The Fireflies of Todaji
by Russell Hemmell
They strolled along Sinus Iridum’s walking area, luscious and green, the dome’s borders looming in the distance. Artificiality notwithstanding, it’s an awesome place, Chandra thought.
“Thanks for having me here,” Yumiko said with a timid smile. “You’re the first classmate who has invited me to her settlement since I joined the school. Would you honour me and visit my home?”
“For the Todaji. There’s no better occasion to be in New Hokkaido.”
“It’s the main event of the year. We celebrate the coming of spring and the cherry blossoms.”
“I’m not sure I understand, Yumiko.”
“What’s not to understand? It’s a water festival, and in Japan they hold it regularly.”
“See? At least two things in your sentence that don’t add up. This is not Japan; it’s not even Earth. And water is at a premium everywhere on the Moon. Can’t believe things are that different in your settlement,” Chandra said.
“No, but …”
“Don’t you think that at least people like us, born and bred on the lunar surface—or under, depending on where your home is—should start building our own culture?”
Yumiko stared at her with a dismayed face. “I like traditions. I like festivals.”
“Of a place you have never seen, and of a language you can’t even write any longer.”
“I still speak Japanese.”
“If you were there now, they would treat you as an alien—and this is what you are, Yumiko. A human alien from the Satellite.”
Her friend lowered her head, remaining silent for a moment. “So, you’re not coming.”
Chandra thought about it. “Is it dangerous? You know I’m still recovering from my training injuries of last term in school.”
“No danger. And it’s only a few hours from Russell Bay.”
“Yumiko is wrong,” Chandra mumbled, shaking her head in resignation. “We can’t keep dwelling on a past that no longer belongs to us. We are Moonwalkers, not Earthians. We have left that world. If we cared so much, we should have remained there, that’s it. Me, I can’t miss Karnataka—or anything I’ve never seen.”
She prepared her backpack, making sure to get enough supplies for the trip, and squeezed herself into her spacesuit. It was just a quick trip but it required getting in and out of the domes, which meant a sudden loss of gravity and lack of outside oxygen. “Another thing Earthians would never understand,” she sneered. “Here, even a short hike in the wilderness could kill you.”
Good for me, this time the Moon has been a kind mistress, she thought, walking through the airlock hatches of New Hokkaido’s dome. It was not the first time Chandra had visited another settlement but none had the stunning architecture of Yumiko’s—with oddly-shaped buildings of a kind she was sure could still be found on Earth in the historical Hokkaido.
There were decorations everywhere for the water festival, which lasted for two weeks, but with the main ceremony happening that very night.
“The correct name is actually Omizutori,” Yumiko explained whilst they were heading toward the far-eastern corner of the dome. “Here we call it Todaji though—from the place it was traditionally held in Japan. You know, memories …”
“I know memories,” Chandra laughed. “What will happen now?”
“We’ll take our torchlights and follow the others down the hill to the temple—that big building with the red, pagoda-like roofs that you can spot from here.” Yumiko pointed at the bizarre structure in the distance.
“Hill? You mean the crater.”
“Old texts talk about hills. We need to speak the correct words; it’s part of the ceremony,” Yumiko said. “Once there, the crowd will converge into the temple’s court, where we will be observing the balconies. It is from there that the monks will carry the torches when heading to the Wall. That one—over there.”
“Neon torchlight, I guess, to avoid issues with the dome’s breathable air infrastructures. And that looks more like a pool than a wall.”
“In this part of the ritual, you will have to observe the rule of silence like the monks, no matter what happens,” Yumiko continued, ignoring her remarks. “Then the monks will draw water and offer it to the gods, the bodhisattvas, and to us, too. You know,” she added, showing an unusual enthusiasm, “three of them came directly from Japan.”
“Who, the monks or the gods?”
“The monks, silly.”
“I can’t imagine why.”
“We’ve paid them to come. We wanted the festival performed as it was centuries ago—like in the old Edo times—so advice from Earth was badly needed.”
Why have I even raised the issue? Chandra thought, trying not to show her disdain.
“Once at the pool, we’ll stop following the old Omizutori rite and we’ll add up details from other Japanese water festivals.”
To waste all that precious water only once, I’m ready to bet, Chandra snickered. But she remained silent.
“Then the monks will leave, and all people will go to the pool.”
“To do what?”
“We have to wash away our sins to be ready for the New Year; that’s why we throw water at each other. You will too, obviously.”
“We will keep at it all night, and at three a.m., we will have a sort of fireworks. According to the old legend, if you are showered with sparks of fire in the water ceremony, you’re blessed and lucky.”
“Except you can’t have fireworks here, for the same reason you can’t have real torchlights. It’s against the safety procedures, and on this, I’m sure things can’t be different in New Hokkaido,” Chandra said. After all, she was studying to become a dome engineer one day. She knew what she was talking about.
“I said sort of. We scatter firefly drones around.”
“Firefly drones? They must be cute.”
“They are, and they behave like the fireflies on Earth, with the difference that we have programmed them for the festival, and once released they will fly around the temple instead of all over the dome. Sparkling as fireworks and lasting longer—until dawn.”
Chandra smiled, liking the idea. “And bringing good luck, too?”
“Sure,” Yumiko beamed. “And beautiful all the same.”
Many hours later, Chandra was sure she had never had so much fun in all her life.
The ceremony over the balcony had been of an uncanny beauty—neon or not—and throwing water an elating experience, mixed with pranks and jokes and laughter. There were also people like her, Moonwalkers from other domes, all there to celebrate spring, cherry blossoms, and a night of much-needed foolishness in an all-too-rational lifestyle.
Tired but happy, they watched in awe as the red-blinking lanterns of the temple turned off, and a glimmering cloud of fireflies rose toward the edge of the sky-dome, flying under its transparent surface like a cascade of lights.
Then, in silence, they admired the magnificent dawn—the Earthrise that was the most prized natural phenomenon of their world, one New Hokkaido’s residents, living at the border between nearside and farside, were reasonably proud of. Something truly amazing, envied even by the Earthians. Almost immobile in the dark, the blue planet appeared from the obscurity of space in all its delicate colours, in what seemed both an appropriate start of a new cycle and the closing of the regeneration ceremony.
When the artificial lights of the day kicked in again, everybody went back to the dome’s central complex, leaving the temple’s court and its ponds. The now-abandoned pools looked to Chandra like magic mirrors scattered here and there over the lunar surface, reflecting the multi-eaved buildings and shining red lanterns of a world lost in the ripples of space-time.
She kissed Yumiko goodbye, and put the spacesuit on in preparation for her trip back home.
Before leaving for the exit area, she turned toward the temple to admire it for one last time. A firefly appeared nearby, fluttering its tiny wings, and eventually landing on her forearm. It stood there, like a gleaming beacon of light.
Chandra remained still, admiring that stunning example of artificial grace, and smiling in spite of herself. She then cupped the firefly between her hands, careful not to damage the bot’s delicate wings. “I’ll take you to Russell Bay, and keep you safe,” she said, gently putting it into a minuscule bell-jar compartment of her spacesuit. “Until the next Todaji.”
Russell Hemmell is a French-Italian transplant in Scotland, passionate about astrophysics, history, and Japanese manga. Recent work in Aurealis, Cast of Wonders, Flame Tree Press, The Grievous Angel, and others. SFWA & HWA. Find them online at their blog and on Twitter @SPBianchini.