e-mail: stormofblossoms [ at ] gmail dot com
A/N: Thanks to yumiyoshi for looking this over.
"There are no ghosts in the Frozen Plums Waterfall," Dong Yao grunted. "Even if there were, spring's the wrong season for them."
Huixin pondered this as she chewed on her pickled cabbage. She was sure of what she saw, but her uncle, being an adult, had quickly dismissed her confession. Or maybe it had nothing to do with age, and was only because she couldn't offer proof. If only ghosts had scheduled appearances, so she could show him.
"Believe me," Dong Yao continued, leaning back on his chair, "I've lived in this valley for years and gone through that waterfall many times, and I've never noticed any ghosts."
"Maybe it's a new ghost who just got here."
Dong Yao pushed himself to his feet with a snort. "A wandering ghost? Anyway, next time you run into it, tell it to stay the hell away from this house. The last thing we need is an unwanted tenant. Now finish your meal."
They called the place they lived in a valley, but the truth was that it was more of a vast expanse of grass surrounded by tall cliffs. The only way in and out of the valley was through a single narrow tunnel hidden behind a meager waterfall. Coming out of the tunnel into the valley, one found oneself on a pretty pebbled path which ran across the pool at the base of the waterfall. When she'd first arrived here, Huixin had been enchanted by the entire arrangement, which had helped to dull the pain of loss.
Three men lived in the only house in the valley. One was her mother's older brother, who had taken her in when her close family died of sickness. The second man, a scholar in his younger years, was always busy with one set of writings or another, mostly ignoring Huixin. The third man traveled all over, and his homecomings always meant souvenirs and exciting, often hair-raising tales. If she sometimes sobbed in her sleep, it was never over this strange but soothing new life.
Now she and her uncle Dong Yao treaded the pebbled path at the lake, careful not to get their feet too wet. Her uncle reached the shoreline first. He stood there with one arm akimbo until Huixin caught up and leaped into drier ground.
"Anything you want me to buy while I'm in town?" he asked, scratching at his neck.
"Do you ever lose big when you gamble?"
He gave a derisive laugh. "What's that got to do with my spending? No, I never lose big. How about new shoes for us? All of yours are getting small."
She thanked him and watched him walk past the slabs of rock bordering the lake. Her uncle might or might not buy the shoes, but he would buy food, and that was always enough for her. She began to turn toward the waterfall – and that was when she saw the ghost.
It stood on the opposite shoreline, at the same spot where Huixin had spotted it last week. She had rushed straight for the tunnel and into the house, reporting to her uncle on the same night. Then the ghost had seemed halfway solid, its unbound hair a startling black against its white clothes. This morning, under the blazing sun, Huixin thought she could see sprays of water right through it.
Probably a different kind of being, she decided, not without some trepidation. Ghosts were not supposed to reveal themselves in broad daylight. And why on earth was it here at all?
"Hello!" she shouted. The sound of her voice scared rather than encouraged her, and she had to swallow before she continued. "Brother Ghost, what's your name? What do you want?"
Silence from the ghost. Huixin wondered if the ghost was actually a woman and she had offended it. Really, these ghosts used to be human, so they should know better than to let their hair hang in their faces like that. You brush and tidy your hair when you are going to meet people.
Experimentally she inched toward the pebbled path. No reaction. She put one foot, then the other, on the path. If the ghost pounced while she was crossing the lake, she was done for. No more rare trips to town or climbing up the poplar tree near the house, because there would be no more Huixin.
She reached the middle of the path. If the ghost tracked her movement, it did not want her to know. On the upside, so far it had not flown off the ground to knock her into the water, an extremely heartening sign.
Then she was past the waterfall and entering the tunnel. Without waiting to see if the ghost followed, she fled, heart banging around in her chest.
As Huixin had predicted, the men in the house were irritated by the ghost. "A drowned person," pronounced Bai Shi, the scholar, "searching for company. Once your guard is down, it'll pull you under the water. I never do like these non-living creatures."
"Just when did this piece of turd drown, exactly?" Dong Yao demanded. "Last month? Fifty years ago? Why go to the surface now?"
Huixin's uncle, never a forbearing or patient man, was expressive in his anger, a sight that constantly fascinated Huixin. His sister, her mother, had been a mild-mannered person. She'd never smacked Huixin with sandals or shoved her like some of the other kids' mothers did. Neither did Dong Yao, actually, although of course an uncle's prerogative in treating nieces is more limited.
Bai Shi tapped his book against the table. "Calling an exorcist is out of the question. We must deal with the ghost ourselves."
"We can just leave it be," Huixin ventured. "All it does is stare at me."
Dong Yao's eyebrows drew down. "You think it wants to be buddies with you or something?"
"Or it's lost, doesn't know where its body is buried..."
"From what I know, feeling sorry for ghosts brings you nothing but trouble." Bai Shi turned to Dong Yao. "Before we found this place - the waterfall, this valley - what did we know about it? Someone built this house. We merely renovated and refurnished it."
"We know too little," Dong Yao grumbled. Huixin knew they both were thinking of Qiu Heitong, the third man. He might have picked up information on the waterfall's history during his travels and forgotten to share it on his last visit home. "Fine, supposing that ghost used to live here when it was alive. Like I said, why now?"
Huixin was still convinced the ghost came from somewhere else, but had no energy to argue the point. What she did have was growing curiosity. The ghost did not seem to mean her any harm, so what was its purpose? Not that she preferred dealing with malignant spirits, though she guessed her uncle was more than a match for them.
"From now on," Dong Yao told her, "don't go out to the lake alone until we sort out this mess."
"Eh? It might only want to talk to me when there's no one else around."
Both adults regarded her with skepticism. "You honestly look forward to holding a conversation with a ghost," Bai Shi said, "who would make you into another ghost, given a chance?"
Put that way, the reason for her disappointment did sound foolish. Huixin grinned. "All right, I'll stay away from the lake. I hope that ghost doesn't find its way into my room."
The ghost did not find its way into Huixin's room. It popped into view when she emerged from the bamboo booth that served as the toilet. One moment she was admiring the moonshine on the single poplar tree in the back yard. The next she blinked and saw a white-clad figure standing beside the tree.
"Wah!" Huixin staggered back, her shoulder hitting the booth's door hard enough to swing it open. "You scared me!" she scolded the ghost, pulling the door closed. "At least you show up at night like normal ghosts do!"
No answer, as she expected. The ghost did not appear near water either, so it might not plan to drown her. Unless this was part of an elaborate setup. Despite the dark, Huixin had a clearer look of the ghost because of the shorter distance between them. The faint stubble lining the ghost's chin confirmed that it was indeed a man.
"Don't try to do anything funny, you." Huixin folded her arms for emphasis. "My uncle will be here if I call him, and he's scarier than Zhong Kui. What do you want?"
The ghost raised an arm. Huixin held her breath, ready for curses or poisonous smoke or the ghost's hair to blow away from its face, revealing an unspeakable sight. Instead the ghost stroked the trunk of the poplar tree. Slowly, slowly, up and down, like a parent caressing a child.
"You're... buried under that tree?" Her throat went dry. To imagine that this familiar tree, which she had climbed countless times, hosted human remains was unsettling.
Withdrawing its hand, the ghost walked around the tree. One full minute passed. Cautiously Huixin began circling the tree at a safe distance, already knowing that the ghost was no longer there. Somehow this made her sympathize more with her uncle's irritation.
On hearing about Huixin's night encounter, the adults took a more academic interest in the matter. "If the man was killed and buried under that tree, that explains why he's become a restless ghost," Bai Shi mused. "But not why he appears now and not earlier."
"We should dig up his bones," Dong Yao suggested. "Give him a proper burial, and some choice words about not bothering the living."
The three of them spent the morning digging around the base of the poplar tree. No human bones were found, nor even human possessions. Disgruntled, they stood around the piles of dirt, arming sweat off their faces. Bai Shi peered down at the deepest hole, his wispy white hair stirring in the reluctant breeze.
"I'll talk to the ghost if I ever see it again," Huixin offered.
"You do that," Dong Yao agreed. "Or you can just ignore it and yell for us."
Bai Shi stepped back from the hole. "This is just my guess. The ghost used to live here, and he wants us to know it. That's all. A malignant spirit would have attacked Huixin long since."
"Bah! We went to all this trouble for a harmless ghost?" Dong Yao looked as though he would have spat at the excavated earth, except that his mouth had no extra moisture left. "Let's go cool off at the waterfall. Huixin, what are you looking at?"
At the bottom of the hole nearest to Huixin, the sunlight glinted off an object. Excitement rising, she pointed it out. Bai Shi swung one foot and suddenly he had already landed inside the hole, as smoothly as if he'd taken a step on level ground.
"That's amazing!" Huixin exclaimed, a little awed. She had never seen Bai Shi, who usually walked as sedately as an official, display such effortless grace. "Please teach me how to do that!"
"You'll do better learning it from Brother Yao or my wife," Bai Shi replied without missing a beat. He extended a foot and toed the object. When it did not claw at him, he eroded the soil around it with the sole of his shoe.
The object turned out to be a dagger nearly as long as Bai Shi's arm. He held it up so that Huixin and Dong Yao could see the blade. It was dull from years of being suffocated in dirt, with brownish splotches around the tip. Bai Shi weighed the dagger in both hands.
"The hilt is heavy," he reported. "And the blade is exceedingly sharp, or used to be. No distinctive marks anywhere."
Dong Yao made a rude noise. "This means what, the ghost wanted us to find his murderer and bring them to justice? Because it's really none of our business. And how do we know the murderer hasn't also died?"
For someone who'd suffered a violent death, the ghost had been very considerate. Huixin licked her lips. "Can it be... the ghost is the murderer, not the victim?"
"A murderer telling us he's a murderer after he dies," said Bai Shi. "Why?"
Huixin racked her brain. "Lighter punishment in hell if he confesses?"
"Never knew it works like that." Dong Yao glared at the dagger. "Toss that thing back into the dirt, Brother Shi. I'm fed up with our mystery guest already. Huixin, remember, call us if that ghost ever pesters you again. I'll chase it off faster than it can fart."
Three nights later Huixin met the ghost for the last time. She suspected the ghost always approached her because it was intimidated by the adults, though of course this was just a wild guess.
The white-clad figure was already waiting under the tree when Huixin finished her business at the bamboo booth. After an internal debate with herself, she edged toward the tree, keeping a wary eye on the ghost. Just like the previous occasions, it showed no intention of acting hostile or speaking.
"Brother Ghost, did you kill someone?"
In reply, the ghost lifted both hands. Chilly air seemed to swirl around Huixin's head and seep into her nostrils; the palms were smeared with drying blood. Satisfied that Huixin understood, the ghost lowered its hands.
"Was it a bad person?" Huixin croaked, then coughed to clear her throat. "A person who hurt you or your family. Is that why you killed them?"
At her question, the ghost winced. It stared down at the ground, where the dagger was once more buried. Huixin wished it would at least nod or shake its head. She did not fancy a prolonged one-sided conversation, where she had to interpret the ghost's reaction each and every time. Besides, the night was getting colder.
"Nobody's going to visit your grave on Qingming day, am I right? Nobody has for a long time. So you want us who live here to know about you. What's your name?"
Raising his eyes from the ground, the ghost pressed his palm against the tree-trunk. He did it three times, then hurried around the tree and vanished. Years later, whenever she replayed the scene in her mind, Huixin was sure the ghost had smiled. Perhaps it was pleased that a human being had paid attention to it at last.
Dong Yao refused flat-out to check "if some poor bastard called Mu once lived here. This was probably his hiding place and he wouldn't want anyone to know. And how can you be sure his name means tree?"
"Because he touched the tree three times after I asked his name!"
"That sounds too convenient," Bai Shi contributed from across the breakfast table. "It might only mean he hung himself on that tree. Huixin, these creatures feed on gullible humans, including children."
Huixin was torn between laughter and exasperation. While she knew she could not force the adults to care about the ghost, their airy dismissal rankled on her. Then again, they had never seen it themselves.
"Didn't I tell you we're quits with that damned ghost?" Dong Yao paused. "I'm taking you to your village tomorrow. We're leaving early for Qingming this year. If we're lucky, we can get the whole works - kites, tea, picnics. How do you like that?"
Her annoyance receded in a flash of delight. "Yay!" She clapped her hands. "Thanks, Uncle!" Last year she had cried very little at her parents' grave, finally making peace with their absence. This year the day might bring more happiness and brighter skies, and stronger memories of her mother's hearty singing.
Later that day she came to the tree. The ghost was nowhere to be seen. It might have left, content that at least one person shared its secret. On the other hand, it might have chosen to haunt the lake or the cliffs instead. Huixin would miss it.
"Brother Ghost," she told the tree, "I hope you find peace. No one may pray at your grave, or know where it is, but I will never forget you. I'll send you good thoughts and good wishes. Oh, and that dagger was great-looking. I bet it was a pride of yours, a weapon people identified you with."
She bowed quickly, then trotted back to the house. Her mind was already on tomorrow's trip, on kites against the night sky, flowers in bloom, and fresh soil on her parents' grave. Behind her, someone sighed as the leaves rustled, but it might have been just her imagination.