Whisper (extract)

By Chang Yu-Ko, translated by Roddy Flagg, and published by Honford Star, 2021

Read in Chinese here.

Voice

Is something chewing on my toes?

Must be a cockroach.

Despite such thoughts, Wu Shih-sheng’s mind was numbed by alcohol and the sensation seemed very far away. So he lay there on the cold cement floor, whimpering incoherently and recalling his busybody neighbor knocking on the door a few days back to complain about him dumping rubbish in the street. Shih-sheng had slammed the door shut without responding, unwilling even to waste his time cursing. After all, it wasn’t just his fault, he’d decided. The whole street was a breeding ground for cockroaches. Climb into the open drain running down the middle of the street and have a look if you dare. Cockroach rush hour down there.

Not that you could really call it a street, strictly speaking. There was a sign—street 140—but really it was a mere huddle of corrugated iron shacks at the bottom of a hill, with a few excavators and trucks parked nearby. Not that he knew what they were excavating. Perhaps one day soon his shack would be designated an illegal structure and those excavators would come knock it down. They could clean out the cockroach nests at the same time.

Shih-sheng found himself cheered by this train of thought. The very idea of it happening seemed to make life so much easier. Then his left ear picked up a sudden sound of thumping through the cement it was pressed up against.

Ha, they’re coming now. Going to clear the whole shit heap away …

He realized his error when the banging stopped and a gentle breeze blew past the other ear. It’d be that old bitch wife of his.

I know you’re there! What of it?

I see, you can spend all day clearing up their dishes, but you can’t pick up these cans? Fuck …

The floor was littered with the beer cans he’d drained dry the previous evening. He wasn’t an easy drunk; sometimes he’d drink through all his spare cash and still be sober. But he’d had a good day in the cab yesterday and even managed to resist the urge to see if he could do better again with a little wager. Fortunately, his craving for drink won out over his gambling addiction, and he managed to get quite drunk and pass out before having to look at his wife’s wrinkled and sallow face.

A massive clang threatened to burst his eardrums. In a flash of anger, Shih-sheng sat up and forced open his eyes so he could glare at the rusty metal door and hurl abuse through it. He made sure to keep going until his lungs were all cursed out. The more people that hear the better.

Back on the floor, he looked upwards through the cracked plastic paneling and flaking bars of the window. The sun was already high and, despite the gloom inside, he felt better for seeing it. Then, as if recalling some pressing task, he sat up, his left hand landing in a sticky pool of spilt beer, his eyes fixed on some far-off point, and his right hand reaching backwards and pulling a pack of Longlife Yellows from a withering potted plant. He transferred a cigarette directly to his mouth, returned the pack to the pot, and pulled out his lighter.

Shih-sheng watched the tip of the cigarette glow red. A wisp of smoke curled upwards, and he sent another mouthful of smoke up into it. He enjoyed doing that while having a cigarette. He knew that as the smoke reached his lungs, and from there his bloodstream, his body would come back to life, the pains in his neck and back would disappear for a while, and feeling would return to his fingers.

Shih-sheng opened the metal door and a cool mountain breeze blew in, carrying the odor of burning plastic with it. He took a few deep drags on the cigarette and stepped outside, raising a hand to rub his eyes against the sudden sting of the sun. Yet the pain only worsened. He held his hand up for examination—alongside the sticky beer residue, he’d picked up smears of some black greasy substance somewhere. He ran up to his cab and used the remaining water from his yellowing plastic bottle to rinse his eyes.

The Toyota, an Altis Z, was his sole treasured possession. This was his comrade-in-arms; his tobacco, beer, and money were the spoils of their war. To ensure customers wouldn’t decline a ride, he forced himself to clean it every day—the outside, at least—to maintain its gleaming yellow. He also kept a change of clothes in it, so if he didn’t fancy returning home, he could always get a shower and a night’s sleep at the Jianguo Hotel. Hence the travel pillow and light comforter.

Once the pain in his eyes receded, he sat down on the slope at the shack door, lit a second cigarette off the end of the first, and continued to puff smoke back and forth, lost in thought as he squinted up at clear blue skies.

*

Kuo Hsiang-ying pedaled southward along the concrete path underneath the metro line. It was an undeniably beautiful day, utterly ruined by the foul mood that piece of shit had put her in.

The department store opened at eleven, but clocking in for a seven o’clock morning shift meant she had to be out of the house by half past six. After clocking in, she had to collect her cleaning gear and clean the entire seventh and eighth floors, including toilets and the eight flights of escalators between the sixth and eighth floors, as well as empty and sort the waste from a total of sixteen bins before the store opened for business. The staff offices and toilets, never seen by customers, were also her responsibility. So if she weren’t quick about it, she wouldn’t finish in time, and that meant she would be late getting to her lunchtime tasks, when customers would flock to the food court on the eighth floor. If tables weren’t cleared quickly and carefully enough, it’d be a glance at her name tag and a complaint to customer services. That meant more than a fine—the agency might even fire her.

If she wasn’t doing overtime, Hsiang-ying would finish at four and pedal over to a restaurant near the Veterans Hospital, where she would help restock the buffet before finally going home at nine. But she was on a late shift at the department store later today so had enjoyed a rare lie-in and wouldn’t be going to the restaurant. A whole day in the luxurious surroundings of the department store and its air-conditioning.

Hsiang-ying took the staff lift and reported to the seventh floor, where she took her uniform out of a department store plastic bag and changed. At this point, the cleaning supervisor, Mr. Kuo, emerged from his office and scowled at the sight of her unbrushed hair. She didn’t know anything about him beyond that they shared a surname and didn’t dare nor care to ask more. But could it be that those with similar ills can sense each other—she had a vague feeling this was a man who fought frequently with his wife. By the looks of it, he’d fought with her earlier this morning and was soon to take this out on Hsiang-ying.

“What is going on with your clothes? What’s that yellow stuff?” he asked. Mr. Kuo indicated a yellow mark on the collar of her blouse. She looked down and saw a rusty mark left by the clothes hanger.

“Sorry, I’ll wash it out immediately.”

Hsiang-ying hung her head and looked at her supervisor’s shoes, continuing to apologize as she felt his eyes on her.

“If the customers saw you like that, they’d lose their appetites. Pay a bit more attention to your cleanliness!”

“Sorry, it won’t happen again!”

He grunted in acknowledgement.

Perhaps feeling he had been a little too harsh, Mr. Kuo said no more and continued on to the bathroom. Hsiang-ying sighed in relief and picked up a cloth from her cleaning cart, dabbed it with a little alcohol and scrubbed at the spot. Mr. Kuo soon emerged from the toilet and spoke to her again.

“Mei’s asked for the day off tomorrow. You’ll be able to cover for her?” Mei was the temp who covered Hsiang-ying’s three days off a month. If she wasn’t in tomorrow that meant Hsiang-ying herself would be working for fifteen straight hours, from seven in the morning to ten in the evening. But she’d told the restaurant she would help out tomorrow evening, so she asked timidly:

“Mei’s off again?”

Mr. Kuo’s impatience was clear. “Can you cover or not? I’ll find someone else if not. …”

“I’ve already arranged to be at the restaurant, so—”

“A restaurant? I didn’t know you were sneaking around moonlighting! You’re meant to be full-time here. They pay you over nineteen thousand Taiwanese dollars a month, don’t they? And there’s bonuses. Isn’t that enough?”

Hsiang-ying made, with basic and bonuses, twenty-one thousand a month. There was labor insurance, welfare contributions, national health insurance all to deduct, and then there were fines for customer complaints. Only then was she left with her actual income.

“It’s … please don’t say anything?”

Mr. Kuo snorted and leaned over her, hands on his hips.

“I wouldn’t have guessed it … The things women will do for a bit of spending money. …”

Leaving the words hanging, he turned and went into his office.

An angry heat burned in her, much like last week’s bladder infection, as Hsiang-ying watched him go. Her ears started to ring, a long and loud wail which travelled from left to right before … bang … a shattering crash.

She pushed her cart through the swing doors and bit down on an urge to scream. Making her way to the far end of the food court, Hsiang-ying leaned against a tray trolley and panted for air.

Crackle … hnnnn … mmmm … nee …

A bright moon … traveler, when will your troubles …

Your troubled heart … arriving at …

A Taiwanese song, softly sung, hung by her ears. The voice was unusual, though, not like the modern singers. Hsiang-ying gave her head a good shake and the song faded into whatever tune the department store speakers were playing. Yet, when she covered her ears, it came back again, very quiet but still clear. She straightened up and scanned the food court: no sign of anyone singing. So where was the song coming from?

As she wondered, she spotted Mr. Kuo in the distance, making his way toward her. Hsiang-ying stepped forward to start collecting trays, but her body had other ideas. It kept moving forward with quick steps and she could only watch as the room moved past her. She saw food court diners turning to stare; a woman in her path, a bubbling tofu hotpot on her tray; the scalding broth flying forward; the woman screaming.

Hsiang-ying looked up from her prone position on the floor to see the woman tearing at her face. Other diners came to the woman’s aid, guiding her toward the bathroom, where she screamed again as the water stung her blistering skin. Hsiang-ying felt as if she’d been punched in the chest. It hurt more than when Shih-sheng actually hit her.

The ringing in her ears got worse. The song was changing too, gradually becoming a girl’s voice, talking to her but occasionally drifting into an unknown language. A sudden bolt of pain flashed from ears to temples and everything went black. Just like when the electricity goes out. Hsiang-ying couldn’t see a thing.

*

Just after one in the afternoon, Shih-sheng cut the steering wheel hard right and pulled onto the patch of disused land under the Jianguo North Overpass designated as a rest area for taxi drivers, which they jokingly referred to as the Jianguo Hotel. It was near the city center and so a popular spot with drivers in need of a quick break. Normally at this time of day you had to fight for a parking space, but Shih-sheng’s luck was in. The two hundred-car lot had one free space tucked into the back corner. Most of the other drivers he passed had reclined their seats, covered their faces with damp cloths, and begun snoring thunderously.

Shih-sheng joined them, reversing the car into the space and saving fuel by opening the doors rather than turning the AC on. He retrieved a promotional plastic fan he’d been handed at the roadside, opened a can of ice-cold Taiwan Beer he’d bought on the way, and had a shot at figuring out how to use his new smartphone. He opened the taxi company app his brother had installed for him and tapped blindly back and forth before soon giving up, carefully returning the phone to the dashboard recess. His head hurt too much to sleep properly, so he just reclined and dozed.

The trendy new iPhone was the spoils of war. Drivers spending the night here would gather in the evening to gamble, dealing dog-eared cards out onto an old plastic chair serving as a table. Some wagered money, some consumer electronics, some even staked whatever their customers had happened to leave in their cabs. You could stake anything if it was worth money. As a new driver he hadn’t dared join them, but after three months he’d started playing and now regular gambling sessions had become his sole pleasure outside of cigarettes and alcohol.

Shih-sheng noticed the windows of the cab alongside his were filthy, caked with a layer of dust and clearly long closed. He got out for a look—an unlicensed taxi, probably driven by someone moonlighting from a day job. Dumped here after the owner lost the license, perhaps? He’d have thought paying some small fine would have solved the problem. Why bother himself thinking about it though? He didn’t care why the driver wasn’t working. Shih-sheng took enough days off due to hangovers himself, after all. He gave the door handle an idle tug. It opened.

The inside of the car smelled musty. Shih-sheng rummaged about on the off-chance he could discover anything of value, and he found a cassette recorder in the glove compartment.

Not seen one of these for ages. Shih-sheng recalled how he and his father and younger brother had built electronics together when he was a child: cassette recorders, CB radios, speakers, things like that. Their home had previously been a garage and the thick concrete walls meant poor reception, so he’d had to use the radios outside. But Shih-sheng was scared people would think he was a mainland spy, so he always hid behind the house. Once he’d spent a whole day concealed there, playing with an R390. During his middle school years, they built a “five-lighter”—a medium wave radio with five vacuum tubes. Back then, vacuum tubes were restricted and you had to register to buy them. They’d only managed to get hold of them because his dad was old army buddies with someone who owned an electronics store on the bottom floor of the old Chung-Hwa Market.

Shih-sheng pressed the play button on the cassette recorder and a hissing noise emanated from the speaker’s countless tiny holes.

Hisssssssssss … Minako? … crackle … I want to say … crackle …”

A man’s voice, very nasal, interrupted by regular crackling sounds, as if the man had turned the machine on and off as he recorded. Shih-sheng returned the machine to the glove compartment.

In the pouch on the rear of the driver’s seat he found a ten-dollar coin. He walked over to the vending machine and used the coin to purchase a carton of iced tea, in the hope of easing his hangover. But he knew he still wouldn’t get to sleep, so he wandered off in the direction of the ice-cream shop a little to the north.

*

Hsiang-ying had phoned Shih-sheng several times from the outpatient building at Taipei Veterans General Hospital with no success. She’d been sent to see a doctor by Mr. Kuo, and while her agency would cover the costs, she also knew the urgent call for a replacement worker would alert them to the fact something had gone badly wrong. Even if Hsiang-ying could blame the incident on illness, the woman with the hotpot had been disfigured. What kind of compensation would such a catastrophe merit? Never mind keeping her job, she’d consider herself lucky if the company didn’t sue her to recoup their losses.

At this point, Hsiang-ying started to suspect someone had cursed her. She’d heard Ju, the cleaner for the fifth and sixth floors, claim a xiaogui, a kind of demon, could be summoned to steal a person’s luck and wealth, or even their life. Ju said a friend of hers had died in a car accident by that very means. The first time Hsiang-ying heard Ju’s story, it sent her thoughts off in another direction …

Two years ago, when Shih-sheng was still new to taxi driving and only just able to watch the pavement for passengers hailing him while also keeping an eye on the road, he had run someone over. Bleeding on the brain meant the cranium had to be cut open. The victim’s family, despite being aware of Shih-sheng and Hsiang-ying’s limited means, demanded five million Taiwanese dollars for medical and nursing costs, or they would take it to court. Shih-sheng had not long ago been laid off from the electronics importer—it was what drove him to taxi work in the first place—and in anger at the greed of the request, they refused mediation and opted for court. In the end, they shelled out a fortune in legal fees and were ordered to pay over four million dollars in compensation anyway. The small apartment they had saved up for had to go, and they moved into a dilapidated metal shack that cost them three and a half thousand in rent every month, on top of the debt they were still paying off.

Which of the two parties in that situation was the cursed one, Hsiang-ying wanted to know—the driver or the victim? You work hard day after day, and then one moment of carelessness makes life even worse than when you started. Hsiang-ying didn’t have the heart to cry over it. She had no more five millions to give.

Crackle …

There it was again: that odd sound in her ears. It sounded even farther off, almost like firecrackers set off in the distance. No resonance, just a low static rumble.

Gradually the sound came into focus. The girl’s voice appeared again.

Follow the stream by the dyke … a great forest of bamboo …

Hsiang-ying seemed to be able to understand bits of it, but again it was interspersed with some language she didn’t know. Aha, she thought, with an involuntary gasp of recognition, it’s a bit like listening to the radio.

Ignoring the concerned looks her gasp drew from the women sitting nearby, she closed her eyes to concentrate.

Crackle … the old neighborhood … two more steps …

Keep going … The street … tai-hei-ch’you

“Kuo Hsiang-ying! Kuo Hsiang-ying!”

Absorbed by the sounds in her head, Hsiang-ying didn’t get up until the fourth time her name was called.

She followed the nurse into the consultation room and lay as instructed on the examination couch.

“It’ll just be a moment, the doctor’s with another patient next door.”

Hsiang-ying nodded, only then noticing there were passageways on either side of the room, leading to the other consultation rooms. She also noticed that the sounds in her head had stopped.

She’d lost track of time when a doctor in a white coat came in. He removed his head mirror, which Hsiang-ying thought made him look like a miner, and placed it on his desk.

“Mrs. Kuo?” he asked, looking at her. She nodded and mumbled in agreement.

“And what seems to be the problem?”

“I’ve had bad headaches.”

“So your head hurts? What about your throat?”

“It’s fine.”

“Has your nose been running?”

“No. It just hurts from here to here,” she said, running her finger from her earlobe to her temple. “It hurts for a while, then goes away, but it comes back again. And it’s getting worse.”

“Well, it could be a migraine. But this is the ear, nose, and throat department. If it’s just a headache, we’d better transfer you to neurology.”

“But it’s not, it’s my ears, they’re ringing … I keep hearing strange sounds.”

The doctor gave her an odd look. “So your ears are ringing? Well, why don’t I have a look inside … ”

He picked up a sharply tapered instrument and inserted it into her ear. After examining both ears, the doctor sat in front of his computer and talked as he typed:

“I can’t see anything out of the ordinary, but tinnitus can have lots of different causes. We’ll arrange a hearing test, and if necessary, we’ll do a CAT scan or MRI.”

“A hearing test? And a CAT scan or MRI?”

“That’s right.”

“But there’s nothing wrong with my hearing. I’m just hearing a voice.”

The doctor stopped typing and turned to her. “You hear voices?”

“A girl’s voice. But I can’t understand what she’s saying.”

“But it’s definitely someone talking?

“Oh yes. Mostly she talks Taiwanese, but some of it I can’t understand. I think it might be Japanese.”

The doctor hesitated before replying. “Well, sometimes this kind of thing can happen when we’re under too much stress. Why don’t I refer you to the psychiatric department for a consultation?”

“The psychiatric department? But I’m not mad!”

“Listen, Mrs. Kuo. There’s no need to worry. They can help you cope with your stress—it’s really not as scary as you think.”

It seemed scary to her, despite his smiling reassurance.

Isn’t that where they send mad people? I’m not going there!

“No. That’s not what’s wrong,” she told him.

“Mrs. Kuo …”

She ran from the room, a cold sweat down her back. The nurse chased after her and Hsiang-ying ran faster, fearing they would lock her up if they caught her.

“Mrs. Kuo! Wait, don’t forget your medical card!”

She stopped and took the card, embarrassed and apologetic. The nurse showed no expression on her face, but Hsiang-ying could see what she was thinking: See, you are mad!

Humiliated, she hurried from the building and followed the fenced-in walkway to the Linong Street junction. Opposite was a stall selling goose meat and steamed buns. She realized how hungry she was, but she couldn’t afford goose. So she bought a spring onion bun. Then her cell phone rang—it was Shih-sheng.

Hsiang-ying was already distraught about everything else that had happened and furious at Shih-sheng for not calling her earlier. She launched into complaints about his lack of consideration, then recounted the events of her awful day. But all she got in return was a single blunt question: “So, how much compensation will you have to pay?”

“I don’t know. Maybe the company will help.”

“Your company? Don’t be so naive. Why would a bunch of rich folk help a weird-looking old cow like you? You’ll need to speak to that rich sister of yours if we do have to pay anything.”

“My sister? Why, she doesn’t owe me any favors!”

“Well, neither do I.”

“I used up my savings when you had to pay out for that accident, and I moved to that shack.” Hsiang-ying started walking faster so passers-by wouldn’t notice her tears.

“Well, I haven’t got any money even if you do need it.”

“If you work hard and stop gambling, we could still get back on our feet.”

“Back on our feet? I should never have married you back when I was successful. You’ve dragged me down!”

“When you lost everything, did I leave you? And now you talk to me like this?”

“And why isn’t there any food in? All this stuff in the fridge is rotting, it stinks.”

“Go and buy some if you can afford it. We’re lucky to get leftovers from my work, and you’re still complaining? You’ve got money for beer, why not spend some on decent food?”

Hsiang-ying heard a pan hit the floor. Then a plate break.

“Are you at home? Hello? Hello!”

Shih-sheng didn’t respond, and she hung up in fury.

“Wasting money on the phone when he knows we can’t afford the bills …”

Despite hating Shih-sheng, she also felt sorry for him as she walked through the night market on Donghua Street and saw all the brightly colored foods for sale. Hsiang-ying got to eat leftovers at the restaurant—even a chicken leg, sometimes. But by the time Shih-sheng got home after a long shift in his taxi, those leftovers were long past their best. She had a street vendor box up a meal for him, even adding a thirty-five dollar chicken leg on top. That’ll make him happy, she thought, cheered.

When Hsiang-ying got home, he was already drunk.

“I thought you were doing another shift,” she said, trying to remove the bottle from his hand.

“Get off! And mind your own business!”

Shih-sheng pushed her away and she banged her hip against the door handle, a sudden stab of pain forcing her to squat and catch her breath.

The hatred welled up again. Hsiang-ying stormed out of the shack, pushed over a shriveled old potted plant, and picked up a pair of garden shears lying next to an old inner tube. She stalked back inside, clutching the shears, and brandished them at Shih-sheng.

“Put the bottle down!”

This challenge to Shih-sheng’s masculine authority was more than he could accept. He stood from his stool and slapped Hsiang-ying across the face. She fell like a toppled statue.

Shih-sheng kicked the shears away then gave Hsiang-ying two solid kicks to the belly. On the backswing, his foot caught the boxed meal Hsiang-ying had bought for him, sending the chicken leg and vegetables scattering over the floor, collecting hair and dust.

“Fuck you! Bitch!”

Shih-sheng grabbed his car keys and shoved his way through the door.

*

The advantage to signing up with a big taxi firm was that the police tended to leave their cars in peace. As an independent, Shih-sheng would never risk driving and picking up passengers while drunk.

He took a job via the in-car terminal and collected his first customer on Zhongxiao East Road. Several jobs later, and after the company’s cut, he’d earned enough to get drunk. Shih-sheng had planned to meet up with a friend near where he lived, but the fight with his wife put him off the idea of returning to Beitou. Still resentful, he decided to sleep at the Jianguo Hotel.

He pulled up by a stall he knew and bought two dozen cans of Taiwan Beer.

There were only half as many cars at the Jianguo Hotel as there had been that morning. Shih-sheng pulled into the same spot, put his seat back, and then unbuttoned his uniform shirt and vest, throwing them onto the back seat. If he kept them clean, he could wear them again tomorrow.

He downed three tins of beer while they were still cold, to wash away his bad mood. The late September evenings were turning cool, and his undershirt was just the right amount of clothing. This was his favorite time of the evening—any later and it would get chilly.

Shih-sheng opened the glove compartment and gave his pack of cigarettes a shake—two left. He lit one and drew at it as he wandered over to the group of men playing cards in front of the shower block.

“Have you got any cigarettes?” he asked, switching to his heavily accented Taiwanese. But he had to make an effort with the language if he was to fit in. Back in the 1930s, Shih-sheng’s grandfather had left Taiwan to work in Changchun, in Japanese-occupied north-east China, taking Shih-sheng’s father, then four years old, with him. When they came back eleven years later, Shih-sheng’s father spoke barely any Taiwanese and only heavily accented Mandarin, but his Japanese was the equal of any educated native speaker. The family returned to Taiwan in 1947, just before the February 28 Incident, when thousands of innocent Taiwanese were detained and disappeared, or simply shot in the streets. Taipei was placed under curfew and relations between the Taiwanese and the mainlanders worsened. The family hid at home, scared to go out, and definitely not in the mainland-style gowns they had worn in the north-east.

Shih-sheng had worked as a mechanic in a garage after high school, the only employee unable to speak Taiwanese, and he got used to the scowls when the others heard him speak. All he could do was insist he was Taiwanese-born and bred, but his father had grown up abroad and so they had never spoken the language at home. Now, after decades of picking it up, he could communicate easily, despite that odd accent.

“Join us for a hand, Hunchback!” Siáu-niau—a nickname meaning lecher or pervert—waved a pack of Longlife cigarettes at him.

“Yeah, you can stake that iPhone you won,” said one of the others.

“Can’t, I’m already overdrawn this month,” Shih-sheng said, trying to ensure his pronunciation matched theirs. “Lend me a cigarette though?”

“You owe me!” Siáu-niau told him, throwing him the pack.

Shih-sheng thanked him, took a cigarette out and lit it from the butt of the one he was smoking, then went back to rest in his taxi, enjoying the alertness the bitter smoke brought him.

It was only a glimpse, but he saw it.

There was a young girl in the driver’s seat of the car alongside.

When Shih-sheng turned to look, she was gone. Was it just some kind of mirage, a reflection bouncing off the car window? But there weren’t any girls around here, so how could he see the reflection of one?

And it was the same car from this morning! The one he’d rummaged through. He was about to get out of his car and have another look when he saw the girl again—this time turning toward him.

Instinctively he lurched backwards, tumbling from the open door behind him.

What was it?

Shih-sheng forced himself to his feet, trying to ignore the throbbing in his tailbone. He rubbed his back and took a moment to steel himself, then walked over to the other car and yanked the door open.

Empty.

He was about to allow himself a sigh of relief when he saw it:

The cassette recorder. He was sure he had put it back in the glove compartment.

With trembling hands, he picked it up and pressed the play button.

Hisssssssssss … Minako? … crackle … I want to say … crackle …”

Minako? That sounds like a Japanese name.

But I know I didn’t rewind it … how has it gone back to the bit I heard this morning? Terrified, Shih-sheng let the machine drop to the floor.

The tape continued playing.

Minako … crackle … Let me go … crackle.

Shih-sheng couldn’t believe what he was hearing. He retrieved the machine and rushed over to let Siáu-niau and the others listen.

“What’s that, Hunchback, audio erotica?”

The group guffawed at Siáu-niau’s jest. Perhaps, Shih-sheng thought, he was just too tired. Maybe he’d rewound the tape and forgotten and was now scaring himself like some idiot.

He returned the cassette recorder to the glove compartment of the other taxi and slammed the door shut.

*

Hsiang-ying was curled up on the floor, her jaw and belly pulsing with a pain that would not let her stand. She forced open her right eye—the one that wasn’t swollen shut—and wept at the sight of the chicken leg lying on the floor.

Why? Why has this happened again?

She looked around at what was meant to be their living room and recalled the small apartment they once had on Zunxian Street. They both had to work hard then, with the mortgage to pay, but it was their home and their daughter Ting-ting was still with them. Ting-ting was such a good girl. When she was told her father had been laid off, she volunteered to find a job so she could contribute, continuing her studies at night school while all her classmates went on to senior high.

Hsiang-ying lay there, mourning that life she’d lost. She had kept as keepsakes her daughter’s school bag and school uniform embroidered with her name and some of her jewelry. But Shih-sheng had taken it all and thrown it away. What kind of home was this, now? Two stools, no table, and a small television, acquired from the old woman who sold scrap at the end of the street, sitting on the floor with cables trailing across the room and an improvised aerial stuck to the window …

So many regrets.

If Shih-sheng hadn’t been laid off. If he hadn’t hit that pedestrian. If they hadn’t taken it out on Ting-ting. She had regretted these things countless times. When she wasn’t working, and when they weren’t arguing, she would think of Ting-ting. Why hadn’t she realized how precious her daughter was?

Hsiang-ying sat up. A mouse was sniffing the air near the chicken leg and she waved it off. Standing, she rinsed the chicken under the bathroom faucet before stripping it bare, feet and all, in three hungry bites.

Back in the kitchen, she turned the water heater on and while waiting cleared up the food and fragments of crockery from the floor. The smell of rot choked her as she knelt. At least the food she cleared up at work was fresh. Hsiang-ying wrapped the waste up in newspaper, but the stench of the oily residue would need detergent.

She made her way up their narrow stairway. Each step was only a foot wide and each one of them creaked. But the wood was shiny and smooth, and this made the stairs her favorite thing in this metal shack.

Halfway up, her stomach clenched in pain. Was the chicken off? Hsiang-ying pulled up her top and thought she saw a bruise forming above her navel. The light was dim this far up the stairs, so she couldn’t be sure.

Creak.

That had come from up above, not underfoot. She jerked her head upwards to look.

Is there someone up there?

She squinted into the darkness but could make nothing out. Is it one of those sounds again?

Her brow furrowed as she thought. No, this is clearer.

Just as she decided that, an ear-splitting burst of static rang out, as if someone had suddenly twisted a volume knob to full.

Crackle … year … crackle

Follow the stream by the dyke … a great forest of bamboo … 

Hiss … hiss … Minako? Minako …

Crackle … This is Chiao-she … crackle … 

Hsiang-ying’s head ruptured in agony, both sides, from earlobe to temple. She leaned forward to support herself on the stairs, hoping lowering her head and breathing deeply would help. Her eyes threatened to burst, pulsating in their sockets in time with her heartbeat. What if I go blind? She forced her eyes open to check she wasn’t blind and gasped to see the gloomy stairwell now brightly lit. The light seemed to be coming from the bedroom.

She crawled up the stairs, toward a fresh and faintly sweet scent and the distant sound of flowing water. Looking up, she saw a bamboo forest rustling musically in a breeze. A girl, perhaps twelve or thirteen, stood off in the forest, wearing a white blouse under a dark pinafore dress, with slip-on shoes. The girl took a step toward Hsiang-ying, her short straight hair framing an indistinct face, and at that distance Hsiang-ying thought she saw the girl smile.

Hsiang-ying froze. This girl, that hair and clothes … she looked so much like Ting-ting during her elementary school days.

The girl stretched out her hands and gave a tinkling, bell-like laugh.

Your troubled heart

Follow the stream by the dyke … 

“Who … who are you?”

The girl turned and ran off into the bamboo.

Hsiang-ying stood and chased after her.

She caught glimpses of the girl’s white blouse slipping through the bamboo like the breeze. She saw her running to the right one second, and turning to the left the next. Hsiang-ying panted for breath as she tried to keep up. She noticed a hint of sulfur in the air and clouds of steam started to billow over the path she was on, until she could see no more than two steps ahead.

Past the bamboo forest … 

The stones underfoot were slick with algae. Hsiang-ying followed the voice, careful step by careful step. The running water was louder now, perhaps the sound was coming from the other side of the forest, by the mountain.

Leave again … the station is just ahead … 

Emerging from the bamboo, Hsiang-ying saw in the distance an open-framed building with wide gables and three circular windows set into the roof.

Is this the station in the song? It looks like something from the olden days.

Hsiang-ying followed the girl onwards, hearing traditional instruments and Taiwanese folk songs from somewhere far off. More people appeared and a woman wearing a kimono and white make-up clattered by on lacquered sandals. Men proud in military uniforms and western suits laughed. The road was lined with restaurants and inns.

We’ll leave again … and meet again … we’ll meet again ahead … 

The inhabitants of this weird place wandered back and forth, chatting and laughing. She walked past a memorial hall, a sanatorium, a clubhouse, a convalescence home, a wooded park—and everywhere she looked, smiles. It reminded Hsiang-ying of looking on at happy diners while cleaning tables at the department store. But rather than the jealousy she felt then, she was now a part of it all, sharing in their happiness. The girl turned right after a bathhouse and Hsiang-ying followed, the road narrowing as it stretched up the hillside.

The girl stopped by a two-story wooden building, a roof of Japanese tile and walls of wooden sidings giving the building a clean and stylish appearance. An open walkway circled the upper floor, where crowds of people stood, admiring the view of the Japanese flower gardens as they chatted, the unknown flowers peeking through the mist. Not far off, a waterfall gave off the sulfurous odor of rotting eggs.

The girl turned and for the first time Hsiang-ying saw her clearly.

On a face dense with scars and folds sat mere prominences for eyes, nose, and mouth. The effect was a face as lifeless as a plaster bust. Scalded, Hsiang-ying thought.

The girl pointed up toward the building and … somehow, from somewhere … made a sound:

Minako.

“What?”

Do you know Minako?

“No.”

She taught me a Japanese song about the Beitou hot springs. I’ll sing it for you.

Hsiang-ying waited.

Shouji akakere ba …  yukemurikemuri …  nanae oroshi ga …    soyosoyo to …

dontodain …  toronto na …  kumnoi idaka re te …  yumeutsutsu

The song emanated from the mask-like face, sweet and rhythmic, and Hsiang-ying felt herself mesmerized by the girl’s voice. The words made no sense to her, but the music made this strange scene seem normal to her and gifted her a happiness she had long yearned for.

The girl reached out a hand, inviting Hsiang-ying to join her.

Will you come and walk with me?

Hsiang-ying placed her own hand in the girl’s soft palm and nodded.

They followed a path up the hill, the bamboo closing in around them, the singing from down below fading as if it was only ever imagined.

The girl pulled Hsiang-ying onwards, skipping into the depths of the forest. The sun could not penetrate here and the air became cool.

Minako’s ignoring me … . She left … She’s gone to where the tribes live in the mountains.

The girl stopped in her tracks, sobbing.

“Minako? Who’s that?”

Minako’s just Minako. She ignored me and went to the mountains.

“She ignored you? Which mountains did she …”

Hsiang-ying froze. Dark red blood was flowing from under the girl’s pinafore dress, trickling down her legs and into her slip-on shoes.

Oh, I’m so embarrassed … so embarrassed …  

Despite her lack of a mouth, the girl’s sobs became louder and louder. Hsiang-ying moved to embrace her, but the girl turned and fled into the bamboo.

Hsiang-ying followed, watching as the girl slipped into a dense grove of bamboo, as if made of nothing but air. She could make out the girl sitting in there, her face buried between her legs as she cried.

Hsiang-ying tried to push the bamboo aside. It did not move.

It felt as solid as metal.

Another girl, wearing a kimono and with hair flowing over her shoulders, approached from behind the girl Hsiang-ying had followed. Hsiang-ying could not see the new arrival’s face clearly through the bamboo but noticed a new sense of menace in the air.

Minako?

Still weeping, the first girl looked up and turned her expressionless face toward the long-haired girl.

The long-haired girl stretched out pale and slender hands and seized the younger girl’s throat.

“Wait! Stop!” Hsiang-ying shouted. She watched as the younger girl started to struggle, her tiny hands beating against her attacker, her feet kicking dust and leaves from the ground …

Hsiang-ying searched nearby for anything that might help. She found an old bear trap, a piece of rope, but nothing of use. She raked through dead leaves and twigs and found a tool box—left behind by a forgetful hunter, perhaps. Inside, she found a hacksaw and a hammer and was soon able to cut and smash a foot-wide hole through the bamboo. The girl was weakening, there was little time left … Hsiang-ying ignored the sharp edges of the bamboo tearing at her hair and skin and pushed her bloody way through the opening …

No!

A sudden crack of pain as her leg crumpled beneath her.

Had she stepped into a bear trapping pit? Fallen into a cave?