A Compendium of Chinese Ghosts, Part I and II
Drought Ghost (魃鬼, báguǐ).
Eternally thirsty, able to expel lungfuls of hot arid winds that leave floret fissures upon the epidermis of the earth. Our women will hoe the dry, cracked earth to plant mulberry seedlings and harvest only billows of dust. Large swaths of land crumble dry and pocked, and will look like a parched brown tongue. Fifty thousand of us wait with empty pails.
Trickster Ghost. (魅鬼, mèiguǐ).
Man, boy, boy, bird.
Bird squawks, flits up into the air, descends, lifts, descends.
Man plunges, boy nosedives, the other boy cheers.
A few feathers plucked.
Bird flaps, squawks, pirouettes, pecks.
Boy squeals, holds a hand over his cheek.
Man swipes. Misses.
Bird struts a few steps. Jaunty.
Other boy whistles on a makeshift bamboo flute.
Man is joined by another man. Another and another. Becomes a crowd.
Bird disappears under mushroom of men.
But boy is triumphant. Feathers, bruised limbs, boy with drumstick in hand.
Hungry Ghost. (饿鬼, èguǐ).
Spirits are but vapours that gather around the force of the living even as smoke spirals from fires lit under cast iron pots in which joss stick paper is burnt. The festival has no mooncakes this year. Lines of people wait for the government delivery trucks.
Messenger Ghost (传送鬼, chuánsòng-guǐ).
A man and his horse, from afar, a mirage that shimmers the air like water reflections. Was he supposed to be omen or message? Our villagers wait and stretch their necks. We wait, even at night, looking for the message that’s already lost in another dimension. Man and horse fade from visibility into fantasy and hallucination, harbinger and ghost.
Another man squats in front of a red brick wall, four empty urns beside him. His coat is blue against the red brick, his face nut-brown. The urns are ochre, coated in dusty swirls evoking sand mandalas blown by dry arid winds because time has no meaning. His colours are captured in a timeless photograph that makes the cover of Time Magazine.
Torch-Mouth Ghosts. (炬口鬼, jùkǒu guǐ)
Stories are told by sound when the visual narrative cannot be relied upon. The sounds escaping from our mouths are burning torches; words have no meaning because reality has expelled them. These sounds from our mouths drum down, just as the rain does when it finally comes. It turns the ground beneath us into a living, writhing thing. We run and dance to the lone tune of a piping flute.
A Compendium of Chinese Ghosts Part II: The Story of Drought
Drought, Pestilence, Death, Hunger and Photographic Eye are Characters in a Play about Meta-Narratives. The play was a musical and enacted with grandstanding orchestra music that evoked the Chinese classics, mausoleums, pomp and circumstance.
Drought is a willowy young lady who catches the attention of Photographic Eye. He is determined to bring her to the national stage through set pieces in front of national directors. Drought is a phenomenon; she is imaginative and untamed but she can also be tawdry and mean or stunning and visceral.
Her boyfriends — Pestilence and Hunger — are supposed to be sidekicks but end up sometimes upstaging her in their rivalling splendid effects. Hunger also has many comrades who call and bleat raucously offstage, while Pestilence can manifest himself in different guises, with or without stage lighting, with or without Photographic Eye’s acting support.
Photographic Eye’s role is to act like a hovering ghost throughout the play, his presence to be marked by absence, and yet, always acutely there, never mind the play’s central morality. Photographic Eye decides that the best way to do this would be to blend into his environment: he’s an urn amongst a pottery barn of receptacles; he’s a bale of hay rolled up in a field of dry wheat; he’s the dust-storm when the winds blow; when the landscape is supposed to be cracked and desolate he pretends to be a dead buffalo.
Death is so pissed off at being given no lines he keeps buzzing around the buffalo as a pesky fly.
The final scene — a birthing scene — is incongruous and theatrical like a Chinese movie after the Revolution; Drought groaning in mock effortful cries, her protruding belly (the father of the baby unclear) obviously a lumpy lopsided pillow. She pushes and heaves, alone, abandoned, and the rains come, projected on a screen behind her. The orchestra accompanies with crashing cymbals and drum-rolls. The baby slides out, viscous blood ribboning into rainwater.
Elaine P. Chiew is the editor/compiler/contributor of Cooked Up: Food Fiction Around the World (New Internationalist, 2015) and her short stories have won prizes, including the Elbow Prize (2015) and Bridport International Short Story Prize (2008). She’s been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and shortlisted/longlisted in several competitions, including most recently, Short Fiction (2016), BBC Opening Lines (2015), Mslexia (2014) and Fish Short Story Contest (2012). Her stories are published in numerous places, including most recently, Smokelong Quarterly, Unthology 7 (Unthank Books, 2015) and One World (New Internationalist, 2009). She blogs about food and fiction at www.redemptioninthekitchen.blogspot.com
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