No one sleeps on an empty stomach

For Hungry Ghost Month, Sister and I put out bowls of persimmons, plums and freshly steamed buns filled with sweet red bean paste. Mom locks the doors and windows while we sit on a yoga mat, playing Stratego and fighting over the last Hello Panda biscuits. Once a year, we stay indoors. No walking to the bus stop, going to school, chasing the crows from our backyard. These days always fall on full moons, the “day of the fall harvest, the rebirth of ancestors,” mom says. We burn joss paper by the fireplace and the house fills with the scent of incense. It’s supposed to appease Auntie who died last year after a stray bullet from a local gang war passed straight through her car window and into her head. An instant death, the police said. Mom shook her head and told us never to go near the ghetto areas of the neighborhood.

Auntie was the younger, prettier, wilder sibling—always taking us snowboarding or skydiving or scuba-diving when mom was busy on-call or answering her never-ending emails. Mom doesn’t keep any photos of Auntie around the house. They’re buried in her drawer with tax forms and receipts from decades ago. I think mom is afraid Auntie will leave hell, sneak into our house and steal our lives away. Mom didn’t even attend Auntie’s funeral. I had to beg our neighbors to drive Sister and me to the florist for a bouquet of white irises. At the cemetery, we huddled together in front of Auntie’s gravestone: my eyes closed to the breeze on my eczema-plagued skin, and Sister sobbing and clinging to my arm. I brought one iris home to place on our dining table. The next morning, I found it tossed in the trash.

We stay cooped indoors, waiting for the hungry ghosts to take our offerings and depart. I secretly replace the ripe persimmons in the bowl with the astringent ones, certain the ghosts will not be able to tell. Death dulls the taste buds. Even though mom knows I like persimmons best, she sacrifices my favorite fruits rather than the bananas Sister insists she needs for her kale almond butter smoothies. Sister tells me to chill because they’re just persimmons, but mom only buys them when the store gets rid of all their misshapen produce for cheap.

After the ghosts have their fill, we’re allowed outside to float lanterns on the river bordering downtown and the corner Goodwill. The lanterns are shaped like lotuses, and we place them on wood boards before sending them down the current, hoping they’ll make it far without toppling. The lanterns are how the ghosts find their way back. I ask mom why we can’t give the ghosts flashlights, but she just laughs. Ghosts can’t grip flashlights, but apparently, they can touch us if they make eye contact. 

During the days following fall harvest, mom orders us to only look down at our feet lest we get caught and dragged to hell. Sister ignores mom and operates like usual: attending track meets, leading the dorky guys on, indulging their tangents on meteorites in Antarctica. She makes eye contact with everyone, at least partially to flaunt her long lashes coated in mascara and her eyes blossoming in smokey eye shadow. Auntie taught Sister how to apply eyeshadow each morning. I chose to sleep in for a few minutes before bolting for the school bus. “Makeup inspires confidence,” Auntie would say. “Always make eye contact. Speak your mind.” When it was just mom and us, mom would shake her head and warn us, “Don’t listen to Auntie. Looking someone in the eye is just asking for trouble.” I think mom would rather die than confront someone: even while we crowded onto a local bus in Fuzhou and she saw a man sneak a hand under my skirt, she lightly pushed me toward the window, expressionless as the man grazed her thigh instead.

I follow mom’s instructions and stare at the ground when I talk to others. I avoid raising my hand in class, shy away from crowds. I do this even when it’s not Hungry Ghost Month, more comfortable with tiles and pavement than pupils. Sister’s friends who dance at Qing Yang studio with the long red ribbons and sparkling shou pa joke that I have a fixed head, like those foil people twisted into a position they hold for the rest of their lives. Sister laughs with them as I look down, unable to associate faces with voices. 

“Do you think we need to offer more?” I ask mom. The fruits and buns must not be enough. That’s why Auntie keeps coming back. Mom shakes her head and says it’s not worth it. If Auntie wants to eat human souls, fruit can only do so much. 

On the last day of Ghost Month, I tell Sister the bubble tea vendor is offering two cups for three dollars, and if you buy a Jiu Cai He Zi, you’ll get a third free. The vendor knows the kids like bubble tea and visit in hoards. He normally sets his food stand near the river, a few minutes away from the shopping district. I don’t have friends to share bubble tea with, and I rarely walk to the stalls alone because mom says it’s not safe, but when Sister and her friends aren’t complaining about calories, they’re inhaling sugar. She leaves with a twenty-dollar bill mom gave each of us to buy lunch from the school cafeteria next week. I am reminded of when Auntie would give us crisp five-dollar bills and tell us to buy something nice—like Skittles or lipstick. 

I stay up that night, monitoring the bowl of fruit, ensuring it stays untouched. Auntie should be on her way back, following the light from the lanterns, stumbling upon Sister, meeting her gaze head-on and latching on to her arm. I wonder if this is enough to stop Auntie from coming back.


FFO: What is your biggest challenge when writing flash fiction?

LZ: I’ve been writing so many longer stories that I now seem incapable of writing something that neatly ties itself up in under 1000 words. I think I’ve been indulging myself too much. That being said, I often feel the worlds I’ve been writing lately have been requiring more and more words to do them justice.

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