For the last ten years, Yasi had checked himself into Hotel New World every Christmas Eve. The Christmas tree at the lobby seemed to have shrunk this year but the gold star at its top was still as shiny as a Parisian mirror.
Perhaps due to the economic crisis, the hotel was particularly quiet and he was able to stay in the same room as he always did without prior reservation. As usual, he knocked on the front door before entering to announce his arrival to any lingering spirits in the old room.
The door opened to an acquainted scene. The sketch of the Pearl Tower above the bed frame, the modest Bonsai tree nestling bedside. Settling his small backpack by the rosewood desk, he switched on the television. There might be a game on later that night which he would not want to miss.
Shanghai looked healthy enough from his window. A tiny plane left a temporary scar in the clear sky and he watched it dissipate, thankful for the lack of snow thus far. It had recently occurred to him how much he disliked experiencing the year’s first snow on Christmas Eve, with everyone else. They were stupidly happy enough with Christmas, to have it snow as well would just be too much!
Yasi allowed himself a mini bottle of whisky as he soaked his weary, blue-collared bones in the warm tub. Almost weightless now. The rising smoke from his cigarette a dry volume in the mist of the bathroom. Just as he luxuriated in his princely state, the fluorescent tube on the ceiling swung down like a boom gate, dangling precariously from a naked wire.
It was not uncommon for things to fall apart in an old hotel and Yasi was too stubborn to leave his comfortable position. He knew about fate and if this was to be his, to die on Christmas Eve in a bathtub then so be it. The hotel was not a fisherman, the tube was not a hook and he was not its catch. Yasi downed the rest of the whisky and eyed the swinging, flickering tube defiantly, almost daring it to fall.
And it fell.
Bathwater swallowed the tube with a nervous plop and the ripples lapped gently at Yasi’s stiffening chest. The once comforting smell of tobacco was swiftly replaced by the tang of burning hair and he could not fight through the powerful clench of his jaws to scream. Before his failing eyes, the tube appeared to twirl on its wire steadily in a clockwise direction. In a distant dream, a pale woman was stirring a huge, steaming pot of clear soup.
‘Cover it up Pop! Isn’t it ugly?’
‘They’re always ugly. I could try to smoothen his forehead.’
‘Yeah, smoothen his face first before covering it with the towel!’
Yasi could hear three distinct voices coming from the bathroom. It was the end of a curious sleep where he had been nursed by a brilliant blanket of light. The white sun on the ceiling eased into something fluorescent and he felt his naked body gently falling away from it to settle on the soft bed. The sheets felt damp but not unpleasant and Yasi noticed just how sweaty he was. He stood up and found a worn bathrobe to put on.
The familiar curtains were drawn, hiding the supreme Shanghainese skyline. Sheltered from the night, the cosy glow of the room seemed especially glorious and Yasi wandered towards the voices. He felt, in each deft step, a clarity which reminded him of spring ambles in the old countryside.
‘I don’t think it’s working, Mum,’ an elderly white man in a strange floral costume lamented.
‘Let me try!’ the young woman offered.
‘Use both hands, Mei,’ suggested the last of them, an able-bodied man in a sombre western suit.
Yasi watched with mild interest the three strangers poking and prying at the dead body in the tub. ‘Great. He’s here. Let him do it.’
‘Mister, look at your face. It’s so ugly. Please help yourself.’
At once, their hands left the body like upset pigeons.
It was him alright, stiff as ice. An obvious tension had frozen the pain in his forehead and it was as if Yasi’s fifty-year-old face had thickened further with death. His mouth gaped wide, showing way too much teeth. The pinkish imprint of metal glasses around his eyes gave Yasi’s body the impression of a comic villain: a rather flabby and ugly one. Veins surfaced above the charred skin of his chest; they charted the flow of the electric current, forming beautiful fractal patterns reminiscent of autumn leaves.
Yasi took in his wretched face and body with growing wonder. He wanted to glance at the mirror to compare his present self to the cadaver but the able-bodied young man stopped him. ‘It’s bad luck to see a dead body in the mirror. Another death might happen in your family. No more reflections from now on, old brother. ’
Thus, he could not see what he had become but the feeling of lightness made up for it. In fact, the lightness was really more of an expanding relief, spilling like a cracked egg, as if the very worst was over or a tremendous disaster had been averted. He leaned over and tried to smoothen the forehead the way he kneaded dough in the factory.
Again, the young man advised, ‘old brother, you have to be good to your body.’
Yasi tried to reply but no words came out, exhaling only silence.
‘You have to close your mouth first.’ The woman referred to as ‘Mei’ egged him on sprightly, bringing the fingers of her right hand to her thumb in a deliberate fashion. Her eyes were clear as spring and she wore a delicate white cheongsam without embroidery. Her hair was tied up in a bun in the perfect manner of a portrait and her gentle voice was as soothing as a birdsong. She was pretty.
But the mouth refused to close. Yasi pinched the lips together and released his hand. Like a loose door, it opened obscenely. He held them longer, while using his other hand to address the matter of the wide-open eyes. Like a mimosa plant, the eyelids descended with unexpected grace. The mouth remained open. I’m ugly, he could not help thinking. The strangers looked on. At last, Yasi decided to push the half-submerged body under water.
A rush of bubbles escaped its orifices. Being underwater seemed to grant the body a spontaneous serenity— all the grim lines on the face were softened and its lips met to form a vague smile.
‘Much better!’ the able bodied man cried amidst cheers from the trio. ‘It’s strange how the body works, all it needed was to see the soul again. Just a bit of attention, and look how happy it is now!’
‘It does look better,’ Yasi muttered to himself. His newfound voice heartened him in a strange yet familiar manner, like a birthday tune sung in a foreign language.
‘I’m Mong, and I was the first dead person here.’ The able-bodied man bowed politely. ‘Well, the first person to kill myself here. Just before the war to escape enlistment. Welcome!’
‘And I’m Mei,’ the young woman spoke with crystalline radiance. ‘Like you, I killed myself.’
‘But I didn’t kill myself,’ Yasi protested. ‘It was an accident—’
‘I’m John and I died in fire, not water!’ The old white man remarked with open palms and merry fingers. ‘I committed suicide too, like you. Set myself on fire, to save them the trouble of cremation!’ He could not contain his laughter and nearly buckled onto the floor. The plastic flowers sewed all over his black sweat suit rustled in protest. Save for his silver beard, John resembled a flowerbed.
‘Old brother, did you have family?’ Mong asked.
‘Were you married?’
Yasi shook his head.
‘So you’re a bachelor. It shall be done in silence.’ The young man smiled and knelt before the body.
Mei gestured for the rest of them to leave the bathroom. She closed the door gently behind them and Yasi could hear the beginnings of a hushed chant.
Somehow, all surfaces of the room seemed to be bleached by light. He wondered if John and Mei thought the same. He found himself looking at Mei again, each glance of her like an after-sip of tea, warm, immediately assuring. A slap on his shoulder would draw him away. It was John, grinning gummily. His body was a stage for dancing flowers; all parts of his body seemed to be moving in opposite directions, a flurry of excitement reminding Yasi of a huge, colorful Labrador. ‘My friend, do you mind if I look through your things?’
‘Fantastic! Can I, Mum? Can I?’ John implored Mei expectantly. She nodded and the old Englishman bowed. He tilted the bag upside down and began exploring three days worth of Yasi’s effects.
Leaving John to his amusement, they smiled at each other again.
‘Why does he call you Mum?’
‘Oh, it’s short for chrysanthemum. He calls Mong Pop. Short for poppy. John loves flowers, and really he’s just an oversized kid!’
Trousers, jumpers and underwear leapt in mid-air as John went through the contents of the bag. A bottle of sleeping pills fell and rolled to a stop by the bed. Yasi had almost forgotten he had brought the pills along.
The tiny Bonsai tree on the bedside table seemed to lurch forward, as curious as John about his next find. Unlike the Christmas tree at the lobby, the Bonsai had not shrunk and its verdant leaves seemed just as hearty as they were every last year.
Mei caressed the leaves and they glimmered like scales on a fish. ‘Aren’t they pretty? Mong takes such care of them!’
Yasi smiled. ‘I don’t think I committed suicide.’
She turned to him. With a motherly grace, she transferred her caressing hand to Yasi’s greying hair. ‘Well, you were certainly thinking of it.’
‘How’d you know?’
‘It’s Christmas Eve, and you’ve been here for years now, alone. You don’t talk to anyone. You always look rather sad.’
Yasi wanted to ask if she had been spying on him but thought twice for she had been a spirit for a while now. Were spirits all knowing and all seeing? He hoped she hadn’t been watching when he attended his itching groin in the mornings. ‘Well, I don’t like festivities, birthdays whatever. The Lunar New Year, Christmas, those are the worst.’
‘When they discover your body, you’ll have a funeral. That’s some occasion.’
‘It’d probably be horrible. All that attention on you. Waste of everyone’s time.’
‘When did you start hating festivities?’
‘I don’t know. Never thought about it. Maybe it’s just life in the city.’
‘Oh, did you always stay in Shanghai?’
‘Nope. From Meixian province.’ Yasi smiled, recalling the village he left behind some thirty years ago. Those were the best times of his former life.
He sat down with her by the bed. Her intimacy brought with it the ambience of a subsiding rain.
‘So what happens now?’
John cooed at a magazine with loud pictures on its cover. Mei giggled.
‘You mean the afterlife?’
‘Well, you sort of fade in and out of existence. All of a sudden you’re a spirit with memories and feelings. Then you disappear. Then you reappear. No control over it.’ She emphasised ‘no control over it’ as if it were the best arrangement possible.
‘Does that happen to everyone?’
‘Not everyone. Some just disappear for good I suppose.’
‘Were there more of you?’
‘Can’t remember. Ghosts are horrible with new memories. But there have been more suicides for sure! More to come…more to follow.’
Quietly, like frost on the window, John began fading from sight. A large sunflower on his ear was the last of him to depart.
Yasi’s hands reached out for the old ghost only to withdraw nonplussed.
‘He was an English teacher here for 40 years until he got fired.’ Mong joined them in time to watch John disappear. He settled down next to Mei. ‘He had no one. Nowhere to go. Went about living on the charity of strangers and the Christian Church. Until he finally put an end to things. In the carpark here. He must have rolled himself in spilled oil until he thought it was enough to burn well. He did not burn well.’
“He fades in and out the most amongst us,’ Mei added. ‘We never know when we’d see him again. I’d say you were lucky enough to see him! Once, I tried to teach him Mandarin. He was repeating ‘wo shi ke ben dan’ after me but he just faded until well…”
‘Yeah, he only came back six months later.’
‘It was so funny! I totally forgot what our last conversation was and he was just saying ‘I’m a stupid egg’ over and over again when he appeared!’
Whenever Mei laughed, and she always seemed to laugh at the end of all her sentences, Yasi would forget himself, carried away into her amusement. He laughed too, gladly at that. Perhaps spirits were just porous in nature, utterly unable to resist the to-and-fro of each other’s sensations.
‘So for most of the time it’s been just the both of you?’ Yasi asked.
‘Well, Mei has only been around for thirty years.’
‘Mong’s been like a big brother to me,’ Mei added.
‘Yeah, we’re family! And John’s our adopted child, old brother,’ said Mong.
‘He loves flowers.’
‘Yes he does. His suitcase was full of plastic flowers. Sunflowers, lilies, roses. He was collecting them.’
‘I’m sorry I don’t have any for him,’ Yasi said.
‘How silly!’ Mong exclaimed and patted Yasi’s shoulders. Yasi thought he looked quite endearing in his sombre western suit that never crumples.
‘No one apologises anymore! Not after life.’
In a maneuver that transformed Mei into a young girl again, she leaned towards Mong and whispered something in his ear wearing a firework blush. Her eyes swiveled all around her as if she were in a panic but the smile remained on her soft lips. Mong nodded with interest and a grin soon lit up his face.
‘So old brother, we’re done with the prayers for your body. What clothes do you have? Not red I hope.’
‘Oh. Are we dressing up the body?’
‘Yeah! You don’t want it to be naked and ugly when you’re found!’
‘But if we tamper with it, the police will not know the cause of death!’
‘Look at it again, of course it was an electrocution! Where’s your suicide note?’
‘I don’t have one.’ Yasi paused. ‘As I have already mentioned, I did not try to commit suicide.’
‘Then you have to write one.’
‘No! I’m not going to write a suicide note. What for? I don’t even know how to begin!’
‘How about a girl who cheated on you? Or a lousy job? Or that you were depressed? There needs to be closure, old brother!’
‘For my family?’
‘For everything! For your past life, your pet cat. Everything you were known to! Even for the sake of police records, the public health services.’
They studied the mess John had strewn across the carpet. ‘Shall we dress your body first?’ Mong asked, selecting a pair of blue trousers and a black t-shirt. Yasi did not disagree and they returned to the scene of his death.
The body lay serene. Between its legs, the fluorescent tube was a luminous sleeping eel.
‘I would like to ask you a question old brother, if you don’t mind. Why did you come to Hotel New World every year? There are so many hotels in Shanghai, why this one?’
Yasi pondered for a while, the black t-shirt wrapped around his old face. ‘Well, perhaps I have a connection with this place.’
‘Were you searching for something? From your past?’
‘Perhaps.’ Yasi saw a young woman vaguely in his head, but Mei’s face soon took over. ‘There was someone a long time ago. No matter now.’
‘Why no matter now?’
‘Because…’ Yasi looked at his body.
‘You know, grief is a drawer one opens from time to time, and then puts away.’
‘I actually feel quite good now.’
Mei barged in, her eyes wide like a fan, with an infectious smile to boot. The men stole her smile and wore it upon themselves. ‘Are you boys done? I’m bored. Mong, we have to tell him about the rules so he can join us officially!’
Mong tugged the last of a trouser leg over a heel. His hands found Yasi’s shoulders tenderly. ‘Well old brother, I believe this is a fresh start for us all. So we have to pick a new virtue to abide by and also, a new sin to balance the virtue.’
‘Well, you pick the virtue and we’ll pick the sin for you, Yasi!’
‘Do I get some time to think about it?’
‘No, your first instinct will always be the best. You have great character, old brother and it shows. Pick one while the virtue’s fresh!’
Before their encouraging faces, Yasi frowned so tightly some virtue was dislodged from between the lines.
‘Forgiveness! Forgiveness it is.’
‘That’s an inspired choice, Yasi! Now, let’s pick a sin for you!’
Yasi unfurled the rest of the t-shirt along the torso and the sight of his clothed body brought new ease. ‘Much obliged. What sin have you invented for me?’
‘Let’s be creative here Mong!’
Mong nodded agreeably and feigned an expression of deep thought. ‘How about the sin of laughter?’
‘That’s a good one Mei.’
‘How is that a sin?’ Yasi asked with bemusement.
‘How is that not a sin? If a clown falls down, you laugh at his misfortune! When John says something stupid in Mandarin, we laugh at him with ridicule!’
Mei perched herself atop the bath counter, her graceful limbs tucking in, gradually adopting the position of a roosting crane. ‘Put your sin to good use old brother!’
‘Yes, use it wisely!’ she chirped.
Yasi nodded agreeably.
‘Old brother, I think we’re done here. You should write your suicide note. I’ll find you some pen and paper!’
Mong winked at Yasi and left the bathroom.
For a moment, Yasi and Mei gazed at each other in quiet awe as if they were both something rare and special.
‘I’m so happy to have you with us!’
‘Thank you. So am I.’
‘Mong’s a great person but he seems to be too superstitious even for a ghost.’
‘Yeah, but he’s funny that way. I suspect he was a little upset about not being reincarnated. But not anymore.’
‘Since you came along?’
A comfortable silence nested between them again. Their thoughts emptying and refilling like light in the everyday sky.
‘I’m actually quite excited about being a spirit.’
‘You should be!’
‘So, what’s your sin?’
‘Well… you really don’t have to take it too seriously.’ Mei looked away, almost embarrassed.
‘I knew it!’ Yasi exclaimed. Mei laughed and her white shoulders were shifting sand dunes.
‘Well, I do get sad sometimes. That’s probably my sin. But I think some sadness is good. Mong says joy arrives whenever sadness goes away but I actually think there is another kind of joy in sadness. An empathy that comes with it. I feel closer to others than before. It’s just the way things are.’
‘Do you perhaps miss being alive?’
‘Not really, things are simpler now. I might look young but again, there’s an old joy that settles. Take your time. There’s a lot to like. The warmth of the mundane awaits!’ Her lissom hands circling before her like autumn swallows.
‘It’s funny how I feel like you were always going to be with us, you know. Like you belong here. That it’s better for you.’
‘Better for us.’
Mei’s chin dipped into the space between her huddled arms, her smile framed within the closing space to reveal a doleful grace nursed by time. Time as a cure, burying as it could, all the silent bereavements. The fair skin between her dress and slippers seemed to stretch and grow with her new position, enveloping those eyes of opal, the doll-like face, her lovely being. Mei was now an inviting snowscape and Yasi would make the first angel in her snow.
She spoke again, her words guided like snowflakes by a soft wind.
“When I was a child, growing up in a village in Meixian Province, I remembered having to wake up at dawn to prepare breakfast. Every morning, my brother and I would draw water from the old well until one day, on an especially hot summer, we discovered that the water was almost completely gone. I was so frightened that Nai Nai would hit us I started crying. Then Di Di started crying too. Nai Nai heard us and came out. She walked over to the well with a worried look on her face and I was all prepared for the cane. Instead, she patted us on our heads and told us to look into the well again. We did so, cautiously — there was still very little water left and our reflections were hardly visible in the reflected sun. Then Nai Nai said, ‘Can you see it? Look how far the sun fell! We will need to rescue it. To bring it up again.’”
‘So you had to dig deeper?’
‘No!’ Mei laughed and shook her head. ‘Within hours, the entire village came and began digging a new well for us. The next day, Di Di and I woke up just as the sun rose, and we visited the new well. True enough, Nai Nai was right! The sun was brought back up, and if I remembered well, it never fell again!’
The words ‘Meixian Province’ struck Yasi particularly hard and he tried to recall a ‘Mei’ whilst growing up. Did I once know her? Were we an extended family?
The act of recounting took Yasi away from the nascent spell of the new afterlife. The lightness was still there, but just as Mei had observed, there was some sadness to it as well. ‘I don’t know Mei. What happened to our sun?’
‘It’s right here.’
‘This is our new well!’ She glided off the counter and her cheongsam rippled leisurely into life. ‘Forget about the old one. The sun might have fallen previously but now you’re shining high and pretty damn good. And it will be that way!’
Yasi looked at her and marveled at how deceptive appearances could be. The pang of sadness lingered but at least he could laugh a little now. Here was a twenty-year-old girl lecturing a middle-aged man about life! And afterlife!
‘Come, let’s leave your body alone.’ She offered her hand and guided the bemused new spirit back into the room.
‘Could I ask you about why you…how did you die?’
‘You mean how I got rid of the old well?’ She smiled and a bittersweet sorrow sought refuge in Yasi’s willing heart. The tiny Bonsai tree heaved gently between them.
‘Yeah. Let’s talk about your old well.’
‘I came to Shanghai to find a lover who had left for bigger things. We were very much in love but there just wasn’t enough in Meixian. He was very ambitious.’
‘And that was thirty years ago?’ Where was I thirty years ago? Just arrived in Shanghai? Yasi felt the drag of something heavy, a cramp of sorts within the lightness of his being, and it made him dig his nails into his palms, just to check if he had somehow returned to the world of the living. There was no pain. Just a pull, like the weight before a revelation. Even in life, he had never felt something quite like this. Thinking back, there was always some kind of filter to dull all intensities of grief, joy, everything. What other culprit but life’s drudgery? Of having to slug it out, to work, to eat, to want, to stop wanting, to lose, to survive…
Somewhere in the hotel, a child cried.
‘Yeah, thirty years ago. Nai Nai was furious. But I left with what little savings I had to come here. It just wasn’t for me you know? The city life. I couldn’t get a job and I spent all my money in a few months. The most important thing was that I couldn’t find him. I had totally overestimated myself! How disgusting!’
‘And it was just before Christmas too when it all ended. I couldn’t go back. I didn’t want to.’
‘What do you think he’s doing now? Your lover.’
‘He’s probably about your age.’
‘Maybe. He could be married with two kids, with a vacation home in America! Or he could have died in a car accident before I even tried to find him. Heaven knows!’
The empty bed was full of a faint milky light. Yasi descended upon it like a lost petal. Mei followed, a pearl by his side and he tried to contain the trembles cinched to the rush of emotions.
Mei continued, ‘But I like to think we are both in better places now. Those places might not be with each other and will never be. But I have a feeling we’re both alright.’
Yasi turned to look at her. The soft stem of her body made the beautiful face it carried even more flower-like. But Mei bore more than just grace. He saw in her a distant dream, a middle-aged Mei and her husband, who looked at lot like Yasi, savouring a huge, piping hot pot of offal soup, joined by their grown children, their spouses and offspring. A home of her own in Meixian Province. The house was not grand but it was furnished with an importance and empathy that came with age. Thirty years worth of seasons and endearments. Thirty years of so much more.
‘You know what would be perfect right now?’ Yasi said through teary eyes.
‘If it could snow.’
‘A lot of snow?’
‘Just enough to make things white. Like in the countryside. Like Meixian.’ Just as Yasi finished his request, a sudden chill, not unpleasant, invaded the room and he laughed. Flakes of snow like powder from the wings of a giant butterfly fell and sank gently onto them, on the carpeted floor.
Mei laughed too.
It was as if the room had been a snow globe all along. Someone just needed to shake it right.
As the snowflakes fell, they adopted the ample shapes of white chrysanthemums, lilacs, peonies and azaleas, falling, lingering long enough for John’s reappearance and his unbridled joy at cupping the snow blossoms in his hands.
‘First snow. Together.’ Mei held out an arm for Yasi.
Yasi smiled. He got up just in time to find Mong accidentally staring at their reflection in the mirror, rich, vivid and bright as a thousand suns.
Sihan Tan is a teaching fellow at Columbia University. He is currently working on a novel and was also the online fiction editor for the Columbia Journal.
Photography by Magda Rittenhouse (www.magdarittenhouse.com) – shot in Shanghai. Magda also contributed a photo essay on Hiroshi Sugimoto’s Enoura Observatory in issue KJ91.