Looking for the Moon
By Joseph Ng Zhen Ye
For my sixth birthday, my Uncle Roger gave me a jar of moonlight. I remember shaking the jar, turning it upside down, then twisting it in every direction, expecting the milky-white light to swirl about, but it did no such thing.
"That's because it's filled to the brim," Uncle Roger explained proudly. "Vacuum-sealed. Not a single air bubble in that one."
I wondered if air bubbles could not exist in the same space as light, and thought that it made sense. By the time I learned about the properties of matter in secondary school science, I had forgotten all about the jar of moonlight that did not have a single air bubble in it. When the memory came floating back to me some years later, it came back fogged and fuzzy, and so I asked mom about it. She told me that we threw it away when we moved, and that it was not moonlight, but a fluorescent liquid that was very bad for health.
I believed that for a while, although I could never remember throwing it away, or that we had moved, to begin with. As far as my memory went back, we have always lived in the same two-storey terrace house along Old Klang Road. According to Mum, we used to have a house in Seri Kembangan that was destroyed in a chemical fire.
Occasionally, when my mind wanders, I find myself thinking about the jar of moonlight. Most of the time, I recall it as I have always remembered it; but sometimes, I find that I can remember a little bit more than I used to.
There was a girl called Lith.
She was a little older than me. My parents told me she was an albino, which was the first time I had heard of such a thing. She had skin paler than anything I had ever seen, and I have always imagined them to be spotted all over with light brown freckles. Her hair was what I would later know to be platinum blond, and she always smiled when she saw me, which made me uncomfortable, because I never knew what to do in response.
Later on, Lith found work at the new restaurant that opened up nearby. Before that, she was usually found around the old shop lots, chatting with the shop owners. My first conversation with her happened when I was at the sundry shop one evening to get a packet of santan. I found her inside the shop when I arrived and froze in my step. She saw me and flashed a smile.
"Hello," she said. "How are you?"
I mumbled that I was okay, secretly wishing that she would just leave me alone; but she persisted, now that I had no chance to escape. "What's your name?" she asked.
I told her my name, and she said that it was a very handsome name. Then she told me hers, which sounded like Lith, so that stuck. The old shopkeeper then came out from the back of the shop, and I was able to ask for the packet of santan, then leaving quickly with it.
Lith continued hanging around, and I continued avoiding her. Then shortly after my sixth birthday, she vanished in the most unremarkable way. Without anyone noticing or talking about it. We were never friends, so I never felt the inclination to ask about her.
The next time I saw her, it was a couple of years later. It was night, and I had to buy a new exercise book to do my homework. There was a bridge that connected one side of a large drain to the other, where the bookshop was. When I arrived at the bridge, Lith was there on the other side.
She was not how I remembered her. She stood there, white dress over her white skin, glowing gently. I did not recognise her until she smiled at me.
"Hello," she said.
Now I was a little older, and a little better at talking to people. "Hello," I replied. "It's you."
She giggled. A sparkle lit up her eyes. "How have you been?"
I took a hesitant step towards her, but she put up a hand. I stopped where I was, at the edge of the bridge. "Doing just fine," I said. "Yourself?"
She remained there, all aglow with silvery light, yet never illuminating the spot in which she stood. For whatever reason, I imagined that her light must be cold to the touch.
"The same," she said, nodding. And then she said, "I'm looking for the moon. Have you seen it?"
I looked up and saw only the cold black sky. I thought that it must be the time of the new moon. Living in the city, I did not usually pay a lot of attention to the sky. "No," I told her. "Not tonight."
"Strange, isn't it?" she wondered out loud. I assured her that the moon should be back soon, if she checked again in a couple of days. But she shook her head. "The moon is missing," she said. "I need to find it. Can you help?"
I said yes without thinking, and then tried to cross the bridge again. "No!" she said urgently. "Don't. You need to stay on that side."
"How do I help, then?" I asked. She sank a little, like this was something she had not really thought through.
"Go on home," she said finally. "I'll meet you in your room. Just wait for me."
So I did. I went home, having completely forgotten about the exercise book and the homework I had to do, which got me into a bit of trouble the next morning in school. Lith did not show up that night. Or the day after. In fact, by the time I arrived home after our encounter, she had vanished from my mind, and I had carried on with my life. When she did show up almost a week after, she was not glowing anymore, and she looked worried.
"I can't find it," she said, distressed, and I knew that she was referring to the moon. I looked outside my window, and wondered if I could normally see the moon from here. Lith began to pace furiously in the middle of my room, pressing her fingers against her temples.
"You wouldn't happen to have a moon rock, would you?" she asked suddenly. I shook my head. Lith continued pacing and worrying, muttering something about how her mother was going to be so mad, and then something else about her grandmother.
She stopped when she saw the jar resting on the wooden cabinet against the wall. Normally, it glowed milky-white in the dark until I went to sleep; but tonight it was just a dull grey colour, like the puddles outside the factories nearby. Lith raised her hands slowly to touch the jar, her eyes fixed on it like it she was beholding a priceless treasure.
"Where did you get this?" she asked. I told her it was a gift from my Uncle Roger years ago. She repeated "Roger" silently to herself. "I don't think I've heard of him," she said, frowning. I just shrugged.
She held the jar close to her face, and then began whispering to it in a language that sounded like the tinkling of small bells. It was a long stream of words that I could not understand, but there was a rhythm to her speech, and I realised that her words were rhyming at odd places. It was some sort of poetry. When she was done, she looked at the jar like something was supposed to happen, and then gave a puzzled look when nothing did.
She then tried to unscrew the lid, which did not work. She also tried prying it off, which also did not work. "How do you open this?" she asked, barely containing her irritation. When I suggested that she could just smash it, she shot me a look of horror that made me quickly admit that I had never actually tried to open it before.
"It's vacuum-sealed," I offered.
"Vacuum-sealed!" she sighed. "Of course!"
A strange combination of realisation and frustration came over her, like someone in the middle of a mystery who had discovered a baffling clue. "How do you send words through a vacuum?" she asked.
"Radio waves," I said. "It's the astronauts used when they went to the moon."
"Well, what are we waiting for?" she said, suddenly delighted. "Let's go send some radio waves!"
I did not know a lot about sending radio waves. But I figured that if we put the jar between two walkie-talkies, the radio waves should go right through the vacuum of the jar. Downstairs, I opened the door to the storeroom, and the familiar heavy, bitter smell of cockroach repellent greeted me. Something scurried behind the boxes at the back.
In the largest box on the left, we kept an assortment of unused electronics: old radios, VCR players, tape recorders. Beneath a tangle of wires, I found a set of walkie-talkies. Something rattled in one of them. I hoped that it worked nonetheless.
When I returned to my room, Lith was peeking out the window. "Can you close the curtains?" she said. I obliged.
In the darkness of the room, I loaded the walkie-talkies with batteries I had borrowed from the TV remote controls downstairs. The machines buzzed to life, hissing and cackling.
"You'll need to tune them to the same frequency," I said, drawing upon my limited knowledge of radio transmitters. We found the dials, and soon the sounds from one walkie-talkie transmitted well enough to the other. We put the jar on a chair right in the middle of the walkie-talkies as we held them up.
Lith began whispering in that strange, tinkling language again. With the sound amplified on my end, the words were no more comprehensible, but I could hear a melody in them. It was a song I had heard before, a long time ago in a language I had forgotten. When the song ended, nothing happened. I looked at her, but she was looking intently at the jar.
"Nothing's happening," I pointed out. Lith shushed me.
The grey in the jar was clearing up, like sand settling into a riverbed. But instead of becoming clear, there came a white glow–-dim at first, but steadily growing in intensity until I had to shield my eyes from it.
"The moon," I heard Lith gasp as I squeezed my eyes shut. I was certain that if I looked at the light, it would blind me for life. Even with my arm crossed in front of my eyes, the brightness was breaking through, and I was seeing red through my eyelids. I turned away, but the light pressed in from the back of my head, relentless.
"Make it stop!" I cried. It was like staring straight at the afternoon sun. It wasn't painful, but overwhelmingly intense. The light was forcing its way into my head, down my throat, filling up my torso and spreading towards my limbs, flooding me up with unbearable brightness. There was screaming, and I realised it was my voice I heard.
The light subsided. When I opened my eyes, I was not in my room anymore. I was at the bridge, ready to cross over to get to the bookshop. Lith was there on the other side, and she was glowing again. She smiled.
I took a step onto the bridge. She didn't stop me. I took another step. Then another. Then another.
Lith spread her arms wide. When her mouth moved, there was a sound like the tinkling of small bells, followed swiftly by the roar of a raging river. I looked down into the drain and saw the shallow waters running far below, but when I looked up, there was a great, black torrent rushing, crashing towards me.
I opened my mouth to scream, but the river filled it, and no sound came.
I stumbled off the bridge onto the other side, feeling a little disoriented, and found the bookshop in front of me. Had I tripped? I looked back at the bridge, and wondered if I saw there a moment ago a girl in white. There was no one.
I felt my pocket and found the three 20-cent coins still there. I took them out and held them in my hands, just in case I tripped again. If I lost even one, I would not have enough to buy the exercise book, and I would have to go back home and come back out again. I pushed the door open, and paid no mind to the tinkling of small bells overhead as I stepped into the bookshop.QLRS Vol. 14 No. 1 Jan 2015