I like Grandma better dead. Even when she does things like this.
Far above me in the chimney, Grandma’s filmy hands scrabble against soot-caked bricks, sifting a fine rain of ash down upon my head.
“Please, Grandma. You’ve got to come down.” My voice catches on the rough brick, sending more dark dust to settle upon my hair, my clothes.
I brush it away but only manage to grind it deeper into the turquoise silk of my dress, ruining it. Ma’s mouth will stretch into a tight line, like a scar. She’ll say I can’t do anything right, while Pa won’t say anything, like I’m not worth wasting air on. Worse, I won’t get to sit in front of Grandma’s urn at the festival meal—not that we’ll have one at all if Grandma doesn’t come out of the chimney.
“Please, Grandma,” I say again, louder. My words scratch the walls like claws.
Grandma doesn’t look at me. A plank of sunlight slants through the chimney to cast her face into shadow, not enough to hide the way she angles towards the circle of sky peering down at us. She drifts upwards without effort—until she reaches the fresh strips of silver birch that outline the chimney opening. They gleam as white as Grandma’s hands as she pulls back with a hiss.
I helped put them there. Each year, right before the Festival for the Revered Dead, Pa and I hammer in the new boughs of silver birch at doorway and windows to keep ghosts out—and in. They hadn’t wanted my help this year, though. No surprise, really, after last year.
That’s when I got the grown-up girl job of helping with the strips on the roof. Some grown-up, though, because after I’d rolled my eyes and told them to stop calling it that, please, I ended up clinging to the edge of the roof, even as Ma came running out, arms waving.
From above, the bun on Ma’s head looked like a bird’s nest. No, like that perfect shimmy that water gets when you drop in a stone, but frozen atop her head, dark as nighttime rain as she screamed for me to be careful. Like I wasn’t already clinging on with numb fingers as the world tilted away below me, to ground that looked nothing more than a whooshing green blur, far closer than it should be.
Not that I cared they didn’t ask me to do the roof this year, because bashing the birch in around the windows and doors was more fun—especially when cousin Mei-Lin and I sneaked candied plums and pork dumplings while waiting for the village chief to check the boughs. He’d lick a finger, poke at the wood, inspect the salt-soaked nails. Ma would offer him the heaped bowl of thousand-year-eggs nested in coils of omelette while Pa set out tiny cups of near-translucent porcelain, poured a drop of sour rice wine in each.
Only after the chief pronounces that no gap can be found in the birch can Ma cart the urns from their normal corner, arrange them in a star pattern on the orange cloth thrown down over the scarred wood table.
Uncle Weng Li’s goes first at one side point, his dark jade urn adorned with bamboo and fishermen surrounded by leaping carp. Grandpa’s sits at the bottom point, a simple white jar striped with blue at top and bottom, swirling together in the centre, ocean or sky depending on whether you close one eye or look with both. Uncle Jinhai’s is light green like spring leaves or those tiny caterpillars that scooch along with bums in the air.
But Grandma’s urn is prettiest: alabaster instead of porcelain, inlaid with gilt dragons twining through rice stalks under endless falling rain.
It’s my job to hand out the offerings: crinkly joss money, red-painted coins, twists of paper with good wishes trapped inside. I’d always heap extra in front of Grandma’s urn and trace the dragon with my finger, the nobbly lick of orange flame, the daub of blue eye, and think, Grandma, I miss you.
Now, above me in the chimney, Grandma stretches one white tendril arm up towards that circle of sky.
I try to clutch at her legs, but of course my fingers sink right through.
She kicks at me anyway. “I might be dead but being stuck in that goddamn pisspot is the only time it feels like it.”
“But you can’t get past the silver birch.”
“So I’ll stay here.” She swings her arms, wisps drifting out as her forearms sink through the brick. She pulls back with a hiss. “More room, even if the view still stinks.” She peers down at me. “Better company, too.”
I try not to smile. “But Ma can’t cook anything if you’re up here.”
Her face twists into a snarl, lips drawing all the way to either side of her nose. One hand retracts into a fist, fingers shrivelling as she pounds it against her chest. “Let them starve for a change.”
Before I could answer, a clattering noise sounds from below as Ma strikes a spoon against the chimneybreast, a round moon of forehead appearing. “Mother, get down from there this instant.”
Grandma’s eyes crinkle. “No.”
The spoon jabs in again, almost catching my feet as Ma calls, “Li Po, you get your grandmother down here now.”
Grandma flows upwards, away from me and Ma and the urns. Closer to the sky, the air, the sun, the entire world, as she says, “I will not go back into that jar.”
She beckons me closer. “You could break the ring of silver birch for me.”
“But you’ll die.” We learned that at school. Ghosts can roam free from their urns, their revered place of honour on the family altar only during the Feast of the Dead. Only one night—and even then, they couldn’t leave the house. At the end of the feast, they curl back up inside their urns, ready to watch over us, protect us for another year.
Grandma does not turn away from me as she nods. “Yes.”
“For really real.”
“You won’t get to see me.”
Now she turns to gaze at the blade of light slicing down the chimney. “Yes.”
She juts out her chin. I know that look. It means raised voices, broken plates. Pa sinking deeper into silence. Ma hitting anything she can with her spoon—and not just things, either.
It is bad to say I like Grandma better dead. But I do. Because it means no shouting until my ears hurt, along with my chest and my head, and I have to run down the hill, climb the tree and still need to stop up my ears with my fingers.
But with her dead, I can sit before her urn after school, tell her about Nang Cho’s jokes and Sei’s smile, imagine her fluttering bird-wing fingers stroking my hair. Grandma just makes things-better.
Some places let ghosts run free all year round. How can people not love their ancestors enough to want to keep them safe? To make their spirit last as long as possible? And those ancestors, too…how could they not want to stay, to keep away the things that fill the night worse than ghosts?
I wriggle higher. “Grandma?”
“Yes, my sweet flower?”
“I miss you.”
“I miss you too.” Her fingers alight on my hair, but only for an instant as she drifts even closer to the chimney top.
“Bad luck, Grandma,” I insist. “You don’t want that, do you?”
“Bad?” Her voice crawls right inside me and squeezes my heart. “With all that oh-so-lovely offering money you left, the honour and good luck showered upon your beloved ancestors, and then screw the lid on tight, forget—”
“Grandma!” Tears—or maybe soot—sting my eyes. “I made those special for you.”
Her fingers writhe like snakes against the blackened bricks, nothing like birds’ wings, those delicate wisps that you have to hold your breath to not scare away.
“Did you, my flower? Tell me.”
“We spent all morning at school making them.” Origami, calligraphy wishes, and prints made from carved wood blocks and sticky black paint pressed onto red-dyed squares of paper.
Her eyes gleam bright despite the shadows. “That was last year.”
In school…in school…Had I missed a day? I remember tracing hair-thin black lines on the sides of clay urns and clutching crimps of paper to my heart while wishing as strong as I know how for Pa to smile. Had I forgotten them at school? Was that why she’d come up here, because I left them behind?
I start to cry. “Please come down.”
Translucent fingers brush against the birch. “Never.”
“It is that bad?” A quiet place to sit and tell yourself stories, not have to listen to Ma tell you you’re stupid—how bad could that be?
“Look around, child.” Her great cavern of a mouth gapes open, nothing like a smile. Black. I should be able to see straight through, up to the top of the chimney, the silver birch and perfect teardrop of sky. But I can’t. Only black, so complete it eats her up. Like inside an urn must be.
As if sensing my thoughts, she says, “So much time alone in darkness. It should mean no place for anything to get lost, right? But somehow, darkness finds a way to eat away at us. All of us.”
I reach up to try to pull her back, but before I lever my way upwards, a hiss fills the air, lashing at me from all sides. A choking smell, heavier than ash, than smoke. It gets inside me and tries to claw its way right back out.
“Grandma?” I call. But she’s nowhere to be seen. Wait. At the chimney top, she’s tried to get past the birch on her own, because I wouldn’t help her.
I whoosh up next without thinking, trying to tug her back. “Grandma. Stop.”
She reaches towards me with stumps of coiled smoke where her hands had been. “So you do it for me.”
My gaze settles on the blackness slithering up towards her shoulders. “You’ll die.”
She scrabbles back up to the chimney opening. “What does that even mean? They stopped me up in a jar. Expect me to be dead but not let me die.”
The circle of blue stares down, hard, unblinking as she strokes my hair with that cold jutting point of black fog that used to be her hand. “You’ll understand in a few years. Once it’s too late. Once you become more scared of losing the small, fading fragments that are no more than air.”
I shake my head, careful not to dislodge her fingers. Or rather, what’s left of them, even though they scrape my skull like knives.
She sighs. “They say water has memory, my flower. Our tears carry our sorrows, embrace them. What are the oceans but the salt of our tears wearing away at the land until nothing will be left? Air has no such memory. It does not hold onto us but strains to scatter our being to the five points of the world. But do not call it cruel, my child. To do this is the greatest kindness I have known.”
I draw in a shaky breath, soot coating my throat until I must look as blackened as Grandma. “But—”
Before I can finish, Ma’s spoon thwacks the bricks once again, echoing above her harsh shout. “Enough nonsense. If you aren’t out in five minutes, I’ll seal up the bottom with more birch. How is that, revered Mother? Is that what you want to happen to your granddaughter?”
Grandma presses down harder, seeping cold into my head. I have never wanted Grandma to stop stroking my hair before this moment. But I am frozen, cannot say anything. A long moment of silence fans down between us like a shadow.
Grandma lifts the blackened hand from my head, holds it out, then stretches it overhead. Towards the sky. “You must, my sweet flower. Let me free into the air to be forgotten everywhere but your heart.”
I squeeze past her up to the wide-open chimney eye. The silver birch glimmers, a finger’s breadth from my face. It feels like a bite of too-hot soup, a burning inside that somehow freezes you too scared to move.
I shrink back. “Ma will kill me.”
“Then what a feast we would have. A green jar handpainted with peacocks and nightingales, kites swooping across the sky.”
I shake my head. They have one like that already. I’d seen it earlier, but I didn’t remember setting it out. Who did it belong to, Great Aunt Xiaoqing? Mei-Lin?
No, I’d seen Mei-Lin just that afternoon. Ma had set out a platter of my favourite plum dumplings and Mei-Lin poked my side right as I tried to sneak one. She held out a tri-fold dragon, green and blue, with a stick to move its head. She tugged its tail and a scroll of orange paper lolled from its mouth, a sprout of flame.
I’d reached for it then pulled back. Bad luck for anyone else to touch the offerings.
But Mei-Lin had shoved it in my hands anyway. “For you, dummy.” Then she scurried back into the crook of her mother’s arm.
I’d held the dragon up, flicked its tail so the flame flopped out.
Grandma would love it, I remember thinking. I had crossed over to her urn.
“What is she doing?” Mei-Lin whispered.
Yes, rude of me to give away a gift. So I’d known then that I’d not made any at school, even if I’d forgotten so soon. Because I remember staring at the dragon, thinking that at least I now had something to offer more than air.
How could I have forgotten offering Grandma the dragon? Forgotten the white burst of glee in my chest when I held that dragon so tight it crumpled like a wish-offering in my hands.
Fitting, really, because in the end, aren’t all wishes nothing more than memories of impossible futures cast loose upon the air? That means it is their nature to be forgotten.
Unlike tears, I suppose.
Grandma rests her hand-stumps back upon my head. “I have cried enough salt in my lifetime that the ocean will remember me. I do not need the same favour from the air as well.”
I don’t even bother to nod, just blink back my own salt offering as I squash past her to the chimney opening. My fingers slide over the wood like it has been fashioned from silk, not earth. I curl my fingers around, shove—
It burns. It never has before, all the times I helped Pa so how—
I hold out my hand. My fingers are black, curling in on themselves like paper in a fire. Like…“Grandma?”
I flinch backwards but Grandma is right there, solid somehow, wedging me in place. “You already have the oceans. Let me free to the air. Caught forever in the Eastern wind, as surely as tears wed you to the sea. I won’t be gone, my child. I’ll be everywhere. But I need your help. Don’t stop.”
I try to squeeze past her. “Ma,” I call. I only manage a ragged breath, the sky an unblinking eye above me.
Grandma shoves me towards it. “Do not worry, sweet flower. They shall all cry out their life’s salt for you. The tears, oh, the tears. You will be remembered and I will be forgotten.” She used both arm-stumps to bash me into the birch. It cracks with a force that shakes the bricks.
I scream and thrash but Grandma won’t let go. Dragon-breath heat crawls into my chest, battering me back, along with Grandma’s voice, which is no less destroyed. “My sweet flower. You did it.”
Grandma nudges me aside to hook one stump of arm through the hole I’d clawed in the silver birch. “Thank you, my flower. Even the air shall not forget.”
I turn for a hug, but I have no forearms left. Enough though, for one last cuddle before she is free.
But she’s gone. She doesn’t even look back.
Below me, Mum sounds too far away. “Li Po? What’s going on up there? What was that sound? One more minute and you are staying up there until next year.”
“Ma,” I call. But the words crumble, sift down as dust without a sound. My hands wither further as I watch, eaten away now nearly to my shoulders. And the blackness, cold-hot burning that is beyond pain. Because it is nothing.
I drift up, back hitting the chimney rim, unable to move. So close to the air that would forget me. I do not want to be forgotten. But I will be.
Grandma is right. That is a kindness.
High above, the sky smiles down at me.
I reach up with shrivelled hands and smile back.
BIO: Deborah Bailey is an expat American living in a tiny British village that prides itself on (1) its annual potato festival and (2) once being home to Byron, in that order. A full-time freelance writer and editor, she is also Chair of the Nottingham Writers’ Studio. Her fiction has appeared Mirror Dance, This Dark Matter, Luna Station Quarterly, and Wicked Words Quarterly, among others; her story “Mission Critical” was selected for inclusion in Luna Station Quarterly’s first Best of Anthology. She attended the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers’ Workshop in 2012. She blogs at http://fourgreensquares.wordpress.com/ and is on Twitter at @4GreenSquares.