The private banquet room was raucous, adrift with the sound of popping oil and clinking glasses. The waitress noted that most of the diners already bore tomato-red cheeks, their faces flushed from the flow of èrguōtóu and rice wine. While her colleague busied herself with refilling the glasses—only for them to slosh over and empty as the customers toasted again—she brought in two more dishes and placed them on the lazy Susan, blooming with plates that had been half plucked. The patriarch was treating. Whether or not he would be the one to pay—if he would be beaten by another relative slyly passing a credit card under the table—was another question. With large parties like this, there were always at least three attendees tripping over themselves in their efforts to foot the bill. In the few months of her waitressing career, she had witnessed families sitting at cleared tables for hours arguing over the check, elbows knocking into faces in their efforts to prove filial piety.
The patriarch had ordered half the menu and servers continued to stream into the room, their arms warm from the undersides of porcelain plates. Guò bǎo ròu: square slices of pork, garnished with garlic and drizzled in Shàoxīng cooking wine. Fish heads fried in oil, their filmy eyes gazing blankly at the mouths that would bury them. Long, doughy noodles for longevity, soaked in chili oil and red vinegar, slurped down burnt throats.
“This is a homecoming,” he’d announced to the girl who took the order, “don’t let our mouths or cups go empty.”
The pièce de résistance of the feast was a thirteen-pound roast suckling pig. Its legs were splayed out comically on the platter as if the creature had been drawn and quartered. The resemblance its face once had to a pig’s had been burned away—its eyes charred slits, its snout shriveled from heat. They decorated the corpse with orange slices of persimmons and clementines, pieces of pineapple, a bed of napa cabbage. Though not heavy, the platter was large and unwieldy and had to be carried by two waitresses. They nearly spilled the pig into a girl’s lap as they lifted the platter over her head and onto the table.
The waitress observed that this girl, sitting closest to the door, was an ABC. She’d passed the back of her head, that sheet of dyed blonde hair, enough times to know. The few ABC’s she encountered seemed indignant to be exposed as outsiders, thinking they could sink into Chinese society without so much as a ripple. Picking an American out of the crowd was easy, even if they wore a Chinese face. The tells were there: her Mandarin was clunky and devoid of a regional accent. She wore a thin, strappy dress that revealed tanned shoulders. The hair. Most damning was that she had choked on her first glass of èrguōtóu, resulting in a continuous cough soothed only by an entire bowl of rice. Chopsticks frantic as she shoveled the grains into her mouth, looking to scrape the burning from her tongue. The waitress silently brought a second bowl of white rice, placing it at her side.
With large, watery eyes set in a sickly face, she turned to her and said in English, “Thank you,” forgetting where she was. Which was how the waitress knew the èrguōtóu was working.
May’s extended family was Northern, born and bred in Jílín since it was called Manchuria, which meant that the act of knocking back èrguōtóu was instinctual: an inherited muscle memory. In the brutal winters, chill and slant snow cutting down to the bone, warmth came from a glass. The pooling of bái jiǔ in the stomach lent heat when heat was too expensive or firewood too dry. In the summers, swamp-like and sticky, they chased away their discomfort with drink. Ankles swollen from clusters of mosquito bites, heat stroke, frostbite—all maladies that could be cured by a generous pour.
The Chinese phrase for cheers is gān bēi: to dry your cup. May was learning that the Li family took this very seriously, and several aunts and uncles had been checking her shot glass, inspecting for wayward drops. Refusing her protestations, the relatives plied her with shot after shot, toasting to her arrival. After three shots, she had learned her lesson. If she came up for air before the bottom was bone dry, she’d be forced to take another full drink. Once she downed the proffered drinks, she made sure the underside was bone dry so that she could see her reflection: warped face, now green with nausea, stretched eyes converging in a tiny, pointed chin.
May could no longer feel her mouth, sensation swallowed up by the acridness of the alcohol. A half-blind Baidu search beneath the table revealed that èrguōtóu, a bái jiǔ distilled from sorghum, was 100-proof. Still, the heat and bitterness were foreign, different from the fraternity-served Everclear that she had once tried at university. Warmer, too, than the overpowering smell of bleach.
Her grandfather—seventy, with the carcasses of six shot glasses spread before him—seemed unaffected. Rosacea blistered his cheeks in a permanent flush. She could never tell if he was drunk or sober.
May remembered that in high school, her English class had read The Canterbury Tales. Her teacher had taught them that the Wife of Bath’s red complexion was a marker for her promiscuity, her lust. Too much blood, she had explained, meant having a sanguine temperament among the four humors.
In the case of May’s lǎo ye, the medieval theory proved true. May’s mother was one of seven children. Two were legitimate siblings, but the rest were bastards, raised in shadows by single mothers. Some of these half-siblings had found their way back to lǎo ye in the last decade, and this exposed secret was why her grandfather and May’s mother were estranged. Why May’s mother had protested against May’s planned graduation trip to her homeland: a fight so intense that May had blacked out. She circled the memory of its resolution like tub water around the drain, the moment a strange lacuna that was just outside of May’s grasp—
May was poured another shot and forced to down it amidst cheers of gān bēi!
The round table was crammed to bursting with Lis from different family lines reaching over one another to spin the lazy Susan and serve themselves their preferred dishes. Some of them only shared an ancestor three generations back. May was unable to differentiate between these distant cousins and her maternal uncles and aunts, her mother’s half-siblings. May referred to all the relatives as Shūshu or Āyí. Men were Shūshu. Women were Āyí.
Lái, lái, lái, an Āyi said, using her chopsticks to gesture toward May’s empty plate. May dutifully handed it to her, and the Āyi began to pile the plate high with pinches of dishes: twice-cooked pork, chicken stewed with mushrooms, Peking duck wrapped in a pancake, pork and cabbage wontons. To top it off, a rough-cut slab of the roast pig riddled with fat deposits.
Hào le, hào le, May laughed. Enough, enough.
Āi yā, the aunt exclaimed, tài shòu le. Too skinny. Other relatives nodded in agreement.
May laughed again, the sound half-strangled. She knew that if she were not as thin as she was, they would chide her, prodding her with an Āi yā! Xū yào jiǎn féi! You must lose weight! Her mother had said this when May was eleven and baby fat pillowed over her bones. Her round cheeks culminating in a round body that spoke of preadolescence. Under her mother’s roof, she was fed scraps all through high school: the peeled whites of eggs, the skins of tomatoes, the guts of a nearly hollowed sweet potato. Eventually, she found comfort in the way her fingers slotted between her ribs. Weaned on hunger, she craved its familiarity—the gnawing acidity shoring up along the sides of her stomach a daily lullaby.
Skinny just like Fang, a Shūshu said.
Another Āyi clucked her tongue, You could never put meat on Fang. She was born in the winter. January, the coldest month.
A slippery wonton kept wriggling out of May’s chopsticks like an earthworm burrowing back into the ground after being brought out by the rain. She left it wilting at the bottom of her full bowl.
What does being born in the winter have to do with it? May asked.
Měi guó mèi mei—American little sister—in Jílín when your mother was born, you could not even fill a baby’s belly in the winter, an uncle answered.
Yes, you should feel lucky to have so much food in front of you, an older relative lectured.
The older generation smiled at her, nodded encouragingly to her plate—a signal for her to eat. They chewed with their mouths open, and in their smiles, they showed May glints of digestion through the slats of their yellow teeth. Not wanting to appear thankless, May picked at a piece of duck, forcing a close-lipped smile as she chewed. Her mouth punctured the crisp, papery skin, sunk into a cushion of fat. She held back a gag as she swallowed its softness.
Here, have some more fish, a Shūshu offered, plopping a full fish head into her rice bowl. Its unblinking eyes surveyed her as she politely buried its taxidermic gaze under the starch of rice.
Used to be the only place you could get seafood up here was through Dàlián, the Shūshu said, but now we can eat seafood just like the south. He picked up a shrimp, its pink, fetal curve wrapped around a chopstick, and ate it in one bite—shell, eyes, and all.
Another Āyi sighed, Do you remember how we used to prepare for the winter? And now, so much food in Jílín you could gorge yourself to death on it.
She was around May’s mother’s age, but her hair was bone white, roots and all. The ceiling light that bounced off its whiteness made May’s pupils constrict.
So many blisters from digging, a Shūshu groaned.
We used to have to bury our vegetables, the white-haired Āyi explained to May as she leaned over to pour her more rice wine. Each fall, a truck would come to us from the countryside, carrying thousands of jīn of napa cabbages, winter radishes, potatoes. If you had the money, you could buy your vegetables early, dig out your dirt cellar before the ground got too hard.
We never had the money, a Shūshu said with a full mouth, his chortle becoming a choke. Someone slapped his back hard.
We’d get the thin harvest and have to spend a day carving out three meters from half-frozen dirt. And if we couldn’t dig deep enough, we’d have to pickle the rest.
No apples for us, an uncle said, shaking his head. Wealthier families could get hundreds of jīns of apples for the winter, but we were too poor to afford sweet things. Our tongues were made for dirt and bark and starvation.
Your mother used to refuse to dig the cellar.
Or dig up the snow when Ma needed vegetables from the cellar.
Your mother was afraid the manual labor would harden her hands, leave her cheeks chapped and peeling from windburn. Beauty was more important to her, and it was a currency she was rich in.
Well, see now how it paid off: she’s in America and we’re here. Her vanity got her further than our labor.
Āi yā, an older Āyi cut in, shaking her head. How can you say such shallow things about a mother to her daughter?
May and her mother’s shallowness were intimate friends. May wanted to say she didn’t mind, but the Āyi barreled on.
Mèi mei, she began, don’t pay attention to their drunken bitterness. They have become too modern, too Western. Don’t forget that filial piety to your mother is the most important virtue. In Fúzhōu where my husband is from, they have an entire festival to celebrate mothers: Aojiu Festival.
This Āyi also had white hair, cut short and permed so that the curls clung close to her head. She wore two cardigans buttoned over one another and seemed to be in her sixties.
Ma, the Āyi sitting next to May groaned, Aojiu Festival isn’t only about filial piety.
And how would you know?
May blinked the film from her eyes, observing the woman next to her. Underneath the neatly styled white hair was a young face, no more than thirty-five. The skin around her eyes was unlined, free from crow’s feet.
The young aunt, ignoring her mother, smiled kindly at May. Aojiu Festival celebrates the dead, like today’s Hungry Ghost Festival. We Northerners celebrate by burning Hell Bank Notes and paper houses for our dead. Then we ply our family’s ghosts with different foods: duck, twice-cooked pork, a whole chicken, fried fish, four kinds of fruits. But in Fuzhou, they nourish their dead with Aojiu porridge.
She raised a challenging gaze to her mother.
Did you dye your hair, May blurted out. It was a drunk thought that became a drunk digression. She had been studying the aunt closely. The color mirrored her mother’s white to the hue, but she was too young to have started graying.
The Āyi’s hand flew to her hair, touching the fine strands. She seemed surprised at the question, mouth opening and closing silently like a fish. Around them, conversations petered out. They turned their attention to the Āyi’s answer, the silence that ensued unnatural. May looked around, confused by how the texture of the room had changed.
The aunt’s white head bowed sheepishly under the scrutiny, I don’t know if I’m the right person to tell mèi mei this story. If she should hear it all.
Aunts and uncles exchanged looks with one another—their pupils flickering to each side—unsure how to answer.
At last, lǎo ye said quietly, Mèi mei should know what the Japanese did to our family.
So it was law, and the aunt began to tell the story.
Five generations before you, May, our family lived in the northernmost part of Jílín, near the village of Hǎilín. Your lǎo ye’s grandmother, your great-grandmother, had three sons before lǎo ye’s father. They were good sons. All that poverty and hunger, and it just made them kind. It was the winter of 1933. They had run out of food, so their mother took them into the neighboring woods. They scavenged for willow buds, which is what the geese ate in the winter.
While she was sifting her hands through the snow for whatever life she could eat, she heard the indent of feet nearby. When she looked up, she saw her younger brother, whom her eldest son had taken after: the unruly black hair, the square jaw, the red lips that she had once teased him for. But he had enlisted in the Anti-Japanese volunteer army and died a few months ago. This brother wore a straw hat and a thin, white kimono, but he had the same mannerisms. He tugged at the fingers of his other hand impatiently, smoothed his hair anxiously. So she could not help but approach him when he extended a hand, even though an innate part of her knew he was a guǐ—a ghost.
This was her first mistake. He was not guǐ, but oni—a Japanese demon brought to the mainland by the Kwantung Army. He lived with the doctors and officers in Hǎilín, where they had established Unit 643, a sister branch to 731 in Píngfáng. The oni did the doctors’ bidding, because they’d struck a deal. They fed him the bodies of their failed experiments to keep their war crimes hidden. What did the oni care if his meat had been infected with anthrax? For all the centuries he had been alive, he had never seen so many bodies, laid out for him like a feast. The Japanese had no use for the corpses after they had died. They called the Chinese maruta—lumber—and they said they were just felling trees. Clearing the forest. And the oni—well, he had gotten used to gluttony, so he stayed in Hǎilín.
The doctors and officers alike had asked him to bring back a woman, preferably of child-bearing age, but they would take a girl too. He had seen the woman in the forest, and though she had little meat on her bones, she had red in her cheeks and long, dark hair, and he knew the men would be pleased. He saw that she wore a mourning band on her left sleeve, so he shifted into her loss.
At first, she came willingly. But. But she knew her brother’s hand from the years of leading him around, and this was not his hand. She began to thrash and scream, yelling for her sons to run, but the oni was strong and he dragged her through the snow, leaving a trench dug by her body in their wake. Her eldest son saw his mother being pulled to Hǎilín, and he hid his younger brothers in a hollow tree, deep in its roots, so that the underground would keep them warm. He ignored her warnings and chased after her.
When the Japanese men saw the mother, they were pleased, but they did not take her like they had so many other women. (Always in cells, always at gunpoint.) Instead, they had devised a new experiment. A hybrid child. They made the oni shift into its true form: eight feet tall, skin as blue as frostbite, a jaw as wide as her head. Yawning open, it revealed a set of sharp canines. Two horns spun out of its head. And when she wanted to die from this sight, they had it consume her, rutting its hips into her, its three-fingered hands leaving bruises the color of its skin on the bones of her pelvis. The mother lost consciousness. She believed she’d died, and her spent body mimicked death so well that the Japanese threw her out in the snow—a maruta not even worth kindling now. Just another failed experiment.
The son had been trailing the mother and the oni, their deep tracks easy to follow. He saw it take her into the facility, and he lingered in the surrounding woods, waiting for dark. But the oni was not the only yōkai at Hailin. They had brought over a yuki-onna for the doctors’ hypothermia experiments. Like the oni, they had lured her in by the sheer number of bodies: a line of men in the snow that she could freeze to death, whose souls she could slurp up through their blued lips. Sometimes the doctor had her leave them alive, freezing a limb until a finger or toe fell off. The doctor liked watching the skin of the maruta turn black under the yuki-onna’s breath, hit the frozen limbs with his cane until the sound was the same as a thwack against wood.
That day, there were no frostbite experiments, so the yuki-onna drifted in the cold, where she was comfortable. The son did not see her, because she had white skin and wore a white kimono, blending in with the winter landscape. She saw him, and because she was hungry, she did not bother freezing him before sucking at his life. Her teeth notched into his soul, tugging, but when she faced him, she saw that he was just a boy, not a man, an innocent, and her mouth opened. In that small bite, she had already leeched out the color from his hair, leaving it as white as her skin. The boy tore himself away from the yuki-onna, and his soul dropped back into his body. When he looked up, she was gone, icicles in the place she had been floating. Now every Li descended from this eldest son is born with white hair, that missing heirloom still pickled in a demon’s belly.
The son saw his mother, stripped of her clothes, thrown in the snow. When it was dark, he carried her to the tree with his brothers and waited out the night before going home. Her eyes were gaping open, jellied, but there was no familiarity there. She had let the white-haired boy tug her away, though she did not know who he was. She remained in this chrysalis—her sons fed her broth, closed her open eyes at dusk—until she reached the third trimester. At which time, she woke.
In Chinese numerology, the number four, sì, is unlucky, because it sounds like the character for death, sǐ. This fourth son, growing in her belly, was unlucky for other reasons. For the last two months before she would give birth, she tried to kill him in the womb. She gathered thuja, safflower, silver wormwood, and crushed them into her tea, which she drank daily. But he would not die. If he would not die, then maybe he would survive the North after all.
When he was born, she loved him unwillingly. She saw that he was still half-human: half her. His skin was the color of moss—blue and yellow mixed—as if his whole body was covered by a Mongolian mark. The two bumps on his hairline the only other sign that something was amiss. This, you see, was your lǎo ye’s father.
Oh dear, we’ve upset you. Haven’t we, May? You do look a little green. The Āyi fretted, her hands flitting nervously in her lap.
May’s throat had gone dry. She had heard this story before. Recently. When? May felt everyone’s eyes turned toward her, searing onto her skin, their bloodshot pupils wet with pity. Was she crying? May reached a hand to wipe the corners of her eyes, but when she felt her cheek, it was oozing—a half-state between liquid and solid. Her fingers came away with elastic, red cheek meat. She held up a shot glass, looked at her reflection. Her skin was melting off, sloughing down her bones in ruddy drips.
She blinked. She looked up at her family. The pity in their faces intensified.
What’s happening? May asked, panic in her voice, though some innate part of her knew.
It’s almost time for you to go, lǎo ye said. We hope you had a good meal.
We didn’t want to tell you, a Shūshu said.
You seemed so content, an Āyi said.
But you asked.
You shouldn’t have asked.
Not now and not then.
When? May asked. The flesh of her eyelids started running in rivulets until there were no eyelids, only the bulge of her naked eyes in their sockets.
May, we know you remember.
Think back, how did you get here?
You can’t remember, can you? You can’t remember packing or sitting on the plane.
It was spring break. You were home, and you asked Fang. You asked her why she didn’t want you to visit us.
She told you we were no good, that a whole ocean was not wide enough to get away from us. Us and our bad blood. Us and our monstrosity. You asked her to explain, and she did. But May, you could not live another moment with this inheritance.
Fang called home when she found your body. We hadn’t heard from her in years. She remembers the smell. Burnt beyond recognition, the soft parts corroded: the eyes, the nose, the mouth. Fat liquefying into pearlescent soap bubbles, shimmering with color, until the bone and garish red muscle were exposed under the fluorescent lights: shiny and open. Drowned in a bathtub of bleach to burn off the otherness, the oni-ness.
No, May wanted to protest, that’s not right. But her tongue was burning, breaking down in her mouth, and she was remembering. The aftermath. The realization that she could feel no comfort with her existence. Washing her hands with the bottle of bleach under the bathroom sink until they blistered. Scrubbing away at the revulsion for herself that ran bone-deep, blood-deep, and her swollen, pustuled hands pouring the bleach into the tub, gripping the sides as she lowered herself in. How she sighed at the cleanliness she felt in the flaying pain before—
We’ll see you again next Hungry Ghost Festival.
Rumpus original art by Ian MacAllen