My father, Yongli, told me this story, but I think he left some things out.
When he was a young man, Yongli moved to Wenchuan for University – it was a hot spring town right outside Wuhan, in the mountains about a hundred miles from where he grew up. At night the people of this town gathered in the caverns to enjoy the bubbling thermal water. It was the kind of water that could heal aches and ailments, and according to some old ladies who’ve lived in the town for ages, its mineral properties could even cure grief. In the old days, before the wars, people traveled from far-flung cities like Beijing or Shanghai just to touch the waters or taste the town’s famous sulfur eggs. One could cook an egg in this thermal hot spring bath and it would taste better than the salted duck eggs from the best restaurants in the city.
One night early in his time there, Yongli decided to see for himself what the fuss was about. It was late summer, when all the college students were moving in. He had arrived early, and settled in his dormitory already, so he had time on his hands. He took the bus up a winding mountain road toward the main hot spring drag. In those days, the buses rattled nonstop and he gripped onto the railing of his seat.
When he arrived, he noticed that there were no signs. He followed the sound of people chatting and came upon a little shingled pavilion with a bell, which led to a courtyard. He entered the men’s bathing quarters and scrubbed himself with soap until he was clean and raw.
He chose the compound that had fewer people. There were several pools to choose from, all of which were surrounded by rocks and miniature shrines made of stone. He noticed that some of them had incense in them, the embers still burning red like the eyes of white rabbits.
The night was shaping up to be one of those chilly mountain evenings, and the cicadas were especially loud, screaming through all of Yongli’s thoughts. He shivered uneasily, throwing his towel over his frontside, for he couldn’t shake the feeling that someone was watching over him from afar. But the steam was too hot and invigorating to resist, and when he stepped into the water, he immediately sighed, draping the towel over his forehead and closing his eyes. It was heaven. The water smelled fragrant, like wet tea leaves, the good kind, not like the ordinary tea plants he had tended to, the crude bricks of black herbal tea back at the labor camp. Before he came to Wenchuan, he had labored in the tea fields in an even more remote mountain. He was sent there when he was only fifteen, and until that very week, he had tended and culled those leaves from sunup to sundown. What backbreaking toil it was, what little he had to eat! He studied his hands—the backs of them several shades darker, but the skin on his palms still bright and torn with pink calluses. He hadn’t really gotten the chance to survey his own body since leaving home, but now he was noticing the blisters, all the marks the earth had left.
Yongli began to smile, thinking how a year ago, he would never have predicted this degree of relaxation, this flagrant pampering. Soon he would begin his studies, and that was a miracle. It was 1978, and he was a part of the first small group of students to be admitted into the universities, which had reopened that year after being shut down for over a decade. College entrance exams were discontinued in 1966, when he was only six years old. Last year, he had been one of the first in his camp to sign up for the exams. The odds were impossibly slim—every night he studied, memorizing formulas and dates feverishly beneath a single flickering bulb, by the light of the moths that fluttered about with their paper wings. During the day, he almost fainted from lack of sleep. Only five percent were admitted out of millions of hopefuls.
And now, in this hot spring, it was unbearable to Yongli how wonderful this feeling was compared to what he’d always known. It felt as if he’d been deprived so long of this existence that he didn’t know how to enjoy it.
It was then, in his contemplative state, that he saw her—a girl on the other side of the rocks, leaning against a sharp rock in the other pool. She was in profile, covered by the steam. He’d seen her somewhere—perhaps in the dormitories? Her hair was wet and bunched up in a towel, but a stray strand made a question mark on the back of her neck. She peered over her shoulder. She was looking at him.
And Yongli, being a teenager, flushed and ducked back into the pool. The temperature of the water felt much hotter than it was before—scalding, in fact, and he yelped in pain. His calves were red and looked like meat.
Then the girl called out, be careful—that pool can get really hot!
Without turning back, he gathered himself. He didn’t dare speak to her in such an undressed state, but she pressed on, inviting him to join her pool.
He thought it was shameless, as she was wearing nothing, but eventually he found the other pool—the temperature was perfect, and he felt his muscles relax again as he dipped into the water, facing the other side of the hill so as not to scandalize the girl, who seemed unperturbed.
The girl was maybe two or three years older than him, but nevertheless she could well be a classmate of his. Stealing quick glances at her, he realized that he had never seen her before. She was the kind of beautiful that seemed unreal, especially through the spumes. To his bewilderment, she held out both her hands, and appeared to offer something. It was an egg, black-spotted and slightly crackled, which she claimed was boiled with the sulfuric hot spring. He recognized it as the famous Wenchuan egg.
At first Yongli hesitated, for he could not conceive of so many sensations all at once. But she dropped the egg in his palms, and he held it gingerly, realizing that in the past three years, he had never once eaten an egg. Meals at the labor camp always consisted of rice gruel and cabbage. Sometimes turnips, and maybe once a year, a spoonful of ground pork. The last egg he remembered eating was during the Spring festival, five years ago, when his mother brought home a carton of century eggs. He remembered savoring the dark gelatinous albumen of the egg, the salty, buttery yolk the color of charcoal. Hungry now beyond reason, he decided that he was willing to be poisoned by this strange girl.
He peeled off the eggshell, but it broke into tiny shards in his fingers, making a mess all over the mud and stone he was resting against. Under the shell, the spring-boiled egg glowed like a luminous orb with the aroma of the hot spring waters, and as he tasted it he shuddered with glee. The flavors were unlike anything Yongli had ever tasted—warm and earthy, a twinge of salt and sulfur, the slight smokiness of tannins and minerals he could not name.
He had focused so much on the egg that he looked up and the girl was gone. He searched around the hot spring, but the only people there were older men from the community bathing themselves. He then decided to wait at the hot spring until she returned, in case she went to the restroom or the women’s quarters. He waited until past midnight, but she never came back.
The next day, he returned to the spring to see if she would show up, but she didn’t. He went every day until school started, but she never appeared. He did notice, however, when he peered down at his hands, that all his blisters and calluses, accumulated over years of working the fields, were missing. His hands were smooth again.
This was my father’s version of the story.
What he left out is the part where the girl from the spring seduced him.
I know it because even now, I cannot convince my father to go to a hot spring or even a regular run-of-the-mill spa. He seemed easily spooked. Once, years ago, we took a family vacation to Japan and ended up in Hakone, a city outside Tokyo known for its hot springs. I must have been around eighteen at the time, and my sister Kiana was sixteen. I had just graduated and as about to go off to college in the fall, at Tufts University. It was not far from where we lived, in Medford, Massachusetts.
In Hakone, we stayed in a guesthouse near the periphery of town, and to go to all the attractions, we had to take the tram. It was December, but the green foliage was still thick and lush. It was the most picturesque trolley I had ever ridden – the windows were open to let in the cool night air, and you could see the vegetation and bamboo on both sides. When we got to Gora station, we transferred to the ropeway, an aerial tram that would take us to the lookout. It was a clear day and we could see Mount Fuji from inside our capsule in the air, towering over the sky like a beautiful sentinel. The first stop on the lift was Owakudani, the Great Boiling Valley. Underneath us, the noxious fumes spread out over the reddish-white mounds—they said this valley was the result of a huge volcanic eruption over three thousand years ago. This area was famous for producing Hakone black eggs, which our father claimed was not the same as Wenchuan eggs. Legend had it, the black spring eggs of the Great Boiling Valley lengthened one’s life by seven years. At the stop, we purchased the eggs in the gift shop, sealed plastic wrappers with five in each package. “Dad, you better eat at least two of these,” Kiana said.
Later that evening, we had the eggs with our dinner at the guesthouse—mackerel and rice. It tasted like an ordinary egg, not at all how we imagined. We wanted to try the eggs my father had mentioned, the ones from Wenchuan, but we had no plans to visit China.
After dinner, Kiana wanted to go to the famous onsens, but my father refused. He already had a convenient excuse: by that time, he had acquired about seven tattoos on his arms and shoulders. Japanese onsens did not admit any guests with tattoos, and it would have been useless to cover his markings with any poultices.
“Suit yourself!” I said, and we left on our own.
When Kiana and I were little girls, our father spoke only about our mother in mythological terms, how she had been the most beautiful and intelligent woman in the universe. A mistake was made in the heavenly realm and they wanted her back there, so she died not long after Kiana was born, to ascend back to the Palace of the Sun and Moon. He never told us anything else, so we didn’t know anything about her, really—not her family, not where she was born, not even the story of where and how they met. As such, it became a perverse game between Kiana and I, piecing together pieces of Dad’s life story, making up stories about our mother, the goddess. For all his praise for her, he kept no mementos—not a photograph, not an article of clothing, not even a ring. The only thing he had that we suspected came from our mother, was a small porcelain ewer he kept in a black box. But he never confirmed that it belonged to her, so we never knew.
When we asked him, he’d say that on the day she disappeared back into heaven she left not a trace of herself for fear it would cause us sorrow. Over the years our stories got sadder and darker, more grotesque. Perhaps she wasn’t a goddess, but a monster, we speculated. We wondered if she had really died—it was always a shroud over our heads, the possibility that our mother was alive, and merely abandoned us.
When Kiana and I arrived at the Tenzen hot springs, it was past 9 o’clock. We were both freezing—the snow had started falling, and as we peeled off our clothes our teeth chattered. As soon as we entered the cloudy waters, Kiana started gossiping.
“What do you think really happened to Dad when he was our age? When he went to that hot spring?”
“Well, I think he had the terror of his life. Why else would he never want to return?”
“Come on. I don’t think so. It’s Dad—he’s not afraid of anything.”
“What do you think happened to him?”
Kiana’s version of the hot spring story went something like this:
After eating the egg, Yongli and the girl exchanged stories about their lives. She was born in another province, Anhui, and her father had been a wealthy merchant. They lived on a sumptuous estate with a courtyard full of priceless Jingdezhen porcelain, and they ate out of gilt gold lacquerware. But that did not last past the civil war, for when she was still a young girl, her father was brutally executed during the government crackdown of landowners, and her family fled to a commune where they were forced to work the land. There in the commune, she grew up hungry and bewildered, fighting with her brothers and sisters for food rations. She soon grew tired and stopped eating altogether.
By the end of their conversation, it was clear to him that she was not a living person. The historical facts added up: she must have been born a few decades before him, but died during the famine, which coincided with his own birth, in 1961. While she never explicitly told him that she had starved to death, he surmised that her commune was wiped out.
To his own surprise, Yongli was not afraid, he did not want to run away or flee. It had been a long time—perhaps ever—since he’d had such an in-depth conversation with anyone, dead or alive, and he was still hazy with the astonishment of it. Back at his labor camp in the other mountain, he barely exchanged a few words with anyone, let alone a girl, in three years. The luxury of a hot spring, the luxury of the egg, the luxury of a conversation with this ethereal beauty, it filled him with delight.
“So why does he refuse to return to any hot springs now, if the night was so magical?” I interject.
“Just hear me out!” Kiana says.
It was a pity, really, that he later learned the girl had ulterior motives. She asked him softly, as he climbed out of the water, if he wouldn’t mind walking her back to her room. By then it was almost midnight, and the air was thick with the smell of sulfur. The hot spring was completely quiet, save the sound of birds and bullfrogs.
Where is your room? Yongli asked.
It’s not far. It’s just on the other side of this hill.
Yongli decided then that it was as good a time as any to bring up what he felt to be the elephant in the hot spring. He asked if she was a ghost. The girl was perturbed at his question, but not surprised. She ended up telling him the truth: that indeed, she was dead, and she needed him to help her do a favor. Wiping her brow with her towel, she continued: When I came of age here, there were no college entrance examinations. I wanted to become a poet, to study literature, so badly, and I believed that could be my future. In the decades before I was born, it was possible for young women to dream of crafting beautiful poems instead of marriage. But our family was thrown into hardship and travail. I am immeasurably jealous of you, for being able to attend University.
Yongli gathered his possessions and began to follow the girl up the rocks. He had to get on his hands and knees to prevent himself from slipping and falling. She led him up the hill and down until they reached a sort of shack, barely hanging on its hinges. It appeared to be mostly abandoned, save for a pile of riffraff on the floor.
This is where I died when I escaped, she said. Please, please, I implore you, deliver my manuscripts to your University library. So my life is not wasted.
Your life was not wasted in the first place, Yongli said.
But it was, the ghost girl said. You see, the ghosts of young women are the most abject and pathetic out of all beings in the spiritual realm. Why? According to the old books, it’s because we die unmarried. Because we have no lineage, no family line to wander the afterlife for. But according to me, my life has been wasted because I didn’t write enough poems. I didn’t study at the University. This is my biggest regret.
But that’s beyond your control. It’s not your fault, you can’t blame yourself for these circumstances.
Yongli didn’t have the heart to tell her his University had no library. It did not even have a Literature course. But because he was hoping to study archaeology, he was fascinated by the possibility of keeping her abandoned objects—a shard of pottery, a ream of handwritten poems, some of which were unreadable due to water damage. The pages were curvy and yellow with age. They were fragile to touch. He promised her he would keep them and donate them when he got a chance.
Satisfied with his promise, the girl thanked him handsomely and retreated, not before kissing him. It was his first kiss, and the strangest kiss he’s ever had. Her lips were not cold, but warm, even burning, like the hot spring. After she left, he fell into one of the coldest spells of his life – for several days and nights he had a fever of 106 degrees. He felt so cold he thought he would die.
For years, he kept the poems in his dormitory, and later moved them to the house he shared with our future mother in the city. He kept them in drawers along with his old school materials. Later at the University, he would meet our mother, who was his literature tutor. They moved to the city after their wedding, and then had me. This was 1989. Our mother loved books, and as a result, Yongli started to love them as well. They would read together, talking deep into the night after his shifts as a postal worker. Eventually, he got into a PhD program in the United States in East Asian Studies. They moved there, with me in tow, a year after. It was in Boston where they had Kiana.
Our boxes were still packed and sealed for over a year. One day, our mother would unearth the poems in the basement, believing they belonged to Yongli’s lost love. She had left me and Kiana upstairs in our nursery room. Our cries could not reach her.
After coming home, Yongli came down to the basement and discovered her reading the manuscripts furiously in the darkness. Page after page scattered in the room, water-marked poems. My mother had read them, marked them with notes, and eventually, she memorized them. That day he found her with the poems, her face was gnarled with a grief that gnawed at her features, and this baffled him greatly. She argued with him—these were visionary poems, why did he hide them for so long? The poems were full of fury and longing and not at all like the poems she knew and studied before.
Later, Yongli would come to believe the poems bewitched our mother, cast a spell inside her, because soon afterwards, our mother had less and less to say to him, until one day she lost her words altogether.
And a year later, she left without a note. She took nothing that belonged to them, only the poems.
“So that’s why he does not want to visit any hot springs. They reminded him too much of why she left,” said Kiana, her hand stroking the rocks as if they were alive. “It’s also why he never kept any of her possessions. It’s too painful.”
It was getting late, but the air was too cold for us to leave the hot water. Snow fell in circular, drifting motions, and the reflection of the half-moon on the black bubbling spring looked digitized, like it was a projection of the universe’s film reel. I thought of the legend of Chang’e, the Moon Goddess, sitting in the cold icescape of Palace of the Moon with her pet rabbit, gazing out into the desolate world.
I countered Kiana’s story with my story.
In my version, Yongli never concluded that the girl was dead. Instead, he ate the hot spring egg, savored it, and when she asked him to accompany her on her walk home, did not think twice about doing so. In fact, Yongli was eager and anxious, fretful after eating. Something was troubling him, but he couldn’t say what. Mosquitoes were everywhere, and they bit him with a ferocious glee.
The girl’s room was in the tavern attached to the hot spring, in a suite that used to belong to the daughter of the innkeeper before she moved away into the city. The room had an attached balcony that looked out into the canopies of trees, and spumes of hot spring steam erupted over them like mushroom clouds from ancient volcanoes.
Where’s your family? he asked, and she told him the same story before—how her father was wealthy, how her early life was full of the comforts of carp gardens and scholar’s rocks, how all of this dissolved into privation and suffering before she turned ten. After she told the story, she collected her reams of manuscript paper and requested the same thing—if he could donate the poems to the library or museum. When he agreed, the girl beckoned Yongli to retire with her in the room. Being a young man, he obliged, and the girl began to kiss him. That was the night Yongli lost his virginity.
“Ewww!” Kiana exclaimed. “That’s gross! Don’t talk about our dad like that!”
“That’s how Chinese ghost stories are supposed to be, but okay, you’re right. I’ll skip that part.”
In the morning, Yongli woke up in a completely different bed. He emerged wearing gold-threaded robes of the finest quality, covered in a fine silk comforter. The spot next to him was vacated, but there was a trace of the girl—her poems were everywhere, but this time they were written on silk scrolls. He wandered through the room and found that he was inside a palatial estate, with several pavilions and a pond full of fat yellow carp. Pairs of priceless porcelain vases flanked each doorway, in famille rose and Ming blue patterns and glazes. Some looked like they were crafted by royal artisans. In the great hall, he heard the sound of pipes and revelry, someone playing a stringed Chinese dulcimer, and another a pipa, and so he followed the music to the end of the hall, an entrance bedecked in golden gauze lanterns.
A feast, a long table set up with beautiful crystal goblets and wine. A roasted pheasant, spring vegetables, soup and rice. Yongli’s mouth began to water, and then he noticed the girl. She was unrecognizable from the night before, wearing a full cascading robe, the kind of robe he had never seen in his lifetime—it could have been from a Tang dynasty court, the embroidery was so fine. Gold and pearl hairpieces adorned her hair.
What’s this celebration? Yongli asked.
We are celebrating, she said, because of you, I can fulfill my greatest wish. To be a poet.
They drank and chatted through the night, and she introduced him to all the poets she studied illicitly during her lifetime, who were seated around the table, laughing in merriment. All of them were bathed in wine and a strawberry moon low in the sky. Even the moon seemed too full, too beautiful to be true—Yongli was born into a massive famine, and had never seen such abundance before, never witnessed such splendor. He was so sure it was a hallucination that he even took one of the small porcelain ewers from which he drank sweet milk and put it in his bag. It was glazed with brilliant turquoise cloisonné and looked like the kind of piece one would find in an illustrious emperor’s tomb, a once-in-a-lifetime scenario for any archeologist. He wanted to study its origins when his classes began in the fall.
The girl, of course, sensed this immediately. In front of all the guests, she then gently informed my father that the debt he owed for taking the ewer was his life. He tried to return it, but it was no use. He was betrothed to her, and the banquet became a wedding procession.
Because of this one transgression, my father married the ghost. Though he didn’t love her at that time, he respected her wishes and recognized her talents. One day, she promised him she would cast a spell that would bring him a child. She led him back to the hot spring where they met, and then gave birth in the water.
One daughter, me. And curiously enough, it was only after he witnessed her give birth to a living thing, that he began to fall in love with her. He promised her then that he would return every year to the hot spring, and she said she may bear him another child.
Our father applied for a PhD in Boston and was accepted. Two years later, he came back, she gave him Kiana. Another two years went by, he came back, keeping his promise, but she was gone. He tried another time, and then another, and never saw her again.
“And that’s why he hates hot springs,” I said.
“They remind him of a promise broken.”
Just then, we heard something rustle in the foliage near the waterfall. Kiana, scared easily, became very still and quiet, as did I. I did not get a chance to finish my story before we saw her: a nude woman walking into the spring, her hair all tangled and tousled. Her skin was pale as a pear’s flesh, and against our better judgment, we tensed up and crept out of the spring. When Kiana was terrified, she often hid or covered herself, and in this case, there was no chance – we were naked. Before I knew it, she quickly collected our towels and ran back to the lockers, and I followed her. We changed back into our winter clothes, layer by layer until we were bundled. Before we left the hot spring, I briefly checked outside again, holding my breath.
Breath was so visible, it would give us away. But nobody was there. There was no sign of the new guest.
When we slipped back into our hotel suite that night, our father was sound asleep with the door closed in his room. We could tell because his snoring was so sonorous—the room practically reverberated with his breath.
As we each rolled out our futons on the tatami mats, we noticed the sound of decidedly feminine breathing. At that, Kiana started shrieking and I covered her mouth.
“Do you want to get us killed?” I hissed.
“I mean no harm,” said a voice of a woman. She appeared as suddenly as last time—the same pale woman from the hot spring. She was wearing a simple robe, a summer yukata, even though it was freezing. She sat down with us, and stared.
“Listen,” she said. “I have something for you. I mean no harm.”
From inside her sleeve, she took out an old ream, a manuscript. The yellow pages, the elegant characters—we instantly recognized what it was. It was a pity that neither of us could read Chinese – I wanted then to tell her how much it meant to me, that she would visit us, how ashamed I was of being so terrified of her back at the spring.
“Now, I believe you have something of mine.”
We rifled through our dad’s luggage, which he left in the living room. In his duffle bag, a pile of clothes, some pairs of shoes, some glasses, some books. And then we found it. A small black lacquered box—contained inside, a porcelain ewer.
“Thank you,” the woman said. She took her leave and was unceremonious about it. Afterwards, Kiana and I fell asleep instantly.
Our flight back to Boston was the next morning. On the plane, I was reading a copy of poems in translation, by a Chinese poet Shu Ting. Our father was sound asleep throughout the flight, and Kiana gazed mostly out the window, her cheek fogging the view. Sometimes it was hard to know what she was thinking or feeling, but I felt an odd tenderness toward her, one that never wavered even through the years we didn’t speak to each other. When our plane descended, the city was completely covered in snow. The rooftops were white with a funereal glow, reminding me of bone china, the strongest porcelain in the world.
In the years since our trip to Hakone, we never mentioned to our father the visit from the woman late at night. And if he figured out his ewer was missing, he did not once bring it up. It was a fragile story between us that remained safe as long as it was unspoken. We didn’t want to disturb or traumatize him any more than he had been already.
But we always held it close to us—a secret encounter, a secret exchange between women that we relished. What we could not agree on was the identity of the woman. Kiana believed she was the ghost my father met all those years ago, but I believed she was our mother. We were okay with not knowing.
In her twenties, Kiana moved to Queens and went on to marry and have two daughters. And I, I lived for many years alone. I traveled the world and pursued degrees in art history and then classics. As for the ream of poems, I took it to my University library one day, the Rare Book room, where it has been ever since. I remembered precisely the day—the young librarian was also Chinese-American, and she read some of the poems aloud to me.
“Have you thought about translating these?” she asks me. “Or trying to publish them translated?”
I shake my head. “No, I haven’t.”
The truth is, I’m not sure how I would go about it. Even in my hands, under the magnifying glass, the poems feel as lost as the person who wrote them.
But sometimes late at night, after I’ve taken melatonin to go to sleep, I wonder if there will come a day when I put the task on my shoulders. A day when I grow brave. Sometimes I feel it is a pity, for the poems to be tucked away in a library archive, a treasure untouched and never read. I am the only one to request it in the Rare Books room, after all these years.