Sisters

by Lindsay Wong

 

     As lotus-footed aristocrats, genteel girls of freshly bound-feet, Yu-Chen and Mai-Fan, had to be carried upon their male relations’ shoulders. As if we are livestock, Yu-Chen thought, fighting a violent urge not to thrash and scream. She and her sister, death-tainted, were being sent into the white funeral forest. The Baron, their lunatic syphilis-stricken husband, had just committed suicide.

     If only we could run away, Yu-Chen lamented, careful not to let anyone hear her sigh. She shut her hot, wet eyelids briefly. The enemy was everywhere. Big Uncle and his four sons who were taking them to their deaths; the Japanese soldiers with machine guns and bayonets, stationed in the village outposts, where black and white posters of Chiang Kai-Shek were burned with zealotry. In the countryside, China’s armies were scattered. Abandoned houses loomed like grey ghouls. People cannibalized their infirm parents when the government stopped rice rations. In the west of Shongdong province, there were rumors of farmers selling girl-children instead of chickens.

     Big Uncle, who was in charge of the funeral procession, scowled as a pockmarked farmer stood in front of the parade. At first, Yu-Chen had mistaken the man’s gauntness and facial lesions for a hell-apparition. The Baron! she had thought, unnerved. He has come to spend eternity with us! Perhaps he will take my sister instead of me?

     “How much?” the man asked, gesturing at Yu-Chen, who was twelve years old and three seasons pregnant. Despite being a child, her face was shriveled and withered like a bitter lotus root. She looked to be a hunchbacked old woman.

     “These noble women are recently widowed and tainted by death,” Big Uncle said. His handsome features hardened. “How dare you interrupt their execution! You will show the ladies Yu-Chen and Mei-Fan respect.”

     In the bald daylight, both Yu-Chen and her fourteen-year old sister, Mei-Fan resembled half-living shadows. They had not been injured when their hutang burned down. Their husband, The Baron, had set fire to himself, his wives, his harem of child-concubines, his beloved hunting dogs, and his servants. He had bolted-shut the ancestral hutang’s doors, permitting none of his household to flee. The child-concubines, Yu-Chen and Mai-Fan, lesser ladies of upright breeding, but of diminished wealth, had been arguing, in the outer gardens when the fire started. Newly crippled with tightly wound, petal-sized feet, they had been unable to walk. Their servants had fled.

     Yu-Chen had screamed at Mei-Fan to begin crawling on their knees. Could they out-maneuver the enveloping fire?

     If he lives, I will kill The Baron, she promised her sister. Mei-Fan, sobbing, had tumbled face down in the road. Yu-Chen had no choice but to yank on her sister’s twice-wound braid until she got up. While the hu-tang burned, it had taken the foot-crippled sisters nearly two hours to crawl to the village, which was only thirty hectares away. Elbows raw, knees tattered and goried. Foreheads smudged by blood and horse droppings. Yu-Chen had felt relief when they reached Big Uncle’s house, until she remembered that the sisters’ fate was intertwined with their husband’s.

     In Tiangwei village, since the illustrious Jing dynasty, widows, any surviving wives and concubines were carried into the primordial forest to die. Female widows, like deformed babies, the poor, and the elderly, were unwanted and cursed. Yu-Chen and Mei-Fan were forbidden to outlive their husband.

     “I have three copper pieces,” the farmer continued, refusing to bow in respect. His words were guttural and desperate; the harsh accent of the Yangtze crashing through his tongue. He flashed the tiny coins in his brown, square palm.

     “Let our procession pass,” Big Uncle ordered. He had fought in the Xiangli Rebellion as a decorated soldier, and had a venerated machete, a dao, strapped to his box-like shoulders. Still, the farmer refused to leave the dirt road.

     “Please,” the man begged, his face rushing to a sad place. “My wife and infant children are starving. Why should funeral rituals count in wartime? Why should these women feed the animals instead of their fellow countrymen?”

     Big Uncle grunted, rubbing his temples in quick, globular motions. Big Uncle was a rigid man who ruled his family, believed wholly in the government, Confucianism and the war.

     Inhaling, he approached the farmer as if appeasing an angry boar. With his dao, Big Uncle gutted the starving man, then ordered one of his four sons to collect the three copper coins and the man’s stupefied head. Yu-Chen winced, diverting her eyes to her discolored fingertips. Blood did not shock her anymore, but she felt pity for the dead man. In Tiangwei, soldiers murdered and pillaged every day. The Baron paid the soldiers to leave his household alone, but sometimes, the lieutenants and captains would use his wives and concubines as a harem. In wartime, she knew Big Uncle could sell the man’s head for nine copper pieces at a butcher’s. If they found his wife and children further down the road, Big Uncle could sell them, dead or alive, too.

***

     Only a fortnight before the fire, Mei-Fan and Yu-Chen had their tiny lotus feet re-broken and re-bandaged at the crazed Baron’s insistence. This was the third time that their feet had been re-shaped for status and beauty. Once, for the first time, when they were small children, sobbing for days. And again, when their old-fashioned silhouettes had displeased The Matchmaker, insisting that great noble women should hack off an inch from their heels. This was a year before Japanese bombs had fallen from the sky, orphaning the sisters and leaving them to their distant relation, Big Uncle. Before The Baron had agreed to accept them as lesser concubines. As a favor to unburden Big Uncle who had his own wives and twelve children to feed.

     “My child-concubines have the feet of mule,” The Baron, naked and nearsighted, had shouted at the bone doctor one afternoon. “Make their feet daintier and more beautiful by shortening a few inches!”

     Yu-Chen and Mai-Fan had screamed as the bone doctor, bowing and apologetic had sawed off their big and last toes. With remorseful precision, the doctor had then re-bent and re-snapped their arches, pushing their five-inch bones into smaller flower shapes. He had folded their second, third and fourth toes like brittle origami. To prevent infection, he had scraped off their pea-sized toenails before stitching their mutilated feet into silk bandages.

     That evening, Baron demanded that the girls’ severed toes be boiled in a medicinal turtle soup, deciding that it would provide him eternal life. Yu-Chen, chewing on cypress bark to numb the pain, had been the one who had cooked the bone soup. Mei-Fan cried and fainted. Unable to walk, Yu-Chen had instructed the servants to carry her to his chambers.

     “Are you alive or dead?” he had shouted at Yu-Chen, who had only nodded, hushed and unsteady from her suffering. He had struck her between the eyes when she was slow to answer.

     Howling like a hungry ghost, The Baron had yanked the sheets over his head, murmuring about horned demons and violent apparitions. In his chambers that night, her feet pulsing with a wet, blistering ache, Yu-Chen sat on a stool beside his bed and hand-fed him soup. She ignored the spectacle of her soggy toes floating in the greasy broth. That night, she had prayed that her fate would irreparably change; she could not endure what seemed like eternity with a screeching madman. She feared her pregnancy. She feared The Japanese. Her sister, Mei-Fan, who was chopstick-thin and fourteen years old, seemed to have already given up.

***

     As the funeral procession marched closer, the spectral trees began to shudder and scream. It was said the forest was cursed by a general’s wife accused of witchcraft. The sorceress’s arms and legs had been chopped off. She had been nailed to a tree still alive, which was why undesirables like Mei-Fan, Yu-Chen, and others before them, were sent to die among the grotesque and unwanted.

     “I won’t go in!” the eldest son, who was carrying Yu-Chen, suddenly shrilled at the frontier of the waxen-looking trees. “I cannot! It’s cursed!”

     “You are not my son if you are a coward,” Big Uncle scoffed. His voice was harsh like brickwork. “You will go in or you will no longer carry the family name!”

     To lose one’s inheritance meant financial ruin, but most of all, dishonor in China. An oldest son who squandered his father’s legacy was as polluted as the flesh of a female widow.

     Yu-Chen understood her cousin’s floundering horror. Five thousand years of moonlight had ghost-bleached the funeral forest. The shroud-like woodland glowed and juddered, as if swaying to a heavy, invisible hand. No one who ventured further than the funeral clearing had ever come out alive. The vastness of the forest could devour an entire army. A month ago, a phalanx of Japanese soldiers had gone into the woods and disappeared. A village woman, whom they had dragged with them, had suddenly returned, bloody and screaming. She had been raped, but at least she was alive. Her best friend and mother were still missing.

     As a small child, Yu-Chen had been fascinated by the whispered hauntings, the stories of the hairy, white coppices that could not be chopped down. Luminescent foliage immune to both fire and flooding. For millenniums, no axe or advanced machinery from the government could destroy the forest. Each spruce or fir had its own distinct shriek. As a child, she’d secretly stand on the peripheral of the white forest and scream away her loneliness. Without fail, the trees would always scream back—not a reverberation or an echo, but a noisy, shrill wailing that would knock her backwards. The sound was loud and lost, as if the trees were alive, being dismembered. It had always been a game to Yu-Chen. Could she screech louder than the trees?

     Out of curiousness, she had once touched the spider-like furs of the closest spruce. She could feel its heat, pulsing and unkind. It had seemed to be inhaling her, as if propelling her inside its peeling trunk. It didn’t make sense, but the tree seemed to be in pain. It groaned. She hurdled backwards when she felt an anxious heartbeat. Something, surely not the tree, had just nipped her thumb. Ahhhhh! She had let out a seagull-like shriek.

     Carefully, Yu-Chen tried to make eye contact to reassure Mei-Fan, but her older sister was slumped, like a small animal, over the shoulders of the cousin who was carrying her.

     At the threshold of the funeral woods, Big Uncle and his oldest son argued like squawking chickens. The trees squealed. Cruel, staccato eruptions of laughter.

      “I’m sorry, Father,” the son finally apologized, attempting to bow on his bent knees. Mei-Fan, like a lumpy rucksack of potatoes, was still on his back. “I did not mean what I said to offend you.”

     The funeral procession, wobbling with trepidation, entered the forest.

***

     To prevent Yu-Chen and Mei-Fan from struggling during their execution, Big Uncle had given them bitter tea of black opium, which was supposed to make the girls acquiescent and slow moving. The funeral tea contained clumps of ashes from the remains of their badly burned husband. As the only sole female survivors, by consuming his insides, they’d take The Baron’s soul with them into the ghost-saturated forest. To be his companions for all-eternity.

     Yu-Chen had not wanted to spend any more of her childhood with The Baron. She had rather throw herself into a bottomless well and become a flesh-eating gwei than consume her dead husband.

     After the ancient day of mourning, Yu-Chen had pretended to sip her tea. She spat the lukewarm liquid into the clay floor tiles when Big Uncle had been distracted. Mai-Fan, being anxious and thirsty, had chugged her cup of tea despite Yu-Chen’s warnings.

     “What can we do if it’s drugged, dummy?” Mei-Fan had said, sullen-eyed. “We’re going to die anyway.”

     “Shut-up!” Yu-Chen had said, panic mangling her insides. “You don’t know the future!”

     Shrugging, Mei-Fan had reached for Yu-Chen’s cup. She swigged the remainder of her sister’s tea before falling asleep.

     “Good luck in the afterlife,” Big Uncle’s two wives said, sounding forlorn, before their funeral procession left the courtyard. With painstaking effort, they had knotted Yu-Chen and Mei-Fan’s hair with a wooden ji. They had powdered the girls’ cheeks with leftover flour. The male relations were supposed to carry the sisters to the funeral clearing, perhaps stopping near a stream for a final drink of water if they felt merciful. Big Uncle’s first wife, a kindly woman, said that perhaps her husband would show compassion and drown the girls in a creek. The second wife disagreed. She had packed the sisters a heavy burlap cloth—saying it would be more comfortable to starve to death or be consumed by wild animals on a blanket.

     Beside the red cypress trees, his wives touched the sisters’ shoulders in sympathy. Yu-Chen knew that she had to pretend to be sleepy and compliant, so she said nothing. She kept her features soft and confused. She let the male relation, her cousin, who was carrying her, re-arrange her on his shoulders, like a sack of rice. She swallowed a mournful scream. Years of sadness, solitude and obedience had taught her to conceal her emotions. She forced her churning mind to become stagnant. The baby inside her kicked without pity.

***

     Unlike most of the villagers in Taingwei, the war had not made Big Uncle desperate and cruel. Hunger had not altered him. Only violence had given him a ruthless tenacity, as his instinct was to survive and to make his fortune while the suffering of his countrymen amplified. He despised the Japanese, but Yu-Chen knew that he would endure any trial to make a profit.

     In the funeral clearing, where past processions had hammered their still living widows to the base of trees or hung their females with hand-woven rope; others preferred to leave the disgraced women on the ground for animal food. Like trophies, tiny gold slippers and jeweled headpieces adorned some of the corpses of great noble birth.

     Their cousins placed the girls on the pebbly soil before they began collecting the trinkets.

     Yu-Chen wanted to know how Big Uncle was going to kill them. Would it be merciful as his First Wife predicted? Or would he leave the crippled girls and march back to his occupied village?

     She did not want to be another skeleton knotted to a tree.

     “How will you kill us?” she repeated, when Big Uncle did not respond.

     “Shut-up, Stupid!” Mei-Fan cried, having woken, no longer blurry-eyed. She shuddered as the forest cried and shook, as if the granite base of the mountainous land would swallow them whole. A few of their cousins stared, skull-eyed, at the shimmering trees. The forest wailed like starving infants and the elderly. AHHHHHHHHH! AHHHHHHHHH! AHHHHHHHHHHH!

     “I rather know,” Yu-Chen insisted angrily, even though she was not supposed to speak to her male elders without being addressed first.

     “We are not leaving you to die in the forest,” Big Uncle said. His voice was softer and unexpectedly regretful, as if he were mourning the sale of a prized pig or goat. “We have notified mercenaries who are waiting for us four days from here. They will sell you to bathhouses in Manchuria. However, Yu-Chen, they may not want your baby although each of your severed feet may fetch five gold pieces.”

     “But what about funeral tradition?” Yu-Chen asked, a chill vibrating through her, as if a specter had bounded through her body. She knew mercenaries meant rape and torture. If the proprietor of a bathhouse procured Yu-Chen and Mei-Fan for an exorbitant sum, the sisters would be forced to entertain men. The Baron’s baby in her stomach meant that she could be separated from Mei-Fan—if she were permitted to live. If she was not slaughtered for meat first. The villagers and The Baron’s servants had often whispered of mercenaries, those who acquired women from Japanese soldiers and from starving Chinese families. None of the women had ever come back. Yu-Chen knew that the cook had traded his wife to feed his infant son for a month. A cousin of one of The Baron’s wives had been peddled and then promptly slaughtered when she displeased a Manchurian warlord.

     Yu-Chen shook again. This was a gaunt and bony future, teeming with sorrow, which she could not endure. She smothered a hard, dry scream. “Uncle, you should just leave us here to die! It is kinder than selling us to strangers!”

     But Big Uncle had finished with her. Exhaling from the cold, he leisurely urinated on the scaly base of a tree, which shrieked in what seemed to be outrage. Yu-Chen knew that she could not argue with Big Uncle. His instinct to survive was almost as great as hers—she shared his pragmatisms and ability to endure disaster.

     Big Uncle motioned at his sons to continue their sojourn into the forest. No one in Tiangwei had ever gone further than the funeral clearing, except for the missing Japanese soldiers. The thicket squalled an unhallowed warning. With his dao, Big Uncle hacked at the spindly foliage, to clear a path for their procession.

     “I told you that we could do nothing,” Mei-Fan snarled at Yu-Chen, her posture resigned. Balanced on the back of her cousin, she attempted to rub her bandaged feet, which were discolored and speckled with fresh blood. Yu-Chen’s feet were no better. Under the silk bandages, they had resembled shriveled pink and purple stubs. Her toes were unrecognizable. Like the entrails of a dead rat, she thought, miserable. Without proper herbs, infection and fever would soon set in.

     Wincing, Mei-Fan closed her pale-red eyes. “We might as well take a nap, Small Sister.”

     “If we die, we’ll have all eternity to sleep,” Yu-Chen snapped. She scowled. “I hope we don’t see The Baron in the afterlife!”

     Her sister did not respond. Yu-Chen knew that Mei-Fan was pretending to slumber to avoid conversation. After their joined wedding ceremony to The Baron, they barely acknowledged one another, except to argue and blame each other for the unhappiness inflicted upon them. In their shared mahogany dian at night, despite their all-encompassing sadness and fear, the sisters huddled together. But always back to back. It was almost as if they were afraid to face themselves. As if they were afraid that undertakings of kindness towards one another would weaken and ruin them in The Baron’s house.

***

     Before they became child-concubines, Yu-Chen had wanted to find their oldest brother in Hong Kong. Big Brother had fled Tiangwei five years before the Japanese Invasion. He was a biologist, a man of science, and did not approve of superstition. In his letters, he had been furious and saddened when he found out that his sisters had their feet broken and bound. Join me in Hong Kong when I am established, he had told the girls, when they were not yet wardens of Big Uncle, and The Baron did not own their bodies and pedigree yet. But then, Big Brother had suddenly stopped writing. Yu-Chen often wondered what it was like, if she had ran away while her parents were still living. If she had hired a wagon and a tour guide to aid her to find Big Brother before the War began. Would her life have been unmarred by tradition and suffering?

     Hong Kong has factories as tall as the mountains, Big Brother wrote. The city thrives on gasoline. Here the women are free to work in shops. None of the younger females have bound feet.

     If Yu-Chen could stand on her shattered feet, she would have hobbled to Hong Kong to find Big Brother. She wondered if he was still alive. Or if she would finally see him, her mother and father again in the afterlife? Would she meet her unborn child as a spirit? Would she come to love it, like one of her siblings? She feared that the fetus was a monster, half-living, half-mad, like The Baron.

***

     Feverish, feet throbbing as if on fire, Yu-Chen must have sunk into a dreamless unconsciousness. Because when she woke in the sweaty cold, she had been plopped facedown. Her shoulder and elbow had barely cushioned the fall. Squinting at the salt-colored topiary, she scanned the horizon for Mei- Fan, who was still being carried. Her sister was alive. Yu-Chen felt a sharp, chalky inhale of relief.

     The relation who had been holding Yu-Chen had tumbled. At first, she thought the cousin had tripped on a wayward root or a jutting rock, perhaps twisting his ankle. But she saw that he was sprawled on his back, hands cupping his ears and screaming. His shrieks rebounded off the spruce saplings. AHHHHHHHH! AHHHHHHHHH! AHHHHHHHH!

     “Get off the ground,” Big Uncle shouted at his son, confusion balking in his voice. “Get up! Get up! What are you doing Oldest Son?!”

     But imminent madness seemed to have claimed their male relation. The white funeral forest had unhinged his mind. He rolled and spasmed, legs jerking, arms thrashing. As if he were having a seizure. As if he were possessed by a malevolent jingsu demon. He screamed and giggled, and Yu-Chen, shuddering, thought of The Baron who was prone to such violent fits. The Baron would often choke his wives, concubines and servants with fleshy purple hands.

     As if diaphanous shadows, the other relations hovered around their oldest brother, giving him a wide berth. All were afraid to touch him. As if his insanity, foreign and incurable, would be passed on like leprosy. Big Uncle tried to make his son sit up, but his progeny kicked and flailed. His son would not stop screaming. Their cousin’s face was as pale as the forest except for two glowing spots on his cheek—like melting flames.

     “We should go back,” the cousin carrying Mei-Fan said, sounding worried. “We can leave the girls here, and carry our brother to a healer.”

     “No!” Big Uncle said. “The mercenaries are waiting for us and they expect prompt delivery. We must receive our payment!”

     “Perhaps someone can stay with him?” someone suggested.

     “In the cursed woods?” the first cousin asked. “How would you find us again? It was a mistake to come!”

     “Enough!” Big Uncle shouted. “Do you want your mothers and sisters and children to starve? We must pay the Japanese a tithe not to hurt us. Each girl is worth at least 15 gold pieces.”

     “But he is your son and our brother,” the cousin said. “We must help him!”

     “It is night soon!” another said. “We cannot continue in the dark.”

     Seeming to understand that he was reaching a mutiny among his sons, Big Uncle agreed to a respite. Yu-Chen was eager for a break. Her back and stomach ached with fullness; her crippled, inflamed feet weighed like sodden wool.

     Yu-Chen and Mei-Fan had been placed hastily near their screaming cousin under a cover of spruces. Surprising them, Big Uncle covered the sisters with the burlap blanket from his second wife. “Rest, nieces,” he said, almost kindly, almost paternally. He patted them, awkward, on their backs, as if they were favored hunting dogs. As if they were his most tender and loving burdens. “We have a long journey tomorrow.”

     Perhaps Big Uncle’s son would recover after a few hours of sleep, even though Yu-Chen knew that it was useless. As the woodland wailed like a room full of lifeless children, she began to feel more certain that her cousin’s madness was a curse. She was convinced that his lunacy had not been festering inside him, but had been sudden and swift—his cries were nearly inimical to those of the tormented.

     Their male relations had foraged for twigs and dead leaves to make a fire, but the forest’s surface consisted of only tiny morsels of dirt and gravel. And they could not chop timber in the white funeral forest no matter how hard they tried. The unpigmented wood was impenetrable. Groaning, their cousins swallowed their provisions of stale bread and set up traps for wild rabbits. But Yu-Chen had not seen any birds or squirrels. No animals.

     None of the cousins offered their rations to the sisters.

     Ravenous and dizzy, Yu-Chen scanned the soil for tangled roots, perhaps sour acorns or even a shriveled worm. She would eat yellow grass if vegetation had sprouted in the funeral forest. Even a bellyful of weeds was better than only dead air and an unwelcome baby budding inside her. War and famine and her prison as a concubine had taught her to ignore human suffering, but still, she felt terror and pity for her cousin. He writhed and screamed as if skin-eating parasites were ingesting him.

     “Hush!” Mei-Fan said, attempting to sooth their shouting cousin, who was only a few years older than she was.

     “It won’t help,” Yu-Chen said. Irritation, like a piece of sand, was lodged deep inside her throat.

     “I’m only trying to be kind,” Mei-Fan said, tears oozing from her lower lashes. “What will happen to us?”

     Yu-Chen paused, worry for her older sister tugging away at her defenses. She swallowed her brambled pride. “I’m sorry I snapped at you,” she finally said. Among the sisters, apologies were as rare as freshly caught fish during famine-time. “I’m just hungry.”

     Mei-Fan nodded. They hadn’t eaten for two full days. Mei-Fan scooped up a pile of loamy dirt. Yu-Chen did the same. They both smeared their gums and tongues with the mud paste, hoping the acrid taste would mask their hunger. It worked, but then seconds after, the emptiness returned, stronger. Their foreheads touching, the sisters leaned against each other. With resignation, Mei-Fan touched Yu-Chen’s distended belly and sobbed with her entire body. Her waifish shoulders made exaggerated shivers. Yu-Chen held her older sister tightly for warmth.

     “I’m sorry,” she said again, and Mei-Fan nodded. “I’m sorry, too,” she said.

     Together, the sisters huddled, miserable, under the burlap blanket, and for a moment, they could not hear their yowling cousin or the frightening refrain of the trees. All was hushed in their minds, except for their inaudible forgiveness, their irreplaceable loyalty.

***

     At daybreak, their cousin had not exhausted himself. He was still shrieking, while the other cousins complained of famishment. Yu-Chen felt surprised that the man had not died from fatigue or choked on his own web of spit. Then she felt guilty for thinking about his passing. Over night, the trees had gotten louder. Like a slaughterhouse, Yu-Chen thought, fearfully. When the Japanese soldiers captured all the young boys in Tiangwei and forced them, in pairs, to march off the town square’s roof.

     The trunks of the funeral forest began to shift and sway. Yu-Chen thought that a few of the trees had moved. She had sworn she and Mei-Fan had fallen asleep together near a crooked copse of beech saplings, and when she woke, there was nothing there, but a boulder. Flinching at the high-pitched wailings, Yu-Chen and Mei-Fan had no choice but to stop their ears with their fingers. It was as if they were in celebratory attendance at The Hungry Ghost festival, zaji performers at a Classical opera imitating wind-demons.

     “Are you feeling okay?” Yu-Chen shouted at Mei-Fan, who could barely hear her over the keening demands of the trees. Mei-Fan bobbed her neck, unsure.

     During the night, restless and unable to sleep, the funeral party had devoured three days of bread rations. Then a scuffle had started over the farmer’s severed head. Big Uncle had insisted it was to be sold upon reaching the mercenaries, but a cousin had gorged upon the murdered man’s ear. The meat had spoiled—white maggots squirmed within the scalp and gourd-shaped eye sockets. But the remaining cousins, as if possessed, had consumed the rotten flesh, all the while complaining of their insatiable hunger.

     “What have you done?!” Big Uncle said, his voice newly pained. “We ourselves do not consume human meat! The head was for profit.”

     “We’re sorry, Father,” one of his sons said, hanging his head like a shamed child. He was only thirteen. “We could not help ourselves.”

     When the rabbit traps were still empty at noontime, the cousins began to scream as loud as their unfortunate oldest brother, who was still twitching, like a cockroach, on his back. If his performance had been in a theater, Yu-Chen thought that it would almost be comic in its tragic retribution. AHHHHH! AHHHHH! AHHHHH!

     Horrified, Big Uncle, shouting that they would have to hurry to the periphery of the trees because it appeared that his family had caught a foreign disease. But it was too late. Like decrepit houses, his three other sons collapsed and began to scratch at their glottises and thrash.

     “Get up!” Big Uncle shouted, almost pleading. Desperation swelled in his voice, making it sharp. “Get up! Please! I said, get up, my sons! Your father, bah-bah, commands it!”

     Securing his dao and his burlap sack, Big Uncle began zigzagging across the path. But he too, soon fell to the ground in a paroxysmal fit. His eyeballs bulged; he squealed as if he were being gutted. His kneecaps cracked. AHHHHHHHH! AHHHHHHHHH! AHHHHHHHH! he shouted, as if imitating his sons. Yu-Chen and Mei-Fan watched the transformation in distress and amazement. First, white leaves like whiskers began sprouting from their male relations’ shouting mouths. Pine needles and ivory-glossed branches sprouted from their shoulders like porcupine quills; the men’s torsos and legs lengthened and thickened into gnarly trunks. Their feet began growing into ungainly roots. Their bones split and bent and twisted. Crack! Big Uncle howled. There would be six new trees in the forest: an old forbidding cypress, three slender birch trees, and one spruce sapling. Intruders, now creatures, cocooned with half-flesh, half-bark.

     As the alteration persisted, the forest grew hotter and brighter, as if it were a core of melting candle wax. The earth rumbled. The trees grew loftier and higher. Sunlight eclipsed the milk-white of the leaves.

     “I think you should go now,” Mei-Fan had said to Yu-Chen. She smiled faintly at her sister. She stared at her defiled feet. Mei-Fan’s face collapsed into a sad and fleeting place. Blood had sopped through the white silk bandages staining them the color of an angry sun. “I am tired of living, Small Sister.”

     “No, Big Sister,” Yu-Chen said, her voice quivering with tremendous force. Her instinct for survival was strong, but she could not leave without Mei-Fan. Her loyalty was the only virtue that defined her and made her twelve years old and human. “Come with me to Hong Kong! We’ll have a better chance if we go together!”

     “You were a good Small Sister,” Mei-Fan said, her voice heavy as a barrel filled with lard. “I don’t know if you’ll make it on those feet, but you should try to find Big Brother.”

     Yu-Chen had forgotten the blistering ache that extended from her missing toes to her raw knees. But she needed to find a skilled healer to stop the spreading infection and discomfort. She knew Mei-Fan was right. She could not convince her older sister to live when she herself didn’t know how. Despite being younger, Yu-Chen understood that her older sister could not survive in these vicious times.

     Yu-Chen looked at former Big Uncle and her cousins, writhing in their own impromptu executions. More and more pine needles, and spiny, white leaves began to sprout from their bodies. It seemed to Yu-Chen as if they were performing an indignant dance, punctuated by a cadence of locus-like shrieks. By now, only Big Uncle’s torso was recognizable and fully human. The cousin who had first succumbed to the curse had become a furry sapling with wet, winking eyes.

     Yu-Chen looked back at Mei-Fan, who was sitting, cross-legged, on the burlap blanket. She was crying. The baby squirmed, like a hungry snake, inside Yu-Chen’s stomach. She could feel a muddying love flooding through her, for her sister, for her parents, who had been victims of their place and time, and everyone else in Tiangwei, who had starved and suffered. Like a waking tortoise, ghost-like but determined, she began to crawl on her knees through the white, sepulchral trees. Somehow, she’d find a way through the funeral forest, leaving behind the shrill, cruel screams of her transformed dynasty. She did not know which direction Hong Kong or Manchuria lay, where the sun climbed or fell, but behind her, there were only white trees and certain death.

 

Lindsay Wong holds a BFA in Creative Writing from The University of British Columbia and a MFA in Literary Nonfiction from Columbia University in New York City. Her debut memoir, The Woo-Woo: How I Survived Ice Hockey, Drug-Raids, Demons, and My Crazy Chinese Family is forthcoming from Arsenal Pulp Press on Oct 1, 2018. Pre-order it from Amazon or Indigo Chapters.