By C. Fong Hsiung
I felt on top of the world that morning. Our real estate agent had called earlier to let us know that the offer we’d put on our dream home in Toronto was accepted by the seller. I parked my car across the street from my bank. Wonderful thoughts about our future crept into my mind—thoughts about our new lives in our new house. With a bounce in my step, I started to cross the street with the green light.
“Hey, move out of the way, MOVE…” I heard a panicked voice scream.
Whipping around, I saw a black pick-up truck speeding toward me. I had no time to run. Everywhere I looked, screams froze on horrified faces. Crashing sounds followed the impact, and then darkness enveloped me.
When consciousness returned, utter chaos surrounded me. Emergency vehicles parked at random on the street. Their lights flashed and blinked like midday fireworks that nobody ordered. Instead of oohing and aahing at this dazzling display, silent spectators crowded around me. My curiosity piqued, I turned and saw several policemen holding their arms wide open to prevent the people from getting too close to something or someone they were shielding. I inch closer and walked through a tiny gap between two policemen. A couple of medics worked frantically over someone lying on the ground. The injured person looked vaguely familiar. No—I stuck my fist into my mouth—I was that woman on the floor. If it weren’t for the long black hair framing her bloody face and the pink run-for-cancer t-shirt over her black shorts, I would not have recognized her. I was confused. I was walking like a normal person, and yet someone who looked like me lay like a broken doll.
I went up to one of the medics and asked, “Sir, what’s going on? What are you doing to her? Look at me, why am I…I mean why is she down there?”
The medic ignored me and continued to pump the body, his palms—one on top of the other—moved in rhythmic motions. He kept muttering, “Common, common, stay with me, stay with me.”
“Please listen to me. Stop doing whatever you’re doing,” I stamped my feet and shrieked at him. The medics didn’t even bother to look in my direction. What was wrong with these people? Why didn’t anyone hear me?
Then, in stunned realization I remembered the black truck racing toward me, the excruciating pain, and then blissful darkness.
Yes, I, Rachel Liu, died two years ago, after five idyllic years—four in wedded bliss—with the love of my life, Jonathan Liu and our baby, Janie. Our bundle of joy had just turned two and life couldn’t have been more perfect until that fateful day.
I am now a lost soul. I don’t own a physical body, and I can fly. One could say that I am in an indeterminate state. No one knows that I am around and I don’t communicate with my kind, whatever that may be. I hover on the edge of the living and the dead, watching over my beloved husband and our beautiful four-year old daughter. I don’t know how to move on. My separation from the physical world has become the bane of my strange new existence. In vain, I try to make contact with my loved ones, and yet I possess some kind of divine power to read their thoughts.
At first I had difficulty adapting to my new existence. When Janie cried for Mommy during the first few days after my death, I reached for her. “Shush, Baby, Mommy is here. Everything will be fine,” I hugged her and tried to wipe her tears. But Janie wouldn’t stop crying. She didn’t see nor hear me, and I wept in frustration at the futility of my efforts to comfort her. Jon picked her up and his tears mingled with hers as he soothed her to sleep.
Then I learned a trick. I could appear in anyone’s dreams, floating in and out of their consciousness at will. When they awoke, they went about their lives sometimes recalling their dreams and often times not. Oh, how I love these dream moments now—these precious moments when we talk and laugh like we are in the real world.
It is a sunny October morning, and I can almost see Jon’s sadness—like a heavy cloak covering him. The ship sways, and his hand reaches in a protective gesture to touch the cloisonné urn. It sits on his cabin’s dresser on board a cruise ship that navigates the Yangtze River between Yichang and Chongqing. With a lover’s tender hands, he lifts and places the exquisite ten-inch tall urn into a duffel bag. He is reminded of the day that I purchased the urn near the Great Wall of China during happier times. We met on a similar cruise on these very waters during that trip seven years ago. Now my ashes lie in the dark interior of this receptacle of copper and porcelain.
Today Jon is going to fulfill his promise to me. Together with his parents, Ken and Angela, and our four-year-old daughter, he will scatter my ashes on the river. My final resting place will be along the banks of the Lesser Three Gorges in the lower reaches of the Daning River, a tributary of the Yangtze. Jon has put off this trip for a long time. He delayed it despite the pact we’d made soon after we married that when one of us died, the other, if physically capable, would perform this last rite. Today he will be closing a chapter, one that had sent both of us to dizzying heights of happiness. When the crash came, it had come with devastating cruelty, holding back no punches.
I hear a knock. Janie runs to open the cabin’s door. Teresa, the tour guide, steps inside. “Hi Janie, how’s my favorite little princess doing today?” She tugs at Janie’s high ponytail.
I cringe at how the affectionate gesture comes so easily to Teresa. Then I chide myself for feeling this pang of jealousy. I should be happy that Teresa seems fond of Janie. My little girl has been motherless for two years—albeit Jon’s mother, Angela fills that void—and would have forgotten me if not for Jon’s constant reminders with pictures of happier times.
“I can‘t wait to go on the boat ride. When do we leave, Teresa?” Janie asks with shining eyes.
Teresa’s oval face widens at the mouth. “We’ll go downstairs in a few minutes and wait for the rest of the group. Then we’ll leave right after that.” Turning to Jon she says, “Jon, I came by to let you know that all the arrangements have been made for a private dinghy to ferry you and your party when we get to the Lesser Three Gorges.”
“Thank you, Teresa, you’ve been a great help,” Jon says as he crosses the small cabin and stops in front of her. He picks up her hands and gazes down into her eyes.
I see that Teresa is disconcerted by his proximity. Her face flushes beet red and her lips curl into an uncertain smile. It wasn’t hard to sense the chemistry jumping back and forth—almost tangible—between them. Jealousy, the mother of insanity overpowers me, and I wedge myself between Jon and Teresa. My stupid brain—if one still exists in my head—wants to end this moment of intimacy between them. Then I realize that my outrage at their show of affection for each other is misplaced. They can’t see me, they don’t know I’m in the cabin, and I am as dead as the cloisonné urn that holds my ashes.
Jon’s face—somewhat square with defined jaws tapering down to his chin—lights up in a way I haven’t seen since I died. Sadly I acknowledge that if I love him, then his happiness should be my main concern. This is his chance to put his life back together again. It will tax my soul to stand by and watch the budding romance.
Teresa removes her hands from his grip. “You’re welcome, Jon. I came by to make sure that you’re ready to leave soon,” she says with a slight tremor in her voice.
“Janie and I will come down in a couple of minutes.”
“Great, you know where to find me.” They exchange a lingering glance. It leaves no doubt in my mind about their feelings for each other.
Jon looks at her retreating back. Every fiber of my being—whatever that may be in my world—wants to yell at him to stop looking at the svelte shapely figure and the striking long black hair tied in a loose ponytail.
During these past eight days, traveling from Shanghai to Jingzhou and then transferring to this cruise ship, the more Jon gets to know Teresa, the deeper he falls for her. He has discovered that Teresa was born in Shanghai, but immigrated to England when she was five years old. After completing her graduate studies, she visited her grandparents who still live in China. That was ten years ago. She decided to stay in China to study tourism, and became a tour guide.
Jon has been wrestling with his sense of loyalty to me. He wants to hold on to his memories of me, and yet he is gripped by the urge to explore this new-found yearning to be with another woman. He is torn about this desire that makes him feel like a cheating husband. For my part, despite the fact that I’m a spirit, I am not immune to the pangs of jealousy at being replaced. I am conflicted. On the one hand, I don’t wish for Jon to be in a perpetual state of mourning, and I want to see him full of joy and life at being alive again. On the other hand, like a dark cloud, I am ever present, witnessing his blossoming relationship with Teresa, and dreading that she is slowly taking over his heart. I watch with dismay mingled with hope, this courtship to replace me.
A few hours later, after sailing at a leisurely pace along the Three Gorges between steep cliffs rising into mystical clouds above, Jon, Janie, Ken and Angela, transfer to a small dinghy manned by two local guides. Teresa goes to one of the guides and converses with him in Mandarin. She gives him detailed instructions about the trip and the guests that they will be ferrying. They nod and smile, and then she turns to Jon with a solemn face. “Jon, I know how special this trip is for you and your family. I don‘t want anything to go wrong, and so I have asked Mr. Chin here to take good care of you. You can trust him. I have selected him personally because I know him well from my previous trips here. Take care.”
Teresa turns away to herd the rest of her charges to a small boat waiting to take them to other breathtaking parts of the Lesser Three Gorges.
Mr. Chin grins at Jon and says, “We go now, okay.”
Janie claps her hands as she bounces up and down, her eyes gleaming. “Dad, where are we going?”
“Do you remember what I told you about Mommy’s wishes? She wants us to scatter her ashes along the river bank a short distance from here,”
Janie frowns. “But why are we leaving her here?” Her voice has an uncertain quiver.
“Mommy and I came here many years ago and there is a place just up ahead that we both like very much. She used to say that it’s like heaven on earth. She wants to be surrounded by all this beauty forever, and so do I one day.”
“Oh, but won’t she get lonely when we leave?” Janie asks wistfully.
“I’m sure that where she is now, she never feels lonely anymore,” Jon says.
Oh, Jon, how can I tell you that I am right here with you, feeling utterly inconsolable? I can’t touch you and I can’t talk to you. I am sitting right next to you. I am running my fingers through your thick wavy hair, tracing every crease on your brow, along every familiar line from the crinkly corners of your eyes down to the square chin that seems taut with tension right now. But you don’t see me and you’re not aware of my presence on this boat. Do you feel my essence here? Your thoughts are filled happy memories of our meeting here so many years ago, and yet you’re uncertain if you’re doing the right thing leaving my ashes here.
Jon looks pensive as the dinghy brings them closer to their destination. Angela shifts her matronly bottom forward and reaches across to squeeze her son’s hand. Her maternal love envelops him, wanting to reassure him. “Everything will be fine, Jon. This is what Rachel wants.”
“I know, Mom, but as long as her ashes are here in this urn, I feel close to her.”
“You don’t need that physical reminder anymore because she lives here,” Angela pats Jon’s chest.
Ken says with a gruff voice, “Son, listen to your mother. You will always have the memories. Nobody can take that from you.”
Jon sucks in a deep breath and nods.
A small island appears as they round a bend. Mr. Chin uses an oar to slow down the boat as it approaches land. Together with his companion, Mr. Wang, they maneuver it close to a shallow part where the pebbles are visible through the pristine green water. They jump into the river, grab a rope tethered to the dinghy, and pull it slowly to shore. They tie the rope to a tree trunk, and then Mr. Chin extends his arms out to Angela while Mr. Wong holds the boat steady.
One by one, the passengers are helped off to firm ground. Jon holds Janie’s hand and leads the way to the highest point of the island as his parents follow closely. When they reach the top, they look down at the sheer drop below to the water. Jon recalls that the last time he was here, the tour guide had singled out a marker on the cliff to their right. The guide had noted that it marked the highest level the water could rise to. Yet now Jon noticed that the marker is no longer visible. The water line is now much higher due to the Three Gorges Dam Project, but Teresa has assured him that the highest part of this island is still safe from flooding.
The mood of the group is sombre as their eyes feast on the spectacular surroundings. Even Janie is aware of the solemnity of the occasion and is unusually quiet. Jon takes the cloisonné urn carefully out of his bag and steps up to a rock whose surface is flat and as wide as a large desk. He sits on the edge holding the urn in silence. Then he loosens the lid while Ken, Angela and Janie hold hands a few feet behind him. He lifts the receptacle and plants a kiss on its wall before he tilts it down, pouring its content a little at a time over the cliff. When there is nothing left to pour out, he puts the lid back.
Jon has returned the last remains of my physical self to the earth, the water and the air—to the cradle from where we all come from. I have chosen this particular piece of paradise to reconnect with our earthly elements. I am floating away. I feel exhilarated, carried along by a sensation I have never experienced before.
“I love you, Rachel. I will always love you.” Jon’s eyes mist with tears as emotions engulf him. When his vision clears, he sees a butterfly soaring and diving before him, flapping its gossamer wings fanned out to show off its colours of black, gray, mustard yellow and white. Inexplicably his spirit lifts as he gazes at this beautiful creature, mesmerized by its antics. He is reminded of the time we stood on the deck of another cruise ship on this river. We had watched two butterflies playfully flutter across the morning sun that had hung low like an oversized glowing orange in the horizon. The dawn sky had been their magnificent canvass as they zig-zagged like two master painters, brushing, dipping and swerving. I had told Jon about my fondness for these lovely and delicate creatures. Now, Jon gazes at this butterfly, sensing a special bond.
His instinct is right. In the moments when he emptied the urn, I felt a transformation. I am that butterfly flying into the welcoming sun, the painful non-existence of the past two years melting as I soar higher and higher. I can see Angela reaching for Jon when he returns to the group. They hug him and draw him into their little circle. Soon they are little specks. I am at peace, a tortured soul no more. My new anguish-free world beckons me; Jon and Janie will move on. Perhaps Teresa will play a part in their future, perhaps not. Either way, my new reality rises above any pain and sorrow. I am at peace now, knowing that I will always be in the hearts of the people I love.