This Rusted-Out Life

“I swallowed an iron moon / They called it a screw”
—Xu Lizhi (许立志)

I lie on my back on the beige carpet, Fiona’s stomach balanced on my feet. She laughs, spreading her arms wide for wings, and I lift her little body up into the air. Her wavy blonde hair dangles down between us. “Higher, Higher!” she cries, her green eyes turned towards the heavens. Fiona becomes a starship soaring towards other galaxies. But I can’t hold her. My legs begin to tremor, then my arms, and soon my whole body is quaking from the effort to keep her up. Finally, my elbow collapses at a strange angle, breaking both Fiona’s fall and my wrist.

We never play starship again.

I arrive at the dead moon on a Thursday. The sun in this star system is a strange color, a reddish hue that gives the surface of the moon a constantly burnished appearance. Red Moon, they call it: Hong Yue. The red seems warm and comforting when I first emerge from the stars, like the final stages of a glorious sunset. I pull at the pipes that protected my lungs during interstellar travel, my arms weak from years of inactivity. The A.I. helps me remove them, checking my vital signs as I claw at its mechanical arm mewling like a child. My sister would laugh if she saw me.

I almost laugh, too, before I remember that she is dead. Dead three hundred years at least. Only minutes before they lay me down in the sleeping pod and checked my airways. I was 28 years old. I turn to the shiny, reflective ship surface and see a middle-aged woman, albeit one absent many of the wrinkles that come with actually living. I choke back the tears. I grieved enough in the years before departure.

Red Moon always used to make me think of the famous Xu Lizhi poem, “Iron Moon.” I often read Chinese poetry during graduate school in Beijing. It was big news then: the migrant whose poems protested the inhumanity of the Chinese factories, the worker-poet whose brilliance wasn’t discovered until he was already dead. Xu swan-dived from the roof of a Shenzhen factory in poetic fashion, a final fuck you to the inhumanity of modern consumerism. I read his obituary on my cell phone, a cell phone he might have made.

Xu’s most famous poem, “Iron Moon,” seethes with anger at a wasted life. The poem begins with his most famous line: “I swallowed an iron moon/They called it a screw.” The moon is a symbol of nostalgia and beauty in Chinese literature, but for Xu, the moon is the round top of a screw. He swallows this “iron moon”–this screw–but he gags on it on the way down. Xu writes:

“I swallow industrial pollution, unemployment forms /
Youths stooped over machines dying before their time /
I swallow rambling, I swallow homelessness and destitution /
I swallow pedestrian bridges, I swallow this rusted-out life /
I can’t swallow anymore.”

How he must have stared at the iron screw, turning, turning, his poetic dreams closed off as the pressure of the screw shut like a vise. A life, reduced to a cell phone.

I look at the red moon and imagine it is a rusted screw, waiting to be polished.

The moon requires extensive terraforming to prepare for the colonists. The seeds must be carefully treated, laid out, and distributed. I divide the seed pods into four quadrants, as per the designers’ request: boreal, savanna, tropical, grasslands. I plant them meticulously, spray with growing agent, monitor their growth. The work is time-consuming but monotonous; the others won’t arrive for at least another six months. It gives me too much time to think.

I am aware, on one level, that my family has been dead for several hundred years. They died as my unconscious, aging body made the transit from our earth to this dead planet. But it is also my first week to be so alone. Seven days ago I had dinner with my parents. Seven days ago I was 28 years old. Eight days ago I saw my sister for the last time.

Fiona stood outside on the balcony near the wild blackberry bushes looking at the stars, her eyes shining as I approached. She didn’t acknowledge me at first. She was 24 when I left; now she is dead. What did she do with her life? Did she get married? Did she have children? Did she spend her nights gazing up at the sky?

Xu Lizhi was 24 years old when he died. I access his file and look at his photograph, seeing a boy who looked younger than his years, a thin boy with pockmarked skin. A boy who wanted a better job, one where he could create something that only belonged to him. I remember that Marx often wrote about the alienation of modern laborers–how artisans and craftsmen like cobblers and smiths could identify with the fruits of their labor as an extension of themselves. Beautiful shoes, beautiful swords. But Xu was merely an extension of a machine, an automaton in a factory of repetitious objects. How he must have come to hate each identical one.

What would Xu Lizhi think of my job? My work is more detailed–it required a Ph.D. after all–but similarly repetitive. I place seedlings, cover in growth agent, move on to the next sector. Place seedlings, cover in growth agent, move on to the next sector. Check on growth status, write reports. Stare at the red sun, stare at the red moon.

Us worker bees, we move along predestined paths, making the way for the tides of people who will inherit our creations.

When we were younger and shared a bunk bed, Fiona and I often whispered to each other until the stars came out.

“Camille,” she said. “Tell me the names of the different stars.” She must have been twelve years old then, curious about everything in the heavens. Her eyes were always looking upwards.

“Go to bed,” I said irritably, and turned over in my bunk. At the time, four years was too great an expanse.

Many of Xu’s friends pointed to homesickness as one of the reasons for his suicide. He frequently discussed missing his mother, his hometown, his laojia. In Chinese, “homesick” is constructed from the characters for “thinking” and “home”: xiang jia, thinking of home. At the very least, I can think of home, even if it no longer exists. But then again, “thinking” in Chinese, like many ideograms, contains a multiplicity of meaning. “Xiang” can also means “longing” or “wanting.” Throughout my years of study in China, my years of training, I often thought of home. But I never wanted to go there.

The seedlings are already visible outside the window, little green shoots that will grow at several hundred times the rate of their earthly counterparts. But the moon is silent, devoid of any animal life. At times it feels like I am the little prince perched on my little asteroid alone, tending to my rose. The stars surround, unchanging, huge. I look at them and think of Fiona.

In “Rented Room,” Xu writes about the claustrophobic space of his rented room, of pacing monotonously under a sick-looking yellow light. He compares opening the door of his apartment to opening the lid of a coffin. At night I lock myself in my rented room–the landing pod–and check the databases. I catch up on movies, play video games. I read poetry. My pod is smaller than Xu’s room was, with blue-white lighting overhead. When I open the door, the red sky frightens me.

Perhaps this is the same uneasiness that infants experience, that terrible feeling that can only be relieved with swaddling. When your body is free, the world is too big. We need to be contained, to place ourselves into comforting, womb-like boxes. When I look out at the stars, at the dwarf sun and its solar flares, at the infinite blackness around me, it reminds me of the immensity of the space separating me from the rest of mankind.

It was different in space. When I used to float around the Earth in the space station, I could at least see the world: it was a tangible, real thing. The sun was yellow, the moon a cool gray. I often pictured myself as a spirit floating above in the heavens, looking down on my family from above. I imagined my gaze meeting Fiona’s as she craned her neck to look at the sky. I hoped she forgave me.

Now, I watch the solar flares, finding them strange and frightening, flashes of red painted across an alien sky. No one looks back.

I spend much of today considering the years spent abroad, the years spent in graduate school, the years spent in isolation. Fiona always thought I was selfish, first when I studied abroad, then when I went to the station, then when I decided to go to Red Moon. “If you leave, I have to stay,” she always said. “Someone has to stay.”

But there were sacrifices on my end, too, even if Fiona wouldn’t hear of it. I lost my youth to my studies, to the station, to the moon. These days a stranger looks back at me from the polished surfaces of my landing pod. My body has aged fifteen years overnight: I bend over the machines, my back hurting, fingers shaking. So much is gone into the void of space: my youth, my family. Me.

Xu Lizhi also lamented the loss of his youth, the backs that contorted and cracked as they bent over computers and cell phone screens. Would he see me as any different?

Today I check the different zones to see how the growth agent is taking. I inspect the measurement of microbes in the ground, the oxygen levels, the water levels. I imagine myself an automaton completing my tasks. I am a factory worker methodically turning each screw.

In Xu’s obituary they write of his desire to work in any literary field, of his many rejected applications to newspapers, libraries, bookstores. He eventually quit the factory job, only to return, despondent and resigned. Xu committed suicide just one day later. Me? I got everything I ever asked for. But who is this for, if everyone is gone?

“Are you taking the scholarship?” she asked. Her arms were crossed; she was looking out over the blackberry bushes, her eyes bright against the green foliage. The blue jays were out again, flitting back and forth along the side of the patio. It had just rained.

“I am,” I told her, and Fiona’s jaw set. But I didn’t care: I saw a red moon; I would transform it into a green moon. Later that summer I went to Beijing for terraforming school. Fiona enrolled at the local college.

In “A Screw Fell to the Ground,” Xu drops a screw in the factory. This insignificant action goes unnoticed. A screw is nothing, after all. He compares the falling screw to falling bodies, also ignored. A worker is nothing, after all.

As I work, I think of iron moons and falling screws. The red sunlight glints on the reflective surface of the desert zone. Far away in the distance, I think I see a man falling.

I drink all of the whiskey today instead of checking the seedlings. They say you must never drink alone, but then why include it with my rations?

My thoughts are wild. I want to be cut into little pieces and sprinkled all over this new planet. I want to be turned into fertilizer and fed to the blossoming plants. I want to cut my arm into tiny little pieces and feed it into the flowers in the savanna sector. I want those flowers to bloom with my vitality, perhaps with the color of my eyes, but to leave no other sign that I existed. I want to return to stardust. I want to become something extreme and beyond death or depression or drunkenness. I want to feel it all and then to stop feeling because it is all too much.

I love them all and hate them all and hate her the most of all. But I love her, too.

The flowers begin to bloom; the tropical sector looks vibrant, its verdure something out of a paradise. But the red lights on their leaves seem ghastly and horrible to me. I imagine faces looking at me from within. I’ve started to hear sounds, murmuring. I startle easily. One of the plants looks like my sister, and I ask her: Was Fiona happy? Should she be the one here, looking out over this red moon? Would she have seen something beautiful instead?

The sectors are complete. I stand at the landing pod and look out over the landscape. The seedlings have taken in each sphere. The savanna has been seeded with Bermuda grass, gum trees, and jarrah; the Mediterranean has foxglove, olive trees, and lizard plants; the boreal has alder, moss, and lichen. The ocean glows an ultramarine blue, slightly purplish in the reflection of the red sun. I leave a patch of swirling red sand at the base of a cliff. A reminder.

And yet. And yet. I look at Red Moon; it is a rusted screw, turning, turning. I look at my hands in the red glow of the sun, their age spots and wrinkles still foreign to me. I look at my flowers, my trees, my ghostly landscape now prepared for strangers.

Fiona! Fiona I scream into the void of the dead moon. It is not dead anymore; life blooms everywhere around me. But now it seems a hideous creation, a turning screw, a trap.

We held our last supper on the Fourth of July. Mom and I mixed some store-bought blueberries with wild blackberries that I’d picked from the ravine. Dad grilled chicken on the patio. They were unhappy. Mom was pale, withdrawn; Dad was angry, a glass of whiskey in his hand. The fireworks boomed in the distance, throwing flashes of color over the dusky lawn. And yet it was silent. I looked at Fiona’s place, the place where she usually sat, and saw that it was empty.

“Why are you going?” she had asked the night before, eyes shining with unshed tears. “Time matters now. We matter.”

But all I could see was a red moon.

The plants become increasingly hideous, misshapen in the red sunlight. They are monstrous creations: creatures rising from the red-blue water, asymmetrical leviathans ascending from a primordial sludge. The green recedes and the plants curl in upon themselves, fading into the red sand. The moon becomes again a dusty red world, empty but for me and the swirling of the sand, the sands of time. This solar system is empty, so empty, and the sun stares at me, a terrible red eye. I am pinioned beneath its gaze. It speaks to me with Fiona’s voice. “Camille…”

I run from my pod into the sunlight and cry out–“Take me!” I let it bathe me in its hues. I will it to burn me, destroy me, scatter my ashes into the expanse. I run through the desert section and roll in the red dust, coating myself in its particles. I look off into the distance and see a figure in white at the moon’s highest point, her long wavy hair swept by the winds.

“Fiona!” I shout. I sprint towards her, clamoring up the side of the cliff as she spreads her arms wide. She’s a spaceship preparing to fly.

“Don’t!” I cry, but she dives out of sight, a falling body, a falling screw.

The dust whips up around me as I reach the cliff’s zenith, the wind beating against my face. I stand at the precipice and look at the crumpled body below. Her face is turned away from me, her gown already coated in a layer of fine red dust.

Iron ship, iron screw. Red moon, dead moon. Rust.

I could have had a family, a sister. I could have lived on a blue planet, a beautiful blue planet that was already overflowing with life. I had a life, a home. But then I swallowed a red moon, a rusted-out screw.

Did Xu Lizhi cry his mother’s name as he fell?

The ship hovers over the planet’s surface. Camille has outdone herself. Red Moon is lush, filled with plant life, the sea a cool bluish-green. The red glow turns the evening into a gorgeous saturated sunset. Green trees softly sway in the breeze; from above they can already see a satisfying mixture of regions. There are no animals or insect life yet. That is up to them: the first colonists. Camille’s landing pod sits nestled in some forgotten corner, glinting in the warmth of the red sunlight.

The people step off the ship, shaking out their unsteady legs. Their bodies have aged fifteen years in a moment; they will take some getting used to. They wander into the alien landscape, mouths open. It is so beautiful, this red planet. This home.

A woman follows them into the light, wavy hair backlit in red. She shades her green eyes from the glare of the sun, breathes in the new air of Red Moon. Silhouetted against this alien landscape, she calls out a name.

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