The Year of the Water Rooster

Once there was a girl. Slight undersized for her age, a girl who was clever and brave, who experienced her own periods of sadness, relatively longer than everyone else’s it seemed. She planted seeds in whatever vessels would work and sometimes they grew, other times not. She liked to be alone most of all, but allowed love to come in from time to time.

These moments usually ended quickly, and as the other person walked out she kept their ghost back, guiding it to the room where she kept the lot of them, feeding them thin milk and old bread; not enough to starve them but enough to keep them around. Ghosts get hungry, you see. They would nibble at her fingers, begging for more food, more more always more. Something to stop the deep bellyache of sustaining oneself on scraps.

Ghosts do not die; she learned quickly. The more she smiles with you, the louder they groan. The more you hunger, the more watching someone eat hurts.

“You missed me?” She asks one day, when you’re lying in bed together. You’d just got home, laid down on the sheets in your clothes next to her. “Of course I missed you.” A hand on your mouth. “You love me?” She wants to feel the words when you say: “Yeah, I love you. You know that.”

That was how she started feeding the ghosts. Bits of green tomato, eggshells, pits. The more you held her the fuller she was, the more she left for them. They stopped begging and she stopped listening to them. The whole house slept at night.

Time passed. The quiet was taken for granted, as if it had always been there. The plants were blooming out of all the containers she had collected, greenness warping through old cassette players, radios, glasses. Everything became sacrosanct; the plants, growing for her, the ghosts gone silent, for her, you being there, it was for her. All up to the day when she came home to an empty house, full of crying chis. And she knew it would never be quiet again.

She kept feeding the ghosts. She wanted to starve yours but it just wouldn’t die. Ghosts do not die. Ghosts do not die, and when you played with the others she left you alone. Her life never stopped because you were crying for attention. Her life was just the same, only without you in it—or you were in it, but not the way she wanted. The memory of you followed her, tethered somewhere deep and unreachable.

One day she got tired of feeding when you called. She ripped the brass knob off the door and threw it in the garden. “You want the house,” she asked you all, “then take it,” and sat back down in her chair to finish the tea. At first the ghosts all stood there, wary of new freedom. One by one they left the room, stood in the hall, looked out the windows. A great cry rose up: they ran, gleefully terrifying the cat, smashing plates, hanging from chandeliers. She finished her tea. Got up to wash the dishes.

The ghosts followed, pulling at her hair, try to trip her, screaming at her ankles, at every part of her. She let them scream. “Get it all out now,” she said, “you won’t get another chance.”

So they did.  She left; to go to work, go to the store, go out and experience a life other than the howling loneliness at home. When she returned, the door wouldn’t open.

“This is my home. Let me in.”

The lights were out; windows, door, house, all locked.

“This is my home, too. Let me in.”

She sat outside all night. She wouldn’t leave. When dawn broke, the door opened. Your ghost was there in the doorway; your ghost was sorry. But that’s not enough; she shouldn’t have to forgive you. But she did.

The others were not as kind. Her home was unkempt, a mess save for the green that was spared. They were still howling all hours, howling until finally they began to quiet down. Ghosts can’t keep screaming all night. Well, actually they can, they do, but this particular group lacked the sense of righteousness needed for such a feat.

So they put the house back in order: one would hold up a shattered plate and another would find the other pieces, until everything was righted. While the spirits cleaned, she left for a bath. She saw her stomach in the water for the first time, clear and warm. When she got out, a ghost from years ago held out a towel.

Life when on is an interesting thing. The ghosts were out of the room now; she never put them back in. It was more peaceful than the screaming. She thought: better to let them roam than to keep them in.

Once there was a girl. She’s still there with the ghosts. They tend to the greenness, they keep the house full, they play with the cat. Some nights they are restless, some nights another one joins them, but they are always there, and she will always keep them. They all live in a kind of harmony: a girl, her ghosts, and yours.