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That was the brightest pearl I had ever seen.
It was mesmerizing, and I could not tear my eyes away from it. Something about the pearl was drawing me in, deeper and deeper. There seemed to be a warning ringing somewhere distant, but, what was it about? I couldn’t remember. All I knew, was that the pearl was beautiful and I had to get closer, and closer, and closer… I had to touch it… I had to have it…
The brightness of the pearl was suddenly gone. I snapped out of the hazy moment and blinked. What was going on? What was I doing?
Regaining my focus, I saw my father in front of me, with his hands firm on a basket that he must have had thrown over the pearl. He was panting, as though he ran across the fields, and, despite the cool breeze this autumn night, sweat formed on his forehead. He suddenly looked much older than his fifty years, and the worry lines on his face much more pronounced.
“Pa,” I started in alarm, “What happened? Are you OK?” My eyes darted between his face and the basket before I slowly remembered. Shame rushed through me. “I’m sorry Pa, I didn’t mean to – I was cleaning the cupboard, and took the box out, and, I don’t know why I opened it, I’m sorry – ”
He gave me a gentle nod. “It’s OK Ah Mei, as long as you’re alright, it’s OK.” He carefully put his hand under the basket, felt for the box that housed the pearl, and closed the lid. Once he was satisfied that the box was shut and locked, he sat down on the chair and exhaled.
I stayed standing, unable to move. “I’m sorry Pa. I know you have said many times not to touch the box. I don’t know why I did it.”
He looked at me, but instead of anger, his eyes were gentle. “It wasn’t your fault. Nobody can resist its powers.”
He sighed and patted the chair next to him. “Come, Ah Mei. It is time I told you about the story behind this pearl.”
There was once a Goddess in the heavens. She was beautiful like no other, and her kindness and wisdom were known to all. She was also the loveliest daughter of the Jade Emperor, his favourite among all, and was made the Goddess of the moon.
One of her favourite things to do was to descend to the earth and walk among the people. Humans fascinated her, both with their good and bad. But she was most intrigued by the love among humans.
One night, she decided to visit a lantern festival that was taking place at one of the villages. The atmosphere was absolutely stunning. With lanterns and fairy lights hung around trees and pillars, the village square was transformed into some magical realm. Happiness was in the air too. Almost everyone had a smile on their face, and children were running around with their little lanterns in all sorts of shapes and patterns. Walking through the square, she admired stalls of different sizes that were selling all sorts of things, from food to clothes to trinkets.
While walking across the bridge, her attention was drawn to a handsome man who was on his knees, speaking gently to a little child. It was a curious picture indeed, because it was not just any man, but, judging from his attire, he was quite a high-ranking General. Generals did not bend down to another, and certainly not to a child. But this man seemed different. In fact, he appeared to be comforting the child, who was in tears.
Seconds later, a woman rushed over to embrace the child, before turning to the General with gratitude in her face. She thanked him profusely for finding her lost daughter, but the General only smiled kindly and refused any rewards. As the mother and child walked away, the General looked up and his eyes landed right on the Goddess. She was a sight to behold. With her fair and luminous skin, and wearing a pearl white dress, she glowed like the moon itself. He could not look away.
Arrested by his gaze and impressed by his kindness, the Goddess, too, fell in love for the first time.
The General treated her with nothing but honour, and was amazed at this beauty with infinite wisdom. Anyone who saw them together would not hesitate to say that they were soul mates, destined to never be apart. The General soon asked her for her hand in marriage, and the Goddess agreed immediately, deciding to stay on earth with this man she loved.
But good times seldom last.
There were ten gods of mischief in the heavens who loved nothing more than to create chaos. One day, they decided to turn themselves into suns in the skies, scorching the earth and destroying the land. People were dying. The other gods were bound by an oath to never hurt another god, and so could only watch helplessly, hoping for a man brave and strong enough to overcome the gods of mischief.
Every soldier that was sent to destroy the suns did not return alive. But the General, who had exceptional skills as an archer, was ready to take his chances. The Goddess held on to him, unable to let him go. She knew in her mind that there was no other way to defeat the suns, but her heart did not want to reason. She only wanted the General to be safe. The General embraced her tightly, promising that he would not fail.
The journey to the suns was near impossible. Most people would have melted away before getting even close, and the few that did not would lose their minds as the gods of mischief taunted them.
Armed with his bow and arrows as well as a determination of steel, the General marched onward. With an aim that never missed, he took down the suns one by one. But his strength was waning. The gods of mischief were playing with his mind while burning his skin with the heat, and it was all he could do to remain standing. Mustering all his remaining will and strength, the General kept on going until finally, with a cry of agony, he released his final arrow and destroyed the last rogue sun.
The result was immediate. The scorching heat and blinding brightness disappeared, leaving a clear blue sky with a calm cool breeze. Everyone cheered and rejoiced, knowing that the ten suns were gone and they were safe at last.
The Goddess, however, could not celebrate. Her husband did not return.
She rushed out to the battle site, and gasped when she saw the battered figure lying still on the ground. Gathering the General in her arms, she tearfully assessed his grave injuries. His eyes were rolling due to his weakened mind, but still he gave her a weak smile and tried to murmur loving assurances, as though she was the one who needed comfort. His breath was shallow. His skin was pale. He was getting colder to the touch. But still he told her that he loved her and was sorry he could not stay with her.
The Goddess could not bear to let her love die. As the injuries were inflicted by gods, the only way they could be healed was with a god’s power. She knew what she had to do. She knew what it would take, but she did not even hesitate for a moment.
As she summoned up all her powers, light shone through every pore of her body, making her glow like the moon itself. The light seeped into his body as her powers were transferred to him. His injuries began to heal, and his mind began to clear. As soon as he was able to open his eyes and focus again, he sprang up just in time to catch her as she fell.
No, no, no no no no!, he cried as he held her close. Because to heal him, the Goddess had used up all her powers, sacrificing her immortality in the process. And no god could survive without their immortality.
The General was aghast and in despair. He said he would rather die a thousand times than to lose her. Why, why would you do such a thing? And she looked up at him and said, Because I too would rather die a thousand times than to lose you.
Just at that moment, the Jade Emperor himself appeared. He was not happy with the Goddess breaking the rules of the heavens – firstly by falling in love with a mortal, and then by giving away her own immortality. However, she was still his daughter. Plus, the love between the General and the Goddess had touched the heavens, and all the gods agreed that she should be given a second chance.
The Jade Emperor healed the Goddess, and presented her with the brightest pearl that would restore her immortality. However, once immortal again, the Goddess would ascend to the moon and would never be able to return to earth again.
My father stared into space, with his mind a million miles away. I was entranced by the tale.
“So they are forever separated? Unable to be together?” I asked, my heart aching for the lovers.
He shook his head a little, as though reminding himself where he was. “Well,” he gave a small smile. “Legend says the General still looks at the moon every night, hoping to catch a glimpse of his beloved.”
My shoulders sagged. “But that’s so sad. I mean, even though they both live but they can’t be together… That’s so sad.”
We both sat in silence for a while, before I remembered another puzzling thought. “Pa, you were supposed to tell me about our pearl. What does this have to do with the pearl?”
He only looked at me with amusement. Understanding dawned and I gasped. “You mean, it is…??”
“Yes, my little Ah Mei. That bright pearl that captivated you is the elixir of life that bestows immortality. However, the person who takes it will ascend to the moon and will never be able to return to earth again.”
My breath caught. “But… didn’t the Goddess take it? Didn’t the Jade Emperor heal her with it? The legend says…”
“The legend says,” he cut in, “That the Jade Emperor healed her, and gave her the elixir to restore her immortality.” He looked at me meaningfully.
My mind spinned. “You mean, she chose not to take the immortality? And remained on earth? How? But, the legend – wait.” I eyed the basket on the table. “You’re saying that pearl is the elixir of life. Why is it with us? As long as I can remember, it’s always been with us.”
He was stopped from answering as at that moment Mother walked into the house, smiling wide and arms full with brown paper bags. “There the two of you are!” she beamed. “I managed to get some of your favourite cakes from Aunty Ju for a very good price today. Ah Mei, I also got us some beautiful cloth, so we can make new garments in time for the new year!”
Father gave Mother the most tender look before taking her into his arms. The love between the two had always been apparent to all. Anyone who saw them would have no doubt they were soul mates, destined to never be apart.
Suddenly, it was as though the veil had been torn away from my eyes and mind. Father’s strong arms and military posture. Mother’s fair and luminous skin, with a beauty that age could not seem to remove.
The bow and arrows neatly tucked near the storeroom. The locked box with the pearl on the table.
My eyes widened.