“Rabbit-in-the-Moon,” by Viet Dinh, appeared in the Winter 2005 issue of MQR.
My girlfriend Hiroko’s grandmother was the first mochi death of the new millennium, and I knew that this was bad news. Spirits freed from their earthly bodies on New Year’s Day are immensely powerful—it’s winning the spirit lottery—and all debts must be reckoned immediately. If not, the spirit floats about, angry and ectoplasmic, wreaking vengeance on those who have failed to honor it. I hadn’t even known this grandmother was alive until she died.
But Hiroko insisted it was no big deal. The Japanese government issues annual warnings about the elderly having trouble chewing and swallowing the sweet, sticky rice mush. Mochi deaths, she said, are like New Year’s Eve drunk drivers. She was packing for a flight back to Japan as she explained.
“And that stuff about the spirits,” she said, tossing bras and underwear haphazardly into her suitcase. “It makes a lot of sense.” She alley-ooped me a ball of black stockings; I sniffed them quickly before rerolling them. “If it weren’t for the fact that you’re talking about a Vietnamese legend, my grandmother was Japanese, and this isn’t even the Chinese New Year—it’s the American one.”
I flipped through my mother’s Christmas present, a Vietnamese horoscope-a-day calendar. I’d asked for it at Thanksgiving, and it had finally arrived, along with a notebook translating words she thought I wouldn’t know. The pages of the calendar were tissue-paper thin; you could read tomorrow through today. Along with the date printed in big black block numbers (red for Sundays) was a list of dos and don’ts. For example, January 1, 2000: Do: get your hair cut, buy a new home. Don’t: eat pork, send a letter. A cartoon animal indicated which sign would have a particularly good day. I searched through the year for dogs (me) and tigers (Hiroko). The pages smelled of barbequed duck and peeled away from one another, leaving paper splinters on my fingertips. Very few tigers, and even fewer dogs. On a hunch, I checked for dragons (David—Hiroko’s best friend). Same thing. Not a good sign.
“Besides,” she added, “when her spirit crosses the International Date Line, she’ll lose her powers.” She handed me her black cocktail dress with the low back and the mid-thigh split that drove me crazy. That dress should have been in the carry-on—now bent in thirds and stowed in the car. “It’s still New Year’s Day in Japan. She does lose her powers, doesn’t she?”
The Vietnamese spiritual sages are silent on this.
Image: Whistler, James McNeill. “Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room.” 1876-77. Oil paint and gold leaf on canvas, leather, and wood. Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.