A whisper of excitement echoes through the cave, or what I think of as a cave. She is coming, the minghun broker is coming, I hear or perhaps feel, like soft butterfly wings brushing my face. I strain to catch a glimpse of one of the others I know to be around me, but it is difficult to see faces. A flash of sleeve, whether plain or fancy, or a pale hand laid briefly on my arm is more likely.
When she arrives, the minghun broker is far more tangible than the companions I sense around me, and her face seems familiar. She has been coming as long as I've been here, which may be months or years. It is whispered that she comes to us in her dreams, that she belongs to the world before. The others are always happy to see her because she offers something they cannot find for themselves.
So far the minghun has not sought me, and I am both sad and relieved. This time again, she glances at me with sympathy in her eyes, eyes that I know can actually see me, even when I cannot always see my own hand held up in front of my face. Then she moves on, calling softly until she finds the one she seeks.
It is Chen Yinlan this time, and the others sigh with envy. The minghun stands before Yinlan and speaks, the waves of her voice spreading like ripples in a pond.
"I bring tidings from your parents, who wish me to say: 'Beloved daughter, you died very young and did not experience the unity of marriage. You are alone in the dark and we weep to think of you longing for companionship. We have come to know that Yang Xingwu and his wife have recently lost a son as they might lose a strong young leaf to the blowing wind. They have asked for betrothal so your souls might meet; we have consented, and have chosen this auspicious day for the marriage rites and feast. Please come share this celebration with us so that we might rest, knowing your soul to be united in harmony with that of your husband.'"
The minghun pauses, and by this I am puzzled. In life such decisions do not belong to the bride, so why does the minghun ask the bride's blessing here? But ask she does, and the answer is always yes.
I do not hear Yinlan's answer, but I know she has assented because I see her spirit flare briefly into something more vital before disappearing altogether. I feel Yinlan's absence for a time, before the press of spirits closes the gap. The minghun too goes away, fading back to her world, and the cave seems more restless for a time before it settles down as much as it ever does. Always the spirits move among each other, searching and waiting and searching some more.
Some of the spirits whisper that the minghun comes less frequently now, although how they can tell I do not know. In the old days, they say, parents understood the need for minghun, but modern views discourage the practice. Only in the rural provinces do grieving parents still act on behalf of their lost children, even if they must do so surreptitiously. I do not quite know where or when I am from, a city or a village, back then or just now; all possibilities seem equally improbable, as if this place is all I have ever known.
The minghun has not yet come again since taking . . . Yinlan?—I can't quite remember her name—from us. And because there has been no sign yet of the minghun's return, I am startled to hear a voice, clear and strong, behind me. I turn to find eyes shining from the pale outline of a face. "Who are you?" the face asks.
"I am . . . I am Liu," I say. "More than that I do not know."
"It will come back to you," she says. "When you've been here a while it will start to come back."
"What is a while?" I ask. "Who are you?" But she is already gone. I think of looking for her, but instead settle down to ponder her words. I try hard to remember something of the world before, and it is tiring, but finally I am rewarded with the memory of a baby gripping my finger with surprising strength. My nephew, I realize, my brother's son, an infant already so full of life that I know he will not depart too quickly as I did. I feel the squeeze of his tiny fingers again, and I rejoice still further when I am able to envision the weave of his blanket and hear my mother's kind laughter at the rapt adoration on my face.
"Someday you—" she begins, but I am wrenched back here and I do not hear what she says. I am consumed with sorrow over the things I have lost, and even more for the things I never had and never will. I think of Ping, my friend in the village, whose beauty was incomparable. She had looked at me in a special way, I thought, or perhaps I imagined it because I wanted it to be so.
This time I feel the stranger's spirit before she speaks, and I turn to her.
"You begin to remember," she says. "I am Yan Lianghui."
"I am Qin Liu," I answer. "I am from the village Qinjalao in the Shanxi Province. I am . . . I was only fifteen when I died, of illness because there was no money for a doctor. But my family loved me and I loved them and I am not ready to be dead." Suddenly words are spilling from me as fast as my lips can form them. Lianghui listens patiently, occasionally prompting me with a question or commenting with a smile that becomes more substantial as our conversation goes on.
Time passes as Lianghui and I get to know one another, although I still do not know whether it is hours or weeks or months that unfold. She tells me delightful stories yet holds something back, something I sense she wishes to say. I am fascinated by her, and in spite of my shyness I find myself telling her of my sorrow that I will not see my nephew grow up.
"There are babies here, Liu, did you not know?" she asks gently, and suddenly I do know, and wonder how I could have been unaware. They do not cry as babies do, but I can feel them around me, waiting, puzzled, longing to be claimed by a family without knowing what a family is. I want to cry their sorrow for them, because females so young will not have parents arranging minghun for them. Indeed, some of the baby girls were almost certainly discarded by their parents.
When the minghun comes again, I am surprised, for I have been distracted by Lianghui and the thoughts she has inspired. For the first time I realize that this is a different broker, that they have not always been the same person. Like the other ones who have come, this minghun moves among us, seeking the young woman whose parents have sent her, then reciting the greetings and invitation she has been asked to convey.
The lucky young woman, Aimei, is about to consent.
"Wait, please," I say, to Aimei or the minghun or both. The minghun is surprised, and makes a sign as though to protect herself. She is accustomed to approaching spirits, not to being approached by them.
"I respectfully address you," I say, bowing my head. "Aimei has been fortunate that her parents have found a husband for her. But there are babies here, little girls whose parents cannot or will not make such arrangements. Can not Aimei take a baby with her to be part of her family?"
Lianghui speaks softly from beside me. "And perhaps a boy child as well?"
I am ashamed, for until now I have not thought of the little lost boys, who do not seem to reside with us here.
The minghun stares at us in astonishment, her lined face unbelieving. "The parents have charged me with uniting Aimei and her betrothed, who will be buried together so that they may share the afterlife. How am I to locate the remains of the little ones if their parents do not come to me?"
"Please," I say. "Is there something you can do?"
"Yes," Aimei whispers. "I should like a child to care for."
The minghun vanishes and Aimei cries out. I feel wretched, thinking that I may be responsible for preventing Aimei from finding her peace.
"Courage, Aimei," says Lianghui. "The minghun is wise and she will—"
The minghun reappears, looking more translucent than usual, perhaps from exhaustion. "I have done as you asked," she says to Aimei. "I have found a family who mourn a baby girl and approached them with this most unusual request. Your parents were frightened but your mother pleaded with your father for his consent. I must find the child." She moves off and I see small vague lights in her path. Minutes or hours later she returns to us, holding a small bundle that begins to take shape. She offers it to Aimei, who cradles it in her arms. I tentatively reach forward and place my finger in the baby's hand, and feel a ghost-tear run down my face as the baby squeezes my finger and vanishes with Aimei. My hand is surrounded by emptiness, until Lianghui squeezes it in understanding.
From that time on, Lianghui and I are seldom apart.
The next time the minghun comes, she pauses before me. I am about to ask about the children, but she bows her head and speaks my name, which I had not told her upon our last encounter.
"Qin Liu," she says. "I bring tidings from your parents, who wish me to say—"
"My parents," I whisper in wonder. "My parents . . . How long have I been here?"
"Two days, Qin Liu. You have been here two days and your parents are anxious to lay you to rest next to your betrothed, a young man also from the Shanxi Province who was snatched from his family only two weeks ago. They wish to bury you beside him so that you may have companionship in your afterlife—"
"No," I answer softly. "I have found my companionship in the afterlife." Lianghui catches her breath beside me but does not speak, and I go on. "I have found Lianghui, minghun, and I wish to stay here with her. We will help the girls and the women, and the babies who need a family. And if ever a time comes when no more need our help, perhaps you can lay my bones to rest with those of Lianghui."
"I will do my best," she says, and bows her head once again.
"Please," I say. "Please tell my family that I love them. Tell them—" I cannot go on, but I do not have to, for the minghun smiles at me and I know she will find the words that escape me.
Later—hours, days, months—I ask Lianghui how it can be that only two days had passed before the minghun came for me.
"It is only time, Liu, in a place that does not trouble itself with such things. It is only we who concern ourselves so." She is silent for a moment, and then she says softly, "I have waited for you for almost three hundred years."
"Did no one else come?" I ask.
"Once before, I thought one had come. But though she loved me, she left when the minghun came for her, and I cannot blame her for that." Lianghui looks at me in wonder. "But you stayed," she says.
"I stayed," I answer. I take her hand, and I feel it become more solid every moment.