From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Early Winter, Near Jenli Village

When Li-huan’s family first arrived at the house near Jenli village, the ghost rattled bowls on their shelves and howled through the house as a rush of wind, stirring up the mats and musty old bed-curtains. The priest told Li-huan’s father that the house’s previous owner, a wealthy merchant, had died with no one to remember him and so sought their attention. The family dedicated a small shrine to the merchant in the corner of the inner hall and, so appeased, he left them unmolested…until Lili came.

Li-huan gazed at his bride where she lay sleeping. They had not yet attached the winter curtains to keep the heat in around the platform of the bed, so the early light streamed in through the screens, illuminating her smooth skin. Her glossy braid lay over one shoulder, and the long tunic she wore to bed managed to show no more than her slender hands and the arch of her neck.

Li-huan reached across the space between them and ran the back of his hand along her braid. Her eyes fluttered but she remained still, tensed as if afraid to move. “It’s only me,” he told her.

A pent breath sighed past her lips and the tension in her flowed away. She turned halfway to face him.

He stroked her winter-pale cheek. “May I kiss you?”

She nodded, yet her wide eyes showed her mistrust. When he pulled away, her lips trembled.

He sighed and said, “Lili, you know I wouldn’t hurt you.”

“I know,” she whispered through her tears. Her fingers clenched again in the blankets. “Just do what you must.”

He had tried to be patient. In the two weeks since their wedding he had only lain with her once, and the tears afterward made him feel like a monster.

Hoping for another kiss, no more, he leaned toward her again. That was when something struck him on the back of the head.

Cursing under his breath, Li-huan searched behind him until his hand found the object–the leather-bound journal in which he wrote his poetry. It had been on the table across the room the night before. He had no doubt who slung it at him, though. The ghost had taken to defending Lili every time she started to cry.

“You are unfair,” Li-huan protested to the air. “I would not hurt her.”

“Don’t yell at him,” she said, coming to the ghost’s defense.

For a second, Li-huan thought uncharitable thoughts about the ghost and his wife both. Determined not to say anything that would frighten her further, he got up from the bed, dressed and went out into the courtyard.

The chilly air helped. A light snow had fallen only a week before, promising a colder winter than those of his childhood in the capital. Powdery drifts collected about the edges of the courtyard and covered the pots of over-wintering plants in his mother’s carefully-tended herb garden.

The vast house itself was new to their family. The emperor had gifted the dead man’s entire estate to them, but duty took Li-huan’s eldest brother to visit the family of his wife. His second brother had gone to oversee the work on the other house belonging to the estate, which left Li-huan and his parents, along with old Bao-yu, to oversee the work at Jenli Village.

There was much to be done to make the house what it had once been, made evident by the bricks and tiles the workmen had left piled in the first courtyard. Li-huan gazed up at the second floor of the main hall in the center of the house. With its missing windows and roof tiles, he reckoned the family might spend the entire winter as cold as he was at that moment. Shaking his head, he rubbed his arms and then crossed to enter the inner hall.

His mother and old Bao-yu were already at work, and the scent of steamed buns reminded his stomach of his hunger. His mother glanced up and smiled at him. “Where is Lili?”

Li-huan scowled. “She will come when she is ready.”

“Ah.” His mother came over to join him at the table. One of the Cordara people, she was of the minority in Jenli village. Her brown hair bore streaks of gray now and her face was lined, a testament to the struggles in her past, but she clung to the belief that things worked out for the best in the end. “No better?”

“No, Mother.” He shook his head. “She still does not want to be touched.”

“You must be patient,” she said. “She will warm to you.”

He sighed and wondered how many years she expected that would take. His parents possessed great wisdom and tolerance, but he knew he could not claim either virtue yet. “I know, Mother. It is only unfair.”

His mother’s lips pressed together, and he felt guilty for having complained. It had seemed a good idea, taking a bride from among the local families. After all, Li-huan was twenty, and a wife could help greatly in the fledgling household. The girl came from a respected family and, for her part, Lili had seemed pleased at the prospect of the marriage despite Li-huan’s mixed blood. His mother found the girl well-mannered and lovely enough to please her son, and so had approved the match. They’d had no way of knowing that Lili would react so to him.

“I have no other counsel for you, son,” his mother said in a regretful tone.

He smiled for her sake. “Do not worry. It will work out, Mother.”

Lili came in through the courtyard door, then, a placid expression on her beautiful face. It would be as if nothing had passed between them, he knew. Another day of pleasantries and meaningless words from her. Li-huan understood little more of his wife’s mind than he had when he first laid eyes on her at the wedding.

#

Li-huan glanced out from the empty space where one of the upstairs windows had been and looked over the courtyard. A stonemason worked below, splitting bricks to be fitted around the window once they replaced it. His father oversaw that effort, so Li-huan dug through the refuse left behind by years of squatters in order to see what might be saved from the room. Most everything in the house had been ruined, only a few pieces of furniture and the oven salvageable. Still, the wood would fire the oven and broken glass could be ground down for use in the herb garden.

He heard a voice somewhere in the hallway and walked back to see who dared the chilly upper floor. He caught sight of Lili as she came up the last of the steps and walked into one of the other rooms. He had no idea why she might have come, so he went to the doorway where she’d disappeared.

Lili stood before one of the empty window frames, the wind off the courtyard blowing back a stray strand of hair. “I don’t see you, Uncle,” she said, her voice sounding like a lost child’s. “Where have you gone?”

Li-huan stepped over the threshold and his boot crunched on a broken shard of pottery. Lili whipped around, her braid flying with the motion. For a second she merely stared at him. Her expression was one Li-huan had not seen before, a look of terrible loneliness.

“Lili, are you well?”

Her face fell, and then the placid smile returned. “I came to see if you need help.”

His mother’s suggestion, he guessed. Lili had not so far shown any preference for his company. “I could use some help cleaning the other room. If it is not too cold for you.”

“I don’t mind,” she answered. So she swept the room while he placed the wood scraps into a bucket.

“To whom were you speaking?” he asked after a time. “In the other room, I mean?”

For the briefest second, she stopped sweeping. “I don’t know what you mean.”

That was her usual response whenever he asked about some odd behavior. Annoyed, Li-huan picked up the bucket of wood and carted it downstairs.

#

After a quiet dinner, Lili went early to their bedchamber, pleading tiredness. Li-huan stayed up, though, sitting before a brazier with his father and mother. Zhuang was a quiet man and rarely spoke unless he had something profound to offer, but Li-huan had taken after his mother, and enjoyed their conversations in the evening.

When he told them of the morning’s odd incident, his mother frowned. “Uncle? I haven’t heard of an uncle. I’ll ask around in the village tomorrow and see what I can find out.” She picked up a handful of herbs and began bundling them together to be dried. “I have found others to be rather closed-mouthed about the family so far.”

One of the difficulties of being new to the village–their family missed out on much of the gossip. “I wondered if she might be talking to the ghost,” Li-huan said then.

His father scowled, but didn’t comment. His mother put down the bundle she’d been working on. “He was quiet enough until she came here,” she said with a sigh. “But the merchant died years ago, I’m told. And was he not of the Chou clan? He cannot be her uncle, or at least not one she would know.”

Li-huan shrugged and said, “She called him so, I think–the ghost. I can’t see him, but I believe she does.”

When Li-huan went back to his bedchamber, Lili had already fallen asleep, her lovely face still. Her hands were folded over her breast and her braid lay neatly over her shoulder. She looked as far away to Li-huan as if she were in the capital and he here in his cold bedchamber.

He lay down on the far side of the bed and watched her sleep until he slept himself.

#

In the early morning, Lili woke grasping the sheets with white-knuckled fingers. Li-huan kept his silence, not wanting to startle her. When he neither moved nor spoke, she relaxed. Then she slipped from under the covers and stepped away from the bed. Li-huan watched her with one eye half-open, wondering what she sought.

“Uncle?” she asked. “Are you here?”

A faint glow started above her, like the drift of dust motes on a sunny day. Li-huan opened both eyes to be certain he wasn’t imagining it.

She gazed at the spot. “I know I’m safe when you’re here, Uncle. Don’t leave me.”

But the shimmering in the air shifted, moving toward the bedchamber door and then flowing out past it. Lili followed, her bare feet hardly making a sound on the reed mats. She eased the door open and slipped out.

Li-huan jumped up and went after her. The house was still dark, so he kept his eyes on the light fabric of her tunic. She made her way back to inner hall, then to the stairs and up to the icy second floor. When Li-huan came out of the stairwell, she stood in the same room where he’d found her the previous day, staring out the window.

The faint sparkling light he’d seen in their bedchamber fluttered in the darkness outside, but faded as the first sliver of the sun peeked over the horizon. Li-huan suspected that whatever he’d seen was still there. Then Lili stretched out one hand toward it, confirming that she saw it even if he could not.

“Uncle, please don’t leave,” she begged, leaning out through the empty window-frame.

“Lili!” Li-huan jumped forward and drew her back.

She stiffened in his grip and then blinked. “What are you doing here?”

“I thought you were going to fall out that window.” He turned her loose and asked, “Are you well?”

Her eyes shifted about the room. Li-huan couldn’t tell if she was simply confused, or preparing to lie to him again. “I don’t know why I came up here,” she finally said.

He put a hand on her cheek to make certain she was looking at him. “You were speaking to your uncle. I didn’t know you had one. I did not meet him at the wedding.”

A sadness touched Lili’s eyes. “No, my uncle is…gone away.”

Li-huan stroked her cheek. “You miss him.”

Her eyes looked past him, seeing into some place he could not. “He was…”

Li-huan suspected she stood on the edge of some revelation, and so dared not push her.

“He protected me,” she whispered.

The village was a safe one, where all the neighbors knew one another. Surely the uncle hadn’t much to protect her from. “Where did he go?”

“It’s my fault.” Her eyes began to tear. Not the sobs Li-huan dreaded, only two pale tracks glistening in the light of the rising sun. “It’s my fault.”

Li-huan wiped the tears from her eyes. “What is, Lili?”

“It’s my fault,” she said.

And wherever her mind had gone, Li-huan suspected he could not follow. “Why don’t you come downstairs with me, and we’ll have some tea.”

He placed an arm around her shoulders, and led her away from open window, back down into the warmth of the house.

Once she’d gotten warm though, Lili returned to her normal detachment, which made Li-huan want to shake her. When he asked her what her earlier words meant, she merely said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

#

Before he started sorting on the second floor again, Li-huan asked one of the workmen to come upstairs and help him cover the open window frames. Not skilled with a hammer, Li-huan managed to blacken his thumb in the process, but felt better knowing his wife wouldn’t fall out the window should she wander up there in the middle of the night again.

Lili made a fuss over his injured hand when he came down to eat and fetched him a bowl of snow. He felt silly sitting at the table with his thumb stuck in the bowl, but it was the first time she’d ever done such a thing for him. Her concern gave Li-huan hope that his wife might warm to him after all.

“There is an uncle,” his mother told him after her excursion into the village. “He used to visit regularly, but he left suddenly a couple of months ago and hasn’t returned. Apparently, there was some argument with her father.”

“And she blames herself for it.” He told his mother of the incident in the early hours.

“I wonder what he protected her from,” she said softly, a furrow between her brows.

“I do, too,” Li-huan said, “but she will not tell me.”

That night when he took himself off to his bedchamber, Lili already lay underneath the covers. Li-huan laid down next to her. “We will be married a month soon, Lili, and I know very little about you.”

“It is only two weeks,” she said.

“Will you tell me about your family?” he asked, seeking a safe topic. “What of your mother? What was she like?”

“She died when I was young,” she whispered, “when my sister was born.”

“What is your sister like?” he persisted, recalling a girl of eight or nine with serious dark eyes who strongly resembled Lili. “I saw her at the wedding, but never spoke with her.”

“Father doesn’t like her to talk to people,” she said.

Li-huan noted that her knuckles had gone white on the blankets. He’d strayed into that delicate territory which made her deny things, so he tried something else. “What sort of flowers do you like?”

He’d startled her–that much he could tell.

“Lilies,” she answered hesitantly. “Mother and I used to dig them up from the mountainside and plant them in the courtyard.”

She must have been a little girl, he reckoned. “Mother will use most of the beds to grow herbs but there is enough space for you to plant some lilies here as well.”

And she smiled at him. “Truly?”

“Of course, Lili.” He touched her cheek. “This is your home now. Whatever you want, you can ask.”

That idea seemed to startle her. “Husband, I…I do not know what I would ask.”

He nearly laughed at her bemused expression. “You do not need to choose everything tonight, Lili. I think it will be a few months before we can hunt lilies on the mountainside.”

She smiled again. “You are very kind. And what do you wish for, husband?”

Li-huan bit his lip to keep from blurting out an honest answer that might start her to crying. “I think I would like,” he finally said, “for you to call me by my name.”

“Li-huan,” she said softly.

And he should be content with that progress for one night, he told himself. “May I kiss you?” he asked anyway.

She nodded shyly, and Li-huan set his lips to hers. He intended to be gentle, no matter what hunger he felt. That kiss led to another and then a third, and she didn’t try to escape him. He murmured her name against her lips.

But he felt a trembling in her limbs then, so he drew away.

“I am sorry,” she whispered, her jaw clenched. “I am sorry.”

“Shhh.” He stroked her cheek and eased away from her, settling back to the far side of the bed. “I will wait.”

She didn’t cry, though, which he considered a good sign. Nor did the ghost throw anything at him. After a time, her shivering passed, and she slept.

#

Li-huan had already dressed when she woke. She rose and did the same, and they walked together to the main house to eat. When he took her hand, she didn’t pull away.

“Are you almost done sorting in those rooms?” his mother asked. “Or do you need Lili’s help?”

“As much as I would enjoy her company,” he said, “I am mostly done.” The workers would be able to replace the windows this morning, he guessed, a good thing since the air felt of snow again. “And it is cold up there.”

“Would you like to come to the market with me then, today, daughter?” his mother asked.

Lili smiled faintly. “I would like that.”

His mother bestowed a warm smile on her. “We’re low on flour and rice both, so I can use your help.”

The workmen came early, in hopes of finishing their work on the windows before the snow arrived, so Li-huan and his father went out into the courtyard with them.

Near noon, his mother came out to them with steaming bowls of rice and fish. “You should go speak to your wife,” she told Li-huan quietly. “She saw her sister at the market. She would not tell me what passed between them, but she’s very upset. I told her to go lie down. She’s in your bedchamber.”

Li-huan handed back the bowl and headed directly to their room. When he pulled back the bed-curtain, though, Lili wasn’t there. He ran up the inner hall and climbed the stairs, thinking the ghost must have led her back to that same room he’d found her in twice before. By his request, the masons had put in that window first.

She wasn’t looking out the new window. Instead, he found her huddled on the floor sobbing. The bucket of broken glass he’d left behind lay tipped onto the floor, and red marred the pale blue of her sleeves–blood.

She didn’t seem to recognize him when he spoke to her, so Li-huan lifted her in his arms and carried her down the stairs. When he reached the ground floor, he called for his mother.

Lili sat dazed and tears streamed down her pale cheeks. There were cuts on her forearms, the fabric of her dress torn. “It’s my fault,” she whispered.

“Shhh, do not worry,” Li-huan told her. His mother came in then and shook her head remorsefully when she saw her daughter-in-law’s injuries. “The ghost must have thrown the glass at her,” he said.

“His mother’s expression turned to a frown. “Go get me some clean linen.”

A trained herbalist, his mother always kept a ready store of bandages, which saved him the work of shredding one of his shirts. He located the basket and brought it back.

His mother sat cleaning her daughter-in-law’s wounds. She had cut away the ruined sleeves, exposing Lili’s bare arms. Li-huan didn’t think he’d seen his wife’s arms naked before, and now he knew why. Dozens of old scars marred her forearms.

“She did this to herself?” he whispered.

“And has been doing so for some time, it seems. I have seen the like before,” his mother said, hardly louder. She wrapped Lili’s injured arms carefully. “I am going to make her an infusion of valerian to help her sleep. Perhaps a cup of wine as well. Stay here with her.”

Li-huan knelt before his wife, who no longer even cried. “Why, Lili?”

“It’s all my fault,” she whispered.

He wasn’t certain if she’d responded to his question, or simply repeated that self-damning mantra. Her eyes remained focused on some place within. The ghost whipped up a wind and threw the basket of bandages to the floor. Li-huan let them go. “What did you do, Lili?”

His mother returned with a bowl of wine. “Will you drink this, daughter?”

Lili took the cup and sipped dutifully, but never answered Li-huan’s question.

After a time, his mother brought her a larger bowl and, once Lili drank that, Li-huan walked with her back to their bedchamber. “Just a nap,” he told her as he tucked the blanket carefully around her bandaged arms.

He sat next to his wife until he was certain she slept, and then went back to speak with his mother. He found her still at the table, folding the bandages the ghost had scattered.

“I should have realized it earlier,” she said. “I have seen the like before, in a girl taken against her will. She blamed herself and would cut her skin as…a way to punish herself. As if she’d had any choice in the matter.”

Li-huan sat down. “You mean…You think Lili was raped?”

His mother raised one eyebrow. “You would know better than I. Was she a virgin?”

Li-huan’s jaw clenched. He hadn’t intended to speak of it, not wanting to denounce his lovely bride. He hadn’t been a virgin himself. “I do not think so,” he finally answered.

“Then I must suspect the other. Lili doesn’t strike me as the sort to take a lover.”

Nor did he. “What can I do?”

His mother touched his cheek. Her hand carried the potent scent of valerian with it. “Be even more patient, son.”

Given his new understanding, Li-huan thought that would be much easier.

#

Li-huan sat near Lili later that afternoon and waited for her to wake. He could not bring himself to hold it against her. Many years before he’d been born, his mother had been an unwilling concubine. Women were often forced to a man’s will, he knew.

He had to wonder then if the man had escaped unpunished.

Someone in the village must know of the incident, but they would not have told his family. Newcomers never heard all the secrets.

“My arms hurt,” Lili said in a plaintive voice, the little girl voice he’d hear upstairs when she’d sought her uncle there.

Li-huan leaned closer. “Do you not remember? You cut them.” She didn’t answer, so after a moment he tried a more direct question. “My mother thinks a man forced you, Lili, and that you blame yourself. Is that why you did it?”

She spoke then, words loosened by either the wine or the herbs. “Father said it was my fault Mother died, because I did not help enough with the work when she carried my sister. That I must be a wife in her place.”

Li-huan froze as the chill in the air flowed into his soul. He felt ill, the enormity of the crime against her suddenly clear in his mind. “Your father?”

“It is always my fault,” she mumbled. “My fault that Mother died, my fault that Uncle died.”

Li-huan wanted nothing more than to leave the bedchamber, aghast at her admission, but he could not afford to miss her rare words. Her mother had died in childbirth; surely that could not be blamed on her, so he asked about the other. “What happened to your uncle, Lili?”

Her eyes began to run again. “Uncle wanted to take me and Mei away with him to live with his family, but Father grew angry. I planted lilies in the courtyard where Father buried him. I am never to speak of it. I must say Uncle went home.”

Li-huan could not decide what more to ask.

“I tried harder,” she whispered, “but it was never enough, and now Mei must do everything herself, and she is too young.”

Her voice trailed off, and Li-huan realized she’d drifted back into her uneasy sleep. He stroked her cheek, wondering what other dark secrets hid behind those delicate arching brows.

The ghost had taken up residence in his bedchamber. Sparkling motes of dust floated above the bed. Li-huan sighed and shook his head. “Do not entice her into anything,” he told the ghost sternly. “She needs to rest.”

Nothing answered his request. Li-huan doubted the ghost had any respect for him anyway.

#

His parents did not appear too surprised when he told them of Lili’s words, which told Li-huan that he knew very little of the world. He could not imagine such a thing happening, but evidently they could.

“Surely someone knew,” Li-huan protested.

“Or suspected,” his mother agreed. “But they did not choose to interfere in another family’s business.”

His father rose, his dark eyes hard. “I will go speak to the village headman.”

“Zhuang,” his mother said, “you must bring the younger sister here.”

His father nodded shortly

“I will go with you,” Li-huan said.

“You will stay with your wife,” his father said. Li-huan wanted to argue, but his father held up one hand. “Do not waste my time with talk, son.”

His mother put one hand on his arm. “Go stay with Lili. Your father can handle this discreetly. Two call attention, where one can slip into the village unnoticed.”

Li-huan was relieved to find his wife still asleep when he returned to the room. He wrote in his journal, intending to resolve his frustration, but the ink refused to flow into the words he wished. Humiliation and helplessness ended up on the page instead, meant for her plight and not his own.

His father came back long after darkness had fallen, a grim expression on his face. Zhuang gestured for his son to join him outside the bedchamber.

Something had gone amiss, Li-huan could see that. “What happened?”

“We were too late,” his father said. “Whatever passed between Lili and her sister at the market must have forewarned the man. He took his own life sometime this afternoon, rather than have his guilt exposed.”

Li-huan felt a moment of perverse pleasure. “Good.”

His father held his arms tightly over his chest. “Hush, son.”

“What of little Mei?” Li-huan asked then, recalling his mother’s request.

His father shook his head and looked past Li-huan’s shoulder, and Li-huan knew that Lili stood there. He turned in time to catch her as she collapsed to the floor.

#

Li-huan had never felt so helpless in his life. Lili cried even in her sleep, sobs that must surely rob her of any true rest. When she woke, the ghost would wake with her. Wind rose in their bedchamber, tearing at the screens. Li-huan removed everything breakable from the room, more from fear that the ghost might hurt his wife than himself.

The village’s headman arranged the burials, but Lili did not join the procession. Li-huan did not have the heart to force her to it, no matter what others might say of disrespect.

After several days, Lili’s distress eased. She settled back into the detachment that Li-huan recognized from the very first days of their marriage, but unsmiling this time. She rose and dressed, did as his mother bid her, but no more.

Lili drifted through her days, haunted by her past and pursued by the ghost. It called her from the bed at night, leading her up to the upper rooms in the house. Li-huan took to sleeping outside the door to stop her wanderings.

One morning, he found her in that upstairs room, staring out the now-sealed window. The workers had finished them all and that floor kept its heat better. At least she won’t freeze, he thought. “Lili, you should go back down.”

He saw no recognition in her eyes when she turned to look at him. “Where has Uncle gone?” she asked. “He spoke to me just a moment ago.”

“Lili? That isn’t your uncle. It’s the ghost. He’s lying to you.” When he drew her back down the stairs, she didn’t resist. But the wind yowled at him angrily and the screens rattled. And later that afternoon, he found her there again.

#

“I think you should take her away,” his mother said one afternoon. “Perhaps to your number two brother’s house. The ghost won’t follow there.”

Li-huan glanced over at his wife. Two weeks had passed since the funerals, and Lili only grew worse. She had cause for her woes, he knew, but the ghost did her no favors with his constant importuning. Even as Li-huan watched, Lili’s face lifted as if she heard a voice calling her name.

His next elder brother house lay at the far end of the estate, up in the mountains. While Li-huan didn’t wish to leave his parents and Bao-yu alone, he agreed it would best for Lili. The smell of snow hung in the air, so he suspected it would take a full day’s journey. “We will leave in the morning,” he decided.

His mother nodded. “Then perhaps she will have a chance to heal. And we will see if we can find a way to tame our other problem in your absence.”

Li-huan went out to the yard to help his father direct the workmen. Their ladders filled the courtyard. They had only to replace the missing tiles from the rooftop of the inner hall. A light snow began to fall as the workmen used a pulley to hoist tiles up onto the highest portion of the roof. Li-huan eyed the slippery tiles and hoped they could finish their work before the snow became problematic.

When his mother came running out into the courtyard, dread filled him. She held one hand to her head, and her steps wavered. Li-huan ran to her, one step behind his father.

“Lili is gone,” his mother cried. “Something hit me over the head, and she is gone.”

One of the workmen touched Li-huan’s shoulder and pointed up toward the main house. Li-huan saw a flutter of white and saw that someone had climbed one of the ladders to the rooftop. And then enough of the sleeve became visible that he knew who.

Li-huan ran for the ladder. He reached the roof and climbed onto the wet tiles. Barefooted, Lili took a step along the ridge and then another. One hand reached forward, and Li-huan knew the ghost had called her.

The wind whipped about him on the rooftop, and Li-huan struggled to keep his balance. “Lili,” he yelled. “Come down. It is not your uncle.”

She didn’t turn to look at him. Still gazing out into the air above the courtyard, she extended one hand. Li-huan edged closer but then paused, still half the rooftop’s length away. In the pale swirl of the snow, he saw the outline of a man’s shape stretching one hand out to her.

She went one step closer and, for the barest instant, Li-huan saw that ghostly hand grasp hers.

#

That the ghost felt lonely, Li-huan thought, did not give him the right to coax Lili into the afterlife with him. They later learned from the village’s headman that the wealthy merchant had cast himself down onto the courtyard flags from a second floor window. Li-huan did not need to ask which one.

The house had two ghosts now, and Li-huan only hoped they could comfort each other. He lit incense for them and placed it in the holder behind the bowl of rice on the shrine. Properly honored, neither the merchant nor Lili returned to haunt them. But when spring came, Li-huan found lilies on the side of the mountain to plant in the courtyard for her sake anyway.

J. Kathleen Cheney is a former teacher and has taught mathematics ranging from 7th grade to Calculus, with a brief stint as a Gifted and Talented Specialist. She is a member of SFWA, Broad Universe, and a founding member of The Oklahoma Speculative Fiction Syndicate. Her works have been published in Jim Baen’s Universe, Writers of the Future XXIV, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and Fantasy Magazine, among others. Her website can be found at www.jkathleencheney.com