When I was a little girl and living in the village, most spirit walls were made of a single plank of wood rather than stone or glazed tile. Though the wood was peeling, my uncles’ spirit wall ensured that wealth would not fly out and evil would not fly in. This wall and my uncles’ north, east, and west houses, all a few skips from one another, served as the four walls of our square enclosure. After the long walk back from Grandma Zhu’s, I’d look forward to stepping into the courtyard at the center of our home. The dwindling light cooled the dirt floor and soothed my feet. One early evening, however, I stopped in the courtyard to pick a pebble out of my shoe, and the sound of footsteps persisted. There was enough shade that for a moment, the world appeared to continue moving even as I stood still. Lurching ahead, I tripped over my own feet.
Surely the footsteps belonged to Third Uncle, I thought, come home early from the fields to play a trick on me. Down on my arms and knees, I stared at the ground and courted tears by flicking sand into my eyes. It would be easy to use my tears to persuade Third Uncle, who lived with me in the east house, to buy me candy from town. But as the sun dipped behind Fourth and Fifth Uncles’ west house, an old woman emerged from the shade.
The woman’s gray jacket and black trousers looked too big for her small frame, and she was not wearing shoes. Her feet were brown. The grandmothers who watched me forbade me to walk barefoot, even across grass, even as the other children gleefully muddied their feet. This old woman looked just as ancient as the village grandmothers, yet something set her apart. She ambled closer. Darling, I’m you, she said. I’m you from the future.
Her shoulders sagged under her jacket, which was torn along both sleeves. For once, it was not me who was in need of care. Following my uncles’ example, I brushed the dirt from my knees and led the woman to the north house. Unlike the clay side houses, First and Second Uncles’ north house, the only house where we entertained guests, was constructed out of brick. I gave my guest the bowl of leftover congee that my uncles had left for me behind the door.
Inside the entrance hall, the woman tilted the bowl back, obscuring the center of her face. When she lowered it, only a few wet beads of congee remained. The woman, despite her age and exhaustion, had rather soft and angelic features. Her eyes were the same shade of black as mine, bottomless and radiant. And her nose, high and straight down to its fleshy, raindrop-shaped tip, signaled a future wealthy scholar, as Third Uncle would say of my nose.
More, the woman said. A glossy film of congee sat on her lips. In the absence of more leftover food, she demanded a smoke. I offered her some of my uncles’ tobacco, stored in newspaper strewn about the house. They all shared one pipe, which had been passed down from a great-great-uncle, a soldier. He’d constructed the pipe with the shells of bullets and wrapped it with the skin from a bear he’d killed. The metal heated up quickly but the bearskin proved impenetrable. That’s one story that hasn’t changed.
At five years old, I was too young to touch the pipe, let alone smoke out of it, but this did not stop me from leading the woman to its hiding place. We walked the five steps to the end of the hallway, bounded by a redwood table and chair that my uncles never used, not even for guests, but dusted every day. The furniture pressed against the north wall under a portrait of Chairman Mao, adjacent to a plastic table and set of low stools. We crossed into First Uncle’s room on the other side of a bamboo divider, where my uncles kept the pipe at all times if unused. The woman got down on all fours to look under First Uncle’s bed, but could only ferret out a copy of a banned Shen Congwen novel that my uncles were teaching me to read. She flung back the mosquito net and prodded her knees into the hard pad of cotton and rifled under the blanket until the idea came to her, maybe as a jolt of memory, to mine the old clothes in the pillow, out from which the pipe tumbled gently onto the bed.
Back in the main hall, the woman, standing over the plastic table, crushed the tobacco leaves by hand and sprinkled the pieces into the bowl of the pipe. She wrapped her whole mouth around the pipe’s stem, leaving a trail of saliva on the bearskin. Then she offered me her hand. Three deep, long lines—life, head, and heart—slashed through her palm the way they did on mine, lines blooming with the promise of longevity, cleverness, and spiritual love.
Third Uncle had always told me I was an auspicious child. I’d spent the first few months of my life not in the countryside but in a northern county known for coal and textiles, where people admired factories in the skyline instead of mountains and forests. Professor, Third Uncle would call me, picking off the grime from my shoes, you are a girl destined to return. How I could return to a home I could not remember was a mystery. But I was told that when my sisters grew older and my parents grew stronger, they would come back south to fetch me.
More, the old woman said. Her palm remained suspended a finger-length from my face. As I looked closer, the familiar lines of the woman’s palm gave way to dark veins that snaked along her thumb, coiling up to nails yellow and crumbling. The hand trembled. We had similarities, yes, but the woman had the future, and what she had seemed awfully heavy to carry.
I reached for the woman’s hand. She flinched, and the pipe slipped out of her mouth, knocking against the edge of the plastic table before falling with a muffled shattering noise onto the floor. I dropped to the floor and tried to rescue as many morsels of tobacco as I could make out in the weak light. The pipe looked the same as before, but there was no telling what had transpired underneath the bearskin.
Matches, the woman said. Darling, listen to me. Very soon, you’re going to need some matches.
It’s a heavy feeling, the future. For me it starts in the shoulders, and grows heavier still by the time it reaches the joints of the feet.
Let’s wait for Uncles, I said. The light sneaking into the house had turned from orange to blue. Lately, my uncles had been coming home late, as the Party Secretary mandated farmers stay after dusk to memorize passages from the Precious Red Book. Maybe I would have time to salvage the pipe. With any luck it was still intact; bullets were surely stronger than earth.
Matches, the woman insisted, and latched her nails onto my arm. In the waning light her eyes sank deeper into their sockets. The stench of decay wafted out from her mouth.
It’s a heavy feeling, the future. For me it starts in the shoulders, and grows heavier still by the time it reaches the joints of the feet. Each year it becomes harder to tread on a tenuous present. But then I was only five. When the woman let go of me, I sprinted.
I hunted for matches in the gray remains of wood chips below the stove. I dug around the front stoops where my uncles would squat and smoke and eat their dinner. I combed the two side houses, inspected the feed bin for the two pigs we kept secret from the branch farm, and yanked out weeds where I’d pick earthworms after rain. I scoured the foot of the spirit wall. It wobbled and creaked in the evening breeze, but there was no time to consider what would happen if it fell.
With no matches in sight, I left our small enclosure and ran down the gravel road until I chanced upon a peddler. On his back he balanced two jute sacks tied to the ends of a long stick of bamboo. Hearing my voice, he swung around, and the sacks narrowly missed my head.
You want socks, little girl? he said. In my dash to find matches, I’d forgotten to put on my canvas shoes. Sharp pebbles now cut into the soles of my feet.
The peddler set a sack down and fumbled through it. The socks he offered me looked as if they were once white.
Matches, I said.
Aha! The man crouched over his other sack and rummaged up a box. It was smashed in by all the other items in the pile, but there were still three or four good matches in the bunch. I reached for them, but the peddler drew the matches back. Where is your money?
But I have no money, I said.
No money? said the peddler. Look at you. He growled and spit onto the ground. Skin white as yours, and you say you have no money?
Please, I said. The woman needs it.
Who cares about a woman? he said.
I left the peddler and ran farther down the road, adding scrapes and cuts to the bottoms of my feet, asking anybody I ran into for help. What’s a little girl to do with matches? said a group of soldiers, huddled in the back of a truck. Their faces were dark and youthful. My uncles were not much older than these soldiers, but weathered in a way that added decades to their faces. The soldiers laughed and chewed on their stalks of wheat and pointed at my face.
Without mirrors at home, I could not envision what the soldiers were seeing. I could not know that they were probably not admiring my skin, but likely taking amusement in my hair, sandy and rumpled by wind, some fly or dirt clump perched on my eyelid. One soldier used the muzzle of his rifle to lift a green cap off another soldier’s head. He then lowered the gun, the cap dangling at the end, toward me. There was a single red star on the cap. I reached up to take it, but the soldier jerked the rifle up and the cap flipped backward in the air and landed in his lap. His comrades cheered at the trick.
Where are your parents? they asked me. But as I opened my mouth to answer, the truck’s engine kicked up and the soldiers disappeared into the dust. They were headed west, that was all I knew. Soldiers passed through our village in a straight line, in one direction.
Finally, I arrived at the familiar front arch of Grandma Zhu’s. Inside the enclosure, Grandma Zhu was cooking noodles for her family. Milling in the courtyard were her two sons, one daughter, two daughters-in-law, and her sole grandchild, a girl a few years older than me who had started going to grade school by order of the revolutionary party. It was odd to see more women than men in a family, as my grandparents had died and my uncles had not yet married.
Matches! I said, panting.
What are you doing here, child? Grandma Zhu asked. She hobbled over to me and fanned my face. A girl like you should not get so flushed in the cheeks. She saw my feet and gasped. Have you gone mad?
All I could say was matches, over and over, and Grandma Zhu took my words as the ramblings of a delirious, heat-stricken child. She shoved a bowl of water in my face and forced me to stay for dinner. It was a host’s duty to provide, she reminded me, when a guest looked hungry. I would not be allowed to leave until my bowl was emptied, first of water, and then of noodles. The grade school girl sat on a low stool while her mother squatted at the stoop beside her, transferring noodles from her bowl into the girl’s, though no words passed between them. The girl used to have a little sister who’d be about my age, my uncles had told me, but her parents, yearning for a boy, gave the baby away for money.
That dinner was nothing like dinner with my uncles, who, with their mouths filled with rice, would joke about the village headman’s goat-romancing mother, or sing modified versions of revolutionary songs replacing “Mao” with “our little girl.” They’d eat while they spoke and sang because they were also racing against one another to finish their first servings. Only two or three of them would be able to get seconds, and First Uncle always got seconds. If I was still hungry, Third Uncle would demand that all five leave their leftovers to me, and I always had a cold bowl of congee, stir fry and rice, or noodles when I came home in the early evening. My situation was different, Third Uncle reassured me, because I was a girl destined to return.
As I stared into my empty bowl, the only price on my mind was that of the matches.
At Grandma Zhu’s, I did not consider how being a girl from a faraway town with factories might make me in the eyes of the adults more like a boy. I did not wonder how much I would have cost. As I stared into my empty bowl, the only price on my mind was that of the matches.
Then I spotted one of the men, the girl’s father, cupping his hand over a cigarette. Not very many people in the village smoked cigarettes. The man stood in the shadows under the awning of the east house, and from his hands sprouted a long, white stem, impossibly bright. Before the man had slipped his book of matches back into his pocket, I ran across the courtyard and snatched it from his hand. As I crossed the arch a lone slipper thunked against my back—the other one landing somewhere behind me—and Grandma Zhu’s voice echoed: Wear them, stupid!
The sun had vanished beneath the earth. The air smelled of camphor, and over the walls of other enclosures gray ghosts drifted toward the sky. Around me, the world cloaked itself in gray and black, but the moon lit my path home. By the time I made it back, a thick darkness had settled. I had to walk gingerly past the spirit wall to avoid jagged pebbles. Moonlight gave every object in the north house an outline. Protruding from my uncles’ sole redwood chair were six legs and four arms—the figure of the woman, the shape of my future.
She was snoring.
The floor bit against the cuts on my feet. I bent down and felt around for the pipe. As I searched, two hands came from behind and lifted me up. They were familiar hands—nails caked with dirt, a web of sinew from the wrist to the palm.
First Uncle turned me around so that my head looked over his shoulder. There was the scent of sulfur, the hiss of fire, and within seconds the room was illuminated by lamplight. Behind him, Second, Fourth, and Fifth Uncles were walking up the courtyard toward the house. They pinched my ankles to greet me as they always did, but this time, afterwards, they stepped back aghast.
What happened to your feet? said Second Uncle.
And your face? said Fourth Uncle.
What devil would do this? said Fifth Uncle.
They turned to the woman in the redwood chair. The pipe rested aslant at her feet.
I was about to tell my uncles that I was sorry for the pipe, but then First Uncle set me down. He, along with Second, Fourth, and Fifth Uncles, stepped over the pipe and converged on the woman. They shook her shoulder and jabbed their fingers into her elbow.
The woman opened her eyes. Her lips were dry; she tried to speak but only coughs sputtered out.
Who are you? First Uncle said.
I’m your girl, she said. I’m your little girl. She looked at me and laughed.
First Uncle restrained my other uncles with a wave of his hand. He leaned so close to the woman, I thought she might kiss First Uncle on the nose.
Did you touch her? he asked the woman. Did you touch our Ling-Ling?
The woman pursed her lips, but she did not kiss First Uncle. She blew a puff of air into his face.
Out! First Uncle said. He lifted the woman by the collar of her shirt and dragged her toward the front stoop. She limped along with her back hunched and arms pulled in perverse angles from her body by my other uncles.
I ran into the tall mess of limbs in the hallway and tried to pry my uncles’ hands off the woman, but I was too short for them to notice me. I ran ahead of First Uncle, rooted my feet into the ground, and used my whole body, leading with the sharpest ends of my elbows, to push back against his stomach. Out! he yelled again.
His eyes were cold and hard and full of rage. I had never seen him look at me like that. That look. Did he see a little of the old woman in me that day? I stepped back from him, forgetting there was a doorstep behind me, and as I lost my footing another pair of hands caught me and righted me up.
Come, come, said Third Uncle, holding my hand as if it were the head of a baby, the way I was told it was meant to be held. He led me to our side house, and in the darkness, held me against his body and wiped away the thin layer of dust on my face.
Listen, Professor, he said. This is no place for someone like you. It’s too hard, this life. A little professor like you needs a chance to be a big professor.
But the woman, I said.
Third Uncle looked away from me, but I was too close to him to follow his eyes. I know what to do, he said.
Are you going to get matches? I asked.
If I sign up to be a soldier, he said, I’ll be able to send your parents some money. Maybe then they’ll feel strong enough to get you.
In the distance, the woman hurled a curse at my uncles. There was a thud, followed by a wail. Whenever I was told to cover my ears at the sound of children crying, I would leave a sliver of space between my fingers. Hearing it made me feel older. My uncles had taken the woman somewhere else, to a place where the world of adults and the future and the stings from sharp pebbles were sealed away, past the spirit wall.
But you’ll have to leave, I said to Third Uncle. I scratched his chin because I liked the sound his stubble made against my nails. You won’t remember me if you leave.
How could I forget you? he said.
My favorite uncle rocked me in his lap. The sounds of my other uncles and the woman receded into that other world. My stomach grumbled in spite of all the noodles, and the bugs danced around Third Uncle and me without smoke from a fire to ward them off, but we did not move. The next day, my uncles, passing by other villagers on the road to work, would offer warnings of the previous night’s intruder, describing the woman’s devilish eyes and porcine nose. During the midday break, they would enlist an artist to paint a portrait of the woman, and when the ink dried, they would hang the portrait on a post near the threshing floor, and the other villagers would vow to kick mud in her face if she dared to come back. When my uncles had retired from the fields for the day, they would share one last smoke in the courtyard with Third Uncle, handsome in his soldier clothes, before he joined the next day’s dispatch going west. Just before dawn, as I slept soundly in their east house, Third Uncle would make his way past the spirit wall and board the back of a truck with other men dressed like him, wondering if there was more that he’d needed to teach his little professor. He hadn’t finished reading the Shen Congwen novel to her yet, and though she was too young, he could still demonstrate to her how to smoke from the pipe, for all professors surely smoked out of pipes. Soldiers, however, moved in one direction. The truck’s tires stamped the gravel road up to the dirt surrounding the farm houses and threshing floor, where the sun beat down on the cheap ink of the woman’s portrait. The picture turned pale, a formless yellow. The next day, a rat bit off a corner of the canvas, and the day after that, a thunderstorm seized the rest. The woman would continue to exist, but only through stories, a tale mothers would tell their children to scare them into obedience. Just you wait until the old hag follows you home. No one would remember that the crone with six legs and four arms who croaks more, more, more had once been a little girl. Now you know not to play with matches, the mothers would say, as if that were the point of the story.
Third Uncle pinched my ankle, in our dark room where the smell of tobacco hung in the air. I could hear my other uncles in the courtyard laughing, and through the open window there was the smallest flicker of light from a match. We could join them, Third Uncle and I, but to move was for the moment to become a memory, fragile and untrustworthy, and so we stayed a little longer.
Simon Han’s stories have won Indiana Review’s Fiction Prize and Texas Observer’s Short Story Contest. He lives in Nashville, where he is a third-year fiction fellow at Vanderbilt University.