“Six p.m. China time.”
Kent Wu’s text messages never wasted ten words when four would do. For someone I had known for twenty years who loved kibbitzing about anything from American pop music to Hungarian cuisine, I found his laconic texts amusing. “China time” was Kent’s way of saying he’d be late by as much as an hour.
With 600 restaurants in Xi’an to choose from, there wasn’t any doubt which one he meant. We’d been meeting there in the old capital city for years, the World Heritage site of the Terracotta Warriors. The last time we met at the Grand Park, a stroll from the Yongying Gate, he told me about a Japanese businessman who lost his head after attempting to bribe a mausoleum worker to sell him the detached head of one of those warriors.
“What do you mean lost his head?”
“Literally lost his head. He was caught with the head in a potato sack and grabbed right out of his hotel lobby. He was sentenced to death and had his head removed.”
I never knew when Kent exaggerated his stories.
“I thought a bullet to the head was the prescribed manner of execution.”
“The government wanted to send a message, you know, make the punishment fit the crime. Try these fried bee pupae—delicious.”
We spent an hour catching up. He’d just gotten married in Hangzhou. When I was last there, I bought five ties for $5.
“What’s a tie go for nowadays?”
“Twenty dollars,” he said, grinning, “inflation. We’ve learned from you Westerners how to jack the price. Is that correct, Neill?”
“Jack up the price.”
We both laughed. He said he and his bride sometimes spoke at cross-purposes, lamenting the “deplorable” Shanghai slang. But of his beautiful wife, a financier, he was immensely proud.
“So do you spell out the words for her in the palm of your hand as you once did with me?”
“She’s far better at Beijing slang than you ever were, Neill.”
“Where is your beautiful bride, by the way?”
“I had to leave her back in Lujiazhui,” he lamented. “She couldn’t get away from the Jin Mao.” He often referred to the high-rise tower in Shanghai’s financial district as if it were a rival lover. “She thinks if you weren’t born and raised in Shanghai, you’re one of the common people. That’s where you should take your people, Neill. A nice boat ride up the Huangpu.” An old joke: the Huangpu is so polluted they’d fly back to San Francisco with vomit bags clamped to their faces.
My parents, both in the diplomatic service, spoke a choppy Mandarin, which often made me the butt of jokes among my Chinese classmates at the Chinese-American school on Dengshikou Avenue. Growing up in Beijing stamped me with thousands of indelible impressions, vivid memories—not all good ones.
“So how long are you here this time, Neill?”
“A couple more days.”
Being a glorified booking agent for my college as well as interpreter, my task was to plan our biannual goodwill visits, arranged by my economics department but coordinated through Peking University’s business college. Given the current hostile climate between our two countries, I was charged with making every stay and stop on the itinerary as flawless and as noncontroversial as possible. “No international flaps, Neill,” my dean said to me.
The terracotta warriors of the first Qin emperor were to be the final stop of the two-week visit.
We finished with toasts, his rice wine to my Snow beer, parting in front of the hotel. China never stopped amazing me with its contrasts—this modernized city with its ancient history and traditions. A block from my rooms, I could order pizza or pray in a Catholic church, yet behind this 15-story hotel were vacant, weed-strewn lots, and squatters burning campfires.
I watched Kent disappear into heavy traffic, caterwauling car horns.
An old man in a long coat approached me, sidling closer. Noting his shabby clothing, especially the gray overcoat so frayed at the cuffs it appeared to be fuzzy, I reached into my pocket for one of the dollar bills I kept there to hand out to street beggars—a risky thing for any Chinese. I recalled a man holding a child in his arms squatting on a newspaper in front of a silk shop in Hangzhou. When I came out minutes later, the police removed him and his child, none too gently.
Instead of signifying hunger in the usual manner by rubbing his stomach, he shoved a flyer at me. I knew enough to infer that 嘉年华 signified “carnival.” The street named on it was within walking distance. From my childhood on, I’d seen every equivalent of a Western-style carnival from impossible contortions, foot juggling, diabolo, plate-spinning, paper cutting, fortune telling, through acrobatic aerial skills involving children so young you knew their lives were harsh to become so proficient so young to the traditional lion dances. I loved the traditional Chinese dances, but cried at an opera performance when the two performers engaged in a dangerous “combat” dance, where thrusting spears inches from the dancer’s face terrified me. I crumpled the flyer, balled it in my fist, and was about to attempt a jump shot into an open trash container when my jacket sleeve was plucked.
Shabby Man, looking with pleading eyes above his thin, patchy beard.
He shook his head from side to side, a slow-motion version of those talented opera dancers whose heads moved like hummingbird wings to avoid strikes. Embarrassed, I asked him in what I hoped sounded like a politer version of our American idea of shilling for a finder’s fee, guessing he received a commission for every person he enticed to the show. However, “Me too busy, no time to go see” was what I probably communicated. He rattled off what I took to be his oft-recited pitch, caught words for “amazing,” and “never seen before,” accompanied by hand gestures. The Chinese do not possess our sense of space. He got right up to me so close I could smell his leathery body odor and the onions on his breath.
“You go, you go, you go,” he mumbled, repeating it like a mantra.
It was the last thing he said before shambling off, looking back to see whether I followed.
“Sorry, old timer,” I said to his back. “There’s nothing new in your street carnival I haven’t seen a dozen times.” Except, I thought, animals. Chinese cuisine declares anything edible that walks, swims, crawls, flies, or so long as it displays its back to the sun, as the Cantonese saying goes, but you won’t find animals at a Chinese circus.
The fat disc of the full Moon rose between the tall buildings as I strolled along, happy to be back in China again. Its normal whitish glow not only replaced by the ruddy red of the Blood Moon but it coincided with its perigee, thus becoming a rare Super Moon as well. Being in modern China notwithstanding, the sheer size of it looming above the city made me recall the old myth of the common people in ancient times banging on pots and pans and yelling throughout the streets of cities to scare the Dragon away from gobbling up the Moon, leaving it blood-smeared but intact.
My parents’ marriage collapsed when I was twelve. I didn’t return on my own until my late twenties when my half-forgotten language skill landed me the position of traveling factotum to my non-Chinese speaking colleagues on these goodwill junkets.
Vendor stalls sold varieties of fried meats and vegetables favored by the locals. The night air was heady with scents. I passed street merchants hawking their wares, such as pottery, hand-woven crafts—often dragon charms, bamboo shoots, and other symbols to ward off evil. Vendors had their eyes peeled for wealthy foreigners with US dollars.
Heading toward a stall selling drinks, I bought a bottle of C100, a popular electrolyte water, and China’s version of an energy drink. The woman who sold it spoke in a rapid dialect I couldn’t altogether follow. She kept pointing behind her. I told her I didn’t understand. Her husband, I assumed, squatted near a blackened gourd where he fed phony bank notes into it, one at a time and then lit it with his Bic. It was the last day of March, another day to appease the wandering Hungry Ghosts who prowled the streets, often (it’s believed) in search of revenge for past wrongs. As I walked amid the buzzing crowd, the noises, and the displays of colorful sights, I glimpsed Shabby Man again, standing near a corner observing me.
The night crowd as usual was thick. I tried to keep my eye on him as I headed in his direction. I was mildly curious. I’m used to a certain amount of surveillance whenever I’m in China. Foreigners have to expect it, like those mysterious calls in broken English to your hotel room at night. They like to call Americans “cowboys.” We don’t understand the mentality of being locked into an “iron triangle,” as they call it: your local party boss has your file, the dangan; the CCP in Beijing has your file, stamps your residency and work permits, and your neighborhood police precinct has your file—all this decades before facial recognition technology.
Another pair of old men took turns burning fake notes in a coffee can on the sidewalk. I waited for a group of giggling schoolgirls to pass in front of me; when they moved on, he was gone.
Another flyer, however, was left behind on the sidewalk where he’d stood watching me. It struck a chord in my neocortex somehow—some memory wherever one keeps unpleasant memories one doesn’t want to bring into the light. It flashed across my mind, the most troubling memory of my boyhood. My parents were leaving for some embassy function when I was around five. My mother gave my Chinese babysitter some instructions from a piece of paper in her hand, which she tucked into her blouse pocket. It later fell out and I read it. My mother’s to-do list ended with a plea to be kind to her son. My Chinese was already better than hers. She meant to say her “unfortunate” son, but the pinyin expression she actually used translated as “ugly” or “deformed.” That stab into my heart never really left me, especially when, much older, I was bullied for my looks, not my Western ethnicity. Children’s appetite for cruelty is often misunderstood by adults.
The same street name but an additional ideograph this time—one for Suàn Ming. “Fortune teller.” A shiver ran up my back. I’d had one fortune read before in China, and that old woman predicted two things that came to pass in short order: my parents both died within a year of each other, my father by suicide, and my mother in a fatal car crash outside Encino during my sophomore year in college.
Nothing uncommon about fortune tellers at Chinese carnivals or festivals. You’d be surprised if there weren’t any because the Chinese are heavily invested in great swaths of time unlike us live-for-today Westerners. Another difference: an American will take a photo of Niagara Falls because of its natural majesty, but put a Chinese behind the lens and he or she will insist on a family member getting into the shot because, to them, a photo without a person in it makes no sense. Selfies were made for exhibitionists and all Chinese people who love social gatherings—and that includes the ancestors who aren’t around.
On any other day, my mood wouldn’t have tolerated the notion of going. I was feeling light-headed because of the alcohol consumed back at the hotel, and my melancholy, owing to the gnawing sense of my isolation, of being different and alone in a crowd, and—who knows?—the Blood Moon looking down at me. Thanks to dust and some of the world’s worst air pollution, everywhere you go in China, the setting Sun and the rising Moon are spectacular.
“OK, old man,” I grumbled to myself amid the passing throng out enjoying the mild spring evening, “I’ll go to your carnival.”
Twenty minutes walking at a good pace brought me to the corner of the street on the flyer. I saw nothing but a warehouse where I’d once bought a life-sized replica of a frowning terracotta warrior for the president of my college. At his annual Christmas party, I’d see it standing in the foyer ready to do battle with all visitors. His daughter crocheted a plaid scarf for it one year.
A narrow dirt road angled off that asphalt street road into a scraggly stand of trees opposite. Just another vacant lot or two with wind-blown debris, those ubiquitous, one-use plastic garbage bags snagged on fencing and twigs. It reminded me of driving through the Midwest the year I graduated with my fresh degree in international relations. Plenty of abandoned farms, stunted trees, and rusted-out, barbed-wire fences.
A light swung to and fro in the distance, back and forth, much like an old-time railroad worker swinging a lantern from a caboose.
“You’re crazy, old man,” I said, “if you think I’m going back there.”
But crazy is as crazy does, and now I was intrigued. Before I took another step back toward the lights and noise of the Luomashi Walking Street, I heard a whistle.
It wasn’t a party whistle being blown, or anyone whistling a popular tune or even somebody whistling between the teeth with two fingers in the mouth. It was my father’s whistle. Exactly the way he taught me when we went out walking in the woods during those times I stayed with him after the divorce. I’d know it in my sleep.
Three long notes and then a short, sharp high one—high enough, I once laughed with my hands on my ears, to make them bleed.
There it was again.
I crossed the street, uncertain why, compelled to see—to know, I guess, how that familiar sound could be duplicated thousands of miles away and twenty-five years from the last time I heard it.
The swinging light beckoned me onward. I didn’t know if this was some calculated ruse to get me mugged or to entice me into something I’d immediately regret. But I had to go.
The lot turned into a wide path surrounded by more stunted trees and overgrown scrub brush. I kept that bouncing light in my vision through the foliage, walking steadily forward, my senses on high alert for danger. I rebuked myself for cowardice. This was silly; after all, I was surrounded by civilization. This postage-stamp of abandoned and uncultivated terrain held no fear. I could bolt in any direction, I told myself, if I felt things going wrong. That path debouched into a much narrower one leading to a wooded area, tightly packed with shag bark trees and birch. My shoes were rimed in the orange, clay-filled soil, and my pantlegs wore a curtain of spattered muck. A twig lashed me across the face, and my right eye wept.
I was about to turn back when I saw her.
A child, a little girl. She frolicked alone, chattering happily, as if surrounded by invisible playmates. It seemed surreal. Behind me were a million souls, a teeming city. It wasn’t possible this brief sojourn away from the heart of Xi’an could transform into an uncannily quiet space where I and a child playing alone occupied it all.
Growing more uneasy, I wanted to leave, figuring this was a ruse or else I had the date of the carnival all wrong. Not the first time I bungled a translation. But I didn’t like the idea of leaving this child who didn’t look to be older than 4 or 5 alone out there.
I called out, waving by hands back and forth. She kept playing, although she must have heard me from that short distance.
Suddenly, she gave out a piercing wail and ran.
The hackles on my neck rose at once. Now I was frightened, unsure what to do. I couldn’t go back without knowing what happened to her. Why did she run off like that? Where did she go?
More to break the spell my confusion enveloping me, I bolted in the direction I saw her go. I aimed for an intersection point where she’d have to appear, but I miscalculated the uneven ground, pockmarked with rodent burrows and thick clumps of vegetation. I went down face-first with the wind knocked out of me. Rising and brushing filth from my clothes, I suspected I’d drunk more than I thought. Muzzy-headed, disturbed by the girl’s appearance as much as by her weird disappearance, I cursed the old man and then myself for being stupid.
“To hell with it,” I yelled to the moonlit sky, “I’ve had enough bullshit for one night!”
Almost at that very instant, as the echo of my shout died away, everything went dark. I mean black dark, a total absence of light. The experience of having that massive red orb disappear so abruptly made my skin prickle with fear. A fleet of ragged clouds had drifted across the face of the Moon. I was standing out in the middle of nowhere, all city lights obscured. I held my breath, listening, waiting for the scudding clouds to uncover the enormous Moon again, yet whenever moonlight returned, it lasted for mere seconds before other clouds arrived to plunge me back into darkness.
Running in a pitch-black full of ankle-twisting holes made no sense, so I tried to take advantage of those moments of light by running as fast as I safely could before the light faded. This cat-and-mouse with the moonlight went on for long minutes before I realized I’d lost my bearings. By then, I should have arrived back at the street corner. Instead, I stood sweating in a darkened field of knee-high vegetation that threatened to pull the shoes off my feet.
Then I saw the flicker of another, brighter light. I made for it, desperately hoping it would lead me out of this maze of alternating light and dark. The light flickered, disappeared at times as I diverted to avoid an obstacle, but grew in size until I knew I was close, practically standing in front of it. Not a single light but a string of lights draped over the entrance to a large barn-like structure that must have been one of the major buildings in a commune back in Mao’s day.
Approaching it, I saw figures, dark shapes milling about in front of the entrance to this huge building where strings of lights had been attached to the rafters but cast only a dim reflection below. Shíshī, the stone guardian lions sat outside ten feet from either side of the massive doorway. I heard voices inside. At first, it sounded like a crowd, say, like a typical audience at the Tang Dynasty Show in Xi’an, where I’d taken my entourages from college. Closer, it was more like pandemonium—cries of fear, howls of rage or pain, noises that didn’t seem to me to come from human throats.
“What—what is this place, please?”
They ignored me as if I weren’t there. Then a figure stepped from the barn’s interior to answer me: “Welcome, honorable sir, to the Fei Cheng Wu Rah Show.”
I knew that couldn’t be right; it translated to “You-Are-the-One Show,” which made no sense.
Before I could ask him to explain, he disappeared back into the cavernous maw of the building. I repeated my question to this small group of men, some dressed as laborers. As if on cue, all moved away leaving me standing there.
An elderly couple walked out with grim expressions. I accosted them, hoping to be told directions back to town. They averted their eyes as I approached, a common thing for elderly Chinese, especially when confronted by a foreigner.
“Can you please tell me the path to return to the Beilin District?”
They ignored me and kept walking.
Running the streets with my friends gave me some Beijing slang, and I was about to hurl insults at the old people when I saw him again: Shabby Man, appearing from out of the dimly lit interior.
Before I could take two steps toward him, he melted back into the blackness.
I didn’t hesitate this time. I bolted inside, right on his heels, intending to drag him out if I had to and force an answer to my question. What happened next is hard to explain. Two pairs of hands gripped my triceps from behind. I never heard or saw them coming. Their fingers were ice-cold.
Their faces were obscured and they had me positioned in such a way I couldn’t turn easily to see.
A voice near me, said. “Don’t fight them.”
“Who are you?”
“These gentlemen will accompany us. You will not be interfered with, and I shall be your guide to the carnival, if you permit me. My name is Zhong Kui. I live in the city, and I promise to show you delights beyond compare.”
His dialect was all wrong for any dialect of Chinese I knew or had ever heard in my years of crisscrossing China. My translation was a crude simplification of what I understood him to say. His voice was courtly, his voice evenly pitched, not like the carnival barker I expected. As he spoke, he reminded me graceful, poetic Mandarin of the elites in the diplomatic service back in my parents’ time, not the contemporary Mandarin taught in schools.
The pressure of my captors’ grip on me relaxed, although I was anything but at ease. I twisted my head behind to see if I could discern any part of his features. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw replicas of the traditional door gods, the warriors Shen Tu and Yu Lei, which did not reassure me much.
“I beg your pardon,” I replied. “I didn’t know this was a private showing.”
“Nonsense, Neill. You had an invitation. I myself saw it.”
His knowing my first name without an introduction unnerved me more, but I said nothing, fearing the iron grip on my arms would return. That he commanded them without words was evident.
“Come, let me show you our exhibits.”
The four of us moved down the line of stalls in a stutter-step kind of progress owing to the odd gait of my “chaperones.” They seemed to hop rather than to walk at a normal pace. I asked my guide if he would release me as I was perfectly capable of walking under my own steam.
“It wouldn’t be wise,” was his cryptic response.
Before I could ask him to explain, we came to the first stall. A man far back in the shadows was devouring something that looked like a shank butt of ham. I heard bones cracking, the sound of munching. I strained to see who he was in the poor lighting. Then he moved his face in our direction, and I saw the glittering madness in his eyes.
“Let us move on,” my guide ordered in his soft voice.
Out of the corner of my eye, I translated the plaque’s symbol: Cannibal Man Eating a Human Fetus.
My gorge rose. I tried to pull myself free, but I was thrown to the ground, and a sharp knee was pressed into my back. Then I was pulled roughly to my feet, my mouth tasting of dung.
“I beg of you not to do that again,” my guide whispered in my ear. The sibilance of the words he used belied by the veiled threat. “They won’t be so gentle next time.”
I kept my eyes straight ahead. I had no intention of looking into more exhibits. Those sounds I’d first heard sent ripples of chills up my spine. Screams, gagging, cries for mercy, pain being inflicted. But where were they? I saw no one else, we passed no crowds capable of making that terrible din, that cacophony of human suffering.
What I remembered of Chinese mythology flooded back; it was a litany of cruelty on a level most Westerners wouldn’t comprehend. Then it struck me, the obvious—these were all actors performing roles! Just like the professional Halloween actors for hire at extreme funhouses back home. It was nothing but theater paint and wires pulling on dummies. Shrieks piped in through hidden speakers. I just had to avoid overreacting, and make my escape from these rogue artists at the first opportunity. I’d been selected from the hotel as a likely target—that was it. Americans were not popular now and humiliating them was a Chinese pastime among youth. Perhaps Kent himself was in on it, maybe even paid for it. We went back a long ways, but did I really know him.
“All right,” I said, “I’ll check out your wares.”
The next stall we arrived at bore the name Daji on the plaque.
Daji . . . Daji . . .
The name was familiar from an illustrated book my mother had given me on my eighth birthday. Daji was the cruel mistress of her palace Xanadu, a lover of lewd music and pornographic dances. Her emperor husband indulged her every whim. One illustrated page in my book was burned into my brain of a royal feast of thousands of guests. The emperor called it his “pond of wine” and “forest of meat.” Guests scampered nude among the forests for Daji’s amusement. When a concubine protested, he had her cut into pieces and fed to his servants. Another legend had it that, when she saw a farmer walking barefoot on a winter day, she had his feet cut off so she could study them.
When I peered into the recesses of the stall, I saw a woman in heavy makeup wearing a flowing silk gown that caressed her shape. A guttural moan from the other side of the stall must have been the signal to trip a light switch because her victim was grotesquely and suddenly illuminated: a hugely pregnant woman. The actor portraying Daji danced over to her, drawing a long blade from the sleeve of her elegant robe. She cut the woman’s belly. Her screams, I had to admit, were so convincing my knees weakened, and if it weren’t for the vicious grip under my arms, I’d have dropped to the floor again.
I tried to brazen out my fear, a passage from Sun Tzu coming to mind: “Show weakness when you are strong, show strength when you are weak.”
“That was lifelike, I’ll admit,” I said to my guide. “What’s next—zombies? Vampires?”
“We don’t have zombies nor werewolves nor vampires, although your escorts might demur.”
This time, I was able to see their haunted, gaunt faces and the greenish cast to their skin. “Yes, remarkably effective. The hopping bit, too. The jianzhi who can’t walk and must hop.”
“Ah, so you are familiar with our spirits, our ‘hopping corpses,’ as you’d translate, am I right?”
“I know there are plenty of mog wai in Chinese legend. I’m familiar with some.”
The banality of our conversation, like two academics chatting, added to the surreal circumstances I’d blundered into.
“We have no shortage of demons. Would you care to see Daji’s bronze cylinder before we move on?”
“Thanks, I’ll pass.”
“As you wish.”
Like the life-sized, bronze bull of that Sicilian tyrant who forced criminals into its hollow belly and then had a fire burnt below it to roast criminals alive, Daji used a bronzed cylinder, which she made her victims stand on as it was heated from beneath with a charcoal fire. The screams of the victim, while he shifted his feet, were music to her ears. Falling into the fire to be burned to death was all that remained for him to do. The smell of sizzling, rancid meat wafted over me as we passed.
“A nice touch, there,” I said flippantly, and regretted it immediately. My “host” hadn’t resorted to rougher tactics—so far.
“It is, indeed.”
“Back home, you know, these freak shows are a thing of the past,” I said. “No more tents with a shill out front hollering at the yokels to come see Lobster Boy or the Bearded Lady.”
“Who can say?”
His nonchalance irked me. I was a hostage; his people were taking gross advantage of me.
“That little girl out front, she’s your Judas goat to lead the suckers in. By the way, Mister Zhong Kui, I’m curious here. How do you make money from tourists with these ‘exhibits’ if you’re so far off the beaten path—or do the authorities in Xi’an know this is occurring under their noses?”
This kind of operation involved too many people for it to be kept secret for too long.
“We don’t allow just anyone to come here,” my guide said. “Our guests are always invited. Our special friends, you might say. Those who . . . sympathize with us.”
“I’m honored, truly,” I replied, but as before, he chose to ignore my sarcasm.
“Look.” He pointed at the stall we were just then approaching.
The plaque’s characters meant “Souls of the Dead.” In Chinese folklore, these were the gui, the “hungry spirits” for whom you burned banknotes as repentance for your sins so that they can have funds to use in the afterlife. Kent once tried to explain to me what that involved, but it sounded like the kind of bureaucracy in a Kafka novel.
This stall was packed with young women, all beautiful, of the caliber you’d find on the covers of Elle or Vogue. They stood around with the same vacant expressions on you’d find on a catwalk in Paris or New York. In Chinese mythology, those wandering ghosts, the non-demonic kind, can assume a young, beautiful female’s body by deriving the yang or essence from the Sun or Moon.
“They’re quite lovely,” I said, gawking like a teenager. Instead of the grotesquerie of those other painted freaks, these women were glamorous, each adorned in expensive clothing and made up professionally from their shoes to their elegant coiffures.
The financial side of my education was piqued. “Wait a minute,” I exclaimed, “you can’t possibly make money when you’re investing a fortune in costumes like this—”
I turned, but he was gone.
The hands that had been applying constant pressure on my upper arms were removed as if by the same magic. So enthralled by that vision of feminine beauty, I hadn’t seen my two grim escorts vanish at the same time.
I wondered: Had I been drugged? Maybe that old woman who sold me the energy drink had doped me. Of course, that was it. I was being played in one grandiose scam. No other explanation made sense. Where were the other people at this bizarre carnival? I assumed closed-circuit, hidden cameras were filming me, the kind used on trails to film nocturnal animals.
My first reaction was a subdued rage. Who in my life would play this kind of expensive trick on me? Kent was probably watching me now, laughing behind some computer screen in a hidden room.
But why me?
That question had no single answer.
I decided to play along with the scheme. Left alone, I browsed the remaining stalls as if at leisure, lingered at the stall of a nǚ guǐ, a female ghost with long hair in a white dress, a suicide.
She seeks revenge for the terrible wrong she suffered in her life, often sexual abuse, or murder by her husband. Like our succubi, they seek out men to seduce and kill. The Chinese take shapeshifting, tormenting spirits seriously; they’ll eat souls to gain immortality. The book my mother gave me told of a man who met a beautiful woman, took her home to meet his family but one night spies her through the bedroom window and sees a monstrously looking demon painting features on the skin of a beautiful woman like any one of those I had seen back there.
Further on, moving back toward the entrance from the other side, I witnessed “fox demons” eating the hearts and livers of dead men, whose writhing testified to their being eaten alive by the gorgeous lovelies they thought they had seduced. The sound effects gave me gooseflesh. I held my composure, sometimes commenting to the actors in the stalls how admirable their performances were, how “lifelike.”
I saw hanged ghosts with long red tongues, actors dressed like demigods from tales I no longer remembered, drowned victims, gray-skinned è guǐ, more starving ghosts foraging in their stalls among rotting garbage for food. Disgusting creatures said to roam kitchens for decomposing food, known for their pot bellies and small mouths preventing them from eating, they’ll eat any rotting scrap they can find, even human waste.
Even knowing it to be sham, I was fascinated. Every sense in my being was activated by the spectacles—the stomach-churning odors, the appearances, the physical costumery to put these actors “in character” was stunning to behold, manifesting a Hollywood-level proficiency, and yet loathing it all the while.
In the last stall, a woman standing beneath a banana tree held a baby in her arms. She said nothing like the rest of these ghost women, and like the rest, she stared at me as if she knew me. I turned to go when the baby let out a gurgle, stopping me in my tracks. It sounded so—real. The thought of an actual infant being used as a prop in this freak show offended me. Even by Chinese standards, this seemed too much.
I tried to stare deeper into the darkness; the baby’s limbs moved and twitched randomly. It had to be a real infant as no robotic prop could move its limbs so naturally. I wanted to say something to the woman but her fixed stare sent an icy shiver through me. What was the point of speaking up now? This farce would end with my leaving the premises, something I was keen to do, weary of the humiliation inflicted on me.
Making an effort to walk calmly toward the open doors, I wasn’t going to show weakness to anyone here. I knew a display of my terror was their secret objective—and I’d be damned if I’d give it to them. How they’d love to see me run screaming from this horror show! I refused to give them the satisfaction.
At the doorway, I saw the same cluster of men dressed as laborers as when I entered. As before, they avoided my eyes and speaking to me.
“Wonderful show,” I said to them, exiting. “Tell your bosses I said you did as fine job, men. I congratulate you all.”
I might as well have been invisible for all the reaction I got. I’d gone about ten yards into the darkness when, feeling my anger boiling up again, I turned around to spit a Chinese curse from my boyhood at them and their elaborate engineering project in this barn designed to terrify and ridicule foreign visitors like me.
But no surprise now, they were gone, too. I retraced my steps. I wanted to see how they’d managed to disappear so fast. I didn’t see footprints in the earth, any sign or sound of anything beyond my own pounding heartbeat. Then I noticed for the first time the character for Di’yu. A rough translation would be our equivalent of “Hell.”
Stumbling out of there, I kept going, oblivious to a direction. If I walked far enough, long enough, I’d come back to the city. The darkness and eerie silence didn’t affect me. I was exhausted by this ugly, horrific night vision and still distressed by the knowledge someone—or many people, more likely—had gone to great lengths and expense to make a fool of me.
Finally, footsore, half-starved, I detected a glimmer of light in one direction. Remembering to compensate for being left-handed, and therefore left-legged, I avoided the fate of many people lost in the woods who simply circled back to where they’d started from. I came out of the last patch of fir trees and heard the sounds of traffic just as the tops of buildings were being lit by the first rays of dawn breaking. Big construction cranes were firing up for the day’s work. I sobbed with relief.
Walking, stumbling at times through this last debris-strewn field, I recognized where I had emerged—the same hotel where Kent and I had our reunion meal the evening before. I must have looked a sight. Early morning workers heading to their jobs in hotels and places of business parted in front of me on the pavement like a bow wave. No one looked directly at me.
I held out a fistful of bills to draw a cab. The driver’s eyes rarely let mine as he weaved through the morning traffic. Back in my room, I showered and shaved, ordered two breakfasts brought up, and slept until early evening.
The first thing I did on waking was leave a blistering message on Kent’s phone recorder in Shanghai. I had to pack in a hurry to catch my first flight back.
Kent never responded to my angry message. A year passed before I had a message from him.
He was in the States, accompanying his wife this time for a financial conference in San Diego. Could I meet him there?
Although time had passed and softened some of my humiliation, I was still angry at the joke he’d played on me back in Xi’an. Reluctantly, I agreed and named a day and place.
I saw him through the glass at the Addison.
“Neill, my old friend—”
I sat down at his table and waited until the waiter had left us.
“Hang on, Kent. Before we take another step, I want you to apologize for Xi’an.”
“Neill, what are you talking about?”
“You know full well, my old friend. You know.”
“Neill, honest to God, I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Grudgingly, I retailed that long night of my fear and humiliation with as few details as possible. I told him about what I’d seen in those stalls in that barn, watching his eyes widen in utter disbelief.
“What did you say your guide’s name was?”
“He introduced himself as Zhong Kui.”
“Neill, Neill, my God, don’t you know who that is? You used to know more about Chinese folklore than any Chinese, for God’s sake.”
“He’s the—what’s the damned word for it?—he vandalizes, no, he vanquishes ghosts and demons. Jesus, man, his face is on every other door post in every Chinese village. You must have seen it! I mean, I don’t want to be unkind, but you—you have a slight resemblance to him. No offense. You must have been told that before.”
In truth, I had. Many times. Strange, isn’t it? How the mind blocks out things that bring pain. Those childhood hurts especially that never go away. Of course, Kent was right: I’d seen his face a thousand times and only now, sitting in an upscale restaurant in California, did I understand it.
My parents were a handsome couple—that was how friends and colleagues of theirs always described them—“a handsome couple.” Odd I always thought how their genes never cooperated when it came to me, their only child. I was an ugly kid. Photos of me then show me with my unruly mop of hair, my square face, my bug eyes that kids made fun of. They didn’t need to use the character for “fish eyes” because they drew it all over my books and teased me with it unmercifully—a fish with bulging eyes. I was picked on constantly and beaten up going to and from school by neighborhood bullies. A mild case of Graves’ disease from an overactive thyroid gland caused my eyes to bulge.
Fish eyes . . .
Kent knew the basics of Zhong Kui’s history; my cell phone filled in the rest. M y guardian’s image did look like me until my late adolescence. Zhong Kui, brilliant student, was thwarted in life by his appearance and killed himself. When he was denied a government position solely based on his looks, despite his top scores on exams, he smashed his head into the palace walls until his skull cracked open. He was granted supernatural powers in the afterlife.
More importantly, he kept demons and ghosts at bay. In some legends, 80,000 of them were under his control. Some older, more superstitious Chinese still hang his likeness on the doors of their homes as protection from malevolent deities.
“You don’t remember me laughing and pointing out his image on the wall at the pillar in the hotel the last time we ate in Xi’an?’
“I remember you pointing at something, but my head was turned at the time.”
“Yes, I’m sure it was—by that hot-looking waitress who came to take our drink order. Tell me you don’t remember her—big almond eyes, long hair like black silk —” He pantomimed a big bosom with his hands cupped in front of his chest.
“Stop it, you’re a married man, Kent.”
“C’mon, man, you don’t believe in that superstitious nonsense, right? It’s all horseshit by Chinese peasants. Even my old grandmother doesn’t believe in that stuff.”
We laughed as we always did, and had a sumptuous meal. But in the back of my mind, I was uneasy and as perplexed as ever.
What had I seen and experienced that night?
Our Uber driver dropped him off at his hotel first. I shook his hand and we parted again, unsure where or when our next meeting was going to be.
“Give my regards to your pretty wife,” I shouted from the cab.
“She’s pregnant, by the way.”
That was the Kent I’d known for decades—leaving out of the conversation a “little” thing like that until the very end.
My next return to China was still a year away, but this was my sabbatical year, and I was supposed to fly to San Francisco the next day to interview some Silicon Valley CEO’s for my project on the 2008-09 financial crisis.
Instead, I booked a flight for China.
I was in Xi’an two days later. I made my way by cab to the Luomashi Walking Street. I could hear my father’s whistle in my head, that siren summons to the road that led me to the “place of ghosts,” as I referred to it whenever Xi’an came to mind.
The furniture warehouse was unchanged from my last visit, the same dirt road across the street. The same vacant lot and beyond it, that distant stand of trees. I went into it, remembering how I was that night—confused, aimless, led on by a whim and that peculiar whistle my father had taught me.
I found nothing. No barn, no people. The only sign of life other than me was a rabbit who jumped out behind a clump of vegetation and a screech owl. I returned to my rooms, the same as before. Today was also the fifteenth, a Ghost Festival day. I planned to wait until nightfall before leaving my rooms. I know, as much as I can know anything, that I’ll find that place. Who knows? I might meet Zhong Kui again. He favored me once before by keeping those dangerous spirits from harming me.
I’ve seen ghosts. They’re real. I know there’s another world out there that intersects with ours. I’ve never believed in anything before that didn’t come from a book or a university lecture. I know differently. This life isn’t the only life and the sins we commit and those committed against us will haunt us until we make amends to all the Hungry Ghosts we pass by in our lives.
* * *