The postmortem reports are wrong. There wasn’t an explosion. We, the Wei cousins, were willing participants in Geraldine Ko and Wendy Wei’s experiment to create the first birds on the moon. We were the blessed ones, the children who had been sent to live on the Moon until things improved on Earth. Our parents had sold houses and cars and jewelry to pay for tickets to the Moon while they stayed on Earth. They hoped the choking smoke from California wildfires would someday improve and we could come home.
There were seven of us Wei cousins. All boys, minus Wendy, the youngest. We watched as Wendy forgot Earth the fastest, as it became nothing more than the stuff of dreams for her. We teased her for her new Lunar accent, how she talked like one of them instead of one of us with our flat surfer drawls. We teased her for her crush on Geraldine. Wendy said Geraldine and her mother claimed to be alchemists, but we were skeptical.
The Moon is no place for magic, we told Wendy. Because on the Moon, there weren’t even birds. There were no starlings, hawks, or even street pigeons of any kind. The Moon was a wasteland, and magic needed life.
I’ll prove you wrong, Wendy replied. Just you watch.
Every day Wendy and Geraldine would meet in the chem lab classroom and work together on The Book. Rumor had it Geraldine inherited The Book from her mother, who inherited it from her mother, who inherited it from her mother who visited her ailing grandmother in the motherland. Every day we would check on them before curfew and find them poring over their dictionary, translating sentence by sentence, character by character, tone by tone. We learned to recognize Geraldine from behind, the poorly dyed red streaks in her hair standing out. Wendy would blush at Geraldine’s smile, at their fingers brushing when turning pages of The Book. Ah, young love! we thought, remembering our first crushes and first kisses from back by the sea and the cold metal of our cars.
The day Wendy asked us to taste-test their creation to turn us into birds, we showed up late. Back home in California there was a solar eclipse happening, and our parents had called us in wonder, asking us, Can you see the black sun? Can you see the night swallowing the sun whole from where you are?
From the Moon we could not see anything outside except for gray stone. But we told them, Yes, we can. We think the sun must taste like the oranges and lemons from Great-aunt Yi’s trees in San Diego.
That was the moment we felt farthest from them. So if Wendy could give us wings to fly from Earth to the Moon, we would thank her.
Let me know how this tastes, Wendy said, pouring us one shot glass each.
When each of us drank the carbonated lemon-lime potion, our flesh burned into feathers. Our bones twisted into wings. Our mouths snapped into beaks. In the mirrors, we could see we had become six swans, largest to smallest based on height. Vincent, the smallest of us as a human, took to the air the fastest, skipping the awkward hopping the rest of us had to go through. Vincent flew up. He nearly smacked into the ceiling on his way out of the lab. The rest of us gave chase. We couldn’t let him win.
Vincent made his way to the windows before Wendy, Geraldine, or any of the adults could catch up. He pecked at the door leading outside to the silent gray stone. He kept pecking and pecking at the reinforced glass. Through the window we could see Earth. Earth was almost close enough to reach with the tips of our feathers. We wanted to go home. We combined forces to peck a hole in the window, with the power of our newfound beaks. The air hissed around us as the automatic recovery system activated, but we flew away before the adults’ nets could catch us.
Our wings carried us from the Moon back to the Earth with only the stars and asteroids and fragments of space junk for company. Satellites carrying phone calls asked us where we were going, where we had been. We ignored them because they wouldn’t understand our birdsong and birdhonks. We flew back into the Earth’s stratosphere, charting course for home, dodging the space elevators and airplanes, flying past the plumes of smoke from the fires and the massive storms by the water. We followed the sea to California. We located the towns we grew up in, one by one finding our parents’ homes. We squawked and waved our wings at them.
Look at the swans, our mothers said. How beautiful!
Unnatural, our fathers said, fanning themselves in the hundred-and-ten degree heat. It’s an ill omen. When have you ever seen swans that big in California?
We tried calling out to them, tried saying, We’re back, let us back, let us back home. But our feathers were beginning to melt like wax in the sun, and our parents went back inside into their air-conditioned homes to escape the afternoon heat, leaving us outside.
We would have to leave before our wings melted. So we flew again, back to where it was colder in the stratosphere. We dodged space cruises and new elevated train tracks and helicopters until there was nothing but emptiness. There wasn’t enough air in the stratosphere for us to stay there, so up, up, up we went until the Earth was a blue stress ball and the Moon’s silence blanketed us again. Wendy and Geraldine were waiting for us by the window. We shattered the glass again with our wax-hot, dripping feathers and beaks before our wings could carry us no longer. We followed them, waddling through the halls until we were back in the lab. Wendy gave us water to drink, Geraldine a new potion, a tasteless antidote. It worked. Our bones snapped-crackled-popped from wings into arms and our muscles remolded themselves and the feathers on our arms thinned out into clothes and black hair. All our wings were gone, except for Vincent’s, who had one wing that refused to turn back to an arm.
And we were the Wei boys again. To be human is to remember what you can’t have, so we remembered the frozen-rubber taste of the stratosphere above California. We tried to tell Wendy what we had seen, what we had heard, but we couldn’t find the right words. Before we could tell her anything, the adults came to ask questions and to take away The Book from Geraldine and to run tests on Vincent’s wing-arm. They kept us in the lab until the Sun set and rose again. We left stumbling on our land legs, wondering if someday we would be home again on two feet and only one wing for the six of us. We wondered if our parents would know who we were. We wondered whether they would look at our Lunar school uniforms and see six strangers, just as they had before.