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The Tale We Told

Story by Christine H. Chen (Read author interview) September 19, 2022

© Stephane Behr

There was a secret room on the top floor of our gable-roofed house we, children, weren’t allowed in. Inside was a witch Ah Ba caught on his trip to Guangzhou and brought back to San Francisco, a witch with no teeth, we heard her slurp words like bath water guzzling down the drain, voice screeching foreign sounds, she had flown in, shrouded in the dead of the night while we were swimming in our dreams. Ah Ma quickly fell into her spell, shushed us quiet, while she cut up scallions, parsley, and ground ginger until her knuckles went red, the house smelled of thousand-year-old eggs, burned meat, salty dough, she whipped up a pot of rice porridge, ladled scoops into a bowl with a side of fried Devil’s bread, all cut up in small bites we weren’t permitted to have, it gives you pimples, that’s what Ah Ma said, scars your face like the skin of a mandarin, and then men wouldn’t marry us the girls, but the boys, they could have a bite or two, but only after Ah Ma had taken a platter to that witch up the stairs. The witch ate the best of our food, shredded pigeon thighs Ah Ma had pulled out the bone like one pulls out a sword, no chicken because American chicken tastes like corpse, no fish fillet, only fisheyes and cheeks, we then realized she was no witch like Dame Gothel, but an Èguǐ, a Hungry Ghost. Pork buns, Chow Mein with shrimp, sauteed scallops with mushroom and bamboo shoots, all hashed up like chop-suey, plates, cups, chopsticks, spoons, Ah Ma’s shampoo, Dove soap, towels, Ah Ba’s radio disappeared into the other side of the secret room door, our Hungry Ghost’s gluttony as consuming as ours to catch a glimpse of this Èguǐ.

Our hunger billowed into something else, something itchy we had to scratch until our skin couldn’t be quenched. We glued our ears to the walls while Ah Ba’s muffled voice sounded soft like baby breeze caressing spring grass, not the type of voice he used with us, we heard Èguǐ’s strings of sounds begging for more, our hunger grew to envy to jealousy because Ah Ma and Ah Ba had no time left for us, no more bedtime stories, only half-hearted hugs dispensed to keep our whining away. They kept turn guarding Èguǐ’s secret but we were smart children who knew better: our Hungry Ghost must be sick, because Ah Ba went to see Dr. Wong in Chinatown, and dried seaworms in glass jars, black knotweed and bitter ginseng the shape of crooked tiny people appeared on the kitchen counter before drowning in Ah Ma’s cauldron where she cooked up magic potions that would surely cure whatever Èguǐ’s ailments suffered from, and wrapping all of us in a mélange of funky odors. Yet magic wasn’t enough to placate Èguǐ to release its grip on Ma and Ba, soon enough Ah Ba’s armchair vanished from the living room, leaving a pale spot on the floor like a bald old man, our fluffy pillows evaporated from our beds one morning, our soft silk sleepers the following day. We devised a plan to fight Èguǐ’s bewitching of our parents. Like Hansel, we stole a pineapple bun from Ah Ma’s shopping bag, left a curvy trail to our bedroom, we’ll trap it in our kingdom, we’ll unfrown Ma and Ba’s brows, we’ll reclaim hugs and laughter. We hid under our blanket leaving a chink to spy for Èguǐ when Ah Ba stomped in, yelling our names, and we all got our bum slapped, he told us to stop messing about, his left eyebrow twitching in anger. Ah Ma turned away to hide a silent tear.

The secret burned a hole in our home, sucked our parents’ whispered conversations, leaving us hungry again. Our frustration grew into fists banging on the secret door. Our ghost finally appeared, it was a frail old woman, white hair held with an ivory comb, her eyes still famished, mouth wide open. She hobbled towards us on tiny feet and clasped us tight.

We thought she’d swallow us whole, we yelped in shock, and all her bones crumbled to the floor, us trapped in her arms. We screamed in confused fright. Ah Ba came to rescue us from her grip. He said, his eyes were red and watery because of the sting of onions. He said, the ghost was once a beautiful girl, the ghost had all the bones of her feet broken, small feet made her selling price higher to the highest bidding man, the ghost lost her voice, the ghost lost her teeth, the ghost lost many things, the ghost was lost for a long time, the ghost lost her son, her son was our father.

About the Author

Christine H. Chen was born in Hong Kong and grew up in Madagascar before settling in Boston. Her fiction work has been published or forthcoming in Boston in 100 Words, Tiny MoleculesGone Lawn, The Pinch, CRAFTHobart, and other literary journals. Her work was longlisted in the June 2022 Bath Flash Fiction Award, and she is a recipient of the 2022 Mass Cultural Council Artist Fellowship. She occasionally tweets @ChristineHChen1

This story appeared in A SmokeLong Summer 2022 — Special Issue of SmokeLong Quarterly.
SmokeLong Quarterly A SmokeLong Summer 2022 — Special Issue

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