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Words Without Borders “stands as a monument to international collaboration and a shared belief in artistic possibility.” 
— 2018 Whiting Literary Magazine Prize Citation
from the March 2019 issue

Meteors

In this Indonesian science fiction tale, love is intergalactic.
 

There were big eyes everywhere in the darkness. Darkness that seemed to go on forever. Then every one of the eyes opened, dispelling the dark.

It was 11 p.m. at a distance of 25.3 light-years. The coordinate was fifty-seven degrees south of the constellation of Taurus. Tiansun stood idly facing in the direction of the enormous star, El Nath. His hands shuffled a broom back and forth, sweeping up the very fine dust scattered around him that a machine could not pick up. His job as sweeper of microdust gave him some standing at the ripe old age of two hundred and thirty-six years.

Tiansun scratched his head. There was no sound to disturb him. It was rare for anyone to pass him by and if they did, they never stopped to call out to him. But Tiansun hoped at least one satellite would use this trajectory. At least then he could stop it and order a coffee.  

Coffee! He longed for a cup of coffee like the ones he had often had with Cen at the coffee shop on Aetos Dios Street. Tiansun liked the red of the glowing stripe on the ceiling there. The owner was a man from Ursus Major whose eyeballs would often pop out when he laughed too much. Sarin had thirteen eyeballs in his single eye socket. Just imagine if all thirteen fell out! Cen used to delight in the game of betting on how many you’d find.

Thinking of Cen made Tiansun feel all warm again, like the cup of coffee that Sarin had freshly made for him. Tiansun still remembered Cen’s embrace on the night of the meteor shower. The sky was drowned in the light from the trails of thousands of meteors racing across the sky from north to south. So many of them, crisscrossing each other, bright at first, but gradually fading until they died out in the darkness. Gazing at meteors like these made Tiansun remember how often Cen used to reminisce about her childhood. She’d tell Tiansun about her home on the blue planet called Earth. On Earth they didn’t have meteor showers like these, only swarms of fireflies.

What’s a firefly? Tiansun asked. Cen said that they were insects that emitted light like stars and could be seen clearly at night. Tiansun laughed when he heard Cen telling stories about creatures he’d never seen in his whole life. He tightened his embrace and kissed her on her rosy pink lips. Cen’s lips were so funny. As a being from the blue planet she ought to have blue lips. Not like him, who came from the silver planet and had glowing silver lips.

The sky was still dark, but Tiansun’s eyes had become accustomed to the darkness. He looked around him but was not really taking anything in. What was there to see anyway? Just like the deserts that Cen had often spoken of, Tiansun saw such things every day. The disappearing horizon, its far extremities invisible. The end that had no end because the end was unfathomable.

Tiansun swept faster. He had five more minutes to finish sweeping up the celestial dust. An hour had passed since he’d begun working later in the night than usual. He needed to drink some Koma, made from a type of dried fruit that had been ground up and made into a liquid. It had been forty hours since he’d last had any Koma. The other reason he had to hurry was his child would be waiting for him. 

 

If Cen hadn’t had any sleep for forty hours she was not to be disturbed. She would close her eyes and you wouldn’t be able to engage her in conversation for hours. This aspect of Cen was very puzzling to Tiansun. He didn’t need to close his eyes because he didn’t have any eyelids. And why couldn’t you get Cen to talk while she was asleep, anyway?  Since he’d known Cen, Tiansun had wanted to go to the village where she was born and meet her family. He imagined being with Cen when he was thousands of hon old.

But I’ll probably only live until I’m seventy-five years old, Cen said. None of my friends or family has lived to a hundred.

How many hon are seventy-five years? Tiansun asked.

Cen appeared to be thinking, calculating. About a thousand hon, she said.

Tiansun was puzzled. Some of my family are still alive at ten thousand hon. She did some more calculations. That would be seven hundred and fifty years. I can’t live that long, darling, Cen whispered.

Tiansun gazed at Cen, his face full of emotion. If I can only live with you for one hon, then I will love you for one hon.

Cen hugged him as if she never wanted to let him go. In the sky the meteor shower began its display. The night was never fully dark, like it was now. Because Cen was often homesick for the village, Tiansun had asked her to live in this place where the meteor showers were most plentiful. Cen would shriek with delight when the meteors began their race.

Falling stars! Falling stars! she cried gleefully.

Those stars aren’t falling, darling, said Tiansun, stroking her soft cheek. No star ever falls out of the sky.

I know, said Cen sweetly. But that’s what people call them in my village.

Tiansun kissed Cen beneath the dome of the meteor shower. The sky was afire with the blaze of the meteor trails. They were sweethearts who were madly in love. They were mere drops in an entire vast ocean, but Tiansun regarded them as a constellation of stars, connected to each other to form a figure in the heavens. 

You’re romantic, said Cen, laughing. There is no one in my village as romantic as you. 

And you’re funny, replied Tiansun. 

From then on Tiansun always called meteors “falling stars’” and Cen always made Tiansun adapt to her strange terminology and calculations. Tiansun began to use years, months, days, and hours. He didn’t care that the laws governing time and place were different on his planet.

Tiansun groped around in his pocket and pulled out a circular object on a leather strap. It was Cen’s wristwatch. This was the marker of time Cen always used. In the place where she was born, several decades past, Cen would soon surely have been about to breastfeed her baby. 

 

Tiansun cleaned his work tools and hurried off. The little red star, faintly visible in the distance, was like an eye staring sharply at him. He had forgotten nothing; it was all still so clear in his mind. He even remembered the faint scar at the tip of Cen’s curving eye.

You may be old in terms of years, darling, but it’s only age. Life itself is never old. Whatever can be the meaning of death, when life goes on for the one who has died. Don’t cry, darling, don’t cry.

Tears always made Cen look beautiful. Because Tiansun couldn’t make tears himself. His eyes were made up of hundreds of tiny dots. But those dots could construe images as clearly as Cen could with only two eyes.

There’s someone waiting for me in my village.

Who?

We call him “husband”—it means someone who can give you a child.

Do you want to go home?

Cen shook her head. I want to be with you until I die.

 

The Magnitudes arrived. It was a round vehicle encased in glass, whooshing by soundlessly and pulling up next to Tiansun. He vanished and reappeared inside the cockpit. As he was putting his broom away in the storage compartment, a liquid plate fell out, striking his hand. He picked it up and it moved in his hand, transforming itself into a map of the sky.

It was a picture belonging to Cen before she died. She had sent it to him so he would always remember her. The map in Tiansun’s hand was of the Milky Way galaxy. Tiansun read the tiny writing on the plate. Whichever way you look, look at the Milky Way.

Tiansun put the plate back into the storage compartment next to the broom. He went over to a small table and took out a dark-colored circular object, as dark as the sky outside. He shook it and placed it in his nose. Leaning back, he sucked up the Koma. It tasted so pure, so refreshing to his body. He didn’t move at all while he was drinking. His small ears were like furled leaves. The action of sucking up the Koma gradually petered out, as if Tiansun had sunk into unconsciousness.

The Magnitudes flew quickly, swaying like a playground swing. Tiansun’s daydreaming and the silence were one and the same thing. His body was warm from the Koma. An image of Cen came to him, along with her stories about dreams. People dream when they are asleep, Cen said. I always dream about you, even though my body is here.

The watch in his pocket went on ticking.

 

He heard a soft click and a faint vibrating sound. Tiansun opened his eyes. The Magnitudes had arrived at his destination. The screen before him showed a series of wavy lines indicating that the Magnitudes was sending a message in machine language. Tiansun understood what it meant. He undid his seat belt and in a flash he had disappeared. And all of a sudden he reappeared outside the Magnitudes.

Right next to him was a metal sign. Aetos Dios Street. A dim light shone from the café on the corner. Tiansun slowly went over to the café. On this planet clear yellow stuff was constantly dropping out of the sky, swirling around Tiansun’s head. Celestial dust. The locals called it al anz. Cen saidAl anz is like snow, but snow is white, not this pure yellow. The café was closed but from the window Tiansun could see the shape of Sarin moving back and forth. The door was suddenly flung open. Sarin’s warm smile made Tiansun forget how tired he was.

Has the shower started out there yet?? 

Tiansun shook his head. It will, any minute.

From the upper floor the sound of footsteps running down the stairs could be heard. A head with two eyes and silver lips appeared from the back of the café. She was carrying a little bag and some other things. Tiansun looked at the little creature before him, seeing an image that transformed into another person.

Let’s get home before the showers start, Zosma, Tiansun said. Say good-bye to Uncle Sarin.

Outside the meteor shower began to put on its show. The sky was luminous with millions of meteor trails. Tiansun pulled Zosma along faster. They disappeared and entered the Magnitudes’ cockpit. The vehicle swayed left and right but gradually stabilized, piercing through the bright shower of meteor rays and the silence. Zosma snuggled up to Tiansun’s side, groping around for his nipple. Her lips smacked as she sucked greedily on the milk. Outside the meteor shower was becoming torrential.

© Clara Ng. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by Toni Pollard. All rights reserved.

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