We found her in the rotted oak tree. Ame called the tree our spaceship after we dug out its red-brown meat with our hands, carving a space for all three of our bodies to press against the moist cavern. Closing our eyes to the blast off, the pits of our stomachs would drop until we were beyond the sky and the clouds. We would reach out our hands to touch our fingertips together, upside-down and turning upright again, our giggles soap bubbles of sound floating between us.
That morning we were itching to run out to our spaceship. “First one there yells blast off,” Ame said while Mama flipped buttermilk pancakes at the stove. We doused the puffed pancakes with the syrup of last spring’s strawberries and slipped forkfuls into our mouths, watching each other out of the corners of our eyes. I waited until Ame opened his mouth wide, berry juice dripping down his chin, then I slammed my fork down and dashed toward the trailer door. Behind me, Ame’s yells were muffled in the clanging of dishes and laughter and Mama yelling about breakfast. The radio was loud with the Sunday puzzle.
I shoved my toes into my tennis shoes and flung open the door. The oak tree in the pasture got bigger and bigger as I propelled my body forward, for once in my life faster than Ame. I was going to beat him and all I had to do was keep running, my breath fast in my ears.
My arms elbowed the air as I ran and ran until finally, I reached my hand to the tree’s bumpy Braille trunk, with Ame right behind me and Hoshi at his heels.
We all collapsed on the ground, a heap of lungs coughing as we laughed. Ame said I hadn’t played fair, and me, that I had. I’d won, and Hoshi was awash with joy, always the smiling one, happy to watch us.
It was Hoshi who watched beyond us, who saw her first. While Ame and I wrestled in the grass, our brother stilled. He became so quiet that we felt the shift in the air and stilled too, my hand pulling at Ame’s black hair as he pushed my shoulders into the ground.
We looked at Hoshi and looked where he looked. And there she was, milky-skinned and wrapped in white cloth so fine it looked spider-woven. Her eyes looking back at us as if she were not a baby, but a god.
The first thing Mama did when she saw her—after Ame dragged Mama out of the trailer, pulling her hand all the way to the tree, Papa chasing behind—was turn to Papa and say, “She has your eyes.”
Ame, Hoshi, and I got close and looked, and sure enough, her eyes were blue like Papa’s. A little darker, like the sky just before rain. I looked at Ame’s eyes, at Hoshi’s eyes, at Mama’s eyes. Brown, brown, brown—the color of mud that stuck to our hands after a thunderstorm rocked the vegetable fields.
Papa was quiet. He lowered himself to the ground and drew the baby into his arms. Without looking at Mama, he started back towards the trailer.
Mama taught me to heat milk in the saucepan on the stove until it steamed. We stuck a funnel into a bottle and poured the liquid into it. Then—the most important part, Mama said—we waited for the milk to cool and squirted some drops onto our wrists. If it burned, it was too hot.
I got so good at getting the right temperature that I knew how long to wait just from touching my fingertips to the plastic bottle. When I sprayed the milk onto my wrist it felt like taking a bath in the dead of winter, the kind of warmth that seeps deep into every muscle and keeps your body wrapped in it until morning.
One afternoon when I handed the bottle to Mama she handed the baby to me. We didn’t yet know her name. Papa said she would be the one to tell us, and to be patient—so we called her Aka-chan. The name made me giggle because “akachan” meant baby and “aka” meant red. Ame loved to joke about the baby’s cheeks, how she looked like Mama after she had a glass of wine.
Aka-chan got heavy so quick in my arms I had to sit down. Lucky for us she hardly cried or made a sound. I took it slow and held my arms still as I lowered myself down into the couch. I transferred all her weight onto my lap and left arm before I took the bottle Mama handed me.
Aka-chan’s eyes were a deepening blue, the color of autumn sky, and she stared right back at me as she drank. The way she looked at me, steady and unblinking, sent a shiver through me. It was as if she knew something I didn’t, even something Ame and Hoshi didn’t, and Mama and Papa, too.
The year before we found Aka-chan in the old oak tree Papa was in his third year of farming. Not many people would come by our roadside stand in the summers, so even if we had vegetables that survived the floods, they’d rot before we could eat them all. We ate like kings and queens, though—Mama made sure of that. And Mama and Papa got this look in their eyes sometimes after dinner like they forgot we existed. Ame would look at me and roll his eyes, and Hoshi would giggle. We’d scamper off to our room to scan the Encyclopedia Britannica A to Z, heavy royal blue books we’d read for hours. Well, really, Ame read and Hoshi and I pretended, flipping through the thin pages and letting the words become a kind of art, a swirl of shapes interspersed with photographs.
Those quiet evenings faded away after Aka-chan arrived. Papa found out about a farmers’ market two hours south and spring came and went without too much or too little rain. Mama never stopped moving in the house and in the fields, Aka-chan slung on her back. Ame made a friend at school and started ignoring me more. And Hoshi—Hoshi stayed pretty much the same, but we played together less since we had to help with the chicken chores and the harvests and weeding and everything else.
It took us until we moved to our new house with the vast living room and the three bedrooms to realize that Aka-chan still hadn’t told us her name. Almost three seasons had passed by then: the swell of spring, the ringing heat of summer, the dry autumn breeze, and frost-stung greens before the winter snow. We prepared to move to the house in late September, during crisp blue-sky days when the tatsoi and cabbages grew greener and plumper in the field, and kabocha and red kuri squash were piled onto the hay rack.
The last day in the trailer—while Mama and Papa napped on futons surrounded by moving boxes—Ame, Hoshi, Aka-chan and I snuck out to the pasture. The hollowed-out tree was still standing, slowly rotting from the inside out. We stood around it, saying nothing. We hadn’t come back to play spaceship since we found Aka-chan there.
The air tightened as I held Aka-chan’s hand. She stared into the cavern. Inching her feet closer and closer into the tree, she pulled on my arm. My feet didn’t move. “No, Aka-chan,” I said, my voice fraying. Hoshi put his body between Aka-chan and the tree. Ame reached between us to pick her up into his arms.
“Race you!” Ame yelled, and Aka-chan’s eyes lit up. He set her down, and we all started running, laughing at the way Aka-chan scurried off, a force of energy. We jogged beside her, pretending to pant, saying, “Aka-chan, you’re too fast! You’re gonna beat us all!”
After we’d moved into the big house, there was no rotting oak tree in the woods in the back of the house, and Aka-chan was still Aka-chan. We’d forgotten all about her choosing her own name. It was Hoshi who pointed that out to me one day after school, when we were walking home from the bus stop, down the winding gravel lane towards home.
We were laughing about the story Mama told us that morning, about how Aka-chan reached for a toothbrush all on her own, and slowly brushed her tiny teeth. By then we were halfway home, walking past our neighbor’s house on the hill, and Hoshi turned to me, his brown eyes flashing in the afternoon light.
“Tell me the one about Aka-chan and the clover field,” Hoshi said. I giggled. This was Hoshi’s favorite story, and mine too.
“It was a harvest day and Mama put me in charge of looking after Aka-chan while I was bunching cilantro,” I started. Hoshi kicked a rock and smiled at me, listening. “I was making bunch after bunch and feeling proud of myself because no one had come to help yet. And I already made three piles of five, when I looked up and Aka-chan was gone from the end of the row. It was like one second she was there, and then she was gone—poof!—into the air. I didn’t want to worry Mama and Papa so I went looking for her on my own. I checked everywhere: the woods, every corner of the field, under the big burdock leaves…but she wasn’t there. She wasn’t anywhere! I tried not to cry, and I was just about to go run to Papa when I thought about the clover field across the stream. So off I ran as fast as I could, jumping from rock to rock to cross the water, and finally, there she was, standing in the middle of the clover.”
“What was she doing?” Hoshi asked, his eyes lost in my memory.
“Her arms were stretched up to the sky, and she was turning and turning and turning. Slow, like the merry-go-round at school after everyone’s gotten off.”
“Was she smiling?”
“Her eyes were closed and she was smiling a little,” I said, opening the sliding glass door to our new house.
“Tadaimā!” We said in unison, even though Mama wasn’t home. She was down in the fields harvesting roots with Papa, so we changed clothes and headed down to join them.
Ame was at soccer practice again, and his friend’s mom would drop him off. By that time, the harvest would be mostly over, and me and Hoshi complained about how unfair that was all the way down the hill to the field.
We spotted Aka-chan by Mama’s feet once we reached the bottom of the hill and the field unfolded like a fan before us.
“She hasn’t told us her real name, you know,” Hoshi said. “She hasn’t even said any words yet.”
It was true—Aka-chan did not speak. She didn’t even try. She only opened her mouth to eat or drink or yawn. The first time she laughed, Hoshi and I talked about it for months, how the sound startled us: a laugh like a chord on a harp.
The new house came with a big red barn and in the winter we set up the chickens in one of the pens. Papa laid down a bed of hay and filled the laying boxes with straw. Every morning I lugged a bucket of well water to the pen and poured it into the pans. I half-filled a pail with a mix of ground-up chicken feed and handfuls of wheat and corn. The hens gathered around my feet when I fed them, their beaks tapping against the surface of the feed bowl as they ate.
At night I collected the eggs and watched the hens lull themselves to sleep. Sometimes I stayed out late to sing them lullabies. I loved the feeling of quiet that overcame me when I left the house—a moment to be with myself, the snow, the frigid air, and no one and nothing else. So one night, when Papa called to me as I was headed to the basement to put on my snowsuit and told me to bring Aka-chan along, I wanted to say no. But Papa has a way of twinkling his eyes that makes me forget everything but the color blue, and Aka-chan was all by herself, staring into the fire, while Mama made spaghetti and tomato sauce and Ame and Hoshi hit a ball back and forth in the living room. I was her big sister, and it was time for me to show her the ropes.
“Come, Aka-chan,” I said. As she turned to face me, the flames reflected in her eyes disappeared into the shape of my face.
I led her down the steps to the basement and found her little purple snowsuit and white hat, her miniature red gloves. She stood like a doll while I dressed her. After I wrapped her red scarf around her neck and chin the only bare skin left for the cold to touch was around her eyes. I giggled at the way she tottered, all puffed up like a popcorn.
Slowly, slowly, we walked on newly fallen snow to the barn, our gloved hands clasped. The moonlight made the snow sparkle pink and purple and every color in between, little flares of light every way we turned. Aka-chan kept dropping her body to the snow to try to catch the light, but like fireflies they sparked and disappeared before she could hold the fire in her hands. I pointed to the snow that dusted her gloves. “Yuki,” I said. “Yu—” I made a kiss face, my lips jutted out, “—ki.” I placed my teeth together in a half smile. Aka-chan copied me, silently mouthing, “Yu-ki.” I nodded and took her hand.
We drew the sliding door of the chicken pen open and Aka-chan tottered in as fast as she could. I slid in after, careful not to let an adventurous hen make an escape. The hens immediately crowded around us. They saw the egg bucket I carried, and thinking it was feed or food scraps, clucked impatiently, waiting for me to dump it out for them. Aka-chan stood still, the hens up to her waist, and looked steadily at the dinosaur creatures: their smooth and sharp beaks, their pink waddles, their honey-colored clawed feet.
Outside the snow was still coming down, a gentle fluttering. We took our time walking home and watched the way our boot prints left our markings behind us until I stopped and dropped Aka-chan’s hand. I set down the pail and lay down in the snow, my back against the ground, the tilted world steadying. Aka-chan lay down too, copying me. I flapped my arms and feet, jumping jacks in the snow.
“This is how you make a snow angel,” I told her, turning my face so my cheek was against ice crystals. But Aka-chan wouldn’t turn her cheek towards me. When I looked where she looked there it was: the moon, a gold coin in the black sky. We lay there, breathing.
After a while I cut the quiet with my tongue. I said it slowly, “Tsu-ki.” And again.
Aka-chan mouthed it, over and over. She didn’t turn towards me to see how my mouth moved. She just looked, unblinking, up at the moon, mouthing until it became a sound, a whisper. Her voice was a growing chorus. Tsuki. Tsuki. Tsuki.
Her voice was how I dreamed it, but deeper. The clang of a bell with the rumble of thunder. We lay, listening, and she lifted her arms, her gloved hands, up and up, and held them there until my body chilled, the cold seeping into all my layers.
I took off my gloves and reached to touch her cheek. A dull heat sparked my fingertips. “Come, Aka-chan,” I said, though the name felt wrong on my lips. I brought myself to standing and bent to draw her outstretched arms around my neck.
“Tsuki,” she called, her lips against my skin. All the way to the house, like a prayer. Tsuki, tsuki, tsuki.
It was the only word she’d say. In the morning, I woke before she opened her eyes and whispered “ohayō” into her ear. Her eyelids twitched and squinted open, then shut again.
When she finally opened her eyes to fully take in my face, she breathed, “Tsu…ki…” and rubbed the sleep out of her eyes.
Tsuki was everything: the piece of cake she wanted to eat, the tractor, her way of saying sorry. I couldn’t understand how one word could mean so much. We never confused one “tsuki” for another—somehow we knew, deep down, what she meant. Why, I wondered, as I learned to spell more and more words at school, did we need all this vocabulary? One word could twist and shape itself into anything.
Then one day Mama couldn’t find Aka-chan in the house. We shook our heads when Mama asked where she’d went. We all looked for her, calling for Aka-chan at first, but then Hoshi started yelling “Tsuki” and then we all did, and in the end she crawled out from under the hedges that lined the deck. When Mama picked her up and scolded her, all she said was, “Tsuki…” with a sorry look on her face, and we all burst out laughing. She was Tsuki after that.
In the new house Ame and Hoshi shared a bedroom, and Tsuki and me shared another. I missed the bedroom we all shared in the trailer, how we’d line up our futons on the floor in a row and wake up to someone’s leg splayed across someone’s stomach. How in the wintertime we were huddled so close we kept each other warm even on the coldest of nights when the well froze. How I would sometimes hope with all my might, just before I closed my eyes, that we would never leave that room. That all four of us would keep sleeping side-by-side forever, because I had never felt so filled with light.
In our new bedrooms a wall separated Tsuki and me from our brothers. Ame and Hoshi spent more time together, and Tsuki and me grew closer too. It was just a wall between us, but somehow it changed everything. They had their space and we had ours.
One night, I closed my eyes and bunched the blanket around my face but I couldn’t sleep. I turned my body towards the wall, and then towards Tsuki, and opened my eyes to see her staring straight back at me, her turned body blocking the nightlight.
I opened the door to our room and peeked into Mama and Papa’s room, but their futons were empty. I followed a distant light to the kitchen where Mama rocked in Papa’s arms. Mama touched Papa’s cheek as he whispered something into her ear.
“Mama?” I said, and they turned to see me standing in the dark, where the kitchen light couldn’t reach me. Mama yelped.
“Hikari!” Papa laughed, rushing forward to pick me up. He swung me into the air like he used to do when I was little and set me down again. “What is it?”
“Are you having trouble sleeping?” Mama asked, sidling up to us. Her hand settled warm against my forehead. My cheeks flushed. Suddenly all I wanted to do was go back to bed. I looked down at the tile floor. When I looked up again I caught Mama and Papa smiling to each other.
“Come, Hikari-chan,” Mama said, taking my hand.
In bed again, Tsuki still wide-eyed beside me, Mama lay down between us. At first she didn’t speak. A tingling spread from the top of my skull down my neck and I almost giggled. Mama never had time for us anymore.
“There was once an old man and an old woman who were poor and had no children,” Mama started. Mama had loved to tell us stories in the trailer, but this was a story I’d never heard before. I looked up at the ceiling as Mama spoke, watching the nightlight make shadows that hovered above us.
“The old man was a bamboo cutter. One day in the forest he saw a bamboo trunk that glowed gold. When he cut it open, he found a beautiful little girl the size of his pinkie finger.”
The shadows on the ceiling became a bamboo forest, then morphed into the shape of a little girl’s face. I looked over at Tsuki but she had closed her eyes, a small smile lifting the corners of her mouth.
“The old man was overjoyed. He cupped the girl into the palm of his hand and took her home. The old man and the old woman raised the girl with all their love, and before they knew it, she had grown into the body of a normal-sized girl. They named her Kaguya-hime. Each day she grew more beautiful. Her skin seemed almost to glow and brightened even the dustiest corners of their small house.
In time, the emperor heard of Kaguya-hime’s beauty and called on the old man to convince her to accept his hand in marriage. Kaguya-hime refused, and told him that if she was forced to marry the emperor, she would disappear.
The emperor didn’t give up so easily. He visited the old couple’s house, where he saw Kaguya-hime. She tried to run from him.
‘Running is of no use,’ the emperor told her. ‘I will take you to my castle.’
‘I was not born here, and I must not go,’ Kaguya-hime said.
The emperor didn’t believe her. But just as she was put into a palanquin to be carried to the castle, Kaguya-hime turned into a shadow and disappeared. The emperor begged her to return to her body. He got so desperate that he promised her he would not take her to the castle. She appeared again and was returned to her home.”
Mama broke off the story to yawn. Her voice had gotten softer and softer as the story went on, and I had to lay as still as I could to hear her. Tsuki was already asleep, the blanket above her chest rising and falling.
“Mama—I’m still not sleepy—what happens to Kaguya-hime after that?”
“Just a little more then,” Mama said, and I closed my eyes and held my breath. Mama smiled and started again, her voice a whisper now.
“A few years later the old man and the old woman noticed that Kaguya-hime would do a strange thing: when the moon was especially bright, she would stand beneath it at night and cry. No one knew why. Finally, the old woman couldn’t bear it anymore and asked Kaguya-hime why she was so sad.
‘I am from a city on the moon,’ Kaguya-hime told her. ‘It is almost time for me to return.’”
Mama paused to yawn again. “There’s more, but it’s late—I’ll have to continue this story another night.” She held her fingertips against my cheek.
“Oyasumi, Hikari-hime,” she whispered.
That night I dreamed of bamboo forests and of beautiful girls and the city on the moon.
Mama broke her promise. June came with its rush of greens and roots—rainbow kales, butter lettuces, bright red radishes that looked like candy when I popped them from the black soil. Papa was selling out at every market so he planted more than usual, staying out later and later as the days grew longer, planting seeds with the new tractor.
When school ended we joined Papa and Mama in the fields, weeding baby cilantro and dill with hand hoes and bending over long trenched rows to place cucumber and squash seeds six inches apart. Mama scolded me for not wearing a hat on those long days of planting, but I loved the way the sun warmed my head, and the way, later, I’d notice streaks of caramel lighting my brown hair. Looking at myself in the bathroom mirror, I wondered how long it would take for my hair to become as light as Tsuki’s—the color of goose feathers, with a touch of gold.
And I wondered about Kaguya-hime while I sweated in the sun, no sound around me but my hand hoe roughing up the soil around tiny tufts of baby carrots; the quiet rustling of my hand as I uprooted purslane and still-little amaranth and crab grass and lamb’s quarters. I thought about Kaguya-hime’s power, how everyone loved her because of her beauty. How I wanted to be beautiful and loved. How at school all the girls crowded around Kailee at recess except for me. Was Kailee beautiful? She had hair like Tsuki’s, and eyes like Tsuki, too: big and blue.
I thought about the city on the moon. Sometimes Papa let me ride up in the truck to the market on Saturdays and what I remembered most were the lights that cut into the cab of the big truck in the dark of the early morning. The closer we got to the city, the brighter the lights shined until I saw red on the backs of my eyelids as I tried to sleep. The city was where people moved in and out and across Papa’s stand so fast it made me dizzy. The city left a sourness at the back of my throat that I tasted long after we came home. The city was sticky—it stuck to my skin and clothes until I scrubbed myself clean in the shower. Of course Kaguya-hime cried, having to return to such a place where there was no such thing as darkness or quiet, where the light cut up everything and chased your sleep away.
One night after I took a shower to rinse the dirt and sweat away and ate the pasta and sauce Mama made, I lay down in bed. My legs and my arms were so heavy I could barely lift them, but my mind would not stop treading thoughts.
Tsuki was already asleep, her pale skin even more pale in the night light. I slid my body slowly out of my futon and tiptoed to the door. It creaked open with a slow drawl; when I looked back Tsuki’s eyes were still closed.
I found Mama at the kitchen table, the dim light of the lamp above her head lighting one side of her face while casting the other in shadow. I opened my mouth to whisper, “Mama?” but the word caught in my throat. Mama’s eyes were wet. She hardly made a sound, just crinkled the skin around her eyes and bit down on her bottom lip. She was staring up into the night sky at the pumpkin-orange sliver of moon.
Where was Papa? He would make everything better—make her laugh, make Mama’s cheeks shine and swell with happiness.
A cool breeze from the window swept the kitchen and brushed its fingers against my arms. I watched Mama a while longer, quiet in the shadows. My bottom lip trembled as I turned and tiptoed back to the room I shared with Tsuki.
One morning—not long after that night—I woke to Hoshi tickling my neck under my chin. “Hikari, wake up! Everyone’s up except you. We’re going out!”
I blinked up at him. What did Hoshi mean, we were going somewhere? We never went anywhere, especially on Sunday mornings. Sundays were for resting. It was the only day Papa slept in way past breakfast, stumbling out of Mama and his room and into the living room with his hands shielding his eyes from the sunlight that blared in from the windows.
At first I thought Hoshi was playing a trick on me, but even Ame was putting on his shoes, and Mama had the car keys in her hand.
“Ohayō, Hikari-hime,” she said, her eyes a shimmering black as she smiled down at me. I couldn’t remember the last time she’d looked at me like that, so when she told me to hurry and get dressed, I raced to my room to pull on a blue polka-dotted cotton dress.
In the car Ame told me we were going to a restaurant to celebrate because a reporter from a big newspaper had interviewed Papa at the farmers’ market. Papa said when the feature came out even more customers would come shop at his stand. “We’ll pay off our house in no time!” He squeezed Mama’s hand.
Papa’s body pulsed with so much joy that he slammed the car door a little too hard once we got to the parking lot of the pancake house in the next town over. He galloped his way to the restaurant door, making Mama burst out laughing as she shouted at him to stop embarrassing her.
When the waitress came to take our order Papa still couldn’t stop smiling. The waitress’ tired eyes lit up. Papa made some jokes about the menu that I couldn’t quite catch and she laughed like Mama did in the parking lot.
I kept waiting for the waitress to turn and leave but she took her time, her face turned to Papa like a flower to the sun. Mama was staring down at the white tablecloth in a way that made me feel like a wasp was stuck and buzzing deep inside my ear. Papa, I wanted to cry, look at Mama! If Papa would just turn and look, this would all be over. But I couldn’t open my mouth. Desperate, I tried to catch Ame and Hoshi’s eyes but they wouldn’t look at me. Ame was swirling the water in his cup around and around with a plastic straw and Hoshi was watching the water swirl.
When the waitress finally left Papa turned his sunlit face to Mama to ask her a question, but by then Mama had turned to stone. No one made a sound.
The waitress returned with big plates heaped with pancakes. They tasted headache-sweet, like the frosting on the cake Kailee’s mom brought in for her birthday at school. I took two bites and my belly hummed like there was a grasshopper hopping around inside. I pushed my plate away.
The silence followed us home. I wanted to say something to Hoshi and Ame but they went straight into their room. It wasn’t like they closed the door behind them, but I could tell that something was off between us. In the car I had asked Ame a question—something silly and unimportant, to try to break the quiet spell—and I only got a one-word answer before he stared back out the window. When I turned towards Hoshi, he copied Ame and turned away from me. It was if they had built a wall of rock between my body and theirs. I didn’t have words powerful enough to kick it down.
Papa followed Mama into their room. I didn’t want to overhear the ache in Mama’s voice and the gruffness in Papa’s, so I took Tsuki’s hand and we went to visit the hens in their grassy pen near the barn. We watched the chickens scrape at the dirt with their feet, looking for worms. One hen chased after another with her wings raised, and the hen being chased scampered away screeching bak bak bakaaak. The hens were far from quiet; we tuned in to their little dramas long enough that I felt more like a hen than a girl.
The days got longer and longer. When the sunlight burned my forehead and cheeks after a harvest day, I thought Mama would notice my red skin and scold me. But even when she looked at me, she didn’t really see me. It was like deep beyond my skin she saw a splattering of stars and planets and lost herself in them.
I dug out a wide-brimmed cloth hat from a box in the basement labeled “Summer” one afternoon and put it next to my futon. Tsuki was playing down in the creek with Ame and Hoshi so I had our room all to myself. Sunlight splashed across my pillowcase, warming it. I closed the window curtain and lay down on my bed. The dark cooled my perspiring body.
If Kaguya-hime was from the city on the moon, would she go and come back? Would Kaguya-hime end up marrying the Emperor? I hoped not—she didn’t seem to like him. The ending I wanted, I decided in the dark, was Kaguya-hime living happily ever after with the old man and the old woman. Kaguya-hime would sometimes go to the city on the moon, but she would always come back with special gifts, and even though she was still the most beautiful woman in all the land, she never married anyone.
Bored of daydreaming, I snuck into Ame and Hoshi’s room. Maybe I’d put something squishy in one of their beds, I thought, and looked around for one of Hoshi’s pufferballs that felt icky-wet when you squeezed them. I was just about to go look in the living room when I saw the little bookcase in the corner of their room.
I started pulling out all the books, spreading them out one by one and looking for a beautiful woman, a moon, bamboo. There she was on a cover: a woman with straight black hair that was so long it billowed like a wave behind her. She seemed to float in front of a big full moon. I flew through each page—the old man with the glowing bamboo, the teensy little girl cupped in his hands; Kaguya-hime grown into a beautiful woman in a red kimono, her face half-hidden behind a fan; Kaguya-hime hiding from the emperor; the full moon and Kaguya-hime’s tears…
I flipped the page to see an illustration of a golden being coming down from the night sky and a crowd of men with bows aiming their arrows towards it. Kaguya-hime hid in a room with the old woman while the Emperor and the old man stood outside the door, blocking the being with their bodies.
Then, on the next page, Kaguya-hime was floating through the closed door and towards the being. Towards the moon, big and round and gold in the distance. The old man and the old woman were crumpled over in tears. I turned the page—there was nothing there but white.
Mama needed to go to the store. It was Saturday afternoon and Papa was at the market. Me and Tsuki were playing with some cards, pretending they were dolls in a story I was making up. We were getting tired of that game, so when Mama asked us if we wanted to come along, we dropped everything and ran to the car. Ame and Hoshi were in their room with their heads buried in books and even though Mama yelled that we were going out, they didn’t bother to answer.
I got Tsuki into her seatbelt in the backseat and belted myself in next to her. Mama drove the twenty minutes to town with her fingers wrapped tight around the steering wheel. The road was so flat ahead of her that it looked like the asphalt on the horizon had big puddles covering the entire road. I liked to gaze at those puddles as they got closer and closer and smaller and smaller, until they disappeared. I tried to show Tsuki, but she couldn’t hear me over the whoosh of air from the open windows. Tsuki couldn’t take her eyes away from the cornfields that rose tall in the August heat—long stretches that morphed into soybeans, then fields of still-green pumpkins and butternuts. All summer green for miles and miles, and beyond that, the dome of blue sky peppered with clouds.
Mama parked at the only grocery store in town. The heat from the asphalt rose from our feet when we got out the car, mingling with the sun’s heat from above. We were immediately blasted with cold air once we stepped into the grocery store—it was as if we had walked into a freezer. I held my goosebumped forearms and shivered. It never got this cold in the summer in our house. We opened the windows at night and closed them in the mornings. On the really hot days, we took cold showers and sat in front of the living room fan, letting our wet hair and bodies cool us. Back when we were still living in the trailer Ame would talk slowly into the fan’s air, letting it distort his voice, and Hoshi, Tsuki and I would laugh and laugh. The cold in the grocery store smelled weird to me, like air that had forgotten how to breathe.
While Mama eyed the pasta in the second aisle. I took my sister’s hand in mine and brought her on a tour of the place. Tsuki bounced her knees in delight when I showed her the dairy section, all the milk cartons and yogurt cups in blues and pinks. I had her hold out her hands to feel the cold radiating from the wall of cheese. She wanted to touch all the blocks of sharp cheddar and mozzarella and colby jack. I kept saying no and grabbing her reaching hand to pull it back, but before I knew it her hand would be reaching out again, her eyes reflecting back the bright light of the display. I laughed and laughed and she didn’t even notice.
I was still grabbing at Tsuki’s hands when a voice sliced through our air. “What on earth do you think you’re doing?” A lady I’d never seen before was looking down at me.
She struck her gaze first at my face: my greasy brown curls I never brushed; my in-between eyes that weren’t thin like Mama’s but not wide like Papa’s either; my nose that flared when I laughed. For too long she held my face in her eyes, then slowly grazed the rest of my body, lingering on the dirt-stains on my once-cream-colored shirt, all the way down to my old tennis shoes. Then she lifted her eyes to Tsuki to take in her gold hair that brushed her shoulders, her sky eyes, her milky skin.
When the lady turned back to me my body got hot and itchy like when I had a fever. “Where is her mother?” she asked, but by then my mind had blackened and there were no words on my tongue.
I ran without thinking, without Tsuki, the exact pitch of the woman’s voice repeating again and again. I ran and ran past every aisle looking for Mama in her white dress and I kept stopping and looking close but it wasn’t Mama and it wasn’t Mama and—
“Hikari!” Mama’s voice. “I’ve been looking all over for you.” She was standing by the cashier lines, shaking her head. I sprinted toward her and as soon as I saw her face up close—her black, pin-straight hair tucked around her ears, the soft skin around her eyes—it was like my chest broke open and everything went hazy.
“Tsu…ki…I—” I gulped for air between sobs. Mama reached her hand to my head and smoothed my hair.
“Daijōbu, daijōbu, Hikari-chan,” she soothed. “Now try to stop crying—everyone’s looking,” she whispered to me in our language. I wanted to tell Mama about the lady with the sharp eyes, about Tsuki, but all the words I needed to say became a red flare in my mouth. I didn’t want the strangers to watch the light spill from my tongue like blood. Clamping my teeth closed, I pulled Mama away from her half-full cart towards the dairy display, but Tsuki wasn’t there. Mama’s hands clenched around mine and we walked fast across every aisle, Mama calling Tsuki’s name and me gulping away the air in my throat.
Finally, Mama pulled me to stand in line for the cashier. When it was our turn she said in English, “My daughter. Gone.” She made the shape of Tsuki in the air, then erased it. The cashier blinked back. “Speak up, ma’am, I don’t understand.” He said, his hands reaching for groceries and finding nothing. Mama looked down at me for help, but my mouth was clamped shut. Everyone was staring.
“My daughter,” she said, this time louder and slower. “Can’t find.”
“You lost your daughter? Funny, another family seems to have lost theirs, too. Two missing kids in one afternoon in this little place…when it rains it pours, huh? Step over to that office over there and we’ll make an announcement for ya.”
The man with the blue apron pointed to a small room. Tsuki stood there next to the lady. I gripped Mama’s hand tighter, my body heating up again in the cold air.
“Tsuki!” Mama’s voice came out high-pitched as she let go of my hand and rushed towards her daughter. The lady stepped her body between them. I wanted to warn Mama, but it was too late—the lady was looking Mama up and down with that terrible slowness. Tsuki twisted her body out from behind the lady and reached out her arms to Mama.
Mama’s mouth opened and closed. She hiccupped a word, then stopped. Looking straight into the lady’s eyes, she lifted Tsuki into her arms. Holding Tsuki on her hip, she reached for my hand.
It was like Mama had a superpower of using her eyes to keep the lady from speaking. She kept staring at the lady as she passed her, then turned and walked towards the door. To help Mama I kept my body turned to stare at the lady; Tsuki hugged Mama’s neck.
“Ma’am?” The man at the register called after us. “Ma’am?”
The door opened and heat swept our bodies. Mama ran, Tsuki slipping off her hip and me almost tripping on the asphalt. She unlocked the car and rushed us into the hot air—it felt almost good after the cold of the store. The seat burned my thighs as I reached to belt Tsuki in. I barely clicked Tsuki into place before Mama had turned the car on, lowered all the windows, and backed out of the parking space.
My hair flew up in the wind and slapped against my cheeks as Mama drove down the road. Her lips were moving slowly, then faster and faster, but I couldn’t hear her over the sound of the air bellowing in my ears.
I drew my hand to Tsuki’s cheek and held my fingers there as she stared out into the sky. Just out of view, the white wisp of the moon shadowed us with its sleepy eye.
One night the nightlight flickered and went out. The moon was full and I opened the curtains to let the light in. Tsuki slept better with a little light, though I preferred the pitch dark. I lay awake and listened to the frogs’ chorus of croaks compete with the cicadas’ songs. The breeze from the bedroom window was a cool hand against my cheek.
Moonlight spilled across the far edge of Tsuki’s futon, a pool of milk. I watched as the pool grew deeper and wider, creeping its way to Tsuki’s toes as she lay on her side with a blue sheet bunched over her middle. The light swallowed everything in its wake: the tan-colored futon, Tsuki’s toes, her ankles, then her legs. The skin on her arms dissolved into the white. All night I kept watch, shivering but unable to move, as the light crept closer to her neck.
There were eyes that watched us through the window. I could not turn my face away from Tsuki, but I felt those eyes like a sizzle on my skin. My body was stuck in that strange heaviness I felt when I was trying to wake from a dream—that feeling of a being sitting on my stomach, rooting me to the bed. Tsuki, I wanted to scream, Tsuki. I wished I could shake her awake. The moonlight swallowed more of her, moving up her neck to her chin. She let the moon drown her in its light.
With all my might I flung my right arm up into the air, then my left. I wrestled the weight on my body just as Tsuki’s mouth disappeared. Running to the window, I snapped the curtains closed and everything went black.
In the morning I woke to the sound of Tsuki’s voice. I opened my eyes to see her drawing her forehead closer and closer to mine. She was crouched behind my pillow; our foreheads touched. When she lifted her face to look into mine, I saw myself floating in her sky eyes.
“Tsuki,” she said. “Tsuki.”