“Each child in this world must carry the ghosts of generations past,” is the only fact Victor knows, at the end of all things. Taught to him by the thing of meaty, translucent bits that has moved into his life.
He sits with his feet tucked neatly beneath his knees ignoring the pins and needles, the ache of his flesh and bones, and instead focuses on the warm polished wooden floor. Most of the time he spends in this house Victor is on his knees: punished, polishing, praying. The air is thick with sandalwood, smoke curling upwards as the incense stick burns down. Fifteen minutes for each one.
Victor waits for it to finish then lights another one. Presses his forehead to the ground, mouth moving soundlessly as the moon moves across the sky casting light through the half-open curtains.
The victim never forgets. It does not matter how many incense sticks turn to ash in front of the old fake-jade Buddha. His grandmother, matronly but not motherly, warned him but Victor never listened. She spoke a language he did not understand, though he tried to learn, the sounds swelling his tongue as he practised in front of a mirror; it would loll out, red and thick, before Victor gingerly plucked it between thumb and forefinger: stuffed it back inside. It is as if he had been cut from the same silk cloth but crooked.
As a child, the calligraphy brush had been unsteady in his hand, tracing line after line after line. This brush was his grandfather’s, made of sheep wool, and so very soft, so very fine, so very impossible to use. Victor had no affinity for it then, nor does he now. The weight of his inadequacy bends his body, his spine a half-moon made flesh.
His grandparents made the trip overseas when they were barely adults, leaving behind scorched earth and mass graves—the inevitable scars of a bloody civil war. They were smuggled across on documents as fake as the alleged jade the Buddha is carved from, first to Taiwan and then further west. Where the rest of their family was, what became of them Victor does not know. His grandparents did not talk about it.
Victor only knew that one day a year plates of white rice and mantou were set on the mantle upstairs where his grandparents occupied the second floor of their shared house. Victor and his parents had the first floor; Victor’s room a small, comfortable space next to the kitchen with a view of the small herbs planted in the garden. His grandparents would bow their heads and light incense, a ritual he never saw in any of his friends’ homes. A custom that separated him from his classmates, and as children are cruel in that sweet, innocent way, Victor learned not to talk about it. His classmates still invite him to play Chinese Whispers, and laugh at a joke that Victor is not part of.
Victor wanted to fit in and the only way to do that was to forget. Back then, he could afford to. Cutting pieces of himself and feeding those to the nothingness, shaping his words, his likes and dislikes to match what was expected (likes: football, sticky Coca-Cola cans, Megaman X; dislikes: anything that makes him stand out, including and not limited to: the shape of his eyes, sticky rice bread, his surname).
It is easier once his grandparents die. It is as good a death as any, a moment of consciousness present before extinguishing under the weight of cut chords; an unexpected heart-attack claims his grandfather one day when he’s at the shop. Victor’s grandmother follows, a slow descent into dementia until she might as well be dead for all that she’s become just another of the nameless strangers in the photographs in the attic.
Victor peruses the frames left behind with the black and white faces, strangers whose features Victor recognises as his own, too. A terrifying discovery to find oneself so close to the unknown. He has learned to fear the unknown in people: the cruelty, the jokes-not-jokes, the eternal status of outsider.
Right up until his grandmother’s death, the altar was kept. Even in her dementia the motions so deeply ingrained in each articulation, between each joint, nestled between flesh and tendons and bones.
After, decay in the form of neglect sets in; Victor’s mother has no time for such old world customs. She wants to adapt and more importantly, she wants her son to fit in. There is no talk of ghosts with reedy necks and their open-mouthed hunger. Only empty plates and unlit incense sticks.
The thing about forgetting is this: the living do it with ease, but the dead can’t.
Victor is in high school when the nightmares begin. He is an old man in a teenager’s body, the trauma of generations past having filled the moments where he neglected them. His grandparents, those that came before them, all strangers disconnected from Victor’s present, and now seeking to make themselves present in his future. A wrongness that makes his mind its home and spins a web-like raw silk over his eyes. The world becomes muted, bleached out and distant. His mouth rubbed raw, ash white.
“Mr. Huang?” Tony Lopez, the student counselor, waves a hand in front of Victor’s face to grab his attention. Kind as he tries to be, he is in charge of over a thousand souls, trudging the halls of the school. It is exhausting if the dark circles are any indication. “How are things at home? I was sorry to hear about your mother, I was told she changed after your grandparents both passed.”
Victor shrugs, the memory of his grandparents like a hot knife against his skull. He hates thinking of them, that is why he tries so hard to forget. Grief has no rhyme or reason, no logic or formula to work through. His mother is just another ghost now, not because she’s dead but because she is not, having packed her bags and left a few weeks back. This was not before she had instilled within Victor the inadequacies of his disposition, inner and outer. She wanted a normal child and instead she got … him.
“Your teachers are concerned about your grades, you’re clearly a very gifted student …” Mr. Lopez trails off.
There are so very many expectations for people like Victor. As if something in his genetics makes him especially qualified for mathematics or physics or some science, but the truth is Victor’s grades are the product of hard work. Nothing comes easy to him without the hours and hours of sitting on wooden floors, with mountains of books, reading until his vision fills with stars.
Sleep eludes him constantly, but if he admits to that, what else would they find wrong with him?
Even worse—what would his father say?
“Mr. Huang, is everything fine at home?”
And that’s an even more complicated question because what family is fine after weathering abandonment and death? He thinks of his fingers wrapped on the hem of his mother’s white dress, the cremation smoke obscuring his vision. The way grief perches in his throat and refuses to leave and find a new home. He didn’t cry for his grandfather or his grandmother then, he won’t now. Everything is burning. The only option is to lie.
Thankfully, Victor has always been a morally flexible individual.
“Yes, everything is fine.”
Victor sees them in the dark, undulating slowly. Their necks needle-thin, eyes sunken and feverish like stars plunging into an abyss. The figures slither and twist and turn, bones folding into themselves as they lose their human shape. Each shift followed by a familiar sound, Victor thinks of the crunch of chicken feet between his teeth.
There are hundreds at the side of the river, closed bulbs waiting to bloom. Their flesh unfurls like orchid petals, hearts surfacing at their centre and entrails spilling onto the wind like pollen. The lightest breeze picks the viscera up, tosses it skyward, higher and higher towards the dark.
Even when Victor wakes, he can see their emaciated bodies twisted in impossible shapes. Some sway like lotus flowers outside his window, others hang like orchids on the wall. They sound like his calligraphy brush on white paper. They crawl and writhe closer with each passing day.
Report cards, unfortunately, do not lie with the same ease people do. Victor finds this out on a rainy afternoon and thinks it is supremely unfair. There is a patch of uneven strands where he had to cut his hair after a classmate’s prank. Bubble-gum. A joke that even the teacher had laughed along with. He’s running on four hours of sleep and half a granola bar, and he doesn’t want to have this conversation. Ever.
When he closes his eyes all he can see are those monstrous ghosts that haunt not just his sleeping hours but now his waking ones too. Their white, bleached flour hands pressed against his throat. If grief had a shape, perhaps it would be this.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” His father, perfectly combed hair, pristine black slacks, tugs the collar of his shirt with one hand, and with the other waves the flimsy piece of paper in Victor’s face.
That gesture alone betrays his agitation, his willingness to put aside the picture-perfect image he presents everyone with.
“What good would it have done to talk about it?” Victor says because he has no self-preservation or filter when he is this exhausted.
His father’s face darkens, mouth open and closing like a carp out of water. Whatever answer he had expected, Victor’s had not been that. Perhaps his father had wanted Victor to grovel and apologise, to swear to do better. But Victor does know better: no apologies, oaths, or burnt incense will fix this.
No promise made will make his nights restful again.
This is an illness that is rooted in neglect and disconnection. An inability to bridge the past and present and the ghosts are left to hunger.
“Your grandmother would be ashamed,” Victor’s father says.
It is a final attempt at discipline: emotional blackmail, the shame cast onto those who worked hard to make sure one is clothed and fed. Shame and grief sit quite well together in the back of his throat.
“She’s dead.” Because Victor can’t help the words. Spat out in a fit of rebellion and rage, rejection and renunciation: “She doesn’t much care.”
His grandmother was no saint beneath the summer blouse and flower-patterned skirts; Victor remembers, though it has been years, the sullen silence he was subjected when he could not write right. The reddened flesh she had twisted between thumb and forefinger. He remembers all this and thinks that may be why his mother felt liberated when she knelt that final time in front of the urn.
All those things to keep the ghost at bay he refused to learn because of the cruelty behind each lesson. He does not think it fair; he’s seen it on far too many movies made in this country: the past is past, the past is dead, the past cannot come back to haunt you.
Except, his skin and his bones and his past are not from this place, with its new buildings and new customs and new newness. Victor’s mind is but the rest of him is not. He carries what should have been left behind in the ruins of his grandparents' flat in Shanghai. Every inch of his flesh still belongs to them. The ghosts, the past, the DNA that very much says the dead do care, you know this, you dreamt it.
Victor’s reply about bad grades gets him grounded for a month, internet privileges gone, and his room turned upside down. His father thinks he’s doing drugs.
During a telephone call, his mother blames bad influences at school. She’s down in New York with her new boyfriend, she sounds happy and Victor notes how her tongue wraps lovingly around each vowel. The accent that he could never shed, now she’s left behind, snake-skin crumpled among the petals.
Soon, Victor will not know her face and she will forget his; perhaps that is what his mother has always wanted, to not only be free of her past but of her present. Resentment tastes of nothing, feels like nothing, despite being told its bitterness is like crushed ginseng pills. Victor does not think he can resent someone who he never felt connected to; there is an opaqueness to the way his heart beats, slow, slow, slower still. With only indifference mirrored back at him during the call.
A few months before her abrupt departure, his mother had called him into the kitchen; a cup shattered on the floor, milk tea seeping into the yellow linoleum. Victor had cleaned up wordlessly though it had not been his mess. Are his desperate prayers and lit incense not just a simple extension of the same?
All Victor really wants is to continue forgetting. Allowing the miasma that clouds his thoughts to eat at his nightmares too.
But the dead aren’t half as kind.
“There is a price to pay, we won’t let you forget.” Ghosts made of flesh, of bone speak with a voice like a crocodile ripping prey apart. That brutal crunch sears those words in his mind.
The sounds coming to life, the words slowly lifting themselves across the room as solid as the wooden floors. Victor dreams of drowning alongside paper boats and lotus-shaped lanterns in the river. Wakes with what feels like water in his lungs.
The victim never forgets.
The violence inflicted remains, an invisible scar separating ghosts from the living. Victor feels beneath his skin where the soul and flesh have been severed.
There is no purgatory to escape to.
These ghosts will eat him out, scrape his insides raw and then feast on the shell left behind. They will brew his bones with a pinch of salt and sit underneath the moon of the seventh month. They will think of Victor as one of them—hungry, lost, forgotten, but Victor will think of himself as finally being home.
Editor: Aigner Loren Wilson
First Reader: Morgan Braid
Copy Editors: Copy Editing Department
Accessibility: Accessibility Editors