City of Ghosts
Disclaimer: Brief references to plots and characters I do not have the rights to. I’m just using them for personal enjoyment. Uberish and FIN light. Brief references to women in love with each other and if that’s not allowed, then do what you can to change that.
Thanks to Extra, Lariel the Bardic Circle, for the excellent suggestions of Ann Braxton and for the challenge from Steph.
Written for the Academy of Bards Halloween Invitational, and worked on during a flight back from China. Yes, there is a City of Ghosts, and a Goddess who is an advocate for the souls to be judged.
Mail is always answered at Kamouraskan@yahoo.com
Godsbedamnit, I thought as I leapt up onto the rail. This isn’t a dream! This is real! GET FOCUSSED! Now!
I wouldn’t even be in this damned situation if I’d been concentrating in the first place. I’d been so caught up in my grief and then the change of plans that I’d never considered what the crew might do when I announced the changes. This was hardly the time for recriminations, though. Not while balancing precariously on a railing, glaring down at the few men still standing. I was happy to see their swarthy skin was sweating and their grotty clothes were torn from the mêlée, as they waited, uncertain. I knew that I was winning; most of the men were ready to back off and the rest were strewn about the deck. From somewhere inside myself, I heard a distant scream warning me to duck, just before I was hit by the darts. I reached up, too late, to pull them out. Still reacting to the initial shock, I staggered and fell crashing to my knees. As I attempted to stand on wobbly knees, there was a painful blow to my chest. The final strike was a sword, sliding steel, tearing up into my belly from behind and from the side. The pain was beyond screaming. But that wasn’t the defeat. All of my agony was nothing compared to the shame I felt as I lost the urn. My last, dying view of that small urn, falling from my hands, rolling away just in advance of my own blood pouring from me, staining the deck. And panting, still in my death throes…
I fell out of the cot, onto the floor, and woke up.
As the echoes of the nightmare faded, I slowly raised myself on one arm and brushed away the long blonde strands to look about the spartan room. The only sounds other than my rapid breathing were the street noises and the metronome of the cheap nightstand clock. My only personal possessions were still in the unpacked suitcase by the bed, except for the stack of rice paper for my calligraphy, laid out on the dresser. I shook my head, pulled myself up and wondered again at how I had come to this.
Some people had hopes and hopeful dreams. I had a room in a battered woman’s shelter and recurring nightmares that had haunted me all of my life. At least the pirate dream, as I thought of it, wasn’t as bad as The Other. I don’t think I could have handled a drop in from the visitor that had tormented me since before I could remember. At least I was fighting back in the pirate dream. And fighting back was something that the real Jennifer seldom did.
And what was my reward in the dream for my uncharacteristic bravery? A sword in the gut. I obviously didn’t have a subtle subconscious. And it wasn’t just that clear, painful death that hurt the most each time I’d wake up. It was the sense of having failed someone important to me. I knew that feeling far too well in real life. Nights like these, it seemed I’d failed everyone, at one time or another. My parents, my husband. My unborn child.
Dammit, the bloody tears were starting again. It had been four months and six days and it still wasn’t any easier. I missed her. I still missed the baby I’d never known; certainly more than I missed my husband. Just the day before yesterday, I’d taken a bus past the hospital and seen that great smokestack where she would have been cremated. Two days later, I still wanted a drink or meds, just so I could stop thinking.
I wasn’t stupid. It had never been a good relationship with Rick; it was just so wonderful to feel loved. Until I lost the baby.
Rick couldn’t handle it. The first time he’d hit me, it was almost a relief. And it wasn’t like TV. There were no apologies after the beatings. No tear-filled recriminations, promises it would never happen again. It was what I expected; what I figured I deserved. After all, Rick was right. Even in my dreams I was either a victim or a screw-up. This room and I deserved each other.
I also knew all that made me a cliché and that was depressing as well. I was depressed and embarrassed to let anyone know that I was a great big huge cliché of a battered housewife. If it hadn’t been for Dot, who had pushed me and cajoled me and finally gotten me to leave Rick, I wouldn’t even have the shelter where I could hide, where I could try to heal.
That’s where I was now. Trying. It had been a bit of a bust so far. I knew what my life had been, not the counsellors and not the well-meaning people I’d met. They’d all told me what I was feeling was characteristic of depression yadda yadda… and they’d gone on and on. They didn’t know. If I hadn’t had Dot, if Dot hadn’t been there for me, I knew I would have made sure all the dreams ended permanently.
Dot was wonderful. She was a bit of a flake, a big zaftig blonde. At first you thought she was just this whirlwind of fluff, but she was tougher than she looked. God, I wished I could be that strong. And, she was all I had left now. I’d known what Rick was doing when he started cutting me off from everyone. That was my fault too, because I had known. But Dot, Dot just ignored him. When Rick cancelled going out for a girl’s night say, because, oh, he needed me for something or there was no money or maybe I had a bruise I didn’t want anyone to see, Dot would blithely bring dinner to me. And when Rick insulted Dot when she arrived, Dot clearly took pleasure in showing her contempt for him. And giving him as good as he gave. Where would I be without Dot?
There were some things I kept to myself. I’d never told Dotty about the Other. I think I was too much of a coward to even think about it, much less talk about it with someone else. I had told Dotty about the pirate dream. I’d described the entire sequence, which was easy, as it hadn’t changed in 20 years. And of course, Dotty had a solution for every problem, even if they seldom worked.
Once Dot had gotten all the details out of me, she suggested that I take self-defence courses. Her reasoning was that if I practiced the right combination of moves to get out of being killed on the imaginary boat, then the dream would stop reoccurring. It seemed to make a weird kind of sense, like most of the things Dot suggested. So I’d worked out in the community centre every Thursday night. Duck, back kick, thrust, until my arms had ached. And I thought, for a moment there in the nightmare, I’d almost ducked, hadn’t I?
So what now? I couldn’t go back to Rick, but I couldn’t hide from him or life for much longer. Alone in the small dark room, I found myself asking like Scarlet O’Hara, What’ll I do? Where will I go?
“Come to China with me.”
We were sitting in the coffee shop across from the Shelter, and I had barely gotten a sip from my teacup when Dot had put it to me.
“China,” I repeated flatly.
“Yes! It’s perfect! You remember Suzie? My friend with the zillions from up north?”
I couldn’t keep track of half the people Dotty habitually mentioned, but for simplicities sake, I simply nodded. It still amazed me that I had somehow earned the friendship of this crazy woman. It amazed me even more that it had only been two years since Dotty had seemingly dropped out of the sky to become my closest friend and wannabe lifestyle guru. I’d never even figured out exactly what Dot did for a living. She called herself at various times a freelancer, a buyer or an organiser, but I was never quite sure if those were jobs or simply her way of life.
Dot was saying, “Well, you know Suzie, well, not like I know Suzie…”
“Oh, oh, oh, what a girl?”
“Exactly.” Caught out in mid flow, Dot looked across the table sharply. “What?”
Though Dot was the only person that I felt enough confidence in to needle, I hid a grin while waving my teaspoon in encouragement. “Go on, Dot.”
“Hmmm. Oh yes, well she and I were going on this trip to China, right? Everything’s all paid up and she just called out of the blue to tell me about this welding accident.”
I nearly choked. “A welding accident? One of YOUR friends? Was welding?”
“Of course not, Honey. She doesn’t WORK for a living. A welder FELL on her. Well, not on her, on her car. Anyway she took him in a cab to the nearest clinic, and while waiting for her family to send another…”
“NO! Oh, stop that.” Dot flicked her fingers in annoyance at me.
“Just pretending to be a part of the conversation.” I didn’t hide my grin this time.
“ANY-ways, She happened to see this new plastic clinic was opening up with the most charming surgeon, and before she left, she’d signed up for a completely new butt. She swears it was only when she got home that she realised that the dates were conflicting and she just knows I’ll find someone to take her tickets.”
“Well, there’s your problem. I don’t have the money!”
“You’re not listening. Everything’s already paid for, Suzie’s family have an ORCHARD of money trees and she’s written the whole thing off. If you want to pay your share, AND so I know you’re committed, all you need to pay is the cost of having the tickets put in your name. I already checked and that’s about £180, which I know you have.”
Yes, Dot knew exactly how much I had because it’d been at her insistence that we’d cleared out my bank account after I’d left home.
“I need time to think,” I managed.
“I’d love to give you the time, love, but China isn’t like going to Brighton. You have to have a special visa to enter the bloody country, and they take a few weeks. We leave in three!”
Dot took another sip of her tea before continuing, her enthusiasm, as usual, unquenched. “Think of it! China! It’s perfect. You need a change and China certainly would be it. Meals are included, so it’ll actually cost you less to go than stay. You wouldn’t have to even think about Rick finding you and you can have the trip of a lifetime for almost nothing!”
Why was I even hesitating? She was right, it WAS perfect and how many people did I know that had been to China? And just for once, people would be envying me.
I gave a sigh and said, “Where would we go?”
Dot made a victorious movement with her hands and grinned. “Well. Everywhere! I have something I need to do first, but after that, we go to Shanghai, Beijing, the Great Wall, Xi’an, Terracotta soldiers, a trip down the Yangtse, everything!
My instincts told me that Dot was sidestepping something. “What have you got to do first?”
Dot began examining her salad rather carefully. “Well, it’s just I didn’t want to, you know, freak you out a bit. But there’s this place, it’s not too hard to get to, but…”
I had to stop her before she meandered any further. “Spill.”
“Well, it’s a sort of shrine. Tao and Buddhist. One of the few places that you have this combination, very special.”
I was still waiting. “Uh huh.”
“Well, it’s the name. It’s a bit odd. It’s really just a tourist trap and the name doesn’t mean anything.”
“It’s called… the City of Ghosts.”
There was a pause while Dot tried her best to look ingenuous. I cleared my throat and asked, “Is it just my imagination or did a cloud just come over this conversation?”
Dotty just ignored that and eventually overwhelmed my misgivings. Before I could change my mind, she had me fill in the visa application. Then it was on to the mall, where we found a photo booth to take the picture for it. Before dropping me off at the shelter, Dotty gave me the itinerary and I rushed upstairs to pore over it. Yes, the trip was everything that Dotty had promised, but it started off with what looked like several connections just to get to this City of Ghosts first. I went down to the common room where there was an internet connection and did a quick google.
A search for City of Ghosts brought up a film with Matt Dillon, but nothing to do with China. Then I tried City of Ghosts China.
The town of Fengdu, said to be the abode of devils, is also known as the City of Ghosts.
Situated on the northern bank of the Yangtze river between Zhongxian and Fuling, the city was depicted as the 'City of Ghosts' in two ancient, classic Chinese works - "Monkey King" and "Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio". The origin of the town's extraordinary reputation can be traced back to the Han Dynasty (206 B.C. - 220 A.D.) when two officials, Yin and Wang, became Taoist recluses here and eventually Immortals. Later in the Tang Dynasty, their names were combined to mean "King of the Underworld".
Thereafter, Mt. Mingshan gained its reputation as the 'City of Ghosts' where the king lived.
Today, the town throngs with many tourists who come to visit temples and shrines dedicated to the gods of the underworld. Landmarks bear horrific names – and contain the three tests for ghosts who wanted to enter the nether world.
There were other sites, but with no more information except a couple of photos of tourists wandering about the site. Nothing that should create this sense of dread, or add to the worry I was beginning to have. So like a lot of things in my life just then, I pushed it down and ignored it.
Until that night.
It felt like I had just fallen asleep for a minute when I was being awakened. At first, I kept my eyes closed even as my body cringed, assuming that this was another visit from the Other. Instead, when I opened my eyes, I found myself somehow clad in a light coloured kimono, in the dark, in some great hall. Towering over me in the gloom were four giant figures in ornate and multi-coloured robes. Each carried a scroll of some form, which was unfurled in their massive hands.
The tallest one spoke in a voice like muffled thunder. “THIS IS A WARNING TO YOU, NOTHING MORE. BE GRATEFUL THAT WE HAVE DISCOVERED YOUR PLAN AND ARE GRACIOUS ENOUGH TO GIVE YOU THIS CHANCE TO TURN BACK.”
My mouth hung open in shock and I looked about me for some explanation. “What have I, what am I supposed to have done?”
“YOU ARE ATTEMPTING TO CHALLENGE THE WILL OF THE GODS, AND WILL BE FOUND GUILTY IF YOU SHOULD CONTINUE THIS BLASPHEMY,” he answered.
“I don’t, I wouldn’t…”
“SILENCE! YOU WILL BE TAKEN FROM THIS PLACE AND SHOWN WHAT YOUR SENTENCE FOR ETERNITY CAN BE. THEN GIVEN THE TIME TO THINK OVER YOUR EVIL AND FOOLISH PLANS.”
I was seized from behind and lifted by what appeared to be two massive sumu wrestlers, but like one of the judges, their skin was entirely blue. Their faces were painted with grotesque frowns and their costumes would have seemed ludicrous if not for my terror.
Without a word, they hauled me, screaming at the top of my lungs, through corridor after corridor as I squirmed helplessly in their grasp. Finally we arrived at a door where my shrieks were drowned out by even louder screams from the other side. “Please wake up, Please wake up,” I pleaded with myself. The doors were pushed open and I found myself looking at a scene direct from hell. Amid a stifling heat, tortures, the most inconceivable torments were occurring all around me, suffering that shook my to my soul. “How can I be dreaming this? What part of my mind would ever, could ever, imagine this?”
I was carried past a man being forced, head first, into a vat of boiling oil and was flipped over and raised up by my feet. My kimono dropped and the heated air struck my bare legs and bottom. The two creatures holding my feet high above the ground, pulled apart my legs. With greater and mounting disbelief, I could see two more men approaching with a large bladed crosscut saw. They lifted it to rest the blade of the saw almost gently between my legs. In my hysteria, I almost giggled that my asscheeks were being used as the saw guide. It was all too real. I could feel the tangs of the saw just touching my pubis and the muscles on the men began to tense for the first stroke. I screamed and…
“I don’t care about the money, I don’t care about anything other than something is very wrong with all this and I am not going.”
Once again we were in the coffee shop, and once again, Dot was being her most reasonable. “Sweetie. It was just a dream. You know how nervous you are and that was just your fear trying to stop you from taking a chance. And,” as a thought struck her, “the whole thing about the bum was probably from hearing about Suzie’s op! Right? It’s your mind playing up your irrational fears. All the more reason you need to do this. You know you really want to go. I swear to you, when this is over, you’ll be so grateful that you went! Honestly, I wouldn’t lie about this. When we get back, I’ll bet you, you’ll be a stronger person, with new skills and confidence. You’ll see I was right. I swear, I promise you.”
As Dot seemed to be making some sort of sense, and largely just overwhelmed again, I made out the cheques for the ticket transfers. Once again ignoring the qualms, we began to plan for our great adventure.
“I can’t believe we’re doing this! Finally!” Dotty’s enthusiasm for the trip seemed to grow greater each day and once we were in the line-up at Heathrow security, it seemed to be radiating off of her. I, on the other hand, had more and more misgivings whether this was a good idea or not. My nightmares had been absent for several days, not even a visit from the Other, thank God, I thought, but my doubts meant that Dotty seemed to have to pull and even drag me along, right up to the passport check.
Getting to China was not as hard as it had been during Marco Polo’s day, but it was still fairly exhausting. I had never travelled first class before, but on an eleven hour flight, even that paled soon enough, despite Dotty trying to make the entire trip into some sort of faux sleepover party.
We finally landed in Beijing, and before I could even appreciate the thrill of being in China, Dot had us racing to catch a second flight on a much less luxurious plane. More check-ins, more views of brand new buildings built in time for the Olympics, and nothing of old architecture or ancient China. That wasn’t the end either. Once we landed, we were in a cab from the airport speeding along even more bright new highways also built for the Olympics, to make the cruise ship.
As we boarded the ship, I looked at my watch and questioned Dot, “Eight hours in China, and so far all I’ve seen is roads and airports! When does this fabulous journey of a lifetime begin?” Dot shushed me and reminded me that once we’d seen Fengdu, we were free to see everything I’d been promised. “Two days and you’ll be on the Great Wall of China. What’s a couple of days?”
Put that way, I did feel a bit mean-spirited, and once we were given our keys, I collapsed in the cabin suite, grateful for the comfort. Grateful as well, that there were no dreams that night.
The next day was so sunny that I began to feel foolish about those forebodings. The City of Fengdu would be my first chance to explore ancient Chinese culture and the weather was perfect for wandering. As we waited with the rest of the passengers to disembark, we could see high above us, a massive white stone face carved into the rock. “The largest stone face in the world, it represents the Ghost King,” Dot quoted from her now-omnipresent guidebook.
As soon as we stepped off the gangplank, vendors came running from their stalls, immediately surrounding all of the tourists. “Hello! Hat?” “Hello!” “Hello, Map?” Each clutched some sample of their wares, a Little Red Book, kites, or a map of China. Others carried sun hats that they thrust in our faces, often blocking our way. Eventually we managed to pay our entrance fee and get through the turnstiles leaving them behind. “Quite the gauntlet, wasn’t it?” I commented. Dotty gave me an odd look.
“What?” I asked.
“Oh nothing. Just thinking about someone.”
I would have pressed her on that but all conversation stopped when I turned the corner and saw the transportation that awaited us. “Now, sweetie…” began Dot.
I didn’t want to hear it. “The guide book said it was a gondola. I was almost ready for that, but this!”
In front of us, an ancient red chairlift cranked and groaned its way up the mountain.
“Look, love. I know you have a bit of a fear of heights, but you must have been skiing.”
A bit of a fear of heights? “When did you ever see me ski? I’m British!”
“Brits ski. You have teams in the Olympics.” Dot tried tugging me but I was doing my impression of a pillar. “Yes, and we probably get beaten by Grenada.”
“Look. You read that there are these little tests. Well, here’s one you can pass because I am NOT going to get all sweaty walking up some massive hill in the hot sun just because you can’t use a perfectly safe, ummm, time-tested, transport.”
In a softer tone, Dotty added, “Don’t worry. I’ll make sure you get up without any problems. Just hold onto me and look to the side. We’ll be fine.”
Clutching my friend, but still trembling slightly, I stood in the required spot and was scooped up by the chair. I began to breathe a bit more evenly once the safety bar was secured and our feet were resting on it but nearly lost everything when my eyes strayed downward.
“Oh God, Oh God…”
“Look at the wonderful topiary,” Dotty said calmingly, as I forced my eyes to look only at the landscaped hillside passing by.
I nodded convulsively. “Yes, it is nice and look at all the bamboo.”
The chair lurched and swayed and I could feel that we were now well out over the cliffside. “Lovely bamboo. Lovely bamboo,” I muttered as a mantra.
What seemed like years later, we reached the top, though long past where the sign indicated we should raise the safety bar, I allowed Dotty to raise it. As I staggered off, I glared at my friend and gasped, “When we leave, I am walking back down.”
“Okay. Down is okay,” she agreed.
At the top, the aging temples were hard to see through the throngs of tourists chattering away while even more vendors called out and besieged the newcomers.
Dotty quickly led us through the crowds and the maze of buildings and I hardly had time to admire the gorgeously decorated roofs when we were inside an ancient courtyard where three stone bridges crossed over a small pond.
“Now, you’ll see how easy this all is. This is the first of the tests.”
“I thought the chairlift was the first test?” I grumbled.
“Shhh. We have to find a tour guide who will explain in English what you, what we, have to do.”
We sidled up to a group of Americans who were listening raptly to their local government tourist guide. “This is first of tests.”
“We knew that,” I whispered. Dotty shushed me.
The guide continued. “This is River of Blood, and to cross you must choose Bridge of No Way Out. Ghost who stride across in three steps, considered virtuous man. Or woman, of course.” He paused as the group obligingly chuckled. “Those who did not, considered villains. They drop down into river below, and forever more be deprived choosing new life.”
“Ladies start with right foot, gentlemen with left, and you cross with three steps only and you are judged. You ready?”
Dot and I dropped behind and waited until the entire group had crossed and were congratulated by their guide.
We crossed over according to the instructions, and though my short legs were hard pressed to cross in only three steps, I managed it. On the other side, I asked, “That was a test?”
“Told you!” Dot said, laughing.
We caught up to the tour group at the Celestial Being Road, or the Stairway to Heaven as the guide laughingly referred to it. They were to climb each of the 33 steps without taking a breath, and neither the tour group or I and Dotty found it too difficult. Once up at the top, we walked through a long, open-air avenue, guarded on each side by dozens of hideous, carved statues. We stopped in front of another sumptuous gate, with the scent of incense drifting from its entrance. At the base, there was a small square of blocks enclosing a well-worn stone.
The tour guide intoned, “This is last test of netherworld. You must stand on stone, balancing one leg with chest out, and stare at words on wall. They mean God’s Eyes Like Lightning, and if you fail to maintain balance and do not stand properly at attention, it means you have pleaded guilt. But you succeed, you are good person with good deeds.”
I turned to Dotty, shaking my head. “You dragged us all this way. 5,000 miles, two plane trips, cars, boats and trains, for this?”
“It’s just a metaphor, and you wouldn’t believe what I’ve been through to get you, to get this far.”
At her strange phrasing, I gave my friend a glance, but Dot buried her face in the guidebook until I looked away.
We both practiced a bit, and I found that thanks to my martial arts training, I could balance without any difficulty.
The last test completed, we moved away from the crowd and congratulated each other. “So welcome to heaven,” I said with a grin.
“D’you think heaven has better market stalls?” Dot asked.
“Let’s go see!”
Once again, there was that attempt at ingenuousness by Dot. “Why not. We might as well kill a little time.”
I ventured, “Kill a little time until…?”
Dot shrugged and looked anywhere but at me. All of the minor suspicions, all the odd comments and behaviour, began to coalesce in my mind.
“What’s really going on here?” I asked, quietly.
Dot continued to avoid looking at me. “What have I ever done to deserve such a suspicious friend?”
“Well,” I began hesitantly. “I’m beginning to think… that you basically lured me to China. To here. To one of the oddest places on the planet, for reasons you won’t tell me!”
“Maybe.” Dot admitted. “But, I’d trust you if you’d done that to me!” she proclaimed self-righteously.
“But I wouldn’t ever do that to you!” I defended.
“Exactly! That’s why we’re here.”
But no matter what I did, Dotty refused to say any more, and for the next few hours we both sulked about under the hot sun, drinking from our bottles of mineral water, looking through the various temples and poking at the trinkets in the stalls.
Until we entered the temple labelled The Emperor Hall.
Directly in front of me, swathed in the incense of the darkened Hall, were four brightly coloured figures identified as The Four Great Judges, and they were all too familiar to me. As I backed away, eyes widening, I became aware of two even more frightening figures behind me. Blue, with painted, contorted mouths. I stepped back, my heart pounding, and grabbed Dot’s arm.
“Those are the guys,” I whispered.
“Hmmm?” said Dot, distracted for once from her guidebook. She was even more distracted when I pulled her to one side and stared at her with what I’m sure were terrified eyes.
“Look, Dotty. I have never been here before. I never saw any pictures online about these guys, SUZIE sure as hell never mentioned them, but those are the guys in my dream who…”
“Shhh.” Dot shushed me. “You’re attracting attention…”
I felt the urge to strangle my best friend. “DOT! I’ll attract even more if those guys grab me and start sawing my…bum, in half. Now what is going on?”
“Nothing! I mean, why would I know anything?”
“I can see you’re upset, but what’s the worry? Technically, you’re in heaven. You passed all the tests.”
“What am I really doing here? Tell me now. Please. Those guys, well, in my dream they said I was doing something against the will of the gods. Now I don’t think that they were referring to running up a flight of stairs holding my breath.”
Dot didn’t seem fazed by the atypical sarcasm coming from me. “Well, I have to admit, there is something I was planning to bring up, eventually… but I didn’t want to ruin the… surprise.”
“SURPRISE?” Dot made more shushing noises. Now barely under control, I tried enunciating carefully. “I think I’m not thrilled with the surprise element. Tell me what is really going on. Please!”
Dotty looked about them and gestured for me to follow her. She led me out of the Hall and off the path into the wooded hillside. Despite my mounting frustration, I followed.
Once we were in the brush, shielded from the buildings, Dot began. “Now, I know this is all very strange, but I swear that everything is fine. Right on schedule,” she added brightly. At my disbelieving eyes, she made another of those calming gestures with her hands that made me want to grab them tightly. “Now, everything is going to be very clear to you in just a little while. I promised you this trip would make all sorts of positive changes in you but first you have to give me a minute. “Here.” She handed me a bottle of water and urged me, “have a drink and calm down while I figure out what to say.” Sceptically, I took the water bottle and took a long swallow. I was about to take another when Dotty pulled the bottle away from me. “Why are you taking it back now?” I demanded, angrily.
“You don’t need anymore. I calculated exactly the dose according to your body weight.”
“Calculated what?” Suddenly it seemed very hard to swallow and I felt faint.
“Well, exactly how much it would take to kill you.”
I slumped slowly to the ground. This wasn’t a dream. This was real. “Why?” I managed before collapsing completely. The last thing I heard before dying was my best, my only friend in the world, calmly saying, “Because it’s for your own good.”
I was myself. Something more, but somehow something less. There was a loud roaring in my ears and I tensed, knowing, waiting for the moment when I would once again be in the Hall of the Emperor, before the Four Judges. The roar grew louder, then thunderous, then deafening and then…
I found myself standing in front of an all too ordinary looking reception desk. Except for the massive horned gargoyle that was sitting behind it. The gargoyle looked up from her, his, its, typing and growled at me, “Nammmmme?”
I swallowed and managed, “I’m sorry?”
The beast-thing growled again, and turned about to face me on the swivel chair. “I’m asssssuming you had an appointmmmment.”
Still taken aback at the incongruity of the standard receptionist responses coming from this snarling beast, I stuttered, “I don’t know. I just, well, I think I just was killed and…”
“You wouldn’t be here if you didn’t have ssssome sssssort of appointmmmment.” The entity grumbled and picked up a clipboard. “Nammmme of lasssst incarnnnnation?”
Last incarnation? “Ummm, Jennifer Hampton?”
“Yessss, here you are. You’re to ssssee the Goddessssss in a few mommmmentssss. If you would pleasssse, wait in here…?”
I was directed to a small waiting room where several other ordinary people sat quietly, none even looking up at me. Shaking my head in astonishment, I carefully took a seat in one of the plastic chairs, touching it several times to see if it was real. Wafting from a hidden speaker, I heard a Muzak version of Girl from Ipanema.
After a few moments of unsuccessfully trying to catch the eye of any the others waiting with me, I gave up. I was reaching for one of the magazines on the formica table, wondering what the heck heaven might keep in stock, when the gargoyle was again growling menacingly in front of me.
“Ummm, yes?” I ventured.
“The Goddessss will ssssee you now,” the gargoyle rumbled while raising a gnarled arm to point to what also looked like an ordinary office door. “Jussst go through there.”
Feeling more and more like Alice in Wonderland, I walked cautiously to the indicated door and stepped through. Once through the doorway, it expanded into a massive darkened barn of a church, with huge beams across the ceilings and Renaissance paintings and sculpture in every alcove. What was even odder, if these things could still be noticed, is that it all seemed somehow familiar.
There were several hundred people in the church, many in a variety of costumes, but I was drawn to the sumptuously red-robed woman clearly waiting for me at the rear. Tentatively, I approached her. The veil that cascaded down from the jewelled headband was parted to reveal a Chinese woman of unknown age, who spoke in lightly accented English. “This is rather nice, did you come here often at one time?”
I thought for a moment. “I’m not sure. I think…” and I moved to stand in the centre aisle to see the painting over the altar, perfectly framed within the choir screen. “That’s Titian, ummm…. The Ascension. This is the Friari. In Venice!”
“Yes, I used to come here from Milan when I was doing my novitiate.” I blinked as memories opened up in my mind. “When my name was Maria…”
I had never been a believer in reincarnation, but I could not deny my own memories. My past lives were not clear, more like my earliest recollections had always been. Like those memories, the additional ones were fogged and splintered, but they were there. A cavalcade of pasts that I knew were all my lives up to this point.
The Goddess was still admiring the painting. “Your friend said you had good taste. This is quite lovely.”
Finding myself strangely calm despite the continuing series of shocks, I replied, “Thank you. Are all these people here for the same reason?”
“Some are waiting to see me in my role as advocate, but they aren’t truly here, anymore than you are here. All of this is simply a place that your mind chose as being appropriate.”
A young man joined us and was staring raptly towards the altar, as words seemed to slip through his lips. “Wonderful,” he whispered, “This must be heaven.”
Feeling the emotions of that long dead nun, I could only agree with him as we both stared forward in admiration. The young man continued by saying, “I mean, unlimited Happy Meals and like, all the Coke I can drink! It’s so cool!”
The Goddess pulled me away, commenting dryly, “As you can see, good taste is to be admired, but it isn’t a requirement to meet with me.”
I was feeling a bit claustrophobic in the crowds, and suddenly, we weren’t there anymore. We were high on a frosted hillside looking down towards a snow-covered landscape, broken only by sinuous lakes miles away on either side of us. “The Kirkstone Pass,” I answered the unspoken question. “I don’t know how… I think I wanted us to be somewhere less busy.” As I pointed towards the lakes, snowflakes drifted across my arms. “That’s Ullswater and over on the other side is Windemere. My parents used to bring us up here.”
The Goddess pulled her veils closer to herself as the wind cut through them. “Charming, but a trifle chilly. Do you think…?”
“Oh, of course.” And still not knowing quite how, something in my mind clicked and selected, and my companion and I were immediately in the same spot, but in the midst of a glorious summer day.
The Goddess took to admiring the greenery, while I tried to think through my many questions. “So what am I supposed to start with? What do you ask a Goddess? I mean ‘why am I here’ seems a bit abrupt, even rude. Maybe I could ease up by asking if She’s seeing anyone lately?”
“The Spirit Eating Ghost and I occasionally have a meal together but there’s no one serious at the moment.”
I laughed. “Did I say that out loud? I was just… it’s what I would ask a friend and it…”
The Goddess was smiling, I was glad to see. “You have no unspoken thoughts separate from your being, dear child.”
“Why do I feel so calm, considering…?”
The Goddess said, “Because you are yourself, nothing more and nothing less. You are the whole of yourself and the origin of yourself, with few of the earthly weights of specific identity or trauma to weigh you down.”
“The Scientologists would be so happy for me.”
Her gentle face changed swiftly. “Now that, is exactly the sort of thing you should not say when you are presented to the judges.” She saw my eyes grow wide, and she gently took my hand. “The dream you had was a warning, but this stage does not challenge them or any God. You are here only to correct an event which was the fault of man, though its correction will help us in the final stages.”
I was brimming with questions, starting with how many stages, but instead I seized upon the one comforting word. “We?”
Again there was that wise smile. “Yes, I have agreed to act as your advocate, should you choose to go forward.”
The Goddess looked above to something I could not see and motioned for me to come closer. “But there is not much time if you wish to return to your body before it actually expires.”
“You mean, I’m not… I’m not really dead?” I asked.
“I suppose it depends on what you mean by really dead. But no. Whatever gave you that impression, Young One?”
I tried to reply but the Goddess shook her head and said, “Perhaps we can discuss this further if you are able to continue with your quest. But for now…”
“Yes, my dear. I thought you understood. You are not the being you were supposed to be and we are going to try to help you. So the first thing, is to get a bit of the stain that you’ve carried, removed.”
“Stain?” Was my Goddess actually a Chinese soul laundry?
The Goddess ignored me to look pointedly towards my feet, and I followed her eyes to see a large hole of… nothing, beneath me. Like Wile E. Coyote, I hung there for a moment, with eyes about to pop out of my head, before beginning a sharp descent. As I hurtled downward, I heard far above me, the Goddess say, “Oh, and good luck!”
In my own mind, what I was thinking certainly rhymed with ‘luck’.
The fall ended abruptly as I fell into my own body like it was a suit of clothes. My confusion became fusion, and then I was leaping onto the railing of a deteriorating ancient ship. I balanced on the railing precariously, glaring down at the few men still standing. Their swarthy skin sweating and grotty clothes torn from the mêlée, they waited, uncertain. I knew I was winning; most of the men were ready to back off and the rest were strewn about the deck. A part of me screamed at me to duck and this time, I did, feeling the air part as two darts flew past and fell harmlessly into the sea.
The three months of training for this moment were completely ignored, or more like, overridden, as I used the railing as a springboard to leap behind the man with sword and yank his weapon away with my sais. A high kick and he joined the crew on the deck and the dart thrower fell a second later and I reached up to catch the returning chakrum. I turned to face the remainder of the crew who were withdrawing, defeat and fear the only emotion showing.
“Are you guys crazy?” I asked rhetorically, keeping my breathing under control. “We’re going to Chin. Afterwards, we’ll head to Egypt as originally planned and you guys will make a fortune on the goods we pick up. But if I see one of you dogs even looking at me the wrong way, he’s overboard if I have to pilot this ship myself. Is that finally understood”? I checked to see if the urn was still safe and then the bottom fell out again and I was falling, falling…
And I was lying in the grass on the hillside of the City of Ghosts. Dot was forcing some fluid down my throat and I pushed it away, coughing and choking.
“So?” Dot demanded impatiently.
I looked about. Blinked and looked about again. There was a rush of, I don’t know, adrenaline, confidence, things I was completely unfamiliar with. Despite having just been dead, I shot up and whirled about. “Holy bloody COW!” Turning to Dot, I punched the air twice. “I kicked ass! I mean, I literally kicked ass. I bashed…” I suddenly remembered exactly how I’d gotten into this mess in the first place and glared at Dot. “You killed me!”
Dot was completely unrepentant. “Took me long enough, too. I mean, you wouldn’t BELIEVE how long, and as I said, it was for your own good.”
“My own good???” My voice was definitely louder now. “You’re not supposed to kill your friends! I’m sure that’s a rule?”
Dot smiled. A pleased and smug smile that I thought just a bit out of place. “Look at you,” she said. “Just a little bit feistier, maybe? Hmmm? How do you feel?”
I paused and considered. Yes, I felt stronger, more confident, I felt… “I do! I feel like I could, in fact, I think I…” I stopped dead. There were more memories, but these were from another life, but not a past life, my own. Things had changed. I saw myself, and Rick. And he was yelling and hitting and I, I hit back. I’d never hit back. And I’d done more when he came at me the second time. With fear and a bit of wonder, I whispered, “Oh, my God. I think I killed Rick.”
Dot was completely satisfied with the news and replied, “That’s right! I think you did!”
“How can you…?” I fell to my knees, back to the ground, trying to sort out all the information loading into my overworked brain. “The past, it’s changed somehow. Instead of running away, when Rick was beating on me, I fought back, and he…fell.” I looked up at Dot with frightened eyes. “He’s dead! And I killed him!”
Dot contentedly patted the grass about her. “Well, I did tell you this trip would make you more self-confident.”
More pictures streamed into my mind. “I forged our documents! We’re here on false visas I made!”
Clearly this was all wonderful news, because Dot clapped her hands in delight. “See, new skills too!”
I was getting royally pissed off. I glared at my friend. “My new …feistiness, is telling me to strangle you.”
Dot just batted away my anger with one hand. “It’s not like any of this is permanent. This is all temporary. We’re not finished.”
I laughed but there was no humour in it. “I’m finished. For some reason I’m not as impressed as you are with how this is working out so far.” The new images seemed to have stopped but there was definitely something that didn’t make sense. “If I killed him,” I said, thinking out loud, “why did I come to China afterwards? I should have stayed. Gone to trial and pleaded self-defence! Instead, in this new timeline, I ran away, making things ten times worse!”
Dot’s enthusiasm didn’t wane, but seemed to grow for some reason. “You know, you’re right. It doesn’t make any sense. Why would you run? Why would we come here, when you should have surrendered to the police to plead self-defence?”
By George, she’s got it. “Yes, tell me why,” I challenged.
Dot’s smile grew. “If we hadn’t come here, you wouldn’t have resolved the dream. If you hadn’t come here, you wouldn’t have killed Rick. But once you killed Rick, you shouldn’t have come here. This is wonderful!”
A line from one of my favourite books jumped to my lips with a bit of paraphrasing. “Clearly this is a new definition of wonderful I wasn’t previously aware of.”
“Don’t you get it? There’s another paradox in time. That’s just what we wanted!”
Dot rose from the grass and gestured to me to stand as well. “Yes! You see, now, when we challenge the will of the Gods…”
I nearly choked. I grabbed her arm tightly and stopped her right there. “But we don’t want to do that. *I* really don’t want to do that. You know what happens if we do that.”
Ignoring my panic, Dot sauntered downwards to the path leading back to the ship. “You don’t get it. It’s a paradox and that can’t be allowed to exist. Our friend upstairs and I were hoping to create just one and by fluke, we have two! Now, instead of being impartial or even unhelpful, they have to help us to resolve them. This temporary timeline makes no sense so they’ll be forced to be on our side to fix things.”
I stumbled to catch up with her. “What if they decide having my ass sawn in half fixes things?”
“Sweetie,” Dot said in a tone I was thinking might lead to her death at my hands very soon, “Everyone knows that ass sawing never solved anything.”
Apparently oblivious to the clenching of my fists, she added, “ The good news is that I can finally answer your questions. But, I have to warn you, what I have to say might require a bit of… suspension of disbelief. You might find it complicated.”
I shook my head. “No.”
Dot stopped abruptly. “What do you mean, no?”
I came about to face her. “I mean ‘no’ as in go away, ‘no’ as in right now I don’t want to hear any of this, no. I mean as in, I’ve had a bit of a busy day already, no. I died. What else? I’ve apparently had my personality changed, found out I’m a fugitive from justice, met God, been to Italy and the Lake District, fought pirates… that sort of NO! The sort of, gee, maybe I overdid my first day of my VACATION, NO!”
“Why are you yelling at me? It’s not like it’s all my fault.”
“Ahhhrgghhhhhh!!!” I threw up my hands and stalked off down the hill.
Dot followed me all the way down the darkened mountain, her longer legs barely being able to keep up with this rapidly stalking blonde. It was well past midnight, and even the few hopeful vendors camped outside the ship, pulled back in fear as I thundered past them. I boarded the ship and slammed the door of the cabin. I could hear Dotty sighing with relief when I opened it again, only to thrust the do not disturb sign onto the knob, and then slamming it shut again.
“Fine. I see you might need a bit of a lie down. Later!”
Of course, having stomped my way into my bed, after all I had been through, sleep was not about to come quickly. I picked up my chick lit by the bed, but for some reason, comic romance was not interesting to me. It took a long while, but finally the fatigue that had seeped into my bones won out, and I began to drift off.
The exhaustion was so great that the tingling, the gradual paralysis, wasn’t noticed at first. If I’d been less tired, I might have done what I usually tried to do; somehow get out of the bed before I blacked out. But it was too late. I was a captive in my own body once again. The prickling immobility seized the rest of my limbs, progressively crept past my shoulders and finally into my mind. There was time for one involuntary shiver, before my thoughts stopped and I fell into complete blackness.
When I began to regain some consciousness, I instinctively knew that the Other had come. Still completely frozen in place by both the fear and paralysis, I could only barely see it. It was only the slightest shadow in the corner of one terrified eye. It was hardly even a shape, more of an outline of a figure. The upper portion of its form leaned over me, trapped in the bed. And then, I could feel the hands, touching me. Caressing me. Gliding over me intimately, causing an all too familiar nausea to rise.
How could I have hoped that this horror would end once the pirate dream was resolved? Any confidence I might have gained dropped away, falling into a vacuum of my helplessness as the thing continued to fondle me, its hands slithering all over my petrified body. The molestation, as always, seemed to go on and on and yet there were no sounds except for my strangled breathing. The creature, the succubus, whatever it was, always made me feel as though some slug-like creature was using me, its almost shapeless form keening over me in some love-starved fashion that made me sick. But the touch was not slug-like; it was that of dry flesh touching fear-sweat skin.
I began to rock back and forth, even though that action only pushed my cowering body more into the creature’s molesting hands. My mind shrieked for something, anything to wake me from this horror. As in all nightmares, I was unable to scream, hardly able to make any sound, but I struggled, fought, to do it anyway. Despite all my efforts, little more than a small gasping noise escaped. Swallowing hard, I continued to rock and pant until a pitifully small ‘help’ emerged. More rocking and the sound became louder. The thing, the creature, seemed to realise that I was now freeing myself and it began to leave as it always did, by drifting slowly up, up to the ceiling, and passing away through it.
Its disappearance freed me and I found myself crying hysterically. The locked door of my cabin was somehow opened and Dot stood in the doorway, clearly frightened and upset.
“What’s wrong? What’s happening?” She caught me as I collapsed, sobbing.
A long cry and many hugs later we were outside, up top, on the deck of the ship. The sky was beginning to brighten, but there was no one and nothing else on the deck but the scattered chairs and ashtrays. Above us, the mountains extended for miles, enclosing the Yangtse. We’d brought some Tsingtao beer from the minibar up with us, and still suspicious, I was keeping my own recently opened bottle, uncontaminated and away from Dot.
Dot, for a change, was pensive. “So, this thing that has scared you more than Rick ever did, you didn’t think this was something I should know about?”
I was huddled on the chair, my arms holding my knees against my chest. “I’ve told you more things about myself than anyone else. Don’t… don’t make it sound like I was holding out on you. And,” I brandished my bottle, “don’t act like you can be trusted. Like you weren’t keeping secrets.”
“True. But I already offered to tell you all the secrets. You want to know why I kept them from you? I think you’ll figure out pretty fast why I haven’t been…completely honest.”
I wearily raised my eyes to Dot. “Why? Why lie to me all this time? Why not tell me what the pirate dream meant? And now, why is… this…Other dream so important?”
“We-ell. This could be a bit hard to believe.”
I sighed with frustration. “Look. It’s early, I’m exhausted. I’m ready to believe almost anything. I just want to know the truth from the person I thought was my friend.”
“I am your friend.”
“You murdered me!”
“Are you ever going to let that go?”
We glared at each other before looking away.
I sighed again. It was an impossible situation and ignorance wasn’t helping me. “I’ll try to trust you. After all, in Through the Looking Glass, the Red Queen told Alice that you should always believe at least six impossible thing before breakfast.”
Dotty raised her eyebrows in apprehension. “It’s a bit more than six.”
I took a deep breath and let my legs slide to the ground. “Let’s count then.”
Dotty shrugged. “Okay. Once upon a time, about 2,000 years ago, there were these two women. One died and left her soulmate, alone.”
Dot gave me a look. “If you start counting that one, we’re going to run out of numbers.”
“Okay. Go on.”
“Her lover had left her alone deliberately, because of a really stupid con, what she thought was an obligation. Her lover was trapped in death by her own choice, her own guilt, and had made her soulmate promise not to rescue her. But I told her…”
“I’d say that was a one.”
Dotty shrugged and took another sip of the Chinese beer. “That one act, that one stupid sacrifice that should never have happened, changed the rest of history. It should not have happened. According to the Fates, it was not supposed to happen.”
“Two people, could change the world?”
With vehemence that seemed out of character, Dotty said “Yes!”
“Two,” I said remorselessly.
“Whatever. What I told her soulmate, yes, two thousand years ago, was that there was one place in the world that might correct the mistake.”
“The Temple in the City of Ghosts.”
Dotty nodded. “I told her she could bring the ashes of her lover to the Temple in the City of Ghosts, and they would judge her lover. She might be judged guiltless and maybe her lover would accept the judgement. You know, because it was an impartial court. And maybe everything could be put right again.”
Now Dotty looked at me carefully. “But you see, once I had talked to her, her plans had to be changed. So she went and told the crew, the crew of the ship she’d hired…”
“Okay, Kunte Kinte, I have found you.” I stood up abruptly and walked away from my chair. “So, the dots finally connect. This is now all about me, supposedly. Right? And my female lover? And this all actually happened 2,000 year ago? With my female lover?”
Dot smiled. “That would be a yes.”
“That would also be three, four and maybe five. And… hold on, the temple wasn’t even built 2,000 years ago!”
Dot grinned. “Oh honey, after everything you’ve been through, haven’t you learned anything about temporal balance? Once a temple has been built, a true temple, it’s always been there.”
“Six,” I stated.
Dot shrugged. “Now it gets a bit more complicated.”
“No, it can’t. Seven.”
“You’ll take the seven back in a second.” Dot gestured to me to retake my chair. I did, grudgingly. “But instead of getting the ashes to the temple, the woman was killed by the pirates and the ashes never made it.”
“Fine. But now we changed all that, right? So everything is hunky dory now? I mean, aside from the fact I’m a murderer on the run!”
“No, no, no! Thing is, yes, now it is changed. You, or the woman you were, did get her to the temple. But just because the temple is always there, it was only there for people on another plane, like your…friend. Though, it wasn’t here for you.”
“You were a mortal. You don’t have access to things beyond time. And when there finally was a temple, you didn’t come for her. And your lover still failed the tests.”
“Nine! How could anyone fail THOSE tests?”
“You took them on this plane, as a mortal being. The tests are a lot more difficult when you’re not, well, alive. Especially when you have the guilt of thousands of deaths on your shoulders. So she stayed here, and your soul went on alone, without her. That wasn’t what was supposed to be. You two were supposed to be together. You had lifetimes of acts that you would do together and without her, and with the guilt of failing her, you weren’t, well, all that you were supposed to be.”
Dot sighed and took my hand. “So we needed you, or at least some incarnation of you, to come here and help her through the tests.”
“So why now? Why me? What happened in the last 2,000 years?”
Dotty puffed angrily. “I TRIED! But you kept being born in the west. Do you know how hard it was to get you to China? I tried every explorer from Marco Polo on. Last century, I tried to get your parents to do the missionary thing, but no go. Nothing worked. Until now. See why I was sort of excited about this trip?”
“So there’s no Suzie, no welder, no truth to anything we’ve known together.”
For once, Dotty seemed to be near tears. “Don’t you dare pull that on me. I’ve been your friend. Always.”
“Friends know each other. You’re more of a fairy godmother than a friend. I don’t know anything about you.”
The soft fluffy Dotty must have finally snapped because she almost spat out, “I always wanted to be more. But what you needed has never been me.” She was acutely embarrassed by this admission, but pressed on. “You needed her. Always. And Honey, no one knows as much about love as I do and that means…” there was a heartfelt sigh, “… you needed a friend. So that’s what I have been.” Dotty gazed at me steadily from her puffy eyes. “So don’t you dare tell me what friendship is. You taught me what it was all too well.”
I found myself wondering about this sacrifice she had made, but for once she looked like she needed a hug, not me. “I’m sorry, I couldn’t, I mean, you know…” I muttered into her shoulder.
She returned the embrace and I could feel her tears on my cheek. “Hey, its okay. As I said, I’m your friend.”
Damn it, but now we were both crying. “You could have told me this before I was wanted for murder, you know.”
Dot chuckled sadly. “Nope. Now we’re both committed, so the secrets can come out and things are going to be set right. If you trust me.”
What could I say to that? Nothing made any sense, and her friendship was once again all I had to cling to. “Alright. But no more killing me without asking first, okay?”
At that ludicrous request, we both started laughing. There, in each other’s arms, we shared a much needed cathartic laugh. When we finally broke apart, it was to lie back, almost relaxed, in our deckchairs. The sun was rising ever higher and we both were aware that time was running out. Nevertheless, we both sipped our beers lost in thought.
I broke the silence first. “Okay, I guess I’m signed up to believe all this, but I still don’t get why, well there’s a list of things I don’t get, but what does this have to do with the thing that keeps scaring the crap out of me. What is the phantom molester about?”
“You know your dream about the ass sawing?”
I rolled my eyes. “No, I forgot all about that.”
Dotty stared straight ahead. “You still go white when you think of that place. Your lover, her name was Xena, she’s been there for two thousand years. Two thousand years of torture that freaked you out after two minutes.”
I didn’t like the way this was going.
Dotty said softly. “Xena’s trying to be with you. But whatever is left of her after all these years…” She let out a breath. “She’s completely insane.”