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New Year Painting, Ink and Color on Rice Paper, Zhaoqiao Village

By Chen Qian, translated by Emily Xueni Jin and published in The Way Spring Arrives and Other Stories, edited by Yu Chen and Regina Kanyu Wang, Tordotcom Publishing.

Read in Chinese here.

“Hey, come check this out.” Huang strode into my studio, a large cardboard box in his arms.

A glance at the dusty old box made me flinch and reach for my face mask. “Set it on the floor! Not the workbench.”

Ignoring the contempt in my voice, Huang grabbed a box cutter, bent down, and sliced through the packing tape. “I was up at dawn yesterday to catch the antique market. A full box for two thousand, clean deal. The owner said a private museum that closed down used to own this stuff.”

“Can’t believe that you still get so fired up by cheap bargains,” I muttered, shaking my head.

Huang and I had gone to the same college. We’d both majored in cultural studies and museology, and Huang was a few years my senior. Born into a wealthy family, he’d developed a hobby for collecting antiquities. Acquainting himself with auction houses and the collector’s community, he earned pocket money by buying and reselling for a higher price. I, on the other hand, had followed in my family’s footsteps by staying close to the academic tradition, and opening a private studio specializing in antique book and painting restoration. Huang often came around with his so-called “prizes”—some of the damaged works in his collection, after restoration, could reenter the market with a several-fold increase in price. For my tiny studio, he was a big client. A whiff of dust-smoke dispersed in the air as Huang lifted the box’s flaps. Inside were stacks of thread-bound books and scrolls. Even though I was conscientious about hygiene, I couldn’t help but lean over to peer into the box.


Half an hour later, both of us were sitting cross-legged on the floor, our faces sweaty and dusty.

“Nothing interesting, huh?” sighed Huang.

Together, we had cleaned and sorted the contents of the box into separate stacks: a set of thread-bound books with a few missing volumes, some common lithographs such as Golden Treasury of Quatrains and Octaves and Chinese Poetry Sound Rhythm by Li Yu, and several volumes of songbooks. Unrolling the scrolls, we found they were either landscape sketches or New Year paintings of good luck charms by unknown artists with clumsy brushwork. At the bottom of the box were two carved wooden windowpane fragments, darkened and worn from what seemed to be a fire, the carvings barely visible. Too bad—if they were in good condition, perhaps folk culture collectors would be interested in purchasing. Special researchers might find more value in those pieces of wood than the two of us.

“Well, money spent for nothing.” I laughed, knowing that Huang wouldn’t care about a few thousand splurged.

Huang pressed down on his numb knee and stood up. “Oh well. Go wash your hands. It’s lunchtime.”

“Your treat,” I said, pointing to the mess on the floor. “And tidy this up.”

“Fine, my treat,” said Huang, defeated, scratching his head.

The steam-and-stew cooker’s timer dinged. I walked into the kitchen to turn it off. When I reentered the workspace, Huang was squatting again, peering at something wrapped in a piece of paper.

“Now, this looks special,” he said. “It was sandwiched between two of those old books and fell out just now.”

Huang’s discovery was another painting, torn into fragments—whether on purpose or worn down by time was impossible to say—then bundled up in paper. Each fragment of soft old paper was about the size of a fingernail. Judging from the crude brushstrokes and flat, overly flamboyant color, I could tell that it was a New Year painting, simple portraits usually assembled from traditional symbols representing prosperity, health and luck.

“Want to put it together?” asked Huang.

“I don’t have that kind of time.” I shrugged. “Given what else is in this box, this is probably just another amateur painting from the fifties.”

“Hey, I’ll pay you for the work.” Huang picked up a fragment with the pointed tweezers he carried around and held it up for me to see. Painted on the fragment was a small, chubby hand. It clearly belonged to a child.

And there was something in their palm. I bent down to examine the fragment and realized that it was an eye. Now intrigued, Huang and I riffled through the other fragments; they were all pieces of what must have originally been a New Year painting. Even in all my years of study, I’d never seen anything like this in Chinese mythology: a childlike god with an eye in its palm, gazing up at me.

I gazed back. “I’ll take the job.”


After a tedious day spent restoring a ten-meter-long hand scroll, I began putting together the fragments of Huang’s New Year painting.

Within a night, I managed to reconstruct the overall shape of the New Year painting: a chubby child sitting on a lotus leaf with a lotus root and a large red lotus flower in their hands, a classic Jiangnan folk motif.

However, as I laid down the last fragment on the child’s face, I froze. I couldn’t move my eyes away from the completed painting on my workbench. A moment later, I pulled out my phone, took a picture and sent it to Huang.

The child in the painting was without a face. Instead, they extended their left hand outward, and in their palm was the eye.

I turned the brightness up on the lamp beneath my semi- transparent workbench, and leaned in for a closer look. There weren’t even traces of ink beneath the coloring, no clues or contours of eroded facial features. A painting in its complete form. The child was, indeed, faceless.

Chinese New Year paintings were traditional forms—the artist wasn’t supposed to be creative about it, at least not to the point that they would conjure up the image of a strange, faceless child. The brush-work of the eye in their palm, like the rest of the painting, was rough- hewn: an upper and lower curve outlined a slender eye, its ink-black pupil staring right at me. I shivered.

Huang replied to my message with a single word.


I shook my head. We in restoration were in the business of dealing with the dead. If we gave into the fear of spirits and superstitions, our industry would have been long gone. Brushing off Huang’s warning, I asked, “Can I post this on my feed?”

“Your call,” said Huang.

With permission from clients, I would post pictures of my restoration projects on my site. I had over a hundred thousand followers, and it was both an advertisement for my studio and a platform to sat- isfy the public’s curiosity about the antique restoration industry. I’d poured my heart into looking for the right content; this painting, unique and uncanny, was perfect.

There. It was posted.

The night was deep. From my workbench, I carefully lifted the New Year painting and mounted it on the wall to dry. Now completely restored, with every fragment in place, there was a surprising softness to where the face ought to have been.

“You’re welcome.” I smiled at them. They must be happy to be whole again.

When I turned on my phone the next morning, I found out that my post had attracted nearly a million people—including an unexpected visitor.


“Teacher Song?” the visitor on my doorstep called out hesitantly.

“You can just call me Song.” I smiled. Most clients new to my studio, under the ridiculous impression that all cultural artifact restorers were bearded old men with silver hair, would be surprised by my age and gender.

“Ah, Song, nice to meet you. I’m here for the New Year painting. Remember our phone call yesterday?” said the woman. She was older, her voice thin, but she had a fullness to her features, and yet somehow, a hunger about her. She had thick, shoulder-length silver hair, and looked to be in her eighties. She wore a bright oversized sweatshirt, with a shopping bag in one hand.

After my post went viral, I received countless inquiries about the painting, most of which I directed to Huang. This woman’s request, however, was unique: she insisted that she wanted to come around to the studio and see “the child with no face from Zhaoqiao Village” in person.

A document in the box containing a family tree denoted that those antiques had indeed come from Zhaoqiao Village. Apart from Huang and me, no one else knew this. Besides, the old woman had talked about the painting like it was an old friend. But when pressed, she had refused to say more until she could see the painting with her own eyes. Huang had spent the last few days knocking on the doors of experts in art history and folk culture, on the hunt for useful leads about the painting. He’d found nothing. Letting the old woman see it, he thought, was worth a shot.

“Please come in. I don’t own the painting; it’s only here temporarily for the sake of restoration,” I said as I turned, making way for her to enter the studio. “If you’re interested in purchasing, I can contact the owner for you.”

But she didn’t seem to be listening. “It’s her,” she said, stricken. Her hand, skin so thin that it revealed the blue veins beneath, reached for the painting as if to soothe the faceless child. I opened my mouth to stop her—the painting was delicate; its age rendering it tender and fragile—but the woman pulled her hand back right away, as if it had been burned.

She turned to look at me. “Song, I will pay any price you ask.” “Auntie, the painting isn’t mine to sell. Why don’t we sit down and have a chat? Do you know who this child is?” I asked, a little awkward. I went to the kitchen and made two cups of hot tea. “Auntie, no need to rush. The owner is a good friend of mine, and he’s a very reasonable person. If this painting bears personal significance to you, or if there is something special about it, it’s not impossible for him to make a deal with you.”

A long silence. “I haven’t seen a painting like this in sixty years,” whispered the old lady, her fingers curling around the cup.

So there is a story after all, I thought.

“I came from Zhaoqiao Village in Southern Zhejiang, in the mountains,” she said, staring blankly ahead. “We didn’t have public schools back then, and all the children in the village were taught by the same teacher. The teacher could write calligraphy and paint too, and he was in charge of our entire village’s New Year calligraphy couplets and paintings. He and his wife were unlucky with children, though; they were blessed with their only daughter at nearly sixty years old. She was the cleverest child in the village, and she learned how to write calligraphy and paint at the age of five.”

As the woman paused, I couldn’t help but turn to look at the painting on the wall.

“At the village school, though, the other children bullied her for being different and smarter. Then, one day, she disappeared from the village altogether.”

I took a sharp breath.

“But she’s only a little girl,” I said. “Couldn’t an adult step in to help her?”

“Those kids were clever. They knew how to get out of trouble. No one knew who started bullying her first.” The woman smiled bitterly. “She was never harassed or beaten, though. The entire class pretended she didn’t exist. No one would speak to her or look at her. Her classmates wouldn’t even touch the things that she had touched first. Her father—he was also the teacher, remember?—never found out that she was bullied. He was just relieved that she’d become so quiet and obedient. It wasn’t until after her disappearance that he—”

The old lady fell silent again.

Poor thing, I thought. Children could be so cruel. “Was she your . . . friend?” I asked carefully.

“No, not really. I heard about her story from other people,” she said. “She’d already vanished when I was born. When some villagers wanted to demolish her temple, her story also got spread around.”

A temple for a girl who was bullied and then disappeared? It sounded like, well, a kind gesture. What did it mean, though, that the villagers wanted to destroy the temple? I leaned forward, feeling off-kilter but even more intrigued by this strange story.

“The girl disappeared the night before New Year’s Eve. When her father went through her personal belongings, he found dozens of New Year paintings that she had drawn. The child on the paintings was horrifying. They were faceless, with a single eye in their palm.”

I glanced at the painting on the wall. A coldness crept down the back of my neck.

The child with no face somehow seemed to be smiling at us.

“Yes, she left those paintings behind. No one there cared about her. They turned a blind eye and a deaf ear toward her. She was practically invisible. I bet that she drew those paintings to disgust the villagers on purpose,” said the woman. “The father, deeply saddened by his loss, tossed all of the girl’s belongings, including the paintings, into the trash yard, so that he could stop thinking of her. The children went digging in the trash for more. When they realized that the child in the paintings had no face, they threw them out again, afraid of misfortune.”

I felt an urge to speak up for the girl, my throat tight. “It’s the bullies’ fault.”

“Song, you have no idea what happened next,” said the old lady, shaking her head. “A child took one of those paintings home after all, and put it up on his wall. He used to be the most enthusiastic one when it came to hurling stones at the girl. I bet he wanted the painting as a target.” Her lips trembled. “A few days after he put up the painting, his grandfather—who had not been able to leave his bed for more than a decade—started walking on two feet again.”

I stared, eyes wide.

“The entire village marveled at this miracle. Someone suggested it was because of the painting. Villagers rushed to the trash yard and dug out all of the paintings from beneath the snow, and put them up at home,” said the old lady. “Then, another child who was about to die from smallpox magically recovered. The girl’s paintings could save lives. Over the years, the paintings cured five or six more people.” The old lady’s lips curled into a sneer. “The villagers even made a temple for her next to the ancestral hall and worshipped her like a goddess. The statue, like her painting, didn’t have a face.”

“Well, seems like she was repaying the villagers’ hatred with kindness,” I said. I felt awe and pity for the girl, saving the people who used to bully her.

“Who said she was repaying with kindness?” snapped the old lady. I raised an eyebrow.

“After a few years,” the woman continued, “everyone whose lives had been saved by those paintings changed. They lost their vision, hearing, sense of smell and taste. Their facial features no longer served any function.”

Coldness rushed down my spine.

An impressive folktale indeed. But . . . the cursed New Year painting was now in my studio. I stole a glance at it.

“It doesn’t seem exactly like your everyday luck charm. Why do you want it?”

Whether the woman’s story was true or not, her desire for the painting was intense and real.

“Eventually, the villagers burned all of her paintings, and no one dared speak of her again. I am turning eighty soon. I would have completely forgotten about the story of the little ghost and her paintings too, if it wasn’t for my grandson’s cancer . . .”

My heart sank. “I’m so sorry.”

“He was diagnosed with a rare kind of cancer, and the doctors say that they can’t do anything for him. He only has about half a year left. When I saw this painting of yours . . .”

She halted as she tried to blink back tears. Her story was unbelievable, yet who was I to question her? She was seeking help from a ghost in a folktale, trying to put off death for a time, while simultaneously knowing she would be inviting it in. In the face of despair, one had no choice in which god they prayed to.

Using a bamboo working knife with a long and thin blade, I drew a rectangle around the painting on the wall with the knife tip, took it off and wrapped it up carefully in a scroll.

I would deal with Huang later. It was probably nothing but a local legend the woman had heard as a child. But now, with her grandchild sick, the legend had become her only sliver of hope.


“You’re soft,” said Huang, shaking his head.

I rolled my eyes and poked my chopsticks into a custard bun. “Stop complaining. I did a good deed and made you money. What else do you want?”

We were at our usual table at the Cantonese dim sum place around the corner. After the old lady left my studio the other day, she wired a sum of money to my bank account that was around what the painting would have sold for in an auction house. She left a note that said Thank you for your kindness without signing her name.

I transferred all the money to Huang and called to fill him in on the painting’s uncanny and, indeed, sorrowful backstory. Just when I thought the whole saga was at an end, Huang called back the next day. He needed to talk in person.

“It’s not about the money. My God, as someone who authenticates calligraphy and paintings professionally, how can you trust people’s stories so easily?” asked Huang, shaking his head. “I asked a friend to dig into the account that wired money to you and found her name—Li Fumei. There wasn’t a comprehensive filing system yet when her generation was born. According to data provided by her to the population census, she was born in Zhaoqiao Village, Southern Zhejiang, in 1943.”

The old woman had never mentioned her name the other day. Huang pulled out his phone. “She married Liu, an engineer, in 1962, and together they had two daughters and one son. The sick grandson she referred to is the son of her second daughter. I found his medical record at the municipal children’s hospital. He’s six years old, diagnosed with signet ring cell carcinoma, already in its terminal stage. I asked a doctor friend and confirmed that the boy only has a few months left.” “Sounds like she isn’t lying about her grandson,” I said. “What’s the problem, then?”

“The problem is Zhaoqiao Village,” said Huang, handing me his phone. On the screen was the national record of official local documents. “Zhaoqiao Village, with a population of a little over two hundred people, was destroyed in 1955 by a fire. No one survived. It consisted mostly of people from the same clan. Only three families were from other clans, with different surnames, but Li was not one of them.”

My memory went back to the day when Huang first brought the cardboard box to my studio, and the two pieces of burnt wooden windowpane fragments.

“You mean Li Fumei made up the whole story about the girl from Zhaoqiao Village to scam me, so that she could buy the painting of the faceless girl from me for market price?” I was stupefied. “Her grandson is actually ill, though. Why waste money on the painting if she didn’t believe what she was saying?”

“I think there’s more to the legend than what she told us,” said Huang. “I found out that she left for where Zhaoqiao Village used to be by train this morning. Are you interested in a weekend getaway in Southern Zhejiang?”

“Why are you so concerned about her?” I asked. Huang was in general a curious person, but I never expected that he would be willing to travel so far for a painting that was worth five figures at best.

“It’s cursed, and we’ve both come in contact with it,” said Huang, patting the jade Buddha amulet that he wore around his neck.


The landscape flashing across the car window was farm field after farm field, freshly green from the kiss of the spring breeze, adorned with sparse golden canola flowers.

The long drive was making me dizzy and sleepy. Huang drove the minivan that he usually collected artifacts from the countryside with, and I, sitting in the passenger’s seat, searched for more information on the painting of the faceless girl. Surprisingly, the story about the girl from Zhaoqiao Village might have actually been real. According to research on folk culture, a myriad of small, local temples in rural Southern Zhejiang were dedicated to the “faceless fairy,” and people prayed to her for the sick. A set of rituals were developed as well. Judging from the general time frame in which those temples were established, the tradition had begun just a few years before Zhaoqiao Village was destroyed in a fire.

We entered the mountains. The smoothly paved national highway was now replaced by rough gravel paths. Occasionally the GPS signal would be completely lost, and we had to stop several times to ask for directions.

We met a group of elderly people sitting by a village entrance and enjoying the sun. When they heard that we were looking for Zhaoqiao Village, their mouths hung open in astonishment. “That place has been abandoned for decades. No one lives there anymore. After the local dam is built, it’s going to be flooded. You both look so young, why are you going there?”

“We’re art students, and our homework is to sketch an abandoned village,” we said.

The elderly people pointed in a direction. “If you see a temple in the village, don’t go in,” they warned us. “Nothing but snakes in there these days.”

“Interesting,” muttered Huang as he restarted the engine. “Sounds like people around here know that Zhaoqiao Village is not what it seems on the surface.”

A chill ran down my spine as I gazed at the sinking sun and darkening horizon. A girl who disappeared after being bullied by her entire community. A village turned to ruins by fire. I couldn’t help but think of unfortunate and sinister possibilities.

I knew the story had technically ended half a century ago; however, the New Year painting that I put together with my own hands seemed to have caused more unresolved mysteries to resurface.

It was near midnight when we arrived at what used to be Zhaoqiao Village. The night was ink black. In our headlights, two fresh car tracks were left in the wasteland, followed by the sight of Li Fumei’s rented car, a gray Volkswagen, parked in front of a fence. Huang parked our minivan horizontally, right in front of the Volkswagen to corner it, so Li Fumei could no longer leave.

I chuckled. “How do you even come up with these ideas?”

“You sit in your studio comfortably every day, restoring those paintings, whereas I travel all over the place collecting artifacts and dealing with hooligans. I’ve seen way too many tricks. Follow me closely. Don’t go off on your own!” he warned.

“Relax. I don’t have the guts to go anywhere on my own,” I said, pointing my heavy industrial flashlight toward the road ahead. A traditional pailou—an ornate archway—stood erect at the entrance to the village, looking majestic even under the cover of the night.

Every inch of the land was veiled with wild grass. Following Li Fumei’s footprints, clearly distinguishable in the grass, we entered Zhaoqiao Village. Most of the bungalows here were no more than blackened wooden skeletons, reminiscent of the tragedy. As we trudged through the grass, a night fog began to rise. By the time we reached the village’s ancestral hall and grain-sunning grounds, the fog had grown so heavy that we could barely see each other’s faces.

To the left of the ancestral hall was the temple of the faceless goddess, the only architecture in the entire village that had survived the fire. We had traveled so far to get here, yet standing before the gateway, both Huang and I were a little intimidated by the silent darkness. Back in my downtown sunlit studio, the story of the faceless girl was merely a strange rural legend, but now the story had somehow come alive. I was not a superstitious person, but at this moment I regretted not bringing with me some kind of a lucky charm—even if it was for the sake of having a placebo.

“Auntie? Li Fumei? Are you in there?” Huang shouted, knocking on the temple’s porch pillar.


We exchanged a glance. Li Fumei had come all this way for the faceless goddess. She had to be here.

“Want to go in?” Huang looked at me. We went.


We arrived at a spacious front yard after stepping through the gate. To my great surprise, the stone-paved ground was clean and tidy, and in the moonlight I saw rows of well-tended potted plants. The air was infused with a hint of incense. A screen wall shielded the door to the hall of worship. Behind the wall, however, was faint candlelight and the distant sounds of a few people with a strong local accent whispering to one another.

In a temple that has been abandoned for half a century? I could feel the hairs on my neck stand up.

Huang, the calmer one, gestured at me to follow him around the screen wall. For a few seconds I was torn between overwhelming curiosity and the fear of ghosts; then, I took a deep breath and caught up with him. Isn’t this what we’re here for?

Six men, some middle-aged and some elderly, were sitting in a circle before the entrance to the hall of worship. Their faces were tanned and weather-beaten. Wearing dark robes made of rough cloth, they pulled up the legs of their baggy pants, revealing the protruding veins on their ankles.

An elderly man with silvery hair and a beard appeared to be their leader. All of those paintings must be turned in! How dare you say there’s nothing you can do about it? Spit sprayed as the words came out of his mouth.

Another man, bony like a twig, chimed in eagerly. Our chief is right! Those bumpkins shouldn’t be allowed to keep the treasure to themselves. Sick people are bound to die anyway, what’s the point of extending their lives for a few years? If we sell those paintings to the rich and powerful, soon everyone here can build another house!

We better ask the goddess first, said a plump man with a shrill voice. He tapped his pipe on the lotus flower jar and continued, We’ll never run out of paintings—as long as we keep the goddess happy.

Huang and I squatted next to the screen wall, hiding ourselves in the shadow of the tree. It was now obvious that the scene before our eyes was a flashback of what had happened decades ago: the village leaders were discussing in the temple what to do with the paintings that the girl had left behind.

“Disgusting. If the girl has really turned into a goddess, then she should punish all of them,” I whispered to Huang, who tutted disapprovingly. None of those men felt shame or guilt for what the village as a collective had done to the girl. All they cared about was how to profit from her paintings.

Strangely enough, even in the presence of these doomed ghosts, I felt no fear. Perhaps it was because my instinct told me that the faceless goddess was only a little girl who had suffered from abuse when she was alive, and she wouldn’t do anything to harm Huang or me.

The men’s voices rose gradually as the discussion escalated into an argument. Thick fog clouded their figures. When the fog dissipated again, the scene had changed. The chief stood before the statue of the faceless goddess, trembling, clenching a stack of paintings. I could hear coarse shouts.

Give back the paintings or else we’ll burn your house to the ground!

Let it burn! The faceless goddess is bringing justice to us! He is a corrupt chief! Look at the things that he had seized from us all these years!

Hands holding torches reached over the temple fence.

“Even a rabbit would bite if you corner it,” I said, enjoying the drama. “Now the chief is getting a taste of his own medicine!”

Ashes and glowing sparks drifted in the wind. Fire. Screams and cries ripped through the murky air. People ran for their lives.

“There goes the entire village,” said Huang.

The fire had painted the night sky red. My toes curled at the thought of the people swallowed up in the flames.

Huang turned around. “Did you do it on purpose?” he asked softly.

Behind us stood a scrawny little girl about eight or nine years old, wearing her hair in two thin braids. She wore a ceremonial brocade robe with colorful embroidery. Though I’d never seen her face before, I knew exactly who she must be. Her dark, slender eyes were sharp and penetrating. With her face completely solemn and stern, she didn’t look like a child.

“I didn’t do it on purpose,” she said. “When I was alive, nobody could see me. I painted those paintings to do something good, so that I would stop being invisible to them.”

“But they’re not worth it,” I said.

The girl did not respond. Her head lowered to her chest.

Huang knelt down. “Look, what goes around comes around. You didn’t want the paintings to harm those people, but karma has taken your revenge for you. They deserve it. It’s all over now. Can you send us back?”

The girl was silent. Fog rose again.


We found Li Fumei before the statue of the faceless goddess. She knelt there; her entire body frozen in shock. Huang carried her back to the car. It took quite a while for her to wake up.

“I admire your courage,” said Huang, shaking his head.

“She would never hurt me. I can’t promise the same to you.” Li Fumei wiped the corner of her mouth with the back of her still-trembling hand. “I was her only friend.”

Huang and I gave each other a look.

“I apologize for lying to you. The faceless girl—her name was Xiao He. Before she died, I was the only person who would talk to her, but never in front of anyone. She didn’t tell me anything though, when she disappeared from the village. When the other villagers found out that the paintings she left behind could cure illnesses and extend people’s lives, they got into a great fight. The entire village was burnt to ashes as a result. Only a few families managed to escape. I could never bring myself to think about what had happened for almost a lifetime, until my grandson fell ill,” said Li Fumei. “I made up the whole story about the curse on the painting, so that you would give it to me.”

So much for giving other people the benefit of the doubt, I thought to myself.

“I needed to come and ask Xiao He whether it is safe for me to use that painting on my grandson,” continued Li Fumei as a tear ran down her face. “Her hatred and thirst for revenge were enough to burn down the entire village. She never showed up though, even after I had knelt before her statue for the entire night. I was scared that she would appear, but I was also scared that she had already left . . .”

“Stop blaming the fire on her. It’s not her fault. Those people died of their own greed,” interrupted Huang. “If you want that painting, then take it. We’ve already sold it to you and closed the deal.”

Lu Fumei’s lips trembled, but no words came out.


For quite a long time, I put the painting of the faceless girl from my mind.

Until half a year later, when Huang came around to my studio with a piece of news. “Remember Li Fumei? Her grandson took a turn for the better,” he said. “However . . .”

“For God’s sake, just finish the story,” I poked his shoulder.

“After he recovered from cancer, his vision, hearing and sense of smell suddenly began deteriorating.” He winked. “Modern science had no idea what’s going on.”

“But the curse—it was a lie?” I said.

“I heard that her grandson was the school bully,” Huang said. I didn’t know what to say.

“Better than to die at such a young age, I guess.” Finally, I let out a sigh.

On the night of the festival of dead spirits, I happened to pass by Fahua Temple. Even though I almost never went to temples to pray, I paid twenty for a lotus-shaped paper lamp and went in.

I set my lamp down gently on the river where thousands of lamps were placed to commemorate the dead, and pressed my palms together. On the right side, I’d drawn an eye in the rough-hewn style of a New Year painting. I hoped she could see me.