WHAT DO WE DO WITH THE MOON MAN?
The man washed up on the beach had skin that did not look like ours. We congregated around him. We were not sure if it were a man at first. His clothes were bulky, his stomach bloated from seawater. A bundle of cloth was bunched around his genitals. His shirt had a torn sleeve, whether from desperation or injury we could not tell. He waved his scrawny arms at us. The sea wanted to pull him back in the strong tide. Sunshine splintered on the glassy beach. We avoided the sea on days like this, for the sun scorched down our backs and left red scabs on our limbs. Leathered skin hung from his face. His eyes, brown and sunken, looked a little like ours. One of the younger ones ran to him. The man’s knees gave out.
His belly would have eaten itself if he hadn’t landed on the island.
We were afraid of catching his disease. The younger one was pulled back by his father. The sand grew heavy from his weight.
Night fell. We crowded around the man again. He had not moved. The fearful watched from behind the trees. We waited in the dark for the man to show his true self. His color had to shed, his arms had to grow longer, his hair had to darken, his chest had to puff up. The moon came from the shadows. The moonshine that had washed us out from time immemorial lit up his body. His skin shone with the reflected light. Tiny glass shards glittered on the sand beside him. The crowd marveled at the moon man. His clothes were taken off to expose more of the iridescent flesh. Sweat glistened on his forehead. A sharp wind rustled our clothes. The spell was broken. The trees spoke in agreement. The man was to be protected.
We did not have a word for betrayal. He explained to us what it meant when he had learned a bit of our language. This was before his moods grew sour enough to poison our temperaments too. He apologized for his betrayal to our people. For what? With his head on his chest, he answered, “For making fun of our people. For the way my people view your people. For the ages of suffering.” Why was it done? “Power.”
The women withheld their sex from their men until we took the man in. We carried his emaciated body to our medicine center. It was our tallest building, the greatest pride of our people, the place where we put our best minds and rarest resources. It was obelisk of black onyx, stenciled with our history. It was the epitome of our civilization, a homage to our people, past, present and in the future, standing with their children, their hands open to the sky.
They tried every medicine, every procedure, every surgery possible to change him back. The prevailing opinion was that he had been one of us and the disease had lightened his skin. Pale people had existed even among us, their eyebrows bleached from birth.
His ribs stopped protruding. His cheeks gained a blissful blush. The physician declared him to be in perfect health. We were scared that he would wake up and realize that his skin had changed. It would shake his mind, the psychologists said, to an extent that he might kill himself. A plan was drawn up to operate on the only organ left untouched- his brain.
The physician drilled into his skull, ready to take out half of it but he stopped. His eyes looked upon wildly and he left the operating room. His conscience called for a meeting. The women of morals came, dressed with flowers in their hair. The council sat for fifteen minutes, before coming up with a definite answer- The moon man was to be awakened. The brain surgery could impair his identity to the point where he would forget whose hands had fed his infantile body.
The moon man would walk in the empty halls when he woke up. He wanted the heart of our civilization. An answer to this new reality, as he called it. He told us there were more men like him, women fairer than him, children more innocent. He thanked us for healing him. He said his skin had always been like this.
He played with children. The women would shoo him away like a chicken, laughing at his antics. He would steal eggs and give them back when the mother would let the child out. He was curious about everything, from our family units to the food we ate. He told us he came from a place where men worked all day and came back at night.
“Do they get food in exchange?” asked a farmer with her hands in her pockets.
“No. They get money, from which they buy food.”
“And where is this money stored?”
“In big banks. With interest rates. They can triple the money, you know?”
“Does the food triple?”
He was taken aback by the question. “You can buy more food. Yes, in a sense you can.”
“You sell your hard work and someone can just triple it for you? Then some people don’t need to work, do they? The food can be easily tripled.”
“No, they buy food from other regions. Or they buy labor from other regions.”
“So you get other people to do your work?”
He nodded. The farmer looked picked up her produce and asked he if could lend a hand since he was free. He agreed.
Our conversations with him were a communal activity. We had a habit of congregating after every meal, to talk about the community’s progress. The crowd clapped as the physicians told them about the cure of diseases that could suddenly spring in our bodies one day. They oohed and aahed as the dyers showed them new patterns they found that day or a new turn of a previous pattern. The farmers showed us new compositions of soil and their effects on the crop. On the days of harvest, we could exchange their crop for personal items they need. The jewelers came in last, with brilliantly cut gems that reflected light back to us, so that we could see our own reflections bathed in beauty.
The change in his personality had an adverse effect on all us. The children became bad-tempered about his moods. He stole an egg and the father threw two of his eggs on him, which cracked upon on his hair, as a result of which he smelt bad for three days. He refused to bathe with us anymore. Before things could get worse, I volunteered to talk to him. My friends eyed me when offered my help, but the head nodded at me. My mother gave me a stank eye.
“Why have you changed?” I asked him behind the makeshift hut he had built for himself.
“I thought it wasn’t polite in your culture to ask questions like these.”
“We take mental health seriously.”
His eyes glinted with far off dreams.
“I feel anxiety. Anxious. I feel anxious.”
“Anxiety? What is that?”
“It’s what happens when I about the future.”
“The future will not hold you. It will not hug you. It does not care about you. To be anxious about the future is to be anxious about change.”
“You don’t understand. You like in this perfect world away from everyone else. Back home, I can be replaced at any moment. Do you understand what it means to come from a culture that forces you to express your uniqueness and then laughs at you?” He took my hands and put them together. “I do not want to go back. I want to stay here. Can you make that happen? Please?”
Words said enough become true. We all became anxious about the moon man. The men started being suspicious, springing upon the moon man when he was alone. His hut was cut apart so that one could view what he was doing at all times. The children didn’t play with him anymore. In the end, I was the only one giving him food because all the women refused to give him leftovers. We would watch him in our daily meetings for the meeting area had always been in the open space next to his hut. One day we all sat, waiting for him to say something. He got up, shook his head and exited to the forest nearby. His refusal to be the next presenter broke something in all of us.
Even though he had never been a part of us, now he became an enemy. His moon skin had protected him in the beginning but now there were murmurs about misinterpretation of symbols. Isn’t the moon the harbinger of darkness? Doesn’t the sun have to die before the moon can take over? If we are the sun, does the moon man plan to bring in his kind and kill us? He had talked about destroyed civilizations, slavery of the other people, of different “race” he had said. His kind was more proficient in war, of weapons and killings, of creating and destroying and re-building again. This is what he told us and in the end, it turned us against him.
I had not forgotten my promise. I built him a house at the other end of the island abandoned due to animal attacks. It was safer and sturdier than makeshift hut he had. I showed him after the daily meeting when his exile from the community was near. He was panting by the time we reached his new home.
“And you want me to live here? How dense is this jungle? You won’t even know if I am alive or dead!”
“I’ll visit your every week.”
“Why are you doing this?”
I started to turn away. He was still the moon man to me. Unlike the majority, I hadn’t forgotten the magic of the first night.
“I am sorry.” I looked back at him. “There is no good answer.”
He made a sound that sounded like a strangled laugh.
“There never is.”
About the author: Ravneet Kaur Sandhu goes to college in the United States but has to return to India every summer or else her dog gets sad. She likes words enough to become an English major. Aged twenty, she still thinks she is teen and has to take a moment to remember that she is officially an adult. She has been published in Onyx and The Thing.