Halloween is near, and with it comes the end of autumn by the old calendar. I happened to be going through a chapter from a book I wrote several years ago that seemed appropriate for this coming holiday, which used to be considered the time of year when the veil between life and death grew thin. So here it is — a little segment from the now out of print book A Time of Ghosts, which I co-wrote with my long-time physician and friend, Dr. Hok-Pang Tang, now deceased. The book presented his life in China before and during the horrible days of the so-called “Great Cultural Revolution.” It is not fiction. In this chapter he, a young “political” outcast, finds himself adrift in Beijing, without shelter. I hope you find it of interest.
THE EMPTY HOUSE
It was near midnight. Everything in Beijing was strange to me. I had no idea where to go.
There were many armed police along the roads, though officially there was no curfew. I had to watch out for them. I recalled the advice someone had once given me: “You must put yourself in the policeman’s position and see how he would look at you.” I did that, and realized I was certain to draw attention. As a wanderer in the middle of the night with a backpack and a southern accent, I would look very suspicious. I needed to find shelter quickly to avoid being arrested.
The working-class dormitory area did not seem to offer any hope, so I caught a bus for another area of the city. I tried to look out the windows, but it was so dark outside that even with an occasional street light I could see nothing.
Suddenly a bright glare ahead of the bus caught my eye. Something was burning at the side of the road. As the bus passed, it was as though time slowed down. I could see Red Guards looting a family home in the eerie light of a bonfire. There was an old man kneeling on the ground with a black board around his neck. Red Guards were loading furniture and belongings into two trucks parked outside the house. One held a whip. Another threw books into the fire.
As the horrible scene receded into the black night, an idea came to me. I could find a looted home that had been sealed up, and take shelter there. Most plundered homes were occupied as soon as the inhabitants had been expelled, but there were certain ones that people avoided – those with a reputation for being dangerous — risky – unfortunate; houses in which someone had committed suicide or had been murdered by Red Guards. People were superstitious and wanted nothing to do with such places. They felt that the spirits of those whose lives were cut short might remain in the house with unfinished business, and would trouble anyone who moved in.
Those who did dare to occupy them were generally involved in something illegal or immoral, so they had a guilty conscience that magnified any supposed oddity. Then too, people exiled from a house might return secretly in the night to retrieve hidden valuables, and might fight or kill anyone found standing in their way. Such a mysterious death would never be solved, and people would say that a ghost had returned for revenge.
Thus in every city there were sealed and abandoned homes where no one would stay. If I could find such a house, it would be safe and secure, as long as no one saw me enter. I decided to try.
I got off the bus. The street was almost empty. I walked a few blocks, and eventually came upon a very old house with its door sealed with crossed strips of paper forming a large X. It took up a lot of land. The original owners must have been quite wealthy. Unlike most traditional houses, this one had a slight Western influence in the presence of a second story. The front of the house was pasted over with old newspapers on which revolutionary slogans had been hurriedly written, along with the criminal history of the expelled residents. Papers covered the windows as well.
On the front door was a notice marked with the seal of a Red Guard station. On it was written, “PROHIBITED TO ENTER; VIOLATORS WILL BE PROSECUTED.”
The notice did not intimidate me, but I wanted a less obvious entry, so I walked about the house looking for another way to get in. I saw that on the second floor there was an open window, and a pottery pipe some sixteen feet in height drained the roof. It was very easy to climb up the pipe to the second story. When I got there, I walked across the clay-tiled roof to the open window. I then removed some tiles from the gable, and used the spaces thus opened as handholds, as I kicked the window wide open and swung myself in through it.
I was in a large room — apparently the master bedroom. Sheets and clothes lay on the floor. A table and chair were overturned. It looked like the aftermath of a robbery. There was a bad smell of something decaying, and spider webs were everywhere, so that with each step they clung to my face and arms and legs.
I had my flashlight in my pack — but worried that it might be noticed from outside, I covered it with a handkerchief to make the light weaker. Even so, it was little help, and all the junk on the floor tripped me up as I walked, and I nearly fell in the darkness.
The wooden floor was strewn with rat droppings, and torn up here and there where Red Guards had searched for hidden valuables. There was one piece of furniture, a wooden dresser that had proved too heavy to move, so they had beaten it to ruin.
I wanted to go through the entire house to make sure no one was there, but it was so difficult to walk about through all the debris in the darkness that I gave up. I just cleared out a corner where I could recline and rest.
I had become like a rabbit or a deer, always alert for a hunter, so I dared not lie down completely. I put my backpack against the wall, and sitting down and reclining against it, I closed my eyes to rest a while. I kept telling myself not to go to sleep completely. I wondered if I had done right in coming here, but recalled that in Russian spy fiction stories, the most dangerous place often proved to be the most secure.
I relaxed my muscles and moved slightly to make myself more comfortable. At once I heard a strange sound, a very regular “dop — dop — dop.” It seemed to be someone taking footsteps with the intention of being heard. I was immediately alert; it might be Red Guards coming in to get me. Perhaps I had been seen entering.
I remembered my military instructor saying that if you don’t move in the dark, the enemy will not discover you. So I lay down on my stomach, held my breath, and watched the door to the stairs, holding a broken chair leg in my hand as a weapon and waiting for the guy to come up.
No one appeared. A few minutes passed, and the house returned to silence. I still dared not stand up. I crawled to the window and looked out, pondering whether I could survive a quick jump from the window in case of danger. Then I thought again of the footsteps.
I recalled the ghosts I had seen as a child, but I had seen none since. I thought of the old house in the countryside where people had hanged themselves and drank pesticide. It had a strange atmosphere and odd things happened there, but I had been trained in Western medicine and had grown skeptical.
And then I remembered my mother telling me what to do if I were to encounter a ghost. “An honest, sincere gentleman does not fear ghosts,” she said. “They will leave you alone if you concentrate all your energy in your eyes and look at the ghost. Don’t be afraid and don’t run away, no matter how terrible or frightening it may seem. You must stand there and use all your energy and stare at it directly. If you do that, it will gradually disappear. Then you will find that only your heart and mind have created the terrible thing — just your own mistake.” My mother’s advice seemed a little contradictory to me, however, because though at times she appeared skeptical, at other times she would say things like, “The Yang world is much more powerful. The Yin world is hidden and weak, and only manifests in the dark of night. It will disappear with the dawn. Moreover, even among ghosts there are some good, some bad. The good may help you out, but even an evil ghost, if you keep your energy concentrated on him and are not afraid, will retreat.”
I do not know where my mother got her theories. My old granny, however, had been a firm believer in mysterious things. When I was a child, she always had me wear one very expensive piece of jade. It was very green and shining, and according to Granny it had a spirit. If the owner of such a stone were lucky and healthy, the jade would become a very deep and brilliant green. But if the master were ill, or dogged by ill fortune, the beautiful color would decay and disappear, and the jade would become dark and dull. But the oddest thing was that if the master met with some unexpected accident or illness, that jade would counteract the bad influence, and as a result it would crack and lose all its green color, and the master would then escape the disaster.
Such a thing actually happened to my nephew. He fell from the third floor, which might have killed him, but he was not harmed at all. Instead his jade was broken. Such a remarkable “spirit stone” was very costly, and it might take $10,000 to obtain one. The Chinese wear them for protection, just as Christians wear a cross or crucifix. But such a stone of quality should have a very advanced Buddhist monk pronounce a blessing on it. After that consecration it can protect from the hauntings of spirits and demons.
I enjoyed such tales, but thought that the chief value of such a stone was psychological. I had not had mine since the Red Guards took it from me when our house was looted.
Pondering all these things, I began to feel fear rising in me. Who knows what bad fortune the people who lived here might have had? Perhaps they, too, were exiled to some remote labor camp, or perhaps they committed suicide or died here.
Dim moonlight came through the open window and cast shadows of broken furniture on the floor. I thought of the odd “dop — dop” sound that I had interpreted as footsteps. There must be something to have caused it. I hoped it was only a cat or a mouse.
Given the choice of being arrested for walking the streets outside, or of encountering a ghost, I preferred the ghost. A ghost seemed easier to escape.
I listened carefully as the minutes passed. I heard a crunching sound like someone stepping on dry leaves. Then the house was silent again.
I told myself it was just nerves. I was in a very old, very dark, empty house. It was natural to be uneasy. In spite of the odd sounds, no one came and nothing happened. Eventually I became very sleepy, and seemed to doze off and wake again.
All at once everything changed. The whole room transformed. All the damaged furniture and the mess on the floor disappeared, and in its place was a lovely, tidy bedroom with a young lady sitting on the edge of the bed. I could see tears running silently down her cheeks. She was feeding a small child.
Abruptly came the sound of steps downstairs again, and the lady and her bedroom vanished, and I was back with the broken furniture in the darkness. I must have been dreaming. But the noise downstairs was not my imagination.
Unable to control my curiosity, I very carefully and quietly crept to the stairs, and slowly descended into the lower room. There, in the dim moonlight, I saw a young teenage boy totally absorbed in trying to crack nuts. He was so intently concentrated on the matter that he did not notice me as I slipped quietly up to him.
Suddenly he looked up, saw me, and shrank back quickly in fear, drawing a knife from his waist and holding it toward me threateningly. We looked at each other in the silent, ghostly moonlight, neither moving.
He was perhaps fifteen, and very thin. His hair was tangled and filthy, his face smeared with dirt, his clothes stained and torn. He was definitely not a Red Guard, just a homeless kid. Even with the knife in his hand I felt no threat at all.
I opened my backpack and took out a small bar of chocolate and held it toward him. He reacted like a timid animal, desiring it, but fearing to take it. So I tossed it to him. He caught it, but continued to watch me cautiously. I looked about the room and saw he was alone, so I sat down and relaxed my guard.
That calmed him. He lowered his knife, then shoved it back in his waistband, and ripped the paper off the chocolate, consuming the bar in what seemed only a moment. He must have been very hungry. Then he tried to pass me a handful of broken walnut shells and meat mixed together. From that simple gesture I could tell that he was really a good guy who understood politeness and sharing. Even in moonlight I could see that his hand was filthy, but I did not want to refuse his gesture of friendliness, so I took what was in it.
I asked, like an adult to a child, “Why aren’t you home in bed? Why did you come here in the middle of the night?”
I could tell that my question made him uncomfortable, and regretted asking. It was stupid of me. Obviously he had no home. I tried to open the conversation anew. Instead of criticizing, I began praising him as a brave young man. I deliberately did not call him a kid. “You are so brave, staying here by yourself in this big house alone. Aren’t you afraid of ghosts? I feel a little afraid. It scared me when I heard you down here.”
Then he opened up.
“Even if you are afraid, there’s nowhere else to go. After a while you get used to it, and then you aren’t afraid any more. There are some things a guy’s forced to do.”
His words seemed mature beyond his years, and there was sadness in them.
“Where is your family?” I asked.
“They were all exiled.”
“Oh. Well, we are in the same boat. My family was exiled to the countryside too. But why didn’t you follow them?”
“Before the exile my family had nothing to eat, so I started going all over the city begging for food. One day I begged some money and bought some sweet potatoes and brought them home for my family. But when I got there, they were gone. I don’t know where they were taken. I lost track of them. So I just became homeless and lived where I could.”
“How long have you been staying here?”
“A few weeks now.”
“Is there anybody else who comes here?”
“Yah, but they are always afraid. They just stayed a couple of days and left.”
“Why did they leave?”
“‘Cause they were afraid.”
They said they had seen a ghost here. But I never saw it.”
“What kind of ghost?”
“According to some homeless guys, this house’s owner was the head of a small paper-making shop that made paper for Chinese paintings. It was a family business. But they had to hire workers, so they were considered “factory owners.” In the Great Cultural Revolution the man was criticized because his shop provided materials to artists who made anti-Communist pictures. Because he sold the paper, they said he was a criminal. Their three-generation family business, the shop, all the equipment, everything was destroyed. Without the shop they lost all their money and had nothing to live on.
“When the Red Guards were tearing up the shop, the son, who was an adult, risked his life to fight them. They beat him to death with a wooden staff. The old man and his wife watched them kill their son. Then they hanged themselves. Finally, only the daughter-in-law and one grandchild were left in this house. She took some sort of chemical used to make paper and poisoned herself and her child.
“Since then a lot of people have stayed here, but they either get sick or injured or have bad nightmares. They always see the young woman and her child in their dreams, but I never saw them. I never saw anything unusual happen here, except sometimes when I fall asleep, it seems like somebody is putting a blanket on me. But if I wake up, nobody is there. Mostly I just sleep all night, though, and don’t wake up until morning.”
I thought that whatever spirit remained there, it must be kind and gentle to take care of this boy. It did not surprise me that he saw nothing while others did. People who can see ghosts are either born with a “Yin” eye, or they have a poor fate, or they are ill or close to death.
We talked on quietly about this and that, and soon, because of our common woes, we were like old friends. Eventually he began yawning, and we stopped. He soon lay back and closed his eyes. I looked at him sleeping there in the moonlight. He was just an innocent little kid. I wished I could help him, but I could not even help myself.
I began to feel sleepy. The moment my eyes closed, I saw again a young woman in white garments printed with tiny flowers. Beside her was a lovely little child. They stood at the top of the stairs looking down at me, motionless and silent. I felt suddenly overwhelmed by sadness, and did not want to see them more. I struggled to stand up, but my body felt heavy and would not move, and I felt as weary and drained as if I had been exercising all day.
At that moment I remembered my old granny, and the Herb Doctor who cured my childhood illness. During the Japanese air bombardment of Canton, my grandma always repeated the words, “Save from suffering, save from disaster, Bodhisattva Kuan Yin.” In suffering or danger, Buddhists always called on the Compassionate Bodhisattva. And the Herb Doctor taught me another mantra to repeat for help in time of great need, but that was a long time ago, and I had forgotten it. In school the Communists taught me that such things were just superstition. But my granny’s words were deep in my mind and unforgettable, so now I blurted out, “Save from suffering, save from disaster, Bodhisattva Kuan Yin! Save from suffering, save from disaster, Bodhisattva Kuan Yin!”
No sooner had I done so than the woman picked up the child and slowly began to float away from the stairs and grow faint, like smoke blown on the wind.
I felt a sudden pang of guilt. I did not want to hurt her or her child, so I stopped repeating the prayer. I felt so sorry for them. My family was broken, yet we survived. Her family was broken, and all were dead.
The moment I fell silent, the young woman and her child came drifting back to the stairs in a wavering motion, like a butterfly in flight. She looked directly at me with inexpressible sorrow, as though begging, imploring. I remembered my mother saying that to stare strongly at a ghost would make it disappear, so I fixed my gaze on her and concentrated. Suddenly she tossed a small, white rectangle toward me.
I awoke abruptly, and had no wish to sleep again. Though still very tired, I got no rest in that unfortunate house. Usually when I could not sleep, I would read. But there would be no books in that place. No doubt all had been burned or taken away. But even as I thought that, the faint light before dawn entered the window and fell on a small white book right beside me on the floor. I picked it up and was disappointed. It was just a collection of Mao’s writings. Everybody hated it, because it had to be carried on one’s person all the time to avoid criticism. No matter that there was a paper shortage and kids had no paper for homework, and people had no toilet paper — all resources had to be put into printing endless copies of this book. Nonetheless, I grabbed it and opened it. As I did so, a couple of slips of paper dropped out onto the floor. I picked them up, and saw that they were a letter, which read:
“Dear Papa and Mama,
I do not know if this letter will ever reach you. But if you see this paper, it means I have already left this world. People say that only after you raise your own children and watch them grow up do you become sensitive, and feel how your parents worked hard to raise you. And then you appreciate what they did for you.
I left you to come here and study, marry, and have a daughter to build up my own family. But I completely forgot to care about you, and did not fulfill the duties of a daughter to return gratitude for your raising and supporting me. So I always felt guilty. But I did not want to make you sad.
Don’t feel sorry for me, because I can meet my husband in the other world, and we will be together again. I don’t wish for our child to live in this very cruel and feelingless world. She would only suffer more. She won’t grow up. Hard luck destroyed her life too early.
I chose to marry Ga Kei. He was the owner of a manufactory. I knew when I married him that our future would be dim, but I ignorantly and childishly thought that pure and sincere love could overcome everything. I underestimated how cruel and heartless human beings could be.
So I don’t miss anything in this world. I am only sorry that I did not accept my responsibility to take care of you both. Please forgive me. Don’t be sorry. I’ll be in another world where there is no suffering, no blood and tears, no hatred, no cruel political struggles.
Originally I wanted to send my girl to both of you to take care of, but unfortunately she had such great fear when her grandma, grandpa, and father died, that she has had a mental breakdown. That would just add to your burden. If she could grow up, she would just have the burden of her mother committing suicide and using her life to protest the Communist Party. So at the last moment I decided that I brought her into this unfortunate, cruel world, and I will take her out of it.”
The letter broke off suddenly, and appeared to have been written in hesitating segments. It had no end, and there had been no chance to send it.
It was so sad. Perhaps her parents did not even know she was no longer in this world.
Just then the morning sun broke into the room. The boy was still asleep. I went to open a window on the main floor so I could slip out of the house. I had one leg outside and was halfway through, but my backpack strap got stuck on something on the inside sill. I tried to loosen it, but nothing seemed to work. Worried that someone might see me, I jumped back inside the house to release the strap from whatever had caught it. I was surprised to find that it had stuck on just one small nail. But when I tried to release the strap, the nail just went in deeper and snagged it tighter. Finally I ran out of patience and gave a big tug that shook the wall as well — and suddenly out from behind a framed picture a paper fell. I was surprised to see the picture still hanging until I noticed it was Chairman Mao. Someone must have hidden the paper behind it in a hurry, thinking it a good place because of the veneration in which the image was generally held.
I picked the paper up and got a great shock. It was an empty envelope addressed to Canton — to my home town. It was all very strange. I took the two sheets of the unfinished letter I had found, and put them in the addressed envelope and sealed it. Then I went to jump out the window again, but suddenly the front door banged open. Perhaps it was only a breeze from the window, or perhaps the lonely spirits were now free to leave, the last task accomplished.
I hurried out through the front door and left that sad and lonely house. I gladly inhaled the fresh morning air of the street. A few bicycles were on the road — people pedaling off to work. Early buses were already moving.
I held the letter in my hand and looked for a post office or mailbox. Then a very peculiar thing happened, as strange as all that had come before. I raised my eyes, and there, walking directly toward me, was a mailman in uniform. I stopped him and asked if he would send the letter for me. He took it, and we parted.
It seemed then that something was finished — that I had done the one thing set for me to do there.
(Copyright David Coomler and Ruby Tang)