by Renee Ge
Art by Katherine Cui
Issue: Nostos (Winter 2019)
The air was still warm with dying sunlight when I discovered that I had lost my face. The only way to cross the river was to creep thirty steps along a rickety old bridge built by my grandfather, and it was here where I crouched to peer at my reflection in the water. Below the shimmer on the surface I saw a submerged demon—or perhaps a ghost—wearing a pale white mask with shadows that mimicked the burnt orange of the dying sun. Ink dribbled down the sides in a mockery of hair. The ghost stared back with an eerie air: void of any sign of life, as accusing as a last exhale only heard by the night.
I reached over to feel the front of my head, but there was only the same jarring smoothness reflected in the water. With trembling hands, I reached downwards, and with a touch to the water breathed life into the ghost. It began twisting and turning, thrashing harder and harder until at once it sputtered out, like a lantern that had been lit for too long.
It was only then that I realized that the sun had fallen to the bottom of the world. The moon floated from the depths of the river where I had just touched, droplets clinging to her form. Many times in my life, when I needed reassurance from the currents that threatened to swallow me whole, I had looked upwards to see the woman there. But this time there was no woman. She had been lost, and all that was left was a pale, hard expanse—the ghost, risen up into the sky to haunt me further. I ran with all my might away from the moon, gasping for air, and right when I stepped off the bridge, one plank tottered, then two, and the whole bridge collapsed. Water splashed my heels.
About twenty paces from the west bank was a dense forest that looked almost black in the night, and it was here where I hesitated. I had never been on this side of the river before. My grandfather had, very briefly, when he had stood on this bank to build his bridge, but he had come back. He told us he didn’t belong.
My grandfather had returned honorably, but I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go back. What would my mother say to me if she saw that I had no face? My grandfather? They would be embarrassed when the others stared with accusing eyes, but they would grieve in private. Perhaps it was a disease I had caught on that bridge, and going home would carry it back. It would create a town of ghosts. So I took one step into the forest, then two, and stumbled onwards into the dark.
Moonlight cast faint shadows that pointed westward, which flickered and coalesced into the shape of a woman. Wherever I stepped, she mirrored. It looked like I was chasing myself. She led me through the forest, over twigs that had already been cracked by the time I let my foot fall. If I focused on her form, she dispersed, blending seamlessly with the dark, but if I kept my vision blurred and lost myself to the blood pounding in my head, I could make out a pale shimmer that marked her outline. I never saw her face.
She escaped through an opening between two trees into thin air. By the time I caught up, there was no sign of her, no matter how much I twisted and turned. But there was a pool in the middle of the clearing, and when I crouched down to peer at my reflection I found her in the glistening sheen on my brow, the two holes for eyes, the gaping maw and the way moonlight made a white halo around my head in a mockery of hair. With shaking hands, I reached out to split the new ghost in the water, as ugly and distorted as the one in the sky.
I needed to go back. I ran with all my might through the forest, stepping on twigs cracked twice. The empty moon shone hard and unforgiving on a face that wasn’t mine.
I was wading into the river, drops of water stinging my face. I needed to go back. Water poured into the holes on my face, I was gasping for air. I was looking up at the sky. I could see the moon. I thrashed and thrashed, but the currents pulled me under, and like a lantern that had been lit for too long, I sputtered out.