By Huina Zheng
The night after her dog Nina died, nine-year-old Shan went to bed early and forced herself to fall asleep. Then she met the monster.
It looked like a gigantic wolf, and the horn on its head resembled an ox. It had black fur with red stripes on its forehead and torso that glowed a faint red light in the dark, and its large and shaggy tail curled up. It bared its sharp fangs and spat out its long, blood-red tongue. A sharp scent of sulfur and putrefactive odor wafted on a dank puff of air.
The monster sprang on Shan with a snarl, its teeth tearing into her flesh. Shan saw the monster sink its teeth into her arm, and blood poured from her wound.
“It is not painful at all,” she said.
“Because it’s not your flesh I am eating, but your spirit.” The monster paused.
“Why stop gobbling me up? Don’t I taste good?”
“Spirit is tasteless.” The monster turned to leave.
“Wait. Where am I?”
It turned to look at her, amused. “Your home. Don’t you recognize it?”
Shan looked around. It was pitch dark, but amazingly, she could see clearly. She stood in the middle of their one-room mud house. Her parents and her brother Ming were sleeping in a bed on her right, her sister Lan sleeping next to her on the left.
“So, you are the ghost that haunts my house?” She observed the monster more closely and found that its tail was covered with hard, sharp, prickly hairs. Its jaw was thin and long. “You are beautiful. As graceful as my dog Nina.”
“What happened to her?”
“She left to explore the big world,” as she said so, she felt like being pierced by a needle in her heart. She pushed away the pain, and added, “but she will come back once she is tired of the adventure.” The monster fixed its eyes on Shan in a funny imperious way.
“How come you haunt this house?”
“Resentment. Rage. You become a monster if you store enough hatred when you die.”
“Why do I meet you until now?”
“What…” before she could finish, she heard screaming, yelling, and sobbing. She opened her eyes. In the dim candlelight, she saw Mother’s distorted face. “Wake up!” Mother hissed and gave her a slap. “Stop screaming. You’ll scare your brother.”
Ming was holding Mother’s thigh, crying. Lan cowered in the dark, sobbing. Mother snapped at Lan, “Stop crying. You are annoying everyone. Father needs to wake up at five. Stop all of this fuss and go back to sleep.” Mother stooped down to pick up Ming, patted his back, and whispered, “It’s all right. Mom is here.” She walked back to her bed and blew out the candle.
It became dark again. Shan crawled towards Lan and put her arms around her. Lightly, she patted her back. Lan was shaking with suppressed sobbing.
Shan awoke when the roosters crowed. Father was already up. Shan and her family lived deep in the mountains with only one path out in southern China. The path was so steep and narrow that only one person could pass through it. Father would bike out of the mountains every morning to sell vegetables in a nearby town, rain or shine. Attached to the back of the bike was a pole with baskets filled with home-grown vegetables, sometimes with chickens or ducks. At its peak, the blackened rod carried 140 kilograms of vegetables.
Shan got up while Lan and Ming were still sleeping. Mother was feeding the animals around the house. Shan grabbed a basket and a thick club behind the door and went out. It was her daily task to pluck grass for the rabbits.
The day was heavy and still. Mist crept up the mountain from a brook nearby, swaddling the fields in enchantment. Shan climbed up the hillside; the path had disappeared over the brow of the hill. She waded through the tall grass. The rabbits loved dandelion, wolftail, and chicory, so she searched among the weeds.
The leaves rustled, and some dogs barked not far away. Shan blurted out, “Nina—” She stopped. Nina was no longer there to protect her. Abruptly, she heard the grass move and clenched the club. It was Wen who was also nine and lived across the river. Only Shan and Wen’s families hid in this mountain.
Wen stepped back when she saw Shan, her face taut and pale. She murmured, “Sorry, I didn’t know they would—” Shan approached her slowly and hissed, “You are too close to the haunted house. The ghost will get you, and you will vanish like your three baby sisters.” Wen uttered a shriek and fled.
The clouds now covered the entire sky and lightning flashed. Shan hurried back home.
The rabbit cage was next to the mud house. Shan put the grass into the cage. Seven rabbits came round, scrambling to eat. A black rabbit hopped before Shan, sniffing here and there, as if expecting her to feed it dandelions. Shan waved some grass. The rabbit smelled it and turned around as if annoyed. Shan couldn’t help laughing and picked up the dandelion. The rabbit appreciatively munched. She wanted to pat the rabbit, but then she remembered—these rabbits were raised to be slaughtered. She might need to help skin them, and she shouldn’t develop an attachment.
Not far away, Ming shouted, “Give them to me!” Shan walked quickly in the direction where the sound came. She broke into a trot at Lan’s faint cry. Lan was holding something on her chest and Ming bit her arm. Shan rushed over and flung Ming to the ground.
She saw red marks on Lan’s arm. She glared at Ming and said, “How could you bite your sister?”
Ming was crying and kicking. “You pushed me. I will tell Mother, and she will beat you.”
“No, you won’t, or I will punch you.”
Her threat didn’t work. He ran towards the brook where Mother was washing clothes. Shan bit her lower lip.
Lan sobbed, “Mother will be so angry.”
“Don’t worry. Mother will be angry with me, not you. You don’t let Ming bully you again. Remember, you are his elder sister.”
Bowing her head and weeping, Lan said, “But Mother will beat me.”
“What was it about this time?” Then she saw several red and hairless baby mice wriggle in the box Lan was holding.
“I found a mouse nest under the bed, but Ming wanted to feed them to the chickens.”
It began to rain. Shan and Lan went inside the house. Soon Mother and Ming ran in. Mother put down a pail with wet clothes and slapped Shan, shouting, “How many times do I need to tell you to take care of your siblings?” She spotted the box Lan was holding, snatched it, and threw it out the door. “Don’t you know mice are pests?” Lan began to weep. The rain galloped harder.
Shan shifted slightly so that she shielded her sister from Mother. More slaps fell on Shan’s arms and face. “You only have one brother. Don’t you understand? All I want are two sons. We wouldn’t be stuck here to elude the one-child policy if you and Lan were sons.”
Shan clenched her fists. If she hadn’t had a habit of biting her nails down too far, her fingernails would hurt her palms and leave semi-circular shape marks.
Mother paused and put her hands on the belly when she felt the baby kick. “If this is a boy, we can leave this place. I’ve suffered enough.”
Tears ran down Shan’s cheeks, but she was not crying. Ming looked at her behind Mother’s back with a triumphant glitter in his eyes.
That night when Shan’s spirit left her body and floated around the house, she drifted towards the monster. Its horn was no longer there, and it shrank to a large dog’s size.
“You look a bit like a dog now,” Shan floated down near the monster and commented. The monster’s ears were pinned back, and the fur along its back stood up. Shan saw the whites of its eyes and asked, “Are you going to bite me again?” The monster looked into Shan’s eyes, noncommittal.
“Now, you are looking at me in a non-threatening way.” She drifted a little closer to the monster. “When I first met Nina, she reacted just like you did, so I know.”
She hunkered down and said, “Can you change my shape too?”
“What do you want to become?”
“Anything but a girl.”
“You want to be a boy?”
“No,” she shook her head, “just not a girl.”
“Your spirit is out of your body. You are shapeless, ageless, and genderless.”
“OK,” she looked at herself, and indeed she could see through her spirit. “Are you the only ghost here? What happened to other animals or people that died here?”
“They died,” the monster said with a growl.
“Oh,” as she said so, the vulnerable hairless baby mice came into her mind.
“Even if your mother didn’t throw them away, they would die anyway,” the monster said. “Your siblings already touched them and left a foreign smell on the pups, which could confuse the mother mouse. She may eat her babies.”
Shan put her right index finger into her mouth and realized she could not chew on it because she was shapeless. A moment later, she said, “Do you think they ate her too?”
“People that eat animals.”
“No, I mean ‘ate whom’?”
“My baby sister,” she paused and added, “she was born here, and a few days later, she vanished. Did she die here?” Her voice trembled.
“No, she was still alive when she was taken away.”
She wanted to ask the monster more but dared not. For a coward like Shan, she couldn’t summon enough courage to confront her parents. The truth might destroy her, and the not-knowing would continue to haunt her for the rest of her life. She would read any reports and articles about the mass disappearance of baby girls born after the one-child policy and yet still stubbornly believe that her baby sister was adopted by a couple who adored her.
The monster’s tail swayed slightly and stroked Shan’s arm like a caress. She looked up at the monster and saw kindness. Before she could utter a word, she felt pain and saw that she was screaming with her eyes closed in bed, and Mother slapped her. Soon she would wake up.
“I am not afraid of you, but why am I screaming in my sleep?” she asked urgently.
“You need it.”
She regained consciousness, opened her eyes, and saw Mother’s furious face instead of the monster’s gentle one.
It was still dark in the house at daybreak as it rained heavily outside. Shan put on her raincoat and went out. Water raced down the slope.
The wind-driven rain flecked the mud bubbles along the path and pattered her raincoat as she climbed the hillside. Although she wore a raincoat, rain soaked her clothes and pants, and she felt heavier as she trudged. Rain hit Shan’s face sliding down; she had a crisp itching feeling, not painful but she wanted to scratch it. It felt like when Mother slapped her in the face—although she knew that the rain was harmless, she tensed her whole body and closed her eyes. Suddenly, she slipped and fell to the ground, covered with mounds of mud on her body, face and limbs. A few dogs barked.
When she returned, she changed her clothes and helped Mother slaughter a hen. Shan’s family lived frugally, but today was the mid-autumn festival, a rare occasion to eat meat.
Shan boiled water in a large cauldron. Mother picked up a hen in the henhouse and tied a string around its feet to keep it from moving. She held its neck with her left hand and tore off the feathers around the neck with her right hand. Shan remembered how painful it was when Mother pulled out a handful of her hair.
Mother put a big bowl under the hen’s neck, grabbed its wings, and held its neck under her thumb. She cut the hen’s neck three times with a sharp kitchen knife, and blood gushed out and sprayed into the bowl. The hen began to contract. Shan counted silently in her mind. The hen stopped twitching when she reached 20. Then Mother soaked the hen in a bucket of boiling water so that they could pluck it easily.
Mother invited Wen’s family for dinner. As the only two families hiding in this place, Mother believed a near neighbor was better than a brother far off.
Wen and her parents arrived at nightfall. Ms. Chen’s belly had grown quite big, and Wen helped her mother sit down. Mr. Chen brought a large bowl of cooked dog meat, which looked dark in the candlelight. Father poured Mr. Chen a glass of wine.
“Try this stewed dog meat. It’s delicious and good for the baby,” Ms. Chen put some dog meat into Mother’s rice bowl.
“You should also have some,” Mother put meat into Ms. Chen’s rice bowl.
“It tastes better than the fried dog meat you brought us two days ago,” Father said.
“Where do you get it?”
“I set a trap near the henhouse and caught a dog when it tried to steal chickens at night,” Mr. Chen replied with his mouth full.
Two days ago. Nina’s meat. Did not taste good. Every word pierced Shan’s heart. She shot Wen a murderous look. Wen quickly looked away and stared down at her rice bowl.
The rain fell hard outside, pattering.
That night after Shan’s spirit had freed itself from the body, all bitterness faded. Shan floated towards the monster, who now had a ringed tail that curled over its back in a spiral. It looked familiar.
“Why don’t I feel pain here?”
“You can if you want to.”
“Can I stay here forever?”
“Only if you die and have enough resentment.”
“What happened to you?”
“I will tell you only if you tell me what happened to Nina.”
“I thought you knew.”
“I only know what happens in this house, not outside.”
Shan felt the rapid shift of surroundings, and she saw a big black dog that resembled the monster and a yellow puppy. A woman tossed them some bones before a mud house on a rough and narrow path. The woman smiled a slow, acid smile, showing big yellowish teeth. The black dog growled and showed its fangs to stop the woman from approaching them, but the puppy wagged its tail and ran to her.
The black dog noticed a sudden movement in the bushes nearby and dashed sharply across the path to block the puppy, so it was caught in a net by a man who jumped out of the bushes. The black dog howled, and the puppy fought. Soon the black dog was hung by a rope around its neck under a beam, struggling.
Shan saw through the black dog’s eyes and saw countless animals slaughtered here: chickens had their necks wrung, fish got struck at the head by a knife, cows were trapped and a sharp knife stuck through the heart. Alone and in torment, she watched the puppy return, and the man dashed towards it with a stick. She wanted to warn the puppy, but the growl was stuck in her throat, and before her soul freed itself from the ridden body, she caught the last glimpse as the man beat the puppy to death with the stick.
Shan was filled with hate. “I am sorry you lost your son like that,” she said, putting her hand on the monster’s body and giving it long, slow, downward strokes, the way she did to soothe Nina.
“I would do the same for my daughter,” the monster said as if she could read her mind. “Now it’s your turn.”
In the past few days, Shan had restrained herself, forcing herself not to think about the incident. Now, all the memories came flooding back.
Wen often fed Nina and played with her. Wen liked to throw the food, and Nina would jump and open her mouth to take a bite. Then she would hold the food down with her paws and nip it bit by bit.
That day, Wen teased Nina with a roasted sweet potato in front of the henhouse, so Shan did not think much of it. Wen held the roasted sweet potato and said, “Come on, Nina, come get it.” Nina put a paw on her chest and begged for the sweet potato, but Wen held it out of Nina’s reach. Nina pushed Wen to the ground, picked up the sweet potato and ate it.
“Stupid dog,” Wen got up and threw a stone at Nina but didn’t hit her. Nina cowered and whined; its tail tucked between the hind legs.
Outraged, Shan charged towards Wen and shouted, “Stop it!” Wen knew that Nina was a stray and probably hit before.
Wen threw Shan down and held her. Nina growled and pounced on Wen, who fell to the ground and skinned her palms.
Wen told her father that Nina attacked her when she tried to stop it from stealing chickens. For days wild dogs had lingered and attacked poultry. Mr. Chen had lost ten chickens in a week. They suspected that Nina attracted these dogs, especially after Nina’s belly bulged. In a rage, Mr. Chen went to see Father, and together, they butchered Nina. When it happened, Shan was cutting firewood in the hills. Normally, Nina would accompany her, but that day she asked Nina to stay and look after Lan and Ming.
They slaughtered Nina, skinned her, chopped her, cut her into pieces, and cooked her. In the afternoon, Ms. Chen brought them a big bowl of fried dog meat.
Shan thought she shouldn’t have fought Wen. Nina died because of her. Now she felt the pain, rage, and hatred. She curled up in a tight ball. Something was licking her cheeks, and she looked up. She saw a familiar black dog through a mist of tears—her Nina.
“I am so sorry,” she said and threw her arms about Nina. She wanted to scream. Pain and guilt splintered her. She would have to become stronger to endure the pain over the years. For the rest of her life, Nina would visit her whenever she felt unworthy and reminded her that she was once loved by her best friend and a family member who loved her and whom she could love.
Soon Mother would slap her awake, and Nina would be gone, but now she could hug Nina tightly. Now Nina was here with her.
Huina Zheng was born and raised in south China, and has worked as a college essay coach since graduating from college. Her stories have been published in Variant Literature, Evocations Review, The Meadow, Ignatian Literary Magazine and other journals. She currently lives in Guangzhou City, China with her husband and daughter, and is pursuing the online M.A. in English at Arizona State University.