It was the smell which woke me up, insinuating itself between the planks of my coffin: cooked meat mingling with the sweet odour of aromatic rice, and the tangy hint of fruit and spices — a powerful summoning if there ever was one.
I sat up instinctively, saliva flooding my withered mouth; and it was only after a while that I realised my head had gone through the pine wood. I felt — light, empty, as if something had been torn out of me — more insubstantial than flesh and bones and muscles.
Gradually, I made out stumbling words, coming from outside my grave: “I pray that you will come and be present; that you will grant to your posterity that they may be prosperous and blessed by good fortune. Reverently I present the fivefold sacrifice . . .”
A pig, and a chicken, and a duck, and a goose and a fish — I could almost feel them in my hands, imagine the taste of them flooding my mouth — hungry, I was so hungry, I could remember nothing else but emptiness . . .
I straightened up, half-expecting my transparent bones to creak or break; but they didn’t. Swaying on my small feet, I made my way out, into the warm night.
The girl lay prostrate at the entrance to the grave, her chest flat against the cut limestone, the lacquered pins in her topknot shining in the dark — whispering the halting words of her prayer. Before her were the five dead animals — the tantalising smell of fresh meat, tinged with the remnants of blood — and a handful of baskets, filled with tangerines. My hands clenched; and before I could stop myself I was on my knees, reaching out for the meat.
Perhaps she heard the growling in my stomach; or the scuffling sound of my bound feet on the paved ground; or perhaps simply the wind of my passage. Whatever the case, she pulled herself up and stared straight at me.
Her mouth tightened to a thin line of white lips. “Honoured Ancestor,” she whispered, bowing her head.
The words echoed in the silence between us; and instinctively I knew them to be wrong, as wrong as Heaven under Earth. The girl herself — with the gangly unease of adolescence — wasn’t much older than I had been when I’d died.
But I couldn’t remember when that had been; or what had happened.
The girl was silent, watching me with awed fear in the starlight.
“Speak up. Why have you come?” My voice was small and tinny, coming out of my wasted throat — my vocal chords had since long withered away, and only a few folds of flesh still clung to my bones.
How long had I lain in that grave?
“Honoured Ancestor,” the girl said, again. She pursed her lips, and then plunged on, like a scholar arguing his case before the Emperor. “I am Lin Weiyi, daughter of Wang Shu, daughter of Zhen Xiaohua.”
Xiaohua. Little Blossom — abruptly, I remembered a girl-child, standing silent and straight in the courtyard, watching me. My child? Was this Weiyi my great-granddaughter?
The smell filled my nostrils — the roasted meat, the crushed fruit, the spices and rice. That food was so tantalisingly close; if I just reached out, if I could just take it into my hands… It didn’t matter, after all, who she was — if I did what she wanted of me I would have it all, and more besides — enough to cloak me in flesh once more, enough to walk the hills and gardens of this world…
“Speak up,” I said again. “What do you want?”
Weiyi was silent, for a while. “There is a man,” she whispered. “My parents have promised me to him, at the turn of the new moon. I — ” She raised the hem of her robe, and showed me her feet, wrapped in their silk shoes — large and awkward and ugly. “He told them he’ll love me as I am.”
I nodded. “But you’re smart enough to know that he lies.”
She wouldn’t look at me. “I’ve seen other men — the way they look at women, the way they make promises and break them. They’re all the same. If we married . . . he’d soon lust after others. He’d take another wife, or a concubine.” Her hands tightened: a minute gesture that didn’t escape my gaze. “I want him to love me. But I need . . .”
“Golden lilies.” She was right: they were all the same, the men, all with the same desire — lusting for the arched, small feet that made a woman sensuously sway as she walked; the lilies of the poems, so small men could weigh them in one hand — so slight that they could playfully compress them, feeling the quiver of pain through the woman’s legs like the beginning of arousal. “That’s what you want?”
She faced me — small and wan, but without fear. “Yes.”
Golden lilies are shaped in early childhood — when the bones and flesh are still small, still pliant enough to heal cleanly after the break. What Weiyi asked was all but impossible.
But not for me. My hands itched — knowing instinctively how to tighten flesh, how to bend the arches of her feet until they snapped, hearing the crunching sound of their breaking resonate in my own body — feeling her pain like pleasure in my belly. “It will hurt,” I said.
Weiyi’s face did not move. “I can bear it.”
“Perhaps. Perhaps not.” She’d never borne the pain of the breaking — or the other pain, the one that surged from the unsteady arch every time the foot rested on the ground. No doubt her mother or her father had thought to be kind, sparing her; but she was intelligent enough to know the true price they’d made her pay.
I liked her, in spite of myself — despite having no heart to feel with.
“I’ll make you offerings,” Weiyi whispered. “Every month at the dark of the moon; every year at the Clear and Bright Festival. Pig and fowl and duck; rice and quail soup; shrimp roast and fish fermented in milk…”
I could see them, as she spoke: a memory of the feasts they’d served in my house, the ribs crunching under my teeth, the sweet taste of honeyed meat, the sharp flavour of pepper and cardamom. I licked my cracked lips, wincing at the pain this caused me.
“Yes,” I whispered. “Of course I’ll help you, child.”
Magic is not so easily worked, from the wrong side of the grave. I was small and insubstantial, barely awoken from death; and I knew or remembered that to break and heal her bones would tax me more than anything I had ever done when I was still alive.
To start with, I ate her offerings.
I crunched the bones of the chicken beneath my teeth, licked the fat from the pig, broke the wings of the fowl and gobbled the fish whole — its spine descended into my belly, clinging to the remnants of my throat like dozens of small daggers prickling my flesh. With clawed fingers I took the tangerines, and flayed them, ripping the skin apart until my hands dripped with sweet juice.
As the food settled into my belly — with each bone I broke, each shred of meat my teeth tore — I remembered snatches of my life: the din of firecrackers at my wedding feast, the taut string of a kite cutting into my fingers, the smell of incense consuming itself in a burner under the impassive gaze of the Buddha.
The pain — stabbing in my belly, in my womb, the red stains on the coverlet — and a last, muddled thought before the death demons dragged me out of my body: all of this blood is mine…
My hands were shaking, curling further inwards — perhaps, after all, oblivion wasn’t such a punishment, such a burden to bear.
Had the child lived?
I didn’t remember. Weiyi, perhaps, would know — when she came back. I could ask her — I could know if I hadn’t died for nothing, and if Lei had had his strong, healthy boy after all, his heart’s desire.
I sat on my haunches, staring at the river of stars that cut across the sky — the radiance hurt my eyes — and thought of how to break bones.
Not enough. The food had been good; it had given me memories and substance, but it wouldn’t suffice for the working of magic.
I needed more.
I rose in a fluid leap, and went out into the night, to find myself living flesh.
I could have taken a lone woodsman or a hunter; or a peasant peacefully snoring in his hut of wattle-and-daub. But I hungered for more — not for the leavings I could easily take, but for a taste of what I’d once enjoyed in life.
And so it was that I found myself outside a small house on the outskirts of the city, watching through a window a young man read a book by lantern light — and close it with a sigh, and reach for another, always finding the words blurring themselves before his eyes. His face was pale and smooth; his long-fingered hands moved nimbly across the pages, as Lei’s hands had once done.
My chest felt tight, as if a snake had coiled around me; my newly-grown heart was hammering against my ribs in a beat of unfamiliar, glorious pain.
The young man looked up, and saw me — not as I had been in the grave, but as young as I had been in life: my face adorned with white ceruse, phoenix-shaped pins thrust through the silk of my black hair; the long, flowing robe that moved as I walked on the paved stones of the courtyard.
There was a scrambling noise as he all but ran to open the door; and stared at me across the threshold. I bowed to the precise depth required from younger sister to elder brother — not elegantly, but still shaking with hunger. Luckily, he mistook this for fear.
“It’s not a night to be abroad,” he said — his bright, quick eyes taking in every curve of my body.
I sucked in a deep breath, hearing it whistle in the emptiness of my throat. I should have said that I was lost, that I had been cast out, all the right words to make him pity me, to make him take me in — but his dark gaze was like Lei’s, and his face was creased in concern — and he was so young, so enticingly, pathetically naïve that I found myself unable to lie to him. “I’m hungry,” I whispered.
He stared at me for a while, his face growing tighter and tighter. Finally he reached out, and ran a finger across my cheek — such warmth, such youth…
“You’re frozen, you poor thing,” he said. “Come in.”
Inside, everything was like Lei’s studio: the familiar smell of incense, barely masking the dry, tight one of rice paper and ink; the books piled on the shelves; and the single brush in its holder, scrubbed meticulously clean at the end of the day.
I could have wept, if I’d still had tears in me.
The young man poured me tea in a celadon cup, and watched me drink it — shuddering as the boiling warmth met the bones and blood in my stomach. But it soon faded into the great, yawning emptiness that I had become.
“More?” he said.
Another cup, and another cup — and we moved to rice wine, and still the warmth sank in my belly, satiating nothing — and his face grew more and more flushed as the evening went on, and he stared through my dress at the small, dainty feet that I allowed to peek out, with growing hunger.
He reminded me of Lei — far too much for me to be comfortable — and I could hear his heartbeat echoing in the room, a promise of more warmth, more substance to feed me.
When I took his hand, he quivered but he did not stop me.
When I led him to comb my hair — when I offered him my feet, to weigh in the palm of his hand like lumps of gold or cinnabar — his eyes widened, but he did not stop me.
When I lay down on the floor, naked — with my black hair flowing in the light of the lamp and my legs open to receive him — his breath quickened, but he did not stop me.
When he moved above me, his hands taking my breasts and cupping them — his feet tangling with mine, sending a quiver of pain and pleasure to arch my body — I thought of Lei — I remembered his face flushed with pleasure and the small jolt as he’d spend himself into me, the sound of his heartbeat echoing in time with mine, a memory of being young, of being alive — of being loved.
His fingers, his manhood, his whole body were warm — a raging fire, a light against the dying of the light — and the thrill of my desire beat against my chest like a newborn bird, extended its tendrils to firm my flesh, to quicken my heart, to open up my womb again.
Give me warmth, give me life, give me warmth, give me life…
When he entered me, the pleasure became too much, and I cried out yes yes yes and drew him closer to me, raking my hands against the flesh of his back.
“That was amazing,” he whispered afterwards.
I lay on the ground, pillowed against his chest, feeling the weight of his seed in my womb like food in my belly.
For the first time since waking up I was no longer empty. But he was pale and shaking and drained, though he did not realise it, and hanging at death’s door — all because the hunger in me had been so strong.
And it wasn’t gone, not altogether: like the buzzing of flies it had sank to an almost inaudible thread; but it was growing again, moment by moment.
“I have to go,” I said.
“So soon?” His voice was disappointed. He was weaker than Lei, unable to control his desires.
But then, was I any better? If I came back again, I would desire his warmth again — and I would drain him dry, to appease the hunger that would never cease.
I knew then that it was a hard thing, to be numbered among the dead.
I rose, wrapping my torn robe around my body, and walked out of his house before he could stop me.
I slept during the day, waiting for Weiyi to come back — and all the while the hunger slowly rose, dull and unpleasant. I wished I’d kept some of the food.
The stars had risen when Weiyi came, hurrying along the path, and found me sitting in front of my grave: not the pale, rotting wisp she’d summoned, but an elegant, emaciated woman sitting cross-legged on the stones.
Weiyi stopped, stared at me. “Honoured Ancestor…?”
I smiled without joy. “Who else would it be, child? Come.”
She’d brought sliced beef, and a bottle of rice wine, which she laid on the ground. We sat side by side, watching the stars in the sky.
“Do you love him?” I asked, thinking of Lei’s hands, wrapped around my shoulders — of his sallow face creased in that infectious smile of his.
Weiyi did not look down from the stars. “Do I love him? They say the Herder and the Weaver loved each other so much that she stopped her weaving until the cloth of the sky hung in tatters — and that the neglected stars of the Herder wandered over the celestial river, setting afire the palaces of Heaven. That’s what love is: a sickness.”
A hunger, I thought, but did not say it.
“But you’ll still let me break your feet,” I said.
She shivered, but did not shy away from my gaze. “I’ll do what it takes to keep the marriage whole. What it takes to remain in his house and bear his children.”
Smart girl — so much smarter than I had been, so much more clear-headed.
I wondered if it was a blessing, or a curse.
“You loved your husband,” Weiyi said.
I had nothing but the truth to answer her. “Yes. And he loved me in return.”
“But you died young,” she said. “He had no time to fall out of love.” I didn’t know if it was a reproach.
“I don’t know. I don’t know what would have happened.” And again, it was the truth — and Lei was somewhere else, down in the Courts of Hell or reborn in some other body, and I couldn’t ask him. “Tell me,” I said.
“The child I bore — did he live?”
Weiyi was silent for a while. “Yes. Lei named him Xian. After your father. He had many children of his own, and much honour in his life.”
Why could I feel nothing at this — no relief at the knowledge that the son I’d borne in my womb, the son I’d died birthing, had had a long and happy life?
Death, it seemed, had robbed me of everything but desire.
In silence, I poured the rice wine, and handed her a cup.
“You’re not drinking?” she asked, cradling it between her hands — looking small and wan in the dim light.
I shook my head. I could still remember the rice wine I’d drunk in the young man’s house, and what I had done afterwards. “It won’t quench my thirst, but it will dull your pain.”
Weiyi bristled. “I can — ”
I laid my hand against her lips, shushing her — trying to ignore the warmth that spread from her into the hollow of my belly. “You don’t know what it’s like, you’ve never borne the pain. Take this small kindness, at least.”
She said nothing — but she did drain the cup. Together, we waited for the wine to sink into her belly.
Then I knelt by her feet, and slid off her silk slippers — and weighed her right foot in the palm of my hand, feeling every bone, every muscle. Within me, the hunger was a dull, distant ache — her heartbeat echoed in my chest, slowly but irretrievably mingling with mine — and my mind, too, was wrapping itself around her, encompassing everything she was and everything she desired — her childhood in the shadow of her brothers, her dreams of a house and of children in her womb, of a happy life, full of laughter and warmth.
“This will hurt,” I whispered in her mind, and before I could think on what I was doing, I broke the bones of her toes, one by one.
Her startled pain echoed through my mind — the beginning of a scream that I caught and cradled against myself. Gently, I bent the broken toes backwards, until they touched the arch of her foot — five brief, fiery bursts of pain, and then a growing discomfort as I bent the foot in half, bringing the front and back slowly, lovingly together — there was a snap like a twig when the arch broke, and then she started screaming, and struggling to withdraw from me, begging me to stop, but she didn’t mean it, she knew it would ruin everything if I stopped…
“Shush,” I said, feeling her struggle in vain, like a beating heart that I could crush in my hand. I tightened my grip, and felt her sharp intake of breath like a thrill through my bones. “Everything will be fine.”
I went on, shrinking the muscles — feeling the skin stretch itself over the broken bones — a dull, nagging pain that was nothing to the endless fire engulfing her — to the screams rubbing her throat raw, the glorious pain singing in my mind, tingling in my womb, tightening my breasts until I bit my lip not to moan.
It was perfect, from beginning to end — the rush of pleasure when I finished breaking the second foot as intense as when the young man had entered me — and I was gloriously, intensely alive, holding the agony of her pain in the palm of my hand, in the hollows of my mind, in my very bones and flesh.
But when I was done — when she was healed, and lay gasping on the stones — I had little left, and the hunger in my belly was rising again. I stood over her, thinking of the heat of her body against mine.
She rose, gingerly, paling when her full weight rested on her new feet and the pain of the broken bones arched up in her. But she was strong, as I had always known. She spun on them — small, perfect — smiling all the while.
“Thank you,” she said.
And before I could pull away, she’d planted a kiss on my lips. Warmth spread, tingled in my whole body like need.
No. I was strong. I would not give in to the hunger — not now, not so soon.
“I’ll bring you food, I promise,” Weiyi said. She picked up the empty bottle, but left the baskets. “Thank you so very much, Honoured Ancestor.”
I watched her leave on the path back to the city, swaying like a stalk of wheat in the wind, oblivious to the pain of her golden lilies — young and sensuous and alive, as glorious as an Immortal — until only the unforgiving stars shone over my grave.
She’s brought offerings, as she promised; but even tearing them apart hasn’t filled me. The hunger grows in my belly and in my womb, gnawing at me piece by piece, stretching me dry and insubstantial once more. I drift apart like dandelion, my memories scattering — remnants of smells and sights; faces from my past, all merging into each other, equally dim and nameless.
So I crouch in the darkness, following her wedding procession — hidden by the drums and firecrackers, and the boisterous calls of her neighbours.
I can imagine her in that sedan chair, dressed in silk as red as blood: her dark eyes shining in the white oval of her face; her dainty, perfect feet, so small I could hold them in the palm of my hand — and her lips that I ache to kiss and make mine. I can imagine her husband waiting for her on his threshold, his face in the darkness as familiar and as enticing as that of the young man I slept with.
I think I’ll be content, in their house.