I know it’s been a while since I’ve posted. I’ve had some health issues.
So I figured I’d offer up some free fiction.
Sisters originally appeared in the Fiction River anthology Unnatural Worlds.
As well as free here for a week.
Lin Han wants to honor her sister, but few options remain open to her. Still, she struggles to do the right thing and to keep her sister’s memory.
Set in Tang dynasty China.
Lin Han still knelt in the courtyard, as still as the towering rock steele behind her that the names of her family’s ancestors were carved into. The bleak early morning light washed everything gray: the hard brick she knelt on, the black iron brazier in front of her, the twisted pine in front of the double wall that stood guard before the door leaving the family courtyard. The sacred smoke from the brazier had long since disappeared, but the heavy smell of burnt wood and paint still hung in the air.
Double-hour bells rang in the distance, muffled by Lin Han’s fog. She felt herself stirring, as if she were waking, though she hadn’t slept all night. She blinked dry eyes and stiffness poured through her body, as if she were suddenly no longer young. Her knees started to ache. Her shoulders felt weighed down, as if a yoke with buckets filled with water lay across them, like the laborers she saw in the street. She took a deep breath, the taste of smoke mingling with the tears still gathered at the back of her throat.
Lin Han curled her fingers into fists on her thighs, realizing how cold the tops of her hands were when they touched the warm silk. She pushed herself forward, trying to rise, and ended up catching herself with her hands, the cold hard brick pushing back at her. Her legs were filled with sand, leaden, hard to move.
Slowly Lin Han rose. She swayed like young bamboo in a storm trying to gain her feet.
As if that was a signal, Old Cook scurried out.
“Please, Miss, you must go to bed now,” he whispered urgently.
“No. I will not leave my sister,” Lin Han said.
Old Cook didn’t have to say it. She heard it echoing again against the hard bricks of the courtyard, the proclamation by her mother, her father.
You no longer have a sister.
“Enough of that,” Lin Han said, banishing those ghosts of memory. “I must take her with me.” Sometime in the night a plan had come to her.
Old Cook opened his mouth, then closed it and gestured at the huge brazier. It had Fu dog heads on the sides, each bigger than Lin Han’s head. Ornate legs curved down to splayed toes. It had taken six men to haul it into the courtyard.
Lin Han had grown the last year, and so it merely came up to her chest now. However, she would never grow big enough to carry it away.
“Fine,” she said. “I need, I need…”
The chill of the morning finally entered her bones. She shivered abruptly and swayed again. But she refused to give in to the horror of it, what she needed to do.
“I need something to hold her in.”
“Right away, Miss.” Old Cook bowed low before racing away.
The long shadows of the courtyard wall to Lin Han’s right began defining as the sun rose. The twisted pine took on long needles and distinct branches. The brilliant red tile on the rooftops beyond the courtyard sprang to life. All around the quiet courtyard the city of Yen Tu woke up. Already the street venders with their buckets of millet porridge and clear chicken broth called out their wares. People walked in the street, snatches of conversation floating up over the wall.
Lin Han just waited.
Old Cook came back out with an ornate, porcelain, red-and-white vase. It was skinny at the bottom and blossomed out at the top. Hard nubs of white stuck out from the body in curling lines.
Dao Ming would have wanted to put tall lilies in it, something graceful and overflowing.
Lin Han accepted the weight of the vase, cradling it in her arms for a moment before taking the cold metal scoop that Old Cook also handed her. She stood on her toes and looked into the brazier.
The pile of ash was so small, like Dao Ming had been.
Mama would kill Lin Han for handling ashes. She’d insist on a cleansing ceremony from the stinky Taoist priest with the dark robes who never smiled as well as a second one from the Buddhist priest in his bright orange robes who was more sour still.
Tears gathered behind Lin Han’s eyes again. This was all she had left of her younger sister. A burnt spirit tablet, taken from their ancestors’ altar in the front greeting room.
A hard spike of hurt pierced her chest as she remembered how her parents were going to deny Dao Ming’s birth, just like they’d denied her death. They claimed now that there had only ever been two children: Lin Han and her older brother. Dao Ming had been written out of the family records. Father had talked of bribing the census takers to cross out her name. All her clothes had been given away or burned. Her favorite straw-stuff doll destroyed.
Last night, Mama and Father hadn’t even held a funeral, barely said a single prayer before they’d placed Dao Ming’s spirit tablet in the brazier.
Someone had to do something for Dao Ming. There was nothing to anchor her spirit. She would become a red-faced angry ghost, stealing food and paper ghost money meant for others.
Lin Han’s tears fell as she stuck the shovel in the ashes. The mound crumbled, the fine ash sliding away like sand. When she lifted the first scoop, the early morning breeze puffed away some of the soot, sending it dancing across the courtyard.
She carefully tipped the scoop into the vase so no more of the ash escaped. Moving slowly, she completed her task, though some of it had spilled onto her fine dark-blue robes. Mama would be mad, but Lin Han didn’t care.
Finally, Lin Han stepped back. With a bow, she solemnly handed the small scoop to Old Cook, who just as solemnly took it.
“I will bury this,” Old Cook assured her.
Lin Han swallowed around a dry mouth. “Thank you,” she whispered, touched that he was treating Dao Ming’s burnt spirit tablet like a body, as if they were actually handling the dead.
“You take care of Little Miss,” Old Cook instructed. “We will hide you as well as we can today, me and the gardener and your mother’s dressing maid.”
“Thank you,” Lin Han said again, bowing low.
Though her family might deny Dao Ming, Lin Han was still going to see that at least in the afterlife, her sister would be taken care of.
* * *
Lin Han stood on one side of the dusty street, looking at the Taoist priest’s shop on the other. The tiny wooden shack sat nestled between two larger stone buildings, almost as if he’d blocked off an alley to make his home. No paint decorated the walls, no mystic symbols were carved into the wood. Just a hand painted sign, weathered gray wood with bright red paint promising suitable mates for all.
The mid-morning bells had already rung. A few laborers remained in the street, squatting under the eaves of one of the stone buildings, rolling dice and drinking strong pear wine. They hadn’t seemed to notice her—no one had. Lin Han knew her fine blue robes didn’t belong in this part of Yen Tu, knew that the vase she carried was worth more than a few cash.
Either Dao Ming protected her, or Lin Han had also turned into a ghost.
Finally, the old man she’d watched go into the Taoist’s shop came out. He clutched a brown leather bag tightly to his chest as he hurried off. Maybe the old Taoist was also an apothecary, though he didn’t have a sign for that.
Feeling great daring, Lin Han stepped out of the shadows and into the brightly lit street. She rushed across though there was no traffic, no people or palanquins to avoid this far from the city center. She fumbled with the latch and had to use her elbow to push on it so she wouldn’t have to put down the vase.
The dark of the shop made Lin Han stop and blink her eyes for a moment. Spicy medicine smells, the scent of burnt * * *ng sticks and incense all came to her, as well as long boiled tea and sweet chrysanthemum. The Taoist sat silent and still behind the counter against the far wall. Rough wooden floorboards snagged her sandals as she walked forward.
Jars bigger than her vase filled with bulbous white roots in yellow liquid hung from ropes from the ceiling. A long dried snake skin marked with a black diamond pattern stretched from one of the room to the other and swayed in the slightest breeze. Eggs cooked in tea sat in another jar on the counter. The back wall held row after row of sealed porcelain jars, all meticulously labeled with either red or black characters.
The Taoist rose from his seat. His long face ended with a hanging jowl and his forehead lifted up to a bald skull. Fringes of greasy white hair curled down from just above his ears, over his shoulders. His nose hung like a foreigner’s and his ears stood out like long handles.
“Good day,” he said, giving her a small bow. He voice belied his skeletal stature, ringing from him like a deep bell.
“Good day,” Lin Han said. She hugged the vase closer to her, the hard nubs pressing into her chest. “I need to find a mate.”
At his raised eyebrow, she made her voice stronger. “For my sister.”
She carefully lifted the vase out to show him, missing its hard pressure against her chest. “The ashes…the ashes of her spirit tablet are in here.”
“Ah, a minghu,” the Taoist priest said, nodding. “A spirit wedding.”
“You must find someone who will look after her. She was, she was a good girl. She will work hard. But she should also be respected. Honored.”
“Thank you for honoring me with your request,” the Taoist said gravely, giving Lin Han another bow.
Relief made Lin Han sag where she stood. She’d done the right thing gathering up the ashes.
“Tell me,” the Taoist said over steepled fingers, looking down at her from his tall height. “How old was your sister?”
“She was eight. Her name was Dao Ming.”
The Taoist came around his counter and stood in front of Lin Han. He bowed very low to her, then knelt down so he was closer in height to her. “I’m so sorry,” he said. “But Dao Ming was born in the year of the Ox.”
“She was,” Lin Han said.
The lump was back in her throat.
“I cannot find a mate for her,” the priest said simply.
Surprise took away some of the sting.
A grown up, speaking so plainly?
“Why not?” Lin Han said.
“She’s too young. She can’t even have a funeral. Veneration is only right from the young to the old. The other way, from someone older to someone so young—it isn’t the natural order of things. And brides, as you know, are very honored.”
“Please,” Lin Han whispered. The room had suddenly grown very dark, and the medicine smells clogged the back of her throat.
“I’m sorry. But I can’t help.”
The Taoist reached across and turned her gently toward the door.
Lin Han felt as light as a leaf blown by the wind, no weight to push back.
Before she could think she found herself outside in the bright sunshine.
A group of boisterous students were walking by in the street, causing Lin Han to shrink back under the eaves. She stood blinking, her breath heaving.
Of course the adults couldn’t help. They hadn’t been able to help after the accident, when Dao Ming had been hurt.
A wailing sound startled Lin Han. She pressed her back against the rough wood of the Taoist’s shop. Where was it coming from? The sound of clashing cymbals and drums rolled out next, meant to scare away any bad spirits.
From down the street she saw a group of men carrying something on sticks over their shoulders, a palanquin she assumed. Someone very important. As they drew closer, she saw she’d been wrong.
They carried a paper-wrapped wooden coffin.
On top of the coffin was a painting of the dead: a young man with stiff black hair, a sharp nose, and kind eyes.
Lin Han carefully watched the funeral procession, picking out his mother and father, his younger brothers, and the other relatives.
As if sleep walking, Lin Han found herself drawn out of the shadows, following the procession.
She would find a mate for Dao Ming, one way or another.
* * *
White grave stone embraced the hill outside of Yen Tu. Lin Han followed at the tail of funeral, still clutching her vase. Her head felt light, like a feather fluttering across the road, while sand chained her body to the earth, heavy and slow with exhaustion.
Wailing mourners shrieked at the front of the procession, followed by the musicians banging cymbals and drums to chase away any evil spirits attracted to the dead body.
The graves nearest the entrance hadn’t been cleaned in several months—probably since the last qingming festival that spring: leaves littered the curving white stone and bright grass marred the smooth lines.
Lin Han vowed to come out and clean her sister’s memorial place every month, not to wait for the annual tomb sweeping celebration.
As Lin Han followed the procession up the hill her heart lightened. Only those with a proper rank were buried up on top of the hill. This meant the family not only had money, but power and placement.
It wouldn’t matter if the family found another bride for their dead son: Lin Han would make sure he married Dao Ming first. Any other brides would be second or third wives. Not first.
The clanging cymbals and drums started to get louder, the pace, faster. Lin Han hurried, catching up to the stragglers in the procession, then pushing her way forward. No one stopped her. She didn’t wear the proper white mourning clothes over her robe, but her face was still streaked with ashes and tears, so she must belong.
A Buddhist priest in bright orange robes stood at the head of the grave. He was a tall, pompous man, the kind who smiled at children but then treated them as if they couldn’t understand even the simplest words.
Lin Han knew she wouldn’t get any help from him.
The parents of the boy stood beside the priest. The mother wept loudly while her husband and sons consoled her. Lin Han looked at them closely.
Would they be kind to her sister?
They were kind with each other. Maybe they would welcome Dao Ming, too, if their son visited one of them in a dream and told them about his wife.
The paper-wrapped coffin sat poised over the grave, balanced on the long poles used to carry it from the town. Alongside each pole was strung a strong rope.
When the priest finished his prayers and blessings, the laborers came forward. They slid the poles away while holding onto the ropes.
Lin Han stood poised, right beside the grave, the ashes of her sister’s spirit tablet still clenched tightly to her chest.
As was custom, everyone in the funeral procession turned their back as the coffin started to disappear into the earth.
Lin Han didn’t care if the laborers saw her: they wouldn’t say anything, not to the family. It wasn’t their place.
So she tipped the vase and scattered the ashes on top of the coffin.
Dao Ming and her intended would be buried together. Their funerals would be held together, because now all the prayers said for him would be for her as well.
It was as good an introduction between the families as any.
* * *
Lin Han waited for the priest to finish the funeral under the fragrant pine trees in the graveyard. The family was still wailing, and they were burning incense. She’d learned her sister’s future-husband’s name—Tu Shr. The empty vase sat beside her. She was so tired. She just wanted to sleep. But Dao Ming must be married, first.
The early afternoon breezes tugged at Lin Han’s hair. She gathered twigs to her, stripped the bark down and used it to tie the sticks together, making little figures. The one with the sprig of long soft needles from a yew tree was Dao Ming. It didn’t really look like a skirt but it was the best Lin Han could do. Tu Shr’s had a knotty twig across the top, like big strong shoulders.
Lin Han hid behind the tree as the procession started back down the hill. She didn’t want anyone to ask her any questions. There she found the cap of an acorn that she also gathered up.
As soon as the last person had reached the bottom of the hill, Lin Han raced back up. The laborers wouldn’t fill in the grave until later, closer to twilight, when light ran away from the world. In three days time, the younger son would return and take a cup of the dirt back to the family that they would use to represent their dead son on their ancestors’ altar, replacing the spirit tablet which was buried with the body.
At the edge of the grave, Lin Han found three trampled pieces of paper ghost money that hadn’t been thrown into the grave, money the dead could spend in the afterlife. She wished she had more, but she couldn’t climb into the grave and ever hope to get back out.
The three pieces would have to do for the bride price, what the groom’s family gave the bride’s.
Lin Hand made a small pile of dirt on the left side of the grave and placed the figure of Dao Ming there. She formally presented the bride price to her, wishing she had a red envelope for the money. She tucked the money in under the little figure. On the right side, she created a second pile, and placed the figure of Tu Shr there.
When everything was set, Lin Han picked up Tu Shr. Carrying him well above her head to honor him, she did a couple of dancing steps as she walked around the top of the grave to the other side.
“Look Dao Ming! The wedding procession has arrived!”
Lin Han kept Dao Ming in one hand while she hid Tu Shr in the other. It wasn’t proper for the couple to see each other yet. Then she danced back to the other side.
“Dao Ming! You’ve arrived at your husband’s house now. It’s so big!”
From the top of the hill, it almost seemed that way. Tu Shr didn’t control all of the graveyard and ghosts from his high point, but she could pretend.
Finally, Lin Han brought the two stick figures together on the mound of dirt. She didn’t know the words the priests would say, so she sang a hymn to Xi Wang Hu, asking her for blessings on the couple: May they never grow hungry, may they have many children, and may they always be honored.
Lin Han placed the acorn cap next to Dao Ming, telling her, “Drink up! Drink your wedding cup!”
Then she placed it next to Tu Shr, telling him, “This is your bridal cup. Drink and be together forever.”
Lin Han stepped back, bowed her head and closed her eyes to give the happy couple a moment of privacy.
Exhaustion slammed down on her and she swayed. The wind played with her hair, stronger now. Maybe a storm was blowing up.
When she opened her eyes, Tu Shr had slid down on the dirt mound so his head was now close to Dao Ming’s.
Lin Han clapped her hands. Tu Shr had surely accepted Dao Ming as a bride! Her sister had a husband, someone who would look after her and treat her with respect.
Lin Han bowed low to the happy couple.
Normally, what followed would be the wedding feast. But there wasn’t anyone else to celebrate.
“I will eat for both of you later,” Lin Han promised as she picked up the figures, holding them together in the palms of her hands.
“The goddess will look out for you and bless you always,” she promised as she opened her hands over the edge of the grave and let the figures tumble onto the paper coffin below.
They landed on a bit of clean paper, not where every member of the family had dropped a handful of dirt.
Lin Han gave them the acorn cup, and the ghost money as well.
She didn’t know what to do with the vase. It didn’t belong in the grave. She couldn’t take it home: it was just one more thing of her sister’s that her family would deny.
Instead, she planted it firmly at the head of the grave. Maybe when the younger son came back to get the dirt for the ancestors’ altar, he’d see the vase and use it instead. That way, both Dao Ming and Tu Shr would be venerated.
After one last low bow, Lin Han turned away from the grave and started down the hill. She was too tired to skip or dance, though she knew she should—she was still part of a wedding procession.
But her feet dragged on the earth and her tears started again. No one else would ever know what she’d done, how she’d taken care of her sister.
Still. She’d finally managed to find her peace.