My father’s earliest memory was when he was five years old, looking outside into the darkness at the madwoman who lived a few yards down the dirt road, on the other side of the street. Every night she was there, he said. Every night she would sit outside in front of her house, a faceless silhouette sometimes backlit by the moon, slowly rocking back and forth. Every night for hours she would sit alone in the dark. She was crying out the name of her dead son, trying to call him home. “Gou Er!” she howled into the night. Her sorrowful voice rang out in the summer silence of the Chinese countryside. It echoed in the mountains. “Hui lai!”
My father remembers what his mother told him, when he asked what the woman was doing. “She is calling the spirit of her son,” my grandmother said. “If you call out the names of the deceased, their spirit will come back and sleep in the house.”
She added, very sternly: “Don’t go near her. She has a demon air.”
My father doesn’t believe in ghosts. He is a rational man, a scientist and soft-spoken atheist, thoughtful and patient in abstract discussions, patient with his daughter. We have talked about this story many times, though he hesitates to tell it. He doesn’t think of himself as a storyteller, and he doesn’t like ghost stories. For him, there is no use for the supernatural or perverse aesthetics in a real world already filled with grief and horror, and there is no time for self-indulgence when there is work to be done.
For years he has been trying to get me to write his stories, about growing up during the Cultural Revolution, about his and my mother’s lucky love story, about his experiences in the Red Guards denouncing his teachers and singing the Chinese national anthem in the midst of crowds of students in Tiananmen Square, waving the Red Book in the air and cheering for Chairman Mao. My father has been trying all my life to get me to understand and appreciate my background, his background, and the complicated, difficult chain of events that led him from farming communes in rural China to graduate school in Wisconsin. My father thinks his story of survival — China’s story of survival — will put my life into context and give me perspective on my troubles and grief.
He wants me to write about China, but not in this way. Not through the lens of Oriental superstition that no one believes in anymore. This story is self-indulgent, he would tell me. And I would not argue.
They only lived in that village for several months, in the summer and early fall of 1964. The army had moved into that remote mountainous region between Hubei and Sichuan to build a bridge across the Chang Jiang, and the military families were all housed in villages in the surrounding area. My grandfather was only a low-ranking officer at the time, but he was lucky enough to get a house that his family did not have to share.
They only got the house because no one else wanted to live there. The house was small and shabby, on the outskirts of the village, but that was not why it was empty. It was empty because the villagers said it was haunted. They said in the village that it was often visited by the spirits of the dead landlord and his young son who used to live there, and by the demons that plagued his crazy widow, mad with grief, who still lived in another of their houses, a smaller one, across the road. They said the air itself was contaminated by the devils that possessed the woman and caused her madness. This was the “demon air” of which my grandmother spoke.
No one from the village would live so close to the madwoman. They believed that her demon air was contagious. My grandmother believed it too. She was from the countryside, poorly educated, her heart full of traditional fears and superstitions. She did not want to live in that house with her young son, so close to a crazy woman and surrounded by the spirits of the restless dead. She was afraid of the invisible demons in the very air she breathed. But my grandfather insisted — he had traveled, gone to medical school in the city, and prided himself on being a modern-minded man — so she relented. It would not stop her from trembling with insomnia in the middle of the night, as she listened to the silence between the madwoman’s howls for hints of a ghostly visitor, but my grandmother knew her duty as an obedient wife. Nevertheless, she would warn my father, her five-year-old boy, to stay away from that woman.
My father never told me exactly what my grandmother said in that first, fierce warning, but I can imagine her younger voice — if not her younger self — filling her words with an ominous fear that goes back through generations of Chinese country folk; a still-remembered childhood fear of black-faced, wild-eyed, fire-tongued demons that live high up in the mountains and kidnap children to be slaughtered for dinner and slowly roasted over hellfire. I can hear her voice through the ears of my five-year-old father, confused and a little scared and vibrating with a strange excitement in the transmission of such a primordial fear:
Don’t talk to her. Don’t even go near her. If you get too close to her, if you speak to her and breathe in her foul, demon breath, you too could be possessed by her devils. They will swim around you, slip in and whisper, damp and cold, in the nervous sweaty spaces between cloth and skin. They will pull at each hair on your arms and your legs with tiny teeth, glide needle-prick claws over every inch of your skin. They will enter your body through your nose, mouth, ears, or slither into your brain through the liquid space between your eyelids and the whites of your eyes, snipping thread-thin vessels to turn your vision red with blood, reaching a clawed hand deep down into your throat and retching out a sudden, anguished scream.
You too could lose your mind, she would have told him. You too could be possessed, exiled, despised, and shamed.
“How did they die, the madwoman’s husband and her son?” I asked my father. We were sitting in the kitchen drinking tea after my Saturday piano lesson. I was fifteen, and it had been ten years since I first heard this story. “Why were their spirits not at rest? Was there a murder, a suicide?”
My father doesn’t remember, or maybe he never knew. He was five years old in 1964, and his parents never fully explained the woman’s history, if they even knew it at all. It was a long time ago, anyhow, and his early years were very confused because they were constantly moving around with the army, and sometimes he mixed up people and places in his memory from that time because they seemed to be everywhere all at once. After he started middle school things began to calm down — or at least his family stopped moving around so often, so that he finished middle school in one place and high school in another, and his memories from then are more distinct. Not that anything actually calmed down — in those later years everything became, if anything, more confused — but least he remembered his adolescence. His early childhood is not as clear.
But, if I really wanted to know, this was two years before the Cultural Revolution, and almost a decade after the Elimination of the Counterrevolutionaries campaign, which not only targeted intellectuals and capitalists, but also continued the Communist attack on landlords — on all wealthy families who held both economic and political power under the Kuomintang. He had the impression that the madwoman’s family had once been very rich — at least compared to the others in the village. Probably she was a victim of that wave of persecution in the mid-1950s. Her husband was probably taken away by the Communists, who either executed or tortured him, or sent him to a prison labor camp, where many were worked until they died of hunger and exhaustion. Or maybe he and his family were so persecuted and humiliated by the Communists, with their land and wealth gone, confiscated by the new government, that he could not take it anymore and committed suicide. It was common enough at the time for that to happen. Several members of my own family — some distant, some close — committed suicide after political persecution and public humiliation.
“But what about the son?” I asked. “They wouldn’t persecute a little boy.”
Maybe it was an accident, my father said. In the mountains many things can happen to small children if they’re not watched carefully, and though the children of former landlords may not have suffered direct harm from the Communists, they were often very cruelly bullied by other children. In any case, accidents happen. He may have gotten lost in the woods, or was eaten by a tiger, or he could have fallen into a river and drowned.
“Maybe his father killed him,” I said, “before he killed himself. Maybe he didn’t want his son to suffer as he had, so he decided to kill them both. So they could be together.”
Maybe, my father said. That happened sometimes too, whole families committing suicide together when they see no other choice.
“But then why didn’t the mother join them?” I asked. “Why didn’t she kill herself as soon as her husband and child died?”
My father put down his steaming cup on the kitchen table. The sun was in the process of setting and cast a rosy-pink glow on the cheap blue and white ceramic of our tea set, bought in a Chinese supermarket downtown by my mother long before she died, years before I was even born. The lid and spout of the teapot were chipped, and out of the four original cups that went with it, only two of them — currently used by my father and me — remained unbroken. I was about to suggest that we buy a new set when I looked up and saw my father’s crinkled brown eyes. They were looking at me, troubled and concerned.
“You think too much about death,” he said.
Perhaps I do. Perhaps, in the scheme of things, I focus too much on the macabre, indulge too much my morbid streak, my fascination with superstition, with demons and death.
But for years I have imagined a kind of circular retelling, a family mythology of signs and spirits. I imagine our family haunted by ghosts, or haunted, at least, but the uncanny motif of haunting. The broken teacups, the first one shattered the day my mother first told me my father’s ghost story, the second one smashed on the morning of her death. The day of my first period, two weeks after the funeral, and the unexpected rush of blood that soaked through my jeans and into the upholstery of the passenger’s seat of the new car that replaced the one totaled in the accident. Those months afterwards, when I stayed in my room for days on end, listening in the silences between my tears for the sounds of my father, vague and absentminded, moving around in the kitchen downstairs. Guidance counselors and therapists and family friends, their dry eyes and hands that pressed my hands and shoulders and touched with mild reproach my tangled, uncombed hair. Sleepless moonlit nights, the madness of sorrow, and whispers in the dark, hoping for the return of something lost. And my father, growing grey, tired, quiet, more distant than ever, his outlines fading as his shoulders gently stoop, his eyes creased and uncomprehending his daughter at thirteen, at fifteen, at twenty and never a moment beyond the first telling of a ghost story.
Could it be that she has haunted him, this madwoman from that village in the mountains? Could it be that it is because of her that my father is wary of sad women, first of my mother’s tearful rages, and then of his strange, unhappy daughter, remote and reserved, quivering with a vague and aimless anger?
No — that’s not true. Not quite. In the line between fiction and nonfiction I sometimes miss my mark, veer towards a clumsier angle of understanding and alter facts that need not be changed. My father the scientist is not haunted by ghosts. But she has haunted me. All these years later, I am still thinking of this ghost story. I am still thinking of this memory, and this madwoman, of my father’s.
I can see her in my mind to this day, as clearly as if I had actually seen her — her head bent, hunched over, her hair unwashed and disheveled and covering her face. It is daytime, and she is stumbling through the village, murmuring under her breath, talking to herself or to someone no one else can see. Sometimes she very softly wails. She lifts her dirty hands to her face when her voice begins to crack; she looks like she is crying, but her hair is in her face and I cannot see.
My father told me that all of the adults in the village ignored her when she staggered by and pretended she was not there when she tried to speak to them or beg for money or food. If she became too much of a nuisance they would shoo her away, sometimes violently, threatening her with sticks. No one would touch her with his or her hands. No one in the village even spoke to her except my grandfather, who had a different view. He believed that the cause of her madness was not demons or sickness but merely sorrow, for the loss of her husband and particularly her son. My grandfather would try to be kind to her and give her something to eat, if the family had any extra food. But times were hard, and charity was a luxury they could not usually afford.
Even my grandfather had his limits. He also would not touch her, nor was his charity seen by anyone except my father. In fact, no one gave her food in public. No one seemed to give her anything. No one knew what she ate, if she ever ate; no one had been inside her house for years. Maybe she stole food from the farms, but if she did, no one complained. From what they knew, she had next to nothing left, yet still she survived.
I imagine some people in the village probably said that it was witchcraft keeping her alive, that the demons that persecuted her also kept her from passing away. I can imagine the stories, especially the ones that the children would tell to scare each other: that the madwoman wandered the streets in search of sources of sweet human flesh, for which her demons gave her an insatiable craving; that she had killed her own son after the death of her husband in a sudden and inexplicable fit of madness; that she had carved the meat off his little skeleton and roasted it in strips over her cooking fire, then made a soup from the bones. You’d better behave, parents would tell their kids, in order to scare them into obedience, or the madwoman will come and get you.
The stories made the children cruel in their fear, especially the little boys. My father was among them as they threw rocks at her and laughed when they could make her flinch. They ran after her through the streets to make fun of her, shouting rude things and shrieking with laughter. But the madwoman, if she noticed them at all, never seemed angry. In her soft, wailing voice, she would coax them with promises of money and candy, if they would only come and give her a kiss. Her breath would gently lift her hair with each syllable, but they still would never see her face. She would tell them to come to her house, where she had good things for them to eat. Her coaxes, promises, and soft wails would continue, increase, with each thrown stone and shouted insult.
I can imagine my five-year-old father’s fearful face as she sharply turned to face him and singled him out. I can imagine the outline of her lips behind the stringy, fringed curtain of black hair as they formed the sounds of my father’s name. I can imagine her voice, soft, insidious, with a hysterical lilt that gradually turned her whisper into a wail, and then a howl, and then a scream. I can imagine my father, frozen in place, as she stumbled towards him with arms outstretched, and how he finally gathered his wits with a sudden shock and scattered with the other children before it was too late.
Then they would laugh, these village children, as they looked behind them over their skinny shoulders from a safe distance. But this time, my father did not laugh. She had singled him out of the crowd of children. She had known his name.
“And then what happened?” I ask my father. At home from college, I sit with him at the kitchen table, the fading autumn light warm for a moment through the steam rising from our teacups.
But there is a lot my father doesn’t remember. He doesn’t remember ever speaking to her, or trying to help her or comfort her, or interacting with her at all beyond those cruel boyish taunts. He doesn’t remember even that she had picked him out of the crowd, that she had known his name, though it’s possible that it happened. He doesn’t think about it much. The only thing he remembers with any real certainty is that first image, the madwoman in the moonlight. All the rest is speculation.
“But mom told me you did try to comfort her, that one time, when you saw her crying alone in the fields,” I say. “You went outside to play one day and you saw her there, not acting crazy but just looking sad. You wanted to help her, but you hesitated. Your mother had told you not to go near her because of her demon air. But she was crying, and you could not bear the sight of her sadness. You wanted to help. So you went over and put your hand on your shoulder, to show that you were there to comfort her.”
Maybe, my father says. But then, maybe my mother was just trying to tell a story. What else did my mother say about it?
“That the woman grabbed you,” I say. “She grabbed your wrist and her grip was like iron. You struggled with her, but she wouldn’t let go. After a long time you were able to push her down on the ground, so that her hand loosened for a moment and you could pull your arm away. Then you ran back to your house and never tried to do anything like that again. That is, you never disobeyed your parents again.”
Maybe, my father says. But my mother was probably just trying to teach me a lesson about obedience. It is a good story, but she probably made the whole thing up.
“I think she died soon after that,” I say. “That’s what I remember mom saying. That she killed herself days later.”
My father exhales heavily and shakes his head. He doesn’t know, and he doesn’t think it matters. She was one of many who had lost someone, and she was not strong enough to recover. The story doesn’t make much sense anyway. How could the woman have known his name? Why would she pick him out, of all people? Why would a five-year-old boy think to comfort a madwoman? And why would any of this be related to anything at all?
Because she chose you, I want to tell him. Because of a haunting. Because a dead son was summoned and you answered her call. Because you touched her, wanting to help, and she held onto you. Because madness and sorrow and spirits are contagious, and you breathed in her demon air.
And now you hesitate to comfort, to put a hand on a female shoulder shaking with sobs, to smooth the hair of a bent head that trembles in her tears like a black silk curtain. You are afraid that when you put your hand on my shoulder, when my bent head lifts to look at you and the black curtain of my hair parts for you to see my tears, it will be her face.
Yours may be story of survival, I want to say, but maybe mine is not.
But maybe, again, I have missed my mark. It is too easy — my father would say, if this story were about anyone but him — to tell it as a ghost story. It is too easy to imagine a haunting like this. The psychology is simplistic and based on aesthetics. It is, perhaps, self-indulgent.
But I remember those summer nights and the bright moon that cast eerie shadows in my room. I remember softly calling my mother’s name in the dark and wondering if her spirit will come back to the house. I remember the sleeplessness, looking outside my window at night, watching my father kneel in the driveway beside the open car door. There is a bucket of soapy water beside him; he is washing out my bloody stain. His arm moves stiffly in and out of the car as he scrubs, hard, at the fabric of the passenger’s seat. His body, seen in pale moonlight, rocks slowly back and forth.