​​         Chinese Stories in English   

Devil’s Heel
Yan Yan (Hu Qiu)


      It’s the fifteenth day of the seventh lunar month in the fifth year of the Republic [1916]. It’s raining.
      Today is the third day since I married into the Cold family. I’m standing under the eaves of the house listening to the “ding-dong” sound of the rain beating on the tiles. Water flows in little streams through gaps between the tiles and trickles down to pound on the muddy ground, spraying up small splashes.
      My name is Feather Fang. Three months ago I was still attending college in the provincial capital. Looking radiant in my light blue school uniform, I didn’t have a care in the world at the time. But then, just as I was enjoying the beauty of my youth to the utmost, I received a message that shocked me like a thunderclap from out of the blue. My father had had a heart attack when his business failed, and had passed away. In order to repay the debts he’d incurred during his life, I had to drop out of school and return home. Then I came to this wild and lonely place for an arranged marriage.
      The ancestral home of the Cold family is a courtyard house in the ancient style. There’s a long covered walkway and a number of buildings whose beams and rafters have been carved and painted with beautiful scenes; and a large, deep garden planted with a variety of trees and flowers, with prominent rockery and stone bridges.
      I heard that the Cold family remained dignitaries in the provincial capital all through the years of the
Guangxu emperor [1875 – 1908]. Later, though, they somehow offended the Master of the Imperial Palace and suffered at his hand. With their fortunes withering and their assets in decline, they eventually had to move to this place in the countryside. For three generations, each father had had only one son to carry on the family.
      I married the young master of the family, Zijun Cold.
      Although I came here for a marriage that was formally arranged by a famous matchmaker, as far as I’m concerned, it was no different than being sold. I have as yet never seen my husband, a man with whom I have no emotional foundation. I remember sitting alone on my wedding night, the whole night, covered in my red veil, my tears soaking through my jacket. He never came. I sighed in relief when dawn arrived, not knowing whether I felt happiness or sorrow.
      “Young Madam,” a whispered voice calls me. I turn my head and see a green shirt.
      It’s the Cold family’s steward. He’s worked in this huge courtyard home for thirty years, with no one else around. Now he has a long beard as white as snow, and frost on his temples.
      “What is it, Grandpa Zhang?” I ask.
      “My Mistress would have you come to her. She says she has something very important she wants you to do.”
      “Oh.” I straighten my big red dress and follow him through three corridors to the main hall.
      The main hall is furnished quaintly but luxuriously. It’s spacious and bright, and the lighting is excellent. For some reason, though, whenever I came here to pay my respects to the lady of the house, I always feel strangely inhibited.
      This time, she’s sitting towards the front of the hall, wearing a green satin gown. She looks at me with a smile blazing in her eyes, very unusual for her.
      I go up to her and bow. “Best wishes, Mother.”
      “Rise. Sit.”
      “Yes, Ma’am.” I sit obediently at one side, abiding scrupulously by the rules for a daughter-in-law.
     “These few days have been tough for you, Feather.” Mother’s voice is gentle and kind, but it gave me the shivers.
      What is she doing? The last few days she’s been very formal, so much so that I could see the distaste for me in her eyes. So why is she being so genial with me now?
      What does this change mean?
      “I’m fine, Ma’am,” I reply sheepishly.
      “Now, don’t be obstinate.” She sighs softly. “You’ve been in our family for three days and haven’t yet seen your husband’s face. Of course it’s hard on you. But you needn’t be too sad. Tonight I’ll let Zijun be with you.”
      I stare at her, my whole body shaking. A strange feeling comes over me. “Thank you, Mother,” I say insincerely. “I’ll be sure to serve my husband well.”
      “Yes.” She nods her satisfaction, and her face again takes on its gloomy look. “But, Feather, you need to make note of one thing. Zijun suffers from photophobia – he’s afraid of the light. He can’t even see a little bit of light. You’ll have to be sure to put out all the candles. Have you got that?”
      Photophobia? I’m surprised and terrified. Zijun Cold is photophobic? Why wasn’t I told this before? I knew he’s been weak from birth, and has been living in the Gathering Moon Study in the deepest part of the courtyard, hasn’t he? Could this terrible disease be the reason he never sets foot outside?
      “Don’t worry, Mother, I’ll remember.”
      “Good!” The old lady’s happy. She turns to the maidservant who was standing off to one side. “Go get the ‘shake red’.”
      “Yes, Mum,” answers the girl, who seems a bit simple. She goes to an inner room and soon returns with a cup of tea. She sets it down in front of me respectfully and says, “Please have some tea, Young Madam.”
      “This….”
      “Feather,” the old lady says with obvious pride, “this tea is called ‘shake red’. I brew it from thirty-six kinds of exotic flowers. It’s very effective for bringing color to the complexion. Try it and see.”
      “Yes, Mother.” I pick up the cup and look closely at the amber liquid. A refreshing fragrance assails my nostrils and enters my lungs, where it lingers. I stay my hand a moment before draining the cup.
      “How’s the flavor?” Mother asks eagerly.
      I smile, a pleasant residual flavor still in my mouth, and say, “It’s good tea, of course, Mother. If you teach Zijun how to brew it, he can teach me, and I’ll make it for him.”
      A subtle look from Mother causes the maidservant to take the empty cup away. Then she says, “I’ll teach you myself, once you and Zijun have consummated the marriage. All right, go and get ready, now.”
      “Yes, Mother.” I stand up, bow to her once again and exit the room. I look up at the dazzling blue sky as I leave.
      Tonight will be the longest night of my life.
***
      It’s night, and everything is still.
      I sit on the edge of the bed wearing the same red wedding dress as on my wedding day. I’m quietly watching the door, which is closed tightly.
      It’s pitch black all around. I can’t see my hand in front of my face. I remember a long time ago, when a professor was lecturing. He said fear of the dark is innate in humans. It has been in our genes since prehistoric times. It has been passed down for thousands of years and is still with us.
      But I suspect I’ve lost this fear. When a person’s heart becomes numb, all emotions fade away, leaving only the cold.
      The door opens silently. My heart tightens. I try to see, but there’s no moonlight outside, just the same pitch blackness. And yet I can feel that someone has come in. The minimal sounds of his footsteps are clear in the silence of the night.
      I’m wringing my fingers nervously, but he doesn’t seem to plan on coming any closer. He just stands quietly by the door, staring in my direction.
      Time seems to stand still. We face off against each other for what seems like an entire lifetime.
      “Aren’t…. Aren’t you going to come over here?” Eventually I’m the one who breaks the silence. Maybe because I’m nervous, my voice is a bit raspy.
      He doesn’t answer. He just sighs in a low tone and steps lightly toward me.
      The next thing I know, I feel a hand touching my face. The hand is so cold, not even a little bit of warmth, like it’s…. Like it’s a.…
      A corpse!
      I jump up and back, like I’d had an electric shock. I press myself into a corner to get away from that ghoulish body.
      Then I hear a faint sigh, a sigh even colder than his hand. I feel like I’d fallen into an icehouse and had been frozen for a thousand years.
      After a long time he seems to take a long, unhurried step toward the door. When the door opens, a sliver of gloomy starlight from outside allows me see a pale shadow.
      My whole body shivers but for some reason, maybe curiosity or maybe some sort of compulsion, I follow after him.
      The pale shadow bounces along on footsteps so dainty it seems he has no weight at all. I stay far back as I follow him, taking pains to make as little sound as possible.
      He goes through a long corridor that certainly isn’t the way to Gathering Moon Study. After I’ve followed him for probably a quarter hour, he comes to an extremely remote courtyard with a tiny artificial mountain. He goes behind the mound and, whoosh, he’s gone.
      My heart pounding, I follow him behind the mound. There’s nothing here. I stick out my hand and feel around the rocks from which the artificial mountain is made. Unless I miss my guess, there must be some kind of a tunnel here.
      It’s as I expected. Something under my hand moves. There’s a faint sound under my feet and a trap door opens.
      It’s a long stairway, steep and dank. I hadn’t thought there’d be a tunnel under my feet. I teeter a bit, then slip and fall.
      The world is spinning. I roll down to the bottom of the underground chamber. Right away I feel unimaginable pain over my entire body and I almost faint dead away.
      I manage to pull myself to my feet. It’s as icy cold here as it had been in my bridal chamber, and just as dark. I walk slowly forward with arms outstretched to feel into the void.
      The chamber isn’t large. I walk only a moment when I feel a long wooden box, probably half as tall as a person. It’s made of fine wood, but I can’t feel and doors or drawers, only a thick lid.
      It’s….
      A coffin!
      I leap back, fighting the urge to run screaming out of the entryway.
      A coffin? How could it be a coffin? How could there be a coffin here? Who died? Does this mean…?
      Trembling, I pull a tiny pouch from my blouse. There’re things in it that I brought from the capital. I fish out a match, but I’m so nervous my hand has no strength and I almost can’t hold on to it. Finally I take a deep breath and calm myself down. Eventually I strike the match on the coffin.
      In the dim light, I see that a memorial tablet has been set up in the front of the coffin. I move closer and see the astonishing words written on it:
      “In memory of my beloved son, Zijun”!
      My hand shakes and the match goes out. I am again surrounded by darkness. I stand in the middle of the darkness and seem to fall into a dream world from which I’ll never awaken.
      Zijun Cold is dead? Then who was it who just came to see me?
      Could it have been… a ghost…?
      No! Impossible! I step back a few paces and lean up against a box. How could there be ghosts in this world? There must have been some mistake. There must….
      I bolt upright like I’ve been hit by a hot iron rod. What was I just leaning on? A coffin? Why is there another coffin here?
      I fish out another match and lurch over to this coffin’s memorial tablet. What I see written there makes my hair stand on end.
      “Feather
      In memory of my son’s wife Feather”!
      “Ohhh….” I can no longer control the fear in my heart. I stagger backwards and scream out loud. I drop to the floor.
      No! This can’t be! Why would my coffin be here? I’m not dead! My body still has warmth, and I still have feet! I can’t be dead! I….
      “You’re already dead,” a cold voice says from behind me. I turn my head, terrified, and see an ashen face.
      My mother-in-law is standing in front of the stairs, looking dignified, holding a candlestick in her hand.
      “Mother, I….”
      “You’re already dead.” She looks at me coldly as the faint light from the candle plays eerily across her face. “You’ve been dead three days, since the day you got married. Heartbreak flared up on your wedding night and you were already dead, but you just didn’t realize it. Today is the fifteenth day of the seventh lunar month, the
Ghost Festival, when the door to the nether world is wide open. Follow Zijun and lie down in your coffin right now.”
      “No ―― I don’t believe you! I don’t believe you!” I yell at her hysterically. “I’m not dead! How could I be dead? You’re lying to me! You’re lying! Both these coffins here are empty!”
      I turn around and leap over to Zijun’s coffin. I strain with all my might and lift open the lid.
      “Stop!” Mother’s face turns even paler. She starts to come over to stop me, but she’s already too late. I see what’s inside the coffin and can hardly believe it. It’s ------
      The skeleton of a fetus which never completely formed!
      All at once I understand everything. That cup of “shake red”, the pale shadow, the icy cold hand, and these two coffins!
      Everything is linked together in one chain, and I know all the facts.
      “Feather! Why aren’t you hurrying back into your coffin? You’re already dead.” Her voice is as stern as her face, like she wants to tear me to shreds.
      I’ve calmed down and manage a trace of a smile. “Mother,” I ask, “can’t you see I’m alive and well? How could I be dead? Stop playing games and tell whoever was wearing the white robe to come on out.”
      The old lady is surprised and stares at me coldly. The way she looks at me, it’s like she’s looking straight through my body.
      I stick out my hand and knock on the coffin that had been prepared for me. “Grandpa Zhang,” I say gently said quietly, “come on out. It’s stuffy in there and you’ll suffocate to death.”
      The coffin shakes gently, the lid opens and someone dressed in white sits up. I have no doubt it’s Grandpa Zhang, the steward, but his beard has been shaved off and he looks at least ten years younger.
      “You are a strange one, Grandpa Zhang,” I say with a light laugh, as though we were at home having a family chat. “How did I know it was you? I admit, your acting skills are excellent. That icy cold hand, not to mention your long white robe, made you appear to be a real ghost. But please, don’t forget, I was a college student in the provincial capital. How could I be so quick to believe there are ghosts in this world?”
      “So you guessed it was me?” Bracing himself by putting a hand lightly on the edge of the coffin, he jumps out nimbly and vigorously.
      “No. At first I really thought you were Zijun Cold, right up until I opened the coffin lid and saw the remains of the fetus. That’s when I thought that Mother must have given birth to a stillborn baby back then.”
      I turn my head to look at the old lady. Her dignified expression has turned a deathly white. Her lips are trembling and she has a murderous look in her eyes.
      “I understand how you felt, Mother. Your husband had already died, and Zijun was all you had left of him. But then was dead, too, and I can imagine how much it hurt, so much that you fell into madness.
      “You weren’t willing to accept that your son was dead, so you put him here. You told everyone that he was weak and had to live in seclusion in Gathering Moon Study to convalesce. But I figure you had the beginnings of another idea as well. You bought him a coffin and set up a memorial tablet. Over the next twenty years you lived here with a tiny corpse that had turned into white bones. In your mind he was growing up bit by bit, from speaking baby-talk to learning to read, until now when you decided he should get married and settle down. So you bought me and brought me here to be the wife of a man who doesn’t really exist. But you also figured, didn’t you, that when I came through the door and into your house, I’d still be living in a different world than Zijun. So you had another coffin made for me. You were going to kill me, to send me off to meet him. And that’s why you staged this little scene tonight.”
      Mother’s face is deathly pale. The hand holding the candle trembles slightly, shooting out flickers of light so that Grandpa Zhang’s face is sometimes lit, and sometimes in the dark. It’s eerie in the extreme.
      “Mother, Grandpa Zhang, if you two want to put me to death, you of course can’t do it out in the open. There are laws in this world, after all. That’s why you gave me that ‘shake red’ to drink, Mother. You weren’t lying when you said it was made from thirty-six kinds of exotic flowers, but you didn’t tell me that included in those thirty-six was one called jimson weed [a deadly poison with psychedelic properties].”
      Mother and Grandpa Zhang were both shaken. Astonishment showed on their faces.
      “You…. How did you know…?”
      “Mother,” I say tenderly,” why didn’t you do your research before you bought me and brought me here? I majored in Chinese herbal medicine in college in the provincial capital. When you handed me that cup of tea this morning, I’d already noticed the odor of jimson weed. If you don’t believe me, I can name every one of the thirty-six kinds of flowers for you.”
      The old lady’s expression is very strange. Her face contorts, but I don’t know if it’s anger or regret.
      “And now we should talk about you, Grandpa Zhang.” I turned to look at the steward and noted his rigid expression. “I have to admire your loyalty. Jimson weed is hallucinogenic, and whoever takes it will have visions. But the ‘shake red’ tea also had blue juncus flower in it, which delays the effect of the jimson weed.
      “You came into my room just at the time the jimson weed was supposed to take effect, right? At first I couldn’t figure it out, but then come to understand that the reason you stood at my door for so long must have been, in fact, that you were waiting for me to go crazy from the hallucinations, right? That way you’d have a colorable justification for killing me, and could claim to outsiders that I died during a seizure.”
      Grandpa Zhang clenches his fists slowly, like he’s squeezing water out of something. I look at him. “But your calculations went awry,” I say with a slight sigh. “I’d already taken the antidote. I brought a lot of things with me when I came back to the countryside this time, including some rare herbs from all over the world that my teacher gave me. One of those herbs was a type of medicine called ‘stardust’. I don’t know if you two have heard of it, but it’s the bane of jimson weed. This morning after I finished the ‘shake red’ tea, I went back to my room right away and took the ‘stardust’. That’s the only reason I survived this debacle.”
      “Well, good for you, you little hussy! Aren’t you smart!” Mother’s voice is cold and sharp as a knife. “So you were just faking it when you acted so respectful? Are you always so two-faced?”
      “I’m afraid you have no right to speak ill of me, Mother,” I reply with a cold laugh. Didn’t you buy me and bring me here just to kill me? All right, but first hear me out.
      “Grandpa Zhang, do you know where you went wrong? It was when you sighed. When you saw I wasn’t getting sick, you knew something fishy was going on. But it wouldn’t be good to kill me in the bridal chamber, so you tricked me into following you down here. You thought you’d scare me to death.
      “But how could I be such a hopeless fool, even if I’m just a young girl? I was born brave and have always refused to believe in spirits. You two didn’t have a choice. You had to get Mother to condescend to come down here in person and weave that deception and trick me. You were trying to destroy my mind and drive me crazy. And it really did scare me. I didn’t realize the truth until I lifted up the coffin lid.
      “Ahh ―― Grandpa Zhang, how could you pull off playing a young person. Did you really think I was so stupid that I couldn’t tell your age from the sound of your voice when you sighed?”
      Grandpa Zhang’s face first turns red and then white, and a dense layer of sweat oozes from his forehead. I put my hands behind my back and pace back and forth, taking small steps in the underground chamber. “Do you know how I knew you were in the coffin?” I ask. It really wasn’t a hard guess. There’s only one way into this cell-like chamber. I didn’t bump into anyone when I fell down the stairs, which told me you were still in the chamber. And where is there to hide in here? I’m afraid the coffin is the only place. Am I right?”
      “All this talk is a waste of breath,” Mother spits out through clenched teeth. Since you know everything, I won’t try to fool you. My son is indeed dead, and now I’m going to send you to be with him!”
      “You aren’t worried about the law?”
      The law? Huh?” Mother sneers. “I have a hundred ways to make people believe you died from a disease. Do you believe me?”
      “I do.” I give her a gentle and respectful smile as I reply, “You might say I have some experience with your techniques. But you have yet to see my techniques.”
      Right away I dodge nimbly, avoiding the club that Grandpa Zhang has pulled out. I laugh. “There’s a plant that grows in the West with roots that look like goats’ feet. I don’t know, have you two heard of it? It can stimulate the fear center in the human brain and make a person feel terrified. In the middle ages it was often used in interrogations. It’s called ‘Devil’s Heel’.”
      “Save that crap to tell your husband.” With an evil grin, Grandpa Zhang raises his wooden club and pounces forward. Suddenly, though, he gets a feeling that something’s gone wrong behind him. He turns around and sees Mother looking fixedly in the direction of Xijun Cold’s coffin, her face contorted and her complexion the color of iron. She seems to have seen something terrifying. She reaches out and gropes in the air in front of her, screaming “Don’t ―― Don’t come any closer! Help! Help!”
      “M’Lady!” Grandpa Zhang shouts. Frightened, he rushes to her at once and takes her in his arms. “M’Lady, what’s wrong? M’Lady!”
      Unfortunately, before she has a chance to reply, Mother straightaway falls stiffly to the floor. Her face is so contorted that she no longer looks human.
      “There’s no use yelling” I say mildly, “She’s already past the point where you could do anything.”
      “You!” he roars at me, his eyes grown huge with anger. What did you do to My Lady?”
      “I told you, it’s the devil’s heel. The reason I put my hands behind my back just now was to light the drug on fire ―― Man, that stuff is hard to come by. Heck with it! You should leave now, Grandpa Zhang.”
      But even before I finish speaking, the steward’s pupils have started to lose focus. Waiving his club wildly in the air, he cries out wretchedly, “Kill! Kill! I’ll kill all of you! Kill ――”
      You’re miserable, Grandpa Zhang.” I tap lightly on the coffin with my forefinger. “As it happens, the antidote for devil’s heel is jimson weed. Isn’t that ironic?”
      I sigh heavily, but there’s already no way he can hear anything. I walk over and arrange both of them in a seemly position. “Mother,” I say, “I don’t have a hundred ways to justify myself, because one is enough. It goes like this: ‘Because Mother’s heart was broken from longing for her child, she was tortured to death by the pain. The steward Grandpa Zhang plotted to kill me, the youngest lady in the Cold family, thinking he get hold of the family’s assets for himself. But on the night of the Ghost Festival he saw the remains of Zijun Cold and was frightened to death. And I, the young lady of the family, was distraught and inconsolable. So I sold the Cold family’s assets and left this depressing place.’
      “With me having this explanation, plus a little bit of bribery, the two of you need have no doubt that there will never be any in-depth investigation. So you can go in peace while I start a new life with a pile of money.”
      When I finish my little speech, I look up and see that the dim-witted servant girl is standing rigidly beside the stairs. She’s looking at me in horror and her whole body is shaking.
      I sigh quietly. She probably figures that I have righteousness on my side. The opposite is true, though. I’m really not that good a person. Never have been.



新聊斋故事 New Liao Zhai Ghost Stories Magazine
September 2011, First Bi-Monthly Issue, p. 23
Translated from version at
http://www.guidaye.com/mj/375.html






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