By Desmond Fox
Fei stood frozen in the black waters of the deadlands. His infant daughter, secured in the cradleboard held tight in her mother’s arms, wept moon-sized tears.
“Fei, you have to take her.” Lin spoke in a muted whisper, body still, knee-deep in black sea. Her face twisted into a strained smile, stirring a false comfort in Fei’s heart.
Fei shook with anger and fear as he watched the waters crawl up his wife’s legs. Slowly, the hungry black ocean crept up Lin’s body, forcing her knees to buckle with invisible pressure.
“Fei!” Lin screamed, reaching out to her husband with the teak cradleboard clenched tightly in her hands. The black water chased up Lin’s body with the same desperation she showed, reaching across her shoulders for her outstretched arms. “Fei, they’ll take her!”
Fei’s hands tightened into white knuckled fists as he reached for his weeping child. The cradleboard whipped from Lin’s fingers just before they were swallowed in the unending ocean’s vacuum. Her legs buckled again, accompanied by a crunching sound as she fell to her knees. Lin’s eyes watered as she held back her cries. Still, she smiled.
“Fei, you have to go.”
“I can’t leave you like this.”
“That’s not for you to decide Fei. If I die here, now, I die knowing my daughter is safe. Please don’t take that from me.”
Lin’s outstretched arms were shattered beneath the tight wrap of ocean. Fei pulled his daughter close as he recoiled in gruesome horror. Lin’s mouth opened to scream, but was filled with black water before any sound could escape. Water sealed over her head like a hood, crushing bones and body.
Quickly and violently the shape of a woman was lost to the formless ocean, calm and sated from its meal.
Xing released an exhausted sigh against the lotus wind, just loud enough for her father to hear, quiet enough not to sound so deliberate. She hadn’t seen her mother in years, a few at least, but that’s where they were headed now. The boat was a sort of treated teak, lightweight and quick. Xing ran the tip of her thumb across the cerulean finish, painting idly with her own finger-smudges.
She was wearing her ceremonial bests, polished silver armor with blue sea foam inlay. A trimmed roc feather was tucked into her hair. Xing thought it looked like a rabbit’s tail sprouting from the side of her head. Her face was white and pink with heavy make-up, flecks of foundation spotting her short black hair where her bangs tickled her forehead.
Xing looked back at her father, his sinewy hand on the rudder. He smiled from behind his fiery oak wood beard, spiking out from his face like an anxious flame. His visage was all muscle and wrinkles, each expression he made looked as if it was trying to leap off of his skull. Sometimes it was hilarious, other times unnerving. Right now it was just kind of nothing.
“Soon enough sweetheart. I’m sure she’ll be excited to see you.”
Xing’s eyes flicked away and rolled. “What if she’s not even there?”
Her father smiled back confidently, turning his face to the cloudless sky after failing to make eye-contact with his daughter. “I think she’ll be there.”
The water spat and foamed at the sides of their little boat, changing colors in the light. The closer they came to the light gardens, the more complicated the water became. It shimmered all different colors of the spectrum, dancing with itself, swirling and twisting into little light shows.
Xing dipped her hand into the sea, running it through the multi-chromatic waters, creating countless beautiful ripples behind them. She pulled her hand back, wet with garden water, and smelled it. It smelled like normal water, and now her nose was wet. Her father chuckled behind her.
Soon they passed the first ancestral lightpost. It was black stone, with a family name inscribed at its base. It reached upward from the water, gasping for attention, though it was unreadable at the speed they were going. The post reached twelve feet into the air, then hooked out to the side where a lantern was suspended by leather bonds, raining colorless light down below it.
More lightposts appeared in all directions. Some taller than others, some more decorated. Some were accompanied by statues of fierce animals, others grew water flowers in their nurturing light. Some were steel, others wood, still others were stone or bronze. Xing’s painted scowl gave way to wonder as she stared into the forest of the dead.
Finally, her father stopped the little skiff at a lightpost reading Xia. The pole itself shone a bluish steel, with an etched peacock wrapping its neck up the length of the post. Colorless light shone beautifully from the enchanting, glass lantern above.
Xing and her father stepped out of the skiff, into the knee-deep waters beneath them. Her father was shirtless as usual and wore an iron bird’s head belt across his waist. Tucked into the belt was a strip of white fabric, with Xing’s mother’s name printed on its face in black ink. Xia Lin.
Xing’s father placed the fabric in the water below the lantern carefully, then stepped back in anticipation. The fabric settled calmly, drinking garden water into its weave.
After a few minutes, and a few exaggerated sighs, a sphere of light rose from the water below. It shone in all colors, stretching and changing shape. The whole process made Xing terribly uncomfortable as the ethereal form reworked itself into something resembling her mother. Xing’s face twisted in disgust as she looked away.
“My dear Lin.” Xing heard her father say, before she opened her eyes. In a ghostly shade of blue, there her mother stood, smiling and nude, youthful and proud. “It’s me, Fei.”
Xing’s mother smiled, resting a hand on her father’s face, though in truth it was only an estimation. Xing could see the apparition’s pinky finger slip into her father’s skin, sending chills up her spine. “My dear Fei.” The ghost spoke again.
“It’s been so long, I was afraid you wouldn’t remember me.” Her father sputtered his words between chokes and spittle. His voice was like wet gravel.
“It’s been long. I remember you, Fei.” Xing’s mother replied cryptically.
“This is our daughter, Xing. Do you remember her?” Xing’s mother looked at her, smiling wide enough to narrow her eyes to slits.
“I remember Xing,” she muttered in phantom tones. Xing did her best to smile back, though the attempt looked strained and ugly.
“I’ve missed you Lin. I love you.” Xing’s father spoke with tears in his eyes. Her mother turned back to him, smiling her impossible smile and spoke.
“I love you, Fei.”
Xing’s father snored loudly in his favorite chair. Small ceramic cups were stacked on the table in front of him beside a jug of rice wine. Moonlight shone in through the open windows, reflecting off the stream of drool leaking from the corner of her father’s gaping mouth. Xing wandered across the wicker floor to her father’s side silently.
Xing pulled the rectangular slip of fabric from her father’s belt and tucked it into her own. Alone, she heaved the boat from under the pagoda into the canals of the city. When she placed her hand on the handle of the rudder it began to accelerate forward. She ran it through a few familiar canals before steering it into the open water beyond the city’s boundary, off toward the light gardens.
It took her a while to find her family’s lightpost, and once she did there was still the matter of gaining the confidence she needed to do what she came to do. Once she had that, she stepped out into the water and placed the fabric beneath the lantern as she had seen her father do so many times before.
After a few moments, notably fewer than it had taken earlier that day, the sphere of multi-colored light appeared again. This time, Xing forced herself to watch as the light morphed and warped its shape and size until it was recognizable as her mother. It was a morbid process that brought tears to Xing’s eyes, but she stared on unflinchingly nonetheless.
Again, her mother stood before her, ethereal and opalescent, but she looked different now. She was clothed, older, less confident. Xing surmised she must have appeared as Xing remembered her as a babe all those years ago, not as her father had. Still though, she wore that smile, the smile that twisted her lips and narrowed her eyes to a vanishing point.
“Are you my mother?” Xing asked, knowingly. The spirit looked back at her with feigned kindness.
“I am your mother.”
Xing stared back incredulously.
“I don’t think you are.”
“Because you’re not.” The two stood in silence, the spirit smiling and unflinching, Xing scowling just enough to hold the tears back. “What in the world are you?”
The spirit’s smile fell at last. Its body seemed to relax, loosening some of the finer details of Xing’s mother’s face.
“I am hope. I am comfort. I am peace and love and everything I am called upon to be. Sometimes I’m closure, or even revenge. Sometimes I’m a touch you want to feel, or a kiss you long for. I’m the last chance you never had.”
“You’re a water spirit.”
“I am that too.”
“You’re a lie.”
“That’s not for you to decide.” The spirit’s face suddenly appeared stern and in an ironic moment looked more maternal than it ever had before. Xing spoke after a moment of silence had passed.
“Father tells me that the water spirits are malevolent. He says you are hungry, that you kill and destroy and steal people from those they love.”
“Your father speaks the truth as he knows it. There are those who take, and those who give, not unlike humans.”
“So which is it? For you, which is it?”
The spirit held very still, turning its facsimile head from Xing’s intensity.
“Where’s my mother?”
“I don’t know. She returned to the sea like everything else. She’s here, in some form I’m sure.”
“So what happens when we die?”
“I don’t know. I haven’t died yet.”
“Why do you do this?” Xing choked on her words, swelling them to a whisper.
The spirit turned further from Xing and stared off into the sea of lightposts. When it turned back to her, more features had slipped away, and it hardly maintained a human shape at all. The spirit drifted away from her, through the forest of lights, before stopping at a small candle resting in the water on a disc of dry, woven flowers. Xing followed the spirit curiously, treading lightly through the water.
“Because when a child weeps into your body, and builds a monument to their lost parent in your skin, you do all you can to comfort them. Even if all you can do is lie.”
Xing brushed the graying hair from her eyes, knocking clouds of makeup from her face with the same stroke. She kept one hand on the rudder of her skiff, periodically dipping the other into the sea, feeling the water rush between her withered fingers, watching patterns ripple out in her wake.
She coasted between lightposts, taking her time, watching families smile and laugh with their loved ones, sharing stories otherwise untold, taking the last chance they never had. Slowly she came to a rest, just beside the blue-steel pole with the peacock engraving she remembered so well.
She smiled as the warmth of the lamp above touched her face, swaying lazily by its leather bonds in the gentle breeze. She reached for her iron and leather belt, fashioned after a peacock’s long neck, and pulled two pieces of fabric from it. She stared at them misty eyed before resting them in the colorless lamplight.
She stared in awe as two spheres of multi-colored light broke the surface of the colored water and transformed into familiar shapes, like a chick breaking free of its eggshell. Her mother smiled softly with cool reason in her eyes. Her father grinned with overconfidence, beard bursting from his face like a desperate flame. Xing smiled.
“Hello old friend.”
“Hello sweetheart,” her father replied, wrapping his phantom limbs across her body.
Xing wept when, for a moment, she could have sworn she felt her father’s warmth and smelled the rice wine on his breath.
Desmond Fox is a writer and musician, living in Albuquerque, New Mexico with his wife and two children. He is the founding member of the Like Titans record label and creative community, where he actively podcasts, performs music, blogs, and authors short fiction, poetry and comic books. His work has appeared in various nooks and crannies of Albuquerque’s independent depths and assorted corners of the internet, including Like Titans and MicroHorror.com.