“Nothing followed you?” Harriet’s mother said, peering up and down the corridor.
“No, Mum,” Harriet replied. She looked pointedly at her suitcase, hair clammy around her forehead and neck. She hadn’t slept in nearly twenty hours thanks to the baby next to her on the plane. “Can you let me in?”
She had to duck under the white banner draped above the doorway: the Chinese calligraphy done hastily, acknowledging death within, the spidery script dripping black ink downwards. Like raindrops on car window, growing heavy as they merged. There had been so many long journeys in childhood.
Her mother finally nodded, ushering her in, notching the double locks behind her before she acknowledged her daughter. “Shoes off ah!”
Harriet was halfway to the enticing fan before shuffling back to remove her footwear. She had fallen out of the habit. Steven had been brought up in a household that only removed their shoes before bed.
“Who would be following me anyway?” she asked.
“Not who—what,” her mother said over the hissing kettle from the diminutive kitchen.
Time had stood still in the last four years since Harriet had visited her por-por’s flat. Or more likely, the last three decades since gong-gong had passed away. The wall of family photos had grown slightly. She recognised her daughters, Lucy and Mia from last year’s Christmas card. Next to it was her own faded school photo: face beaming under thick rimmed plastic glasses and badly cut fringe. None of Steven. It was bad enough her mother moved overseas and married a gweilo, but Harriet had gone one step further and had kids with one without even stopping to marry him first.
Harriet went to the household shrine to light her joss sticks before she got told off. The imposing mahogany unit had a carved roof like a tiered pagoda and shelves underneath filled with books and knick-knacks. Por-por had brought Guanyin with her when she came to the UK. No crucifixes and hymns needed but instead food and flowers. Egg tarts, fresh fruit, and hot cups of tea were left daily. Today there was a pyramid of oranges, a large pineapple and flowers in a blue and white vase. She remembered that vase. Por-por had moved over when Harriet was nine and things started to go wrong for her parents. Slept in Harriet’s bed, whilst she fumed on the floor, listening to the motor of an old steam train heaving in her sleep. But to make up for it, at the Chinese supermarket, her por-por had let her choose her own chopsticks and rice bowl, even pick the vase for Guanyin’s flowers that her gran took back to Hong Kong nearly a year later. There were plenty of vases in China, but only one that had been handpicked by her granddaughter, she had explained. And so they had to visit, Harriet and her mother, to check in on por-por, on the vase and on the goddess.
The statue was covered with a cloth, and Harriet was about to remove it when her mother came from the tiny kitchen with a screech. “What are you doing? Don’t touch that!”
Harriet flinched like she had been slapped, her nerves shot through. Her hand jumped back and knocked the vase over. She watched it teeter on the narrow base, water slopping from the brim as if she was not even there, a spirit without any means to stop it. When it smashed on the tiled floor, Harriet felt an odd sense of relief.
“Aiyah,” her mother said, crouching to pick up the shards.
“Sorry, I’m . . . tired I guess. But why is Guanyin covered?” Harriet said.
“It’s bad luck for the gods to see leh . . . because of por-por.” Her mother had already cleaned it up, like there had been no mess in the first place. She snatched the joss sticks from Harriet, shaking her head as if she had been brandishing a knife. Returned to folding the heap of laundry. She held up a beige polo shirt. “How about this one for tomorrow?” her mother asked, staring passed Harriet.
Harriet turned to look behind here, but it was only por-por’s empty chair in front of the TV. Two strokes in the last year and a stubborn refusal to move into a nursing home. Her mother had flown over to Hong Kong six months ago, their roles now reversed. A phone call at one in the morning, her mother’s voice robotic as she told her it was too late. Por-por had gone. No, she didn’t need to come, it’s fine. Harriet felt a hollow guilt in her stomach that had nothing to do with the tepid aeroplane meal or jetlag. She had been going to visit, she had always planned to. All through late primary and into high school, she and her mother visited every year. Then Harriet had wanted to try something new: a girls’ holiday in Spain, a European break with a boyfriend. She was studying, she was working, she was saving. . . . Mia happened. Lucy a year later. And Harriet never knew what to say to por-por over the phone with her broken Cantonese. Could never find the time, putting it on the back burner along with decorating the spare bedroom and learning Spanish.
Her mother looked at her—pouring Harriet a mug of boiling hot water from a thermos—exactly what she wanted in the local humidity. She bit back her complaint, blowing until the heat steamed up her glasses and she drank it down in thirsty sips.
“I told you not to come,” her mother said, the laundry now in one tidy pile. Her hands couldn’t keep still. Wiping one spot on the coffee table over and over.
“It’s okay. Steven’s parents said they’ll help. He can survive for a week,” Harriet said, reaching to squeeze her mother’s arm. “I wanted to be here for you.”
“Hai ah, hai ah. There’s so much to do. Your uncles and auntie are arriving tomorrow, we need to meet with the monk and . . . ”
“Mum, let me help,” Harriet said, “What can I do?”
Her mother patted her hand, “I don’t think you will understand.”
Harriet bristled with the defensive spikes of every “gweipor” snigger from shop assistants; every Chinese New Year greeting she stumbled and faltered over on the phone as a chorus of relatives lined up to correct her intonation; every look of pity when she asked for the English menu. Her arm stiffened beneath her mother’s touch. “I can help,” she insisted.
“Hor ah, you want to help. Look after your por-por,” her mum said.
Harriet heard the laughter from next door’s TV through the wall in the silence that followed. “What?” she said finally. The happy jingle of an advert was playing now from the unseen TV, the low tones of the narrator droning under Harriet’s skin.
Her mother pointed at the small dining table. Only then did Harriet noticed that her por-por’s place was still set, chopsticks, spoon and all. Her favourite cushion was plumped up and her purple buttoned vest draped over the chairback. “We still have to look after her wor.”
She was getting delirious with the lack of sleep. There were only two beds in the flat and these went to the elder uncles and their wives. Harriet had offered to book a hotel but no, her mother said firmly, if she was here now, she would stay with family. Space was tight and privacy lacking. She slept on the unpadded wooden bench that was her grandmother’s sofa, above the ratchetting snores of her mother and auntie on an airbed below. Ornate dragon clawed handles may be beautiful to look at, but they did nothing pushed against her forehead as she tried to stretch and turn on the narrow seat. And when she woke, she saw things in every shadow: a man at the dinner table, hunched over a bowl of soup; a woman’s shoulder just visible beyond the open bedroom door; a head glaring at her from the shrine ledge.
“Haven’t you seen her yet? She probably doesn’t forgive you,” Uncle Lei said. He had seen por-por this morning. At five in the morning when he woke to go for tai chi in the park, he had seen her. Uncle Lei was rather pleased with himself since the others had all seen por-por already and he was sick of being lumped with Harriet. He had been heading out of the door when he felt someone touching his shoulder like she used to do before giving him a lecture. And when he turned, he saw something, just out of the corner of his eye, for a second. Her ghost.
Auntie Pui-Ling decided it was high time to tell her story again, because she hadn’t repeated it in the last three hours. She had shut the kitchen door, definitely, because of the oil smells she always shut the kitchen door, but it opened, completely by itself! That was definitely por-por. Por-por didn’t approve of spring onion pancakes when auntie was supposedly losing weight. So they put the stack onto por-por’s plate instead and the whole family yammered encouragingly to the empty chair, telling her spirit to enjoy them whilst they were still hot.
Her mum opened the window and turned off the air conditioning because por-por had scolded her about the waste of money. Uncle Freddie bought salted fish for dinner because of a whisper in his ear she was craving it.
It was no good talking about coincidences and delusions. Harriet had tried that, but they just shook their heads at her, sad at her disbelief. It had to be Steven. He hadn’t even paid for dinner that time he came to Hong Kong and he even had the audacity to cross chopsticks with por-por. Didn’t show her any face, no respect for his elders! And living in sin with Harriet: she was in the bad books, the only logical explanation why she hadn’t seen por-por’s ghost.
Harriet had to excuse herself from the dinner table, pretending to look at her phone with her back to them. She stared at a vase of flowers. The blue floral motif looked like frilly lion heads, recurring in a spotty pattern that reminded her with a pang of potato printing with her own daughters. Wondered if Steven would remember their ballet lessons and drive with the noise of insistent singalongs from the backseat. Lucy would be louder to make up for her lack of tone, glancing at her older sister and copying every mannerism she could see. Tapping out a short message, Harriet noticed something moving out of the corner of her eye.
She froze, resisting the urge to look. Her relatives were yammering in Cantonese, gossiping about her as if the language barrier would be enough to hide the conversation. She tried to tune out, easy enough with her limited language skills. Still she could not ignore the pointed looks her Uncle Lei threw her, the gesticulating chopsticks, that whatever she had done, they disapproved. Her mother’s face was a mirror to the stern door god at the entrance of the apartment block. She spooned some fish atop por-por’s untouched white mound of rice, her silence blacker than a starless night.
This time the voices were closer. Whispers that breathed lightly on her arm like limp mosquitoes. Her eyes strained with the effort of keeping them still, calmly focused on her phone. The words she had typed blurred and migrated across the screen as if tipping out of the corner. She would not succumb to the suffocating hysteria in the room. No matter the jetlag, the migraines pushing at her temples, she was not that person.
Gwei ar, gwei ar, gwei ar
Very slowly, she inched her eyes up from her phone. Past the bowl of oranges, the spiked stems of burnt out joss stick like needles in a pin cushion, past the screaming faces on the flower vase and up to the . . .
Harriet looked at the vase again. Chrysanthemum heads, that’s all they were, chrysanthemum blooms. But she had smashed that vase. The one she had chosen when her parents had been screaming the house down at each other. The one her por-por had nodded at, the language of hand gestures and folding paper cranes; the chicken drumstick fresh from the chopping board for a hungry stomach; a warm hand towel rubbing her face clean of tears.
The open-mouthed ghouls looked back. Mouthed the taunt at her.
“Lei, that’s enough,” her mother’s voice cut through, “Steven is Harriet’s partner lah.”
“Gweilo don’t know how to do a hard day’s work. All they do is complain and give up!”
“You talking about Harriet’s father?”
Auntie Pui-Ling pretended to spit on the floor, cursing loudly. “Don’t you bring up that sei gweilo! He divorced you as soon as there was trouble.”
“That’s enough. He’s still Harriet’s father.”
“Deem ar? Look at her? Her Cantonese is rubbish and she had kids without getting married! What side of the family do you think she picked that up from?”
She was nine years old again, a tug of war rope in a game with only one possible outcome. Harriet dropped her phone, the corner smacking off the tiled floor and cracking the screen. The table of relatives erupted in a fuss of advice and condolences, the argument forgotten.
She was coaxed back to the table, almost at the plastic stool, when she remembered the faces. Harriet turned, glaring towards the shrine in defiance of any mocking screams. The vase was gone.
“What’s wrong ar?” Uncle Freddie asked.
“Did you see something, did you see her? The gwei?” said her auntie.
“No, I . . . it’s nothing,” Harriet replied, swallowing hard.
Harriet had burned joss papers in the barbeque pit with her por-por when she was younger. It had been fun, rolling up the gold sheets and tucking in the corners to look like the boatlike gold ingots. She would fan out the joss paper notes with their multiple zeroes, money for the afterlife, and throw it onto the fire. And would it just appear in the afterlife on someone’s lap, in their spirit bank account or raining from the sky? The details were never very clear, even when por-por tried to explain.
But the scale of things was different here. The street was full of religious goods shops, the smell of sandalwood pungent in the air from the bundles of joss sticks. Paper signs in red and gold for double happiness, studying, health and everything in between, decorated the walls between each small shop, advertising their wares on every available space. It was chaotic on the surface, piles and heaps of goods spilling from shopfronts onto the pavement. But there was pride in it. Cardboard lined the ground and cellophane covered delicate items. One shopkeeper was cleaning with a dog-eared feather duster and another wiping each statue’s face.
An elaborate papier-mâché house—a doll’s house her Mia would’ve wanted—sat on a low table: candy floss pink over three floors with a balcony, twin turrets and external columns. Next to it, but not on the same scale, were card and paper TVs, smartphones, a hot tub, mahjong table, massage chair and teaset. Child-sized cars lines streets outside the next shop: Porsches, BMWs and Audis with lucky license plate numbers of 18s and 88s. Cardboard handbags and shoes, perfumes and make up sets, gold and diamond watches and banquet meals: all boxy facsimiles but as good as the counterfeits in the market.
If she didn’t know why they were here, she might have presumed they were Christmas shopping for kids.
“Is this all for burning?” Harriet asked her mother incredulously.
“Yes, I have a list of things your por-por definitely wanted, but you can choose the extras. A few nice outfits, some jewellery. Not the cheap stuff leh, I want to treat her,” her mother said.
The row of red-faced Guan Yu statues watched Harriet as she drifted over, her mother’s words rattling inside her head. Treat her? Not the cheap stuff? She looked down and sure enough, there was a price difference between the cardboard watch sets dependent on brand. Her voice broke in a sharp laugh. Great—days of insomnia, an upset stomach due to change in diet, not to mention washing herself with buckets of tepid water because her relatives had used up all the hot water—had rendered her into a hysterical madwoman.
The old woman dusting looked at her suspiciously, moving forward. “You Chinese?” she said in way of a greeting.
“My mother’s from Hong Kong, my father’s British,” Harriet responded in Cantonese, the phrase so often repeated that it was etched into her skull.
“Oh, half, you’re a half wor!” she pronounced. Harriet grimaced and closed her eyes. No matter what side of the world she was on, people always thought this was the best way to describe her. Like a made-to-order pizza, split down the middle and dissected: the liver and left kidney for England, the stomach definitely Chinese, lactose-intolerance and all.
Harriet smiled through gritted teeth and moved on. Down the street, drawn towards the shop with ceramics. A whole two shelves were blue and white porcelain: vases with round bellies like a laughing Buddha, others tall necked like thin saplings, ones with a nipped-in waist, lidded jars and tiny teacups that could only be held with finger and thumb. They were patterned with dragon and phoenix pairs, willowy fairy ladies and plum blossom branches. Her eyes roved, looking for one with a pattern like the one she had broken.
There had been flower heads on it, small petals connected by curved stems that she remembered tracing with a finger. She would start at the top of the vase and see if she could make one unbroken trail to the bottom. If she could, if she could manage it, then everything would be okay. Mum and dad would get back together, she wouldn’t have to go to Chinese lessons anymore and her por-por could be a normal gran who made roast chicken rather than chicken feet for tea. As long as she could make a line—it would be true.
Three rows deep, she saw a vase with a familiar shape. The light did not quite penetrate between the shelves but she felt it in her bones, calling to her. Carefully she began to move the other porcelain to one side, the bases scraping on the metal shelving as she inched them away. Her fingers could just about touch the cool surface. See the shadow of a pattern.
The darker patches weren’t quite the flower heads she had thought. Clouds? She turned the vase with one outstretched finger. Turned and saw it now. A face. A decapitated head lolling on the shelf.
“Shit!” Harriet said, jumping back.
“What are you doing?” the stall holder shouted, sandals slapping down the aisle. “You break, you pay!”
“No, no, I just saw . . . ” Harriet shivered and looked back. Nothing but dust.
“Gwei? You see a ghost?” he asked, crouching beside her. Harriet shone her phone light left and right, but there was no third row of porcelain, just some cardboard boxes and empty space.
“No!” Harriet said, the negative burning her mouth. She saw the faces of her disappointed uncles and aunties lingering in the air. Then there was just the face of the exasperated stall holder, arms folded as he yelled at her to stop wasting his time. “Chi seen gweipor!”
They stopped for soup noodles and fishballs. The server waited for them impatiently, tapping her pencil on the table as Harriet’s mum translated as much of the menu as she could from the peeling signs on the walls. The cook stared from behind his glass prison, steam wafting up as he pulled off the lid from a vat of soup and shook handfuls of noodles into wire baskets. Roasted ducks and strip of marinated meat were displayed like a hanging.
“Wonton noodles,” Harriet decided finally.
“I translated all of that and you still pick wonton?” her mum said, frowning. “This place has stewed tripe!”
“No way,” Harriet said. “Besides I like wonton noodles. They remind me of childhood. And por-por . . . ”
Her mum relented, ordering for them both as the server repeated the order in a loud bark to the cook and threw two cups of lukewarm tea down on the table.
Por-por had made pork and prawn wonton. Taught her how to squeeze the little yellow squares into parcels and watch them bob on the surface of the hot water. And she remembered trailing water around the table with her finger unnoticed as everyone’s attention was on her father, two bulging suitcases and a door, not slammed as expected, but politely and firmly closed behind him. His house keys still on the breakfast bar next to her elbow. How will he get back home? How will he get in when we are asleep? Harriet had asked and asked, following her mother around with the questions that rolled into her head and could not be ignored, like a small stone in her shoe, rattling and jagged no matter where she went. Por-por had made Harriet a distracting bowl of noodles and let her eat them with a fork. Come home, come home, what’s left for you here, por-por had said. I’ll look after Harriet, she won’t be a burden to you. We can teach her how to be Chinese. Soft but persistent, the message continued through the remaining months of her stay.
Harriet looked around the place, distracting herself from the tight lump forming in her throat. The old man in the corner had a simple plate of choi sum and was enjoying an unwieldy newspaper, folding and tucking it down to size so that he could bring it close to his face as he was reading. The aunties were washing the chopsticks in hot water, each shouting over each other about their sons’ school grades. And there was also a young family sharing two portions of ho fun between four bowls.
It could be normal for her, easy if she knew just a little bit more of the language, the culture, the people. Instead it was like she was on a rickety old lightbus, hurtling through the Hong Kong streets and being dazed by the neon lights, but never stopping long enough for her to orientate herself.
“Have you seen her?” her mum asked.
“Not this again,” Harriet said, burying her hands in her hair.
“You didn’t want to see the body. This is the best way to say goodbye!” her mother insisted.
“I’m not a child,” Harriet replied. “You can’t just make up stories about river dragons and a rabbit on the moon. You can’t honestly tell me you’ve seen her ghost. A real gwei.”
“Does it matter?”
“Of course, it matters.”
“Uncle Lei is talking about something other than the money he lent Uncle Freddie two years ago. Auntie Pui-Ling has not criticized my weight once whilst she’s been here. We remember your por-por, together, that’s what’s important.”
Before Harriet could respond, their conversation was interrupted by the server dumping the two bowls of soup noodles. Harriet stuck her finger in the puddle of spilt water. She didn’t know what to say. A reflection of the bowl blurred as she trailed a track through the liquid as she had done as a child. The angry child with no clear outlet for her grievances than a mother who wasn’t like all the other mums at the school gate.
“It’s different for me. It will always be different,” Harriet said. Her chopstick had twisted themselves up a little, crossing over in the way that por-por would have scolded her for.
“Only if you let it be,” her mother said.
The blue and white border on her soup bowl was inching very slowly around the rim. Hiding from her. Harriet turned it, hot broth scalding her hand although the pain barely registered. Ornate symmetrical patterns swirled before her, just out of focus as she turned and turned to follow the blasted thing, the mocking laugh just around the corner. Chasing it, head down near the table, following the trail.
The eyes looked frightened, por-por’s eyes, hiding from her around the next curve.
“Harriet!” her mother said, grabbing her arm. “What are you doing? Can you see her?”
Harriet released her hold on the bowl, suddenly aware the other people were looking at her, whispering that ubiquitous word under their breaths.
“No, I can’t see anything.”
“See lah,” her mother said.
“That’s your thumb obscuring the camera lens,” Harriet said, glancing at the photo.
“No, that’s your por-por’s spirit wor. We need to help her cross over to the other side,” she said adamantly. It was hard to argue when she, and all the other close relatives, were wearing the traditional funeral clothes Harriet had only seen in TV dramas. A bandana across her forehead and a shapeless white tunic. They were in por-por’s village for the funeral, the old family home that Uncle Lei had inherited. It was like a different country out here in the rural dust, the houses large and sprawling compared to the boxroom flat they had been staying in.
“Okay, okay. Tell me what I need to do,” Harriet said.
“Here’s the thing,” her mother said, suddenly dropping her gaze and finding her jade bangle very interesting, “you aren’t actually allowed to do the ceremony.”
“What?” Harriet said. Her voice came out shriller than intended. They had been up all night making dish after dish in the sweltering kitchen for por-por’s afterlife feast. Lack of sleep had worn her patience to nothing. Her vision pushed in a little at the edges, pressing on her temples.
“The monk said so.”
“Because I’m half?”
“No lah, because you aren’t married,” her mother said.
“How is that better?” Harriet heard herself snap. She took a deep breath.
Her mother sighed, shrugging her narrow shoulders. “Your por-por’s spirit might be jealous, might want to come back. And . . . an unmarried woman is easier to possess.”
“And if I was married, I’d belong to someone else, you mean?” Harriet said pointedly.
“Look, I don’t make the rules! Best not to risk it lor. You can stay out here and burn the joss papers.”
“It’s just stupid. Stupid superstitious nonsense, and you know it!”
“This is part of your culture. Chinese tradition.”
“Only fifty percent,” she said. The words lingered in the humidity between them.
Only the cicadas broke the prevailing silence. Her mother made a strangled sound of frustration and turned to join the other aunties and uncles around the trefoil coffin. Uncle Lei whispered urgently to her, rolling his eyes a little. Harriet knew exactly what he would be saying. Gwei. Gweipor, gwei sing. Like chattering pigeons peck, peck, pecking at her. Harriet thought about leaving. She imagined the whole process in her mind’s eye: getting a taxi, picking up her passport, buying an earlier ticket home. But her feet remained firmly planted, her limbs refusing to leave the shade of the trees.
The funeral started, the Buddhist monk leading in low stylized Cantonese that could have been Russian for all Harriet recognised. Her uncle’s shoulders were shaking and for a moment Harriet was going to call out, scared he was having a fit. But then his wife starting weeping loudly, like she was wringing the tears from a face cloth. Soon everyone was crying, howling wails and ugly hiccuping sobs filled with bubbles of snot smeared on cuff sleeves. Only her mother was silent. Her eyes were wet, but her fists tightly pressed to her sides and she kept her lips pressed firmly together. Harriet remembered now, where she had seen that expression before, the night por-por had finally left the UK.
The monk told them to turn away, not to look lest the hungry spirit seek solace in a still warm body. Harriet looked instead at the trees behind the house. From low hanging branches dripped heavy roots, fingers digging down into the earth. The aerial roots swayed like curtains, the darkness between the forming shapes. It pulled at her, dragging her down with it as she heard them lower the coffin into the ground. She swayed forward, stumbling as she pinched herself on the inner arm to stay awake. The smell of incense, ripe fruit and the dishes they had cooked mingled in the growing heat, the heady concoction swirling in Harriet’s sinuses. She dragged her glance away from the shifting tree, from the faces she could see watching her there, and stared instead at the backs of heads.
They started burning the bigger items in a huge bonfire. The joss papers caught fire, bright flashes of light before withering into grey soot. Ash rose, dancing coyly into the air above the large burner before tumbling like first snowfall into her hair and eyes. After the third cardboard flatscreen TV, Harriet began to wonder which room por-por would put it in, and if her afterlife mansion had enough plug sockets. The threads began to unravel the more she considered it: glasses, a toothbrush and traditional Chinese medicines. Did ghosts need a safe for valuables? Banks? For a woman who had lived plainly in life, por-por’s funeral offerings were decadent beyond reason. There were piles of paper notes to burn, skyscraper columns like the harbour skyline, and they had to be burned as individual sheets. After a while, Harriet’s admiration of the handiwork, her morbid curiosity gave way to numb reflex and her hands fed things into the flames with the barest of recognitions.
With a sense of inevitability, Harriet looked for the blue and white among the piles of cardboard. The more they burned, the more she could feel its baleful gaze. Eyes had winked at her but disappeared when she turned to look. Among the clothing sets, a wide smile snapped shut when she grabbed it, holding only a joss paper handbag. But when she finally found it, the faces on the vase stared straight back at her. Deep blue eyes, one bigger than the other, held her gaze as they drooped on the surface of the cardboard. One, no two, three of them, drifting downwards with absurd crescent moon smiles as if to ooze onto her feet. She dropped it, flinching like the flames were already alight.
“Harriet?” her mum asked, suddenly at her side. “Did you see something?”
“Ghosts aren’t real,” Harriet whispered. The paper vase was just flowers and leaves. And there was a body burning on the pyre. A woman with preposterously pink skin in a simple cheongsam, her skin blistering in the heat and peeling off in layers. “Tell me you see that,” she said softly.
“That’s just a paper servant,” her mother said.
Harriet started laughing. Unrestrained laughter punctuated by exhaustion, tears rolling down her cheeks as she continued. Laughing at the absurdity, the heat, the isolation she had felt as soon as her plane had landed. Faces. All she could see were faces, uniform in their difference from her own.
“I’m glad she wasn’t crying in the ceremony like that,” Aunti Pui-Ling said, “You’d be fired as a professional mourner for that performance!” They had emerged now, her aunties and uncles in the white garb, surrounding her like clucking hens.
“I can see her,” Harriet finally admitted to no-one in particular. She wasn’t talking about the body burning in the fire. That was no more than paper and card like the rest. She meant the real ghost. The one who pulled the blanket over her shoulder after she had cried herself to sleep. That had sent her letters she could not read, and never had the energy to decipher. That hung her photo on the centre of the wall, in the biggest frame. That had kept every childhood gift she had sent on the shelf just below Guanyin’s shrine.
Harriet picked up the paper vase, meeting the eyes of the faces.
“Yes,” her mother said. And a press of bodies surrounded her, bony shoulders and soft limbs pushed in close. Comforting.
Harriet rubbed her eyes, stinging from the tears and the smoke. When she looked up, the courtyard had changed. Gone was the bonfire, the relatives, the noise. Her vision was unclear, like gazing through a crack in the door. Stack of gold ingots were laid out like bamboo steamers on top of each other. Two lines of servants formed a path in front of her, each with a tray before them: tea and rambutan and tongyuan all on offer. Harriet moved forward towards the mansion at the end. It had jade green dragon-spine ridges and flying eaves curving upwards. The cars they had burned were parked outside, with the showroom gleam on their bonnets.
The pink sky rained with fluttering bank notes like snow and Harriet reached out to catch them. The money was warm to the touch and smoky, some still singed with holes that mended themselves before her eyes. Inside the house, half a sofa was forming, and a small dog bounded across the polished tile floor. And there, in the kitchen, looking through the cupboards was a familiar figure, bent over and making pleased sounds under her voice.
“Por-por?” Harriet said. She reached out. A vase, blue and white porcelain, appeared in her hands.
“Por-por?” she repeated.
The old woman turned.
Harriet blinked, suddenly facing the bonfire, her eyes smarting. The joss paper vase watched her from the ground where she had dropped it. The chrysanthemum flowers had por-por’s eyes. Her mother stood beside her, the soothing weight of her presence giving Harriet a certain calmness.
She placed the vase within the flames.
Originally published in Pareidolia, edited by James Everington and Dan Howarth.