Issue 53 – February 2011

4550 words, short story

Diving After the Moon


When Norbu was a child, his mother Jamyang told him an old Tibetan story about an industrious but foolish troop of monkeys that lived in a forest near a well. One dusty night, a monkey elder woke thirsty. He crept away from his sleeping mate and went to the well for a drink. Inside, he saw a reflection of the moon.

“The moon has fallen into our well!” he hollered.

His ruckus woke the other monkeys. They all agreed that it would be a terrible thing to live in a moonless world. They joined hands and formed a chain to climb into the well and rescue the moon.

As the monkeys dove in, the moon’s reflection broke, leaving blank dark waters. The shamed monkeys climbed out again: shivering, wet, and empty-handed. The real moon chuckled above them, safe in the sky.

Norbu liked that story better than the others Jamyang told. He liked other stories about the moon even better: histories and text books and biographies of astronauts from the dead American empire. Even as a young child, Norbu was impatient with Jamyang’s fantastic tales of weather mages and magic scarves. Jamyang tried to get him to see the beauty of old stories for their own sake, but Norbu never listened. To him, the moon was the future.

Before Norbu left to become a taikonaut, Jamyang told him, “I am going to borrow a radio so I can listen every second you are on the moon.”

Norbu smiled and said, “You don’t have to do that, Ma,” but Jamyang thought he looked pleased as he grabbed his hat and went out the door.

The day before the launch, Jamyang hiked across the dry terrain of the plateau to her nearest neighbor’s. The woman’s son gave her a near-defunct radio that he’d found in a landfill and repaired. The boy was training himself to be a mechanic and he always asked after Norbu, who had promised to write him a letter when he applied to university. Usually, Jamyang enjoyed talking about her son, but that day she was impatient to get home.

Over and over, the boy repeated his instructions for how to use the machine. “Do you know what to do? Do you know what to press?”

Jamyang fended off his concerns, protesting, “I know, I know, I used to have one,” but the boy continued fretting and repeating. He’d never gotten over the impression most people had of Jamyang, that just because she preferred past ways to future, she must never have seen any technology, even as a young girl.

Jamyang returned home with the radio at dusk, the sun pouring out red and orange light across the horizon. She listened while shelling peas. The lady reporter’s voice was fluid and rhythmic; Jamyang found it easy to listen to her, even as she repeated the same few facts to fill the hour. “Thanks to backing from the Egyptian government, Qinghai’s first expedition into space lands on the moon today, led by Melbourne-trained astronomer Karma Sangemo . . . the expedition hopes to find asteroid debris from the near miss in 2029 . . . ”

Jamyang thrilled every time she heard her son’s name: “Geologist Sopa Norbu says it’s time for Qinghai to make a contribution to the world which has given it so much. He says the people of Qinghai must work tirelessly toward the future . . . ”

On the third evening, Jamyang sat by the window with her embroidery. She missed a stitch as the reporter’s voice broke out of its mannered tones, registering panic. “We’re receiving an urgent report from our Beijing office. Hostilities have broken out between Egypt and Australia. The Australian government is threatening to detonate a spore-cluster bomb in Cairo . . . The Egyptians have issued a response. They say they won’t allow the bomb to kill millions of innocent citizens . . . ”

Murmuring suggested a conversation off the microphones. Jamyang leaned closer to the radio.

“The Egyptians are threatening to block worldwide transmissions to prevent the detonation signal from going through. They’ve given the Australians ten minutes to respond. If the Australians don’t stand down, global communications could be blocked for weeks. Wait, I’m being told we may not be able to keep transmitting—”

The reporter’s voice decayed into static. Jamyang smacked the radio.

“No!” she said. “You can’t cut out! Come back.”

She smacked it again.

“Come back on the air. This is not funny! I tell you, come back.”

Waves of white sound poured out of the old speakers, loud and relentless as a winter sandstorm.

Norbu walked from the moon’s surface into the pressurized cockpit which rumbled with the sound of static like a distant storm. The expedition’s leader, Sangemo, shouted into the microphone of the ship’s ancient transponder. After hours of trying to contact someone, her voice had become as hoarse and rough as the static.

Triangular windows on either side of the main control panel looked down on the cratered surface. Through them, he could see the expedition’s other members collecting samples from the meteor impact site. Norbu stretched with relief as he removed his spacesuit.

“Any luck?” asked Norbu.

Sangemo started as she turned to face him, as if she hadn’t noticed him before. “I’m trying Cairo and Xining. Maybe reception will come back in one before the other.”

Norbu’s eyes flickered toward the fuel gauge. “How long do we have . . . ”

“Before our oxygen runs out? Another day. Maybe less.”

“My mother said she was going to listen to radio coverage of our trip. She must be very worried.” Norbu rubbed the back of his neck, trying to ease his knotted muscles. “If we’re going to fly back blind, I’ll need to start calculating for re-entry right away. It’ll be chancey, but it’s possible I can get it right.”

Norbu expected Sangemo to chime in with her usual pragmatic analysis of statistics and time lines, but instead the woman opened her mouth slowly and hesitantly as if she didn’t want to let out the words forming in her throat. She closed her mouth again, and looked away into the shadows. Norbu’s tension tightened further in his chest.

“What is it?” he asked.

She looked down. “Do you remember your briefing on the legacy fail-safe?”

“The programming safeties the Americans put in to prevent sabotage?” asked Norbu. “Weren’t those taken out when they sold us the ship?”

Sangemo sighed. “They were supposed to be.”

She flipped open the lid that protected the delicate equipment that sensed the ship’s positioning in relation to earth. The instruments had frozen at impossible readings and showed no signs of change. She wouldn’t meet Norbu’s gaze.

“So what are you saying?” he demanded. “We’re stuck here?”

“The engines won’t reinitialize unless the ship has confirmation of radio contact,” said Sangemo. “Even if we could calculate re-entry . . . the ship won’t move.”

Norbu felt dizzy. He gripped one of the handles embedded into the side of the ship. “We’re going to die here? We can’t even try to fly back?”

“Unless radio contact comes back. Yes.”

Norbu surprised himself with the force of his anger. He punched the wall, his fist aching from contact with the metal. His head hurt, and he wanted to shout at Sangemo, take her by the shoulders and tell her that she was wrong, she was lying. The rational part of his mind that ticked beneath his spinning anger reminded him that this wasn’t Sangemo’s fault. It was the American’s. It was the Egyptian’s. It was the Australian’s. But they weren’t here.

Norbu stalked over to the windows and looked down at the surface. Norbu wondered if they’d feel as blindsided by this news as he did. They were always calling Norbu an innocent, an optimist. Probably Sangemo would say she’d always suspected the Americans couldn’t be trusted to fulfill their part of the contract. That was Norbu’s problem. He had too much faith.

Everyone in the expedition had wanted so badly to reach the moon. No one wanted its cold, dead surface as a burial ground.

“I should tell the others,” said Sangemo, softly.

Norbu didn’t turn toward her. “I’ll stay on the microphone,” he said.

“Thanks.” He heard the click and shuffle of Sangemo putting on her spacesuit. “Well,” she added even more quietly, “It’ll give us a chance to finish the chemical testing you wanted to do on the lava samples.”

Norbu realized she wanted him to smile to show he understood it wasn’t her fault, to take some of the burden off of her shoulders. He didn’t have the energy to comfort her. He remained silent as Sangemo’s helmet clicked into place and her footfalls fell hollow on the metal steps leading downward.

Norbu turned to the main control panel. The static roared and rattled, vibrating through his bones. He stared down at his crewmates through the triangular windows; they still pursued their various tasks, just now turning their heads toward Sangemo as she approached them. He imagined them stuck in their places like flies in amber, forever frozen. He shouted into the microphone’s deaf ear, and suddenly in his mind, it wasn’t the headquarters in Xining he was talking to.

“Mother! Mother, is that you? Can you hear me? Listen to me! Stay out of the storm! Don’t try to come for me. Are you listening? I’m stuck here. I don’t want you to be stuck here, too. Don’t try to come for me, mother! You have to move on.”

Norbu could hardly make out his voice in the onslaught of sound. Static swallowed him in a tumble of sand and dust.

Jamyang loved two things: her son and stories. Which was why she decided to catch a troop of monkeys to help rescue Norbu from the moon.

Five days and nights, Jamyang cooked. She labored over the fire without sleeping. Sweat dripped from her brow, salting the broth. Her deep sobs woke the stinging flavors of the spices. Her burned fingertips rolled a dazzling hint of flame into the dough.

When the vast buffet was complete, Jamyang tottered away from the stove on weary legs and laid the feast on the threshold. The scents of thenthuk noodle soup, momo dumplings, and butter tea traveled swiftly through the cold, clean air of the plateau.

The sun glared down. A small breeze ruffled a whirl of dust before dying down. The plateau remained still.

Jamyang drooped. Her tired eyes stung as if they were full of sand. An inquisitive bird swooped down on black wings to investigate the meal. Jamyang shooed him away.

Sudden, bright chittering drew her attention to the horizon. A band of gold-furred monkeys approached across the wide terrain. They held each other’s paws one after the other in a chain. Their noses tilted upward, sniffing the air. Jamyang’s exhaustion vanished.

She clapped her hands and gathered a handful of dumplings. “Come eat!” she called, holding them out. “Come, quickly! I’ve made it all for you!”

The monkeys snatched the food out of Jamyang’s hands, eating with feral quickness as if afraid such good fortune would melt if they ate too slowly. Jamyang beamed down at them, offering new tidbits when their paws emptied. She was as attentive and elegant as the palace servants from the old stories.

When there was no more food, the monkeys lolled about. Partners idly groomed each other’s sleek fur. Others lay belly up, enjoying the faint warmth of the distant winter sun. Jamyang passed through the troop, patting the monkeys’ flossy white beards. She counted them: chig, nyi, sum. Four hundred and seventy monkeys had gathered on her land.

“My friends, thank you for coming,” said Jamyang. “I need your help.”

The monkeys’ collective, satiated gaze settled on Jamyang as if to ask: What can we do?

Jamyang knelt. She drew a shawl over her shoulders. Cheap North American fabric was little good against the chill.

“I have a son, Norbu,” she said. “He is a taikonaut, a person who goes into space. People here in Qinghai have wanted to go into space for a long time. They want to show the world that Qinghai is worth something as an independent state, that our worth didn’t die when the American Empire and the old Republic of China fought themselves to pieces.

“Egypt loaned us money to buy an old American era ship. It arrived by train in the capitol at Xining. Twenty thousand people gathered to see it. It was such an honor for my son to be part of something so big!

“Egypt and Australia started arguing again, over whatever the rich fight about. Qinghai wasn’t involved. But when have superpowers worried about who they hurt? Their fight stranded my son on the moon.

“Finally, after two weeks, Egypt reached a truce with Australia and cut off their jamming signal. I thought, at last, we can save my son! But then the prime minister came on the radio. He said we cannot afford to send a rescue ship. He said we should honor my son’s crew for their sacrifice. He said they have asphyxiated on the moon. Huh! I know they are not dead. The prime minister only wants to save money. He thinks about gold more than people.

“I went to the monastery to ask them for help. The monks told me not to worry. They said that when Norbu died, he would be reincarnated on earth and that was all the homecoming he needed. What comfort is that for a grieving mother?

“I took the train to the television station in Xining, thinking they could help me talk sense into the prime minister. They sent out a young woman half my age wearing a short skirt. She took my hands and said, ‘We’re so glad you came. We’re ten minutes short for the evening news.’ They filmed me for half an hour and sent me home with a handful of piastres.

“No one cared about my son.

“I thought I would die of grief. I sat in the dark, doing nothing. I looked at the radio and remembered the static that killed my son, so angry and loud. I looked out the window and saw the moon. And then I realized how silly I’d been! No one wants to hear the stories anymore. Even as a child, Norbu never wanted to hear them. But I remembered you.”

A satisfied smile stretched across Jamyang’s lips.

“We’re going to build another chain to the moon. But this time, it will be the real moon! Will you help me?”

A large female with a puff of auburn fur over her eyes approached Jamyang, taking her hand. The monkeys chattered. The female led Jamyang into the crowd. The other monkeys gathered around to groom her, their short black fingers tugging at Jamyang’s clothes, traversing her skin, winding through her hair.

Jamyang let them pull her into their center. She raised her hands toward the moon. “I knew you would help. Thank you. Together, we’ll get my son back, won’t we?”

Jamyang and the monkeys practiced from dawn until dusk, forming ever-longer chains into the sky. They went out every morning, even in the bitterest winter winds. Once, a ferocious gust picked up the tiniest monkey and blew him halfway across the plateau. His mother had to run all night to fetch him back.

After sunset, Jamyang brought the monkeys into her house for large meals and warming butter tea. After they ate, the monkeys groomed Jamyang. In exchange, she told them old Tibetan stories about the Weathermaker and the wise scholar Padmasambhava’s magic scarves. The monkeys fell asleep to the sound of Jamyang’s soothing voice. She joined them on the floor, huddled body to fur.

One bitterly cold morning, Jamyang woke with a sense of purpose. “We should do it today,” she said. She urged the monkeys outside into the frigid air.

The largest monkey planted himself solidly in the field. His mate, the second-largest, climbed onto his shoulders. She held out her arms to one of her sons, the third-largest monkey. So it went, smaller and smaller monkeys scrambling up their elders.

When the chain had grown so tall that the top monkey could touch the belly of a passing airplane, a roaring sounded in the distance. Jamyang turned. A sandstorm whirled toward them, dust and sand rumbling across the horizon in great dun-colored clouds.

“Hurry! Hurry!” Jamyang told the monkeys. The next pair rushed past her, holding their paws over their eyes to keep out the sand. Luckily, they had practiced so often that even blind they knew what to do.

Jamyang spat out a mouthful of sand. Grains caught in her eyes. She could no longer see the monkeys, only hear their chatter. The tiniest monkey clung to her breast until it was his turn. He jumped to the ground, tugging on Jamyang’s hand to pull her behind him. She heard his toes brush through the elders’ fur as he climbed up and up and up.

Now it was Jamyang’s turn. She planted her foot on the eldest monkey’s shoulders and began to climb. The monkeys shifted under her, groaning as they accepted her weight. Currents of sand drove against her back, scouring her skin. Gusts roared in her ears like static.

On the shoulders of a strong young male, she paused to wrap her shawl over her mouth so she could breathe. Sand worked its way in anyway, coarse underneath her tongue.

The climb seemed to last forever. At first, she kept track of how many monkeys she’d passed. Soon she lost count. Her hands and feet became numb, assaulted by millions of hard, minuscule grains. She could no longer hear the monkeys, only the storm’s relentless white crash.

At last, Jamyang mounted a pair of teeny tiny shoulders. No more paws reached for her. The sandstorm retreated to a distant rumble. Jamyang opened her eyes, scraping sand out of her lashes. The sky around her was absolute matte black, darker than ink on midnight silk. Above hung the moon, great and white and pitted with craters.

Jamyang looked down. The chain of monkeys trailed away at a steep angle, appearing to grow smaller and smaller like railroad tracks moving to the horizon. The line disappeared into the swirling sand.

Jamyang smiled into the face of the tiniest monkey. “We made it!” she said. The tiny monkey chattered back happily. She ruffled its fur.

Stretching out her arms as if she was going to pick up a huge barrel, Jamyang hugged the moon’s surface. Her legs swung above her head like she was doing a handstand. The world went topsy-turvy. She flipped onto her feet. She felt a blush as the blood pooled in her head, then stiffness in her ankles as if it were all rushing into her legs. Suddenly, she was looking up at the monkeys instead of down at them.

“Thank you so much!” she said, waving.

The tiniest monkey lowered his little black paw to wave back.

“Wait for me!” Jamyang said. “I will return with my son.”

The tiniest monkey regarded Jamyang with sober, comprehending eyes. Above him, the chain swayed like a tall stem of grass in the wind.

Jamyang turned her attention to the vast vista of the moon. She leapt between craters. “Norbu!” she shouted. “I’ve come for you! Where are you?”

Jamyang passed scraps of ancient American technology, marked with faint symbols of red, white, and blue. Beyond them, stood an old but intact South African war machine, faceted lenses gazing down at an ancient enemy on earth. Deactivated scuttlebots lay scattered across the landscape, legs curled up like dead spiders.

Jamyang caught sight of her son’s ship. It stuck up from the horizon like a great white needle, faded red paint etching a stripe around its tip. “Norbu?” Jamyang shouted. No reply came.

A crater the size of a lake sprawled in front of the ship. Three figures in spacesuits stood around it, frozen. A woman bent over a rock, squinting at an instrument. Beside her, a man sat on another rock, holding his head in his hands. Another leapt toward the ship, caught in mid-jump.

“Hello, good people?” Jamyang called. “I am Norbu’s mother. It’s all right. I am here to bring you home.”

They remained frozen, like dancers caught by a photographer’s flash. Jamyang passed them. She mounted the steel mesh steps leading into the ship.

Jamyang crawled through tiny passages until she entered a room where she could stand. Norbu stood in front of a huge machine the width of three large men standing shoulder to shoulder. His mouth stretched open into a shout. Sweat beaded his flushed cheeks.

Jamyang threw her arms around the waist of his spacesuit. “Norbu! I knew you weren’t dead!”

Norbu’s body wrenched into motion, like a stuck cart pulling free from the mud. He jumped back, startled. “Ma? What are you doing here?” He tapped a gauge on the panel. “I can’t have much O2 left.” He twisted a microphone toward his mouth. “Cairo, can you hear me? Xining, do you read?”

“Don’t talk to them,” said Jamyang. “I’m the one who came to rescue you.”

“Where’s Sangemo? Where’s Dorje?”

“Hush. They’re outside. We’ll wake them when we head home. See?” She pointed out the triangular windows overlooking Norbu’s frozen crewmates. “You won’t believe what I had to go through to find you. The prime minister refused to send anyone for you!”

Norbu shook his head like a person waking from a long dream. “I don’t . . . remember. What happened? Our radios went dead.”

“It doesn’t matter now.”

“A signal came through before it happened . . . I’m having trouble remembering . . . my head hurts, I’m all fuzzy . . . I remember thinking about you, hoping you’d find a way to move on . . . ”

“But I did move on, don’t you see? I came for you. The monks and the television people, they wouldn’t help me, so I summoned monkeys and climbed my way to you, just like in the old stories. I can bring you all home.”

Norbu shook his head. “No.”

Jamyang went to the window. “I hope the monkeys can hold us all. That girl’s a sturdy one, isn’t she?” She clucked her tongue against her teeth.

“Ma, this is important. I’m trying to remember. The transmission . . . ”

“The Australians declared war,” said Jamyang. “They threatened to detonate a spore-cluster bomb.”

“-a spore-cluster bomb,” Norbu finished with his mother. “The Australians would never have done it. It was an empty threat. The Australians would never have done it. Not with the Egyptian military presence in New Zealand, ready to retaliate with short-range missiles. It was an empty threat. The Egyptians knew that. Sangemo contacted the ambassador to beg them to delay their response until we could get home. The Egyptian ambassador said they couldn’t. He said it would make them look weak. They loaned us the money to help us get to space, they said it was important for Qinghai to join the modern world, but they forgot us as soon as it became inconvenient . . . ”

“Do we need to straighten this out now?” said Jamyang.

“Sangemo gave the headset to Dorje. He pleaded, ‘I have sons at home. They need a father.’ When that didn’t work, Sangemo took the headset again. She said, ‘We’ll cut our mission short and leave now. We’ll be in orbit in a few hours. You can send out your signal then.’ She said, ‘You have no idea how much this means to Qinghai. We’ve been waiting to show the world that we, too, are a great people. We, too, can touch the moon.’”

“Enough of this now,” said Jamyang. “You never wanted to listen to stories, but they’ve saved you now, haven’t they?” Jamyang grabbed Norbu’s hand to pull him toward the door. He shook himself loose.

“No, ma, you don’t understand. I’m running out of oxygen. You’re a hallucination.”

“You say this to the woman who comes to rescue you? Children! I cooked kitchens full of noodles and dumplings to lure the monkeys. When the new world fails you, the old stories are always there.”

“I need to get to the others,” said Norbu.

Jamyang watched him pull on his spacesuit. “You don’t need that.”

“I don’t care if I am hallucinating, I’m not going out onto the moon without my suit,” said Norbu. He pulled the bubble of his helmet over his head and bounded out of the room.

Jamyang followed. Norbu’s crewmates remained frozen in the crater. Norbu went to each of them, waving his gloved hands in front of their still faces. Finally, he turned to his mother, hands groping in front of him as if searching for something concrete to grasp.

“I always thought I’d relive the most exciting moments of my life before I died. Winning the bicycle race from Xining to Qinghai Lake. The clean empty feeling of running ten kilometers, three thousand feet above sea level. Being chosen for the expedition. The launch! But when Sangemo told us about the message from Cairo, I kept thinking about you, Ma, and the old stories you used to tell. Monkeys forming a chain and jumping into a well after the moon.”

Norbu paused. Behind his helmet, his expression was inscrutable.

“I must love you very much.”

“As I love you,” said Jamyang.

Around them, the world began to unfreeze. Norbu’s crewmates inched forward as if in a slow motion video. From Norbu’s space suit there came the noise of his radio, sputtering the empty static of Australia’s jamming signal. Jamyang flinched.

“You can hear that?” said Norbu.

“Never mind!” shouted Jamyang. “Come on! We should get back to the monkeys before they fall!”

Jamyang turned to flee back the way she’d come, but her feet only ran in place. Dead scuttlebots lay where she hoped to find the monkeys. Panic cinched her throat. She couldn’t breathe. She clawed at her neck. “Where did the earth go?” she choked.

“You don’t get it, do you, ma? There isn’t any air here. The old legends aren’t true.”

“We have to get home!”

Norbu shook his head slowly. “We can’t, ma. You and I, we’re both fools. Nothing we believed was true. There’s nothing for us in the past or the future. I remember when I was a kid thinking if Qinghai could just get to the moon we’d be like all those other countries, rich and glamorous. No more poverty. No more children starving in the streets. No more taxes to pay for other people’s wars. No more generations of boy soldiers coming home crippled. We’d leap across the gap and when we landed - we’d be with everyone else in the future.”

Norbu stomped his foot. Moon dust billowed around him in slow motion. “Everything I grew up thinking—it was all wrong. I was trying to grab the future out of the well water. But it was only a reflection. It’s hovering above us, chuckling in the sky. And here we are, wet.”

Static roared in their ears, like the sandstorm.

“No,” said Jamyang.

Norbu placed his hand on her face. His thick Kevlar spacesuit felt rough against her cheek.

“You don’t get it, do you, Ma? We’ve fallen in the well. There’s nothing left to breathe.”

Author profile

Rachel Swirsky holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers Workshop where she, a California native, learned about both writing and snow. She recently traded the snow for the rain of Portland, Oregon, where she roams happily under overcast skies with the hipsters. Her fiction has appeared in venues including, Asimov's Magazine, and The Year's Best Non-Required Reading. She's published two collections: Through the Drowsy Dark (Aqueduct Press) and How the World Became Quiet (Subterranean Press). Her fiction has been nominated for the Hugo Award and the World Fantasy Award, and twice won the Nebula.

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