Once, when I was in fourth grade, my grandma called me over to tell me that according to her Four Pillars of Destiny astrological calculations my ba zi chart made me susceptible to seeing ghosts. She said this like I had caught a disease and I should live my life accordingly from that point forward. After she announced this news she went back to watching her Taoist soap opera.
Obviously I had questions. Susceptible? Ghosts? We didn't exactly have a conversational relationship. We spoke maybe five phrases to each other in Taiwanese, consisting of have you eaten, what are you doing here, come here do something for me, go away, and ni zo moh yong—you are useless. A drawn-out ghost conversation was clearly beyond anything we could handle vocabularily.
Plus I was afraid to linger too long next to her because she was a master of exploitation and tended to see people as coal mines or virgin forest or, to give you the simile my aunts preferred, as coins of money. She pounced on perceived idleness like some corporate auditor. She would not let nimble little hands go to waste; no, she'd park my sister and me on tiny stools for the loathsome task of hammering open raw ginkgo nuts because it saved her a few bucks to get the unshelled kind. Raw gingko, in case you didn't know, smells like a festering, oozing thing. I ran out of the living room, shouting something about homework.
My first worry was that if this ghost-seeing trait was in my ba zi, had I been seeing ghosts all along? How could I know? I summoned every piece of knowledge I had about ghosts—
- It is a person, but see-through
- It has a scary face
- It is an orb of light that wears a white sheet with eye holes cut out of it
- It goes "ooooohhh…ooooohhhh" in the wind
I flipped through my image repertoire and decided that no, I had never seen anything like a ghost. Unless, however, the ghost appeared to me on Halloween, which would be a smart tactic for an undercover ghost, like Quasimodo escaping from his tower on that opportune day when everyone gets to dress up like an ogre. But I had not seen anyone with a plausible ghost costume. My powers must not have kicked in yet. Maybe when I got my period. That was my default answer back then.
My period came two years later. Still no ghosts. It's true, I wasn't looking very hard. In fact, I really didn't want to see a ghost. But now that I was twelve the idea of "having a destiny" was newly appealing. Perhaps my destiny was to be a ghost whisperer. I tried to weave this into some kind of romantic fantasy. Christina Ricci kissing Casper the friendly ghost, who turns into a boy.
At first it was small things that I attributed to grandma's bad mood. Lately it had become a survival tactic to ignore grandma. Because if my sister and I absorbed everything she said we would have jumped into the pool with weights attached to our feet. It had something to do with us being girls. Something about being inherently useless, moh yong. Dirty dishwater thrown out of the door. Raising a pig for someone else to slaughter. Depreciation in rapid jumps, a stock ticker sinking fast, an instinctive desire to rid oneself of worthless goods.
No matter what we did, we were always doing something wrong. She was like a roving camera recording every transgression, every kibble of cereal consumed, every item of clothing that looked a little bit nice, as though to provide enough evidence for the grand jury. If we ate we were pigs; if we didn't eat her leftovers we were ungrateful food wasters. If we slept we were slothful; if we stayed awake we were sexually overcharged, itchy between the legs.
Simply existing in her line of sight was enough of a transgression. So we learned to disappear, learned to play piano in pianissimo, kicking that pedal down to mute. We learned to teleport ourselves from room to room. If she caught us we paid the consequences. Reading a book: "Your eyes are going to fall out." Eating breakfast: "You're fat." Quietly doing homework: "You sure wasted a lot of time on that." Taking dad to the airport: "Are you leaving because you can't stand your wife and daughters?" Her words burned holes into us.
A feeling of uneasiness began to follow me around, hovering just over my shoulder. I stopped looking into mirrors, washed my face with my eyes shut tight.
My sister and I had certain defensive strategies. Whenever we heard her go on about our bad behavior to aunts, uncles, those strangers from the cultish Taoist temple she belonged to, her caretaker, our own parents, we would mumble to each other in English, like a spell: "Grandma's so stupid. I hate grandma. I wish she were dead." She didn't know English so we could say whatever we wanted: we said the words "grandma" and "dead" or "die" so frequently in her presence she must have thought it was grammatical scaffolding, a sound unit like "and then" or "I am." I wonder if she ever figured it out. "Why doesn't grandma just die."
Grandma stopped going outside and retreated deeper into the house. She began waging a compulsive campaign of lock checks. If I walked down the driveway to pick up mail the door would be bolted shut when I came back. She drew the curtains. The house grew dark and stuffy. She looked like one of those fish with no eyes that live near undersea volcano vents, shunned from the light.
I was in high school when the objects finally began moving around in my room. By then I had been waiting for these hauntings for so long it was no big thing. I was a full-blown teenager now, cynical, angry, exploding with acne. I laughed in my ghost's face! You can't scare me! My ghost was a stupid prissy female too, I could tell. Little things, like flower scrunchies, small bottles of cheap perfume, silk scarves, went missing and then reappeared in a different place, looking rumpled and used.
I picked up my perfume and stared at it. Where had you gone? Tell me what you saw! Chocolates disappeared. Which, now that I thought of it, this particular choco-ghost had haunted me for years. All those missing fundraiser M&Ms, the dwindling bars of Ferrero Rocher toffees, my school-made Easter egg nests suddenly bereft of their Cadbury eggs. The fox would come in the night.
Door knob turning in the dark. Squeak squeak squeak. A light switching on and off.
More unexplainable activity. Pulling into the driveway, a flash of a curtain opening, closing. My house key would be rendered unresponsive. Ringing the bell was futile. "I need my swim bag," I'd shout at the orange walls. "Please let me in." I'd return later with my parents, and the door would be unbolted, and miraculously grandma would be home, microwaving a dinner for herself. No, she had not heard me ringing and ringing, she must have been asleep all afternoon. Go to my room: three chocolate casualties.
In the smoky temple, when she was still strong enough to oversee the prayer ceremonies on important holidays, I would sometimes see forms, curling and curling in patterns. It had a pattern like breathing. I saw it and breathed it in and traced it as it came back out, because there was time, because we women always had to do the devotions after the men. Double the lung cancer, double the hallucinations. Lucky women of the sloppy prayer seconds. As we knelt there inhaling this curling, carcinogenic breath, I wondered why she hated us so much. What happened to her? Couldn't she see that she was one of us?
I won't go into all the hauntings I've experienced since then, because after I went to college, the incidents only increased. Except it was strange how I was not only seeing ghosts but becoming one myself. I recognized other ghosts because I had learned to adopt their ways. Ghosts mumbled in an uncertain, wavering voice, mildly irritating but harmless. Shutting tight your eyes actually does make you temporarily invisible and insensate, at least until he comes.
On film, a ghost registers as a fuzzy blur: they wince, blink, or jerk involuntarily, impossible to capture. A ghost may also be so plain that she fails to stand in relief to anything behind her so it becomes possible to see right past her, as though her opacity were diminished. However, ghosts can evade criminals more easily than the buxom and rosy-cheeked. They avoid eye contact and dress as dowdily as possible. Loose clothing and sneakers will usually do it, or an ugly hat that covers your whole face. The preferred movement for walking down dark streets alone at night is the silent scuttle. If you're not that good at being invisible yet you should try carrying pepper spray.
Every year my powers kept getting stronger. Now the ghost followed me outside, into the street, walked with me to class. It kept my head bowed down, pinned my arms to my sides, pinched my mouth shut. If ever I felt an urge to speak it would double up its efforts, and I would leave class sweating through my clothes. The effort it took to fight the ghost. From there it followed me to parties, clouding over like atomic fallout. I steered toward dark empty places, often found myself alone in the bedroom with all the coats. Loss of identity, I imagined a therapist writing in her files. Plummeting mercury, stiff to the touch, blood pressure zero over zero.
How to know if your house is haunted: If you can't find things because they are always getting misplaced, such as your wallet, keys, contact lens case. When you hear laughter and it startles you because it doesn't really sound like your own. If you come home to find your apartment messier than you remember, as though someone had spent hours playing hide and seek. If you are spooked by the curtains fluttering at the open window.
One day I called my dad and talked to him for three hours because I wasn't sure I existed. When did I become a ghost? Didn't I used to be so strong; wasn't I judge of the underworld? How did I become this flimsy, invisible thing?
This is how hauntings happen, he said. History is a sheet that smothers one's present moment. Haunted people feel suffocated by this sheet, and even though their families love their daughters very much and don't believe they should be silent or invisible, she can't throw off the sheet, which looks like a cheap Halloween costume anyway. Right? Ha ha. (Someone with a ghost of a smile is smiling but the smile is imperceptible; actually it is just the wish for a smile.)
I thought of the person who had thrown this sheet over my head. Why did she do it? Why did she see my sister and me, these solid, unbreakable girls, and want to cover us up in a white sheet? Perhaps when she was young someone had told her that she was dirty water thrown out of the door and a drop got in her ear and infected her brain. She couldn't help it.
When grandma passed away, my mom drew open all the curtains for the first time in twenty years. I went home to help her sort through grandma's things. They had already moved out her furniture from the room and staged new furniture: this would be the guest room—my room when I came to visit. I hadn't stepped inside her adjoined bathroom for years. I took a deep breath and thought: now it's all over. But when I turned on the tap, the water that gushed out was bright red. I jumped and called for my mom. "Oh, it's just rust," she laughed. Together we watched the water run and run until it ran clear.
Anelise Chen is a writer and teacher. She lives in Chinatown. This piece was written as part of a collaborative gallery show, The Dreams That I Gave Her. The opening will be held on Saturday, Jan 24, 2015 at 7 p.m. at the NARS Foundation Gallery in Brooklyn.
[Image by Jim Cooke]