Ari Larissa Heinrich's translation of Chi Ta-wei's The Membranes, a classic of queer speculative fiction originally published in Taiwan in 1995, is out this week from Columbia University Press. In the excerpt below, the protagonist, Momo, reflects on her unusual origin story.
Momo brushed her yellow bedroom wallpaper with her fingers. Then she bit gently into a hothouse peach, sweet juice oozing from pink skin so delicate it would bruise if you blew on it. Had she perceived the yellow paper through direct exposure to her subcutaneous neural network? Was it her taste buds that detected peach sweetness? She would never know. An impenetrable barrier existed between her body and the material world.
Membranes filtered Momo’s every impression of the world. At thirty, she felt there was at least one layer of membrane between her and the world. Not the kind of membrane she applied to her clients receiving facials at work, obviously. The invisible kind. The kind that made her feel sort of like a tiny water flea—a Daphnia encased in a cell, swimming alone out to sea. The ocean surrounded her body but never touched her.
Momo was a kind of aesthetician known as a “dermal care technician.” She knew that between her clients’ faces and her own hands—beyond the seaweed and the carmine masks—lay another membrane that prevented her from ever truly getting close to anyone. Momo was acutely unsuited to intimacy. People who didn’t know her often found her reticence alluring; her regulars just assumed she was the quiet type.
Unsuited? More like suspended in an amniotic sac. Momo was vaguely aware that she would never fit in here. Sometimes she wondered if she should even be living in this world. Not that she wanted to die. It was just that maybe she was better suited to another space, another world: a misfit peach, unsatisfied with its home tree and dreaming of growing on a different tree.
But isn’t one peach tree the same as any other?
Two peach trees, two entirely different universes.
Momo’s fate began with peaches. For as long as she could remember, their sweetness warmed her. Just a morsel in her mouth transported her back to her fairy-tale youth. All through those ten long, hard years spent studying at boarding school, before bed she would relish the taste of a luscious hothouse peach, nourishing her body while also rewarding herself after an arduous day, sending herself off to sweet peachy dreams. Though her reticence kept people from getting close to her, anyone would agree that this peach-loving girl—with her blushing white face—was herself as sweet as a peach. Even her name. Momo. Somewhere between a murmur and the Japanese word for “peach.”
Once, little Momo asked her mother, “Where did I come from?” “You weren’t born from a womb,” said her mother, “and you weren’t plucked from a trash heap.”
What Momo’s mother told her next was not the simple, perfunctory version of what you learn in sex ed. Instead she explained that a long, long time ago, Mommy had taken a trip with a friend. They were walking along hand in hand in the hills when they came to the base of a peach tree at the top of a knoll. The peaches gave off a mesmerizing scent: to smell them was to go limp with ecstasy. Not worrying about pesticides or being accused of theft, Mommy’s friend asked Mommy to let her stand on her shoulders. With a little teamwork, the crafty pair plucked the biggest peach of all. It was as big as a human head. Mommy was delighted. She told her friend: “In China there’s a legend that ‘peach splitting’—when you share a peach with a friend—is the mark of an extraordinary friendship, the kind that other people wouldn’t understand. Let’s share the peach and bless our friendship!” And so, according to Momo’s mother’s story, the two women split the peach with a knife . . . never anticipating that, as soon as the knife broke the skin, a shrill wailing cry would burst out of the peach. Inside was a baby! As shocked as they were, both women felt that this tiny baby was destined to be their daughter. It was just like a fairy tale.
The baby’s face was bright red and sweetly fragrant. A peach child. Mommy’s friend explained that according to an ancient Japanese legend, there was once a little boy who had been born from a peach, and his name was Momotaro the Peach Boy. Since “Peach” was pronounced “Momo” in Japanese, it was decided: she would be Momo.
“And that’s where you came from,” said Momo’s mother.
To little Momo this story sounded bizarre. It was the twenty-second century, and Momo had a basic understanding of sex. But she liked that it was at least unique. So . . . why not choose to believe it? Momo took a certain pride in the romance of her genesis.
But in that case, Momo wondered, where was Mother’s Japanese friend now? Who was she? And why hadn’t Momo ever met her?
Momo’s mother was evasive. “We had a fight,” she said. “Friends fight and break up sometimes; it happens all the time. So that’s why Mommy was left to take care of you by herself.”
Little Momo thought: When I grow up, I’ll never fight with my friends. I’ll be close with my friends forever.
Forever. Yes, forever.
Excerpted from The Membranes. Copyright © 2021 Chi Ta-wei. Used by arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.