Asian American

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Satellite Love
Excerpt

ANNA

Did you know that most people are hollow?

It’s true. You see medical diagrams of the body sometimes, the ones where we’re stuffed full with kidneys, gallbladders, lungs, and it’s easy to get the impression that there’s no space left inside. But those drawings always miss the gaps. For example, I have an empty spot inside my chest, below my sternum, that if I hit just right lets out a soft thump. A personal echo.

I suspect that everyone has their own hollow spot, one that lets out a unique tone when tapped. You just need to find it. Perhaps yours is behind your head, in your lower back, or along your ribs. The problem is, most people don’t seem to understand that they’re empty, too.

I can pinpoint the moment I realized I was hollow. It was during my first year of high school, and Ms. Tanaka was prattling on in Social Studies class about old gods and ancient tales. Her favourite story was about Amaterasu, the sun goddess, and her brother Susanoo, god of the storms and seas. A long time ago, Susanoo had destroyed some of Amaterasu’s rice paddies, and out of anger the sun goddess hid in a cave, casting the world into shadow.

All the other gods became nervous when she wouldn’t emerge, realizing that if she hid forever, they would be forced to live an eternity in darkness. Of course, they didn’t actually care about her; they just wanted her light. They ended up luring her out with a party, pretending that they had found another, better sun goddess instead, and celebrated loudly enough for her to hear. When Amaterasu got jealous and peeked out to see who this new goddess could be, the other gods pulled her out
from the cave and trapped her.

At this point, the girls who sat behind me started giggling, and I glanced back despite knowing better. All five of them were sitting with their backs completely straight, hands folded on their desks, suddenly model students. I tried to figure out what, exactly, they were laughing at, but they simply looked past me, avoiding any eye contact.

One of the girls, Mina, raised her hand and asked, “Why did Anna-terasu want to go to a party she wasn’t invited to?” Ms. Tanaka corrected her on the name, but then the others started chiming in too, and it became obvious they were mispronouncing Amaterasu deliberately.

“Why didn’t the other gods like Anna-terasu?”

“Did Anna-terasu know that she was being annoying?”

“Why was Anna-terasu so sulky?”

I was puzzled at first, but then I clued in that they were giving me a new nickname. I decided this was a good thing. My classmates give me a lot of nicknames, on account of my having the only non-Japanese name in my class. My mom tells me that Anna means “graceful” or “beauty” in English. In Japanese, though, it sounds similar to the word ana, meaning “hole.” A hollow. Compared to that, being called the sun goddess might have been the nicest thing those girls had ever said about me.

Ms. Tanaka had some slides projected at the front of the room, and one of them showed an old woodblock print of Amaterasu.

She was floating in the clouds, enveloped in this holy glow, indifferent to the deities that surrounded her. All the other gods were cowering, arms up, overwhelmed by her light. They admired Amaterasu, or at the very least they feared her.

I ignored my classmates’ barrage of questions, keeping my eyes on Amaterasu instead, studying her gaze. In those traditional prints, the old gods are all depicted in this uncanny way, with a vacant look in their eyes. Ms. Tanaka said it’s an expression of compassion, but I think it’s one of contempt. The sun goddess was looking down on us, and for some reason, I felt an affinity to her. The more I stared at her image, the more it seemed like I was looking into my own reflection. We were both really pale, although her colour was from being royal, mine from being indoors all the time. We both had a bit of a sullen streak, too. I wondered if, maybe, she could be a superior version of myself.

Ms. Tanaka eventually regained control of the class, getting everyone to settle down for fear of punishment, but I was too busy staring at the sun goddess to notice. Maybe it was that hint of a smile she wore on her face, but the myth didn’t quite make sense; there was something centuries of scholars had overlooked.

I raised my hand and asked, “Why didn’t Anna-terasu want to be friends with the fake sun goddess?” It seemed logical. If the other gods were cruel to her, then she should be excited to meet someone she was similar to. Why should she be jealous of a potential friend?

I suppose it was an odd thing to ask, since everyone went silent, including Ms. Tanaka. But then, starting from the back of the class, a couple of girls started to laugh again. A few boys joined in too, followed finally by the mid- and lower-caste girls, not wanting to be left out of a joke. I didn’t mind, though. Not just because I was used to it, but because I was still excited at the thought of being a goddess. I felt their laughter bounce around inside me, echoing in that hollow place, and I started to feel lighter and lighter. Light enough to float into space.

I rushed home that day, slipping out of school while my classmates snapped Polaroids of each other. The peace signs they held up to the camera felt like the emblem of a club I wasn’t privy to.
A crisp winter breeze chased me through Sakita’s urban maze, with its narrow alleys, crumbling rooftops, and second-hand electronics stores. It was overcast, so the sun was hidden behind some clouds, casting an even light and causing all shadows to disappear. I didn’t want to waste any time, and cut through rice paddies and bike lanes as I saw fit.

When I got home, I checked in on my grandpa before running upstairs. I told him that I wanted to be called “Anna-terasu” from now on, but judging by his blank expression, I don’t think he understood what I was saying. The dishes in the sink told me he had remembered to eat lunch, which was a relief, and I set him up with a sudoku book to spend the rest of the afternoon on. The puzzles were supposed to improve his memory, but he wasn’t very good at them yet and kept forgetting the rules. To be honest, I kind of liked being able to help Grandpa with the answers. Sometimes, I’d get a few rows correct, back to back, and he’d be really impressed, say that I must be a genius or something. I didn’t want to tell him that we were still on the easy ones.

But that day, the heavens were calling to me, so I retreated to my attic room and locked myself away. I’d always had a habit of jumping from one hobby to the next, filling my space with clutter belonging to past identities. Marked cards from my magic phase, vinyl records from when I loved jazz, poorly drawn flip-books from when I was going to be an animator. Pulling the telescope out of the mess of years gone by, I was glad I never bothered to clean up.

Despite being impatient to begin, I decided to wait until nightfall to search the sky for gods. I knew that it would be dangerous to view the sun directly, and figured that I would watch for Amaterasu’s reflection in the moon instead. Maybe she really would look like me.

At the time, I was a novice stargazer, my knowledge of constellations barely stretching beyond Big Dipper and Little Dipper. It was my grandpa who had given me the telescope, wanting to ensure I knew how “minuscule the Earth is” compared to everything else. The brass focus knobs were worn down from where he had adjusted them hundreds of times before, trying to keep the world above in view. I wondered if he could still show me how.

The windows in my loft were angled upwards, like holes punched out of the slanted ceiling above, cutting off my view of the neighbourhood below. If I were to imagine just right, and give in to weightlessness, it would feel as though I were in space myself, riding solar winds and comet tails.
Soon enough, Amaterasu decided to go to sleep. Night began to fall, and the stars came out one by one, like a reflection of my dying city below.

That was when I first encountered him.

I hadn’t intended to meet my first great love through a telescope. All I had been seeking was the moon. And yet, what I saw through the eyepiece was a pulse of blue light, diffused through my half-focused lens. It had erupted almost violently across my line of sight, the shock causing me to lurch backwards.

In my heart of hearts, I knew that there were no gods up there to greet me, but that burst of light was a sign—though from what, exactly, I did not know. I wondered if, rather than a god, this is what I had really been searching for.

I pulled away from the telescope, knowing whatever I had seen would be easier to track with my naked eyes. Rather than a dome, the night sky above now hung like a curtain closing in on me, moth-bites in lieu of stars.

Eventually, I found the source of that light, a glimmer no larger than a pinpoint moving slowly across my expanded field of vision. Its light was much weaker when seen from afar—colourless as well. Appearing first by what I assumed was Orion’s Belt, it blinked once every few seconds, moving east. It was the answer to a question I was too afraid to ask.

Too close to be a star, too far to be a plane, what I had just seen was a satellite.

The Low-Earth Orbit satellite, or LEO for short, was as close to heavenly as one could get in the modern world. I was jealous of how it could fly above me, immune from the pains of daily life. Did it know it shared a sky with the sun goddess, and did it even care? I felt something new burning in the hollow in my chest. The first seeds of adoration were taking root.

That’s the strange thing about those hollows. Once you realize you have one, they never go away. Discovering that emptiness is something you can’t come back from. I’ve since accepted that my hollow will always be there, that it’s inseparable from me, but I wonder what life could have been like without it. I wonder where that hole ends and I begin.

SATELLITE

It was during my third revolution around the Earth that I developed this creeping suspicion that I may not actually exist. I knew I had a consciousness; that was the only thing I could really know for sure. Other than that, everything was up in the air. I appeared to be floating in a definite direction, but couldn’t quite understand how I was flying, exactly.

Even stranger, I was 73.2% sure I didn’t possess a body at all. It seemed as though I was made of metal instead of flesh, a somewhat shocking realization. I’d never experienced anything like this before; in fact, I couldn’t remember a previous life to begin with. This is where things started to get tricky.

I felt tired, that was for sure, as though I’d been circling this world for decades. And yet, I could only remember the last day or so. A quick survey of the void in front of me confirmed that I was, indeed, utterly alone, save for some cosmic dust. Dust, unfortunately, is not a great conversationalist, so there was no one I could ask about who I was, or why I was here. I held some sort of ability to view everything on Earth—I could even see through walls and roofs into homes—but I had no way to communicate whatsoever. On top of that, numbers came instinctively to me. I knew that I was 577 kilometres above the Earth, for example.

I appeared to be flying over a neighbourhood of sorts, on the outskirts of a half-abandoned city. For a short period of time, I wondered if I had died and was now waiting in the afterlife for whatever came next. Perhaps space was a waiting room, and my heart was somewhere else, being weighed against a feather or something. Or maybe my metal body was an incubation chamber for the soul, if such a thing as a soul even existed in the first place. Who was to say the gods didn’t have technology? It would be a pretty simple solution, if you asked me, although I did experience a very minor complete nervous breakdown at the thought of being dead.

I had a vague understanding of reincarnation—though I had no idea where that understanding came from—and assumed I was waiting for my next cycle on Earth. One thing I remembered about reincarnation (and I use “remembered” here loosely) is that with every cycle of rebirth you grow wiser. You carry over a bit of your past experiences from each life into the next. I hoped this meant an innate wisdom and not any hard knowledge, as it didn’t seem like my past self had left me with any useful information.

Was I here as a punishment? Perhaps I had done something wrong in a previous life, and had been left here to contemplate actions I could no longer recall. I didn’t know the past me, but somehow I knew I couldn’t trust him.

The punishment for an immoral life was reincarnation as a beast in the next, leading me to wonder if I was on my way to being turned into an animal. I didn’t think I’d have a problem with that. Staring at the Earth below, I could get a decent sample size of what such a life would be like. Judging from what I saw, animals outnumbered Homo sapiens by quite a bit: roughly, oh, 8.7 million species to 1. My plan was to live out twelve or so years as a dog, die with a clear conscience, then get right back to being a human.

I was feeling pretty confident about my future until I realized that if I was being punished, I wouldn’t come back as something pettable and well loved, like a Shiba Inu, but as something horrible and slimy, like a snail or a gulper eel. A fate worse than death, and I could say that with confidence as someone who had, presumably, died multiple times.

I decided to curb the armchair philosophy for the time being, mostly due to my lack of armchair, and re-examine what I knew so far.

1. I appeared to be floating in space. 
2. I could view the Earth and the people below with absolute clarity.
3. I did not possess a human form. 

In all honesty, this list only raised more questions. Nearly everyone I saw in that city was asleep at the time, save for a drunken office worker here, a late-night truck driver there. Their soft, fleshy forms seemed quaint to me. Without metal plating of any sort, how would they defend themselves from space debris or meteors? Perhaps there were other things to worry about down on Earth.

One girl in particular caught my attention, however. A small, frail thing, alone in her room just as I was up in space. Among all those humans, she was the only one looking back at me. She was leaning precariously out the window of her home, as though being a half-metre closer to the sky would make a difference.

The wind picked up below, and I worried that she might fall, but she held her position, unmoving, staring upwards. The girl’s thin hair fanned against her face, her cloudy breath peeking out in the nighttime cold. I wondered if she alone might provide me with the answers I was searching for.

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Arborescent

Arborescent

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