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When Li built her first body, she didn’t know for a while what, exactly, she had done.

She was too young to understand at the time. The corpse she found at the end of market day, curled at the foot of a fisherman’s stall; she didn’t notice the spirit until it had followed her inside.

Li hadn’t met Granny Yuan yet, but perhaps some of her influence had found Li anyway: Li knew to bury the cat and wanted instinctively to find a jar to capture the spirit with, its light blinking like fireflies. Even then she’d liked to build things, even if she was clumsy. Everything was clumsy: she found sticks for bones, sculpted a lopsided mud-clay head that slipped off crumpling shoulders like water, drew together a ragged tail of braided rope.

The cat hadn’t wanted to stick around in that body, obviously, and its own was out of the question—you couldn’t undo a disconnect like death. It couldn’t return to what it had already left.

But the cat didn’t mind Li’s. Li wasn’t the right shape, but she had teeth, a beating heart.

She didn’t know enough to dissuade it. The cat understood her as well as she could understand it—which was to say, there was a yawning distance between them like a bone fracture—but it was difficult to maintain any distance from someone when all of their thoughts started bleeding into yours. It didn’t like her limbs, how awkwardly they bent, but she could feel the curious sharpness of its satisfaction when she moved. The fluidity it wanted to coax her body into. The cat had died of starvation; the hunger followed Li for a long while.

Li was no longer completely herself when Granny found her, two weeks later. Granny would explain later what a spirit was and the consequences of sharing a body, of how easy it was to be changed, but back then it sufficed to exorcize first.

“You have to let it go,” she’d told Li gently and scrawled something on Li’s forehead that jolted her into a new awareness as it pushed the cat’s spirit out. “Look, it’s not happy, is it?”

The cat’s spirit, wavering and weak in front of them, blinked at them until Granny waved it away.

Now that Granny had said it, it was so overwhelmingly obvious Li was a little embarrassed. She could feel it, the strange parts of her that were not entirely her, lingering like a resentment. Obviously, there was something wrong about it, about everything.

But she couldn’t help wanting to keep the cat. Couldn’t escape the frustration that she couldn’t. Couldn’t tell if it was even her—Li, residual cat, Li-cat, cat-Li?—that was feeling it.

“It’s like this,” Granny explained to her later, pulling out the water in the air so it formed an impossible, suspended river. Li still remembered the sense of wonder she’d felt.

“The beginning, that’s life. We all start at the source.” Granny’s hands moved down. “But everything goes downstream eventually. Maybe you and I can slow it down”—she walked her fingers against the current, let them brace; there, the end, death—“but we can’t stop it forever.”

It was sound advice, and Li had never been one to ignore sound advice, especially when it was coming from Granny—Granny had helped Li develop her gift into something she could use to help others and found Li her first customers. It turned out there was a lot of interest in delaying death, in the type of resurrection Li could provide. Granny had even been Li’s first commission.

But Li had always been a little obsessed with Huyuan, even when they’d both still been children. Even when they’d grown up a little and Li still thought friendship was all she wanted from Huyuan.

When Granny came by Li’s workshop to deliver the news of Huyuan’s death, the choice in front of Li was hardly a choice at all, and even Granny knew it.

“Make sure you’re building a body and not a tomb,” Granny said.

 


 

Granny Yuan’s guide to catching a spirit:

  1. Lure it back. Every dead thing stays where it can be reached for at least a little bit, but not all of them remember why. Remind them.
  2. Keep it. Use traditional containers: statues, urns. Abandoned structures with lots of history, for better stick. Bodies. Anything with memory. Beings lose shape when they die; how are you going to help them keep it together?
  3. Keep keeping it. Careful with the “keep” part. Even in the most optimal of circumstances, you never know how fast a spirit might decay, what dying does to a person. Sometimes, things are just better off dead.

 


 

Luring was easy. Huyuan had died of sudden cardiac arrest on a brilliant spring day two weeks after her twenty-third birthday. No history of heart disease. She’d been preparing to take over her family’s calligraphy store, the same one Li had been frequenting ever since she got into her own business. Huyuan had even started to memorize the inks and papers that Li liked, the ones best suited to her work.

A person in the prime of their life, in that space before they’d fully realized who they were, was bound to be drawn by memory, at least initially. The desire to do more than what they had been granted.

Of course, a person like that hadn’t lived enough years to have much to stick around for. Li needed to get this right, or else Huyuan would just come and go, and be gone.

Li waited for dusk, for the crowds to thin, and then slipped through the lantern light and along the winding paths to where, along the river, Huyuan had died. Huyuan had liked to cook, had always produced some sort of treat for Li, so Li forewent the traditional offerings—roast pig, rice, fruit—and brought glutinous rice flour instead. Soy sauce. Red bean.

Granny had entire dictionaries for the ever-evolving script she used to make her talismans. They were sheets of paper made of recycled fishing nets, mulberry bark, with symbols inked into them to imbue them with power. Li was usually only interested in the talismans that sealed and bound spirits—for tethering and preservation so there would be no risk of the spirit returning to death—but tonight she dug the ones that would make it easier to summon Huyuan, to foster recognition, into the ground with her heel.

And then she waited. Night wisped gently into corporeality; the moon shivered as it hung itself bright overhead. Li couldn’t help shifting her weight from foot to foot and reconsidered how easy luring was supposed to be, reminded herself to stay calm. What would she do if Huyuan didn’t show up at all?

But then there was a light. A new weight in the air.

Like all spirits, Huyuan had lost form upon death, shrunk into something shapeless and faintly, luminescently, transparent. She was ever-changing, the odd glimpse of a defined feature—an elbow, a stream of long, inky hair—shining through and then shifting away again.

“Huyuan?” Li asked.

There was no response, but Huyuan hovered closer, shone a ghastly light over the talismans in the dirt.

A quiet, cool relief filled Li’s chest. If Huyuan was capable of understanding her, at least a little, she only needed to provide her with ways to communicate.

Quickly, Li went for her with the small pouch Granny had gifted her. Huyuan flickered in alarm, but the talismans held her in the confines of their circle. Huyuan pressed up against its invisible edges, pinned like a specimen against the air, as Li scooped her gently into the bag.

“Sorry, sorry,” Li said. “It’s only me.”

But Huyuan didn’t relax, not as Li held her to her chest as she traced her steps back home, or as Li scattered binding talismans on the workshop floor so Huyuan wouldn’t dissipate as Li transported her into a better temporary vessel, an old clay pot that had been passed down in Granny’s family for generations.

Li cast about for a memory she could soothe Huyuan with. Something familiar. She’d visited Huyuan at her family’s shop just a few weeks ago to purchase inks and came away with a lurid cinnabar variety that she would probably never use. But Huyuan had smiled so sweetly as she’d written Li’s name in it, a looping, elegant demonstration. Blinked up at her from eyelashes that fanned like brush-tips.

Huyuan didn’t settle that entire night, even when Li had talked herself hoarse and reminisced them well into their childhoods, all the way back to the first time Granny had taken Li to Fu’s Calligraphy Shop.

That first trip to Fu’s Calligraphy Shop had come a few years after Granny and Li’s first meeting, when Granny had started teaching Li about what ink-bases and lines worked best for Li’s craft. Ink was a wonderful medium: you could use it for talismans, to dye cloth, to shape faces. Anything to make a body more like a body.

Inside the shop, there were inksticks in the shape of billowing vases, inksticks molded into the shapes of lotus flowers and bamboo leaves. There were ones that were night-dark, depthless, and ones that shimmered in a faint gold on the paper as the shopkeeper—“Call me Mr. Fu!”—applied it in faint washes for Li to see.

But it was Mr. Fu’s daughter that Li had really been paying attention to. Huyuan, who walked Li through the correct ways to hold the brush and guided her through the first shaky strokes of her name. Huyuan, who Li would go back to see again.

Huyuan remained unresponsive as Li described her memories of it all, impassive and unreachable. A cold light.

But in the morning, when Li opened the jar, Huyuan’s spirit had solidified a little more. There was a hint of her mouth, ossified. Huyuan at rest.

 


 

Li’s workshop was open to people like her and Granny—people with divinity tangled up in their selves—and people like Hongzhi, who knew a person that knew a person, who still believed in the old gods. Granny specialized in dead things, in what the physical form left behind, but Li was good with the material, the tangibility she could pull from the world. Bodies.

Li wasn’t a god, but Hongzhi paid her in offerings and couldn’t always keep his thanks from sounding uncomfortably close to prayer. He was twitchier around Granny, who he said must be a god of death, though it had been Granny who’d referred Hongzhi to Li when he came to Granny and begged for some type of help for Shen, his dying husband. Granny, who’d kept Shen’s spirit safe after his death until Li had finished the commission.

Hongzhi had been visiting Li like clockwork for almost two years, the first Sunday of each month, midafternoon. Today, he arrived with the light as the clouds in the sky parted to reveal the pale sun, and knocked just as gently.

It was easy to smile as she opened the door. Hongzhi possessed a hopeless, boyish kind of charm that had shone through even at their first meeting, when he’d looked tired and frail, with purple grief smudged all about the soft of his face, straining against his youth.

“Hongzhi,” Li greeted him, “come in. I have your order ready. It’ll just be a moment.”

There was tea steeping. She poured cups for the both of them and sat Hongzhi down at the kitchen table before retrieving his order: skin grafts made from fibers of sunlight for Shen’s left arm, which had started to split, and a polishing for the right eye, which had started to cloud. Hongzhi brought with him baked goods—courtesy of Shen—and an early harvest of corn and soybean—courtesy of the spring rains.

They made small talk, which usually went along the same vein: the crops were great, Shen was great, the body was great. Everything was great for Hongzhi now that he had Shen back.

But today there was an old grief in Hongzhi’s eyes. An odd hesitancy.

Li let Hongzhi recite village gossip for thirty minutes, his eyes flickering from his hands to Li’s face and then back down, before she finally ventured, “Is everything all right?” She nodded at the treats Hongzhi had brought. “Shen’s not with you today.”

Hongzhi told her, stilted, “Shen’s tired.”

Li was uncomprehending. “He’s still having trouble binding to the body?”

“He’s tired,” Hongzhi repeated, shaking his head. “He’s—forgetting things, even about himself. I think he’s reached his limit. Maybe it’s time to think about letting things follow their natural course.”

Li took an almond cookie Shen had made. Chewed with a buzzing sense of the mechanical nature of her jaw. Hinge, flex, bite.

The dead weren’t meant to stay with the living for so long; anything in a hostile environment would inevitably begin to unravel. Physical forms could be upkept, but not even Granny could help someone remember something forever and give them a reason to stay. Everything went downstream eventually.

Li swallowed and it felt like swallowing down stones. “If there’s anything I can do,” she said.

Hongzhi managed a weak smile. “I’ll come to you,” he promised.

After Hongzhi left, Li went into her workshop. She took the lid off the pot and watched Huyuan emerge; she’d need to find a bigger vessel for Huyuan soon. She didn’t crumple the talismans binding Huyuan to the room. She didn’t set Huyuan free.

But Li would have, she knew, if Huyuan had asked. If Huyuan had wanted to leave.

 


 

Because it was usually Granny who kept the spirits Li was commissioned to build new bodies for, Li learned new routines. She went over the insides of the pot—and, later, the edges of a statue when Huyuan required a bigger structure to be held in—with a serum every morning to help Huyuan sustain her shape. She refreshed the talismans on the floor at night and spread them further around the house as Huyuan grew more exploratory, for when Huyuan had stabilized enough that Li could let Huyuan out occasionally while she worked. She kept up a stream of idle conversation, although Huyuan couldn’t reply.

It made Li feel better to know that Huyuan was still a part of her world, even if Huyuan didn’t seem to know it yet.

In the morning: “Your father’s doing all right. Granny’s been checking up on him.”

Afternoon: “Granny stopped by again. She thinks—well, it doesn’t matter. She wishes I’d be more careful. But she misses you, too.”

Night, when it came time to refresh the talismans again: “I’ll see you in the morning.”

There was metal for Huyuan’s spine. Li made a wooden frame as a base for the skeleton, sanded the ribs smooth, and sculpted the skull out of clay. There was siphoned moonlight for the hair; a dark, calcified crystal deposit for the eyes. The jaw Li hinged with a thin, flexible wire and built up with gums made from sea urchin tissue. She was obsessive over the shape of Huyuan’s mouth, her recollection of how pink it was. How her lips had folded over the teeth.

When Li finished attaching the arms to the torso, three weeks after Huyuan had first died, Huyuan didn’t need any coaxing. She detached from the statue when Li put it next to her work in progress. Floated quietly and occupied the body herself, inhabited it with a shudder.

The slack bottom piece of the jaw closed, then opened again. Hinge, flex. There was a hollow sound, a faint whistle, like wind trapped in a jar.

Li waited, anxiously. I’m sorry, she should have said. Did you want this? Is it too late to take it back? But all she could say was, “Huyuan?”

The mouth opened. Huyuan replied, “Li?” and Li found that her voice had vanished.

Huyuan rolled her shoulders back—a little stiff, Li noted, there would need to be more oil to ease the joints—and lifted her hands up, wooden distal, middle, and proximal of each finger hinging, metal carpal bone peeking out at each bend of the wrist. She stared down at her ribs, where they parted. The skin didn’t stretch past her chest yet—Li needed more thread for the seams, more fabric.

“Li,” Huyuan said again. She stretched a hand out for Li, movement jerky and abortive, before her entire body jolted and then froze; it took Li a moment to remember the talismans she’d put around Huyuan, to hold her in place.

Li hastened to lift the paper up, but Huyuan was already drawing back into herself.

“I never pictured myself as one of your projects,” Huyuan said. Her voice took staggering word by staggering word to even out into her usual lilt. “I’m—alive?”

“Yes,” Li said, heart in her throat. “Well, of a sorts.”

Huyuan blinked at her—the eyelashes webbed into uneven clusters; they weren’t right yet—and then at her hands again, which were still wrong. Li wanted to hold them so badly she felt the ache in her teeth. Felt it jolt all the way down to her feet, concentrate in the heels, hold her like roots.

“Of a sorts,” Huyuan agreed.

 


 

Everyone was changed, of course, when they died. Even if they were brought back.

There was the dying part and then there were the logistics: this type of rebirth was satisfying until the limitations uncovered themselves. Li could make skin that was smooth and clinging and yielding, but she couldn’t make it warm. She could trace out veins and neural networks, but she couldn’t actualize them. Couldn’t make a body that would bleed. When confronted with this, sometimes all a person wanted to do was say goodbye. Sometimes all a person wanted was to live again, for real.

But this Huyuan wasn’t so different from how she had been. She was more deliberate now when she moved, like she was cataloging the smoothness of every movement she made, and sometimes she was withdrawn, but she was still Huyuan.

She had opinions. Huyuan wasn’t as particular as Li was about some things—where the apex of Huyuan’s cheekbones sat, how smoothly sanded the wood for her ankles was—but there were other things she cared a lot about. The feel of her hands, how they held things. Li carved Huyuan’s left wrist out of white oak five times over, perfecting the half-moon of how the ulna jutted out. Pressed bamboo into curved fingernails and layered lacquered ink until she got the pale pink of the nail bed just right.

“You really paid attention to me, huh,” Huyuan observed, as Li aligned waxen cuticles into crescents.

Her face still needed work: there wasn’t much room for emotion yet. Huyuan’s mouth had enough space to twitch and her eyes could flicker around and go half-lidded, but she wore her inexpressiveness like a shroud otherwise. She hadn’t learned to take false breaths yet; a disconcerting stillness wrapped around her like gauze. Li missed Huyuan’s smile, the old sweetness.

But it would come back, Li reminded herself. She could be patient.

Li tried to shrug casually. “You know,” she said.

“Is that why you brought me back?” Huyuan asked.

“You wanted to come back, didn’t you?” Li said, which was perhaps more revealing than if she’d just answered the question. Too plaintive. Huyuan had always been teasing when Li was like that. When they had just started their friendship, Li was always flustered around her. It was easier to let Huyuan think Li was sensitive and easily embarrassed than to tell her that it was because Li had always taken everything Huyuan said a little too much to heart.

But Huyuan didn’t tease now.

She was uncharacteristically quiet. “Things are always different than you’d expect,” she said finally, which made Li jerk up to look at her. But then Huyuan’s smile was back, even if it was something approximating wry and nothing like Huyuan’s smiles used to be, and Li was reassured.

 


 

To help acclimate Huyuan, they did the things she’d liked to do in life. She wasn’t interested in visiting her family home, at least not until she looked more like the Huyuan they had known, so instead they went to the market.

Li rifled through her clothing. There were silk skirts that tied at the waist and swept down to the floor, long enough to cover the exposed wood and clay of Huyuan’s unfinished legs. Li picked a blouse that had curling sleeves with a surplus of fabric to smoothen Huyuan’s more disjointed movements and a high collar to disguise the seam where the neck fed into the spine. She didn’t realize until they were outside that the fabric had a gossamer quality, that it modulated the firelight it caught into iridescence.

They went as it grew dark. Li haggled for the things she couldn’t make herself from the environment: the good dyes that really clung to fabric; incense. Red bean, for Huyuan. Huyuan walked about like a ghost puppeted on strings.

Halfway through the night, Huyuan reached up to adjust the collar of her shirt and found the ribbons of paper talismans Li had stitched into it. Her face was completely still, half-shadowed in the night, and then blisteringly bright with a cold rage before she ripped them out.

Huyuan didn’t shout, but it was a near thing. “I wanted to live,” Huyuan told her. Though her entire body had wound up, she was wordless as Li took hold of the scraps in her hand, tucked them back into her collar so they would continue to keep Huyuan tethered.

“Yes,” Li said. She didn’t know how she could make Huyuan understand. “Isn’t this living?”

It was just insurance. So Li knew that Huyuan wouldn’t leave.

“Did you know that when you decided to save me? That I wanted to live?” Huyuan tugged at her collar, elbow down, wrist hinging, eyes glittering and furious. “Would have you set me free if I didn’t?”

Li didn’t respond and Huyuan didn’t press. But the question remained.

It was there when the two of them orbited in stilted arcs around each other the next day, Huyuan’s mouth tightening into a fine line when she saw the talismans still on the ground. When the dusky evening light set in and Huyuan stopped ignoring her briefly to request, stiffly, inksticks and paper. Li watched Huyuan flip through Granny’s books and try to replicate the characters. Her strokes were wavery; Li couldn’t make hands with muscle memory.

But that night, Huyuan slipped into bed behind her as the candles sputtered out. Her cold hands came up, around Li’s waist, across her shoulders. Her thumb crept idly up Li’s neck, lined up with her pulse point, and pressed, hard enough to split the skin. So gently Li didn’t know to cry out.

Huyuan shifted so she could press Li’s back flush into the mattress, so she could hover over her. She put her ear to Li’s chest and listened to the beats, felt Li’s warm breath break and crest as Li’s blood fevered through the whole, awful breadth of her. Huyuan’s eyes were so dark Li didn’t know what was in them—envy, desire? Resentment?—and Huyuan’s thumb carved down sweetly, just a little deeper. And Li was forgiven.

 


 

Spring shifted brutally into summer. Granny told Li about the numbers: heatstroke caused an unprecedented number of deaths and compounded the effects of other illnesses. There were new customers. Li took some additional commissions, sketched the sloping edge of a newborn’s spine. Collected materials for a family of dogs that had panted themselves to death in a drought.

When a bird dove into her window and died on the windowsill, Li couldn’t help herself. She let it share her body for just a moment while Huyuan went to find some sort of container for it. Told Huyuan the story of the cat when she came back with an urn.

Huyuan grew pensive after that and spent more time than ever practicing her brushstrokes with Granny’s books. The heat made her temper shorter, but it seemed to only have intensified her fixation on how Li’s body could regulate its own temperature back to a baseline. How it could bleed and cry when it was tired. How it produced spit. She didn’t seem interested in talking about it.

Hongzhi came by again, despondent and quiet, alone.

“I knew it was coming,” he said, swallowing hard as Li poured them tea. “I just thought there’d be more time.”

“Shen’s worse?” Li asked.

“He’s not himself,” Hongzhi explained. “Doesn’t remember to be. When he does though, he wants to stay. For me.”

Li tried to imagine being Shen, how it would feel to know that she was losing herself. How it might feel to want to stay, anyway. But she could only understand how it felt to be Hongzhi. “Is that so bad? To let him?”

“The reasons aren’t right,” Hongzhi told her. “How could I bear that?”

Li remembered Granny: Make sure you’re building a body and not a tomb. Thought about the meanness she could see in Huyuan sometimes.

“It doesn’t mean he doesn’t love you,” she said.

Miraculously, Hongzhi laughed. “Of course,” he said. “He stayed with me for a little longer, despite it all. That’s what love is.”

There would be things to do for Shen, naturally. There were talismans and Granny’s curious power and rituals to ease it when they put him to rest at last.

But Li didn’t say any of this. She put her arm around Hongzhi when his mouth started to tremble. Felt the breath he took rattle and reverberate down his back. Took it into her own shoulders, as if it was any comfort to him.

 


 

It was a quiet afternoon at the tail end of summer when Li finally completed Huyuan’s body.

It was anticlimactic. Everything felt big, sprawling—Li applying the last coats of polish and paint; Li threading the last eyelashes through the thinnest parts of the eyelids—but it was not nearly as apocalyptic as that.

Li brushed Huyuan’s hair until it was smooth. Picked all the talismans off the floor.

Li set up a mirror in the center of the room and Huyuan followed her. A corner of blue sky from the window caught in the reflection, intersected with a stream of sunlight cutting through Huyuan’s eyes.

“Do you like it?” Li said. She thought about Hongzhi and Shen, swallowed. “You don’t have to.”

Huyuan gazed at herself in the mirror, and Li was worried until Huyuan tested a smile. Huyuan looked like herself when she glanced back at Li, but when she relaxed her mouth again, Li frowned. There was something not quite right. Something she hadn’t noticed before.

“Of course I like it,” Huyuan said. “I was just thinking.”

“I understand,” Li told her, “if you—if this wasn’t what you were envisioning.”

If Huyuan felt like Shen had—self-sacrificial, tired?—Li could let her go. Li could be like Hongzhi. She could bear it.

“That’s not what I meant,” Huyuan said. Something almost like pity entered her voice. “You were the one who wanted to bring me back. Didn’t you think about what that might mean?”

She drew closer, hair pouring down in waves around them. Her fingers were soft as she cupped Li’s jaw, startlingly so, even though Li had been the one to make them. The one to carve those fingerprints.

Li wanted to press forward to meet her, wanted to fall back in the same heartbeat. Her knees buckled enough to put some distance between them. Her pulse quivered like a bird.

“A body is a body,” Huyuan told her. “I just think I prefer yours.”

Li’s body reacted before she could. She stumbled as Huyuan lifted a hand, flinched. She couldn’t reconcile the conflicting pulses of disappointment and relief under her skin when all Huyuan did was bend to place something on the floor. Li took a step back and a hot pain shot up her leg, like she had hit something solid with her foot—but there was nothing there but air.

Her gaze dropped reluctantly to what Huyuan had set down. There was a square of paper on the ground with Huyuan’s writing, in a familiar script, binding. Huyuan had been studying Granny’s books, after all. Practicing.

Horror dawned in muted shards, as if sinking through water. Or coming up to the surface.

Li remembered the cat, how the partitions between them had fallen away. Recalled the bird, fluttering in her head until flight had become a sensation of her own, phantom and familiar. How it felt to be subsumed.

She refactored all the times Huyuan had looked at her with something like desire. It wasn’t her, strictly, that Huyuan had been looking at. The flush under her skin, maybe. Where Li’s veins crept up.

“I would have let you go,” Li tried, but Huyuan was already shaking her head.

“I told you,” Huyuan said gently, and she was a stranger. “I wanted to live.”

 


Editor: Hebe Stanton

First Reader: Morgan Braid

Copy Editors: Copy Editing Department

Accessibility: Accessibility Editors



Audrey Zhou is a Chinese American writer from North Carolina. She is currently studying computer science and statistics at UNC-Chapel Hill, though speculative fiction remains her first love. She can be found on Twitter @aud_zhou.
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