Summer 2021 - Creative Nonfiction

Ploi Pirapokin

Children of Light

 

Tusuf asks if I’d like to join her in lighting candles. Since March, we’ve been meeting at midnight when the realms reset to collect light, light that adds up to white candles we can offer in the Eye of Eden.

Every night, she shows up in a different outfit: a crocodile mask. Bunched up harem pants. Long braided pigtails. A djembe strung across her back. Spiked hair. Flowing shorts. A large bell. An afro. Horns. A pink cape. She sprints toward me when I appear and bows, her name glittering in shiny letters above her crown.

I didn’t scour the realms to obtain new capes, masks, and instruments only for them to stay shelved in their Constellation Tables. I think my earthbound child, P___, has created me in her image: bangs on straight shoulder length hair in a white smock, covered by an orange poncho. She recognizes me among the other brown cherubs quicker this way.

I’m afraid of letting Tusuf down; can’t fly as fast, as far, and as precise as she can. I blame P___ again—she isn’t as focused when she logs on, which is why my wing power is still at 60 out of 77 after four months here—but Tusuf assures me that wing power doesn’t determine whether or not we’re valuable and strong.

Have you gone through Eden yet? a speech-bubble buds from Tusuf’s head.

I’m too scared to try, I speech-bubble back.

OMG, I was scared my first time, but that’s the only way you can get Ascended Candles.

What’re they for?

To unlock wing buffs and exclusive outfits like this pink cape, Tusuf twirls around like a flower. I can take you through it if you like.

She extends her hand. I only need to tap the icon to grasp her.

Fun sucker P___ moans about getting back to work in her earthbound realm. I splutter, then why did you enlist in the first place? No one wants to tag along like a sack of dead leaves! P___ makes me decline politely. The screen darkens as I slump down in our Home Shrine, waiting—

 

*

 

Last December, I slid into the same spot my parents stood for years on our balcony. I’d step out of school buses, minivans, and taxis to wave at them; their hair graying until fully white.

From there, I took a photo of our treelined road to show my crush, Wanna visit? Flights from Moscow to Hong Kong were cheap. We had met in another realm, lumped in a conference room above the Stephansplatz, for a week-long seminar on investments. We were, according to the largest family-owned private banking and asset management group in the world’s brochure, offsprings from families with complex wealth management and succession issues, with no basic knowledge of financial instruments and markets.

Our parents were terrified of what we’d do with their money when they died.

In one week, we discussed risk-return trade-offs. What to like in a stock? How to invest with purpose? In one week, we shared favorite foods (him: tomatoes, me: noodles); stifling fears (him: Will I lose my father’s business? Me: Will I make my parents proud by writing?); and prepared for the inevitable—how to not blow through an inheritance hefty enough to circle a target on our backs.

Now, we wait to see how much of our lives will be orphaned to homes we cannot leave. Our flirting is ruptured. Kak dila? turns into how long will we be standing? How much of our hair will gray? How can we cross the distance from here to there?

 

*

 

We work together to free our ancestor spirits, lighting the wicks in place of their hearts with candles so they can coalesce in constellations across the sky. Gray silhouettes belonging to other children scamper by, their footsteps and bird calls echoing around me. P___ must find this comforting because sometimes, she’ll bring me into a realm just to sprawl idly on a mountaintop, tracking flying manta rays gliding by.

With Tusuf’s assistance, I’ve freed all of the spirits. Collected more expressions to emote when P___ fumbles for the keyboard. I can laugh, yawn, and shoot fireworks from my palms. We don’t all speak the same language. Sometimes, the speech bubbles are filled with Cyrillic, or even Chinese.

Tusuf is the only one who links arms with me and introduces me to more children. She claims her real name is Chloe, which I presume is the earthbound child commanding her. Chloe says she lives in New York. She’s a college student. She remains glued to her screen after dinner to avoid a house full of family in lockdown. P___ suspects Chloe may not be her real name. Tusuf/Chloe might actually be some old creeper masturbating to teenagers in his basement, or an internet scammer scheming up ways to steal P___’s credit card information.

I need Tusuf’s friends to piece together spirits, break seals, and free manta rays from crumbling buildings; tasks that require more than just the two of us to complete.

P___, desperate enough to reveal her earthbound identity, assumes that everyone is as interested in our offline lives as her. When Tusuf first lighted our candle to bond, P___ began yapping away like, I’m a writer sheltering-in-place in San Francisco, and How’s it where you are? The worst was, Let’s meet again in three hours. Three hours?! We may not have a future to spare! She never fails to bring up how working from home gives her the freedom to Play this game, as if everybody else squanders hours from their daily routine. When she reappears alone and without aid, she has me strum my harp through the hills, longing for the day the sky in her realm reopens.

 

*

 

In that realm above the Stephansplatz, nestled alongside children of yacht owners, conglomerate heads, and corporate executives, my crush and I share our important notes on commodities.

I pass him doodles of dragons. He scribbles in scales. I sharpen their claws and teeth. This class, I write in the margins, is not teaching us how to be rich.

No, but we are learning how to value something.

Dragons, we learn, drive us to commit. Consolidate our assets. Diversify. Either we wait for them to find us or charge straight into their paths. We’re taught not how to kill them but what kind of slayer we are. What is our appetite for gold? In our daily quizzes, A_____ rises to the top of our class. He proves that the return is always worth the risk. He is a bold, unflinching fighter.

In this world, my parents beg me to transfer our funds from Bank1 to Bank2. There is a me who believes that banks are immune to worldwide tax laws, and another who knows that is wishful thinking. A me who sat stuck behind other taxis in the Cross-Harbor tunnel hearing add oil, and another who clambered up Hollywood Road for the next Aperol Spritz. The same me who values children and a steaming pot of chicken rice over capital. The same me, both six thousand miles apart, waiting—

 

*

 

Candles are our main currency in Sky. Three candles can be exchanged for one heart, and hearts are traded for prettier, more exclusive cosmetics, like Tusuf’s pink cape.

Another way to obtain hearts is to leave notes by the meditation tablets. A note needs ten likes to receive a heart, which sounds easy when there are about eight million children trekking about. That’s about half a million more people than the entirety of Hong Kong.

I’ve liked messages from other children. They are full of emojis, buoyed by exclamations. They simply request, Like this and you’ll get a heart! Or Like this if you’re beautiful! or Find me at our Home Shrine and let’s fly together.

P___ takes the tablets too literally. She leaves notes like, Thai-Chinese pride! (yawn) Like this if you’re from <insert Hong Kong flag> (yawn) and, Hope you’re safe and healthy during these unprecedented times (YAWN).

Why does she have to bring up the state everyone is trying to escape?

 

*

 

None of my friends join me in Sky. I’m not sure what I’m doing wrong. Can’t pretend I’m downing margaritas at a bar. Prepping for class. Walking to the gym.

“Experiencing the game through your screenshots is probably way better than me actually playing,” my dumb friend Jon texted back.

He’s declined my invite a few times.

Even A_____ refuses to play. His pet name, RussianBabyBoo, has been flickering in my Home Shrine since March. We’re now halfway through July.

He asks why I deleted my Instagram <Insert pen over paper emoji>. He says don’t stop sending photos <Zoom in on unwaxed, unruly eyebrows>. He promises: We’ll see each other soon.

Respond: Can’t wait for 2040, lolz!

He sends portraits from his yacht’s deck, tanned chest glistening under a Mediterranean sunset. Horizons lined with birch trees. Tables of torn take-out boxes. They are accompanied with follow-up questions. Darlings. I miss yous.

I scroll and swipe past my excursions. None of them are sexy. Masked selfies for toilet paper. Crinkly gloves holding grocery baskets. Toes poking out of sandals behind lines etched on sidewalks to stay six feet apart.

I prefer to emote under his messages: <Cup face><Throw confetti><Pink hearts>.

 

*

 

I feel bad for our earthbound children currently confined to ground. Their realm must be like the Golden Wasteland; a barren, olive green desert, littered with bones, death, and decay. P___ rarely ventures here even for candles; I want to grab her shoulders and say, It’s okay. Strong winds may flush us off course into poisonous waters, or directly into plain sight of crabs and dark dragons, but we can always hear them coming toward us.

 

*

 

After following my parents’ orders to move funds to another account, I drop fifty dollars in our Home Shrine. My brown cherub now spins in a coral butterfly cape with serrated wings, nods along with a jellyfish wig on her head, and fastens her harp with a shiny manta ray brooch.

I’ve never spent dollars in Sky. I’ve spent dollars on water for our real-world children, marching for equal rights. Whipping away from gun shots, from fireworks. Hauling signs demanding a better world. I’ve spent dollars not knowing whether my dollars mattered.

Refunds from cancelled trips continue depositing into my bank account: Sawadee, parents (ding!) Paka, summer suntanning by the Volga riverbank (ding!) Annyeong, B.T.S. at the Levi’s Stadium concert (ding!) Joy Geen, Visiting Lecturer position in Hong Kong (DINGDING!)

What else could I be buying right now? Puttering around in my apartment, from bed to couch to desk and back again, I don’t even have a reason to don clothes. Borders, flights, and exit routes are shut. Where else can I go? What do I have to celebrate? Who will see me?

 

*

 

My first encounter with a cube-shaped crab was inside of a cave in the Hidden Forest. I mistook their smoldering red eyes for light. The creature shuffled from side to side emitting a raspy purr. I reached to pet it and was knocked back a few feet. It screeched and more of them came rushing over to trample me.

Crabs are not as lethal as Dark Dragons though.

Dark Dragons snake their way around the perimeter of the Golden Wasteland, dipping into the shadows, back up to loom over us while guarding lost stars and spirits. We’ve renamed them krill because that’s what they resemble: enormous shrimplike crustaceans with wiry antennae and dangly legs, bellowing deep-toned calls. They’re blind except for the one blue light that shoots from their compound eye. They release ear-splitting shrieks when they find us.

Once, I got caught in a krill’s path. Its blue spotlight switched red, accompanied by a loud, thudding alarm. The monster flew right through me. Lost all of my light and a few notches of wing power.

Yet, crabs and krill are not evil. They aren’t conspiring to take over our realms. They don’t form governments of only crabs and krill to decide on our behalf. They don’t direct armed crabs and krill to shackle us. They aren’t rubbing their shelled legs and antennae together, figuring out how to withhold us from our basic necessities. They don’t seem to function other than to wander the scorched landscapes of Sky, chasing us out of their territory.

I can always fly over crabs or hide under a plank to avoid krill. I can gather the light knocked out of me, retrace my routes through each realm to recapture lost stars, and recharge back in the Home Shrine. But where else can P___ hide? Where can she go back to? What is waiting on the other side of her wasteland?

 

*

 

After a few months of nothing new, A_____ asks me what I’m sad about.

The state of the world, who isn’t? I reply.

There is no point in worrying about global things. They will happen anyways.

I lay awake to footsteps drumming our freeways. Fireworks crackling to ash. Smoke seeps past our cracks between doors and windows. People are angry and jobless. Disenchanted and deceived. Dying and dead. People are confronting the fractures present—wounds once sutured roughly by prettier, more exclusive things. Placated by dreams.

In this realm, past realms, and in Sky, we’re bound by a shadow of lack. We wake up each day wondering, will this be all for today? We brace ourselves for some kind of warning, as though monsters knocked on our doors before entering.

A_____’s text arrives at sunrise: Baby Boo, I have a girlfriend now.

Fireworks erupt in my lungs, as deafening and all-consuming as the ones outside.

I type and erase, Wait a minute, can you still call me that? Type and erase, What were we then? Type and erase, I thought we’ll see each other soon, settling on: Congratulations.

The world spins and we can’t stay still. We can’t rebuild a beer garden by the Stephansplatz and reassemble by ashtrays splitting cigarettes. Reschedule our visits. Recover the light we held for one another. This wasteland is our present and we are forced to survive.

 

*

 

Tusuf logs on, delighted by my new look. Did you go through Eden?

No, P___ bought this, I admitted. But I couldn’t find your pink cape.

You’ll have to go through Eden for this.

Chasing Tusuf in our Home Shrine, I hop over a koi pond to tap her shoulder. I’m ready to go now. Any tips?

 

*

 

In San Francisco, I’m a furloughed public-school teacher, applying for grants to pay for electricity in the Castro. A writer who has diversified her assets by working four jobs. I’ve invested in this realm by renewing my artist visa. I used to stress, What if I don’t get it? The trade-off is not being able to leave with a guarantee of returning.

In Hong Kong, my parents’ appetite for gold was an investment in a future where I would have purpose, not waiting for their consolidated assets. They wanted to wave goodbye to our neighbors in our government subsidized housing. To slipping on Nikhe instead of Nike shorts to P.E. class. To slurping fish ball noodle soups outside on stools under tarp canopies.

They dreamt their daughter would grow into a fearless fighter.

In Sky, I’m a brown-faced cherub charging across realms to free spirits, collect candles, and wing buffs. Preoccupied by new capes, masks, and instruments. Pretty, exclusive commodities that draw us to play with personas, all while inhabiting a singular, stable form. At the end of the day, I’m forever a child finding light.

Each self sinks into the stencil of another. Each realm serves as our stage. What piece or portion of our selves are performing today? The professional, the partner, or the impersonator?

 

*

 

Tusuf warned me, Don’t be afraid. There will come a point in Eden where you can’t transport home. You will be forced to go on.

Her words dissipate as I stride onwards.

Leaping up dark, rocky steps while dodging wide, sharp debris demands patience and deep breaths. I crouch inside crevices on the path, recoiling from red crystals that sap my wing power.

I climb up industrial pipes, hopping underneath walkways, and confronting more crabs that hound me back out. Nearby children fall, the sound of their wing power ringing like a faraway bell, signaling their demise. I trudge forth, up and up pipes with tornados twisting my cape around me until I reach a door that says, Return light of the fallen.

Stone panels slide open. Kneeling spirits are scattered throughout the flatlands. Red crystals and rocks hurl from the blackened sky, crashing into the ground. I catch a flicker of fire from a lamp.

P___ has me wait next to it, trembling.

Another child dashes over, the light unveils her bob and red bow. First time?

Yes. I pull my cape over.

You have to give them your winged light.

I know.

You have to lose all of your light to win, she scoots ahead.

I think P___ cries.

I scream: Now or never! Bolting forward, I light a few nearby spirits, relinquishing my wing power. My levels decrease. A boulder smashes me over. Running back to recoup my light by the lamp, I count to ten before diving out again. Another crash. Return. Repeat. My wing power drops from 77, 54, 22, 3…

Rocks pound all the light from me. My body is flung left and right; my bones are cracked; I’m ripped to shreds like torn paper rippling in flames.

My world dissolves. I finally die.

 

*

 

In my mind, A_____ and I are trapped in the last night of our investment course, after our business proposal competition. His idea: A construction company that rents out their machines through an app. My delivery wins us the game and sachertortes—deceptively dry rewards.

He rattles my shoulders and hugs me from behind. His pale arms halo my waist, a steadying brace.

In that realm, we’re figures waiting to be filled.

 

*

 

In an abyss, a shadow of my former self falls side to side like a leaf until it smacks down on ground.

I’m a bald, hairless child in a void. Across me is a seated glowing lost spirit. I teeter over, pulling them up into my embrace. Small, sprinkles of light wreathe around us. I regain flight.

Shot out of hell, all of the spirits I had saved fly with me. Mounted on winds above all of the realms we’ve journeyed. From treehouse, to cliffsides, across stone roofs, to temples near the sun.

Streams of manta rays guide me to an island castle suspended from the heavens—blue, starry, and clear. In this new realm, angels are singing. All the ancestor spirits I’ve saved tinkle and flutter by.

Tusuf is beside me. There are other children, holding hands in pairs, triplets, and quartets whizzing by. Touching them thrusts me ahead.

Standing on a pathway to a bright door, the ancestor spirits thank me, wave, and morph into Ascended Candles I can use.

I return. Reborn in our Home Shrine with two wing flaps, a Level Two child of Sky.

 

*

 

Nobody really dies in Sky, but is it necessary one must die to win? Must we die to be necessary?

Kingdoms become wastelands we must build from. Beginning in our minds, where the architecture can’t be contained. What is real can be made into belief. What is make believe can grow real. Sky me participates in what the real me savors, tasks that require more than the two of us to complete, tasks that need us to lend our light.

From there, our blueprints will trickle out. I can ride that feeling forever.

 

*

 

Lose winged light. Die. Reincarnate. Recharge cape energy. Lose winged light again. Die. Sucked through by the sounds of ringing bells from the Home Shrine, back to where I started.

When P___ discovers her world collapsing, does that push her to reflect on what she’s fighting for? What kind of enlightenment she is supposed to gain? A pattern she’s supposed to break?

Tusuf waits while I stand up. I figure she’ll invite me to join her in lighting candles again. I need winged light to continue. Even on days where I’m tired, when I don’t want to continue, when I’m stamping my feet, bunching my fists, and crying, my flames can still be transferred from one candle to another.

Lacking value should not stop us from continuing.

The screen dims only to light up, in one realm or another, abandoned or found. The screen dims only to light up our constructions.

 


Ploi Pirapokin was born in Thailand and raised in Hong Kong. She’s the nonfiction editor at Newfound Journal, and the co-editor of The Greenest Gecko: An Anthology of New Asian Fantasy, forthcoming from Wesleyan University Press in 2021. Her work is published in Tor.com, Pleiades, Apogee Journal, The Offing, Gulf Stream Magazine, and more.


 

This project is partially supported by the Illinois Arts Council

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  © Ninth Letter, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.