‘Earthgazing’, Lisa Cai

Illustrations © 2019 Katharine A. Viola

 [ Moon palace, © 2019 Katharine A. Viola ] The earth was like a circular pond, viewing it from the moon. It had more landmass than Chiyo expected and had ice at the poles.

The maps in her father’s library, on folding screens and plates, had the Tayoi Islands at the centre and sometimes the mainland, featuring the Yu Empire. Other maps had lines as routes, and locations had their names written out to assist with tax collecting or were grids detailing paddy fields.

From Chiyo’s vantage point, there were multiple continents, all of them larger than the Yu Empire. The Tayoi Islands were small compared to everything else and obscured by swirling clouds. Hearing tales and seeing art about the outside world wasn’t enough, but it was a start.

“Chi-chan.” Hana, wearing three layers of overgarments, made her way to her younger sister, huffing. “You have been out here for hours.”

“Did you think I lost my way?” Aside from the craters, the moon hosted a palace for Zuki, its deity and his attendants; Hana didn’t have to worry. Besides, she had to look after her own well-being, as she had recovered from a fever. They had been granted immunity from feeling the harsh cold in this realm when they first voyaged here, yet Hana was chilly enough to overdress. “There is a lot to see from here.”

There were stars and other planets to observe. Unfortunately, the best telescopes couldn’t glimpse the depths of the universe. Chiyo was better off curling her fingers and looking through the hole of her fist to get a better look at things.

Hana, having lived here since she wed, was familiar with the blackness around them. If anything, she feared the vast emptiness out there.

“I can return to my guestroom.” Chiyo stood up. Her legs cramped and then regained their strength. She needed to look after herself rather than observe. Her past matrons chided her when she climbed trees to collect colourful leaves or kept cicadas in her bedroom to hear the calls they each made.

She struck a wooden pole into the ground, marking where she would return to tomorrow.

Their walk to the palace required tiptoeing on their sandals to avoid craters and pits, large and small. Eventually, they found the smooth path to the palace residence. The castle’s white walls glimmered against the sunlight. The roof tiles were as pale as the ground they walked on. The tower bell rang a number of times, calling for the ideal hour to slumber.

Chiyo brought a lacquer box with her writing set and sat atop her hill. These items were brought to journal and inform her parents about her time here, but she could use them for additional reasons. Her mother, Nagisa, made sure that an excess amount of writing materials were packed for the visit.

What did Chiyo know about mapmaking throughout the fourteen years of her life? Next to nothing. When Takashi, her father, commissioned a surveyor to document roads in his domain, she asked to accompany and learn about cartography. Nagisa forbid it, though her father seemed willing to grant Chiyo the opportunity. Her mother warned Chiyo not to burden a man at work.

Chiyo pouted at the memory. Her father had a reputation for being unconventional, like approving the request of his youngest daughter Tomoe to learn the Yuan language with a scholar. It was rare even for princesses to receive such lessons. Why did Takashi listen to Nagisa? He was one of the most powerful daimyo in the Tayoi Islands, while Nagisa was originally a kitchen maid!

Chiyo was glad her father was willing to listen to his children’s requests, though. Most women Chiyo’s age were betrothed. She didn’t want to be a wife and mother yet. A picture of the earth was what she desired. County maps painted in rivers, roads, mountains, and settlements. She couldn’t include the same small details, nor did she have the skills to do her artistic vision well. Who had ever heard of a map of the entire world? Was that even possible? Worst of all, the earth rotated; it was always going to tilt and turn before her.

But the world was less cloudy today; she had to take advantage of that. She scrapped her inkstick against the inkstone. She wet her brush and drew a thick circle on her parchment. The outlining leaked to the right, as she had set her paper slanted.

She was going to make many drafts.

“What have you done to this room, Chi-chan?” Hana stood at the entrance of the guestroom.

The tatami mat hosted scattered, blotted parchments. Some paper had just an empty circle. Others were stained with blackness, small dots, or wave patterns. Some were marked over with a big ‘X’.

Chiyo munched on a skewer of dango. The rice flour balls were plain and chewy, but that was fine.

“These are my drafts,” she said. “I made you aware of my idea, Hana-neesan.”

Hana pursed her lips, and finally sighed. She had been bedridden due to a chill for two days, and her husband tended to her, while Chiyo was left to her own devices. If Nagisa or a matron were here, they would have disciplined Chiyo; her present antics were old habits.

“I will tidy this, I promise.” Chiyo bit into the last dango.

“Thank you… do you want to stroll through the gardens?” Hana sniffed. Surely a chill was coming back to her.

Chiyo had only one day left here, but she accepted her sister’s invitation, as they had a precious amount of time left together. She stepped on some of her pages to make it outside.

The gardens were a bare sight. There were small stone statues for lighting, but no trees or ponds. The only animals here were rabbits.

“Where is your husband?” Chiyo said.

“He is preparing food for Mother and Father.”

“And all is well with you two?” Chiyo was asking for Nagisa.

Hana gave a small nod and blushed. Her husband was gentle and tended to her needs. Hana had been the one to initiate talking to Taro. He was Zuki’s attendant when they descended down to visit Takashi and Nagisa. Hana had been smitten with him on sight. Part of the reason why their parents never bothered to wed off Hana was that her frail health and thin frame was unlikely to survive childbirth. But, since Hana insisted, her request to marry was approved.

Chiyo couldn’t stand the thought of wedding and spending most of her days within the women’s quarters of a castle and living by routine; she wanted to see the world and everything beyond the place she was born in.

This excursion to the moon was a momentary opportunity to venture; Chiyo was visiting her sister because their parents were unnerved about leaving the earth. She had one day left to draw the best, most accurate picture of her planet.

Three child servants threw around a temari ball. Chiyo should have brought her own toy. She, as a prank, had cut the sleeve of her eldest sister Yamato’s favourite kimono and used the silk to cover the ball. Yamato had pinched Chiyo repeatedly, but the pain was worth it. That was how Chiyo could get back at Yamato’s constant criticism of her younger siblings.

When she had first visited the moon, she had heard about the people living here. They looked like plain humans. The legends lacked details about the inhabitants, but they played and spoke like anyone on earth. There were too many mysteries in the universe. What did other tongues sound like? What foods were out there? When others looked up at the same sky as hers, did they have different names for constellations?

Chiyo thought her mapmaking could contribute something to the world and give it something it needed to know about itself.

Chiyo was on her last piece of paper. She wouldn’t borrow anything from the palace and burden her hosts with a request.

 [ Mapmaker © 2019 Katharine A. Viola ]

The earth was obscured by the dark crescent of night and cloudy. Those white masses could be huge—did a weather god decide to stir up a storm today? Still, she remembered the shape of the continents and could try one more time to depict the world. The tip of her brush touched the sheet and then twisted and turned to mark curves. These were the lands she’d never know. These were the adventures she’d never have.

She stabbed the sheet until it was soaked with ink. She threw both the picture and brush away and covered her face with her hands. She knew what frustration was, always losing to Tomoe in a game of shogi. Now, her failure was something grand and historic, disappointing all of humanity. When would she have another chance to view her planet and draw again? She would return to the women’s quarters and never improve her mapmaking. In the past, she climbed up onto the tiled roof of her home and saw what was out there in the domain. Seeing the whole world here made her life seem even more cloistered.

“Is your despair monumental, Chi-chan?” Zuki, the moon god, was standing nearby her. His silver hair was cropped short this time. As usual, he radiated soft white light off his skin. The overgarment he wore dragged along the ground, decorated with pale flower patterns. He smiled as he sat down beside her. He had yet to spend enough time with Chiyo. The servants gossiped about her, spotting her carrying her tools as she stepped outside and returned with stained hands and sleeves.

“I wish I knew how to make maps.” Chiyo picked up a sheet. The Tayoi Islands were at the centre, surrounded by the Yu mainland, but she had stopped once she realized her homeland was proportionally too large. “I want everyone at home to see the world’s vastness. I did not even try drawing the other planets, like the orange one or the ringed one.”

“Will you request your lord father to find a tutor?” Zuki held up another sheet. At some point, collecting these drafts together, one could distinguish all the continents.

“I cannot be a mapmaker,” Chiyo said under her breath. Nagisa and Yamato would protest, saying Chiyo would bring shame to their family with her unwomanly ways. They also said ladies couldn’t be smiths, but Chiyo had observed daughters helping their fathers and brothers with ironwork, tending to fires, and dipping hot steel in cold water. The world wasn’t as strict or small as her mother and sister imagined.

“And yet, you sit here, the first earthling trying to capture the entire world in ink.”

Was she really the first? Had no one on this rock thought to record the objects in the universe? Plenty of people on earth gazed upon celestial bodies and were compelled to compose songs and art. Surely, when looking from the moon, something stirred within its residents.

“Has no one here ever thought to draw the things they see?” She hugged her knees against her chest.

“There are maps and books in the palace library. The collection focuses on all of my moons, though there is a section about your planet,” Zuki said. “But it is of no use to you.”

“Why not?”

“The earth alters much every few millennia.” Zuki’s grey eyes were on the planet before him. He had done his fair share of earthgazing. Sometimes, that planet was covered all over with ice. In other eras, it burned and glowed with lava. Zuki thought the earth would become a forever wasteland that only the gods could walk. Yet, life, in so many forms, managed to rise on that realm. Chiyo’s attempt to do humanity the favour of painting the whole world proved how ambitious and high these creatures dreamed, despite their mortal flesh. Zuki wished he could understand the urgency with accomplishing things. The divine had no intention of giving any credit to humans.

I still want to see all of the world, no matter how impossible, Chiyo thought. “If only I could live as long as you.”

“The elixir of immortality is crafted by my rabbits,” he chuckled. “Would you like to have a sip?”

He, despite the laughter, was serious. If Chiyo requested, he would extend her lifetime. Zuki was strange, even compared to other gods. He descended down to earth a few times a year just to visit Chiyo’s parents. Apparently, Nagisa had helped Zuki with a task, and he now considered her family as companions.

“If I live forever, I do not want to view everything as dully as you.”

Zuki laughed aloud now. She was daring since the first time he met her. She had been hiding in a closet and spying on her parents to find out why they stayed up so late at night at times. When the shoji to the closet was opened, Hana curled up, afraid to be seen. Chiyo stared straight at Zuki with questions resting on the tip of her tongue, but she had to apologize to her parents first for eavesdropping. That was a girl whose curiosity always overcame her.

He had invited Chiyo and Hana to the moon and granted them the ability to survive here. It was good to have new eyes in this old universe. She had stared in wonder at everything when she first landed here. She chose right; a short life made her experiences that more exciting, needed. Though, he wished Chiyo chose to live forever. They could see each other more often.

“Thank you for visiting, Chi-chan.” Hana and Chiyo held each other’s hands as they stood on the veranda. “I packed dango and mochi for Father, Mother, and our sisters. The package is in the palanquin.”

“Mm hm.” Chiyo would ask to go to the moon again next year. She may be an aunt by then. “It was good seeing you. I wish you all the best.”

Chiyo stepped out on to the courtyard and entered her carriage. She waved at Hana as the driverless palanquin rose upwards. Hana was with a new family, but it was good to see that she had settled in this place.

Hana, the palace, and the moon shrank. In this limbo, Chiyo was the only one between the earth and moon. The blackness of space was dotted with shining stars. Next, she would try drawing this perspective too. As she descended back to the earth, the darkness disappeared, and she passed through a storm of clouds.

The cluster of the Tayoi Islands grew larger and larger. One could see mountains first and then the castle residence of her family. The palanquin landed in a garden of her home. Here, the grass grew and the crickets chirped.

Nagisa hurried over to the palanquin. “Chi-chan, are you in there?”

“I am.” Chiyo stepped out, bowed her head, and thanked the palanquin as it ascended back up into the air. One day, she may borrow the carriage to take her somewhere else. Chiyo held up the box of treats. “Hana-neesan gifted this to us.”

“Welcome back.” Takashi remained seated on the veranda. “Shall we speak indoors?”

Chiyo recounted her visit within a room, all of them sitting. The full moon was shining. Were Hana and Zuki looking down on her? No telescope could spot the palace up there.

When she was done, she asked her parents. “May I go to the capital? Tomoe-chan will go soon and I want to accompany her.”

“Why are you making this request?” Nagisa said. Chiyo could get herself into grave trouble in such a large city. What if she was lured into a gambling den, or worse?

“I want to show my drawings to the shogun’s cartographers.”

Nagisa narrowed her eyes at her daughter. She was going to scold the girl later about wasting so much paper. Chiyo recognized a refusal when she saw it. Those surveyors would laugh at her pictures and never believe her connection to the moon.

“Or… I want to go to the government archives to see maps.”

Nagisa turned to Takashi. He had listened to her stories without interruption. Surely, he had something to say.

“Thank you for travelling in our stead.” Takashi closed his eyes and leaned against his armrest. “If you want to embark to the capital, ensure all you need has been prepared. I will write a request for you to make inquiries in the shogunate archives.”

Nagisa let out a silent sigh. This child was growing and looking more like her mother. They were nearly the same height and had the same willowy figure.

Chiyo, on the other hand, bowed and expressed her gratitude to her father. All she wanted to know was how well she compared to the skilled mapmakers. She couldn’t detail things as masterfully as a trained surveyor, but she would see how they dared to put their vision onto paper. She also had to plan to convince her parents to let her take a ship and go beyond the Tayoi shores one day.

When Chiyo left the room, Nagisa opened Hana’s gift. The white balls of mochi and dango looked harmless. There were tales of humans consuming divine food and being spirited to outer realms forever. However, cursed treats wouldn’t lure Chiyo out of the safety and comforts of this home. Chiyo would willingly go and see the world and beyond of her own volition.

She may live on the moon or go to places that were unheard of and threatening to humans. Perhaps, Zuki would take Chiyo to see the other planets to entertain her. When that moment arrived, Nagisa would miss her daughter.

© 2019 Lisa Cai

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