It is festival time in the Narrow City. The air is thick with the sound of rustling paper, as though a whirlwind is loose in a library. The Narrow City is as old as the world on the other side of the Gates, older than the Gates, older than the Guardians. Parts of the City have crumbled into dust, the denizens scattered to the blasting winds from the less salubrious parts of Dìyù. Other sections of the City have grown brittle, yellowed like dry bones, and the inhabitants move slowly, for fear that they will tear straight through the paper walls of their domiciles.
The City is constantly being born, even as it dies, new additions springing up while old buildings crumple. It is at the newer neighborhoods that the Cloister of Unloved Aunties has its latest chapter, where even now the sound of shuffling tiles cuts through the swaddled soundscape of the Narrow City.
The voice of Auntie Nine rings out, a near screech, high and piercing like a hunting bird’s cry. A fish eagle perhaps, something with talons and a cruelly curved beak, diving with the sun behind it, only a blink to warn of rending and death. There was something of that still in her. Slim as a blade, and dressed in a crimson cheongsam with intricately brocaded buttons in the shape of rosebuds. Auntie Nine slams the set of tiles on the table, showing matched suits. The tiles rattle like old ivory, but like the Cloister, like the City, they are nothing but paper.
Aunties Four and Seven maintain neutral expressions. It is hard to tell under their caked makeup, so thick that it backfills the furrows and creases of their faces. But signs persist, the deep crinkles of their lips, permanently pursed under blood-red lipstick. Their eyes, sclerae yellowing and networked with fine blood vessels, twitching uncontrollably and searching for a way out of their prison of bone and nerve.
“It was a good game, let us play again,” says Auntie Two, and her voice is simultaneously a whisper and the loudest thing in the Cloister. Auntie Thirteen feels the pronouncement breathed straight into her ear. Even stoic, wordless Ah Ma, sweeping imaginary dust in a corner, looks up. Auntie Two lifts her porcelain cup, lifts the lid, and takes a sip, the air redolent with jasmine for a moment. Real tea, not from funereal offerings. Auntie Four and Seven had run successful enterprises in their previous incarnations; mainly in opium and back-lane gambling, back when the Singapore River was more effluvia than water, iridescent with the runoff from diesel engines. Seven, in particular, still runs a successful racket sneaking in contraband from the world beside, keeping Auntie Two plied with fine teas; sweet preserved plums, dark as midnight and smooth as eels; and honeyed walnuts. Auntie Thirteen, unbidden, fills Auntie Two’s cup.
Auntie Two’s feet do not reach the intricately tiled floor of the mahjong hall. Her slippered soles dangle between carved mahogany, her dress crinkling on the marble inlay on the seat. The striations on the marble are reminiscent of mountains in China, the armrests of the chair carved into fierce dragons with pearls in their mouths. Auntie Two taps the table three times with fingers pressed together, a gesture of thanks. Auntie Thirteen cannot help but fix her gaze on Auntie Two’s fingernails, mottled brown and variegated like old wood. Thirteen is so distracted by this that the hot tea reaches the rim and sloshes to the surface of the side table. Ah Ma, the wizened old lady with the wispy white bun of hair, trundles over and dabs at the tea with a washcloth.
Auntie Seven tsks, and Auntie Four glares. Auntie Nine, in her time a budding movie star and manager of two of the biggest nightclubs in the city, is well versed in avoiding conflict, although her skills are little exercised in the Narrow City. She clears her throat and addresses the smooth-faced child that is Auntie Two. “Aiyah, dà jiě,” she says, “Don’t mind the new one, you know how girls like her are, cannot work. Maybe we should settle everything, not good to go to the festival with debts unpaid.”
Auntie Two laughs, and there is something old, something hard in that laugh, a promise for cruelty ledgered and postponed. “You are right, as always, Auntie Nine.”
Auntie Four takes out a sheet of paper and scratches at it with a blunt pencil. “After cancelling everything out, Auntie Two keeps the taste of chendol on a hot day, Auntie Seven needs to give up the sound of every piece of music from 1935. That’s a big loss. Auntie Nine giving up… your first wedding night?”
Auntie Nine snorts and opens an ornate fan with a snap, the rapid flutter creating a small ghost breeze that doesn’t budge her elaborate hairdo. “I had half a dozen wedding nights, I can spare that memory for the betting table.” At the other end of the square table, Auntie Four’s fingers find the bottom of the shallow dish of dried plums. Meeting Auntie Thirteen’s gaze, she slowly brushes the dish over the edge of the table, where it shatters into dozens of shards. The cost must have been exorbitant to procure a single piece of real porcelain from the world of the living, and yet, Auntie Four has just…
Ah Ma comes forward with her broom, ever silent and efficient. She and Auntie Thirteen are the prologue and epilogue to every mess in the mahjong hall. “Hai, if you were not so slow and clumsy, Thirteen, the dish would not be so light, so easily pushed over.” Auntie Four turns her attention back to the other three at the table. “It is not long to the Festival, ladies. We have better things to do than to watch over this wordless old woman and this plodding child.”
The Festival is a month long, the Gates are open, not just to the Narrow City but all of Dìyù. During that month, the dead roam free, while the living burn paper offerings of food, money, and wealth. The air grows heavy with ash and the heady scent of incense. For the tortured, the lost, and the wandering, the Festival represents respite, freedom from chains and suffering. For those in the Narrow City, with its edifices built out of paper and smoke, it is another night out on the town.
The Aunties are resplendent. Auntie Nine in a fitted cheongsam that flows over her form like water over river rocks, Aunties Four and Seven dressed in summer dresses suited for garden parties before Singapore fell in the war. Thirteen has no such riches, it is the charter of the Cloister that only the unmourned make it there. But the unloved are not incapable, and the Aunties had wealth and power of their own. Thirteen herself is dressed simply, in a style that wasn’t too far off from what she’d see on Earth in a while. Already the shades of the Narrow City are drifting to the great gates, in ones and twos, and then a great tide of them. In truth, Thirteen doesn’t look forward to the Festival, she is of the Cloister of Unloved Aunties, after all. There is nothing for her topside. Even the idea of real food, not the offerings the Narrow City gets, does not appeal to her. Or so she tells herself, because there are dishes that she longs for, things from the far past that she cannot go back to.
Auntie Two appears at the vestibule of the Cloister, where the others have been waiting for her. Nobody would think of leaving without Two, such is her influence over the others. Auntie Two is clad in a delicate child’s gown, lace and linen, and gloves to cover her gnarled hands, Ah Ma trailing behind, carrying a handbag also fit for a child. The Aunties turn as one to leave the Cloister, filing out by appointed number and rank, the smallest at the lead and the willowy Auntie Nine bringing up the rear. The Gates will be open for a brief span, and the Aunties expect to get there just in time. It is not Thirteen’s first festival, but after serving the other Aunties for three years, living in the Cloister with shades from across the ages, she found that there was a strand of cruelty that bound them tighter than blood. She is going to be late if she doesn’t rush, and yet she pauses to look back at the weathered woman the Aunties are leaving behind. Ah Ma has already begun wiping down the furnishings of the Cloister. There is no real need for that, the Narrow City attracts no dust. Ah Ma’s hushed commitment to cleanliness reminds Thirteen of something long forgotten.
Thirteen had been told her service to the other Aunties would bring advancement, but the more she sees the flaws in the perfection of the others, the less she wants to ascend. Worried, perhaps, of what flaws the new Auntie Thirteen would see in her.
Nine turns back to check on the holdup.
“What about Ah Ma?” asks Thirteen.
Auntie Nine looks at the old woman from head to foot and back again, seeing but not seeing her. “Thirteen, leave her here. Nobody knows how long she’s been here. I don’t think she even understands what we say.”
Auntie Nine slows for Thirteen to catch up, and leans forward to bring herself to Thirteen’s eye level, Thirteen does not like talking to Auntie Nine up close. Instead of a small, sharp tongue, Auntie Nine’s mouth is filled with concentric rows of teeth, disappearing into the dark of her gullet, and her mouth always seems bigger than her perfect lips would suggest.
Nine lays a cool palm on Thirteen’s cheek. “Girl, if you want to climb, stop looking down.” Then she pinches Thirteen’s cheek, a gesture meant for a child. Thirteen’s cheeks are still ample and pliant enough to be pinched, but this will leave a mark. That’s the thing about the Cloister, it stains, it taints. Even the purest acts hint of the stink of the Cloister.
Thirteen goes back to Ah Ma and takes the hand of the older lady. It is softer and drier than she expects, cooler than living flesh. Auntie Nine snorts, and clicks away on her high heels, sharp footsteps bouncing off the paper walls of the Narrow City, hastening to rejoin her quartet. Thirteen glances at Ah Ma, who offers no resistance when she tugs the old woman towards the Gates; around them, the Narrow City flutters in anticipation. Everybody deserves the Festival, deserves to see the moon above instead of the painted sky of the Narrow City. Most of the dead visited their old homes. Not the Cloister. Especially not Thirteen. She’d left for good and found her way to the Cloister not long after. The details were fuzzy. She kept nothing with her on her way to Dìyù except a grudge. Ghosts were allowed to keep those forever. No, home doesn’t hold any draw for Thirteen, or so she tells herself.
The Guardians of the Gates tower above the buildings of the Narrow City, more statues than living things. Both finely muscled and one with the head of an ox, the other with the head of a horse, they stand guard, their breath furnace-hot and strong enough to shake the paper walls of the buildings down the street. Going through the Gates extracts a toll, like the Aunties and their game of mahjong, a little memory, a little sense of self. An elegant system to wean the dead from longing for earthly things. Another reason for communes like the Cloister is that ghosts who lost too much of themselves could easily find themselves earthside, left to wander. But Thirteen’s had enough of the Aunties, enough of living off smuggled preserved fruits and tea, and at least Ah Ma will have a night out.
Thirteen hasn’t been dead long enough for the world to have moved on. She still remembers to will the Gate to deposit her somewhere central, in this case, just outside the shopping district. Ghosts, by nature, do not interact well with the world. Once the senses are attuned to Dìyù, other realms fade. The two worlds are closer during the Festival. Not by much, but just enough. To touch. To taste.
Most ghosts would request the Gates disgorge them near their homes. Not Thirteen. She loves the revelry of the stage much more, and home has nothing left for her. The stage is a wooden platform atop a metal trellis, under the spreading branches of great trees. Normally, this is a vast car park for the adjacent hawker center, where touts offer savory satay, sticks of meat glistening with oil to unsuspecting tourists. Thirteen can still see, in the distance, platters of crab awash in a thick sauce of egg and chilli. See, but not smell. Closer, but not close enough. On stage, the main act is just getting started. The actors are resplendent in heavy silk robes, in imperial yellow and darkest black, embroidered with dragons and phoenixes. Their expressions are accentuated by heavy makeup, the pure white base a canvas on which to paint ruby lips, or frowning eyebrows, topped by elaborate headgear that adds nearly a foot to each player’s height.
Thirteen remembers her time as a child, when her own nǎi nai brought her to the same opera, the Getai, and whispered the plot to her, snatches of conversation in broken Mandarin between the clash of cymbals and the falsetto singing of the actors. There had been a wall there; her nǎi nai was versed in Teochew, the language of the opera, but Thirteen only learned Mandarin at school. Their interactions were only when commonalities between the two languages provided cracks enough for meaning to slip through. But that little was enough. Or when her father deigned to be a linguistic bridge between daughter and his mother, or through slow words supplemented by signs and gestures. But there were languages other than speech, like the way her nǎi nai waited in the rain to walk her back from school, the sweat on her brow when she slowly cooked Thirteen’s favorite dishes. That was in the past. Thirteen is here, now, with other problems to solve.
“Come on, Ah Ma,” says Thirteen, we should get in line for the food, already it is beginning to look like a scrum. Few things transcend death. Rudeness is one of them. She takes the old woman’s hand and pulls her forward into the crowd. Ghosts press in. Thirteen’s not had to deal with this since she’s been at the Cloister. In the Narrow City, being from the Cloister carried a certain cachet, and others gave them a wide berth. More ghosts join the crowd. Thirteen’s grateful that she can’t quite smell anything. Ah Ma slips from her hand. There’s no space to move, and Thirteen can feel an old panic surfacing as surely as a bloated corpse.
Until the crowd parts, to reveal the offering table, piled high with food, with Ah Ma at head of the table. “Come join me, Thirteen,” she says. Thirteen just gapes. Ah Ma’s voice, as she always expected, was warm and kindly. Exactly as she thought it would be.
The table, like the stage, is makeshift, flaking and chipped wood atop a rickety metal frame. A feast lies on the table, some dishes traditional, some from the hawker center next door. Plump roast ducks glistening with oil, chickens basted with rich soya sauce, and slabs of pork belly under a crunchy brown layer of skin. Seasonal fruit as an accompaniment, round pears, oranges, and apples, coated with a layer of ash from joss sticks. Different from the Cloister, with its sickly-sweet array of preserved fruit in an endless array of little porcelain dishes. Like the Aunties of the Cloister, dried, desiccated, and flavored more with spice than with life.
Thirteen tries the duck. She knows it should be moist, it should have the tang and sweetness of the plum sauce she’s dipped it in, but she can neither remember how it tastes nor savor it now. She chews mechanically and swallows it like so much wet cardboard. “Have you always been able to speak, Ah Ma?”
The old lady grins, and her smile is flawless, if yellowed. “I speak only if there is something worth saying, otherwise I would be no better than the unloved Aunties.” Ah Ma picks up a slice of roast pork, and crunches the crackling between her teeth. She sighs.
“The other ghosts here hold you in some regard,” says Thirteen.
“The Cloister is respected, even here.”
“Not for me,” says Thirteen, trying the chicken. It is tasteless, like her existence.
“Enough with this, let’s get some real food,” says Ah Ma.
The walk feels like hours, although Thirteen can tell from the movement of the moon that it cannot have been more than a matter of minutes. Leaves rustle, but she doesn’t feel the breeze. All she can smell is ash and incense, so much like the Narrow City. There’s a faded quality to her existence here, the toll she pays to come to the Festival taking a fragment of her at a time, slowly diminishing her. Not too different from her time alive. Thirteen felt like a statue being hewn from a block of stone, except the sculptor wouldn’t stop until there was nothing left of her. No wonder she found her way to the Cloister.
Ah Ma is silent beside her until they make it to another part of town that Thirteen has never been to. They’re at a temple, an old one, carved dragons around columns, paint faded until there’s nothing but dark wood. Altars and alcoves surround the courtyard. An old priest has set up another feast at its center. The Festival is here too. Thirteen follows Ah Ma to an alcove, where there’s a funeral tablet, a slim stick of wood with a name carved on it, so ancient and weathered that the words are gone, only a shadow remaining.
“That’s you?” asks Thirteen. Ah Ma nods. “How long have you been working at the Cloister?”
“A long time. From the start.”
The tablet is in a palace of honor, surrounded by others. Other names, other families. A temple patron. Auntie Two went back over a hundred years. Ghosts have an affinity for things long dead, and this tablet is older. “You’re Auntie One, aren’t you? You founded the Cloister.”
“Guilty. The others came about later.”
A feast was laid out for the dead, of a different caliber from the hawker center. Steamed fish with sour plums and preserved lettuce, braised goose atop a bed of tofu, steamed crab with ginger and scallions. Thirteen gets it this time, the ghost of a taste; sweet, sour, savory on her tongue. Food is the most evocative of memories, it grounds ghosts the most in the senses, in the time before. In a dish, properly prepared, there is love’s labor in kitchen heat, there is the steady hand of her nǎi nai giving her the best part of the dish; a sliver of chicken thigh, stained dark by hours of preparation, a slice of pork belly, perfectly balanced between tender meat, melting fat, and crunchy crackling. Food was the language of her home, and the language was love, even when they couldn’t communicate. But Thirteen can communicate now, and that remains a mystery.
“How can I understand you, Ah Ma?”
“Same reason you understand the opera, Thirteen. What you’re hearing isn’t what I’m speaking, but you grasp it all the same.”
Thirteen takes more food, desperate to taste again. “I don’t understand the Cloister. I don’t even know why I was chosen.”
“The Cloister is… a place for second chances. Some climb up the numbers, some leave. The mahjong group has been there for a long time.”
“Why don’t you leave?”
“The Cloister was the place I needed. To atone. To give back. Have you heard of Ching Shih?”
“A pity. They called her the Pirate Queen. I was in her fleet, good enough to have my own ship. Some of the money I made went into this temple. The rest of my afterlife I dedicate to the Cloister. For those who no one loved.”
Thirteen finishes her portion. She is still hungry, the food is still there on the table. This is the nature of existence as a ghost, the essence of the Narrow City; to eat only what is offered, to live in a flat facsimile of things from before. Unchanging or unable to change, so she had been told.
Ah Ma smiles, a hard smile. Thirteen sees a hint of pirate. But there is still a mystery to be solved. “Why are we even here, at this temple?” she asks Ah Ma.
“To chat, to have tea, as a waypoint before.”
“Your final test, of course. You’re going home.”
This isn’t Thirteen’s first festival. She’s been topside enough to feel gaps left by tithing at the Gate. But she still remembers home, and the Gate has not occluded her mind enough to take the pain away. They were at the foot of the block of government flats Thirteen had spent all her life in. Around them, families are burning joss paper offerings folded into gold ingots and sticking red wax candles on the pavement for their departed ones.
She takes the stairs. Ghosts always do.
They are outside her door. She remembers leaving, in anger, for good. And now she’s back, but she’s dead. It was a running war. Like all wars, neither side could claim a moral victory. Thirteen looks at the shoe rack, and her shoes are all gone, leaving gaps in the rows of shoes that her family never filled.
“What happens now?” she asks.
“We can go back to the Cloister. We continue. You go in. You can stay. This world is not for those that have moved on, but many try, so why can’t you? Or there is a third way. I will wait at the temple. You were chosen for the Cloister. But now you can choose. The Gate extracts its toll, even from me. My purpose is strong but it is not unlimited. Someone else needs to guide others to the Cloister.”
Ah Ma leaves. Thirteen is alone. She can smell something from her home now. Her favorite dishes, the sharp, cutting scent of tamarind and galangal, the burn of sambal, the comfort of fatty pieces of chicken stewed in thick gravy. She hasn’t smelled that since… she hasn’t actually smelled anything at a Festival before this one. It’s stronger than it was at the temple. Stronger by far than at the hawker center.
Thirteen knows what choice to make. The Cloister is no longer the place for her, and she can choose to love and be loved. And that it isn’t really the food that she’s smelling, or that she will be tasting. Thirteen will be heading to the temple. But first. But first…
She goes through the door. She smiles.
“Hello, nǎi nai.”
L Chan hails from Singapore. He spends most of his time wrangling a team of two dogs, Mr Luka and Mr Telly. His work has appeared in places like Clarkesworld, Translunar Travellers Lounge, Podcastle, The Dark and he was a finalist for the 2020 Eugie Foster Memorial Award. He tweets occasionally @lchanwrites.