Fei dipped his stylus in the ink stone and set the nub to paper. A downward slash, hooked at the end. Another angling upwards, joining a sweeping arc. Again and again and again, until an army of characters marched across the pages of his exercise book.
Finally he pushed himself away. Lightning flickered outside, illuminating piled storm clouds. Rain lashed the window, drummed against the concrete walls.
The door banged open. Grandmother shuffled into the house, holding a freshly-wrung chicken by its neck. Her faded coat clung to her. She seemed so small and frail.
"Xiao Fei. Tonight is Qingming. The festival of the dead."
Fei set down his stylus. "But it is raining, Grandmother."
The old woman snorted. "And you think Grandfather cares, up there under the hill? With your parents in Shenzhen there is no one else. Take the paper money and the incense. You can finish your work later."
The way was treacherous, the path up the hill churned to mud. Fei's cloth slippers were sodden, and his toes ached from the cold. The lantern Grandmother held guttered in the wind.
"Grandmother, why do we honor the dead on this day?"
She didn't reply for a long moment, and Fei thought she must not have heard him. But then she spoke, and her voice carried the weight of story. "It is the day that, long ago, the great Duke Wen betrayed his most loyal servant, a man so loyal that he had cut meat from his own body to feed the duke in dark times. This man, Jie, fled to escape his master, and the duke burned the forest to drive him back. He died in the blaze clutching his own mother, and in his sorrow the emperor named this day for him."
Fei shivered. Branches like skeletal fingers tangled in his hair.
"This was the forest where Jie died long ago. Spirits linger here. I have seen them."
The chill was in Fei's heart now. Something shifted in the darkness, the shadow of a shadow. His slipper skidded in the mud – he thought he felt the slightest tug on his shirt and then he was falling backwards, his arms flailing as he tried to grab a branch.
He crashed into the long grass, rolling down the hill. Stones stabbed him, roots like iron bars slammed into his side. He cried out in pain. Finally he came to a stop. His arm hurt. There was utter blackness around him, and the wind howled, full of ghosts whose descendants had abandoned them on this day and left them to wander the night alone.
A ripple in the darkness. Two glimmering points of light appeared, red like the eternal flames, like Buddha's Naraka. Fei moaned, scrabbling through the brush away from this thing. It swelled above him, filling the night. He smelled charred flesh and heard distant screams, a mother crying out for her dying son.
Then it was gone. A hand brushed his shoulder, calloused and strong. Another smell came to him, Grandfather's pipe, rich and earthy.
The hand vanished. A crackling in the woods, and the buttery glow of Grandmother's lantern appeared.
"Come, Fei. Let us find Grandfather's grave. We must honor him."
YOU ARE READING
This story is my entry for the Adventure Community's new contest, Holiday Spirit. The rules were that it had to be about a holiday tradition, and it had to be under 500 words (yikes!). I found this difficult, as I think my strength as a writer is in...