I saw him as soon as I stepped into the room.
He was trembling.
He was moaning softly.
His hands were reaching into the air, as if they wanted to seize hold of something. Thin red lines were crawling over his bare arms.
Suddenly I felt that the room was full of some special aura, some unknown energy.
Every room in the house was too big for me. The designer had used a Mideast palace for reference. Memories of my old life had weighed down on me so much that I wanted desperately to relieve the pressure. “The rooms should be wide, high, and deep, every one of them!” Not until I moved into it did I realize that even if I had escaped from the claustrophobic confines of my old living place, I could not free myself from the past. The palatially high rooms only made matters worse. I saw so many people so often there that the house had gradually turned into a stage setting. Plays premiered and closed and were replaced by other plays, but life itself was still brief and hollow. Nothing really belonged to me underneath this actress’s mask. At this moment, however, I found the room far too small again, as confining as the cloth on his body or the skin on his flesh. The skin which would be cast off when the exuviation began.
He was the center of the room. He was the center of all. The heat he emitted swallowed up every cold abiotic object in the room, making them a part of him. Making me a part of him.
I stepped to the center of that heat. It was the source of life itself. Its allurements filled the air. The air was his breath, and it was the way to transcend his life energy. It was his life that I was breathing and I seemed to be alive then.
Dee . . . Dee . . . Dee . . . I was shocked out of my reverie by my phone.
Abruptly, all that was happening was that I was in my own guestroom, and my guest was going to exuviate. He was not a magician. He had no mystical powers. He was only a caver, who would shed nine times during his lifetime.
We would shed nine times during our lifetimes.
“Hello,” I said, and a holographic image of Mosen appeared in the room.
Holographic communication had always turned me off. Yet when I saw Mosen’s image floating over Tou’s bed, for the first time I realized the sharp contrast between reality and phantasm. Where the caver was struggling, moaning, and striving to use his painful growth to preserve his life, Mosen looked so arrogant and sure of himself. How could I allow someone like that to see Tou’s exuviation?
“I’m going into another room.” I pressed off the communicator before Mosen could object. As I stepped out the door, I glanced back in. Tou had begun to thrash about in the bed. His pitiful moans flooded the room.
* * * *
“What is it?” I asked, not trying to hide my bad temper.
“Gong, your fans are deeply resentful of your sheltering this caver. What is worse, the studio directors have expressed their dissatisfaction as well.” Mosen was my agent who always wore a perpetually hypocritical gentle expression. Sometimes I wanted to rip that smile off his face. “You’re the most popular actress in the world, sweetie, even if you are only nineteen. A romance like this could have a fatal impact on your career.”
“Romance? You think I’m involved in a love affair? Tou is a caver, my only sibling in the whole upper world. What’s wrong with my helping him?”
“Sibling? Your fans won’t accept him as a sibling, Gong. Don’t you forget that it’s only because you’ve already stopped exuviating that people regard you as a proper human being. Tou insists on exuviating, and that’s why the human world won’t accept him.”
“But that’s all your fault!” I couldn’t control my voice. “Why did you bring us into your world? We were . . . we were . . .”
A sharp light came into Mosen’s permanently smiling eyes. “What kind of life were you living then?” My breathing was unexpectedly labored. Memories of my old life flowed over me irresistibly, nightmares that filled my imagination and left no room for anything else.
The dark world without sunlight, the narrow and damp caves. We curled ourselves up in each cave, like eggs waiting to be incubated. Then came the pain. At first, it was only itching under the skin. Later, when the new skin had formed under the hard incrustation, the newborn muscles and bones were growing out of the old body, like pulp gradually plumping up, struggling to break its outermost shell. The whole body was burned by interior flames. Every cell was screaming thirstily, trembling, twitching, wanting to rupture itself. And sometimes we did not survive.
Such was exuviation, the brilliance of life shining in the dark world. Yet the grievous pain was unbearable indeed to recollect.
“Gong?” Mosen said.
I looked up at him. What right had I to complain or to despise him? The greatest hypocrite here was me. It was I who had willingly abandoned my own life.
“Send him away.”
Send him away? I shivered at his words. No. Never. “Mr. Sun is dead, and I don’t fully trust any other people. I won’t give Tou to them.”
“Then what about your career? I can’t believe that you don’t care about it. Because of the public’s discontent with your affair, the studio is considering offering Sycina the heroine’s role in Holy War—the role that you’ve been longing after for quite some time.”
“Tou is more important than any role,” I heard myself answer without hesitation.
“Why?” His face darkened, but his eyes still twinkled.
“Because he moves me. For such a long time I have been empty to everything, just like the dead. But he has touched me and brought me to life again.”
* * * *
The sunlight shone through the half-transparent exuviae as thin as cicada wings and lit up his eyes. The sunlight was in his pupils, dancing like two little flames. Tou held up the exuviae he had cast off, stretching it towards the sunshine. He studied it with all his attention, as if he were enjoying a delicate artwork.
It might almost be Yuyi, the mythological cloak that would enable earthbound folk to take flight to the Land of the Immortals. Alas, the truth was never so miraculous. It was only the old self he had just left. It was no more than a layer of cast-off skin.
“You can’t keep this exuviae,” I said. Tou’s expression made me feel I was being cruel. “It should be turned over to the research institute.”
“You—” He finally opened his mouth. After one month living together, he could understand me with effort when I spoke human language. But to speak it himself was more difficult.
I switched to the low and hoarse cave language and said it in a soft tune, “To the research institute, do you understand?”
Tou’s eyes suddenly moistened. He held out his right hand. His fingers were lightly kicking, flicking and rubbing on the back of my left hand. All this was so familiar and yet so distant. In the dark world, cavers met by chance would open their minds to each other through a combination of cave language and the touch of fingers.
But Tou’s sign language indicated nothing but pure gratitude. I looked down on his fingers, smiling. The mucosa-like congestive skin resulting from his recent exuviation had become harder. It was turning light brown. It would grow much prettier and harder with time, until it shone like the glaze of porcelain.
“Gong—” Tou looked into my eyes. “Are yours all finished?” His face was oval at our first meeting, the cheeks a bit plump, the lower eyelids always dropsical, the ridge of his nose a touch too broad. The thick upper lip pouted a little. But now his rectangular face was very pure in outline; the straight, classical nose was like that of Michelangelo’s David; the deep, bright eyes sparkled with sunshine; and the well-formed lips were thin yet not stern. A cleft down the middle of the chin added to his manliness.
“Yes,” I said. “I have molted nine times. My tasks are all finished.”
Is it excusable for me to lie? Every exuviation was a great risk. No one could foretell their physical appearance after an exuviation. All I had in this world was dependent on my artistic career. If I turned out to be a freak of nature after my exuviation, my present life would be totally destroyed.
* * * *
Staring into my eyes, Tou squeezed out the word from the slit between his teeth. “Liar.”
My teeth were clacking. My whole body trembled slightly and uncontrollably.
The doctor pressed the back of my neck tightly with his left hand. The hypodermic syringe in his right kept pressing in until the needle stuck into my spine. Yes, I felt it. Although the anesthetic had already deadened my nerves to pain, I still felt it, because this was a battle. The hormone injected into my body was fighting my hidden instincts.
The long, drawn-out battle had pained me so much! Seven years had passed since my last exuviation. Nevertheless I still had to fight against my natural desire to exuviate almost every day with all of my will and, what’s more, with drugs.
The doctor was Mr. Sun’s student. He took over my care after Mr. Sun passed away. I owed him the greatest debt of gratitude, for he had immediately informed me when the institute found a second caver.
“Tou is in stable condition.” The needle slid out of spine marrow, and the doctor began to talk about Tou. He was trying to distract me. “His exuviae is so lovely. Yours were lovely too.”
“Never refer to that!”
“It’s your abnormal psychology that makes trouble!” The doctor’s voice rose, but he seemed to regret it almost immediately. He must have remembered that Mr. Sun never yelled at me. He treated the “animal” found by a geological prospecting party in an underground rift valley like the little princess found in the bamboo.
It was Mr. Sun who taught me to speak human language and who made me acceptable to human society. He helped me to survive in an alien world that I didn’t belong to. Mr. Sun had accompanied me through two exuviation periods, watching me change from a caterpillar to a butterfly. And then he had left this world, silently and permanently.
What Mr. Sun had done for me, I must do for Tou.
The trembling grew stronger and became twitching. My vision blurred. Flames flew inside my body, which was ready to burst, to be destroyed, and to gain a new life. I gritted my teeth without uttering a sound. I must restrain my physiological impulse with reason and, if that failed, with drugs.
In the end, when, exhausted, I drowsily lost consciousness, I had only that one thought in my mind: What Mr. Sun had done for me, I must do for Tou.
* * * *
War flags were flapping in the wind that swept across the grassland. An eagle glided down from the upper air. I raised up a heavy silver spear. Sunlight dazzled on it.
Pressing the horse’s belly with my thighs, I urged it to dive into the valley.
Behind me, thousands upon thousands of horses and soldiers galloped toward the army in the valley.
I turned off the player. Holographic movies are so compelling because they make the audience feel as though they are personally on the scene. When I turned on the player, the deserted hall would immediately become vast grasslands. Press the key again and the magic ended and everything returned to its original condition.
“I was watching the screener you sent.” I turned to Mosen. “How’re the numbers?”
“The film has pulled more than ninety-five percent attendance in all cinemas for the first weekend. Very successful.”
I sighed with relief. “That’s fine.”
“Well? What’s the problem?”
“You are not the most popular role in Hua Mulan.”
“So?” I didn’t want to care, but still I couldn’t pretend to be happy to hear it. “It’s the male lead, then?”
Mosen shook his head. He lowered his body to get very close to my face, watching my eyes. His face slowly expanded into a smile. “It was . . . Tou!”
Naturally, I was surprised. “But he was only in the film for a few minutes.”
“It has nothing to do with the length of time. He has a striking appearance. Combined with his inspired acting, he’s irresistible.”
My reaction was hard to explain. I managed a little smile. “Aren’t you going to urge me to send him away?”
“Oh, that’s old news now. Nobody’s still bothered by your relationship with him. I never imagined that you could teach him so well in only two years.” Mosen’s tone was absolutely sincere. “You are an extraordinary girl.”
“You flatter me.” I waited for him to go on. But Mosen merely said that he wanted to discuss the possibility with Tou of signing a contract with Image Productions.
“Then go to him! Why are you still here?”
“Gong, you’re a bit impatient lately. You should watch that.”
After I’d driven Mosen away, I was overcome by a feeling of frustration. But why? I surely didn’t envy Tou for his success. If he could be accepted by human world, I would be the first one to feel happy for him. It was I who taught him to walk upright. It was I who instructed him in human language. I who taught him how to use knives and forks. I who led him into the world of movies.
But Tou was unhappy.
Just as I used to be.
Which made me, his teacher, begin to doubt the value of all my hard work.
Why? Why shouldn’t we achieve happiness, like ordinary people?
Had I remained in the world of cavers, I would have finished my nine exuviations. I would only have a short period of life left—mating, bearing children—and then death would come. Wasn’t my present life much better than that? Why did neither of us feel happy?
“Tou?” I walked into the garden and found him at the stairs around the fountain.
The moon was gleaming, but the wind blew hard, stirring up the floating clouds and making the moonlight flicker. The marble fountain gushed, streamed, broke into strings of pearls, then fell into the surging pool.
Turning to me, Tou said, “Gong, I am tired.”
Long after, when I recalled this night, I could still see every detail of his face. It was etched on my mind like the lines on a copperplate etching.
His expression was a little dull. The thin lips opened slightly. The eyelids were half-closed, yet sadness streamed from them. “Gong,” he repeated, “I am tired.”
I felt like he’d punched me in the chest.
I found myself holding him.
“Gong, I don’t want to act anymore.”
“No . . . don’t give up.” Softly I held my arms around him, and let his head lean on my chest. My fingers were entwined in his thick, short hair. “You’ll be a star soon. Hua Mulan is doing extremely well. Your character is the most popular, even though it was just a minor role. And your first film as the leading man has just wrapped. You are about to become very popular.”
Tou smiled comfortingly. Nevertheless, I could see that what I had said was totally without significance to him.
The calm, pale moonlight, its sad beauty beaming, touched the plants fast asleep in the garden. A night-blooming cereus near the stairs was in full blossom, every petal straining to its utmost unfold, its white color steeped in the darkness of night thereby transformed into a light green blur.
“Tomorrow I will stop taking my medicine.” Tou sounded as cool as metal to show his resolution. “I don’t want to escape any more. I will molt—for my ninth time.”
“I . . . object.” I loosed my arms, which were holding him, and stepped back. “You are too willful.”
“Willful? Maybe.” His head dropped, hanging heavily on his chest. “But the one who should understand me most is you.”
I didn’t say anything.
“No matter how many plays or films we act in—temporarily hiding in the loves of others, escaping into fictitious lives—when the play is over, we should come back and be ourselves again. But who are we, Gong? What are our real features? Acting is inauthentic. Nothing of us is left afterwards. Gong, what on earth have we done?”
“Of course we have something left. We add our own creations when we act. My true features can be found in my films.”
“No more lying to yourself and others. Even you don’t know your own features. How then could you express them through acting?” Tou was angry in a way I’d never seen. “Afraid of changes, refusing to grow. Is this your reality?”
I couldn’t keep from sneering. “No matter who scolds me, you should never scold me.
“What do you want? Death comes soon after the ninth exuviation. I don’t want to die yet. And I want you to live too. Why can’t you understand?”
“It’s you who can’t understand,” Tou said. “Why are you afraid of natural law? Life is the twin of death. Without death, life would not be so dear.”
“Change, growth . . . these things sound good. But we never know what our physical appearance will be after our next exuviation. It may not be good. The result is unpredictable. Unpredictable!”
“So you are more afraid of change than of death. But what you become is yourself. Why are you afraid of it? It’s more real than you are now. No matter if you are beautiful or ugly, it’s your real appearance after your hard struggle to grow which is of utmost importance, isn’t it?”
“If—” I became a bit hysterical. “If I turn out to be very ugly, then everything I have now would be totally lost. Nothing would be left!”
“You fool! What do you care about that? Tell me what do you have now? What? What could you possibly have if you don’t have yourself? And if you have nothing, then what can you lose?”
I have you. You are my brother, my sibling, and the only kin I have in this world. I don’t want to lose your respect. Should I suffer the pain of exuviation again to regain it?
Tou sighed slightly. He started to go down the stairs. Then he paused in front of that night-blooming cereus, putting out a finger, softly touching the petals which were unfolding in all directions. “So beautiful,” he murmured. “So true to its own life. Life may be short. But never inauthentic.”
* * * *
The gossip channels are always well informed. At the press conference for the release of Spring and Autumn Annals, the film in which Tou first took the leading role, exuviation had unexpectedly become a hot topic.
“It’s said that you have already stopped taking juvenile hormones and are preparing for your next exuviation.”
“We’ve heard that your sort can’t mate until you’ve undergone nine periods of exuviation, but that your lives after that will be very short.”
“Will you leave us during your exuviation period?”
“Will you make the whole process of your exuviation known to the public?”
And the fans were not far behind.
“Tou! Don’t molt! You are my idol!”
“Tou, we love you! We support you!”
“Tou, are you going to be more handsome afterwards? I expect so much from you!”
The situation was out of control. I took my anger out on Mosen. “Who has spread such unreliable rumors?”
“Who do you think?” Mosen smiled wryly. “What a pity. He could have been a superstar. But instead, he went public about exuviation. The studio is quite embarrassed.”
Then, to my shock, I saw Tou in the crowd. He was standing firm and haughty in the center of the seething sea, not even knitting his brows, while waves of clamor rose one after another. Maybe he was aware I was watching, for he turned his head and looked in my direction. Our eyes met. He smiled meaningfully.
“This will be the last exuviation of my life.” He raised his voice. “I want to let you see the whole of it. That is the way of life for our cavers. We are not subhuman animals at all. Our life is pure and filled with intensity.” He gazed directly at me and said: “I glory in being a caver.”
My friend, my brother, my only companion in this world. The boundless crowd of people separated us. My warm body was cooling, from calvaria to arch, until every inch of it was ice-cold.
* * * *
My palatial grand hall at last was finally being put to good use. It was now the set from which would be broadcasted live the final exuviation of Tou, the brilliant movie star and a caver from the unearthly world.
Holographic video cameras were fixed at all corners so as to catch every change in Tou from all possible angles. I stared up at the camera set on the crystal pendant lamp. At this moment, everybody in the world could see Tou. My heart beat hard, once, at the thought.
Lying silently on a wide green jade bed was a caver whose beautifully formed body flickered with bronze glints. It was a shell of porcelain rather than of human skin.
Over the next ten days, there would be a Tou in every home that was watching. They would see his struggle, his pain, his rebirth.
But only the one beside me was real.
I was filled to bursting with emotions. I sat on the edge of the bed and dabbed at his forehead, softly and slowly.
“Won’t you change your mind, Tou?”
“My only regret is that I can’t return to my own world.” Opening his eyes, he smoothed over my anxious expression with a gentle gaze. “Only exuviation can help me find myself on this alien earth.”
I recalled his last exuviation. I knew what to expect.
* * * *
First it was the fingertips. Ten fingertips, ten toetips. Slight lines appeared in them. Then, in about two days’ time, the lines had covered the whole body and grown thicker themselves.
On the third day, also from the fingertips and toetips, indistinct chapping began. Cavers have no nails, yet our skin has the same rigidity as human nails. Our joints are interlinked by thick and flexible bast-like skin. The chapping extended from the fingertips to the back of the head. The cura counterparts were the insteps.
On the fourth day, the skin beside the chaps on the fingertips slightly warped and turned over, revealing a red glimpse of new skin. There was a little mucilage between the new skin and the old, as well as some floccule couplings.
At last came the ninth day.
Tou was gasping.
Exuviation is very painful. A caver must depend on his own strength to break loose from the old body, rending his relationship with it little by little, while creating a tender new body to endure the hard trials of the world. The ninth exuviation is extremely tough, for it is the battle in which a caver at last becomes mature. Both the interior body and the exterior skin undergo great changes. Some cavers even die in this last trial.
Tou was struggling and I could only look on.
The incomparable vitality he displayed in the process, the vitality that immediately impressed and overwhelmed me, was now being broadcast through a dozen video cameras and transmitted to every corner of the world.
At last I understood why he wanted to show his painful struggle to the humans. In contrast to the two roles he had taken in the films, this was the true Tou. The caver who suffered so publicly was much more alive than any roles he had ever played. He declared to the world with irresistible vigor:
This is life! This is reality! This is living!
This Tou was a living reproach to my treachery.
I was afraid of growth. I was afraid of change.
I kept hiding in the stories of humans, hoping that I could enter their world through the roles I played, trying to gain some human experience. But did I really understand those roles? They were so far from my own experiences, I could only try to learn from them. I couldn’t bridge the difference in mentality. I had failed to become human, while drifting farther and farther from my true essence.
“Ahhhhh—” Tou was groaning lowly and deeply. His body heaved in waves. His skin, the skin that gradually peeled off from his new body, was translucent with a light golden brown luster.
The groans suddenly escalated into screams.
I rushed to him, catching his hand. “Tou!”
His whole arm was twitching. I saw that the old skin on the palm had already peeled off, which meant that the congestive new skin was only a sensitive mucous membrane. I immediately let go of his hand.
“Tou, try to endure a little longer.” Tears welled up in my eyes.
“Don’t . . . grieve . . . don’t . . . cry.” At that moment the old and new skins on his face separated.
I gently laid my hand on his bare chest. It was the last place to exuviate. There, the two layers of skin hadn’t separated yet. I could feel a wild power flowing from his gasping body. It was ceaselessly surging, ceaselessly releasing, ceaselessly growing.
That night I went to see the night-blooming cereus after leaving Tou. Softly touching the petals that were making every effort to burst, I was stunned by the riot of life and strength in such a delicate and fragile body.
“I . . . don’t . . . regret . . . anything.” Tou squeezed out the words with great difficulty.
My palm was shaken by his chest. The skins were flexible here. The old shell and the new one had separated.
“It’s done! The exuviation is a success!” I couldn’t help exclaiming in rapture.
The lady from the television studio immediately added her commentary: “Dear audience, Tou’s ninth exuviation has been satisfactorily completed. Now—”
The doctor standing by the bed suddenly interrupted. “Ms. Gong,” he said. “He . . .” His expression was serious.
I didn’t understand what he was saying, until suddenly I wondered—why was Tou so silent?
I lowered my head to look at him.
I stared at him with my eyes wide open.
That night, the white flower that bloomed in the moonlight, such a beautiful flower, withered before the dawn. The delicate petals fell in the wind like soft sighs.
I held Tou tight in my arms.
The body in my arms had stopped breathing. The life that had bloomed like a night-blooming cereus had withered and died.
* * * *
Several days later, the ruptured red corpse in cold storage underwent a miraculous transformation into a delicate work of art.
With the detumescence of the new skin, the body was as smooth and clear as white jade. But unlike a living human being, it had no distinct facial features. The head looked like a white jade egg. There was no hunching bridge of a nose, no expanded auricle, no bulging lips. There were three shallow slots which could only be seen with close examination—I thought they were the eyes and mouth—and there were four tiny holes, probably the earholes and nostrils. Had it been a man, this face would make him totally unacceptable in human society.
But this was only a corpse, a beautiful and marvelous jade statue, the termination of Tou’s growth, the true appearance he had sought at the cost of his life.
I was still overcome with emotion when the doctor asked me, “Do you know what he got for the broadcast?”
“I don’t care.” I shook my head numbly. No matter how much he was paid, it was useless to him now.
“Here it is.” The doctor handed me a tidily packaged box.
After a brief hesitation, I opened it.
There was an exuviae lying inside the box. As flimsy as the wings of a cicada. Shining a pale golden-brown.
I raised my eyebrows in silent question.
“According to the original agreement, all the exuviaes belong to the institute. He couldn’t keep it.”
“Yeah,” I replied with deep regret.
“Tou consulted with me beforehand. He said he would contribute all his income from the live broadcast to the institute in exchange for his last exuviae.”
“Is this it?” I stretched my fingers to touch the beautiful Yuyi in the box. I was trembling. “It’s a good bargain. But still he is—”
“He didn’t want to keep it for himself. He wanted to give it to you.”
“To me? Why?” The marvelous exuviae, his old shell, now belonged to me?
“He said he did it because of your name.” The doctor paused, but could not keep himself from curiosity: “Why? Why because of your name?”
The corners of my mouth pulled it up into a miserable and grieving smile. “In the caver language, ‘Gong’ means exuviaes.”
“So. What does Tou mean, then?”
My mouth hung open for a time. I finally spat out the word: “Life.”
* * * *
The huge square, which could hold five million people, was entirely filled. In the air were hundreds and thousands of flight vehicles filled with my fans.
At last I appeared in a white gauze dress, standing on a bubble-like vehicle. Gradually, it ascended higher and higher. Like a beautiful fairy, a dreamy sprite, I floated up in the blue night sky, slightly swaying in the evening wind.
Every focus lamp was fixed on me. My skin was heated by the light, yet protected by the machine.
The shouts converged into a tempestuous sea of sound.
But every one of you is singing the praises of a false outward form. What you see is just a shell in which I took refuge from growth and change. Did it deserve such fervid and enthusiastic praise?
I waved toward the distant audience. My gauze sleeves fluttered in the wind.
Behind me, an image fifty times my size was making the same action. The image of the fluttering sleeves was steeped in the dreamy colors of the night sky.
People, the one who was worthy of your respect has already been forgotten.
My friend, my relative, the world in my eyes was only a vast expanse of wasteland when I lost you.
I didn’t belong to this world. At last I understood that they had never accepted me as one of them. I was only a precious and beloved pet.
I was a toy of the human world.
Down upon the cheering crowd, I smiled, smiled, smiled.
* * * *
The night had darkened. The stars were hidden.
Sitting on the stairs near the fountain, I recited from the new script. The heroine was reciting one of Pablo Neruda’s most beautiful poems:
I could write the very saddest verses tonight.
To think I don’t have you. To feel that I have lost you.
To hear the immense night, even more immense without you.
I was overcome. Wasn’t this the description of my feelings at this very moment?
Solitude rose up from my soul, like stars dropped on the wasteland.
I felt a little twitch deep under my skin, which I recognized as the initial symptom of exuviation.
No, no, I cannot.
For the one-thousand-and-first time, I did my best to depress my thirst for growth and extinguished that slight flame without mercy.
But I could hear a voice crying within.
It was me, crying for my own cowardice.
—With many thanks to Geoffrey Landis, Mary Turzillo, and Michael Swanwick.