The taijitu (太極圖) Taoist symbol is a combination of two interlocking spirals with two dots superimposed on them. When life is born as represented by white, mortality accompanies it as a speck of black. Over time, the blackness of death takes over and then within the darkness, there is a seed of life which emerges from the ashes. The cycle of life and death is infinite. One ends, another begins. But what happens when death refuses to let go of life?
In the heart of Vancouver, a mother tucks her son into bed in a bedroom decorated with watercolor portraits of Beatrix Potter’s animal critters. An elf doll decked in a white and red outfit sat on a shelf nearby, observing this daily ritual.
“Rock-a-bye baby, on the tree tops, when the wind blows –”
“Mommy, stop!” The little boy put his hand up, looking defiant. “I’m a big boy now, I don’t need lullabies!”
“Oh!” Janet’s hazel eyes widened. When her son Eric was born four years ago, her father told her that children grow up fast. She was bemused by such advice at the time and forgot about this until now. Time had slipped through her fingers like sand and the tiny useless human larva she had given birth to was now an opinionated little being.
“You should listen to him, you shouldn’t sing these songs, especially to the boys in our family!” A gravelly male voice spoke. Daniel, an elderly Asian gentleman dressed in a dark suit stepped out from the shadows.
She made a face and said, “Fine, no singing. You want a story instead?”
The little boy frowned. “I want Daddy to tell me a story, you told me one yesterday, so it’s Daddy’s turn.”
Janet stroked her son’s head. “Well, Daddy is working late tonight so he isn’t home.”
“Well…” The little boy furrowed his brows. “OK, I’ll go to sleep and then tomorrow when daddy’s back can he tell me a story?”
His mother nodded. “Good night, sleep tight!”
She gave him a kiss on the cheek, turned on the white noise machine and gestured for her father to exit the room with her. After shutting the door, she headed to the marble island in the kitchen to pour herself a glass of red wine, taking care not to splash any liquid onto her t-shirt and jeans. Walking over to the wall-sized glass windows in the living room of a small apartment, she peered down at the rows of vehicles stuck in traffic next to tiny scurrying figures of people holding large shopping bags on the busy sidewalks. The holiday season was upon the city and the city lights below were decorated with sprigs of red berries and pine needles. Whenever she spotted any white-haired men, she clenched her wineglass tighter, her body shaking with anger.
Daniel walked up next to her and asked, “When did you start drinking?”
“Since you got sick,” she said curtly before taking a seat on the large grey leather couch. “Between working full time, taking care of a young child, and making sure the PSWs at the nursing home were feeding grandma, my hands were already full when I needed to take care of you too.”
“Right.” Her dad sat down on a chair opposite her and crossed his legs.
Father and daughter gazed at each other solemnly.
“I never thought you would ever get old,” she said quietly.
He smiled. “As children grow older, so do parents. You think you have all the time in the world as you slowly fade away.”
“Why did you say I shouldn’t sing a lullaby to my son? Come to think of it, while we were growing up you and Mom were always working at the Chinese restaurant, so you guys were never home to put us to bed.” Janet took a large sip of her wine.
“You shouldn’t ask questions.” Her father crossed his arms and looked away.
“Dad, really? I’m tired of the silence in our family. We were never allowed to talk during dinner, we couldn’t visit other kids’ houses and you! You didn’t even tell us you were sick until it got really bad! Why?”
“You are such…a…a…jook sing...” Her father sighed deeply and shook his head. “If I had known you were singing to your son, I would have…”
“Well, good thing you’re around now to see this, so you can tell me why I shouldn’t sing to him. People need a reason to stop doing something. I need a reason.” Janet put her wine glass down on the coffee table and looked pointedly at the older man.
He puffed up his cheeks and then let the air out slowly. “Fine. I only tell you this because you have a son. If you had a girl, you would not have to worry. I’m going to tell you a tale about our ancestors.”
Janet smiled and pulled her legs up onto the couch to settle down for a story.
Her father cleared his throat and used one hand to undo the top button of his stiff white collared shirt under his dark suit. Then he began his tale.
A long time ago in China, our family was part of the junhu or military households conscripted into the Ming Dynasty military. This meant we had to provide one male member of the family to serve at all times. One year the family sent a disabled male member of the family. His mother was livid but as the third wife in this family, she had less authority and could not prevent this from happening. The other two wives promised her that her sacrifice would not be in vain. Her remaining younger children would inherit more of the husband’s estate and all male heirs in the family would honor her as their mother.
It so happened that the disabled son’s nanny was actually a huli jing or fox spirit who had been doing virtuous tasks towards the goal of having tien or heaven, grant her a permanent human form one day. Taking pity on the third wife, the fox spirit taught her a spell, so every time she sang a lullaby, she would be transported to the battlefield to be with her son. The mother knew her son wouldn’t last long and wanted to be there to comfort him when the time of death came. Sadly, her son did die and upon seeing his body when it returned home, she died too.
The story should have ended here.
However, since the night of the third wife’s death, whenever a lullaby was sung to a male child in the family, her ghost would appear, thinking she was needed. Also, whenever a male in the family was close to death, she would appear and sing a lullaby to help them cross over. It’s said that when the third wife performed the spell with the fox spirit, she perhaps spun one circle around too many times and the promise of all males being her son became a curse of love, binding her to our family.
“In the last moment of my life, the third wife appeared to guide me into the light.” Daniel gave his daughter a wry smile.
Janet let out a sigh. “That story is a bit farfetched. Are you telling me to not sing because you think I’m being too Westernized again?”
He shook his head. “I’m telling you what I know now before I go.”
Janet stood up. “You don’t have to go. You can stay. Christmas will be here soon and you can watch Eric rip open his presents. We never celebrated Christmas before since you were busy, but you can start now! In Hong Kong ghost movies, the ghosts live in an umbrella during the day and come out at night.”
An eerie sound of a woman humming a lullaby stopped their conversation. A black spot appeared on Daniel’s shirt and then expanded slowly, erasing his body parts from sight. Before his head disappeared, he said, “Tell your brother and sister this story, take care of your mother and young son. Joy geen! Goodbye!”
Janet let out a loud wail upon seeing her father disappear and collapse to the floor. When her husband returned home at midnight, he found her on the floor in a fetal position, sobbing and clutching her chest.
“Honey, what’s going on?”
“The forty-ninth day has passed, dad’s moved on,” she sputtered. “I’ve never even celebrated one Christmas with him.”
Her husband, a patient Caucasian man nodded, not understanding the significance of this day in which the spirit is supposed to depart from the realm of the living and never return. “Don’t worry, things will be ok.”
She shook her head. “Things are not ok. Dad is dead, why am I alive?”
Sent home from work after suffering a breakdown when her colleague told her that it was her fault that her father was dead, she had spent the last month ruminating about medical decisions she should have made or could have made which may have changed the outcome for her father. Janet was a geriatric nurse who saw death daily and was now struggling with extreme guilt, depression and anger. The psychiatrist who saw her last week told her she had developed something called “complicated grief” which would go away with time. They offered her pills to shut down her mind, but she turned them down since she was worried about not being able to perform her maternal duties properly. Seeing her father’s spirit today had made her feel normal again but now her heart felt more shattered than ever.
“It’s late, let’s go to bed and talk tomorrow.” Her husband herded them to the bedroom and after his head hit the pillow, he promptly fell asleep.
As Janet lay in bed that night, she hummed the haunting melody she heard earlier before her father disappeared and silently asked for help from her third wife to let her join her father. She begged for death. A coldness crept into the room and before she could take her next breath, something heavy sat on her body, immobilizing her as a pressure crushed her windpipe, strangling her. Her wish was being granted. Memories flashed through her mind from childhood to adulthood and finally an image of her laughing son. Her survival instinct kicked in when she suddenly realized she needed to live to take care of the next generation and she cried out in her heart for her father to help. The pressure was suddenly released from her throat. She looked around but all she could see was darkness.
A woman’s voice whispered in her ear, “You are a mother.”
A calm fell over the room as the coldness disappeared. Janet looked around for a long time but was disappointed she could not see the third wife’s spirit. She made a face as she pondered over the message about being a mother. Did this mean that females always had to take care of the family and accept all sacrifices? Feminist arguments ricocheted through her mind as she argued internally with herself over the values of modern times versus the past.
The next morning, she called her siblings on a video call and relayed what happened. Her younger brother rolled his eyes, said he had to go to work and hung up quickly.
“But why did Dad come to you and not me? It’s not fair!” Her younger sister wailed.
Lately, the two girls spoke obsessively on a daily basis about things they could have done to prevent their father’s death from taking him to a doctor earlier to detect cancer to forcing him to eat a healthier diet. Growing up with Asian beliefs about the supernatural at home intertwined with Roman Catholic teachings from the school system, her sister was the only person Janet could talk to who would accept she spent yesterday with their father’s ghost.
“Did you burn any letters to him at the Buddhist temple to let him know you wanted to see him?” Janet asked.
“No, but still. You’re always the favourite!”
Janet tried once more to speak about the danger of lullabies in the family, but her sister just kept ranting hysterically about Dad’s spirit not visiting her.
Later that night as Janet put her son to bed, she began the first words of a lullaby, then stopped herself abruptly.
Her toddler didn’t notice. Instead, Eric put a chubby hand on her face and said, “Mommy, did you put my orange dinosaur in my knapsack? Tomorrow is show and share and last week you forgot.”
Janet’s cheeks flushed as she remembered how upset her son had been due to her toy omission. “Yes, your dinosaur is in your bag! Say jo tau, good night, please.”
“Jo tau,” her son said dutifully as he clutched his stuffed bear against his chest.
She leaned over to kiss him, thinking about how this toy was the most important to him at this moment in time. But what will happen later when she is gone and won’t be there for him?
As if answering her question, out of the corner of her eye, Janet caught a glimpse of a petite Chinese woman in ancient clothing. Janet’s body tensed for a moment and then relaxed.
Father is wrong. We aren’t cursed by the third wife. Janet thought. We are blessed with a gift of love, for when I am gone, another mother will help my son leave this world in the comfort of a lullaby.
Janet kissed her son and left the room, the weight of grief lifted from her shoulders. She smiled as she thought about how Christmas will be a time of joy after all with new traditions for a new generation.
JF Garrard is an award-winning speculative fiction writer, editor and publisher. She is the President of Dark Helix Press and serves as the Co-President of the Canadian Authors Association’s Toronto Branch. Her portfolio of books and short fiction is listed on jfgarrard.com and you can find her on Twitter @jfgarrard, Facebook and Instagram @jfgarrard.