself, one of the trendy ones stuffed with ice cream. I pick up a bottle of wine to go with it, and head out to the balcony.
Things look different without the festival spotlights. Only a pale film of light remains, illuminating the walls and grounds of my Palace of Pervasive Cold. Despite our efforts to keep it clean, it looks old and gray and a little grubby, like the moonsoil. Earth seems much more distant.
I dangle my legs over the balcony edge and open the wine. Far below me, a child slips out through a window and sits the same way: legs dangling over the side of a tiny metal balcony. In her hand, she holds a slightly crushed mooncake.
I recognize her. She’s the same child who clung to her parent’s arm during the festival.
As if sensing my attention, her head snaps up. For a few moments, she wears the same expression of awe from earlier in the evening. Then her mouth softens and her eyebrows tip upward, and I realize I was wrong. Her previous expression was not awe, but anxiety. Only in its absence do I recognize it.
I’m so busy trying to figure out what this new expression means that I forget where I am, what I look like—and the fact that no one should be able to see me now that the festival is over. But the girl clearly sees something. One of her hands uncurls into a minuscule wave.
My stomach drops. If I stay still—
“Hello?” the girl says.
“You’re the moon goddess,” she breathes.
“How are you talking to me?” I shove my bottle of wine behind me. I haven’t spoken to a human in… centuries. They don’t talk anymore. They just stare.
The girl tips her head to the side. “You are the moon goddess, aren’t you? I’ve been wondering where you were, but Ma and Ba won’t tell me. They kept saying the goddess was that lady who came out before. Who was she, anyway?”
I’m out of practice with making conversation. I can’t think of a single thing to say.
She continues, with the seriousness unique to childhood, “It’s all right if you don’t want to talk. I know you’re the real goddess. The other lady was like, if someone imagined what a goddess would look like without ever meeting one.”
That other lady was me, I try to say. Maybe if I were wearing the veil, the words would’ve come out, but I’m not, and so they stay unspoken.
The girl rests her chin on the bars of the balcony. If she’d been wearing the veil, the weight of it might’ve snapped her head right off at that angle, but she isn’t. She sighs, not a sad sigh.
We stare at each other for what feels like a long time, each on our own balcony, legs dangling, mirroring gazes and postures. The only light left is the moon glow, behind me, and I’m sure I must look like little more than a shadow in sweats, not like a goddess at all. So my heart flips strangely when the girl holds out her hand. In it is the slightly crushed mooncake, with a bite visible on one side.
“I can give this to you because you’re really Chang’e,” she confides. “Don’t let that other lady take it. She’s already stolen all your offerings.” She hesitates, then breaks off the bitten part of the cake and places the other piece on the railing. “I’ll leave it here for you, okay?”
I don’t say anything. The girl’s eyes lose focus. I don’t think she can see me anymore. I don’t know why we even got these few stolen moments of closeness.
I sit on the balcony. The LEDs have switched off, to lie dormant for another year. The natural moonlight makes me feel more like myself: I don’t have to worry about the way the LEDs glare at every dip of my body and every empty corner of the Palace.
It makes me feel like I used to, when the Mid-Autumn Festival was…
When it was more than a pain in the ass. When it wasn’t a pain. Because, once, very long ago, it wasn’t.
Then, I would look down to the earth, and girls would look back, and speak to me, and understand that the face of the moon goddess was my face, not an imposter’s. Then, I didn’t think about the offerings.
In the centuries since, I’ve forgotten how not to think about the offerings, just as I’ve forgotten what the festival feels like without the pain.
When I head inside, Jade Rabbit looks up from his iPad. “Just in time. We should pack away the mooncakes, and then we’ll need to spend the afternoon pickling. With a little planning—which I’ve already done—we’ll be all right for this year.”
I manage a smile and pick him up in my arms. Half of a slightly squashed mooncake perches at the top of the pile of offerings.
Impulsively, unsure if I’m even speaking aloud, I say, “What would happen if I didn’t do the whole makeup-and-veil thing next year? What if I just went out there in my sweats?”
“You’d be in breach of contract,” Jade Rabbit says, not particularly disapproving.
He wriggles in my arms until he can reach his iPad. A moment later, he flips the screen around to reveal an updated graph: the same downward slope of offerings that he showed me before, and then a new line that drops in a much steeper cliff next year.
I expect my heart to drop with it. Instead, I find myself thinking about the way the girl looked at me as she perched her treasured mooncake on the balcony railing. I think of the veil, stored away in a cedar chest to keep off the moon moths. I think of how the air brushed my real face, my fading face, as I looked down at the earth and spoke to a human for the first time in centuries.
I’ve barely touched the mooncakes this year, but I feel full, and warm, with Jade Rabbit nestled in my arms.
“You know,” I say, “I think you’re right. I think we’ll be okay.”
© 2023 by Anja Hendrikse Liu
Author’s Note: Growing up, I often came across the story of the moon goddess Chang’e: told by my Chinese teachers, in textbooks and storybooks, in translation and in Chinese. In some versions, she is purely greedy; in some, purely loyal; sometimes a cautionary tale, sometimes a noble martyr, often an object of desire, and on and on… but she’s never quite a fully fleshed-out person. So this story came about as I wondered who Chang’e might be in her private life, and how a mortal-turned-deity might react to the slow realization that even goddesses are not forever. Also, Jade Rabbit (who’s one of my favorite parts of the story) gets short shrift in many versions of the myth — but given that he is Chang’e’s only companion on the moon, I thought their relationship deserved much more than a footnote.
Anja Hendrikse Liu (she/they) is a creator and devourer of fantasy and sci-fi who wishes she had time and words for all of her dreams. Her short fiction has been published by Fusion Fragment, Air and Nothingness Press, and others. Anja works at an educational technology nonprofit, and in her free time, she loves exploring the world — literally, and also from her home in California via baked goods and mythology.
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