Before she jumped, Feng Guniang used to tell me about her suicide, during our cigarette breaks when we danced at the Green Dream, her white-lacquered nails trailing against the web of her fishnet tights. We smoked in the shadowy corners behind the opium dens on Jiameng Street, where the lights from the neon advertising boards couldn’t touch us. The new opium dens are all styled like the old red mansions of the Ming Dynasty, complete with heavy doors twice as tall as we were.
“You come back, you know, if you wear a red dress.”
There were lengths of time when Feng Guniang would walk on the crumbling remnants of the Old City Wall at night wearing a short red qipao embroidered with golden phoenixes, balancing on the parapet barefoot, her arms spread out, teetering like a puppet. I used to beg her to come down. Sometimes there would be other people—strangers, noodle vendors, foreign rich men with fur-lined coats—and we would shout at her together, but she would always go on, laughing like she couldn’t hear us.
Most of the time there would be no one—not even me, on the days I couldn’t bring myself to see her. I danced the last shift alone when she disappeared at midnight, and long after I had wiped the rouge from my face and soaked my tired feet in warm water, I would see her dirty footprints on the white tiles leading into the back room, and hear her sobbing.
She had been the mistress of a German businessman who pulled her out of the river once. He never came to see her while she flirted with death, on the wall, but I saw him sometimes in the Green Dream. He sat at a table in the front right corner with a large group of foreign men, always facing the stage, his opium pipe meditative at the corner of his mouth, watching Feng Guniang. He bought her a mink coat that she would wrap around herself while she sang English lullabies.
When I knew her, Feng Guniang was the Marilyn Monroe of the new opium dens—the one that everybody wanted but nobody could have, and everybody was always trying to save. She had a beauty mark in the center of her forehead and bright green eyes—a gift from a Russian patron—that contained more life than was fair in our part of smog-ridden, overcrowded Shanghai. Her real name was Feng Jinling, but few remember that.
Her pussy opened like a peony, some of the customers tell me, when I sit at one corner of the stage alone and talk to them, long after she has died. They loved her more than me, and I was partially jealous, partially in awe. But I could never hate her, because she always needed us to save her. From the first day I met Feng Guniang, I could sense an empty space in her, filled with some silent wronging, that only expanded until she drowned in it.
I still see Feng Guniang’s ghost, in the old gardens and sponge rockeries on Jiameng Street, wearing her red qipao. She wanders through the bamboo groves of Yuyuan Garden, and cries through the weeping willows by the large goldfish pond. These garden elements are only an illusion, cast by a hidden projector in a rock, and sometimes I am afraid she is an illusion too, but I know those bright green eyes too well. She has kept her gift, even in death.
“Xiao You,” she says as she tries to clasp my shoulders, but her hands sink through my living skin like ice. There is despair in her voice. “Did they look for me after I was gone?”
Ghosts don’t cast shadows in the pond. When I look down at the water, I only see myself, talking to the ripples and the silver fins that flash by.
“You didn’t have to go,” I tell her. “They didn’t care.”
Feng Guniang came back to haunt the man she loved, who never left his tall, curly-haired German wife for her. Or at least, that’s what I choose to believe. She could’ve died and come back for many reasons, but more than she wanted to die, I believe she wanted to come back. Even as a ghost, she kept that stifled pain inside her—when I brought her steamed dumplings in a bamboo cage and sat with her by the pond with my knees drawn into my chest, drawing in the mud with sticks. I never talked to her, but sometimes she would sing.
There is no way to grow up in New China without feeling angry at something. Sometimes you are angry at what you cannot have, like Feng Guniang, who could not have her married German lover. Sometimes you are angry at things that are unfair, like how the Triads have taken over the water pumps in the capsule slums that crawl hundreds of stories into the air—so that half my month’s salary is spent on a single bucket of water. Sometimes you are angry because you don’t know better than to not be.
Anger in New China was a silent, bruised loneliness that nobody ever talked about. It bristled like the hairs along the spine of a cat, but it was invisible. People pretended not to notice.
Instead, there were opium dens, stuffed with maroon velvet cushions and curtains made from crimson gauze, staffed by porcelain-skinned women with red lips and qipao with high slits in the sides. There was a sex-and-drug euphoria to lose yourself in, so you could ignore how your sons and daughters were dying in overflowing hospital lines, or how the police would easily turn a blind eye as long as you had enough to pay for it. Those days in Shanghai, you were grateful for an excuse to drink your anger down with whiskey shots and exotic cocktails. I know because I served those drinks, in between the hours I spent on the stage.
“Come see the de-ribbed dancers at the Green Dream,” the Boss says to the crowds that pass by outside, the advertisement board drilled into his forehead flashing with my silhouette. “They have their eleventh and twelfth ribs removed, so that they can perform feats of flexibility so outrageous you won’t believe it until you see it. See how tiny their waists are in a corset.”
I wonder where my ribs are—what the Boss did with them after I gave them up as part of my contract. I wonder what happened to Feng Guniang’s ribs after she died, if they became immaterial and pale like her ghost body, or if they rotted slowly like fruit. I like to imagine my ribs are buried in a box somewhere, nestled in soft dirt, where they are safe from the poison of Shanghai.
I used to own a Tibetan mastiff named Happiness, who lived in my three-by-six capsule in the slum tower with me, but he ran away a month ago. I see him sometimes in the narrow alleys that run behind the convenience stores and bike shops of the first floor, which drip with water from laundry hung in the top stories. In some capsule settlements, the stacks of capsules go up so high, on the ground you can’t see the sun. They say that each walled slum is actually hundreds of smaller capsule tenements, but that they have been built so closely together that they became one thing.
I whisper Happiness’s name, and try to lure him back to me with my own dinners, but he growls and won’t come. I sit on my bed inside the yellow plastic walls of my capsule alone with the electric fan directed at my face and eat canned pineapple because it is the only thing I can afford after paying the water bribe.
Feng Guniang had been a symbol for the dreamy helplessness of the Pearl of the Orient. And now that she was dead, that innocence dispersed like a cloud of perfume on a sigh. Her death was a cry for something to be done. I just didn’t know what to do.
The Boss hires eight new de-ribbed dancers at The Green Dream. Whereas I used to be the youngest and least experienced, and Feng Guniang used to be the eldest, I stay through so many seasons that I become the protector of the new girls. I am hardened by the cruel Shanghai that waits outside the back door of The Green Dream, but I’m not changed by it.
It is at that time the girls start dying. Someone is stalking them, killing them in terrifying ways. As the oldest and the most unsentimental, I have to take responsibility.
“This is not the first time there have been serial killers on Jiameng Street,” the Boss tells me, reclining on his velvet lounge chair with his opium pipe, his newly shined leather shoe crossed over his knee. One of his mistresses waxed his mustache this morning, and it curls at the ends like tea leaves at the bottom of a cup.
I stand with Lizi and Xiao Lian behind me. My hair is brushed into a chignon on top of my head, and I’m wearing a simple cream-colored qipao with light blue embroidered flowers. I’ve taken to dressing plainly offstage because in my mind, glamour was always Feng Guniang’s right. “Can’t you do something about it?”
“What do you want me to do?” he asks, taking a puff on the pipe. The advertisement board in his forehead flickers with lazy images, a video feed of his wife reading a magazine, a fat baby with peachy cheeks sleeping in a crib behind her. “Walk each of you home to your slum towers one by one? Hunt the killer down with my bare hands? Call the police, if you want. There’s nothing I can do. Hundreds of people die every day in this city. Many die in worse ways.”
Lizi brings him a plate of salted peanuts, and he stuffs a handful in his mouth, chewing loudly. He won’t say any more on the topic, and after a while I have no choice but to accept this is all the help I will get from him.
The girls accept their fate without arguing. They go back to their tiny makeup tables in the backroom and brush their hair and powder their faces, holding handheld mirrors. The mirrors magnify their eyes, their cheeks, to ghastly proportions so that all across the room, these parts of girls’ faces are floating in their hands.
I watch for a while, leaning on the doorframe with my arms at my side.
There is a perverted killer waiting in the city night. Ruan’er died a fortnight ago. Someone poured acid down her face as she walked down the street in her six-inch black pumps. She had a wobbling, feline walk like a swoon, a signature red peony pinned in her sausage curls. I imagine the bony chill when she feels the shadows moving behind her, but nothing is there when she looks over her shoulder. She walks more quickly with that mounting terror growing wings in her chest like a trapped bird, and before she knows it, something cold hits her in the face, and there is agonizing, wretched pain as her skin melts between her fingers and pours away onto the pavement.
Ruan’er would’ve tried to scream, before she found she no longer had a mouth to scream with. In my imagination, the killer puts her face in a patterned silk bag with a drawstring. He pulls the strings tight and puts the bag inside his jacket before leaping onto the low roof of a mansion and vanishing into the foggy night.
Three nights later, it happens again to Wanyue, whom we find with her long legs splayed shamefully, her face missing. A girl’s head is hideous without its face, nothing but a pink mass of mangled flesh.
I do not know what the killer does with our faces. I imagine their eyes are wide in his drawstring bag, disoriented by the sudden darkness enveloping them. Or perhaps they are a jumbled glob, like sweet jellied tofu. He has a different drawstring bag for every face he steals, and he keeps them in rows inside his jacket, which he can display proudly if he chooses to, but doesn’t. Every three nights, he follows one of us home after the Boss closes the Green Dream at four in the morning. There are other girls missing all across the city. I don’t know who they are, but I imagine that no one is looking for them either.
I go down to the deepest level of the slums, where sunlight never touches the ground, and the water from last season’s rain still drips from above. Nobody walks here because there are rats and murders, but the water pump is located in this part of the slum, guarded by gangsters carrying rifles, their waist pouches overflowing with money from the protection fee.
The higher-ranking members of the Triads have pulled out a red plastic table with low stools and are playing a game of dice. The glowing eyes of alley cats peer out from between their legs and from behind sacks of rice like pairs of jewels.
“Please,” I say to Fat Tiger, who is the leader of the Three Fists. “The de-ribbed dancers of the Green Dream humbly beg for your assistance in a matter that troubles us.”
He grunts without looking up from his game.
“There is a serial killer, who melts our faces with acid.”
I wait, while the gangsters roll another round. They make an exaggerated show of laughter and pat the table in mirth.
Finally, when Fat Tiger realizes I will not go away, he leans into the light to see me better. “And you want my help? For all you know, I might be the serial killer.” He throws his head back and roars.
But I know that Fat Tiger is not the serial killer.
“You have liquefier guns, with Chaozhou lasers. Please help us.”
Fat Tiger’s sleepy eyes widen. “I have liquefier guns, do I? Well, if I do, each one cost me a hefty sum you couldn’t sell your life to pay for. What do I owe you to waste one in your hands?”
I curtsy ironically. “We help you pass the nights away when you are lonely and in need of company. We dance for you, and mix you the finest cocktails, and entertain you with our acts of contortion.”
He studies my mien, and I know that he is looking for signs of fear, but I’m not afraid of him. Fat Tiger is a bully, but he is as much a part of our walled slum as I am. “You would kill a man?”
“The police wouldn’t care if I turned him in alive.”
So he tries again. “A young lady like you believes that murder will bring justice?”
“I am only angry, and I don’t wish to hide it anymore.”
A door bangs open somewhere, and a heavy-boned woman in an apron patterned with rainbow snails hobbles out, carrying a pot of stewed pork and potato. My mouth waters at the hot steam that wafts through the alley. The cats begin meowing, and more eyes appear in the darkness, drawing closer to the table.
The woman is Fat Tiger’s wife, and she wears a flowery dress under the apron. Underneath her dress, her arms are thick pythons; a lopsided mountain of sea-green curlers is arranged atop her head. “Stop bullying the girl,” she tells Fat Tiger, and lands a hard slap across his ear. “Give her what she wants so we can have our dinner.”
Fat Tiger cuffs her hand away and calls her annoying. The other men lower their heads and pretend not to see, as the couple erupts into a slapping match. Only I watch, as she pinches his ear between her fingers and twists, while he yowls and throws jabs at the jiggling flab of her upper arm. Finally, having had enough, Fat Tiger’s wife shambles into a corner, calling him a bastard turtle’s egg, and lights a cigarette.
Fat Tiger grumbles under his breath and collapses back on his little red stool.
After a while, he snorts. “Give her a gun then, and pray she doesn’t blast her own throat out.”
At night, I shiver as I lie awake with the gun beside me on the cot in my three-by-six, listening to the water that drips continuously from above, through all the uneven levels of the slum city, toward the alleys below. A blue light pulses on the flank of the gun, indicating the laser is active, and I know that if I pull the trigger, a nullifying beam of heat will eradicate whatever I choose as my target. It is hard to miss with a liquefier gun. That’s how Fat Tiger’s goons have beaten every other gang in the city.
Still, I don’t sleep. I blink at the liquefier gun, imaging myself in an alley with the serial killer, the weapon hoisted on my shoulder. I can’t imagine how I would find him, what we would say to each other. Am I supposed to bid him farewell, if he doesn’t kill me first? What is life, if death comes so easily?
I see the faces for sale the next day, in a boutique shop on Avenue Charles de Montigny in the French Concession. Ruan’er’s beautiful face, mounted on a pink doily, her almond eyes still with dark eye shadow on their lids, staring blankly outside the window of the shop.
The shopkeeper steps out from behind the shelves, which are filled with girls’ faces, all set in lace and held up by dainty brass tacks. She has been sweeping dirt from the aisles.
“May I help you?” she asks, and her voice is sweet like icing on cupcakes. She wears a floor-length dress made of navy chiffon that swirls like a tornado at her feet. I cannot tell what her ethnicity is, but it’s likely a mix of Chinese and European, her hair swept into a tight bun atop her head.
“Who buys the faces?” I ask her.
“Collectors,” she answers, with a wide sweep of her arm. “Appreciators, connoisseurs in the art of incorporeity. Every face is unique, you know.”
I tiptoe down the aisles of faces, afraid to make any sudden movements lest I startle the faces. But of course they do not move, or blink. They are just girls’ faces. Even in death, they are quiet and unmoving, pretending that nothing is wrong.
“The other day, a man came in, looking to buy a face. He offered a gorgeous sum,” the shopkeeper continues from the other side of the aisle. I see her from between the pale cheekbones of the faces, leaning on her broom. I find Wanyue’s face on another shelf, her shining red lips still parted with her last breath.
“Which face did he buy?” I ask the shopkeeper.
“One that has not been collected yet,” she replies, joining me in the aisle, and brushes her finger gently along Wanyue’s cheek to remove a thread. “But this face is different. This face is a jewel in the New Orient, that shines like the North Star, brutal and bold with eyes made from rubies, apart from all the other faces in New China. This is a face of The Tigress Awoken.”
Her voice rises to a ringing crescendo, which reverberates like tin in the sunny afternoon daintiness of the boutique shop. I cover my ears but it won’t stop, and when I stare into the shopkeeper’s face, her smile looks like it has been carved there with a knife. Suddenly, I am afraid.
I run out of the shop, the bell on its door jingling behind me, and run down Avenue Charles de Montigny, which is just an ordinary Shanghai street, full of bobbing parasols fighting for room on the sidewalk and long trench coats that sweep the pavement, and stare at the large billboards about the New Chinese Dream fixed on the sides of red mansion skyscrapers that wobble into the sky like endless pagodas. The women on the street carry stiff laminated paper bags full of their noonday shopping. Some are eating fruit off sticks, candied hawthorn berries and mandarin slices.
I drop to the ground and hold my knees against my chest. I want nothing more than to be consumed by the mobs of people who walk with their heads down, heading for their afternoon high in the opium dens on Jiameng Street. I think about the gun lying in my capsule, waiting for me to find the boldness to fire that one shot. If I could, I would tie the sun to the sky so that night would never have to come. Look at me! I scream at the people who walk past, but we are all invisible to each other.
I don’t know where I am safer, outside or inside—or if safety exists anymore.
A few nights later, it is the fourteenth day of the seventh lunar month, the Ghost Festival. Plates of food have been left on the street for the ghosts to eat, and several of the girls are burning ghost money to appease the dead spirits that wander back from hell on this day to visit their families. The Green Dream is alive with gossip and good cheer, fragrant smoke wafting through the establishment; the Boss has ordered special delicacies and wine to be brought to each table free of charge.
The first row of seats in front of the stage is left intentionally empty for the ghosts. It is a strange experience, dancing for an audience that is not there. Real ghosts do not come to see the show. All of that is superstition; humans cannot do anything to absolve a ghost’s pain.
As I dance, folding my body in the alien forms permitted by my de-ribbed waist, I glance over to the front right corner of the audience as I am accustomed to doing. I am looking for Feng Guniang’s German businessman.
Tonight I am surprised to see he has brought a new lover, an artist from Guangdong. She is older than Feng Guniang, and wears a wide-brimmed hat with a long green feather. Unlike Feng Guniang, she has made an effort to preserve her dignity by refusing to sit in her German lover’s lap.
I hate her, although she’s done nothing wrong, and I don’t even know who she is. I hate the German lover as well—he has not gone to see Feng Guniang once since her suicide. You can sleep with a ghost, you know. You can hold it in your arms and whisper things in its ear all the same. I want to ask him why he hasn’t done this.
I curtsy my finish to a round of applause. Afterward, when it is Xiao Lian’s turn to dance, I go to see Feng Guniang, whom I myself have neglected for a fortnight, ever since the serial killer made his presence known. It is her festival, after all.
I hear her singing in the roofed corridor over the pond, by the Pavilion of Listening to Billows. There are red paper lanterns floating in the water, meant to guide the ghosts back to hell. The lanterns form a pretty parade down the pond, attracting dragonflies, although I am not sure if the dragonflies are real or mechanical. Feng Guniang is crying on a marble bench in the corridor.
“Xiao You,” she whispers, trying to put her hand my cheek, and failing as always. “Why haven’t you come to see me?”
Something has changed about her. Her body has, if anything, grown colder and more solid, leaning more toward this world than the one she must leave it for.
I sit next to her, listening to the swish of the projected willows. I take the top off a bamboo cage filled with hot stuffed jujubes, which I have brought to her as an offering. She eats the food with her fingers and begins singing again. The goldfish somersault in the pond, creating satisfying splashes. I take my shoes off and dip my toes in the water.
We sit like that for a while, surrounded by the illusions of a peaceful garden.
Feng Guniang stops singing. “Mathias has a new lover.”
I freeze, unsure how to answer. “How did you know about that?”
“I go to the Green Dream a lot,” she replies. “I dance on the stage when none of you are looking. I try to touch him but he can’t feel me.”
“Why don’t you kill him?” I ask her. “Ghosts can kill people, can’t they?”
Feng Guniang shakes her head tearfully, takes another bite of the stuffed jujube. “They can,” she whispers, “but I won’t.”
I feel it again, the empty space in her chest that is filled with her silent bitterness. There is a space like that in everyone’s heart in New China. It has caused all this. I want to ask her why she lets him do this to her.
“Feng Guniang, you must’ve seen the serial killer. What does he look like? Where is he?”
She shakes her head. “He’ll kill you if you go after him.”
“Fat Tiger gave me a gun.” I’ve brought the gun. I lay it on my lap and show it to her. “Please, Feng Guniang. You’re the only one who can help me. I have to stop this.”
“Are you going to leave if I tell you? Don’t leave me. I’m so alone here. He has forgotten all about me. Everyone has, except you.”
“I’ll come back,” I promise her. “When have I ever broken a promise to you? I’ll bring you sweet-braised ribs next time, cooked so the meat falls off in your mouth. But let me do this for our sisters.”
She is silent for a long time. The parade of paper lanterns passes us, bobbing towards the Bridge of Ethereal Butterflies, where they pass single file under the arch. I wonder if they are really headed for hell, or if they’ll only find shore in the morning. Finally, she bows her head. “He lives in a longtang called Magpie Alley, not far from the Green Dream.”
I begin to pack the empty bamboo cage, piling the last jujubes into a napkin so Feng Guniang can eat them after I’m gone.
Feng Guniang stands and takes my face in both her hands. This time I feel her touch, clammy and transparent, and I shudder. She is becoming more solid. No, I want to tell her. You must leave this world, not stay in it. “Promise to be careful,” she whispers to me.
I squeeze her hand and promise.
On the unluckiest night of the year, when the streets float with the ashes of ghost money and papier-mâché animals burn like effigies in hell, I hunt down the serial killer.
Magpie Alley is an ordinary alley, stained, flowery women’s underwear drying on laundry lines and fat coils of sausage hanging on tin wires in the windows. A dog that looks like Happiness lies in the corner behind the Dumpster with his paws extended in front of him, busy chewing a bone.
I look for the serial killer’s window. I imagine it must have the silk drawstring bags hanging in it, arranged like perfume sachets stuffed with aromatic herbs on a girl’s dresser. I don’t imagine he is the type of serial killer who decorates his walls with butcher knives or torture contraptions. His lust for killing rises from a more literary desire. The bags may have lucky patterns sewn on them to describe the faces he has stolen—peonies or lotuses for femininity, a bat for happiness, a double butterfly for love. Murder can be art too, as long as it is done carefully enough.
But when I find his window, which I was fated to eventually, there are no drawstring bags in it.
Instead his window is hung with bronze mirrors that have a water caltrop embossed on the back, the kind of mirrors ladies used for makeup during the real Ming Dynasty. Some of the mirrors face front, out the window, and others face back. Many people in New China mistake the caltrop for a grinning skull and thus consider the mirrors unlucky, but they are overlooking the abstract symbolism behind the original caltrop mirrors, which was that caltrops grow in water, and water does not lie.
I hoist the liquefier gun over my shoulder by its strap and begin to pull myself up by the kudzu binding the walls.
“A lot can be said about a window,” the serial killer tells me when I reach the top, sliding the pane open for me to climb in. “Some say the most precious window of the world is the eyes, which are not really a window but a mirror.”
He regards me calmly through a colorfully painted dixi mask, whose expression is the hardest of all Chinese masks to decipher because it is expressionless. In it I cannot find a man, or a god, or a ghost. Its eyes are closed.
I smooth my qipao back over my knees, and level the liquefier gun at his heart. At this distance, it is impossible to miss. He smiles—I can tell by the skin on his neck and chin, crinkling. “Not everyone in this city pretends to sleep,” I tell him, and I press my finger down on the trigger.
A stream of blue light leaves the gun, and he raises his hands to shield himself. But the beam does not pass through him. I only have a heart’s beat to feel shock before I see that he has held up a caltrop mirror, which deflects the beam back the way it came.
They say that real killers are incapable of feeling fear, that they throw their heads back in the face of death and laugh as he is doing now. Well, I learn that I must not be a real killer as that blue light comes dashing back to me, and I stumble back from it in vain. It doesn’t matter if I was the one who fought back. In the end I am the same as all the others who did nothing. What was the difference to be made, between silence and screaming, acceptance and delusion, if it amounted to nothing? I, too, am helpless.
The beam of light splashes me in the face like water, and I don’t have time to scream. The sensation of a thousand nails rakes across my face, as if my skin is nothing but papier-mâché like the animals we sacrifice for the Ghost Festival, and beneath it is fire that bursts forth and burns my body to ash. I sink to my knees on the serial killer’s carpet, weeping as he pries my hands off my face and takes it from me—not holding it with a drawstring bag, but with his bare hands.
“Do you really think I am the worst killer in Shanghai?” he asks me quietly, holding my folded, melted face in the cup of his hands. “Or was it your desire to change something that cannot be changed that drove you here and killed you?”
He seals my face in a glass jar painted with swans that is plugged at the top with a corkwood screw. “Farewell,” he says to me, and he steals quietly out the window.
I count my breaths in the shadow he has left, and I begin to wonder if it was a delusion to think a girl missing four of her ribs is enough to make a difference in a smarter, crueler world.
But I am not dead.
He has left my eyes in my face and spared my life. I grab one of the many caltrop mirrors and turn its face to me. What stares back is an amalgam of mangled flesh and ugliness where skin used to be that makes me howl, and the worst part is that I can see it all. I dig my fingers into my eyes to make sure they are real. He didn’t take my eyes. Why didn’t he take my eyes?
Then I remember a sentence that was spoken to me, in a voice sweeter than cupcake icing.
This face is a jewel in the New Orient, that shines like the North Star, brutal and bold with eyes made from rubies, apart from all the other faces in New China.
My face is the face of The Tigress Awoken.
“Please. I want to buy that face, for whatever price you name. It’s my face.” I am a beggar on the floor of the boutique, grappling at the shopkeeper’s hands and dress.
The shopkeeper looks down upon me from atop her long neck and names a sum taller than the sky needle in the Bund. She knows I cannot pay.
“Please let me have it for a little less,” I beg her.
She shakes me off her leg as if I’m a leper.
“But you can’t afford the price I have named.”
I crawl to the shelf where my face sits on a pink doily, watching the sunset outside. It has forgotten all about me, fever replaced by a stunned nothingness. Inset where my eyes should’ve been are two bright rubies. I wish it would scream for me, but it is just a face.
“No, no, no,” I say to the shopkeeper, grabbing her hand. “No, you can’t take my face away from me. It’s mine. You can’t do this.”
“It was sold to me. It is mine by right now.”
I scream and claw at her, but it is no use. She drags me by the hair down the aisles, through all the faces that stare without blinking, and deposits me outside on the sidewalk. “Leave my shop,” she says as she pulls the blinds shut, “or I will call the police.”
She pulls the door shut and locks it from the inside.
“Help me,” I whisper to my face through the glass of the window, but it ignores me. Perhaps it is angry. I have failed it.
I feel naked and defenseless. They are disassembling my body bone by bone, feeding it to the hungry city that is always looking for victims, always waiting to take advantage of those who are trying to change it. I begin to look for my ribs in the cemeteries of Jiameng Street, which are just behind the opium dens, far enough that you can’t see them past the red mansions built to hide them. I thought my ribs might be buried in a box, nestled under a grave or an ornamental angel. I dig holes under the back patio of the Green Dream until the Boss chases me away with a broom.
He screams when he sees me without my face, and drops the broom.
“Never come back,” he tells me, as if I am a monster and not his once-prized dancer. “What are you doing in my establishment? Get out!”
I flee from the opium dens I have called my home, with no cheeks for my tears to roll down, to Yuyuan Garden, where the illusions of bamboo groves and sponge rocks stand guard over empty pavilions. A howl rises from the Pavilion of Listening to Billows.
It’s Feng Guniang, who floats on her back in the pond.
She is no longer wearing her red dress. She is naked, her white body smooth as a statue. Her eyes are more sunken, dark holes with no bottom that bore into the pits of her skull. Her hair is gone, in its place a naked pallet of ridged white bone.
She swims to me and rises out of the emerald-colored water like the Goddess of Mercy. I wade into the shallows to meet her, mechanical goldfish darting away from my thighs in a panicked frenzy, and fall into her arms.
“Jian,” she whispers in my ear.
“What are you talking about? What happened to your dress?”
“When a person dies, they become a ghost. When a ghost dies, they become a jian.”
She holds her arms up for me to see. Ugly black scars mar her wrists. Black blood drips continuously from them, into the water.
I look down at the scars, unsure what to make of them. “You killed yourself again?”
“I cut myself open and served my heart to him on a platter, tonight at the Green Dream. But he didn’t eat it. He wanted to eat rose cake pastries, imported from Yunnan. I put my heart back, and in case that didn’t kill me, I cut my wrists on his broken teacup. He leaned over to kiss her and shattered it.”
I sob into her solid shoulder. Feng Guniang doesn’t shiver.
“You have changed, Xiao You,” she says, brushing a strand of hair off what’s left of my skull. Her fingers are wet and clammy. They smell like the river. “I feel the anger inside you. It rises like a fire clawing at the inside of your ribs, trying to get out of you. It begins in the space where your eleventh and twelfth ribs used to be.”
I lift my face from her neck. “I feel the anger inside you,” I tell her. “It is empty and silent, and cruel like an iron weight, and it sinks inside you, making an abyss beside your heart that grows deeper with every breath you take. It too begins in the space where your eleventh and twelfth ribs used to be.”
We stand in the water, the ghost and I, our arms wrapped around each other.
“You were right,” I admit. “I shouldn’t have gone after him. It wasn’t enough.”
She shakes her head and regards me sadly. “Have my face,” she says. “Or at least what’s left of it. I killed myself twice and I only lost more. I see now that the steps I have taken are useless.”
I remember what the shopkeeper said. Each face is unique, and bears its own story. Feng Guniang’s is written with sorrow and weakness, but within it is an ethereal beauty that speaks of times passed away. If only we had been born in another era, where the world was not so cruel, she might have lived.
No,” I tell her. “Your face is beautiful. You keep it.”
Feng Guniang takes a step back from me, and I realize that her skin has become airy and light, like mist. I cannot feel her anymore.
“Neither of us won, Xiao You, but you still have hope. You haven’t failed, you know. He took your face, but you don’t need one.”
Another tear rolls from my eye and drops straight to the water with no cheek to catch it. “Not even the Boss can look upon me anymore.”
“Where’s my dress?” Feng Guniang says, turning around in the water. “Let me make a mask for you—a new face that you can show off to the world.”
She makes the mask for me from her qipao, which she had draped over the Bridge of Ethereal Butterflies. The parade of paper lanterns from the night before finds their way back to us and bobs around her in a circle of light as she sews. They have been waiting for her, hiding under the bridge during the brief summer showers and peaking out every hour to see if the sun had returned to our grey sky.
There is no power in anger, only loneliness. Feng Guniang and I used to hold each other on the stage of the Green Dream, while the servants waved colored lanterns, and somersault over each other. Each time I would feel the fluttering of her heart when my hand brushed her chest, and I would know she was looking at her German lover. She never cried for help in my arms, but neither did I.
In the end it is not anger that will save us. It is whatever comes after.
Finally, she releases me and wades back into the water. “There,” she says to me, standing back to admire her handiwork. “It’s a beautiful mask. I wish I had one like that while I was alive. I would wear it every day.”
And she smiles. Feng Guniang’s smile is disarming, even when she is an eyeless jian.
“Where will you go?” I ask her.
“I don’t know,” she replies. “There are other worlds that call for me, where I will face whatever comes. But you must go on living, Xiao You. I always depended on you to save me, but you’re the one who can save everyone.”
The parade of paper lanterns forms a neat line for Feng Guniang to follow. She wades back into the water, her arms making wide ripples.
“You must go on fighting, Xiao You. Remember that.”
She retreats further into the water, while I call after her not to leave me. Afterward, I sob for a while under the projected willows waving their branches over my head. Willow leaves float down and stick to my hair. In the distance, light and chatter from the opium dens forms a smoggy halo over Jiameng Street. The Ming-style skyscrapers of the Bund sleep quietly, their red exteriors darkened in twilight.
I stand waist-deep in the water, wearing my new red mask, watching all of it drift further from me, but then the gentle waves pull it back. The moon casts its billowing reflection on the pond, always just out of reach.
There is a city out there named Shanghai, a city with ghosts and shops that have women’s faces, neon lights and opium dens, my enemy and my home. It is a city sinking beneath the weight of its own grandeur, but I will pull it back piece by piece, until it is whole again. One day, Happiness will come back so I may clean the lice from behind his ears. I’ll use my earnings from the Green Dream to buy canned eel, which used to be his favorite food. Maybe we’ll move to a bigger capsule, one with a TV for us to watch English cartoons on.
Next year, when Feng Guniang comes back on the Ghost Festival, accompanied by her entourage of red paper lanterns, I’ll bring her sweet-braised ribs as promised. I’ll even bring her a plum blossom pressed between the pages of a magazine, so that it never withers. Plum blossoms are the first to bloom every year in Shanghai. They bloom in winter.
One day, Shanghai, I will stand in your streets without feeling fear.
Jessica May Lin recently returned to the San Francisco Bay Area after moonlighting as a nightclub pole dancer for a year in Beijing, China, and is now completing her last year at UC Berkeley. Her fiction has appeared in or is forthcoming in Chiral Mad 3, Nature, Daily Science Fiction, and others. Her nonfiction stories have been published in the Chinese-language edition of the New York Times. Visit her website at jessicamaylin.com.
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