The night their sister was born, eight-year-old Shan and her older sister Lan awakened to their mother’s groans. Mother lay on her bed, legs arched and open, breathing heavily, while Father wiped her with a cloth. A form emerged from between Mother’s legs and began to cry.
“Another girl,” Father said, wrapping the baby in cloth. He handed the bundle to Mother and walked out of the one-room mud house they shared with a ghost woman the children called Auntie. Auntie waited until Father was gone, then whispered to Mother in her husky voice, one that evoked crying too loudly for too long. Mother nodded at Auntie and held the baby out toward her. Auntie waved her hands around it, chanting quietly, and the bundle began to shrink in size, deflating like a balloon until it vanished into nothingness.
Shan drifted into sleep.
The rooster crowed, and the dawn chorus began. Father left to sell produce in the town, Mother to tend the backyard vegetables.
Shan and Lan rose from their bed. A cloth curtain hung between their sleeping area and the bed where their six-year-old brother Min slept. To disturb him was forbidden, as he was ill and needed rest, but on that morning a musty breeze filled the house and lifted the curtain. Shan glimpsed Min, limp on the bed, his arms bruised purple in splotches. Auntie presided at his bedside, speaking to him in her low tones. For an instant, his bruises became leeches, sucking Min’s blood and energy.
The girls crept outside cautiously. Besides the kitchen outbuilding, to one side of the courtyard stood a pigpen, and on the other a henhouse. The sisters hoped to avoid its rooster and his talons, but were startled by the sound of his flapping wings and ran for the streambank to search for wild vegetables and herbs to feed the pigs. Other days they went up to the woods to forage, or to the fields.
The house was surrounded on three sides by the South China mountains, the one rough path a pale, twisting ribbon woven along the valley and through the pine forest. Streamers of cloud wreathed the nearby summits, obscuring the floating mountains nearby. Were it not for the fruit trees Father and Mother had planted on the hillsides, weeds would have swallowed the house long ago.
While Shan and Lan filled their baskets with fodder, Mother washed clothes with Mrs. Chen, a neighbor who lived across the stream. Shan’s and the Chen families were the only two hiding in the mountains. It was Shan’s day to feed the pigs, so Lan went off to play with Mrs. Chen’s ten-year-old daughter Wen.
In the courtyard the rooster waited for Shan, perched on a lychee tree. “Cock-a-doodle-doo,” he swelled with each crow, until he was as large as a dog. He galloped toward Shan, shaking his hackles.
The hairs on the back of Shan’s neck prickled with fear. She raised her sickle with one hand at the rooster and he froze. She sidled toward the pigpen, eyes locked with his, but when she tried to pass, the rooster flew up to peck at her eyes. Shan waved the sickle and he dodged, then attacked again. She shielded her face with the basket but the rooster’s claws slashed her arm. She waved her sickle and kept waving it until she felt a chill wind.
“He is gone.” Auntie said. Shan trembled; her face wet with tears. “Luckily, you are not injured.” Wiping her eyes with the back of her hand, Shan saw the rooster’s red marks on her skin.
After feeding the pigs, she rushed across the yard and did not stop until she reached the stream, only to catch Wen as she yanked her sister’s ponytail and Lan tried to pull away. Shan ran at them, waving her hands, her fingers curled like talons. Wen released Lan’s hair and stepped back.
“Stay away from my sister!”
“We were just playing,” protested Wan.
“So I should pull your hair for you?” Shan was smaller than Wen, but if they fought, she would bite the older girl.
“You are so difficult! I don’t want to play anymore.” Wen shrugged, turned, and left.
Shan turned to Lan. “Why didn’t you fight back?” she shouted at her older sister. Mother and Ms. Chen’s laughter carried to the sisters over the cicadas’ chirping. Shan was, after all, a tiger girl.
Lunch was rice porridge with pickled radish. Lan hand-fed Min, so thin he was almost transparent. From somewhere they heard a piercing, stuttering, buzzy trill, raising in pitch. Lan froze at the unfamiliar sound.
“I will have a look.” Shan moved to investigate the source of the noise, which seemed to be in the kitchen outbuilding. Father emerged from the kitchen in a soft straw hat, soaked with sweat, his face covered in dust, as he passed Shan on his way into the house. In the kitchen, Shan found Mother squatting beside a large cage divided into several square cells. Inside each cell was a creature with a small head but prominent crests curving around the eye to the base of the parotid gland.
“Mother, w-w-what are they?”
Mother did not look up. “Asiatic toad. Chemo doesn’t work. Toad blood is your brother’s only hope.” She held a kitchen knife as she removed a toad from its cell. Shan turned and ran back into the house where Father was now having his lunch.
“It’s toads wailing. Mother says their blood could cure him!” She reported to her siblings, trying to catch her breath. Min chuckled, a disguise for his discomfort.
Mother approached from the kitchen with a bowl of rich, red blood.
“Toad blood has cured hundreds of cancer patients. It must be drawn directly from a live toad. Min, my baby, please drink it,” she encouraged, almost pale with excitement as she helped Min drink from the bowl. Shan looked away. The air filled with the scent of blood, the red liquid drizzling down Min’s mouth like rain on a windowpane.
Shan and Lan lay in bed, listening to the sounds of the night. Cicadas ceased chirping. Frogs croaked amid a chorus of insects. Dogs barked in the distance; leaves rustled in the breeze. Rats gnawed at the corner cupboard. From the kitchen Mother’s sobs ebbed on the wind, as the toads screeched “curr-curr-curr.” Mother often cried in the kitchen so as not to disturb Father, her long, racking sobs draining her of vigor and joy.
Auntie whispered to the sisters, “Min is so ill that toad blood can’t cure him. He can’t hold on much longer. Imagine how his death will devastate your parents.”
Lan quivered at this, and Shan reached for her hand.
“Only a son can heal a parent’s broken heart. Don’t you want to vanish like your baby sister and be reborn as a son?”
“What happened to our baby sister?” Shan asked very softly.
“You saw. She vanished without suffering. You can do this too.” Lan squeezed Shan’s hand.
“Don’t you ever wonder why Wen is the only child? Her mother gave me three newborn girls so I could make them vanish. No pain, no suffering.” As Auntie spoke, Shan felt a cool breeze around her ears.
“You must think I hate girls, but no, I love them. Of my mother’s thirteen babies, only my brother and I survived. I lived because she needed help with household chores and the care of her son. And my eleven sisters born between us…” Shan could barely breathe. “Soon after they were born, my mother dumped them into a latrine pit. I stayed away from it because I could hear their faint cries rise from it.” Shan remembered the time when a chick died, and she grieved. Auntie’s mother must have felt very sad.
“I never saw my mother show any sadness. Life is harsh. Your baby sister didn’t suffer. If you were sons, your family wouldn’t need to hide in the mountains to escape the one-child policy. Think about it.” Auntie floated away, and Shan slept until a noise stirred her: a rustling from under the bed, a scurrying.
Shan rose above her own form and drifted down the bed. A group of rats darted away like a roll of old rags, and she wafted after them into the yard. A giant rat led the mischief to the rooster, who pecked at the leader with lightning speed, driving it into retreat. The rat reconsidered its flight and with a vengeful scream, launched its body three feet high like a bullet from a gun and slammed into the rooster, positioned itself for another strike. The rooster’s head reared back. He waited until the rat was within range, then stabbed at it with his beak. The rat fell heavily to the ground, blood seeping from its body. After a while, its limbs twitched, and the other rats scattered.
A strange emotion welled in Shan’s heart. She had always believed the rooster was evil, a bully, but that night she saw a different side of him, that of family protector. The rooster, whom she once feared and resented, could also be a righteous, reliable father.
Everything was hazy and dark that summer night, but at that moment the air was clear and fragrant. Fireflies flickered along the stream, in the grass, among the trees. They shot up and down into the air in pairs and trios, quiet and erratic, elves flying around with lanterns, radiating light. Shan flew among the fireflies, borne by unseen currents. She did not want to be reborn a boy, but if she could, she wanted to be a firefly, dancing, exploring, and lighting up the world.
The following day, Shan was no longer half a head shorter but rather the same height as her older sister. Morning fog spread between the mountains, covering the landscape with a wet cloak as they walked to the woods to cut wild herbs. The sun’s rays glistened through the rising mist as the fog lifted and all things were clear again. Birds hopped in the trees, and branches danced in the sunshine. Thrushes, larks, and mountain magpies sang, their music echoing throughout the mountains.
“I like having you for my sister,” said Shan.
Lan stooped and swung her sickle, cutting off a handful of wild vegetables. “I want to leave,” she said, standing.
“We’ll leave and go to school together.”
Lan moved down to a shady spot where vines had short petioles and oval leaves sharp at the tips. They couldn’t name the plant, but knew the pigs liked it.
“You heard what Auntie said. Mother will be heartbroken if Min dies.”
“You heard how she cried day and night. She’ll be better off without us.”
The memory or Mother’s whimpering wrapped Shan and weighed her down. “No, Mother won’t—”
“You fool! She will resent and even kill us, and we’ll be stuck here forever.”
Sunlight percolated through the leaves. Shan met Lan’s eyes and was stirred by some deep memory she could not recall. “You should listen to Auntie, too. She cares for us.” Lan’s voice was low as she turned and cut the leaves.
Shan wanted to reply but was interrupted by a squeal. Mr. Chen must be slaughtering a pig, and they could no longer talk for the sound.
In the afternoon, Shan took a bath. She was about to dress when she saw a snake on the floor, flicking its forked tongue. Shan stared at the snake. She felt a sudden chill, then Auntie’s whispers, “Keep quiet. Don’t disturb it. Throw your clothes to get its attention, then run.” Shan dashed towards the house and Auntie floated with her. Shan removed new clothes from the cupboard and donned them. “Don’t you want to leave this horrible place? No one deserves to be stuck here. Not you, not Lan, not your mother.”
Min coughed in his bed, and Auntie drifted over to check on him.
“Is Min in pain?” Shan’s voice betrayed her concern.
“Yes, he hurts all over. He has developed high fever with delirium.”
Shan’s heart ached. “Can you make him vanish too?”
“I’m sorry, but my magic only works with girls.” The room was quite except for Min’s racking cough.
“How does one become a ghost?”
“Enough resentment and pain when you die.” Auntie spiraled down next to Shan. “My family used to live here. I was seven months pregnant and certain that it was a boy and we could leave this place. But a wild dog attacked my young daughter, and she would have died without treatment. I loved her, so I took her to the hospital in town.” Auntie rose in the air on the breeze and continued, “The doctor cured her, but I was caught by the family planning officers and was forced to have an abortion. Not long after I returned home, I died of infection. My husband took my daughter away, but I was stuck here.”
She drifted down looked Shan in the eye. “My only regret is that I didn’t turn my daughter into nothingness before she left. It pains me to think that she will suffer and have a miserable life. Please let me help you and Lan.”
“How long will it take to vanish?” Shan asked. She realized that Lan had already begun to shrink.
“It depends on your will. The stronger you want to vanish, the faster.”
“But my baby sister vanished rapidly.”
“Your mother wanted her to vanish, and she was too young to acquire a will.”
Shan looked down. The toads’ piercing shrieks from the kitchen resembled the cries of her baby sister. “I love Lan. I don’t want her to vanish.”
“Of course, you love her. Don’t you know why she is quiet? Let me show you.”
Shan’s surroundings whirled around her, and the wind roared. When it stopped, she was in the courtyard. Mother slapped Lan, and she and Min were crying. They were younger and smaller. “It was three years ago. Your mother told your sister to look after you and Min, but she pushed your brother to the ground. He skinned his knees when he fell.” Auntie shook her head and sighed as she explained. “Your mother had just lost a son, stillborn. They had to throw him down the stream. She suffered terribly.”
Mother slapped Lan again, shouting, “How could you push your brother?” Lan shivered with silent tears. “Say you won’t do it again!” Mother cuffed her, but still Lan said nothing.
“Just feel as Lan does,” crooned Auntie, and pushed her into Lan’s body. Mother grabbed her arm and dragged her to the stream.
“Say you won’t do it again!” Shan/Lan shook her head. “Say it!” Mother yelled as she pulled her hair and pushed her head underwater. Water poured into Shan’s mouth and nose, choking her with an intense, burning pain, making her cough. When the water reached the inside of her ears, it felt as if her head would explode. Shan couldn’t bear anymore, and Auntie released her from Lan’s body. Shan saw Lan burst out crying when her head emerged from the water.
“Your mother would have killed your sister. Imagine how Min’s death will destroy your mother completely. Do you want your sister to die this way? Do you want to die this way?” Shan clenched her fists to stop the trembling.
That night even after Shan fell asleep, she still held Lan’s hand.
She woke with a start in the middle of the night. The rats ran under the bed, so Shan floated with them into the courtyard. The rooster raised hackle feathers on his neck, ready to fight.
Shan drifted into the kitchen where Lan’s spirit hovered. Mother lifted her hands to her face, her thin shoulders shaken by sobs. As Mother wept, she asked herself, “Oh, Min, my dear, my baby. What shall I do?” The toads cried as if in answer. Lan looked straight at Mother, her big front teeth clenching bloodless lips.
The next morning when Shan got up, she found that Lan was half a head shorter than her, smaller even than Min. She took Lan’s hand, so cold and dedicate. “I understand how it feels to be almost drowned, but this time Mother won’t—”
Lan interrupted her. “I feel like a ghost. I don’t want to be stuck here like Auntie. Vanish with me, dear sister. Imagine how relieved Mother will be to get rid of us, her daughters.” The room was so stuffy Shan felt suffocated. The rooster crowed, and Lan shivered with fearful eyes. Anger filled Shan, raising her hackles so that she thought she might explode. She wouldn’t let the rooster bully them anymore—she would fight him. She’d show Lan that they could confront him, that together they were stronger than they thought they were. That they deserved to live.
With sickle and basket in one hand, Shan took Lan’s with her other and led her into the courtyard where the rooster stood. The rooster groaned at their approach and the frogs sang with an expanding energy. Shan lifted her head, blinked.
Huina Zheng was born and grew up in south China. She has worked as a college essay coach since graduating from college in China. Her stories were published in Brush Talks, Evocations Review, and The Meadow. She currently lives in Guangzhou city, China with her husband and a daughter, and is pursuing an online M.A. in English program at Arizona State University.
© Variant Literature Inc 2021