Writing by Michael Wu, illustration by Lucienne Saisselin.
Look at Bill. Bill was not really his name; he’s my cousin. Bill got drunk when it premiered, so he might not really remember. We ate mochi imported from Japan after the movie, so he might remember that. Grandmother was slow since it had been a while since anyone brought her out. (Maybe the other relatives on my uncles’ side did, either way I was wholly unaware.) After I emptied the popcorn and Mother insisted I was not to eat any more snacks, we headed toward the hotpot place. The name of its franchise had something to do with seafood but you could cater to your fill without a slice of fish; Father ordered a fish with a lot of bones. I think it was to spite me. He didn’t like it that I got to pick the movie.
“They always have great service here.” Grandmother said after taking off her purple scarf. “Have some soup before you eat, Mai.”
Mai, that was my name.
“Warms up the tummy and readies it for food.” The pot had not fumed. Shanghai was cold that time of year, but I had already sweat a little in my small hands. I got that from my Dad, who was sitting across from me. His order was full of meat.
“ Can I tell you a little story?” My grandmother sat beside me. She liked telling me stories. I don’t know how. She was even a fan of Sherlock Holmes. She must have read it before the Revolution.
“I love your stories grandma.” I said.
And she told me this one.
When was this? It had to be a long ago, before there was blood. This was before 37. Maybe even before the massacre of 27. So, so early.
The air? It was earthly. Like a worm bursted out of the soil. An earthly beginning. The day was still early, that’s what Yu, the kid who was peeking out on the third floor of the mansion thought. And there, in the house his family lived for generations, he saw something. But there was something unusual about this. This being that the messenger he saw was sent in haste. You don’t send a messenger without an envelope unless—the thought unsettled him. Visitors, Yu thought, who?
It was unusually busy when the birds outside stopped chirping. He had earlier sneaked into the room belonging to the man who his maid told him was his father. He’s not sure how he felt about that. But the splintering sounds of the old pages sounded good. They were new too. The man who was his father kept only a few secular books; they were all somewhere in the house. The servants did not know much about that too. Speaking of servants, they were up to something. A moment ago they were all on this floor and now they are all gone. The old wood under Yu’s foot groaned. He had to find them fast.
“So did he find them?” I said as Father gave an extra piece of lamb. Lamb in hotpot was delicious. My grandmother didn’t look annoyed at all, maybe it was because I was still 12. “He found them in the dining room.”
“They were not alone. There was someone who he had never met before. A strange man.”
“They didn’t hear him. Yu had soft feet and he trained himself for stealing the books. He was not to be noticed. And through the slit of light illuminated in the dining room, he could see eight, maybe even nine shapes. He remembered his great grand aunt and his distant relatives somewhat. Some of them he wasn’t so sure but by the way they were talking sounded like family. ‘This is Muo xiansheng from the…he will be staying as our guest for a while…he will be teaching...’ What was that?
“He will be teaching who? And the man was pale, so pale. His long ears and slanted eyes, and that smile, so shrewd yet intelligent, it was as if he was a fox.
“His figures in darkness resembled a painting he saw years earlier, when he had just saw the man who was his father hiding away those foreign manuscripts. Yu made sure he was gone before taking a peak at the top book. The book shocked him. It was filled with descriptions of demons. On the Japanese monsters, the yokai. Among the first pages was a depiction of a fox-like face so similar to Muo xiansheng he was convinced that that man was no human. Muo’s mouth, so crooked and of a sinister smile, showed he was not the man who was invited here. He had surely replaced him after eating him, thought the young boy.
“ Muo was a yokai.”
I was startled. “He was?”
“Shush.” Bill said. Or was it my mom?
Suddenly, I realized he was an idiot. Damn it Chinese American Bill.
“Yu finished the books by noon. He confirmed the drawings too. Who would have thought the man who was his father would have interest in these? He was after all a respected man in the community. If there was a father pacing in Yu’s head, he long disappeared beyond the stairs into a Christian Temple. Yu, watching, was ten years old. So Yu always wondered, even though the man was more a bishop than a father, if the apple didn’t actually fall far from the tree. He clearly was disturbed in considering this once more this afternoon. He closed the thought with his books.
“The last inscription to vanish within the book read:
‘Yako, meaning ‘wild fox’, are a type of kitsune that have chosen to possess humans by hiding themselves under armpits. Such is said in Kyushu.’ Then there is the description for— ‘Kitsune, fox yokai, are missionaries of havoc. By shapeshifting into humans, this yokai fool villagers into accepting them as guests and long before their mischievous nature is revealed, these unwelcome guests disappear along with their hosts’ wealth.’
‘Page 23 of Japanese Folklore by Togo Yamaguchi,’ read someone.
Who was that?
Nobody was supposed to be in Yu’s room. A robe in darknes, fine cloth. It said, ‘That’s a fine book, shao-nian.’ The shao-nian, the young boy in question, was shaking.
‘You!’ Yu said, ‘You are the guest! But your eyes! They ar…are..ar..”
‘Are like what?’”
Like the new year story, the hotpot boiled then and the intestine were cooked. Delicious, my dad liked it. But Mom didn’t like the smell much. Bill was having trouble getting a piece and speaking both at once. He was really stupid. Bill stutters when speaking English. He stuttered differently too.
“Like demon eyes ,” said my grandmother.
“Muo’s eyes were like a demon’s. Taller than any of his hosts, he scared Yu half to death. But then Yu observed his hands, Muo’s hands were long but clean without scars. It was worn. An artist’s hands. ‘You are cousin Xinrui’s new tutor.’ Yu realized. She was having one; she blabbered.
‘You are smart. Maybe even more clever than they think. Did you like the book?’
‘Yes.’ Yu found himself replying back.
“I painted those pictures in the book.” Said the Yokai to the young scholar.
He said, ‘Would you like to try?’”
Then Father’s noodles came up. “You ordered noodles?” Grandma said.
I murmured that I thought he ordered dumplings.
“Would you like me to order dumplings?”
“I hate dumplings.”
“Yu’s thoughts were getting more absurd. Maybe it was because his childhood best friend came back from his tutorship in the south. It didn’t go well but he was glad. His name was-
‘Yujie, why do you draw foxes?” Yu was practicing that after school. Changming usually had a point.
‘I have a feeling.’
‘Not like your thing for my cousin.’
‘I told you I don’t like Xinrui.’
‘Do you think people can turn into yokai?’
Changming’s stare changed. ‘Are you serious?’
‘Sometimes I think I am drawing myself.’
Changming pointed at the fox. ‘That’s you?’
‘Yes.’ This was five years after Master Muo left. Yu somehow took his shadow.
‘Master Muo is gone, Yu. I mean you heard.’
Muo was executed. Like many artists unable to sell as the market changed, he attempted robbing in poverty. He was caught and hanged. A yokai was hanged.”
Grandmother didn’t say, but he was later made into a martyr during the Revolution. I did my research. Quick as it was though, he was soon forgotten again, and by the by, only the story remains of a tenacious man.
But to me, the one who really sinned in the story wasn’t him. It was-
In class, there were many frustrated him. Like the kid in the back. Why was there that kid in the back. Changming had lost his books somewhere again. And now finding them, he saw Changming’s shoes, the shoes Changming’s father had given him , thrown around. It had become a sport. If the shoes had been passed to him, he surely give it back. But it wasn’t. So he waited, until the teacher finally berated the poor boy who held the singular shoe in the end of it all. The shoe went back to Changming. Changming didn’t seem to cry. He was now smiling. What a strange smile. But it wasn’t long before the kid in the back started throwing paper airplanes to the front.
The kid in the back got called to the office. The apology he wrote for why he didn’t run the marathon was more like an essay on why he shouldn’t run the marathon. Changming and Yu didn’t stay either. Changming had invited Yu to play. His father was somebody in the National Party and you could see it in the house. There were lots of toys. Toys the boys weren’t really sure if they were toys.
Like this toy gun, thought Yu. They found it in a draw.
‘This looks so real.’ Changming said.
‘Want to take turns?’
He held it so seriously. Two children hands on the small pistol. Changming could feel all the details coming into focus. He clicked; he didn’t mean to. Loud and shrieking, the shot was centimeters from Yu’s head. Somebody was screaming. They would never play again with toys they didn’t know. Yu didn’t know when was the next time they play each time he left Changming’s house. Maybe it wasn’t their last time.
Maybe it was.”
“Yu cried when he was drafted. Yu himself was considered unfit. The boy he knew only left him with a smile and a letter. There was a poem in the letter. Yu couldn’t understand it at all. The officer who took him talked a lot about country and patriotism and change.”
This was the last time I interrupted Grandma. I have always regretted saying the words I did. I was loud, “Truth. Reality. Patriotism. What a piece of crap. Each person held their own opinion.” I said with such confidence. Grandmother, on the other hand, was soft. “It’s ok, you don’t really know what you are talking about.”
“Don’t you know Grandma? All people our age talk about is stuff we don’t really understand.”
And, yes, her story was ending.
“Yu would sharpen his ink when he thought about his old mentor. Have you tried sharpening a pencil? It is hard, isn’t it, to do it without thinking. Yu also smoked a lot. Didn’t tell anyone, but Yu also dreamed . His dreams were always about yokai. His relatives into cats. His cousin into fish. And his father turned into an old fox, who always discarded him in the woods alone.
“The year he retired, twice as old as Master Muo was, the same summer rain didn’t fall for two weeks, now that he thinks about it, not far from then. His friend would be there at 2 p.m. Enjoying that something was what they both loved. His daughter had just returned from work and the justification for a layback had just been laid out. He texted her that he was out. I can’t say I knew how many things he didn’t know out there. People try different things at the mall. Some wore hats and some looked like they were still afraid of rain. Was it raining? He didn’t really know. And Yu sat down. Simple excuses and the ghost of his old man, the fox, found his seat too.
The old cinema was gone. Yet, time sinned. It betrayed everything. Because they were watching a movie about monsters.”
I always thought Grandmother was emulating the movies we watched together on New Year’s Day in the cinema for this bit of the story. Maybe she wasn’t. This was after our rabbit finally landed on the moon. A lot of people were drinking that night.
This final bit happened in a dream. I won’t say whose. Yu met Changming again. It was Yu who was telling it now.
I was stopped by a man one night I was not myself. I looked at him and he seemed to have known the man who was no longer there. “I am sorry.” He paused. “Do I know you from somewhere?” I looked at him quite directly, which made him quite nervous. “I don’t think so.” I said. And he excused himself—no, I excused myself. I bid him goodbye and left into the crowd; I was going back home. But wait—that wasn’t supposed to be. What really happened was—
After the Revolution ended, the crowds filled the streets. The boys with red scarfs around their necks—I was one of them. And there came a voice. A group of cavalry came near us who were resting after a drink. A familiar face was in the chariot. That man, no it still had its boyish looks. “Hey!”
“Liu Yujie!” He waved.
And this time I didn’t wait. I hurried to embrace him. We reunited on this street, a street long rebuilt and shaved away from the map. It is gone now. But, those tears and that poem he wrote years ago, I know them now to be real.
The moon and mountain comes with me go,
and eye, stars tonight, walk with me strides.
In that is not true feeling, such a thing beheld
To be no fairer, but calm, waves not to pulse,
Water not to current, against heavens spoke,
Not knowing folly, it is no hand to hide its false
But a gentle heart, carried up by the other, calling its own.
The moon was round that night again, and the people were yokais around us, people we only remember. They danced. And I cried.