“Isn’t that something?” she asked. The young woman wore a white tunic embroidered with colorful floral patterns. Painted canary yellow, her toenails stuck out of her silver flat sandals. While she nibbled her purple prickly-pear ice cream, she gazed at an old wooden building across the street. A large banyan tree conjoined with the building cast still shadows with its branches, its roots hanging down to the earth swaying in a salt wind.
“A spirit dwells in such a large tree,” she added.
Still licking his pineapple ice cream, her boyfriend gazed up. Pale and bespectacled, he looked every bit the part of a world-weary young man. Over the last few years, he had gotten chubby around his stomach, but his fingers remained soft. Very close to the Tropic of Cancer, the November sun was still intense. The sea breeze blew hard, heralding the end of the tourist season. The ice cream parlor would be closed for winter vacations a week later.
Tourists flocked to the Penghu Islands for various reasons—their pristine golden-sand beaches, well-developed columnar joints, restaurants serving up fresh seafood on the spot, and the ocean swarmed with green turtles. Located in the strait between Taiwan and China, the Penghu Islands turned inhospitable in winter, repelling visitors with fierce gales. Air and sea routes would be pretty much closed off around this time of the year.
The young couple flew south from Taichung to the islands. They had always talked about traveling together, but they couldn’t take time off at the same time until now. As they missed the high season, they expected to kick back. This popular tourist spot was less crowded and quieter than they had expected.
She felt the crack in her phone’s LCD as she took a photo of the tree.
“It’s a gift shop. Let’s go inside,” she said.
She finished her ice cream cone and wiped her hands on her wide-hemmed jeans. Without checking for approaching traffic, she crossed the street. Her boyfriend trailed after her. The street was lined with seaside gift shops counting on spring and summer vacationers. She had ventured into various since they arrived in Magong City. She traced her gaze over polished ore ornaments, accessories made with shells or coral, sugar-coated peanuts, cactus cookies, assortments of oiled fish.
The glass doors with wooden frames and brass knobs were ajar, as if inviting her to enter. When she was about to go inside, a little girl clad in white, aged about ten, sprang past her.
The couple stepped inside. Like any other old building, it had no ceiling board. A fan attached to the beam spun lazily.
Century-old glass display cases lined the concrete floor dotted with shell pieces and tile shards. A mosquito-repellent incense burned in a shallow tin can on the floor; snake-like streaks of thin smoke traveled upward. A chunk of white coral lay on top of the tin can. The interior looked faded, but well maintained. Shelves with chrysanthemum-patterned pieces of rock stood at the back of the store. A carved wooden bear from Hokkaido had a fish in its mouth. From an altar above the shelves, a porcelain statue of the red-faced Guan Yu stared down.
Perhaps Mazu, the sea goddess, was enshrined here, too, because the shop was a stone’s throw from the Mazu Temple.
She peeked into the first display case jammed with accessories.
“Welcome,” a silver-haired store clerk greeted in a low-key, modest voice. She wore a dress with a gray wool cardigan draped over her shoulders. “If anything strikes your fancy, let me know.”
Polished coral came in all sorts of colors—white, pink, crimson, and cream. Dark red coral was inevitably expensive. Necklaces and bracelets consisting of strings of coral beads came in various sizes. In addition, the woman spotted green and purple jade bracelets, quartz necklaces of various colors, and onyx bolo ties. A handwritten “Not for sale” sign hung on ivory.
“Found anything you like?” her boyfriend asked, sotto voce, offering to buy her something to commemorate their trip together.
She shook her head. “No,” she said. “Not yet.” And when she moved to the next display case, the headache returned, blobs of color throbbing in her eyes. She pressed her fingers to her temples as a wave of vertigo assaulted her. Outside, she thought the ice cream had shot her into a temporary brain freeze.
“We were arguing,” she said. Her eyes felt wide. Her palms were drenched in sweat.
“What?” Her boyfriend grabbed her elbow. He felt like fire. She pulled away. And he looked pale to her. Pale as bones. She smelled smoke. “When?”
“I don’t know. I don’t remember.” The incense singed her nose. Everything was aflame. “Wedding invitations?”
She watched her boyfriend swallow as he let go of her arm. “Whose wedding?”
“I don’t know.”
And in the reflection of his glasses as he turned, blinding headlights flashed for a brief moment.
“Are you all right?” the store clerk said, breaking the young woman’s reverie.
“Yes, I’m just a little tired.”
“Take your time.” The store clerk flashed a friendly smile.
A brown silk knotted necklace had snow-white coral with an engraved rose among amethyst beads. Coral is nice, but I don’t want to look like a rich auntie. That ring with peach coral may imply more than a keepsake. I don’t want him to think I’m rushing him into marriage. She hesitated. I can buy what I want with my own money. I’m not like women three generations ago who were traded for jade bracelets or gold chains.
She looked into the display cases on her left and on her right. A bracelet with several petal-shaped coral pieces caught her attention. But it must be pricey.
“May I see this?” She pointed at it.
The store clerk took it out of the case and placed it on the woman’s hand.
“It suits your skin tone perfectly. Would you like to try it on?”
“No, thank you.” If it looked perfect on me, I’d have a hard time turning it down.
“You like that?” her boyfriend cut in.
Now you’re making it even harder to say no, she thought.
The Mazu Temple was practically next door. Built over four centuries ago, the ancient building enshrined the sea goddess. After landing at Penghu Airport, the couple had taken the bus to Magong City. After they checked into a hotel, they headed straight to the temple. Now designated as a cultural property, the temple displayed elaborate wood engravings dating back to the Qing dynasty. Incense burners remained unlit for fire prevention. Unlike other temples, no amulets were in sight. She spotted key holders and stickers, but they lacked the effects of an amulet. Some time ago, she had lost her multicolored lace bracelet, so she was disappointed when she failed to find a replacement at the historical site.
Maybe this coral bracelet will do. The temple is literally within spitting distance. Just a few minutes’ walk.
She inquired about the price and frowned. Expensive as expected. She didn’t carry around enough cash.
“Do you accept credit cards?”
“Sorry, we only take cash here.”
Of course, the payment app on her phone was useless here, unlike at the ice cream parlor across the street.
“Okay. Thank you.” She set the bracelet back on the tray. But the store clerk left it there for a while, waiting for her to change her mind.
“No,” she turned down her boyfriend’s offer. “You’d have to feel it in your bones that it belongs to you.”
“That’s right. If it truly belongs to you, fate will deliver it to you.” The store clerk smiled, wrinkles forming around her eyes. Her pale cheeks remained smooth.
“Excuse me,” she asked, “are you the owner?”
“Of course not,” the store clerk said with a smile. “I just work here.”
“Oh, pardon me.”
“Never mind. Oh, I’ve got something for you,” the store clerk said, opened a paper box, and revealed multicolored lace bracelets. “Take one if you like. It’s on the house.”
After hesitating for a while, she picked one purple lace bracelet and wore it on her left wrist. As good luck enters through your right hand and leaves through your left hand, you need to wear a bracelet to keep good luck from leaving.
“You, too, sir.” The store clerk extended the box before the woman’s boyfriend.
His fingers hovered for a while before he chose a yellow polyester elastic one. It was simply made, but it would please anyone.
“Thanks,” he said.
“Thank you for stopping by.” The store clerk sent the couple off with a gentle smile reserved for old friends. She never said, “Please come back again,” but they didn’t notice it.
The couple went back to the dusty street. Their shadows thinned out in the wan light. A man dressed in a white polo shirt and jeans waited for them. As the couple passed him, they faded and vanished like mirages. There were two rag dolls where they stood. The man picked up the dolls and put them into his shoulder bag. When he felt the store clerk’s gaze, he lightly bowed. Then he walked away and disappeared out of sight. As he looked like a tourist, perhaps he headed toward the airport.
The little girl returned to the store.
“Azhou,” she called the store clerk. The girl was clad in a white buttoned blouse and a white flared skirt. She had her hair tied with a white ribbon in a bow on top of her head.
“How did it go?” the girl asked.
“It wasn’t easy, but we knew she was looking for a bracelet, so we took advantage of that,” Azhou answered. The young couple was killed in an auto accident while traveling. Their bodies returned to their respective families, but their spirits still wandered about. Thus, their families hired a Taoist priest to lure back the couple’s spirits. He had trouble capturing them, and he enlisted Azhou’s help. On the surface, she looked like a well-meaning store clerk, but she was in touch with the netherworld. Only a few people knew about her ability. Azhou’s bracelets slowed the spirits, and the priest managed to trap them into the rag dolls.
“Aren’t you tired? Let’s have breakfast,” the girl said. Azhou nodded, grabbed her Gobelin tapestry bag, and stood. She wrapped a green and purple patterned scarf around her neck and braced herself for the wind outside.
Azhou flipped over the closed sign on the door before locking it behind her.
She and the girl walked gently downhill toward the ocean and entered the local Mos Burger. Located near the port, the burger joint was a white building with large glass windows. The wall was partially covered with square tiles in dark blue, light blue, and white like a mermaid’s scales. The resort-themed inside was decorated with driftwood, shells, sea glass, and coral branches. Brown unglazed tiles covered the floor.
Azhou ordered an omelet burger, coffee, fried potatoes, and orange juice. The burger had an omelet, lettuce, and truffle-flavored cream sauce between buns. It suited her because she didn’t eat meat. The girl, who was invisible to others, wasn’t a meat eater either.
They went upstairs and sat by a glass window with a view of the ocean. A Kaohsiung-bound ship left the pier. The cold, salt wind blew across the Taiwan Strait and lashed against the large glass window, leaving tiny salt crystals on the surface. The song “Born This Way” drifted in the air, but Azhou had no idea who was singing.
The girl stuffed some fries into her mouth, washed them down with orange juice, and took a big bite of Azhou’s burger.
“Azhou, you need to accumulate good deeds to reach self-realization,” the girl said.
By good deeds, the girl usually meant treating her little friend to meals, but she also referred to putting Azhou’s ability to good use. Azhou considered the girl her imaginary friend, but she had no idea how to achieve self-realization. It meant being in touch with the supernatural, but she didn’t know what it meant personally.
“Is that so? How nice,” Azhou said, and sipped her sweetened coffee.
UMIYURI KATSUYAMA is a Japanese writer of fantasy and horror. In 2011, she won the Japan Fantasy Novel Award with her novel Sazanami no kuni. Her latest novel, Chuushi, aya
TOSHIYA KAMEI holds an MFA in Literary Translation from the University of Arkansas. His translations have appeared in such venues as Clarkesworld, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, and Strange Horizons.