by L. Chan
Lian’s world is flat. Not just the landscape, which extends as far as the eye can see, horizon to horizon under the rolling twilight flux. Not just the houses, dotting the slate grey earth and the thunder cloud sky. Not just her folded servants, who used to pad around silently with their painted smiles and their unblinking eyes, unfurling from their hiding places to bring her the same dishes for breakfast, lunch and dinner for a hundred years.
Lian ate regularly for fifty years before she realised that the food tasted of nothing but fire and ashes. Before she realised that she wasn’t hungry and had never been since her death. Not down here, where the sun peeks over the hills at the edge of the land and she still doesn’t know if it’s rising or setting because it’s been stuck there for the hundred years since she died.
Diyu isn’t so bad. It’s better when you have money, but what isn’t? Lian doesn’t get money anymore. Body to bones, bones to dust. Her gravestone pocked by water, bleached by lichen and scoured clean by the wind. Her brothers and sisters ceased burning offerings for her shortly after her parents died. They’d be down here too somewhere, her entire family. If there was a torture here for those who’d broken their daughter’s body and dreams, she hasn’t found it yet. Bodies healed, dreams did not but Lian never found it in her heart to seek out her kin’s suffering.
She’s been waiting for a long time. Not for money or food or even to expunge her hillock of karma. Not for her family, but for someone else. Lian’s been asking around, paying itinerant souls for information, roaming the eighteen courts herself when the money ran out, till her flat paper shoes were worn to shreds and the razor grit turned her footprints scarlet.
The sky is raining ashes, grey snow; the air is heavy with hope. Once a year, the gates are open. Once a year, the dead are free for a month and then to return. The gates of Diyu are of stained wood; darkened by age, lashed together with the sinews of the dead and blasted clean by the screams of sinners. The gatekeepers flank the open portal, tall as houses, thickly muscled. One had the head of an ox, wickedly curved horns and nails of brass. The other had the head of a horse, mane tangled and matted, nostrils flaring and venting steam like a locomotive. Their eyes narrow at Lian’s approach. Not all ghosts get to leave hell and they can smell a runner a mile off. She’s not used to speed and she no longer has a beating heart or breathing lungs, but she pushes herself anyway. She’s through the gates even as the keepers turn. The chase is on.
Mei’s world is flat. She’s on something. Rhymes with magazine but has too many Zs and Xs to be a real word. She gets it from a friend who buys in bulk over in Johore and peddles it on the right chatgroups. The pills suck the spit from her mouth and she only pees once a day but they soften the prickles of living in her skin so she buys them in unlabeled plastic bottles of a hundred each.
Mei knows the names of the flowers by heart in more than one language, some alive, some dead. A riot of colours surrounds her; but the pills fade them all to a mushy grey at the edge of her vision. Flowers don’t sell well during the Hungry Ghost Festival, so she preps bouquets to die a slow death in the chiller. A flick of her wrist brings the metallic tool down the stalk of a rose, tearing away thorns. She imagines the rose crying a little with the scrape.
Rose. Rosaceae. Meiguihua. Thorns give character. You don’t pick a rose straight up; need to look out for those little needles hiding behind leaves and petals, move your fingers just so that you avoid getting pricked. Not if it’s been stripped though. Then you just go for it. With another flourish, she flays the personality from the rose.
She rubs the short buzz cut above her ears; runs a finger down the five studs on her left earlobe. An older lady walks by the shop, eyes lingering on Mei’s hair long enough to be on the wrong side of polite. Mei pegs her for a hydrangea person, just for the rarity and the expense, not the softness of the petals or the gentleness of their hues. The woman meets Mei’s gaze momentarily, averts her eyes and stalks off. In her world, flowers should be sold by willowy young things, flowing hair and bending at the waist like stalks in the breeze. Not by someone like Mei, with her bleached blonde hair, fringe over one eyebrow and sideburns shaved away. In her too tight jeans and her too tight vest under her shirt, moulding her body into the shape she wanted to be seen in. Still she was more akin to a clod of dirt than the flowers she clipped, twisted, emasculated, neutered and bundled. So much easier to love a rose without thorns, but what’s the point in that?
Mei slips a pair of tens from the cash register to pay for dinner, adding it to the mental tally that she’d have to replace by the end of the following week or her boss would know. She breathes in the warm soup of the air outside the shopping mall, peppered with the floating ash of the ghost festival. She’s already sweating, spreading patches under her arms but she’s not going to roll up her sleeves, not when the gauze over her left forearm’s still fresh and the cuts haven’t scabbed over yet. Always on the back of the forearm though, too easy to get an intervention if it’s on the other side. Not that she doesn’t think about it; she thinks about it a lot. There’s a lot of time for that in between assembling bouquets and weaving wreaths. She’s walking a little faster now, pressing like an icebreaker through somnambulant floes. And then she’s running before the pills wear out.
The moon hangs low in the sky, so fat and full that it would have pulled a person’s shadow long across the grass. Instead the shadows are cast by strange cool lights that burn orange like tallow flame. Lian doesn’t have the time to take in the shadows, or the lights, or the crowds of people in strange dress gathering around mesh cages or steel drums, doling out sheafs of rectangular paper into crackling fires; hell money for the dead.
The two are never far behind and they are gaining. She can hear the bellow of Ox, reaching low into the bass, so low that it rumbles the grit on the road and blows hell money out of the hands of the crowds into little swirling whirlwinds. She can hear the whistling whinny of Horse, screaming like a tortured kettle, shrill enough to tease blood from the ears of babes.
The two are tireless, but so is she. She has no wants, no aches, no pains, not here back on earth, where she darts between the huddled masses. Lian does this out of habit, the living offer little more resistance to her flight than would spiderwebs. But, just like running through a spiderweb, the experience was pleasing neither to the runner, nor the spider. She spends more time avoiding the hungry dead; those mournful fresh ones who have yet to forget the sensation of hunger, of being clothed, of a thousand pleasurable things. They throng around the offerings of money and food, reaching out to brush the cheeks of relatives, who flinch at the sudden coldness of the breeze.
Horse and Ox are gaining, and when they do, they will rend her with their nails of iron and brass. They are not so large outside of Diyu, the realm of the dead. Not as tall as the shophouses that lined the river downtown, but still they still stand head and shoulders above the tallest of the living and the dead. Even here, there are rules and they send unfortunate shades flying out of their way in their pursuit of Lian. There’s little she can do against their strength, little that she can affect in the living world. The living and the things that belong to them are as ephemeral to dead as the shadows are to living. But with the worlds passing close; the dead were walking with the living and offerings were going up to the dead.
Lian steered herself towards one of the mesh cages in the middle of a crowd doling out hell money and other effigies symbolizing food, luxuries like cars or even pale faced servants. The dead gathered, unseen, hungry for the feast to come, with more streaming in with each passing moment. The keepers were almost upon her, their breathing laboured enough to whirl glowing embers into dancing frenzies that look, for a moment, like screaming bodies. Nobody notices.
Lian picks her target carefully, a girl, no older than twelve, mechanically feeding the fire with a stack of hell money, wearing a timeless, open-mouthed look of boredom. She sprinted through the girl, who gave a little yelp at the sudden chill. The stack tumbles into the flames, scattering ash and half burnt hell money. The living shy away, the dead press in and Lian slips into the night.
Mei’s out of breath and soaked with sweat by the time she gets to the foot of her block of government flats. Her father might be home, the evening shift hasn’t started for taxis. He doesn’t ask her who she’s seeing anymore (not anyone that will give you grandkids, dad), doesn’t ask her how her day was (same, always some young kid arguing about how much roses cost. Like he doesn’t know. Roses don’t grow here, they’ve got to be flown in). Dad’s probably left for his shift early, needs to keep moving, his back curved by long hours behind the wheel, if he moves long enough and fast enough, nothing catches him. Not the traffic police, not the arthritis that locks his fingers into claws, not his own daughter.
She’s not going up, not yet. There was a girl outside her flat a month ago, leaning over the parapet six storeys up, smoking light menthol cigarettes. Mei smiled at her; she had long fingers, high cheekbones and hair to the middle of her back. The girl offered her a smoke, Mei took it with thanks, retiring to an evening of mandopop and Warcraft. Not an hour later, the girl took the express route to the ground floor. The only thing the police left behind when they were done was the pile of ashes near Mei’s door and the smear of drying blood on the pavement below.
Mei doesn’t much like to be alone at home after that, not in the ghost month. This country is tiny, they stack people like bundles of paper in concrete coffins. There isn’t a spot more than ten metres from the site of someone’s death anywhere on the island. No point in going upstairs anyway. There’s a getai below on a rickety stage, a concert for the living and the dead. They’ve got a traditional opera singer up there on stage. The singer’s resplendent in her silken sleeves and her elaborate headdress. Her lips are rose red and her eyes accentuated by lotus pink.
The singer’s got range to rival Mariah, but owns the stage like a ballerina with her flowing sleeves swirling around her, more intimate than a dance partner. Mei doesn’t understand the words, it’s probably Teochew or Hokkien or some other dialect. The crowd’s got an average age of seventy, rheumy eyes straining at the stage, heads tilted so that the one good ear gets to hear the singing. Despite the dulling of their senses, the crowd leaves the first row empty. Empty save for a young woman Mei’s age, who’s watching the show with every bit as much enjoyment as the aged.
The woman’s clothes are like nothing Mei has ever seen. A silk blouse with sleeves stretching to fingertips, birds frolicing amidst flowers from shoulder to waist in an intricate embroidered swathe. Her trousers are of the same material, a shimmering yellow, tapered to fine ankles and feet (Mei flinches a little when she see these) the size of a twelve year old’s. Her features, Mei notes, are as delicate as her clothes. Her eyes, large and constantly wide with surprise, are dark enough to reflect the whole stage. Her lips are rosebud perfect, accentuated by a single vertical dab of lipstick. Mei wants to reach out and touch those lips but already she’s been staring too long. The woman favours Mei with a smile, her teeth small and even, just like everything else about her. Mei crumples into the hard plastic chair; the thin plywood board underfoot creaks and sags.
“You should apologise to the Ah Ma whose lap you just sat on,” says the woman, her eyes bright with mirth. Mei looks around, the row is empty save the two of them. A little gallows humour, Mei thinks. There’s a time and place for that, outside of the seventh month. That’s been drilled into Mei’s head, part of the warp and the weft of the hodgepodge of animist, traditionalist beliefs that she’d grown up with. Don’t stick your chopsticks vertically into your bowl of rice. Moths at wakes are the spirits of the departed, come to see if enough tears are shed.
The woman turns back to the stage. “I used to live here, before it was like this,” she says, bringing her arm, palm up, to indicate Mei’s block of flats. “There were nothing but straight backed trees of silver bark, far as the eye could see. Every morning, men would gouge lines into the trunks and bleed the trees of their white sap to boil and make rubber. Acres of scars.” She brushes Mei’s forearm and her touch is cold through Mei’s sleeve and the bandages. Mei relishes the sensation on her fevered skin. The woman’s voice is whisper soft, but it’s the only thing Mei hears. Her Mandarin is clipped, elegant; each word a speck of intent clothed in the nacre of formal language.
Mei introduces herself. She does this slowly, as though she’s unsure of who she is, of who she wants to be for this stranger. The stranger smiles at Mei, she is generous with her smiles, they crinkle her eyes up at the edges and will leave crow’s feet there before long.
“My name is Lian and I —
love you she wants to say. You love me back, you just don’t know it yet. Mei’s dressed for the times, but Lian still sees the young woman that served her family in the old two storey bungalow which once stood not far from the getai stage. Mei’s menfolk were rubber tappers; her other kin, washerwoman and maids. The bungalow had whitewashed walls, louvers of dark wood to let in the cool breeze and the heated calls of jungle birds. It’s all gone now, the plantation and the house, replaced by things as tall as the mountains in Diyu. Mei’s still waiting for her to complete her sentence, but Lian leaves it dangling. She’s still got her hand on Mei’s forearm, fingers sinking through the weave of Mei’s shirt, down past the bandage, feeling a racing pulse under warm skin. If Mei notices the chill of the hungry ghost, she doesn’t say it.
One of the Ah Mas a row behind sees Lian. She sees the others too, and has since her youth. The old lady has more friends and family dead than alive and she looks forward to the ghost month like a child awaiting Christmas. She gives Lian a smile comprised of more gaps than teeth.
The opera singer tells the crowd about love; the living and the dead nod back. Some of the dead are blurred around the edges. Old ghosts, so much so that they’re starting to fade, but still hungry. Some for food, some for possessions, but ghosts, most of all, hunger to feel again. Feeling like Lian feels right now. She tells Mei that there’s a story to share and the two of them are followed from the getai by the jealous eyes of unquiet spirits.
As they walk, Lian wonders if the rubber trees screamed when they were bled every day. Mei doesn’t quite notice, but Lian’s feet merely brush the tips of the dry grass. Walking is a habit Lian recently relearned; the dead have no need for it above ground. She tells Mei about the big house which was high as the tallest tree in the plantation, of a lonely child that had a friend in the family’s serving girl. A friend and more besides. The child became a young woman and, as was custom, her Ah Ma arranged for her to meet the son of a family that had sprouted from the same province in China. The young man smelled of sweat, and of sticky black opium, and of sweet rice wine. She was to be his second wife; his first having borne him only daughters.
And so the servant girl hatched a plan for the two of them to escape through the plantation, on a night when the moon was full enough to read by. The lonely girl’s feet had been bound in strips of linen and silk since her youth, crushing the forming bones so that their form might be more pleasing to the eye. She didn’t run very far before the both of them were caught, the servant girl was lashed with canes of young bamboo, supple enough to bend like whips to break the skin.
There was a second plan between the pair, a promise for a second meeting when the moon again hung fat in over the treetops. The lonely young lady, now waiting for an auspicious day for her own wedding; the servant girl, a blood price paid to her family, her face scarred with hot water and sold to serve opium in the flesh dens by the docks.
“What then?” asks Mei, as flecks of smouldering paper drift on the breeze.
“They promised to meet in spirit, if not in flesh,” says Lian, slipping a silken sleeve up to show scars she’d kept for a century. Ghosts appear as they remember themselves to be; Lian hasn’t forgotten that promise, not for a hundred years. “One’s waiting, the other is lost, going round in circles.” Lian reaches through Mei’s sleeve to stroke rows of scars, etched every day, feeling the warmth leech from Mei’s skin as latest one continues to leak.
Do the rubber trees scream when they’re cut? Bleeding is the only thing that makes them useful.
“There’s something I need you to see, Mei. We’re going home.” Lian speaks to Mei, speaks to the servant girl with her warm hands and warm smile, who once laid cool towels on her brow to break a fever, and herbal poultices on her feet to heal shattered bone. She speaks as ghosts speak, past the ears and straight to the soul. There’s only a few hours left for Lian to do this, to bring Mei back home.
Mei drifts as Lian whispers to her, leading her on by the arm. The other woman has given up the pretense of walking, she’s lightly brushing the tips of the grass, as though carried by the breeze, her connection to Mei the only thing anchoring her. The air smells of ash; and of cooked dinners; and of diesel fumes from the road. Despite the press of her body on Mei’s arm, Lian smells of nothing at all.
“Where are we going?” she asks. Lian tells her. Mei snorts. “Every culture has a story about someone going to hell to save a lover. Orpheus and Eurydice. Ishtar and Ereshkigal.”
“Mulian saves his mother,” says Lian, cutting Mei off.
“This isn’t one of those stories, is it?”
“In a way. It all depends on where hell really is.”
Mei leaves it at that. She’s always wanted to be the hero of her own story, but she could almost believe that she was floating with the strange woman she’d known for half an hour and a lifetime. It’s getting late and they have a long way to go, so Mei flags a taxi for the two of them.
The taxi driver says nothing, because it’s the seventh month, and to acknowledge things is to invite them into your life. One woman got into his taxi, but he sees two in the mirror. He doesn’t mind that the woman shorts him two dollars when she pays, because he’ll put it all in the temple donation box, offering incense to Kwan Im and sprinkling his seats with blessed water and flower petals.
Mei watches the taxi hurry away; the driver’s got better places to be. It’s cold, cold for the equatorial climate. She doesn’t feel it; she’s leaning on Lian. The other woman’s colder than her, but she doesn’t mind at all. There’s a crowd here, amidst the headstones of marble and granite, amidst the burnt down joss sticks and the offerings of food; fruit, rice and sweets. Some are dressed like Lian, embroidered silk; others in garb befitting the times, and even others that Mei couldn’t make out, ones that were fuzzy around the edges, their substance bleeding out and fading into the background.
She blinks and they’re gone. And back again. Mei’s drifting between stations, sometimes the crowd is solid, sometimes the quiet of graveyard comes to the foreground. The crowd’s got a destination, a queue forms. The dead are used to order. She knows (or has known for a while) that Lian herself is dead, but she doesn’t care because Lian’s got the same lines down her forearms and she leans in to whisper in Mei’s ear, growing more solid with each passing minute.
They’re almost to the head of the line, Lian and Mei. Ox head and Horse face are there, no longer hunters, back to ushering the dead. Between them lies the gate to Diyu, the wood the colour of a rotted corpse, the wind rushes out from under the earth, glad to be away from the courts of hell, bringing with it the smells of ash, of blood, of pain. It smells like home and this time it’s forever.
Ox bars their way with his weapon, a trident twice Lian’s height, its shaft thick as her calf. “You’ve come back. They always do. Better to be full on meals of ash and dust than to be forever hungry up above,” he says. He points to Mei with one iron fingernail. “The living cannot pass. These are the rules.” His voice is the thunder of bison hooves, the rumble of a mudslide. Elsewhere, one of the ghosts in line weeps at the sound.
“She is not long for this world.” Lian points to the specks of blood at Mei’s feet, dripping from her sodden sleeves and fingertips.
“This is not her place,” says Horse, lowering his own spear, the spearhead a sinuous wave of a blade, seeming to writhing like a snake. “You know this to be true. This was your place and hers was to live and live again. Until the sun refuses to shine or until your karma is gone.”
“We both killed ourselves.”
“She killed herself for you,” says Ox. There’s something in his dark, liquid eyes now, a hint of something human in a visage inured to a millenia of witnessed torment.
“So did I.”
“No, did not. You did it for you. The rules are just,” he says, and says it softly, even as the steam from his nostrils blows Lian’s hair from her face.
“There are other rules, gatekeepers. I walked the burning plains for her, I climbed mountains of glass, drowned myself to see if she was beneath the deepest lakes of hell. I have her and I will not let her go.” Lian raises herself to her full height and pulls Mei close. If the gathering crowd of ghosts saw a flicker of a palimpsest, of a shadow self pulled in front of Mei’s unresisting body, they say nothing.
“She will be free to pass through the gates in a moment,” says Horse. His voice is high, womanish. “Remember that she accepted you as you were, then and now. Would you have done the same for her?”
Lian is taking almost all of Mei’s weight now. Mei is doomed to repeat this (does she scream every morning when she scores lines on her arms, Lian wonders, do the trees scream when we draw blades down old scars?). Lian’s pressed in, bound by strips of linen and silk, duty and family, bones squeezed and shattered that she would be pleasingly shaped to her kin and the world. And she’s about to do it to someone else.
The crowd parts before them as she half drags Mei away from the dark gate. Birds are waking up, their brains too small to care about the parade of spirits, getting ready to welcome the dawn.
Ox calls after her, “The gates are closing. They do not open for a year.”
She ignores him. Lian tears strips of cloth from Mei’s shirt and ties them around Mei’s arms to slow the bleeding. Mei’s getting lighter; soon she’ll be no more than smoke to Lian. There will be help outside the graveyard. She’ll go as far as it takes.
“It is not for the dead to roam this world outside of the ghost month,” shouts Horse. “It is painful and lonely for a hungry ghost.”
No, it’s not. Mei is still smiling, her eyes half closed, face pressed closed to Lian’s. With her free hand, Lian strokes Mei’s face. She lets Mei down and sets off into her first sunrise in a century.
About the Author
L. Chan hails from Singapore, where he alternates being walked by his dog and writing speculative fiction after work. His work has appeared in places like Liminal Stories, Metaphorosis Magazine, and Arsenika. He tweets occasionally @lchanwrites.
About the Narrator
Julia Patt is an associate editor here at PodCastle, as well as a writer and teacher from Maryland. Her fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Escape Pod, Luna Station Quarterly, and other places. When she isn’t working on stories or terrorizing her composition students, she gardens, does yoga, games, reads as much as she can, and, in the summer, attends an inordinate number of baseball games. Visit juliakpatt.com or follow her on Twitter (@chidorme) for more.