A Story About My Mother, by Cassia Tan
My grandfather has a favourite phrase: “There’ll be snow on Mars before I let you do that.” Mars was the planet next to Earth, the planet from which humanity fled five hundred years ago. On Mars there was no water, no such thing as precipitation. Hence the saying.
Grandfather is a farmer and not usually taken to fanciful words, but occasionally an ancient phrase slips out. He blames it on his Zhuan wife, of course.
“Too many traditions on her side of the family,” he complains, but we all know he studied ancient languages to win her over.
They love anything related to Old Earth on Zhu. Or so I’m told. When my grandmother died—many years before I was born—my mother decided she would become an Archivist and study our species’ history. It was her own way of honouring the family she would never meet. Grandmother was a rebel, after all. You’re not supposed to want to leave Zhu, or travel across systems, or settle down with a llokka farmer on a minor planet near the galaxy’s heart… Not that Grandfather’s operation is a rural backwater. He sells the best llokka wool this side of Kelso; I’ve met famous entertainers dressed in suits made from his stock. That always makes me proud. In a galaxy of synthesised materials, organic-grown is the best.
Anyway, Mother had to move to Central to carry out her dream, and Grandfather was having none of that. She was too old for the implants, he would say, or too fragile for the climate. Central is the galaxy’s capital, a planet-spanning city of multiple ecozones and billions of inhabitants, but the Archivist Academy resides in an area suited to almost all of them due to its importance as an information hub. And humans have been Archivists for a hundred years, now. Surely there would be technology enough for Kimini Tan? And if there wasn’t, my mother would research it.
She is nothing if not stubborn. I remind her of it whenever she challenges my own plans.
So, Mother wore him down and wore him down, but Grandfather wasn’t going to let her go even on the day she left. “It doesn’t snow on Central, either,” he told her. But Mother’s secretive smiles should have warned him; she told me once that she spent six months in a laboratory after school for what came next. She said goodbye to her home of sixteen years, got on a shuttle with a small crate of belongings, and headed off to the Academy, two planets away. She had to apply to enter, of course—extensive physical, cognitive, mental, and genetic tests that she passed easily (or so I’m told. Some people have insinuated that Grandfather’s money helped her in, but I never looked up her scores because that would violate her privacy. And I like the story, anyway.)
She didn’t send a single message to her father until the day she gained entry. On that afternoon, she snuck out to collect her secret project, which had been defrosting under medical supervision: an actual litter of farm cats.
Mother has always been amazing with technology. She figured out a way to transport live animals across space without them going crazy. Later, she developed the tech for use in the movement of exotic meat creatures, earning enough prestige to study whatever she wanted after that. The prototype technology, though, brought a beloved memory of home to a city-planet where no cats had ever lived before. Two animals survived. One was eventually sent back to Ketut to demonstrate the technology’s safety. But before that, Kimini had already chosen her lifelong companion. A sleek, white, female kitten.
I’ve replayed the vid of Grandfather and Mother’s conversation the evening she became an Archivist. His expression is one I want to see one day on her face, looking at me. Shock, confusion, realisation, and then, suddenly, pride. And happiness.
“You said I’d never make it, Father,” my mother says in the recording. She holds up the tiny kitten, squirming in her arms, purring when she pats and shushes it quietly. “But I have evidence for you. This is Lumi. She’s the first of her kind on this planet.”
She challenges him, chin raised, staring at the screen. Grandfather’s forehead frowns. You can see the moment it clicks, a language he once learned coming back to him. His eyes widen. His mouth crinkles. Then he laughs.
Lumi is an ancient word for snow.
This week’s short is one of a number that I am planning, featuring the characters in The Archivist series. Cassia Tan in book one is about twenty years old; in the above story recounting she is much younger. She still loves space cats, though. I think you’ll agree, she has reason to.